by Grace Elizabeth King
II. ON THE
THE DRAMA OF AN
IT was near mid-day in June. A dazzling stream of vertical sun-rays
fell into the quadrangular courtyard of the Institute St. Denis, and
filled it to suffocation with light and heat. The flowers which grew in
little beds, dotting the gray-flagged surface, bowed their heads under
their leaves for shelter.
A thin strip of shadow, stretching from the side of the
schoolhouse, began to creep over the garden, slowly following the sun
in its progress past the obtruding walls of neighboring buildings,
until he should disappear behind a certain square steeple far off in
the distance; then the shade would entirely cover the yard; then the
stars would be coming out, languid and pale; and then the fragrance of
oleander and jasmine, travelling from yard to yard, would burden the
air, soothing the senses in order to seduce the imagination.
Along the narrow shaded strip, quite filling it up, moved a class
of girls in Indian file, their elbows scraping against the rugged
bricks of the wall as they held their books up to the openings of their
sun-bonnets. A murmur of rapidly articulated words, like the murmur of
boiling water in a closed kettle, came from the leaves of their books,
while from their hidden lips dropped disjointed fragments of "
l'Histoire de France."
The foundation, as well as key-stone, of St. Denisian education, it
was but natural that the examination in "l'Histoire de France, par
D. Lévi Alvares, père," should fill the last days of the scholastic
term; and as a prize in that exercise set the brightest crown upon the
head of the victor, it was not strange that it should be conducted with
such rigidity and impartiality as to demoralize panic-stricken
contestants whose sex usually warranted justice in leaving one eye at
Under the circumstances, a trust in luck is the most reliable
source of comfort. If experience proved anything, if the study of the
history of France itself made one point clear, it was the dependence of
great events on trifles, the unfailing interposition of the inattendu, and, consequently, the utter futility of
preparation. The graduating class of 1874 turned their pages with
clammy fingers, and repeated mechanically, with unwearied tongues, any
passage upon which Fate should direct their eyes; none dared be
slighted with impunity, the most insignificant being perhaps the very
one to trip them up; the most familiar, the traitor to play them false.
A laggard church clock in the neighborhood gave them each eleven
separate, distinct shocks. It warned them that two minutes and a half
had already been consumed on the road from one class-room to the other,
and reminded them of Monsieur Mignot's diabolical temper.
A little girl, also in a large sun-bonnet, with a placard marked "
Passe-Partout " around her neck, turned an angle of the
building suddenly and threw the nervous ranks into dire confusion; the
books went down, the bonnets up.
"Seigneur! qu'est-ce que c'est?"
"Ma chère! how you frightened me!"
"Mon Dieu! I thought it was Monsieur Mignot!"
"I am trembling all over!"
"I can hardly stand up!"
"Just feel how my heart beats!"
"You had better hurry up,
mes enfants," replied the
little one, in the patronizing tone of personal disinterestedness; "it
is past eleven."
"But we don't know one word," they groaned in unison,—"not one
"Ah, bah! you are frightened, that's all; you always say that." She
gave one of them a good natured push in the direction of the door about
which they were standing in distressful hesitation.
"I tell you, old Mignot is in a horrible temper.
Il a fait
les quatre cents coups in our class; threw his inkstand at
Stéphanie Morel's head."
The door, with startling coincidence, was violently pulled open at
these words; and a gray-haired, spectacled old gentleman thrust out an
irate face in quest of his dilatory class. Thrown by the catastrophe
into a state of complete nescience of all things historical, from
Clovis to Napoleon, the young ladies jerked off their sunbonnets and
entered the room, while the little girl escaped at full speed. A
drowsy, quiet, peaceful half-hour followed in the yard,—a surprising
silence for the centre of a busy city, considering the close proximity
of two hundred school-girls. It was a mocking contrast to the scene of
doubt, hesitation, and excitement on the other side of the closed door,
- a contrast advantageous to the uneducated happiness of the insects
A door-bell rang; not the bell of the pretty little gate which
admitted visitors to the rose-hedged, violet-bordered walk leading to
Madame's antichambre, but the bell of the capacious porte-cochère which was reserved for the exits and entrances of
scholars and domestics. After a carefully measured pause, the ring was
repeated, then again, and again. The rusty organ of intercommunication
squeaked and creaked plaintively after each disturbance as if forced
from a sick-bed to do painful and useless service. A gaunt, red-haired
woman finally came out in obedience to the summons, with an elaboration
Of slowness which the shuffling sabots clearly betrayed to the
outsider, as evidenced by a last superfluous, unnecessarily energetic
pull of the bell-knob.
She carefully unrolled her sleeves as she sauntered along, and
stood until she loosened the cord which reefed her dress to an
unconventional height. Then she opened the grille and
"Ah, je le savais bien," she muttered, with strong
There was a diminutive door cut into the large gate. It looked,
with its coat of fresh paint, like a barnacle on the weather-beaten
exterior. Opening with the facility of greased hinges, it was an
unavoidable compromise between the heavy cypress timber and iron
fastenings, prescribed by the worldly, or heavenly, experience of St.
Denis as the proper protection of a young ladies' boarding-school, and
the almost incessant going and coming which secluded femininity and
excluded shops made necessary.
"But I can't get in there!" said a woman outside.
"Tant pis." And the little door was closed.
"But I must come in with my basket."
A shrug of the shoulders was the only reply through the
"It is Mamzelle Marie's toilet for the exhibition."
The little gate was again held open.
"Don't you see I can't get in there?"
"Ça m'est égal."
A snort of exasperation was heard on the outside, and a suppressed "
C'est un peu fort!"
"Will you open the big gate for me so that I can bring in Mamzelle
"Well, then, I shall ring at Madame's bell."
The white woman did not lack judgment. She was maintaining her own
in a quarrel begun years ago; a quarrel involving complex questions of
the privileges of order and the distinctions of race; a quarrel in
which hostilities were continued, year by year, with no interruptions
of courtesy or mitigation by truce. This occasion was one of the
perquisites of Jeanne's position of femme de ménage,—
slight compensation enough when compared to the indignities put upon
her as a white woman, and the humiliations as a sensitive one by "
cette négresse Marcélite." But the duration of triumph must be
carefully measured. Marcélite's ultimatum, if carried out, would
quickly reverse their relative positions by a bonus to Marcélite in the
shape of a reprimand to Jeanne. She allowed her foe, however, to carry
her basket in the hot sun as far as the next bell and even waited until
she put her hand on it before the iron bar fell and the massive
structure was allowed to swing open.
"Ristocrate!" she muttered, without looking at either
woman or basket.
"Canaille!" whispered the other, with her head thrown
back and her nose in the air.
Glancing at the line of shade in the yard to see how near it was to
twelve o'clock, for want of other accommodation Marcélite went into an
open arbor, put her basket on the floor, and wiped her face with a
colored foulard handkerchief. "Fait chaud mo dit toi,"
she said aloud in creole, her language for self-communion. She pulled
her skirts out on each side, and sat down with a force that threatened
the stability of the bench; then, careless of creeping and crawling
possibilities, leaned her head back against the vine-covered wall. The
green leaves formed harmonious frame for the dark-brown face, red and
yellow tignon and the large gold ear-rings hanging
beneath two glossy coques of black wool. Her features
were regular and handsome according to the African type, with a strong,
sensuous expression, subdued but not obliterated. Her soft black eyes
showed in their voluptuous depths intelligence and strength and
protecting tenderness. Her stiff purple calico dress settled in
defining folds about her portly limbs. A white kerchief was pinned over
her untrammelled bosom; her large, full, supple waist was encircled by
the strings of her apron, which were tied in a careful bow at her side.
Besides the large basket, she carried on her arm a small covered
one, which, if opened, would reveal her calling to be that of
hairdressing. She was the hairdresser of the school, and as such,
general chargée d'affaires, confidente, messenger and
adviser of teachers and scholars. Her discretion was proven beyond
suspicion. Her judgement or rather her intuition, was bold, quick and
effective. In truth, Marcélite was as indispensable as a lightning-rod
to the boarding-school, conducted as it was under the austere
discipline of the old régime. Her smooth, round hands and taper
fingers had been polished by constant friction with silken locks; her
familiar, polite, gentle, servile manners were those contacted during a
courtly life of dependent intimacy with superiors. It was said that her
basket carried other articles besides combs, brushes, and cosmetics,
and that her fingers had been found preferable to the post-office for
the delivery of certain implicative missives written in the prose or
verse of irresistible emotion. Even without her basket, any one, from
her hands, gait, and language, would recognize a hairdresser of he
élite, while in New Orleans, in the Quartier Creole,
there was hardly a man, woman, or child who did not call her by name:
She lifted a palmetto fan, bound and tied to her waist with black
ribbon, and holding it up between her and observation, betook herself
in quiet and privacy to slumber,—a nap of delicious relaxation, so
gentle that the bite of a mosquito, the crawling of an ant, an
incipient snore, startled it; but so tenacious that the uplifted hand
and dropping head resettled themselves without breaking its delicate
filament A little, thin, rusty-voiced bell had now one of its three
important daily announcements to make,—Recreation Time. From all over
the city came corroborative evidence of the fact, by chronometers, some
a little ahead and some little behind meridian. This want of unanimity
proclaimed the notorious and distressing difference of two minutes and
a half between Church and State,—a difference in which the smallest
watch in the school could not avoid participation.
It was the same little girl with the "Passe-Partout"
who published the truce to study. The rope of the bell and she were
both too short, so she had to stand on tiptoe and jerk it in little
quick jumps. The operation involved a terrible disproportion between
labor invested and net profit, for which nothing but the gladsome
nature of her mission, and the honorary distinction implied in it,
could have compensated her. A moment of stillness, during which both
the rope and the little girl quieted themselves, and then, a shower of
little girls fell into the yard,—all of them little girls, but not
all of them children, and as much alike as drops of different colored
They were all dressed in calico dresses made in the same way, with
very full; short skirts, and very full, short waists, fastened, matron
fashion, in front. They all wore very tight, glossy, fresh, black
French kid boots, with tassels or bows hanging from the top. With big
sunbonnets, or heavily veiled hats on their heads, thick gloves on
their hands, and handkerchiefs around their necks, they were walking
buttresses against the ardent sun. They held their lunch baskets like
bouquets, and their heads as if they wore crowns. They carried on
conversations in sweet, low voices, with interrupting embraces and
apostrophic tendernesses: -
They had a grace of ease, the gift of generations; a self-composure
and polish, dating from the cradle. Of course they did not romp, but
promenaded arm in arm, measuring their steps with dainty particularity;
moving the whole body with rhythmic regularity, displaying and
acquiring at the same time a sinuosity of motion. Their hair hung in
plaits so far below their waists that it threatened to grow into a
measuring-tape for their whole length.
The angular Jeanne appeared, holding a waiter at arm's-length over
her head. She had no need to cluck or chirp; the sound of her sabots
was enough to call around her in an instant an eager brood of hungry
boarders, jumping and snatching for their portion of lunch. There was
the usual moment of obstruction over the point of etiquette whether
they should take their own piece of bread and butter or receive it from
Jeanne. The same useless sacrifice of a test slice was made, and the
obstinate servant had to give in with the same consolatory satisfaction
of having been again true to her fixed principle to make herself as
disagreeable as possible under any circumstances that the day might
bring forth. There is great field for choice, even in slices of bread
and butter. The ends, or knots of the loaves, split longitudinally,
offer much more appetizing combinations of crust and crumb than the
round inside slices. Knots, however, were the prerogative of the big
girls; inside slices the grievance of the little ones. To-day, "
comme toujours," as they said, with a shrug, the primary
classes had to take what was left them. But their appetite was so good,
they ate their homely fare with so much gusto, that the day scholars
looked on enviously and despised their own epicurean baskets, which
failed to elicit such expectations and never afforded them similar
Á la fin des fins! The door which concealed the
terrible struggle going on with the history of France was opened. All
rushed forward for news, with eager sympathy. It was a dejected little
army that filed out after so protracted a combat, with traces of tears
in their eyes and all over their flushed cheeks. Tired and nervous, not
one would confess to a ray of hope. Certainty of defeat had succeeded
to certainty of failure. The history of France, with its disastrous
appliances of chronology, dynasties, conquests, and revolutions, had
gained, according to them, a complete and unquestioned victory.
"Marie Modeste, look at Marcélite," said one of the girls, hailing
The bonne was coming out of the garden house with her
basket. One of the graduating class rushed forward to meet her, and
both together disappeared in the direction of the dormitory stairway.
"It is her toilette for the exhibition," was whispered, and
curious eyes followed the basket invested with such preternatural
importance. "They say le vieux is going to give her a
The Grand Concert Musicale et Distribution de Prix
was to take place the next evening. All parents and friends had, for
two weeks, been invited to "assist" by their presence. This annual fête
was pre-eminently the fête of St. Denis. It was the goal of the
scholastic course, the beginning of vacation, and the set term to the
young ladies' aspirations if not ambition. A fair share of books,
laurel crowns, in green and gold paper, and a possible real gold medal
was with them the end if not the aim of study from the opening of the
school in September. Personally they could not imagine any state or
condition in life when knowledge of French history would be a comfort
or cosmography an assistance; but prizes were so many concrete virtues
which lasted fresh into grandmotherhood. Noblesse oblige,
that the glory of maternal achievements be not dimmed in these very
walls where their mothers, little creoles like themselves, strove for
laurel crowns culled from the same imperishable tree in Rue Royale.
Marcélite followed Marie through the dormitory, down the little
aisle, between the rows of beds with their veils of mosquito netting,
until they came to the. farthest corner; which, when one turned one's
back to the rest of the chamber, had all the seclusion and
"sociability" of a private apartment. The furniture, however, did not
include chairs, so Marie seated herself on the side of the bed, and,
taking off her bonnet, awaited Marcélite's pleasure to initiate her
into the delightful mysteries of the basket.
She wondered where Marcélite had picked up the artistic expedient
of heightening the effect by playing on the feelings of the spectator;
and she wondered if carrying that basket up the stairs had really tired
those strong shoulders and make her so dreadfully hot; and if it were
really necessary that each one of those thousand pins should be quilted
into the front of that white kerchief; and if Marcélite had made a vow
not to open her mouth until she got out the last pin; and if—
She was naturally nervous and impatient, and twisted and turned
ceaselessly on the bed during the ordeal of assumed procrastination.
Her black eyes were oversized for her face, oversized and overweighted
with expression; and most of the time, as to-day, they were accompanied
by half-moon shadows which stretched half-way down her cheek. Over her
forehead and temples the hieroglyphic tracery of blue veins might be
seen, until it became obscured under the masses of black hair whose
heavy plaits burdened the delicate head and strained the slender neck.
The exterior of a girl of seventeen! That frail mortal encasement which
precocious inner life threatens to rend and destroy. The appealing
languor, the uncomplaining lassitude, the pathetic apathy, the
transparent covering through which is seen the growth of the woman in
the body of the child.
Marcélite saw upon the bed the impatient figure of a petulant girl,
wild for the sight of her first toilette de bal. There
lay on the bed, in reality, a proud, reserved, eager, passionate
spirit, looking past toilettes, past graduating, past studies
and examinations; looking from the prow of an insignificant vessel into
the broad prospect, so near, so touching near, reserved for her, and
all girls of seventeen,—that unique realm called "Woman's Kingdom."
Romances and poetry had been kept from her like wine and spices.
But the flowers bloomed, and music had chords, and moonlight rays, and
were the bars of the school never so strong, and the rules never so
rigid, they could not prevent her heart from going out toward the rays,
nor from listening to the music, nor from inhaling the breath of the
flowers. And what they said is what they always say to the girl of
seventeen. It is the love-time of life, when the heart first puts
forth its flowers; and what boarding-school can frustrate spring? Her
mouth, like her eyes, was encircled with a shadow, faint, almost
imperceptible, as was the timid suggestion of nascent passion which it
gave to the thin, sad lips.
She was four years old when she came to this school; so Marcélite
told her, for she could not remember. Now she was seventeen. She looked
at the strong, full maturity of Marcélite. Would she, Marie, ever be
like that? Had Marcélite ever been like her? At seventeen, did she
ever feel this way? This —oh, this longing! Could Marcélite put her
finger on the day, as Marie could, when this emotion broke into her
heart, that thought into her brain? Did Marcélite know the origin of
blushes, the cause of tremors? Did Marcélite ever pray to die to be
relieved from vague apprehensions, and then pray to live in the faith
of some great unknown but instinctive prophecy?
She forbore to ask. If Marcélite had had a mother!—But did girls
even ask their mothers these these things? But she had no mother!
Good, devoted, loyal as she was, Marcélite was not a mother—not her
mother. She had stopped at the boundary where the mother ceases to be
a physical and becomes a psychical necessity. The child still clung to
Marcéite, but the young woman was motherless. She had an uncle,
however, who might become a father.
"Là!" Marcélite had exhausted her last devisable
subterfuge, and made known her readiness to begin the show.
"Là! mon bébé! là, ma mignonne! what do you think of
that?" She turned it around by the belt; it seemed all covered over
with bubbles of muslin and frostings of lace.
"Just look at that! Ah ha! I thought you would be astonished! You
see that lace? Ça c'est du vrai, no doubt about that,—
real Valenciennes. You think I don't know real lace, hein?
and mousseline des Indes? You ask Madame Treize you
know what she said? 'Well, Marcélite that is the prettiest pattern of
lace and the finest piece of muslin I almost ever saw.' Madame Treize
told me that herself; and it's true, for I know it myself."
"Madame Treize, Marcélite?"
Madame Treize was the
ou ne peut plus of New Orleans
for fashion and extravagance.
"Yes, Madame Treize. Who do you think was going to make your dress,
"Marcélite, it must have cost so much!"
"Eh bien, it's all paid for. What have you got to do
with that? All you have got to do is to put it on and wear it. Oh, mon bébé! ma petite chérie!"—what tones of love her rich
voice could carry,—"if it had cost thousands and thousands of dollars
it would not be too fine for you, nor too pretty."
"But, Marcélite, I will be ashamed to wear it; it is too beautiful."
But the eyes sparkled joyfully, and the lips trembled with
"Here's the body! You see those bows? That was my taste. I said to
myself, 'She must have blue ribbon bows on the shoulder,' and I went
back and made Madame Treize put them on. Oh, I know Madame Treize; and
Madame Treize, she knows me!"
"And the shoes, Marcélite?"
Hands and voice fell with utter disgust.
"Now you see, Mamzelle, you always do that. Question, question,
question, all the time. Why did n't you wait? Now you have spoiled it
all,—all the surprise!"
"Pardon, Marcélite, I did not mean; but I was afraid you had
"Oh, mon bébé! when did Marcélite ever forget
anything you wanted?"
Marie blushed with shame at a self-accusation of ingratitude.
"Ma bonne Marcélite! I am so impatient, I cannot help
A bundle of shoes was silently placed in her lap.
"White satin boots! Mar-cé-lite! White satin boots for me? Oh, I
can't believe it! And I expected black leather!—how shall I ever
thank my uncle for them; and all this? How can I ever do it?"
The radiant expression faded away from the nurse's face at these
"Oh, but I know it was your idea, Marcélite! My good, kind, dear
Marcélite! I know it was all your idea. He never could have thought of
all these beautiful things,—a man!"
She put her arms around the
bonne's neck and laid her head
on the broad, soft shoulder, as she used to do when she was a little,
"Ah, Marcélite, my uncle can never be as kind to me as you are. He
gives me the money, but you -"
She felt the hands patting her back and the lips pressed against
her hair; but she could not see the desperate, passionate, caressing
eyes, "savoring" her like the lips of an eager dog.
"Let us try them on," said Marcélite.
She knelt on the floor and stripped off one shoe and stocking. When
the white foot on its fragile ankle lay in her dark palm, her passion
broke out afresh. She kissed it over and over again; she nestled it in
her bosom; she talked baby-talk to it in creole; she pulled on the fine
stocking as if every wrinkle were an offense, and slackness an
unpardonable crime. How they both labored over the boot,—straining,
pulling, smoothing the satin, coaxing, urging, drawing the foot! What
patience on both sides! What precaution that the glossy white should
meet with no defilement! Finally the button-holes were caught over the
buttons, and to all intents and purposes a beautiful, symmetrical,
solidified satin foot lay before them.
It might have been a question, but it sounded more like the laying
of a doubt.
"Too tight! just look!"
The little toes made a vigorous demonstration of contempt and
"I can change them if they are."
"Do you want me to wear sabots like Jeanne?"
"They will stretch, anyhow."
Marcélite preferred yielding to her own rather than to another's
conviction, even when they both were identical.
The boots were taken off, rolled in tissue-paper and put away in
the armoire, which was now opened to its fullest extent
to receive the dress.
Marie leaned against the pillow of the bed and clasped her hands
over her head. She listened dreamily and contentedly to her praises
thrown off by Marcélite's fluent tongue. What would the reality be, if
the foretaste were so sweet?
"I wonder what he will say, Marcélite?"
"My uncle. Do you think he will be pleased?"
"What makes you so foolish,
"But that's not foolish, Marcélite."
"Say, Marcélite, do you think he will be satisfied?"
"Satisfied with what?"
"Oh, you know, Marcélite,—satisfied with me."
The head was thrust too far into the
armoire for an
"How can I tell, Mamzelle?"
"Mamzelle! Mamzelle! Madame Marcélite!"
"Anyway, he will come to the concert—Hein,
"What is it, Zozo?"
"My uncle; he is coming to the concert, is n't he?"
Marcélite shrugged her shoulders; her mouth was filled with pins.
"Ma bonne! do not be so mean; tell me if he is
coming, and what he said."
"Poor gentleman! he is so old."
"Did he tell you that?"
Marie laughed; this was a standing joke between them.
"But, my child, what do you want him to say? You bother me so with
your questions, I don't know what I am doing."
"But, Marcélite, it is only natural for me to want him to come to
the concert and see me in my pretty dress that he gave me."
"Well, when one is old and sick -"
"Sick! ah, you did not tell me that"
"But I tell it to you all the time!"
There is no better subject on which to exercise crude eloquence
than the delinquencies of laundresses. A heinous infraction had been
committed against the integrity of one of Marie's garments, and
Marcélite threatened to consume the rest of the day in expressions of
disgust and indignation.
"So he is
not coming to the concert?" the girl demanded,
"Ah! there's the bell; you had better run quick before they send
"No, I am excused until time to practice my duet. Marcélite,"—
the voice lost its excited tone and became pleading, humble, and timid,
- "Marcélite, do you think my uncle will like me?"
"Mon Dieu! yes, yes, yes."
"Mais ne t'impatiente pas, ma bonne, I can't help
thinking about it. He has never seen me— since I was a baby, I mean—
and I don't recollect him at all, at all. Oh, Marcélite! I have tried
so often, so often to recall him, and my maman"—she
spoke it as shyly as an infant does the name of God in its first
prayer. "If I could only go just one little point farther back, just
that little bit"—she measured off a demi-centimetre on her finger—
"but impossible. Maybe it will all come back to me when I see him, and
the house, and the furniture. Perhaps if I had been allowed to see it
only once twice, I might be able to remember something, It is
hard, Marcélite, it is very hard not even be able to recollect a
mother. To-morrow evening!"—she gave a long, long sigh,—"only
to-morrow evening more!"
The depravity of the washerwoman must have got beyond even
Marcélite's powers of description, for she had stopped talking, but
held her head inside the shelf.
"One reason I want him to come to the concert is to take me home
with him. In the first place, Madame wouldn't let me go unless he came
for me; and—and I want the girls to see him; they have teased me so
much about him. I believe, Marcélite, that if my graduating were put
off one day longer, or if my uncle did not come for me to-morrow
evening, I would die. How foolish! Just think of all these years I have
been here, summer after summer, the only boarder left during vacation!
I did n't seem to mind it then, but now it's all different; everything
has become so different this last year."
The tears had been gathering in her eyes for some time, and she had
been smearing them with her finger off the side of her face to escape
Marcélite's notice; but now they came too fast for that, so she was
forced to turn over and hide her face flat in the pillow.
mon bébé? What is the matter with you—oh,
oh!—you do not feel well! something you do not like about your toilette,
hein? Tell Marcélite,
tell your bonne. There! there!"
Sobs were added to tears, until she seemed in conflict with a
tornado of grief. She pressed her head tighter and tighter against the
pillow to stifle the noise, but her narrow high shoulders shook
convulsively, and her feet twisted and turned, one over the other, in
uncontrollable agitation. Marcélite stood by her side, a look of keen
torture on her emotional face. If the child had only been larger, or
stronger! she did not writhe so helplessly before her! If she had
fought less bravely against the reading sobs! Ah! and if the shrouded
form of a dead mother had not intervened with outstretch arms and
reproachful eyes fixed upon Marcélite. She could hold out no longer,
but fell on her knees by the bed, and clasped her arms around the
little one to hold her quiet. With her face on the pillow, and her lips
close to the red, burning ear, she whispered the soothing tendernesses
of a maternal heart. There was a balsam which never failed: a story she
had often told, but which repetition had only made more difficult, more
hesitating; to-day the words fell like lead,—about the father Marie
had never seen, the mother she had never known, the home-shelter of her
baby years, beyond even her imagination, and the guardian uncle, the
question of whose coming to the concert had so excited her.
"Is Marie Modeste here?" asked a little voice through a far-off
Marie started. "Yes" Her voice was rough, weak, and trembling.
"They want you for the 'Cheval de Bronze.' "
She sat up and let the nurse smooth her hair and bathe her face,
keeping her lips tightly shut over the ebbing sobs.
"Thank you, Marcélite. Thank you for everything—for my beautiful
dress, and my shoes; and thank my uncle too, and try and persuade him
to come to-morrow evening, won't you, Marcélite? Do not tell him about
my crying, though. Oh, I want to go home so much, and to see him! You
know if you want you can get him to come. Won't you promise me, ma bonne?"
" You know I would kill myself for you,
The good little Paula was waiting outside the door. Uncontrollable
tears are too common in a girls' school to attract attention. They were
crises which, though not to be explained, even the smallest girl
understood intuitively, and for which were tacitly employed convenient
"The concours was very difficult,
"Yes, very difficult."
"And Monsieur Mignot is so trying. I think he gets more
exigeant every day."
And they kissed each other sympathetically on the stairway.
"Grand Dieu Seigneur!" groaned Marcélite, when Marie
had left the room, holding her head with both hands. "What am I going
to do now! I believe I am turning fool!"
Life was changing from a brilliant path in white muslin dresses to
a hideous dilemma; and for once she did not know what to do. A travail
seemed going on in her brain; her natural strength and audacity had
completely oozed away from her. She began a vehement monologue in
creole, reiterating assertions and explanations, stopping short always
at one point.
"My God! I never thought of that."
She looked towards the ceiling with violent reproaches to the
bon Dieu, doux Jésus, and Sainte-Vierge. Why had they left her
alone to manage this? They knew she was a "nigger, nigger, nigger"
trying to humiliate and insult herself. Why had n't they done
something? Why could n't they do something now? And all she had done
for them, and that ungrateful patron saint, the recipient of so much
attention, so many favors! She never had asked them anything for
herself, thank God! Marcélite could always manage her own affairs
without the assistance of any one. But her bébé, for whom
she had distinctly prayed and burned candles, and confessed and
communed, and worked, and toiled, and kept straight! She clasped her
flesh in her sharp, long nails, and the pain did her good. She could
have dashed her head against the wall. She would gladly have stripped
her shoulders to the lash, if—if it would do any good. She would kill
herself, for the matter of that, but what would that prevent or remedy?
The church was not far off, perhaps a miracle! But what miracle can
avert the inevitable? She shoved her empty basket under the bed and
went out upon the covered gallery that spanned the garden and led to
Madame Lareveillère's bedchamber.
The quadrangle lay half overspread now by shadow. The gay
insouciante flowers moved gently in an incipient breeze, the
umbrella top of the little summer-house warded the rays from the
benches beneath, and kept them cool and pleasant. Her own face was not
more familiar, more matter-of-fact to Marcélite, and yet she saw in the
yard things she had never remarked before. There was a different
expression to it all. Flowers, summer-house, even the gray flags,
depressed her and made her sad; as if they, or she, were going to die
soon. She caught the balustrade in her hand, but it was not vertigo.
What was it, then, that made her feel so unnatural and everything so
portentous? This morning life was so comfortable and small, everything
just under her hand. She was mistress of every day, and night was the
truce, if not the end of all trouble. But to-day had united itself to
past and future in such a way that night was but a transparent veil
that separated but could not isolate them one from the other. Time was
in revolt against her; her own powers betrayed her; flight was
impossible, resistance useless, death, even, futile.
What was the matter with her head, anyhow? She must be
voudoued. If she could feel as she did this morning! The
slatternly Jeanne shuffled underneath on her way to the bell, an augur
of ill-omen. She would go and see Madame Lareveillère.
Madame as she was commonly called sat at her
writing. Her pen, fine pointed as a cambric needle, scratched under
her fingers as if it worked on steel instead of paper. She was very
busy, transferring the names from a list before her into the gilt-edged
prize-books piled up in glowing heaps all around her. A strict observer
would have noticed many inaccuracies which would have invalidated any
claim to correctness on the part of her copy. There were not only
liberties taken with the prize itself, but entire names were involved
in transactions which the original list by no means warranted. These
inaccuracies always occurred after consultation of another list kept in
Madame's little drawer, —a list whose columns carried decimals
instead of good and bad marks for lessons. A single ray of light,
filtered through various intermedial shades and curtains, had been
manoeuvred so as to fall on the small desk at a safe distance from
Madame's sensitive complexion. At difficult calculations, she would
screw up her eyes and peer at both lists brought into the focus of
illumination, then would sink back into obscurity for advisory
There are so many calculations to be made, so many fine
distinctions drawn, in a distribution of prizes! No one but a
schoolmistress knows the mental effort requisite for the working out of
an equation which sets good and bad scholars against good and bad pay.
Why could not the rich girls study more, or the poor less? Oh, the
simple beauty of strict, injudicious impartiality! Cursed be the
inventor or originator of these annual rehearsals, where every one was
rewarded except the rewarder!
On occasions like these any interruption is a deliverance; Madame
heard with glad alacrity a knock at the door.
"Ah! c'est toi, Marcélite!"
Marcélite represented another matter of yearly consideration,
another question of paramount importance, a suspensive judgment,
involving, however, Madame alone. With the assistance of the
hairdresser, many years ago (the date is not essential, and women are
sensitive about such things), the principal of the Institut St. Denis
had engaged in one of those struggles against Time to which pretty
unmarried women seem pledged during a certain period, the fighting age,
of their lives: It was purely a defensive struggle on her part, and
consisted in a protest against that uglifying process by which women
are coaxed into resignation to old age and death. So far, she had
maintained her own perfectly; and Time, for all the progress he had
made in the sweet, delicate face of Eugénie Lareveillère, might just as
well have been tied for ten years past to one of the four posts of the
bedstead. The musical concert and distribution of prizes and its
consequent indispensable new toilette furnished an excellent
date for an annual review and consultation, when old measures were
discussed, new ones adopted, and the next campaign planned. Madame,
however, did not feel this year the same buoyant courage, the same
irrepressible audacity as heretofore. In fact, there was a vague
suspicion in her breast, hitherto unacknowledged, that in spite of
facial evidence she herself, dans son intérieur, was
beginning to grow the least, little, tiny bit old. She felt like
capitulating with the enemy, and had almost made up her mind to
surrender— her hair. "L'incertitude est le pire des maux,
jusqu'au moment où la réalité nous fait regretter l'incertitude
." Should the conditions be proven too hard for mortal beauty, she
could at least revolt again. Thank heaven! over there in Paris worked
devoted emissaries for women, and the last word had not yet been said
by the artists of hair-dyes and cosmetics.
"Eh, bien, qu'en dis-tu, Marcélite?"
The artistically arranged head, with its curls and puffs and
frisettes clustered like brown silken flowers above the fair skin, was
directly in the line of Marcélite's vision. Who would have suspected
that these were but transplanted exotics from the hot head of foreign
youth? that under their adorning luxuriance lay, fastened by inflexible
hairpins, the legitimate but deposed possessors of this crown? But
they were old, gray, almost white, and Madame was suggesting for them
a temporary and empirical resurrection. That head which daily for
years she had moulded according to her comprehension of fashion; that
inert little ball for which Marcélite, in her superb physical
strength, had almost felt a contempt,—she looked at it now, and,
like the flowers in the garden, it was changed to her, was pregnant
with subtle, portentous meaning. She was beginning faintly to suspect
the truth. All this buzzing, whirling, thought, fear, calculation,
retrospection, and prevision, which had come into her great, big,
strong head only an hour ago, had been going on in this little,
fragile, delicate handful of skull for years, ever since it was born.
She saw it now, she knew it,—the difference between Madame's head and
hers, between a consciousness limited by eternity and one limited by a
nightly sleep, between an intelligence looking into immortality and one
looking into the eyes of a confessor.
The room would have been quite dark but for that one useful ray
which, after enlightening the path of distributive justice for Madame,
fell on and was absorbed by a picture opposite. Out of the obscurity
arose one by one the features of the bedchamber,—he supreme model of
bedchambers in the opinion of the impressionable loyalists of St.
Denis; a bedchamber, the luxury of which could never be surpassed, the
mysterious solemnity never equalled; a bedchamber, in fact, created to
satisfy the majestic coquettishness of the autocratic superior of an
aristocratic school for girls.
