Grace E. King.

Balcony Stories online

. (page 2 of 9)
Online LibraryGrace E. KingBalcony Stories → online text (page 2 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

save the ladies. Oh, there was no hesitation about that! They were
seized in their beds, and carried out in the very arms of their
enemies; carried away off to the sugar-house, and deposited there. No
danger of their doing anything but keep very quiet and still in their
_chemises de nuit_, and their one sheet apiece, which was about all
that was saved from the conflagration - that is, for them. But it must
be remembered that this is all hearsay. When one has not been present,
one knows nothing of one's own knowledge; one can only repeat. It has
been repeated, however, that although the house was burned to
the ground, and everything in it destroyed, wherever, for a year
afterward, a man of that company or of that neighborhood was found,
there could have been found also, without search-warrant, property
that had belonged to the Des Islets. That is the story; and it is
believed or not, exactly according to prejudice.

How the ladies ever got out of the sugar-house, history does not
relate; nor what they did. It was not a time for sociability, either
personal or epistolary. At one offensive word your letter, and you,
very likely, examined; and Ship Island for a hotel, with soldiers for
hostesses! Madame Des Islets died very soon after the accident - of
rage, they say; and that was about all the public knew.

Indeed, at that time the society of New Orleans had other things
to think about than the fate of the Des Islets. As for _la grande
demoiselle_, she had prepared for her own oblivion in the hearts of
her female friends. And the gentlemen, - her _preux chevaliers_, - they
were burning with other passions than those which had driven them to
her knees, encountering a little more serious response than "bahs" and
shrugs. And, after all, a woman seems the quickest thing forgotten
when once the important affairs of life come to men for consideration.

It might have been ten years according to some calculations, or ten
eternities, - the heart and the almanac never agree about time, - but
one morning old Champigny (they used to call him Champignon) was
walking along his levee front, calculating how soon the water would
come over, and drown him out, as the Louisianians say. It was before a
seven-o'clock breakfast, cold, wet, rainy, and discouraging. The road
was knee-deep in mud, and so broken up with hauling, that it was like
walking upon waves to get over it. A shower poured down. Old Champigny
was hurrying in when he saw a figure approaching. He had to stop to
look at it, for it was worth while. The head was hidden by a green
barege veil, which the showers had plentifully besprinkled with dew; a
tall, thin figure. Figure! No; not even could it be called a figure:
straight up and down, like a finger or a post; high-shouldered, and
a step - a step like a plow-man's. No umbrella; no - nothing more, in
fact. It does not sound so peculiar as when first related - something
must be forgotten. The feet - oh, yes, the feet - they were like
waffle-irons, or frying-pans, or anything of that shape.

Old Champigny did not care for women - he never had; they simply did
not exist for him in the order of nature. He had been married once,
it is true, about a half century before; but that was not reckoned
against the existence of his prejudice, because he was _célibataire_
to his finger-tips, as any one could see a mile away. But that woman
_intrigué'd_ him.

He had no servant to inquire from. He performed all of his own
domestic work in the wretched little cabin that replaced his old home.
For Champigny also belonged to the great majority of the _nouveaux
pauvres_. He went out into the rice-field, where were one or two
hands that worked on shares with him, and he asked them. They knew
immediately; there is nothing connected with the parish that a
field-hand does not know at once. She was the teacher of the colored
public school some three or four miles away. "Ah," thought Champigny,
"some Northern lady on a mission." He watched to see her return in the
evening, which she did, of course; in a blinding rain. Imagine the
green barege veil then; for it remained always down over her face.

[Illustration: CHAMPIGNY.]

Old Champigny could not get over it that he had never seen her before.
But he must have seen her, and, with his abstraction and old age, not
have noticed her, for he found out from the negroes that she had been
teaching four or five years there. And he found out also - how, is not
important - that she was Idalie Sainte Foy Mortemart des Islets. _La
grande demoiselle_! He had never known her in the old days, owing to
his uncomplimentary attitude toward women, but he knew of her,
of course, and of her family. It should have been said that his
plantation was about fifty miles higher up the river, and on the
opposite bank to Reine Sainte Foy. It seemed terrible. The old
gentleman had had reverses of his own, which would bear the telling,
but nothing was more shocking to him than this - that Idalie Sainte
Foy Mortemart des Islets should be teaching a public colored school
for - it makes one blush to name it - seven dollars and a half a month.
For seven dollars and a half a month to teach a set of - well! He found
out where she lived, a little cabin - not so much worse than his own,
for that matter - in the corner of a field; no companion, no servant,
nothing but food and shelter. Her clothes have been described.

