Bayou Folk/At the 'Cadian Ball
Bobinôt, that big, brown, good-natured Bobinôt, had no intention of going to the ball, even though he knew Calixta would be there. For what came of those balls but heartache, and a sickening disinclination for work the whole week through, till Saturday night came again and his tortures began afresh? Why could he not love Ozéina, who would marry him to-morrow; or Fronie, or any one of a dozen others, rather than that little Spanish vixen? Calixta’s slender foot had never touched Cuban soil; but her mother’s had, and the Spanish was in her blood all the same. For that reason the prairie people forgave her much that they would not have overlooked in their own daughters or sisters.
Her eyes – Bobinôt thought of her eyes, and weakened – the bluest, the drowsiest, most tantalizing that ever looked into a man’s; he thought of her flaxen hair that kinked worse than a mulatto’s close to her head; that broad smiling mouth and tiptilted nose, that full-figure; that voice like a rich contralto song, with cadences in it that must have been taught by Satan, for there was no one else to teach her tricks on that ‘Cadian prairie. Bobinôt thought of them all as he plowed his rows of cane.
There had even been a breath of scandal whispered about her a year ago, when she went to Assumption – but why talk of it? No one did now. “C’est Espagnol, ça,” most of them said with lenient shoulder shrugs. “Bon chien tient de race,” the old men mumbled over their pipes, stirred by recollections. Nothing was made of it, except that Fronie threw it up to Calixta when the two quarreled and fought on the church steps after mass one Sunday, about a lover. Calixta swore roundly in fine ‘Cadian French and with true Spanish spirit, and slapped Fronie’s face. Fronie had slapped her back; “Tiens, cocotte, va!” “Espèce de lionèse; prends ça, et ça!” till the curé himself was obliged to hasten and make peace between them. Bobinôt thought of it all, and would not go to the ball.
But in the afternoon, over at Friedheimer’s store, where he was buying a trace-chain, he heard some one say that Alcée Laballière would be there. Then wild horses could not have kept him away. He knew how it would be – or rather he did not know how it would be – if the handsome young planter came over to the ball as he sometimes did. If Alcée happened to be in a serious mood, he might only go to the card-room and play a round or two; or he might stand out on the galleries talking crops and politics with the old people. But there was no telling. A drink or two could put the devil in his head – that was what Bobinôt said to himself, as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his red bandanna; a gleam from Calixta’s eyes, a flash of her ankle, a twirl of her skirts could do the same. Yes, Bobinôt would go to the ball.
That was the year Alcée Laballière put nine hundred acres in rice. It was putting a good deal of money into the ground but the returns promised to be glorious. Old Madame Laballière, sailing about the spacious galleries in her white volante, figured it all out in her head. Clarisse, her goddaughter, helped her a little, and together they built more air-castles than enough. Alcée worked like a mule that time; and if he did not kill himself, it was because his constitution was an iron one. It was an every-day affair for him to come in from the field well-nigh exhausted, and wet to the waist. He did not mind if there were visitors; he left them to his mother and Clarisse. There were often guests: young men and women who came up from the city, which was but a few hours away, to visit his beautiful kinswoman. She was worth going a good deal farther than that to see. Dainty as a lily; hardy as a sunflower; slim, tall, graceful, like one of the reeds that grew in the marsh. Cold and kind and cruel by turn, and everything that was aggravating to Alcée.
He would have liked to sweep the place of those visitors, often. Of the men, above all, with their ways and their manners; their swaying of fans like women, and dandling about hammocks. He could have pitched them over the levee into the river, if it hadn’t meant murder. That was Alcée. But he must have been crazy the day he came in from the rice-field, and, toil-stained as he was, clasped Clarisse by the arms and panted a volley of hot, blistering love-words into her face. No man had ever spoken love to her like that.
“Monsieur!” she exclaimed, looking him full in the eyes, without a quiver. Alcée’s hands dropped and his glance wavered before the chill of her calm, clear eyes.
“Par exemple!” she muttered disdainfully, as she turned from him, deftly adjusting the careful toilet that he had so brutally disarranged.
That happened a day or two before the cyclone came that cut into the rice like fine steel. It was an awful thing, coming so swiftly, without a moment’s warning in which to light a holy candle or set a piece of blessed palm burning. Old madame wept openly and said her beads, just as her son Didier, the New Orleans one, would have done. If such a thing had happened to Alphonse, the Laballière planting cotton up in Natchitoches, he would have raved and stormed like a second cyclone, and made his surroundings unbearable for a day or two. But Alcée took the misfortune differently. He looked ill and gray after it, and said nothing. His speechlessness was frightful. Clarisse’s heart melted with tenderness; but when she offered her soft, purring words of condolence, he accepted them with mute indifference. Then she and her nénaine wept afresh in each other’s arms.
