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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crossing - Book 2. Flotsam And Jetsam - Chapter 11. The Strange City
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The Crossing - Book 2. Flotsam And Jetsam - Chapter 11. The Strange City Post by :Mike_Russell Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :March 2011 Read :2677

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The Crossing - Book 2. Flotsam And Jetsam - Chapter 11. The Strange City

Book II. Flotsam And Jetsam
Chapter XI. The Strange City

Nick and I stood by the mast on the forward part of the cabin, staring at the distant, low-lying city, while Xavier sought for the entrance to the eddy which here runs along the shore. If you did not gain this entrance, --so he explained,--you were carried by a swift current below New Orleans and might by no means get back save by the hiring of a crew. Xavier, however, was not to be caught thus, and presently we were gliding quietly along the eastern bank, or levee, which held back the river from the lowlands. Then, as we looked, the levee became an esplanade shaded by rows of willows, and through them we caught sight of the upper galleries and low, curving roofs of the city itself. There, cried Xavier, was the Governor's house on the corner, where the great Miro lived, and beyond it the house of the Intendant; and then, gliding into an open space between the keel boats along the bank, stared at by a score of boatmen and idlers from above, we came to the end of our long journey. No sooner had we made fast than we were boarded by a shabby customs officer who, when he had seen our passports, bowed politely and invited us to land. We leaped ashore, gained the gravelled walk on the levee, and looked about us.

Squalidity first met our eyes. Below us, crowded between the levee and the row of houses, were dozens of squalid market-stalls tended by cotton-clad negroes. Beyond, across the bare Place d'Armes, a blackened gap in the line of houses bore witness to the devastation of the year gone by, while here and there a roof, struck by the setting sun, gleamed fiery red with its new tiles. The levee was deserted save for the negroes and the river men.

"Time for siesta, Michie," said Xavier, joining us; "I will show you ze inn of which I spik. She is kep' by my fren', Madame Bouvet."

"Xavier," said Nick, looking at the rolling flood of the river, "suppose this levee should break?"

"Ah," said Xavier, "then some Spaniard who never have a bath--he feel what water is lak."

Followed by Benjy with the saddle-bags, we went down the steps set in the levee into this strange, foreign city. It was like unto nothing we had ever seen, nor can I give an adequate notion of how it affected us,--such a mixture it seemed of dirt and poverty and wealth and romance. The narrow, muddy streets ran with filth, and on each side along the houses was a sun-baked walk held up by the curved sides of broken flatboats, where two men might scarcely pass. The houses, too, had an odd and foreign look, some of wood, some of upright logs and plaster, and newer ones, Spanish in style, of adobe, with curving roofs of red tiles and strong eaves spreading over the banquette (as the sidewalk was called), casting shadows on lemon-colored walls. Since New Orleans was in a swamp, the older houses for the most part were lifted some seven feet above the ground, and many of these houses had wide galleries on the street side. Here and there a shop was set in the wall; a watchmaker was to be seen poring over his work at a tiny window, a shoemaker cross-legged on the floor. Again, at an open wicket, we caught a glimpse through a cool archway into a flowering court-yard. Stalwart negresses with bright kerchiefs made way for us on the banquette. Hands on hips, they swung along erect, with baskets of cakes and sweetmeats on their heads, musically crying their wares.

At length, turning a corner, we came to a white wooden house on the Rue Royale, with a flight of steps leading up to the entrance. In place of a door a flimsy curtain hung in the doorway, and, pushing this aside, we followed Xavier through a darkened hall to a wide gallery that overlooked a court-yard. This court-yard was shaded by several great trees which grew there, the house and gallery ran down one other side of it; and the two remaining sides were made up of a series of low cabins, these forming the various outhouses and the kitchen. At the far end of this gallery a sallow, buxom lady sat sewing at a table, and Xavier saluted her very respectfully.

"Madame," he said, "I have brought you from St. Louis with Michie Gratiot's compliments two young American gentlemen, who are travelling to amuse themselves."

The lady rose and beamed upon us.

"From Monsieur Gratiot," she said; "you are very welcome, gentlemen, to such poor accommodations as I have. It is not unusual to have American gentlemen in New Orleans, for many come here first and last. And I am happy to say that two of my best rooms are vacant. Zoey!"

