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Bella, reappeared with a new, flowered tin tray upon which were two glasses and a pitcher of what I judged to be lemonade, but which proved to be a delicious fabrication of orange-flower syrup and water in which floated a few bits of the rind of the sour orange, generously iced.
"He'p yo'se'f, lady," and then, "He'p yo'se'f, sir," said the eager hostess, while she placed the tray upon the table beside
When we had filled our glasses, my lady turned to the old woman in her prettiest manner with, "And are n't you going to have some?"
"All in good time, lady." The black woman curtsied as she said it, but while we sipped our really delicious nectar-for such it seemed to our thirst-I remembered the bottle of wine, and instead of leaving it as I had intended, I drew it from the hamper beside me and suggested to the old wife that I should like to have the invalid sample it. The fact was, I was curious to see how he would deport himself.
His manners up to this point had been excruciatingly fine.
He would not hear to having the cork drawn until we had done, and then I filled two glasses, one for his lady, who declined it, declaring that she was "much obleeged, all de same," but she was "Baptist an' temperance"; but she slipped away, and returned in a moment with a tin cup into which she poured some of our beverage, which she carried out to drink. But she was back presently, smiling.
"Lady," she said, "I wants to tell yer dat I laid in all dis green glass grandeur, on de count o' y'all's promisin' to come -an' de ice, hit jes' did hold out. y'all had n't 'a' come to-day, I 'lowed to lay in mo' ice, 'caze my knowledge o' ways an' manners goes way pas' my looks, thank Gord!"
Happening just then to glance at her husband and seeing his glass lifted, she screamed with laughter:
"I wush y'all 'd look at Baptiste! A pusson would think he drinked wine eve'y day! Tas'e an' lif' 'is haid an' blink 'is eyes jes' percizely lak my ol' rade rooster!"
The man was evidently .enjoying his glass, and after a sip or two he warmed to it like a Frenchman. Bella in the meantime had slipped out, taking the lady with
her "to show her the garden," and of course the doctor's exhibit.
""T is a rillief to be able to take one glass wine," said mine host, holding his glass against the light. "Biffo', w'en I 'ad my foot, I cou' n' take nutting. I t'ank you, sir."
When he had emptied his glass, he turned to me again:
"If you will excuse me, I will take Bella's also; 't is many year since I taste such."
The whole bottle would not have hurt him, for it was a light wine, but he was unused to it, and after a second glass he closed his eyes and smiled as he began:
"Wid dat tas'e on my tongue, I can shet my h'eye an' I am again 'way back on de ol' plantation, an' I see de lightningbug shoot 'cross de swamp, an' so I can dream everyt'ing back again. I go behin' all doze new invention, behin' everyt'ing. Den I can ope' my h'eye an' shut it again, an' see all coming true, de way I want."
And he turned his quiet eyes upon me. "And what would you have, old man, if you could?"
"Me? W'at would I 'ave? 'T is no new t'ing I would ask. It ees moneynot big money, mais, juste enough to—” He leaned forward, dropping his voice,"enough to feex de place, da 's all. W'at ees dat great expensive levee to me? To raise my tax-da 's all."
"Why don't you sell?" I ventured; but to this he only shook his head sadly.
"Ah, non, M'sieu'! I will never move me from here. My two rich neighbor on bote sides, dey come to me in private, an' dey offer me good money to sell, mais — "And why not," I pursued, "if they pay you enough?"
He smiled on me:
"M'sieu', dey ain' got 'nauf money in de bank to buy dat pointe lan'. I don' wan' sell."
"Really, old man, you surprise me. Why not sell?" I protested.
Then with a swift survey he swung his long arm outward, describing the curve.
"You see, M'sieu', I got de whole pointe. Yas, an' w'en my chair ees on de new bank, I can set down wid de sunset in my h'eye an' look many mile bote way -an' de breeze in my face. De law requi'e de levee to follow de indication of de shore, an' please look dat bee-you-tiful
crescent shape! "T is h'all mine, an' my two rich neighbor, dey take pains to 'ave de levee build right also, an' fo' w'y? Huh! Each one is sure he can buy me h'out!
"So, every day dey pass, up an' down, up an' down, to inspect de building of my levee, to 'ave it strong an' good; an' sometime dey meet, by accident, you understan', an' I hear each one say to de other dat he expect any day to see dat pointe begin to cave in again-an' dat make me laugh, yas. Each one ees afraid de other one will buy me h'out, an' me, I twis' my t'umbs an' keep still. One sen' me one time one bottle good w'isky, an' de other one-you see dat nice hat yonder behin' de door-he present me dat-mais, I don' wan' sell!
