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THE VILLAGE ALIEN.
N August sun was beating down on Strathboro'. The little town wore a strange aspect. An intelligent bird, coming from afar, and flying over houses, yards, and gardens, might have realized something curious in the look of things.
The square surrounding the court-house and lined with shops was utterly deserted; the shopshutters were generally up, and the court-house, which had no shutters, showed the need of them in many a shattered pane of glass, which gave it an air of degraded desolation. Both in the square and beyond, grass and weeds overgrew, in a disorderly, squalid way, many an unaccustomed spot. The ample gardens behind the houses were oftener a tangle of luxuriant untrained growths; the asparagus-beds flung out their feathery foliage in great spreading masses, and against them the ironweed and ragweed and Jamestown-weed grew tall and lusty, and among these climbed wild morning-glories. At one side, perhaps, would be a little patch of cultivated ground, where a few sweet-potatoes and a little corn took up most of the room.
Not a man was to be seen anywhere, but now and again a sunbonneted woman, or several sunbonneted women together, would pass from one house to another.
Inside the houses, or on their shaded galleries, groups, still altogether feminine, were gathered, talking with an air curiously uniting listlessness and restlessness, apathy and anxiety.
The truth was, they had special immediate cause for fear, but they suffered so long and so much in similar ways, that in many the capacity for keen feeling was blunted. Yet they would have told you that they suffered none the less because they suffered dully.
It was in 1863. The Federal forces under General Paine were in possession of this part of Tennessee, and their headquarters were at Tullahoma, not fifteen miles away.
Strathboro' had been well stripped of men for many a day, even the fourteen- and fifteenyear-old boys were away fighting; but until this morning a few male persons were to be seen about, and though usually they were old or sick or deformed, the sight was a comfort to the weary eyes of the womankind. Rightly or wrongly, they now involuntarily felt as never before the superiority of the dominating sex; it was they who were fighting out this war, and even the least awe-inspiring man represented
the power that carried Fate in its hand. And now, to-day, here they were, left without a man —a white man, that is—in Strathboro'. No, not literally without one; Uncle Billy Caldwell, aged eighty-two, still sat at home in his big chair, quivering and bewildered, and Blossier, the Frenchman, was also left behind.
This peculiar state of things was brought about by General Paine in his efforts to stop sudden rebel raids upon his bridges, railroads, and telegraph-wires. These attacks were always made, and the offenders gone, before punishment could reach them, and, under fresh provocation, General Paine had conceived the idea of holding the few remaining and helpless male citizens of Strathboro' responsible for the doings of the soldiers he could not catch. So, this morning an armed squad had descended upon the disheartened little town, and had marched off to Tullahoma the lame, the halt, and the blind. Falstaff's army was a robust body compared to this handful of mutinous spirits.
Uncle Billy Caldwell was not only eightytwo, but he weighed nearly three hundred pounds; if taken, he was obviously sure to die on the way, and that would inevitably cause some delay and inconvenience, so it was plainly discreet that he be left behind: but as to the Frenchman, there was no logical reason for the leniency shown him; it was simply that the Anglo-Saxon conquerors had, in common with the Anglo-Saxon conquered, so deep a feeling of his foreignness that he seemed outside of humankind. The question of taking him to Tullahoma was dismissed with a grin, as it might have been had it referred to one of Uncle Billy's ancient hounds. But old Blossier himself, naturally, took no such view of the matter. He understood English very imperfectly, but he believed that France was honored in his person; and he had his ragged straw hat pressed to his bosom as he bowed low to the officer in command, before beginning to express, as best he could, between the two languages, his gratified sense of their regard for la belle France, when lo, he raised his head, and officer and men were gone, hurrying, backs toward him, up the street!
Strathboro' people would have considered old Blossier crazy if they had not felt, obscurely, that such an opinion included an admission that he had once been sane-an admission so unthinkable that they contented themselves with explaining everything on the ground that he was a Frenchman.
Yes, he was a Frenchman; that was still clear to even his poor confused brain, though little else autobiographical was. He was not old in years, not much more than forty, but the adjective was more than an epithet: it was descriptive of his relation to life. How he had drifted to Strathboro' he would have found it hard to tell. He had dim memories of barricades and dangers, and swelling emotions in his youth, and he cherished them, and around them gathered vague sentiments of patriotism that still stirred within him at the mention of France and of liberty; but the changes of the years had been too much for his powers of synthesis. He had been hustled through too many and too varied scenes; he could not untangle the coil of memory; he was confused; he gave it up; he lived on from day to day.
