OLD Doctor Jourdé was rowing home from Pontomoc, —down Bayou Porto and up Bayou Marie, — a queer, squat, barefooted figure under a broad Panama. He stood half upright and used a contrivance of oars by which he could face toward the bow, for, long ago when he first came up the Marie, he had determined never to run another risk. In fact Jourdé was a man with a story, and when his neighbors learned what it was they shook their heads. It was sad, they said, assuredly it was sad about that death on the operating-table, — but ? What was a death to a doctor? Did they not kill their hundreds ? This poor Jourde was too tender. One death, and he had thrown away his profession and come up the Marie to live like a hermit.
Plainly the good doctor wore such a broad Panama that it might shed responsibilities, yet a responsibility was confronting him as he rowed home. An unopened letter lay in the bow of his boat, held in place by an oyster shell, but capable of anything when freed from shell and envelope. He eyed it with uneasiness and rowed slowly, having agreed with himself not to open it until he reached his cabin.
An hour after Jourdé had landed, young Doctor Willis, of Pontomoc, came up the bayou and found him sitting in his doorway and blinking at the letter. He looked up, and the protest in him directed itself toward Willis.
“ Eh, docteur ? ” he said appealingly.
Willis sat down. He had one of those faces which are good for irresolute eyes; years ago he and the old physician who dared not practice had become close friends ; Willis dared and blundered and dared again, learning much from Jourdé. He said nothing, but Jourdé’s oddly cast eyes cleared a little of their bewilderment.
“Eh, docteur? ” he said again, holding out the letter.
Willis read it and folded the pages slowly. The old doctor had had a niece, it seemed, and she had just died, leaving him an inheritance which would have tested the courage of a braver man.
“A little girl! ” Willis said.
“Eet ees not posseeb’! ” Jourde broke out with pathetic sharpness. “Eet ees a life I ’ave h-abandon — ze care of people. And a child to be educate — to be intr-roduce — to be marry! Eet ees not posseeb’, docteur.”
“When do you go for her? ” asked Willis.
“In ze morning,” Jourdé answered. He looked round the cabin as if to think how to install a new inmate. Tixe floor was of hardened earth; his bed was a cheap cot; his clothing hung on pegs in the walls; his blackened cooking utensils were scattered over a bench which served him as dining-table; in place of a window were solid wooden shutters, open now to the fading color and soft air of sunset. But out of this barren living-room a door led into a tiny lean-to shelved from floor to ceiling for books and pamphlets, and lighted from the north by a glass window near which was a study-table. This lean-to had been an afterthought, a concession to his unchanged need of mental opportunity, and it suggested a similar concession for the child.
“A boudoir,” he said plaintively, — “a boudoir can be build on for ze little Violette — eh, docteur? Eet ees not posseeb’ zat I take care of a child, but since eet ees true ” — he sighed and looked out at the Marie glistening in the twilight.
“But you will not bring her here, — that is, not to stay, ” Willis protested.
“You will go where she can have advantages. ”
“She mus’ he educate — she mus’ be intr-roduce — she mus’ be marry,” Jourdé admitted, “but not to-day, eh, docteur ? To-day — while she has such youth— she shall ’ave ze air-fresh. Ze air-fresh ees ze most great advantage for ze young. ”
Willis shook his head in the dusk. “She’s old enough to be in school,” he urged.
Jourdé sighed again. “Eef she ees strong, ” he said.
Violette could scarcely have been called a strong child or a frail one. She was thin and dark and animated, and, though never ill, she gave an impression of mental rather than physical vitality. Even Willis could not deny that it might be better for her to be kept out of school for a year or two, but he feared that the isolation of the cabin on the Marie might offset its abundance of fresh air ; for at first she was pitifully lonesome.
When Jourdé brought her home, her first question was, “And with whom shall I play ? ”
“Play?” Jourdé repeated. “Have you no dolls ? ” He spoke in the perfect French which most creoles have at their command, even though their ordinary speech is soft and slurred, and something in his manner revealed an inherent punctiliousness in him which Violette was to learn well as the years passed.
“ I mean children, ” she said timidly. “I saw many children watching us ont of the door of a little house as we came up the bayou. Shall I play with them ? ”
“ The children of Antoine fils ? ” cried Jourdé. Pride of birth, of education, of station, leaped into every line of his short plump figure, which was already barefooted and coatless. He stooped and took Violette’s eager little face between his hands. “Never, my child,” he said. “If they come here you must be most polite, most considerate, but you must hold yourself quite apart. You are of a different world. ”
“But with whom shall I play ? ” she asked.
