Violets and Other Tales/Titee
It was cold that day; the great sharp north wind swept out Elysian Fields Street in blasts that made men shiver, and bent everything in its track. The skies hung lowering and gloomy; the usually quiet street was more than deserted, it was dismal.
Titee leaned against one of the brown freight cars for protection against the shrill norther, and warmed his little chapped hands at a blaze of chips and dry grass. "May be it'll snow," he muttered, casting a glance at the sky that would have done credit to a practised seaman. "Then won't I have fun! Ugh, but the wind blows!"
It was Saturday, or Titee would have been in school—the big yellow school on Marigny Street, where he went every day when its bell boomed nine o'clock. Went with a run and a joyous whoop,[Pg 45]—presumably to imbibe knowledge, ostensibly to make his teacher's life a burden.
Idle, lazy, dirty, troublesome boy, she called him, to herself, as day by day wore on, and Titee improved not, but let his whole class pass him on its way to a higher grade. A practical joke he relished infinitely more than a practical problem, and a good game at pinsticking was far more entertaining than a language lesson. Moreover, he was always hungry, and would eat in school before the half-past ten intermission, thereby losing much good play-time for his voracious appetite.
But there was nothing in natural history that Titee didn't know. He could dissect a butterfly or a mosquito-hawk and describe their parts as accurately as a spectacled student with a scalpel and microscope could talk about a cadaver. The entire Third District, with its swamps and canals and commons and railroad sections, and its wondrous,[Pg 46] crooked, tortuous streets was as an open book to Titee. There was not a nook or corner that he did not know or could tell of. There was not a bit of gossip among the gamins, little Creole and Spanish fellows, with dark skins and lovely eyes like Spaniels, that Titee could not tell of. He knew just exactly when it was time for crawfish to be plentiful down in the Claiborne and Marigny canals; just when a poor, breadless fellow might get a job in the big bone-yard and fertilizing factory out on the railroad track; and as for the levee, with its ships and schooners and sailors—Oh, how he could revel among them! The wondrous ships, the pretty little schooners, where the foreign-looking sailors lay on long moon-lit nights, singing gay bar carols to the tinkle of a guitar and mandolin. All these things, and more, could Titee tell of. He had been down to the Gulf, and out on its treacherous waters through Eads Jetties on a fishing smack, with some jolly,[Pg 47] brown sailors, and could interest the whole school-room in the "talk lessons," if he chose.
Titee shivered as the wind swept round the freight cars. There isn't much warmth in a bit of a jersey coat.
"Wish 'twas summer," he murmured, casting another sailor's glance at the sky. "Don't believe I like snow, it's too wet and cold." And, with a last parting caress at the little fire he had builded for a minute's warmth, he plunged his hands in his pockets, shut his teeth, and started manfully on his mission out the railroad track towards the swamps.
It was late when Titee came home, to such a home as it was, and he had but illy performed his errand, so his mother beat him, and sent him to bed supperless. A sharp strap stings in cold weather, and long walks in the teeth of a biting wind creates a keen appetite. But if Titee cried himself to sleep that night, he was up bright and early next morning, and had been to early mass,[Pg 48] devoutly kneeling on the cold floor, blowing his fingers to keep them warm, and was home almost before the rest of the family was awake.
There was evidently some great matter of business in this young man's mind, for he scarcely ate his breakfast, and had left the table, eagerly cramming the remainder of his meal in his pockets.
"I wonder what he's up to now?" mused his mother as she watched his little form sturdily trudging the track in the face of the wind, his head, with the rimless cap thrust close on the shock of black hair, bent low, his hands thrust deep in the bulging pockets.
"A new snake, perhaps," ventured the father; "he's a queer child."
But the next day Titee was late for school. It was something unusual, for he was always the first on hand to fix some plan of mechanism to make the teacher miserable. She looked reprovingly at him this morning, when he came in during the arithmetic class, his hair[Pg 49] all wind-blown, cheeks rosy from a hard fight with the sharp blasts. But he made up for his tardiness by his extreme goodness all day; just think, Titee didn't even eat in school. A something unparalleled in the entire history of his school-life.
When the lunch-hour came, and all the yard was a scene of feast and fun, one of the boys found him standing by one of the posts, disconsolately watching a ham sandwich as it rapidly disappeared down the throat of a sturdy, square-headed little fellow.
"Hello, Edgar," he said, "What yer got fer lunch?"
"Nothin'," was the mournful reply.
"Ah, why don't yer stop eatin' in school fer a change? Yer don't ever have nothin' to eat."
"I didn't eat to-day," said Titee, blazing up.
