Belle Demoiselles Plantation
Arrived at court, his excuses were accepted, and that tract granted him where afterwards stood Belles Demoiselles Plantation. A man cannot remember every thing! In a fit of forgetfulness he married a French gentlewoman, rich and beautiful, and “brought her out.” However, “All’s well that ends well;” a famine had been in the colony, and the Choctaw Comptesse had starved, leaving nought but a half-caste orphan family lurking on the edge of the settlement, bearing our French gentlewoman’s own new name, and being mentioned in Monsieur’s will.
And the new Comptesse—she tarried but a twelvemonth, left Monsieur a lovely son, and departed, led out of this vain world by the swamp-fever.
From this son sprang the proud Creole family of De Charleu. It rose straight up, up, up, generation after generation, tall, branchless, slender, palm-like; and finally, in the time of which I am to tell, flowered with all the rare beauty of a century-plant, in Artemise, Innocente, Felicite, the twins Marie and Martha, Leontine and little Septima; the seven beautiful daughters for whom their home had been fitly named Belles Demoiselles.
The Count’s grant had once been a long Pointe, round which the Mississippi used to whirl, and seethe, and foam, that it was horrid to behold. Big whirlpools would open and wheel about in the savage eddies under the low bank, and close up again, and others open, and spin, and disappear. Great circles of muddy surface would boil up from hundreds of feet below, and gloss over, and seem to float away,—sink, come back again under water, and with only a soft hiss surge up again, and again drift off, and vanish. Every few minutes the loamy bank would tip down a great load of earth upon its besieger, and fall back a foot,—sometimes a yard,—and the writhing river would press after, until at last the Pointe was quite swallowed up, and the great river glided by in a majestic curve, and asked no more; the bank stood fast, the “caving” became a forgotten misfortune, and the diminished grant was a long, sweeping, willowy bend, rustling with miles of sugar-cane.
Coming up the Mississippi in the sailing craft of those early days, about the time one first could descry the white spires of the old St. Louis Cathedral, you would be pretty sure to spy, just over to your right under the levee, Belles Demoiselles Mansion, with its broad veranda and red painted cypress roof, peering over the embankment, like a bird in the nest, half hid by the avenue of willows which one of the departed De Charleus,—he that married a Marot,—had planted on the levee’s crown.
The house stood unusually near the river, facing eastward, and standing four-square, with an immense veranda about its sides, and a flight of steps in front spreading broadly downward, as we open arms to a child. From the veranda nine miles of river were seen; and in their compass, near at hand, the shady garden full of rare and beautiful flowers; farther away broad fields of cane and rice, and the distant quarters of the slaves, and on the horizon everywhere a dark belt of cypress forest.
The master was old Colonel De Charleu,—Jean Albert Henri Joseph De Charleu-Marot, and “Colonel” by the grace of the first American governor. Monsieur,—he would not speak to any one who called him “Colonel,”—was a hoary-headed patriarch. His step was firm, his form erect, his intellect strong and clear, his countenance classic, serene, dignified, commanding, his manners courtly, his voice musical, —fascinating. He had had his vices,—all his life; but had borne them, as his race do, with a serenity of conscience and a cleanness of mouth that left no outward blemish on the surface of the gentleman. He had gambled in Royal Street, drunk hard in Orleans Street, run his adversary through in the duelling-ground at Slaughter-house Point, and danced and quarrelled at the St. Philippe-street-theatre quadroon balls. Even now, with all his courtesy and bounty, and a hospitality which seemed to be entertaining angels, he was bitter-proud and penurious, and deep down in his hard-finished heart loved nothing but himself, his name, and his motherless children. But these!—their ravishing beauty was all but excuse enough for the unbounded idolatry of their father. Against these seven goddesses he never rebelled. Had they even required him to defraud old De Carlos—
I can hardly say.
Old De Carlos was his extremely distant relative on the Choctaw side. With this single exception, the narrow thread-like line of descent from the Indian wife, diminished to a mere strand by injudicious alliances, and deaths in the gutters of old New Orleans, was extinct. The name, by Spanish contact, had become De Carlos; but this one surviving bearer of it was known to all, and known only, as Injin Charlie.
One thing I never knew a Creole to do. He will not utterly go back on the ties of blood, no matter what sort of knots those ties may be. For one reason, he is never ashamed of his or his father’s sins; and for another,—he will tell you—he is “all heart!”
