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|BOOK II: Flotsam And Jetsam|
DURING the next two days I had more evidence of Monsieur de St. Gré's ability, and, thanks to his conduct of my campaign, not the least suspicion of my mission to New Orleans got abroad. Certain gentlemen were asked to dine, we called on others, and met still others casually in their haunts of business or pleasure. I was troubled because of the inconvenience and discomfort to which my host put himself, for New Orleans in the dog-days may be likened in climate to the under side of the lid of a steam kettle. But at length, on the second evening, after we had supped on jambalaya and rice cakes and other dainties, and the last guest had gone, my host turned to me.
"The rest of the burrow is the same, Mr. Ritchie, until it comes to the light again."
"And the fox has crawled out of the other end," I said.
"Precisely," he answered, laughing; "in short, if you were to remain in New Orleans until New Year's, you would not learn a whit more. To-morrow morning I have a little business of my own to transact, and we shall get to Les Îles in time for dinner. No, don't thank me," he protested; "there's a certain rough honesty and earnestness ingrained in you which I like. And besides," he added, smiling, "you are poor indeed at thanking, Mr. Ritchie. You could never do it gracefully. But if ever I were in trouble, I believe that I might safely call on you."
The next day was a rare one, for a wind from somewhere had blown the
moisture away a little, the shadows
were clearer cut, and by noon Monsieur de St. Gré and I were walking our horses in the shady road behind the levee. We were followed at a respectful distance by André, Monsieur's mulatto body-servant, and as we rode my companion gave me stories of the owners of the different plantations we passed, and spoke of many events of interest in the history of the colony. Presently he ceased to talk, and rode in silence for many minutes. And then he turned upon me suddenly.
"Mr. Ritchie," he said, "you have seen my son. It may be that in him I am paying the price of my sins. I have done everything to set him straight, but in vain. Monsieur, every son of the St. Grés has awakened sooner or later to a sense of what becomes him. But Auguste is a fool," he cried bitterly, -- a statement which I could not deny; "were it not for my daughter, Antoinette, I should be a miserable man indeed."
Inasmuch as he was not a person of confidences, I felt the more flattered that he should speak so plainly to me, and I had a great sympathy for this strong man who could not help himself.
"You have observed Antoinette, Mr. Ritchie," he continued; "she is a strange mixture of wilfulness and caprice and self-sacrifice, and she has at times a bit of that wit which has made our house for generations the intimates -- I may say -- of sovereigns."
This peculiar pride of race would have amused me in another man. I found myself listening to Monsieur de St. Gré with gravity, and I did not dare to reply that I had had evidence of Mademoiselle's aptness of retort.
"She has been my companion since she was a child, Monsieur. She has disobeyed me, flaunted me, nursed me in illness, championed me behind my back. I have a little book which I have kept of her sayings and doings, which may interest you, Monsieur. I will show it you."
This indeed was a new side of Monsieur de St. Gré, and I reflected
rather ruefully upon the unvarnished truth of what Mr. Wharton had told me, -- ay, and
Clark had emphasized long before. It was my fate never to be treated as a young man. It struck me that Monsieur de St. Gré had never even considered me in the light of a possible suitor for his daughter's hand.
"I should be delighted to see them, Monsieur," I answered.
"Would you?" he exclaimed, his face lighting up as he glanced at me. "Alas, Madame de St. Gré and I have promised to go to our neighbors', Monsieur and Madame Bertrand's, for to-night. But, to-morrow, if you have leisure, we shall look at it together. And not a word of this to my daughter, Monsieur," he added apprehensively; "she would never forgive me. She dislikes my talking of her, but at times I cannot help it. It was only last year that she was very angry with me, and would not speak to me for days, because I boasted of her having watched at the bedside of a poor gentleman who came here and got the fever. You will not tell her?"
"Indeed I shall not, Monsieur," I answered.
"It is strange," he said abruptly, "it is strange that this gentleman and his wife should likewise have had letters to us from Monsieur Gratiot. They came from St. Louis, and they were on their way to Paris."
"To Paris?" I cried; "what was their name?"
He looked at me in surprise.
"Clive," he said.
"Clive!" I cried, leaning towards him in my saddle. "Clive! And what became of them?"
This time he gave me one of his searching looks, and it was not unmixed with astonishment.
"Why do you ask. Monsieur?" he demanded. "Did you know them?"
I must have shown that I was strangely agitated. For the moment I could not answer.
"Monsieur Gratiot himself spoke of them to me," I said, after a little; "he said they were an interesting couple."
"Pardieu!" exclaimed Monsieur de St. Gré, "he
put it mildly." He gave me another look. "There was something about them,
Monsieur, which I could not fathom.
