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The Old Lady's Restoration by Grace E. King

 

The news came out in the papers that the old lady had been restored to her fortune. She had been deprived of it so long ago that the real manner of her dispossession had become lost, or at least hidden under the many versions that had been invented to replace lapses of memory, or to remedy the unpicturesqueness of the original truth. The face of truth, like the face of many a good woman, is liable to the accident of ugliness, and the desire to embellish one as well as the other need not necessarily proceed from anything more harmful than an overweighted love of the beautiful.

If the old lady had not been restored to her fortune, her personalia would have remained in the oblivion which, as one might say, had accumulated upon everything belonging to her. But after that newspaper paragraph, there was such a flowering of memory around her name as would have done credit to a whole cemetery on All Saints. It took three generations to do justice to the old lady, for so long and so slow had been her descent into poverty that a grandmother was needed to remember her setting out upon the road to it.

She set out as most people do, well provided with money, diamonds, pretty clothing, handsome residence, equipage, opera-box, beaus (for she was a widow), and so many, many friends that she could never indulge in a small party—she always had to give a grand ball to accommodate them. She made quite an occasion of her first reverse,—some litigation decided against her,—and said it came from the court's' having only one ear, and that preempted by the other party.

She always said whatever she thought, regardless of the consequences, because she averred truth was so much more interesting than falsehood. Nothing annoyed her more in society than to have to listen to the compositions women make as a substitute for the original truth. It was as if, when she went to the theater to hear Shakspere and Moliere, the actors should try to impose upon the audience by reciting lines of their own. Truth was the wit of life and the wit of books. She traveled her road from affluence so leisurely that nothing escaped her eyes or her feelings, and she signaled unhesitatingly every stage in it.

“My dear, do you know there is really such a thing as existence without a carriage and horses?”—“I assure you it is perfectly new to me to find that an opera-box is not a necessity. It is a luxury. In theory one can really never tell the distinction between luxuries and necessities.”—“How absurd! At one time I thought hair was given us only to furnish a profession to hair-dressers; just as we wear artificial flowers to support the flower-makers.”—“Upon my word, it is not uninteresting. There is always some haute nouveaute in economy. The ways of depriving one's self are infinite. There is wine, now.”—“Not own your residence! As soon not own your tomb as your residence! My mama used to scream that in my ears. According to her, it was not comme il faut to board or live in a rented house. How little she knew!”

When her friends, learning her increasing difficulties, which they did from the best authority (herself), complimented her, as they were forced to do, upon her still handsome appearance, pretty laces, feathers, jewelry, silks, “Fat,” she would answer—“fat. I am living off my fat, as bears do in winter. In truth, I remind myself of an animal in more ways than one.”

And so every one had something to contribute to the conversation about her—bits which, they said, affection and admiration had kept alive in their memory.

Each city has its own roads to certain ends, its ways of Calvary, so to speak. In New Orleans the victim seems ever to walk down Royal street and up Chartres, or vice versa. One would infer so, at least, from the display in the shops and windows of those thorough-fares. Old furniture, cut glass, pictures, books, jewelry, lace, china—the fleece (sometimes the flesh still sticking to it) left on the brambles by the driven herd. If there should some day be a trump of resurrection for defunct fortunes, those shops would be emptied in the same twinkling of the eye allowed to tombs for their rendition of property.

The old lady must have made that promenade many, many times, to judge by the samples of her “fat or fleece” displayed in the windows. She took to hobbling, as if from tired or sore feet.

“It is nothing,” in answer to an inquiry. “Made-to-order feet learning to walk in ready-made shoes: that is all. One's feet, after all, are the most unintelligent part of one's body.” Tea was her abomination, coffee her adoration; but she explained: “Tea, you know, is so detestable that the very worst is hardly worse than the very best; while coffee is so perfect that the smallest shade of impurity is not to be tolerated. The truly economical, I observe, always drink tea.” “At one time I thought if all the luxuries of the world were exposed to me, and but one choice allowed, I should select gloves. Believe me, there is no superfluity in the world so easily dispensed with.”

As may be supposed, her path led her farther and farther away from her old friends. Even her intimates became scarce; so much so, that these observations, which, of course, could be made only to intimates, became fewer and fewer, unfortunately, for her circumstances were becoming such that the remarks became increasingly valuable. The last thing related of her was apropos of friends.

“My friends! My dear, I cannot tell you just so, on the spur of the moment, but with a little reflection and calculation I could tell you, to a picayune, the rent of every friend in the market. You can lease, rent, or hire them, like horses, carriages, opera-boxes, servants, by year, month, day, or hour; and the tariff is just as fixed.

“Christians! Christians are the most discreet people in the world. If you should ask me what Christianity has most promoted in the world, I should answer without hesitation, discretion. Of course, when I say the world I mean society, and when I say Christianity I mean our interpretation of it. If only duns could be pastors, and pastors duns! But of course you do not know what duns are; they are the guardian angels of the creditor, the pursuing fiends of the debtor.”

