Mademoiselle Joan

SEVERAL years ago, my doctor ordered me to break up all old associations, find my way into some quiet place, and there rest for a year or two. Accordingly, I left the United States, hurry, and money-making behind me, crossed the St. Lawrence, and, after long and lazy loiterings through French Canada, settled down in the obscure little hamlet of St. Robideaux. My chief business was to think of nothing, and to sleep. I lived there, if you choose to call it living, for a year. St. Robideaux was quiet and hushed as any moor-hen’s nest in the reeds. Nothing more active than dreams was ever there hatched into life.

The village, a cluster of gray cottages with steep red and yellow roofs, lay in a hollow of the hills, up the sides of which wheat-fields and orchards stretched, trying to warm themselves in the chilled sunlight. The river, cool and dark, flowed lazily alongside of the grassy road, which we called Rue Honoré. Sometimes a lumberman floated down on his raft from the great pine forests above. You could hear him shouting to the boys, or singing, “Ay! ay ! Douce sccur Doré ! ” until he was out of sight.

The little auberge, with Repos des Voyageurs thrust out upon a creaking sign from the sycamore in front, stood close to the river. Vain hospitality! No voyageur except myself came to St. Robideaux in that year. Madame Baltarre, when she had finished her work and mixed her pot-au-feu, sat, with her knitting, on the gallery of the house, like the other women, and watched the sun from day to day as it ripened the peas in her garden below, or tinged and purpled the pale green grapes on the wall. She had abundance of leisure. She would look for hours at the low. bellying clouds swooping down all day long over the ramparts of the hills, to disappear in the gorge below.

The old curé and M. Demy came up every afternoon to bear me company on my end of the gallery. We were all, I think, of good accord : hence we talked but little.

I had brought several different kinds of tobacco with me. It was a solemn event when we opened a new package. We puffed our pipes in silence awhile, and, if the flavor was good, we nodded to each other and loved the world better than before.

“ There were two live people in St. Robideaux before you came, monsieur,” Père Drouôt would say, — “ our friend Olave Demy, here, and myself. Now there are three. When we talk with you on literature and affairs, I feel that my hand is on the wheel of the great machine yonder.”

The “literature” which we discussed was an occasional two months old copy of the London Times which the curé produced to enliven my exile.

“ I have a friend in Quebec who sends me this great sheet,” he would say. “ You will have heard, perhaps, that it is called the Thunderer in England? Ah, ça, ça! What a world we live in! The sweep of it quite takes away my breath ! ” and he would gaze with awe at the yellow page, fold it carefully, put it into ids pocket, and light his pipe again.

The “ affairs ” which occupied us were the ripening of the curé’s corn or the condition of the hay in St. Robideaux parish. In the morning we usually sat under the great cedar in the curé’s garden, to discuss the effect of that day’s weather on these crops ; and in the afternoon, when the sun came around to the gallery of the inn, we migrated to it and talked it all over again. No one was offended if the others occasionally dropped into a doze.

The brief hot summer crept thus slowly away, and the briefer high-colored autumn began to be whitened with frost. M. Labadie now came sometimes to smoke a pipe with us. His summer’s work was over; his harvest having gone down the river in two great cases on the last raft. All the village assembled to see it go, and most of the lookers-on fervently threw the sign of the cross after it for good luck. Everybody was a friend to M. Labadie.

“ There is no such honey in America,” said Madame Baltarre. “ Pure juice of the flowers.”

The little farm of the bee-grower lay a mile or two north of the village : its only crops were white clover and violets. The old gray house with its steep red roof rose out of the gardens. The sun always shone there, and the air was heavy with perfume ; there was no sound but the buzzing of the black, goldbanded Italian bees, darting here and there through the sweet clover. Nature in St. Robideaux slept, with long, full, quiet breaths; but in the old bee-farm she woke with a cheerful smile.

M. Labadie, according to Père Drouôt, was the only one of the habitants “of education.” He was even more silent than the other slow-speaking villagers; but in the matter of bees, at least, I found him learned, full of facts and humorous, keen observations. His bees were entirely human to him, always spoken of as “ Messieurs ; ” a shrewd, intelligent race, with whom he had been allied by business relations and friendship for forty years.