Only the good God himself knows what passed in Champigny's mind on
the subject. We know only the results. He went and married _la grande
demoiselle_. How? Only the good God knows that too. Every first of the
month, when he goes to the city to buy provisions, he takes her with
him - in fact, he takes her everywhere with him.

Passengers on the railroad know them well, and they always have a
chance to see her face. When she passes her old plantation _la grande
demoiselle_ always lifts her veil for one instant - the inevitable
green barege veil. What a face! Thin, long, sallow, petrified! And the
neck! If she would only tie something around the neck! And her plain,
coarse cottonade gown! The negro women about her were better dressed
than she.

Poor old Champignon! It was not an act of charity to himself, no
doubt cross and disagreeable, besides being ugly. And as for love,


This how she told about it, sitting in her little room, - her bridal
chamber, - not larger, really not larger than sufficed for the bed
there, the armoire here, the bureau opposite, and the washstand behind
the door, the corners all touching. But a nice set of furniture, quite
_comme il faut_, - handsome, in fact, - as a bride of good family should
have. And she was dressed very prettily, too, in her long white
_negligée_, with plenty of lace and ruffles and blue ribbons, - such as
only the Creole girls can make, and brides, alas! wear, - the pretty
honeymoon costume that suggests, that suggests - well! to proceed. "The
poor little cat!" as one could not help calling her, so _mignonne_,
so blond, with the pretty black eyes, and the rosebud of a
mouth, - whenever she closed it, - a perfect kiss.

"But you know, Louise," she said, beginning quite seriously at the
beginning, "papa would never have consented, never, never - poor papa!
Indeed, I should never have asked him; it would only have been one
humiliation more for him, poor papa! So it was well he was dead, if
it was God's will for it to be. Of course I had my dreams, like
everybody. I was so blond, so blond, and so small; it seemed like a
law I should marry a _brun_, a tall, handsome _brun_, with a mustache
and a fine barytone voice. That was how I always arranged it, and - you
will laugh - but a large, large house, and numbers of servants, and a
good cook, but a superlatively good cuisine, and wine and all that,
and long, trailing silk dresses, and theater every night, and voyages
to Europe, and - well, everything God had to give, in fact. You know, I
get that from papa, wanting everything God has to give! Poor papa! It
seemed to me I was to meet him at any time, my handsome _brun_. I used
to look for him positively on my way to school, and back home again,
and whenever I would think of him I would try and walk so prettily,
and look so pretty! _Mon Dieu!_ I was not ten years old yet! And
afterward it was only for that that I went into society. What should
girls go into society for otherwise but to meet their _brun_ or their
blond? Do you think it is amusing, to economize and economize, and sew
and sew, just to go to a party to dance? No! I assure you, I went into
society only for that; and I do not believe what girls say - they go
into society only for that too.

"You know at school how we used to _tirer la bonne aventure._[1] Well,
every time he was not _brun, riche, avenant_, Jules, or Raoul, or Guy,
I simply would not accept it, but would go on drawing until I obtained
what I wanted. As I tell you, I thought it was my destiny. And when I
would try with a flower to see if he loved me, - _Il m'aime, un peu,
beaucoup, passionément, pas du tout_, - if it were _pas du tout_, I
would always throw the flower away, and begin tearing off the leaves
from another one immediately. _Passionément_ was what I wanted, and I
always got it in the end.

[Footnote 1: _La bonne aventure_ is or was generally a very much
battered foolscap copy-book, which contained a list of all possible
elements of future (school-girl) happiness. Each item answered a
question, and had a number affixed to it. To draw one's fortune
consisted in asking question after question, and guessing a number,
a companion volunteering to read the answers. To avoid cheating, the
books were revised from time to time, and the numbers changed.]

