A Gentleman of Bayou Têche
by Kate Chopin
It was no wonder Mr. Sublet, who was staying at the Hallet plantation, wanted to make a picture of Evariste. The ‘Cadian was rather a picturesque subject in his way, and a tempting one to an artist looking for bits of “local color” along the Têche.
Mr. Sublet had seen the man on the back gallery just as he came out, trying to sell a wild turkey to the housekeeper. He spoke to him at once, and in the course of conversation engaged him to return to the house the following morning and have his picture drawn. He handed Evariste a couple of silver dollars to show that his intentions were fair, and that he expected the ‘Cadian to keep faith with him.
“He tell’ me he want’ put my picture in one fine ‘Mag’zine,’” said Evariste to his daughter, Martinette, when the two were talking the matter over in the afternoon. “W’at fo’ you reckon he want’ do dat?” They sat within the low, homely cabin of two rooms, that was not quite so comfortable as Mr. Hallet’s negro quarters.
Martinette pursed her red lips that had little sensitive curves to them, and her black eyes took on a reflective expression.
“Mebbe he yeard ‘bout that big fish w’at you ketch las’ winta in Carancro lake. You know it was all wrote about in the ‘Suga Bowl.’” Her father set aside the suggestion with a deprecatory wave of the hand.
“Well, anyway, you got to fix yo’se’f up,” declared Martinette, dismissing further speculation; “put on yo’ otha pant’loon’ an’ yo’ good coat; an’ you betta ax Mr. Léonce to cut yo’ hair, an’ yo’ w’sker’ a li’le bit.”
“It’s w’at I say,” chimed in Evariste. “I tell dat gent’man I’m goin make myse’f fine. He say’, ‘No, no,’ like he ent please’. He want’ me like I come out de swamp. So much betta if my pant’loon an’ coat is tore, he say, an’ color’ like de mud.” They could not understand these eccentric wishes on the part of the strange gentleman, and made no effort to do so.
An hour later Martinette, who was quite puffed up over the affair, trotted across to Aunt Dicey’s cabin to communicate the news to her. The negress was ironing; her irons stood in a long row before the fire of logs that burned on the hearth. Martinette seated herself in the chimney corner and held her feet up to the blaze; it was damp and a little chilly out of doors. The girl’s shoes were considerably worn and her garments were a little too thin and scant for the winter season. Her father had given her the two dollars he had received from the artist, and Martinette was on her way to the store to invest them as judiciously as she knew how.
“You know, Aunt Dicey,” she began a little complacently after listening awhile to Aunt Dicey’s unqualified abuse of her own son, Wilkins, who was dining-room boy at Mr. Hallet’s, “you know that stranger gentleman up to Mr. Hallet’s? he want’ to make my popa’s picture; an’ he say’ he goin’ put it in one fine Mag’zine yonda.”
Aunt Dicey spat upon her iron to test its heat. Then she began to snicker. She kept on laughing inwardly, making her fat body shake, and saying nothing.
“W’at you laughin’ bout, Aunt Dice?” inquired Martinette mistrustfully.
“I isn’ laughin’, chile!”
“Yas, you’ laughin’.”
“Oh, don’t pay no ‘tention to me. I jis studyin’ how simple you an’ yo’ pa is. You is bof de simplest somebody I eva com ‘crost.”
“You got to say plumb out w’at you mean, Aunt Dice,” insisted the girl doggedly, suspicious and alert now.
“Well, dat w’y I say you is simple,” proclaimed the woman, slamming down her iron on an inverted, battered pie pan, “jis like you says, dey gwine put yo’ pa’s picture yonda in de picture paper. An’ you know w’at readin’ dey gwine sot down on’neaf dat picture?” Martinette was intensely attentive. “Dey gwine sot down on’neaf: ‘Dis heah is one dem low-down ‘Cajuns o’ Bayeh Têche!’”
The blood flowed from Martinette’s face, leaving it deathly pale; in another instant it came beating back in a quick flood, and her eyes smarted with pain as if the tears that filled them had been fiery hot.
