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The mission.

The Mission

Emile was too late, or rathertoo old. His legs gave out when he was only half a mile beyond the village, and the road ahead of him was still empty of the small figure he hoped to overtake. He sat on a boulder beside the road, mopping his face with a handkerchief and shaking his head.

An ancient truck came up behindhim, filled with limestone chunks and towing a long trail of dust. Emile stepped out and waved it to a halt.

"Friend," he said, thrusting thebrown-paper package at the driver, "do me a favor, please. You will find a little girl--about so big--walking along the road ahead somewhere. She is going to the capital, she will tell you. Give her this, please. Tell her the shopkeeper in St. Michel sent it, with his apologies." He fished a coin from his pocket and dropped it in the man's hand. "This is for your trouble."

"All right," the driver said.

Emile Hector walked slowly andthoughtfully back to his shop in St. Michel, where he found his wife weighing red beans into paper bags. He watched her for a few minutes, then stepped forward and snatched the scoop out of her hand.

"There should be a full pound ineach bag!" he said angrily. "You're cheating! Don't you know it's wrong to cheat?"

The truck driver found Yolandetrudging along the road's edge, and he stopped. He handed her the package. "The old fellow said you are going to Port-au-Prince," he said, scowling. "Is that a fact?"

"Yes, I am," Yolande told him.

"Well, I'm not going very far, butI can save you a few miles of walking. Get in."

Yolande climbed onto the seat besidehim, and the truck clattered on down the golden road. It was the first time she had ever ridden in a motor vehicle, and for a time she could only stare out through the dusty windshield or watch the driver's strong, sure hands on the wheel. But when the wonder of it wore off a little, she opened the brown-paper package.

"Oh-oh," he said. "Look at allthe food I have. Would you help me eat it, please?"

The driver glanced at her curiously.

"What are you going to thecapital for, ti-fi?"

She told him.

He frowned. "I know Port-au-Princepretty well. What's your father's name and where does he live?"

"His name is Armand St. Justeand I don't know where he lives. In a fine big house somewhere. He paints beautiful pictures. Maman told me all about him."

The driver removed a handfrom the wheel to tug at an ear. "An artist, eh? Armand St. Juste? What does he look like?"

"Well, I've never seen him. He'sbeen too busy to visit us. But he's tall and good-looking and--"

"You've never seen him? Never?"

"No, but he sent us things. Hesent me these gold earrings I'm wearing." Yolande smiled happily at the memory. "I won't have any trouble finding him. He's very rich and important. Are you going to help me eat this food?"

The man scowled again. "Eat whatyou want and save the rest," he said. "You have a long way to go yet. I'm not hungry."

He let her off in the town of Petit-Goave,which is 45 miles from the capital. Standing at the roadside was a big orange and red bus bound for Port-au-Prince, packed solid with peasants and their belongings, with a noisy crowd standing around it. The truck driver pushed his way through the crowd and asked the bus driver if he could make a place for Yolande--he himself would pay the fare--but the bus driver threw up his hands and said helplessly, "Mes amis! Do you know what you ask? These people all want a place on my bus, and my passengers are sitting on top of one another now! No, no, no, I can't do it! They would tear me to pieces!"

"She is only a little girl," the truckdriver protested.

"I couldn't take her if she were amouse!"

The truck driver said sadly toYolande, "I'm sorry, little one, but here is a small amount of money to buy food with. I hope you find your father." He lifted her in his strong arms, put his lips against her cheek, and set her down again. Then he climbed back into his truck and drove off, shaking his head.

Yolande stopped to restwhen she was tired, and she ate bananas and bread rolls when her stomach ached. When the road grew dark she slept between the high sheltering roots of a mapou tree, and when daylight came she walked again. She washed herself in a stream. She ate the last of her food and bought more at a roadside shop with the coins the truck driver had given her. She spent s night in a field, with cicadas singing all about her.

The road was paved now. The sunbeat down on it and waves of heat shimmered from its hard black surface. Her feet hurt but she trudged on, peering ahead for her first sight of the capital.

It would be a big city; she knewthat. There would be ever so many houses, shops, people, and a wonderful white palace where the president lived. At noon she arrived on the outskirts and was frightened. Both sides of the road were packed with people wearing strange costumes and even stranger masks, people dancing and shouting and beating on drums. Cars and trucks crawled through the crowds, trying to blast them apart with their horns.