"You see, I got great advantage in dis pointe, an' dat ees one pleasure to me. An' so, like I tell you, I can shut my h'eye an' t'ink me one fine row china-tree on de bank, like so many green umbrella; two row crape-myrtle from de pointe up to my 'ouse wid shell walk between; one row red oleander one side, w'ite on de other, 'g'ins' my rich w'ite neighbors; den orangetree plen'y an' fig, plen'y, Céleste fig, honey fig; an' behin' de 'ouse one wide scuppernong arbor; an' vegetable t'ick an' fine in dat rich batture bottom, an'—
"An', of co'se, one new, clean li'l 'ouse, maybe lif' a li'l from de groun' biccause sometime de snakes dey crawl in dis low shanty, an' Bella, she go bare feet, an' she don' like dat.
"Den I dream me one good strong li'l wharf an' one safe flat-bottom skiff, wid a sail for a windy day, an' one raft down below, wid plen'y place to sit in de shade. under de wharf an' fish-an' go to sleep."
"Yes," I laughed, as soon as I could break the quiet charm of his recital. "That's all very well, but how can you get all these things, and keep your place?" "Da 's true fo' you, M'sieu', mais w'en I would sell de place, I would 'ave no more excuse to even dream dem. I will never sell-mais I don't tell dat, no. Doze high-class 'ristocrat, dey get some time too easy mad. I tell h'always dat I am not in horry to sell! Da 's enough, an' 't is true."
I looked critically at the old man. He appeared almost hale, much more fit, indeed, than his diminutive wife to fight
life's battle for them both. Some such thought it was which gave me courage to ask:
"When do you expect to be able to go to work?"
"Go to work?" he repeated. "Never, M'sieu'. I stay to work, yas, w'en I am mo' strong. W'en I can t'row off dat poultice"-glancing at his foot-"den maybe we can make de place pay. W'en I can raise an' Bella can sell, we can be rich enough. Now, po' Bella, she raise an' peddle, an' w'en she can't raise, she go to de woods an' fin' somet'ing to sell.
"An' me? I am de quicksand to swallow all she make. She drop everyt'ing in me, po' Bella!"
'Does n't she want you to sell?"
"I t'ink so. She don't say so, no, biccause she know I am contrary. If she beg me keep de lan', I swea' biffo' God I belief I would wan' to sell. Da 's de way a man mus' resist to be hen-peck! 'T is de devil in me, I am sure."
"Not all cast out, then?"
'Bella was tell you, eh?" Then, with a low chuckle, looking over his shoulder, he confided:
"Well, I mus' confess to you." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I don' belief doze scorpion an' frog come out my foot, no! You mus' know dat from me. Maybe de devil was in me, all right, mais not dat way. W'en I was one li'l gamin so high, ol' Dr. Jean he pay any one of us half dozen li'l chillen picayune apiece to bring eem doze li'l red salamander an' lizard, an' dey use to say he took dem out of sick peop', de same way. Fifty cen' a dozen he pay doze scorpion an' green spider. Non, mais I am sure doze herb-doctor, dey sometime 'ave good med'cine fo' skin malady, an' I t'ink my foot is cure. Mais dat ain' de rizzen I call in dat doctor, no. I deen' tol' Bella, biccause a woman, she mus' 'ave faith. Mais I will tell you. I been lose some chicken, an' I need protection, an' w'en doze black devil dat visit my hen-roos' see Dr. Jean come een my gate, an' dey know doze scorpion, dey 'fraid to steal from me. Dey t'ink I am in cahoot wid de devil, an' dey scare I can trick dem. An' you see, wid my lame foot an' only po' li'l Bella to protect me, I need dat-to 'ave my prop'ty respected.
"I know somet'ing about hoodoo myself, mais I know too much 'bout doze
scorpion. W'en I was yo'ng man, one slim yo'ng quadroon, she lead me to de snake dance, an' I see it all." He looked over his shoulder again. "You see, time ees changed, now, an' I can tell you. I can sing an' make passes, an' I can dance de Bamboula, too, w'en I want. Even I can make gris gris, an' put de concombre zombi, just enough an' not too much, so to kill somebody, an' I know plen'y secret t'ing. Me, I have witness Marie Laveau once, dancing juste in 'er skin, as you might say, aroun' de snake an' twis' 'erself, ah-h-h! 'T is one sight to see de queen when dey begin monter voudou, an' every one t'row out 'is bones an' become de same like snake. Ha! Dat make me goose-skin all over, just to t'ink!
"An' dey got plen'y money in all dat, too, w'en a man can buy one scorpion fo' picayune an' collec' five dollar fo' taking it out of a man's foot behin' 'is back! Plen'y big money, yas, w'en he ain' got no conscience. Mais, I am going to die one day, me, an' I 'ope to be buried in one Christian grave. If I was sure to lay my bones in ol' St. Louis graveyard, wid one fine religious bead wreath, hanging befo' de door, I would live happy."
"And Bella?" I ventured.
He smiled. "Bella ees not de only one; beside she ees Prodes'ant. Non, w'en I am laying dere, I can exercise my soul visiting a few graves, if I want. If I 'ad Bella, I would 'ave to 'ave de rest aroun' me, an' dat wou' n' look good. So I sleep my las' sleep by myself. I am no Brigham Yo'ng, no!"