“A dog? ” Jourdé suggested. “What would you say to a dog? ”
For answer she burst into tears.
The good doctor was distressed. He gathered her into a somewhat stiff embrace, and was amazed when she flung her arms around his neck, and clung to him, stifling her sobs against his shoulder. He carried her out to the bench under the fig trees and held her patiently, and when she lifted her head, brushed away her tears, and kissed him on both cheeks, he was too abashed for words. They were still under the fig trees, and she was still clinging to him, when Willis came up the slope from the boat landing. Jourdé had had time for many new thoughts. He was only half grateful for the vigor with which her little arms held him. She was too impulsive, too feminine, for the reckonings of a hermit, one half of whose mind had gone to rust. He looked at Willis over the tangle of her brown hair.
“Eet would be more simple eef she were a boy,” he said.
“But she ’s not a boy, and she ’ll not he a boy to-morrow, either,” Willis answered.
Jourdé’s lightly penciled brows drew together. “She asks wiz whom shall she play,” he went on. “She ’as see ze children of Antoine fils, but! — Imposseeb’! ”
“They ’ll not hurt her, ” Willis said, looking grave. “Better let her play with any children that come along.”
“ ImposseeV ! ” Jourde repeated, “they are of a different world.” He sat for a time frowning up into the thick leaves. “Eet weell not be long,” he said finally. “When she ees strong she shall be placed in school wiz many charming young girls. Meanwhile, ” — the shadow of his own defeated life came into his eyes, and to hide it from Willis he looked at the child and stroked her hair, — “meanwhile, eet ees well, perhaps, for a soul to know eetself — even ze soul of a child.”
In the time which followed, Willis often wondered how far the soul of Violette had progressed in its task of selfknowledge. She roamed the woods and haunted the banks of the Marie like a wistful ghost, and, if she were not on the knoll watching for him when he came, she was there to gaze after his boat as he rowed away; for she had taken him into her heart at once, just as she had taken her uncle. At first her greetings embarrassed him with their ecstasy, but gradually her manner changed. Both men were exquisitely gentle with her, but quite incapable of returning her affection in kind. She was used to feeling herself gathered into her mother’s arms, and kissed and held close and kissed again with a fervor like her own. Jourdé thought he was doing well when he smoothed back her hair and touched her forehead with his lips. Willis, being younger and realizing her loneliness more keenly, went so far sometimes as to salute her cheek; but as neither of them had the gift of warmth and spontaneity she was thrown back upon herself; she became grave and older than her years. She wore black, for Jourdé proved to be a stickler for the full etiquette of mourning, and, as briers tore and marsh mud stained her dresses, she became a more and more pathetic sight. When Willis was far from the Marie he was often haunted by a vision of her as she stood on the knoll watching for him, but watching still more eagerly, he thought, for something young or something feminine, — something which did not come.
“She mus’ ’ave playmates,” .Jourdé would say resolutely as the two men sat under the fig trees, “she mus’ be educate — intr-roduce — marry. Zis life of solitude mus’ be h-abandon ” — the bright loneliness of the Marie would catch his eye, and he would hesitate — “eet mus’ be h-abandon, but not until she ees quite strong, eh, docteur? ”
Sometimes it seemed as if the Marie itself had grown interested in the case of Violette. The doctor was slow in taking her out to the world where she could have playmates, but the bayou brought her playthings and tokens from the world. There were days when whole fleets of cypress chips, rudely shaped into boats by the children of Antoine fils, came up on the tide, and sometimes more elaborate toy-boats, carved by older hands, drifted by and required to be caught and anchored. Then the children of Antoine fils would paddle up, a whole row of them in one unsteady pirogue, to reclaim their treasures and be treated with politeness by Violette. Or, in the place of wooden boats, the tide as it flowed out would bring fleets of azaleas and jasmine bells in the spring, or the red leaves of swamp maples in the fall. And on all days the tide brought her a message, whispering it around the reeds that fringed the knoll. Violette could never quite catch the words, but she listened hour after hour to the whispering voice with a feeling that soon — to-morrow, perhaps, or the next day — its meaning would grow plain. It told her to wait, she was sure of that, for everything said “Wait ” to her, but there were other, sweeter words which she could not understand. Often she waded barefooted into the soft mud to listen, and stood among the reeds, seeming to sway in the breeze as they swayed, while her wistful, abstracted gaze told the story of her life on the Marie, — a life that had fitted itself to waiting and to dreams. Often the children of Antoine fils passed by and she scarcely saw them, having accepted the fact that they were of a different world.