On Sundays I used to watch for the tall, stooping figure of the bee-grower, clothed in a brown frogged surtout made twenty years ago, as he came down the road to church, leading his little girls, Rose and Josephine, by the hand. After mass was over the three would stop to shake hands and chatter with their neighbors, and then they would betake themselves to a sunny corner of the churchyard, where a grave, apart from all others, was covered with white clover and violets. The bees hummed over it all day long. They would kneel there to say a prayer ; and then seat themselves on a low stone bench, near by, to eat their little gâteaux for the noon meal.

I joined them one warm afternoon, and observed that when anything of interest was said they glanced eagerly to the grave, as if some unseen listener hid there. Little Josephine, with whom I had an old friendship, whispered to me, nodding downward, —

“ Voilà ma chère mère. She expects us on the Sunday afternoon.”

Then M. Labadie, his gnarled face a shade paler, explained to me in laborious English that it would have been their comfort to keep her at home : in the garden, par exemple, which was her joy, or in the orchard, where were her seat and work-table under the great plum-tree for thirty years. But that was not ground consecrated. “ So it is that she lies here, monsieur,” waving both hands downward. “ But it is her own violets and clover that grow here ; and mes amis” looking at the bees and lowering his voice, “ they do not forget; they are always with her.”

A few weeks after this, one cold November day, M. Labadie consented to remain with my other friends, to share my supper of a fricassee of bacon, potatoes, and chives, and brown bread. Madame Baltarre’s coffee was hot and delicious, and we sat about the table, which she had drawn up to the great open fire after supper, sipping it thoughtfully, while she removed the dishes and set the apartment to rights. There was another fireplace in the long, low room, and when she had finished she pinned a fresh white apron over her snuff-colored gown, and sat down beside it, at her sewing. The red glow of the firelight twinkled on the white floor, the old mahogany armoire, the picture of the Child Jesus with a bleeding heart, and the shelves full of red cups and plates. A heavy snow had fallen that day, and the lonely white stretches outside of the window and the flat graying sky made the warmth and snugness within more cheerful. We all felt it. The curé flung another log on the fire, opening up red deeps of heat; we pulled our chairs closer. Olave Demy was persuaded to tell about the October bear-hunt again ; the curé sang a plaintive ballad in Canadian patois, with a voice like a fine cracked flute; and I adroitly turned the talk so as to bring in some of my own best stories. They had immense success. The French habitant has a hungry curiosity about everything belonging to “the States.” It is to him what Europe is to the untraveled American.

“ M. Labadie,” said the curé, “is the only person in St. Robideaux who has been to the States. Before you came, monsieur, he used every day to give us of his experience in that great country.”

M. Labadie adjusted his waistcoat and looked into his cup with a vain attempt at unconsciousness.

“ You traveled in the West, monsieur, — in the South ? ”

“ I did not penetrate so far as I had purposed,” he said gravely, for the subject was too weighty to be approached carelessly. After sipping his coffee critically awhile, be continued : “ It was not I, monsieur. Madame Labadie, my little Jeannette, she had ambitions for me. She said when we were first married, ‘ You must visit the States. You must see the world, Georges.’ But the children came fast,—one, four, six, eleven. I had then but few colonies of Messieurs my friends, to keep soup in the pot. Sometimes there was no soup. But Jeannette still cries, ‘ You must go to see the world. There are bee-farms in Massachusetts, in Cincinnati, in California. You must visit them all.

Bien, the children, they grow, they leave us, they sicken and come home, some of them, to die. We have only Rose and Josephine left. But in all these years Jeannette lays by money secretly, sou by sou. Then she gives it to me. ‘ Go, mon ami,’ she says,— ‘ go to California, to Florida. See all the bee-farms in that great country.’ I could not balk her, monsieur. She had worked for it for thirty years. I went.”

“ To California ? ”

“ No ; I did not even reach Le Niagarra, which I had hoped much to see.” He set down his cup nervously. “ Traveling is more expensive than we supposed. I was careful, most careful. But when I reached Utica, on the second day, I found my money would just take me back home again. But I had already seen much in the States to please and benefit my family.”

“And your neighbors!” exclaimed the curé zealously.

“ That you did, monsieur. How many winter nights have we sat here, hearing of that journey ! ” added Olave.

