THE MOTHERS OF HONORE
From "Mackinac And Lake Stories", 1899
By Mary Hartwell Catherwood
The sun was shining again after squalls, and the strait showed violet, green, red, and bronze lines, melting and intermingling each changing second. Metallic lustres shone as if some volcanic fountain on the lake-bed were spraying the surface. Jules McCarty stood at his gate, noting this change in the weather with one eye. He was a small, old man, having the appearance of a mummied boy. His cheek-bones shone apple-red, and his partial blindness had merely the effect of a prolonged wink. Jules was keeping melancholy holiday in his best clothes, the well-preserved coat parting its jaunty tails a little below the middle of his back.
Another old islander paused at the gate in passing, The two men shook their heads at each other.
"I went to your wife's funeral this morning, Jules," said the passer, impressing on the widower's hearing an important fact which might have escaped his one eye.
"You was at de funer'l? Did you see Therese?"
"Yes, I saw her."
"Ah, what a fat woman dat was! I make some of de peop' feel her arm. I feed her well."
The other old man smiled, but he was bound to say,
"I'm sorry for you, Jules."
"Did you see me at de church?"
"Yes, I went to the church."
"You t'ink I feel bad—eh?"
"I thought you felt pretty bad."
"You go to de graveyard, too?"
"No," admitted his sympathizer, reluctantly, "I didn't go to the graveyard."
"But dat was de fines'. You ought see me at de graveyard. You t'ink I feel bad at de church—I raise hell at de graveyard."
The friend shuffled his feet and coughed behind his hand.
"Yes, I feel bad, me," ruminated the bereaved man. "You get used to some woman in de house and not know where to get anodder."
"Haven't you had your share, Jules?" inquired his friend, relaxing gladly to banter.
"I have one fine wife, maman to Honore," enumerated Jules, "and de squaw, and Lavelotte's widow, and Therese. It is not much."
"I've often wondered why you didn't take Me-linda Cree. You've no objection to Indians. She's next door to you, and she knows how to nurse in sickness, besides being a good washer and ironer. The summer folks say she makes the best fish pies on the island."
"It is de trut'!" exclaimed Jules, a new light shining in his dim blue eye as he turned it towards the house of Melinda Cree. The weather-worn, low domicile was bowered in trees. There was a convenient stile two steps high in the separating fence, and it had long been made a thoroughfare by the families. On the top step sat Clethera, Melinda Cree's granddaughter. Clethera had been Honore's playmate since infancy. She was a lithe, dark girl, with more of her French father in her than of her half-breed mother. Some needle-work busied her hands, but her ear caught every accent of the conference at the gate. She flattened her lips, and determined to tell Honore as soon as he came in with the boat. Honore was the favorite skipper of the summer visitors. He went out immediately after the funeral to earn money to apply on his last mother's burial expenses.
When the old men parted, Clethera examined her grandmother with stealthy eyes in a kind of aboriginal reconnoitring. Melinda Cree's black hair and dark masses of wrinkles showed through a sashless shed window where she stood at her ironing-board. Her stoical eyelids were lowered, and she moved with the rhythmical motion of the smoothing-iron. Whether she had overheard the talk, or was meditating on her own matrimonial troubles, was impossible to gather from facial muscles rigid as carved wood. Melinda Cree was one of the few pure-blooded Indians on the island. If she was fond of anything in the world, her preference had not declared itself, though previous to receiving her orphaned granddaughter into her house she had consented to become the bride of a drunken youth in his teens. This incipient husband—before he got drowned in a squall off Detour, thereby saving his aged wife some outlay—visited her only when he needed funds, and she silently paid the levy if her toil had provided the means. He also inclined to offer delicate attentions to Clethera, who spat at him like a cat, and at sight of him ever afterwards took to the attic, locking the door.