They resented her, those children of Antoine fils. The thought of her fell on them like a shadow as they plastered up miniature charcoal kilns and fired them on shore, or did valiant feats of logging, wading in a drift of twig and branches in some shoal. They had names for her to express how proud she was and how unsociable, and even when she rescued their boats they believed that she did it to have an opportunity of showing her politeness — her politeness and nothing more. Yet it was the children of Antoine fils who sent to her the first interpreters of the voice in the reeds.
One day a boat came upstream bringing two children from the outer world, which in this case was Pontomoc. One of them was a boy named Page, who was just boy and nothing else, —brown and careless and open-eyed, with a remarkable look of knowing what he wanted and did not want. It was his daring which had planned this venture into forbidden waters, but he had planned to come alone. Then the little girl, whose name was Dorothy, had found out and had bought her passage — girl-like — by the threat of “telling” if he left her behind. And so Page was dour, while Dorothy had a fluttering triumph in her blue eyes. There was a story she had heard about this bayou, a most fascinating and romantic story, and the boy was too glum to say if it were true.
At last they came to the children of Antoine fils who were dealing animatedly with rafts of mimic logs. Page would have passed them with far less interest than if they had been a school of playful mullet, but Dorothy was of a different mind.
“They could tell us,” she said.
“Who cares? ” asked Page.
His sister wrinkled up her short nose at him and then turned to the children. “Is it up this bayou that the little girl lives with the doctor who killed somebody ? ” she asked.
Part of the children only stared, but one of the boys nodded and pointed sullenly upstream. “She won’ play wid you. She plays wid nobody,” he said.
Page rowed on, leaving the logging force unthanked, while Dorothy began piling vague image on image, after the way of a child. A little girl in a place so remote that one had to run away to reach it was like a princess in a storybook ; a little girl who played with nobody was unnatural — like an enchanted princess; and a little girl who lived with a doctor who had killed somebody was an enchanted princess with an ogre standing guard. And so the Marie became an enchanted stream, and Dorothy’s big blue eyes grew wide, and even Page was touched by the prevailing glamour and regenerated into the prince which she still lacked.
“ What you bugging out your eyes at me for? ” asked Page.
There are things which we cannot quite explain to boys.
“ Oh, Page, think of living with a man that had killed somebody! ” Dorothy said, coming out of dreamland with a little gasp. “Wouldn’t you just be scared to death ! ”
“ Hoh ! I don’t s’pose he did it a-purpose. Anybody might happen to kill somebody.”
“But s’pose he was to happen to kill her ! ”
“Hoh! ” he said again.
One by one the green knolls and the low interludes of marsh slipped by. There was no sound but the dip of oars.
Dorothy caught her breath. “Oh, Page, look! Do you s’pose she lives in that little house ? ”
“What do I know about it?” he asked without turning to look at Jourdé’s whitewashed cabin standing in showy relief against his fig trees. “I tell you, I’m not interested in girls.”
Violette in her black dress came out of the cabin door and down a path toward the bayou. “Oh, Page! ” Dorothy murmured. She forgot to steer, and as her brother still refused to turn his head it happened that their boat swung inland a few rods below the doctor’s landingplace.
Violette’s gait changed to a run. Her heart beat fast, seeming to cry out to her, “Children! Children who look as if they belonged to your world! ” “Not there,” she called. “Row to this tree! ”
Her voice surprised Page into looking round. “We don’t want to land,” he said.
“But I should be so happy,” she begged wistfully. “It is so long that I have played with no children.”
Her English was well pronounced, but with a quaintness of accent and wording which Dorothy thought just the thing for an enchanted princess, but Page had come up the bayou by a different mental route, and it meant nothing to him, apparently.
He stirred the water with an oar. “I suppose you know that I don’t play with girls, ” he proclaimed.
It seemed brutally final. Violette turned away, and Dorothy was on the verge of tears, when the boy, having made his own position clear, relented somewhat. “ That need n’t stop you, though,” he said to his sister. “You can land if you want, and I ’ll row on and come back for you. I did n’t want you along when I was tryin’ for green trout, any way.”