Indistinct, undefined, vague fragments of color struggled up
through the floor of sombre carpet. The windows, made to exclude the
light, were draped with mantles of lace and silk hanging from gigantic,
massive, convoluted gilt cornices. The grand four-posted mahogany
bedstead, with its rigging of mosquito-netting and cords and tassels,
looked like some huge vessel that by accident had lodged in this small
harbor. So stupendous, so immeasurable, so gloomily, grandly,
majestically imposing, this dark, crimson-housed bedstead looked in the
small, dimly-lighted room, that little girls sent on occasional
messages to Madame felt a tremor of awe at the sight of it, and
understood instinctively, without need of explanation or elucidation,
that here, indeed, was one of those lits de justice which
caused such dismay in the pages of their French history. The bureau
with its laces and ribbons, its cushions, essence-bottles, jewel-cases,
vide-poches, and little galleried étagères full of gay
reflections for the mirror underneath, was as coquettish, as volatile,
as petulant an article of furniture as was ever condemned to bedchamber
companionship with a lit de justice.
The prie-dieu in front of the altar granted the
occupant an encouraging view into all the visible appliances for
stimulating faith in the things not seen. The willing heart, as by an
ascending scale, rose insensibly from the humanity to the divinity of
sacrifice and suffering: reliquaries, triply consecrated beads, palms,
and crucifixes, pictures of sainted martyrs and martyresses who
contradicted the fallacious coincidence of homeliness and virtue,
statuettes, prayer-books, pendent flasks of holy water, and an
ecclesiastical flask of still holier liquid, impregnated with
miraculous promises. A taper, in a red globe, burned with subdued
effulgence below it all. Ghastly white and black bead wreaths, hanging
under faded miniatures, set the bounds of mural consecration, and kept
Madame mournfully reminded of her deceased husband and mother.
Marcélite stood, like a threatening idol, in the centre of the
room, her eyes glaring through the gloom with fierce doggedness. Her
feet were planted firmly apart, her hands doubled up on her high round,
massive hips. The cords of her short, thick neck stood out, and her
broad, flexible nostrils rose and fell with passion. Her untamed
African blood was in rebellion against the religion and civilization
whose symbols were all about her in that dim and stately chamber,—a
civilization which had tampered pored with her brain, had enervated her
will, and had duped her with false assurances of her own capability.
She felt a crushing desire to tear down, split destroy, to surround
herself with ruins, to annihilate the miserable little weak devices of
intelligence and reassert the proud supremacy of brute force. She
longed to humiliate that meek Virgin Mother; and if the form on the
crucifix had been alive she would have gloated over his blood and
agony. She thirsted to get her thin, taper, steel-like fingers but
once more on that pretty, shapely, glossy head.
"Pauvre petite chatte! I shall miss her very much;
you know, Marcélite, it seems only a year or two since you brought her
here a little baby, and now she is a young lady of seventeen. Thirteen
years ago! What a chétive little thing she was! You were
as much of a scholar here then as she; you had to stay with her so
much. You have been a faithful nurse to her, ma bonne femme
. A mother could not have been more devoted, and very few would have
done all you have for that child. Ah! that's a thing money can never
pay for,—love. I hope Marie will always remember what you have been
to her, and repay it with affection. But she will; she is a good girl,
- a good, good girl, pauvre petite! It is Monsieur Motte,
though, who should give you a handsome present, something really
valuable. I would like to know what he would have done for a bonne
for his niece without you. You remember that summer when she had
the fever? Oh, well, she would have died but for you; I shall never
forget her sad little face and her big black eyes. You know, her
mother must see all that; I can never believe, Marcélite, that a mother
cannot come back, sometimes, to see her children, particularly a
little girl -"
Marcélite listened with head averted. Her hands had fallen from her
hips, her mouth slowly relaxed, and the lips opened moist and red. As
if drawn by strains of music, she came nearer and nearer Madame's chair.
"She was always such a quiet little thing,
Madame's reminiscence was an endless chain. "I used to forget her
entirely; but now she is going away, I know I shall miss her, yes very
much. I hope the world will be kind to her. She will be handsome, too,
some day, when she does not have to study so hard, and can enjoy the
diversions of society a little. By the time she is twenty you will see
she will be une belle femme. Ah, Monsieur Motte, you will
be satisfied, allez!"
The little pen commenced scratching away again, and this time
registered the deed of prize of French history to l'élève
, Marie Modeste Motte.
Marcélite, with wistful eyes, listened for some more of the soft,
sweet tones. She made the movement of swallowing two or three times to
get the swelling and stiffness out of her throat.
"Mamzelle Marie, too, she will be sorry to leave Madame." Her voice
was thick and unsteady.
"Oh no, girls are always glad to quit school. Very naturally, too.
When one is young, one does not like to stay indoors and study, when
there is so much outside,—dancing, music, beaux." A sigh interrupted
Madame. "It is all past for me now, but I can recollect how I felt when
I was seventeen. Apropos, Marcélite, did you give my
invitation to Monsieur Motte?"
The answer came after an interval of hesitation. At one moment
Marcélite's eyes flashed as if she would brave all results and refuse
"And what did he say?"
"He—he sent his compliments to Madame."
Madame looked around to see what the good-natured
meant by such sullen tones. "Yes; but did he say he would come to
the concert? I wanted particularly to know that."
"He is so old, Madame."
"Là, là, the same old excuse! I am so tired of it."
"But when one is old, Madame."
"Ah, bah! I do not believe he is too old for his own pleasure. I
know men; old age is very convenient excuse at times."
Marcélite appeared to have no reply at the end of her ready tongue.
"But this time he must come,
par exemple! even if he
is so old. I think he might subject himself to some little
inconvenience and trouble to see his niece graduate. He has not put him
self out much about her for twelve or thirteen years."
"God knows! Madame."
Mais, Marcélite, how silly you talk!
Don't you see that Monsieur Motte must come to-morrow night, at least
to take Marie home? God does know, and so should he."
Marcélite spoke as if galvanized by an inspiration. "Perhaps he
wants Miss Marie to stay another year, Madame, you see, she is so
young, and—and—there is so much to learn, enfin."
"He wants that, does he? he wants that! Ah,
That is like a man; oh, I know them, like a b c. No, if Marie
is not too young to graduate, she is not too young to leave school; and
besides, if she had not learned everything, how could she graduate?
There is an end to learning, enfin. You tell Monsieur
Motte that. But no, tiens, it is better I shall write it."
She seized some note-paper and put her message in writing with the
customary epistolary embellishment of phrase at the expense of
sincerity and truth.
"I hope he will be kind to her, and look out for a good
for her. Of course she will have a dot,—his only
relative. Did you not tell me she was his only relative, Marcélite? He
has absolutely no one else besides her?"
"Well, then, she will get it all when he dies, unless"—with a
shrug—"I do not know; one is never sure about men."
Madame bethought herself of the time, and looked at her watch just
as Marcélite, by a sudden resolution, made a desperate movement
"Nearly three o'clock! I must go and make my
revoir, ma bonne. Be sure and give Monsieur Motte my note, and
come early to-morrow morning; and do not forget to think about what I
told you, you know." She tapped her head significantly and left the
room. On the short passage to the Salle des Classes she
put off her natural manner, and assumed the conventional disguise
supposed to be more fitting her high position. When the door opened and
the little girls started up to drop their courtesies, and their "
Je vous salue, Madame," her stately tread and severe mien could
hardly have been distinguished from those of her predecessor, the
aristocratic old refugée from the Island of St. Domingo.
After dinner, when the shadow had entirely enveloped the yard, and
the fragrance of the oleander and jasmine had fastened itself on the
air, the girls were allowed their evening recreation. Relieved from the
more or less restraining presence of the day scholars, the boarders
promenaded in the cordial intimacy of home life. The laughter of the
children in the street, the music of the organs there seemed to be one
at each corner, the gay jingle of the ice-cream cart came over talc
wall to them. Tomorrow there would be no wall between them and the
world,—the great, gay, big world of New Orleans. The thought was too
exhilarating for their fresh blood; they danced to the music and
laughed to the laughter outside, they kissed their hands to invisible
friends, and made réverénces and complimentary speeches
to the crescent moon up in the blue sky. The future would soon be here
now! only to-morrow evening,— the future, which held for them a début in society, a box at the opera, beautiful
, balls, dancing, music. No more study, routine, examinations,
scoldings, punishments, and bread-and-butter lunches. The very idea of
it was intoxicating, and each girl felt guilty of a maudlin effusion of
sentiment and nonsense to her best friend. A "best friend" is an
institution in every girls' school. Every class-book when opened would
direct you to a certain page on which was to be found the name of "
celle que j'aime," or "celle que j'adore," or "
mon amie chérie," or "ma toute devouée
." The only source of scandal that flourished in their secluded circle
was the formation or disrupting of these ties through the intermeddling
officiousness of "rapporteuses" and "mauvaises
langues." But the approaching dissolution of all ties drew them
together, each one to each one's best friend, and, as usual, the vows
exchanged became more fervent and passionate just before breaking.
Marcélite was outside, leaning against the wall. Close over her head
hung the pink oleanders through their green leaves, and on their strong
perfume was wafted the merry voices of the boarders. How glad, how
happy they were! She could hear her bébé above the
others, and, strange to say, her laughter made her sadder even than her
tears to-day. She lifted up her black, passionate face. If she could
only see them! if she could look over the wall and catch one more
glimpse of the girl whom as a baby she had held to her bosom, and whom
she had carried in her arms through that gate when. . . "Ah, mon
Dieu, ayez pitié de moi, pauvre négresse!"
"Dansez, chantez,", they were singing and making a
ronde. She heard some one at the gate, —Jeanne, probably,
coming out. She turned her back quickly and walked away around the
corner, making the tour of the square. When she turned the corner
coming the other way, she was quite out of breath with walking so fast;
as there was no one in the street, she increased her pace to a run,
and reached the oleanders panting; but all was now still inside; the
boarders had been summoned to supper. She stretched her arms out and
leaned her head against the rough bricks. She turned and looked at the
sky; her eyes gleamed through her tears like the hot stars through the
blue air. She moved away a few steps, hesitated, returned; then went
again, only to be drawn back under the oleanders. She sat down close to
the wall, threw her apron over her head, and drew her feet up out of
the way of the passers-by.
Daylight found her still there. When the early carts began to pass,
laden for the neighboring market, she rose stiff and sore and walked
in the direction of the river, where the morning breeze was just
beginning to ripple the waters and drive away the fog.
The great day of the concert began very early. Fête days always get
up before the sun. The boarders in the dormitory raised their heads
from their pillows and listened to the pushing and dragging going on
underneath them: the men arranging the chairs for that night. Their
heads, done up in white paper papillotes, looked like so
many blanched porcupines. This was one of the first of those
innumerable degrees of preparation by which they expected to transform
themselves into houris of loveliness by concert-time. As there
can be no beauty without curls, in a schoolgirl's opinion, and as a
woman's first duty is to be beautiful, they felt called upon to roll
lock after lock of their hair around white paper, which was then
twisted to the utmost limit of endurance; and on occasions when
tightness of curl is regulated by tightness of twist, endurance may
safely be said to have no limits. Fear of the unavoidable ensuing
disappointment forced Marie to renounce, reluctantly, beauty in favor
of discretion. When her companions saw the omission, they screamed in
"Ah! Why did n't you put your hair up?"
"What a pity!"
"And you won't have curls for this evening?"
"Do it now!"
"Mais je t'assure, it will curl almost as tight."
"Let me do it for you, chère."
"But it is better to have it a little
Marie, from practice accomplished in excuses, persisted that she
had a migraine.
"Oh, la migraine, poor thing!"
"I implore you, don't be ill to-night."
eau de Cologne."
eau sédative is better."
"Put this on your head."
"Tie this around your neck."
"Carry this in your pocket."
"Some water from Notre Dame de Lourdes."
Madame Lareveillère opened
her eyes that morning as from an
unsuccessful experiment. She cared little about sleep as a restorative,
but it was invaluable to her in this emergency as a cosmetic.
Jeanne brought in her morning cup of coffee, with the news that the
men had almost finished in the Salle de Concert.
"C'est bon; tell Marcélite to come as soon as she is
The eyes closed again on the pillow in expectation of speedy
interruption. But sleep, the coquette, courted and coaxed in
vain all night, came now with blandishment, lullaby, and soft caress,
and fastened the already heavy lids down over the brown eyes, and
carried the occupant of the big bed away out on pretty dreams of youth
and pleasure; away, beyond all distractions, noises, interruptions;
beyond the reach of matutinal habits, duties, engagements, rehearsals,
prizes; beyond even the practicing of the "Cheval de Bronze
" on four pianos just underneath her. She slept as people sleep only on
the field of battle or amid the ruins of broken promises; and thanks to
her exalted position, she slept undisturbed.
"Mais, come in
donc, Marcélite!" she
exclaimed, as a perseverant knocking at the door for the past five
minutes had the effect of balancing her in a state of uncertain
wakefulness. "You are a little early this morning, it seems."
She rubbed her hands very softly over her still-closed eyes; that
last dream was so sweet, so clinging, what a pity to open them!
"It is not Marcélite; it is I,—Madame Joubert."
"You! Madame Joubert!"
The excellent, punctilious, cold, austere, inflexible French
teacher by her bedside!
"I thought it was Marcélite."
She still was hardly awake.
"No, it is I."
"But what is the matter, Madame Joubert?"
"It is twelve o'clock, Madame."
"Twelve o'clock! Impossible!"
"You hear it ringing, Madame."
"But where is Marcélite?"
"Marcélite did not come this morning."
"Marcélite did not come this morning!" She was again going to say
"Impossible!" but she perceived Madame Joubert's head, and was silent.
Instead of her characteristic, formal, but conventionally
fashionable coiffure, Madame Joubert had returned to, or assumed, that
most primitive and innocent way of combing her hair, called la
sauvagesse. Unrelieved by the soft perspective of Marcélite's
handiwork, her plain, prominent features stood out with the savage
boldness of rocks on a shrubless beach. "How frightfully ugly!" thought
"Marcélite did not come this morning? Why?"
"How should I know, Madame?"
"She must be ill; send Jeanne to see."
"I did that, Madame, five hours ago; she was not in her room."
"But what can have become of her?"
Madame Joubert had early in life eliminated the consideration of
supposititious cases from the catalogue of her salaried duties; but she
"I cannot imagine, Madame."
"But I must have some one to comb my hair."
"The music-teacher is waiting for you. The French professor says
he will be here again in a half-hour; he has been here twice already.
Madame Criard says that it is indispensable for her to consult you
about the choruses."
"Mais, mon Dieu! Madame Joubert, I must have a
Madame Joubert waived all participation in this responsibility by
continuing her communication.
"The girls are all very tired; they say they will be worn out by
to-night if they are kept much longer. They have been up ever
since six o'clock."
"I know, I know, Madame Joubert; it was an accident. I also was
awake at six o'clock. J'ai fait la nuit blanche. Then I
fell asleep again. Ah! that miserable Marcélite! I beg of you, tell
Jeanne to go for some one, no matter whom—Henriette, Julie, Artémise.
I shall be ready in a moment."
In a surprisingly short while she was quite ready, all but her
hair, and stood in her white muslin peignoir, tied with blue ribbons,
before her toilette, waiting impatiently for some one to come to
How terrible it is not to be able to comb one's own hair! Her hands
had grown completely unaccustomed to the exercise of the comb and brush.
"Madame," said Jeanne at the door, "I have been everywhere. I
cannot find a hairdresser at home; I have left word at several places,
and Madame Joubert says they are waiting for you."
What could she do? She looked in the glass at her gray, spare
locks; she looked on her toilette at her beautiful brown curls
and plaits. "How in the world did Marcélite manage to secure all that
There was a knock at the door.
"Perhaps that was a hairdresser!" She hastened to unfasten it.
"Madame," said a little girl, trying to speak distinctly, despite a
nervous shortness of breath, "Madame Joubert sent me to tell you they
mon enfant, very well. I am coming."
"I shall be a greater fright than Madame Joubert," she murmured to
The drops of perspiration disfiguring the clear tissue of the
muslin peignoir were the only visible results of her conscientious
"I will never be able to fix my hair."
There was another knock at the door, another "Madame Joubert,
vous fait dire," etc.
"Tell Madame Joubert I am coming in a moment."
How impatient Madame Joubert was this morning. Oh for Marcélite!
She knew nothing about hair, that was evident; but she remembered
that she knew something about lace. Under the pressure of accelerating
summonses from Madame Joubert, she fashioned a fichu, left on a
chair from last night, into a very presentable substitute for curls and
"Mais ce n'est pas mal, en effet," she muttered.
Hearing the sound of footsteps again in the corridor, she rushed from
the mirror and met the messenger just as her hand was poised to give a
knock at the door. The "Sa. . . lu. . . t! mois de va. . . can.
. . ces!" and the "Vi. . . er. . . ge, Ma. . . ri. . . e
" had been chorused and re-chorused; the "Cheval de Bronze
" had been hammered into durable perfection; the solos and duos,
dialogues and scenes, the salutatory and valedictory had been rehearsed
Madame finally dismissed the tired actors, with the recommendation
to collect all their petites affaires, so that their
trunks could be sent away very early the next morning.
"I suppose Marcélite will be sure to come this evening?" she asked
"Oh, that is sure, Madame," Madame Joubert, replied, as if
this were one of the few rules of life without exceptions; and Madame
Lareveillère believed her as confidently as if Noël and Chapsal had
passed upon her answer, and the Dictionnaire de l'Académie
had indorsed it.
The girls scattered themselves all over the school, effacing with
cheerful industry every trace of their passage through the desert of
education. "Dieu merci! that was all past" Marie
had emptied her desk of everything belonging to her except her name,
dug out of the black lid with a dull knife. That had to remain, with a
good many other Marie Modeste Mottes on the different desks that had
harbored her books during her sojourn in the various classes. This was
all that would be left of her in the rooms where she had passed
thirteen years of her life. The vacant teacher's desk, the throne of so
many tyrants (the English teachers were all hateful!); the white walls
with their ugly protecting dado of black; the rows of pegs, where the
hats and cloaks hung; the white marble mantel, with its carving of
naked cherubs, which the stove had discreetly clothed in soot,—she
could never forget them. Sitting in her future home, the house of her
uncle, she knew that these homely objects would come to her memory, as
through sunset clouds of rose and gold.
"What will you do when you quit school, Marie?" her companions
would ask, after detailing with ostentatious prolixity their own
"Ah, you know that depends entirely upon my uncle," she would
reply, shrugging her thin shoulders under her calico waist.
This rich old uncle, an obstinate recluse, was the traditional
le vieux of the school.
le vieux to-day?" they would call to
"Give my love to
"Dis donc, why does n't
le vieux take
Marie away in the summer?"
"Did you see the beautiful
étrennes le vieux has sent
"They say he has sent her a superb
toilette for the
exhibition, made at Madame Treize's, and white satin boots."
Her trunk had been brought down with the others, and placed at her
bedside. What more credible witness than a coffin or a trunk? It stood
there as it might have stood thirteen years ago, when her baby wardrobe
was unpacked. Her dear, ugly, little, old trunk! It had belonged to her
mother, and bore three faded M's on its leather skin. She leaned her
head against the top as she knelt on the floor before it to pack her
books. How much that trunk could tell her if it could only speak! If
she were as old as that trunk, she would have known a father, a mother,
and a home! She wrinkled her forehead in a concentrated effort to think
a little farther back; to push her memory just a little,—a little
beyond that mist out of which it arose. In vain! The big bell at the
gate, with its clanging orders, remained the boundary of consciousness.
And Marcélite did not come, not even when the lamps were lighted,
to comb their hair, fasten their dresses, and tie their sashes; did not
even come at the very end to see how their toilettes became
them. The young ladies had waited until the last moment, dressed to the
last pin, taken their hair out of the last papillote, and
then looked at one another in despair, indignation, and grief.
"Just look at my head, I ask you!"
"But mine is worse than yours."
"I shall never be able to do anything with mine."
"The more I brush, the more like a
nègre I look."
"Ah, Marie, how wise you were not to put your hair in
"And all that trouble for nothing,
"And the pain."
"I did n't sleep a wink last night."
"See how nice Marie looks with her hair smoothly plaited."
"I will never forgive Marcélite."
Marie's heart sank when she thought how difficult it would be for
Marcélite to efface this disappointment from the remembrance of her
clients; and she felt guilty, as being in a measure responsible for it
all. Marcélite was evidently detained, or prevented from coming, by
preparations for Marie's return. Who knows?—perhaps the eccentric old
uncle had something to do with it! Madame Joubert positively refused
to mitigate the injury or condone the offense by the employment of
another hairdresser. As she had commenced, so she closed the day à la sauvagesse; and so she determined to wear her hair to the
end of her life, maintaining, logically, that what one hairdresser had
done, all were liable to do; life should never serve this
disappointment to her a second time: she would employ no more of them.
The being deserted in a critical moment by a trusted servitor,
dropped without warning by a confidante, left with an indifference,
which amounted to heartlessness, to the prying eyes and gossiping
tongue of a stranger,—this, not the mere trivial combing, was what
isolated and distinguished Madame Lareveillère in her affliction. The
question had been lifted beyond material consequences. Morally, it
approached tragic seriousness. Marcélite would naturally have
suggested, whether she thought so or not, that the color of the new
gray moire-antique was a trifle ingrate, and Madame at
least might have had the merit of declining propitiatory compromises
between it and her complexion. . . . Julie was an idiot, there was no
doubt about that; and the length of her tongue was notorious. By
to-morrow evening the delicate mysteries of the youthful-looking Madame
Lareveillère's toilette would be unveiled to satisfy the
sensational cravings of her malicious patronesses.
The young ladies were placed on a high platform of steps, and rose
tier above tier like flowers in a horticultural show,—the upper
classes at the top and the best-looking girls well in the centre, as if
the product of their beauty as well as their study went to the credit
of the institute. When anything particular arrested their attention
they whispered behind their fans, and it was as if a hive of bees had
been let loose; when they laughed it was like a cascade rippling from
step to step; when they opened their white, blue, and rose-colored fans
school-girls always do the same thing at the same time and fluttered
them, then it was like a cloud of butterflies hovering and coquetting
about their own lips.
The Externes were radiant in
unmarred by accident or omission; the flattering compliments of their
mirrors at home had turned their heads in the direction of perfect
self-content. Resignation was the only equivalent the unfortunate Internes could offer in extenuation of the unfinished
appearance of their heads.
"Mais, dis donc, chère, what is the matter with your
"Marcélite did not come."
"Why, doudouce, how could you allow your hair to be
combed that way?"
"Marcélite did not come."
"Chérie, I think your hair is curled a little tight
"I should think so; that
diable Marcélite did not
"Mon Dieu, look at Madame Joubert
à la grand maman!"
"Marcélite did not come, you see."
Not only was the room filled, but an eager audience crowded the
yard and peeped in through the windows. The stairways, of course, wore
filled with the colored servants, an enthusiastic, irrepressible claque. When it was all over, and the last
and encore had subsided, row after row of girls was
gleaned by the parents, proud possessors of such shawlfuls of beauty,
talent, and prizes. Marie's class, the last to leave, were picked off
one by one. She helped the others to put on their wraps, gather up
their prizes, and kissed one after another good-by.
Each man that came up was, by a glance, measured and compared with
her imaginary standard. "He is too young." "He is too fat." "I hope he
is not that cross-looking one." "Maybe it is he." "What a funny little
one that is!" "Ah, he is very nice-looking!" "Is it he?" "No, he is
Corinne's father." "I feel sure he is that ugly, disagreeable one."
"Ah, here he is at last! at last!" "No; he only came to say good-night
to Madame." "He is afraid of the crowd." "He is waiting outside." "He
is at the gate in a carriage." "After all, he has only sent Marcélite."
"I saw her here on the steps a while ago." She looked at the steps,
they were deserted. There was but one person left in the room besides
herself; Madame and her suite had gone to partake of their yearly
exhibitional refreshments,—lemonade and masse-pain,
served in the little parlor. Her uncle must be that man. The person
walked out after finding a fan he had returned to seek.
She remained standing so by the piano a long while, her gold crown
on her head, her prizes in her arms, and a light shawl she had
thoughtfully provided to wear home. Home! She looked all around very
slowly once more. She heard Jeanne crossing the yard, but before the
servant could enter the door, the white muslin dress, blue sash, and
satin boots had bounded into the darkness of the stairway. The
white-veiled beds which the night before had nestled the gay papillotted heads were deserted and silent in the darkness.
What a shelter the darkness was! She caught hold of the bedpost, not
thinking, but feeling. Then Madame Joubert came tripping across the
gallery with a candle, on her way to bed. The prizes and shawl dropped
to the floor, and Marie crouched down close behind the bar. "Oh, God,"
she prayed, "keep her from seeing me!" The teacher after a pause of
reflection passed on to her room; the child on the floor gave herself
up to the full grief of a disappointment which was not childish in its
bitterness. The events of the evening kept slipping away from her while
the contents of her previous life were poured out with never-ending
detail, and as they lay there, before and all around her, she saw for
the first time how bare, how denuded, of pleasure and comfort it had
been. What had her weak little body not endured in patient ignorance?
But the others were not ignorant,— the teachers, Marcélite, her
uncle! How had they imposed upon the orphan in their hands! She saw it
now, and she felt a woman's indignation and pity over it. The maternal
instinct in her bosom was roused by the contemplation of her own
infancy. "Marcélite! Marcélite!" she called out, "how could you? for
you knew, you knew it all!" The thought of a mother compelled to leave
her baby on such an earth, the betrayal of the confidence of her own
mother by her uncle, drew the first tears from her eyes. She leaned her
head against the side of her bed and wept, not for herself, but for all
women and all orphans. Her hand fell on the lace of her dress, and she
could not recall at first what it was. She bounded up, and with eager,
trembling fingers tearing open the fastenings, she threw the grotesque
masquerade, boots and all, far from her on the floor, and stood
clasping her naked arms over her panting breast; she had forgotten the
gilt wreath on her head. "If she could die then and there! that would
hurt her uncle who cared so little for her, Marcélite who had deserted
her!" Living she had no one, but dead, she felt she had a mother.
Before getting into bed, she mechanically fell on her knees, and her
lips repeated the formula of a prayer, an uncorrected, rude tradition
of her baby days, belonging to the other side of her memory. It
consisted of one simple petition for her own welfare, but the blessings
of peace, prosperity, and eternal salvation of her uncle and Marcélite
were insisted upon with pious determination.
"I know I shall not sleep, I cannot sleep." Even with the words she
sank into the oblivion of tired nature at seventeen years; an oblivion
which blotted out everything,—toilette, prizes scattered on
the floor, graduation, disappointment, and discomfort from the
gilt-paper crown still encircling her black plaits.
"Has Marcélite come?" demanded Madame, before she tasted her coffee.
"Not yet, Madame."
"I wonder what has become of her?"
Jeanne sniffed a volume of unspeakable probabilities.
"Well, then, I will not have that
sotte Julie; tell
her so when she comes. I would rather dress myself."
"Will Madame take her breakfast alone, or with Madame Joubert?"
The pleasure of vacation was tempered by the companionship of
Madame Joubert at her daily meals,—a presence imposed by that stern
tyrant, common courtesy.
"Not to-day, Jeanne; tell Madame Joubert I have
. I shall eat breakfast alone."
"And Mamzelle Marie Modeste?"
"Yes, Madame; where must she take her breakfast?"
The Gasconne's eyes flamed suddenly from under her red lashes and
her voice ventured on its normal loud tones in these sacred precincts.
"It's a shame of that negress! She ought to be punished well for
it, too, ha! Not to come for that poor young lady last night; to leave
her in that big dormitory all by herself; and all the other young
ladies to go home and have their pleasure, and she all by herself, just
because she is an orphan. You think she does n't feel that, hein?
If I had known it I would have helped her undress, and stayed with
her, too; I would have slept on the floor,— delicate little nervous
thing like that; and a great big, fat, lazy, good-for-nothing quadroon
like Marcélite. Mais c'est infâme! It is enough to give
her des crises. Oh, I would not have done that! tenez, not to go back to France would I have done that. And
when I got up this morning, and saw her sitting in the arbor, so pale,
I was frightened myself—I -"
"What is all this you are telling me? Jeanne, Jeanne, go
immediately; run, I tell you—run and fetch that poor child here. Ah, mon Dieu! egoist that I am to forget her!
petite chatte! What must she think of me?"
She jumped out of bed, threw on a wrapper, and waited at the door,
"Ma fille; I did not know—Jeanne has just told me."
The pale little figure made an effort to answer with the old pride
"It seems my uncle -"
"Mais qu'est-ce que c'est donc, mon enfant? Do not
cry so! What is one night more in your old school? It is all my fault;
the idea that I should forget you,—leave you all alone while we were
enjoying our lemonade and masse-pain! But why did you not
come to me? Oh! oh! if you cry so, I shall think you are sorry not to
leave me; besides, it will spoil your pretty eyes."
"If Marcélite had only come -"
"Ah, my dear! do not speak of her! do not mention her name to me.
We are quittes from this day; you hear me? We are quittes. But Marie, my child, you will make yourself ill if you
cry so. Really, you must try and compose yourself. What is it that
troubles you so? Come here, come sit by me; let me confess you. I shall
play that I am your maman. There, there, put your head
here, my bébé, so. Oh, I know how you feel. I have known
what disappointment was; but enfin, my child, that will
all pass; and one day, when you are old and gray-headed like me, you
will laugh well over it."
The tender words, the caresses, the enfolding arms, the tears that
she saw standing in the august schoolmistress's eyes, the sympathetic
movement of the soft, warm bosom,—her idea of a mother was not a vain
imagining. This was it; this was what she had longed for all her life.
And she did confess to her,—confessed it all, from the first childish
trouble to the last disappointment. Oh, the delicious relief of
complete, entire confession to a sympathetic ear!
The noble heart of Madame, which had frittered itself away over
puny distributions of prizes and deceiving cosmetics, beat young,
fresh, and impulsive as in the days when the gray hairs were chatains clair, and the cheeks bloomed natural roses. Tears
fell from her eyes on the little black head lying so truthful, so
confiding on her bosom. Grand Dieu! and they had been
living thirteen years under the same roof,—the poor, insignificant,
abandoned, suffering little Marie, and the gay, beautiful, rich, envied
Madame Lareveillère! This was their first moment of confidence. Would
God ever forgive her? Could she ever forgive herself? How good it feels
to have a child in your arms! so. She went to the stand by her bed and
filled a small gilded glass with eau des carmes and water.
"There, drink that, my child; it will compose you. I must make my
toilette; it is breakfast-time. You see,
this is a lesson. You must not expect too much of the men; they are not
like us. Oh, I know them well. They are all égoïstes.
They take a great deal of trouble for you when you do not want it, if
it suits them; and then they refuse to raise their little finger for
you, though you get down on your knees to them. Now, there's your
uncle. You see he has sent you to the best and most expensive school in
the city, and he has dressed you well,—oh, yes, very well; look at
your toilette last night! real lace; I remarked it. Yet he would
not come for you and take you home, and spare you this disappointment.
I wrote him a note myself and sent it by Marcélite."
"He is old, Madame," said Marie, loyally.
Plus les hommes sont vieux plus ils sont méchants
. Oh, I have done that so often; I said, 'If you do not do this, I
will not do that.' And what was the result? They did not do this, and I
had tout simplement et bonnement to do that. I write to
Monsieur Motte, 'Your niece shall not leave the Pension until you come
for her;' he does not come, and I take her to him. Voilà la
After breakfast, when they had dressed, bonneted, and gloved
themselves, Madame said,—
"Ma foi! I do not even know where the old Diogène
lives. Do you remember the name of the street, Marie?"
"No, Madame; somewhere in the
Faubourg d'en bas."
"Ah, well! I must look for it here."
She went to the table and quickly turned over the leaves of a
"Marie Modeste Motte, niece of Monsieur Motte.
, there is no address!"
Marie looked with interest at her name written in red ink.
"No; it is not there."
"Ah, que je suis bête. It is in the other one. This
one is only for the last ten years. There, ma fille, get
on a chair; can you reach that one? No, not that, the other one. How
warm it is! You look it out for me!"
"I do not see any address here either, Madame."
"Impossible! There must be an address there. True, nothing but
Marie Modeste Motte, niece of Monsieur Motte, just like the other one.
Now, you see, that's Marcélite again; that's all her fault. It was her
duty to give that address thirteen years ago. In thirteen years she
has not had the time to do that!"
They both sat down warm and vexed.
"I shall send Jeanne for her again!"
But Jeanne's zeal had anticipated orders.
"I have already been there, Madame; I beat on her door, I beat on
it as hard as I could, and the neighbors opened their windows and said
they did n't think she had been there all night."
"Well, then, there is nothing for me to do but send for
le Notaire! Here, Jeanne; take this note to Monsieur Goupilleau."
All unmarried women, widows or maids, if put to the torture, would
reveal some secret, unsuspected sources of advisory assistance,— a
subterranean passage for friendship which sometimes offers a retreat
into matrimony,— and the last possible wrinkle, the last resisting
gray hair is added to other female burdens at the death of this secret
counsellor or the closing up of the hidden passage. Therefore, how
dreadful it is for women to be condemned to a life of such logical
exactions where a reason is demanded for everything even for a statu quo affection of fifteen years or more. Madame
Lareveillère did not possess courage enough to defy logic, but her
imagination and wit could seriously embarrass its conclusions. The raison d'être of a Goupilleau in her life had exercised both
into athletic proportions.
"An old friend,
ma mignonne; I look upon him as a
father, and he treats me just as if I were his daughter. I go to him as
to a confessor. And a great institute like this requires so much
advice,—oh, so much! He is very old,—as old as Monsieur Motte
himself. We might just as well take off our things; he will not come
before evening. You see, he is so discreet, he would not come in the
morning for anything in the world. He is just exactly like a father, I
assure you, and very, very old."
The graduate and young lady of a day sat in the rocking-chair,
quiet, almost happy. She was not in the home she had looked forward to;
but Madame's tenderness, the beautiful room in its soothing twilight,
and the patronizing majesty of the lit de justice made
this a very pleasant abiding place in her journey,—the journey so
long and so difficult from school to her real home, from girlhood to
real young ladyhood. It was nearly two days now since she had seen
Marcélite. How she longed for her, and what a scolding she intended to
give her when she arrived at her uncle's, where, of course, Marcélite
was waiting for her. How silly she had acted about the address! But,
after all, procrastination is so natural. As for Madame, Marie smiled
as she thought how easily a reconciliation could be effected between
them, quittes though they were.