Why were they drifting? They were people of quality who had seen the world, who were by no means paupers, who had no cause to travel save a certain restlessness. And while they were awaiting the sailing of the packet for France they came to our house -- the old one in the Rue Bourbon that was burned. I would not speak ill of the dead, but Mr. Clive I did not like. He fell sick of the fever in my house, and it was there that Antoinette and Madame de St. Gré took turns with his wife in watching at his bedside. I could do nothing with Antoinette, Monsieur, and she would not listen to my entreaties, my prayers, my commands. We buried the poor fellow in the alien ground, for he did not die in the Church, and after that my daughter clung to Mrs. Clive. She would not let her go, and the packet sailed without her. I have never seen such affection. I may say," he added quickly, "that Madame de St. Gré and I share in it, for Mrs. Clive is a lovable woman and a strong character. And into the great sorrow that lies behind her life, we have never probed."
"And she is with you now, Monsieur?" I asked.
"She lives with us, Monsieur," he answered simply, "and I hope for always. No," he said quickly, "it is not charity, -- she has something of her own. We love her, and she is the best of companions for my daughter. For the rest, Monsieur, she seems benumbed, with no desire to go back or to go farther."
An entrance drive to the plantation of Les Îles, unknown to Nick and
me, led off from the main road like a green tunnel arched out of the forest. My feelings
as we entered this may be imagined, for l was suddenly confronted with the situation which
I had dreaded since my meeting with Nick at Jonesboro. I could scarcely allow myself even
the faint hope that Mrs. Clive might not prove to be Mrs. Temple after all. Whilst I was
in this agony of doubt and indecision, the drive suddenly came out on a shaded lawn dotted
with flowering bushes. There was the house with its gallery, its curved dormer roof and
its belvedere; and a white, girlish figure flitted down the steps. It was Mademoiselle
Antoinette, and no sooner
had her father dismounted than she threw herself into his arms. Forgetful of my presence, he stood murmuring in her ear like a lover; and as I watched them my trouble slipped from my mind, and gave place to a vaguer regret that I had been a wanderer throughout my life. Presently she turned up to him a face on which was written something which he could not understand. His own stronger features reflected a vague disquiet.
"What is it, ma chérie?"
What was it indeed? Something was in her eyes which bore a message and presentiment to me. She dropped them, fastening in the lapel of his coat a flaunting red flower set against a shining leaf, and there was a gentle, joyous subterfuge in her answer.
"Thou pardoned Auguste, as I commanded?" she said. They were speaking in the familiar French.
"Ha, diable! is it that which disquiets thee?" said her father. "We will not speak of Auguste. Dost thou know Monsieur Ritchie, 'Toinette?"
She disengaged herself and dropped me a courtesy, her eyes seeking the ground. But she said not a word. At that instant Madame de St. Gré herself appeared on the gallery, followed by Nick, who came down the steps with a careless self-confidence to greet the master. Indeed, a stranger might have thought that Mr. Temple was the host, and I saw Antoinette watching him furtively With a gleam of amusement in her eyes.
"I am delighted to see you at last, Monsieur," said my cousin. "I am Nicholas Temple, and I have been your guest for three days."
Had Monsieur de St. Gré been other than the soul of hospitality, it would have been impossible not to welcome such a guest. Our host had, in common with his daughter, a sense of humor. There was a quizzical expression on his fine face as he replied, with the barest glance at Mademoiselle Antoinette: --
"I trust you have been -- well entertained, Mr. Temple. My
daughter has been accustomed only to the society of her brother and cousins."
"Faith, I should not have supposed it," said Nick, instantly, a remark which caused the color to flush deeply into Mademoiselle's face. I looked to see Monsieur de St. Gré angry. He tried, indeed, to be grave, but smiled irresistibly as he mounted the steps to greet his wife, who stood demurely awaiting his caress. And in this interval Mademoiselle shot at Nick a swift and withering look as she passed him. He returned a grimace.
"Messieurs," said Monsieur de St. Gré, turning to us, "dinner will soon be ready -- if you will be so good as to pardon me until then."
Nick followed Mademoiselle with his eyes until she had disappeared beyond the hall. She did not so much as turn. Then he took me by the arm and led me to a bench under a magnolia a little distance away, where he seated himself, and looked up at me despairingly.
"Behold," said he, "what was once your friend and cousin, your counsellor, sage, and guardian. Behold the clay which conducted you hither, with the heart neatly but painfully extracted. Look upon a woman's work, Davy, and shun the sex. I tell you it is better to go blindfold through life, to have -- pardon me -- your own blunt features, than to be reduced to such a pitiable state. Was ever such a refinement of cruelty practised before? Never! Was there ever such beauty, such archness, such coquetry, -- such damned elusiveness? Never! If there is a cargo going up the river, let me be salted and lie at the bottom of it. I'll warrant you I'll not come to life."
"You appear to have suffered somewhat," I said, forgetting for the moment in my laughter the thing that weighed upon my mind.
