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BY GEORGE W. CABLE,
Author of "Old Creole Days," "The Grandissimes,"
I. THE POT-HUNTER.
HE sun was just rising, as
""Grande Pointe," etc.
could only near by be seen to stir the tops of the high reeds whose crowding myriads stretched away south, west, and north, an open sea of green, its immense distances re
slender dug-out and drew lieved here and there by strips of swamp for- a
half its length out upon the oozy bank of a pretty bayou. Before him, as he turned away from the water, a small gray railway platform and frame station-house, drowsing on long legs in the mud and water, were still veiled in the translucent shade of the deep cypress swamp whose long moss drapings almost overhung them on the side next the brightening dawn. The solemn gray festoons did overhang the farthest two or three of a few flimsy wooden houses and a saw-mill with its lumber, logs, and sawdust, its cold furnace and idle engine.
As with gun and game this man mounted by a short, rude ladder to firmer footing on the platform, a negro, who sat fishing for his breakfast on the bank a few yards up the stream where it bent from the north and west, slowly lifted his eyes, noted that the other was a white man, an Acadian, and brought his gaze back again to hook and line.
He had made out these facts by the man's shape and dress, for the face was in shade., The day, I say, was still in its genesis. The waters that slid so languidly between the two silent men as not to crook one line of the station-house's image inverted in their clear dark depths, had not yet caught a beam upon their whitest water-lily, nor yet upon their tallest bulrush; but the tops of the giant cypresses were green and luminous, and as the Acadian glanced abroad westward, in the open sky far out over the vast marshy breadths of the "shaking prairie," two still clouds, whose under surfaces were yet dusky and pink, sparkled on their seaward edges like a frosted fleece. You could not have told whether the Acadian saw the black man or not. His dog, soiled and wet, stood beside his knee, pricked his ears for a moment at sight of the negro, and then dropped them.
It was September. The comfortable air *The "shaking prairie," "trembling prairie," or "prairie tremblante," is low, level, treeless delta land, * Copyright, 1887, by George
est tinged with their peculiar purple haze. Eastward the railroad's long causeway and telegraph poles narrowed on the view through its wide, axe-hewn lane in the overtowering swamp. New Orleans, sixty miles or more away, was in that direction. Westward, rails, causeway, and telegraph tapered away again across the illimitable hidden quicksands of the "trembling prairie" till the green disguise of reeds and rushes closed in upon the attenuated line, and only a small notch in a far strip of woods showed where it still led on toward Texas. Behind the Acadian the smoke of (woman's early industry began to curl from two or three low chimneys.
But his eye lingered in the north. He stood with his dog curled at his feet beside a bunch of egrets,-killed for their plumage,- the butt of his long fowling-piece resting on the platform, and the arm half-outstretched whose hand grasped the barrels near the muzzle. The hand, toil-hardened and weather-browned, showed, withal, antiquity of race. His feet were in rough muddy brogans, but even so they were smallish and shapely. His garments were coarse, but there were no tatters anywhere. He wore a wide Campeachy hat. His brown hair was too long, but it was fine. His eyes, too, were brown, and, between brief moments of alertness, sedate. Sun and wind had darkened his face, and his pale brown beard curled meager and untrimmed on a cheek and chin that in forty years had never felt a razor.
Some miles away in the direction in which he was looking the broadening sunlight had struck and brightened a single red lug-sail that, for all the eye could see, was coming across the green land on dry keel. But the bayou, hidden in the tall rushes, was its highway; for suddenly the canvas was black as it turned its shady side, and soon was red again as another change of direction caught the sunbeams upon its tense width and showed that, with much more wind out there than it would having a top soil of vegetable mold overlying immense beds of quicksand.
W. Cable. All rights reserved.
find by and by in here under the lee of the swamp, it was following the unseen meanderings of the stream. Presently it reached a more open space where a stretch of the water lay shining in the distant view. Here the boat itself came into sight, showed its bunch of some half-dozen passengers for a minute or two, and vanished again, leaving only its slanting red sail skimming nautilus-like over the vast breezy expanse.