So Dorothy landed, and the two little girls started up the path. A tremulous shyness possessed Violette, while Dorothy was tremulous with bravery. It took courage to go ashore alone to play with a little girl who lived with a man who had killed somebody. Her wondering glance was everywhere, — on the little cabin and on the fig trees, but most of all on Violette’s face.
“You’re just like a princess, ” she said in an adoring voice, — “ a princess shut up in a castle! And when Page is big he ’ll be the prince, and he ’ll steal you out. Mamma says he ’ll like girls when he’s big. I like you now.” She gave Violette a quick sweet kiss upon her cheek.
It was an awakening kiss, setting free all the older child’s repressed hunger for love. She clasped Dorothy close and pressed kiss after kiss upon her face; her breath came in sobs. “It is so long that 1 have waited,” she whispered. “It is so long that I have played with nobody! But now I shall keep you. I shall never let you go away. ”
Dorothy pulled herself free and burst into tears. “Page! ” she called, running back down the path, — “Page! Page! ”
“Oh, what have I done? ” Violette cried, following her. “ I love you, that is all.”
The little girl put her fingers in her ears. “I want to go home, ” she wailed. “I want to go home. Oh, Page! Page ! ” He was only a few rods upstream. He turned and rowed leisurely back. Violette hated him for the look of disgusted triumph in his face. “I thought you ’d stay about that long,” he said.
His sister bounded down the path and into the boat, and he pushed off. There was nothing more that Violette could do to keep them; they did not even say good-by. She threw her arms round a tree and clung to it and sobbed; she could hear the dip of the boy’s oars, and the girl’s voice saying, —
“I did n’t want to stay there always, but when you are big you can go back and steal her. You ’ve got to, ’cause I told her so.”
He laughed derisively. “Catch me stealing a girl! ” he said.
The oar strokes grew fainter. The vision and the hope had passed. There was no sound but the bayou whispering “Wait,” in the marsh.
Then some one touched her arm. She looked up and there stood the boy,— his face very red and his eyes very kind. “Say, don’t cry,” he urged. “I ’ll steal you, or anything. ”
She turned her cheek against his shoulder. “It is so long,” she said, “so long that I have played with nobody. Where is she ? ”
He put his arm very stiffly round her waist, and laid his cheek against hers. “ She treated you the worst kind, backing out like that,” lie said. “I tied the boat a ways upstream and told her to stay in it. She began to yowl again, but I did n’t care. She’s always like that. That ’s why I hate girls.”
She lifted her head, and her brown eyes looked into his gray ones with a question.
“You’re different,” he explained, flushing more deeply. “I knew it first thing. You wouldn’t live up here if you was scarey. You ” — He broke off in confusion and began on a different line. “We ’re going away from Pontomoc to-morrow, and I don’t s’pose we ’ll ever come back. I didn’t want you to feel that way.”
“ Going away ? ”
The tears came into her eyes again.
“Don’t cry,” he begged. “I came back to tell you it was just her way, and now I must be going. Don’t cry, please.”
She brushed her eyes with her hand. “I love you for coming back, ” she said.
He kicked the pine needles in embarrassed pleasure. Their eyes met again. A moment later he was running away without looking back, for he had whispered good-by and left a kiss on her cheek.
That evening, the old doctor drew Violette to his side. “You have grown to like the Bayou Marie, is it not ? ” he asked. “I see the look of contentment for the first time in your face.”
Sometimes a child has no words. She crept close and laid her hand in his.
He smiled and looked across at Willis who was sitting by, and there was a gentle exultation in his glance.
“ Eh, docteur ? ” he said.
“I should like to see it,” Violette said to Willis. “ May I ask the doctor to take me to see it, mon oncle ? ”
Old Jourdé lifted his gray head from his medical journal. Years had passed on the Marie, altering little except the color of his head and the height of hers. She was a young woman now; luminous shadows had fallen into her eyes as into calm water, but she was still pale and slender, still waiting for the fresh air to complete its work before she was taken into the world.
“See eet? ” he repeated. “W’at ees so beautiful zat you wish to look away from ze Marie, — eh, docteur? ”
“One of the daughters of Antoine fils is to be married to-night,” Volette said, “and I have curiosity to see a wedding. ”
The old doctor looked at his friend. “ Eh, Weellis, ze feminine — ze toujours feminine! ” he commented, with lifted brows. “W’at do you say, docteur? Shall eet be gratify ? ”
“ Why not ? ” asked Willis. “ Sights are few enough.”