"Suffered!" he cried; "I have been tossed high in the
azure that I might sink the farther into the depths. I have been put in a grave, the earth
stamped down, resurrected, and flung into the dust-heap. I have been taken up to the gate
of heaven and dropped a hundred and fifty years through darkness. Since I have seen you I
have been the round of all the bright places and all the bottomless pits in the
"It seems to have made you literary," I remarked Judicially.
"I burn up twenty times a day," he continued, with a wave of the hand to express the completeness of the process; "there is nothing left. I see her, I speak to her, and I burn up."
"Have you had many tête-à-têtes?" I asked.
"Not one," he retorted fiercely; "do you think there is any sense in the damnable French custom? I am an honorable man, and, besides, I am not equipped for an elopement. No priest in Louisiana would marry us. I see her at dinner, at supper. Sometimes we sew on the gallery, he went on, "but I give you my oath that I have not had one word with her alone."
"An oath is not necessary," I said. "But you seem to have made some progress nevertheless."
"Do you call that progress?" he demanded.
"It is surely not retrogression."
"God knows what it is," said Nick, helplessly, "but it's got to stop. I have sent her an ultimatum."
"A summons. Her father and mother are going to the Bertrands' to-night, and I have written her a note to meet me in the garden. And you," he cried, rising and slapping me between the shoulders, "you are to keep watch, like the dear, careful, canny, sly rascal you are."
"And -- and has she accepted?" I inquired.
"That's the deuce of it," said he; "she has not. But I think she'll come."
I stood for a moment regarding him.
"And you really love Mademoiselle Antoinette?" I asked.
"Have I not exhausted the language?" he answered. "If what I have been through is not love, then may the Lord shield me from the real disease."
"It may have been merely a light case of -- tropical enthusiasm,
let us say. I have seen others, a little milder because the air was more temperate."
"Tropical -- balderdash," he exploded. "If you are not the most exasperating, unfeeling man alive -- "
"I merely wanted to know if you wished to marry Mademoiselle de St. Gré," I interrupted.
He gave me a look of infinite tolerance.
"Have I not made it plain that I cannot live without her?" he said; "if not, I will go over it all again."
"That will not be necessary," I said hastily.
"The trouble may be," he continued, "that they have already made one of their matrimonial contracts with a Granpré, a Beauséjour, a Bernard."
"Monsieur de St. Gré is a very sensible man," I answered. "He loves his daughter, and I doubt if he would force her to marry against her will. Tell me, Nick," I asked, laying my hand upon his shoulder, "do you love this girl so much that you would let nothing come between you and her?"
"I tell you, I do; and again I tell you, I do," he replied. He paused, suddenly glancing at my face, and added, "Why do you ask, Davy?"
I stood irresolute, now that the time had come not daring to give voice to my suspicions. He had not spoken to me of his mother save that once, and I had no means of knowing whether his feeling for the girl might not soften his anger against her. I have never lacked the courage to come to the point, but there was still the chance that I might be mistaken in this after all. Would it not be best to wait until I had ascertained in some way the identity of Mrs. Clive? And while I stood debating, Nick regarding me with a puzzled expression, Monsieur de St. Gré appeared on the gallery.
"Come, gentlemen," he cried; "dinner awaits us."
The dining room at Les Îles was at the corner of the house, and its
windows looked out on the gallery, which was shaded at that place by dense foliage. The
room, like others in the house, seemed to reflect the decorous character of its owner. Two
St. Grés, indifferently painted, but rigorous and respectable, relieved the white
ness of the wall. They were the Commissary-general and his wife. The lattices were closed on one side, and in the deep amber light the family silver shone but dimly. The dignity of our host, the evident ceremony of the meal, -- which was attended by three servants, -- would have awed into a modified silence at least a less irrepressible person than Nicholas Temple. But Nick was one to carry by storm a position which another might wait to reconnoitre. The first sensation of our host was no doubt astonishment, but he was soon laughing over a vivid account of our adventures on the keel boat. Nick's imitation of Xavier, and his description of Benjy's terrors after the storm, were so perfect that I laughed quite as heartily; and Madame de St. Gré wiped her eyes and repeated continually, "Quel drôle monsieur! it is thus he has entertained us since thou departed, Philippe."
As for Mademoiselle, I began to think that Nick was not far wrong in his diagnosis. Training may have had something to do with it. She would not laugh, not she, but once or twice she raised her napkin to her face and coughed slightly. For the rest, she sat demurely, with her eyes on her plate, a model of propriety. Nick's sufferings became more comprehensible.
To give the devil his due, Nick had an innate tact which told him when to stop, and perhaps at this time Mademoiselle's superciliousness made him subside the more quickly. After Monsieur de St. Gré had explained to me the horrors of the indigo pest and the futility of sugar raising, he turned to his daughter.
" 'Toinette, where is Madame Clive?" he asked. The girl looked up, startled into life and interest at once.
"Oh, papa," she cried in French, "we are so worried about her, mamma and I. It was the day you went away, the day these gentlemen came, that we thought she would take an airing. And suddenly she became worse."