There was a shrill answer from the court below, and a negro girl in a yellow turban came running up, while Madame Bouvet bustled along the gallery and opened the doors of two darkened rooms. Within I could dimly see a walnut dresser, a chair, and a walnut bed on which was spread a mosquito bar.

"Voila! Messieurs," cried Madame Bouvet, "there is still a little time for a siesta. No siesta!" cried Madame, eying us aghast; "ah, the Americans they never rest--never."

We bade farewell to the good Xavier, promising to see him soon; and Nick, shouting to Benjy to open the saddle-bags, proceeded to array himself in the clothes which had made so much havoc at St. Louis. I boded no good from this proceeding, but I reflected, as I watched him dress, that I might as well try to turn the Mississippi from its course as to attempt to keep my cousin from the search for gallant adventure. And I reflected that his indulgence in pleasure-seeking would serve the more to divert any suspicions which might fall upon my own head. At last, when the setting sun was flooding the court-yard, he stood arrayed upon the gallery, ready to venture forth to conquest.

Madame Bouvet's tavern, or hotel, or whatever she was pleased to call it, was not immaculately clean. Before passing into the street we stood for a moment looking into the public room on the left of the hallway, a long saloon, evidently used in the early afternoon for a dining room, and at the back of it a wide, many-paned window, capped by a Spanish arch, looked out on the gallery. Near this window was a gay party of young men engaged at cards, waited on by the yellow-turbaned Zoey, and drinking what evidently was claret punch. The sounds of their jests and laughter pursued us out of the house.

The town was waking from its siesta, the streets filling, and people stopped to stare at Nick as we passed. But Nick, who was plainly in search of something he did not find, hurried on. We soon came to the quarter which had suffered most from the fire, where new houses had gone up or were in the building beside the blackened logs of many of Bienville's time. Then we came to a high white wall that surrounded a large garden, and within it was a long, massive building of some beauty and pretension, with a high, latticed belfry and heavy walls and with arched dormers in the sloping roof. As we stood staring at it through the iron grille set in the archway of the lodge, Nick declared that it put him in mind of some of the chateaux he had seen in France, and he crossed the street to get a better view of the premises. An old man in coarse blue linen came out of the lodge and spoke to me.

"It is the convent of the good nuns, the Ursulines, Monsieur," he said in French, "and it was built long ago in the Sieur de Bienville's time, when the colony was young. For forty-five years, Monsieur, the young ladies of the city have come here to be educated."

"What does he say?" demanded Nick, pricking up his ears as he came across the street.

"That young men have been sent to the mines of Brazil for climbing the walls," I answered.

"Who wants to climb the walls?" said Nick, disgusted.

"The young ladies of the town go to school here," I answered; "it is a convent."

"It might serve to pass the time," said Nick, gazing with a new interest at the latticed windows. "How much would you take, my friend, to let us in at the back way this evening?" he demanded of the porter in French.

The good man gasped, lifted his hands in horror, and straightway let loose upon Nick a torrent of French invectives that had not the least effect except to cause a blacksmith's apprentice and two negroes to stop and stare at us.

"Pooh!" exclaimed Nick, when the man had paused for want of breath, "it is no trick to get over that wall."

"Bon Dieu!" cried the porter, "you are Kentuckians, yes? I might have known that you were Kentuckians, and I shall advise the good sisters to put glass on the wall and keep a watch."

"The young ladies are beautiful, you say?" said Nick.

At this juncture, with the negroes grinning and the porter near bursting with rage, there came out of the lodge the fattest woman I have ever seen for her size. She seized her husband by the back of his loose frock and pulled him away, crying out that he was losing time by talking to vagabonds, besides disturbing the good sisters. Then we went away, Nick following the convent wall down to the river. Turning southward under the bank past the huddle of market-stalls, we came suddenly upon a sight that made us pause and wonder.

