Puslapio vaizdai

"Sitting, did you say?" I inquired. "He is n't confined to his chair, I hope?" "No, sir, not perzac'ly. But he gits But he gits along mighty slow, jes' inchin' alonginchin' along!"

"Been lame a long time, I believe?"

"Oh, yas, sir, often an' on. He been had trouble wid 'is laig all 'is life, purty nigh, but de doctor done kyored all dat sence las' watermilion-time."

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Since watermelon-time? Why watermelon-time?"

Just then, the lady appeared, and Aunt Bella, after answering her greeting, gave us the story:

"You see," she began, "de trouble, hit come on 'im befo' my time, whilst he was a yo'ng buck. He was out wid a passel o' triflin', no 'count loafers dat was jallous of 'im on account o' him damagin' 'em wid de ladies, an' dey tempted 'im wid tricked watermilion 'tel he gorged 'isse'f wid it. Dey had cast a spell on de milion so 's it pizened 'im, an' when he come home, he swelt up percizely lak a grea' bigbellied watermilion, an' so he circulated roun' in s'ciety for years, an' de doctors, dey used to tap 'im jes' for a pastime.

"He cost 'is marster a pile o' money, an' de doctors dey insulted togedder, an' dey bled an' dey poulticed an' dey cupped an' dey leeched, an' all dey ever dreened out was watermilion-juice! Howsomever, dey nuver reco'nized it, so dey kep' on wid Latin names an' 'spensive diseases, but de most dey ever done was to draw his trouble out'n 'is waistcoat down into 'is laig. An' so it went on, year arter year, mountin' up'ards in watermilion-season, an' den hit would 'a' split open 'is waistcoat ef dey had n't kep' 'im satisfied wid ripe watermilion. Dat was all he craved to subjue de fever in 'im-jes' heart chunks o' red-ripe milion, ice col'. So dey 'd keep 'im cancelized endurin' de summer.

"An' so he passed most of 'is life-a pompious, fat man wid two spindle laigs endurin' de summer, an' de rest o' de time, a miser'ble puny man wid one laig swelt up same as a thirty-poun' watermilion.

"Dey tell me his laig swelt so big one time dat he could n't straddle 'is mule widout it reachin' up an' getherin' moss off'n de trees, so he could n't call on a gal he was co'tin' an' she was obligated to walk de ten miles th'ough de woods to see him, yas, sir."

"Did you say 'courting'?" the lady interrupted. "It is n't possible that he went courting in that condition?"

The old woman laughed, a shrill fal


"Who? Baptiste? Y'all don't know Baptiste! Yas, sir, why not? Baptiste been married consider'ble, often an' on. Dey ain't nuver been no time, sca'cely, when he war n't either married or seekin' ma'iage. He's great for de ladies!" "And you?"

I could hardly enunciate the question in the thick of a kindly mustache as I looked down at the pathetic little woman, as dark and wrinkled as a raisin.

"Well, sir," -a faint smile lighted her old face-"you got me close-t here! But I don't min' rehearsin' it to you.

"You see, me, I 's a country nigger, 'Merican an' Pronesant, an' Baptiste, he 's Creole an' Cat'lic, an' he was raised high, in a rich man's yard. He can talk good gumbo-French an' he can read readin', an' some writin', too, an' he got good language to talk. He ain't like me.

"Well, ma'am-well, sir-hit was at a bobbecue in de country, on de Fofe o' July, when I fus' sot eyes on Baptiste; an' you know dat 's de height o' watermilionseason. Of co'se, at dat time he looked to be jes' a portly, slim-laig man wid bigoty manners, in a tight plaid waistcoat. He had jes' buried 'is wife de week befo', dat is to say, he did n't haf to bury 'er 'caze she was drownded in de river, rowin' 'im acrost in a skift. Seem lak he leant 'is heft to one side too sudden an' swamped de skift, an' over she went; an' Baptiste, he jes' bumped along on de surfish o' de water 'tel another boat picked 'im up.

"Sir? What dat you say? 'Could he swim?' No, sir! He did n't need to swim! Not in July! You drap a watermilion in de river an' see what it 'll do— an' you know he war n't no mo'n a human watermilion at dat season. No, sir, dat 'spe'unce in de water, hit jes' cooled 'im off good! An' so he was 'oner'bly widderered, widout de expense of a fun'al or nothin'. Dat quick Massissippi current, hit swep' 'er down in de depths to de gulf, yas 'm. Of co'se, nobody could n't blame Baptiste, 'caze she had de oars! Baptiste, he always was lucky!