A night or two later, when Clarisse went to her window to kneel there in the moonlight and say her prayers before retiring, she saw that Bruce, Alcée’s negro servant, had led his master’s saddle-horse noiselessly along the edge of the sward that bordered the gravel-path, and stood holding him near by. Presently, she heard Alcée quit his room, which was beneath her own, and traverse the lower portico. As he emerged from the shadow and crossed the strip of moonlight, she perceived that he carried a pair of well-filled saddle-bags which he at once flung across the animal’s back. He then lost no time in mounting, and after a brief exchange of words with Bruce, went cantering away, taking no precaution to avoid the noisy gravel as the negro had done.
Clarisse had never suspected that it might be Alcée’s custom to sally forth from the plantation secretly, and at such an hour; for it was nearly midnight. And had it not been for the telltale saddle-bags, she would only have crept to bed, to wonder, to fret, and dream unpleasant dreams. But her impatience and anxiety would not be held in check. Hastily unbolting the shutters of her door that opened upon the gallery, she stepped outside and called softly to the old negro.
“Gre’t Peter! Miss Clarisse. I was n’ sho it was a ghos’ o’ w’at, stan’in’ up dah, plumb in de night, dataway.”
He mounted halfway up the long, broad flight of stairs. She was standing at the top.
“Bruce, w’ere has Monsieur Alcée gone?” she asked.
“W’y, he gone ‘bout he business, I reckin,” replied Bruce, striving to be non-committal at the outset.
“W’ere has Monsieur Alcée gone?” she reiterated, stamping her bare foot. “I won’t stan’ any nonsense or any lies; mine, Bruce.”
“I don’ ric’lic ez I eva tole you lie yit, Miss Clarisse. Mista Alcée, he all broke up, sho.”
“W’ere – has – he gone? Ah Sainte Vierge! Faut de la patience! Butor, va!
“W’en I was in he room, a-breshin’ off he clo’es to-day,” the darkey began, settling himself against the stair-rail, “he look dat speechless an’ down, I say, ‘You ‘pear to me like some pussun w’at gwine have a spell o’ sickness, Mista Alcée.’ He say, ‘You reckin?’ ‘I dat he git up, go look hisse’f stiddy in de glass. Den he go to de chimbly an’jerk up de quinine bottle an’ po’ a gre’t hoss-dose on to he han’. An’ he swalla dat mess in a wink, an’ wash hit down wid a big dram o’ w’iskey w’at he keep in he room, aginst he come all soppin’ wet outen de fiel’.
“He ‘lows, ‘No, I ain’ gwine be sick, Bruce.’ Den he square off. He say, ‘I kin mak out to stan’ up an’ gi’ an’ take wid any man I knows, lessen hit ‘s John L. Sulvun. But w’en God A’mighty an’ a ‘oman jines fo’ces agin me, dat’s one too many fur me.’ I tell ‘im, ‘Jis so,’ whils’ I ‘se makin’ out to bresh a spot off w’at ain’ dah, on he coat colla. I tell ‘im, ‘You wants li’le res’, suh.’ He say, ‘No, I wants li’le fling; dat w’at I wants; an’ I gwine git it. Pitch me a fis’ful o’ clo’es in dem ‘ar saddle-bags.’ Dat w’at he say. Don’t you bodda, missy. He jis’ gone a-caperin’ yonda to de Cajun ball. Uh – uh – de skeeters is fair’ a-swarmin’ like bees roun’ yo’ foots!”
The mosquitoes were ideed attacking Clarisse’s white feet savagely. She had unconsciously been alternately rubbing one foot over the other during the darkey’s recital.
“The ‘Cadian ball,” she repeated contemptuously. “Humph! Par exemple! Nice conduc’ for a Laballière. An’ he needs a saddle-bag, fill’ with clothes, to go to the ‘Cadian ball!”
“Oh, Miss Clarisse; you go on to bed, chile; git yo’ soun’ sleep. He ‘low he come back in couple weeks o’ so. I kiarn be repeatin’ lot o’ truck w’at young mans say, out heah face o’ young gal.”
Clarisse said no more, but turned and abruptly reentered the house.
“You done talk too much wid yo’ mouf a’ready, you ole fool nigga, you,” muttered Bruce to himself as he walked away.
Alcée reached the ball very late, of course – too late for the chicken gumbo which had been served at midnight.
The big, low-ceiled room – they called it a hall – was packed with men and women dancing to the music of three fiddles. There were broad galleries all around it. There was a room at one side where sober-faced men were playing cards. Another, in which babies were sleeping, was called le parc aux petits. Any one who is white may go to a ‘Cadian ball, but he must pay for his lemonade, his coffee and chicken gumbo. And he must behave himself like a ‘Cadian. Grosboeuf was giving this ball. He had been giving them since he was a young man, and he was a middle-aged one, now. In that time he could recall but one disturbance, and that was caused by American railroaders, who were not in touch with their surroundings and had no business there. “Ces maudits gens du raiderode,” Grosbœuf called them.