"I tell you I didn't!" and Titee's hard little fist planted a punctuation mark on his comrade's eye.[Pg 50]
A fight in the school-yard! Poor Titee in disgrace again. But in spite of his battered appearance, a severe scolding from the principal, lines to write, and a further punishment from his mother, Titee scarcely remained for his dinner, but was off, down the railroad track, with his pockets partly stuffed with the remnants of his scanty meal.
And the next day Titee was tardy again, and lunchless, too, and the next, and the next, until the teacher in despair sent a nicely printed note to his mother about him, which might have done some good, had not Titee taken great pains to tear it up on his way home.
But one day it rained, whole bucketfuls of water, that poured in torrents from a miserable angry sky. Too wet a day for bits of boys to be trudging to school, so Titee's mother thought, so kept him home to watch the weather through the window, fretting and fuming, like a regular storm-cloud in miniature. As the day wore on, and the storm did[Pg 51] not abate, his mother had to keep a strong watch upon him, or he would have slipped away.
At last dinner came and went, and the gray soddenness of the skies deepened into the blackness of coming night. Someone called Titee to go to bed—and Titee was nowhere to be found.
Under the beds, in corners and closets, through the yard, and in such impossible places as the soap-dish and the water-pitcher even; but he had gone as completely as if he had been spirited away. It was of no use to call up the neighbors; he had never been near their houses, they affirmed, so there was nothing to do but to go to the railroad track, where little Titee had been seen so often trudging in the shrill north wind.
So with lantern and sticks, and his little yellow dog, the rescuing party started out the track. The rain had ceased falling, but the wind blew a tremendous gale, scurrying great, gray clouds over a fierce sky. It was not ex[Pg 52]actly dark, though in this part of the city, there was neither gas nor electricity, and surely on such a night as this, neither moon nor stars dared show their faces in such a grayness of sky; but a sort of all-diffused luminosity was in the air, as though the sea of atmosphere was charged with an ethereal phosphorescence.
Search as they would, there were no signs of poor little Titee. The soft earth between the railroad ties crumbled beneath their feet without showing any small tracks or foot-prints.
"Let us return," said the big brother, "he can't be here anyway."
"No, no," urged the mother, "I feel that he is; let's go on."
So on they went, slipping on the wet earth, stumbling over the loose rocks, until a sudden wild yelp from Tiger brought them to a standstill. He had rushed ahead of them, and his voice could be heard in the distance, howling piteously.[Pg 53]
With a fresh impetus the little muddy party hurried forward. Tiger's yelps could be heard plainer and plainer, mingled now with a muffled wail, as of some one in pain.
And then, after awhile they found a pitiful little heap of wet and sodden rags, lying at the foot of a mound of earth and stones thrown upon the side of the track. It was little Titee with a broken leg, all wet and miserable, and moaning.
They picked him up tenderly, and started to carry him home. But he cried and clung to his mother, and begged not to go.
"He's got fever," wailed his mother.
"No, no, it's my old man. He's hungry, sobbed Titee, holding out a little package. It was the remnants of his dinner, wet and rain washed.
"What old man?" asked the big brother.
"My old man, oh, please, please don't go home until I see him, I'm not hurting much, I can go."[Pg 54]
So yielding to his whim, they carried him further away, down the sides of the track up to an embankment or levee by the sides of the Marigny canal. Then Titee's brother, suddenly stopping, exclaimed:
"Why, here's a cave, a regular Robinson Cruso affair."
"It's my old man's cave," cried Titee; "oh, please go in, maybe he's dead."
There can't be much ceremony in entering a cave, there is but one thing to do, walk in. This they did, and holding high the lantern, beheld a strange sight. On a bed of straw and paper in one corner lay a withered, wizened, white-bearded old man, with wide eyes staring at the unaccustomed sight. In the corner lay a cow.
"It's my old man!" cried Titee, joyfully. "Oh, please, grandpa, I couldn't get here to-day, it rained all morning, and when I ran away this evening, I slipped down and broke something, and oh, grandpa, I'm so tired and hurty, and[Pg 55] I'm so afraid you're hungry."
So the secret of Titee's jaunts out the railroad was out. In one of his trips around the swamp-land, he had discovered the old man dying from cold and hunger in the fields. Together they had found this cave, and Titee had gathered the straw and brush that scattered itself over the ground and made the bed. A poor old cow turned adrift by an ungrateful master, had crept in and shared the damp dwelling. And thither Titee had trudged twice a day, carrying his luncheon in the morning, and his dinner in the evening, the sole support of a half-dead cripple.
"There's a crown in Heaven for that child," said the officer to whom the case was referred.
And so there was, for we scattered winter roses on his little grave down in old St. Rocque's cemetery. The cold and rain, and the broken leg had told their tale.