M. Labadie stood up to go, still smiling and pleased with these compliments. The night had fallen while we talked. As he drew on his old shawl and tied it it about him, an odd thing happened. Since nightfall the wind had risen, fitful and gusty. It blew now suddenly through the gorge with a shrill cry.

M. Labadie, at the sound, stopped, listening. His pleased face became strained and ghastly. The curé and M. Demy, too, hearing this most commonplace natural noise, had started forward to the old bee-grower, as if to protect him. They stood breathless a moment, watching the window, which was now but a square patch of gray darkness, as though they expected to see a face there.

While I looked on, astonished, the wind boisterously rattled the windowpanes and the creaking sign outside. The curé and M. Demy gave uneasy, foolish laughs, and sat down, apparently relieved. But M. Labadie was greatly shaken. His lower jaw trembled like that of a paralytic.

“ It is only the wind, ha? It had — it had the effect of a call. I thought I heard my name.”

“ Ah, bah, monsieur ! You heard no call. It was that villainous norther. I will walk home with you, if you will allow me. Only to stretch my legs,” said Olave Demy. After they had said adieu, he tucked the old man’s arm under his own, and led him away.

“ What does it all mean ? ” I asked, after the curé and I had puffed away at our pipes awhile in silence.

He answered reluctantly: “ It is an old story, a singular occurrence.”

Madame Baltarre, who was close beside us, began closing the window shutters hastily. Her fat, placid face was pinched and blue, as with cold.

“ You had better leave your stories and singular occurrences until daylight,” she snapped angrily ; “ nobody knows who hears you now.”

Père Drouôt shot one uncomfortable glance at the window, and then asserted his position.

“ Go to rest, my daughter. Be tranquil. We will await M. Demy’s return.”

Madame meekly bade us good-night, and, gathering up her sewing, went quickly clattering up the stairs.

We smoked on without speaking, the curé reflectively watching the smoke from his pipe as it drifted into the chimney ; and it was not until M. Demy had returned and taken his seat that he broke the silence, speaking, as he always did when much moved, in Canadian French.

“ It certainly was a singular occurrence, monsieur ; possibly, easy to explain by some scientific law, but I never have been able to explain it. I should like to lay it before you for your opinion. It happened in this way : —

“ Six years ago, in April, a voyageur arrived, like yourself, in St. Robideaux, from the States, — a woman, a widow, of about forty or fifty years ; an unpleasantly white woman, with puffy fair skin which looked as if water was below it, light gray eyes, faded yellow hair. La Veuve Badleigh lodged here with Madame Baltarre. She was soon known to all the village. In every house I would find this fat person, in her unclean yellow gown, with big paste diamonds in her ears, pouring out flatteries to women and men with the gestures of an excitable young girl, while her cold eyes kept a keen watch from under their thick, half-shut lids. All my people cried out, ‘ Oh, how pious, how friendly, she is, this Veuve Badleigh ! ’ But, monsieur, when I see the finger-nails of a woman not clean, and her shoe-laces untied,” — the good father shook his head, — “something is wrong in her soul. Bien ! The one place where I found her most often was on the gallery of M. Labadie’s house. There she sat in the sun. She was enraptured with the sun, with the old house, with the fields of white clover and violets ; she lapped up honey as a cat does cream; she caressed Rose and Josephine. I protest, monsieur, my flesh crept when I saw her thick fingers paddling with the little hands of the children. M. Labadie sat beside her, telling her of Messieurs the bees, of the witty sayings of Rose and Josephine, and of his wife, poor Jeannette, with tears streaming from his eyes. Well, well, monsieur, you know what occurs when a man talks to another woman of his wife, with the tears streaming ! In September they were married.” Père Drouôt shrugged his shoulders, spreading out both hands. “ Ah-a ! No sooner was Veuve Badleigh established in the easy-chair on the porch, in the sun, mistress of the house, the bees, the little girls, and poor M. Labadie, than presto ! all is changed !

“ I know not what went on there. Nobody has ever known. M. Labadie was poor, as all we others. One does not raise and clothe and feed and nurse and bury so many little ones by the help only of a few bees, and meantime live on meat and white bread, like a governor-general. My faith, no! The table and clothes of our friend had always been scant and poor. But he was never in debt, not a penny. Yet in six months after his second marriage he had mortgaged his farm to raise money for the new yellow gowns and rich plats of madame ! Ah, monsieur, it was execrable ! St. Robideaux was convulsed with rage and pity. But we kept silent, such regard have we for M. Labadie.