“I knows dem kine o’ folks,” continued Aunt Dicey, resuming her interrupted ironing. “Dat stranger he got a li’le boy w’at ain’t none too big to spank. Dat li’le imp he come a hoppin’ in heah yistiddy wid a kine o’ box on’neaf his arm. He say’ ‘Good mo’nin’’, madam. Will you be so kine an’ stan’ jis like you is dah at yo’ I’onin’, an’ lef me take yo’ picture?’ I ‘lowed I gwine make a picture outen him wid dis heah flati’on, ef he don’ cl’ar hisse’f quick. An’ he say he baig my pardon fo’ his intrudement. All dat kine o’ talk to a ole nigga ‘oman! Dat plainly sho’ he don’ know his place.”
“W’at you want ‘im to say, Aunt Dice?” asked Martinette, with an effort to conceal her distress.
“I wants ‘im to come in heah an’ say: ‘Howdy, Aunt Dicey! will you be so kine and go put on yo’ noo calker dress an’ yo’ bonnit w’at you w’ars to meetin’, an’ stan’ ‘side f’om day i’onin-boa’d w’ilse I gwine take yo’ photygraph.’ Dat de way fo’ a boy to talke w’at had good raisin’.”
Martinette had arisen, and began to take slow leave of the woman. She turned at the cabin door to observe tentatively: “I reckon it’s Wilkins tells you how the folks they talk, yonda up to Mr. Hallet’s.”
She did not go to the store as she had intended, but walked with a dragging step back to her home. The silver dollars clicked in her pocket as she walked. She felt like flinging them across the field; they seemed to her somehow the price of shame.
The sun had sunk, and twilight was settling like a silver beam upon the bayou and enveloping the fields in a gray mist. Evariste, slim and slouchy, was waiting for his daughter in the cabin door. He had lighted a fire of sticks and branches, and placed the kettle before it to boil. He met the girl with his slow serious, questioning eyes, astonished to see her empty-handed.
“How come you didn’ bring nuttin’ f’om de sto’, Martinette?”
She entered and flung her gingham sun-bonnet upon a chair. “No, I didn’ go yonda;” and with sudden exasperation: “You got to go take back that money; you musn’ git no picture took.”
“But, Martinette,” her father mildly interposed, “I promise ‘im; an’ he’s goin’ give me some mo’ money w’en he finish.”
“If he give you a ba’el o’ money, you musn’ git no picture took. You know what he want to put un’neath that picture, fo’ ev’body to read?” She could not tell him the whole hideous truth as she had heard it distorted from Aunt Dicey’s lips; she would not hurt him that much. “He’s goin’ to write: ‘This is one ’Cajun o’ the Bayou Têche.’” Evariste winced.
“How you know?” he asked.
“I yeard so. I know it’s true.”
The water in the kettle was boiling. He went and poured a small quantity upon the coffee which he had set there to drip. Then he said to her: “I reckon you jus’ as well go care dat two dolla’ back, tomo’ mo’nin’; me, I’ll go yonda ketch a mess o’ fish in Carancro lake.”
Mr. Hallet and a few masculine companions were assembled at a rather late breakfast the following morning. The dining room was a big, bare one, enlivened by a cheerful fire of logs that blazed in the wide chimney on massive andirons. There were guns, fishing tackle, and other implements of sport lying about. A couple of fine dogs strayed unceremoniously in and out behind Wilkins, the negro boy who waited upon the table. The chair beside Mr. Sublet, usually occupied by his little son, was vacant, as the child had gone for an early morning outing and had not yet returned.
When breakfast was about half over, Mr. Hallet noticed Martinette standing outside upon the gallery. The dining room door had stood open more than half the time.
“Isn’t that Martinette out there, Wilkins?” inquired the jovial-faced young planter.
“Dat’s who, suh,” returned Wilkins. “She ben standin’ dah sence mos’ sun-up; look like she studyin’ to take root to de gall’ry.”
“What in the name of goodness does she want? Ask her what she wants. Tell her to come in to the fire.”
Martinette walked into the room with much hesitancy. Her small, brown face could hardly be seen in the depths of the gingham sun-bonnet. Her blue cottonade skirt scarcely reached the thin ankles that it should have covered.
“Bonjou’,” she murmured, with a little comprehensive nod that took in the entire company. Her eyes searched the table for the “stranger gentleman,” and she knew him at once, because his hair was parted in the middle and he wore a pointed beard. She went and laid the two silver dollars beside his plate and motioned to retire without a word of explanation.