It is hard to wean young hearts from hoping and planning; they
will do it in the very presence of the angel of death, and with their
shrouds in full view.
Monsieur Goupilleau came: a Frenchman of small stature but large
head. He had the eyes of a poet and the smile of a woman.
The prelude of compliments, the tentative flourish to determine in
which key the ensuing variation on their little romance should be
played, was omitted. Madame came brusquely to the motif,
not personal to either of them.
"Monsieur Goupilleau, I take pleasure in presenting you to
Mademoiselle Marie Motte, one of our young lady graduates. Mon
ami, we are in the greatest trouble imaginable. Just imagine,
Monsieur Motte, the uncle of mademoiselle could not come for her last
night to take her home. He is so old and infirm," added Madame,
considerately; "so you see mademoiselle could not leave last night: I
want to take her home myself—a great pleasure it is, and not a
trouble, I assure you, Marie—but we do not know where he lives."
"Ah! you have not his address."
"No, it should be in the ledger; but an accident,—in fact, the
laziness of her bonne, who never brought it, not once in
bonne Marcélite; you know Marcélite;
la coiffeuse; what, you do not know Marcélite, that great, fat
"Does Marcélite know where he lives?"
"But of course, my friend, Marcélite knows, she goes there every
"Well, send for Marcélite."
"Send for Marcélite! but I have sent for Marcélite at least a dozen
times! she is never at her room. Marcélite! ha! my friend, I am done
with Marcélite. What do you think? After combing my hair for fifteen
years!— fifteen years, I tell you—she did not come yesterday at
all, not once; and the concert at night! You should have seen our heads
last night! we were frights—frights, I assure you!"
It was a poetical license, but the eyes of Monsieur Goupilleau
disclaimed any such possibility for the head before him.
"Does not mademoiselle know the address of her uncle?"
"Ah, that, no. Mademoiselle has been a
at the Institut St. Denis for thirteen years, and she has never been
anywhere except to church; she has seen no one without a chaperon; she
has received no letter that has not passed through Madame Joubert's
hands. Ah! for that I am particular, and it was Monsieur Motte himself
who requested it."
"Then you need a directory."
"But what is that,—a directory?"
"It's a volume, Madame, a book containing the addresses of all the
residents of the city."
"Quelle bonne idée! If I had only known that! I shall
buy one. Jeanne! Jeanne! run quick, ma bonne, to Morel's
and buy me a directory."
"Pardon, Madame, I think it would be quicker to send to Bâle's, the
pharmacien at the corner, and borrow one. Here, Jeanne, take
"A la bonne heure! now we shall find our affair."
But the M's, which started so many names in the directory, were
perfectly innocent of any combination applicable to an old uncle by the
name of Motte.
"You see, your directory is no better than my books!"
Monsieur Goupilleau looked mortified, and shrugged his shoulders.
"He must live outside the city limits, Madame."
"Marcélite always said, 'in the
Faubourg d'en bas.' "
Jeanne interrupted stolidly: "Monsieur Bâle told me to bring the
book right back; it is against his rules to lend it out of his store."
"Here, take it! take it! Tell him I am infinitely obliged. It was
of no use, any way. Ah, les hommes!"
"Madame," began Monsieur Goupilleau in precautionary deprecation.
A sudden noise outside,—apparently an assault at the front door;
a violent struggle in the antechamber!
"Grand Dieu! what can that be!" Madame's lips opened
for a shrill Au secours! Voleurs! but seeing the notary
rush to the door, she held him fast with her two little white hands on
"Mon ami, I implore you!"
The first recognition; the first expression of a fifteen years'
secret affection! The first thrill (old as he was) of his first
passion! But danger called him outside; he unloosed the hands and
opened the door.
A heavy body propelled by Jeanne's strong hands fell on the floor
of the room, accompanied by a shower of leaves from Monsieur Bâle's
"Misérable! Infâme! Effrontée! Ah, I have caught you!
"Sneaking outside the gate! Like an animal! like a thief! like a
dog! Ha! I caught you well!"
The powerful arms seemed ready again to crush the unresisting form
rising from the floor.
"Jeanne! hush! How dare you speak to Marcélite like that? Oh,
ma bonne, what is the matter with you?"
Shaking, trembling, she cowered before them silent.
"Ah! she did n't expect me,
la fière négresse! Just
look at her!"
They did, in painful, questioning surprise. Was this their own
clean, neat, brave, honest, handsome Marcélite,—this panting,
tottering, bedraggled wretch before them, threatening to fall on the
floor again, not daring to raise even her eyes?
"Marcélite! Marcélite! who has done this to you! Tell me, tell your
"Is she drunk?" whispered Madame to the notary.
Her tignon had been dragged from her head. Her calico
dress, torn and defaced, showed her skin in naked streaks. Her black
woolly hair, always so carefully packed away under her head-kerchief,
stood in grotesque masses around her face, scratched and bleeding like
her exposed bosom. She jerked herself violently away from Marie's clasp.
"Send them away! Send them away!" she at last said to Monsieur
Goupilleau, in a low, unnatural voice. "I will talk to you, but send
them all away."
Madame and Marie immediately obeyed his look; but outside the door
Marie stopped firmly.
"Madame, Marcélite can have nothing to say which I should not hear
"Hush -" Madame put her finger to her lips; the door was still a
little open and the voices came to them.
Marcélite, from the corner of her bleared eyes, watched them
retire, and then with a great heave of her naked chest she threw
herself on the floor at the notary's feet.
"Master! Oh master! Help me!"
All the suffering and pathos of a woman's bears revere in the
tones, all the weakness, dependence, and abandonment in the words.
The notary started at the unexpected appeal. His humanity, his
manhood, his chivalry, answered it.
"Ma fille, speak; what can I do for you?"
He bent over her as she lay before him, and put his thin, white,
wrinkled hand on her shoulder, where it had burst through her dress.
His low voice promised the willing devotion of a saviour.
"But don't tell my
bébé, don't let her know. My God!
it will kill her! She's got no uncle— no Monsieur Motte! It was all a
lie. It was me, —me a nigger, that sent her to school and paid for
"You! Marcélite! You!"
Marcélite jumped up and tried to escape from the room. Monsieur
Goupilleau quickly advanced before her to the door.
"You fooled me! It was you fooled me!" she screamed to Madame. "God
will never forgive you for that! My bébé has heard it
Marie clung to her; Monsieur Goupilleau caught her by the arm.
"Marcélite! It was you,—you who sent me to school, who paid for
me! And I have no uncle?"
Marcélite looked at the notary,—a prayer for help. The girl fell
in a chair and hid her face in her hands.
"Oh, my God! I knew it would kill her! I knew it would! To be
supported by a nigger!" She knelt by the chair. "Speak to me, Mamzelle
Marie. Speak to me just once! Pardon me, my little mistress! Pardon me!
I did not know what I was doing; I am only a fool nigger, anyhow! I
wanted you to go to the finest school with ladies, and—and—oh! my
bébé won't speak to me; she won't even look at me."
Marie raised her head, put both hands on the nurse's shoulders, and
looked her straight in the eyes.
"And that also was all a lie about"—she sank her trembling voice
- "about my mother?"
"That a lie! That a lie! 'Fore God in heaven, that was the truth; I
swear it. I will kiss the crucifix. What do you take me for, Mamzelle
Marie? Tell a lie about -"
Marie fell back in the chair with a despairing cry.
"I cannot believe any of it."
"Monsieur! Madame! I swear to you it's the truth! God in heaven
knows it is. I wouldn't lie about that,—about my poor dead young
mistress. Monsieur! Madame! tell Miss Marie for me; can't you believe
me?" She shrieked in desperation to Monsieur Goupilleau.
He came to her unhesitatingly. "I believe you, Marcélite." He put
his hand again on her shoulder; his voice faltered, "Poor Marcélite!"
"God bless you, master! God bless you for that. Let me tell you;
you believe me when my bébé won't. My young mistress she
died; my young master, he had been killed in the war. My young mistress
was all alone by herself with nobody but me, and I did n't take her
poor little baby out of her arms till she was dead, as she told me. Mon bébé, mon bébé! don't you know that's the truth? Can't you
feel that's the truth? You see that; she will never speak to me again.
I knew it; I told you so. I heard her last night, in that big room,
all by herself, crying for Marcélite. Marcélite! my God! I was afraid
to go to her, and I was just under a bed; you think that did n't 'most
kill me?" She hid her face in her arms, and swayed her body back and
"Marcélite," said Monsieur Goupilleau. The voice of the champion
trembled, and his eyes glistened with tears at the distress he had
pledged himself to relieve. "Marcélite I believe you, my poor woman; I
believe you. Tell me the name of the lady, the mother of Mademoiselle."
"Ha! her name! I am not ashamed to tell her name before anybody.
Her name! I will tell you her name." She sprang to her feet. "You ask
anybody from the Paroisse St. Jacques if they ever heard the
name of Mamzelle Marie Modeste Viel and Monsieur Alphonse Motte. That
was the name of her mother and her father, and I am not ashamed of it
that I should n't tell, ha! Yes, and I am Marcélite Gaulois, and when
my the parish, who took me and brought me up, and and made me sleep on
the foot of her bed, and fed me like her own baby, hein?
Mamzelle Marie Viel's mother, and Mamzelle was the other baby; and
she nursed us like twins hein? You ask anybody from the
Paroisse St. Jacques. They know; they can tell you."
Marie stood up.
"Come, Marcélite, let us go. Madame, Monsieur -" She evidently
struggled to say something else, but she only reiterated, "I must go;
we must go; come, Marcélite, let us go."
No one would have remarked now that her eyes were too old for her
"Go? My Lord! Where have you
got to go to?"
"I want to go home to Marcélite; I want to go away with her; come,
Marcélite, let us go. Oh! don't you all see I can't stay here any
longer? Let me go! Let me go!"
"Go with me! Go to my home! A white young lady-like you go live
with a nigger like me!"
"Come, Marcélite; please come; go with me; I don't want to stay
"You stand there! You hear that! Monsieur! Madame! You hear that!"
"Marcélite, I want to go with you; I want to I live with you; I am
not too good for that."
"What! You don't think you ain't white! Oh, God! Strike me dead!"
She raised her naked arms over her head, imploring destruction.
ma fille, do not forget, I have promised
to help you. Marcélite, only listen to me a moment. Mademoiselle, do
not fear; Mademoiselle shall not leave us. I shall protect her; I shall
be a father to her -"
"And I," said Madame, drawing Marie still closer to her,—"I shall
be her mother."
"Now, try, Marcélite," continued Monsieur Goupilleau,—"try to
remember somebody, anybody who knows you, who knew your mistress; I
want their names. Anybody, anybody will do, my poor Marcélite! Indeed,
I believe you; we all believe you; we know you are telling the truth;
but is there not a person, even a book, a piece of paper, anything, you
He stood close to her; his head did not reach above her shoulders,
but his eyes plead into her face as if petitioning for his own honor;
and then they followed the hands of the woman fumbling, feeling,
passing, repassing inside her torn dress-waist. He held his hands out,
- the kind tender little hands that had rested so gently on her
bruised black skin.
"If I have not lost it, if I have not dropped it out of my gown
since last night—I never have dropped it, and I have carried it round
inside my body now for seventeen years; but I was 'most crazy last
She put a small package all wrapped up in an old bandanna
handkerchief in his hands.
"I was keeping that for my
bébé; I was going to give
it to her when she graduated, just to remind her of her own mother. She
gave it to me when she died."
It was only a little worn-out prayer-book, but all filled with
written papers and locks of hair and dates and certificates,—frail
fluttering scraps that dropped all over the table, but unanswerable
champions for the honor of dead men and the purity of dead women.
"Par la grâce de Dieu!" exclaimed the notary, while
the tears fell from his eyes on the precious relics, discolored and
worn from bodily contact. Marie sank on her knees by the table, holding
Marcélite tight by the hand.
"Par la grâce de Dieu! Nothing is wanting here,—
nothing, nothing except the forgiveness of this good woman, and the
assurances of our love and gratitude. And they say," turning to Madame,
he hazarded the bold step of taking both her hands in his,—"they
say," recollecting the tender pressure on his arm, he ventured still
further, "they say, Eugénie, that the days of heroism are past, and
they laugh at our romance!"
And then the vacation again, the midsummer pause in life. The sun
increasing its measure and degree of heat day by day, over-assessing
the cooling powers of the night; and quietness settling itself more and
more fixedly in the schoolrooms and yard, which seemed to grow larger
and larger, increasing their space with their emptiness. The
hard-worked pianos stood mute in their little cells. The great gate
remained locked and bolted, only the little door swinging open at
irregular intervals to admit some extra industrious or extra ignorant
little mind coming to "make a class," as she called it, with Madame
Joubert, always ready to lead a forlorn hope against participles or
fractions. Marie Modesto knew the summer vacation better than any
lesson she had learned in the St. Denis. There were no new pages in it
for her. It had always contained the same old days sent over and over
again, as if there were no need to vary a routine which, bringing rest
and silence, brought a never-palling treat to the Institute. The naked
beds in the dormitory, the white peignoirs of Madame
Joubert's ungraceful déshabille, the muslins and novels
of Madame Lareveillère, her own relaxed efforts for comfort and
coolness,—it all might have been any one of the lived-out summers
behind her. There was no missing detail of the past in the the present.
But for the future,—looking for it there was no future. Where it had
been, the girl saw only a blank space, or a world thick with strangers,
aliens. Was there then no living person among them all to hold her, to
connect her, with humanity? Was she only a waif, a vestige? Was there
then no house for her feet to enter seeking a home, no home holding a
welcoming host for her,—not even a cold, misanthropic, selfish,
ungracious old uncle; only tombs, and the incommunicable dead?
The mornings and evenings, the whole life she had filled out in
imagination,—was it all a mirage? And her studies, had they been
learned only for herself? Ah! she had had hard feelings against her
uncle at times; she had secretly cried at nights about him; she had
been ashamed of him; she had abused him to Marcélite; she had even
written, in passionate moments, wild letters of expostulation to him;
but she had loved him through it all,—le vieux. However
illy he had treated her, he had nevertheless represented her family to
her All her efforts had been made to please him some day, all her hopes
cherished subject to his approval. Were he a thousand times worse than
her loyalty had ever permitted the accusation, he were a benefaction to
her now; for he had not gone out of existence alone,— he had taken
her world, her home, her family, her nurse, her friend, her almost
mother, with him. Where was the Marcélite of months and years gone by?
Who was this wretched substitute crouching, cringing, trembling before
her, unnaturally, unrecognizably?
The quadroon, unmasked, stripped of disguise, had indeed lost her
nerve and audacity. Her brave personation was over. As Marcélite, there
was nothing to accomplish except the part of a faithful servant. As
Monsieur Motte, what could she not do? If she could only have created
him out of her own death! If she could only have made what she had so
happily invented! If she could only have prolonged indefinitely the
undisturbed confidence and trust which had existed between Marie
Modeste and herself! Her old volubility was gone. Whatever she said,
lay under one vast suspicion. She could not meet the eyes of Marie
Modeste; she could not even hold up her head before Jeanne. She began
to reproach God, and vaguely to rebel against the shadow on her skin as
casting the shadow on her life.
bébé! my little mistress! it's your nurse,
it's your own negro who loves you, who would die for you!"—words
which took the place of her prayers, her thoughts; her lips were always
moving under them. She would undo her kerchief and put her hand where
once the little face lay like a white magnolia against the dark skin,
and go to sleep so. The place craved and ached so at times that she
put plasters on it, and wore consecrated amulets over it. Her love,
which had always been unscrupulous, became in her distress ferocious,
insatiable; and she would rush to Madame Lareveillère, and like some
wild animal that cannot tell its pain would shed mute tears and utter
"Frankly," said Madame to Monsieur Goupilleau, who came now in
vacation regularly with the evening shades, as if to meet them on her
gallery by appointment, "he will kill us all,— that old man! I can
never forgive him for not having lived; but it is in accordance with
his character," shrugging her shoulders. "What a monster of
selfishness! I have been thinking,—ah, you do not know what my life
is here with those two, Marie and Marcélite!—I have been thinking
that perhaps I would accept Aurore Angely's invitation. She writes me
every year to come on a visit to her plantation for a month or two.
What do you say, eh? There is only one objection,—it is in the
country. If it were only in the city; but the country,—dame!
I have always held the country in horror. It is years since I have
seen Aurore and Félix. Ah! he is a torpedo for you! exploding at a
touch. Poor little thing! She has never been to the country, never even
seen it!" continuing, after a pause unbroken by her friend. The
consultations with Monsieur Goupilleau generally took the form of a
monologue on her part. "I thought of course her old uncle would take
her somewhere this summer, and introduce her to society next winter,
and marry her to some good parti. It is barbarous,—the
disappointment; it is positively a massacre!"
If the notary did not speak, it was not because he had nothing to
suggest or propose; on the contrary, he was far advanced into the next
winter, with his plans, which defined themselves as if by enchantment
under the low flexible voice of the lady.
"You see, my friend, a disappointment cracks us all, us women, —
as if we were fine vases. Ma foi! we ought all to be sold
as bargains, damaged goods. I am sure we are all cracked somewhere; the
fracture may be hidden, but never mind, it is there, and every woman
knows just where it is, and feels it too. Marie has received hers; she
will never be sound again. It is very hard, all the same, for us older
women to see young girls come into life so fresh, so fair, and so
unconscious, and tap! there they are, hit right in the heart, and no
one can save or prevent it. I wonder if there is a sound woman the
"I should hope not, Madame!" exclaimed Monsieur Goupilleau,
involuntarily. "What an unbearable creature she would be! No." Of
summer evenings, in gallery conversations, one hazards any thought.
Perhaps it came from some of his early poetry. "God knows best; when he
wishes to put the finishing, the perfecting touch to a woman, he simply
sends her in youth some misfortune. It is his way; and for one,"
shrugging his shoulders, "have nothing to criticise, seeing the
results;" looking—but she was not aware of it—at the woman before
"The invitation comes this year like a Godsend."
Apropos of the Deity, Madame drifted back to the important
item in her mind. "I can see now, it is positively the best thing we
can do. To-day is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday," she counted
on her fingers. "Yes, I think we can take the Saturday boat; you know
the boats leave every Saturday evening. And now,"—rising,—"I must
go immediately and inform Madame Joubert. To tell you the truth, my
friend,"—in the merest whisper,— "I do not think I could endure
Madame Joubert all the summer. She is of a rigidity,—a rigidity!"
raising her eyes and hands to express it. "But do not go; I shall
return in a moment. I have something else to consult you about, you are
ON THE PLANTATION.
THE autumn was struggling for recognition, and was making an
impression upon all but the mid-day hours. In the mornings, the air
came cool and crisp, full of incentives to work. In the evenings, the
soft languor and dreamy inertness of summer had been driven away by a
wide-awake activity, with good resolutions and plans of future energy
to be discussed inside closed doors and windows into late hours of the
night The roses in the garden bloomed pale and less after their
exhausting summer season, shivering perfumelessly in the practical
October breezes. The trees were in the full glory of their rich green
foliage. The cane in the fields stood in thick, solid maturity, with
long, green, pendent leaves curling over and over in bewildering
luxuriance. The sunset clouds, bursting with light and color, gilded
the tops of the boundary woods and illumined like a halo the familiar
features of plantation life. The Mississippi River, reflecting and
rivalling the sky above rolled, an iridescent current, between its
yellow mud banks cut into grotesque silhouettes by crevasses and
steamboat landings as it dimpled in eddies over shallows, boiled and
swirled in hollow whirlpools over depths, or rushed with inflexible,
relentless rapidity, following the channel in its angular course from
point to point.
The day's work had come to an end. plantation bell rang out its
dismissal and benediction. The blacksmith laid down the half-sharpened
cane-knife and began covering up the fire. From mysterious openings on
all sides of the sugar-house workmen issued with tools in their hands.
The stable doors were thrown open, and the hostlers, old crooked-legged
negroes hurried about with food for the mules. The cows tinkled their
impatient bells outside the milking-lot, while the frantic calves
bounded and bleated inside. From the two long rows of whitewashed
cabins in the quarters the smoke began to rise. The drowsy young women,
sitting with their babies on the cabin steps, shifted their positions,
and raised their apathetic eyes from the eager faces pressing against
their bosoms to the heavens above for ocular confirmation of the bell,
and turned their ears toward the road from the fields. The exempt old
women, the house dragons, wrinkled, withered decrepit, deformed, with
all but life used out of them, hobbled around in a fictitious bustle,
picking up chips, filling buckets of water at the cistern, or stood
with their hands pressed against their bent backs to send
blood-curdling threats and promises after the children.
Along the smooth yellow road through the field came the "gang,"
with their mules and wagons, ploughs and hoes. In advance walked the
women, swaying themselves from side to side with characteristic
abandon, lighting their rude pipes, hailing the truce to toil with loud
volubility. Against the luminous evening sky their black profiles came
out with startling distinctness, showing features just sharpening into
regularity from cartilaginous formlessness, the glean of white teeth,
and the gaudy colors of the cotton kerchiefs knotted across their
brows. Their bodies, as though vaguely recalling ancestral nudity amid
tropical forests, seemed to defy concealment, throwing out bold curves
and showing lines of savage grace through the scant folds of their
loose-fitting garments. Sylvan secrets seemed still to hang around
them. In their soft sad eyes, not yet cleared and brightened by
sophistication, spoke the untamed desires of wild, free Nature; while
fitfully in the opaque depths shone bright gleams of a struggling
intelligence, pathetic appeals as from an imprisoned spirit protesting
against foul Circean enchantment. The men followed, aggressively
masculine, heavy-limbed, slow of movement on their hampered, shod
feet; wearing their clothes like harness; with unhandsome, chaotic
faces, small eyes, and concealed natures. They watched the women with
jealous interest, excluding them from their hilarity, and responding
grudgingly and depreciatingly to their frank overtures. The
water-carriers, half-grown boys and girls, idled at a distance,
balancing their empty pails on their bare heads,—quick and light on
their feet, graceful, alert, intuitive, exuberant with life and animal
spirits, they were happy in the thoughtless, unconscious enjoyment of
the short moment that yet separated them from their hot, dull, heavy,
The anticipations of cheer and rest, the subtile satisfaction of
honestly tired bodies; the flattering commendations of their own skill
from the finely cultivated stand of cane on each side of them; the past
expiations of ploughing, ditch- ing, weeding, hoeing; the freezing
rains; the scorching suns; but, above all, the approach of the grinding
season, the "roulaison," with its frolics, excitements, and good
pay,—all tended to elate their spirits; and their voices, in joke,
song, laugh, and retort, sped down the road before them to the
quarters, and evoked responsive barks and shouts from the dogs and
It was the busy time of the year, and the anxious time too,—the
roulaison. It was the period to which the rest of the year led up,
the chronological terminus of calculation cultivation, when the fields
with their accumulated interest of labor and capital were delivered
over for judgment to the sugar-house. Always dominating the place, the
material importance of the sugar-house became tyrannical, oppressive,
as cane-cutting approached. It reared itself —an ugly, square,
red-brick structure— menacingly before the fields; it dwarfed the
"big house" into insignificance, and, with its vast shed, divided by
the cane-carrier, its chimneys, furnaces, boiler, bagasse-heaps, its
mountainous wood-pile and barricade of new hogsheads, it shut out the
view of the river from the quarters and consigned the latter to a
species of seclusion. What its verdict would be, was now the one item
of interest to all, from the oldest graybeard to the youngest thinker
on "Bel Angely" plantation. What the sugar-house decided, fixed the
good or bad character of the past year, and approved or disproved the
executive ability of the plantation manager. It is a close contest
between man and Nature, and the always increasing science of the one is
more than counterbalanced by the capricious obstinacy of the other. The
old men and women, heirlooms of departed experiences, found themselves
growing in importance with autumn, and their rusty memories became
oracles to furnish data for prognostication. There were the "big
freeze" and the "early freeze" and the "late freeze" years. There were
years when the cane sprouted in the mats, when the second-year stubble
could not be told from first-year, and the first-year stubble filled up
like plant cane. Then there were all the years marked by a water-line
of rises, overflows, and crevasses. There was one memory that contained
a year in which the Mississippi froze all over, and several that
perpetuated the falling of the stars; but however persistently such a
recurrence was periodically suggested, Nature had been pleased to
withhold a repetition. The autocratic sugar-house itself was not beyond
damaging recollections: it might have been a natural product or a
season, for the number of hitches and breaks with which it managed to
vary its runs, and the success with which it eluded its yearly
examiners and tinkers. Then, there was the sacharometer to disparage
the splendid growth of the cane, the polariscope to contradict the
sacharometer, and, finally, the commission merchant to give the lie to
Nature and man; with high charges and low prices to enjoin all hopes,
reverse all calculations, and not only damn the past but confound the
future. No roulaison ever came exactly like a preceding one, and no
season ever duplicated its calamities; but never had roulaison come
with such guarantee of success, to be met with so unforeseen a mishap
as the illness of Monsieur Félix, —ill in bed of sciatica!
In the great ledger commenced by the first sugar-making Angely,
down to day before yesterday, never had such an item been recorded It
was like the illness of a commander just fore battle. And such a
commander as Monsieur Félix was!—not trusting the sun to shine or the
cane to grow in his absence; his ever-watchful eye and unwearied
sagacity, pervading the plantation from limit to limit; so omniscient
and self-reliant that if there were one place on the perverse globe
that could dispense with supernal jurisdiction, one place that could be
safely trusted to earthly viceregency, that place was Bel Angely
plantation, Parish of St. Charles. He had had his bed pulled close to
the window, and any hour of the day, from dawn to dark, his bright red
face, with its fierce gray mustache, could be seen looking out, and his
excited voice heard screaming, scolding, expostulating, and
threatening, until even the pet chickens and ducks deserted their
favorite feeding-place, and the little, crawling black children, with
their skirts tied up under their arms, learned to imitate their elders,
and crept nimbly under the gallery or dodged behind the out-houses to
avoid him. If the door of his bedchamber were inadvertently left open
but a second, little gusts of passion would escape down the hall,
blasting like tiny siroccos the healthful calm and good-humor outside.
Mademoiselle Aurore herself, with all her natural and cultivated
conscientiousness had to feign deafness in order to secure necessary
leisure for housekeeping directions.
"Ah, mon Dieu! les hommes! les hommes!" was all she
could exclaim to her own and the interrogatories of others. She knew by
experience that weather contingencies and constitutional irregularities
were always to be visited on the females of the house. She did not
repine at things she was inured to, or rebel against a manifest design
of Providence; but that wretched Gabi! The abbreviation named an
important division in the cares and responsibilities of her life,—a
half-Indian, half negro waif whom she had hopefully taken in charge, a
rightful of the combined laziness of two races, and trustee of the
mischief of all.
No wonder she was nearly distracted completely unable, as
heretofore, to extract good omens from patent misfortunes. Her life had
been counted by roulaisons, as some women's are by Springs, and
she felt as if this one were going to put her, with the cane in the
fields, between the great revolving grinders the mill. There was
always enough to be done, —enough impatience and vexation to contend
with naturally. If Gabi could only have acquitted quitted himself
properly! If Félix could only have gotten ill at some other time! If
she could only be allowed to take the sciatica as a physical instead of
a mental burden! She had done everything, as a sister and a Christian,
to relieve the tension of affairs. She had placed herself at the
disposition of every functionary on the place,—sugar-maker, cooper,
engineer, blacksmith,—and was at the beck and call of every hand
coming for food, medicine, advice, or instruction. She had entered into
negotiations with every saint in the calendar amenable to
representations on the subject of sugar or sciatica. Her room fairly
blazed with temporary shrines, and candles which her own little
personal requisitions had kept for years in a state of perpetual
incandescence; by a coup-d'état she had transferred them
all from her own account to that of the plantation and her brother. She
was in constant communication with the parish priest, although he was a
rough, vulgar Gascon whom she detested. In fact, she had expended vows
and promises so recklessly, that were but half her prayers granted, she
could look forward to none but a future of religious insolvency if not
bankruptcy. But Gabi! that was an entirely superfluous complication.
As usual she had been too zealous. To save the labor of a man, at
so critical a time, and to extort tardy appreciation of her protégé
, she had taken it upon herself to send him for the mail. She had often
wished to send him before, his trustworthiness being a matter of
dispute between her and her brother; but Félix had always peremptorily
refused. He was prejudiced against Gabi, and there was no arguing away
his prejudices; but his illness afforded a timely opportunity of
destroying them. Hélas!
She stood by the door of the chamber, in which not one but a dozen
sciaticas appeared to be unleashed, holding in her hands the mail-bag:
not the one she had given Gabi with so many: careful instructions in
the gray light of the morning —that one had been dropped and dropped
in the dust and mud of the road and ditches; and finally, when Gabi had
concluded to take his rest unbroken in the shade of a tree instead of
in fractional naps on the mule's back, the swine had come along, and
with ruthless tusks had reduced the contents to a shapeless mass. She
had extracted one crumpled, soiled, foul letter from the débris, and
put it in the new, clean, alternate bag, —one letter! when at this
season Félix was corresponding with every other man in New Orleans! And
Gabi had made such a good first communion last spring, and never missed
church! The mule, too, had wandered away, Saint Anthony alone knew
where; Gabi was in her cabinet now, hiding from Edmond, who was
searching for him with a whip. She could keep it from Félix until he
got well; but then, of course, she must tell him.
When she came out of the room a half-hour later she was enveloped
in a bitter condemnation of postmistresses and neglectful
correspondents, and pursued by a last rush of important commissions.
"Send Edmond to me. Tell Joe to get ready to take the next boat to
the city. I thought you were going to hunt up that roll of wire in the
store-room. Has n't old Sîmon sent yet? Don't forget to copy Smith's
estimate. Go to the sugar-house—no; I shall tell Duval myself to go
to the devil with his charges. Don't forget about the lamp-wicks and
the towels for the sugar-house, and—oh, yes, tell Stasie to fetch me
some ink; it is very strange that the inkstand is never filled unless I
see about it myself—and Aurore!"
"The key of the medicine chest!"
"Misère! Misère!" She held her hands to her head,
trying to sort them out. She made a motion toward the sugar-house, but
changed it to the direction of the store-room. She remembered the
medicine-chest key, and felt for the key-basket on her arm. It was not
there. She wondered where it could be, and started toward her chamber
in search of it, when she caught a glimpse of Madame Lareveillère on
the gallery. Then the reproach came to her that she had not yet wished
her friend good-evening.
"Ma chère, I feel like a pagan, leaving you so much
alone; but Féfé,—you cannot imagine what he is! What makes men such
devils when they are sick? If Féfé would only be sensible and have a
physician and get well; but no, he and Stasie think they can cure
anything. Physician! he would as soon see a priest, and priests are his
bête-noires. How can an intelligent man be so prejudiced?
But it is the way he was educated; that comes of sending boys to France
to be educated; that is the teaching of Messieurs Voltaire and
Rousseau. Oh, I compliment them!"
Her irony was mordant. She came out of the doorway and seated
herself upon the top step of the staircase that wound its way to the
basement underneath. "And Gabi! ah, that is too much! Fancy, Eugénie,
after all the trouble I took to explain to him this morning, he brings
the mail-bag devoured by hogs,—all the letters a disgusting mass.
Only one could I extricate entire for Féfé. I don't speak of your
"Oh, you know very well I never get letters from any one but Madame
Joubert; always the same school news. The swine are welcome."
"I wish Féfé were so reasonable. He will be furious, both about the
letters and the mule. And he will say —you know what reason he will
give for it all—religion; too much Mass. He will say he expected it
before, and I shall never hear the end of it. Now, we,—because Gabi
was pious, and really, Eugénie, at times in church I have watched him,
he had moments of genuine fervor,—we would say that his religion was
a reason why he should bring the mail well and be a good servant; but
not Féfé, he is so prejudiced. It prevents everything."
Mademoiselle Aurore sighed and looked down the avenue to the river,
her thoughts sadly enumerating the calculations and hopes blighted by
Gabi's recalcitrance. Her thin, regular features and sallow complexion
showed the exhaustive harassment of the past two days.
She and Madame Lareveillère had been to school together, were
amies de coeur and
toute dévouées on every
class-book, from the abécédaire up to the "Histoire de
France," and their confidences had followed the uninterrupted
growth of their hearts from dolls to sentiments. There was a period
when their hearts had been as bare to each other as their faces; but
that was long, long ago. Time, age, or self-consciousness had since
draped and obscured them one from the other. The abundant stream of
their confessions was being reduced to a clear, cool surface-rill of
generalities. One could only guess at the changes that must have taken
place in the other, or try to compute them by covert observation,
furtive soundings, and silent criticism. Habit now continued the links
that bound them, and prolonged the intimacy inaugurated by impulse.
They were together this summer after a longer period of separation than
Madame sighed with Mademoiselle Aurore, but her sympathetic look
was accompanied with the private reflection: "Heavens! what a
difference a man makes in a woman's looks,—that is, of course, a man
who is not a brother,— poor Aurore!" At school, Aurore's relations
with her sex had been as close as possible; she was la plus femme
des femmes. Now, economical Nature seemed stealthily recalling
one by one charms which had proved a useless, unprofitable investment;
flattening her chest, straightening her curves, prosaicising her eyes,
diluting her voice; in short, despoiling the handmaiden of Saint
Catherine almost beyond the recognition of her dearest friend. The
little heart that once bounded so frankly forward toward orange
blossoms was being led by religion now away from mirrors, adornments,
fripperies, and follies of the flesh, away from Madame Lareveillère,
away from herself, down an austere path rugged with artificial
vicissitudes, where a crucifix and Golgotha replaced the rose-winged
visions of youth, and hope offered the extinction in place of the
gratification of desire.
