Mamouche stood within the open doorway, which he had just entered. It was night; the rain was falling in torrents, and the water trickled from him as it would have done from an umbrella, if he had carried one.
Old Doctor John-Luis, who was toasting his feet before a blazing hickory-wood fire, turned to gaze at the youngster through his spectacles. Marshall, the old negro who had opened the door at the boy’s knock, also looked down at him, and indignantly said:
“G’long back on de gall’ry an’ drip yo’se’f! W’at Cynthy gwine say tomorrow w’en she see dat flo’ mess’ up dat away?”
“Come to the fire and sit down,” said Doctor John-Luis.
Doctor John-Luis was a bachelor. He was small and thin; he wore snuff-colored clothes that were a little too large for him, and spectacles. Time had not deprived him of an abundant crop of hair that had once been red, and was not now more than half-bleached.
The boy looked irresolutely from master to man; then went and sat down beside the fire on a splint-bottom chair. He sat so close to the blaze that had he been an apple he would have roasted. As he was but a small boy, clothed in wet rags, he only steamed.
Marshall grumbled audibly, and Doctor John-Luis continued to inspect the boy through his glasses.
“Marsh, bring him something to eat,” he commanded, tentatively.
Marshall hesitated, and challenged the child with a speculating look.
“Is you w’ite o’ is you black?” he asked. “Dat w’at I wants ter know ‘fo’ I kiar’ victuals to yo in de settin’-room.”
“I’m w’ite, me,” the boy responded, promptly.
“I ain’t disputin’; go ahead. All right fer dem w’at wants ter take yo’ wud fer it.” Doctor John-Luis coughed behind his hand and said nothing.
Marshall brought a platter of cold food to the boy, who rested the dish upon his knees and ate from it with keen appetite.
“Where do you come from?” asked Doctor John-Luis’ when his caller stopped for breath. Mamouche turned a pair of big, soft, dark eyes upon his questioner.
“I come frum Cloutierville this mo’nin’. I been try to git to the twenty-fo’-mile ferry w’en de rain ketch me.”
“What were you going to do at the twenty-four-mile ferry?”
The boy gazed absently into the fire. “I don’ know w’at I was goin’ to do yonda to the twenty-fo’-mile ferry,” he said.
“Then you must be a tramp, to be wandering aimlessly about the country in that way!” exclaimed the doctor.
“No; I don’ b’lieve I’m a tramp, me.” Mamouche was wriggling his toes with enjoyment of the warmth and palatable food.
“Well, what’s your name?” continued Doctor John-Luis.
“My name it’s Mamouche.”
” ‘Mamouche.’ Fiddlesticks! That’s no name.”
The boy looked as if he regretted the fact, while not being able to help it.
“But my pa, his name it was Mathurin Peloté,” he offered in some palliation.
“Peloté! Peloté!” mused Doctor John-Luis. “Any kin to Théodule Peloté who lived formerly in Avoyelles parish?”
“W’y, yes!” laughed Mamouche. “Théodule Peloté, it was my gran’pa.”
“Your grandfather? Well, upon my word!” He looked again, critically, at the youngster’s rags. “Then Stéphanie Galopin must have been your grandmother!”
“Yas,” responded Mamouche, complacently; “that who was my gran’ma. She die two year ago down by Alexandria.”
“Marsh,” called Doctor John-Luis, turning in his chair, “bring him a mug of milk and another piece of pie!”
When Mamouche had eaten all the good things that were set before him, he found that one side of him was quite dry, and he transferred himself over to the other corner of the fire so as to turn to the blaze the side which was still wet.
The action seemed to amuse Doctor John-Luis, whose old head began to fill with recollections.
“That reminds me of Théodule,” he laughed. “Ah, he was a great fellow, your father, Théodule!”
“My gran’pa,” corrected Mamouche.
“Yes, yes, your grandfather. He was handsome; I tell you, he was good-looking. And the way he could dance and play the fiddle and sing! Let me see, how did that song go that he used to sing when we went out serenading: ‘A ta-à ta-‘
‘A ta fenêtre Daignes paraître-tra la la la!’ ” Doctor John-Luis’s voice, even in his youth, could not have been agreeable; and now it bore no resemblance to any sound that Mamouche had ever heard issue from a human throat. The boy kicked his heels and rolled sideward on his chair with enjoyment. Doctor John-Luis laughed even more heartily, finished the stanza, and sang another one through.
“That’s what turned the girls’ heads, I tell you, my boy,” said he, when he had recovered his breath; “that fiddling and dancing and tra la la.”
During the next hour the old man lived again through his youth; through any number of alluring experiences with his friend Théodule, that merry fellow who had never done a steady week’s work in his life; and Stéphanie, the pretty Acadian girl, whom he had never wholly understood, even to this day.
It was quite late when Doctor John-Luis climbed the stairs that led from the sitting-room up to his bedchamber. As he went, followed by the ever attentive Marshall, he was singing:
“A ta fenêtre Daignes paraître,”
but very low, so as not to awaken Mamouche, whom he left sleeping upon a bed that Marshall at his order had prepared for the boy beside the sitting-room fire.