"So dat 's huccome he come to de bobbecue in fresh crape; howsomever, it

war n't fresh. Baptiste been keepin' dat crape th'ough all 'is wid'rin's, but hit nuver is had mo'n a week or so of wear. He thinks I got it put away yit, but, eh, Lord! I burnt it up here las' summer. I ain't got no intention for 'im to wear no mo' wid'rin' crape, not Bella!" And she wiped her face with her apron, as she chuckled.

"Well, I went home wid 'im. Sir? Jes' a week. No, sir, I ain't sayin' it was love at fus' sight, an' I ain't sayin' it war n't. To begin wid, we-all knowed Baptiste was a free nigger, an' you know Freedom is a big word. Me, I war n't free, dem days. All dis took place in de keen las' days o' slavery, but I hired my time f'om my marster on wages an' I was free to go anywhar in de State, jes' git a pass f'om de overseer; an' I knowed I could mek mo' wages down close-t to de city 'n what I could on Bayou Crapaud.

"An' besides dat, we-all had heerd about dat batture lan' dat was makin' for Baptiste, an' 'money in bank'-of co'se dat news travels fas'. So, Baptiste, he So, Baptiste, he passed for a rich man, Gord forgive 'im!" That word struck me-"batture," and now "Baptiste."

"What batture is that?" I asked, my curiosity now fully pointed.

"Oh!" Shrugging her shoulders, "hit 's our po' little mud-hole up 'g'inst de river. You know, dat 's huccome he got dat crazy name, on account o' dat fool sandbank."

Now I listened. I had my man; but as I looked down upon the little old wife a sense of the incongruity of the mating struck me; I seemed to see again the tall Chesterfieldian man of words in the old court-house, and my heart went out afresh to the humble toiler at my feet.

"And is this the man you have been supporting all these years?" I asked, but her face showed me my mistake even before she snapped:

"Who got a right to s'po't a man, ef 't ain't 'is own wife, I like to know? An' him half crippled, at dat! Yas, sir, I sho does s'po't Baptiste, I sho does-an' de po' man is settin' out on de river-bank waitin' for my ministry dis minute!"

"All alone?" This was cruel in me, but she was good sport, was Bella.

"Huh!" she chuckled, "Huh! I'd be a heap mo' cancelized in my mind ef I

knowed he was alone! No, sir, I ain't claim dat! Baptiste is Baptiste, an' he allus was a sociable man predispositioned to de ladies; an' so, of co'se, dey 's allus a stragglin' lot o' my-color she-devils 'long de coast dat ain't got nothin' better to do, so dey strolls down to whar he sets on de levee wid plenty o' free talk an' a fan to spare. But I don't torture my mind wid sech as dat. What is a little whirlwind on de bank to spile married happiness? An' he don't forgit me! Many 's de time he 'll have de live-coals ready an' de kittle b'ilin', time I gits home wid de spare-ribs an' 'taters to cook! An' you know dat shows intruss-an' him hobblin'!"

The lady had been called to the telephone some moments before, but she returned just in time for these words.

"Hobbling!" she repeated; "I thought you said he was cured?"

"So he is, honey! He is kyored. De pizen is squenched out'n 'is systerm, but yit 'n' still he 's sort o' heavy on 'is laigs, he bein' so long subjec' to indulgencies, an' so we has to go slow."

"Tell us about his cure," I demanded, "if you can. How was it connected with watermelon? Don't you think that may have been a mistake?"

She had risen and was beginning to call attention to her lilies, but at this she settled herself again.

"Mistake about de watermilion?" she piped. "No, sir! We done proved de watermilion!"

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"So I is, honey! He war n't yo' sort o' doctor, an' I ain't sayin' he 's my sort. He come f'om behin' Palmetter-swamp in all dat mixtry o' de quadroon quarter. I tell you, sir, de day he come, hit was bakin' hot an' po' Baptiste, he looked fit to pop, he sho did! Well, sir, de doctor, he gi'en 'im one searchin' look an' he flipped 'im wid 'is finger, same as you 'd flip a watermilion to soun' ef it 's ripe, an' he shuk 'is haid an' 'lowed we'd better wait. I s'pec' he was 'feard he 'd pop on 'is hands. He 'lowed dat we better wait 'tel dat watermilion pressure moved f'om de neighborhoods of 'is heart, an' he say de devil dat was in 'im was a hiber'atin' devil an' we better hold on 'tel it went down into its winter quarters, an' so we waited. Yas 'm; yas, sir.

