By George W. Cable
In magazine form "The Solitary" appeared under the title of "Gregory's Island."_
"The dream of Pharaoh is one. The seven kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one.... And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established."...
In other words: Behind three or four subtitles and changes of time, scene, characters, this tale of strong hearts is one. And for that the tale is tripled or quadrupled unto you three or four times (the number will depend); it is because in each of its three or four aspects—or separate stories, if you insist—it sets forth, in heroic natures and poetic fates, a principle which seems to me so universal that I think Joseph would say of it also, as he said to the sovereign of Egypt, "The thing is established of God."
I know no better way to state this principle, being a man, not of letters, but of commerce (and finance), than to say—what I fear I never should have learned had I not known the men and women I here tell of—that religion without poetry is as dead a thing as poetry without religion. In our practical use of them, I mean; their infusion into all our doing and being. As dry as a mummy, great Joseph would say.
Shall I be more explicit? Taking that great factor of life which men, with countless lights, shades, narrownesses and breadths of meaning, call Religion, and taking it in the largest sense we can give it; in like manner taking Poetry in the largest sense possible; this cluster of tales is one, because from each of its parts, with no argument but the souls and fates they tell of, it illustrates the indivisible twinship of Poetry and Religion; a oneness of office and of culmination, which, as they reach their highest plane, merges them into identity. Is that any clearer? You see I am no scientist or philosopher, and I do not stand at any dizzy height, even in my regular business of banking and insurance, except now and then when my colleagues of the clearing-house or board want something drawn up—"Whereas, the inscrutable wisdom of Providence has taken from among us"—something like that.
I tell the stories as I saw them occur. I tell them for your entertainment; the truth they taught me you may do what you please with. It was exemplified in some of these men and women by their failure to incarnate it. Others, through the stained glass of their imperfect humanity, showed it forth alive and alight in their own souls and bodies. One there was who never dreamed he was a bright example of anything, in a world which, you shall find him saying, God—or somebody—whoever is responsible for civilization—had made only too good and complex and big for him. We may hold that to make life a perfect, triumphant poem we must keep in beautiful, untyrannous subordination every impulse of mere self- provision, whether earthly or heavenly, while at the same time we give life its equatorial circumference. I know that he so believed. Yet, under no better conscious motive than an impulse of pure self-preservation, finding his spiritual breadth and stature too small for half the practical demands of such large theories, he humbly set to work to narrow down the circumference of his life to limits within which he might hope to turn some of its daily issues into good poetry. This is the main reason why I tell of him first, and why the parts of my story—or the stories—do not fall into chronological order. I break that order with impunity, and adopt that which I believe to be best in the interest of Poetry and themselves. Only do not think hard if I get more interested in the story, or stories, than in the interpretation thereof.
The man of whom I am speaking was a tallish, slim young fellow, shaped well enough, though a trifle limp for a Louisianian in the Mississippi (Confederate) cavalry. Some camp wag had fastened on him the nickname of "Crackedfiddle." Our acquaintance began more than a year before Lee's surrender; but Gregory came out of the war without any startling record, and the main thing I tell of him occurred some years later.
I never saw him under arms or in uniform. I met him first at the house of a planter, where I was making the most of a flesh-wound, and was, myself, in uniform simply because I hadn't any other clothes. There were pretty girls in the house, and as his friends and fellow-visitors—except me— wore the gilt bars of commissioned rank on their gray collars, and he, as a private, had done nothing glorious, his appearance was always in civilian's dress. Black he wore, from head to foot, in the cut fashionable in New Orleans when the war brought fashion to a stand: coat-waist high, skirt solemnly long; sleeves and trousers small at the hands and feet, and puffed out—phew! in the middle. The whole scheme was dandyish, dashing, zou-zou; and when he appeared in it, dark, good-looking, loose, languorous, slow to smile and slower to speak, it was—confusing.
One sunset hour as I sat alone on the planter's veranda immersed in a romance, I noticed, too late to offer any serviceable warning, this impressive black suit and its ungenerously nicknamed contents coming in at the gate unprotected. Dogs, in the South, in those times, were not the caressed and harmless creatures now so common. A Mississippi planter's watch-dogs were kept for their vigilant and ferocious hostility to the negro of the quarters and to all strangers. One of these, a powerful, notorious, bloodthirsty brute, long-bodied, deer-legged—you may possibly know that big breed the planters called the "cur-dog" and prized so highly -darted out of hiding and silently sprang at the visitor's throat. Gregory swerved, and the brute's fangs, whirling by his face, closed in the sleeve and rent it from shoulder to elbow. At the same time another, one of the old "bear-dog" breed, was coming as fast as the light block and chain he had to drag would allow him. Gregory neither spoke, nor moved to attack or retreat. At my outcry the dogs slunk away, and he asked me, diffidently, for a thing which was very precious in those days—pins.
But he was quickly surrounded by pitying eyes and emotional voices, and was coaxed into the house, where the young ladies took his coat away to mend it. While he waited for it in my room I spoke of the terror so many brave men had of these fierce home-guards. I knew one such beast that was sired of a wolf. He heard me with downcast eyes, at first with evident pleasure, but very soon quite gravely.
"They can afford to fear dogs," he replied, "when they've got no other fear." And when I would have it that he had shown a stout heart he smiled ruefully.
"I do everything through weakness," he soliloquized, and, taking my book, opened it as if to dismiss our theme. But I bade him turn to the preface, where heavily scored by the same feminine hand which had written on the blank leaf opposite, "Richard Thorndyke Smith, from C.O."—we read something like this:
The seed of heroism is in all of us. Else we should not forever relish, as we do, stories of peril, temptation, and exploit. Their true zest is no mere ticklement of our curiosity or wonder, but comradeship with souls that have courage in danger, faithfulness under trial, or magnanimity in triumph or defeat. We have, moreover, it went on to say, a care for human excellence in general, by reason of which we want not alone our son, or cousin, or sister, but man everywhere, the norm, man, to be strong, sweet, and true; and reading stories of such, we feel this wish rebound upon us as duty sweetened by a new hope, and have a new yearning for its fulfilment in ourselves.
"In short," said I, closing the book, "those imaginative victories of soul over circumstance become essentially ours by sympathy and emulation, don't they?"
"O yes," he sighed, and added an indistinct word about "spasms of virtue." But I claimed a special charm and use for unexpected and detached heroisms, be they fact or fiction. "If adventitious virtue," I argued, "can spring up from unsuspected seed and without the big roots of character—"
"You think," interrupted Gregory, "there's a fresh chance for me."
"For all the common run of us!" I cried. "Why not? And even if there isn't, hasn't it a beauty and a value? Isn't a rose a rose, on the bush or off? Gold is gold wherever you find it, and the veriest spasm of true virtue, coined into action, is true virtue, and counts. It may not work my nature's whole redemption, but it works that way, and is just so much solid help toward the whole world's uplift." I was young enough then to talk in that manner, and he actually took comfort in my words, confessing that it had been his way to count a good act which was not in character with its doer as something like a dead loss to everybody.
"I'm glad it's not," he said, "for I reckon my ruling motive is always fear."
"Was it fear this evening?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "it was. It was fear of a coward's name, and a sort of abject horror of being one."
"Too big a coward inside," I laughed, "to be a big stout coward outside," and he assented.
"Smith," he said, and paused long, "if I were a hard drinker and should try to quit, it wouldn't be courage that would carry me through, but fear; quaking fear of a drunkard's life and a drunkard's death."
I was about to rejoin that the danger was already at his door, but he read the warning accusation in my eye.
"I'm afraid so," he responded. "I had a strange experience once," he presently added, as if reminded of it by what we had last said. "I took a prisoner."
"By the overwhelming power of fear?" I inquired.
"Partly, yes. I saw him before he saw me and I felt that if I didn't take him he'd either take me or shoot me, so I covered him and he surrendered. We were in an old pine clearing grown up with oak bushes."
"Would it have been less strange," I inquired, "if you had been in an old oak clearing grown up with pine bushes?"
"No, he'd have got away just the same."
"What! you didn't bring him in?"
"Only part of the way. Then he broke and ran."
"And you had to shoot him?"
"No, I didn't even shoot at him. I couldn't, Smith; he looked so much like me. It was like seeing my own ghost. All the time I had him something kept saying to me, 'You're your own prisoner—you're your own prisoner.' And—do you know?—that thing comes back to me now every time I get into the least sort of a tight place!"
"I wish it would come to me," I responded. A slave girl brought his coat and our talk remained unfinished until five years after the war.
Gregory had been brought up on the shore of Mississippi Sound, a beautiful region fruitful mainly in apathy of character. He was a skilled lover of sail-boats. When we all got back to New Orleans, paroled, and cast about for a living in the various channels "open to gentlemen," he, largely, I think, owing to his timid notion of his worth, went into the rough business of owning and sailing a small, handsome schooner in the "Lake trade," which, you know, includes Mississippi Sound. I married, and for some time he liked much to come and see us—on rainy evenings, when he knew we should be alone. He was in love yet, as he had been when we were fellow-absentees from camp, and with the same girl. But his passion had never presumed to hope, and the girl was of too true a sort ever to thrust hope upon him. What his love lacked in courage it made up in constancy, however, and morning, noon, and night—sometimes midnight too, I venture to say—his all too patient heart had bowed mutely down toward its holy city across the burning sands of his diffidence. When another fellow stepped in and married her, he simply loved on, in the same innocent, dumb, harmless way as before. He gave himself some droll consolations. One of these was a pretty, sloop-rigged sail-boat, trim and swift, on which he lavished the tendernesses he knew he should never bestow upon any living she. He named her Sweetheart; a general term; but he knew that we all knew it meant the mender of his coat. By and by his visits fell off and I met him oftenest on the street. Sometimes we stopped for a moment's sidewalk chat, New Orleans fashion, and I still envied the clear bronze of his fine skin, which the rest of us had soon lost. But after a while certain changes began to show for the worse, until one day in the summer of the fifth year he tried to hurry by me. I stopped him, and was thinking what a handsome fellow he was even yet, with such a quiet, modest fineness about him, when he began, with a sudden agony of face, "My schooner's sold for debt! You know the reason; I've seen you read it all over me every time we have met, these twelve months—O don't look at me!"
