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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grandissimes - Chapter 13. A Call From The Rent-Spectre
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The Grandissimes - Chapter 13. A Call From The Rent-Spectre Post by :ksloan Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1834

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The Grandissimes - Chapter 13. A Call From The Rent-Spectre

CHAPTER XIII. A CALL FROM THE RENT-SPECTRE

It is nearly noon of a balmy morning late in February. Aurore Nancanou and her daughter have only this moment ceased sewing, in the small front room of No. 19 rue Bienville. Number 19 is the right-hand half of a single-story, low-roofed tenement, washed with yellow ochre, which it shares generously with whoever leans against it. It sits as fast on the ground as a toad. There is a kitchen belonging to it somewhere among the weeds in the back yard, and besides this room where the ladies are, there is, directly behind it, a sleeping apartment. Somewhere back of this there is a little nook where in pleasant weather they eat. Their cook and housemaid is the plain person who attends them on the street. Her bedchamber is the kitchen and her bed the floor. The house's only other protector is a hound, the aim of whose life is to get thrust out of the ladies' apartments every fifteen minutes.

Yet if you hastily picture to yourself a forlorn-looking establishment, you will be moving straight away from the fact. Neatness, order, excellence, are prevalent qualities in all the details of the main house's inward garniture. The furniture is old-fashioned, rich, French, imported. The carpets, if not new, are not cheap, either. Bits of crystal and silver, visible here and there, are as bright as they are antiquated; and one or two portraits, and the picture of Our Lady of Many Sorrows, are passably good productions. The brass work, of which there is much, is brilliantly burnished, and the front room is bright and cheery.

At the street door of this room somebody has just knocked. Aurore has risen from her seat. The other still sits on a low chair with her hands and sewing dropped into her lap, looking up steadfastly into her mother's face with a mingled expression of fondness and dismayed expectation. Aurore hesitates beside her chair, desirous of resuming her seat, even lifts her sewing from it; but tarries a moment, her alert suspense showing in her eyes. Her daughter still looks up into them. It is not strange that the dwellers round about dispute as to which is the fairer, nor that in the six months during which the two have occupied Number 19 the neighbors have reached no conclusion on this subject. If some young enthusiast compares the daughter--in her eighteenth year--to a bursting blush rosebud full of promise, some older one immediately retorts that the other--in her thirty-fifth--is the red, red, full-blown, faultless joy of the garden. If one says the maiden has the dew of youth,--"But!" cry two or three mothers in a breath, "that other one, child, will never grow old. With her it will always be morning. That woman is going to last forever; ha-a-a-a!--even longer!"

There was one direction in which the widow evidently had the advantage; you could see from the street or the opposite windows that she was a wise householder. On the day they moved into Number 19 she had been seen to enter in advance of all her other movables, carrying into the empty house a new broom, a looking-glass, and a silver coin. Every morning since, a little watching would have discovered her at the hour of sunrise sprinkling water from her side casement, and her opposite neighbors often had occasion to notice that, sitting at her sewing by the front window, she never pricked her finger but she quickly ran it up behind her ear, and then went on with her work. Would anybody but Joseph Frowenfeld ever have lived in and moved away from the two-story brick next them on the right and not have known of the existence of such a marvel?

"Ha!" they said, "she knows how to keep off bad luck, that Madame yonder. And the younger one seems not to like it. Girls think themselves so smart these days."

Ah, there was the knock again, right there on the street-door, as loud as if it had been given with a joint of sugar-cane!

The daughter's hand, which had just resumed the needle, stood still in mid-course with the white thread half-drawn. Aurore tiptoed slowly over the carpeted floor. There came a shuffling sound, and the corner of a folded white paper commenced appearing and disappearing under the door. She mounted a chair and peeped through that odd little _jalousie which formerly was in almost all New Orleans street-doors; but the missive had meantime found its way across the sill, and she saw only the unpicturesque back of a departing errand-boy. But that was well. She had a pride, to maintain which--and a poverty, to conceal which--she felt to be necessary to her self-respect; and this made her of necessity a trifle unsocial in her own castle. Do you suppose she was going to put on the face of having been born or married to this degraded condition of things?

Who knows?--the knock might have been from 'Sieur Frowenfel'--ha, ha! He might be just silly enough to call so early; or it might have been from that _polisson of a Grandissime,--which one didn't matter, they were all detestable,--coming to collect the rent. That was her original fear; or, worse still, it might have been, had it been softer, the knock of some possible lady visitor. She had no intention of admitting any feminine eyes to detect this carefully covered up indigence. Besides, it was Monday. There is no sense in trifling with bad luck. The reception of Monday callers is a source of misfortune never known to fail, save in rare cases when good luck has already been secured by smearing the front walk or the banquette with Venetian red.

