There was no clumsier looking fellow in church that Sunday morning than Antoine Bocaze-the one they called Tonie. But Tonie did not really care if he were clumsy or not. He felt that he could speak intelligibly to no woman save his mother; but since he had no desire to inflame the hearts of any of the island maidens, what difference did it make?
He knew there was no better fisherman on the Chênière Caminada than himself, if his face was too long and bronzed, his limbs too unmanageable and his eyes too earnest-almost too honest.
It was a midsummer day, with a lazy, scorching breeze blowing from the Gulf straight into the church windows. The ribbons on the young girls’ hats fluttered like the wings of birds, and the old women clutched the flapping ends of the veils that covered their heads.
A few mosquitoes, floating through the blistering air, with their nipping and humming fretted the people to a certain degree of attention and consequent devotion. The measured tones of the priest at the altar rose and fell like a song: “Credo in unum Deum patrem omnipotentem” he chanted. And then the people all looked at one another, suddenly electrified.
Some one was playing upon the organ whose notes no one on the whole island was able to awaken; whose tones had not been heard during the many months since a passing stranger had one day listlessly dragged his fingers across its idle keys. A long, sweet strain of music floated down from the loft and filled the church.
It seemed to most of them-it seemed to Tonie standing there beside his old mother-that some heavenly being must have descended upon the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and chosen this celestial way of communicating with its people.
But it was no creature from a different sphere; it was only a young lady from Grand Isle. A rather pretty young person with blue eyes and nut-brown hair, who wore a dotted lawn of fine texture and fashionable make, and a white Leghorn sailor-hat.
Tonie saw her standing outside of the church after mass, receiving the priest’s voluble praises and thanks for her graceful service.
She had come over to mass from Grand Isle in Baptiste Beaudelet’s lugger, with a couple of young men, and two ladies who kept a pension over there. Tonie knew these two ladies-the widow Lebrun and her old mother-but he did not attempt to speak with them; he would not have known what to say. He stood aside gazing at the group, as others were doing, his serious eyes fixed earnestly upon the fair organist.
Tonie was late at dinner that day. His mother must have waited an hour for him, sitting patiently with her coarse hands folded in her lap, in that little still room with its “brick-painted” floor, its gaping chimney and homely furnishings.
He told her that he had been walking-walking he hardly knew where, and he did not know why. He must have tramped from one end of the island to the other; but he brought her no bit of news or gossip. He did not know if the Cotures had stopped for dinner with the Avendettes; whether old Pierre François was worse, or better, or dead, or if lame Philibert was drinking again this morning. He knew nothing; yet he had crossed the village, and passed every one of its small houses that stood close together in a long jagged line facing the sea; they were gray and battered by time and the rude buffets of the salt sea winds.
He knew nothing though the Cotures had all bade him “good day” as they filed into Avendette’s, where a steaming plate of crab gumbo was waiting for each. He had heard some woman screaming, and others saying it was because old Pierre François had just passed away. But he did not remember this, nor did he recall the fact that lame Philibert had staggered against him when he stood absently watching a “fiddler” sidling across the sunbaked sand. He could tell his mother nothing of all this; but he said he had noticed that the wind was fair and must have driven Baptiste’s boat, like a flying bird, across the water.
Well, that was something to talk about, and old Ma’me Antoine, who was fat, leaned comfortably upon the table after she had helped Tonie to his courtbouillon, and remarked that she found Madame was getting old. Tonie thought that perhaps she was aging and her hair was getting whiter. He seemed glad to talk about her, and reminded his mother of old Madame’s kindness and sympathy at the time his father and brothers had perished. It was when he was a little fellow, ten years before, during a squall in Barataria Bay.
Ma’me Antoine declared that she could never forget that sympathy, if she lived till Judgment Day; but all the same she was sorry to see that Madame Lebrun was also not so young or fresh as she used to be. Her chances of getting a husband were surely lessening every year; especially with the young girls around her, budding each spring like flowers to be plucked. The one who had played upon the organ was Mademoiselle Duvigné, Claire Duvigné, a great belle, the daughter of the famous lawyer who lives in New Orleans, on Rampart street. Ma’me Antoine had found that out during the ten minutes she and others had stopped after mass to gossip with the priest.
“Claire Duvigné,” muttered Tonie, not even making a pretense to taste his courtbouillon, but picking little bits from the half loaf of crusty brown bread that lay beside his plate. “Claire Duvigné; that is a pretty name. Don’t you think so, mother? I can’t think of anyone on the Chênière who has so pretty a one, nor at Grand Isle, either, for that matter. And you say she lives on Rampart street?”