But while Melinda Cree submitted to the shackles of civilization, she did not entirely give up the ways of her own people. She kept a conical tent of poles and birch bark in her back yard, in which she slept during summer. And she was noted as wise and skilled in herbs, guarding their secrets so jealously that the knowledge was likely to die with her. Once she appeared at the bedside of a dying islander, and asked, as the doctor had withdrawn, to try her own remedies. Permission being given, she went to the kitchen, took some dried vegetable substance from her pocket, and made a tea of it. A little was poured down the sick man's throat. He revived. He drank more, and grew better. Melinda Cree's decoction cured him, and the chagrined doctor visited her to learn what wonderful remedy she had used.
"It was nothing but some little bushes," responded the Indian woman.
"If you tell me what they are, I will pay you fifty dollars," he pleaded.
Melinda Cree shook her head. She continued to repeat, as he raised the bid higher, "It was nothing but some little bushes, doctor; it was nothing but some little bushes."
Clethera felt the same kind of protecting tenderness for this self-restrained squaw that Honore had for his undersized parent, whom he always called by the baptismal name. Melinda had been the wife of a great medicine-man, who wore a trailing blanket, and white gulls' wings bound around and spread behind his head. During his lifetime he was often seen stretched on his back invoking the sun. A stranger observing him declared he was using the signs of Freemasonry, and must know its secrets.
With the readiness of custom, Honore and Clethera met each other at the steps in the fence about dusk. She sat down on her side, and he sat down on his, the broad top of the stile separating them. Honore was a stalwart Saxon-looking youth in his early twenties. Wind and weather had painted his large-featured countenance a rosy tan. By the employing class Honore was considered one of the finest and most promising young quarter-breeds on the island.
The fresh moist odor of the lake, with its incessant wash upon pebbles, came to them accompanied by piercing sweetness of wild roses. For the wind had turned to the west, raking fragrant thickets. Dusk was moving from eastern fastnesses to rock battlements still tinged with sunset. The fort, dismantled of its garrison, reared a whitewashed crown against the island's back of evergreens.
Both Honore and Clethera knew there was a Spanish war. As summer day followed summer day, the village seethed with it, as other spots then seethed. A military post, even when dismantled, always brings home to the community where it is situated the dignity and pomp of arms. Young men enlisted, and Honore restlessly followed, with a friend from the North Shore, to look at the camp. His pulses beat with the drums. But he was carrying the burden of the family; to leave Jules and Jules's dependent wife would be deserting infants.
Clethera gave little more thought to fleets sailing tropical seas than to La Salle's vanished Griffin on Northern waters. It was nothing to her, for she had never heard of it, that pioneers of her father's blood once trod that island, and lifted up the cross at St. Ignace, and planted outposts along the South Shore. Bareheaded, or with a crimson kerchief bound about her hair, she loved to help her grandmother spread the white clothes to bleach, or to be seen and respected as a prosperous laundress carrying her basket through the teeming streets. The island was her world. Its crowds in summer brought variety enough; and its virgin winter snows, the dog-sledges, the ice-boats, were month by month a procession of joys.
Clethera wondered that Honore persistently went where newspapers were read and discussed. He stuffed them in his pockets, and pored over them while waiting in his boat beside the wharf. People would fight out that war with Spain. What thrilled her was the boom of winter surf, piling iridescent frozen spume as high as a man's head, and rimming the island in a corona of shattered rainbows. And she had an eye for summer lightning infusing itself through sheets of water as if descending in the downpour, glorifying for one instant every distinct drop.
The pair sitting with the broad top step betwixt them exchanged the smiling good-will of youth.
"I take some more party out to-night for de light-moon sail," said Honore, pleased to report his prosperity. "It is consider' gran' to sail in de light-moon."
"Did you find de hot fish pie?" inquired Clethera, solicitous about man thrown on his own resources as cook.
Honore acknowledged with hearty gratitude the supper which Melinda Cree had baked and her granddaughter had carried into the bereaved house while its inmates were out.
"They not get fish pie like that in de war. Jules, he say it is better than poor Therese could make," Honore added, handsomely, with large unsuspicion.