"Mamzelle, Monsieur Félix asks if you have forgotten the key of the
"Ah! la, la!" The suspended avalanche of neglected
commissions fell upon her.
"Mamzelle, Monsieur Félix asks -"
"I hear, Stasie, I hear."
She put her hand mechanically to her arm for the key-basket. "Ah,
yes, my key-basket,— I have left it somewhere; but where can I have
"It is impossible, Mamzelle, to hear one word you are saying."
"I was only talking to myself, Stasie."
"Nothing, Stasie, nothing."
She screamed this beyond doubt of misunderstanding, and went into
the hall audibly wondering as to the whereabouts of her key-basket. It
was perhaps from accommodating her voice to Stasie's increasing
deafness, and her patience to the increasing obstinacy of this crab-bed
peevish heritage, that both had become so attenuated in Mademoiselle
The master's house—the big house, as it was metaphorically called
- stood aloof in fastidious isolation from, but in watchful proximity
withal of! the money-making sugar-house and plebeian quarters. It was
not,—to the people on the plantation at least, and few others ever
came nearer to it than the road in front,—it was not, nor ever had
been, simply a massive brick cottage with tall round pillars, a tiled
basement, a pointed, projecting roof, and deep, shady galleries. It was
not this nor any other technically defined edifice, any more than the
altar is a carpenter's contrivance to believers, or Louis XIV. was a
man of small stature to his courtiers. It was never intended to be an
ordinary common dwelling-place for ordinary, common people, and time
had respected the original purpose.
Changes had come into the world, and even crept into the parish of
St. Charles; but a rigid quarantine had kept all but the inevitable
revolutions of Nature and reform from the house and its inmates, and
had preserved in unbroken transmission the atmosphere and spirit of an
age which supplied adventurous noblemen with principalities in a new
world, and equipped them with a princely largesse of power from an old
one. As far as bricks and mortar and hand-sawed cypress boards and
hand-made nails could do it, they expressed here caste, wealth, power,
pride, government, religion. Whatever the record of other similar
houses may be, this one had maintained its responsibilities and
sustained its traditions with a spirit that Versailles might not have
blushed to own and imitate. The garden, with its carefully planned star
and crescent shaped beds, had paths which a century ago connected them
into a milky way of loveliness and sweetness,— encouraging and
inspiring walks for lovers; but now a riotous growth of roses had
tangled them into such a wilderness that the original gardener would
have needed divine guidance through his own work, and lovers—had
there been any now—would have been restricted to the broad avenue
leading from house to river without deviations or obscurities for
either feet or hearts. It was hedged all around with wild orange,
except in front, where the river was allowed a glance at the gallery.
What once had been a grateful shade had increased to a damp gloom. The
magnolias and oaks had so abused their privilege of growing, that they
leaned their branches against the very roof itself, and veiled with
their moss the little Gothic windows and the observatory into complete
inutility, frightening away even the vivacious tendencies of October
from the front of the somnolent, superannuated homestead. Here it was
always seventeenth century and retrospection and regrets; but on the
other side of the house, where the trees had been cut and the sun
shone, the breeze was welcome to frolic and sing; there it was always
nineteenth century with the latest change of date, for there were
Monsieur Félix's bedchamber and office.
There was a beautiful vista through the orange-trees to the river,
and there were ever-varying heights of rose and gold and lilac
overhead,—a mocking-bird sang in the shadows of the neglected garden.
Eugénie Lareveillère balancing herself backward and forward in the
rocking-chair by the rosetted tip of her slipper, saw nothing, heard
nothing but herself. Her muslin dress rose and fell light as the clouds
above her; she held her chin in her hand and pursued the thoughts
interrupted by Aurore, —thoughts which, since Monsieur Félix's
illness, had been allowed to gain more and more complete possession of
her, until it seemed that all Nature had become a cheval-glass to
reflect her; and not to reflect merely the dainty piquante
outward figure with vexing reminders of the mutations of time and the
mutability of woman, but her intérieur also,—the
disordered interior of one of the undecided sex in the throes of a
decision. It is true she had come to the country for reflection, but
she had managed to elude it successfully until within the last two
days. In a week she would return to the city,—if the summer could
only have been prolonged indefinitely! The old allée at
the school came entrancingly before her, where she and Aurore— the
pretty, poor little blonde and the pretty, rich little brunette—used
to promenade arm in arm in the twilight, interchanging the deep
mysteries and experiences of their sixteen-year-old hearts. The
confidences ceased as soon as there was really something to confide.
Madame longed for just one such twilight moment; but the only allée was the broad one to the river, and—they were not
sixteen, and Aurore could think of nothing but her religion, Gabi, and
"If I only had a friend, an adviser; ah! a woman ought never to be
without one,—two in fact."
The evening was getting cool; she tied her handkerchief around her
throat, and moved her chair closer to the wall.
"If it were only a question of duty; There was nothing a woman
could not do for duty, or religion; that made marriage so much more
reasonable, so much less ridiculous, enfin; but love!" A
rosy reflection from the clouds fell all over her face, and she undid
She could see her friends smile delicately, and raise their
shoulders ever so slightly, and hear the "ho! ho! ho!" of some
"Love! what! she believes in it still?
Elle en veut, encore!
"But is a woman's heart a thermometer to be regulated according to
outside appearances?" she asked herself, indignantly. "Ah! if pauvre maman were here!"
The tears came in her eyes, as they always did at the remembrance
of the pale, abraded face and shrinking, poor, genteel figure of her
mother. Many an "All Saints" had passed since she had placed her first
chrysanthemum bouquet and black bead souvenir before poor maman's
tomb in the old St. Louis Cemetery.
"If she were here, she would decide for me!"
Eugénie had not been required to say even a word to her
Lareveillère. He had seen her at the exhibition of her school. She
played the harp and wore sleeves to fall back off her arms, and her
golden curls were all that hid her neck. She had the dress still; poor maman made it, and trimmed it with the lace from her own wedding
dress. Poor maman was only afraid that the fiancé might change
his mind; pas de chance!
And he whose companionship had been so thorough an education in men
and matrimony,— he had his bouquet and souvenir also on "All Saints,"
and a Mass besides, just the same as if—
"Whatever marriage is, it is least of all what a school girl
There was something else buried in the same tomb, too,—seventeen
years old, fresh and innocent, shrouded in a bridal veil. "Ah! if the
young only knew more, or the old less." These thoughts always came to
her with such peculiar emphasis that the tears which usually rose over
"poor maman" fell over herself.
"The first time you go into it blind; the second, ha! with
microscopes over the eyes!"
The old deaf Stasie came from under the gallery and walked out in
front with her conch shell to blow the summons to supper. She was stiff
with rheumatism, and the wavering melancholy notes fell on the air like
a Memento mori. With characteristic obstinacy she held to
the office intrusted to her when she was elastic and graceful; when her
wrinkled skin was bright smooth gold; when her lips were full and red,
and her teeth white and firm as the shell they clasped. That was before
the trees were allowed to overshadow the garden, and the moss to hang
in such mournful folds; when the roses were kept in subjection; when
the occupants of the tombs under the clump of cypresses out there, her
masters and mistresses, hurried in from fields, levee, and garden at
her clear resonant calls,—calls which easily vaulted the broad stream
and fell in musical cadence on the opposite bank.
Marie Modeste caught the sound on the levee, and started as if she
were still at school and still punishable.
"Aïe, Marcélite! the horn! I shall be late again for
Oh la nature! la belle nature! Marie had written
compositions on it, and learned poetry about it; but that was before
she and Racine and Corneille had seen it. This was all different, —
these sunsets and moon-risings, these clouds and stars and fields, the
river, the trees, the flowers, the animals, the poultry, the men and
women in the quarters, with their primeval domesticity, the slow
movements, the sudden developments, the mysteries, the revelations, the
veils withdrawn, one after another, like the mists from the river,
until the great stream of life lay bare before her awed gaze. How much
of the world lay outside the walls of St. Denis, unmentioned in
geography or history! How much of God outside the Catechism! What was a
school life of fourteen years in comparison with a plantation life of
three months! Her imagination had not prepared her for it; there was no
end to thinking about it; every moment a new thought shone out in a
blank space like the stars in the sky, and still her mind was not full.
She hurried through the quarters, nodding to the women, speaking to
the children, looking for glimpses of the procession from the fields,
pursued by the persistent, vivid, recurring feeling of having been
there and done it all before, —the feeling which had thrilled her
again and again on the plantation, but never at school. From the first
day it had been natural for her to talk to the negroes, go into their
little cabins, seek and respond to their confidences. They accepted her
too, spontaneously, as if she had been their own Mamzelle by fact and
Not so with Marcélite. Between her and her people there was no good
feeling; instead, the distrust of a class toward a superior member of
it, and the disdain of an ascending member toward an inferior class.
The men ignored her; the women followed her with resentful eyes, and
whetted their tongues when she passed, taking good care that their
remarks should fall short of retort, but not of hearing.
The brick-dust on the bare floor crackled under Marie's feet as she
hastily entered the dining-room in the basement, almost expecting to
hear the customary, "Twenty-five lines by heart, Mademoiselle."
Madame and Mademoiselle Aurore were at the table; Stasie was
bringing in the large glasses of cold boiled milk, with the heavy cream
wrinkling on top. A candelabra of two candles illuminated the table,
while its fellow dispelled the gloom of the tall mantel-piece, and
enabled Mademoiselle Aurore's guests and the portrait of her father to
see each other dimly. There were very few living operations in the old
house that did not go on in the presence of some pictured Angely. They
hung in every room against, the pale-green walls variegated by damp and
mould,—a diminishing line, nourished by constant intermarriage, until
Mademoiselle Aurore and Monsieur Félix looked like their first
Louisiana progenitors seen through the small end of an opera-glass.
Mademoiselle Aurore was talking excitedly. "Ma chère! you
will scarcely believe it; I can hardly recover from the surprise
myself. Talk of changes; that's a change. Féfé will actually have to
send to the city this roulaison for Italians Italians!"—she
pronounced the name with every facial expression of disgust,—
"Italians to take off the crops; if poor papa could see that!" She
looked with filial reverence at the beardless youth in the gilt frame.
Her papa had been painted when at school in France, and died too soon
to leave a more parental representation of himself. "But, Stasie, give
Mademoiselle Marie some fricassée, fricassée! fricassée!
That is what competition does,—negroes running from place to place
to get five cents more pay; and it all comes from that old Sîmon and
Mr. Smith What more can you expect? They do not care; they have no
sentiment. A plantation is a sugar factory to them, that is all. The
idea that such canaille should be allowed to profit by
the ruin of our old families, and buy up the finest places in
Louisiana! Oh, they can afford to offer more to negroes than others,
and force us to hire Italians! Old Sîmon: Stasie can tell you who old
Sîmon is; you ought to hear Stasie talk about him. She remembers the
day well when he used to go up and down the coast with a pack on his
back, crying Rabais, and selling things to the negroes;
it is only right that he should pay them well now,—he made them pay
enough, vas! and now he owns La Trinité.
And Mr. Smith, tiens! Eugénie, you remember Nathalie
Cortez at school; you know when she graduated! Well, her daughter has
just been married to this Mr. Smith. Don't repeat it as coming from me,
you know, but," she lowered her voice, "his father was a negro trader,
- a negro trader, my dear! absolutely a man Nathalie would not have
permitted to sit at the table with her. Stasie knows; you ask Stasie.
That's what poverty does." Her face was red and her eyes gleamed with
"I cannot hear a word you say, Mamzelle," said Stasie, in despair.
"If you would only speak a little more distinctly, instead of getting
"The pain-perdu! pain-perdu!" screamed Mademoiselle
Aurore, eagerly profiting by the opportunity. "And Féfé, he exasperates
me so! Whatever old Sîmon or Mr. Smith gets, Féfé thinks he must buy
too,—vacuum-pans, condensers, steam-trains, bagasse-burners, a
perfect 'galimatias' of machinery. As if gentlemen needed all
that; and as if they had not been making sugar long enough in Louisiana
without it! For my part, I like the old open kettles, and I prefer the
sugar, too, though it was not so white,—and Stasie, she prefers it
too. In poor papa's time it was all so different; but Félix has his own
ideas. He loves everything modern and new; he is all for the practical.
The house and garden might just as well be in Texas, for all he cares
about them; and then, after all, if old Sîmon or Mr. Smith makes sugar
a little whiter than ours, or sells it a little bit higher, oh, then it
is Good Friday the rest of the winter! But, 'Mon cher,' I
tell him, 'think who they are.' "
"Monsieur Félix asks Mamzelle to come there just one moment," said
Edmond, Stasie's brother, putting his head inside the door.
"Oh, I know what it is,—it is that estimate I forgot to copy.
Sans excuses, chÉrie; you see how it is."
Before Monsieur Félix's illness it was very gay after supper,
sitting on the gallery watching the shooting-stars above the river,
talking about old times avant la guerre or playing
dominos in the hall for bon-bons; but now it was sadness itself. Madame
and Marie went up the winding steps to the gallery to await
Mademoiselle Aurore and her never-ceasing theme of plantation crises.
The moon had risen, and changed the landscape from the showy splendor
of sunset to a weird etherealization. The rose-vines, which had crept
over from the garden to garland and wreathe the brick pillars, threw
fantastic, flitting shadows on the gallery floor, and checkered their
faces. The broad path to the river was silver, the tall gate-posts were
whitened into marble monuments, the river was a boundless sea of golden
ripples. The faint sounds of animated life in the quarters made the
loneliness and silence inside the wild-orange hedge more intense.
Madame sank in her rocking-chair for another séance with
"Marie was young, Marie could have ideals, Marie could yet, dream
in the moonlight, unchidden by life and experience."
She looked at the slight, childish figure, seated on the
balustrade, leaning her head far back in her arms, looking up, beyond
the moss, the trees, and the clouds, to follow the moon making and
unmaking phantasmagorial cities, lakes, and mountains in the world
above her,—lost in an ecstasy of self-forgetfulness, drifting away
from earth and mortality, soaring higher and higher on the wings of a
pure, fresh imagination, until the glorious orb itself is reached, and
the silver rays make her one of themselves.
She envied morbidly the pure spirituality which yet enveloped the
young girl, her unspotted cleanliness of simplicity, her virgin
ignorance of the quantities in the problem of life, her incapacity for
calculation. There were surprises yet in store for her, there was still
an unknown before her. Whatever misfortune had done to her, could do to
her, her seventeen years had been protected and were flawless in their
"I was once like Marie, and she will one day be like me. Why must
women be always looking for the unattainable,—why cannot we be
contented? Enfin,—one cannot always be seventeen and
wear white dresses; but if it is the will of God, why must we have
these feelings, these moments, for example? She will know it all, she
will crave to know it, and then, like me, she will crave acquittance of
the knowledge and the refreshment of ignorance again. It is always with
us women the fight between the heart and the soul. The happy ones are
born without the one or the other."
As through the intervening shadows of the trees she could see the
dazzling river, so beyond her present doubts and hesitations a
transcendental prospect offered itself; but sarcastic society and
frigid friends came between to be propitiated by sophistical reasonings
and prosaic excuses. Aurore particularly,—if Aurore were only
sympathetic as she used to be! But to a woman who scorned one
honeymoon, what reasons would justify two?
"I shall not tell her,—that I am determined; she shall not find
it out, until—I would confide in Marcélite."
The hairdresser, in her silk apron and white kerchief, passed on
tiptoe, not to disturb her, holding her stiff calico dress to keep it
from rattling; she went to Marie.
"Bébé!" she whispered.
The girl took no notice of her.
"Paix, Marcélite, paix." She barely moved her lips;
it was so delicate, so exquisite, a breath would destroy it,—her
"You will catch cold."
"Ah, Marcélite!" she said entreatingly, "why could you not have
left me one moment more? Now -" She sighed, and turned her eyes upward
Marcélite advanced to the edge of the balustrade and looked up
too, to see what attraction the commonplace moon was offering. She knew
that when the moon was on the increase it was a good time to cut the
ends of the hair, and some persons could read the bon aventure
in the moonlight, and the Voudous—she made the sign of the
cross whenever she thought of them, although her experience had proved
it a very insufficient protection against their charms. She asked
herself, eying Marie from under her heavy lids, why her bébé
looked so thin and pale. She was smaller and lighter even than when at
school; after three months in the country, too! and her eyes with the
same hollow black shadows, —why did not those shadows go, now that
studying was all done and life was so pleasant? A fierce impatience and
rebellion surged in her as usual when confronted by what she could not
understand or prevent. Other girls were women in appearance at Marie's
age; why did she not shed her childhood also? Why did not her arms
round and her shoulders soften? Why could not some of her own exuberant
flesh and blood be given to her bébé? She did not want
it; she would like to tear it off and fling it away, if her bébé
were to be always so
. One sickness -
"Bébé," she whispered, her voice trembling at the
thought; "you will catch cold, or fever, the air is so bad at this
"There, I hope you are satisfied now!" Marie said irritably,
jumping down, and grumbling to herself, "If Marcélite would only let
her alone! The moonlight was so beautiful, and at school they never
enjoyed the moonlight except in contraband. In a week she would be back
at school Why could not Marcélite let her forget that; it was so seldom
she could forget it! Marcélite never thought about it, nor Madame
either, but she -" she had rehearsed it so often, the whole scene came
before her in a flash.
"Tiens, voilà Marie Modeste, back again at school!
mais, chère, is
le vieux going to make you stay
another year? Quelle injustice!" She would shrug her
shoulders, and say in an indifferent way, just as if it were a matter
of course, "Ah! you know, it is a romance,—all a romance of
Marcélite's. My papa, he was killed during the war, my mamma, she died
when I was a baby, and Marcélite — just fancy, chère,
that good Marcélite—worked for me night and day, to send me to
school; she it was who gave me everything."
She shrugged her shoulders, straightened her head, and her lips
moved rapidly, just as if she were at school, only the tightness came
right across her chest, always just at this point, and she had to
swallow very rapidly to keep the tears from coming to her eyes; for the
important thing was not to cry, not to let them suspect. Oh, she had
learned at school not to cry: even Madame Joubert, when she used to
stand her in the corner with the foolscap on, for making faults in her
dictation, could not make her cry when she was a little girl,—and she
was a woman now. "Did Marcélite think she was afraid of the fever? If
it would only come and kill her before next week, it would be better,
far better. What had she to -"
"I shall go to bed; come, Marcélite." It was better, anyway, to be
in the bed, in the dark, all by herself. She stopped to kiss Madame
goodnight,—Madame in her pretty toilette, with her
rings and laces and ribbons. Ah! God was good to Madame; she did not
have such things to think about. "Why, after all, did He select
precisely her to orphan, and make her credulous simply to be deceived?
Who was to be furthered or bettered by the experiment upon her? Could
the same Providence create a Marie Modeste and a Madame Lareveillère?"
"Bonne-nuit, ma mignonne; going to Mass again
For Mademoiselle Aurore had drawn Marie into the active routine of
her religious exercises. Masses, confessions, communions, retreats,
penances, novenas, fastings; they had discouraged the kindly efforts of
Nature in behalf of her physical improvement, but her mind reflected
the benefit of the discipline by a satisfactory state of quiescence.
There were moments of transcendental serenity accorded to her when
suffering appeared the only proper joy, and martyrdom the only proper
vocation of women; but after a long walk, or a visit to the quarters,
and talking to the women there, or the moonlight, as at present, they
vanished,—these moments; and the lives of the saints she yearned to
imitate,—her heart rejected them; and their being exposed to the
jeering multitude, or thrown to beasts, —what was that to going back
to St. Denis? She was at the pitiable age when sensitiveness is a
disease, before moral courage has had time to develop. "You are
happy, ma fille?" Madame drew the face again to her lips;
she loved to hear it confirmed.
"I, Madame? Happy!"
"But, of course, Marie is going to Mass with me to-morrow."
Mademoiselle Aurore answered the question she had heard in the
hall. The moon poured its effulgence on her pious, enthusiastic face
as, an hour afterward, from her seat on the staircase, she was still
eloquently extolling to her friend the celestial peace vouchsafed to
those women and only to those women, who, renouncing with fortitude the
pleasures of sex and youth, forsake the world and consecrate themselves
to the perfect vocation of perpetual virginity and prayer, thus
preparing their souls for those beatitudes in a future life reserved
solely for the pure and undefiled.
"Madame is as bad as Marcélite," thought Marie in her chamber; "but
what can they suppose I am thinking of all the time?" She had only
monosyllables for the kindly services and inquiries of the nurse.
"Is anything the matter with you,
"You are sure you feel well?"
"Oh yes, I feel well."
"Let me get you a glass of sirup and water."
"No, thank you, Marcélite."
"Did you hear about that little rascal Gabi?"
"Edmond should give him a good whipping; the idea of Mademoiselle
Aurore hiding him in her room! She spoils him until he is perfectly
good for nothing." But, as usual, it seemed impossible to awake an
interest in Marie.
Was it to be always that way? Would she never open her heart to
Marcélite? What could she be thinking of all the time,—was it hatred
and contempt of her nurse? Then let her say it. Better the loud-mouthed
fury and passion of her own people down there in the quarters, than
this apathetic white silence. Oh for one moment Of equality and
"You like it here on the plantation,
"You think perhaps I prefer boarding-school?"
"Ah, but wait till you see the grinding! That is the grand time of
the year on a plantation! Some night, soon, a frost will come; in the
gray daylight it will look like flour sprinkled all over the cane;
then, when it gets lighter, it looks like silver; when the sun gets on
it, it is diamonds, diamonds scattered everywhere. Then you hear the
cane-knives, cling! clang! cling! clang! and the cane falling, fron! fron! fron! fron! One cut at the top, one cut at the roots,
over it goes! Each hand takes a row; I tell you the women are not
behind the men then! I have seen them keep up, step by step, twenty
rows at a time! A field soon gets flat and bare at that rate; then the
carts coming and going, dumping their loads in the shed, the sugar-mill
with all steam up; and the cane-carrier, —you will hear them sing at
the cane-carrier! You never heard singing like that, all day, all
Did Marie hear or not?
"That will be fine, eh,
She only shook her head.
"The river ran in front of the old plantation, just as it does
here," Marcélite continued courageously. "And the orange-trees went in
long rows to the levee. The flower-garden was here, the fields over
there, and the quarters on this side," indicating the localities by
gesture. "But it was finer, grander. Ah, the Motte plantation was
celebrated all up-and down the coast. The quarters were like a street
in the city, the sugar-house looked as big as the custom-house. The
largest boats on the river would stop at our levee for the sugar and
molasses. The dwelling-house was twice the size of this, and the
furniture, four, five, ten times handsomer. The armoires
were filled with laces and silks and feathers left by the mamans,
grand-mamans, the aunts and cousins who were dead and gone. There
were pictures all over the walls, like here, only Mottes and Viels; and
this," pointing to a framed escutcheon, "was on everything,—silver,
china, glass -" A thousand daily contacts had revivified what had sunk
into indistinctness in her memory. She could have talked all night and
not have exhausted her enumeration. "And the books! tiens!
There was one book I will never forget; it was full of pictures about
ma bonne; I am afraid Madame may need
"Bébé, it was your home! Why don't you Iisten? Why
don't you believe me? Do you think I would lie to you about that?
" She had not the courage say the words, though they sprang not only to
her mouth but to her eyes; her very hands tried to gesticulate the
appeal. No! As if she were a dog, or a lying negro caught stealing, she
Why should it be different with Madame? She had only been her paid
servant, yet she was not ashamed before her, she could talk to her. And
why should Madame believe her unquestioningly; yes, and give her
"Madame, she will die! It will kill her! I knew it! I knew it that
night! It will choke her heart to death. Ah, the Mottes are proud! You
never saw people like them! She loves me no more! I see that,—she
hates me! She believes not a word I say! My God! My God!"
Never a word of her sacrifices, her generosities, only the remorse
of an impotent servant over disgrace and failure in a committed trust.
"She does not eat, she does not sleep, she lies there at night,
thinking, thinking, thinking. I know; I sit outside her door and listen
to her. She sighs and sometimes she cries; she calls on the Virgin. The
Virgin!" with sudden jealousy. "As if the Virgin would do more for her
than I!! As if the Virgin could love her more,—as if God could love
her more than I! She never calls for Marcélite, not once! Not once! It
is better for me to kill myself, to throw myself in the river! Going to
Mass! going to confession! going to communion! Mademoiselle Aurore will
persuade her into a convent, will make a nun of her,—a nun!" her
strong physical nature shuddering at the thought of asceticism. "There
is to be, then, no future, no home, no husband, no children for her,—
And so it was Marie Modeste, not Eugénie Lareveillère, who occupied
Madame's mind the rest of the night.
"And I promised to be a mother to her!" She would not have been a
woman if self-accusation had not come to salt the wounds caused by the
sufferings of others.
The slight excitement of breakfast had worn away, the next day,
which so far was bringing forth ameliorating modifications of the
conditions of its predecessor. Monsieur Félix's sciatica was on the
wane,—both his confidence in himself and Mademoiselle Aurore's trust
in the saints being justified. A slight frost in the morning, the first
of the season, encouraged her and cheered her brother; it sweetened the
cane and acknowledged her prayers. Slight frosts now on the magnificent
stand in the field, and Bel Angely would surpass any former record. The
normal, monotonous uniformity was settling over the house, hiding the
traces of the late disruption of its harmony. There was still the sound
of footfalls passing up and down the back steps to and from Monsieur
Félix's room; but if the door chanced to be left open now, only the
calmest voice in the most business-like tones could be distinguished,
giving needful commands and directions. Mademoiselle Aurore's time was
no longer fractured by importunate calls.
The friends sat in their rocking-chairs in the broad hall, dimmed
to a comfortable compromise between the contesting claims of their
eyes and complexions. A round mosaic table, with brass claw feet, held
their work-baskets. Mademoiselle Aurore was adding highly ornamental
golden leaves to red paper roses, to be twisted, according to
ecclesiastical convention, into flat pyramidal displays for the parish
church,—a commencement in the liquidation of her indebtedness.
Notwithstanding her confidence in her own rectitude of purpose, and her
intimate negotiations with the Church, she would have felt more
serenity this morning had she not sent Gabi for the mail yesterday, or
had she frankly told Monsieur Félix all about it. He was improving so
fast, she would have to tell him today; by to-morrow he would find it
all out by himself. Thank Heaven! the mule at least had come home
during the night.
"Oh, chère amie!" she was saying, "I get very much
discouraged with life, I assure you; it takes a great deal of religion
to enable us women to support it. It is so full of contradictions, —
useless contradictions. I sometimes wish that there were no more hopes
given us. They are no better than toy balloons; they dance before us
very beautifully for a time, then crac! they burst, and we are
left plantées there until we get another one. I do not
complain, it is against my religion; but if you knew how many hopes I
have seen go to pieces that way! Mon Dieu! I am tired of
getting new ones. Ah, you are fortunate, your life is so simple, so
clear, so smooth. Now, there's Gabi, I should not have sent him; ah! I
see that clearly this morning. But I have raised that child ever since
he was a baby. He was picked up in the sugar-house and brought to me. I
have no idea even who his mother is. Well, I thought I would take him
and make a reasonable human being of him. Féfé and Stasie were against
it, of course; they have never liked him. I wanted to push him; I
thought I would give him the opportunity. Well, perhaps Féfé is right,
after all. And he learned his Catechism so well, and made such a good
first communion! Last spring, you know what I did? I got all the
children of the proper age in the quarters, I taught them the Catechism
myself, and I made them all make their first communion; there was a
cane-cart full. Féfé and Stasie were against that too, but I was firm.
Ah, it is so elevating to work like that! Féfé, he said they were
rascals already, and that I would only make hypocrites of them.
Hypocrites! I ask you Eugénie, if religion makes hypocrites? But that
is Monsieur Voltaire again. I will never hear the last of this from
Stasie, and next spring Féfé will only be more determined; I know Féfé."
Madame shook her head responsively. Marie's surprised, pained
interrogation, Mademoiselle Aurore's discourse, Marcélite's voluble
despair, had procured for her a sleepless, penitential night. She was
disposed this morning for any pessimistic generalities on women, but
answered not so much Mademoiselle Aurore as her own self:—
"Yes, our lives are surprise-boxes to us women; we never know what
is going to come out of them: our own plans, our own ideas count for
nothing. Look at our schoolmates: not one turned out as she expected.
Those who had a vocation to religious lives, who would be nothing but
nuns, they were the first ones married and having children christened.
Those who were ready to fall in love with every new tenor at the opera,
they became dévotes. Those who cared only for money fell
in love with poor men; and those who made their lives a poem, with love
for the hero, they,—they married for money. When we are old and passées, we get what would have made our youth divine. Men are
the serious occupation, women are the playthings, of fate."
"Ah, yes, men are more fortunate." Mademoiselle Aurore eagerly
availed herself of the fissure in which to insert her peculiar
complaint. "There is something sure, something stable in a man's life.
Look at Féfé, I do not say he has not had griefs, disappointments,
misfortunes even, in his life, but they did not change it, only
interrupted it a minute; with me, those things take away my life
itself." Her voice quivered, and the emotion in her face made her look
something thing as she did at sixteen. She took a long breath and
resumed: "It is like this: either Féfé would not have sent Gabi for the
mail, or Gabi would have brought it properly, or he would have informed
the whole world about it, me first of all, coûte que coûte
. He would not have managed the truth on account of my prejudices, he
would have had no hopes attached to it; now with me -" She was going to
open her heart a little lower down to Madame, and reveal those hopes
paltry as to be involved in Gabi's good conduct, so grand as to
influence a terrestrial and celestial future. Mondaine
as, to her disappointment, she had found Eugénie to be, she could well
remember the angelic devotion of the little wife to that old roué
Lareveillère. How patiently she had labored with him after the
stroke of paralysis confined him night and day to his house; teaching
him the graces of repentance, leading him to the altar he had deserted,
persuading him to the sacraments he had mocked, forcing him—actually
forcing him—to give to charity a goodly portion of that inheritance
she had so hardly earned. Whatever small prospect of heaven the old
French merchant now enjoyed, he owed it to Eugénie, and no one else.
Aurore was determined to drive Messieurs Voltaire and Rousseau from the
heart of Monsieur Félix. Eugénie could not but sympathize and encourage
And Madame,—at the quiver of her friend's voice, the softening of
her face, the old allée and the twilight came before her,
and she felt that she might perhaps venture—
"Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!" A tiny staccato rap, light as the pecking
of a bird. The ladies raised their heads simultaneously with a nervous
start. It had a preternatural sound, so sudden, just at that moment.
There it was again!
"But, Eugénie, what can that be?" Aurore looked accusingly at the
row of kinsmen and kinswomen gleaming on the wall in their heavy gilt
Eugénie held her hand against her heart. "How it frightened me! It
must be some one knocking."
"Some one knocking at the front door? Impossible!"
"Some one, perhaps, to see Monsieur Félix."
"Félix? But his visitors all know they have to go around to the
other gallery. There it is again!"
"Maybe it is some one who does not know."
"I will call Stasie."
"But let us see who it is."
"Not for the world! It might be something horrible out there."
She dropped her flowers and commenced a shrill, "Stasie! Stasie!"
from the very table, continuing it to the back gallery and out into the
yard to some inaudible distance. Madame had disappeared when they
"Go, ma bonne Stasie. It must be some one to see
Monsieur Félix; conduct him around to the other side of the house."
The door was carefully unbolted, and Stasie, with all imaginable
precautions against sudden assault, put her head out.
"But what are you doing, Stasie?" screamed Mademoiselle Aurore, as
she saw the door steadily open. She had not time for the accustomed
iteration, but was forced to escape unceremoniously into Madame
Lareveillère's room to escape the view of the intruder. Madame was
unbuttoning her peignoir.
"What do you think?" Aurore was excited, or she would not have been
guilty of the filial impiety. "That sotte Stasie has
actually opened the front door, and there is a stranger, at this
moment, in the hall. But no; impossible!"—as he heard a stiff door
being pushed open—"in the parlor! She has invited him into the
"Mamzelle," said Stasie, coming into the room.
"Well, Stasie, I compliment you! Letting a stranger into the house
this way!" Mademoiselle Aurore's voice was strident; the tone rather
than the words penetrated to the ears so tightly bandaged by the faded
"What do you mean by opening the house this way? Are you crazy?"
"He is a gentleman—visitor." Then, as the full meaning of
Mademoiselle Aurore's attack came to her, she raised her voice,
querulously: "Comment donc? Would you have me shut the
door in his face? Would you have me drive him away—a gentleman—when
he comes on a visit?"
"What nonsense! A visitor!" She turned to her friend for a
"What! You are undressing, Eugénie?"
"Only changing my
peignoir, Aurore. The air seems a
little cool to me."
"You must understand, Stasie, there is some mistake. If he does not
come to see Monsieur Félix on business, he must be going to old Sîmon's
or Mr. Smith's. Go and explain to him—although you should have told
him on the gallery, not brought him into the house." She uttered the
words emphatically, close to Stasie's ear, and pushed her gently out of
the door. "If Stasie would only allow me to get a younger servant!"
she exclaimed, when the door closed.
"There, Mamzelle, there; see for yourself!" the old woman returned,
thrusting a visiting-card before her mistress's eyes as if she were as
blind as she, Stasie, was deaf. "Ah, I told you so! Shut the door in
his face! Put him out by the shoulders! Ah, that was not the etiquette
of your grandmother, par exemple!"
Marcélite had come in by another door. She slipped behind Madame
and whispered something in her ear.
"Mais qu'est-ce que c'est que ça?" Mademoiselle
Aurore looked perfectly nonplussed. "I cannot understand it. Monsieur -"
"My négligé from Paris," whispered Madame to
Marcélite, so that Mademoiselle Aurore could not notice it.