Jourdé smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “As you say,” he agreed. “Violette ’as gratitude to you for many pleasures, ” he turned to the girl, “ees eet not ? ”
Violette put one hand on her uncle’s shoulder and one on that of Willis. A soft color stole over her face. “ I have gratitude to you both for many pleasures, ” she told them. She kissed her uncle, and lifted her face to Willis.
Willis was middle-aged and grizzled now, and since she came to the Marie there had never been a time when she had failed to greet his visits with a kiss, yet his face stirred slightly as he bent to salute her, as if her action had interpreted some controlled impulse of his own.
Jourdé saw the look, wondered at it, and fell to musing. “Ze toujours feminine,” he repeated, “and ze toujours masculin also, eh, docteur? Eef not, who would marry ? ”
The younger man met his glance laughingly over the girl’s shoulder. “Not we old doctors, surely,” he answered, out of the same quiet poise which made his nerves steady in his profession and his judgment balanced. “Come, Violette.”
As he helped her into the boat he noticed that her hands were cold; he gathered them into both of his and held them for a moment.
“Is it so exciting, then? ” he asked. “One would think your dearest friend was to marry, — or you, yourself. ”
“It is true, Justine is not a very close friend of mine, ” she admitted, “but can you tell me of any closer friend I have ? And I am curious to see a marriage. Justine has lived here beside me always; she has seen no more of the world than I have, except that she has had playmates. Perhaps she has been lonely, as I have, — I have never talked with her enough to know, — and now I want to see if she looks happy.”
They had taken their places in the boat. Willis began to row with the long, easy stroke which he had learned from many journeys up and down the Marie. Bands of fading light lay on the water, for the sun was down. The girl’s figure in the stern of the boat rose white against the darkened shore, — she wore white now, and some of her own ideas went into the forming of her gowns. Little as she had changed, Willis had a sudden feeling that the child he had helped to care for had been the mere chrysalis of this Violette, who for the first time in her life was speaking to him of her loneliness.
“Do you remember what mon oncle used to say about me? ” she went on. “It ’s a long time now since I ’ve heard it, — She mus’ be educate— intr-roduce — marry! ’ If he had really done it, I suppose we should be at the last of the list by this time. It is for that I wish to see the face of Justine. I wish to see if I have lost or gained.”
“I have begged him to go away with you,” Willis said. “Don’t you suppose I ’ve felt what it was for you to have no friends but two old men? ”
She dropped her chin into her hand. A bit of cloud above her flushed unseasonably, sending its glow on to her face. “ I have been happy, ” she said. “ A long time ago I learned how to wait. Shall I tell you how foolish I have been ? Don’t you think girls are always foolish — romantic ? ”
“' Ze toujours feminine,’” Willis answered softly.
“Yes, I was that. I thought somebody would come some time — up the bayou, you know — come looking for me just as if we had known each other always, as if it had been settled long ago that — that we loved each other. That passed the time for me. Was it very foolish? ”
“We all have dreams,” he told her. “It does no harm.”
“ But I dreamed all the time. What else could I do ? I could see his face even — sunburned, with gray eyes, very true and kind, but very sure of what they liked and didn’t like — the kind of eyes that would understand all the things I could never tell to mon oncle, nor even to you. I was so sure he would come that only one thing troubled me. I knew I should be afraid to tell mon oncle. I knew what he would say. He would n’t want us to love each other just then. He would want me to breathe a little more fresh air first, or wait until I knew my own soul.”
“And so we have spoiled even your dreams for you — we two old men.”
“Oh no, not you. I have always counted that you would be on my side if he came. You are not old, like mon oncle. ”
“Of course, I ’m always on your side,” Willis said, but in spite of her protest he felt himself incrusted with years. The soft light glowed and paled across the dusk, but she was talking to him as she might have talked to a woman or to a priest.
“Can you see any end to it all? ” she asked suddenly.
Willis rowed a while in silence. “It is a question that is seldom out of my mind, ” he said at last.
She laughed with soft bitterness. “It has been in your mind ever since I came up the Marie, has n’t it? There is nothing to be done with mon oncle. He grows older and less likely to risk anything each year.”
Willis smiled at her whimsically. It was the most intimate hour of their friendship, and yet he had never felt so far from her, so bound to respect their disparity of age. “Now if your uncle and I had only been growing younger,
— if we could meet you halfway, — the thing would be simpler, ” he declared.