Clethera shook a finger in his face.
"Honore McCarty, you got watch dat Jules! I got to watch Melinda. Simon Leslie, he have come by and put it in Jules' head since de funer'l! I hear it, me."
The young man's face changed through the dusk.
He braced his back against the fence and breathed the deep sigh of tried patience.
"Honore, how many mothers is it you have already?"
"I have not count'," said the young man, testily.
"Count dem mothers," ordered Clethera.
"Maman," he began the enumeration, reverently. His companion allowed him a minute's silence after the mention of that fine woman.
"One," she tallied.
"Nex'," proceeded Honore, "poor Jules is involve' with de Chippewa woman."
"Two," clinched Clethera.
The Chippewa squaw was a sore theme. She had entered Jules's wigwam in good faith; but during one of his merry carouses, while both Honore and the priest were absent, he traded her off to a North Shore man for a horse. Long after she tramped away across the frozen strait with her new possessor, and all trace of her was lost, Jules had the grace to be shamefaced about the scandal; but he got a good bargain in the horse.
"Then there is Lavelotte's widow," continued Honore.
"Three," marked Clethera.
Yes, there was Lavelotte's widow, the worst of all. She whipped little Jules unmercifully, and if Honore had not taken his part and stood before him, she might have ended by being Jules's widow. She stripped him of his whole fortune, four hundred dollars, when he finally obtained a separation from her. But instead of curing him, this experience only whetted his zest for another wife.
"And there is Therese." Honore did not say, "Last, Therese." While Jules lived and his wives died, or were traded off or divorced, there would be no last.
"It is four," declared Clethera; and the count was true. Honore had taken Jules in hand like a father, after the adventure with Lavelotte's widow. He made his parent work hard at the boat, and in winter walked him to and from mass literally with hand on collar. He encouraged the little man, moreover, with a half interest in their house on the beach, which long-accumulated earnings of the boat paid for. But all this care was thrown away; though after Jules brought Therese home, and saw that Honore was not appeased by a woman's cooking, he had qualms about the homestead, and secretly carried the deed back to the original owner.
"I want you keep my part of de deed," he explained. "I not let some more women rob Honore. My wife, if she get de deed in her han', she might sell de whole t'ing!"
"Why, no, Jules, she couldn't sell your real estate!" the former owner declared. "She would only have a life interest in your share."
"You say she couldn't sell it?"
"No. She would have nothing but a life interest."
"She have only life interest? By gar! I t'ink I pay somebody twenty dollar to kill her!"
But lacking both twenty dollars and determination, he lived peaceably with Therese until she died a natural death, on that occasion proudly doing his whole duty as a man and a mourner.
Remembering these affairs, which had not been kept secret from anybody on the island, Clethera spoke out under conviction.
"Honore, it a scandal' t'ing, to get marry."
"Me, I t'ink so too," assented Honore.
"Jules McCarty have disgrace' his son!"
"Melinda Cree," retorted Honore, obliged to defend his own, "she take a little 'usban' honly nineteen."
"She 'ave no chance like Jules; she is oblige' to wait and take what invite her."
The voices of children from other quarter-breed cottages, playing along the beach, added cheer to the sweet darkness. Clethera and Honore sat silently enjoying each other's company, unconscious that their aboriginal forefathers had courted in that manner, sitting under arbors of branches.
"Why do peop' want to get marry?" propound ed Clethera.
"I don't know," said Honore.
"Me, if some man hask me, I box his ear! I have know you all my life—but don' you never hask me to get marry!"
"I not such a fool," heartily responded Honore. "You and me, we have seen de folly. I not form de habit, like Jules."
"But what we do, Honore, to keep dat Jules and dat Melinda apart?"
Though they discussed many plans, the sequel showed that nothing effectual could be done. All their traditions and instincts were against making themselves disagreeable or showing discourtesy to their elders. The young man's French and Irish and Chippewa blood, and the young girl's French and Cree blood exhausted all their inherited diplomacy. But as steadily as the waters set like a strong tide through the strait, in spite of wind which combed them to ridging foam, the rapid courtship of age went on.