"Monsieur Armand Goupilleau. Goupilleau? Goupilleau? But I never
heard of a Goupilleau. And you, Eugénie?"
"Monsieur Armand Goupilleau? Surely I know Monsieur Armand
Goupilleau. He is a notary public in New Orleans—oh, but one of the
most celebrated notaries there! He is a good, good friend of mine, an
old friend. He advises me about all my affairs; and an institute like
the St. Denis requires a great deal of advice, I can tell you. Do I
know him? I should think so. He is like a father to me, in fact."
Marcélite dropped the
négligé over her head. "Just
tie this ribbon for me, ma bonne." Her thin, white
fingers, with the long, pointed nails, could only wander aimlessly amid
the bows and laces. But the hairdresser needed neither directions nor
explanations. Her dark face glowed with intelligence; she seemed
transformed by a sudden illumination; her deft, light fingers never
worked so felicitously, pulling out lace, tying ribbon, putting in
ear-rings, lifting up a puff here and pinning a curl there until the
whole expression of the coiffure was reanimated, passing
a powder-puff over the pale face, brushing out the eyebrows, rummaging
through a sachet for the appropriate handkerchief.
"Is he married, Eugénie?"
"But no, Aurore.—What brutality!" she thought.
"Ah!" Aurore opened the door for them to go out.
"One moment, Madame," whispered Marcélite She was kneeling on the
floor with a pair of high-heeled bronze slippers in her hand.
"Ah, I knew it! Marcélite is more of a woman than Aurore."
The négligé hung in long, beautiful, diaphanous
folds, and exhaled a delicate fragrance of vétyver, as
Marcélite shut the door on both ladies.
Madame took the initiative, with effusion.
"Ah, mon ami! what a delightful surprise! Never could
you come at a better time." She held both hands to him. "Let me present
you to my friend, my best friend, my old schoolmate, my sister in fact,
Mademoiselle Angely. Chère Aurore, this is my good friend
Monsieur Goupilleau, of whom you have heard me speak so often. Now you
will tell us what good fairy sent you to the parish of St. Charles."
"As I said in the note which yesterday Monsieur your brother
received -" began the notary in courteous explanation.
"Ah, mon Dieu! That is the beginning -" exclaimed
Mademoiselle Aurore. "Gabi! I must tell Félix immediately." She
abruptly left the room, Monsieur Goupilleau bowing before her. Madame's
vivacity fled with her; the social graces, which hung like a silken
domino around her, seemed to vanish, leaving her as undisguised and
embarrassed in her natural emotion as a peasant before the questioning,
expectant eyes of the notary.
"And you also did not receive my letter yesterday?"
"No; as you hear, an accident -"
He took her indiscreet hand and guided her through the twilight of
the large parlors to a sofa. It was a letter that had cost him an
effort to write,—the wording of inexhaustible sentiment. He could
never speak what he had transcribed alone in his quiet office, her
image before him, musty official records around him, and a
companionless life behind him. His heart, his eager, long-suppressed
heart, drove the clean, sharp, steel notarial pen, and what had it not
said? So, it was all lost by an accident! but it had contained one
affair of business.
"Madame Joubert has made a proposition to purchase your interest in
the St. Denis."
"Madame Joubert!" Madame Lareveillère repeated in supreme
astonishment. Madame Joubert at the head of her brilliant aristocratic
pension! Why, she had not a single qualification, nothing,
except an education. The item of business brought reprieve, but also
disappointment Had she, then, been wrong in her intuitions, premature
in her expectations?
"And Mademoiselle Motte?"
"Ah, Marie Modeste!" The sweet, novel, motherly look came into her
eyes,—the one beautiful expression of which life had hitherto
"Mon ami, how can I tell you! When I think of
Marcélite I am ashamed of myself,— I who am white and have an
education. Ah, I detest myself; but you see I was thinking so much of
my own affairs."
A blush that must have been caused by her thoughts sprang from her
heart and spread up to her face, and warmed even the tips of her
"Aurore knew it, Aurore felt it to be a truth. And I promised to be
a mother to her -"
"And I," said the notary. "a father."
"Would a mother forget her child, a young girl, for her own
affairs?" It was a chaplet of self-reproach, the penitential
accumulation of a wakeful, feverish night, exaggerated, incoherent.
"But I thought she was happy; she is so young, you know."
She raised her eyes to his. The swine, not she, had received his
letter, but his eyes contained it all, and were repeating it over and
over again to the hair, the head, the face, the figure beside him,—
those wonderful, eloquent eyes of a recluse poet; and she read it all,
and could not feign misunderstanding. His timid, hesitating words were
entirely superfluous so long as she looked at him; but her own eyes—
it was safer to turn them on the piano. The diamonds gleamed on her
excited fingers. Last night, when she could not sleep, she had composed
it all—she always prepared her pretty speeches and notes beforehand
for possible emergencies. It was to be a consent,—oh, yes, there had
never been any doubt about that,—but a consent based on the exalted
motives of duty and self-sacrifice, and a common obligation toward
Marie Modeste; a consent expressive of all that she did not feel; one
worthy of Mademoiselle Aurore, and unobjectionable to the most
fastidious wit of a sarcastic society Her fluent tongue recited the chef-d'oeuvre as if her friends had all been there to listen,
were stationed behind the heavy curtains to hear. Only the notary
himself had been forgotten; he alone should not have been present. The
light died away from his face, and a grave misapprehension clouded his
"I shall go now and announce it to Aurore myself, and Monsieur
Félix. Oh, yes, there is no need to conceal it a moment from the world;
and you can explain it to Marie Modeste. I shall send her to you
It was as if she were speaking to her professor of mathematics. His
letter might have made it all different! He had offered the love of his
lifetime, he had asked for love. Was she to give him duty,
self-sacrifice? —And the tête-à-tête was coming to an
She stood a moment to steady herself on her high heels; the room
was as private as a grave, as secret as her own heart at midnight; it
was mysterious and still. She looked all around at the portraits on the
wall,—portraits, not mirrors,—and, as it were a dream, she forgot
all that she had been remembering for three months; forgot it all
completely, deliciously. She turned to the sofa, but the notary had
risen too; he had been standing at her side pleading, reproachful.
"Mon ami." The lace sleeves fell back from the arms
she held to him, all her heart trembled in her voice and looked through
the tears in her eyes. "Mon ami, it is not so; do not
believe it: it is not duty, Armand."
There was no one to see them or hear them. The birds outside were
singing and the sun shining, the fresh new breezes rustling the trees,
the cane sweetening, the roses resting in the shade; the negroes were
working in the field, the women nursing and tending in the quarters;
Marie Modeste was listening to curious prophecies from Marcélite;
Mademoiselle Aurore was explaining to Monsieur Félix; Stasie was
grumbling; Gabi was submitting to his delayed punishment from Edmond.
The world had forgotten them; it was rolling on without them, or rather
it had rolled back for them. She was seventeen, dreaming in the allée, under the oleanders, of love and a first lover. He was
twenty-five, rhyming sonnets in the moonlight, à l'inconnue
. And the rapture that came to them then in a vision enfolded them now
as they exchanged their first embrace.
"Of course, Eugénie, you know your own affairs best," said
Mademoiselle Aurore. They were again on the gallery, the sunset again
on the river. "As for me -" she shrugged her shoulders, leaving the
rest of the sentence (in truth abortive in her own mind) to the
imagination of Madame Lareveillère. A prolonged pause threatened the
extinction of the subject of conversation. Mademoiselle Aurore resumed
in a cool tone of voice and polite reserve of manner better calculated
to extract embarrassing answers than information from the friend who
sat helpless at her mercy. The tone and manner were a personal
accomplishment, apparently not incompatible with her advanced degree of
"Has he money,—your Monsieur, your
One never gets past blushing, it seems, at such terms, however
perfectly the tongue can simulate coldness.
"He is not a beggar, nor a millionnaire: he has a certain income
from his profession."
"And you are independent, Lareveillère left you so well provided
for! He is a notary public, you said?"
"Yes, a notary public."
Their rocking-chairs rocked farther and farther apart, making
intercommunication an effort. But there was no one on the gallery or
about, and at a certain age mystery is presumed absurd, at least by
Mademoiselle Aurore, as Madame Lareveillère acutely felt.
"And he lives on Royal Street?"
"Near St. Louis."
"Will you go there when—after the ceremony?"
"Yes, we will live in Royal Street."
"I beg your pardon! I am indiscreet."
"Not at all; it is no secret."
"I suppose your arrangements have been made some time."
"I assure you only since to-day."
"And when—the wedding? I implore you, do not answer unless you
"November! So soon! But that is true, why waste time?"
"We only thought of that poor child Marie Modeste. You see, her
home will be with us, naturally. There is so much to do, so many
affairs to regulate, Madame Joubert taking the Institute -" Madame
strove to make it ordinary, commonplace, quite a business arrangement;
but whatever she said sounded apologetic to humiliation, and her eyes
felt the obscurity of tears when they saw a thin smile on Mademoiselle
"It is hard for me to understand,—one like me, who never has been
married at all;" the maiden lady raised her hands, the fingers extended
as if from the touch of something unpleasant. "But I should think the
presence of a young girl, enfin!—But you are never
embarrassed, you! Only during the first few days of the—what is
called (there is no other name for it, it is so ridiculous!) the
honeymoon, she might be a little surprised, shocked even, not having
seen anything of the conjugal state. I must confess for myself, there
is a crudity -"
"No wonder,—no wonder," thought Madame, "she never got married."
In truth, her thoughts were very busy about her friend all the time,
and may be credited with a gallant assault against an attachment which
had so far proved impregnable to time.
"It is not
that, Aurore, but," forcing herself resolutely to
speak, "if you would let me leave her with you for a few days. If you
would take care of her until we are arranged in the city. Monsieur
Goupilleau advises it, and I—I know nothing better to propose. It is
a favor I ask for her, for myself. I shall never forget it; indeed, it
will lay me under the greatest obligations. Poor young girl! You
understand it will be painful for her to go back to the school again."
"Eugénie How can you doubt it? How can you ask?" When it came to a
question of hospitality or friendship, Mademoiselle Aurore yielded to
no one. "I was going to propose it myself! Did you think I would ever
allow, ever consent to any other arrangement? The idea! It is the only
thing natural, the only thing proper! I shall keep her here, and take
her myself to the city when you are ready for her. As if I could not
love a young girl as well as you or Marcélite! Poor child, that is one
of our war-claims! As for Marcélite, I can't tell you what I think of
her conduct. It is heroic; it is sublime! Oh, she will never want a
friend as long as I live, or Félix either! And Ninie," calling her by
her old, school, pet name, abruptly changing the subject, leaving her
chair, too, to get nearer her friend, "there is something you must not
deny me,— indeed I have a right to insist upon it; I am sure you will
not wound me by a refusal. I thought of it instantly; I have planned it
all out; I have even announced it to Félix and Stasie." The thin little
woman had gone back, back, in her life, far away from the present;
where was she going to stop, in the sweet loveliness of her caressing
manner and words? She was so delicate, so genuine!
" Chérie, you must remain here too, you must be
married from Bel Angely,—from the home of your oldest, best friends,
with your old sister Aurore to wait on you, to love you to the last -"
"Aurore! my angel! my treasure! Titite,"— that was
little name. "It was my secret wish, my supreme desire! Ah, what a
heart! What a friend!"
It was worth so much difference, so many differences,—the
reconciliation; the crossing over from such a separation in their
natures to meet again as they had started in life, heart open to heart,
tongue garrulous to tongue, all revealed, understood, nothing
concealed,—absolutely nothing. For there was a generous rivalry in
loyal self-surrender and confession until Stasie again blew the horn
for supper; and the feeble echoes returning quickly to the gallery,
like aged birds after a short flight, put an end to the interview.
THE DRAMA OF AN EVENING.
IT was carnival time of the year in New Orleans. The annual machinery
of gayety had been set in motion: heavy, cumbersome antiquated
machinery, with etiquette, ceremony, precautions, and safeguards
innumerable for the inflammable hearts transplanted from a tropical
court to a tropical clime. It was the meeting-time of the year for the
young people, the season for opportunity, the mating time to come later
in the spring, when the flowers twisted themselves naturally into
bridal-wreaths, or in the early summer, when the mocking-birds sang all
through the moonlight nights. In the wise little self-sufficient creole
world there was no opportunity like that offered by a soirée
. From time immemorial a soirée had been the official
gate of entrance into the great world of society, and this year Madame
Fleurissant was to open the season,—Madame Edmond Fleurissant; for
the last name had been so stretched that it embraced not individuals,
but classes. The soirée was given to her grand-daughter,
Stephanie Morel, who was to make her début into the great
world out of the little world of school. Stephanie had not graduated;
indeed, she was only in the second class; but Nature would not wait for
the diploma of St. Denis. Nature is that way in New Orleans,—so
impatient. A young girl must be very industrious there to get an
education before her début.
From the time the invitations were sent out there had been nothing
else talked about by the débutantes. The giddy little
heads, still full of Mass, and still wet with the touch of holy water,
would loiter, on their way from the cathedral, by the seductive shops,
or come together outside the artificial-flower windows (rivalling the
show within) to consult on the proper parure for the
occasion. Field flowers, lilies of the valley, daisies, myosotis, and
rosebuds, "rose tendre," the sweetest of all flowers for a débutante,—bloomed, a miraculous spring, in the confined
laborariums, and but for the glass would have poured out over the damp
stone banquette. The day of the intellect was felt to be
over, it was the body which had to be furnished now. It was not only a
question of artificial flowers, tulles and tarlatans, gloves, and
slippers, but of pointed or round bodices clinging or spread skirts.
With Paris so far away, and American fashions so encroaching and so
prosaic, what problem had their arithmetic ever furnished to compare
The interest, which had been diffused to the extreme limits of the
square of the city, as the original French settlement is called, began
in reflex to return as the 27th of December approached, until with the
day itself it hovered over a once fashionable neighborhood, now a quartier perdu given over to coffee-houses, oyster-stands,
mattress-makers, and chambres garnies suspects, and
finally concentrated on the old gray stucco building,—a by no means
insignificant theatre of social festivities in that celebrated time
long past, to which even a reference now is monotonous. As night fell,
the venerable mansion arose through the darkness, glittering with
light, shedding a stately radiance over the humble roofs opposite, and
shaming the social degradation of its whilom intimates and neighbors on
each side. Both portals were opened for the reception of guests,—the
great wide porte-cochère in front, and the back gate on
the street in the rear. This gate had been thoughtfully propped open,
that the hinges might not be injured or the mistress disturbed by the
continual opening and shutting of another procession of guests,—the
expected if uninvited, a not inconsiderable gathering from an old
ostentatious superfluous retinue. Having come within the radius of the
news that Madame Edmond was going to give a soirée, they,
naturally considering their former intimate relations with the family,
came to the soirée itself. Those who had
ante-emancipation costumes of flowered mousseline-de-laine
gowns, black-silk aprons, and real bandanna head-kerchiefs, put them
on for volunteer service in the dressing-room. Those who had shawls put
them on to hide toilet deficiencies, and also a prudently provided
basket. Those victims of constitutional improvidence who improvidence
who had neither baskets nor shawls came in untempered shiftlessness to
gloat their eyes and glut their bodies on whatever chance might throw
in their way. All entered alike boldly and assuredly, in the
consciousness of their unabrogated funeral and festal privileges,
inspected, with their heaven-given leisurely manner the provisions for
refreshment, commented on the adornments, reconnoitred the rooms, and
finally selected advantageous positions for observation behind the
shutters of the ladies' dressing-rooms, or posted themselves in obscure
corners of the hall. What sights to take home to their crowded
shanties! And the sounds! Where could so many voices, so many emotions,
be assembled as in a ladies' dressing-room before a soirée
,—a début soirée?
"Have I too much powder?"
"Is my hair right so?"
"Does my dress show my feet too much?"
"Perhaps my comb would be better this way?"
"Shall I put a
mouche just here?"
It is so important to look well on a début night. Everything
depends upon that. Why a wrinkle in a bodice, a flaw in a glove, a curl
this way or that, is enough to settle a destiny. No wonder they were
nervous and excited. Self-confidence vanished as it had never done
before, even in an "Histoire de France" contest at school. And
in matters of toilet there is no such thing as luck. There seemed to be
an idea that Fate could be propitiated by self abnegation. The
looking-glass extorted the most humble confessions.
"I am a fright!"
"As for me, I am perfectly hideous!"
maman how it would be!"
"Now, it's no use!"
"It is that Madame Treize! ah, what a demon!"
"I can hardly stand in my slippers, they are so tight."
"And mine are so loose,—perfect ships."
"Ah, that Renaudière! the rascal!" came in chorus from all, for
they all knew the shoemaker well.
"Just see what wretched gloves!"
"Look at my bodice! My dear, it was laced three times over,—the
last time more crooked than the first."
In fact, there was not an article of dress, glove, shoe, or
parure that answered expectations; not a
or fabricant of any kind that had not betrayed trust.
And so restricted as they were to expression,—hardly daring to
breathe under their laces or lift an eyebrow under their hairpins! Each
one yielded unreservedly to her own panic, but strove to infuse courage
into the others.
"Chère, you look lovely!" imprinting prudent little
kisses in undamageable spots.
"You are so good, you only say that to console me."
"But I assure you, Doucette!"
"Ah, if I only looked as well as you!"
"What an exquisite toilet!"
"No, chérie! You can't conceal it, it is unbecoming!"
"But, on my word of honor!"
"My dear, it is not to flatter, but you look like an angel!"
"No, it is all over with me, I told
maman! I did not
wish to come."
"My hair is getting limp already."
The weather was really turning warm and moist, as if purposely to
relax their curls.
The music commenced downstairs.
"Ah, that's Benoit!"
And they fell into still greater trepidation over this exhibition
of expenditure on their behalf.
"There's going to be a crowd!"
"Ah, mon Dieu!" came from a despairing heart.
"Marcélite, my good Marcélite, put a pin here!"
"Marcélite, for the love of heaven tie this bow!"
"Marcélite, this string is broken!"
"See that big, fat quadroon! That is Marcélite Gaulois, the
coiffeuse. She is the hairdresser for all the
," whispered one of the knowing ones in the crowd outside the window.
"That must be her mamzelle,
hein,—the tall one with
the black hair?"
"Marcélite, I am so afraid," whispered Marie Modeste all the time.
"Zozo, you are the prettiest of all," or, "Zozo, your dress is the
prettiest of all," was the invariable refrain.
"Must we go down now?"
"Bonne chance, chère!"
"Pray for me,
"And don't forget me, Marcélite!"
"Here, this is for good luck!" And with signs of the cross and
exhortation they went downstairs into—not the parlors, that was not
what frightened them, but the future, the illimitable future, that for
which all their previous life had been a preface. One step more, it
would be the present, and their childhood would be over.
From the time her carriage left her door, Madame Montyon had talked
incessantly to her son, a handsome young man with a listless face, who
was carefully seated in an opposite corner, out of the way of the
never-an-instant-to-be-forgotten new velvet gown. What she intended to
do, what she intended to say, what her listeners intended to do and
say,—nay, what they intended to think! Always speaking and thinking
consonant to her disposition, she evidently intended to carry her
business to the ball, and had laid out her plans in consequence of some
recent interview with her agent.
"I told Goupilleau, 'Goupilleau, nonsense! You don't know whom you
are talking to! Can't get money out of this people! bah! Giving balls,
going to balls, and not pay house-rent, not pay office-rent, not even
pay interest on their debts! debts reduced to ten cents on the dollar!
But what are you singing to me, mon ami' 'But Madame must
not judge by the present.' 'And why not? Why not judge by the present?'
'The crises, the revolution, the reconstruction -' 'La, la, la, you are
too sympathetic. Goupilleau, my friend, let me tell you, you are no
longer a notary, you are no longer an agent. You are a philanthropist,
- a poetic philanthropist. Go coo with the doves, but don't talk
business like that!' And Goupilleau knew I was right. I can read
thought! One is n't a Duperre for nothing."
This was a well-known allusion to the fact that her father, General
Duperre, a child of the Revolution in default of more illustrious
ancestry, had distinguished himself once in a certain provincial
trouble in France by his boundless sagacity and impregnable firmness.
The young man made a movement, but only with his foot.
"Take care! My dress! You will crush it! Black-velvet dresses cost
money, and money is not picked up under the foot of every galloping
horse!"—whatever she meant by this favorite expression. "No, my son."
She pronounced these words with a slight insistence on the "my," an
assumption of motherhood that betrayed the pretender. "One must give a
hand to one's own affairs. The eye of the master is very good,
particularly when one employs lawyers.
" 'Goupilleau,' I said, 'what of those stores on Chartres Street?'
" 'Taxes, Madame.'
" 'And the houses on Dumaine Street?'
" 'Repairs, Madame.'
" 'The Ste. Helena plantation?'
" 'The freeze last year, Madame.'
" 'The old Dubois—the old rascal!— plantation?'
" 'Overflow, Madame.'
" 'The brick-kiln over the river?'
" 'Destroyed by fire, Madame.'
" 'Goupilleau, you wrote me that that miserable wretch, that
abominable hypocrite, old Gréaud, is broken-hearted, wants to commit
suicide, bankrupt, and I don't know what all; and yet his daughter gets
married, and orders her trousseau from Paris (oh! don't take the
trouble to deny it; I know it, I got it from my own dressmaker); and
has such a wedding as the world has never seen!' 'Ah, Madame!'
shrugging his shoulders,"—shrugging hers too; she had been imitating
his voice and manner all along in the dark,—" 'it came from his wife,
the mother of the young lady.' 'But, just heavens! Goupilleau.' I said,
'do you mean to tell me that what little God and the Government leave
to me of my debts is to be hidden under the women's petticoats?' Well!
I shall see for myself this evening. I am very glad the Grandmère
Fleurissant gives this ball. Ah! I shall let them know!"
"I hope," said the young man, in a voice that expressed a very
faint hope indeed, "you will be discreet; the creoles -"
"Bah! the creoles," contemptuously; "don't you think I know the
creoles? They are creoles remember, not Parisians."
It was hardly possible for him to forget a fact of which he had
been reminded at almost every stroke of the clock since their departure
"You forget that I, too, am a creole."
"Charles,"—the voice came back suddenly, cold with offended
dignity,—"you forget yourself; you must not speak so, I do not like
it; in fact, you know it displeases me extremely;" and silence lasted
now until the carriage stopped before the house, where, really, a
policeman was very much needed, to keep not only the forward bodies of
the banquette children, but also their impudent tongues,
She had been going on to tell him much more,—about the "
Succession d'Arvil," which, after all, had been the important
reason of her coming to America; how the half-million she hoped from it
was still buried in a mass of old paper, a regular rag-picker
collection. "That Goupilleau—oh, Goupilleau! he is not the man he
was; marriage has quenched him. He was still looking, looking,
looking,"—screwing up her eyes and handling bits of paper in her
gloved hands,— "examining, comparing, as if in fact he held a
contract from heaven to supply him with all the time he needed. Not one
half of the papers gone through, and fully a month since he died,—old
Arvil! It ought to be at least a half-million!" She had suffered that
amount of shame from him during his lifetime, it was worth half a
million to appear as his niece now.
"But Goupilleau is so slow! I shall give him a talk to-morrow! I
shall say 'so and so,' and he will say 'so and so.' "
Her irascibility once excited, eloquence flowed without bounds; her
verbal castigation of the notary was satisfactory and complete, and the
succession of her uncle hastened to a conclusion,—her own conclusion,
a half-million. It would be a neat addition to Charles's heritage.
"Charles!" her robust, strong nature melted over the name. Late in
life her fortune had bought her the temporary possession of a husband
but the permanent ownership of a child,—a beautiful little child, who
had unlocked the passion of maternity in her. She was of the kind who
are born to be mothers, not wives; who can do better without a husband
than without children. As her old Uncle Arvil had hoarded money, so she
hoarded this affection. As he had descended to base usages to obtain
his desire, so had she descended to unworthy measures for the monopoly
of this one heart The little boy had responded well to her efforts, had
given her much, had forgotten much. But he had not given her all, and
he had not forgotten the one whom to eradicate from his memory she
would have bartered all her possessions, much as she loved them,—his
"I am your
"You are my
maman, but not my own
childish verbal distinction became the menace of her life, the
sentiment of his. And the dead mother, as dead mothers do, became a
religion, while the living one remained a devotion.
She walked like a Duperre through the volleys of commentaries on
the sidewalk. "Maman," said the young man in a low voice, as
they mounted the steps, "be discreet, I implore you."
"Bah!" was the answer; and then he began to regret that he had not
sought an excuse to stay away. He was as sensitive as she was obtuse,
and there seemed to be no escape from impending ridicule. He placed
himself out of the way of the dancers, against the wall; condemned by
his forebodings to be an observer of, rather than a participant in, the
pleasures of the evening.
The antique gilt chandeliers festooned with crystal drops lighted
up the faded, as they had once lighted up the fresh, glories of the
spacious rooms. Gilt candelabra with fresh pink-paper bobèches
branched out everywhere to assist in the illumination,—from the
door, the windows, the arches, and under the colossal mirrors, which
were sized to reflect giants. Old magnificences, luxuries, and
extravagances hovered about the furniture, or seemed to creep in, like
the old slaves at the back gate, to lend themselves for the occasion;
even in a dilapidated, enfranchised condition, good, if for nothing
else, to propitiate present criticism with suggestive extenuations from
the past. As the parlors with their furniture, so were many of the
chaperons with their toilets. There were no reproaches of antiquity to
be passed between them. But the good material had remained intact with
both, and the fine manners which antedated both furniture and clothes,
and to an observer obliterated them, establishing a charming and
refreshing supremacy of principals over accessories.
"Ninety years old!"
"Ninety!" exclaimed Tante Pauline. "Ninety-two, if you believe me;
I know well!"
Every one naturally said the same thing, coming away from the
venerable hostess. Tante Pauline, who was aunt only by courtesy to
every one in the room, had constituted herself a kind of breakwater to
turn the tide of compliment into truth. She was in an admirable
position, near the door.
"How can she be so malicious!" thought the young married woman
standing by her side, adjusting her eye-glasses for another look about
It was well she did, for she was so nearsighted she would never
have seen the candle grease dripping down over a bobèche
upon a young man's coat.
She made a motion to speak, then hesitated, then, with some mental
admonition to courage,—
"Monsieur, you are standing under the drip of a candle."
"Ma foin!" she thought, "he is
good-looking, and young. Why does n't he dance? If I knew his name I
could introduce him. In fact, if I knew him I could talk to him myself."
"Ah! I can tell you, my
maman went to school with her
youngest daughter, and then she was a woman; a women of a very certain
age in society."
The tall, angular, Tante Pauline talked all the time, shrugging her
shoulders under her thin glacé-silk waist, tapping her
sandal-wood fan, and gesticulating with her bony hands, in their loose
black silk mittens.
"Ninety! Who would it?"
"It is a miracle!"
"And so charming, so
"A beautiful ball! Really like old times."
"Eh, Odile!" Tante Pauline spread her fan (rusting spangles on a
ground of faded red silk) to shield what she was going to say to her
"She ought to know how to give balls! She has given enough of them.
That is the way she married off six daughters."
"Of course, and evaded paying the
dot with every
single one of them," emphasizing each syllable. "What do you think of
that, hein? Oh, she has a head for business. She has
plenty of money to give balls."
"Who can he be, Tante Pauline?" asked Odile, looking towards the
young man whose coat she had rescued.
"Eh!" The sharp eyes screwed under their brows. "But what specimen
is that? I can't place him. Ma chère, how foolish, but
don't you see whom he is looking at? But look over there! there!" and
she pointed with a long knotted finger. "Black velvet, diamonds, mar-
about feathers. Ah, what a masquerade! a whole Mardi-gras
. But, Odile, how stupid of you! Madame Montyon, enfin;
that is her son, —her step-son, I should say."
"Ah" said Odile, with a vivid show of interest; "just from France!"
"Of course, thy dear. Have you not heard? But where have you been
all this week? Come over on business, to buy out or sell out, Heaven
knows what!—all of us poor creoles who owe her a picayune. And then
there is the Arvil succession, too. Who knows what a hole that will
make in our poor city? Poor old New Orleans! But just look at her, my
dear; did you ever see such airs? Ah, well! I don't wonder Laflor
Montyon died. I remember him well, as if he were of yesterday. I must
confess it served him right; he married her for money," she laughed
maliciously, "but he only got her: the money was kept well out of his
embraces; and very wisely, for Laflor was a fool about money. Poor
Mélanie! She would turn in her grave to know who had had the raising of
her baby. And what does he look like, after all?" with a disparaging
glance at the young man. "A Parisianized creole! An Americanized creole
is bad enough, but a Parisianized—good-day! Why does he not dance?
Why can he not play the polite to the young girls? Does he think
perhaps that he is too good for us,—that we are savages, barbarians!
That old paper-shaving Arvil! buying, buying, buying,—always
secretly; and hiding, hiding it all away in his rat-hole, a perfect
miserable caboose, under the mattress. No wonder he lived so long.
Death hated to go there for him! And the clothes he wore! We will not
even allude to them. Well, he did die and was buried, and then, grand coup de théâtre, Madame turns out to be his niece and
heiress. The rich, the elegant, the aristocratic Madame Montyon, with
her chateau in France, the niece of old 'rag-picker' Arvil, as we used
to call him. And he, our disdainful young man, will get it all. Ha! ha!
ha! Ah, the poor creoles! She wiped the tears of merriment from her
eyes with a thin saffron-colored handkerchief, a sharer of the
sandal-wood perfume of the fan. But surely, Odile, you have heard all
"I don't say no, Tante Pauline." Odile spoke with indifference; she
was in truth a little disconsolate. Her husband had brought her into
the room and planted her there at the beginning of the soirée
, she had not seen him since. As for beaux, they had bidden her
farewell the night of her marriage, as the beaux of discreet brides
always do. But her discretion did not preserve her from ennui
"Excuse me, Madame, but it is broken!" and she warned for the
fourth or fifth time some fatigued dowager off an incapacitated chair,
which stood in a conspicuous place by warrant of its great age and
beauty,—an ornamental guet-apens.
"Odile," Tante Pauline interrupted her asseveration, "just look at
Goupilleau and his wife,— the newly-married ones! Goupilleau!
Heavens, what a name! Poor old Lareveillère! he was an aristocrat, at
least. They say—ah, I don't know," and her shoulders began to rise
again with serpentine motions from her far-distant waist,—"they say
he adopted that young girl. Well, it is n't my affair; but what can you
expect, since the war?"
"Well, well, my dear, are you amusing yourself?" Odile's husband
came through the door at her back. He always carefully spoke English in
public, being what Tante Pauline called "an Americanized creole;" his
wife, as carefully, spoke French.
"As you see," shrugging her frail shoulders out of her low-necked
"Ah, one soon gets past all this!" He spoke like an old, old
married man; this was another of his affectations. She turned her head
and gave a quick side-glance at him with her languid oval eyes. It was
not so very long ago since she, too, was dancing out on the floor
there, a young girl, he a young man,—dancing, with the honeymoon in
their distant horizon, gayly and thoughtlessly as any. They had reached
and passed it. What is one moon to a year of matrimony? She wore her
wedding-gown gown this evening, fresh still, with only the seams taken
up. He was stouter, bluffer, wore his coat carelessly, left a button
out of his vest. "Who is the young coxcomb?" So he designated the young
man who was still in fixed contemplation of the décolletée
black-velvet dress and marabout feathers.
"Young Charles Montyon. I find him quite
comme il faut
, on the contrary."
"He has a confounded supercilious air."
"I admire it; I would like to know him."
"Benoit is playing well this evening." Her husband nodded toward
the piano, behind which the dark bold head of the colored pianist could
be seen in passionate movement.
"Ah, he ought to play well," chimed in Tante Pauline, "he asks
enough; but really, his prices are enormous. And I am not the only one
who is wondering how the Fleurissants can afford it; when you think of
poor Caro Fleurissant making her living embroidering for a few
miserable picayunes. But then they say Benoit gives half to his old
mistress. In fact, she would starve without it. Well, some women are
fortunate to have people work for them! Eh, Henri?"
But Henri Maziel had left; indeed, he had not waited beyond the
last word of his own remark.
"I do not think we can compliment Henri Maziel on his manners,"
whispered Tante Pauline, under the perfumed shelter of her fan, to her
left-hand neighbor. "Poor Odile! but she would marry him; she was
warned enough! I heard she threatened to kill herself or go in a
convent. The threats of a girl of seventeen— bah! And that is what is
called having a husband!"
The young girls danced as only young girls can dance, to Benoit's
music,—with no past behind them to weigh down their light feet, and
no future before them but of their own manufacture; danced round and
round in the circle bounded by the rows of darkly-clad chaperons, as
if they did not see them, their anxious, calculating faces, their
sombre-hued bodies, or their sombre-hued lives; danced in the frank,
joyous exuberance of youth on its first entrance into the "great
world." Their tulle and tarlatane skirts spread wider and wider in the
breeze from their own motions, until they stood out like full-blown
roses, showing the little high-heeled slippers underneath playing as
lightly on the floor as Benoit's fingers on the piano. Bunches and
crowns of artificial flowers were pinned on their quick-moving,
restless heads. Their fresh, young, bending, curving bodies swelled
under the tightly-laced satin bodices. Eighteen, seven-teen, sixteen,
- they were not out a moment too soon. Over their books, over their
dolls even, their majority had come to them,—their fragile dower of
beauty, the ancestral heritage of the women, held in mortmain from
generation to generation. Type came out strongly under the excitement.
In their languid, dormant creole lives it had held feature and
character tenaciously; to southern, to northern France, to Spain, to
Italy, with faint tinges from Semitic or Anglo-Saxon influences. The
newly-bloomed faces were varied, unconventional, changing, with
nothing regular, nothing perfect, nothing monotonous in them,
presenting constant surprising, piquant variations on the usual
coloring and features, with exotic exaggerations and freaks in both,
which permitted little audacities of toilet, risks in coiffure
, originality in bows; they walked, spoke, were graceful, fascinating,
and charming, grandes dames, by inspiration or tradition,
as the grammatical but ill-spelling court of Louis XIV talked.