Before the daughter could dart up and disengage herself from her work her mother had pounced upon the paper. She was standing and reading, her rich black lashes curtaining their downcast eyes, her infant waist and round, close-fitted, childish arms harmonizing prettily with her mock frown of infantile perplexity, and her long, limp robe heightening the grace of her posture, when the younger started from her seat with the air of determining not to be left at a disadvantage.

But what is that on the dark eyelash? With a sudden additional energy the daughter dashes the sewing and chair to right and left, bounds up, and in a moment has Aurore weeping in her embrace and has snatched the note from her hand.

"_Ah! maman! Ah! ma chere mere_!"

The mother forced a laugh. She was not to be mothered by her daughter; so she made a dash at Clotilde's uplifted hand to recover the note, which was unavailing. Immediately there arose in colonial French the loveliest of contentions, the issue of which was that the pair sat down side by side, like two sisters over one love-letter, and undertook to decipher the paper. It read as follows:


"NEW ORLEANS, 20 Feb're, 1804.

"MADAME NANCANOU: I muss oblige to ass you for rent of that
house whare you living, it is at number 19 Bienville street
whare I do not received thos rent from you not since tree
mons and I demand you this is mabe thirteen time. And I give
to you notice of 19 das writen in Anglish as the new law
requi. That witch the law make necessare only for 15 das, and
when you not pay me those rent in 19 das till the tense of
Marh I will rekes you to move out. That witch make me to be
verry sorry. I have the honor to remain, Madam,

"Your humble servant,
"H. Grandissime.
"_per Z.F."


There was a short French postscript on the opposite page signed only by M. Zenon Francois, explaining that he, who had allowed them in the past to address him as their landlord and by his name, was but the landlord's agent; that the landlord was a far better-dressed man than he could afford to be; that the writing opposite was a notice for them to quit the premises they had rented (not leased), or pay up; that it gave the writer great pain to send it, although it was but the necessary legal form and he only an irresponsible drawer of an inadequate salary, with thirteen children to support; and that he implored them to tear off and burn up this postscript immediately they had read it.

"Ah, the miserable!" was all the comment made upon it as the two ladies addressed their energies to the previous English. They had never suspected him of being M. Grandissime.

Their eyes dragged slowly and ineffectually along the lines to the signature.

"H. Grandissime! Loog ad 'im!" cried the widow, with a sudden short laugh, that brought the tears after it like a wind-gust in a rose-tree. She held the letter out before them as if she was lifting something alive by the back of the neck, and to intensify her scorn spoke in the hated tongue prescribed by the new courts. "Loog ad 'im! dad ridge gen'leman oo give so mudge money to de 'ozpill!"

"Bud, _maman_," said the daughter, laying her hand appeasingly upon her mother's knee, "_ee do nod know 'ow we is poor."

"Ah!" retorted Aurore, "_par example! Non? Ee thingue we is ridge, eh? Ligue his oncle, eh? Ee thing so, too, eh?" She cast upon her daughter the look of burning scorn intended for Agricola Fusilier. "You wan' to tague the pard of dose Grandissime'?"

The daughter returned a look of agony.

"No," she said, "bud a man wad godd some 'ouses to rend, muz ee nod boun' to ged 'is rend?"

"Boun' to ged--ah! yez ee muz do 'is possible to ged 'is rend. Oh! certain_lee_. Ee is ridge, bud ee need a lill money, bad, bad. Fo' w'at?" The excited speaker rose to her feet under a sudden inspiration. "_Tenez, Mademoiselle!_" She began to make great show of unfastening her dress.

"_Mais, comment?_" demanded the suffering daughter.

"Yez!" continued Aurore, keeping up the demonstration, "you wand 'im to 'ave 'is rend so bad! An' I godd honely my cloze; so you juz tague diz to you' fine gen'lemen, 'Sieur Honore Grandissime."

"Ah-h-h-h!" cried the martyr.

"An' you is righd," persisted the tormentor, still unfastening; but the daughter's tears gushed forth, and the repentant tease threw herself upon her knees, drew her child's head into her bosom and wept afresh.

Half an hour was passed in council; at the end of which they stood beneath their lofty mantelshelf, each with a foot on a brazen fire-dog, and no conclusion reached.