It appeared to him a matter of great importance that he should have his mother repeat all that the priest had told her.
Early the following morning Tonie went out in search of lame Philibert, than whom there was no cleverer workman on the island when he could be caught sober.
Tonie had tried to work on his big lugger that lay bottom upward under the shed, but it had seemed impossible. His mind, his hands, his tools refused to do their office, and in sudden desperation he desisted. He found Philibert and set him to work in his own place under the shed. Then he got into his small boat with the red lateen sail and went over to Grand Isle.
There was no one at hand to warn Tonie that he was acting the part of a fool. He had, singularly, never felt those premonitory symptoms of love which afflict the greater portion of mankind before they reach the age which he had attained. He did not at first recognize this powerful impulse that had, without warning, possessed itself of his entire being. He obeyed it without a struggle, as naturally as he would have obeyed the dictates of hunger and thirst.
Tonie left his boat at the wharf and proceeded at once to Mme Lebrun’s pension, which consisted of a group of plain, stoutly built cottages that stood in mid-island, about half a mile from the sea.
The day was bright and beautiful with soft, velvety gusts of wind blowing from the water. From a cluster of orange trees a flock of doves ascended, and Tonie stopped to listen to the beating of their wings and follow their flight toward the water oaks whither he himself was moving.
He walked with a dragging, uncertain step through the yellow, fragrant camomile, his thoughts traveling before him. In his mind was always the vivid picture of the girl as it had stamped itself there yesterday, connected in some mystical way with that celestial music which had thrilled him and was vibrating yet in his soul.
But she did not look the same to-day. She was returning from the beach when Tonie first saw her, leaning upon the arm of one of the men who had accompanied her yesterday. She was dressed differently-in a dainty blue cotton gown. Her companion held a big white sunshade over them both. They had exchanged hats and were laughing with great abandonment.
Two young men walked behind them and were trying to engage her attention. She glanced at Tonie, who was leaning against a tree when the group passed by; but of course she did not know him. She was speaking English, a language which he hardly understood.
There were other young people gathered under the water oaks-girls who were, many of them, more beautiful than Mlle Duvigné; but for Tonie they simply did not exist. His whole universe had suddenly become converted into a glamorous backgound for the person of Mlle Duvigné, and the shadowy figures of men who were about her.
Tonie went to Mme Lebrun and told her he would bring her oranges next day from the Chênière. She was well pleased, and commissioned him to bring her other things from the stores there, which she could not procure at Grand Isle. She did not question his presence, knowing that these summer days were idle ones for the Chênière fishermen. Nor did she seem surprised when he told her that his boat was at the wharf, and would be there every day at her service. She knew his frugal habits, and supposed he wished to hire it, as others did. He intuitively felt that this could be the only way.
And that is how it happened that Tonie spent so little of his time at the Chênière Caminada that summer. Old Ma’me Antoine grumbled enough about it. She herself had been twice in her life to Grand Isle and once to Grand Terre, and each time had been more than glad to get back to the Chênière. And why Tonie should want to spend his days, and even his nights, away from home, was a thing she could not comprehend, especially as he would have to be away the whole winter; and meantime there was much work to be done at his own hearthside and in the company of his own mother. She did not know that Tonie had much, much more to do at Grand Isle than at the Chênière Caminada.
He had to see how Claire Duvigné sat upon the gallery in the big rocking chair that she kept in motion by the impetus of her slender, slippered foot; turning her head this way and that way to speak to the men who were always near her. He had to follow her lithe motions at tennis or croquet, that she often played with the children under the trees. Some days he wanted to see how she spread her bare, white arms, and walked out to meet the foam-crested waves. Even here there were men with her. And then at night, standing alone like a still shadow under the stars, did he not have to listen to her voice when she talked and laughed and sang? Did he not have to follow her slim figure whirling through the dance, in the arms of men who must have loved her and wanted her as he did. He did not dream that they could help it more than he could help it. But the days when she stepped into his boat, the one with the red lateen sail, and sat for hours within a few feet of him, were days that he would have given up for nothing else that he could think of.
There were always others in her company at such times, young people with jests and laughter on their lips. Only once she was alone.
She had foolishly brought a book with her, thinking she would want to read. But with the breath of the sea stinging her she could not read a line. She looked precisely as she had looked the day he first saw her, standing outside of the church at Chênière Caminada.
She laid the book down in her lap, and let her soft eyes sweep dreamily along the line of the horizon where the sky and water met. Then she looked straight at Tonie, and for the first time spoke directly to him.