His slim, refined hands—he gave me both?-were clammy and tremulous. "Yes," he babbled on, "it's a fixed fact, Smith; the cracked fiddle's a smashed fiddle at last!"
I drew him out of the hot sun and into a secluded archway, he talking straight on with a speed and pitiful grandiloquence totally unlike him. "I've finished all the easy parts—the first ecstasies of pure license— the long down-hill plunge, with all its mad exhilarations—the wild vanity of venturing and defying—that bigness of the soul's experiences which makes even its anguish seem finer than the old bitterness of tame propriety—they are all behind me, now?-the valley of horrors is before! You can't understand it, Smith. O you can't understand——"
O couldn't I! And, anyhow, one does not have to put himself through a whole criminal performance to apprehend its spiritual experiences. I understood all, and especially what he unwittingly betrayed even now; that deep thirst for the dramatic element in one's own life, which, when social conformity fails to supply it, becomes, to an eager soul, sin's cunningest allurement.
I tried to talk to him. "Gregory, that day the dogs jumped on you—you remember?—didn't you say if ever you should reach this condition your fear might save you?"
He stared at me a moment. "Do you"—a ray of humor lighted his eyes—"do you still believe in spasms of virtue?"
"Thank heaven, yes!" laughed I.
"Good-by," he said, and was gone.
I heard of him twice afterward that day. About noon some one coming into the office said: "I just now saw Crackedfiddle buying a great lot of powder and shot and fishing-tackle. Here's a note. He says first read it and then seal it and send it to his aunt." It read:
"Don't look for me. You can't find me. I'm not going to kill or hurt myself, and I'll report again in a month."
I delivered it in person on my way uptown, advising his kinswoman to trust him on his own terms and hope for the best. Privately, of course, I was distressed, and did not become less so when, on reaching home, Mrs. Smith told me that he had been there and borrowed an arm-load of books, saying he might return some of them in a month, but would probably keep others for two. So he did; and one evening, when he brought the last of them back, he told us fully, spiritual experiences and all, what had occurred to him in the interval.
The sale of the schooner had paid its debt and left him some cash over. Better yet, it had saved Sweetheart. On the day of his disappearance she was lying at the head of the New Basin, distant but a few minutes' walk from the spot where we met and talked. When he left me he went there. At the stores thereabout he bought a new hatchet and axe, an extra water-keg or two, and a month's provisions. He filled all the kegs, stowed everything aboard, and by the time the afternoon had half waned was rippling down the New Canal under mule-tow with a strong lake breeze in his face.
At the lake (Pontchartrain), as the tow-line was cast off, he hoisted sail, and, skimming out by lighthouse and breakwater, tripped away toward Pointe-aux-Herbes and the eastern skyline beyond, he and Sweetheart alone, his hand clasping hers—the tiller, that is—hour by hour, and the small waves tiptoeing to kiss her southern cheek as she leaned the other away from the saucy north wind. In time the low land, and then the lighthouse, sank and vanished behind them; on the left the sun went down in the purple black swamps of Manchac; the intervening waters turned crimson and bronze under the fairer changes of the sky, while in front of them Fort Pike Light began to glimmer through an opal haze, and by and by to draw near. It passed. From a large inbound schooner gliding by in the twilight, came in friendly recognition, the drone of a conch-shell, the last happy salutation Sweetheart was ever to receive. Then the evening star silvered their wake through the deep Rigolets, and the rising moon met them, her and her lover, in Lake Borgne, passing the dark pines of Round Island, and hurrying on toward the white sand-keys of the Gulf.
The night was well advanced as they neared the pine-crested dunes of Cat Island, in whose lee a more cautious sailor would have dropped anchor till the morning. But to this pair every mile of these fickle waters, channel and mud-lump, snug lagoon, open sea and hidden bar, each and all, were known as the woods are known to a hunter, and, as he drew her hand closer to his side, she turned across the track of the moon and bounded into the wide south. A maze of marsh islands—huddling along that narrow, half- drowned mainland of cypress swamp and trembling prairie which follows the Mississippi out to sea—slept, leagues away, below the western waters. In the east lay but one slender boundary between the voyager and the shoreless deep, and this was so near that from its farther edge came now and again its admonishing murmur, the surf-thunder of the open Gulf rolling forever down the prone but unshaken battle-front of the sandy Chandeleurs.
So all night, lest wind or resolve should fail next day, he sailed. How to tell just where dawn found him I scarcely know.
Somewhere in that blue wilderness, with no other shore in sight, yet not over three miles northeast of a "pass" between two long tide-covered sand- reefs, a ferment of delta silt—if science guesses right—had lifted higher than most of the islands behind it in the sunken west one mere islet in the shape of a broad crescent, with its outward curve to seaward and a deep, slender lagoon on the landward side filling the whole length of its bight. About half the island was flat and was covered with those strong marsh grasses for which you've seen cattle, on the mainland, venture so hungrily into the deep ooze. The rest, the southern half, rose in dazzling white dunes twenty feet or more in height and dappled green with patches of ragged sod and thin groups of dwarfed and wind-flattened shrubs. As the sun rose, Sweetheart and her sailor glided through a gap in the sand reef that closed the lagoon in, luffed, and as a great cloud of nesting pelicans rose from their dirty town on the flats, ran softly upon the inner sands, where a rillet, a mere thread of sweet water, trickled across the white beach. Here he waded ashore with the utensils and provisions, made a fire, washed down a hot breakfast of bacon and pone with a pint of black coffee, returned to his boat and slept until afternoon. Wakened at length by the canting of the sloop with the fall of the tide, he rose, rekindled his fire, cooked and ate again, smoked two pipes, and then, idly shouldering his gun, made a long half-circuit of the beach to south and eastward, mounted the highest dune and gazed far and wide.
Nowhere on sand or sea under the illimitable dome was there sign of human presence on the earth. Nor would there likely be any. Except by misadventure no ship on any course ever showed more than a topmast above this horizon. Of the hunters and fishermen who roamed the islands nearer shore, with the Chandeleurs, the storm-drowned Grand Gosiers and the deep- sea fishing grounds beyond, few knew the way hither, and fewer ever sailed it. At the sound of his gun the birds of the beach—sea-snipe, curlew, plover—showed the whites of their wings for an instant and fell to feeding again. Save when the swift Wilderness—you remember the revenue cutter?-chanced this way on her devious patrol, only the steamer of the light-house inspection service, once a month, came up out of the southwest through yonder channel and passed within hail on her way from the stations of the Belize to those of Mississippi Sound; and he knew—had known before he left the New Basin—that she had just gone by here the day before.
But to Gregory this solitude brought no quick distress. With a bird or two at his belt he turned again toward his dying fire. Once on the way he paused, as he came in sight of the sloop, and gazed upon it with a faintness of heart he had not known since his voyage began. However, it presently left him, and hurrying down to her side he began to unload her completely, and to make a permanent camp in the lee of a ridge of sand crested with dwarfed casino bushes, well up from the beach. The night did not stop him, and by the time he was tired enough for sleep he had lightened the boat of everything stowed into her the previous day. Before sunrise he was at work again, removing her sandbags, her sails, flags, cordage, even her spars. The mast would have been heavy for two men to handle, but he got it out whole, though not without hurting one hand so painfully that he had to lie off for over two hours. But by midday he was busy again, and when at low water poor Sweetheart comfortably turned upon her side on the odorous, clean sand, it was never more to rise. The keen, new axe of her master ended her days.
"No! O no!" he said to me, "call it anything but courage! I felt—I don't want to be sentimental—I'm sure I was not sentimental at the time, but—I felt as though I were a murderer. All I knew was that it had to be done. I trembled like a thief. I had to stoop twice before I could take up the axe, and I was so cold my teeth chattered. When I lifted the first blow I didn't know where it was going to fall. But it struck as true as a die, and then I flew at it. I never chopped so fast or clean in my life. I wasn't fierce; I was as full of self-delight as an overpraised child. And yet when something delayed me an instant I found I was still shaking. Courage," said he, "O no; I know what it was, and I knew then. But I had no choice; it was my last chance."
I told him that anyone might have thought him a madman chopping up his last chance.
"Maybe so," he replied, "but I wasn't; it was the one sane thing I could do;" and he went on to tell me that when night fell the tallest fire that ever leapt from those sands blazed from Sweetheart's piled ribs and keel.
It was proof to him of his having been shrewd, he said, that for many days he felt no repentance of the act nor was in the least lonely. There was an infinite relief merely in getting clean away from the huge world of men, with all its exactions and temptations and the myriad rebukes and rebuffs of its crass propriety and thrift. He had endured solitude enough in it; the secret loneliness of a spiritual bankruptcy. Here was life begun over, with none to make new debts to except nature and himself, and no besetments but his own circumvented propensities. What humble, happy masterhood! Each dawn he rose from dreamless sleep and leaped into the surf as into the embrace of a new existence. Every hour of day brought some unfretting task or hale pastime. With sheath-knife and sail-needle he made of his mainsail a handsome tent, using the mainboom for his ridge- pole, and finishing it just in time for the first night of rain—when, nevertheless, he lost all his coffee!
He did not waste toil. He hoarded its opportunities as one might husband salt on the mountains or water in the desert, and loitering in well calculated idleness between thoughts many and things of sea and shore innumerable, filled the intervals from labor to labor with gentle entertainment. Skyward ponderings by night, canny discoveries under foot by day, quickened his mind and sight to vast and to minute significancies, until they declared an Author known to him hitherto only by tradition. Every acre of the barren islet grew fertile in beauties and mysteries, and a handful of sand at the door of his tent held him for hours guessing the titanic battles that had ground the invincible quartz to that crystal meal and fed it to the sea.