Alcée Laballière’s presence at the ball caused a flutter even among the men, who could not but admire his “nerve” after such misfortune befalling him. To be sure, they knew the Laballières were rich – that there were resources East, and more again in the city. But they felt it took a brave homme to stand a blow like that philosophically. One old gentleman, who was in the habit of reading a Paris newspaper and knew things, chuckled gleefully to everybody that Alcée’s conduct was altogether chic, mais chic. That he had more panache than Boulanger. Well, perhaps he had.
But what he did not show outwardly was that he was in a mood for ugly things to-night. Poor Bobinôt alone felt it vaguely. He discerned a gleam of it in Alcée’s handsome eyes, as the young planter stood in the doorway, looking with rather feverish glance upon the assembly, while he laughed and talked with a ‘Cadian farmer who was beside him.
Bobinôt himself was dull-looking and clumsy. Most of the men were. But the young women were very beautiful. The eyes that glanced into Alcée’s as they passed him were big, dark, soft as those of the young heifers standing out in the cool prairie grass.
But the belle was Calixta. Her white dress was not nearly so handsome or well made as Fronie’s (she and Fronie had quite forgotten the battle on the church steps, and were friends again), nor were her slippers so stylish as those of Ozéina; and she fanned herself with a handkerchief, since she had broken her red fan at the last ball, and her auntes and uncles were not willing to give her another. But all the men agreed she was at her best to-night. Such animation! And abandon! Such flashes of wit!
“Hé, Bobinôt! Mais w’at ‘s the matta? W’at you standin’ planté là like ole Ma’ame Tina’s cow in the bog, you?”
That was good. That was an excellent thrust at Bobinôt, who had forgotten the figure of the dance with his mind bent on other things, and it started a clamor of laughter at his expense. He joined good-naturedly. It was better to receive even such notice as that from Calixta than none at all. But Madame Suzonne, sitting in a corner, whispered to her neighbor that if Ozéina were to conduct herself in a like manner, she should immediately be taken out to the mule-cart and driven home. The women did not always approve of Calixta.
Now and then there were short lulls in the dance, when couples flocked out upon the galleries for a brief respite and fresh air. The moon had gone down pale in the west, and in the east was yet no promise of day. After such an interval, when the dancers again assembled to resume the interrupted quadrille, Calixta was not among them.
She was sitting upon a bench out in the shadow, with Alcée beside her. They were acting like fools. He had attempted to take a little gold ring from her finger; just for the fun of it, for there was nothing he could have done with the ring but replace it again. But she clinched her hand tight. He pretended that it was a very difficult matter to open it. Then he kept the hand in his. They seemed to forget about it. He played with her earring, a thin crescent of gold hanging from her small brown ear. He caught a wisp of the kinky hair that had escaped its fastening, and rubbed the ends of it against his shaven cheek.
“You know, last year in Assumption, Calixta?” They belonged to the younger generation, so preferred to speak English.
“Don’t come say Assumption to me, M’sieur Alcée. I done yeard Assumption till I’m plumb sick.”
“Yes, I know. The idiots! Because you were in Assumption, and I happened to go to Assumption, they must have it that we went together. But it was nice – hein, Calixta? – in Assumption?”
They saw Bobinôt emerge from the hall and stand a moment outside the lighted doorway, peering uneasily and searchingly into the darkness. He did not see them, and went slowly back.
“There is Bobinôt looking for you. You are going to set poor Bobinôt crazy. You’ll marry him someday; hein, Calixta?”
“I don’t say no, me,” she replied, striving to withdraw her hand, which he held more firmly for the attempt.
“But come, Calixta; you know you said you would go back to Assumption, just to spite them.”
“No, I neva said that, me. You mus’ dreamt that.”
“Oh, I thought you did. You know I’m going down to the city.”
“Betta make has’e, then; it’s mos’ day.”
“Well, to-morrow’ll do.”
“W’at you goin’ do, yonda?”
“I don’t know. Drown myself in the lake, maybe; unless you go down there to visit your uncle.”
Calixta’s senses were reeling; and they well-nigh left her when she felt Alcée’s lips brush her ear like the touch of a rose.
“Mista Alcée! Is dat Mista Alcée?” the thick voice of a negro was asking; he stood on the ground, holding to the banister-rails near which the couple sat.
“W’at do you want now?” cried Alcée impatiently. “Can’t I have a moment of peace?”