She called him Tonie, as she had heard others do, and questioned him about his boat and his work. He trembled, and answered her vaguely and stupidly. She did not mind, but spoke to him anyhow, satisfied to talk herself when she found that he could not or would not. She spoke French, and talked about the Chênière Caminada, its people and its church. She talked of the day she had played upon the organ there, and complained of the instrument being woefully out of tune.
Tonie was perfectly at home in the familiar task of guiding his boat before the wind that bellied its taut, red sail. He did not seem clumsy and awkward as when he sat in church. The girl noticed that he appeared as strong as an ox.
As she looked at him and surprised one of his shifting glances, a glimmer of the truth began to dawn faintly upon her. She remembered how she had encountered him daily in her path, with his earnest, devouring eyes always seeking her out. She recalled-but there was no need to recall anything. There are women whose perception of passion is very keen; they are the women who most inspire it.
A feeling of complacency took possession of her with this conviction. There was some softness and sympathy mingled with it. She would have liked to lean over and pat his big, brown hand, and tell him she felt sorry and would have helped it if she could. With this belief he ceased to be an object of complete indifference in her eyes. She had thought, awhile before, of having him turn about and take her back home. But now it was really piquant to pose for an hour longer before a man-even a rough fisherman-to whom she felt herself to be an object of silent and consuming devotion. She could think of nothing more interesting to do on shore.
She was incapable of conceiving the full force and extent of his infatuation. She did not dream that under the rude, calm exterior before her a man’s heart was beating clamorously, and his reason yielding to the savage instinct of his blood.
“I hear the Angelus ringing at Chênière, Tonie,” she said. “I didn’t know it was so late; let us go back to the island.” There had been a long silence which her musical voice interrupted.
Tonie could now faintly hear the Angelus bell himself. A vision of the church came with it, the odor of incense and the sound of the organ. The girl before him was again the celestial being whom our Lady of Lourdes had once offered to his immortal vision.
It was growing dusk when they landed at the pier, and frogs had begun to croak among the reeds in the pools. There were two of Mlle Duvigné’s usual attendants anxiously awaiting her return. But she chose to let Tonie assist her out of the boat. The touch of her hand fired his blood again.
She said to him very low and half-laughing, “I have no money tonight, Tonie; take this instead,” pressing into his palm a delicate silver chain, which she had worn twined about her bare wrist. It was purely a spirit of coquetry that prompted the action, and a touch of the sentimentality which most women possess. She had read in some romance of a young girl doing something like that.
As she walked away between her two attendants she fancied Tonie pressing the chain to his lips. But he was standing quite still, and held it buried in his tightly closed hand; wanting to hold as long as he might the warmth of the body that still penetrated the bauble when she thrust it into his hand.
He watched her retreating figure like a blotch against the fading sky. He was stirred by a terrible, an overmastering regret, that he had not clasped her in his arms when they were out there alone, and sprung with her into the sea. It was what he had vaguely meant to do when the sound of the Angelus had weakened and palsied his resolution. Now she was going from him, fading away into the mist with those figures on either side of her, leaving him alone. He resolved within himself that if ever again she were out there on the sea at his mercy, she would have to perish in his arms. He would go far, far out where the sound of no bell could reach him. There was some comfort for him in the thought.
But as it happened, Mlle Duvigné never went out alone in the boat with Tonie again.
It was one morning in January. Tonie had been collecting a bill from one of the fishmongers at the French Market, in New Orleans, and had turned his steps toward St Philip street. The day was chilly; a keen wind was blowing. Tonie mechanically buttoned his rough, warm coat and crossed over into the sun.
There was perhaps not a more wretched-hearted being in the whole district, that morning, than he. For months the woman he so hopelessly loved had been lost to his sight. But all the more she dwelt in his thoughts, preying upon his mental and bodily forces until his unhappy condition became apparent to all who knew him. Before leaving his home for the winter fishing grounds he had opened his whole heart to his mother, and told her of the trouble that was killing him. She hardly expected that he would ever come back to her when he went away. She feared that he would not, for he had spoken wildly of the rest and peace that could only come to him with death.
That morning when Tonie had crossed St Philip street he found himself accosted by Madame Lebrun and her mother. He had not noticed them approaching, and, moreover, their figures in winter garb appeared unfamiliar to him. He had never seen them elsewhere than at Grand Isle and the Chênière during the summer. They were glad to meet him, and shook his hand cordially. He stood as usual a little helplessly before them. A pulse in his throat was beating and almost choking him, so poignant were the recollections which their presence stirred up.
They were staying in the city this winter, they told him. They wanted to hear the opera as often as possible, and the island was really too dreary with everyone gone. Madame Lebrun had left her son there to keep order and superintend repairs, and so on.