In carrying laundered clothing through the village street, Melinda Cree was carefully chaperoned by her granddaughter, and Honore kept Jules under orders in the boat. But of early mornings and late twilights there was no restraining the twittering widower.
"Melinda 'tend to her work and is behave if Jules let her alone," Clethera reported to Honore. "But he slip around de garden and talk over de back fence, and he is by de ironing-board de minute my back is turn'! If he belong to me, I could 'mos' whip him!"
"Jules McCarty," declared Honore, with some bitterness, "when he fix his min' to marry some more, he is not turn' if he is hexcommunicate'!"
Jules, indeed, became so bold that he crowded across the stile through the very conferences of the pair united to prevent him; and his loud voice could be heard beside Melinda's ironing-board, proclaiming in the manner of a callow young suitor.
"Some peop' like separate us, Melinda, but we not let them."
The conflict of Honore and Clethera with Jules and Melinda ended one day in August. There had been no domestic clamor in this silent grapple of forces. The young man used no argument except maxims and morals and a tightening of authority; the young girl permitted neither neighboring maids nor the duties of religion to lure her off guard. It may be said of any French half-breed that he has all the instincts of gentility except an inclination to lying, and that arises from excessive politeness.
Honore came to the fence at noon and called Clethera. In his excitement he crossed the stile and stood on her premises.
"It no use, Clethera. Jules have tell me this morning he have arrange' de marriage."
Clethera glanced behind her at the house she called home, and threw herself in Honore's arms, as she had often done in childish despairs. Neither misunderstood the action, and it relieved them to shed a few tears on each other's necks. This truly Latin outburst being over, they stood apart and wiped their eyes on their sleeves.
"It no use," exclaimed Clethera, "to set a good examp' to your grandmother!"
"I not wait any longer now," announced Honore, giving rein to fierce eagerness. "I go to de war to-day."
"But de camp is move'," objected Clethera.
"I have pass' de examin', and I know de man to go to when I am ready; he promis' to get me into de war. Jules have de sails up now, ready to take me across to de train."
"But who will have de boat when you are gone, Honore?"
"Jules. And he bring Melinda to de house."
"She not come. She not leave her own house. She take her 'usban' in."
"Then Jules must rent de house. You not detest poor Jules?"
"I not detest him like de hudder one."
"Au 'voir, Clethera."
"Au 'voir, Honore."
They shook hands, the young man wringing him-self away with the animation of one who goes, the girl standing in the dull anxiety of one who stays. War, so remote that she had heard of it indifferently, rushed suddenly from the tropics over the island.
"Are your clothes all mend' and ready, Honore?"
But what thought can a young man give to his clothes when about to wrap himself in glory? He is politely tapping at the shed window of the Indian woman, and touching his cap in farewell and gallant capitulation, and with long-limbed sweeping haste, unusual in a quarter-breed, he is gone to the docks, with a bundle under one arm, waving his hand as he passes. All the women and children along the street would turn out to see him go to the war if his intention were known, and even summer idlers about the bazars would look at him with new interest.
Clethera could not imagine the moist and horrid heat of those southern latitudes into which Honore departed to throw himself. Shifting mists on the lake rim were no vaguer than her conception of her country's mighty undertaking. But she could feel; and the life she had lived to that day was wrenched up by the roots, leaving her as with a bleeding socket.
All afternoon she drenched herself with soapsuds in the ferocity of her washing. By the time Jules returned with the boat, the lake was black as ink under a storm cloud, with glints of steel; a dull bar stretched diagonally across the water. Beyond that a whitening of rain showed against the horizon. Points of cedars on the opposite island pricked a sullen sky.