So the different heirs of the De Charleu estate had always strictly regarded the rights and interests of the De Carloses, especially their ownership of a block of dilapidated buildings in a part of the city, which had once been very poor property, but was beginning to be valuable. This block had much more than maintained the last De Carlos through a long and lazy lifetime, and, as his household consisted only of himself, and an aged and crippled negress, the inference was irresistible that he “had money.” Old Charlie, though by alias an “Injin,” was plainly a dark white man, about as old as Colonel De Charleu, sunk in the bliss of deep ignorance, shrewd, deaf, and, by repute at least, unmerciful.
The Colonel and he always conversed in English. This rare accomplishment, which the former had learned from his Scotch wife,—the latter from up-river traders,—they found an admirable medium of communication, answering, better than French could, a similar purpose to that of the stick which we fasten to the bit of one horse and breast-gear of another, whereby each keeps his distance. Once in a while, too, by way of jest, English found its way among the ladies of Belles Demoiselles, always signifying that their sire was about to have business with old Charlie.
Now a long-standing wish to buy out Charlie troubled the Colonel. He had no desire to oust him unfairly; he was proud of being always fair; yet he did long to engross the whole estate under one title. Out of his luxurious idleness he had conceived this desire, and thought little of so slight an obstacle as being already somewhat in debt to old Charlie for money borrowed, and for which Belles Demoiselles was, of course, good, ten times over. Lots, buildings, rents, all, might as well be his, he thought, to give, keep, or destroy. “Had he but the old man’s heritage. Ah! he might bring that into existence which his belles demoiselles had been begging for, ‘since many years;’ a home,—and such a home,—in the gay city. Here he should tear down this row of cottages, and make his garden wall; there that long rope-walk should give place to vine-covered ardors; the bakery yonder should make way for a costly conservatory; that wine warehouse should come down, and the mansion go up. It should be the finest in the State. Men should never pass it, but they should say—’the palace of the De Charleus; a family of grand descent, a people of elegance and bounty, a line as old as France, a fine old man, and seven daughters as beautiful as happy; whoever dare attempt to marry there must leave his own name behind him!’
“The house should be of stones fitly set, brought down in ships from the land of ‘les Yankees,’ and it should have an airy belvedere, with a gilded image tiptoeing and shining on its peak, and from it you should see, far across the gleaming folds of the river, the red roof of Belles Demoiselles, the country-seat. At the big stone gate there should be a porter’s lodge, and it should be a privilege even to see the ground.”
Truly they were a family fine enough, and fancy-free enough to have fine wishes, yet happy enough where they were, to have had no wish but to live there always.
To those, who, by whatever fortune, wandered into the garden of Belles Demoiselles some summer afternoon as the sky was reddening towards evening, it was lovely to see the family gathered out upon the tiled pavement at the foot of the broad front steps, gayly chatting and jesting, with that ripple of laughter that comes so pleasingly from a bevy of girls. The father would be found seated in their midst, the centre of attention and compliment, witness, arbiter, umpire, critic, by his beautiful children’s unanimous appointment, but the single vassal, too, of seven absolute sovereigns.
Now they would draw their chairs near together in eager discussion of some new step in the dance, or the adjustment of some rich adornment. Now they would start about him with excited comments to see the eldest fix a bunch of violets in his button-hole. Now the twins would move down a walk after some unusual flower, and be greeted on their return with the high pitched notes of delighted feminine surprise.
As evening came on they would draw more quietly about their paternal centre. Often their chairs were forsaken, and they grouped themselves on the lower steps, one above another, and surrendered themselves to the tender influences of the approaching night. At such an hour the passer on the river, already attracted by the dark figures of the broad-roofed mansion, and its woody garden standing against the glowing sunset, would hear the voices of the hidden group rise from the spot in the soft harmonies of an evening song; swelling clearer and clearer as the thrill of music warmed them into feeling, and presently joined by the deeper tones of the father’s voice; then, as the daylight passed quite away, all would be still, and he would know that the beautiful home had gathered its nestlings under its wings.
And yet, for mere vagary, it pleased them not to be pleased.
“Arti!” called one sister to another in the broad hall, one morning,—mock amazement hi her distended eyes,—”something is goin’ to took place!”
