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A Drama of Three by Grace E. King

 

It was a regular dramatic performance every first of the month in the little cottage of the old General and Madame B——

It began with the waking up of the General by his wife, standing at the bedside with a cup of black coffee.

“He! Ah! Oh, Honorine! Yes; the first of the month, and affairs—affairs to be transacted.”

On those mornings when affairs were to be transacted there was not much leisure for the household; and it was Honorine who constituted the household. Not the old dressing-gown and slippers, the old, old trousers, and the antediluvian neck-foulard of other days! Far from it. It was a case of warm water (with even a fling of cologne in it), of the trimming of beard and mustache by Honorine, and the black broadcloth suit, and the brown satin stock, and that je ne sais quoi de degage which no one could possess or assume like the old General. Whether he possessed or assumed it is an uncertainty which hung over the fine manners of all the gentlemen of his day, who were kept through their youth in Paris to cultivate bon ton and an education.

It was also something of a gala-day for Madame la Generale too, as it must be a gala-day for all old wives to see their husbands pranked in the manners and graces that had conquered their maidenhood, and exhaling once more that ambrosial fragrance which once so well incensed their compelling presence.

Ah, to the end a woman loves to celebrate her conquest! It is the last touch of misfortune with her to lose in the old, the ugly, and the commonplace her youthful lord and master. If one could look under the gray hairs and wrinkles with which time thatches old women, one would be surprised to see the flutterings, the quiverings, the thrills, the emotions, the coals of the heart-fires which death alone extinguishes, when he commands the tenant to vacate.

Honorine's hands chilled with the ice of sixteen as she approached scissors to the white mustache and beard. When her finger-tips brushed those lips, still well formed and roseate, she felt it, strange to say, on her lips. When she asperged the warm water with cologne,—it was her secret delight and greatest effort of economy to buy this cologne,—she always had one little moment of what she called faintness—that faintness which had veiled her eyes, and chained her hands, and stilled her throbbing bosom, when as a bride she came from the church with him. It was then she noticed the faint fragrance of the cologne bath. Her lips would open as they did then, and she would stand for a moment and think thoughts to which, it must be confessed, she looked forward from month to month. What a man he had been! In truth he belonged to a period that would accept nothing less from Nature than physical beauty; and Nature is ever subservient to the period. If it is to-day all small men, and to-morrow gnomes and dwarfs, we may know that the period is demanding them from Nature.

When the General had completed—let it be called no less than the ceremony of—his toilet, he took his chocolate and his pain de Paris. Honorine could not imagine him breakfasting on anything but pain de Paris. Then he sat himself in his large arm-chair before his escritoire, and began transacting his affairs with the usual—

“But where is that idiot, that dolt, that sluggard, that snail, with my mail?” Honorine, busy in the breakfast-room:

[Illustration: “WHERE IS THAT IDIOT, THAT DOLT, THAT SLUGGARD, THAT SNAIL, WITH MY MAIL?”]

“In a moment, husband. In a moment.”

“But he should be here now. It is the first of the month, it is nine o'clock, I am ready; he should be here.”

“It is not yet nine o'clock, husband.”

“Not yet nine! Not yet nine! Am I not up? Am I not dressed? Have I not breakfasted before nine?”

“That is so, husband. That is so.” Honorine's voice, prompt in cheerful acquiescence, came from the next room, where she was washing his cup, saucer, and spoon.

“It is getting worse and worse every day. I tell you, Honorine, Pompey must be discharged. He is worthless. He is trifling. Discharge him! Discharge him! Do not have him about! Chase him out of the yard! Chase him as soon as he makes his appearance! Do you hear, Honorine?”

“You must have a little patience, husband.”

It was perhaps the only reproach one could make to Madame Honorine, that she never learned by experience.

“Patience! Patience! Patience is the invention of dullards and sluggards. In a well-regulated world there should be no need of such a thing as patience. Patience should be punished as a crime, or at least as a breach of the peace. Wherever patience is found police investigation should be made as for smallpox. Patience! Patience! I never heard the word—I assure you, I never heard the word in Paris. What do you think would be said there to the messenger who craved patience of you? Oh, they know too well in Paris—a rataplan from the walking-stick on his back, that would be the answer; and a, 'My good fellow, we are not hiring professors of patience, but legs.'“

“But, husband, you must remember we do not hire Pompey. He only does it to oblige us, out of his kindness.”

“Oblige us! Oblige me! Kindness! A negro oblige me! Kind to me! That is it; that is it. That is the way to talk under the new regime. It is favor, and oblige, and education, and monsieur, and madame, now. What child's play to call this a country—a government! I would not be surprised”—jumping to his next position on this ever-recurring first of the month theme—“I would not be surprised if Pompey has failed to find the letter in the box. How do I know that the mail has not been tampered with? From day to day I expect to hear it. What is to prevent? Who is to interpose? The honesty of the officials? Honesty of the officials—that is good! What a farce—honesty of officials! That is evidently what has happened. The thought has not occurred to me in vain. Pompey has gone. He has not found the letter, and—well; that is the end.”

But the General had still another theory to account for the delay in the appearance of his mail which he always posed abruptly after the exhaustion of the arraignment of the post-office.