Yet more than two hours later the boat's one blue-shirted, barefoot Sicilian sailor in red worsted cap had with one oar at the stern just turned her drifting form into the glassy calm by the railway station, tossed her anchor ashore, and was still busy with small matters of boat-keeping, while his five passengers clambered to the platform.
The place showed somewhat more movement now. The negro had long ago wound his line upon its crooked pole, gathered up his stiffened fishes from the bank, thrust them into the pockets of his shamelessly ragged trousers, and was gone to his hut in the underbrush. But the few amphibious households round about were passing out and in at the half-idle tasks of their slow daily life, and a young white man was bustling around, now into the station and now out again upon the platform, with authority in his frown and a pencil and two matches behind his ear. It was Monday. Two or three shabby negroes with broad, collapsed, glazed leather travelingbags of the old carpet-sack pattern dragged their formless feet about, waiting to take the train for the next station to hire out there as rice harvesters, and one, with his back turned, leaned motionless against an open window gazing in upon the ticking telegraph instruments. A black woman in blue cotton gown, red-and-yellow Madras turban, and some sportsman's cast-off hunting-shoes, minus the shoe-strings, crouched against the wall. Beside her stood her shapely mulatto daughter, with head-covering of white cotton cloth, in which female instinct had discovered the lines of grace and disposed them after the folds of the Egyptian fellah head-dress. A portly white man, with decided polish in his commanding air, evidently a sugar-planter from the Mississippi "coast" ten miles northward, moved about in spurred boots, and put personal questions to the negroes, calling them "boys," and the mulattress, "girl."
The pot-hunter was still among them; or, rather, he had drawn apart from the rest and stood at the platform's far end, leaning on his gun, an innocent, wild-animal look in his restless eyes, and a slumberous agility revealed in his strong, supple loins. The station-agent went to him and with abrupt questions and
assertions, to which the man replied in low, grave monosyllables, bought his game,— as he might have done two hours before, but — an Acadian can wait. There was some trouble to make exact change, and the agent, saying "Hold on, I'll fix it," went into the station just as the group from the Sicilian's boat reached the platform. The agent came bustling out again with his eyes on his palm, counting small silver.
"Here!" But he spoke to the empty air. He glanced about with an offended frown.
"Achille!" There was no reply. He turned to one of the negroes: "Where's that 'Cajun?" Nobody knew. Down where his canoe had lain tiny rillets of muddy water were still running into its imprint left in the mire; but canoe, dog, and man had vanished into the rank undergrowth of the swamp.
OF the party that had come in the Sicilian's boat four were men and one a young woman. She was pretty; so pretty, and of such restful sweetness of countenance, that the homespun garb, the brand-new creaking gaiters, and a hat that I dare not describe were nothing against her. Her large, soft, dark eyes, more sweetly but not less plainly than the attire, confessed her a denizen of the woods.
Not so the man who seemed to be her husband. His dress was rustic enough; and yet you would have seen at once that it was not the outward circumstance, but an inward singularity, that had made him and must always keep him a stranger to the ordinary ways of men. There was an emotional exaltation in his face as he hastily led his companions with military directness to the ticket window. Two others of the men were evidently father and son, the son barely twenty years of age, the parent certainly not twice as old; and the last of the group was a strong, sluggish man of years somewhat near, but under, fifty.
They bought but one ticket; but, as one may say, they all bought it, the youngest extricating its price with difficulty from the knotted corner of his red handkerchief, and the long, thin hand of the leader making the purchase, while the eyes of the others followed every movement with unconscious absorption.