Monsieur de St. Gré turned with concern to his wife.
"I do not know what it is, Philippe," said that lady;
"it seems to be mental. The loss of her husband weighs upon her, poor lady. But this
is worse than ever, and she
will lie for hours with her face turned to the wall, and not even Antoinette can arouse her."
"I have always been able to comfort her before," said Antoinette, with a catch in her voice.
I took little account of what was said after that, my only notion being to think the problem out for myself, and alone. As I was going to my room Nick stopped me.
"Come into the garden, Davy," he said.
"When I have had my siesta," I answered.
"When you have had your siesta!" he cried; "since when did you begin to indulge in siestas?"
"To-day," I replied, and left him staring after me.
I reached my room, bolted the door, and lay down on my back to think. Little was needed to convince me now that Mrs. Clive was Mrs. Temple, and thus the lady's relapse when she heard that her son was in the house was accounted for. Instead of forming a plan, my thoughts drifted from that into pity for her, and my memory ran back many years to the text of good Mr. Mason's sermon, "I have refined thee, but not with silver, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." What must Sarah Temple have suffered since those days! I remembered her in her prime, in her beauty, in her selfishness, in her cruelty to those whom she might have helped, and I wondered the more at the change which must have come over the woman that she had won the affections of this family, that she had gained the untiring devotion of Mademoiselle Antoinette. Her wit might not account for it, for that had been cruel. And something of the agony of the woman's soul as she lay in torment, facing the wall, thinking of her son under the same roof, of a life misspent and irrevocable, I pictured.
A stillness crept into the afternoon like the stillness of night. The
wide house was darkened and silent, and without a sunlight washed with gold filtered
through the leaves. There was a drowsy hum of bees, and in the distance the occasional
languishing note of a bird singing what must have been a cradle-song. My mind wandered,
and shirked the task that was set to it.
Could anything be gained by meddling? I had begun to convince myself that nothing could, when suddenly I came face to face with the consequences of a possible marriage between Nick and Mademoiselle Antoinette. In that event the disclosure of his mother's identity would be inevitable. Not only his happiness was involved, but Mademoiselle's, her father's and her mother's, and lastly that of this poor hunted woman herself, who thought at last to have found a refuge.
An hour passed, and it became more and more evident to me that I must see and talk with Mrs. Temple. But how was I to communicate with her? At last I took out my portfolio and wrote these words on a sheet: --
"If Mrs. Clive will consent to a meeting with Mr. David Ritchie, he will deem it a favor. Mr. Ritchie assures Mrs. Clive that he makes this request in all friendliness."
I lighted a candle, folded the note and sealed it, addressed it to Mrs. Clive, and opening the latticed door I stepped out. Walking along the gallery until I came to the rear part of the house which faced towards the out-buildings, I spied three figures prone on the grass under a pecan tree that shaded the kitchen roof. One of these figures was Benjy, and he was taking his siesta. I descended quietly from the gallery, and making my way to him, touched him on the shoulder. He awoke and stared at me with white eyes.
"Marse Dave!" he cried.
"Hush," I answered, "and follow me."
He came after me, wondering, a little way into the grove, where I stopped.
"Benjy," I said, "do you know any of the servants here?"
"Lawsy, Marse Dave, I reckon I knows 'em, -- some of 'em," he answered with a grin.
"You talk to them?"
"Shucks, no, Marse Dave," he replied with a fine scorn, "I ain't no hand at dat ar nigger French. But I knows some on 'em, and right well too."
"How?" I demanded curiously.
Benjy looked down sheepishly at his feet. He was standing pigeon-toed.
"I done c'ressed some on 'em, Marse Dave," he said at length, and there was a note of triumph in his voice.
"You did what?" I asked.
"I done kissed one of dem yaller gals, Marse Dave. Yass'r, I done kissed M'lisse."
"Do you think Mélisse would do something for you if you asked her?" I inquired.
Benjy seemed hurt.
"Marse Dave -- " he began reproachfully.
"Very well, then," I interrupted, taking the letter from my pocket, "there is a lady who is ill here, Mrs. Clive -- "
I paused, for a new look had come into Benjy's eyes. He began that peculiar, sympathetic laugh of the negro, which catches and doubles on itself, and I imagined that a new admiration for me dawned on his face.
"Yass'r, yass, Marse Dave, I reckon M'lisse 'll git it to her 'thout any one tekin' notice."
I bit my lips.
"If Mrs. Clive receives this within an hour, Mélisse shall have one piastre, and you another. There is an answer."
Benjy took the note, and departed nimbly to find Mélisse, while I paced up and down in my uneasiness as to the outcome of the experiment. A quarter of an hour passed, half an hour, and then I saw Benjy coming through the trees. He stood before me, chuckling, and drew from his pocket a folded piece of paper. I gave him the two piastres, warned him if his master or any one inquired for me that I was taking a walk, and bade him begone. Then I opened the note.