“Comm-e-n-t? “—long-drawn perplexity.
“Papa is goin’ to town!”
The news passed up stairs.
“Inno!”—one to another meeting in a doorway,—”something is goin’ to took place!”
“Qu’est-ce-que c’est!”—vain attempt at gruffness.
“Papa is goin’ to town!”
The unusual tidings were true. It was afternoon of the same day that the Colonel tossed his horse’s bridle to his groom, and stepped up to old Charlie, who was sitting on his bench under a China-tree, his head as was his fashion, bound in a Madras handkerchief The “old man” was plainly under the effect of spirits and smiled a deferential salutation without trusting himself to his feet.
“Eh, well Charlie!”—the Colonel raised his voice to suit his kinsman’s deafness,—”how is those times with my friend Charlie?”
“Eh?” said Charlie, distractedly.
“Is that goin’ well with my friend Charlie?”
“In de house,—call her,”—making a pretence of rising.
“Non, non! I don’t want,”—the speaker paused to breathe—”ow is collection?”
“Oh!” said Charlie, “every day he make me more poorer!”
“What do you hask for it?” asked the planter indifferently, designating the house by a wave of his whip.
“Ask for w’at?” said Injin Charlie.
“De house! What you ask for it?”
“I don’t believe,” said Charlie.
“What you would take for it!” cried the planter.
“Wait for w’at?”
“What you would take for the whole block?”
“I don’t want to sell him!”
“I’ll give you ten thousand dollah for it.”
“Ten t’ousand dollah for dis house? Oh, no, dat is no price. He is blame good old house,—dat old house.” (Old Charlie and the Colonel never swore in presence of each other.) “Forty years dat old house didn’t had to be paint! I easy can get fifty t’ousand dollah for dat old house.”
“Fifty thousand picayunes; yes,” said the Colonel.
“She’s a good house. Can make plenty money,” pursued the deaf man.
“That’s what make you so rich, eh, Charlie?”
“Non, I don’t make nothing. Too blame clever, me, dat’s de troub’. She’s a good house,—make money fast like a steamboat,—make a barrel full in a week! Me, I lose money all de days. Too blame clever.”
“Tell me what you’ll take.”
“Make? I don’t make nothing. Too blame clever.”
“What will you take?”
“Oh! I got enough already,—half drunk now.”
“What will you take for the ‘ouse?”
“You want to buy her?”
“I don’t know,”—(shrug),—”may be,—if you sell it cheap.”
“She’s a bully old house.”
There was a long silence. By and by old Charlie commenced—
“Old Injin Charlie is a low-down dog.”
“C’est vrai, oui!” retorted the Colonel in an undertone.
“He’s got Injin blood in him.”
“But he’s got some blame good blood, too, ain’t it?”
The Colonel nodded impatiently.
“Bien! Old Charlie’s Injin blood says, ‘sell de house, Charlie, you blame old fool!’ Mais, old Charlie’s good blood says, ‘Charlie! if you sell dat old house, Charlie, you low-down old dog, Charlie, what de Compte De Charleu make for you grace-gran’muzzer, de dev’ can eat you, Charlie, I don’t care.’“
“No!” And the no rumbled off in muttered oaths like thunder out on the Gulf. The incensed old Colonel wheeled and started off.
“Curl!” (Colonel) said Charlie, standing up unsteadily.
The planter turned with an inquiring frown.
“I’ll trade with you!” said Charlie.
The Colonel was tempted. “‘Ow’l you trade?” he asked.
“My house for yours!”
The old Colonel turned pale with anger. He walked very quickly back, and came close up to his kinsman.
“Charlie!” he said.
“Injin Charlie,”—with a tipsy nod.
But by this time self-control was returning. “Sell Belles Demoiselles to you?” he said in a high key, and then laughed “Ho, ho, ho!” and rode away.
A cloud, but not a dark one, overshadowed the spirits of Belles Demoiselles’ plantation. The old master, whose beaming presence had always made him a shining Saturn, spinning and sparkling within the bright circle of his daughters, fell into musing fits, started out of frowning reveries, walked often by himself, and heard business from his overseer fretfully.