For five years he had so lived in Strathboro'. He maintained himself by doing odd jobs of many kinds, nursing the sick, laying out gardens-particularly flower-gardens-and tending them, mending furniture, painting indoor woodwork, making odd toys-children particularly adored them. In fact, he did all these things and others uncommonly well, else, in this slave-owning community, he would have had nothing to do. He never had much, and the war had not increased his income; but he lived, someway, in the queer little hut he had built himself in a worn-out, abandoned field at "the edge of town," and he had so far redeemed a portion of the exhausted land as to have a flourishing bit of garden at his door, which of course was a great help for the summer. He did not return in kind the good-natured, curious contempt Strathboro' felt for him. No, in his muddled way he was cosmopolitan, and felt for his neighbors a regard that in some cases was almost affection; and now to-day as he stood in the middle of the old turnpike and watched his feeble and saddened fellow-townsmen as they started with their armed escort upon their long, hot march, his heart yearned with anxiety for them. He had nursed Mr. Patten through that spell of typhoid fever that had left him so weak; he remembered Jimmie Pembroke's broken leg, never properly set, and how much walking always started it hurting; he looked up at the lofty head of old Judge Caldwell with pitying awe, and wondered how the soldiers could thus humiliate dignity and worth: but it was when his eye turned back to the hollow-eyed, staring women, hanging over gates, and out of windows, and forth from gallery steps to see the last of the prisoners, that his feelings choked him. He alone was left to care for them.
In after years this whole incident took a humorous tone in Strathboro' traditions, but the comical side of it was pretty well lost sight
of at the time. Several citizens, on suspicion of aiding in the depredations of soldiers and bushwhackers, had been shot recently in that same Tullahoma camp, and now the wrathful general was swearing that he would keep his communications open if he had to kill every man along the whole line of the railroad. The sunlight seemed a glare rather than a radiance in Strathboro' that day.
Over the hill the marching men passed out of sight, leaving a faint trail of dust, like smoke, behind them. Blossier went up the street and stopped at Mrs. Pembroke's gate. She was a widow, and Jimmy, whose lame leg Blossier so sorrowfully remembered, was her only son. She sat on her front steps, her gray, disordered head in her hands. Blossier bared his, as he stood there, silent.
"Oh, they did n't take you!" was Miss Catherine's salutation when she finally saw him. "Non, madame, I rest here for to protect ze ladies. I am rejoice to aid you of any manière. Zee government regard my country, voilà je— how you say—I is here. Command Blossier, madame."
"There ain't anything you can do," said Miss Catherine, wearily, and she got up and went into the house; she thought it hard that she must be bothered by old Blossy just then.
As evening drew on, Blossier reflected that in the long silent stretch of the night would lie the severest trial to "the ladies'" strained nerves. He put himself in their place, and conjured up what he conceived to be the fears hovering in their imaginations. His good offices had not been rejected always, during the day. He had helped one woman with her fretful sick child, he had brought wood and water for others who were deserted by their servants; but what could he do at night?
He was sitting in his cabin, gazing westward into a serene, cloudless, primrose sky; as he got up and turned indoors, his eye fell on a queer, big something in a dark bag in a dusky corner he had an inspiration! In that bag was an old viol, a double-bass, a relic of a time, draped in the mists of antiquity, when Blossier had "assisted" in a theatrical orchestra.
Perhaps few musical instruments are less adapted to the purposes of a strolling serenader than a double-bass; but as Blossier caught sight of his, it was to a night of serenading that he dedicated it. He would systematically patrol the town, and from that double-bass should issue strains assuring the poor ladies that a friend was near and on the watch.
To be sure, as he considered the scheme, he felt keenly the limitations of a double-bass. He knew that his was not even good of its kind. He had regretted before that Fate, at the time she made music his resource, had not thrown a
more companionable instrument into his hands, but never before did he feel its galling deficiencies as now. Why, a fife would be better!
Blossier felt the picturesque and poetical element in his plan, and that it was odious to be obliged to depend on such means for its execution. However, there was no chance of getting a fife and learning to play it within an hour, so he soon contrived more optimistic views of the case as it stood. A bass-viol gave forth, at all events, a very strong masculine sound, well calculated to convey assurances of protection!