"But papa, poor papa, he never knew anything of that, of course. He
would get furious when any one would come to see me, and sometimes,
when he would take me in society, if I danced with a 'nobody,' - as he
called no matter whom I danced with, - he would come up and take me
away with such an air - such an air! It would seem that papa thought
himself better than everybody in the world. But it went worse and
worse with papa, not only in the affairs of the world, but in health.
Always thinner and thinner, always a cough; in fact, you know, I am a
little feeble-chested myself, from papa. And Clementine! Clementine
with her children - just think, Louise, eight! I thank God my mama had
only me, if papa's second wife had to have so many. And so naughty! I
assure you, they were all devils; and no correction, no punishment, no
education - but you know Clementine! I tell you, sometimes on account
of those children I used to think myself in 'ell [making the Creole's
attempt and failure to pronounce the h], and Clementine had no pride
about them. If they had shoes, well; if they had not shoes, well


"'But Clementine!' I would expostulate, I would pray -

"'But do not be a fool, Mimi,' she would say. 'Am I God? Can I do
miracles? Or must I humiliate your papa?'

"That was true. Poor papa! It would have humiliated papa. When he had
money he gave; only it was a pity he had no money. As for what he
observed, he thought it was Clementine's negligence. For, it is true,
Clementine had no order, no industry, in the best of fortune as in the
worst. But to do her justice, it was not her fault this time, only she
let him believe it, to save his pride; and Clementine, you know, has a
genius for stories. I assure you, Louise, I was desperate. I prayed to
God to help me, to advise me. I could not teach - I had no education; I
could not go into a shop - that would be dishonoring papa - and _enfin_,
I was too pretty. 'And proclaim to the world,' Clementine would cry,
'that your papa does not make money for his family.' That was true. The
world is so malicious. You know, Louise, sometimes it seems to me
the world is glad to hear that a man cannot support his family; it
compliments those who can. As if papa had not intelligence, and honor,
and honesty! But they do not count now as in old times, 'before the

"And so, when I thought of that, I laughed and talked and played the
thoughtless like Clementine, and made bills. We made bills - we had
to - for everything; we could do that, you know, on our old name and
family. But it is too long! I am sure it is too long and tiresome!
What egotism on my part! Come, we will take a glass of anisette, and
talk of something else - your trip, your family. No? no? You are only
asking me out of politeness! You are so _aimable_, so kind. Well, if
you are not _ennuyée_ - in fact, I want to tell you. It was too long
to write, and I detest a pen. To me there is no instrument of torture
like a pen.

"Well, the lady next door, she was an American, and common, very
common, according to papa. In comparison to us she had no family
whatever. Our little children were forbidden even to associate with
her little children. I thought that was ridiculous - not that I am a
democrat, but I thought it ridiculous. But the children cared; they
were so disobedient and they were always next door, and they always
had something nice to eat over there. I sometimes thought Clementine
used to encourage their disobedience, just for the good things they
got to eat over there. But papa was always making fun of them; you
know what a sharp tongue he had. The gentleman was a clerk; and,
according to papa, the only true gentlemen in the world had family
and a profession. We did not dare allow ourselves to think it, but
Clementine and I knew that they, in fact, were in more comfortable
circumstances than we.

"The lady, who also had a great number of children, sent one day, with
all the discretion and delicacy possible, and asked me if I would
be so kind as to - guess what, Louise! But only guess! But you never
could! Well, to darn some of her children's stockings for her. It was
God who inspired her, I am sure, on account of my praying so much to
him. You will be shocked, Louise, when I tell you. It sounds like a
sin, but I was not in despair when papa died. It was a grief, - yes,
it seized the heart, but it was not despair. Men ought not to be
subjected to the humiliation of life; they are not like women, you
know. We are made to stand things; they have their pride, - their
_orgueil_, as we say in French, - and that is the point of honor with
some men. And Clementine and I, we could not have concealed it much
longer. In fact, the truth was crying out everywhere, in the children,
in the house, in our own persons, in our faces. The darning did not
provide a superfluity, I guarantee you!

