It was one afternoon in April, not long ago, only the other day, and the shadows had already begun to lengthen.
Bertrand Delmandé, a fine, bright-looking boy of fourteen years, – fifteen, perhaps, – was mounted, and riding along a pleasant country road, upon a little Creole pony, such as boys in Louisiana usually ride when they have nothing better at hand. He had hunted, and carried his gun before him.
It is unpleasant to state that Bertrand was not so depressed as he should have been, in view of recent events that had come about. Within the past week he had been recalled from the college of Grand Coteau to his home, the Bon-Accueil plantation.
He had found his father and his grandmother depressed over money matters, awaiting certain legal developments that might result in his permanent withdrawal from school. That very day, directly after the early dinner, the two had driven to town, on this very business, to be absent till the late afternoon. Bertrand, then, had saddled Picayune and gone for a long jaunt, such as his heart delighted in.
He was returning now, and had approached the beginning of the great tangled Cherokee hedge that marked the boundary line of Bon-Accueil, and that twinkled with multiple white roses.
The pony started suddenly and violently at something there in the turn of the road, and just under the hedge. It looked like a bundle of rags at first. But it was a tramp, seated upon a broad, flat stone.
Bertrand had no maudlin consideration for tramps as a species; he had only that morning driven from the place one who was making himself unpleasant at the kitchen window.
But this tramp was old and feeble. His beard was long, and as white as new-ginned cotton, and when Bertrand saw him he was engaged in stanching a wound in his bare heel with a fistful of matted grass.
“What ‘s wrong, old man?” asked the boy, kindly.
The tramp looked up at him with a bewildered glance, but did not answer.
“Well,” thought Bertrand, “since it ‘s decided that I ‘m to be a physician some day, I can’t begin to practice too early.”
He dismounted, and examined the injured foot. It had an ugly gash. Bertrand acted mostly from impulse. Fortunately his impulses were not bad ones. So, nimbly, and as quickly as he could manage it, he had the old man astride Picayune, whilst he himself was leading the pony down the narrow lane.
The dark green hedge towered like a high and solid wall on one side. On the other was a broad, open field, where here and there appeared the flash and gleam of uplifted, polished hoes, that negroes were plying between the even rows of cotton and tender corn.
“This is the State of Louisiana,” uttered the tramp, quaveringly.
“Yes, this is Louisiana,” returned Bertrand cheerily.
“Yes, I know it is. I ‘ve been in all of them since Gettysburg. Sometimes it was too hot, and sometimes it was too cold; and with that bullet in my head – you don’t remember? No, you don’t remember Gettysburg.”
“Well, no, not vividly,” laughed Bertrand.
“Is it a hospital? It is n’t a factory, is it?” the man questioned.
“Where we ‘re going? Why, no, it ‘s the Delmandé plantation – Bon-Accueil. Here we are. Wait, I ‘ll open the gate.”
This singular group entered the yard from the rear, and not far from the house. A big black woman, who sat just without a cabin door, picking a pile of rusty-looking moss, called out at sight of them: –
“W’at ‘s dat you ‘s bringin’ in dis yard, boy? top dat hoss?”
She received no reply. Bertrand, indeed, took no notice of her inquiry.
“Fu’ a boy w’at goes to school like you does – whar ‘s yo’ sense?” she went on, with a fine show of indignation; then, muttering to herself, “Ma’ame Bertrand an’ Marse St. Ange ain’t gwine stan’ dat, I knows dey ain’t. Dah! ef he ain’t done sot ‘im on de gall’ry, plumb down in his pa’s rockin’-cheer!”
Which the boy had done; seated the tramp in a pleasant corner of the veranda, while he went in search of bandages for his wound.
The servants showed high disapproval, the housemaid following Bertrand into his grandmother’s room, whither he had carried his investigations.
“W’at you tearin’ yo’ gra’ma’s closit to pieces dat away, boy?” she complained in her high soprano.
“I ‘m looking for bandages.”
“Den w’y you don’t ax fu’ ban’ges, an’ lef yo’ gra’ma’s closit ‘lone? You want to listen to me; you gwine git shed o’ dat tramp settin’ dah naxt to de dinin’-room! W’en de silva be missin’, ‘tain’ you w’at gwine git blame, it ‘s me.”
“The silver? Nonsense, ‘Cindy; the man ‘s wounded, and can’t you see he ‘s out of his head?”