He put himself again into his ragged coat, again took up his ragged straw hat, and started forth to inform the ladies of his intentions; there would be nothing comforting in it if in the night that heavy scraping boom took them unawares. "Au contraire," he said gravely to himself.
It was not hard to spread the news. The women were concentrating their weakness for the night; scattered relatives were flocking together to spend it at the most central house of the clan; the women living on the outskirts of the village came over the bridge, or down the turnpike, or up the stage-road, as the case might be, to lodge for the time being with neighbors more closely neighbored than themselves. The general trepidation passed the bounds of reason. Many Strathboro' households had been exclusively feminine for many months,-yes, years, their natural protectors had been long endangered beyond the chances of this misadventure; but with a solidarity of sentiment that did them credit, the women all agreed to suffer in kind with those who had special cause for alarm, and uncommon fear prevailed.
Blossier was a little man, a little, thin, dim, hay-colored man, but with so French a face, and of a type so associated in our minds with dark coloring, that it seemed as if he must have faded to his present tints after centuries of exposure to the weather.
The viol was much taller than was he, and, you may be sure, after he began his patrol at ten o'clock, he soon found more reasons than sentimental ones for wishing it something else.
On his first round he stopped in front of every door on one side of the street, and boomed forth a few deeply buzzing bars of the "Marseillaise," or still more unfamiliar and dislocated strains from "Orphée aux Enfers."
He had vague doubts as to the appropriateness of Offenbach, but the jolly fragments he remembered titillated his own Gallic nerves so delightfully after the emotional tension of the song of patriotism and the exhaustion of carrying the viol, that he concluded the ladies too must surely find them cheering.
Some of them confessed afterward that they were comforted by these sounds as of a gi
gantic bumblebee in musical practice; others said they were so queer and foreign-like that they made them lonesomer than before; they fairly "honed" to hear even that old fiddle grumble out an attempt at " Dixey," or "Julianna Johnson Coming to Town." The night wore on.
And oh, how slow that keen-eyed star
The morning lies away!
Mrs. Pembroke, moved by a half-conscious remorse for her daylight ungraciousness, came out to her gate as Blossier stopped there for the second time, and asked him in to have "a dram and a snack."
Pretty Miss Molly Boon called to him once, as he went by her mother's house, and asked him to come in and help her move a sick child. Miss Molly gave him a cup of coffee. The east was gray with the welling dawn when Blossier, weary enough, stopped before the last house at the end of a street-his bow arm dropped, his eyes fastened themselves on a corner of the house-yes; there it was, fire! a curling spit of flame leaped, vivid in the darkness, around the corner, above the floor of the porch.
The double-bass fell. Blossier ran up the walk; before he could reach the house the sneaking flame had grown bolder, it had fastened itself into the wooden pillar by the wall. He shouted; he threw a stone at the door as he ran; around the corner the fire was bursting up from a pile of debris against the wall; it caught like teeth in the dry clapboards; the porch-pillar was burning. Blossier ran in upon the blazing stuff; he had torn off his coat and wrapped it around his fists, and he kicked and knocked the brands far out into the gravel walk and the grass. Two women were now beside him. It looked as if the house would go; the little flames were burning merrily. That meant that most of the town would go, for a fine dawn wind was springing up. They brought buckets of water and a ladder, and meanwhile Blossier was whipping the fire with a shovel that he had caught from one of them. He contrived to command the women without losing a second; he made them pour water from the floor above; he fought like a fiend. Suddenly a memory of the barricades rose clear and sharp within him as he had not remembered them for years; the spirit of war swelled like a trumpet's note within the little man, and his soul responded to its own cry for the salvation of "les femmes et les enfants."
It was a sight to see, the alien, old Blossy, in the weird growing light, his life in his hand, his clothes burning upon him, his face scorched and smoke-blackened, fighting, at the close quarters of a death-struggle, an enemy that was not his enemy, gaining a victory that did not save him!
The joyous light was pouring over the summer earth in delicate, elating wavelets when the last flame flickered out, and Blossier fell amid the cinders as if he too were gone.
The crying women-one white, one black - bent over him. The old negress started to lift him, but her mistress caught her arm.
"A'nt 'Cindy," she said, "take his feet," and she pushed the servant aside, and stooped her self over the ghastly face.
