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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grandissimes - Chapter 12. The Philosophe
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The Grandissimes - Chapter 12. The Philosophe Post by :ksloan Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1551

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The Grandissimes - Chapter 12. The Philosophe

CHAPTER XII. THE PHILOSOPHE

The apothecary felt an inward nervous start as there advanced into the light of his hanging lamp and toward the spot where he had halted, just outside the counter, a woman of the quadroon caste, of superb stature and poise, severely handsome features, clear, tawny skin and large, passionate black eyes.

"_Bon soi', Miche_." (Monsieur.) A rather hard, yet not repellent smile showed her faultless teeth.

Frowenfeld bowed.

"_Mo vien c'erc'er la bourse de Madame_."

She spoke the best French at her command, but it was not understood.

The apothecary could only shake his head.

"_La bourse_" she repeated, softly smiling, but with a scintillation of the eyes in resentment of his scrutiny. "_La bourse_" she reiterated.

"Purse?"

"_Oui, Miche_."

"You are sent for it?"

"_Oui, Miche_."

He drew it from his breast pocket and marked the sudden glisten of her eyes, reflecting the glisten of the gold in the silken mesh.

"_Oui, c'est ca_," said she, putting her hand out eagerly.

"I am afraid to give you this to-night," said Joseph.

"_Oui_," ventured she, dubiously, the lightning playing deep back in her eyes.

"You might be robbed," said Frowenfeld. "It is very dangerous for you to be out alone. It will not be long, now, until gun-fire." (Eight o'clock P.M.--the gun to warn slaves to be in-doors, under pain of arrest and imprisonment.)

The object of this solicitude shook her head with a smile at its gratuitousness. The smile showed determination also.

"_Mo pas compren_'," she said.

"Tell the lady to send for it to-morrow."

She smiled helplessly and somewhat vexedly, shrugged and again shook her head. As she did so she heard footsteps and voices in the door at her back.

"_C'est ca_" she said again with a hurried attempt at extreme amiability; "Dat it; _oui_;" and lifting her hand with some rapidity made a sudden eager reach for the purse, but failed.

"No!" said Frowenfeld, indignantly.

"Hello!" said Charlie Keene amusedly, as he approached from the door.

The woman turned, and in one or two rapid sentences in the Creole dialect offered her explanation.

"Give her the purse, Joe; I will answer for its being all right."

Frowenfeld handed it to her. She started to pass through the door in the rue Royale by which Doctor Keene had entered; but on seeing on its threshold Agricola frowning upon her, she turned quickly with evident trepidation, and hurried out into the darkness of the other street.

Agricola entered. Doctor Keene looked about the shop.

"I tell you, Agricole, you didn't have it with you; Frowenfeld, you haven't seen a big knotted walking-stick?"

Frowenfeld was sure no walking-stick had been left there.

"Oh, yes, Frowenfeld," said Doctor Keene, with a little laugh, as the three sat down, "I'd a'most as soon trust that woman as if she was white."

The apothecary said nothing.

"How free," said Agricola, beginning with a meditative gaze at the sky without, and ending with a philosopher's smile upon his two companions,--"how free we people are from prejudice against the negro!"

"The white people," said Frowenfeld, half abstractedly, half inquiringly.

"H-my young friend, when we say, 'we people,' we _always mean we white people. The non-mention of color always implies pure white; and whatever is not pure white is to all intents and purposes pure black. When I say the 'whole community,' I mean the whole white portion; when I speak of the 'undivided public sentiment,' I mean the sentiment of the white population. What else could I mean? Could you suppose, sir, the expression which you may have heard me use--'my downtrodden country'--includes blacks and mulattoes? What is that up yonder in the sky? The moon. The new moon, or the old moon, or the moon in her third quarter, but always the moon! Which part of it? Why, the shining part--the white part, always and only! Not that there is a prejudice against the negro. By no means. Wherever he can be of any service in a strictly menial capacity we kindly and generously tolerate his presence."

Was the immigrant growing wise, or weak, that he remained silent?

Agricola rose as he concluded and said he would go home. Doctor Keene gave him his hand lazily, without rising.