“No mo’ outen his head ‘an I is. ‘T ain’ me w’at want to tres’ [trust] ‘im wid de sto’-room key, ef he is outen his head,” she concluded with a disdainful shrug.
But Bertrand’s protégé proved so unapproachable in his long-worn rags, that the boy concluded to leave him unmolested till his father’s return, and then ask permission to turn the forlorn creature into the bathhouse, and array him afterward in clean, fresh garments.
So there the old tramp sat in the veranda corner, stolidly content, when St. Ange Delmandé and his mother returned from town.
St. Ange was a dark, slender man of middle age, with a sensitive face, and a plentiful sprinkle of gray in his thick black hair; his mother, a portly woman, and an active one for her sixty-five years.
They were evidently in a despondent mood. Perhaps it was for the cheer of her sweet presence that they had brought with them from town a little girl, the child of Madame Delmandé’s only daughter, who was married, and lived there.
Madame Delmandé and her son were astonished to find so uninviting an intruder in possession. But a few earnest words from Bertrand reassured them, and partly reconciled them to the man’s presence; and it was with wholly indifferent though not unkindly glances that they passed him by when they entered. On any large plantation there are always nooks and corners where, for a night or more, even such a man as this tramp may be tolerated and given shelter.
When Bertrand went to bed that night, he lay long awake thinking of the man, and of what he had heard from his lips in the hushed starlight. The boy had heard of the awfulness of Gettysburg, till it was like something he could feel and quiver at.
On that field of battle this man had received a new and tragic birth. For all his existence that went before was a blank to him. There, in the black desolation of war, he was born again, without friends or kindred; without even a name he could know was his own. Then he had gone forth a wanderer; living more than half the time in hospitals; toiling when he could, starving when he had to.
Strangely enough, he had addressed Bertrand as “St. Ange,” not once, but every time he had spoken to him. The boy wondered at this. Was it because he had heard Madame Delmandé address her son by that name, and fancied it?
So this nameless wanderer had drifted far down to the plantation of Bon-Accueil, and at last had found a human hand stretched out to him in kindness.
When the family assembled at breakfast on the following morning, the tramp was already settled in the chair, and in the corner which Bertrand’s indulgence had made familiar to him.
If he had turned partly around, he would have faced the flower garden, with its graveled walks and trim parterres, where a tangle of color and perfume were holding high revelry this April morning; but he liked better to gaze into the back yard, where there was always movement: men and women coming and going, bearing implements of work; little negroes in scanty garments, darting here and there, and kicking up the dust in their exuberance.
Madame Delmandé could just catch a glimpse of him through the long window that opened to the floor, and near which he sat.
Mr. Delmandéhad spoken to the man pleasantly, but he and his mother were wholly absorbed by their trouble, and talked constantly of that, while Bertrand went back and forth ministering to the old man’s wants. The boy knew that the servants would have done the office with ill grace, and he chose to be cup-bearer himself to the unfortunate creature for whose presence he alone was responsible.
Once, when Bertrand went out to him with a second cup of coffee, steaming and fragrant, the old man whispered: –
“What are they saying in there?” pointing over his shoulder to the dining-room.
“Oh, money troubles that will force us to economize for a while,” answered the boy. “What father and mé-mère feel worst about is that I shall have to leave college now.”
“No, no! St. Ange must go to school. The war ‘s over, the war ‘s over! St. Ange and Florentine must go to school.”
“But if there ‘s no money,” the boy insisted, smiling like one who humors the vagaries of a child.
“Money! money!” murmured the tramp. “The war ‘s over – money! money!”
His sleepy gaze had swept across the yard into the thick of the orchard beyond, and rested there.
Suddenly he pushed aside the light table that had been set before him, and rose, clutching Bertrand’s arm.
“St. Ange, you must go to school!” he whispered. “The war ‘s over,” looking furtively around. “Come. Don’t let them hear you. Don’t let the negroes see us. Get a spade – the little spade that Buck Williams was digging his cistern with.”
Still clutching the boy, he dragged him down the steps as he said this, and traversed the yard with long, limping strides, himself leading the way.
From under a shed where such things were to be found, Bertrand selected a spade, since the tramp’s whim demanded that he should, and together they entered the orchard.
The grass was thick and tufted here, and wet with the morning dew. In long lines, forming pleasant avenues between, were peach-trees growing, and pear and apple and plum. Close against the fence was the pomegranate hedge, with its waxen blossoms, brick-red. Far down in the centre of the orchard stood a huge pecan-tree, twice the size of any other that was there, seeming to rule like an old-time king.
