By Grace E. King
It is really not much, the story; it is only the arrangement of it, as we would say of our dresses and our drawing-rooms.
It began with the dawn, of course; and the skiff for our voyage, silvered with dew, waiting in the mist for us, as if it had floated down in a cloud from heaven to the bayou. When repeated, this sounds like poor poetry; but that is the way one thinks at day dawn, when the dew is yet, as it were, upon our brains, and our ideas are still half dreams, and our waking hearts, alas! as innocent as waking babies playing with their toes.
Our oars waked the waters of the bayou, as motionless as a sleeping snake under its misty covert—to continue the poetical language or thought. The ripples ran frightened and shivering into the rooty thicknesses of the sedge-grown banks, startling the little birds bathing there into darting to the nearest, highest rush-top, where, without losing their hold on their swaying, balancing perches, they burst into all sorts of incoherent songs, in their excitement to divert attention from the near-hidden nests: bird mothers are so much like women mothers!
It soon became day enough for the mist to rise. The eyes that saw it ought to be able to speak to tell fittingly about it.
Not all at once, nor all together, but a thinning, a lifting, a breaking, a wearing away; a little withdrawing here, a little withdrawing there; and now a peep, and now a peep; a bride lifting her veil to her husband! Blue! White! Lilies! Blue lilies! White lilies! Blue and white lilies! And still blue and white lilies! And still! And still! Wherever the veil lifted, still and always the bride!
Not in clumps and bunches, not in spots and patches, not in banks, meadows, acres, but in—yes; for still it lifted beyond and beyond and beyond; the eye could not touch the limit of them, for the eye can touch only the limit of vision; and the lilies filled the whole sea-marsh, for that is the way spring comes to the sea-marshes.
The sedge-roots might have been unsightly along the water’s edge, but there were morning-glories, all colors, all shades—oh, such morning-glories as we of the city never see! Our city morning-glories must dream of them, as we dream of angels. Only God could be so lavish! Dropping from the tall spear-heads to the water, into the water, under the water. And then, the reflection of them, in all their colors, blue, white, pink, purple, red, rose, violet!
To think of an obscure little Acadian bayou waking to flow the first thing in the morning not only through banks of new-blown morning-glories, but sown also to its depths with such reflections as must make it think itself a bayou in heaven, instead of in Paroisse St. Martin. Perhaps that is the reason the poor poets think themselves poets, on account of the beautiful things that are only reflected into their minds from what is above? Besides the reflections, there were alligators in the bayou, trying to slip away before we could see them, and watching us with their stupid, senile eyes, sometimes from under the thickest, prettiest flowery bowers; and turtles splashing into the water ahead of us; and fish (silver-sided perch), looking like reflections themselves, floating through the flower reflections, nibbling their breakfast.
Our bayou had been running through swamp only a little more solid than itself; in fact, there was no solidity but what came from the roots of grasses. Now, the banks began to get firmer, from real soil in them. We could see cattle in the distance, up to their necks in the lilies, their heads and sharp-pointed horns coming up and going down in the blue and white. Nothing makes cattle’s heads appear handsomer, with the sun just rising far, far away on the other side of them. The sea-marsh cattle turned loose to pasture in the lush spring beauty—turned loose in Elysium!
But the land was only partly land yet, and the cattle still cattle to us. The rising sun made revelations, as our bayou carried us through a drove in their Elysium, or it might have always been an Elysium to us. It was not all pasturage, all enjoyment. The rising and falling feeding head was entirely different, as we could now see, from the rising and falling agonized head of the bogged—the buried alive. It is well that the lilies grow taller and thicker over the more treacherous places; but, misery! misery! Not much of the process was concealed from us, for the cattle have to come to the bayou for water. Such a splendid black head that had just yielded breath! The wide-spreading ebony horns thrown back among the morning-glories, the mouth open from the last sigh, the glassy eyes staring straight at the beautiful blue sky above, where a ghostly moon still lingered, the velvet neck ridged with veins and muscles, the body already buried in black ooze. And such a pretty red-and-white-spotted heifer, lying on her side, opening and shutting her eyes, breathing softly in meek resignation to her horrible calamity! And, again, another one was plunging and battling in the act of realizing her doom: a fierce, furious, red cow, glaring and bellowing at the soft, yielding inexorable abysm under her, the bustards settling afar off, and her own species browsing securely just out of reach.
They understand that much, the sea-marsh cattle, to keep out of reach of the dead combatant. In the delirium of anguish, relief cannot be distinguished from attack, and rescue of the victim has been proved to mean goring of the rescuer.
The bayou turned from it at last, from our beautiful lily world about which our pleasant thoughts had ceased to flow even in bad poetry.