“ Alas ! this was nothing to that which was to come. A young man appeared in the village, a vulgar fellow, lean, pimpled, loud-talking, dressed in the New York fashion. His oaths and his jokes made the very air of the street filthy. He was Paul Badleigh, son of madame. She had not told M. Labadie of this son until he appeared. He swaggers about the bee-farm, he makes servants of Rose and Josephine, he swears at their father. Was he her son ? Ah, monsieur, how can I tell ? Sometimes I think he is a thief, a vaurien. I know him to he a drunkard and a gambler, and she, perhaps, is an accomplice. But how can I tell ?

“ So the autumn goes, and the winter comes. Paul Badleigh had been drinking hard, and was not able to leave the farm. The Veuve Badleigh (I never could bring myself to call her Madame Labadie) came into the village at times, more unclean, more watchful, than ever. She did not take the trouble now to flatter the poor villagers ; she had reaped her harvest.

“ Rose and Josephine came in to mass, the thin, scared little creatures. When they met their old friends, they ran past like guilty things. The shame of that woman and of her foul son was upon the children.”

“ As to M. Labadie,” interrupted Olave Demy, “ he never came into the village, not even for mass. The humiliation was too heavy upon him.”

“ I met him once on the road, near the church,” said Père Drouôt; “ but he crept out of sight, as if he were the thief and gambler. When he passed the churchyard he turned his head, that he might not see his poor Jeannette’s grave.” He sighed, sipped his coffee, and continued : —

“ It was about this time, monsieur, that my friend Olave and myself were sitting here by the fire, just as now, one cold evening. The wind was blowing a hurricane. Suddenly it sounded, as tonight, with a shriek down the gorge, and then came a sharp tap on the window, another and another, as of a person in great haste. Then the door was pushed open, and a woman entered, throwing quick, keen glances before her. She was a dark, lean little body ” —

“ Clean,” said M. Demy emphatically, between the puffs of his pipe.

“ Yes, noticeably clean and trig. She always looked like an officer buckled up for action. She ordered supper and a room, and then she stood by the fire knocking off the snow, sharply scanning M. Demy and myself.

“ ‘ You are a priest,’ she said presently. ‘ You know the people among these hills. Have you by chance met a woman named Badleigh, in your journeys ? ’

“ Madame Baltarre carried the word from me. ‘ She is here,’ said she, nodding with meaning.

“ ‘ Ah ! here ? ’ The woman looked from one to the other. She waited as if she expected bad news, a charge or accusation.

“ ‘ She is married,’ said madame, ‘ to M. Labadie, one of the oldest and foremost citizens of St. Robideaux.’

“‘God pity him!’ cried the stranger. ‘ Married ! This is too much ! ’

“As she stood looking into the fire, I noted her closely. She had the expression of an honest, right-minded woman. But the obstinacy, the determination, in her insignificant features ! Monsieur, she could have driven a hundred men before her into battle.

“ She coughed violently now and then. I am something of a mediciner, and I saw that her hold on life was weak and would be short.

“ Olave went home presently, and Madame Baltarre left the room. Then she turned on me.

“ ‘ You are a man of God,’ she said. ‘ You ought to help me. What has she done ? There is no time for mincing matters. I am her sister Joan. I am responsible for her.’ She rubbed her wrists nervously as she talked, exposing her thin, bloodless arms. ‘ I have not much time left in which to control her.’

“ I answered her gently that I knew nothing definite of the Veuve Badleigh, but that I feared the marriage had not been a happy one for M. Labadie and his little girls.

“ ‘ There are children ? And little girls !’she cried, starting up. ‘ Come! I must go at once. You will show me the way ? ’

“ It was a cold night, but the road was free from snow. She hurried on in silence, but the quick motion brought on a racking cough. ‘ You are not fit for this work, mademoiselle,’ I said, kindly.

“ The poor creature was touched. She began to cry, like any sick, tired woman. ‘ It is all I have to do now. But I shall be done with it all and go soon,’ she said. We did not speak again until we reached the gate before M. Labadie’s bouse. A man’s voice was howling out some drunken song within. She stopped. ‘ Who is that ? ’

“ ‘ It is her son, M. Paul Badleigh,’ I said.