No wonder. The daughters knew his closeness in trade, and attributed to it his failure to negotiate for the Old Charlie buildings,—so to call them. They began to depreciate Belles Demoiselles. If a north wind blew, it was too cold to ride. If a shower had fallen, it was too muddy to drive. In the morning the garden was wet. In the evening the grasshopper was a burden. Ennui was turned into capital; every headache was interpreted a premonition of ague; and when the native exuberance of a flock of ladies without a want or a care burst out in laughter in the father’s face, they spread their French eyes, rolled up their little hands, and with rigid wrists and mock vehemance vowed and vowed again that they only laughed at their misery, and should pine to death unless they could move to the sweet city. “Oh! the theatre! Oh! Orleans Street! Oh! the masquerade! the Place d’Armes! the ball!” and they would call upon Heaven with French irreverence, and fall into each other’s arms, and whirl down the hall singing a waltz, end with a grand collision and fall, and, their eyes streaming merriment, lay the blame on the slippery floor, that would some day be the death of the whole seven.
Three times more the fond father, thus goaded, managed, by accident,—business accident,—to see old Charlie and increase his offer; but in vain. He finally went to him formally.
“Eh?” said the deaf and distant relative. “For what you want him, eh? Why you don’t stay where you halways be ‘appy? Dis is a blame old rat-hole,—good for old Injin Charlie,—da’s all. Why you don’t stay where you be halways ‘appy? Why you don’t buy somewheres else?”
“That’s none of yonr business,” snapped the planter. Truth was, his reasons were unsatisfactory even to himself.
A sullen silence followed. Then Charlie spoke:
“Well, now, look here; I sell you old Charlie’s house.”
“Bien! and the whole block,” said the Colonel.
“Hold on,” said Charlie. “I sell you de ‘ouse and de block. Den I go and git drunk, and go to sleep de dev’ comes along and says, ‘Charlie! old Charlie, you blame low-down old dog, wake up! What you doin’ here? Where’s de ‘ouse what Monsieur le Compte give your grace-gran-muzzer? Don’t you see dat fine gentyman, De Charleu, done gone and tore him down and make him over new, you blame old fool, Charlie, you low-down old Injin dog!’“
“I’ll give you forty thousand dollars,” said the Colonel.
“For de ‘ouse?”
The deaf man shook his head.
“Forty-five!” said the Colonel.
“What a lie? For what you tell me ‘What a lie?’ I don’t tell you no lie.”
“Non, non! I give you forty-five!” shouted the Colonel.
Charlie shook his head again.
He shook it again.
The figures rose and rose to—
The answer was an invitation to go away and let the owner alone, as he was, in certain specified respects, the vilest of living creatures, and no company for a fine gentyman.
The “fine gentyman” longed to blaspheme—but before old Charlie!—in the name of pride, how could he? He mounted and started away.
“Tell you what I’ll make wid you,” said Charlie.
The other, guessing aright, turned back without dismounting, smiling.
“How much Belles Demoiselles hoes me now?” asked the deaf one.
“One hundred and eighty thousand dollars,” said the Colonel, firmly.
“Yass,” said Charlie. “I don’t want Belle Demoiselles.”
The old Colonel’s quiet laugh intimated it made no difference either way.
“But me,” continued Charlie, “me,—I’m got le Compte De Charleu’s blood in me, any’ow,—a litt’ bit, any’ow, ain’t it?”
The Colonel nodded that it was.
“Bien! If I go out of dis place and don’t go to Belles Demoiselles, de peoples will say,—dey will say, ‘Old Charlie he been all doze time tell a blame lie! He ain’t no kin to his old grace-gran-muzzer, not a blame bit! He don’t got nary drop of De Charleu blood to save his blame low-down old Injin soul!’ No, sare! What I want wid money, den? No, sare! My place for yours!”
He turned to go into the house, just too soon to see the Colonel make an ugly whisk at him with his riding-whip. Then the Colonel, too, moved off.
Two or three times over, as he ambled homeward, laughter broke through his annoyance, as he recalled old Charlie’s family pride and the presumption of his offer. Yet each time he could but think better of—not the offer to swap, but the preposterous ancestral loyalty. It was so much better than he could have expected from his “low-down” relative, and not unlike his own whim withal—the proposition which went with it was forgiven.