Our voyage was for information, which might be obtained at a certain habitation; if not there, at a second one, or surely at a third and most distant settlement.
The bayou narrowed into a canal, then widened into a bayou again, and the low, level swamp and prairie advanced into woodland and forest. Oak-trees began, our beautiful oak-trees! Great branches bent down almost to the water,—quite even with high water,—covered with forests of oak, parasites, lichens, and with vines that swept our heads as we passed under them, drooping now and then to trail in the water, a plaything for the fishes, and a landing-place for amphibious insects. The sun speckled the water with its flickering patterns, showering us with light and heat. We have no spring suns; our sun, even in December, is a summer one.
And so, with all its grace of curve and bend, and so—the description is longer than the voyage—we come to our first stopping-place. To the side, in front of the well-kept fertile fields, like a proud little showman, stood the little house. Its pointed shingle roof covered it like the top of a chafing-dish, reaching down to the windows, which peeped out from under it like little eyes.
A woman came out of the door to meet us. She had had time during our graceful winding approach to prepare for us. What an irrevocable vow to old maidenhood! At least twenty-five, almost a possible grandmother, according to Acadian computation, and well in the grip of advancing years. She was dressed in a stiff, dark red calico gown, with a white apron. Her black hair, smooth and glossy under a varnish of grease, was plaited high in the back, and dropped regular ringlets, six in all, over her forehead. That was the epoch when her calamity came to her, when the hair was worn in that fashion. A woman seldom alters her coiffure after a calamity of a certain nature happens to her. The figure had taken a compact rigidity, an unfaltering inflexibility, all the world away from the elasticity of matronhood; and her eyes were clear and fixed like her figure, neither falling, nor rising, nor puzzling under other eyes. Her lips, her hands, her slim feet, were conspicuously single, too, in their intent, neither reaching, nor feeling, nor running for those other lips, hands, and feet which should have doubled their single life.
That was Adorine Mérionaux, otherwise the most industrious Acadian and the best cottonade-weaver in the parish. It had been short, her story. A woman’s love is still with those people her story. She was thirteen when she met him. That is the age for an Acadian girl to meet him, because, you know, the large families—the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, twenty children—take up the years; and when one wishes to know one’s great-great-grandchildren (which is the dream of the Acadian girl) one must not delay one’s story.
She had one month to love him in, and in one week they were to have the wedding. The Acadians believe that marriage must come au point, as cooks say their sauces must be served. Standing on the bayou-bank in front of the Mérionaux, one could say “Good day” with the eyes to the Zévérin Theriots—that was the name of the parents of the young bridegroom. Looking under the branches of the oaks, one could see across the prairie,—prairie and sea-marsh it was,—and clearly distinguish another little red-washed house like the Mérionaux, with a painted roof hanging over the windows, and a staircase going up outside to the garret. With the sun shining in the proper direction, one might distinguish more, and with love shining like the sun in the eyes, one might see, one might see—a heart full.
It was only the eyes, however, which could make such a quick voyage to the Zévérin Theriots; a skiff had a long day’s journey to reach them. The bayou sauntered along over the country like a negro on a Sunday’s pleasuring, trusting to God for time, and to the devil for means.
Oh, nothing can travel quickly over a bayou! Ask any one who has waited on a bayou-bank for a physician or a life-and-death message. Thought refuses to travel and turn and double over it; thought, like the eye, takes the shortest cut—straight over the sea-marsh; and in the spring of the year, when the lilies are in bloom, thought could not take a more heavenly way, even from beloved to beloved.
It was the week before marriage, that week when, more than one’s whole life afterward, one’s heart feels most longing—most—well, in fact, it was the week before marriage. From Sunday to Sunday, that was all the time to be passed. Adorine—women live through this week by the grace of God, or perhaps they would be as unreasonable as the men—Adorine could look across the prairie to the little red roof during the day, and could think across it during the night, and get up before day to look across again—longing, longing all the time. Of course one must supply all this from one’s own imagination or experience.
But Adorine could sing, and she sang. One might hear, in a favorable wind, a gunshot, or the barking of a dog from one place to the other, so that singing, as to effect, was nothing more than the voicing of her looking and thinking and longing.
When one loves, it is as if everything was known of and seen by the other; not only all that passes in the head and heart, which would in all conscience be more than enough to occupy the other, but the talking, the dressing, the conduct. It was then that the back hair was braided and the front curled more and more beautifully every day, and that the calico dresses became stiffer and stiffer, and the white crochet lace collar broader and lower in the neck. At thirteen she was beautiful enough to startle one, they say, but that was nothing; she spent time and care upon these things, as if, like other women, her fate seriously depended upon them. There is no self-abnegation like that of a woman in love.