“Hold on, Martinette!” called out the planter, “what’s all this pantomime business? Speak out, little one.”
“My popa don’t want any picture took,” she offered, a little timorously. On her way to the door she had looked back to say this. In that fleeting glance she detected a smile of intelligence pass from one to the other of the group. She turned quickly, facing them all, and spoke out, excitement making her voice bold and shrill: “My popa ent one low-down ‘Cajun. He ent goin’ to stan’ to have that kine o’ writin’ put down un’neath his picture!”
She almost ran from the room, half blinded by the emotion that had helped her to make so daring a speech.
Descending the gallery steps she ran full against her father who was ascending, bearing in his arms the little boy, Archie Sublet. The child was most grotesquely attired in garments far too large for his diminutive person – the rough jeans clothing of some negro boy. Evariste himself had evidently been taking a bath without the preliminary ceremony of removing his clothes, that were now half dried upon his person by the wind and sun.
“Yere you’ li’le boy,” he announced, stumbling into the room. “You ought not lef dat li’le chile go by hisse’f comme ça in de pirogue.” Mr. Sublet darted from his chair; the others following suit almost as hastily. In an instant, quivering with apprehension, he had his little son in his arms. The child was quite unharmed, only somewhat pale and nervous, as the consequence of a recent very serious ducking.
Evariste related in his uncertain, broken English how he had been fishing for an hour or more in Carancro lake, when he noticed the boy paddling over the deep, black water in a shell-like pirogue. Nearing a clump of cypress-trees that rose from the lake, the pirogue became entangled in the heavy moss that hung from the tree limbs and trailed upon the water. The next thing he knew, the boat had overturned, he heard the child scream, and saw him disappear beneath the still, black surface of the lake.
“W’en I done swim to de sho’ wid ‘im,” continued Evariste, “I hurry yonda to Jake Baptiste’s cabin, an’ we rub ‘im an’ warm ‘im up, an’ dress ‘im up dry like you see. He all right now, M’sieur; but you musn’ lef ‘im go no mo’ by hisse’f in one pirogue.”
Martinette had followed into the room behind her father. She was feeling and tapping his wet garments solicitously, and begging him in French to come home. Mr. Hallet at once ordered hot coffee and a warm breakfast for the two; and they sat down at the corner of the table, making no manner of objection in their perfect simplicity. It was with visible reluctance and ill-disguised contempt that Wilkins served them.
When Mr. Sublet had arranged his son comfortably, with tender care, upon the sofa, and had satisfied himself that the child was quite uninjured, he attempted to find words with which to thank Evariste for this service which no treasure of words or gold could pay for. These warm and heartfelt expressions seemed to Evariste to exaggerate the importance of his action, and they intimidated him. He attempted shyly to hide his face as well as he could in the depths of his bowl of coffee.
“You will let me make your picture now, I hope, Evariste,” begged Mr. Sublet, laying his hand upon the ‘Cadian’s shoulder. “I want to place it among things I hold most dear, and shall call it ‘A hero of Bayou Têche.’” This assurance seemed to distress Evariste greatly.
“No, no,” he protested, “it’s nuttin’ hero’ to take a li’le boy out de water. I jus’ as easy do dat like I stoop down an’ pick up a li’le chile w’at fall down in de road. I ent goin’ to ‘low dat, me. I don’t git no picture took, va!”
Mr. Hallet, who now discerned his friend’s eagerness in the matter, came to his aid.
“I tell you, Evariste, let Mr. Sublet draw your picture, and you yourself may call it whatever you want. I’m sure he’ll let you.”
“Most willingly,” agreed the artist.
Evariste glanced up at him with shy and child-like pleasure. “It’s a bargain?” he asked.
“A bargain,” affirmed Mr. Sublet.
“Popa,” whispered Martinette, “you betta come home an’ put on yo’ otha pant’loon’ an’ yo’ good coat.”
“And now, what shall we call the much talked-of picture?” cheerily inquired the planter, standing with his back to the blaze.
Evariste in a business-like manner began carefully to trace on the tablecloth imaginary characters with an imaginary pen; he could not have written the real characters with a real pen – he did not know how.
“You will put on’neat’ de picture,” he said, deliberately, “’Dis is one picture of Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent’man of Bayou Têche.’”