This last defeat bore so harshly on the master of Belles Demoiselles, that the daughters, reading chagrin in his face, began to repent. They loved their father as daughters can, and when they saw their pretended dejection harassing him seriously they restrained their complaints, displayed more than ordinary tenderness, and heroically and ostentatiously concluded there was no place like Belles Demoiselles. But the new mood touched him more than the old, and only refined his discontent. Here was a man, rich without the care of riches, free from any real trouble, happiness as native to his house as perfume to his garden, deliberately, as it were with premeditated malice, taking joy by the shoulder and bidding her be gone to town, whither he might easily have followed, only that the very same ancestral nonsense that kept Injin Charlie from selling the old place for twice its value prevented him from choosing any other spot for a city home.
But by and by the charm of nature and the merry hearts around him prevailed; the fit of exalted sulks passed off, and after a while the year flared up at Christmas, flickered, and went out.
New Year came and passed; the beautiful garden of Belles Demoiselles put on its spring attire; the seven fair sisters moved from rose to rose; the cloud of discontent had warmed into invisible vapor in the rich sunlight of family affection, and on the common memory the only scar of last year’s wound was old Charlie’s sheer impertinence in crossing the caprice of the De Charleus. The cup of gladness seemed to fill with the filling of the river.
How high that river was! Its tremendous current rolled and tumbled and spun along, hustling the long funeral flotillas of drift,—and how near shore it came! Men were out day and night, watching the levee. On windy nights even the old Colonel took part, and grew light-hearted with occupation and excitement, as every minute the river threw a white arm over the levee’s top, as though it would vault over. But all held fast, and, as the summer drifted in, the water sunk down into its banks and looked quite incapable of harm.
On a summer afternoon of uncommon mildness, old Colonel Jean Albert Henri Joseph De Charleu-Marot, being in a mood for reverie, slipped the custody of his feminine rulers and sought the crown of the levee, where it was his wont to promenade. Presently he sat upon a stone bench,—a favorite seat. Before him lay his broad-spread fields; near by, his lordly mansion; and being still,—perhaps by female contact,—somewhat sentimental, he fell to musing on his past. It was hardly worthy to be proud of. All its morning was reddened with mad frolic, and far toward the meridian it was marred with elegant rioting. Pride had kept him well-nigh useless, and despised the honors won by valor; gaming had dimmed prosperity; death had taken his heavenly wife; voluptuous ease had mortgaged his lands; and yet his house still stood, his sweet-smelling fields were still fruitful, his name was fame enough; and yonder and yonder, among the trees and flowers, like angels walking in Eden, were the seven goddesses of his only worship.
Just then a slight sound behind him brought him to his feet. He cast his eyes anxiously to the outer edge of the little strip of bank between the levee’s base and the river. There was nothing visible. He paused, with his ear toward the water, his face full of frightened expectation. Ha! There came a single plashing sound, like some great beast slipping into the river, and little waves in a wide semi-circle came out from under the bank and spread over the water!
He plunged down the levee and bounded through the low weeds to the edge of the bank. It was sheer, and the water about four feet below. He did not stand quite on the edge, but fell upon his knees a couple of yards away, wringing his hands, moaning and weeping, and staring through his watery eyes at a fine, long crevice just discernible under the matted grass, and curving outward on either hand toward the river.
“My God!” he sobbed aloud; “my God!” and even while he called, his God answered: the tough Bermuda grass stretched and snapped, the crevice slowly became a gape, and softly, gradually, with no sound but the closing of the water at last, a ton or more of earth settled into the boiling eddy and disappeared.
At the same instant a pulse of the breeze brought from the garden behind, the joyous, thoughtless laughter of the fair mistresses of Belles Demoiselles.
The old Colonel sprang up and clambered over the levee. Then forcing himself to a more composed movement he hastened into the house and ordered his horse.
“Tell my children to make merry while I am gone,” he left word. “I shall be back to-night,” and the horse’s hoofs clattered down a by-road leading to the city.
“Charlie,” said the planter, riding up to a window, from which the old man’s nightcap was thrust out, “what you say, Charlie,—my house for yours, eh, Charlie—what you say?”
“Ello!” said Charlie; “from where you come from dis time of to-night?”
“I come from the Exchange in St. Louis Street.” (A small fraction of the truth.)
“What you want?” said matter-of-fact Charlie.
“I come to trade.”
The low-down relative drew the worsted off his ears. “Oh! yass,” he said with an uncertain air.