Clethera's tubs were under the trees. She paid no attention to what befell her, or to her grandmother, who called her out of the rain. It came like a powder of dust, and then a moving, blanched wall, pushing islands of flattened mist before it. Under a steady pour the waters turned dull green, and lightened shade by shade as if diluting an infusion of grass. Waves began to come in regular windrows. Though Clethera told herself savagely she not care for anything in de world, her Indian eye took joy of these sights. The shower-bath from the trees she endured without a shiver.
Jules sat beside Melinda to be comforted He wept for Honore, and praised his boy, gasconading with time-worn boasts.
"I got de hang of him, and now I got to part! But de war will end, now Honore have gone into it. His gran'fodder was such a fighter when de British come to take de island, he turn' de cannon and blow de British off. The gran'fodder of Honore was a fine man. He always keep de bes' liquors and by wines on his sideboa'd."
When Honore had been gone twenty-four hours, and Jules was still idling like a boy undriven by his task-master, leaving the boat to rock under bare poles at anchor on the rise and fall of the water, Clethera went into their empty house. It contained three rooms, and she laid violent hands on male housekeeping. The service was almost religious, like preparing linen for an altar. It comforted her unacknowledged anguish, which increased rather than diminished, the unrest of which she resented with all her stoic Indian nature.
Nets, sledge-harness, and Honore's every-day clothes hung on his whitewashed wall. The most touching relic of any man is the hat he has worn. Honore's cap crowned the post of his bed like a wraith. The room might have been a young hermit's cell in a cave, or a tunnel in the evergreens, it was so simple and bare of human appointments. Clethera stood with the broom in one hand, and tipped forward a piece of broken looking-glass on his shaving-shelf. A new, unforeseen Clethera, whom she had never been obliged to deal with before, gave her a desperate, stony stare out of a haggard face. She was young, her skin had not a line. But it was as if she had changed places with her wrinkled grandmother, to whom the expression of complacent maidenhood now belonged.
As Clethera propped the glass again in place, she heard Jules come in. She resumed her sweeping with resolute strokes on the bare boards, which would explain to his ear the necessity of her presence. He appeared at the door, and it was Honore!
It was Honore, shamefaced but laughing, back from the war within twenty-four hours! Clethera heard the broom-handle strike the floor as one hears the far-off fall of a spar on a ship in harbor. She put her palms together, without flying into his arms or even offering to shake hands.
"You come back?" she cried out, her voice sharpened by joy.
"The war is end'," said Honore. "Peace is declare' yesterday!" He threw his bundle down and looked fondly around the rough walls. "All de peop' laugh at me because I go to war when de war is end'!"
"They laugh because de war is end'! I laugh too?" said Clethera, relaxing to sobs. Tears and cries which had been shut up a day and a night were let loose with French abandon. Honore opened his arms to comfort her in the old manner, and although she rushed into them, strange embarrassment went with her. The two could not look at each other.
"It is de 'omesick," she explained. "When you go to war it make me 'omesick."
"Me, too," owned Honore. "I never know what it is before. I not mind de fighting, but I am glad de war is end', account of de 'omesick!"
He pushed the hair from her wet face. The fate of temperament and the deep tides of existence had them in merciless sweep.
"Clethera," represented Honore, "the rillation is not mix' bad with Jules and Melinda."
Clethera let the assertion pass unchallenged.
"And this house, it pretty good house. You like it well as de hudder?"
"It have no loft," responded Clethera, faintly, "but de chimney not smoke."
"We not want de 'omesick some more, Clethera—eh? You t'ink de fools is all marry yet?"
Clethera laughed and raised her head from his arm, but not to look at him or box his ear. She looked through the open door at an oblong of little world, where the land was an amethyst strip betwixt lake and horizon. Across that beloved background she saw the future pass: hale, long years with Honore; the piled up wood of winter fires; her own home; her children—the whole scheme of sweet and humble living.
"You t'ink, after all de folly we have see' in de family, Clethera, you can go de lenk—to get marry?"
"I go dat lenk for you, Honore—but not for any huddur man."