Their timidity had left them, self-confidence had returned. Naively
proud of their new trousseaux, of looks and clothes, they
dispensed their favors with prodigal generosity, unconscious of their
own wastefulness; experimenting with looks and smiles and winsome
address; using their dangerous woman-eyes with childish hardihood;
charging their transparent little phrases with expressions of which
life had not yet taught them the significance.
They were without doubt, now delighted with themselves. They could
not keep from looking up at the mirrors, as they passed in promenade,
twirling with Cuban agility their scintillating plumed fans. And the
old mirrors, at times, could hardly contain between their gilded frames
the upturned, flower-crowned, questioning faces. They did not indorse
each other now, or ask indorsement; they had already journeyed too far
in their feminine tactics.
The breath-laden air, mounting warmer and warmer, seemed to
brighten the Cupids and the flowers painted on the ceiling. The white
lint from the drugget floated around like pollen in autumn in search of
flower-hearts to fructify. One could not look across the room without
traversing the dazzling electricity shooting from eye to eye.
"Ah, they are very happy, Madame Edmond!" said her old beau, with a
"Or they think they are, which is sufficient," answered the old
"Oh, no, they do not think. The more one thinks the less one
laughs. Hear them laugh!"
Out in the hall was the punch-bowl, and out in the hall were the
fathers and uncles, and all the old, old gentlemen who are neither
fathers nor uncles, but who come to balls simply because they cannot
stay away. They complimented one another's families, talked Alphonse
Karr and Lamartine, repeated sharp truths from Thiers or blunt ones
from Guizot between their sips of punch, and in the neutral garb of
their dress-coats discussed moderately, republicans, royalists, and
imperialists, the politics of France. They made periodical excursions
into the parlors, where their old hearts (grown torpid in the
monotonous decorum of married life), warming at the sight of so much
beauty and the taste of punch, grew lusty, and were eager to fall in
love again—with one another's grand-daughters.
"How gentille she is,—that little Stephanie Morel!"
"It's a family trait. 'La gentille Fleurissant,' as
we used to say, eh, Auguste?"
"Aïe! It hurts me still!" and the old victim laid his
wrinkled hand over the sepulchre of his defunct heart.
"Ah, coquette! coquette!" A warning finger was shaken at a
"You do not tell me that is the daughter of -"
"The daughter! Come! You are posing for youth; the
-daughter, it is, of your old flame."
"They grow with a rapidity,—a rapidity, these young girls!"
"Ah, they do not wish to wait until their grand-mamans have
"Bah! women are such
coquettes, they do not wrinkle any
"That is true.
Mon Dieu! just fool at them!"
"They have not changed in the least,—only the fashion of their
"As for that, the fashions are no longer what they eased to be. The
grace, the charm of the old ball dresses!"
"The coiffures of the present! look at them,—
"When it comes to
coiffures, what will not pretty
woman put on her head!"
"Or an ugly one!"
mon cher, there are none."
"Do you remember Madame de Pontalba, when -"
coiffures, that anecdote Alphonse
Karr relates, ha! ha! ha!" The anecdotes crossed.
"It was Monsieur de Pontalba."
"No, it was Madame de Pontalba."
"The hairdresser of Madame Récamier, ha! ha! ha!"
"Briant was there at the time,—Auguste Briant, and he told me -"
"The hairdresser looked around and saw, imagine—ha! ha!"
"Madame de Pontalba said, 'Monsieur!' "
"A white object on a chair -"
"She was never the same again."
"And that was the
coiffure she wore, ha! ha! ha! ha!"
"Goupilleau! Goupilleau!" Madame Montyon walked up like a brigadier
and ordered the notary out like a soldier from the ranks. One could
easily imagine a brigadier uniform under the new black-velvet gown,—
sword, epaulettes, spurs, and all; and the marabout feathers in her
hair waved over a face that would have suited a képi.
"Goupilleau, I cannot believe it! That Madame Flotte maintains -"
"To-morrow morning, my dear lady, in my office, I shall be entirely
at your service."
"No, no! Now! Come to her; tell her yourself!"
"In my office, to-morrow -"
"No! now!" And they walked away together, she victorious, as usual.
"Ha! ha! ha! ha! Ho! ho! ho! ho!"
"Hear that old 'Jean qui rit' still laughing over his
Madame Récamier story."
"No! no! Ho! ho!" The old gentleman's extended mouth cut a
semicircle in his soft, round, beardless face. "Ho! ho! ho! ho! That
Providence! What a farceur, my friends! For a jeu
d'esprit there is no one like him. To the sans-culotte
father he sends a pantalooned daughter,—ha! ha! ha!"
When the arrivals entirely ceased, the lookers-on upstairs, the
back-door guests, had to advance their positions to be at all repaid
for the trouble of peeping. Like shadows they crept out on tiptoe from
their hiding-places to hang over the banisters and look down on the
exalted, God-favored world below, their eager eyes catching the light
and shining strangely out of the darkness of their faces. The
hairdressers and maids, in virtue of their superior appearance, had the
privilege of the steps all the way down to the floor beneath. They sat,
their bright bandanna heads looking like huge posies, exchanging their
bold, frank, and characteristically shrewd comments on their whilom
masters and mistresses. What did they not know of the world in which
destiny had placed them in the best of all possible positions for
observation? What had been two low, dim, or secret for them as slaves
to crawl into? From their memory or experience, as they sat there, what
private archives of their city might not have been gathered,—the
snarls and tangles, the crossings and counter-crossings of intrigue,
the romances dipped in guilt, the guilt gilded with romance, the
tragedies from the aspiring passions of some, the degrading passions of
others, and all the impurities from common self-indulgence, with
indestructible consequences to stalk like ghosts through the pleasant
present! Their school had well taught them the strength and weakness of
Nature, the baseness and nobility of humanity. Understanding the
problems of the heart better than those of the head, they translated
them into the unveiled terms of their intimate language, giving free
vent to their versions and theories, but aggressively in their loyal
partisanship and their obstinate servility to family and name. It was a
pleasure to look up and see them, to catch a furtive greeting or a
demonstration of admiration. Their unselfish delight in the enjoyment
of others gave a consecration to it.
"I warrant you, Madame Morel has courage,— a little baby at home,
and introducing a young lady in society."
"Look at Madame Edmond's old beau, Monsieur Brouy! He looks like a
grand seigneur Benoit
drinking off his champagne!"
"Brought him on a silver waiter!"
"C'est ça des manières!"
"Benoit has luck!"
"No, Benoit has what they call genius!"
"He is not the worst-dressed person in the room, either!"
"Why not? He was educated in Paris! He should dress well and play
"It is his old Madame who is proud now,
"Look, look my children, look! Madame Montyon!" They all craned
their necks to see.
"Eh, but what finery!"
"Madame is Parisian now! she is not a common creole! Oh, no! she
had to bring white servants with her from Paris. She cannot stand the
"Well! She has not grown younger nor prettier."
"Poor Monsieur Laflor! No wonder he shot himself!"
"Shot himself? He took poison."
"But my old master was there."
"So was mine—in Paris."
"But he did not 'suicide' at all! He died of apoplexy. I was there
myself. I went to the funeral," protested a third.
"Of course they said that to deceive the priest, but he 'suicided'
all the same."
"Ah, ça! But you must n't abuse politeness! You can't
come on the stairs! Look over as much as you please, but not to be
seen, hein?" One of the women of the house spoke sharply
to the crowd above.
"It's not me! It's not me!" came a score of whispers; "it's
"Nourrice! For the love of -"
"Eh, poor devil! But let her come, Olympia," came in antistrophe
from the crowd on the steps. "She'll soon go away; she never stays
"Here, Nourrice! here!"
"By me, Nourrice!"
"Here's a nice place for you, Nourrice!"
The kind-hearted women moved this way and that to find a place for
her on the steps.
Two long, thin, naked, yellow feet, caked with mud, came down the
steps, feeling their way over the carpet, and an old woman stiffly sat
in the corner offered, tucking her ragged, soiled skirt about her, and
drawing her piece of shawl over her breast. Her arms were bare, and the
elbow-joints projected sharply. Her kerchief seemed to have worn in
holes on her head; the gray wool stuck out everywhere, like moss from
an old mattress. She had drifted in from the street through the back
gate, in her rags, her dirt, and her mendicancy, like some belated bug
attracted from the distant swamps to the gaslight.
They began to joke her in a rough, good-natured way.
"Hé! but, Nourrice, you love balls still?"
"Like old times,
"You could show them how to dance, Nourrice?"
"Who used to run off to the balls at night, Nourrice?" for they all
knew her,—a character famous for escapades in the old times.
But the old woman paid as little attention to them as if she had
not heard them. The lips of her sunken mouth, into which all the
wrinkles of her face converged, were glued together; and so the
comments resumed their way without regard to her.
"Whom is she dancing with there,—that little Mamzelle of the
"Eh! but she's not pretty!"
"Not pretty? Mamzelle Motte not pretty?
Ah, par exemple!
" Marcélite's voice took another tone from that in which she had
"Chut! it is her Mamzelle!"
"Here is Madame la Grande-Duchesse again."
They had all been attendants on the
opera-bouffe, and could
fix a title on Madame Montyon as well as any one.
"She has not got any prettier, that's the truth!"
"Nourrice! Nourrice!" shaking her by the shoulder, "look, look—
your old mistress!"
"A nice old mistress,
"A mistress who was too good to own slaves; she had to sell them."
"Madame had susceptibilities; Madame was a Parisian, not a creole."
"Hé! Nourrice, that's the God's truth, is n't it? She
"Sold the nurse of her baby,—Seigneur!"
"It was not her baby; it was the first one's baby."
"That's the reason she was jealous,—jealous of Nourrice;" and
they all laughed except Nourrice herself, who pressed her thin fingers
over her mouth and looked on the crowd below.
"And the little boy, the young man, where is he?"
"Oh, but I would like to see him,—Monsieur Florval."
"Florval? Charles, you mean."
"It is you who do not know what you are talking about; his name is
"Ask Nourrice; she knows."
"She used to nurse him; he was the apple of her eye, poor wretch!"
one whispered, pointing to Nourrice.
"I remember him well. Such a temper! a perfect little devil! but
Nourrice could always manage him."
A late comer, a very late comer, ascended the stairs, and they all
stood up to let him pass. He walked as if hurrying from a danger, his
large blond face exhibiting the nervous panic of a bashful man,—a
panic not assuaged by the coolly critical eyes that scanned him up the
long way,—eyes that were pitiless to anything like a social infirmity.
"But who is he?"
"Pas connais li."
"Not one of us, sure," meaning creoles.
"An American from up-town."
"Some rich American," corrected another.
He soon descended; the nervousness driven from his face to his
hands,—great, stout hands, which worked incessantly, smoothing his
white gloves, the sleeve of his coat, and travelling up to his cravat.
He avoided the gaze of the women, betraying a fatal cowardice, and made
his way, through the old gentlemen around the punchbowl, to the
parlors. He was, in fact, a débutant. No young girl could have been
more overcome on entering the room than he; no one could have felt more
helpless and bashful; no one could have more excusably yielded to the
strong temptation to flight. He felt awkward in his new clothes, not
one article of which was an acquaintance of more than an hour's
standing. he was vexed that their delay in coming had postponed his
arrival at the ball until such an ostentatiously late hour; and the
people all around him were as new as his clothes. His long quiet
evenings at the plantation, after the hard day's work, came up before
him. There he was at ease; there he was master; there, on the finest
plantation in St. James's Parish, he was in a position to inspire, not
feel, a panic. He remained at the door stock-still under the charm of
retrospection, until some deputy of the Fleurissant family, all
apologies and fine speeches, put an end to the uncomplimentary
position. According to etiquette he was taken around the circle and
introduced to every individual, chaperon and relative, composing it.
"Monsieur Morris Frank."
"Monsieur Maurice Frank."
"Monsieur Maurice Frank."
"Of the Parish of St. James."
"Of the Ste. Marie plantation of the Parish of St. James."
The repetition, reinforcing name with title title with name,
accumulated such a deposit of self-esteem, that at the end of it he
could really assume the air of a young proprietor with a large
bank-account,—the air which distinguished the plantationless,
bank-accountless young scions about him.
"From St. James, you say,—from St. James, Monsieur Fleurissant?
What a chance! He may know something of an old friend of mine, a
particular friend, Monsieur Deron,—Philippe Deron, of Ste. Helena
The dance was still going on,—the soft, light dresses crushing
up against him, the bare arms grazing him, and the white necks
everywhere, like the dropping petals of the Malmaison roses from
the vine on his gallery at home. He had to move this way and that, to
keep out of the waltz.
"Monsieur Deron,—Philippe Deron?"
At first he could only bow low and reverentially, with blushes of
pleasure. His language could not come on the instant, before such a
volume of black velvet and a diamond neck- lace, that was so beautiful
it charmed the beholders into admiration of the neck it encircled, and
puffy marabout feathers, like his own tender ducklings at home, in her
"Monsieur Philippe Deron?"
His face lighted with pleasure at the ease of the reply: "Philippe
Deron? Intimately; his plantation is next to mine."
"And his crop,—his crop last year?"
"Superb? Ah, you see that! The fox! Where is Goupilleau? Goupilleau
must hear that! Come with me; we will find Goupilleau. You just tell
Goupilleau that. A superb crop! Ah, I have caught you this time, my
"Mademoiselle Pauline Ruche -"
The introducer had reached the end of the circle, when Madame
Montyon prevented the pleasure about to be expressed on both sides by
carrying one of the participants bodily away.
"Goupilleau! listen! Ah, that Deron! what turpitude!"
The patience as well as the politeness of even a notary, however,
can come to an end.
"To-morrow morning, at ten o'clock, in my office." Monsieur
Goupilleau was firm and silent after these words.
"Montyon manners! The manners of a policeman, my dear, absolutely,"
explained Tante Pauline to her companion, whom fate had only released
by intervals from her depressing lonesomeness.
"That is the way with those
come from the depths; not from the bourgeoisie, my dear,
but from the people,—the people." And she pronounced these words with
the unique expression of contempt which she conscientiously reserved
"That young man! He is a new beau, evidently. Just come in, you
say? Well, better late than never. What stature! The other men look
like dwarfs. Ah! our creole blood is de- generating; we have no more
men, only manikins. He is a stranger; he must be a German, he is so
fair. He is a nobody, too; a blind person could see that! What can the
old Montyon want with him? She has no daughter to marry, —'only a
son.' But look, Odile! Our Parisian is at last caught. You see that
little creature, that little Motte! Don't tell me that Eugénie
Lareveillère is not an intriguante! Oh, she knows how to
manage. He is a parti, my dear, —a parti;
no one can deny that. The only parti in the room.
Goupilleau? Mon Dieu! when a woman has been Lareveillère
for fifty years, who can 'Goupilleau' her all of a sudden? Ah, see
there! She goes rapidly; our young creole girls are learning from the
Americans the art to flirt. [Flurrter, she pronounced it.] You
know it means for the young lady to pretend to be in love, in order to
induce the young man to be so in reality. What! Odile's husband? Henri
Maziel? Not a cent, my dear." She turned to her interlocutor on the
left. "He is drawing the devil by the tail, I hear." (Il tire le
diable par la queue.)
"Not a cent!" She had said it of almost every one in the room, not
from default of imagination but from the monotonously truthful,
"The on dit,"—Tante Pauline suddenly remembered
that she had let a precious subject pass without relating all she knew
about it,— "the on dit about this young girl,—you
must have heard it. Odile, you have heard it, have you not? Quite
romantic; of course, they tried to hush it. Very naturally; but it is
the truth, nevertheless. I see nothing in it to be ashamed of, or, of
course, I would not repeat it Madame Hirtemont told me she got it from
Artémise, the coiffeuse,—Artémise Angely, you remember;
she belonged to Amènaïde Angely. Well -"
"Tante Pauline!"—the fan was tapping away: the young married
woman extended her hand and arrested it,—"for the love of Heaven do
not repeat that silly story! It is so absurd—and justice to the poor
young lady. Besides, remember how kind Eugénie Goupilleau has always
been to you."
"If it is a story, there is no harm in repeating it. I don't say
positively it is the truth. Silly! It is not silly, even if it were
She resented bitterly any imputation of maliciousness. Her kind
heart repudiated any desire to do evil. She talked simply with the
vague idea of affording gratification. She was also proud of her
reputation of knowing everybody and everything, and desired to sustain
it. So, to prove her perfect disinterestedness, and to leave it to the
impartiality of her hearers, she related all the circumstances from the
beginning, from the very beginning, where Artémise, the coiffeuse, had been called in to comb Madame Lareveillère for a
grand concert and distribution of prizes. "And such an éclaircissement, my dear, about Eugénie's toilet mysteries,"
etc., carrying her story successfully and fluently to the end.
"Although the Mottes are of good family, best creole blood. Marie
Modeste Viel was at the convent the same time as I,—the old
Ursulines' Convent. Your mother was there too, Odile. She was pretty
enough, but delicate, and so gnian, gnian," uttering the
criticism with appropriate grimace and intonation.
"Alphonse Motto was a very nice young man, quite
comme il faut
. Not over-burdened with intelligence, however, or he would have
seen how delicate she was; every one else knew that she could not live
long. Oh, the daughter has lost nothing by being at the Goupilleaus'!
It was very kind of old Armand Goupilleau to take her in. He's no
relation,—at least, not that I know of;" which effectually decided
the matter for her hearers, human certainty of knowledge not going in
New Orleans beyond that possessed by Mademoiselle Pauline Ruche.
The story, as water by capillary attraction, soaked farther and
farther away from the fountain-head, making the tour of the room as
exactly as Mr. Morris Frank had done; going from one to another until
all had become permeated with it to such an extent that each one felt
authorized to issue a private version from such facts as her own eyes
could see, her own ears hear, and her own intelligence logically
suggest, with the young girl in question dancing before them in a
fluttering white dress, with a crown of blue myosotis on her black
hair, her face beautiful in her complete self-surrender to the joy of
the passing moment, her partner making no attempt to conceal his
"He is really the only
parti in the room."
"Yes, he has money; he can marry."
"He's welcome to it at that price, the father running away from
his country during a war. It is not a Villars who could do that."
"This was it! This was happiness!" Since she had worn long dresses
Marie had caught it every now and then. In the fragment of a dream or
in one of those fleeting day-moments that shoot like meteors at times
across the serenity of a young girl's mind, diffusing a strange,
supernatural sensation of causeless bliss, passing away with a sigh,—
the absent-minded, causeless sigh of young girls, who, when asked
about it, answer truthfully, "I do not know, it came just so;" a
sensation of bliss which their age does not permit them to understand,
but which they recognize distinctly afterwards, when it comes at the
proper time; and then they feel that they have lived and known this
moment ages before.
All around Marie Modeste were dancing her school companions, young
ladies now,—and she was a young lady too!—almost disguised one from
another in their beauty and mature manner. Could that be Elmina, who
had passed hours in the corner with a foolscap on; and Loulou, who had
almost wept her eyes away over faults of orthography; and Ernestine,
who had monopolized the leathern medal; and Gabrielle, who had waged a
persistent war, a perfect siege of Troy in duration, against her
music-teacher; and all those who had passed out of the gates of St.
Denis before her, year after year, graduated into the then far-distant
great world? These did not dance, but walked around with the languid
movements and preoccupied eyes of young matrons. "What a bright, what
a beautiful world! Was there ever a dark day in it? Was it ever so
bright or so beautiful to any one before?" So they all thought, each
one dancing in a fresh, new, original creation,—a special paradise,
full for each one to name and classify. Her first illusion goes when
the young girl finds her own Eden neither the brightest nor the best,
nor an individual creation; the last goes when she finds that she is
not the only woman in it, but that Eves are under every tree.
When they looked at anything, they looked at themselves in the
mirrors, or at their partners, not at the crow's-feet and wrinkles
which had travelled from the hearts to the faces of the débutantes of
twenty-five years ago, the possessors, then, of a paradise too.
The young girls had of course consulted the
about him,—the future one whom they hoped to meet this or some other
near evening. Was he to be fair or brown, tall or short, widower or
bachelor? Candles were even now burning before distant altars to hasten
his coming, placed by the zealous hands of some of those very nurses
out on the stairs; the saints were being arraigned, perhaps, by some of
the impatient mother-spectators about him; all to be forgotten in the
supreme moment by the most interested ones! Quadrilles, deux-temps
, and waltzes succeeded one another; but the heedless young girls
thought only of the pleasure of the dance, forgetting the profit. How
could they do otherwise, with that new blood beating in their veins,
and new life bursting in their hearts under the forceful music of
Benoit,—that warm, free, full, subtilely sensualized African music?
The buds themselves would have burst into blossom under the strains,
and the little birds anticipated spring.
"Ah, what a beautiful world it is! How good it is to live! How good
And it came about as Marie Modesto danced with the young
"Parisianized creole;" it is so inexplicable, so indescribable; to
state it destroys the delicacy of it; to confess it almost vulgarizes
it; but an impression was made on their fresh, impressionable hearts,
slight and faint, easy to efface or subdue, but more easily kept alive
and fixed. Neither knew—how could they? it was the first time—what
it was. A change came over the charm upon her; a dissatisfaction crept
into the young girl's heart; her pleasure all departed. When she spoke,
it was to perceive that she was silly; she became conscious of marked
inferiority in her appearance; she was wearied; and when she looked in
the mirror now, it reflected not her face but her mood. And he, seeing
the light pass from her face, became self-accusing, self-depreciative,
and taciturn; his life became a hateful barren to look back upon, his
stepmother an intolerable irritant whom he wished to deny before Marie.
When the time came for them to part, they both started, as if being
together were a sudden impropriety. She had not a glance to encourage
him in her embarrassment. He followed her upstairs to the
dressing-room without a word to retrieve himself with, so absorbed in
the new sensation that he stumbled over an old negro woman who had
apparently forgotten, in her enjoyment of the scene, to take herself
away with the rest.
Her companions it was that had forgotten to drive her away into the
back-yard for supper, or into the back-street for shelter. The music
crept through her brain like soft fingers through her matted, knotted,
massed hair, loosening the tangles in her half-crazy mind. "How would
she know him, they were all so much alike, the young men, and all
dressed the same?"
"My little heart. My little love. My little kiss. My little soul."
A long-buried litany of diminutive tenderness, the irrepressible
cajoleries of colored creole nurses; she kept her fingers pressed tight
against her lips; not a word of the myriads that teemed in her heart
disturbed the scented, warm atmosphere. She nodded at times, and
dreamed she was at the bedside of a patient. The lace-lined trains of
tired ladies on their way to the dressing-room swept over her. At the
sound of every man's step she would raise her head alertly, and the
gleam in her eye would transfuse the white film that obscured it.
A little boy with black hair which she used to curl, black eyes
which she used to kiss, and lace petticoats! If he would only come up
the stair that way! Oh, he will know me! He will do me justice! He will
give me satisfaction for all,—all! His poor old Nourrice! His nigger!
His dog! His Patate!
Her menial heart, which had cast tendernesses on her nursling, cast
humiliations on herself. Her thoughts flew like martins back to old
times, and there dallied and rested. She fleas no longer the eccentric
old beggar Nourrice, the bedfellow of street curs, the ravager of
garbage-barrels, but a pampered, spoiled nurse, the unmanageable, the
wild, the reckless quadroon, of a wild, reckless period. Some one
stumbled over her; she caught hold of the baluster and pulled herself
up, instinct with old servile apology. Bidden by the same impulse that
had brought her there, she followed after, close to the footsteps of
the young man, stretching out her arms to catch him, to detain him.
"I know you! I know you! It's God did it,—God!"
She had caught him somehow; half pulling, half pushing, had got him
through the open door to the dark gallery behind.
"Your Nourrice! Your poor old Nourrice!"
He had not pronounced the word in twenty years. "Nourrice." It
meant then a world of solicitude,—protection from danger, covering
from cold, food when hungry, drink when thirsty, a cooling, a soothing,
a lullaby, a great strong, dark bulwark to fly to, a willing Providence
in reach of baby arms. He stretched out his arms again at the word;
they reached far over the limp, mal-odorous object at his feet.
"It's God sent you,—God!"
He felt her lips, a soft, humid, toothless mass, pressing again and
again on his hands. Beyond her, over the irregular roofs and chimneys
and balconies, the skies stretched full of hot, gleaming, Southern
stars; the music from the piano, the chattering voices in the
dressing-room, filled the gallery. She kept raising her voice louder
and louder, for her own dull ears to hear the epitome of her
sufferings; he could hear plainly enough.
"Little master! I've no home, no bed, no food, no nothing. I'm
'most naked! I'm 'most starved!"
The heart-rending sob of human desperation broke her voice.
"Nourrice! Poor old Nourrice! Patate!"
It was an inspiration,—his recollection of the old nickname. God
must have ordered it with the rest.
"Patate! You have n't forgotten 'Patate'? Saviour!"
Her tears began to fall; they should have been soiled, wrinkled,
bleared, and distorted. from such eyes. "I am not lazy, little Master!
I have worked and worked! but God knows I am too old. I was an old
woman when I nursed you. I can hardly see, I can hardly hear, I can
hardly stand; and I am sick, I am diseased."
"I've no home, no bed, no food, no nothing!" she repeated. "The
little children run after me in the street, they throw dirt at me; '
Hé! la folle! la folle!' " raising her voice in piercing
imitation of their cruelty. "The little nigger children,—the
rottenness of the earth! I fall in the gutters! The policemen drag me
off. They club me; they beat me all over; they tear my clothes!—
nigger policemen, little master!" Passion exhausted her breath at
every item; her voice came hoarse and gusty out of her exposed, bony
chest. "Clubbed by nigger policemen! Ah, God! They lock me up in the
calaboose. Poor me!"
Her breath and recital ended in a wail of misery. The wail and the
misery reached him, not here, but in that bright, gay, selfish world of
Paris, where he had passed a happy youth, a useless manhood. "France?
What was he, an American, a creole, doing in France when such things
were passing in America?"
"It was not right to sell me! It was not right to sell the nurse of
"Sell?" he repeated. "Sell?"
"I begged on my knees, I begged and begged!"
"Sell," he thought, "my nurse,—the nurse of my mother,—sell
her, and spend the money in France"! He felt a hot wave in his heart,
as if it were blushing.
"What did God free me for,
hein? To be beaten by
niggers? To be run after by little nigger dogs? Why did n't He kill me?
"Philo! Odette! Tom!" They were her children. She began to curse
them, horribly, frightfully.
"They stole my money! They drove me out! They put the police on me!
They set the children to insult me! I curse them! I curse them!"
Her shawl had fallen from her shoulders. She pulled and tore in the
darkness at her shrivelled bare breasts, as if to tear away the
ungrateful lips they had once nourished. He picked up the wretched rag
and folded it around her. It felt good to touch her ill-treated limbs,
to soothe the violence away from her trembling head.
"Hush! Hush!" She might be overheard. He tried to conform his
Parisian accent to her creole ears; he even recollected some
fragmentary creolisms. "Hush! hush! Philo, Odette, Tom; forget them! It
is Charlot you must remember,—your little Charlot; eh, Nourrice?"
The Goupilleaus were going downstairs now,—the husband and wife
arm in arm. He should have been there for the young lady.
"Give me satisfaction! Give me justice, Monsieur Charles!"
He remembered now distinctly hearing her call his father so,—
"Monsieur Charles." A faint, shadowy form came out of his memory; it
never came more distinctly than that, but he knew it for his own
mother, and as he thought of her, his eyes again sought the stairway;
the blue myosotis wreath was just disappearing. His own mother was a
creole girl too, like Marie Modeste Motte.
"A little cabin somewhere, and a few picayunes to keep me from
starving until I die! You are rich! rich!" What an accusation here, at
this time, in this city, from such a source. Rich! great God! at what
"To-morrow, Nourrice! To-morrow, the cabin; now, the picayunes!"
His white gloves received the soil of the gutter-mud as he took her
horny, wrinkled hands in his.
"And those mulattresses! those impudent mulattresses in their fine
clothes! As if they had not been freed too!"
She was a mulattress herself, but she could not forbear the insult,
the curiously galling insult invented by the pure blacks.
"To-morrow! To-morrow morning, Nourrice! See, it is almost here!"
It was not far off—the dawn. The stars were beginning to look pale
and weary as if the ball had lasted too long for them also. On the
gallery, the darkness was becoming gray.
The old woman felt her way along by the balustrade to the
back-stairs. After waiting so many years, it was not too much to wait a
few hours more,—out on the banquette in front of his
house. She would follow him home; she could not trust even him; when he
went out in the morning it would be better to be there to remind him.
The repetition of quadrilles, waltzes,
but the gayety was no longer in the parlors; from the supper-room the
guests went to the dressing-room; the procession was turning to the
As Tante Pauline had said, it was a kind of judgment-day for the
poor creoles. It is not pleasant to be in debt, but it is a comfortable
mitigation of it to have an ocean between one and one's creditor. They
could not help feeling towards Madame Montyon as on the real
judgment-day the poor sinners may feel towards the archangel who wakes
them from the sweet security of death to receive long-delayed
punishment. If she had not said a word, her presence would have proved
too suggestive for their consciences; but the good lady belonged to a
school which did not economize powder and shot when occasion required,
nor did she breath; she carried out her plans only too well. At the
end of her prepared speeches, finding that the respondent did not
assume the role of either thinking or speaking attributed to him or to
her, she was enabled to elaborate her own manner and argument à
indiscrétion. The initiative of politeness had been tried, the
propitiation of a cordial welcome, the head held high to avoid her, or
at least the eyes, so that only the marabout feathers came in the
plane of vision,—the attitude that expresses an effort to keep on a
level with elevated principles, the attitude generally of the poor in
pocket. Some quietly avoided her; others fled before her, but nothing
diverted her. She lent not only one hand but two hands to her affairs.
Her conversation rolled on uninterruptedly, exhaling rent-bills,
due-bills, promissory notes, mortgages, and every other variety of
debt which had been used to procure money from her or old Arvil. Her
voice took the suavity out of the truffles, the bouquet from the
champagne. The creole gentlemen (and who says creole says gastronome)
had never eaten their patés, woodcock, and galantine with such obtuse
palates. Law, conscience, honor! She arrayed herself and her
obligations under the protection of each and all. "Extravagant as
creoles, no wonder they cannot pay their debts! In Paris, millionnaires
and richissimes alone give such suppers," she screamed,
holding her black-velvet train high up, out of the way of the waiters.
"And Goupilleau says the community is bankrupt."
"My dear lady, we must make an effort for our young people; we must
marry our daughters."
Marriage was the last necessity for her to recognize.
"But on what basis,—on what basis, in the name of Heaven, do you
intend to found your families?"
"On love, pure and simple; it is the best we have, having no money."
"Love! Love! And what of honesty, eh? Can you buy bread for love
in New Orleans? meat? rent houses? pay debts with love?"
"Would to Heaven we could, Madame!"
"Ah, Monsieur Frank," she said,—she had taken a fancy to the
young German, and kept him near her,—"it is a community of Philippe
Derons! Apropos, you will not forget to come to Goupilleau's
office to-morrow at ten? We will show Mr. Philippe Deron whom he has to
deal with. You see that old lady over there,— the one with the black
lace cap,—well, to this day she owes me for a servant, a valuable
nurse. And she can come to balls, to introduce a grand-daughter into
society, I believe. I reminded her of it this evening. And Goupilleau
says that the law does not compel the payment of such debts; the law!
yes, the law! but honor, the famous old creole honor! For gentlemen and
ladies, all debts are debts of honor!"
It was unfortunately said in the hearing of one who, though the
least solvent pecuniarily, was good for any amount payable by the code,
- Monsieur Henri Maziel.
"That, that is a little strong," he muttered,— "ça, c'est
un peu fort."
He sought out some undertakers of duelling pomps and ceremonies,
who promptly requested Monsieur Charles Montyon, then descending the
staircase, to furnish at his earliest convenience reparation to creole
honor impugned by his step-mother.) The waiters carried it to the
back-yard, the guests whispered it in the dressing-room; Madame Montyon
herself was the only one to ignore it.
The last carriages rolled away in the breaking of a new day. The
28th of December succeeded to the inheritance of consequence left by
the 27th. Old Madame Fleurissant slept, under the weight of her ninety,
ninety-two, or ninety-five years, the hermetically sealed sleep of the
aged, with no crack or crevice for gnawing thought to intrude and
torture the brain; while her guests carried to their homes and into
their future lives the germs of variations in both which she through
her soirée had sown.
Morris Frank, never more secure in the possession of his
magnificent plantation, went over his nightly résumé of the
details composing it,—the acres under cultivation, the uncleared
forest, the sweep of the river-front, the sugar-house, the hands, even
to the names of the mules; his settlement with his merchant that day:
his bank-book heavy with amounts of deposit. His elation for the first
time was untempered by regret for his father, whose toilsome life and
recent death had made him heir to it all. In his superb physical
strength and accumulated fortune he had but to put his hands out to
grasp the pleasures of life,—his great, strong hands made to grasp,
and his great, strong heart made to enjoy. The magnificent,
complimentary Madame Montyon had also her share in his
self-satisfaction. Through his dreams ran the appointment to meet her
the next day in the notary's office, and he sought in his mind all
possibly useful information with which to confuse the plausible
Madame Montyon, whose fatigues blurred the enjoyable retrospect of
her evening's business, felt only a sleepy triumph. The imported white
maid missed her usual scolding, as she removed the panache
of feathers and velvet train,—with professional tenderness and
solicitude for them, professional indifference to their wearer.