New Orleans was awake. A gay and laughing throng paced the esplanade on the levee under the willows, with here and there a cavalier on horseback on the Royal Road below. Across the Place d'Armes the spire of the parish church stood against the fading sky, and to the westward the mighty river stretched away like a gilded floor. It was a strange throng. There were grave Spaniards in long cloaks and feathered beavers; jolly merchants and artisans in short linen jackets, each with his tabatiere, the wives with bits of finery, the children laughing and shouting and dodging in and out between fathers and mothers beaming with quiet pride and contentment; swarthy boat-men with their worsted belts, gaudy negresses chanting in the soft patois, and here and there a blanketed Indian. Nor was this all. Some occasion (so Madame Bouvet had told us) had brought a sprinkling of fashion to town that day, and it was a fashion to astonish me. There were fine gentlemen with swords and silk waistcoats and silver shoe-buckles, and ladies in filmy summer gowns. Greuze ruled the mode in France then, but New Orleans had not got beyond Watteau. As for Nick and me, we knew nothing of Greuze and Watteau then, and we could only stare in astonishment. And for once we saw an officer of the Louisiana Regiment resplendent in a uniform that might have served at court.

Ay, and there was yet another sort. Every flatboatman who returned to Kentucky was full of tales of the marvellous beauty of the quadroons and octoroons, stories which I had taken with a grain of salt; but they had not indeed been greatly overdrawn. For here were these ladies in the flesh, their great, opaque, almond eyes consuming us with a swift glance, and each walking with a languid grace beside her duenna. Their faces were like old ivory, their dress the stern Miro himself could scarce repress. In former times they had been lavish in their finery, and even now earrings still gleamed and color broke out irrepressibly.

Nick was delighted, but he had not dragged me twice the length of the esplanade ere his eye was caught by a young lady in pink who sauntered between an elderly gentleman in black silk and a young man more gayly dressed.

"Egad," said Nick, "there is my divinity, and I need not look a step farther."

I laughed.

"You have but to choose, I suppose, and all falls your way," I answered.

"But look!" he cried, halting me to stare after the girl, "what a face, and what a form! And what a carriage, by Jove! There is breeding for you! And Davy, did you mark the gentle, rounded arm? Thank heaven these short sleeves are the fashion."

"You are mad, Nick," I answered, pulling him on, "these people are not to be stared at so. And once I present our letters to Monsieur de Saint-Gre, it will not be difficult to know any of them."

"Look!" said he, "that young man, lover or husband, is a brute. On my soul, they are quarrelling."

The three had stopped by a bench under a tree. The young man, who wore claret silk and a sword, had one of those thin faces of dirty complexion which show the ravages of dissipation, and he was talking with a rapidity and vehemence of which only a Latin tongue will admit. We could see, likewise, that the girl was answering with spirit,--indeed, I should write a stronger word than spirit,--while the elderly gentleman, who had a good-humored, fleshy face and figure, was plainly doing his best to calm them both. People who were passing stared curiously at the three.

"Your divinity evidently has a temper," I remarked.

"For that scoundel--certainly," said Nick; "but come, they are moving on."

"You mean to follow them?" I exclaimed.

"Why not?" said he. "We will find out where they live and who they are, at least."

"And you have taken a fancy to this girl?"

"I have looked them all over, and she's by far the best I've seen. I can say so much honestly."

"But she may be married," I said weakly.

"Tut, Davy," he answered, "it's more than likely, from the violence of their quarrel. But if so, we will try again."

"We!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, come on!" he cried, dragging me by the sleeve, "or we shall lose them."

I resisted no longer, but followed him down the levee, in my heart thanking heaven that he had not taken a fancy to an octoroon. Twilight had set in strongly, the gay crowd was beginning to disperse, and in the distance the three figures could be seen making their way across the Place d'Armes, the girl hanging on the elderly gentleman's arm, and the young man following with seeming sullenness behind. They turned into one of the narrower streets, and we quickened our steps. Lights gleamed in the houses; voices and laughter, and once the tinkle of a guitar came to us from court-yard and gallery. But Nick, hurrying on, came near to bowling more than one respectable citizen we met on the banquette, into the ditch. We reached a corner, and the three were nowhere to be seen.

"Curse the luck!" cried Nick, "we have lost them. The next time I'll stop for no explanations."

There was no particular reason why I should have been penitent, but I ventured to say that the house they had entered could not be far off.