"I will meet you at the bayou, at seven this evening. Take the path that leads through the garden."
I read it with a catch of the breath, with a certainty that the
happiness of many people depended upon what I should say at that meeting. And to think of
this and to compose myself a little, I made my way to the garden in search of the path,
that I might know it when the time
came. Entering a gap in the hedge, I caught sight of the shaded seat under the tree which had been the scene of our first meeting with Antoinette, and I hurried past it as I crossed the garden. There were two openings in the opposite hedge, the one through which Nick and I had come, and another. I took the second, and with little difficulty found the path of which the note had spoken. It led through a dense, semi-tropical forest in the direction of the swamp beyond, the way being well beaten, but here and there jealously crowded by an undergrowth of brambles and the prickly Spanish bayonet. I know not how far I had walked, my head bent in thought, before I felt the ground teetering under my feet, and there was the bayou. It was a narrow lane of murky, impenetrable water, shaded now by the forest wall. Imaged on its amber surface were the twisted boughs of the cypresses of the swamp beyond, -- boughs funereally draped, as though to proclaim a warning of unknown perils in the dark places. On that side where I stood ancient oaks thrust their gnarled roots into the water, and these knees were bridged by treacherous platforms of moss. As I sought for a safe resting-place a dull splash startled me, the pink-and-white water lilies danced on the ripples, and a long, black snout pushed its way to the centre of the bayou and floated there motionless.
I sat down on a wide knee that seemed to be fashioned for the purpose, and reflected. It may have been about half-past five, and I made up my mind that, rather than return and risk explanations, I would wait where I was until Mrs. Temple appeared. I had much to think of, and for the rest the weird beauty of the place, with its changing colors as the sun fell, held me in fascination. When the blue vapor stole through the cypress swamp, my trained ear caught the faintest of warning sounds. Mrs. Temple was coming.
I could not repress the exclamation that rose to my lips when she stood before me.
"I have changed somewhat," she began quite calmly; "I
have changed since you were at Temple Bow."
I stood staring at her, at a loss to know whether by these words she sought to gain an advantage. I knew not whether to pity or to be angry, such a strange blending she seemed of former pride and arrogance and later suffering. There were the features of the beauty still, the eyes defiant, the lips scornful. Sorrow had set its brand upon this protesting face in deep, violet marks under the eyes, in lines which no human power could erase: sorrow had flecked with white the gold of the hair, had proclaimed her a woman with a history. For she had a new and remarkable beauty which puzzled and astonished me, -- a beauty in which maternity had no place. The figure, gowned with an innate taste in black, still kept the rounded lines of the young woman, while about the shoulders and across the open throat a lace mantilla was thrown. She stood facing me, undaunted, and I knew that she had come to fight for what was left her. I knew further that she was no mean antagonist.
"Will you kindly tell me to what circumstance I owe the honor of this -- summons, Mr. Ritchie?" she asked. "You are a travelled person for one so young. I might almost say," she added with an indifferent laugh, "that there is some method and purpose in your travels."
"Indeed, you do me wrong, Madame," I replied; "I am here by the merest chance."
Again she laughed lightly, and stepping past me took her seat on the oak from which I had risen. I marvelled that this woman, with all her self-possession, could be the same as she who had held her room, cowering, these four days past. Admiration for her courage mingled with my other feelings, and for the life of me I knew not where to begin. My experience with women of the world was, after all, distinctly limited. Mrs. Temple knew, apparently by intuition, the advantage she had gained, and she smiled.
"The Ritchies were always skilled in dealing with sinners,"
she began; "the first earl had the habit of hunting them like foxes, so it is said. I
take it for granted that, before my sentence is pronounced, I shall have the pleasure
of hearing my wrong-doings in detail. I could not ask you to forego that satisfaction."
"You seem to know the characteristics of my family, Mrs. Temple," I answered. "There is one trait of the Ritchies concerning which I ask your honest opinion."
"And what is that?" she said carelessly.
"I have always understood that they have spoken the truth. Is it not so?"
She glanced at me curiously.
"I never knew your father to lie," she answered; "but after all he had few chances. He so seldom spoke."
"Your intercourse with me at Temple Bow was quite as limited," I said.
"Ah," she interrupted quickly, "you bear me that grudge. It is another trait of the Ritchies."
"I bear you no grudge, Madame," I replied. "I asked you a question concerning the veracity of my family, and I beg that you will believe what I say."
"And what is this momentous statement?" she asked.
I had hard work to keep my temper, but I knew that I must not lose it.
"I declare to you on my honor that my business in New Orleans in no way concerns you, and that I had not the slightest notion of finding you here. Will you believe that?"
"And what then?" she asked.
"I also declare to you that, since meeting your son, my chief anxiety has been lest he should run across you."
"You are very considerate of others," she said. "Let us admit for the sake of argument that you come here by accident.