"Miss Jane," said the other, " I kin tote him by m'se'f. You's too trembly
"I'll help tote this man into my house my self, A'nt 'Cindy," was Jane M'Grath's answer; and together they lifted their burden.
"Into the spare room," said she in the hall. Her voice was clear and hard, while her tears, falling like quiet rain on Blossier's face, were making little white blots and streaks there.
In the beginning of the conflict, Mrs. M'Grath had set her five-year-old daughter on the gravel walk by the front gate, out of harm's way, and told her to stay there. There she still sat, crying lustily.
"Go over after Miss Mary Bell Croft," Miss Jane now commanded Aunt 'Cindy, "and take Janey with you, and leave her there; the children 'll look after her a while."
As she spoke she was cutting his clothes away from Blossier; his arms seemed badly burnt. She saw this had better be done before he came to himself.
"Do you know the news?" called Mrs. Pembroke to Mrs. Kitchens, across the way, hurrying out to the front gate, while her breakfast was being put on the table. "The town came within an ace of burning to the ground, lock, stock, and barrel, last night. Jane M'Grath's house was afire, and old Blossy- Mr. Blossy I reckon I feel like calling him to-day-put it out, and he got burnt mighty bad. Old A'nt 'Cindy came over hours ago to fetch Mary Bell to come help Jane fix him. They ain't got no idea how it caught. The children-A'nt 'Cindy's grandchildren and little Janey-had been piling up some rubbish 'gainst the wall, making a play-house, and that was where the fire begun. You never can tell what children are up to; like as not they'd been trying to roast corn or something. There was a right smart south wind blowing early, and if Jane's house had got fairly caught-No; 'Cindy said they did n't think Blossy was burnt dangerous. Yes; you're right: he is lucky to be in Jane's hands. Jane ain't smart, but she 's mighty clever. It's a wonder I did n't see the whole thing. I was up and down all over the house most of the night, and I heard that poor thing scraping and bomming on that there big fiddle of his, all over the town. Yes, it was kind o' company; but I lay down 'bout daybreak, and got to snoozing after 'while.
Mary and little Mary stayed mighty still. I never heard 'em up and down none after eleven o'clock, but Mary says she never slept two hours. But I tell you, a man never has the wife that 'll worry over him like his mother. I feel like I'll walk to Tullahoma myself to-day, if I can't find out something 'bout Jimmy any other way," and Miss Catherine wiped her eyes as she turned toward the house, calling, " Yes; I'm coming," in answer to a second shrill warning that breakfast was waiting, and leaving Mrs. Kitchens still struggling to get in her account of how she spent the night.
This was about as much impression as the incident of the fire made anywhere: the town had come near burning down, but it had n't; old Blossy had saved it. There was something a little embarrassing about this: it made the usual tone about him seem, just at the time, ungracious; yet what other tone was there to take?
Anyhow, Jane M'Grath was taking care of him, and if she wanted help she knew where to ask for it, and—when were the men coming home from Tullahoma, and how were things with them?
Yes, it was well for Blossier that it was Jane M'Grath's house he had saved; it was well that it was on her, and not on another, fell most directly the debt of gratitude that the whole village owed him, but which the village was too stupid and insensible, too preoccupied and too selfish, to realize and acknowledge. Jane M'Grath was accounted in Strathboro' a particularly dull woman. Strathboro' cared a good deal for what it called smartness, and carefully classified all examples thereof as either bright or deep; but Jane M'Grath, whom they had known all her life, was, as was well known, not smart, neither bright nor deep, though she was clever-that is, good-natured, kindly, easy to get on with. Jane was more than good-natured; she was good-good with that positive quality of character that cheapens everything else in this world by comparison: and she was the furthest thing in the world from a fool; she was a wise woman.
Strathboro' did not count the conduct of life among the achievements of smartness, though it valued that too, and gave Jane a certain meed of appreciation as a wife, a mother, and a housekeeper.
Jane put her views of life's duties into no words. She did not think in words; she made about as much use of language as your horse might, for convenience, if he could.
One day as Blossier, his swathed hands on a pillow before him, sat in a big wooden rocking-chair in a wide, dim, breezy hall, sunshiny outdoors before and behind him, it occurred to him that he was getting well too fast. Janey,
according to orders, was playing on the gallery, within sound of his voice, so that he could call her "if he wanted anything,"-not that Blossier had been known to want anything since he had been in the house.