“You are both well?” stammered Tonie.
“In perfect health, my dear Tonie,” Madame Lebrun replied. She was wondering at his haggard eyes and thin, gaunt cheeks; but possessed too much tact to mention them.
“And-the young lady who used to go sailing-is she well?” he inquired lamely.
“You mean Mlle Favette? She was married just after leaving Grand Isle.”
“No; I mean the one you called Claire-Mamzelle Duvigné-is she well?”
Mother and daughter exclaimed together: “Impossible! You haven’t heard? Why, Tonie,” madame continued, “Mlle Duvigné died three weeks ago! But that was something sad, I tell you … Her family heartbroken … Simply from a cold caught by standing in thin slippers, waiting for her carriage after the opera. … What a warning!”
The two were talking at once. Tonie kept looking from one to the other. He did not know what they were saying, after madame had told him, “Elle est morte.”
As in a dream he finally heard that they said good-bye to him, and sent their love to his mother.
He stood still in the middle of the banquette when they had left him, watching them go toward the market. He could not stir. Something had happened to him-he did not know what. He wondered if the news was killing him.
Some women passed by, laughing coarsely. He noticed how they laughed and tossed their heads. A mockingbird was singing in a cage which hung from a window above his head. He had not heard it before.
Just beneath the window was the entrance to a bar-room. Tonie turned and plunged through its swinging doors. He asked the bartender for whisky. The man thought he was already drunk, but pushed the bottle toward him nevertheless. Tonie poured a great quantity of the fiery liquor into a glass and swallowed it at a draught. The rest of the day he spent among the fishermen and Barataria oystermen; and that night he slept soundly and peacefully until morning.
He did not know why it was so; he could not understand. But from that day he felt that he began to live again, to be once more a part of the moving world about him. He would ask himself over and over again why it was so, and stay bewildered before this truth that he could not answer or explain, and which he began to accept as a holy mystery.
One day in early spring Tonie sat with his mother upon a piece of drift-wood close to the sea.
He had returned that day to the Chênière Caminada. At first she thought he was like his former self again, for all his old strength and courage had returned. But she found that there was a new brightness in his face which had not been there before. It made her think of the Holy Ghost descending and bringing some kind of light to a man.
She knew that Mademoiselle Duvigné was dead, and all along had feared that this knowledge would be the death of Tonie. When she saw him come back to her like a new being, at once she dreaded that he did not know. All day the doubt had been fretting her, and she could bear the uncertainty no longer.
“You know, Tonie-that young lady whom you cared for-well, some one read it to me in the papers-she died last winter.” She had tried to speak as cautiously as she could.
“Yes, I know she is dead. I am glad.”
It was the first time he had said this in words, and it made his heart beat quicker.
Ma’me Antoine shuddered and drew aside from him. To her it was somehow like murder to say such a thing.
“What do you mean? Why are you glad?” she demanded, indignantly.
Tonie was sitting with his elbows on his knees. He wanted to answer his mother, but it would take time; he would have to think. He looked out across the water that glistened gem-like with the sun upon it, but there was nothing there to open his thought. He looked down into his open palm and began to pick at the callous flesh that was hard as a horse’s hoof. Whilst he did this his ideas began to gather and take form.
“You see, while she lived I could never hope for anything,” he began, slowly feeling his way. “Despair was the only thing for me. There were always men about her. She walked and sang and danced with them. I knew it all the time, even when I didn’t see her. But I saw her often enough. I knew that some day one of them would please her and she would give herself to him-she would marry him. That thought haunted me like an evil spirit.”
Tonie passed his hand across his forehead as if to sweep away anything of the horror that might have remained there.
“It kept me awake at night,” he went on. “But that was not so bad; the worst torture was to sleep, for then I would dream that it was all true.
“Oh, I could see her married to one of them-his wife-coming year after year to Grand Isle and bringing her little children with her! I can’t tell you all that I saw-all that was driving me mad! But now”-and Tonie clasped his hands together and smiled as he looked again across the water-“she is where she belongs; there is no difference up there; the curé has often told us there is no difference between men. It is with the soul that we approach each other there. Then she will know who has loved her best. That is why I am so contented. Who knows what may happen up there?”
Ma’me Antoine could not answer. She only took her son’s big, rough hand and pressed it against her.
“And now, ma mère,” he exclaimed, cheerfully, rising, “I shall go light the fire for your bread; it is a long time since I have done anything for you,” and he stooped and pressed a warm kiss on her withered old cheek.
With misty eyes she watched him walk away in the direction of the big brick oven that stood open-mouthed under the lemon trees.