It was the opening I had sought for, but despaired of getting.
"Then put yourself for a moment in my place, Madame, and give me credit for a little kindliness of feeling, and a sincere affection for your son."
There was a new expression on her face, and the light of a supreme effort in her eyes.
"I give you credit at least for a logical mind," she
answered. "In spite of myself you have put me at the bar and seem to be conducting my trial."
"I do not see why there should be any rancor between us," I answered. "It is true that I hated you at Temple Bow. When my father was killed and I was left a homeless orphan you had no pity for me, though your husband was my mother's brother. But you did me a good turn after all, for you drove me out into a world where I learned to rely upon myself. Furthermore, it was not in your nature to treat me well."
"Not in my nature?" she repeated.
"You were seeking happiness, as every one must in their own way. That happiness lay, apparently, with Mr. Riddle."
"Ah," she cried, with a catch of her breath, "I thought you would be judging me."
"I am stating facts. Your son was a sufficient embarrassment in this matter, and I should have been an additional one. I blame you not, Mrs. Temple, for anything you have done to me, but I blame you for embittering Nick's life."
"And he?" she said. It seemed to me that I detected a faltering in her voice.
"I will hide nothing from you. He blames you, with what justice I leave you to decide."
She did not answer this, but turned her head away towards the bayou. Nor could I determine what was in her mind.
"And now I ask you whether I have acted as your friend in begging you to meet me."
She turned to me swiftly at that.
"I am at a loss to see how there can be friendship between us, Mr. Ritchie," she said.
"Very good then, Madame; I am sorry," I answered. "I have done all that is in my power, and now events will have to take their course."
I had not gone two steps into the wood before I heard her voice
calling my name. She had risen, and leaned with her hand against the oak.
"Does Nick -- know that you are here?" she cried.
"No," I answered shortly. Then I realized suddenly what I had failed to grasp before, -- she feared that I would pity her.
I started violently at the sound of my name, at the new note in her voice, at the change in the woman as I turned. And then before I realized what she had done she had come to me swiftly and laid her hand upon my arm.
"David, does he hate me?"
All the hope remaining in her life was in that question, was in her face as she searched mine with a terrible scrutiny. And never had I known such an ordeal. It seemed as if I could not answer, and as I stood staring back at her a smile was forced to her lips.
"I will pay you one tribute, my friend," she said; "you are honest."
But even as she spoke I saw her sway, and though I could not be sure it were not a dizziness in me, I caught her. I shall always marvel at the courage there was in her, for she straightened and drew away from me a little proudly, albeit gently, and sat down on the knee of the oak, looking across the bayou towards the mist of the swamp. There was the infinite calmness of resignation in her next speech.
"Tell me about him," she said.
She was changed indeed. Were it not so I should have heard of her own sufferings, of her poor, hunted life from place to place, of countless nights made sleepless by the past. Pride indeed was left, but the fire had burned away the last vestige of selfishness.
I sat down beside her, knowing full well that I should be judged by
what I said. She listened, motionless, though something of what that narrative cost her I
knew by the current of sympathy that ran now between us. Unmarked, the day faded, a new
light was spread over the waters, the mist was spangled with silver points, the Spanish
moss took on the whiteness of lace against the black forest
swamp, and on the yellow face of the moon the star-shaped leaves of a gum were printed.
At length I paused. She neither spoke, nor moved -- save for the rising and falling of her shoulders. The hardest thing I had to say I saved for the last, and I was near lacking the courage to continue.
"There is Mademoiselle Antoinette -- " I began, and stopped, -- she turned on me so quickly and laid a hand on mine.
"Nick loves her!" she cried.
"You know it!" I exclaimed, wondering.
"Ah, David," she answered brokenly, "I foresaw it from the first. I, too, love the girl. No human being has ever given me such care and such affection. She -- she is all that I have left. Must I give her up? Have I not paid the price of my sins?"
I did not answer, knowing that she saw the full cruelty of the predicament. What happiness remained to her now of a battered life stood squarely in the way of her son's happiness. That was the issue, and no advice or aid of mine could change it. There was another silence that seemed to me an eternity as I watched, a helpless witness, the struggle going on within her. At last she got to her feet, her face turned to the shadow.
"I will go, David," she said. Her voice was low and she spoke with a steadiness that alarmed me. "I will go."
Torn with pity, I thought again, but I could see no alternative. And then, suddenly, she was clinging to me, her courage gone, her breast shaken with sobs. "Where shall I go?" she cried. "God help me! Are there no remote places where He will not seek me out? I have tried them all, David." And quite as suddenly she disengaged herself, and looked at me strangely. "You are well revenged for Temple Bow," she said.
"Hush," I answered, and held her, fearing I knew not what,
"you have not lacked courage. It is not so bad as you believe. I will devise a plan
and help you. Have you money?
"Yes," she answered, with a remnant of her former pride; "and I have an annuity paid now to Mr. Clark."