“Well, old man Charlie, what you say: my house for yours,—like you said,—eh, Charlie?”
“I dunno,” said Charlie; “it’s nearly mine now. Why you don’t stay dare youse’f?”
“Because I don’t want!” said the Colonel savagely. “Is dat reason enough for you? You better take me in de notion, old man, I tell you,—yes!”
Charlie never winced; but how his answer delighted the Colonel! Quoth Charlie:
“I don’t care—I take him!— mais, possession give right off.”
“Not the whole plantation, Charlie; only”—
“I don’t care,” said Charlie; “we easy can fix dat Mais, what for you don’t want to keep him? I don’t want him. You better keep him.”
“Don’t you try to make no fool of me, old man,” cried the planter.
“Oh, no!” said the other. “Oh, no! but you make a fool of yourself, ain’t it?”
The dumbfounded Colonel stared; Charlie went on:
“Yass! Belles Demoiselles is more wort’ dan tree block like dis one. I pass by dare since two weeks. Oh, pritty Belles Demoiselles! De cane was wave in de wind, de garden smell like a bouquet, de white-cap was jump up and down on de river; seven belles demoiselles was ridin’ on horses. ‘Pritty, pritty, pritty!’ says old Charlie. Ah! Monsieur le Pere, ‘ow ‘appy, ‘appy, ‘appy!”
“Yass!” he continued—the Colonel still staring—”le Compte De Charleu have two familie. One was low-down Choctaw, one was high up noblesse. He gave the low-down Choctaw dis old rat-hole; he give Belles Demoiselles to you gran-fozzer; and now you don’t be satisfait. What I’ll do wid Belles Demoiselles? She’ll break me in two years, yass. And what you’ll do wid old Charlie’s house, eh? You’ll tear her down and make you’se’f a blame old fool. I rather wouldn’t trade!”
The planter caught a big breathful of anger, but Charlie went straight on:
“I rather wouldn’t, mais I will do it for you;—just the same, like Monsieur le Compte would say, ‘Charlie, you old fool, I want to shange houses wid you.’“
So long as the Colonel suspected irony he was angry, but as Charlie seemed, after all, to be certainly in earnest, he began to feel conscience-stricken. He was by no means a tender man, but his lately-discovered misfortune had unhinged him, and this strange, undeserved, disinterested family fealty on the part of Charlie touched his heart. And should he still try to lead him into the pitfall he had dug? He hesitated;—no, he would show him the place by broad daylight, and if he chose to overlook the “caving bank,” it would be his own fault;—a trade’s a trade.
“Come,” said the planter, “come at my house to-night; to-morrow we look at the place before breakfast, and finish the trade.”
“For what?” said Charlie.
“Oh, because I got to come in town in the morning.”
“I don’t want,” said Charlie. “How I’m goin’ to come dere?”
“I git you a horse at the liberty stable.”
“Well—anyhow—I don’t care—I’ll go.” And they went.
When they had ridden a long time, and were on the road darkened by hedges of Cherokee rose, the Colonel called behind him to the “low-down” scion:
“Keep the road, old man.”
“Keep the road.”
“Oh, yes; all right; I keep my word; we don’t goin’ to play no tricks, eh?”
But the Colonel seemed not to hear. His ungenerous design was beginning to be hateful to him. Not only old Charlie’s unprovoked goodness was prevailing; the eulogy on Belles Demoiselles had stirred the depths of an intense love for his beautiful home. True, if he held to it, the caving of the bank, at its present fearful speed, would let the house into the river within three months; but were it not better to lose it so, than sell his birthright? Again,—coming back to the first thought,—to betray his own blood! It was only Injin Charlie; but had not the De Charleu blood just spoken out in him? Unconsciously he groaned.
After a time they struck a path approaching the plantation in the rear, and a little after, passing from behind a clump of live-oaks, they came in sight of the villa. It looked so like a gem, shining through its dark grove, so like a great glow-worm in the dense foliage, so significant of luxury and gayety, that the poor master, from an overflowing heart, groaned again.
“What?” asked Charlie.