"Ah, my child!"--they had come to themselves now and were speaking in their peculiar French--"if we had here in these hands but the tenth part of what your papa often played away in one night without once getting angry! But we have not. Ah! but your father was a fine fellow; if he could have lived for you to know him! So accomplished! Ha, ha, ha! I can never avoid laughing, when I remember him teaching me to speak English; I used to enrage him so!"

The daughter brought the conversation back to the subject of discussion. There were nineteen days yet allowed them. God knows--by the expiration of that time they might be able to pay. With the two music scholars whom she then had and three more whom she had some hope to get, she made bold to say they could pay the rent.

"Ah, Clotilde, my child," exclaimed Aurore, with sudden brightness, "you don't need a mask and costume to resemble your great-grandmother, the casket-girl!" Aurore felt sure, on her part, that with the one embroidery scholar then under her tutelage, and the three others who had declined to take lessons, they could easily pay the rent--and how kind it was of Monsieur, the aged father of that one embroidery scholar, to procure those invitations to the ball! The dear old man! He said he must see one more ball before he should die.

Aurore looked so pretty in the reverie into which she fell that her daughter was content to admire her silently.

"Clotilde," said the mother, presently looking up, "do you remember the evening you treated me so ill?"

The daughter smiled at the preposterous charge.

"I did not treat you ill."

"Yes, don't you know--the evening you made me lose my purse?"

"Certainly, I know!" The daughter took her foot from the andiron; her eyes lighted up aggressively. "For losing your purse blame yourself. For the way you found it again--which was far worse--thank Palmyre. If you had not asked her to find it and shared the gold with her we could have returned with it to 'Sieur Frowenfel'; but now we are ashamed to let him see us. I do not doubt he filled the purse."

"He? He never knew it was empty. It was Nobody who filled it. Palmyre says that Papa Lebat--"

"Ha!" exclaimed Clotilde at this superstitious mention.

The mother tossed her head and turned her back, swallowing the unendurable bitterness of being rebuked by her daughter. But the cloud hung over but a moment.

"Clotilde," she said, a minute after, turning with a look of sun-bright resolve, "I am going to see him."

"To see whom?" asked the other, looking back from the window, whither she had gone to recover from a reactionary trembling.

"To whom, my child? Why--"

"You do not expect mercy from Honore Grandissime? You would not ask it?"

"No. There is no mercy in the Grandissime blood; but cannot I demand justice? Ha! it is justice that I shall demand!"

"And you will really go and see him?"

"You will see, Mademoiselle," replied Aurore, dropping a broom with which she had begun to sweep up some spilled buttons.

"And I with you?"

"No! To a counting-room? To the presence of the chief of that detestable race? No!"

"But you don't know where his office is."

"Anybody can tell me."

Preparation began at once. By and by--

"Clotilde."

Clotilde was stooping behind her mother, with a ribbon between her lips, arranging a flounce.

"M-m-m."

"You must not watch me go out of sight; do you hear? ... But it _is dangerous. I knew of a gentleman who watched his wife go out of his sight and she never came back!"

"Hold still!" said Clotilde.

"But when my hand itches," retorted Aurore in a high key, "haven't I got to put it instantly into my pocket if I want the money to come there? Well, then!"

The daughter proposed to go to the kitchen and tell Alphonsina to put on her shoes.

"My child," cried Aurore, "you are crazy! Do you want Alphonsina to be seized for the rent?"

"But you cannot go alone--and on foot!"

"I must go alone; and--can you lend me your carriage? Ah, you have none? Certainly I must go alone and on foot if I am to say I cannot pay the rent. It is no indiscretion of mine. If anything happens to me it is M. Grandissime who is responsible."

Now she is ready for the adventurous errand. She darts to the mirror. The high-water marks are gone from her eyes. She wheels half around and looks over her shoulder. The flaring bonnet and loose ribbons gave her a more girlish look than ever.

"Now which is the older, little old woman?" she chirrups, and smites her daughter's cheek softly with her palm.

"And you are not afraid to go alone?"

"No; but remember! look at that dog!"

The brute sinks apologetically to the floor. Clotilde opens the street door, hands Aurore the note, Aurore lays a frantic kiss upon her lips, pressing it on tight so as to get it again when she comes back, and--while Clotilde calls the cook to gather up the buttons and take away the broom, and while the cook, to make one trip of it, gathers the hound into her bosom and carries broom and dog out together--Aurore sallies forth, leaving Clotilde to resume her sewing and await the coming of a guitar scholar.

"It will keep her fully an hour," thought the girl, far from imagining that Aurore had set about a little private business which she proposed to herself to accomplish before she even started in the direction of M. Grandissime's counting-rooms.

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