"Then listen to what I say," I answered. "To-night I will take you to New Orleans and hide you safely. And I swear to you, whether it be right or wrong, that I will use every endeavor to change Nick's feelings towards you. Come," I continued, leading her gently into the path, "let us go while there is yet time."
"Stop," she said, and I halted fearfully. "David Ritchie, you are a good man. I can make no amends to you," -- she did not finish.
Feeling for the path in the blackness of the wood, I led her by the hand, and she followed me as trustfully as a child. At last, after an age of groping, the heavy scents of shrubs and flowers stole to us on the night air, and we came out at the hedge into what seemed a blaze of light that flooded the rows of color. Here we paused, breathless, and looked. The bench under the great tree was vacant, and the garden was empty.
It was she who led the way through the hedge, who halted in the garden path at the sound of voices. She turned, but there was no time to flee, for the tall figure of a man came through the opposite hedge, followed by a lady. One was Nicholas Temple, the other, Mademoiselle de St. Gré. Mrs. Temple's face alone was in the shadow, and as I felt her hand trembling on my arm I summoned all my resources. It was Nick who spoke first.
"It is Davy!" he cried. "Oh, the sly rascal! And this is the promenade of which he left us word, the solitary meditation! Speak up, man; you are forgiven for deserting us.
He turned, laughing, to Mademoiselle. But she stood with her lips parted and her hands dropped, staring at my companion. Then she took two steps forward and stopped with a cry.
The woman beside me turned, and with a supreme courage raised her head and faced the girl.
"Yes, Antoinette, it is I," she answered.
And then my eyes sought Nick, for Mrs. Temple had faced her son with a movement that was a challenge, yet with a look that questioned, yearned, appealed. He, too, stared, the laughter fading from his eyes, first astonishment, and then anger, growing in them, slowly, surely. I shall never forget him as he stood there (for what seemed an age) recalling one by one the wrongs this woman had done him. She herself had taught him to brook no restraint, to follow impetuously his loves and hates, and endurance in these things was moulded in every line of his finely cut features. And when he spoke it was not to her, but to the girl at his side.
"Do you know who this is?" he said. "Tell me, do you know this woman?"
Mademoiselle de St. Gré did not answer him. She drew near, gently, to Mrs. Temple, whose head was bowed, whose agony I could only guess.
"Mrs. Clive," she said softly, though her voice was shaken by a prescience, "won't you tell me what has happened? Won't you speak to me -- Antoinette?"
The poor lady lifted up her arms, as though to embrace the girl, dropped them despairingly, and turned away.
"Antoinette," she murmured, "Antoinette!"
For Nick had seized Antoinette by the hand, restraining her.
"You do not know what you are doing?" he cried angrily. "Listen!"
I had stood bereft of speech, watching the scene breathlessly. And now I would have spoken had not Mademoiselle astonished me by taking the lead. I have thought since that I might have pieced together this much of her character. Her glance at Nick surprised him momentarily into silence.
"I know that she is my dearest friend," she said,
"that she came to us in misfortune, and that we love her and trust her. I do not know
why she is here with Mr. Ritchie, but I am sure it is for some good reason." She laid
a hand on Mrs. Temple's shoulder. "Mrs. Clive, won't you speak to me?"
"My God, Antoinette, listen!" cried Nick; "Mrs. Clive is not her name. I know her, David knows her. She is an -- adventuress!"
Mrs. Temple gave a cry, and the girl shot at him a frightened, bewildered glance, in which a new-born love struggled with an older affection.
"An adventuress!" she repeated, her hand dropping, "oh, I do not believe it. I cannot believe it."
"You shall believe it," said Nick, fiercely. "Her name is not Clive. Ask David what her name is."
Antoinette's lips moved, but she shirked the question. And Nick seized me roughly.
"Tell her," he said, "tell her! My God, how can I do it? Tell her, David."
For the life of me I could not frame the speech at once, my pity and a new-found and surprising respect for her making it doubly hard to pronounce her sentence. Suddenly she raised her head, not proudly, but with a dignity seemingly conferred by years of sorrow and of suffering. Her tones were even, bereft of every vestige of hope.
"Antoinette, I have deceived you, though as God is my witness, I thought no harm could come of it. I deluded myself into believing that I had found friends and a refuge at last. I am Mrs. Temple."
"Mrs. Temple!" The girl repeated the name sorrowfully, but perplexedly, not grasping its full significance.
"She is my mother," said Nick, with a bitterness I had not thought in him, "she is my mother, or I would curse her. For she has ruined my life and brought shame on a good name."
He paused, his breath catching for very anger. Mrs. Temple hid her face in her hands, while the girl shrank back in terror. I grasped him by the arm.
"Have you no compassion?" I cried. But Mrs. Temple interrupted me.
"He has the right," she faltered; "it is my just punishment."
He tore himself away, and took a step to her.