"Well, dat was de fust word o' sense I had heerd on de subjec' o' de ole man's trouble, so we let time run along 'tel vergin' on Christmas, an de doctor he 'd drap in once-t every so long to sample 'is pulses an' c'lect a few picayunes or maybe a fresh aig.

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'But when he finely come wid 'is kyarpet-bag full of bottles an' cans an' bones an' feathers an' sarpents' rattles an' alligator toofs, tell de trufe, I was skeerd, me, an' I say to myself, 'Dishere doctor, he look to me monst'ous lak a hoodoo,' an' I sho did shy off f'om 'im; an' seem lak he read my mind, an' he say to me, he say, 'Daughter, what is you trimblin' about?' an' I up an' 'spon' dat I was raised a Christian Baptist, an' I did n't want no consortin' wid de devil; an' he say, 'My daughter, you is right, befo' Gord, but is you nuver heerd say, "De hair o' de dog is good for de bite?" We 'bleeged to fight de devil wid fire.'

"Well, dat eased my mind, an' I sot to an' helped. I drug in a table an' put it besides 'im whilst he 'ranged 'is physics, but eve'y so long he 'd go to de winder an' scan de firmamint, an' all de time he was workin' 'is mouf an' I s'picion he was prayin' for rain, 'caze he had done warned us dat dis mericle had to be performed either endurin' a storm whilst de doors o' heaven was open, or else at midnight when de eyes o' de sun was shet.

"Well, sir, fus' thing we knowed, a clap o' cannon-ball thunder stated a breeze, an' time he was ready wid 'is philters de rain she come down a-peltin'.

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'He had been poulticin' de ol' man's foot a week or so, 'to pacify de devil in it,' he say, so 's he 'd come out widout too much scorn. So when de rain stahted, he placed de wash-basin on de flo' besides 'isse'f, an' he po'ed some mad-lookin' green stuff in it; den he unwropped de ol' man's laig an' measu'ed it an', sir, hit measu'ed fifty inches aroun', yas, sir. Den he call-t to de ol' man, 'Fall on yo' knees, my brother!' an' when Baptiste was settled down good, he say to me, he say, 'Daughter, do thou lakwise,' an' down I drapped besides my ol' man, wid my face in de dust.

"Den he say to Baptiste, he say: 'Lay yo' face in humility on de groun', an' lif' up yo' foots behin'!' An' Baptiste, he done so. An', wid dat, de doctor, he com

menced callin' on de snake; den he twis' 'isse'f, same as a sarpent, an' wriggle an' squirm, an', wid dat, he stahted 'slip-slap! slip-slap!' on what seem lak de sole o' de ole man's foot, howsomever dey war n't no sole to it! You see, de doctor, he was behin' us, an' we could n't righteously witness what he done.

"Well, sir, dat 's de way he stated; 'slip-slap! slip-slap!' An' 'twix' every slap we'd hear some'h'n go 'r-r-rip!' Den a splash, lak toads in a pond, an' another, an' another, an' all de time he shoutin' an' callin' on Baptiste an' me to shout wid 'im, an' of co'se, me, I shouted. 'T ain' no trouble for me to shout, but Baptiste, he 's Cat'lic an' Creole, an' he ain't subjec' to shoutin', but he 'd groan good, 'tel de time he swooned.

"Well, sir-well, mistus-maybe you won't believe me, but whilst all dis ruction was gwine on, we heerd some'h'n' fizz, same as a match; howsomever, de doctor 'lowed it was de lightnin's o' heaven wha' stahted dem flames, an' a green an' yaller flicker lit up de cabin, an' den de doctor, lookin' lak Satan in dat green light, he say, 'Bless de Lord!' And wid de name o' de Lord, he drapped 'is horns an' tail. "An' wid dat, he say to me, he say, 'Daughter, take a-holt!' So 'twix' de two of us we lif' Baptiste off'n 'is knees an' de doctor helt some'h'n' to 'is nose to bring 'im to, an' when de ole man opened 'is eyes, de doctor p'inted to de washbasin an' I see a whole passel o' varmints wrigglin' midst de flames, an' de doctor say, he say, 'Dey name is legion!' an' you may strak me daid ef dey war n't a whole passel o' scorpions, writhin' in de flames an' fumes! Some yaller, some red, some spotted, some daid, an' some strugglin' in de agonies. An' in de midst of it all, 'bout a hondred watermilion-seeds! He had cas' all dem devils out'n my po' ole man's foot. Yas, sir!

