Every one who came up from Avoyelles had the same story to tell of Mentine. Cher Maître! but she was changed. And there were babies, more than she could well manage; as good as four already. Jules was not kind except to himself. They seldom went to church, and never anywhere upon a visit. They lived as poorly as pine-woods people. Doudouce had heard the story often, the last time no later than that morning.
“Ho-a!” he shouted to his mule plumb in the middle of the cotton row. He had staggered along behind the plow since early morning, and of a sudden he felt he had had enough of it. He mounted the mule and rode away to the stable, leaving the plow with its polished blade thrust deep in the red Cane River soil. His head felt like a windmill with the recollections and sudden intentions that had crowded it and were whirling through his brain since he had heard the last story about Mentine.
He knew well enough Mentine would have married him seven years ago had not Jules Trodon come up from Avoyelles and captivated her with his handsome eyes and pleasant speech. Doudouce was resigned then, for he held Mentine’s happiness above his own. But now she was suffering in a hopeless, common, exasperating way for the small comforts of life. People had told him so. And somehow, today, he could not stand the knowledge passively. He felt he must see those things they spoke of with his own eyes. He must strive to help her and her children if it were possible.
Doudouce could not sleep that night. He lay with wakeful eyes watching the moonlight creep across the bare floor of his room; listening to sounds that seemed unfamiliar and weird down among the rushes along the bayou. But towards morning he saw Mentine as he had seen her last in her white wedding gown and veil. She looked at him with appealing eyes and held out her arms for protection, – for rescue, it seemed to him. That dream determined him. The following day Doudouce started for Avoyelles.
Jules Trodon’s home lay a mile or two from Marksville. It consisted of three rooms strung in a row and opening upon a narrow gallery. The whole wore an aspect of poverty and dilapidation that summer day, towards noon, when Doudouce approached it. His presence outside the gate aroused the frantic barking of dogs that dashed down the steps as if to attack him. Two little brown barefooted children, a boy and a girl, stood upon the gallery staring stupidly at him. “Call off you’ dogs,” he requested; but they only continued to stare.
“Down, Pluto! down, Achille!” cried the shrill voice of a woman who emerged from the house, holding upon her arm a delicate baby of a year or two. There was only an instant of unrecognition.
“Mais Doudouce, that ent you, comment! Well, if any one would tole me this mornin’! Git a chair, ‘Tit Jules. That’s Mista Doudouce, f’om ‘way yonda Natchitoches w’ere yo’ maman use’ to live. Mais, you ent change’; you’ lookin’ well, Doudouce.”
He shook hands in a slow, undemonstrative way, and seated himself clumsily upon the hide-bottomed chair, laying his broad-rimmed felt hat upon the floor beside him. He was very uncomfortable in the cloth Sunday coat which he wore.
“I had business that call’ me to Marksville,” he began, “an’ I say to myse’f, ‘Tiens, you can’t pass by without tell’ ‘em all howdy.’”
“Par example! w’at Jules would said to that! Mais, you’ lookin’ well; you ent change’, Doudouce.”
“An’ you’ lookin’ well, Mentine. Jis’ the same Mentine.” He regretted that he lacked talent to make the lie bolder.
She moved a little uneasily, and felt upon her shoulder for a pin with which to fasten the front of her old gown where it lacked a button. She had kept the baby in her lap. Doudouce was wondering miserably if he would have known her outside her home. He would have known her sweet, cheerful brown eyes, that were not changed; but her figure, that had looked so trim in the wedding gown, was sadly misshapen. She was brown, with skin like parchment, and piteously thin. There were lines, some deep as if old age had cut them, about the eyes and mouth.
“An’ how you lef’ ‘em all, yonda?” she asked, in a high voice that had grown shrill from screaming at children and dogs.
“They all well. It’s mighty li’le sickness in the country this yea’. But they been lookin’ fo’ you up yonda, straight along, Mentine.”
The children were clutching her on either side, their persistent gaze always fastened upon Doudouce. He tried without avail to make friends with them. Then Jules came home from the field, riding the mule with which he had worked, and which he had worked, and which he fastened outside the gate.
“Yere’s Doudouce f’om Natchitoches, Jules,” called out Mentine, “he stop’ to tell us howdy, en passant.” The husband mounted to the gallery and the two men shook hands; Doudouce listlessly, as he had done with Mentine; Jules with some bluster and a show of cordiality.
“Well, you’ a lucky man, you,” he exclaimed with his swagger air, “able to broad like that, encore! You couldn’t do that if you had half a dozen mouth’ to feed, allez!”
“Non, j’te garantis!” agreed Mentine, with a loud laugh. Doudouce winced, as he had done the instant before at Jules’s heartless implication. This husband of Mentine surely had not changed during the seven years, except to grow broader, stronger, handsomer. But Doudouce did not tell him so.
After the mid-day dinner of boiled salt pork, corn bread and molasses, there was nothing for Doudouce but to take his leave when Jules did.
At the gate, the little boy was discovered in dangerous proximity to the mule’s heels, and was properly screamed at and rebuked.
“I reckon he likes horses,” Doudouce remarked. “He take’ afta you, Mentine. I got a li’le pony yonda home,” he said, addressing the child, “w’at ent ne use to me. I’m goin’ sen’ ‘im down to you. He’s a good, tough li’le mustang. You jis can let ‘im eat grass an’ feed ‘im a han’ful ‘o co’n, once a w’ile. An’ he’s gentle, yes. You an’ yo’ ma can ride ‘im to church, Sundays. Hein! you want?”
“W’at you say, Jules?” demanded the father. “W’at you say?” echoed Mentine, who was balancing the baby across the gate. “’Tit sauvage, va!”
Doudouce shook hands all around, even with the baby, and walked off in the opposite direction to Jules, who had mounted the mule. He was bewildered. He stumbled over the rough ground because of tears that were blinding him, and that he had held in check for the past hour.
He had loved Mentine long ago, when she was young and attractive, and he found that he loved her still. He had tried to put all disturbing thought of her away, on that wedding-day, and he supposed he had succeeded. But he loved her now as he never had. Because she was no longer beautiful, he loved her. Because the delicate bloom of her existence had been rudely brushed away; because she was in a manner fallen; because she was Mentine, he loved her; fiercely, as a mother loves an afflicted child. He would have liked to thrust that man aside, and gather up her and her children, and hold them and keep them as long as life lasted.
After a moment or two Doudouce looked back at Mentine, standing at the gate with her baby. But her face was turned away from him. She was gazing after her husband, who went in the direction of the field.