While I had sat following the old man's talk, constantly amused though often indignant, a great scheme had sprung into life and was now running riot within me. As attorney and agent for the great TexMex Railroad Company, I had been for more than a year on a still hunt for a site for a projected great station which must handle the traffic from trains crossing the river in or near New Orleans. I thought I knew the river coast well, but in fact my fancy had been playing along the north end of town where I had still failed to secure the coveted site. Nothing would have seemed more absurd than to suspect any considerable value or extent in the old negro's batture, but as I sat now within the growing curve which described its water-front, I realized that of all the
properties under consideration there was none that approached it in advantage. And yet, coincident with the presentment of the alluring picture, there sat the old man with his calm denial:
"No, I will never sell. Dey ain' got 'nauf money in de bank to buy dat batture, la."
I felt a little dizzy for a moment as the irresistible force of my enthusiasm collided with the immovable object before me, and it was of this catastrophe that there came a flash of light which blinded me for a second, so that when I looked at my watch and declared we must be going, I presently realized that I had not seen its face.
The return of the lady, followed by Aunt Bella with a heaping basket which she placed in the car for us; my taking a bank-note at random from my pocket and putting it in her hand; her bewilderment when she saw the X in its corner (even the illiterate know the dollars); her astoundment when I pressed it back upon her-all these I dimly remembered when we finally started home, leaving Monsieur and Madame Baptiste aghast and wondering at their gate.
But I was back the next day, mental order nearly restored and a diagram in my pocket-my case ready. I had even been uneasy lest the old man might have died in the night.
THIS was two years ago. Now the new house of Batture Baptiste sits upon brick pillars, a smiling cottage with "chimneys and galleries" within the crescent's curve. A double row of young crape-myrtle trees extends from the gate to its front door, while the river's rim is guarded against rising waters below by a levee of green, along the summit of which a row of toy umbrellas play at shower protection. The great new wharf far exceeds that of the old man's dream, having already cost the Tex-Mex Company ten thousand dollars, although it is only half done.
The arbor is built, grapes are planted, and oranges are in bloom. The broad skiff which swings at anchor near shore is called The Bella, and across its lap as it sways in the breeze, there lies, loosely rolled and flapping, "a little sail for a windy day."
The lady Bella, herself, boasts a fine. "alapaca dress" with several second-bests,
though none is second-hand, as of yore; but, although she is as loyal a wife as ever, she is rarely seen sitting beside her husband, for, be it remembered, Bella always "craved to travel," and one of the first clauses inserted in the document signed by the Tex-Mex Railroad Company and Batture Baptiste, by which his river estate was enabled thus to bloom and to bear for the present comfort of one and the prospective advantage of the other party to the contract, accorded to both man and wife, besides the right of lifelong occupancy, "free transportation at will in either direction along the entire length of the road"; so that Bella is sometimes in Mexico City, sometimes in Galveston or Guatemala; and, with its new charter which will carry the road to Canada- There's no telling.
The old man loves his batture home and so long as he lives, it is his, with an income sufficient for his comfort. And so he declares he has no desire to hurry it into the railroad's hands by risking his life in its transportation.
Bella has learned of many things besides "elevated" and "undervated" travel in her excursions into the great world. For one thing, she has annexed a new set of relations which she has made it her mission to discover, and all of whom, irrespective of various racial infusions and conditions of poverty or mendicancy, she fondly cherishes. They are "country niggers," all, "Pronesant an' 'Merican," but all proud to come into relationship with the gentleman of dignified leisure, Batture Baptiste.
Of course, the lord of the manor does
not sit alone. The ladies of color who disport themselves in Mother-Hubbards or Watteau plaits, still like to stroll down to the point in the afternoons, where they sit upon the iron benches under the green umbrellas. They are a sprightly lot, and have not failed to admire the effective design wrought in the iron "settees," although none has yet been known to decipher the hyphenated "Tex-Mex," done in cactus-stems surrounding the lone star. Sometimes their host serves orangeflower water or even ginger-pop, which he has to buy, and on special occasions when the ladies assemble on his front galerie he passes anisette in tiny glasses; then he waxes communicative and tells "juste dis han'ful o' friends" that the Tex-Mex Company has been a so-good friend to him-put him in comfort and made a lady of Bella-that he has drawn a will bequeathing his entire estate to them at his death, his widow to inherit his present allowance with option as to retaining residential rights during her lifetime.
"Mais," he adds, "I don' t'ink she will stay. She ees crazy fo' traveling an' finding rillation. I wish you could see de job lot o' new corzen she intruduce to me. She ees all heart, po' Bella!
"Besides," and at this he smilingly bows. to his guests, "besides, she may yet go biffo' me! I am getting mo' yo'nger every day, so dere ees no telling. Any'ow, de railroad 'ave feex eet so dat it will be 'de widow of Batture Baptiste' dat can live like one lady, an' travel, too, w'en she want, wid money in her pocket! Dere ees no name mention'.
"An' so, ladies-"