To Madame Odile Maziel, instead of slumber came a vigil filled
with the recollection of an evening of mortification and ennui
, dominated by the prophecies she had defied at her marriage, which
came now to brood over her future like sluggish crows.
Young Montyon, in his feelings an old Montyon, looked through a
veil of cigar-smoke at the old raving Nourrice and the adjacent
childish remembrances her presence evoked; at his native city, and the
people whom his step-mother and father had abandoned in time of crisis;
at the irrepressible step-mother herself, at the imminent choice of
swords or pistols her indiscretion had brought upon him, and the
probable eventualities of the morrow; but last, and longest, he looked
at a crown of blue myosotis over eyes that seemed the eyes of a
thousand women in one, and at a face made from the core of his own
heart, and at the history of it which he had overheard from his station
near the parlor door.
And Marie Modeste; the music, the inexorable music, carried her
around and around, on and on, until, horribly awake, yet expiring with
fatigue, the early church-bells dissolved the infernal charm. She sank
like a feather into a sleep of eider-down, where dreams came to tease
her with sudden fallings, or with hints and suggestions touched her
sensibilities to the coloring of a blush, the starting of a tear; her
feet twitching and moving still in the waltz,—the one waltz with the
Even a soirée, however unusual the occurrence, could
not disturb the equilibrium of Monsieur Goupilleau's notarial
existence. He descended at his habitual hour the next morning to his
office, situated on the ground-floor of his dwelling, and resumed the
interrupted business of yesterday; leaving stoically on the threshold
all thoughts of the seducing comforts and luxuries so recently
installed in his chambers upstairs.
He was soon immersed in the "Succession d'Arvil," extracting
the papers from a tin box, smoothing, cataloguing, annotating them, and
arranging them in distinct little piles on his long office-table.
The private door of his office was pushed open by Marcélite.
"Monsieur!" she said, "Monsieur!" her voice boding ill news.
The whole upper stories of his house, with their treasures of
domestic love and happiness, tottered under the notary's sudden fear.
"Monsieur,"—she gave vent to a long-repressed excitement, her
words coming rapidly, incoherently,—"that, that was Morris Frank last
"Ah!" Monsieur Goupilleau gave a sigh of relief.
"Morris Frank! But who is Morris Frank? Do you know who Morris
Frank is?" she asked, raising her voice.
"Morris Frank?" repeated Monsieur Goupilleau, wonderingly.
She looked at him, still in the doubt which had confused her all
night. Would it have been better to say nothing about it? Was it
really better to tell? A year ago she would have kept it to herself;
"A little white-headed boy," she bent over and stretched her hand
out, at the height of a young child, above the floor, "playing around
the plantation quarters with the little negro children,—the son of
the overseer, a German overseer, a man who hired himself out to whip
slaves he was too poor to own!" Her scathing, fierce tongue brought the
fire into her eyes.
"My God! The son of an overseer at the ball of the aristocrats! On
my old plantation?" She read the confused inquiry in the notary's
face. "The plantation of Monsieur Alphonse Motte, the father of my
Mamzelle? He lives there still?" Monsieur Goupilleau's face brightened
with a discovery. He commenced a question: "The son of the overseer on
Monsieur Motte's plantation?"
"That night! That night! It makes me crazy to think of it! The
ringing of alarm-bells, the shooting of cannon, the gun-boats coming
down the river, the negroes running away, setting fire, stealing; and
the soldiers, soldiers everywhere, none of our white gentlemen about.
My God! we were so frightened we could not think; we left everything in
the house and ran. We got in a cart; it broke down; we walked miles.
When we got to the town, what did we see? The young white boy the
soldiers were hanging! No wonder she died, Mamzelle Marie!" She tried
to steady her hand on the back of a chair, but it shook and trembled to
The front door of the office flew wide. Madame Montyon had jerked
the knob out of the hand of the bowing clerk.
"Hé! Goupilleau, my friend!" she exclaimed brusquely;
"on time, you see! To work; to work! What have we here, eh?"
She had divested herself of so much the night before, and invested
herself in so little this morning, that really her manner (which was
always the same) alone remained to identify her.
She threw back the ends of her India shawl, which she had put over
her purple cashmere morning peignoir, and tossed up her
black lace veil, under which the gray hair stood out crinkled and crisp
from the crimping and manipulation of the evening before.
"Just out of bed, you see! Only a cup of coffee!"
She seated herself at the table and began recklessly to open,
examine, mingle, and scatter the papers arranged by the notary.
Monsieur Goupilleau had made a sign to Marcélite to place herself
in a corner.
"Pardon me, Madame," he said to the lady, rescuing some of the
documents, "but these papers are now in my possession. I am
responsible for them."
"Pooh! pooh!" She was about to express further contempt of the
admonition, when her words were cut short by the surprising appearance
of her son. He was as much astounded as she at the meeting, and more
"My son! Up at this hour!" She extended her cheek for his morning
salute. "What in the world do you want here, with Goupilleau? But what
is that—filth?" She got it from her father to select the strongest
and coarsest word, but it was not entirely inapplicable to Nourrice,
who had followed him in like a spaniel.
The poor old woman started at the voice; her ears were younger than
her eyes. "Ah, mistress! You do not know me. He has better eyes than
you; he knew me at once! Ah, Madame, it was not right to sell me, an
old woman, a nurse! I begged you! I begged you on my knees!"
Madame Montyon, taken by surprise, wavered under the assault.
"I was old, I was past the age, I was diseased!"
"Will you be silent?" She shook her hand before the face of the
negro. What revelations, the terror of her motherhood, might not be
"To sell a nurse! God never intended that!"
The young man stood in close conversation with the notary.
"Eh? What is that,—what is that?" Madame Montyon unceremoniously
thrust herself in between them.
"Only a little cabin somewhere, little master, to keep me out of
the gutters!" Nourrice, afraid still of her old mistress, raised her
voice in anxiety.
"What is this nonsense? what is this craziness?" Madame screamed
to her son. To the old woman: "Will you cease that whining? A little
cabin? A little policeman!"
"My baby! My baby! It's your poor old Nourrice!"
"But, my son, what have you got in your head? I never received one
cent for her,—not one cent! Those dishonest Montamats! They were only
too glad of the emancipation!"
The gentlemen had continued their conversation without attention
to her. She overheard some of their words.
"Money! money!"—the clerks in the next room must have heard her
excited voice,—"to a wretch like that! Never! never! I forbid it!"
She snatched from the notary the paper he had prepared.
"Do you understand, Charles? I forbid it! I command you to desist!"
She launched full speed into one of her ungovernable tempers. "A check,
tudieu! a check! without my advice! without my consent! One
must have a private fortune, tudieu! to pension, to
squander, to throw away,—a private fortune! My money, tudieu!
To her son's face arose an expression that only an intolerable
insult could provoke; and the temper that seized him,—she knew only
too well what that was, if she had not been too blind to see it. He
closed his lips and turned away.
"Enough! Come, Nourrice!" The old woman followed him again; her
back—the strong back he had once ridden for a horse— bent over
nearly double; this time not in play, but in decrepitude.
He paused at the door and pointed to Nourrice. He had also thought
of a supreme retort, an irreparable one: "She was my nurse, given me by
my own mother. You sold her!"
The door had not closed on their exit before it was opened again.
"Mr. Morris Frank, to see Monsieur Goupilleau by appointment,"
announced the clerk.
The young German, fresh, fair, and rosy, had to struggle almost as
hard to enter an office as a parlor. "Monsieur," said he, bowing to
Monsieur Goupilleau; then, remembering the lady, "Madame," to Madame
Montyon; then he paused, not knowing whether to offer his hand or not,
until the opportunity passed, and he had to compose something
appropriate to say.
The notary came to the rescue: "Ah, Mr. Frank! You are a little
early, we are not quite prepared—in fact -"
"But, Goupilleau! what do you mean? You are going to let Monseiur
Frank go without giving the information? He is a witness, don't you
see, against Deron." Madame Montyon got this also from her father,—
her versatility in passing from one passion to another.
"As you please, Madame; interrogate Mr. Frank yourself!"
Monsieur Goupilleau was plainly preoccupied about some other matter
now, but she did not see it. She put her young friend through a
cross-examination to prove her point of view of the creole character
as presented by the distant Deron.
"There, you see, Goupilleau, I am right! Monsieur Frank proves
everything. All you have to do now is to make Deron pay."
"One moment, Mr. Frank," said Monsieur Goupilleau, as the young man
was preparing to leave, "have you any objections to telling me if your
plantation, the Ste. Marie plantation in the Parish of St. James, was
once the property of Monsieur Alphonse Motte?"
The old lady's eyes brightened. She saw a new claim, a new debt.
She looked greedily at the spread papers, and suspiciously at her young
friend, ready to detect and expose any subterfuge.
"Motte? Motte? Is there something there, Goupilleau? Something new?
Motte? But who are they? Motte! Motte!" She kept repeating the name to
start her ear into recognition. "One of our high-minded,
Marcélite came from the corner where she had been waiting.
"Pardon, Madame, pardon," she said, in eager defence. "Those words
should not be used to designate the deceased Monsieur Alphonse Motte."
"Eh! eh!" Madame Montyon responded sharply to the assault. "What is
this? Whom have we here? One of the family?"
The quadroon's eyes burned at the insult. The blood rushed to her
head, deepening the color of her dark skin, reddening her lips,
swelling her throat, inflating her nostrils, maddening her beyond all
discretion. She raised her voice in the impudent way quadroons know so
well, and looked at the white lady with an expression which, brave as
she was, once she would not have dared.
"Madame is, perhaps, not satisfied; the insults of last night
were, perhaps, not enough; Madame apparently does not mind duels; she
would have one every day. Madame, perhaps, loves blood, or perhaps
Madame thinks Monsieur Henri Maziel cannot fight, or perhaps she
thinks her son has more lives than one; or -"
Even Morris Frank was prompt in the emergency. He caught Marcélite
by the arm.
"Marcélite!" the notary raised his voice in anger.
"Speak! I command you, wretch! Goupilleau, make her talk, I say! A
duel! My son!"
Physical and verbal violence struggled for the mastery. Her face
changed rapidly from crimson to white, then to crimson again; her lips
trembled and became blue. She fell into her chair. Was it apoplexy, or
a swoon? She responded to the quick touch of the notary.
"Goupilleau! Goupilleau!" her voice was all anguish, all
submission, now. "She says—she says," pointing in the direction of
Marcélite— "My son!—a duel!" She tried to rise, to pull herself up
by the help of the table.
"Wait!" said Monsieur Goupilleau, forcing her back into her chair.
"Do not stir! Not a word until I return!"
The little man had a manner which in emergencies could rise above
occasions and impose commands on the most exalted.
In the very next room, sitting at one of his desks, plodding over
some notarial copying, Monsieur Goupilleau possessed the very Supreme
Court of the Duel, the very infallibility of the code of honor,—a
tall, thin, sallow young man, behind whose fierce black moustaches were
no front teeth whatever.
"Ah," thought the notary, after the first glance, "Théodule is
silent; Théodule is mysterious; Théodule has on his black coat and
white cravat,—a duel, sure!"
The old lady had laid her head on the table. Her vigor had snapped.
"My money! my money!" and the retort, "My own mother,"— that was all
she could hear from the buzzing in her ears. What she saw? All she
could see; what, as a soldier's daughter, she should have better borne.
When she raised her face, on the notary's return, her eyes—her
little, strong, bold, brigadier eyes—were weeping.
"Madame!" It was the sympathy in Monsieur Goupilleau's voice that
prepared her for the worst. "Madame, words spoken last night, no doubt
in an unguarded moment, insults passed, taxing with dishonor honorable
personages,—under the circumstances, Madame, nothing is to be done."
He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly, just as Théodule had done.
"Gentlemen, even if they have no money, I might say particularly if
they have no money, pay their debts of honor.'
"Words spoken last night! but I only said the truth!" She began to
reiterate them angrily, then changed to an attack on the notary.
"Nothing to be done, tudieu! Nothing to be done! You dare
tell me that, Goupilleau,— me, a mother!" She had strength enough to
rise now, and shake her head at him until her bonnet dropped to the
floor. "You dare tell any mother that, when her son is going to fight a
The "Succession d'Arvil" lay scattered everywhere,—
documents folded, unfolded, face up, face down. She seized one and
grasped a pen. Her fingers had not recovered, nor could her eyes see
clearly; but despite wavering, blots, and irregularities, the words yet
stood out with sufficient clearness:
I apologize to Monsieur—for offensive words spoken at Madame
Fleurissant's ball last night. I beg him to believe that a moneyed debt
is not a debt of honor.
LOUISE DUPERRE MONTYON.
"Tudieu! nothing to be done! Goupilleau, you are a
fool! You will see that something is to be done. Here, supply the name
and send it to that -" and she called Monsieur Henri Maziel, in
French, the name of a man who prepares ambushes for assassination.
"What's that?" She jerked her head aside from a touch. It was Marcélite
gently replacing her bonnet, and examining her face and head with
"Blessed Virgin!" she thought; "what a genius her hairdresser must
"Here, my good woman," said the old lady, when the bonnet was
fastened and the lace veil dropped, "give me your arm; conduct me home
The notary read first one side of the paper, then the other,
scratched over with the hard terms of some of old Arvil's extortions.
"Ah!" said he, looking around his office, deserted now of all
except the young German, who was still trying to think of something to
say, something to do.
Bred in a classical school, Monsieur Goupilleau was addicted to
phrases that came epigrammatically. Shrugging his shoulders, his eyes
beamed with the intelligence that only legal experience can give, and
with the satirical intelligence which only such experience with women
inspires: "Ah, grattez la femme, et vous trouverez la mère!
MARRIAGE OF MARIE MODESTE.
"MARCÉLITE! but where is Marcélite? Send Marcélite to the parlor,"
called Madame Goupilleau to a passing servant. "Continue, Sister,
continue; I am listening."
And the low voice of the Sister of Charity poured forth such a tale
of asylum necessities mingled with asylum gossip, that Madame
Goupilleau was carried away again into forgetfulness of both Marcélite
and the parlor.
"Is it possible! I can hardly believe it!"
The Sister had asked but for one moment in the corridor, but she
had underestimated the length, and Madame Goupilleau the interest of
her budget. It sounded almost like a scandal in the church, a
deplorable thing of infinite interest to all good Christians. Not until
the volubly grateful itinerant disappeared with replenishment of her
asylum's particular lack and exhaustion of its particular grievance,
did duty recall with painful jerk the chaperon to her charge.
"Ah! simpleton that I am! and I have vowed and vowed never to see
those tiresome Sisters again."
She ran along the corridor to save what time she could, her long
skirts rustling after her, holding her head with both hands and
scolding it well. Without stopping she entered the parlor. Too late!
At the first glance she saw that.
"Tante Eugénie!" exclaimed Marie Modeste with quavering breath, as
if waking from a dream.
"Madame!" apostrophized Charles Montyon, hurrying forward to meet
"Not a word! I know it all! It is my fault!" but she looked at them
She had planned it otherwise, and far better,— this scene,—with
a minute particularity for detail which only an outsider and a schemer
in futurity can command. The young man would come to her first, of
course, with his avowal, as etiquette prescribes. She would go to
Marie herself, and delicately, as only a woman can, she would draw
aside the veil from the unconscious heart and show the young girl the
dormant figure of her love there,—love whose existence she did not
"My daughter," she would say. Ah! she had rehearsed the discourse
too often to have halted for a word. At any moment of the night or day
her tongue could have delivered it. "My daughter!" All that as a
daughter she had once craved to hear and been disappointed of, and all
that her exempt mother heart yearned to utter, she would tell. For she
had a mother's heart, if by an error of Nature she had never been a
But the event always fools the prepared. Now, she knew not what to
say or do. She was in fact embarrassed. It would have been better to
depend upon the inspiration of the moment. She sank into an arm-chair
and fanned herself with a handkerchief which scented the air with
"I beg a thousand pardons. I did not intend; I had no idea -"
protested the young man.
That was so; when she was called away they were conversing about
the climate of Paris.
"Tante Eugénie!" was all that Marie could murmur; for the dream
held her still,—a dream out of which she could not awake. Her eyes
shone, touched with a new, bright light, and her white face swam behind
blushes, appearing and disappearing like the moon behind thin clouds.
"She looks adorable, the little one," thought Madame. "If I could
only have got hold of Marcélite, I would have sent her to chaperon
It was not pleasant to think that the vigilance which had
guaranteed a whole institute of girls should damage its record in these
simple circumstances. A pest on Sisters and asylums! "Eh,
Mignonne!" She drew the girl to her to look into those
wonderfully brilliant eyes. It was impossible; the lids closed so
quickly, and the long black lashes fell so thick on the cheeks, curling
up at the ends as if singeing from the hot blushes, that even burned
Madame's lips pressed against them. The troublesome face finally hid
itself among the laces on her shoulder.
"Thou art sure? Very sure? No mistake?
kissing her again. "After all, it is what I expected. And you,
Monsieur," to Charles, who was standing close on the other side of her
chair, "you have been indiscreet, as indiscreet as possible. You should
have come to me first. You know that. Oh, no! I cannot pardon you, at
least not immediately. Have you spoken to Monsieur Goupilleau?"
"Madame, I intended -"
"What! Not even spoken to my husband? But go downstairs this
moment, this instant! He is in his office."
"I assure you it was unpremeditated—leaving us alone -"
"Ah! that is what I have always said; those Sisters do no good,
going around from house to house -"
She was fixed and inexorable; would not listen to him, would not
even look at him, resting her head against the tall back of her chair,
directing her eyes into vacancy.
Behind her, discretion was again violated and outraged. The hands
of Marie and Charles met of themselves, first accidentally and then
purposely, and would not part. The eyes which had so much to conceal
from Madame had for him abundant revelations, which the lashes did not
hide, from eyes that caused her lids to rise merely by glances. Her
face came out of the blushes,—a thin, white face in an oval frame of
plaited black hair, the lips parted as if again in the tremor of
caress;— Madame Goupilleau, with that big back to her chair, might
just as well have been in the corridor again with the Sister.
"Tante Eugénie, I shall go with him. I, I -" She had to go, for the
hands absolutely would not unclasp.
"My little girl is no more," thought Madame Goupilleau as they left
her alone. "Well! Ma bonne!" to Marcélite, who came at
last into the room. "Your young lady is going to make a fine marriage,
- a fine marriage! Tiens!" interrupting herself
suddenly. "I wanted you; where were you? I called you to go into the
parlor to chaperon. Ah!—I see now. You were in connivance! What
innocence I have, for my age!"
"Madame!" the quadroon's voice was apologetic, but her eyes were
triumphant. "Such a good opportunity -"
"At least,—at least, you did not send that stupid Sister to me?"
"That! No, Madame! On my word of honor."
"In truth, I believe you capable of anything. What a rigmarole!
the Archbishop and some Madame Houbi, or Hibou, and a priest of
heaven knows where! All the while ce beau monsieur was
on his knees to Mademoiselle. It is old Madame Montyon, however, who
will have something to say," concluded Madame Goupilleau in thought.
"She will beat a tocsin about our ears."
Madame Montyon, as expected, from the very first word of
announcement resolutely vetoed any proposition of marriage between her
step-son, her prospective heir, and a dowerless bride. When the young
man came to her, the old lady was sitting in her room in the twilight,
going over her accounts, which for convenience and secrecy she carried
in her head,—a pleasant, wakeful occupation, adding dollar to dollar;
watching the pile of gold, the concrete presentment of her numerous
investments, grow in endless, ceaseless procreation. Her boudoir
was as bare and simple as a soldier's quarters. There were no more
effeminacies of culture or religion about it than about herself. She
had asked no other assistance from Providence than a neutral position
as to her affairs, which she managed as her father had his army,
without intermediation of saints or intermeddling of priests. And no
one could deny that her affairs had paid her the compliment of
prospering under the régime.
"No, my son, no!" she reiterated, varying the formula not in the
slightest degree. "Believe me, I know better than you. The young lady
will not suit at all. In the first place, she has nothing."
"But, my mother -"
"In marriage there must be something; money is tangible, money
remains; money is something, in fact -"
"Love?" he said, in a low voice, for it was novel to him, and he
had yet to learn not to be shy of it.
"Love! Love! That for love!" snapping her fingers, which she could
do with masculine effect.
And love was his theme, his inspiration, his reason; and love was
her only dower! It was like talking of God to an unbeliever.
"Be reasonable; listen to me! On my word of honor, as a woman who
was not born yesterday, and who has not lived with her eyes shut, this
crisis is temporary, momentary. She is not the only young woman in the
world! enfin, I guarantee," raising her voice and her
finger impressively,—"I guarantee that you will meet at least, at
least, one woman a year during the next ten years of your life whom
you will love enough to make your wife. Ten women! Ten wives! Mon
Dieu! and I am putting it low. No! I can never consent."
The rebellious retorts, the marplot of their domestic intercourse,
which always rose in his heart at the sound of her voice, crowded to
his tongue now, but he had no temper to utter them.
"Love, my dear, it passes like everything,— only a little
quicker." He was standing. She did not raise her head to him. She was
speaking not to him alone, but all men. "Mon Dieu! This
one will go like 'Good-morning'!" She kissed the tips of her fingers.
"In point of fact, if you should marry Mademoiselle Motte now, and she
should die, you would marry again in two years. Ah! don't jump so;
don't exclaim at me that way. It is not my fault. I did not create
men,"—shrugging her shoulders. "After all, it is only Nature; and
Nature is another name for a strong, ugly animal."
How could she feel so! How could she talk so! He looked at her
sitting below him, and for the first time tried to divest her of age,
ugliness, and cynicism. She had been young once like Marie Modeste. Had
she ever lifted her eyes to a man as Marie did, praying, yet dreading,
his love? Had her warm hands ever got cold and trembled in the hand of
another, as Marie's did? Had her slim form for one instant been in the
arm of another—could first love ever be forgotten? Or was there one
human being in the world whom this great ocean had not once enfolded,
engulfed, drawn down, drowned beyond recollection, beyond comprehension
of past, present, future, self, interest, money?
"And you think, you think—And women," changing the question, "can
they not love? This young girl, Marie, she loves me, she has told me
so." He laid his hand on her shoulder to accentuate his whisper.
The old lady's husband had married her for money, and had widowed
her contemptuously during his life. She answered truthfully.
"If she loves you, all I have to say is that she will not be more
disappointed now if you do not marry her, than some day if you do." His
hand fell from her shoulder; he turned away. So old! So gray-haired,—
and the widow of his own father! He had not a word to say. His dreams
and fantasies were frightened away. How the young are tied and
hobbled!, their most innocent plans twisted, turned, thwarted by the
skeleton hand of a dead father, or mother, or grandparent, holding a
careful entail of unhappiness and disgrace. And there is no relief from
the heritage! Flash after flash, illumination came in his brain along
the dark spots of his ignorances,—spots in his father's and mother's
life which thought had glided over before, which his manhood had
respected; and the moment divulged connubial secrets, preserved so far
by the miracle which preserves the simplicity of the young in a
secretless, mystery-less world!
"I assure you, my son," his step-mother changed her voice briskly
at the super-importance of her own business, "I am exceedingly pleased
at the results of the Arvil succession. It is very good I came to
attend to it myself. When we return to France -"
"Return to France?"
"I said, when we return to France.
Then you will see the
difference. You shall be installed en prince. Your
separate establishment, your -" she checked off finger by finger her
intentions for his pleasure and comfort. "Then you can talk of
marriage, then you can select, then you will be a parti, and you can marry a
"And Mademoiselle Motte?"
"Eh! Will you never be convinced?' frowning angrily. "Is
Mademoiselle Motte a partie? Has she a dot?
Has she even a family? The foundling of a negro woman!"
"No! No!" Her own voice could not have been louder nor more
authoritative. He came around and stood close in front of her chair.
Without thinking,—for his heart gave him no time,—he spoke, soon
changing his tone and his words, for his audience changed,—the old
woman and the chair fading away, and the young girl appearing, standing
before him as she did this morning, transforming his defence into a
tribute. It was dark in the room, or his face would have betrayed the
vision. In the early, powerful moments of first love the real presence
is carried around everywhere, and the sacrament of communion is
celebrated by the heart, in any place, at any moment.
"Listen! Let me tell you, once for all. A war had broken over her
country. Her father was killed in the first engagement. Her mother died
as soon as the news reached her,—shot in fact and in truth by the
same bullet. But one life was spared, a weak, wretched, frail infant,
as if by a curse,—a girl to live and grow and develop in a detached
condition. Her nurse, one of the very slaves about whom the war was
being fought, aided the flight of the panic-stricken wife from her
home on the approach of a noisy, victorious enemy, and received into
her arms the child which was born an orphan. Orphanage, my mother, is
what a child never outgrows; it is what God himself cannot remedy."
His voice took intonations unknown before to him. "The nurse, a slave
no longer, since she had flown with the infant to this city in the
possession of the emancipationists, took the child to herself and
nursed it,—nursed it as the Virgin Mary must have nursed her
Heaven-sent babe; nursed it on her knees, in abnegation, in adoration;
lodging it in her room, which became, not a room, but a sanctuary;
couching it in her own bed, which became an altar; feeding it, tending
it, as imagination can conceive a passionate heart in a black skin
tending a white child under the ghostly supervision of dead parents.
When the child grew to intelligence of its surroundings, when memory
began, day by day, to weave together frail bits of history, then a
fiction arose as if by incantation out of the rude, ignorant,
determined mind of the nurse. She placed the child at a school, that
the child's memory could not antedate. She gave the child a responsible
white guardian, which the child's knowledge could not contradict. She
took her forever out of the homely surroundings which love had made
sumptuous and self-sacrifice holy, but which would eventually prove
social ostracism. To maintain this fiction, patience, money, time were
needed. Patience? Did a woman ever need patience for a child? Was money
ever lacking, from an inferior to a superior? Time,—the good God
gives the same time to the slave as the free, the black as the white,
the ignorant as the wise, the weak as the strong. Patience fed the
fiction, anticipated doubts, allayed suspicions. Money came in
quantities sufficient to form not a shield, but a pedestal; and time
took the little girl and led her onward and onward through an
education, and through the experience which brings the necessary
ingredients to the formation of a woman's heart. Time protected the
fiction to the last moment; but—the last moment came. The basis of
the young girl's life was suddenly withdrawn, and truth came, in the
fall to the earth. With the truth came, however, the substance of what
fiction had supposed. To the nurse came two willing associates. To the
young girl, bereaved by the fiction almost as cruelly as she had been
by the war, came parents,—volunteer parents. Ah! who could see her
and refrain from loving her?" He stopped breathless.
"He raves," thought the old lady, "like De Musset!" But she did not
answer,—perhaps some hitherto unperceived merits in God's creation of
men coming before her mental vision. She was only what experience had
made her; her theories, like most women's theories, came from the
heart, not the brain, and she had no imagination to beautify or make
Love is a noxious grass for growth. One rootlet planted in the
heart, and two beings are soon so tied, tangled, and knotted together
by the miraculous reduplication of perhaps a single look, sigh, form of
face, glance of the eye, that there is nothing for it but marriage,
with the shortest possible engagement, to get the trousseau
ready in; the creoles, wisely or not, prefering to apply the test of
fidelity to husband rather than lover.
This was in winter. The spring approached, each day an incendiary
to the heart, and all hymeneal. No one grows reasonable with the
spring. The old lady felt the occult influences against her, and
resented them,—the birds aggressively lusty, the sky bringing the
roses out until the bushes threatened premature exhaustion from wanton
prodigality in blooming, the moon acting like a venal Voudou
charm. In a community where none but dowerless brides are born, love
easily discounts money; and money was her only capital. She was left
more and more in a helpless minority, fighting hard to maintain the
solidarity of her resolution and fortune; daily reaffirming the one and
intrenching the other by testament and codicil behind a bulwark of
papers proof against the assaults of present generations, and unborn
ones to the third and fourth degree.
The contract of marriage, her consolation now, was to be her
substitute when she was gone, an unanswerable rebuke, a certificate of
consent but not approval, a notarial monument to the wealth and
generosity of the step-mother, the foolishness of the groom, and to all
perpetuity a confession of poverty by the bride. It is hard to be
rich, and a mother at the same time; but the old lady undertook the
task. And while the young people were learning the necessary
indispensable vocabulary of endearment for future intimacy, she
applied herself to drawing with equal security the strings about her
heart and the strings about her purse.
June brought the wedding day; for June brings more wedding days in
New Orleans than any other month of the year. June by the calendar, and
accredited for the forward month with hot suns and light showers, had
peeped in upon every moon since December, confusing all meteorological
rules, befooling the silly weeds as usual, and by unseasonable
enticement into blossoming, losing the fruit-trees their crops.
In the forenoon hours, with their compliments and presents, came
the bridesmaids,—all in one body, contagious with emotion;
exclamatory, effusive, vibrating from the verge of tears to the verge
"Your wedding day!"
"You are well,
"You are not frightened?"
"You do not tremble the least,—the least in the world?"
"Let me feel your heart!"
"It would paralyze me!"
"Such a beautiful day!"
"A little warm!"
An unconfessed but patent awe of her held them aloof. They stood
together in a group, from which their sentences issued spasmodically in
bunches. They had been schoolmates from their a, b, c class,—
most of them; so had the mothers and grandmothers of some of them.
Since short dresses and socks, mindful of their destiny, they had
promised to be bridesmaids one to another. Or, death supervening, porteuses: to walk in white
toilettes and white veils at
the head of the burial procession, as this evening they intended to do
at the bridal. An office so conspicuously desirable, this last, that it
was made the subject of barter and bond; a matter of written and sealed
documents, hidden in secret corners of their desks, —the most
precious archives of their school life, though fluctuating annals of
its friendships. Bride or corpse, how remote Marie Modeste was already
on that road which they could travel as yet only in imagination. She
was changing already. Taking the cue from their relative positions,
they spoke disparagingly of themselves, meanly of their offerings, in
"Nothing but a souvenir from your old Fifine."
"You won't forget the dunce of your class when you look at this,
"This has no value, Marie, but sentiment."
"Promise not to open this until I leave; it's a horror."
"You won't mind wearing this for my sake, Marie, you are so
"Chérie, hang this somewhere out of sight, but keep
your faithful Louise in mind."
"I made this myself, for you; that's the reason it's so ugly."
porte-bonheur for your new life."
vide-poche for your
"A cushion for your
prie-Dieu; I implore you do not
look at the stitches!"
"You will not forget us, Marie?"
"You will always be the same to us, Marie?"
"We did n't learn our
a, b, c together for nothing, did we,
"And we did n't miss our cosmography together for nothing, did we,
"Do you remember, Marie, when -"
"Or that day -"
They were actually beginning to have a past to talk about, like
"Mon Dieu! how long ago that is; it seems like
"Just about a year!"
"And Marie the first one married!"
"But you are engaged, Fifine!" they all cried. Fifine as usual
persisted in a denial, absurd in the face of evidence.
"Well, Marie, I give it to you with all my heart." (Meaning the
honor.) And they all kissed her again to affirm the sentiment
unanimously. "Ah, you are very fortunate!"
"And he is so handsome,
"And such good family."
"Oh, he has everything,—everything."
"Was it a Novena, Marie?"
"Or our Lady of Lourdes?"
"Saint Roch! bah! He is old."
"Ma chère, they tell me there is a place down town,
way down town, where you can obtain anything,—absolutely anything."
"If it had not been for that pretty
toilette at Madame
"That was the first time you saw him,
"Mon Dieu!" in chorus at her assent.
maman my dress was hideous there."
"Three months ago! You kept your secret well, Marie."
"As for me, I would announce the first week."
"Like old Maman Birotteau; one hour afterwards,—one hour, that's
positive,—she was in the street announcing Adelaïde's engagement."
"To cut off retreat from the gentleman."
"I will never get married, I'm sure."
"Nor I either; I never had any luck."
"If I do not get married, I do not want to live."
"Not to get married, is to confess one's self simply a—a
"But it's a woman's vocation! What must she do else?"
"There is always the convent."
"The convent! bah! The convent does n't fool any one."
"Non, merci! No convent for me!"
"I would rather comb Saint Catharine."
"Like Tante Pauline?"
"And tangle the whole town with your tongue? "
"My maman was married at sixteen."
grandmaman at fourteen."
"Ah, but times were different then!"
"Women had more chance."
"And men less egotism."
"Frankly, I find men insipid."
This was too obvious an insincerity to be taken seriously; even the
"But we must not stay all day!"
"Yes, chérie, we must leave you."
"We will pray for you!"
They closed the door and went down the stairs to the corridor.
"But, you know, she is a brunette, and he is a
"He should have been blond."
"Brown and brown, that is bad."
"Every one ought to marry her opposite."
"I adore blondes; they look so cold."
"No, according to me; dark eyes and light hair."
"Blue eyes and black hair,—that is my type."
"And tall, tall, tall."
"Oh, I hope the good God will send me a
"Dis-donc, Loulou, you are not engaged,— true?
"No, unfortunately! No such good luck."
"No matter; the whole town says so."
"Ouf! how dark the parlors look!"
"They sign the contract of marriage at three o'clock."
"I hear the old Madame Montyon gives handsomely."
"On the contrary, I heard, not a cent."
"But what will Charles do for a living?"
"Work, like other men."
"A Parisian work?" Loulou mimicked his Parisian accent.
"He is not a Parisian, he only affects it; he is a Creole like all
"And she has nothing."
"Not a cent. If old Monsieur Motte had lived, it would have been
different." Referring to their school traditions of his wealth.
Vestiges of winter were still lurking in the damp, stone-paved
corridor, chilling them a little before they got into the bright
street, where a summer sun shone all the year round. The chill remained
slightly in their hearts as they walked away, for beauty and youth were
the only dower of most of them, and both were fragile; one year
already had passed over their maturity, and patience is not a Creole
virtue. Their aspirations being neither high nor many, disappointment
need only come in one form, to be effectual.