“ She stood quite still a moment. ‘ I must go in alone. It is worse than I thought,’ she said.

“ I watched until the door shut behind her, and came home, sure of but one thing, — that whatever she had to do must be done quickly. She was marked with death.

“ The next day Madame Baltarre sent up her portmanteau, which came with her on the boat, and we heard nothing more from the bee-farm for a month. Then, one evening, little Rose came for me. Mademoiselle Joan was dying. The child cried : the woman had been kind to her, and she needed kindness. ‘ She is not Catholic, but she will see you, father,’ the little one said, holding my hand as she trotted along by my side.

“ The Veuve Badleigh sat at one side of the bed, and her son at the other, watching every breath of the dying woman with ill-suppressed triumph. She pulled her life together to speak to me. ‘ They think they will be free now,’ she whispered, pointing to them. ‘ My sister has done great harm in the world, but I ’ —

“ Veuve Badleigh thrust a cup to her mouth. ‘ Drink this medicine,’ she said. The flabby white creature trembled with fear of exposure.

“ I put her back, and lifted her sister, that she might get her breath. ‘ God, forgive them ! ’ she cried.

“ This was an hour before she died. In that time I gathered from her that for ten years she had held these two in check ; that after she was gone it was their purpose to bring some nameless disaster on the children, Rose and Josephine ; that she had sent for me to warn me of their danger. She lay still for some moments; she had almost ceased to breathe. A look of satisfaction and relief, terrible to see, came into both the faces bent over her. Her eyes opened ; she saw it.

“Monsieur, she was a small, insignificant woman, but the soul going out of her body was inexorable. It was that of a great fighter. She held them with her eyes; she raised herself slowly in the bed.

“'You shall not hurt those children. You shall come with me.’

“ Before the words passed she was cold and pulseless. It was as if the soul had spoken out of a dead body.”

“ Is that the end ” ? I asked ; for the curé had stopped, and was mechanically puffing his pipe, which had gone out.

“No,” said M. Demy, “it is not all, mousieur. But that which follows is so strange, so incredible, that one fears to tell of it. All the village know’ it to be true, yet it is never mentioned among us.”

I waited in silence, and after a while the curé said : —

“ I will tell you briefly the facts, monsieur, and you must make from them your opinion. I interfered on behalf of the children, but M. Labadie was obstinate. No harm was coming to them, he averred. His wife wanted their companionship. I had no proof against her or her son ; only the vague accusations of a dying woman, which, after all, might be prejudice. Two weeks passed when— M. Demy, you will correct me if I mistake in the facts ? ”

M. Demy rose nervously, and stood in front of the fire. “ You are correct so far, father. It was just two weeks, — a cold, still night.”

“ Not a breath of wind blowing,” said the curé. “ We were sitting about the fire here with two or three other neighbors. Paul Badleigh lay on that bench yonder. He had been drinking heavily, and was asleep. Suddenly a high, keen wind swept down the gorge, with a shrill sound like a cry. Badleigh stopped snoring, and sat up, staring. Then, monsieur, there was a stroke on the window ; another, and another, sharp, — decisive. We all heard it ” —

“ And words,” amended M. Demy.

“ And words. What they were none of us could make out, but Badleigh understood them. He got up, and went staggering to the door.

“ ‘ I am coming,’ he said.

“ We never saw him alive again. The next morning he was found at the foot of the Peak Jené, miles from the village, dead.”

“ It appears to me,” I ventured, after a pause, “ that this could be explained without any reference to a supernatural cause. The man was terrified by the noise made by the wind, and, stupid from drink, lost his way.”

The curé bowed his head gravely. “I have not finished, monsieur. Four days after Paul Badleigh’s death, M. Labadie came to the village, like a man whose reason was shattered. His children were gone ! His wife had enticed them out for a walk, and had boarded a boat which was descending the river. She had taken her jewels and all the money she could find. They had been gone some hours.

“ Monsieur, every man in the village went to work as though his own child had been stolen. The three boats in St. Robideaux were manned by the strongest oarsmen. I was in the first, with Olave, here, and M. Labadie. We overtook the fugitives at nightfall. They had landed, and the woman and children were in an auberge, in the village of Pont de Josef. She was very quiet and cool, smiled and jested, saying she had but meant to give the little demoiselles a glimpse of the world, and would have returned to-morrow. M. Labadie had not a word for her. He clung to his children as if they had come back safe out of hell to him ; he would not loose his hold on them, — no, not for a minute.

