Mamzelle Aurelie possessed a good strong figure,
ruddy cheeks, hair that was changing from brown to gray, and a determined eye.
She wore a man's hat about the farm, and an old blue army overcoat when it was
cold, and sometimes top-boots.
Mamzelle Aurélie had never thought of marrying.
She had never been in love. At the age of twenty she had received a proposal,
which she had promptly declined, and at the age of fifty she had not yet lived
to regret it.
So she was quite alone in the world, except for
her dog Ponto, and the negroes who lived in her cabins and worked her crops, and
the fowls, a few cows, a couple of mules, her gun (with which she shot
chicken-hawks), and her religion.
One morning Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon her
gallery, contemplating, with arms akimbo, a small band of very small children
who, to all intents and purposes, might have fallen from the clouds, so
unexpected and bewildering was their coming, and so unwelcome. They were the
children of her nearest neighbor, Odile, who was not such a near neighbor, after
The young woman had appeared but five minutes
before, accompanied by these four children. In her arms she carried little Élodie;
she dragged Ti Nomme by an unwilling hand; while Marcéline and Marcélette
followed with irresolute steps.
Her face was red and disfigured from tears and
excitement. She had been summoned to a neighboring parish by the dangerous
illness of her mother; her husband was away in Texas -- it seemed to her a
million miles away; and Valsin was waiting with the mule-cart to drive her to
"It's no question, Mamzelle Aurélie; you
jus' got to keep those youngsters fo' me tell I come back. Dieu sait, I wouldn'
botha you with 'em if it was any otha way to do! Make 'em mine you, Mamzelle Aurélie;
don' spare 'em. Me, there, I'm half crazy between the chil'ren, an' Léon not
home, an' maybe not even to fine po' maman alive encore!" -- a harrowing
possibility which drove Odile to take a final hasty and convulsive leave of her
She left them crowded into the narrow strip of
shade on the porch of the long, low house; the white sunlight was beating in on
the white old boards; some chickens were scratching in the grass at the foot of
the steps, and one had boldly mounted, and was stepping heavily, solemnly, and
aimlessly across the gallery. There was a pleasant odor of pinks in the air, and
the sound of negroes' laughter was coming across the flowering cotton-field.
Mamzelle Aurélie stood contemplating the
children. She looked with a critical eye upon Marcéline, who had been left
staggering beneath the weight of the chubby Élodie. She surveyed with the same
calculating air Marcélette mingling her silent tears with the audible grief and
rebellion of Ti Nomme. During those few contemplative moments she was collecting
herself, determining upon a line of action which should be identical with a line
of duty. She began by feeding them.
If Mamzelle Aurélie's responsibilities might
have begun and ended there, they could easily have been dismissed; for her
larder was amply provided against an emergency of this nature. But little
children are not little pigs: they require and demand attentions which were
wholly unexpected by Mamzelle Aurélie, and which she was ill prepared to give.
She was, indeed, very inapt in her management
of Odile's children during the first few days. How could she know that Marcélette
always wept when spoken to in a loud and commanding tone of voice? It was a
peculiarity of Marcélette's. She became acquainted with Ti Nomme's passion for
flowers only when he had plucked all the choicest gardenias and pinks for the
apparent purpose of critically studying their botanical construction.
"'T ain't enough to tell 'im, Mamzelle Aurélie,"
Marcéline instructed her; "you got to tie 'im in a chair. It's w'at maman
all time do w'en he's bad: she tie 'im in a chair." The chair in which
Mamzelle Aurélie tied Ti Nomme was roomy and comfortable, and he seized the
opportunity to take a nap in it, the afternoon being warm.
At night, when she ordered them one and all to
bed as she would have shooed the chickens into the hen-house, they stayed
uncomprehending before her. What about the little white nightgowns that had to
be taken from the pillow-slip in which they were brought over, and shaken by
some strong hand till they snapped like ox-whips? What about the tub of water
which had to be brought and set in the middle of the floor, in which the little
tired, dusty, sun-browned feet had every one to be washed sweet and clean? And
it made Marcéline and Marcélette laugh merrily -- the idea that Mamzelle Aurélie
should for a moment have believed that Ti Nomme could fall asleep without being
told the story of Croque-mitaine or Loup-garou, or both; or that Élodie could
fall asleep at all without being rocked and sung to.
"I tell you, Aunt Ruby," Mamzelle Aurélie
informed her cook in confidence; "me, I'd rather manage a dozen plantation'
than fo' chil'ren. It's terrassent! Bonté! don't talk to me about chil'ren!"
"T ain' ispected sich as you would know
airy thing 'bout 'em, Mamzelle Aurélie. I see dat plainly yistiddy w'en I spy
dat li'le chile playin' wid yo' baskit o' keys. You don' know dat makes chillun
grow up hard-headed, to play wid keys? Des like it make 'em teeth hard to look
in a lookin'-glass. Them's the things you got to know in the raisin' an'
manigement o' chillun."
Mamzelle Aurélie certainly did not pretend or
aspire to such subtle and far-reaching knowledge on the subject as Aunt Ruby
possessed, who had "raised five an' buried six" in her day. She was
glad enough to learn a few little mother-tricks to serve the moment's need.
Ti Nomme's sticky fingers compelled her to
unearth white aprons that she had not worn for years, and she had to accustom
herself to his moist kisses -- the expressions of an affectionate and exuberant
nature. She got down her sewing-basket, which she seldom used, from the top
shelf of the armoire, and placed it within the ready and easy reach which torn
slips and buttonless waists demanded. It took her some days to become accustomed
to the laughing, the crying, the chattering that echoed through the house and
around it all day long. And it was not the first or the second night that she
could sleep comfortably with little Élodie's hot, plump body pressed close
against her, and the little one's warm breath beating her cheek like the fanning
of a bird's wing.
But at the end of two weeks Mamzelle Aurélie
had grown quite used to these things, and she no longer complained.
It was also at the end of two weeks that
Mamzelle Aurélie, one evening, looking away toward the crib where the cattle
were being fed, saw Valsin's blue cart turning the bend of the road. Odile sat
beside the mulatto, upright and alert. As they drew near, the young woman's
beaming face indicated that her home-coming was a happy one.
But this coming, unannounced and unexpected,
threw Mamzelle Aurélie into a flutter that was almost agitation. The children
had to be gathered. Where was Ti Nomme? Yonder in the shed, putting an edge on
his knife at the grindstone. And Marcéline and Marcélette? Cutting and
fashioning doll-rags in the corner of the gallery. As for Élodie, she was safe
enough in Mamzelle Aurélie's arms; and she had screamed with delight at sight
of the familiar blue cart which was bringing her mother back to her.
THE excitement was all over, and they were gone.
How still it was when they were gone! Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon the gallery,
looking and listening. She could no longer see the cart; the red sunset and the
blue-gray twilight had together flung a purple mist across the fields and road
that hid it from her view. She could no longer hear the wheezing and creaking of
its wheels. But she could still faintly hear the shrill, glad voices of the
She turned into the house. There was much work
awaiting her, for the children had left a sad disorder behind them; but she did
not at once set about the task of righting it. Mamzelle Aurélie seated herself
beside the table. She gave one slow glance through the room, into which the
evening shadows were creeping and deepening around her solitary figure. She let
her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry. Oh, but she cried! Not
softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear
her very soul. She did not notice Ponto licking her hand.