I may be more rhetorical than he was, but he made all the more of these conditions while experiencing them, because he knew they could not last out the thirty days, nor half the thirty, and took modest comfort in a will strong enough to meet all present demands, well knowing there was one exigency yet to arise, one old usurer still to be settled with who had not yet brought in his dun.
It came—began to come—in the middle of the second week. At its familiar approach he felt no dismay, save a certain inert dismay that it brought none. Three, four, five times he went bravely to the rill, drowned his thirst and called himself satisfied; but the second day was worse than the first; the craving seemed better than the rill's brief cure of it, and once he rose straight from drinking of the stream and climbed the dune to look for a sail.
He strove in vain to labor. The pleasures of toil were as stale as those of idleness. His books were put aside with a shudder, and he walked abroad with a changed gait; the old extortioner was levying on his nerves. And on his brain. He dreamed that night of war times; found himself commander of a whole battery of heavy guns, and lo, they were all quaker cannon. When he would have fled, monstrous terrors met him at every turn, till he woke and could sleep no more. Dawn widened over sky and sea, but its vast beauty only mocked the castaway. All day long he wandered up and down and along and across his glittering prison, no tiniest speck of canvas, no faintest wreath of smoke, on any water's edge; the horror of his isolation growing-growing?-like the monsters of his dream, and his whole nature wild with a desire which was no longer a mere physical drought, but a passion of the soul, that gave the will an unnatural energy and set at naught every true interest of earth and heaven. Again and again he would have shrieked its anguish, but the first note of his voice rebuked him to silence as if he had espied himself in a glass. He fell on his face voiceless, writhing, and promised himself, nay, pledged creation and its Creator, that on the day of his return to the walks of men he would drink the cup of madness and would drink it thenceforth till he died.
When night came again he paced the sands for hours and then fell to work to drag by long and toiling zigzags to a favorable point on the southern end of the island the mast he had saved, and to raise there a flag of distress. In the shortness of his resources he dared not choose the boldest exposures, where the first high wind would cast it down; but where he placed it it could be seen from every quarter except the north, and any sail approaching from that direction was virtually sure to come within hail even of the voice.
Day had come again as he left the finished task, and once more from the highest wind-built ridge his hungering eyes swept the round sea's edge. But he saw no sail. Nerveless and exhausted he descended to the southeastern beach and watched the morning brighten. The breezes, that for some time had slept, fitfully revived, and the sun leaped from the sea and burned its way through a low bank of dark and ruddy clouds with so unusual a splendor that the beholder was in some degree both quickened and tranquillized. He could even play at self-command, and in child fashion bound himself not to mount the dunes again for a northern look within an hour. This southern half circle must suffice. Indeed, unless these idle zephyrs should amend, no sail could in that time draw near enough to notice any signal he could offer.
Playing at self-command gave him some earnest of it. In a whim of the better man he put off his clothes and sprang into the breakers. He had grown chill, but a long wrestle with the surf warmed his blood, and as he reclothed himself and with a better step took his way along the beach toward his tent a returning zest of manhood refreshed his spirit. The hour was up, but in a kind of equilibrium of impulses and with much emptiness of mind, he let it lengthen on, made a fire, and for the first time in two days cooked food. He ate and still tarried. A brand in his camp fire, a piece from the remnant of his boat, made beautiful flames. He idly cast in another and was pleased to find himself sitting there instead of gazing his eyes out for sails that never rose into view. He watched a third brand smoke and blaze. And then, as tamely as if the new impulse were only another part of a continued abstraction, he arose and once more climbed the sandy hills. The highest was some distance from his camp. At one point near its top a brief northeastward glimpse of the marsh's outer edge and the blue waters beyond showed at least that nothing had come near enough to raise the pelicans. But the instant his sight cleared the crown of the ridge he rushed forward, threw up his arms, and lifted his voice in a long, imploring yell. Hardly two miles away, her shapely canvas leaning and stiffening in the augmented breeze, a small yacht had just gone about, and with twice the speed at which she must have approached was, hurrying back straight into the north.
The frantic man dashed back and forth along the crest, tossing his arms, waving his Madras handkerchief, cursing himself for leaving his gun so far behind, and again and again repeating his vain ahoys in wilder and wilder alternations of beseeching and rage. The lessening craft flew straight on, no ear in her skilled enough to catch the distant cry, and no eye alert enough to scan the dwindling sand-hills. He ceased to call, but still, with heavy notes of distress to himself, waved and waved, now here, now there, while the sail grew smaller and smaller. At length he stopped this also and only stood gazing. Almost on first sight of the craft he had guessed that the men in her had taken alarm at the signs of changing weather, and seeing the freshening smoke of his fire had also inferred that earlier sportsmen were already on the island. Oh, if he could have fired one shot when she was nearest! But already she was as hopelessly gone as though she were even now below the horizon. Suddenly he turned and ran down to his camp. Not for the gun; not in any new hope of signalling the yacht. No, no; a raft! a raft! Deliverance or destruction, it should be at his own hand and should wait no longer!
A raft forthwith he set about to make. Some stout portions of his boat were still left. Tough shrubs of the sand-hills furnished trennels and suppler parts. Of ropes there was no lack. The mast was easily dragged down again to the beach to be once more a mast, and in nervous haste, yet with skill and thoroughness, the tent was ripped up and remade into a sail, and even a rude centreboard was rigged in order that one might tack against unfavorable winds.
Winds, at nightfall, when the thing began to be near completion, there were none. The day's sky had steadily withdrawn its favor. The sun shone as it sank into the waves, but in the northwest and southeast dazzling thunderheads swelled from the sea's line high into the heavens, and in the early dusk began with silent kindlings to challenge each other to battle. As night swiftly closed down the air grew unnaturally still. From the toiler's brow, worse than at noon, the sweat rolled off, as at last he brought his work to a close by the glare of his leaping camp-fire. Now, unless he meant only to perish, he must once more eat and sleep while he might. Then let the storm fall; the moment it was safely over and the wind in the right quarter he would sail. As for the thirst which had been such a torture while thwarted, now that it ruled unchallenged, it was purely a wild, glad zeal as full of method as of diligence. But first he must make his diminished provisions and his powder safe against the elements; and this he did, covering them with a waterproof stuff and burying them in a northern slope of sand.
He awoke in the small hours of the night. The stars of the zenith were quenched. Blackness walled and roofed him in close about his crumbled fire, save when at shorter and shorter intervals and with more and more deafening thunders the huge clouds lit up their own forms, writhing one upon another, and revealed the awe-struck sea and ghostly sands waiting breathlessly below. He rose to lay on more fuel, and while he was in the act the tornado broke upon him. The wind, as he had forecast, came out of the southeast. In an instant it was roaring and hurtling against the farther side of his island rampart like the charge of a hundred thousand horse and tossing the sand of the dunes like blown hair into the northwest, while the rain in one wild deluge lashed the frantic sea and weltering lagoon as with the whips of the Furies.
He had kept the sail on the beach for a protection from the storm, but before he could crawl under it he was as wet as though he had been tossed up by the deep, and yet was glad to gain its cover from the blinding floods and stinging sand. Here he lay for more than an hour, the rage of the tempest continually growing, the heavens in a constant pulsing glare of lightnings, their terrific thunders smiting and bellowing round and round its echoing vault, and the very island seeming at times to stagger back and recover again as it braced itself against the fearful onsets of the wind. Snuggling in his sailcloth burrow, he complacently recalled an earlier storm like this, which he and Sweetheart, the only other time they ever were here, had tranquilly weathered in this same lagoon. On the mainland, in that storm, cane- and rice-fields had been laid low and half destroyed, houses had been unroofed, men had been killed. A woman and a boy, under a pecan tree, were struck by lightning; and three men who had covered themselves with a tarpaulin on one of the wharves in New Orleans were blown with it into the Mississippi, poor fellows, and were drowned; a fact worthy of second consideration in the present juncture.
This second thought had hardly been given it before he crept hastily from his refuge and confronted the gale in quick alarm. The hurricane was veering to southward. Let it shift but a point or two more, and its entire force would sweep the lagoon and its beach. Before long the change came. The mass of canvas at his feet leapt clear of the ground and fell two or three yards away. He sprang to seize it, but in the same instant the whole storm—rain, wind, and sand—whirled like a troop of fiends round the southern end of the island, the ceaseless lightnings showing the way, and came tearing and howling up its hither side. The white sail lifted, bellied, rolled, fell, vaulted into the air, fell again, tumbled on, and at the foot of a dune stopped until its wind-buffeted pursuer had almost overtaken it. Then it fled again, faster, faster, higher, higher up the sandy slope to its top, caught and clung an instant on some unseen bush, and then with one mad bound into the black sky, unrolled, widened like a phantom, and vanished forever.
Gregory turned in desperation, and in the glare of the lightning looked back toward his raft. Great waves were rolling along and across the slender reef in wide obliques and beating themselves to death in the lagoon, or sweeping out of it again seaward at its more northern end. On the dishevelled crest of one he saw his raft, and on another its mast. He could not look a second time. The flying sand blinded him and cut the blood from his face. He could only cover his eyes and crawl under the bushes in such poor lee as he could find; and there, with the first lull of the storm, heavy with exhaustion and despair, he fell asleep and slept until far into the day. When he awoke the tempest was over.
Even more completely the tumult within him was quieted. He rose and stood forth mute in spirit as in speech; humbled, yet content, in the consciousness that having miserably failed first to save himself and then to rue himself back to destruction, the hurricane had been his deliverer. It had spared his supplies, his ammunition, his weapons, only hiding them deeper under the dune sands; but scarce a vestige of his camp remained and of his raft nothing. As once more from the highest sand-ridge he looked down upon the sea weltering in the majestic after-heavings of its passion, at the eastern beach booming under the shock of its lofty rollers, and then into the sky still gray with the endless flight of southward-hurrying scud, he felt the stir of a new attachment to them and his wild prison, and pledged alliance with them thenceforth.