“ It was impossible that we could return that night. We must remain at the auberge, where the Veuve Badleigh had ordered for herself the only chamber. The others were inside. I went out to the gallery, and walked up and down. I could see through the windows M. Labadie with his little girls on his knees, Olave and the other men, and quite apart, by herself, the fat white woman, with her cheap jewelry shining in her ears, leering stupidly about her. The sun had just gone down, and the snow lay white on the ground. The moon hung low in the red sky. It was still so clear that I could have seen a moth in the air. But, monsieur, as I stood for a moment, something passed me by that I did not see. It had a rushing force like the wind, but it was not the wind. It was nothing which I had ever felt before. I cried out on God, and my heart died in me. I looked to the lighted room within. What had

happened I knew not. But they were standing, haggard, waiting, like men who had heard the call of death.”

“ It was a sound that we heard,” said M. Demy, “ like a cry, and then there were three sharp strokes on the window and a voice. But no one understood the words but the Veuve Badleigh. She got up and walked to the door, as one that is dragged, step by step.”

“ I saw her,” continued the curé, “as she passed me, going across the gallery into her own chamber. She had the face of one who had been fighting a battle all through her life, and was defeated at last, forever. Yet the miserable, leering smile was there still. She went in and shut the door.” He stopped abruptly.

“ In the morning,” said M. Demy, breaking the silence, “ she was found there dead. She had taken an overdose of opium. She was buried at Pont de Josef.” He added, after a pause, “ Only think, monsieur, what a will that little woman had ! She could thrust her hand out of the grave and drag those two creatures after her. I am truly glad,” knocking the ashes out of his pipe reflectively, “ that I know no one who is dead that has a will like that.”

We smoked in silence a while longer. Then the curé, glancing at the clock, which told midnight, rose to go.

“ That is the end of the history, monsieur,” he said. “ M. Labadie came back to his happy, quiet life again, gradually paid off his debts, and has almost forgotten his sore trouble. He has but one fear. There are times when he thinks that his call to go may come in the same manner, and that he will find the Veuve Badleigh, her son Paul, and Mademoiselle Joan waiting for him beyond.”

The next Sunday was one of those clear, balmy days which come in November, even in Canada.

After mass I waited near the church, watching the villagers as they leisurely climbed the rocky street and disappeared in the vine-covered cottages. The balsam scent from the neighboring forests was heavy on the sunlit air ; a soft strain form the organ still came fitfully through the silence; around the close horizon the tender blue of the sky melted into the blue of the mountains. It was surely but a thin veil which hid heaven from earth to-day.

I saw M. Labadie, with his little Rose and Josephine, seated on the stone bench beside the grave, as usual; they had eaten their goûter, and were talking and laughing together, as if their dead had really come back to them, and made them the happier for coming.

They made room for me beside them.

“It seems to me, monsieur,” said M. Labadie, presently, “ as if to-day those who are gone come closer to us than at other times. The soft air and the clear light give to one that thought.”

“ It may be so, monsieur.”

“ My children,” he said gently, after a silence, “ are scattered in their graves over all Canada. But I think they have found each other there beyond. We always know that the mother is with us here every Sunday, but to-day it seems as if they were with her, — all of us here together.”

He softly patted Josephine’s hand on his knee, looking beyond her to those whom she could not see.

A rising wind rustled the trees over our heads. He half rose, looking about uneasily.

“ Run away, mes petites. See if the good father is still in the church.” When they were out of hearing, he leaned forward, and said to me, “ There are some others besides Jeannette and my children whom I know yonder. Do you think I shall have to go to them? Can they claim me ? ”

“It is a wide country, M. Labadie,” I ventured to say, “ and they are not of your kind. They have no claim on you.”

He nodded gravely two or three times, the light kindling again in his eyes as he looked over the grave into the far, soft haze. “ You are right,” he said at last. “ But Jeannette and the children are of my kind. Something tells me that those others will never find me. It is a wide country, monsieur, — a wide country. But we go there to our own.”

Rebecca Harding Davis.