She agreed, missing his idea with a completeness which cut him in some hidden region of self-love. “Yes,” she said, “if mon oncle were only young he could be reasoned with, but to reason with him now would be wasted breath.”
She leaned forward watching the shore; for after rounding the next curve they would be within sight of the house of Antoine fils. In their talk, Willis had almost forgotten where they were going and what for, but she had not. Night settled between them,but he could still feel the wistfulness of her face. They rounded the curve; a ray from the lights on shore fell across her, and her expression changed as if the future were about to be opened, through some magic glass. They passed into the dark again. Willis drew in his oars and eased the boat against the landing. As he helped Violette out he found that her hands were still cold, — colder than before. He drew her very close and she clung to him for a moment trembling, but with no intuition of a new meaning in his touch. The words that had come to his lips gave place to some folly about looking for gray-eyed young men and sending them to her. Then they started on to the wedding of the daughter of Antoine fils.
Jourdé sat where they had left him, watching the Marie in the twilight, and thinking of all the years in which he had watched it, — not because he had hoped it would bring some one to him, but because he trusted it to bring nobody; they had been strangely quiet, strangely futile years. Life and ability had been given to him, —wonderful tools to work or to play with, —but he had chosen to lay them down on the bank of the Marie and fold his hands. It was such a secluded place that they had lain there for a long time, but word had come that they were to be called for soon. He had not been well of late. Willis had seen the change, and had plied him with questions, and he had denied every symptom. There could have been no subterfuges with Willis if he had admitted this and that, and he had been postponing everything too long not to postpone the acknowledgment of acute ill health. There would be many things to decide on the day when he told them that he was to leave the Marie, — and not for the world which he had promised Violette. The child’s future was too hard a problem for him, as it had been from the first. Of course there was Willis always. What he left undone Willis would attend to in some way, yet it was a graceless thing to announce, “I am going to step out and leave this task for you, my friend.” No number of words could make the burden lighter; he would speak before the end, but as long as he could hold up his head, like a man with years to live instead of months, there was no haste.
So he had reasoned until the expression on Willis’s face that night had offered him a gracious plan. If Willis loved Violette everything was simple and could be decided without delay. All his postponements in the past had been accomplished under the veil of something so near to self-deception that his regret and shame for them had been veiled also. He had never fully deceived himself, but he had postponed calling himself to account. Yet now that an easy way opened, he was zealous to start on it. The matter must be arranged at once. He would speak to Willis that night and give his approval. Violette’s opinion he questioned little. Willis was far older than she, but she was fond of him. It would be a suitable marriage. It would settle everything. He had reached a decision at last.
There was little for him to consider after that. It was restful to sit under the fig trees knowing definitely what the end would be. He was conscious of the world around him as a vague calm breadth, stretching out to the infinite, and dark save for the glimmering of stars in the Marie. Perhaps he slept a little, his sense of ease merging gently into dreams. It seemed but a short time before he heard the sound of returning oar strokes; then Violette’s white dress, with a tall shadow behind it, came up the path from the landing. The old man spoke out of the obscure shelter of the trees.
“Eh, so soon? ”
“Yes,” the girl answered, “and the face of Justine was beautiful. So happy, so much at peace.”
“Then you may tell us good-night,” Jourdé suggested. As she left them he turned to Willis, still speaking in French: “You have sacrificed your evening to the whim of Violette, and now I have my little whim. I beg to detain you a quarter hour.”
Willis sat down. There was a dreamlike quality in the way his life was interwoven with the lives of Jourdé and the child. When he came up the Marie he was no longer the wholly staid and practical man whom people knew in Pontomoc; he was more flexible, more ready to follow the lead of circumstance or caprice.
“I’m in no hurry,” he said. “Sometimes when I ’ve stayed up this bayou longer than usual, 1 begin to understand why people who live here do not go away.”
“Ah,” Jourdé answered, “I think you could never understand that, my friend.” He was silent a moment, wondering whether to begin by confessing his own ill health, or by giving Willis a chance for confession. From Violette’s window, through its white curtain, came the glow of a candle, making a faint path of light from the house to the fig trees. A breath of air stirred the leaves overhead. Then the night was so still that younger men would have felt it laying an immaterial finger on their lips.
Willis leaned back and sighed. Jourdé bent forward. There was in his face a pathetic understanding of himself that warded off reproach.
“There has come an end to futility, to postponement, ” he said. “ Do you remember the questions you asked me some time ago ? ”
Willis nodded, looking keenly into his friend’s face.