The same unemotional attentiveness was in their forms as their slow feet drifted here and there always after the one leader, their eyes on his demonstrative hands, and their ears drinking in his discourse. He showed them the rails of the track, how smooth they were, how they rested on their cross-ties, and how they were spiked in place always the same
width apart. They crowded close about him at the telegraph window while he interpreted with unconscious originality the wonders of electricity. Their eyes rose slowly from the window up and out along the ascending wires to where they mounted the poles and eastward and westward leaped away sinking and rising from insulator to insulator. One of the party pointed at these green dots of glass and murmured a question, and the leader's wife laid her small hand softly upon his arm to check the energy of his utterance as he said, audibly to all on the platform, and with a strong French accent:
"Truly!" exclaimed the inquirer, in a voice made rich with emotion. "Truly, she comes! She comes! The iron horse, though they call him 'she'!" He turned to the planter"Ah! sir, why say they thus many or thus many horse-power, when truly "- his fingertip pattered upon his temple-"truly it is mind-power!"
The planter, smiling decorously, turned away, and the speaker looked again down the long vacant track to where the small dark focus of every one's attention was growing on the sight. He spoke again, in lower voice but with larger emotion.
"Mind-power! thought-power! knowledgepower! learning and thinking power!" He caught his wife's arm. "See! see, Sidonie, my dear! See her enhancing in magnitude so fastly approaching!" As he spoke a puff of white vapor lifted from the object and spread out against the blue, the sunbeams turned it to silver and pearl, and a moment later came the far-away, long, wild scream of the locomotive. "Retire!" exclaimed the husband, drawing back all his gazing companions at once. "Retire! retire! the whisttel is to signify warning to retire from too close the edge of the galérie! There! rest at this point. 'T is far enough. Now, each and all resolve to stand and shrink not whilst that iron mare, eating coal, drinking hot water, and spitting fire, shall seem, but falsely, threatening to come on the platform. Ah! Claude!" he cried to the youngest of the group, "now shall you behold what I have told you that vast am-azement of civilize-ation anni-high-lating space and also time at the tune of twenty miles the hour!"
He wheeled upon the planter "Sir, do I exaggerate?"
"Forty miles," replied the planter; "sometimes fifty.'
"Friends,-confirmated! more than twicefold confirmated. Forty, sometimes fifty! Thou heardest it, Maximian Roussel! Not from me, but from the gentleman himself! Forty, sometimes fifty! Such the march, the forward march of civilize-ation!"
His words were cut short by the unearthly neigh of the engine. Sidonie smote herself backward against her husband.
"Nay, Sidonie, fear thou nothing! Remember, dear Sidonie, thy promise of self-control! Stand boldly still, St. Pierre; both father and son stand." The speaker was unheard. Hissing, clanging, thundering, and shaking the earth, the engine and train loomed up to the platform and stopped.
"Come!" cried Bonaventure Deschamps, "lose no moment, dear friends. Tide and time even less the railroad-wait for nobody. Claude, remember; give your ticket of passage to none save the conductor only. 'T is print' in letter' of gold on front his cap-‘Conductor'-Stop! he is here Sir, this young man, inexperienced, is taking passage for " "Shoot him aboard," replied a uniformed man, and walked on without a pause. Claude moved toward the train. Bonaventure seized him by both arms.
"Claude St. Pierre! Claude, my boy; pride of Grande Pointe, second only with Sidonie, farewell!"
Tears leaped into the eyes of both. Bonaventure snatched Claude to his arms and kissed him. It was less than nothing to him that every eye on and off the train was on them. He relaxed his grasp. "Sidonie! tell him farewell!-ah! nay! shake not hands only! Kiss her, Claude! Kiss him, my own Sidonie, kiss him farewell!"
It was done. Claude blushed red, and Sidonie stepped back, wiping her eyes. Maximian moved into the void and smiling gave his hand to the young adventurer.
"Adjieu, Claude." He waved a hand awkwardly. "Teck care you'seff," and dropped the hand audibly against his thigh.
Claude's eye sought his father. St. Pierre pressed forward, laid his right hand upon his son's shoulder, and gazed into his face. His voice was low and husky. He smiled. "Claude,"- tears rose in his eyes, but he swallowed them down,-" Claude,— my baby," and the flood came. The engine bell rang. The conductor gave the warning word, the youth leaped upon his father's neck, St. Pierre thrust him off, caught his two cheeks between fluttering palms and kissed him vio
lently, the train moved, the young man leaped aboard, the blue uniforms disappeared, save one on the rear platform, the bell ceased, the gliding mass shrunk and dwindled away, the rails clicked more and more softly, the tearful group drew closer together as they gazed after the now unheard train, it melted to a point and disappeared, the stillness of forest and prairie fell again upon the place, the soaring sun shone down, and Claude St. Pierre was gone to seek his fortune.