Here Bertrand and his guide stopped. The tramp had not once hesitated in his movements since grasping the arm of his young companion on the veranda. Now he went and leaned his back against the pecan-tree, where there was a deep knot, and looking steadily before him he took ten -paces forward. Turning sharply to the right, he made five additional paces. Then pointing his finger downward, and looking at Bertrand, he commanded: –
“There, dig. I would do it myself, but for my wounded foot. For I ‘ve turned many a spade of earth since Gettysburg. Dig, St. Ange, dig! The war ‘s over; you must go to school.”
Is there a boy of fifteen under the sun who would not have dug, even knowing he was following the insane dictates of a demented man? Bertrand entered with all the zest of his years and his spirit into the curious adventure; and he dug and dug, throwing great spadefuls of the rich, fragrant earth from side to side.
The tramp, with body bent, and fingers like claws clasping his bony knees, stood watching with eager eyes, that never unfastened their steady gaze from the boy’s rhythmic motions.
“That ‘s it!” he muttered at intervals. “Dig, dig! The war ‘s over. You must go to school, St. Ange.”
Deep down in the earth, too deep for any ordinary turning of the soil with spade or plow to have reached it, was a box. It was of tin, apparently, something larger than a cigar box, and bound round and round with twine, rotted now and eaten away in places.
The tramp showed no surprise at seeing it there; he simply knelt upon the ground and lifted it from its long resting place.
Bertrand had let the spade fall from his hands, and was quivering with the awe of the thing he saw. Who could this wizard be that had come to him in the guise of a tramp, that walked in cabalistic paces upon his own father’s ground, and pointed his finger like a divining-rod to the spot where boxes – may be treasures – lay? It was like a page from a wonder-book.
And walking behind this white-haired old man, who was again leading the way, something of childish superstition crept back into Bertrand’s heart. It was the same feeling with which he had often sat, long ago, in the weird firelight of some negro’s cabin, listening to tales of witches who came in the night to work uncanny spells at their will.
Madame Delmandé had never abandoned the custom of washing her own silver and dainty china. She sat, when the breakfast was over, with a pail of warm suds before her that ‘Cindy had brought to her, with an abundance of soft linen cloths. Her little granddaughter stood beside her playing, as babies will, with the bright spoons and forks, and ranging them in rows on the polished mahogany. St. Ange was at the window making entries in a note-book, and frowning gloomily as he did so.
The group in the dining-room were so employed when the old tramp came staggering in, Bertrand close behind him.
He went and stood at the foot of the table, opposite to where Madame Delmandésat, and let fall the box upon it.
The thing in falling shattered, and from its bursting sides gold came, clicking, spinning, gliding, some of it like oil; rolling along the table and off it to the floor, but heaped up, the bulk of it, before the tramp.
“Here ‘s money!” he called out, plunging his old hand in the thick of it. “Who says St. Ange shall not go to school? The war ‘s over – here ‘s money! St. Ange, my boy,” turning to Bertrand and speaking with quick authority, “tell Buck Williams to hitch Black Bess to the buggy, and go bring Judge Parkerson here.”
Judge Parkerson, indeed, who had been dead for twenty years and more!
“Tell him that – that” – and the hand that was not in the gold went up to the withered forehead, “that – Bertrand Delmandé needs him!”
Madame Delmandé, at sight of the man with his box and his gold, had given a sharp cry, such as might follow the plunge of a knife. She lay now in her son’s arms, panting hoarsely.
“Your father, St. Ange, – come back from the dead – your father!”
“Be calm, mother!” the man implored. “You had such sure proof of his death in that terrible battle, this may not be he.”
“I know him! I know your father, my son!” and disengaging herself from the arms that held her, she dragged herself as a wounded serpent might to where the old man stood.
His hand was still in the gold, and on his face was yet the flush which had come there when he shouted out the name Bertrand Delmandé.
“Husband,” she gasped, “do you know me – your wife?”
The little girl was playing gleefully with the yellow coin.
Bertrand stood, pulseless almost, like a young Actæon cut in marble. .
When the old man had looked long into the woman’s imploring face, he made a courtly bow.
“Madame,” he said, “an old soldier, wounded on the field of Gettysburg, craves for himself and his two little children your kind hospitality.”