"Where is Riddle?" he cried. "As God lives, I will kill him without mercy!"
His mother lifted her head again.
"God has judged him," she said quietly; "he is beyond your vengeance -- he is dead." A sob shook her, but she conquered it with a marvellous courage. "Harry Riddle loved me, he was kind to me, and he was a better man than John Temple."
Nick recoiled. The fierceness of his anger seemed to go, leaving a more dangerous humor.
"Then I have been blessed with parents," he said.
At that she swayed, but when I would have caught her she motioned me away and turned to Antoinette. Twice Mrs. Temple tried to speak.
I was going away to-night," she said at length, "and you would never have seen or heard of me more. My nephew David -- Mr. Ritchie -- whom I treated cruelly as a boy, had pity on me. He is a good man, and he was to have taken me away -- I do not attempt to defend myself, my dear, but I pray that you, who have so much charity, will some day think a little kindly of one who has sinned deeply, of one who will love and bless you and yours to her dying day."
She faltered, and Nick would have spoken had not Antoinette herself stayed him with a gesture.
"I wish -- my son to know the little there is on my side. It is
not much. Yet God may not spare him the sorrow that brings pity. I -- I loved Harry Riddle
as a girl. My father was ruined, and I was forced into marriage with John Temple for his
possessions. He was selfish, overbearing, cruel -- unfaithful. During the years I lived
with him he never once spoke kindly to me. I, too, grew wicked and selfish and heedless.
My head was turned by admiration. Mr. Temple escaped to England in a man-of-war; he left
me without a line of warning, of farewell. I -- I have wandered over the earth, haunted by
remorse, and I knew no moment of peace, of happiness, until you brought me here and
sheltered and loved me. And even here I have had many sleepless hours. A hundred times
I have summoned my courage to tell you, -- I could not. I am justly punished, Antoinette." She moved a little, timidly, towards the girl, who stood motionless, dazed by what she heard. She held out a hand, appealingly, and dropped it. "Good-by, my dear; God will bless you for your kindness to an unfortunate outcast."
She glanced with a kind of terror in her eyes from the girl to Nick, and what she meant to say concerning their love I know not, for the flood, held back so long, burst upon her. She wept as I have never seen a woman weep. And then, before Nick or I knew what had happened, Antoinette had taken her swiftly in her arms and was murmuring in her ear: --
"You shall not go. You shall not. You will live with me always."
Presently the sobs ceased, and Mrs. Temple raised her face, slowly, wonderingly, as if she had not heard aright. And she tried gently to push the girl away.
"No, Antoinette," she said, "I have done you harm enough."
But the girl clung to her strongly, passionately. "I do not care what you have done," she cried, "you are good now. I know that you are good now. I will not cast you out. I will not."
I stood looking at them, bewildered and astonished by Mademoiselle's loyalty. She seemed to have forgotten Nick, as had I, and then as I turned to him he came towards them. Almost roughly he took Antoinette by the arm.
"You do not know what you are saying," he cried. "Come away, Antoinette, you do not know what she has done -- you cannot realize what she is."
Antoinette shrank away from him, still clinging to Mrs. Temple. There was a fearless directness in her look which might have warned him.
"She is your mother," she said quietly.
"My mother!" he repeated; "yes, I will tell you what a mother she has been to me -- "
It passes my power to write down the pity of that appeal, the hopelessness of it, the yearning in it. Freeing herself from the girl, Mrs. Temple took one step towards him, her arms held up. I had not thought that his hatred of her was deep enough to resist it. It was Antoinette whose intuition divined this ere he had turned away.
"You have chosen between me and her," he said; and before we could get the poor lady to the seat under the oak, he had left the garden. In my perturbation I glanced at Antoinette, but there was no other sign in her face save of tenderness for Mrs. Temple.
Mrs. Temple had mercifully fainted. As I crossed the lawn I saw two
figures in the deep shadow beside the gallery, and I heard Nick's voice giving orders to
Benjy to pack and saddle. When I reached the garden again the girl had loosed Mrs.
Temple's gown, and was bending over her, murmuring in her ear.
* * * * * * *
Many hours later, when the moon was waning towards the horizon, fearful of surprise by the coming day, I was riding slowly under the trees on the road to New Orleans. Beside me, veiled in black, her head bowed, was Mrs. Temple, and no word had escaped her since she had withdrawn herself gently from the arms of Antoinette on the gallery at Les Îles. Nick had gone long before. The hardest task had been to convince the girl that Mrs. Temple might not stay. After that Antoinette had busied herself, with a silent fortitude I had not thought was in her, making ready for the lady's departure. I shall never forget her as she stood, a slender figure of sorrow, looking down at us, the tears glistening on her cheeks. And I could not resist the impulse to mount the steps once more.
"You were right, Antoinette," I whispered; "whatever happens, you will remember that I am your friend. And I will bring him back to you if I can."
She pressed my hand, and turned and went slowly into the house.