The young girl who was so soon to be a bride sat alone in her room,
in the isolation of retreat which custom recognizes as salutary if not
needful,—alone, yet not entirely alone, for she had the spiritual
companionship which comes in the solemn moments of life to the pure in
heart, and permits them while on earth to feel if not to see God. A
week ago she had passed her eighteenth birthday. Only eighteen
anniversaries since her birth! It was little to form a separation from
then and now. Looking back, she saw them rising, her birthdays, an
ascending plane of mental and physical growth, until they culminated
three months ago. That date had changed her: she was a woman now. Over
her face had fallen the dignity which over faces of her type falls
without crepuscular interlude, severing them from childhood as from a
day that is past. Her dreaming eyes, wakened to look on life itself,
not illusions fed by the imagination, were beginning to fill with
women's wares, all on top and exposed, as good women's wares are, for
the world to see. The inchoate sentiments that had held the mouth in
vacillation were gone; the lips that had said "I love," had found
their character and expression. But the body was still in arrears,
still hesitating over the sure profit of a change, receiving yet from
the long, thin, white gown the curves and mouldings it should have
She walked across the room to where the usual pictures of devotion
hung on the walls. They had answered their purpose in her life, and
were beginning to be useless. Her religion was no longer to be fed by
symbols, but to produce them. But as she looked at them, holding in
her hand the little worn prayer-book that had once belonged to her
mother, they helped her to span the interval that separated her from
her dead parents,—those absent guests represented only by proxies at
all the feasts of her life. Her mother had once stood this way in
bridal dress, waiting for him who was to become her husband and Marie's
father. The virgins and sainted women from across the centuries made
the thought plain to her, of the immensity of eternity and woman's
vocation in it. Her heart throbbed and expanded under her novitiate's
dress; she soared higher and higher in spirit; she touched immortality
in vision. She felt the protecting hand of God, —God, the Father, who
had carried her, an infant, through bloodshed, revolution, and
disaster; had given her a nurse—mother, friends; had brought a heart
for her heart from a distance, from the unknown, across an ocean! He
had deprived her in youth, and saved the hoardings for a dower of love
on her wedding day! She hid her face in her hands, to tell Him her love
Young girls who come into a world already prepared for them, from
their layette to their trousseau, on their marriage day sit and think
about the wedding banquet preparing for them, the costly presents, the
beautiful dress, the new-fashioned wreath,—not of orange-flowers,
but of blossoms more appropriate to the virginity of the rich,—what
they will do after marriage, and what after that, sending their
thoughts along blushing paths maybe too surely blazed by secret gossip
or contraband literature. They do not feel their destiny like the young
girls who are led along by God Himself,—patiently waiting in
seclusion, poverty, and affliction the appointed seasons for knowledge,
hearing in silences and darknesses divine notifications, receiving
understanding with the intimations of futurity; the young girls whom
He reserves for the good of the human race, to mother a Saviour, or
transform the seed of a ploughman into the soul of a hero.
Marcélite entered the room and stood silently waiting, looking,
thinking how best to carry out her intentions. "Mamzelle Marie!" She
did not speak as the authoritative nurse to her charge; she was the
humble servant of a future madame.
"Oh, Marcélite! the thoughts,—the thoughts one has!" It was so
good to lay her head once more on the shoulder that had cradled her, a
baby! so good to feel that soft, dark hand caressing her as it had
caressed her all through life! For a moment she had felt strange and
lonely in this glimpse of the new, foreign future. "Marcélite, do you
know what it is to love? When I think of it, you know, ma bonne
, I am glad that my—that Monsieur Motte did not live." How happy
she must have been to pronounce that name again! "I wanted to die at
first, I wanted it to kill me; but it is all gone,— that feeling,"
laying her hand on her heart and making gratuitous confession. "Think;
if he had lived, it might all have been different. I might not have
met Charles; and all this love I give him, and all the love he gives
me,—what is the love of an uncle in comparison? God was right to
manage it that way,—to send you to manage it for Him. And, Marcélite,
all the time I was studying, I thought it was for my uncle; but I see
now it was for Charles. Everything I did was for him. I believe I was
born just to marry him. I am frightened now, when I think I might have
died without it. It is grand to be a woman. Oh, I feel like a woman
now; I know what it is to be a woman. God has told me everything." The
low voice hardly carried the words to the nurse's ear, but her breath
fell like the sweetest caresses on the dark skin.
"Bébé! Bébé!" was all the woman could say. Her own
marriage in the far-off days of slavery,—what a thing it had been,
not to be mentioned, not to be thought of, before her white child bride!
"Marcélite, do you think he loves me as much as I love him?" A
question of supreme importance, requiring a long, rambling, but
"Because, Marcélite, what do you do in life when the one you love
does not love you?"
Although no one in the city,—a city of intrigue,—knew better
than the hairdresser, she had nothing to say.
"Marcélite, did my
maman look like me as a bride? And my
papa, was he like Charles?"
"Bébé, Zozo!" Could human beings ever unite the
beauties and excellences she described, or eloquence stray farther
beyond the boundaries of truth?
"Their pictures hang on the walls of the house, there on the
plantation; their books, their furniture -"
Pictures of what had been a pictureless ideal to her! Her orphan
presentment of parents was no better than the blind one's presentment
"One of these days, Marcélite, you and I, we will slip away from
home—oh, Charles shall not prevent me!" she blushed and smiled; she
had never smiled that way before she met him. "We will travel to that
plantation; we will walk through the fields, slowly, easily; we will
come to the gardens; we will go through them slowly, easily; you will
be my guide; we will creep to the house, slowly, easily; we will peep
through the shutters, and quick! quick! you will point out the place
where those pictures are. Heaven! if I do not die in that moment, I
will tear open the doors, I will rush in! If there should be dogs
about! I hope there will be no dogs -"
She stopped suddenly. As if it were true,—all this! As if the
nurse would not destroy a world to please her, or fabricate one to
delude her into security! She knew the woman, and the extravagances of
her heart. Almost, almost she felt as if she could give up her
bridegroom that it might be true, Marcélite's story,—her bridegroom,
and all the love that dazzled around her future like an aureole. She
forced herself away from the thought.
"But what a
toilette! What elegance! I never saw you so fine
in my life before! No, stand still! Let me look at you!" She walked
round and round the nurse. In truth, calico skirts could not stand out
more stiffly, nor a bandanna be tied into more bows and knots. Simply
to look at the new silk apron made it rustle.
"What is that you have in your hand? For me?"
"Bébé, you will hide it in your drawer. You will not
look at it,—not yet. To-morrow, next day."
"Par exemple, I am not to look at anything to-day, it
seems! Well, you for one,—you reckon without my curiosity."
She laughed as she snatched a package out of the nurse's hands. She
had never laughed so easily, so merrily in her life. It was like the
laugh of her old school companions, and sounded novel and charming in
her own ears.
"Fifine, Loulou, Tetelle, all said the same thing. It is too
"Zozo! To-morrow or next day."
"Bah! I am going to do as I please. I am going to open this. I am
going to open them all, right now. You need not think I do not know
what it is! It is my present,—my wedding present from you. And I have
been expecting it all day, and I knew you were going to keep it till
the last minute! Là! Madame Marcélite always takes her
time! Madame Marcélite must always produce her effect! Ah, I know you,
you ogre!" And she stopped again to pass her hands affectionately over
the nurse's shoulders, which stood out like feather pillows.
"Now we will see what it is. A box, a work-box, a beautiful
nécessaire. Thimble, see! it fits. Needles, scissors, thread,—
evidently I am to do my own sewing in future. No more Marcélite to
darn, no more Marcélite to mend. And another compartment underneath!
The little compartment underneath was filled with gold dollars. At
first one would have thought it jewelry. The nurse started more
violently at the discovery than the young lady.
"It is what I have saved for you,
wedding day,—ever since you were born, ever since your maman
gave you to me."
Looking at the face before her, Marcélite tested another argument.
For a year she had not ventured to offer her earnings. She had
uncomplainingly borne that the Goupilleaus should supplant her, the
sole provider heretofore, but now -
"It was your own time,
Bébé; I belonged to you: you
have a right to it. Who made me your slave? God. Who made me free, hein?"
The girl looked stolidly, mechanically, at the box in her hand.
It seemed impossible for the quadroon's voice to become more
humble, more pleading; but the words that followed proved that it could.
"Zozo! You don't mind taking it from me, from your
Marcélite, your nurse, your own negro. No one will ever know it! I
swear before God, no one will ever know it! Bébé, you
must have a little money, just for yourself, —when you get married
you don't know. You see, Bébé, they are strangers, they
are not us, they are not Marcélite, they are not you. I could have
bought you something; but I wanted you to have some money, some
picayunes of your own."
It was hard to understand that the softness of her breath, the
strength of her arms, the activity of her feet, the chained freedom of
her whole life, could be accepted without dishonor, and not the money
value in coin; hard for the girl to understand it, too. Her past life
of unconscious dependence rose before her, humiliating, degrading
her. Tears of mortification came into her eyes; the bright, beautiful
day was tarnished.
"Only for the first few days,
Bébé; after that, you
won't mind taking their money. Oh, it will all be different after you
are married, when you are his wife. What use have I got for it? I've
got no parents; I've got no children, only you! They must n't say you
came to them without a picayune; with only your clothes in a bundle,
like a poor unknown! Whom must I give it to, if not to you? To negroes?
You think I am going to work for negroes, eh!"
There was something else in marriage than love? There were
distinctions. She had no money; that made a difference! She was to take
this, acquiesce in what conscience, tradition forbade, receive money
from a negro woman rather than her husband. For the first few days—
they, the Montyons, were rich; she was poor.
Gauging effect on the face of Marie, Marcélite saw that she was
misunderstood, felt that she had blundered. She had come to the end of
her argument with her cause lost.
"You won't take it, You are going to refuse it! You despise it!
You would rather go to the Montyons for money than take it from me! I
know, I know, it's because I am black, it's because I am a negro!" She
closed her eyes over the tears, and her mouth over the sobs that shook
inside her huge frame. It had escaped her,—the first confession of
the galling drop in her heart. Gay, insouciante,
impudent, she had worn her color like a travesty. Who would have
"Marcélite! Marcélite! You must not talk that way! See, I take it,
I take it thankfully! Have I not taken everything from you? You do me
injustice. How can you reproach me?"
But it came too late to appease. The woman shook her head, flinging
the tears savagely from her eyes.
"No! No! Throw it away! Pitch it out of the window! They have
money,—the Montyons have plenty of money. Everything I do goes
wrong; no one helps me. Even God will not help a negro!"
There was a rustling of skirts in the hall outside, a tap at the
"Tante Eugénie!" exclaimed the girl, joyfully. "I shall show it to
her! She will see it! She will thank you too!" She bounded forward with
the open box.
"Let her know you take money from me!
Non! Non!" The
situation was reversed. With an adroit movement of the hand the
quadroon possessed herself of the box and hid it from Madame
Goupilleau, effacing magically all trace of emotion except in her eyes,
in whose depths feeling seemed to surge and roll like the billows of
the sea after the stone has passed.
"It is time,
mignonne! Come! They are going to sign
the contract now. Oh, you will understand all about it when you hear
it! It is long, and, ma foi! perfectly incomprehensible.
It is in my head in such confusion! Marcélite, my good woman, go
downstairs to the office, and ask the young gentlemen who are to serve
as witnesses to have the kindness to ascend to the parlor."
Monsieur Goupilleau, the notary, was closeted in his private
office with Mr. Morris Frank. They had been together the entire
morning in an interview which was the résumé of a month's
correspondence and a week's personal intercourse. The notary, glancing
at his watch between sentences, saw that economy of words must be
practiced to conclude within the appointed time; his face was grave at
the reflection of his miscalculation; perhaps a day or two more would
have saved him the disappointment of his scheme and still rendered
feasible his coup de théâtre, as he called it to himself.
The young German's face was grave also, graver than the notary's.
It was a summary proceeding,—this thrusting not only a plantation in
the balance, but, gently as the notary put it, a father's reputation
also. If his father had only lived one year longer to answer and act in
his own defence! In embarrassment of manner and words the young man had
repeated over and over again:—
"Monsieur, I assure you, you do not know my father. He never made a
mistake in his life."
The notary whose profession was officially to prevent the
depredations of friends and relations upon one another, replied less
as a notary than as a Frenchman,—
"Monsieur, a father never makes mistakes to a son such as you are."
It was a cruel predicament. The notary held a letter in his hand;
continually referring to it with his eyes, he continually forbore
reading it aloud.
"To acknowledge what you wish, criminates my father."
"Restitution is all that could vindicate him."
"There must be some law, some -"
"She is a young girl, an orphan; you a man, strong -"
A desperate last hope, and the swiftly-passing time, impelled the
notary to seek this adjunct to his legal argument.
"A donation?" The young man asked eagerly.
"No, sir,"— Monseiur Goupilleau drew himself up haughtily,—
Armed with decision, Monsieur Goupilleau began to read the letter
in his hand, fixing his eyes resolutely on the paper and throwing his
voice into the official tone of indifference to human interests,
sentiments, and affections which is the mode of conveyance of notarial
"You ask me -"
"You have already consulted a lawyer! I thought it was understood
between us -"
"I have sought legal advice in a supposititious case, from an
unquestioned authority," giving the source. "As you will see, no names
have been mentioned." Proceeding with the letter, " 'You ask me, Would
it be possible, the owners of a plantation dying, both husband and
wife, the first year of the war, and the nurse running away with the
only heir, an infant, that the overseer of the plantation could obtain
possession of the property and retain it, unmolested, unquestioned,
for seventeen years? I answer, he could, by chicanery and rascality -' "
"Sir! Sir!" The young man rose excitedly from his seat.
" 'If he knew the child was alive. Suppose at the commencement of
the war the owners of the plantation were in debt to the overseer, say
for wages, the salary of a year or more. Overseers often preferred
letting their salaries accumulate before drawing them. The husband
enlists, leaving the plantation in charge of the overseer,—a most
natural arrangement. You say he is killed, the wife dies, the nurse
disappears with the baby. New Orleans was captured in 1862. A United
States District Court was established, having jurisdiction of the
captured territory below the mouth of the Red River. Now the overseer,
by going down to the city, if the plantation was in this territory,'—
the Parish of St. James, as you are aware, Monsieur Frank, is within
it,—'by going down to the city and giving information that the owner
of the plantation was a rebel, an officer in the army, concealing the
fact that he was dead -' "
"Monsieur! I cannot! I refuse to listen!" Morris Frank's face was
red with anger, his eyes moist with feeling.
The notary continued, slightly hurrying his words: " 'Could have
the property seized, condemned as the property of a rebel, purchase it
himself at the confiscation sale, paying a nominal price, say five
thousand dollars, for it, which five thousand he would not pay in cash,
but claim as a privileged debt the amount actually due, and make up
the balance of the price by charges for overseeing, up to the date of
proceedings. He could thus hold the plantation under an apparently
legal title. No one but a child could contest.' "
"And the young lady?"
The notary's time was up. He was overdue upstairs with the contract.
"That point, I thought, was settled yesterday," said he, curtly.
"Now, I must bid you good-day." He paused at the door; another thought
came into his brain. For an instant he was embarrassed, undecided;
then, dismissing his official character, and simply as an old gentleman
with infinite worldly knowledge and infinite human sympathy, he laid
his hand on the young man's shoulder: "My friend reflect for an instant
what the condition of the South would be at this moment were such
titles to property as yours good; and,"—his voice sinking with
feeling,—"thank God that by the Constitution of the United States no
attainder of reason can work corruption of blood or forfeiture, except
during the life of the person attainted." At a better recollection of
his own family history, he said: "Children here are not
punishable for the offense of an ancestor." Then, with a pressure of
his sensitive fingers, he continued: "My boy, remember, restitution
involves no confession. Fathers are but human beings like ourselves;
when they die, the best thing we can do is to act for them as we wish
they might have acted."
Mr. Frank also left the private office, but he halted in the next
room, sat down at a desk, and pondered.
"Sir, I assure you, you do not know my father. He never made a
mistake in his life. He was a man of unquestioned integrity." He
repeated the words over and over again, as if the notary still could
Reared in the strictest of ecclesiastical colleges, where
credulity had been assiduously fostered and simplicity preserved, his
youth was passed in a calm world of perfect submission and perfect
trust. In his uncritical mind the visible and invisible world rested on
one vast quiescent billow of faith. His father, his mother, his
plantation; as well question the saints, miracles, heaven!
The clerks from their desks looked furtively at him as he buried
his face in his hands,—the face of a man in helpless anxiety of mind.
He had come to the city only three months ago in a vague search for
some unknown pleasure which his swelling manhood craved,—a pleasure
not to be found on the plantation, in the green fields under the blue
sky, not in the morning réveille to duty, nor in the
tired languor of the welcome curfew. The luxury which parsimony had
banished from his parents' lives had descended to him intact, principal
and interest, with the inheritance to buy it,—a heritage to spend
and a heritage to gratify. The beautiful young girls at that
Fleurissant ball! His life had never held a ball nor a young girl
before. Oh, the plainest one there would have been a queen in his home,
a houri in his heart! His home! Which home,—the little
white-washed cabin near the sugar-house, where the sows littered under
the gallery and the mules galloped by on their way to the stables,—
the home of his birth, the despised overseer's house, exhaling menace,
inhaling hatred; or the other home, the home to which he returned from
college, the master's residence, the beautiful home which his father
had bought for him, with pictures and books, glass and silver, carved
furniture and silken hangings? "By chicanery and rascality!"
He had lived in the house, slept in the beds, studied the books.
And the pictures,—ah, Nature had given him such sordid, homely
parents! He had idolized these pictured ladies and gentlemen. In
adoration, he had tried to fit himself, not for heaven, but for them.
He had tilled the fields as their successor, maintained the manor as
their heir. "I assure you, there must be some mistake; my father was a
man of integrity." If he had not integrity, what had he? Could he, the
son, have lived in that house else? And his father and mother both
slept in the cemetery of these people,— these Mottes!
Ideals of marriage had come to him during the long evenings in the
quiet house. In fancy he had often led a bride across the threshold of
it,—a black-eyed, black-haired bride, like the black-eyed,
black-haired women in the pictures; and imagination had gone still
farther beyond, into those far-off dreams that lure the lonely into
domesticity. The tears wet his fingers at the recollection of them.
Could his father have known of the existence of the child? That
was all the question now; the plantation and the money in bank were a
cheap exchange for the redeeming answer.
Searching weariedly among the commonplace incidents of his
child-life for some saving memory which would give testimony in favor
of the dead, as one turns and overturns domestic articles in search of
a lost jewel, the figure of a quadroon woman came suddenly to
remembrance, clear and distinct,—clearly and distinctly as her voice
now sounded in the doorway.
"Monsieur requests the presence of the gentlemen who are to act as
Two of the young clerks, in gala dress, who had been scratching
their pens sedulously in feigned indifference to the honor, rose with
This was the woman who had run away with the child! Morris Frank
arrested her, seized her by the wrist, and drew her in through the door
of the back office. With an old instinct of fear she resisted and
struggled. His father, the overseer, had not handled her color too
"For God's sake let me go! What do you want? I have n't done
anything!" she cried.
"Tell me, tell me the truth about that child,— about that baby!"
He questioned, he cross-questioned, he twisted and turned her
"As there is a God in heaven, it's the truth! As the blessed Virgin
hears me, it's the truth! Ask Monsieur Goupilleau, ask the priest, ask
old Uncle Ursin on the plantation,—they all know it! Mr. Frank, Mr.
Morris, you are not going to harm her! I kept it from you; I would have
died before you found it out from me! She does n't know it! No one
The same old terror of causeless violence that had made her a
fugitive eighteen years ago possessed her again, so coping away reason
and presence of mind, making her believe, with the barbarous
anticipations of ferocity which had survived civilization in her, the
tragic fate of the parents as immanent to the child.
"You swear it is the truth?"
"On the cross, on the Blessed Virgin, on the Saviour." All that was
sacred in her religion, all that was terrific in her superstition, she
invocated with unhesitating tongue to attest a veracity impugned with
her race by custom and tradition.
It is not pleasant reading,—a marriage contract: stipulations in
one clause, counter-stipulations in another; so much money here, so
much money there; distrust of the contracting parties, distrust of the
relatives, distrust of the unsophisticated goodness of God himself, who
had trammels of every notarial variety thrown across any future
development of trust and confidence. There were provisions against
fraud, deception, indebtedness; provisions against change,
indifference, enmity, death, remarriage, against improper alliances of
unborn daughters, against dissipation and extravagance of unborn sons,
- provisions for everything but the continuance of the love which had
waxed and grown to the inevitable conclusion of marriage.
It was a triumph of astuteness on the part of old Madame Montyon.
She sat on the sofa nodding her head and purple-flowered bonnet, at
each clause repeating the words after Monsieur Goupilleau with great
"Ah, mon Dieu!" Mademoiselle Angely sighed at the end
of it, not knowing anything more appropriate to do or to say.
"Those marriage contracts,—they are all against the women, the
poor women! That is the way with Eugénie there. Old Lareveillère made
a marriage contract against her; she had nothing of her own, and all
her life there he has held her." Tante Pauline pressed her right thumb
expressively against the palm of her left hand.
"At the last moment I thought," said Madame Montyon to herself,
"that Goupilleau would have given her something; but that was not like
a notary, nor a Goupilleau."
"If I had succeeded in my plans," thought Monsieur Goupilleau, "the
favor would have been all the other way."
"Pauvre petite chatte!" thought his wife, as a last
resource of consolation, "at least her children will be secure."
"We will now sign it," said the notary.
"But I must go for the bride," prompted his wife.
They seemed to have forgotten her completely in their excitement
over the settlement of so much property and money,—both her and the
young man who stood unheeded, unconsulted, in the corner of the room;
his own insignificant personal capital of youth, hope, strength, love,
honor, ambition, unmentioned in the elaborate catalogue prepared by the
step-mother. It was all valueless as an endowment. Like an automaton
he had been provided for and given over to his childish foible for a
The noise of the street invaded the parlors, but genteelly and
discreetly sifted of impurity by the fine lace curtains at the end
windows of the long narrow room. The half-closed shutters gave oblique
views of the gallery, with its iron balustrade and canopy, and rows of
plants thriving luxuriantly. They had only contracted pots for root,
but the whole blue heavens for foliage. There reigned the gentle
obscurity which the people of the climate affect,—an obscurity that
flatters rather than conceals the physiognomy, and tones the voices in
soft Creole modulations. The green-glazed marine monsters of a tall
Palissy vase collected the few entering rays of light, and rose a
beacon over an invisible centre-table, which carried an indistinct
collection of velvet-cased miniatures, ivory carvings, Bohemian
glasses, and other small objects, which in Monsieur Goupilleau's days
of extravagance gratified the taste for bric-à-brac.
There was a lull in the conversation. The occupants of the chairs
and sofas devoted themselves to their fans and handkerchiefs, or put
on eye-glasses to solve the enigmatical pictures hanging in oblivion,
within gilt frames, on the walls. The moments of Madame Goupilleau's
absence were slow, dry, and detached. What was said was hurried,
indifferent, in an undertone, mere packing-paper to fill up space,
each volunteer fearing to be caught with a truncated word or an
unfinished smile on the lips,—the women of course alone risking it.
"Eugénie's rooms are really beautiful!"
"Can you see what that is in the corner?"
"I never noticed that lamp before."
"Right here at your elbow, on the table."
"And ciselé brass!"
"How warm it is!"
"I believe I feel a draught!"
"Mon Dieu! where?"
"Change your seat."
"There in the corner is a
"Who is that old skeleton?"
"Armand Goupilleau's confidential clerk!"
"He will have to read the contract all over again!"
"Of course; the bride did not hear it!"
"I give them six months after the old lady's death to break it."
"H'sh! she'll hear you, Pauline!"
"Here they are!"
"Poor little thing!"
"How pale she is!"
"And so frail!"
"Just like her mother."
"H'sh! they are going to begin!"
"Heavens! What a glare!"
"It is barbarous!"
Monsieur Goupilleau's confidential clerk was to repeat the deed,—
an old man with sight almost beyond recall of double glasses. He stood
as near as possible to the coveted daylight of the outside world,
against the window, holding the paper as close to his eyes as his long
thin nose would permit; it was still too far off for smooth reading.
Profiting by the confusion succeeding the entrance, he slyly laid his
hand on the shutters to widen the crack of light by the merest trifle;
at a touch they all fell open from top to bottom, letting the sun in
like a flash of lightning, striking them all with sudden distinctness,
brightening the written page into delicious legibility. Before a
countermanding order could be issued, before the bride could be seated,
he began the lecture, overriding the protests of the ladies with his
unhuman mechanical voice, cracked by use, ignoring the opened fans
used as screens against his end of the room.
The young girl stood where she was. The sun falling across her head
increased the fairness of her face and the blackness of her hair. She
held her hands clasped before her, and seemed with eyes as well as ears
listening to the terms on which she was to be admitted to the
profession of her love. In the last hours of her innocent, unconscious
girlhood she was pathetic, pitiful, to the ladies, who shed furtive
tears. The gentlemen, at sight of her, felt a stirring in their hearts
and conscience, or maybe the eyes of the married women present
resurrected a primitive, latent, effete distrust of themselves,—a
remorseful sense of unworthiness as conceded possessors of the other
After the reading had ended, Marie Modeste still listened and
thought, trying to make her head speak as distinctly as her heart had
"You will have the kindness to sign your name here, Mademoiselle,"
said the old clerk, delighted with his window evolution and the fluency
of his rendition of the contract.
The young men from the office pressed forward alertly, under fear
of the awful possibility of being overlooked. The ladies and gentlemen
rose from their seats, and all advanced toward the centre-table, where
a space was being cleared for the signing.
The young girl took the pen, which had been dipped in ink, and
waited for the papers to be straightened out and pressed flat.
"Here, on this line, Mademoiselle." She placed her hand where he
pointed, and bent over.
"No! no!" she cried, straightening herself, holding the document in
her hand. Her face became red as she heard her weak, thin voice trying
to raise and steady itself to audibility in the room full of strange
"No! no! I cannot sign it! I will not sign it! I do not wish it! I
refuse! I give nothing, I will take nothing,—nothing!"
She forced her lips, trembling convulsively, to utter what was
resolutely being proclaimed in her breast.
"I give nothing but love! I want nothing but love!" and the
elaborate act, the notarial work of a week, fell in long thin strips
to the floor.
There was a sudden decline in the value of bonds and stocks and
landed investments; Madame Montyon's hillock of gold disappeared for
once from before her eyes, leaving them staring at blank poverty.
"Tudieu! Tudieu!" she swore, in her unwhisperable
"The marriage broken! Ah, I knew it!" exclaimed Tante Pauline.
"Eugénie! Eugénie!" Mademoiselle Aurore Angely pulled Madame
Goupilleau's gown. "But look at them! Stop them! It is not proper! It
is not convenable!"
It was against etiquette which had held him in strict quarantine
for twenty-four hours; but the young groom broke from his corner and
his passiveness, as unrestrained as if the wedding were past and not to
come, and his bride, turning, received him as if she had all the money
in the world and he not a cent. Their embrace made all hearts and lips
Mademoiselle Angely would have had to acknowledge at the
confessional that it was not so much because it was shocking as
because it was a sin, that forced her to turn her back on them.
The officious young witnesses sprang to the floor to gather up the
fragments of the contract.
The confidential clerk, as deaf as he was blind, and equally
conscientious, after showing the place on the document and giving the
pen, was intent only upon closing the shutters as he had found them,
and as slyly. The room passed again, without warning, into darkness,
granting, until the eyes accommodated themselves to it, momentary
shelter to the lovers and relief to the spectators.
"Ah! she's a fool all the same!" Tante Pauline found time to say.
"Come!" said Morris Frank, "take me up there,—instantly!"
Grasping the quadroon by the wrist, he followed up the stairs,
through the hall, into a dark room separated by a portière
from the parlor. Pushing aside the faded red and yellow damask, he
stood, hearing, seeing all. The flesh and blood, the face, of his
pictured hosts in the old plantation home! The black-eyed, black-haired
girl! What did she need more than love for a dower? And her lover? What
other capital did he need besides the strength of the arms that clasped
her? They would despise him, insult him, condemn his father, vilify
his memory,—the usurper of a home!
"Speak! speak! for God's sake, speak!" whispered Marcélite at his
side. She was afraid he would change his mind.
He had dreamed and basked under the eyes of her kindred, while she
had been the protégée of a negro woman! Oh, the years
Would they dig up his father and mother, and cast them out of the
Her father and mother,—where were they buried? What would
he do with himself without a home, without a plantation, without a
profession, without,—yes, without a reputation?
"Speak! speak!" muttered Marcélite.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" No, they had nothing to do with it.
"Mademoiselle!" He crossed the room, pushing aside those in his way;
if they had been alone he would have knelt to her.
"Mademoiselle! it is all there waiting for you, ready for you,—
your plantation, your servants, your home, the pictures, the books,
the silver; there, just as your father left them to go to the war, just
as your mother left them to fly to her death. Let me make restitution,
let me make atonement; but oh, let me implore for the dead,—my
father!" He looked so tall in the midst of them; in his emotion, his
stiff, awkward language, so boyish! His ingenuous eyes were fixed on
her face in simple, earnest, humble devotion, as many an evening he had
fixed them on the portraits at home.
With swift, sure impulse, the quadroon woman put herself before
him, took the words from his mouth, crazy as she was at the moment.
"It was my fault, Monsieur!" to Monsieur Goupilleau. "He did not
know it! His father did not know it! I swear that old Monsieur Frank
did not know it! I sent word myself that the baby was dead. Old Uncle
Ursin knows it's the truth; ask him. Monsieur Frank sent him to me. I
made him lie. My God! I did n't know any better. I thought the
Yankees would kill her too!"
Was it truth, or falsehood? There was no one to certify or convict.
Old Uncle Ursin? He had been found dead in his bed before Morris Frank
left the plantation.
"It is all there, and in bank," the young man continued. The
bank-book was in his pocket; he got it, handed it to Monsieur
Goupilleau. "You will find the amount -"
He mentioned it quite simply and naturally,— the amount which
year after year had been growing in the bank, the result of many a
day's hard work, the savings from a life's self-denial and parsimony.
It was a fortune to astonish the little room, to strike even the women
dumb. He thanked Heaven, as he mentioned it, that the spendings had
"I never suspected it, I grew up unconscious of it. The woman,
Marcélite, saw me at the ball; she told Monsieur Goupilleau.
Mademoiselle, your marriage contract would have been different if—if
But Monsieur Goupilleau would not allow any more explanation. It
was a coup de théâtre after his own heart,—a voluntary
restitution, no lawsuit, no revelations; he could not improve it with
any additions, any commendations of his own, for his voice in the
general hubbub deserted him, his eyes blinded his spectacles.
Frenchman as he was, if he could have been granted a son then and
there, it would have been the young German, the overseer's boy, he
would have chosen, as he told him over and over again, or tried to tell
"It is she who is too good for him, now," whispered Tante Pauline
to Mademoiselle Aurore.
"Hein! She is a
partie, after all!"
Madame Montyon felt elated, for she flattered herself that it was she
who by her determination had forced the hand of Providence. "I am going
to have an angel for a daughter-in-law."
"Félix! Félix!" cried Mademoiselle Aurore, clasping her hands.
"What can you say now against the good God? That superb plantation in
St. James!" For the plantation was known all up and down the coast, and
the fame of the Frank management was a State affair.
"Bébé! Zozo! Mamzelle Marie! To go back! To see it
all,—the pictures, the books, the furniture! You did n't believe me!
You thought I was lying -"
"That quadroon will raise the roof off the house," said Tante
Pauline; "when they begin their noise, there is no stopping them."
"Monsieur Morris,"—Marcélite threw herself before him,—"let me
work for you, let me be your slave -"
"Mignonne! Mignonne!" expostulated Madame Goupilleau
with Marie. "You must not cry so, even for happiness! It is true, my
child, it is all true! Do you not hear Charles, Armand,—all of them?
Enfin, Marcélite! control yourself; you are exciting the
child with your screaming. "Non, Monsieur," to Charles,
"to-day she is still mine; to-morrow I will not dispute her with you.
Armand, my friend," to her husband, "send them all away, get rid of
them, we must have some repose before the ceremony."
"Well, Goupilleau," said the Madame Montyon, composing her face
after a pinch of snuff, "we are to have all our trouble over again!"
"Of course, Madame! of course, the young lady's interests must now
be protected." He stumbled against Marcélite. "Eh! my good woman!" My
good woman! He raised her from the floor and held both her hands. "It
is admirable, it is sublime. Why do you weep? He could not have done it
better himself,— your Monsieur Motte!"
It was not Madame Goupilleau, but Marcélite, who walked behind the
bride that night to the altar, for so Marie Modeste had commanded. It
was not to Madame Goupilleau, but to Marcélite, that the bride turned
for her first blessing after the ceremony. It was not Madame
Goupilleau, but Marcélite, who folded away the marriage garments that
night. It was not from Madame Goupilleau, but from Marcélite, that
Charles Montyon received his bride. It was not Madame Goupilleau, nor
any other woman, but Marcélite, who in her distant, unlighted room
watched the night through, shedding on the bridal wreath the tears that
only mothers shed on bridal wreaths of daughters, praying the prayers
that only mothers pray on the wedding nights of daughters.
Time still carries on the story, life still furnishes the
incidents; there is no last chapter to the record. The intercepted
inheritance has come to the rightful heir, but it has not departed
from the young German. Morris Frank had claims which not he, but
Monsieur Goupilleau, asserted. He is part owner of the Ste. Marie
plantation, sole manager; his crops rival the celebrated ones of his
father; his yield of cane leads the statistics of his State. The old
house he loved is still his home,—the home too of Marie Modeste, her
husband, her children, and Marcélite.
They all live well, happily, prosperously together; for in giving
hearts, God assigned destinies.