The old man lifted his shoulders. “You were right, but what could you expect of me ? ” he asked. “I postponed admitting it. To admit it would have been to face the future of Violette.”
“The future of Violette,” Willis repeated. “ Do you mean ” — He hesitated a moment, then put the crucial questions as to Jourdé’s malady. The old man nodded gravely at each one, until his secret lay quite bare between them.
“It is the end of futility, of postponement, is it not ? ” he said.
Willis could make no answering comment. A great desolation confronted him. He could better spare the whole of Pontomoc than the comradeship of this old hermit; and when Jourdé died Violette would be lost to him, as well. She should go out into the world, he would arrange for that, but his life would be left like the bed of the Marie if the stream dried away.
“And thus,” Jourdé went on, “I am at last ready to make arrangements for the child.”
“You can trust me for that, ” Willis said. “You will advise me, but I will take all the steps.”
“You will do as I advise? You promise it? ” Jourée asked, laying a hand on the younger man’s knee.
Willis found something intensely pathetic in the question and the touch. “I will do whatever you think best, ” he said.
“Then you will marry Violette. Marriage is the only safe way by which a girl can enter the world.”
It seemed to Willis that from the spot where Jourdé’s hand rested a thrill passed over him. He thought intensely for a time, weighing his own desire against the unconsciousness with which she had clung to him on the landing of Antoine fils. Finally he shook his head. “The difference in our ages is too great. You have forgotten that girls have dreams.”
“And the centre of the dream must be a good man, if a girl is to have happiness, ” Jourdé answered. “ She is fond of you, it would be safe and suitable. I should not ask it if it would be a sacrifice to you, but I saw in your face tonight that you loved her. Is it not true? ”
Willis could only plead the unfairness of pressing his suit upon a child who longed for broader life and freedom, yet had grown up with the habit of accepting all decrees.
Jourdé had never imagined that a girl could do otherwise than accept life as it was arranged for her. Willis loved her, and she would not refuse him. “And how can we know her feeling if we do not ask? ” he argued. “At least give me the permission to speak to her — give her this opportunity for a settlement, for the assurance that she will not be left alone at my death.”
The younger man had risen and was pacing to and fro, into the path of her candle-light and out again. Violette could scarcely feel herself alone as long as she had his friendship and protection, he thought, yet how could he know ? And perhaps, if a man loved a woman, he owed her the expression of his love, that she might accept it or refuse. He came back to Jourdé.
“It is for me to ask permission to speak to her,” he said. “I must make that stipulation with you. I will ask her to marry me if you will leave the matter all in my hands.”
The old doctor looked at the filmy bridge which she had thrown across the dark from her youth to their age. “She has not retired, ” he began in a tone which deprecated its own eagerness. “ I could ask her to come out to you a moment ” —
Willis smiled, though his feeling for Violette had never seemed so hopeless an audacity before. “She will think it a strange afterthought, but go if you think best,” he said.
Jourdé’s bare feet padded silently along the path which they had long ago worn to a hollow.
“My child, ” he said, tapping at Violette’s door.
For a moment there was no sound. Then the door opened, showing a white, nervous face. “What is it, mon oncle ? ” she asked.
“You have not undressed? ”
“No, mon oncle.”
“Then Docteur Weellis begs a word with you under the fig trees.”
The girl took him by the hand and led him into the room. He followed her, surprised but docile.
She motioned him to a chair where she had been sitting by her table. The sheets of a freshly written letter lay outspread.
“ Mon oncle, this is for you to read, ” she told him, and he noticed that her voice trembled.
“I shall read it while you go outside ?” he asked.
She stooped and put her arms round him, kissing him as she had kissed him on the day when he tried to comfort her after forbidding her to play with the children of Antoine fils.
“Yes, mon oncle, read it while I go outside,” she said.
His glance followed her to the door and returned slowly to the letter. What fantasy had inspired her to write to him ? He gathered the sheets together but did not read them at once; he was aware, as he had been at the first, that she was too impulsive, too intensely feminine for the reckonings of a hermit, and it was peaceful to sit idle while Willis was arranging her future out there under the trees. His hand relaxed on the sheets of her letter, but tightened again.
“Another postponement,” he told himself, and began to read. Suddenly he rose and hurried to the door.
“Weellis!” he called, — “Weellis ! ”
The younger man came quickly out of the dark.
