The Lane that had No Turning/The Absurd Romance of P'tite Louison
THE ABSURD ROMANCE OF P'TITE LOUISON
THE five brothers lived with Louison, three miles from Pontiac, and Medallion came to know them first through having sold them, at an auction, a slice of an adjoining farm. He had been invited to their home, intimacy had grown, and afterwards, stricken with a severe illness, he had been taken into the household and kept there till he was well again. The night of his arrival, Louison, the sister, stood with a brother on either hand—Octave and Florian—and received him with a courtesy more stately than usual, an expression of the reserve and modesty of her single state. This maidenly dignity was at all times shielded by the five brothers, who treated her with a constant and reverential courtesy. There was something signally suggestive in their homage, and Medallion concluded at last that it was paid not only to the sister but to something that gave her great importance in their eyes.
He puzzled long, and finally decided that Louison had a romance. There was something which suggested it in the way they said "P'tite Louison"; in the manner they avoided all gossip regarding marriages and marriage-feasting; in the way they deferred to her on a question of etiquette (as, for instance, Should the eldest child be given the family name of the wife or a Christian name from her husband's family?). And P'tite Louison's opinion was accepted instantly as final, with satisfied nods on the part of all the brothers, and with whispers of "How clever! how adorable! such beauty!"
P'tite Louison affected never to hear these remarks, but looked complacently straight before her, stirring the spoon in her cup, or benignly passing the bread and butter. She was quite aware of the homage paid to her, and she gracefully accepted the fact that she was an object of interest.
Medallion had not the heart to laugh at the adoration of the brothers, nor at the outlandish sister, for, though she was angular and sallow and thin, and her hands were large and red, there was a something deep in her eyes, a curious quality in her carriage, commanding respect. She had ruled these brothers, had been worshipped by them, for near half a century, and the romance they had kept alive had produced a grotesque sort of truth and beauty in the admiring "P'tite Louison"—an affectionate name for her greatness, like "The Little Corporal" for Napoleon. She was not little, either, but above the middle height, and her hair was well streaked with gray.
Her manner toward Medallion was not marked by any affectation. She was friendly in a kind, impersonal way, much as a nurse cares for a patient, and she never relaxed a sort of old-fashioned courtesy, which might have been trying in such close quarters, were it not for the real simplicity of the life and the spirit and lightness of their race. One night Florian—there were Florian and Octave and Felix and Isidore and Emile—the eldest, drew Medallion aside from the others, and they walked together by the river. Florian's air suggested confidence and mystery, and soon, with a voice of hushed suggestion, he told Medallion the romance of P'tite Louison. And each of the brothers at different times during the next fortnight did the same, differing scarcely at all in details or choice of phrase or meaning, and not at all in general facts and essentials. But each, as he ended, made a different exclamation.
"Voilà! so sad, so wonderful! She keeps the ring—dear P'tite Louison!" said Florian, the eldest.
"Alors! she gives him a legacy in her will! Sweet P'tite Louison," said Octave.
"Mais! the governor and the archbishop admire her—P'tite Louison!" said Felix, nodding confidently at Aledallion.
"Bien! you should see the linen and the petticoats!" said Isidore, the humorous one of the family. "He was great—she was an angel—P'tite Louison!"
"Attends! what love! what history! what passion!—the perfect P'tite Louison!" cried Emile, the youngest, the most sentimental. "Ah, Molière!" he added, as if calling on the master to rise and sing the glories of this daughter of romance.
Isidore's tale was after this fashion:
"I ver' well remember the first of it; and the last of it—who can tell? He was an actor—oh, so droll, that! Tall, ver' smart, and he play in theatre at Montreal. It is in the winter. P'tite Louison visit Montreal. She walk past the theatre and, as she go by, she slip on the snow and fall. Out from a door with a jomp come M'sieu' Hadrian, and pick her up. And when he see the purty face of P'tite Louison, his eyes go all afire and he clasp her hand to his breast.
"‘Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!' he say, 'we must meet again!'
"She thank him, and hurry away quick. Next day we are on the river and P'tite Louison try to do the Dance of the Blue Fox on the ice. While she do it, some one come up swift and catch her hand, and say, 'Ma'm'selle, let's do it together'—like that! It take her breath away. It is M'sieu' Hadrian. He not seem like the other men she know, but he have a sharp look, he is smooth in the face, and he smile kind like a woman. P'tite Louison, she give him her hand, and they run away, and every one stop to look. It is a gran' sight! M'sieu' Hadrian laugh and his teeth shine, and the ladies say things of him, and he tell P'tite Louison that she look ver' fine and walk like a queen. I am there that day, and I see all and I think it dam good. I say: 'That P'tite Louison, she beat them all'—I am only twelve year old then. When M'sieu' Hadrian leave he give her two seats for the theatre, and we go. Bagosh! that is grand thing, that play, and M'sieu' Hadrian, he is a prince; and when he say to his minister, 'But, no, my lord, I will marry out of my star, and where my heart go, not as the State wills,' he look down at P'tite Louison, and she go all red, and some of the women look at her, and there is a whisper all roun'.