Here, in giving me his account, Gregory asked me if that sounded sentimental. I said no, and thereupon he actually tried to apologize to me as though I were a professional story-teller, for having had so few deep feelings in the moments where the romancists are supposed to place them. I told him what I had once seen a mechanic do on a steep, slated roof nearly a hundred feet from the pavement. He had faced round from his work, which was close to the ridge-tiles, probably to kick off the shabby shoes he had on, when some hold failed him and he began to slide toward the eaves. We people in the street below fairly moaned our horror, but he didn't utter a sound. He held back with all his skill, one leg thrust out in front, the other drawn up with the knee to his breast, and his hands flattened beside him on the slates, but he came steadily on down till his forward foot passed over the eaves and his heel caught on the tin gutter. Then he stopped. We held our breath below. He slowly and cautiously threw off one shoe, then the other, and then turned, climbed back up the roof and resumed his work. And we two or three witnesses down in the street didn't think any less of him because he did so without any show of our glad emotion.
"O, if I had that fellow's nerve," said Gregory, "that would be another thing!"
My wife and I smiled at each other. "How would it be 'another thing?'" we asked. "Did you not quietly get up and begin life over again as if nothing had occurred?"
"There wasn't anything else to do," he replied, with a smile. "The feelings came later, too, in an easy sort o' gradual way. I never could quite make out how men get such clear notions of what they call 'Providence,' but, just the same, I know by experience there's all the difference of peace and misery, or life and death, whether you're in partnership with the things that help the world on, or with those that hold it back."
"But with that feeling," my wife asked, "did not your longing for our human world continue?"
"No," he replied, "but I got a new liking for it—although, you understand, I never had anything against it, of course. It's too big and strong for me, that's all; and that's my fault. Your man on that slippery roof kicking his shoes off is a sort of parable to me. If your hand or your foot offend you and you have to cut it off, that's a physical disablement, and bad enough. But when your gloves and your shoes are too much for you, and you have to pluck them off and cast them from you, you find each one is a great big piece of the civilized world, and you hardly know how much you did like it, till you've lost it. And still, it's no use longing, when you know your limitations, and I saw I'd got to keep my world trimmed down to where I could run barefooted on the sand."
He told us that now he began for the first time since coming to the island, to find his books his best source of interest and diversion. He learned, he said, a way of reading by which sea, sky, book, island, and absent humanity, all seemed parts of one whole, and all to speak together in one harmony, while they toiled together for one harmony some day to be perfected. Not all books, nor even all good books, were equally good for that effect, he thought, and the best——
"You might not think it," he said, "but the best was a Bible I'd chanced to carry along;" he didn't know precisely what kind, but "just one of these ordinary Bibles you see lying around in people's houses." He extolled the psalms and asked Mrs. Smith if she'd ever noticed the beauty of the twenty-third. She smiled and said she believed she had.
"Then there was one," he went on, "beginning, 'Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too wonderful for me;' and by and by it says, 'Surely, I have quieted myself as a child that is weaned: my soul is even as a weaned child.'"
One day, after a most marvellous sunset, he had been reading, he said, "that long psalm with twenty-two parts in it—a hundred and seventy-six verses." He had intended to read "Lord, my heart is not haughty" after it, though the light was fast failing, but at the hundred and seventy-sixth verse he closed the book. Thus he sat in the nearly motionless air, gazing on the ripples of the lagoon as, now singly, and now by twos or threes, they glided up the beach tinged with the colors of parting day as with a grace of resignation, and sank into the grateful sands like the lines of this last verse sinking into his heart; now singly—"I have gone astray like a lost sheep;" and now by twos—"I have gone astray like a lost sheep; save thy servant;" or by threes—"I have gone astray like a lost sheep; save thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments."
"I shouldn't tell that," he said to us, "if I didn't know so well how little it counts for. But I knew at the time that when the next day but one should bring the lighthouse steamer I shouldn't be any more fit to go ashore, to stay, than a jellyfish." We agreed, he and I that there can be as wide a distance between fine feelings and faithful doing as, he said, "between listening to the band and charging a battery."
On the islet the night deepened. The moon had not risen, and the stars only glorified the dark, as it, in turn, revealed the unearthly beauties of a phosphorescent sea. It was one of those rare hours in which the deep confessed the amazing numbers of its own living and swarming constellations. Not a fish could leap or dart, not a sinuous thing could turn, but it became an animate torch. Every quick movement was a gleam of green fire. No drifting, flaccid life could pulse so softly along but it betrayed itself in lambent outlines. Each throb of the water became a beam of light, and every ripple that widened over the strand—still whispering, "I have gone astray"—was edged with luminous pearls.
In an agreeable weariness of frame, untroubled in mind, and counting the night too beautiful for slumber he reclined on the dry sands with an arm thrown over a small pile of fagots which he had spent the day in gathering from every part of the island to serve his need for the brief remainder of his stay. In this search he had found but one piece of his boat, a pine board. This he had been glad to rive into long splinters and bind together again as a brand, with which to signal the steamer if—contrary to her practice, I think he said—she should pass in the night. And so, without a premonition of drowsiness, he was presently asleep, with the hours radiantly folding and expiring one upon another like the ripples on the beach.
When he came to himself he was on his feet. The moon was high, his fire was smouldering; his heart was beating madly and his eyes were fixed on the steamer, looming large, moving at full speed, her green light showing, her red light hid, and her long wake glowing with comet fire. In a moment she would be passing. It was too late for beacon-flame or torch. He sprang for his gun, and mounting the first low rise fired into the air, once!— twice! —and shouted, "Help!—help!"
She kept straight on. She was passing, she was passing! In trembling haste he loaded and fired again, again wailed out his cry for help, and still she kept her speed. He had loaded for the third discharge, still frantically calling the while, and was lifting his gun to fire when he saw the white light at her foremast-head begin to draw nearer to the green light at her waist and knew she was turning. He fired, shouted, and tried to load again; but as her red light brightened into view beside the green, he dropped his gun and leaped and crouched and laughed and wept for joy.
* * * * *
"Why, Gregory!" the naval lieutenant cried, as the castaway climbed from the steamer's boat to her deck. "Why, you blasted old cracked fiddle! what in——"
"Right, the first guess!" laughed Gregory, "there's where I've been!" and in the cabin he explained all.
"The fiddle's mended," he concluded. "You can play a tune on it—by being careful."
"But what's your tune?" asked his hearer; "you cannot go back to that island."
"Yes, I'll be on it in a week—with a schooner-load of cattle. I can get them on credit. Going to raise cattle there as a regular business. They'll fatten in that marsh like blackbirds."
True enough, before the week was up the mended fiddle was playing its tune. It was not until Gregory's second return from his island that he came to see us and told us his simple story. We asked him how it was that the steamer, that first time, had come so much earlier than she generally did.
"She didn't," he replied. "I had miscounted one day."
"Don't you," asked my wife, who would have liked a more religious tone in Gregory's recital, "don't you have trouble to keep run of your Sabbaths away out there alone?"
"Why"—he smiled—"it's always Sunday there. Here almost everybody feels duty bound to work harder than somebody else, or else make somebody else work harder than he, and you need a day every now and then for Sunday—or Sabbath, at least. Oh, I suppose it's all one in the end, isn't it? You take your's in a pill, I take mine in a powder. Not that it's the least bit like a dose, however, except for the good it does."
"And you're really prospering, even in a material way!" I said.
"Yes," he answered. "O yes; the island's already too small for us."
"It's certainly very dangerously exposed," said my wife, and I guessed her thought was on Last Island, which, you remember, though very large and populous, had been, within our recollection, totally submerged, with dreadful loss of life.
"O yes," he responded, "there's always something wherever you are. One of these days some storm's going to roll the sea clean over the whole thing."
"Then, why don't you move to a bigger island closer inshore?" she asked.
"I'm afraid," said Gregory, and smiled.
"Afraid!" said my wife, incredulously.
"Yes," he responded. "I'm afraid my prisoner'll get away from me."
As his hand closed over hers in good-by I saw, what he could not, that she had half a notion to kiss it. I told her so when he was gone, and kissed hers—for him.
"I don't care," she said, dreamily, as it lingered in mine, "I'm glad I mended his coat for him that time."
* * * * *
One day a hummingbird got caught in a cobweb in our greenhouse. It had no real need to seek that damp, artificial heat. We were in the very heart of that Creole summer-time when bird-notes are many as the sunbeams. The flowers were in such multitude they seemed to follow one about, offering their honeys and perfumes and begging to be gathered. Our little boy saw the embodied joy fall, a joy no longer, seized it, and clasping it too tightly, brought it to me dead.
He cried so over the loss that I promised to have the body stuffed. This is how I came to know Manouvrier, the Taxidermist in St. Peter Street.
I passed his place twice before I found it. The front shop was very small, dingily clean and scornfully unmercantile. Of the very few specimens of his skill to be seen round about not one was on parade, yet everyone was somehow an achievement, a happy surprise, a lasting delight. I admit that taxidermy is not classed among the fine arts; but you know there is a way of making everything—anything—an art instead of a craft or a commerce, and such was the way of this shop's big, dark, hairy-faced, shaggy-headed master. I saw his unsmiling face soften and his eye grow kind as mine lighted up with approbation of his handiwork.
When I handed him the hummingbird he held it tenderly in his wide palm, and as I was wondering to myself how so huge a hand as that could manipulate frail and tiny things and bring forth delicate results, he looked into my face and asked, with a sort of magisterial gentleness:
"How she git kill', dat lill' bird?"