"Poor papa! He caught cold. He was condemned from the first. And so
all his fine qualities died; for he had fine qualities - they were too
fine for this age, that was all. Yes; it was a kindness of God to take
him before he found out. If it was to be, it was better. Just so with
Clementine as with me. After the funeral - crack! everything went to
pieces. We were at the four corners for the necessaries of life, and
the bills came in - my dear, the bills that came in! What memories!
what memories! Clementine and I exclaimed; there were some bills that
we had completely forgotten about. The lady next door sent her brother
over when papa died. He sat up all night, that night, and he assisted
us in all our arrangements. And he came in afterward, every evening.
If papa had been there, there would have been a fine scene over it; he
would have had to take the door, very likely. But now there was no one
to make objections. And so when, as I say, we were at the four corners
for the necessaries of life, he asked Clementine's permission to ask
me to marry him.

"I give you my word, Louise, I had forgotten there was such a thing as
marriage in the world for me! I had forgotten it as completely as the
chronology of the Merovingian dynasty, alas! with all the other school
things forgotten. And I do not believe Clementine remembered there was
such a possibility in the world for me. _Mon Dieu!_ when a girl is
poor she may have all the beauty in the world - not that I had beauty,
only a little prettiness. But you should have seen Clementine! She
screamed for joy when she told me. Oh, there was but one answer
according to her, and according to everybody she could consult, in her
haste. They all said it was a dispensation of Providence in my favor.
He was young, he was strong; he did not make a fortune, it was true,
but he made a good living. And what an assistance to have a man in
the family! - an assistance for Clementine and the children. But the
principal thing, after all, was, he wanted to marry me. Nobody had
ever wanted that before, my dear!

"Quick, quick, it was all arranged. All my friends did something for
me. One made my _peignoirs_ for me, one this, one that - _ma foi!_
I did not recognize myself. One made all the toilet of the bureau,
another of the bed, and we all sewed on the wedding-dress together.
And you should have seen Clementine, going out in all her great
mourning, looking for a house, looking for a servant! But the wedding
was private on account of poor papa. But you know, Loulou, I had never
time to think, except about Clementine and the children, and when I
thought of all those poor little children, poor papa's children, I
said 'Quick, quick,' like the rest.

"It was the next day, the morning after the wedding, I had time to
think. I was sitting here, just as you see me now, in my pretty new
_negligée_. I had been looking at all the pretty presents I have
shown you, and my trousseau, and my furniture, - it is not bad, as
you see, - my dress, my veil, my ring, and - I do not know - I do not
know - but, all of a sudden, from everywhere came the thought of my
_brun_, my handsome _brun_ with the mustache, and the _bonne aventure,
ricke, avenant_, the Jules, Raoul, Guy, and the flower leaves, and
'_il m'aime, un pen, beaucoup, pas du tout,' passionnément_, and the
way I expected to meet him walking to and from school, walking as if
I were dancing the steps, and oh, my plans, my plans, my plans, - silk
dresses, theater, voyages to Europe, - and poor papa, so fine, so tall,
so aristocratic. I cannot tell you how it all came; it seized my
heart, and, _mon Dieu!_ I cried out, and I wept, I wept, I wept. How
I wept! It pains me here now to remember it. Hours, hours it lasted,
until I had no tears in my body, and I had to weep without them, with
sobs and moans. But this, I have always observed, is the time for
reflection - after the tears are all out. And I am sure God himself
gave me my thoughts. 'Poor little Mimi!' I thought, '_fi done_! You
are going to make a fool of yourself now when it is all over, because
why? It is God who manages the world, and not you. You pray to God to
help you in your despair, and he has helped you. He has sent you a
good, kind husband who adores you; who asks only to be a brother to
your sisters and brothers, and son to Clementine; who has given you
more than you ever possessed in your life - but because he did not come
out of the _bonne aventure_ - and who gets a husband out of the
_bonne aventure?_ - and would your _brun_ have come to you in your
misfortune?' I am sure God inspired those thoughts in me.

[Illustration: "I wept, I wept, I wept."]