"Nex' day he come to the house where we stay, but the Curé come also pretty soon and tell her she must go home—he say an actor is not good company. Never mind. And so we come out home. Well, what you think? Nex' day M'sieu' Hadrian come, too, and we have dam good time—Florian, Octave, Felix, Emile, they all sit and say bully good to him all the time. Holy, what fine stories he tell! And he talk about P'tite Louison, and his eyes get wet, and Emile he say his prayers to him—bagosh! yes, I think. Well, at last, what you guess? M'sieu' he come and come, and at last one day, he say that he leave Montreal and go to New York, where he get a good place in a big theatre—his time in Montreal is finish. So he speak to Florian and say he want to marry P'tite Louison, and he say, of course, that he is not marry and he have money. But he is a Protestan', and the Curé at first ver' mad, bagosh!
"But at last when he give a hunder' dollars to the Church, the Cure say yes. All happy that way for while. P'tite Louison, she get ready quick—sapré what fine things had she! and it is all to be done in a week, while the theatre in New York wait for M'sieu'. He sit there with us, and play on the fiddle, and sing songs, and act plays, and help Florian in the barn, and Octave to mend the fence, and the Curé to fix the grapevines on his wall. He show me and Emile how to play sword-sticks; and he pick flowers and fetch them to P'tite Louison, and teach her how to make an omelette and a salad like the chef of the Louis Quinze Hotel, so he say. Bagosh, what a good time we have! But first one, then another, he get a choke-throat when he think that P'tite Louison go to leave us, and the more we try, the more we are bagosh fools. And that P'tite Louison, she kiss us hevery one, and say to M'sieu' Hadrian, 'Charles, I love you, but I cannot go!' He laugh at her, and say: ‘Voilà! we will take them all with us,' and P'tite Louison she laugh. That night a thing happen. The Curé come, and he look ver' mad, and he frown and he say to M'sieu' Hadrian before us all, 'M'sieu', you are married!'
"Sapré! that P'tite Louison get pale like snow, and we all stan' roun' her close and say to her quick, 'Courage, P'tite Louison!' M'sieu' Hadrian then look at the priest and say: 'No, M'sieu', I was married ten years ago; my wife drink and go wrong, and I get divorce, I am free like the wind.'
"‘You are not free,' the Curé say quick. 'Once married, married till death. The Church cannot marry you again, and I command Louison to give you up.'
"P'tite Louison stand like stone. M'sieu' turn to her. 'What shall it be, Louison?' he say. 'You will come with me?'
"‘Kiss me, Charles,' she say, 'and tell me good-by till—till you are free.'
"He look like a madman. 'Kiss me once, Charles,' she say, 'and let me go.'
"And he come to her and kiss her on the lips once, and he say: 'Louison, come with me. I will never give you up.'
"She draw back to Florian. 'Good-by, Charles!' she say. 'I will wait as long as you will. Mother of God! how hard it is to do right!' she say, and then he turn and leave the room.
"M'sieu' Hadrian, he give a long sigh. 'It was my one chance,' he say. 'Now the devil take it all!' Then he nod and say to the Curé: 'We'll thrash this out at Judgment Day, M'sieu'. I'll meet you there—you and that other woman that spoiled me.'
"He turn to Florian and the rest of us, and shake hands, and say: 'Take care of Louison. Thank you. Good-by!' Then he start toward the door, but stumble, for he look sick. 'Give me a drink,' he say, and begin to cough a little—a queer sort of rattle. Florian give him big drink, and he toss it off—whiff! 'Thank you,' he say, and start again, and we see him walk away over the hill ver' slow—an' he never come back! But every year there come from New York a box of flowers, and every year P'tite Louison send him a. ‘Merci, Charles, mille fois. Dieu te garde.' It is so every year for twenty-five year."
"Where is he now?" asked MedalHon.
Isidore shook his head, then lifted his eyes religiously. "Waiting for Judgment Day and P'tite Louison," he answered.
"Dead!" cried Medallion. "How long?"
"But the flowers—the flowers?"
"He left word for them to be sent just the same, and the money for it."
Medallion turned and took off his hat reverently as if a soul were passing from the world, but it was only P'tite Louison going out into the garden.
"She thinks him living?" he asked gently as he watched Louison.
"Yes; we have no heart to tell her. And then he wish it so. And the flowers kep' coming."
"Why did he wish it so?"
Isidore mused a while.
"Who can tell? Perhaps a whim. He was a great actor—ah, yes, sublime!" he said.
Medallion did not reply, but walked slowly down to where P'tite Louison was picking berries. His hat was still off.
"Let me help you. Mademoiselle," he said softly. And henceforth he was as foolish as her brothers.