III. THE TAVERN FIRESIDE.
I CALL to mind a certain wild, dark night in November. St. Pierre lay under his palmetto thatch in the forest behind Grande Pointe and could not sleep for listening to the wind and wondering where his son was, in that wild Texas norther. On the Mississippi a steamer, upward bound, that had whistled to land at Belmont, or Belle Alliance plantation, seemed to be staying there afraid to venture away. Miles southward beyond the river and the lands on that side, Lake des Allemands was combing with the tempest and hissing with the rain. Still farther away, on the little bayou and at the railway station in the edge of the swamp that we already know, and westward over the prairie where Claude had vanished into the world, all life was hidden and mute. And farther still, leagues and leagues away, the mad tempest was riding the white-caps in Berwick's Bay and Grande Lake, and yet beyond, beyond New Iberia, and up by Carancro, and around again by St. Martinville, Breaux Bridge, Grand Coteau, and Opelousas, and down once more across the prairies of Vermillion, the marshes about Côte Blanche Bay, and the islands in the Gulf, it came bounding, screaming, and buffeting. And all the way across that open sweep from Mermentau to Côte Gelée it was tearing the rain to mist and freezing it wherever it fell, only lulling and warming a little about Joseph Jefferson's Island, as if that prank were too mean a trick to play upon his orange-groves.
In Vermillionville the wind came around every corner piercing and pinching to the bone. The walking was slippery; and though it was still early bed-time and the ruddy lamplight filled the wet panes of some window every here and there, scarce a soul was stirring without, on horse or afoot, to be guided by its kindly glow.
At the corner of two streets quite away from the court-house square, a white frame tavern, with a wooden Greek porch filling its whole two-story front and a balcony built within the porch at the second story windows in oddest fashion, was glowing with hospitable
firelight. It was not nearly the largest inn of the place, nor the oldest, nor the newest, nor the most accessible. There was no clink of glass there. Yet in this, only third year of its present management, it was the place where those who knew best always put up.
Around the waiting-room fire this evening sat a goodly semicircle of men,-commercial travelers. Some of them were quite dry and comfortable and wore an air of superior fortune over others whose shoes and lower garments sent out more or less steam and odor toward the open fire-place. Several were smoking. One who neither smoked nor steamed stood with his back to the fire and the skirts of his coat lifted forward on his wrists. He was a rather short, slight, nervy man, about thirty years of age, with a wide pink baldness running so far back from his prominent temples and forehead that when he tipped his face toward the blue joists overhead, enjoying the fatigue of a well-filled day, his polished skull sent back the firelight brilliantly. There was a light skirmish of conversation going on in which he took no part. No one seemed really acquainted with another. Presently a man sitting next on the left of him put away a quill toothpick in his watch-pocket, looked up into the face of the standing man, and said, with a faint smile :
"That job 's done!"
With friendly gravity the other looked down and replied, "I never use a quill toothpick." "Yes," said the one who sat, "it's bad. Still, I do it."
"Nothing," continued the other," nothing harder than a sharpened white-pine match should ever go between the teeth. Brush thoroughly but not violently once or twice daily with a moderately stiff brush dipped in soft water into which has been dropped a few drops of the tincture of myrrh. A brush of badger's hair is best. If tartar accumulates, have it removed by a dentist. Do not bite thread or crack nuts with the teeth, or use the teeth for other purposes than those for which nature designed them." He bent toward his hearer with a smile of irresistible sweetness, drew his lips away from his gums, snapped his teeth together loudly twice or thrice, and smiled again, modestly. The other man sought defense in buoyancy of manner.