Yolande tugged at a woman'sdress. "Excuse me, please. I have never been here before. Is it always noisey and crowded like this?"

"Not always, little one. Today isMardi gras."

"Oh." She should have known. Mardigras was a big affair in Aquin, too. But there were ever so many more people here. It was going to be difficult, finding her father's house at such a time.

She had reached the city proper,and it was much, much bigger than she had expected. The buildings were enormous. The streets ran every which way. She was caught up in the surging crowd and carried along like a leaf on a stream, stepped on, pushed, deafened by the din. But she would not let the tumult confuse her. Stubbornly she clutched at people's hands, forcing them to look down at her.

"Please, can you tell me where ArmandSt. Juste lives? The artist?"


"Armand St. Juste! You must knowhim. He is a very important man."

No one, it seemed, knew him. Awoman knew a Marcel St. Juste who was a baker. A man knew an Alfred St. Juste who worked at a bank. But no one knew Armand St. Juste, the famous artist. It was a puzzling thing. They were confused, perhaps, by all the noise.

Yolande had reached a great parkfilled with people. All the people of the world were here, except, of course, those on the streets she had come through. Millions of people. They were watching a parade that wound through the park like an enormous colored snake. Musicians. Dancers. Beautiful dressed-up trucks and cars, with pretty girls on them blowing kisses. It was like a dream, but bewildering. She stopped to watch, because it was very hard to push her way through such a crowd.

A little girl stumbled against her,sobbing: a girl even younger, smaller than herself, but wearing shoes and a pretty pink dress. Yolande stooped to look into the tear-stained face.

"What's the matter, ti-fi? Why areyou crying?"

"I can't find my mother and father! Igot out of the car to see the parade and can't find my way back!"

"I know how it is. Take hold of myhand, and I'll help you find them."

They moved through the crowd together,Yolande creating the openings and drawing the child through after her. It was like swimming in a sea with waves so high that the shore was hidden. She could not ask about her father now. That would have to wait. The little girl was terrified. The thing to do was to get out of the crowd and look for the car.

They were out at last. Shewiped the little girl's face with the hem of the pretty pink dress and said, "There now, we're all right. We'll find your mother and father, you'll see. What's your name?"

"M-Marguerite Maxime."

"Well, Marguerite, youstop crying now. Big girls don't cry. I won't let anything happen to you, no."

They looked at cars, but none wasthe right one. They went from one street to another. They were standing on a sidewalk, hand in hand, when the little girl suddenly cried out, "There! There it is!" and pulled Yolande off the curb.

The street was a hill, and down thehill toward them rolled a float. Not part of the Mardi gras parade. Just a single float, a big one, covered with shimmering white cloth to resemble a cloud. On the cloud stood a ten-foot-high angel with outspread golden wings. The float seemed to be coming fast. Yolande said, "Wait, Marguerite," but the child in the pink dress tugged her across the street toward the car.

There was a woman in the car. She,too, saw the float. She screamed. At the same time a man came striding around a corner a little distance away, saw the children in the middle of the street, and shouted hoarsely, "Marguerite! Look out!"

That was a mistake. Hearing theman's voice, Marguerite stopped. The hurtling cloud with its teetering ten-foot angel was almost upon her. But it was not a cloud now. At close range it was only an ugly battering ram of a truck out of control, moving too fast for its ancient brakes. Its driver clung to the wheel in terror, peering wide-eyed through a gap in the white cloth.

Yolande tried to pull her companionback to the curb they had come from, but the child, too, was frozen with fear. The woman in the car still screamed. The man covered his face with his hands.

Unable to pull the child,Yolande seized her around the waist and lifted her and tried to run--did run a few stumbling steps. It was almost enough. The truck roared past, missing them. But a wing of the ten-foot angel struck Yolande and knocked them to the street.

Marguerite scrambled toher feet unharmed and sped to the car. Yolande lay in the street unmoving. The truck went careening on down the hill to crash into a steel utility pole and overturn.

People came running--not to thepeasant girl lying motionless in the street, but to the more spectacular accident below. It was the man who picked Yolande up. He looked into her face and carried her to the car, where the woman clung to the child in the pink dress.

"This one is hurt," he said. "Takeher. I'll drive to Dr. Domond's."

The woman nodded. Without aword, but biting her lip, she put her own little girl on the back seat and took Yolande in her arms. The man drove. When he stopped, he carried Yolande into a house and watched, clenching and unclenching his hands, while the doctor examined her. The father of Marguerite Maxime was a young man, well-dressed. The doctor addressed him with respect.