At a very early hour next morning Marshall appeared at his master’s bedside with the accustomed morning coffee.
“What is he doing?” asked Doctor John-Luis, as he sugared and stirred the tiny cup of black coffee.
“Who dat, sah?”
“Why, the boy, Mamouche. What is he doing?”
“He gone, sah. He done gone.”
“Yes, sah. He roll his bed up in de corner; he onlock de do’; he gone. But de silver an’ ev’thing dah; he ain’t kiar’ nuttin’ off.”
“Marshall,” snapped Doctor John-Luis, ill-humoredly, “there are times when you don’t seem to have sense and penetration enough to talk about! I think I’ll take another nap” he grumbled, as he turned his back upon Marshall. “Wake me at seven.”
It was no ordinary thing for Doctor John-Luis to be in a bad humor, and perhaps it is not strictly true to say that he was now. He was only in a little less amiable mood than usual when he pulled on his high rubber boots and went splashing out in the wet to see what his people were doing.
He might have owned a large plantation had he wished to own one, for a long life of persistent, intelligent work had left him with a comfortable fortune in his old age; but he preferred the farm on which he lived contentedly and raised an abundance to meet his modest wants.
He went down to the orchard, where a couple of men were busying themselves in setting out a line of young fruit-trees
“Tut, tut, tut!” They u ere doing it all wrong; the line was not straight; the holes were not deep. It was strange that he had to come down there and discover such things with his old eyes!
He poked his head into the kitchen to complain to Prudence about the ducks that she had not seasoned properly the day before, and to hope that the accident would never occur again.
He tramped over to where a carpenter was working on a gate; securing it – as he meant to secure all the gates upon his place – with great patent clamps and ingenious hinges, intended to baffle utterly the designs of the evil-disposed persons who had lately been tampering with them. For there had been a malicious spirit abroad, who played tricks, it seemed, for pure wantonness upon the farmers and planters, and caused them infinite annoyance.
As Dr. John-Luis contemplated the carpenter at work, and remembered how his gates had recently all been lifted from their hinges one night and left lying upon the ground, the provoking nature of the offense dawned upon him as it had not done before. He turned swiftly, prompted by a sudden determination, and re-entered the house.
Then he proceeded to write out in immense black characters a half-dozen placards. It was an offer of twenty-five dollars’ reward for the capture of the person guilty of the malicious offence already described. These placards were sent abroad with the same eager haste that had conceived and executed them.
After a day or two, Doctor John-Luis’ ill humor had resolved itself into a pensive melancholy.
“Marsh,” he said, “you know, after all, it’s rather dreary to be living alone as I do, without any companion – of my own color, you understand.”
“I knows dat, sah. It sho’ am lonesome,” replied the sympathetic Marshall.
“You see, Marsh, I’ve been thinking lately,” and Doctor John-Luis coughed, for he disliked the inaccuracy of that “lately.” “I’ve been thinking that this property and wealth that I’ve worked so hard to accumulate, are after all doing no permanent, practical good to any one. Now, if I could find some well-disposed boy whom I might train to work, to study, to lead a decent, honest life – a boy of good heart who would care for me in my old age; for I am still comparatively – hem – not old? hey, Marsh?”
“Dey ain’t one in de pa’ish hole yo’ own like you does, sah.”
“That’s it. Now, can you think of such a boy? Try to think. ”
Marshall slowly scratched his head and looked reflective.
“If you can think of such a boy,” said Doctor John-Luis, “you might bring him here to spend an evening with me, you know, without hinting at my intentions, of course. In that way I could sound him; study him up, as it were. For a step of such importance is not to be taken without due consideration, Marsh.”
Well, the first whom Marshall brought was one of Baptiste Choupic’s boys. He was a very timid child, and sat on the edge of his chair, fearfully. He replied in jerky mono-syllables when Doctor John-Luis spoke to him, “Yes, sah – no, sah,” as the case might be; with a little nervous bob of the head.
His presence made the doctor quite uncomfortable. He was glad to be rid of the boy at nine o’clock, when he sent him home with some oranges and a few sweetmeats.
Then Marshall had Theodore over; an unfortunate selection that evinced little judgment on Marshall’s part. Not to mince matters, the boy was painfully forward. He monopolized the conversation; asked impertinent questions and handled and inspected everything in the room. Dr. John-Luis sent him home with an orange and not a single sweet.
Then there was Hyppolite, who was too ugly to be thought of; and Cami, who was heavy and stupid, and fell asleep in his chair with his mouth wide open. And so it went. If Doctor John-Luis had hoped in the company of any of these boys to repeat the agreeable evening he had passed with Mamouche, he was sadly deceived.
At last he instructed Marshall to discontinue the search of that ideal companion he had dreamed of. He was resigned to spend the remainder of his days without one.