After that, the old lady made her disappearance under the waves of that sea into the depths of which it is very improbable that a single friend ever attempted to pursue her. And there she remained until the news came that she was restored to fortune.

A week passed, two weeks; no sight or sound of her. It was during this period that her old friends were so occupied resuscitating their old friendships for her—when all her antique sayings and doings became current ball-room and dinner-table gossip—that she arose from her obscurity like Cinderella from her ashes, to be decked with every gift that fairy minds could suggest. Those who had known her intimately made no effort to conceal their importance. Those who did not know her personally put forward claims of inherited friendship, and those who did not know her traditionally or otherwise—the nouveaux riches and parvenus, who alone feel the moneyed value of such social connections—began making their resolutions to capture her as soon as she came in sight of society.

The old residence was to be re-bought, and refurnished from France; the avant scene at the opera had been engaged; the old cook was to be hired back from the club at a fabulous price; the old balls and the old dinners were to gladden the city—so said they who seemed to know. Nothing was to be spared, nothing stinted—at her age, with no child or relative, and life running short for pleasure. Diamonds, laces, velvets, champagne, Chateau Yquem—“Grand Dieu Seigneur!” the old Creole servants exclaimed, raising their hands at the enumeration of it.

Where the news came from nobody knew, but everything was certified and accepted as facts, although, as between women, the grain of salt should have been used. Impatience waxed, until nearly every day some one would ring the bell of the old residence, to ask when the mistress was going to move in. And such affectionate messages! And people would not, simply could not, be satisfied with the incomprehensible answers. And then it leaked out. The old lady was simply waiting for everything to arrive—furniture, toilets, carriage, etc.—to make a grand entree into her old sphere; to come riding on a throne, as it were. And still the time passed, and she did not come. Finally two of the clever-heads penetrated the enigma: mauvaise honte, shyness—so long out of the world, so old; perhaps not sure of her welcome. So they determined to seek her out.

[Illustration: THE ROOM IN THE OLD GALLERY.]

“We will go to her, like children to a grandmother, etc. The others have no delicacy of sentiment, etc. And she will thus learn who really remember, really love her, etc.”

Provided with congratulatory bouquets, they set forth. It is very hard to find a dweller on the very sea-bottom of poverty. Perhaps that is why the effort is so seldom made. One has to ask at grocers' shops, groggeries, market-stalls, Chinese restaurants; interview corner cobblers, ragpickers, gutter children. But nothing is impossible to the determined. The two ladies overcame all obstacles, and needled their way along, where under other circumstances they would not have glanced, would have thought it improper to glance.

They were directed through an old, old house, out on an old, old gallery, to a room at the very extreme end.

“Poor thing! Evidently she has not heard the good news yet. We will be the first to communicate it,” they whispered, standing before the dilapidated, withered-looking door.

Before knocking, they listened, as it is the very wisdom of discretion to do. There was life inside, a little kind of voice, like some one trying to hum a song with a very cracked old throat.

The ladies opened the door. “Ah, my friend!”

“Ah, my friend!”

“Restored!”

“Restored!”

“At last!”

“At last!”

“Just the same!”

“Exactly the same!”

It was which one would get to her first with bouquet and kiss, competition almost crowding friendship.

“The good news!”

“The good news!”

“We could not stay!”

“We had to come!”

“It has arrived at last!”

“At last it has arrived!”

The old lady was very much older, but still the same.

“You will again have a chance!”

“Restored to your friends!”

“The world!”

“Your luxuries!”

“Your comforts!”

“Comforts! Luxuries!” At last the old lady had an opportunity to slip in a word. “And friends! You say right.”

There was a pause—a pause which held not a small measure of embarrassment. But the two visitors, although they were women of the world, and so dreaded an embarrassment more than they did sin, had prepared themselves even to stand this.

The old lady standing there—she was very much thinner, very much bent, but still the same—appeared to be looking not at them, but at their enumeration.

“Comfort!” She opened a pot bubbling on the fire. “Bouillon! A good five-cent bouillon. Luxury!” She picked up something from a chair, a handful of new cotton chemises. “Luxury!” She turned back her bedspread: new cotton sheets. “Did you ever lie in your bed at night and dream of sheets? Comfort! Luxury! I should say so! And friends! My dear, look!” Opening her door, pointing to an opposite gallery, to the yard, her own gallery; to the washing, ironing, sewing women, the cobbling, chair-making, carpentering men; to the screaming, laughing, crying, quarreling, swarming children. “Friends! All friends—friends for fifteen years. Ah, yes, indeed! We are all glad—elated in fact. As you say. I am restored.”

The visitors simply reported that they had found the old lady, and that she was imbecile; mind completely gone under stress of poverty and old age. Their opinion was that she should be interdicted.

 
 
 

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