Aunt Cindy's voice, softened by the distance to the kitchen, rose and fell on the pleasant air in religious fervor; and up-stairs Jane M'Grath's footsteps could be heard. The men had all come back from Tullahoma a week before, but Andy M'Grath was not among them; he had been in the field a year, and two more were to elapse before he should return. Jane felt that the entire weight of their debt to Blossier devolved for the time upon her.
Janey's moon-face appeared at the door, she felt it incumbent on her to come and look at her charge occasionally,—then, seized with a sudden impulse, she clambered down the steps, disappeared, and in a moment was laboriously climbing back again, with a very big marigold in her hand. She trotted to Blossier, her bare feet softly patting the bare floor, started to hold it out to him, remembered the swathed hands, and held it up, tiptoeing, to his nose. Flowers were to be smelled in Janey's creed, without petty distinctions as to odors. "Merci," smiled Blossier, as she laid the happy yellow thing on his pillowed lap; "ne comprenez vous pas? Non?"
The child stood looking in his face, grave and silent, ready to see what this odd creature would do next.
Jane had come down the stairs, and was standing looking on; at the same moment, then and there, she and Blossier each became possessed of an idea-small ones to be sure, but destined to become pregnant.
Blossier's blinking little lashless eyes (the lashes had been white, so their absence made no great difference in his appearance) were fixed on the curl-rags that tied up Janey's straight brown locks. Jane herself was a simple, plain body, not given to considering the decorative side of life, but she did sorely want curly hair for her child! Blossier's mind reverted to a hair-dresser he had once known in New Orleans-if he only had such a pair of tongs as that man used he was sure he could, when his hands got well, curl Janey's hair to a marvel; and how pleasant it would be to come and do it every day. Vague vistas of usefulness to this worshipful hostess opened up cheeringly before him.
The dear dumb Jane was remembering certain Strathboro' girls who had gone to boarding-schools where they had studied French,— everybody knew they had; it was often mentioned in their honor,- but she had heard some very smart people-Judge Caldwell, for instance-say they did n't believe they could
speak it, and Judge Caldwell mentioned that he had Northern kinfolk who got French nurses for their children, so that they learned to talk French when they were little. Why (this preface and conclusion came all but simultaneously in Jane's mind)-why could n't Janey learn it from Mr. Blossy, and why could n't other children learn from Mr. Blossy (she had a pang here at giving up the hope of a lonely eminence of learning for Janey), and thus Mr. Blossy be lifted to the dignity and prosperity of a teacher? That might indeed be a payment on the debt of gratitude.
Janey looked at her marigold with thoughts of reclaiming it-it seemed unappropriated, unappreciated, lying there on the pillow; and then she heard the coaxing voice of Aunt 'Cindy's small granddaughter calling from the big crape-myrtle tree,-she was not allowed to trespass further upon the front yard,—“Janey, Janey, I got a pooty fur ye, Janey," and she trotted off to bestow her society where it was most prized.
Jane may not have been blessed with many ideas, but she gave profound attention to those that did visit her. She pondered all day on the possibility of Blossier becoming a teacher of French, and after supper she went over to consult Mrs. Pembroke about it.
"Of course," she said, after she was seated on the gallery in the starlight, and had introduced her subject," nobody can do much with the war going on, but I 'm willing to make some sacrifices for Janey, and Mr. Blossy would n't expect much; we could just share what we 've got with him till times are better. I'm afraid he's been awful pore lately. And, after all, the town would 'a' been 'most burned down sure if it had n't been for him, sure for a heap more as for me."
Miss Catherine had no little children to be instructed, so Jane with difficulty and hitches got out so much suggestion of Strathboro's obligations.
"That's all true, Jane," replied Miss Catherine, cheerfully; "but everybody ain't as anxious to recollect them kind of things as you, and as your mother was before you. I remember now how she cherished that old Mammy Dinah of yourn, just for the way she nussed you when you had that terrible typhoid sickness when you was little. Seemed like she could n't do enough for that niggah when she got old and wuthless. Good niggah she was, too."
There was a pause, and, just as Miss Catherine was again taking up the thread of reminiscence, Jane interrupted:
"Mr. Blossy ain't a niggah, and it seems kind o' dreadful to see a white man live like he does here in Strathboro'. It ain't as if he was a real poor-white either. He's got education,