“And why not Journel?” Journel was their landlord, a fellow of means, but no extraction, and a favorite aversion of the old gentleman's. “Journel himself? You think he is above it, he? You think Journel would not do such a thing? Ha! your simplicity, Honorine—your simplicity is incredible. It is miraculous. I tell you, I have known the Journels, from father to son, for—yes, for seventy-five years. Was not his grandfather the overseer on my father's plantation? I was not five years old when I began to know the Journels. And this fellow, I know him better than he knows himself. I know him as well as God knows him. I have made up my mind. I have made it up carefully that the first time that letter fails on the first of the month I shall have Journel arrested as a thief. I shall land him in the penitentiary. What! You think I shall submit to have my mail tampered with by a Journel? Their contents appropriated? What! You think there was no coincidence in Journel's offering me his post-office box just the month—just the month, before those letters began to arrive? You think he did not have some inkling of them? Mark my words, Honorine, he did—by some of his subterranean methods. And all these five years he has been arranging his plans—that is all. He was arranging theft, which no doubt has been consummated to-day. Oh, I have regretted it—I assure you I have regretted it, that I did not promptly reject his proposition, that, in fact, I ever had anything to do with the fellow.”

It was almost invariably, so regularly do events run in this world,—it was almost invariably that the negro messenger made his appearance at this point. For five years the General had perhaps not been interrupted as many times, either above or below the last sentence. The mail, or rather the letter, was opened, and the usual amount—three ten-dollar bills—was carefully extracted and counted. And as if he scented the bills, even as the General said he did, within ten minutes after their delivery, Journel made his appearance to collect the rent.

It could only have been in Paris, among that old retired nobility, who counted their names back, as they expressed it, “au de ca du deluge,” that could have been acquired the proper manner of treating a “roturier” landlord: to measure him with the eyes from head to foot; to hand the rent—the ten-dollar bill—with the tips of the fingers; to scorn a look at the humbly tendered receipt; to say: “The cistern needs repairing, the roof leaks; I must warn you that unless such notifications meet with more prompt attention than in the past, you must look for another tenant,” etc., in the monotonous tone of supremacy, and in the French, not of Journel's dictionary, nor of the dictionary of any such as he, but in the French of Racine and Corneille; in the French of the above suggested circle, which inclosed the General's memory, if it had not inclosed—as he never tired of recounting—his star-like personality.

A sheet of paper always infolded the bank-notes. It always bore, in fine but sexless tracery, “From one who owes you much.”

There, that was it, that sentence, which, like a locomotive, bore the General and his wife far on these firsts of the month to two opposite points of the horizon, in fact, one from the other—“From one who owes you much.”

The old gentleman would toss the paper aside with the bill receipt. In the man to whom the bright New Orleans itself almost owed its brightness, it was a paltry act to search and pick for a debtor. Friends had betrayed and deserted him; relatives had forgotten him; merchants had failed with his money; bank presidents had stooped to deceive him; for he was an old man, and had about run the gamut of human disappointments—a gamut that had begun with a C major of trust, hope, happiness, and money.

His political party had thrown him aside. Neither for ambassador, plenipotentiary, senator, congressman, not even for a clerkship, could he be nominated by it. Certes! “From one who owed him much.” He had fitted the cap to a new head, the first of every month, for five years, and still the list was not exhausted. Indeed, it would have been hard for the General to look anywhere and not see some one whose obligations to him far exceeded this thirty dollars a month. Could he avoid being happy with such eyes?

But poor Madame Honorine! She who always gathered up the receipts, and the “From one who owes you much”; who could at an instant's warning produce the particular ones for any month of the past half-decade. She kept them filed, not only in her armoire, but the scrawled papers—skewered, as it were, somewhere else—where women from time immemorial have skewered such unsigned papers. She was not original in her thoughts—no more, for the matter of that, than the General was. Tapped at any time on the first of the month, when she would pause in her drudgery to reimpale her heart by a sight of the written characters on the scrap of paper, her thoughts would have been found flowing thus, “One can give everything, and yet be sure of nothing.”

When Madame Honorine said “everything,” she did not, as women in such cases often do, exaggerate. When she married the General, she in reality gave the youth of sixteen, the beauty (ah, do not trust the denial of those wrinkles, the thin hair, the faded eyes!) of an angel, the dot of an heiress. Alas! It was too little at the time. Had she in her own person united all the youth, all the beauty, all the wealth, sprinkled parsimoniously so far and wide over all the women in this land, would she at that time have done aught else with this than immolate it on the burning pyre of the General's affection? “And yet be sure of nothing.”

It is not necessary, perhaps, to explain that last clause. It is very little consolation for wives that their husbands have forgotten, when some one else remembers. Some one else! Ah! there could be so many some one Else's in the General's life, for in truth he had been irresistible to excess. But this was one particular some one else who had been faithful for five years. Which one?

When Madame Honorine solves that enigma she has made up her mind how to act.

As for Journel, it amused him more and more. He would go away from the little cottage rubbing his hands with pleasure (he never saw Madame Honorine, by the way, only the General). He would have given far more than thirty dollars a month for this drama; for he was not only rich, but a great farceur.

 
 
 

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