"I tell you, I rose from that bed - naturally I had thrown myself upon
it. Quick I washed my face, I brushed my hair, and, you see these bows
of ribbons, - look, here are the marks of the tears, - I turned them.
_Hé,_ Loulou, it occurs to me, that if you examined the blue bows on
a bride's _negligée_, you might always find tears on the other side;
for do they not all have to marry whom God sends? and am I the only
one who had dreams? It is the end of dreams, marriage; and that is the
good thing about it. God lets us dream to keep us quiet, but he knows
when to wake us up, I tell you. The blue bows knew! And now, you see,
I prefer my husband to my _brun_; in fact, Loulou, I adore him, and I
am furiously jealous about him. And he is so good to Clementine and
the poor little children; and see his photograph - a blond, and not
good-looking, and small!

"But poor papa! If he had been alive, I am sure he never would have
agreed with God about my marriage."


Every heart has a miracle to pray for. Every life holds that which
only a miracle can cure. To prove that there have never been, that
there can never be, miracles does not alter the matter. So long as
there is something hoped for, - that does not come in the legitimate
channel of possible events, - so long as something does come not to be
hoped or expected in the legitimate channel of possible events, just
so long will the miracle be prayed for.

The rich and the prosperous, it would seem, do not depend upon God so
much, do not need miracles, as the poor do. They do not have to pray
for the extra crust when starvation hovers near; for the softening of
an obdurate landlord's heart; for strength in temptation, light in
darkness, salvation from vice; for a friend in friendlessness; for
that miracle of miracles, an opportunity to struggling ambition; for
the ending of a dark night, the breaking of day; and, oh! for God's
own miracle to the bedside-watchers - the change for the better, when
death is there and the apothecary's skill too far, far away. The poor,
the miserable, the unhappy, they can show their miracles by the score;
that is why God is called the poor man's friend. He does not mind, so
they say, going in the face of logic and reason to relieve them; for
often the kind and charitable are sadly hampered by the fetters of
logic and reason, which hold them, as it were, away from their own

But the rich have their miracles, no doubt, even in that beautiful
empyrean of moneyed ease in which the poor place them. Their money
cannot buy all they enjoy, and God knows how much of their sorrow it
assuages. As it is, one hears now and then of accidents among them,
conversions to better thoughts, warding off of danger, rescue of life;
and heirs are sometimes born, and husbands provided, and fortunes
saved, in such surprising ways, that even the rich, feeling their
limitations in spite of their money, must ascribe it privately if not
publicly to other potencies than their own. These cathedral _tours
de force_, however, do not, if the truth be told, convince like the
miracles of the obscure little chapel.

There is always a more and a most obscure little miracle chapel, and
as faith seems ever to lead unhesitatingly to the latter one, there is
ever rising out of humility and obscurity, as in response to a demand,
some new shrine, to replace the wear and tear and loss of other
shrines by prosperity. For, alas! it is hard even for a chapel to
remain obscure and humble in the face of prosperity and popularity.
And how to prevent such popularity and prosperity? As soon as the
noise of a real miracle in it gets abroad, every one is for hurrying
thither at once with their needs and their prayers, their candles
and their picayunes; and the little miracle chapel, perhaps despite
itself, becomes with mushroom growth a church, and the church a
cathedral, from whose resplendent altars the cheap, humble ex-voto
tablets, the modest beginnings of its ecclesiastical fortunes, are
before long banished to dimly lighted lateral shrines.

The miracle chapel in question lay at the end of a very confusing but
still intelligible route. It is not in truth a chapel at all, but a
consecrated chamber in a very small, very lowly cottage, which stands,
or one might appropriately, if not with absolute novelty, say which
kneels, in the center of a large garden, a garden primeval in
rusticity and size, its limits being defined by no lesser boundaries
than the four intersecting streets outside, and its culture showing
only the careless, shiftless culture of nature. The streets outside
were miracles themselves in that, with their liquid contents, they
were streets and not bayous. However, they protected their island
chapel almost as well as a six-foot moat could have done. There was a
small paved space on the sidewalk that served to the pedestrian as an
indication of the spot in the tall, long, broad fence where a gate
might be sought. It was a small gate with a strong latch. It required
a strong hand to open it. At the sound of the click it made, the
little street ragamuffin, who stood near, peeping through the fence,
looked up. He had worked quite a hole between the boards with his
fingers. Such an anxious expression passed over his face that even
a casual passer-by could not help relieving it by a question - any

"Is this the miracle chapel, little boy?"

2 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryGrace E. KingBalcony Stories → online text (page 2 of 9)