The doctor said, "She will be allright, I think, Henri. I find nothing broken. Take her home, eh? Tell me where she lives, and I'll stop by to look at her tomorrow."

"I don't know where she lives,Paul. I don't even know her name. All I know is that she saved my little girl's life just now."

Yolande opened her eyes and,when questioned, told them who she was. "I have to find my father," she said. "Perhaps you know where he lives?" She told them her father's name and all that she knew about him and how she had walked to the capital from Aquin to find him.

The two men looked at each other. "Itwill be hard to find him today, little one," Henri Maxime said gently. "I think I will take you home with me, and we'll look for Armand St. Juste tomorrow, eh? Will that be all right?"

"But you do know him, don'tyou?" Yolande asked anxiously.

Henri Maxime smiled and kissedher. "I will answer every one of your questions later, little one, after you've had something to eat and a good long sleep in a soft bed."

He took her to the kind of houseshe knew her father must live in: a big, handsome house with tiled floors and gleaming mahogany furniture, set in the midst of a garden filled with flowers. There, after a bath in a great white tub, with warm water, she had supper with Henri Maxime and his wife and their little girl and then was put to bed. She way very tired. She fell asleep almost at once.

She was still asleep when Henri leftthe house in the morning. He took his car from the garage and drove downtown to the Centre D'Art.

"Can you tell me anything aboutan artist named Armand St. Juste?" he asked.

The man in charge of the centersaid with a frown, "St. Juste? Armand St. Juste? An artist, m'sieu?"

"I thought so," Henri said with asigh, and then he drove to the College St. Martial, where he spoke to a priest he knew well. "It shouldn't be difficult, should it, Father?" he said. "You can telephone the cure in Aquin? He'll know?"

"I am sure he will, Henri. I'll callyou at your office as soon as I have the information."

"I'll be at home, Father. Waiting."

The priest did not call; hecame. In his white robe he settled himself on a chair in the Maxime living room. He put the tips of his long fingers together and frowned at them with a small shake of his head, while Henri Maxime and his young wife waited anxiously for him to speak.

"It is a strange story," hesaid. "As you suspected, the child has no father. The mother simply invented one. Yet the mother was a fine young woman, the cure in Aquin tells me. A most unusual woman. Which explains, perhaps, why she invented a father for Yolande who was an artist, a lover of beauty, instead of, say, a politician. And which also explains, perhaps, why Yolande is the kind of child she is. She is very much loved, that youngster, by everyone who knows her." He looked up. "The whole town has been frantically searching for her since she disappeared."

Henri Maxime frowned. "This isawkward, Father."

"Yes. And very sad."

"There will have to be an ArmandSt. Juste. I see no other solution." Henri glanced at his wife.

His wife nodded. "Yolande is upstairswith Marguerite. I'll get her." She stood up, then hesistated and turned to the priest. "The child would have left us when she awoke, Father. I kept her here only by telling her that Marguerite was still frightened and needed her. She will never stop looking for her father unless--"

"The endless search for truth," thepriest said. "For beauty. For love." He shook his head in sadness but managed a smile. "From what the cure in Quin tells me, this one gives more of all three than she can ever hope to find."

The woman went upstairs. Shecame down with Yolande at her side, clinging to her hand. The child looked from Henri Maxime to the priest, waiting. Henri leaned forward on his chair hesitantly.

"I have something to tell you,Yolande. Something I hadn't the courage to tell you yesterday, when you were hurt.

"Your father is dead."

Yolande returned his steady gazewithout blinking. Only her mouth trembled.

"He died not long ago, here in thecapital," Henri said. "I knew him well. He was, as you say, a great artist, a great man. He was also my best friend. When he died he asked me to take his place, if ever you needed me. He asked me to be your father. I said I would if you would let met."

The child turned to look at HenriMaxime's wife, who smiled at her through a mist of tears. She turned to the priest, who nodded. She looked at Henri again.

"You would live here," Henri said,"and Marguerite would be your sister. We have always wanted a sister for Marguerite. You would make us very happy, Yolande."

"I would make you happy?"Yolande asked.

"Yes. You would make us happy,"Henri replied.

"Then I will stay," Yolande said,nodding. "Thank you very much."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Cave, Hugh B.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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