"And how the devil are we to know it?" demanded Nick.

This puzzled me for a moment, but presently I began to think that the two might begin quarrelling again, and said so. Nick laughed and put his arm around my neck.

"You have no mean ability for intrigue when you put your mind to it, Davy," he said; "I vow I believe you are in love with the girl yourself."

I disclaimed this with some vehemence. Indeed, I had scarcely seen her.

"They can't be far off," said Nick; "we'll pitch on a likely house and camp in front of it until bedtime."

"And be flung into a filthy calaboose by a constable," said I. "No, thank you."

We walked on, and halfway down the block we came upon a new house with more pretensions than its neighbors. It was set back a little from the street, and there was a high adobe wall into which a pair of gates were set, and a wicket opening in one of them. Over the wall hung a dark fringe of magnolia and orange boughs. On each of the gate-posts a crouching lion was outlined dimly against the fainting light, and, by crossing the street, we could see the upper line of a latticed gallery under the low roof. We took our stand within the empty doorway of a blackened house, nearly opposite, and there we waited, Nick murmuring all sorts of ridiculous things in my ear. But presently I began to reflect upon the consequences of being taken in such a situation by a constable and dragged into the light of a public examination. I put this to Nick as plainly as I could, and was declaring my intention of going back to Madame Bouvet's, when the sound of voices arrested me. The voices came from the latticed gallery, and they were low at first, but soon rose to such an angry pitch that I made no doubt we had hit on the right house after all. What they said was lost to us, but I could distinguish the woman's voice, low-pitched and vibrant as though insisting upon a refusal, and the man's scarce adult tones, now high as though with balked passion, now shaken and imploring. I was for leaving the place at once, but Nick clutched my arm tightly; and suddenly, as I stood undecided, the voices ceased entirely, there were the sounds of a scuffle, and the lattice of the gallery was flung open. In the all but darkness we saw a figure climb over the railing, hang suspended for an instant, and drop lightly to the ground. Then came the light relief of a woman's gown in the opening of the lattice, the cry "Auguste, Auguste!" the wicket in the gate opened and slammed, and a man ran at top speed along the banquette towards the levee.

Instinctively I seized Nick by the arm as he started out of the doorway.

"Let me go," he cried angrily, "let me go, Davy."

But I held on.

"Are you mad?" I said.

He did not answer, but twisted and struggled, and before I knew what he was doing he had pushed me off the stone step into a tangle of blackened beams behind. I dropped his arm to save myself, and it was mere good fortune that I did not break an ankle in the fall. When I had gained the step again he was gone after the man, and a portly citizen stood in front of me, looking into the doorway.

"Qu'est-ce-qu'il-y-a la dedans?" he demanded sharply.

It was a sufficiently embarrassing situation. I put on a bold front, however, and not deigning to answer, pushed past him and walked with as much leisure as possible along the banquette in the direction which Nick had taken. As I turned the corner I glanced over my shoulder, and in the darkness I could just make out the man standing where I had left him. In great uneasiness I pursued my way, my imagination summing up for Nick all kinds of adventures with disagreeable consequences. I walked for some time--it may have been half an hour--aimlessly, and finally decided it would be best to go back to Madame Bouvet's and await the issue with as much calmness as possible. He might not, after all, have caught the fellow.

There were few people in the dark streets, but at length I met a man who gave me directions, and presently found my way back to my lodging place. Talk and laughter floated through the latticed windows into the street, and when I had pushed back the curtain and looked into the saloon I found the same gaming party at the end of it, sitting in their shirt-sleeves amidst the moths and insects that hovered around the candles.

"Ah, Monsieur," said Madame Bouvet's voice behind me, "you must excuse them. They will come here and play, the young gentlemen, and I cannot find it in my heart to drive them away, though sometimes I lose a respectable lodger by their noise. But, after all, what would you?" she added with a shrug; "I love them, the young men. But, Monsieur," she cried, "you have had no supper! And where is Monsieur your companion? Comme il est beau garcon!"

"He will be in presently," I answered with unwarranted assumption.