“I ben huntin’ you high an’ low, suh,” answered the man. “Dey – dey some one in de road, onda de mulbare-tree, want see you a minute.”
“I wouldn’t go out to the road to see the Angel Gabriel. And if you come back here with any more talk, I’ll have to break your neck.” The negro turned mumbling away.
Alcée and Calixta laughed softly about it. Her boisterousness was all gone. They talked low, and laughed softly, as lovers do.
“Alcée! Alcée Laballière!”
It was not the negro’s voice this time; but one that went through Alcée’s body like an electric shock, bringing him to his feet.
Clarisse was standing there in her riding-habit, where the negro had stood. For an instant confusion reigned in Alcée’s thoughts, as with one who awakes suddenly from a dream. But he felt that something of serious import had brought his cousin to the ball in the dead of night.
“W’at does this mean, Clarisse?” he asked.
“It means something has happen’ at home. You mus’ come.”
“Happened to maman?” he questioned, in alarm.
“No; nénaine is well, and asleep. It is something else. Not to frighten you. But you mus’ come. Come with me, Alcée.”
There was no need for the imploring note. He would have followed the voice anywhere.
She had now recognized the girl sitting back on the bench.
“Ah, c’est vous, Calixta? Comment ça va, mon enfant?”
“Tcha va b’en; et vous, mam’zelle?”
Alcée swung himself over the low rail and started to follow Clarisse, without a word, without a glance back at the girl. He had forgotten he was leaving her there. But Clarisse whispered something to him, and he turned back to say “Good-night, Calixta,” and offer his hand to press through the railing. She pretended not to see it.
“How come that? You settin’ yere by yo’self, Calixta?” It was Bobinôt who had found her there alone. The dancers had not yet come out. She looked ghastly in the faint, gray light struggling out of the east.
“Yes, that’s me. Go yonda in the parc aux petits an’ ask Aunt Olisse fu’ my hat. She knows w’ere ‘t is. I want to go home, me.”
“How you came?”
“I come afoot, with the Cateaus. But I’m goin’ now. I ent goin’ wait fu’ ‘em. I’m plumb wo’ out, me.”
“Kin I go with you, Calixta?”
“I don’ care.”
They went together across the open prairie and along the edge of the fields, stumbling in the uncertain light. He told her to lift her dress that was getting wet and bedraggled; for she was pulling at the weeds and grasses with her hands.
“I don’ care; it’s got to go in the tub, anyway. You been sayin’ all along you want to marry me, Bobinôt. Well, if you want, yet, I don’ care, me.”
The glow of a sudden and overwhelming happiness shone out in the brown, rugged face of the young Acadian. He could not speak, for very joy. It choked him.
“Oh well, if you don’ want,” snapped Calixta, flippantly, pretending to be piqued at his silence.
“Bon Dieu! You know that makes me crazy, w’at you sayin’. You mean that, Calixta? You ent goin’ turn roun’ agin?”
“I neva tole you that much yet, Bobinôt. I mean that. Tiens,” and she held her hand in the business-like manner of a man who clinches a bargain with a hand-clasp. Bobinôt grew bold with happiness and asked Calixta to kiss him. She turned her face, that was almost ugly after the night’s dissipation, and looked steadily into his.
“I don’ want to kiss you, Bobinôt,” she said, turning away again, “not to-day. Some other time. Bonté divine! Ent you satisfy, yet!”
“Oh, I’m satisfy, Calixta,” he said.
Riding through a patch of wood, Clarisse’s saddle became ungirted, and she and Alcée dismounted to readjust it.
For the twentieth time he asked her what had happened at home.
“But, Clarisse, w’at is it? Is it a misfortune?”
“Ah, Dieu sait! It’s only something that happen’ to me.”
“I saw you go away las’ night, Alcée, with those saddle-bags,” she said, haltingly, striving to arrange something about the saddle, “an’ I made Bruce tell me. He said you had gone to the ball, an’ wouldn’ be home for weeks an’ weeks. I thought, Alcée – maybe you were going to – to Assumption. I got wild. An’ then I knew if you didn’t come back, now, to-night. I couldn’t stan’ it – again.”
She had her face hidden in her arm that she was resting against the saddle when she said that.
He began to wonder if this meant love. But she had to tell him so, before he believed it. And when she told him, he thought the face of the Universe was changed – just like Bobinôt. Was it last week the cyclone had well-nigh ruined him? The cyclone seemed a huge joke, now. It was he, then, who, an hour ago was kissing Calixta’s ear and whispering nonsense into it. Calixta was like a myth, now. The one, only, great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him, telling him that she loved him.
In the distance they heard the rapid discharge of pistol-shots; but it did not disturb them. They knew it was only the negro musicians who had gone into the yard to fire their pistols into the air, as the custom is, and to announce “le bal est fini”.