"Right you are!" he chirruped. He reached up to his adviser's blue-and-crimson neck-scarf and laid his finger and thumb upon a large, solitary pear-shaped pearl. "You're like me; you believe in the real thing."
"I do," said the pearl's owner; "and I like people that like the real thing. A pearl of the first water is real. There's no sham there; no deception - except the iridescence, which is,
as you doubtless know, an optical illusion attributable to the intervention of rays of light reflected from microscopic corrugations of the nacrous surface. But for that our eye is to blame, not the pearl. See?"
The seated man did not reply; but another man on the speaker's right, a large man, widest at the waist, leaned across the arm of his chair to scrutinize the jewel. Its owner turned his throat for the inspection, despite a certain gramness and crocodilian aggressiveness in the man's interest.
"I like a diamond, myself," said the new on-looker, dropped back in his chair, and met the eyes of the pearl's owner with a heavy glance.
"Tastes differ," kindly responded the wearer of the pearl. "Are you acquainted with the language of gems?"
The big-waisted man gave a negative grunt and spat bravely into the fire. "Did n't know gems could talk," he said.
“They do not talk, they speak," responded their serene interpreter. The company in general noticed that, with all his amiability of tone and manner, his mild eyes held the big-waisted man with an uncomfortable steadiness. "They speak not to the ear, but to the eye and to the thought:
"Thought is deeper than all speech;
The speaker's victim writhed, but the riveted gaze and an uplifted finger pinioned
him. "You should know every one should know the language of gems. There is a language of flowers:
"To me the humblest flower that blows can give Thoughts that too often lie too deep for tears." But the language of gems is as much more important than that of flowers as the imperishable gem is itself more enduring than the withering, the evanescent blossom. A gentleman may not with safety present to a lady a gem of whose accompanying sentiment he is ignorant. But with the language of gems understood between them, how could a sentiment be more exquisitely or more acceptably expressed than by the gift of a costly gem uttering that sentiment with an unspoken eloquence! Did you but know the language of gems your choice would not be the diamond. Diamond me no diamonds,' emblems of pride
"Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
The speaker ceased, with his glance hovering caressingly over the little trembler with fluttering wing, that is, the big-waisted man. The company sat in listening expectancy, and the big-waisted man, whose eyes had long ago sought refuge in the fire, lifted them and said, satirically, "Go on," at the same time trying to buy his way out with a smile.
"It's your turn," quickly responded the jewel's owner, with something droll in his manner that made the company laugh at the other's expense. The big-waisted man kindled, then smiled again, and said:
"Was that emblem of modest loveliness give' to your symbolically, or did you present it to yourself?"
"I took it for a debt," replied the wearer, bowing joyously.
"Ah!" said the other. "Well, I s'pose it was either that or her furniture?"
"Thanks, yes." There was a pause, and then the pearl's owner spoke on. "Strange fact. That was years ago. And yet -" he fondled his gem with thumb and finger and tender glance" you 're the first man I 've met to whom I could sincerely and symbolically present it, and you don't want it. I'm sorry."
"I see," said the big-waisted man, glaring
"So do I," responded the pearl's owner. A smile went round, and the company sat looking into the fire. Outside the wind growled and scolded, shook and slapped the house, and thrashed it with the rain. A man sitting against the chimney said:
"If this storm keeps on six hours longer I reduce my estimate of the cotton crop sixtyfive thousand bales." But no one responded; and as the importance died out of his face he dropped his gaze into the fire with a pretense of deep meditation. Presently another, a goodlooking young fellow, said:
"Well, gents, I never cared much for jewelry. But I like a nice scarf-pin; it's nobby. And I like a handsome seal-ring." He drew one from a rather chubby finger, and passed it to his next neighbor, following it with his eyes, and adding: "That 's said to be a real intaglio. But now, one thing I don't like, that 's to see a lady wear a quantity of diamond rings outside of her glove, and heavy gold
"Your choice would have been the pearl, chains, and-" He was interrupted. A long symbol of modest loveliness.
man, with legs stiffened out to the fire, lifted a
VOL. XXXV.- 15.