"Frowenfeld," he said, with a smile and in an undertone, as Agricola's footsteps died away, "don't you know who that woman is?"

"No."

"Well, I'll tell you."

He told him.

* * * * *

On that lonely plantation at the Cannes Brulees, where Aurore Nancanou's childhood had been passed without brothers or sisters, there had been given her, according to the well-known custom of plantation life, a little quadroon slave-maid as her constant and only playmate. This maid began early to show herself in many ways remarkable. While yet a child she grew tall, lithe, agile; her eyes were large and black, and rolled and sparkled if she but turned to answer to her name. Her pale yellow forehead, low and shapely, with the jet hair above it, the heavily pencilled eyebrows and long lashes below, the faint red tinge that blushed with a kind of cold passion through the clear yellow skin of the cheek, the fulness of the red, voluptuous lips and the roundness of her perfect neck, gave her, even at fourteen, a barbaric and magnetic beauty, that startled the beholder like an unexpected drawing out of a jewelled sword. Such a type could have sprung only from high Latin ancestry on the one side and--we might venture--Jaloff African on the other. To these charms of person she added mental acuteness, conversational adroitness, concealed cunning, and noiseless but visible strength of will; and to these, that rarest of gifts in one of her tincture, the purity of true womanhood.

At fourteen a necessity which had been parleyed with for two years or more became imperative, and Aurore's maid was taken from her. Explanation is almost superfluous. Aurore was to become a lady and her playmate a lady's maid; but not _her maid, because the maid had become, of the two, the ruling spirit. It was a question of grave debate in the mind of M. De Grapion what disposition to make of her.

About this time the Grandissimes and De Grapions, through certain efforts of Honore's father (since dead) were making some feeble pretences of mutual good feeling, and one of those Kentuckian dealers in corn and tobacco whose flatboat fleets were always drifting down the Mississippi, becoming one day M. De Grapion's transient guest, accidentally mentioned a wish of Agricola Fusilier. Agricola, it appeared, had commissioned him to buy the most beautiful lady's maid that in his extended journeyings he might be able to find; he wanted to make her a gift to his niece, Honore's sister. The Kentuckian saw the demand met in Aurore's playmate. M. De Grapion would not sell her. (Trade with a Grandissime? Let them suspect he needed money?) No; but he would ask Agricola to accept the services of the waiting-maid for, say, ten years. The Kentuckian accepted the proposition on the spot and it was by and by carried out. She was never recalled to the Cannes Brulees, but in subsequent years received her freedom from her master, and in New Orleans became Palmyre la Philosophe, as they say in the corrupt French of the old Creoles, or Palmyre Philosophe, noted for her taste and skill as a hair-dresser, for the efficiency of her spells and the sagacity of her divinations, but most of all for the chaste austerity with which she practised the less baleful rites of the voudous.

"That's the woman," said Doctor Keene, rising to go, as he concluded the narrative,--"that's she, Palmyre Philosophe. Now you get a view of the vastness of Agricole's generosity; he tolerates her even though she does not present herself in the 'strictly menial capacity.' Reason why--_he's afraid of her_."

Time passed, if that may be called time which we have to measure with a clock. The apothecary of the rue Royale found better ways of measurement. As quietly as a spider he was spinning information into knowledge and knowledge into what is supposed to be wisdom; whether it was or not we shall see. His unidentified merchant friend who had adjured him to become acclimated as "they all did" had also exhorted him to study the human mass of which he had become a unit; but whether that study, if pursued, was sweetening and ripening, or whether it was corrupting him, that friend did not come to see; it was the busy time of year. Certainly so young a solitary, coming among a people whose conventionalities were so at variance with his own door-yard ethics, was in sad danger of being unduly--as we might say--Timonized. His acquaintances continued to be few in number.

During this fermenting period he chronicled much wet and some cold weather. This may in part account for the uneventfulness of its passage; events do not happen rapidly among the Creoles in bad weather. However, trade was good.

But the weather cleared; and when it was getting well on into the Creole spring and approaching the spring of the almanacs, something did occur that extended Frowenfeld's acquaintance without Doctor Keene's assistance.

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