"I trus' nuver to see hell-fire ag'in, but, I sho is seen it dat once-t an' smelt it, too!

"Well, sir an' mistus, I stood de scorpions, an' I stood de hell-fire, but when I seen dem watermilion-seeds, I tell yer my soul surged up an' dey say dey heerd me shoutin' clean down to de turpentine-stills, an' I was shoutin' 'g'inst de elemints, at dat, 'caze de rain an' thunder nuver let up 'tel dey had got me subjuded down!

"You see, marster an' mistus, de years had been long-an' I was tired, strivin' an' peddlin', an' I read deliverance in dem seeds-an' I read it right, too!"

By this time the little woman was fairly shouting where she stood, but she suddenly recovered herself and even laughed as she exclaimed:

"Lemme stop all dis rip-rearin' an' git along! Y'all stahts me talkin' 'ligion an' I don't know when to quit. Here, lady, come look at my greens an' lemme git home, honey!"

She lifted from her basket its top layer of lilies, then the ragged but clean bit of coarse Nottingham lace which covered a lot of river shrimp which were fairly kicking themselves out of the basket.

"Now I know this is really Bella!" exclaimed the lady, her housewife's eyes fairly dancing before the tempting display.

It took but a moment to "buy the old woman out," but before we let her go, I had taken careful note of her somewhat vague address, and when I suggested that some day when we were out in our motorcar we might drop in to see the old man, she chuckled:

"Lordy! Ef folks sees you quality automobillionaires runnin' up to our muddauber's nest, dey 'll be talk, sho!"

I's seen de trim'lin' picture-shows anI 'spec' I 's seen mos' all dey is here, but it ain't done no mo'n gimme a appetite for mo'! I craves to travel! I wants to ride one minute in de elevated an' de nex' minute in de undervated! I craves to set up in a automobile an' ride by lightnin'! I craves to mount de elemints to de stars in one o' deze airships an' see what's on de yether side o' de moon-an' maybe git to heaven widout dyin', he, he! Oh, my Gord!"

She had been mechanically adjusting the coil to her head even as she spoke, and now, tossing the emptied basket upon it, she ducked her body and started off, even forgetting to collect her money, and when the lady had given her a folded bill and said "Keep the change," she cackled afresh, and twisting the money under the edge of her bandana she called back:

"Keep de change'? Yas 'm, I'll keep it 'tel I gits to de market! I done sol' out so soon, I gwine s'prise my ole man, an' I bet you dey 'll be a scatteration o' tukkyred Mother-Hubbards along dat levee when dey see me 'proachin'!" And, as she started again, she added:

"Ricollec', I gwine look for y'all! Come on an' I'll show yer dem legion o' varmints de doctor cast out o' my ole man's

"You don't seem very proud of your foot, seven scorpions an' a horned frog! husband's estate," I ventured.

"Who? Me?" she chuckled, "not much! No, sir! I ain't no stick-in-demud, ef I is mud-color! I allus is craved to see de world! Dat was half de inticemint o' marryin' Baptiste in de fust place, him livin' fureign to us-an' on de aidge o' de big city!

"No, sir! I mought o' been borned in a crawfish-hole, but I ain't no crawfish, an' I can't backslide! Ef I'd been a crawfish, dey is been times when ole Baptiste would 'a' been a grass-widderer, but I ain't dat sort. I would n't give dem visitin' ladies dat satisfaction!

"No, I's a for'ard traveler, an' ef I had my wush, I'd see de world befo' I pass on to glory-yas, sir!"

"And what would you most like to see?" I ventured.

"Eve'ything, marster! All dat 's gwine! I done learned a heap a'ready down in dis New 'Leans! I's seen de 'lection-lights, an' de street-kyars hooked on to a wire clo'es-line, spittin' fire! An'

I got 'em all encased in a bottle o' alicohol settin' on de mantel-shelf, wid de Bible an' a pot o' basil besides 'em, yas 'm!"

"And the watermelon-seed?" I asked maliciously.