I told him. I could feel my mood and words take their tone from him, though he outwardly heard me through with no show of feeling; and when I finished, I knew we were friends. I presently ventured to praise the specimen of his skill nearest at hand; a wild turkey listening alarmedly as if it would the next instant utter that ringing "quit!" which makes each separate drop of a hunter's blood tingle. But with an odd languor in his gravity, he replied:
"Naw, dass not well make; lill' bit worse, bad enough to put in front window. I take you inside; come."
We passed through into a private workroom immediately behind the shop. His wife sat there sewing; a broad, motherly woman of forty-five, fat, tranquil, kind, with an old eye, a young voice, and a face that had got its general flabbiness through much paddling and gnawing from other women's teething babes. She sat still, unintroduced, but welcomed me with a smile.
I was saying to her husband that a hummingbird was a very small thing to ask him to stuff. But he stopped me with his lifted palm.
"My fran', a hummingbird has de pas-sione'—de ecstacie! One drop of blood wid the pas-sione in it"—He waved his hand with a jerk of the thumb in disdain of spoken words, and it was I who added,
"Is bigger than the sun?"
"Hah!" was all he uttered in approval, turning as if to go to work. I feared I had disappointed him.
"God measures by the soul, not by the size," I suggested. But he would say no more, and his wife put in as softly as a kettle beginning to sing,
"Ah, ha, ha! I t'ink dass where de good God show varrie good sanse."
I began looking here and there in heartiest admiration of the products of his art and presently we were again in full sympathy and talking eagerly. As I was going he touched my arm:
"You will say de soul is parted from dat lill' bird. And—yass; but"—he let a gesture speak the rest.
"I know," replied I; "you propose to make the soul seem to come back and leave us its portrait. I believe you will." Whereupon he gave me his first, faint smile, and detained me with another touch.
"Msieu Smeet; when you was bawn?"
"I? December 9, 1844. Why do you ask?"
"O nut'n'; only I thing you make me luck; nine, h-eighteen, fawty-fo'—I play me doze number' in de lott'ree to-day."
"Why, pshaw! you don't play the lottery, do you?"
"Yass. I play her; why not? She make me reech some of doze day'. Win fifty dollah one time las' year."
The soft voice of the wife spoke up—"And spend it all to the wife of my dead brother. What use him be reech? I think he don't stoff bird' no betteh."
But the husband responded more than half to himself,
"Yass, I think mebbe I stoff him lill' more betteh."
When, some days afterward I called again, thinking as I drew near how much fineness of soul and life, seen or unseen, must have existed in earlier generations to have produced this man, I noticed the in conspicuous sign over his door, P.T.B. Manouvrier, and as he led me at once into the back room I asked him playfully what such princely abundance of initials might stand for.
"Doze? Ah, doze make only Pas-Trop-Bon."
I appealed to his wife; but she, with her placid laugh, would only confirm him:
"Yass; Pastropbon; he like that name. Tha's all de way I call him— Pastropbon."
The hummingbird was ready for me. I will not try to tell how lifelike and beautiful the artist had made it. Even with him I took pains to be somewhat reserved. As I stood holding and admiring the small green wonder, I remarked that I was near having to bring him that morning another and yet finer bird. A shade of displeasure (and, I feared, of suspicion also) came to his face as he asked me how that was. I explained.
Going into my front hall, whose veranda-door framed in a sunny picture of orange-boughs, jasmine-vines, and white-clouded blue sky, I had found a male ruby-throat circling about the ceiling, not wise enough to stoop, fly low, and pass out by the way it had come in. It occurred to me that it might be the mate of the one already mine. For some time all the efforts I could contrive, either to capture or free it, were vain. Round and round it flew, silently beating and bruising its exquisite little head against the lofty ceiling, the glory of its luminous red throat seeming to heighten into an expression of unspeakable agony. At last Mrs. Smith ran for a long broom, and, as in her absence I stood watching the self-snared captive's struggle, the long, tiny beak which had never done worse than go twittering with rapture to the grateful hearts of thousands of flowers, began to trace along the smooth, white ceiling a scarlet thread of pure heart's blood. The broom came. I held it up, the flutterer lighted upon it, and at first slowly, warily, and then triumphantly, I lowered it under the lintel out into the veranda, and the bird darted away into the garden and was gone like a soul into heaven.
In the middle of my short recital Manouvrier had sunk down upon the arm of his wife's rocking-chair with one huge hand on both of hers folded over her sewing, and as I finished he sat motionless, still gazing into my face.
"But," I started, with sudden pretence of business impulse, "how much am I to pay?"
He rose, slowly, and looked dreamily at his wife; she smiled at him, and he grunted,
"Oh, my friend," I laughed, "that's absurd!"
But he had no reply, and his wife, as she resumed her sewing, said, sweetly, as if to her needle, "Ah, I think Pastropbon don't got to charge nut'n' if he don't feel like." And I could not move them.
As I was leaving them, a sudden conjecture came to me.
"Did those birthday numbers bring you any luck?"
The taxidermist shook his head, good-naturedly, but when his wife laughed he turned upon her.
"Wait! I dawn't be done wid doze number' yet."
I guessed that, having failed with them in the daily drawings, he would shift the figures after some notion of magical significance and venture a ticket, whole or fractional, in the monthly drawing.
Scarcely ten days after, as I sat at breakfast with my newspaper spread beside my plate, I fairly spilled my coffee as my eye fell upon the name of P.T.B. Manouvrier, of No.—St. Peter Street. Old Pastropbon had drawn seventy-five thousand dollars in the lottery.
All the first half of the day, wherever I was, in the street-car, at my counting-desk, on the exchange, no matter to what I gave my attention, my thought was ever on my friend the taxidermist. At luncheon it was the same. He was rich! And what, now? What next? And what—ah! what?-at last? Would the end be foul or fair? I hoped, yet feared. I feared again; and yet I hoped.
A familiar acquaintance, a really good fellow, decent, rich, "born of pious parents," and determined to have all the ready-made refinements and tastes that pure money could buy, came and sat with me at my lunch table.
"I wonder," he began, "if you know where you are, or what you're here for. I've been watching you for five minutes and I don't believe you do. See here; what sort of an old donkey is that bird-stuffer of yours?"
"You know, then, his good fortune of yesterday, do you?"
"No, I don't. I know my bad fortune with him last week."
I dropped my spoon into my soup. "Why, what?"
"Oh, no great shakes. Only, I went to his place to buy that wild turkey you told me about. I wanted to stand it away up on top of that beautiful old carved buffet I picked up in England last year. I was fully prepared to buy it on your say-so, but, all the same, I saw its merits the moment I set eyes on it. It has but one fault; did you notice that? I don't believe you did. I pointed it out to him."
"You pointed—what did he say?"
"He said I was right."
"Why, what was the fault?"
"Fault? Why, the perspective is bad; not exactly bad, but poor; lacks richness and rhythm."
"And yet you bought the thing."
"No, I didn't."
"You didn't buy it?"
"No, sir, I didn't buy it. I began by pricing three or four other things first, so he couldn't know which one to stick the fancy price on to, and incidentally I thought I would tell him—you'd told me, you remember, how your accounts of your two birds had warmed him up and melted his feelings——"
"I didn't tell you. My wife told your wife, and your wife, I——"
"Yes, yes. Well, anyhow, I thought I'd try the same game, so I told him how I had stuffed a bird once upon a time myself. It was a pigeon, with every feather as white as snow; a fan-tail. It had belonged to my little boy who died. I thought it would make such a beautiful emblem at his funeral, rising with wings outspread, you know, typical of the resurrection—we buried him from the Sunday-school, you remember. And so I killed it and wired it and stuffed it myself. It was hard to hang it in a soaring attitude, owing to its being a fan-tail, but I managed it."
"And you told that to Manouvrier! What did he say?"
"Say? He never so much as cracked a smile. When I'd done he stood so still, looking at me, that I turned and sort o' stroked the turkey and said, jestingly, says I, 'How much a pound for this gobbler?'"
"That ought to have warmed him up."
"Well, it didn't. He smiled like a dancing-master, lifted my hand off the bird and says, says he, 'She's not for sale.' Then he turned to go into his back room and leave me standing there. Well, that warmed me up. Says I, 'What in thunder is it here for, then? and if it ain't for sale, come back here and show me what is!'
"'Nawtin',' says 'e, with the same polite smile. 'Nawtin' for sale. I come back when you gone.' His voice was sweet as sugar, but he slammed the door. I would have followed him in and put some better manners into him with a kick, but the old orang-outang had turned the key inside, and when I'd had time to remember that I was a deacon and Sunday-school teacher I walked away. What do you mean by his good fortune of yesterday?"
"I mean he struck Charlie Howard for seventy-five thousand."
My hearer's mouth dropped open. He was equally amazed and amused. "Well, well, well! That accounts for his silly high-headedness."
"Ah! no: that matter of yours was last week and the drawing was only yesterday."
"Oh, that's so. I don't keep run of that horrible lottery business. It makes me sick at heart to see the hideous canker poisoning the character and blasting the lives of every class of our people—why, don't you think so?"
"Oh, yes, I—I do. Yes, I certainly do!"
"But your conviction isn't exactly red-hot, I perceive. Come, wake up."
We rose. At the first street corner, as we were parting, I noticed he was still talking of the lottery.
"Pestilential thing," he was calling it. "Men blame it lightly on the ground that there are other forms of gambling which our laws don't reach. I suppose a tiger in a village mustn't be killed till we have killed all the tigers back in the woods!"
I assented absently and walked away full of a vague shame. For I know as well as anyone that a man without a quick, strong, aggressive, insistent indignation against undoubted evil is a very poor stick.
At dinner that evening, Mrs. Smith broke a long silence with the question:
"Did you go to see Manouvrier?"
She looked at me drolly. "Did you go half way and turn back?"
"Yes," said I, "that's precisely what I did." And we dropped the subject.
But in the night I felt her fingers softly touch my shoulder.
"Warm night," I remarked.
"Richard," said she, "it will be time enough to be troubled about your taxidermist when he's given you cause."