It was her singing, however, which most showed that other existence in her existence. When she sang at her spinning-wheel or her loom, or knelt battling clothes on the bank of the bayou, her lips would kiss out the words, and the tune would rise and fall and tremble, as if Zepherin were just across there, anywhere; in fact, as if every blue and white lily might hide an ear of him.
It was the time of the new moon, fortunately, when all sit up late in the country. The family would stop in their talking about the wedding to listen to her. She did not know it herself, but it—the singing—was getting louder and clearer, and, poor little thing, it told everything. And after the family went to bed they could still hear her, sitting on the bank of the bayou, or up in her window, singing and looking at the moon traveling across the lily prairie—for all its beauty and brightness no more beautiful and bright than a heart in love.
It was just past the middle of the week, a Thursday night. The moon was so bright the colors of the lilies could be seen, and the singing, so sweet, so far-reaching—it was the essence of the longing of love. Then it was that the miracle happened to her. Miracles are always happening to the Acadians. She could not sleep, she could not stay in bed. Her heart drove her to the window, and kept her there, and—among the civilized it could not take place, but here she could sing as she pleased in the middle of the night; it was nobody’s affair, nobody’s disturbance. “Saint Ann! Saint Joseph! Saint Mary!” She heard her song answered! She held her heart, she bent forward, she sang again. Oh, the air was full of music! It was all music! She fell on her knees; she listened, looking at the moon; and, with her face in her hands, looking at Zepherin. It was God’s choir of angels, she thought, and one with a voice like Zepherin! Whenever it died away she would sing again, and again, and again—
“HER HEART DROVE HER TO THE WINDOW”.
But the sun came, and the sun is not created, like the moon, for lovers, and whatever happened in the night, there was work to be done in the day. Adorine worked like one in a trance, her face as radiant as the upturned face of a saint. They did not know what it was, or rather they thought it was love. Love is so different out there, they make all kinds of allowances for it. But, in truth, Adorine was still hearing her celestial voices or voice. If the cackling of the chickens, the whir of the spinning-wheel, or the “bum bum” of the loom effaced it a moment, she had only to go to some still place, round her hand over her ear, and give the line of a song, and—it was Zepherin—Zepherin she heard.
She walked in a dream until night. When the moon came up she was at the window, and still it continued, so faint, so sweet, that answer to her song. Echo never did anything more exquisite, but she knew nothing of such a heathen as Echo. Human nature became exhausted. She fell asleep where she was, in the window, and dreamed as only a bride can dream of her groom. When she awoke, “Adorine! Adorine!” the beautiful angel voices called to her; “Zepherin! Zepherin!” she answered, as if she, too, were an angel, signaling another angel in heaven. It was too much. She wept, and that broke the charm. She could hear nothing more after that. All that day was despondency, dejection, tear-bedewed eyes, and tremulous lips, the commonplace reaction, as all know, of love exaltation. Adorine’s family, Acadian peasants though they were, knew as much about it as any one else, and all that any one knows about it is that marriage is the cure-all, and the only cure-all, for love.
“ALL THAT DAY WAS DESPONDENCY, DEJECTION.”
And Zepherin? A man could better describe his side of that week; for it, too, has mostly to be described from imagination or experience. What is inferred is that what Adorine longed and thought and looked in silence and resignation, according to woman’s way, he suffered equally, but in a man’s way, which is not one of silence or resignation,—at least when one is a man of eighteen,—the last interview, the near wedding, her beauty, his love, her house in sight, the full moon, the long, wakeful nights.
He took his pirogue; but the bayou played with his impatience, maddened his passion, bringing him so near, to meander with him again so far away. There was only a short prairie between him and—, a prairie thick with lily-roots—one could almost walk over their heads, so close, and gleaming in the moonlight. But this is all only inference.
The pirogue was found tethered to the paddle stuck upright in the soft bank, and—Adorine’s parents related the rest. Nothing else was found until the summer drought had bared the swamp.
There was a little girl in the house when we arrived—all else were in the field—a stupid, solemn, pretty child, the child of a brother. How she kept away from Adorine, and how much that testified!
It would have been too painful. The little arms around her neck, the head nestling to her bosom, sleepily pressing against it. And the little one might ask to be sung to sleep. Sung to sleep!
The little bed-chamber, with its high mattressed bed, covered with the Acadian home-spun quilt, trimmed with netting fringe, its bit of mirror over the bureau, the bottle of perfumed grease to keep the locks black and glossy, the prayer-beads and blessed palms hanging on the wall, the low, black polished spinning-wheel, the loom,—the métier d’ Adorine famed throughout the parish,—the ever goodly store of cotton and yarn hanks swinging from the ceiling, and the little square, open window which looked under the mossy oak-branches to look over the prairie; and once again all blue and white lilies—they were all there, as Adorine was there; but there was more—not there.