Then, one day when it was raining again, and very muddy and chill, a red-faced man came driving up to Doctor John-Luis’ door in a dilapidated buggy. He lifted a boy from the vehicle, whom he held with a vise-like clutch, and whom he straightway dragged into the astonished presence of Doctor John- Luis.
“Here he is, sir,” shouted the red-faced man. “We’ve got him at last! Here he is.”
It was Mamouche, covered with mud, the picture of misery. Doctor John-Luis stood with his back to the fire. He was startled, and visibly and painfully moved at the sight of the boy.
“Is it possible!” he exclaimed. “Then it was you, Mamouche, who did this mischievous thing to me? Lifting my gates from their hinges; letting the chickens in among my flowers to ruin them; and the hogs and cattle to trample and uproot my vegetables!”
“Ha! ha!” laughed the red-faced man, “that game’s played out, now;” and Doctor John-Luis looked as if he wanted to strike him.
Mamouche seemed unable to reply. His lower lip was quivering.
“Yes, it’s me!” he burst out. “It’s me w’at take yo’ gates off the hinge. It’s me w’at turn loose Mr. Morgin’s hoss, w’en Mr. Morgin was passing veillee wid his sweetheart. It’s me w’at take down Ma’ame Angèle’s fence, an’ lef her calf loose to tramp in Mr. Billy’s cotton. It’s me w’at play like a ghos’ by the graveyard las’ Toussaint to scare the darkies passin’ in the road. It’s me w’at – ”
The confession had burst out from the depth of Mamouche’s heart like a torrent, and there is no telling when it would have stopped if Doctor John-Luis had not enjoined silence.
“And pray tell me,” he asked, as severely as he could, “why you left my house like a criminal, in the morning, secretly?”
The tears had begun to course down Mamouche’s brown cheeks.
“I was ‘shame’ of myself, that’s w’y. If you wouldn’ gave me po suppa, an’ no bed, an’ no fire, I don’ say.’ I wouldn’ been ‘shame’ then.”
“Well, sir,” interrupted the red-faced man, “you’ve got a pretty square case against him, I see. Not only for malicious trespass, but of theft. See this bolt?” producing a piece of iron from his coat pocket “That’s what gave him away.”
“I en’t no thief!” blurted Mamouche, indignantly. “It’s one piece o’ iron w’at I pick up in the road.”
“Sir,” said Doctor John-Luis with dignity, “I can understand how the grandson of Théodule Peloté might be guilty of such mischievous pranks as this boy has confessed to. But I know that the grandson of Stéphanie Galopin could not be a thief.”
And he at once wrote out the check for twenty-five dollars, and handed it to the red- faced man with the tips of his fingers.
It seemed very good to Doctor John-Luis to have the boy sitting again at his fireside; and so natural, too. He seemed to be the incarnation of unspoken hopes; the realization of vague and fitful memories of the past.
When Mamouche kept on crying, Doctor John-Luis wiped away the tears with his own brown silk handkerchief.
“Mamouche,” he said, “I want you to stay here; to live here with me always. To learn how to work; to learn how to study; to grow up to be an honorable man. An honorable man, Mamouche, for I want you for my own child.”
His voice was pretty low and husky when he said that.
“I shall not take the key from the door tonight,” he continued. “If you do not choose to stay and be all this that I say, you may open the door and walk out. I shall use no force to keep you.”
“What is he doing, Marsh?” asked Doctor John-Luis the following morning, when he took the coffee that Marshall had brought to him in bed.
“Who dat, sah?”
“Why, the boy Mamouche, of course. What is he doing?”
“He kneelin’ down dah on de flo’. He keep on sayin’, ‘Hail, Mary, full o’ grace, de Lord is wid dee. Hail, Mary, full o’ grace’ – t’ree, fo’ times, sah. I tell ‘im, ‘W’at you sayin’ yo’ prayer dat away, boy?’ He ‘low dat w’at his gran’ma larn ‘im, ter keep outen mischief. W’en de devil say, ‘Take dat gate offen de hinge; do dis; do dat,’ he gwine say t’ree Hail Mary, an’ de devil gwine tu’n tail an’ run.”
“Yes, yes,” laughed Doctor John-Luis. “That’s Stéphanie all over.”
“An’ I tell ‘im: See heah, boy, you drap a couple o’ dem Hail Mary, an’ quit studyin’ ’bout de devil, an’ sot yo’se’f down ter wuk. Dat the oniest way to keep outen mischief.”
“What business is it of yours to interfere?” broke in Doctor John-Luis, irritably. “Let the boy do as his grandmother instructed him.”
“I ain’t desputin’, sah,” apologized Marshall.
“But you know, Marsh,” continued the doctor, recovering his usual amiability. “I think we’ll be able to do something with the boy. I’m pretty sure of it. For, you see, he has his grandmother’s eyes; and his grandmother was a very intelligent woman; a clever woman, Marsh. Her one great mistake was when she married Théodule Peloté.”
Mamouche by Kate Chopin