"I'm not troubled; I'm simply interested. I'll go down to-morrow and see him." A little later it rained, very softly, and straight down, so that there was no need to shut the windows, and I slept like an infant until the room was full of sunshine.
All the next day and evening, summer though it was and the levee and sugar sheds and cotton-yards virtually empty, I was kept by unexpected business and could not go near St. Peter Street. Both my partners were away on their vacations. But on the third afternoon our office regained its summer quiet and I was driving my pen through the last matter that prevented my going where I pleased, when I was disturbed by the announcement of a visitor. I pushed my writing on to a finish though he stood just at my back. Then I turned to bid him talk fast as my time was limited, when who should it be but Manouvrier. I took him into my private office, gave him a chair and said:
"I was just coming to see you."
"You had somet'in' to git stoff'?"
"No; I—Oh, I didn't know but you might like to see me."
"Yass?—Well—yass. I wish you come yesterday."
"Indeed? Why so; to protect you from reporters and beggars?"
"Naw; my wife she keep off all doze Peter an' John. Naw; one man bring me one wile cat to stoff. Ah! a so fine as I never see! Beautiful like da dev'l! Since two day' an' night' I can't make out if I want to fix dat wile cat stan'in' up aw sittin' down!"
"Did you decide at last?"
"Yass, I dis-ide. How you think I diside?"
"Ah! you're too hard for me. But one thing I know."
"Yass? What you know?"
"That you will never do so much to anything as to leave my imagination nothing to do. You will always give my imagination strong play and never a bit of hard work."
"Come! Come and see!"
I took my hat. "Is that what you called to see me about?"
"Ah!" He started in sudden recollection and brought forth the lottery company's certified check for the seventy-five thousand dollars. "You keep dat?—lill' while?—for me? Yass; till I mek out how I goin' to spend her."
"Manouvrier, may I make one condition?"
"It is that you will never play the lottery again."
"Ah! Yass, I play her ag'in! You want know whan ole Pastropbon play her ag'in? One doze fine mawning—mebbee—dat sun—going rise hisself in de wes'. Well: when ole Pastropbon see dat, he play dat lott'ree ag'in. But biffo' he see dat"—He flirted his thumb.
Not many days later a sudden bereavement brought our junior partner back from Europe and I took my family North for a more stimulating air. Before I went I called on my St. Peter Street friend to say that during my absence either of my partners would fulfil any wish of his concerning the money. In his wife's sewing-basket in the back room I noticed a batch of unopened letters, and ventured a question which had been in my mind for several days.
"Manouvrier, you must get a host of letters these days from people who think you ought to help them because you have got money and they haven't. Do you read them?"
"Naw!" He gave me his back, bending suddenly over some real or pretended work. "I read some—first day. Since dat time I give 'em to old woman— wash hand—go to work ag'in—naw use."
"Ah! no use?" piped up the soft-voiced wife. "I use them to light those fire to cook those soup." But I felt the absence of her accustomed laugh.
"Well, it's there whenever you want it," I said to the husband as I was leaving.
"What?" The tone of the response was harsh. "What is where?"
"Why, the money. It's in the bank."
"Hah!" he said, with a contemptuous smile and finished with his thumb. That was the first time I ever saw a thumb swear. But in a moment his kindly gravity was on him again and he said, "Daz all right; I come git her some day."
I did not get back to New Orleans till late in the fall. In the office they told me that Manouvrier had been in twice to see if I had returned, and they had promised to send him word of my arrival. But I said no, and went to see him.
I found new lines of care on his brow, but the old kindness was still in his eye. We exchanged a few words of greeting and inquiry, and then there came a pause, which I broke.
"Well, stuffing birds better than ever, I suppose."
"Naw," he looked around upon his work, "I dawn't think. I dunno if I stoff him quite so good like biffo'." Another pause. Then, "I think I mek out what I do wid doze money now."
"Indeed," said I, and noticed that his face was averted from his wife.
She lifted her eyes to his broad back with a quizzical smile, glanced at me knowingly, and dropped them again upon her sewing, sighed:
"Ah-bah!" Then she suddenly glanced at me with a pretty laugh and added, "Since all that time he dunno what he goin' to make with it. If he trade with it I thing he don't stoff bird no mo', and I thing he lose it bis-ide—ha, ha, ha!—and if he keep it all time lock in doze bank I thing, he jiz well not have it." She laughed again.
But he quite ignored her and resumed, as if out of a revery, "Yass, at de las' I mek dat out." And the wife interrupted him in a tone that was like the content of a singing hen.
"I think it don't worth while to leave it to our chillun, en't it?"
"Ah!" said the husband, entirely to me, "daz de troub'! You see?—we dawn't got some ba-bee'! Dat neveh arrive to her. God know' dass not de fault of us."
"Yass," put in his partner, smiling to her needle, "the good God know' that verrie well." And the pair exchanged a look of dove-like fondness.
"Yass," Manouvrier mused aloud once more, "I think I build my ole woman one fine house."
"Ah! I don't want!"
"But yass! Foudre tonnerre! how I goin' spend her else? w'iskee? hosses? women? what da dev'l! Naw, I build a fine 'ouse. You see! she want dat house bad enough when she see her. Yass; fifty t'ousan' dollah faw house and twenty-five t'ousan'"—he whisked his thumb at me and I said for him,
"Yes, twenty-five thousand at interest to keep up the establishment."
"Yass. Den if Pastropbon go first to dat boneyard—" And out went his thumb again, while his hairy lip curled at the grim prospect of beating Fate the second time, and as badly, in the cemetery, as the first time, in the lottery.
He built the house—farther down town and much farther from the river. Both husband and wife found a daily delight in watching its slow rise and progress. In the room behind the shop he still plied his art and she her needle as they had done all their married life, with never an inroad upon their accustomed hours except the calls of the shop itself; but on every golden morning of that luxurious summer-land, for a little while before the carpenters and plasterers arrived and dragged off their coats, the pair spent a few moments wandering through and about the building together, she with her hen-like crooning, he with his unsmiling face.
Yet they never showed the faintest desire to see the end. The contractor dawdled by the month. I never saw such dillydallying. They only abetted it, and when once he brought an absurd and unasked-for excuse to the taxidermist's shop, its proprietor said—first shutting the door between them and the wife in the inner room:
"Tek yo' time. Mo' sloweh she grow, mo' longeh she stan'."
I doubt that either Manouvrier or his wife hinted to the other the true reason for their apathy. But I guessed it, only too easily, and felt its pang. It was that with the occupancy and care of the house must begin the wife's absence from her old seat beside her husband at his work.
Another thing troubled me. I did persuade him to put fittings into his cistern which fire-engines could use in case of emergency, but he would not insure the building.
"Naw! Luck bring me dat—I let luck take care of her."
"Ah! yass," chimed the wife, "yet still I think mebbee the good God tell luck where to bring her. I'm shoe he got fing-er in that pie."
"Ah-ha? Daz all right! If God want to burn his own fing-er——"
At length the house was finished and was beautiful within and without. It was of two and a half stories, broad and with many rooms. Two spacious halls crossed each other, and there were wide verandas front and back, and a finished and latticed basement. The basement and the entire grounds, except a few bright flower-borders, were flagged, as was also the sidewalk, with the manufactured stone which in that nearly frostless climate makes such a perfect and beautiful pavement, and on this fair surface fell the large shadows of laburnum, myrtle, orange, oleander, sweet-olive, mespelus, and banana, which the taxidermist had not spared expense to transplant here in the leafy prime of their full growth.
Then almost as slowly the dwelling was furnished. In this the brother-in- law's widow co-operated, and when it was completed Manouvrier suggested her living in it a few days so that his wife might herself move in as leisurely as she chose. And six months later, there, in the old back room in St. Peter Street, the wife still sat sewing and now and then saying small, wise, dispassionate things to temper the warmth of her partner's more artistic emotions. Every fair day, about the hour of sunset, they went to see the new house. It was plain they loved it; loved it only less than their old life; but only the brother-in-law's widow lived in it.
I happened about this time to be acting as president of an insurance company on Canal Street. Summer was coming in again. One hot sunny day, when the wind was high and gusty, the secretary was remarking to me what sad ruin it might work if fire should start among the frame tenement cottages which made up so many neighborhoods that were destitute of watermains, when right at our ear the gong sounded for just such a region and presently engine after engine came thundering and smoking by our open windows. Fire had broken out in the street where Manouvrier's new house stood, four squares from that house, but straight to windward of it.
We knew only too well, without being there to witness, that our firemen would find nothing with which to fight the flames except a few shallow wells of surface water and the wooden rain-water cisterns above ground, and that both these sources were almost worthless owing to a drouth. A man came in and sat telling me of his new device for lessening the risks of fire.
"Where?" asked I, quickly.
"Why, as I was saying, on steamboats loaded with cotton."
"Oh, yes," said I, "I understand." But I did not. For the life of me I couldn't make sense of what he said. I kept my eyes laboriously in his face, but all I could see was a vision of burning cottages; hook-and- ladder-men pulling down sheds and fences; ruined cisterns letting just enough water into door-yards and street-gutters to make sloppy walking; fire-engines standing idle and dropping cinders into their own puddles in a kind of shame for their little worth; here and there one furiously sucking at an exhausted well while its firemen stood with scorching faces holding the nozzles almost in the flames and cursing the stream of dribbling mud that fell short of their gallant endeavor. I seemed to see streets populous with the sensation-seeking crowd; sidewalks and alleys filled with bedding, chairs, bureaus, baskets of crockery and calico clothing with lamps spilling into them, cheap looking-glasses unexpectedly answering your eye with the boldness of an outcast girl, broken tables, pictures of the Virgin, overturned stoves, and all the dear mantlepiece trash which but an hour before had been the pride of the toiling housewife, and the adornment of the laborer's home.
"Where can I see this apparatus?" I asked my patient interviewer.