Madame shot at me the swiftest of glances and laughed, and I suspected that she divined Nick's propensity for adventure. However, she said nothing more than to bid me sit down at the table, and presently Zoey came in with lights and strange, highly seasoned dishes, which I ate with avidity, notwithstanding my uneasiness of mind, watching the while the party at the far end of the room. There were five young gentlemen playing a game I knew not, with intervals of intense silence, and boisterous laughter and execrations while the cards were being shuffled and the money rang on the board and glasses were being filled from a stand at one side. Presently Madame Bouvet returned, and placing before me a cup of wondrous coffee, advanced down the room towards them.

"Ah, Messieurs," she cried, "you will ruin my poor house."

The five rose and bowed with marked profundity. One of them, with a puffy, weak, good-natured face, answered her briskly, and after a little raillery she came back to me. I had a question not over discreet on my tongue's tip.

"There are some fine residences going up here, Madame," I said.

"Since the fire, Monsieur, the dreadful fire of Good Friday a year ago. You admire them?"

"I saw one," I answered with indifference, "with a wall and lions on the gate-posts--"

"Mon Dieu, that is a house," exclaimed Madame; "it belongs to Monsieur de Saint-Gre."

"To Monsieur de Saint-Gre!" I repeated.

She shot a look at me. She had bright little eyes like a bird's, that shone in the candlelight.

"You know him, Monsieur?"

"I heard of him in St. Louis," I answered.

"You will meet him, no doubt," she continued. "He is a very fine gentleman. His grandfather was Commissary-general of the colony, and he himself is a cousin of the Marquis de Saint-Gre, who has two chateaux, a house in Paris, and is a favorite of the King." She paused, as if to let this impress itself upon me, and added archly, "Tenez, Monsieur, there is a daughter--"

She stopped abruptly.

I followed her glance, and my first impression--of claret-color--gave me a shock. My second confirmed it, for in the semi-darkness beyond the rays of the candle was a thin, eager face, prematurely lined, with coal-black, lustrous eyes that spoke eloquently of indulgence. In an instant I knew it to be that of the young man whom I had seen on the levee.

"Monsieur Auguste?" stammered Madame.

"Bon soir, Madame," he cried gayly, with a bow; "diable, they are already at it, I see, and the punch in the bowl. I will win back to-night what I have lost by a week of accursed luck."

"Monsieur your father has relented, perhaps," said Madame, deferentially.

"Relented!" cried the young man, "not a sou. C'est egal! I have the means here," and he tapped his pocket, "I have the means here to set me on my feet again, Madame."

He spoke with a note of triumph, and Madame took a curious step towards him.

"Qu'est-ce-que c'est, Monsieur Auguste?" she inquired.

He drew something that glittered from his pocket and beckoned to her to follow him down the room, which she did with alacrity.

"Ha, Adolphe," he cried to the young man of the puffy face, "I will have my revenge to-night. Voila!!" and he held up the shining thing, "this goes to the highest bidder, and you will agree that it is worth a pretty sum."

They rose from their chairs and clustered around him at the table, Madame in their midst, staring with bent heads at the trinket which he held to the light. It was Madame's voice I heard first, in a kind of frightened cry.

"Mon Dieu, Monsieur Auguste, you will not part with that!" she exclaimed.

"Why not?" demanded the young man, indifferently. "It was painted by Boze, the back is solid gold, and the Jew in the Rue Toulouse will give me four hundred livres for it to-morrow morning."

There followed immediately such a chorus of questions, exclamations, and shrill protests from Madame Bouvet, that I (being such a laborious French scholar) could distinguish but little of what they said. I looked in wonderment at the gesticulating figures grouped against the light, Madame imploring, the youthful profile of the newcomer marked with a cynical and scornful refusal. More than once I was for rising out of my chair to go over and see for myself what the object was, and then, suddenly, I perceived Madame Bouvet coming towards me in evident agitation. She sank into the chair beside me.

"If I had four hundred livres," she said, "if I had four hundred livres!"

"And what then?" I asked.

"Monsieur," she said, "a terrible thing has happened. Auguste de Saint-Gre--"

"Auguste de Saint-Gre!" I exclaimed.