“She is not with you?” Jourdé asked. “She did not go to you? ”
Willis looked round her room. He had thought that he was called because she refused to come out; he had expected to see her there, half frightened, perhaps, by some imprudent hint of Jourdé’s. A glimmer of the truth came to him before the facts, and a determination to be on her side, no matter where she was, followed it, though something seemed to stand still in him, dreading what he might hear.
“No, I’ve been waiting,” he said in a guarded tone.
Jourdé, too, stared round him as if he had not quite understood, —he was confronting something which was hard to understand after the years in which Violette had waited and obeyed. “She went direct from under my eyes, ” he said, with a choked sob that was heartbreaking from a man. “It is an inconceivable boldness — an effrontery ” — He passed his hand across his forehead, gathering his thoughts with an effort out of the limbo of pain. “Come! ” he cried, plucking at Willis. “We must follow her.”
Willis laid a calm hand on him. In his own mind the idle, undirected years took form like a procession leading forward inevitably to some such night as this when he and Jourdé should meet each other in Violette’s empty room. “May I see the letter you have there ? ” he asked quietly.
Jourdé held it out and relapsed into a daze. “ Inconceivable, ” he said again.
The younger man sat down at the table, spreading out the pages in the candle-light. They blurred at times, giving way to the face of Violette in the boat. He shaded his eyes from his friend’s sight. Violette’s voice spoke the words of the letter into his ears, and to their girlish poverty of expression he added the richness of his love for her, trying to control his sense of having been wronged and deceived, trying to think only of the child who had been denied companionship and had learned to wait by learning to dream.
At last, love had taken the place of dreams. In a few words she told the idyl of her meeting with the boy. She had longed to speak of him, but had been afraid. Now his name dotted the pages. She had never forgotten him, she had always been looking for him to come up the Marie, and now that he had come, and that they loved each other, she had been trying for weeks to say so, and she had still lacked the courage. Finally she had promised to meet him and go to Pontomoc to be married. She loved her uncle, she loved Willis, she begged their forgiveness — The end was a broken sentence where Jourdé had come in.
Willis still shaded his eyes. Through his sharp heartache the sense that it was all foreordained by the life she had lived increased until he almost felt as if he had been prepared for just this thing. His eyes were wet as he thought of how she had hidden her joy for fear that two cautious old men should shatter it, and yet had taken pathetic precaution herself by going to see if Justine looked happy and assured.
“Oh, poor child ! ” he said half aloud.
Jourdé was standing in the shadow, sobbing. “We must follow her at once, ” he said. “She went from under my eyes — it was a deception — an effrontery — but we must prevent the dishonor ” — He broke down again and came close to Willis with frank admission of his grief and weakness. “And what a treatment for you, ” he added. “Ah, letters always bring trouble. I have foreseen trouble from the first.”
Willis rose. “Do you know what we shall do? ” he said. “We shall follow them, but not to bring them back. We shall be present at the ceremony. It shall not be a runaway marriage.”
The old man drew himself together, and the whiteness of his face took stern lines. “You wish me to consent to her marriage with a stranger?” he asked.
“I know him very well in Pontomoc, ” the younger man answered. “He is a suitable parti. It will be a good settlement for her.”
Jourdé inclined his head in acknowledgment of the worldly note. It put him on familiar ground, as Willis had hoped, yet it reminded him that his own plans for her settlement were now added to his list of unaccomplished things. He sighed tremulously. Excitement and emotion had spent his strength, and excitement was ebbing; the journey to Pontomoc merely to give an approval that had not been asked for seemed a monstrous tax on him. There was too little of his life left now to waste.
“If it is a good settlement, there is no need that I should go,” he said. “I find myself very weak. It will be quite sufficient if you follow them and see the marriage. ”
Willis turned to go. He was used to lonely duties, and on such an errand he was thankful to be without company, yet he paused near the open door. “Come, to show that you have no hard feeling,” he urged.
“To-morrow,” Jourdé answered. “I can bear nothing more to-night. To-morrow will be soon enough.”
He sank into a chair near the doorway and watched the erect figure of his friend fade into vagueness down the hill. The stars in the Marie twinkled, and an incoming tide was whispering in the reeds. They were older friends to him than Willis and Violette.
“ To-morrow, ” he repeated, and smiled slightly; a waft of coolness from the water lifted the gray locks from his forehead. The problem of Violette was solved; it drifted from his mind, and he fell asleep.
Mary Tracy Earle.