"Well—ahem! it isn't what you'd call an apparatus, exactly. I have here——"
"Yes; never mind that just now; I'm satisfied you've got a good thing and —I'll tell you! Can you come in to-morrow at this hour? Good! I wish you would! Well, good-day."
The secretary was waiting to speak to me. The fire, he said, had entirely burned up one square and was half through a second. "By the way, isn't that the street where old P.T.B.——"
"Yes," I replied, taking my hat; "if anyone wants to see me, you'd better tell him to call to-morrow."
I found the shop in St. Peter's Street shut, and went on to the new residence. As I came near it, its beauty seemed to me to have consciously increased under the threatenings of destruction.
In the front gate stood the brother-in-law's widow, full of gestures and distressful smiles as she leaned out with nervously folded arms and looked up and down the street. "Manouvrier? he is ad the fire since a whole hour. He will break his heart if dat fire ketch to dat 'ouse here. He cannot know 'ow 'tis in danger! Ah! sen' him word? I sen' him fo' five time'—he sen' back I stay righd there an' not touch nut'n'! Ah! my God! I fine dat varrie te-de-ous, me, yass!"
"Is his wife with him?"
"Assuredly! You see, dey git 'fraid 'bout dat 'ouse of de Sister', you know?"
"No, where is it?"
"No? You dunno dat lill' 'ouse where de Sister' keep dose orphelin' ba-bee'?-juz big-inning sinse 'bout two week' ago?-round de corner—one square mo' down town—'alf square mo' nearer de swamp? Well, I thing 'f you pass yondeh you fine Pastropbon."
Through smoke, under falling cinders, and by distracted and fleeing households I went. The moment I turned the second corner I espied the house. It was already half a square from the oncoming fire, but on the northern side of the street, just out of its probable track and not in great danger except from sparks. But it was old and roofed with shingles; a decrepit Creole cottage sitting under dense cedars in a tangle of rose and honeysuckle vines, and strangely beautified by a flood of smoke-dimmed yellow sunlight.
As I hurried forward, several men and boys came from the opposite direction at a run and an engine followed them, jouncing and tilting across the sidewalk opposite the little asylum, into a yard, to draw from a fresh well. Their leader was a sight that drew all eyes. He was coatless and hatless; his thin cotton shirt, with its sleeves rolled up to the elbows, was torn almost off his shaggy breast, his trousers were drenched with water and a rude bandage round his head was soaked with blood. He carried an axe. The throng shut him from my sight, but I ran to the spot and saw him again standing before the engine horses with his back close to their heads. A strong, high board fence shut them off from the well and against it stood the owner of the property, pale as death, guarding the precious water with a shotgun at full cock. I heard him say:
"The first fellow that touches this fence——"
But he did not finish. Quicker than his gun could flash and bang harmlessly in the air the man before him had dropped the axe and leaped upon him with the roar of a lion. The empty gun flew one way and its owner another and almost before either struck the ground the axe was swinging and crashing into the fence.
As presently the engine rolled through the gap and shouting men backed her to the edge of the well, the big axeman paused to wipe the streaming sweat from his begrimed face with his arm. I clutched him.
A smile of recognition shone for an instant and vanished as I added,
"Come to your own house! Come, you can't save it here."
He turned a quick, wild look at the fire, seized me by the arm and with a gaze of deepest gratitude, asked:
"You tryin' save her?"
"I'll do anything I can."
"Oh, dass right!" His face was full of mingled joy and pain. "You go yondeh—mek yo' possible!" We were hurrying to the street—"Oh, yass, faw God's sake go, mek yo' possible!"
"But, Manouvrier, you must come too! Where's your wife? The chief danger to your house isn't here, it's where the fire's between it and the wind!"
His answer was a look of anguish. "Good God! my fran'. We come yondeh so quick we can! But—foudre tonnerre!—look that house here fill' with ba-bee'! What we goin' do? Those Sister' can't climb on roof with bocket' wateh. You see I got half-dozen boy' up yondeh; if I go 'way they dis-cend and run off at the fire, spark' fall on roof an'—" his thumb flew out.
"Sparks! Heavens! Manouvrier, your house is in the path of the flames!"
The man flew at me and hung over me, his strong locks shaking, his great black fist uplifted and the only tears in his eyes I ever saw there. "Damnession! She's not mine! I trade her to God faw these one! Go! tell him she's his, he kin burn her if he feel like'!" He gave a half laugh, fresh witness of his distress, and went into the gate of the asylum.
I smiled—what could I do?—and was turning away, when I saw the chief of the fire department. It took but one moment to tell him my want, and in another he had put the cottage roof under the charge of four of his men with instructions not to leave it till the danger was past or the house burning. The engine near us had drawn the well dry and was coming away. He met it, pointed to where, beneath swirling billows of black smoke, the pretty gable of the taxidermist's house shone like a white sail against a thundercloud, gave orders and disappeared.
The street was filling with people. A row of cottages across the way was being emptied. The crackling flames were but half a square from Manouvrier's house. I called him once more to come. He waved his hand kindly to imply that he knew what I had done. He and his wife were in the Sisters' front garden walk conversing eagerly with the Mother Superior. They neared the gate. Suddenly the Mother Superior went back, the lay-sister guarding the gate let the pair out and the three of us hurried off together.
We found ourselves now in the uproar and vortex of the struggle. Only at intervals could we take our attention from the turmoil that impeded or threatened us, to glance forward at the white gable or back—as Manouvrier persisted in doing—to the Sisters' cottage. Once I looked behind and noticed, what I was loath to tell, that the firemen on its roof had grown busy; but as I was about to risk the truth, the husband and wife, glancing at their own roof, in one breath groaned aloud. Its gleaming gable had begun to smoke.
"Ah! that good God have pity on uz!" cried the wife, in tears, but as she started to run forward I caught her arm and bade her look again. A strong, white stream of water was falling on the smoking spot and it smoked no more.
The next minute, with scores of others, choking and blinded with the smoke, we were flying from the fire. The wind had turned.
"It is only a gust," I cried, "it will swing round again. We must turn the next corner and reach the house from the far side." I glanced back to see why my companions lagged and lo! they had vanished.
I reached the house just in time to save its front grounds from the invasion of the rabble. The wind had not turned back again. The brother-in law's widow was offering prayers of thanksgiving. The cisterns were empty and the garden stood glistening in the afternoon sun like a May queen drenched in tears; but the lovely spot was saved.
I left its custodian at an upper window, looking out upon the fire, and started once more to find my friends. Half-way round to the Sisters' cottage I met them. With many others I stepped aside to make a clear way for the procession they headed. The sweet, clean wife bore in her arms an infant; the tattered, sooty, bloody-headed husband bore two; and after them, by pairs and hand in hand, with one gray sister in the rear, came a score or more of pink-frocked, motherless little girls. An amused rabble of children and lads hovered about the diminutive column, with leers and jests and happy antics, and the wife smiled foolishly and burned red with her embarrassment; but in the taxidermist's face shone an exaltation of soul greater than any I had ever seen. I felt too petty for such a moment and hoped he would go by without seeing me; but he smiled an altogether new smile and said,
"My fran', God A'mighty, he know a good bargain well as anybody!"
I ran ahead with no more shame of the crowd than Zaccheus of old. I threw open the gate, bounded up the steps and spread wide the door. In the hall, the widow, knowing naught of this, met me with wet eyes crying,
"Ah! ah! de 'ouse of de orphelin' is juz blaze' up h-all over h-at once!" and hushed in amazement as the procession entered the gate.
P.T.B. Manouvrier, Taxidermist!
When the fire was out the owner of that sign went back to his shop and to his work, and his wife sat by him sewing as before. But the orphans stayed in their new and better home. Two or three years ago the Sisters—the brother-in-law's widow is one of them—built a large addition behind; but the house itself stands in the beauty in which it stood on that day of destruction, and my friend always leaves his work on balmy afternoons in time to go with his wife and see that pink procession, four times as long now as it was that day, march out the gate and down the street for its daily walk.
"Ah! Pastropbon, we got ba-bee' enough presently, en't it?"
"Ole woman, nobody else ever strock dat lott'ree for such a prize like dat."
* * * * *
An odd feature of New Orleans is the way homes of all ranks, in so many sections of it, are mingled. The easy, bright democracy of the thing is what one might fancy of ancient Greeks; only, here there is a general wooden frailty.
A notable phase of this characteristic is the multitude of small, frame, ground-story double cottages fronting endwise to the street, on lots that give either side barely space enough for one row of twelve-foot rooms with windows on a three-foot alley leading to the narrow backyard.
Thus they lie, deployed in pairs or half-dozens, by hundreds, in the variable intervals that occur between houses and gardens of dignity and elegance; hot as ovens, taking their perpetual bath of the great cleanser, sunshine. Sometimes they open directly upon the banquette (sidewalk), but often behind as much as a fathom of front-yard, as gay with flowers as a girl's hat, and as fragrant of sweet-olive, citronelle, and heliotrope as her garments. In the right-hand half of such a one, far down on the Creole side of Canal street, and well out toward the swamp, lived our friend the entomologist.
Just a glance at it was enough to intoxicate one's fancy. It seemed to confess newness of life, joy, passion, temperance, refinement, aspiration, modest wisdom, and serene courage. You would say there must live two well-mated young lovers—but one can't always tell.
We first came to know the entomologist through our opposite neighbors, the Fontenettes, when we lived in the street that still bears the romantic name, Sixth. What a pity nothing rhymes to it. Their ground-story cottage was of a much better sort. It lay broadside to the street, two-thirds across a lot of forty feet width, in the good old Creole fashion, its front garden twelve feet deep, and its street fence, of white palings, higher than the passer's head. The parlor and dining-room were on the left, and the two main bedrooms on the right, next the garden; Mrs. Fontenette's in front, opening into the parlor, Monsieur's behind, letting into the dining-room. For there had been a broader garden on the parlor and dining-room side, but that had been sold and built on. I fancy that if Mrs. Fontenette—who was not a Creole, as her husband was, but had once been a Miss Bangs, or something, and still called blackberries "blackbries," and made root rhyme with foot—I fancy if she had been doomed to our entomologist's sort of a house she would have been too broken in spirit to have made anybody's acquaintance.