"He is the son of that Monsieur de Saint-Gre of whom we spoke," she answered, "a wild lad, a spendthrift, a gambler, if you like. And yet he is a Saint-Gre, Monsieur, and I cannot refuse him. It is the miniature of Mademoiselle Helene de Saint-Gre, the daughter of the Marquis, sent to Mamselle 'Toinette, his sister, from France. How he has obtained it I know not."

"Ah!" I exclaimed sharply, the explanation of the scene of which I had been a witness coming to me swiftly. The rascal had wrenched it from her in the gallery and fled.

"Monsieur," continued Madame, too excited to notice my interruption, "if I had four hundred livres I would buy it of him, and Monsieur de Saint-Gre pere would willingly pay it back in the morning."

I reflected. I had a letter in my pocket to Monsieur de Saint-Gre, the sum was not large, and the act of Monsieur Auguste de Saint-Gre in every light was detestable. A rising anger decided me, and I took a wallet from my pocket.

"I will buy the miniature, Madame," I said.

She looked at me in astonishment.

"God bless you, Monsieur," she cried; "if you could see Mamselle 'Toinette you would pay twice the sum. The whole town loves her. Monsieur Auguste, Monsieur Auguste!" she shouted, "here is a gentleman who will buy your miniature."

The six young men stopped talking and stared at me With one accord. Madame arose, and I followed her down the room towards them, and, had it not been for my indignation, I should have felt sufficiently ridiculous. Young Monsieur de Saint-Gre came forward with the good-natured, easy insolence to which he had been born, and looked me over.

"Monsieur is an American," he said.

"I understand that you have offered this miniature for four hundred livres," I said.

"It is the Jew's price," he answered; "mais pardieu, what will you?" he added with a shrug, "I must have the money. Regardez, Monsieur, you have a bargain. Here is Mademoiselle Helene de Saint-Gre, daughter of my lord the Marquis of whom I have the honor to be a cousin," and he made a bow. "It is by the famous court painter, Joseph Boze, and Mademoiselle de Saint-Gre herself is a favorite of her Majesty." He held the portrait close to the candle and regarded it critically. "Mademoiselle Helene Victoire Marie de Saint-Gre, painted in a costume of Henry the Second's time, with a ruff, you notice, which she wore at a ball given by his Highness the Prince of Conde at Chantilly. A trifle haughty, if you like, Monsieur, but I venture to say you will be hopelessly in love with her within the hour."

At this there was a general titter from the young gentlemen at the table.

"All of which is neither here nor there, Monsieur," I answered sharply. "The question is purely a commercial one, and has nothing to do with the lady's character or position."

"It is well said, Monsieur," Madame Bouvet put in.

Monsieur Auguste de Saint-Gre shrugged his slim shoulders and laid down the portrait on the walnut table.

"Four hundred livres, Monsieur," he said.

I counted out the money, scrutinized by the curious eyes of his companions, and pushed it over to him. He bowed carelessly, sat him down, and began to shuffle the cards, while I picked up the miniature and walked out of the room. Before I had gone twenty paces I heard them laughing at their game and shouting out the stakes. Suddenly I bethought myself of Nick. What if he should come in and discover the party at the table? I stopped short in the hallway, and there Madame Bouvet overtook me.

"How can I thank you, Monsieur?" she said. And then, "You will return the portrait to Monsieur de Saint-Gre?"

"I have a letter from Monsieur Gratiot to that gentleman, which I shall deliver in the morning," I answered. "And now, Madame, I have a favor to ask of you."

"I am at Monsieur's service," she answered simply.

"When Mr. Temple comes in, he is not to go into that room," I said, pointing to the door of the saloon; "I have my reasons for requesting it."

For answer Madame went to the door, closed it, and turned the key. Then she sat down beside a little table with a candlestick and took up her knitting.

"It will be as Monsieur says," she answered.

I smiled.

"And when Mr. Temple comes in will you kindly say that I am waiting for him in his room?" I asked.

"As Monsieur says," she answered. "I wish Monsieur a good-night and pleasant dreams."

She took a candlestick from the table, lighted the candle, and handed it me with a courtesy. I bowed, and made my way along the gallery above the deserted court-yard. Entering my room and closing the door after me, I drew the miniature from my pocket and stood gazing at it for I know not how long.

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