"Yas, sir, sho 's you born! I was gwine plant dem seeds, but de doctor he say we ain't got no right to plant de devil's seeds, less'n we craves to raise hell! He 'low dat eve'y one o' dem seeds would bring fo'th hoodoo melons, same as de one wha' pizened de ol' man, so I drapped 'em in de alicohol, an' eve'y day or so, ́de doctor comes an' 'stracts out another seed f'om 'is foot, an' draps it in de bottle. He say ef one seed 's lef' in 'is systerm, hit 'll staht another watermilion growth, ef not a patch, an' in dat case, he would be liable to splode into fractions! I sho will be glad when he 's kyored an' we gits de doctor paid off. He 's pretty nigh kyored now, all 'cep'n' dat mor'bund appetite for cold ripe watermilion, an' dat 's hard to satisfy.

"So, I prays de good Lord for de ol'

man an' cultifates patience-an' a few artichokes an' things-an' de Lord ain't forgot us! Sometimes whilst you seem to see a ol' swiveled-up nigger gwine along deze city streets peddlin' greens, my soul 's mountin' to glory an' I feels myself standin' in line, robed in white, wid de n'eye o' faith fixed on de th'one!

"But lemme git out o' here or I'll be shoutin', sho nough!" And now she was really gone, and in a moment we saw across the garden a flitting streak of red, topped by the flat basket, hurrying down the street.

NOT only had my interest been reawakened and my curiosity piqued by this most pictorial interview with old Bella Baptiste, but as she had stood there beside the jasmine vine, clad in incongruous rags, in all the pathos of ignorance, superstition, poverty, and insignificance, yet showing through all her pitiful recital occasional gleams of human nature at its strongest and frailest, there flickered within me a sudden desire to meet the old man, Baptiste, again, and on his own estate.

And so, three days later, furnishing a hamper with a small stock of provisions, including a bottle of really good wine for the man who could "read readin'," we started early in the afternoon for the upper coast.

It was a perfect April day. We should have stopped at the first wretched little cabin on the road to inquire the way but for the gleam of my smoking-jacket which caught the lady's eye as it passed between the gray-green rows of artichokes behind the house; and so, first sounding several staccato "honks" by way of warning, and then waving our handkerchiefs as the wearer of the jacket lifted her head, we swerved to the front door, where sat the lord of the manor, old man Baptiste himself, indeed.

He had changed much with the years, but when he had hobbled forward and was courteously leading us to chairs upon what he called "my galerie," I caught a gleam of his quick eye which assured me that he was mentally "all there."

The old woman had not joined us. After a most effusive greeting, she had dipped into the front door and disappeared. Indeed, as I glanced at the bare chamber within, I suspected that there

might not be a fourth chair available. The host was courtesy itself, even insisting that the lady should take the rocker in which he declared he "never sat," but against which his crutch was at that moment bracing itself to give him the lie while the footstool before it held his smoking pipe; and while we frankly laughed when, seeing us seated, he protestingly dropped into place, he even smiled with us as, with a wave of his hand, he said:

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'Tis politeness-not too much in fashion no more, doze days," and then he added, quite as a gentleman of the court. might have done, "No best rocking-chair ees comfortable fo' me w'ile one lady ees sitting straight."

The very evident fact that the wife of his choice habitually "sat straight" in the presence of her lord if she sat at all, was -well, that was another matter. Even the reflection seems discourteous in the face of the man's manner.

It took me but a moment to recall the court scene of the long ago, and to select from it his reference to his batture estate which it was such a pleasure to see.

"Oh, yas, sir," he said with a shrug, "'t is one paradise-mais unimproved, hein?" I was

"I don't know about that." glancing at the new levee in process of building. "It seems to me you 're to have the greatest possible improvement there. I am wondering how you managed it?"

"Me? Ah, no, M'sieu'. I deen' manage nutting. My bote-side rich neighbors, dey pass de 'probriation in de legislature. to build de new levee, so me, I get once more de crumb dat fall from de rich man's table. An' it ain' no mean crumb, needer, you see me so!

"Hall doze year I deen' had no levee, I 'ad one growing rich garden for raise eve'yt'ing, vegetable, chicken, duck, goose. Las' year we raise mos' two dozen goose, an' dey come handy fo' pay de doctor, yas. Of co'se, in too 'igh water, de garden, she los' 'erself for a while sometime, an' we 'ad to drive in eve'yt'ing behin' de ol' levee; mais every 'igh water make dat outside lan' mo' richer an' raise de grade. Now, when de new levee is build, dey say dey will raise de tax, an' God knows 'ow I am going to pay it."

I was just opening my lips to say, "Why don't you sell?" when the old woman,

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