For our pretty blonde neighbor had ambitions, or had had, as she once hinted to me with a dainty sadness. When I somehow let slip to her that I had repeated her delicately balanced words to my wife she gave me one melting glance of reproach, and thenceforth confided in me no more beyond the limits of literary criticism and theology—and botany. I remember we were among the few roses of her small flower-beds at the time, and I was trying to show her what was blighting them all in the bud. She called them "rose-es."
They rarely bloomed for her; she was always for being the rose herself—as Monsieur Fontenette once said; but he said it with a glance of fond admiration. Her name was Flora, and yet not flowers, but their book-lore, best suited her subtle capriciousness. She made such a point of names that she could not let us be happy with the homely monosyllable by which we were known, until we allowed her to hyphenate us as the Thorndyke-Smiths.
There hung in our hall an entire unmarred beard of the beautiful gray Spanish moss, eight feet long. I had got this unusual specimen by tiptoeing from the thwarts of a skiff with twelve feet of yellow crevasse- waters beneath, the shade of the vast cypress forest above, and the bough whence it hung brought within hand's reach for the first time in a century. Thus I explained it one day to Mrs. Fontenette, as she touched its ends with a delicate finger.
"Tillandsia"—was her one word of response. She loved no other part of botany quite so much as its Latin.
"The Baron ought to see that," said Monsieur. He was a man of quiet manners, not over-social, who had once enjoyed a handsome business income, but had early—about the time of his marriage—been made poor through the partial collapse of the house in Havre whose cotton-buyer he had been, and, in a scant way, still was. "When a cotton-buyer geds down, he stays," was all the explanation he ever gave us. He had unfretfully let adversity cage him for life in the only occupation he knew, while the wife he adored kept him pecuniarily bled to death, without sharing his silent resigna— There I go again! Somehow I can't talk about her without seeming unjust and rude. I felt it just now, even, when I quoted her husband's fond word, that she always chose to be the rose herself. Well, she nearly always succeeded; she was a rose—with some of the rose's drawbacks.
When we asked who the Baron might be it was she who told us, but in a certain disappointed way, as if she would rather have kept him unknown a while longer. He was, she said, a profoundly learned man, graduate of one of those great universities over in his native Germany, and a naturalist. Young? Well, eh—comparatively—yes. At which the silent husband smiled his dissent.
The Baron was an entomologist. Both the Fontenettes thought we should be fascinated with the beauty of some of his cases of moths and butterflies.
"And coleoptera," said the soft rose-wife. She could ask him to bring them to us. Take us to him?—Oh!—eh—her embarrassment made her prettier, as she broke it to us gently that the Baroness was a seamstress. She hushed at her husband's mention of shirts; but recovered when he harked back to the Baron, and beamed her unspoken apologies for the great, brave scholar who daily, silently bore up under this awful humiliation.
Toward the close of the next afternoon she brought the entomologist. I can see yet the glad flutter she could not hide as they came up our front garden walk in an air spiced by the "four-o'clocks," with whose small trumpets—red, white, and yellow—our children were filling their laps and stringing them on the seed-stalks of the cocoa-grass. He was bent and spectacled, of course; l'entomologie oblige; but, oh, besides!—
"Comparatively young," Mrs. Fontenette had said, and I naturally used her husband, who was thirty-one, for the comparison. Why, this man? It would have been a laughable flattery to have guessed his age to be forty-five. Yet that was really the fact. Many a man looks younger at sixty—oh, at sixty-five! He was dark, bloodless, bowed, thin, weatherbeaten, ill-clad— a picture of decent, incurable penury. The best thing about his was his head. It was not imposing at all, but it was interesting, albeit very meagrely graced with fine brown hair, dry and neglected. I read him through without an effort before we had been ten minutes together; a leaf still hanging to humanity's tree, but faded and shrivelled around some small worm that was feeding on its juices.
And there was no mistaking that worm; it was the avarice of knowledge. He had lost life by making knowledge its ultimate end, and was still delving on, with never a laugh and never a cheer, feeding his emaciated heart on the locusts and wild honey of entomology and botany, satisfied with them for their own sake, without reference to God or man; an infant in emotions, who time and again would no doubt have starved outright but for his wife, whom there and then I resolved we should know also. I was amused to see, by stolen glances, Mrs. Smith study him. She did not know she frowned, nor did he; but Mrs. Fontenette knew it every time.
We all had the advantage of him as to common sight. His glasses were obviously of a very high power, yet he could scarcely see anything till he clapped his face close down and hunted for it. When he pencilled for me the new Latin name he had given to a small, slender, almost dazzling green, beetle inhabiting the Spanish moss—his own scientific discovery— he wrote it so minutely that I had to use a lens to read it.
As we sat close around the library lamp, I noticed how often his poor clothing had been mended by a woman's needle. His linen was discouraging, his cravat awry and dingy, and his hands—we had better pass his hands; yet they were slender and refined.
Also they shook, though not from any habit commonly called vicious. You could see that no vice of the body nor any lust of material things had ever led him captive. He gave one the tender despair with which we look on a blind babe.
When we expressed regret that his wife had not come with him, he only bent with a deeper greed into a book I had handed him, and after a moment laid it down disappointedly, saying that it was "fool of plundters." Mrs. Fontenette asking to be shown one of them, they reopened the book together, she all consciousness as she bent against him over the page, he oblivious of everything but the phrase they were hunting. He gave his forehead a tap of despair as he showed where the book called this same Tillandsia, or Spanish moss, a parasite.
"It iss no baraseet," he explained, in a mellow falsetto, "it iss an epipheet!"
"An air-plant!" said his fair worshipper, softly drinking in a bosomful of gladness as she made the distance between them more discreet.
Distances were all one to him. He seemed like a burnt log, still in shape but gone to ashes, except in one warm spot where glowed this self- consuming, world-sacrificing adoration of knowledge; knowledge sought, as I say, purely for its own sake and narrowed down to names and technical descriptions. Men of perverted principles and passions you may find anywhere; but I never had seen anyone so totally undeveloped in all the emotions, affections, tastes that make life life.
A few afternoons later I went to his house. For pretext I carried a huge green worm, but I went mainly to see just how unluckily he was married. He was not at home. I found his partner a small, bright, toil-worn, pretty woman of hardly twenty-eight or nine, whose two or three children had died in infancy, and who had blended wifehood and motherhood together, and was taking care of the Baron as a widow would care for a crippled son, and at the same time reverencing him as if he were a demigod. Of his utter failure to provide their daily living she confessed herself by every implication, simply—proud! What else should a demigod's wife expect? At the same time, without any direct statement, she made it clear that she had no disdain, but only the broadest charity, for men who make a living. It was odd how few her smiles were, and droll how much sweetness—what a sane winsomeness—she managed to radiate without them. I left her in her clean, bright cottage, like a nesting bird in a flowery bush, and entered my own home, declaring, with what I was gently told was unnecessary enthusiasm, that the Baron's wife was the "unluckily married" one, and the best piece of luck her husband had ever had. I had seen women make a virtue of necessity, but I had never before seen one make a conviction, comfort, and joy of it, and I should try to like the Baron, I said, if only for her sake.
Of course I became, in some degree, a source of revenue to him. Understand, there was always a genuine exchange of so much for so much; he was not a "baraseet"—oh, no!—yet he hung on. We still have, stowed somewhere, a large case of butterflies, another of splendid moths, and a smaller one of glistening beetles. Nor can I begrudge their cost, of whatever sort, even now when my delight in them is no longer a constant enthusiasm. The cases of specimens have passed from daily sight, but thenceforth, as never before, our garden was furnished with guests—pages, ladies, poets, fairies, emperors, goddesses—coming and going on gorgeous wings, and none ever a stranger more than once. My non-parasitic friend "opened a new world" to me; a world that so flattered one with its grace and beauty, its marvellous delicacy and minuteness, its glory of color and curiousness of marking, and its exquisite adaptation of form to need and function, that in my meaner depths, or say my childish shallows—I resented Mrs. Fontenette's making the same avowal for herself—I didn't believe her!
I do not say she was consciously shamming; but I could see she drank in the Baron's revelations with no more true spiritual exaltation than the quivering twilight moths drew from our veranda honeysuckles. Yet it was mainly her vanity that feasted, not any lower impulse—of which, you know, there are several—and, possibly, all her vanity craved at first was the tinsel distinction of unusual knowledge.
One night she got into my dreams. I seemed to be explaining to Monsieur Fontenette apologetically that this newly opened world was not at all separate from my old one, but shone everywhere in it, like our winged guests in our garden, and followed and surrounded me far beyond the Baron's company, terminology, and magnifying-glass, lightening the burdens and stress of the very counting-room and exchange. Whereat he seemed to flare up!
"Ah!—you—I believe yes! But she?" he waved his hand in fierce unbelief.
I awoke concerned, and got myself to sleep again only by remembering the utter absence of vanity in the Baron himself. I lay smiling in the dark to think how much less all our verbal caressings were worth to him than the drone of the most familiar beetle, and how his life-long delving in books and nature had opened up this fairy world to him only at the cost of shutting up all others. If education means calling forth and perfecting our powers and affections, he was ten times more uneducated than his wife, even as we knew her then. He appeared to care no more for human interests, far or near, in large or small, than a crab cares for the stars. I fell asleep chuckling in remembrance of an occasion when Mrs. Fontenette, taking her cue from me, spoke to him of his plant-and-insect lore as one of the many worlds there are within the world, no more displacing it than light displaces air, or than fragrance displaces form or sound. He made her say it all over again, and then asked: "Vhere vas dat?"