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A Fool There Was By Porter Emerson Browne Characters: 7414

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

In the littleness of things, it so happened that at a time when John Stuyvesant Schuyler and Thomas Cathcart Blake, serious, solemn, side-by- side, were telling the widow of Jimmy Blair that the Tidewater Southern Railroad, in which her husband had largely interested himself before his death, had declared an extra dividend that had enabled them that day to deposit to her credit in the bank the sum of four thousand two hundred and eighty-one dollars and seventy-three cents, in a little hut on the black Breton coast a woman lay dying.

It was a bare hut, and noisome. In it it were perhaps better to die than to live; and yet that one might not say. From before it one might gaze upon league upon league of sullen sea, stretching to where, far in the dim distance, lay the curve of the horizon upbearing the gray dome of the sky.

Inside the hovel there was a smoke-stained fireplace beside which was strewn an armful of faggots. There was before it a number of broken and greasy dishes, filled with fragments of food. And all about on the floor lay the litter of the sick-room.

The dying woman was stretched inert, moveless, upon a rough bed of rope and rush. Perhaps she had been pretty once, in an animal way. She was not now. Lips that doubtless had been red were white and drawn in pain; and there was blood upon them, where white, even teeth had bitten in the way that those who suffer have of trying to hide a greater suffering beneath a lesser. The eyes, deep and dark, were dull and half-hidden by their blue, transparent lids. And the cheeks were sunken, and ghastly-touched by the hand of death.

A heavy, course-featured woman, thin hair streaked with gray, flat- backed, flat-breasted, sat beside the rude bed, silent, motionless, awaiting an end that she had so often watched in the sullen ferocity that is of beast rather than of man. And on her lap lay a little, pink, puling thing that whimpered and twisted weakly-a little, naked, thing half covered by roughly-cast sacking.

The tiny, twisting thing whimpered. The woman beside the bed held it, waiting. The woman on the bed moaned a little, and the glaze upon the eyes grew more thick. And that was all.

There came to the ears that were not too new come or too far gone to hear, the sound of hoof beats upon the turf. They came nearer…. They stopped. Came the sound of spurred heels striking upon the trodden dirt without the door…. There stood in the opening the figure of a man. He was tall, and well-proportioned, though if anything a bit too slender-a bit too graceful; and he was, if anything, a bit too well groomed. He had light hair, and moustache. He had cold eyes that smiled; cold lips that smiled. He stood in the doorway, trying to accustom his eyes to the gloom within, the while playing a deft tattoo upon his booted calf with light crop that he carried in his right hand.

"Well?" he said, at length, in the French that is of Paris. "Well? …

What is all this?"

The tiny thing whimpered. The woman upon the bed moaned a little, weakly.

She, who sat beside it, looked up, eyes aflame. She said no word.

The man in the doorway took a step forward, entering. He was still smiling. He looked about him; and then he continued:

"Sick, eh? … Dying? … And that thing that you have in your-Ma foi! A baby, eh?" He laughed, aloud. The broken peals came back to him from the sodden, smoke-stained rafters. "Strange that I should have come to-day…. A baby!" He laughed again, modulatedly. And then, with an air of sympathetic commiseration he said to the gray-haired old woman with the eyes of fire:

"Too bad that your daughter is not married-since she, I presume, is the mother! … And the happy

father?-he is-?" He stopped, waiting, smilingly.

The fierce, blazing eyes were set full upon his own. She said, in the patois that was of her and hers:

"You ask that? … You?"

He answered, evenly.

"Yes. I ask that. Even I."

Quickly, with the agility of the brute, she thrust toward him the little, puling thing that lay upon her lap.

"Look, then," she said, in deep, grating tones.

He leaned forward, crossing his hands behind him, and looked. The crop, held in his right hand, tapped lightly against his booted left leg. The woman waited. At length he stood erect. He shook his head and smiled.

"Babies are all alike," he remarked, easily. "Red, dirty, unformed, no hair…. This is a little redder, a little more dirty, a little more unformed; it has a little less hair…. Beyond that, quoi?"

The shrunken lips of the old woman set tightly; the eyes flared.

"You dare-!" she began. And then: "It is your mouth-your chin. The nose is yours. The eyes they shall be hers." She nodded her head in the direction of the dying mother upon the bed. "And perhaps, some day-" She did not finish. She settled the baby back again upon her knees and sat, waiting.

The man, still smiling, gazed up the woman on the bed.

"Dead?" he queried, with a lift of the brows.

She did not answer. He bent over the prostrate form; then again stood erect. He shrugged his shoulders.

He turned again to the shrivelled woman on the chair.

"You have named it?" he asked. "You have named-our child?"

Still she did not answer.

"It were not improper," he continued, smilingly, half-musingly, "for a father to venture a suggestion anent a name…. Eh bien, then. I should wish that the baby be known as" he stopped for a moment, thinking, the while lightly tapping booted leg with the tip of his crop. "I should suggest," he repeated, "calling her Rien. It is an appropriate name, Rien. It is not a bad name; in fact, it is rather a pretty name…. Rien…. Rien…. Rien…." He repeated it several times. "Yes, it seems to me that that is an excellent name…. We will, then, consider her name Rien." He laughed once more.

"Because of certain reasons," he went on, "I'm afraid that my paternal duties must cease with the naming of our child."

He turned to the dying woman upon the bed.

"Bon voyage, mam'selle-eh, pardon, madame," he said. He lifted his hat, bowing. To the old woman he turned.

"To you-" he began; she interrupted.

"Her eyes, they will be her mother's," she mumbled, sullenly.

"Which will be well," he smiled. "Her mother had beautiful eyes- wonderful eyes."

"More wonderful than you knew," muttered the old woman. "Had you come a day sooner-"

Still he smiled.

"But I didn't," he replied; and then nodding toward the whimpering thing that the woman held:

"You should guard it well. There is of the best blood of France in its veins." His lips curled, whimsically. "'Tis strange, that, n'es-ce pas? In that small piece of carrion which you hold there upon your knees runs the blood of three kings." Again he laughed, musically. He turned.

He had not seen her stoop. The long-bladed knife struck him in the arm, piercing flesh and vein and sinew, sticking there. Slowly he plucked it forth, and turned to her, still smiling.

"You are old, madame. Do not apologize; it was not your fault."

He took the knife delicately by the tip and with a little flip sent it spinning through the air and over the edge of the cliff. And he was gone.

The woman, shrivelled, gray-haired, sinking back in her chair, sat silent. The puling thing upon her knees whimpered. The dying woman upon the rude bed of rope and rush moaned. And that was all.


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