The Colonel only drew his rein, and, dismounting mechanically, contemplated the sight before him. The high, arched doors and windows were thrown wide to the summer air; from every opening the bright light of numerous candelabra darted out upon the sparkling foliage of magnolia and bay, and here and there in the spacious verandas a colored lantern swayed in the gentle breeze. A sound of revel fell on the ear, the music of harps; and across one window, brighter than the rest, flitted, once or twice, the shadows of dancers. But oh! the shadows flitting across the heart of the fair mansion’s master!
“Old Charlie,” said he, gazing fondly at his house, “You and me is both old, eh?”
“Yaas,” said the stolid Charlie.
“And we has both been bad enough in our times eh, Charlie?”
Charlie, surprised at the tender tone, repeated “Yaas.”
“And you and me is mighty close?”
“Blame close, yaas.”
“But you never know me to cheat, old man!”
“And do you think I would cheat you now?”
“I dunno,” said Charlie. “I don’t believe.”
“Well, old man, old man,”—his voice began to quiver,—”I sha’n’t cheat you now. My God!—old man, I tell you—you better not make the trade!”
“Because for what?” asked Charlie in plain anger; but both looked quickly toward the house! The Colonel tossed his hands wildly in the air, rushed forward a step or two, and giving one fearful scream of agony and fright, fell forward on his face in the path. Old Charlie stood transfixed with horror. Belles Demoiselles, the realm of maiden beauty, the home of merriment, the house of dancing, all in the tremor and glow of pleasure, suddenly sunk, with one short, wild wail of terror—sunk, sunk, down, down, down, into the merciless, unfathomable flood of the Mississippi.
Twelve long months were midnight to the mind of the childless father; when they were only half gone, he took his bed; and every day, and every night, old Charlie, the “low-down,” the “fool,” watched him tenderly, tended him lovingly, for the sake of his name, his misfortunes, and his broken heart. No woman’s step crossed the floor of the sick-chamber, whose western dormer-windows overpeered the dingy architecture of old Charlie’s block; Charlie and a skilled physician, the one all interest, the other all gentleness, hope, and patience—these only entered by the door; but by the window came in a sweet-scented evergreen vine, transplanted from the caving bank of Belles Demoiselles. It caught the rays of sunset in its flowery net and let then softly in upon the sick man’s bed; gathered the glancing beams of the moon at midnight, and often wakened the sleeper to look, with his mindless eyes, upon their pretty silver fragments strewn upon the floor.
By and by there seemed—there was—a twinkling dawn of returning reason. Slowly, peacefully, with an increase unseen from day to day, the light of reason came into the eyes, and speech became coherent; but withal there came a failing of the wrecked body, and the doctor said that monsieur was both better and worse.
One evening, as Charlie sat by the vine-clad window with his fireless pipe in his hand, the old Colonel’s eyes fell full upon his own, and rested there.
“Charl—,” he said with an effort, and his delighted nurse hastened to the bedside and bowed his best ear. There was an unsuccessful effort or two, and then he whispered, smiling with sweet sadness,—
“We didn’t trade.”
The truth, in this case, was a secondary matter to Charlie; the main point was to give a pleasing answer. So he nodded his head decidedly, as who should say—”Oh yes, we did, it was a bona-fide swap!” but when he saw the smile vanish, he tried the other expedient and shook his head with still more vigor, to signify that they had not so much as approached a bargain; and the smile returned.
Charlie wanted to see the vine recognized. He stepped backward to the window with a broad smile, shook the foliage, nodded and looked smart.
“I know,” said the Colonel, with beaming eyes,”—many weeks.”
The next day—
The best ear went down.
“Send for a priest.”
The priest came, and was alone with him a whole afternoon. When he left, the patient was very haggard and exhausted, but smiled and would not suffer the crucifix to be removed from his breast.
One more morning came. Just before dawn Charlie, lying on a pallet in the room, thought he was called, and came to the bedside.
“Old man,” whispered the failing invalid, “is it caving yet?”
“It won’t pay you out.”
“Oh, dat makes not’ing,” said Charlie. Two big tears rolled down his brown face. “Dat makes not’in.”
The Colonel whispered once more:
“Mes belles demoiselles! in paradise;—in the garden—I shall be with them at sunrise;” and so it was.
“Belles Demoiselles Plantation”
by George Washington Cable
Read by Tere Luke
Audio Engineer Jared Bell
Directed by Walter Evans
Copyright Georgia Regents University
2012 All Rights Reserved