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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grandissimes - Chapter 14. Before Sunset
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The Grandissimes - Chapter 14. Before Sunset Post by :ksloan Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2719

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The Grandissimes - Chapter 14. Before Sunset

CHAPTER XIV. BEFORE SUNSET

In old times, most of the sidewalks of New Orleans not in the heart of town were only a rough, rank turf, lined on the side next the ditch with the gunwales of broken-up flatboats--ugly, narrow, slippery objects. As Aurora--it sounds so much pleasanter to anglicize her name--as Aurora gained a corner where two of these gunwales met, she stopped and looked back to make sure that Clotilde was not watching her. That others had noticed her here and there she did not care; that was something beauty would have to endure, and it only made her smile to herself.

"Everybody sees I am from the country--walking on the street without a waiting-maid."

A boy passed, hushing his whistle, and gazing at the lone lady until his turning neck could twist no farther. She was so dewy fresh! After he had got across the street he turned to look again. Where could she have disappeared?

The only object to be seen on the corner from which she had vanished was a small, yellow-washed house much like the one Aurora occupied, as it was like hundreds that then characterized and still characterize the town, only that now they are of brick instead of adobe. They showed in those days, even more than now, the wide contrast between their homely exteriors and the often elegant apartments within. However, in this house the front room was merely neat. The furniture was of rude, heavy pattern, Creole-made, and the walls were unadorned; the day of cheap pictures had not come. The lofty bedstead which filled one corner was spread and hung with a blue stuff showing through a web of white needlework. The brazen feet of the chairs were brightly burnished, as were the brass mountings of the bedstead and the brass globes on the cold andirons. Curtains of blue and white hung at the single window. The floor, from habitual scrubbing with the common weed which politeness has to call _Helenium autumnale_, was stained a bright, clean yellow. On it were, here and there in places, white mats woven of bleached palmetto-leaf. Such were the room's appointments; there was but one thing more, a singular bit of fantastic carving,--a small table of dark mahogany supported on the upward-writhing images of three scaly serpents.

Aurora sat down beside this table. A dwarf Congo woman, as black as soot, had ushered her in, and, having barred the door, had disappeared, and now the mistress of the house entered.

February though it was, she was dressed--and looked comfortable--in white. That barbaric beauty which had begun to bud twenty years before was now in perfect bloom. The united grace and pride of her movement was inspiring but--what shall we say?--feline? It was a femininity without humanity,--something that made her, with all her superbness, a creature that one would want to find chained. It was the woman who had received the gold from Frowenfeld--Palmyre Philosophe.

The moment her eyes fell upon Aurora her whole appearance changed. A girlish smile lighted up her face, and as Aurora rose up reflecting it back, they simultaneously clapped hands, laughed and advanced joyously toward each other, talking rapidly without regard to each other's words.

"Sit down," said Palmyre, in the plantation French of their childhood, as they shook hands.

They took chairs and drew up face to face as close as they could come, then sighed and smiled a moment, and then looked grave and were silent. For in the nature of things, and notwithstanding the amusing familiarity common between Creole ladies and the menial class, the unprotected little widow should have had a very serious errand to bring her to the voudou's house.

"Palmyre," began the lady, in a sad tone.

"Momselle Aurore."

"I want you to help me." The former mistress not only cast her hands into her lap, lifted her eyes supplicatingly and dropped them again, but actually locked her fingers to keep them from trembling.

"Momselle Aurore--" began Palmyre, solemnly.

"Now, I know what you are going to say--but it is of no use to say it; do this much for me this one time and then I will let voudou alone as much as you wish--forever!"

"You have not lost your purse _again?_"

"Ah! foolishness, no."

Both laughed a little, the philosophe feebly, and Aurora with an excited tremor.

"Well?" demanded the quadroon, looking grave again.

Aurora did not answer.

"Do you wish me to work a spell for you?"

The widow nodded, with her eyes cast down.

Both sat quite still for some time; then the philosophe gently drew the landlord's letter from between Aurora's hands.

"What is this?" She could not read in any language.

"I must pay my rent within nineteen days."

"Have you not paid it?"

The delinquent shook her head.

"Where is the gold that came into your purse? All gone?"

"For rice and potatoes," said Aurora, and for the first time she uttered a genuine laugh, under that condition of mind which Latins usually substitute for fortitude. Palmyre laughed too, very properly.

Another silence followed. The lady could not return the quadroon's searching gaze.

"Momselle Aurore," suddenly said Palmyre, "you want me to work a spell for something else."

Aurora started, looked up for an instant in a frightened way, and then dropped her eyes and let her head droop, murmuring:

"No, I do not."

Palmyre fixed a long look upon her former mistress. She saw that though Aurora might be distressed about the rent, there was something else,--a deeper feeling,--impelling her upon a course the very thought of which drove the color from her lips and made her tremble.

"You are wearing red," said the philosophe.

Aurora's hand went nervously to the red ribbon about her neck.

"It is an accident; I had nothing else convenient."

"Miche Agoussou loves red," persisted Palmyre. (Monsieur Agoussou is the demon upon whom the voudous call in matters of love.)

The color that came into Aurora's cheek ought to have suited Monsieur precisely.

"It is an accident," she feebly insisted.

"Well," presently said Palmyre, with a pretence of abandoning her impression, "then you want me to work you a spell for money, do you?"

Aurora nodded, while she still avoided the quadroon's glance.

"I know better," thought the philosophe. "You shall have the sort you want."

The widow stole an upward glance.

"Oh!" said Palmyre, with the manner of one making a decided digression, "I have been wanting to ask you something. That evening at the pharmacy--was there a tall, handsome gentleman standing by the counter?"

"He was standing on the other side."

"Did you see his face?"

"No; his back was turned."

"Momselle Aurore," said Palmyre, dropping her elbows upon her knees and taking the lady's hand as if the better to secure the truth, "was that the gentleman you met at the ball?"

"My faith!" said Aurora, stretching her eyebrows upward. "I did not think to look. Who was it?"

But Palmyre Philosophe was not going to give more than she got, even to her old-time Momselle; she merely straightened back into her chair with an amiable face.

"Who do you think he is?" persisted Aurora, after a pause, smiling downward and toying with her rings.

The quadroon shrugged.

They both sat in reverie for a moment--a long moment for such sprightly natures--and Palmyre's mien took on a professional gravity. She presently pushed the landlord's letter under the lady's hands as they lay clasped in her lap, and a moment after drew Aurora's glance with her large, strong eyes and asked:

"What shall we do?"

The lady immediately looked startled and alarmed and again dropped her eyes in silence. The quadroon had to speak again.

"We will burn a candle."

Aurora trembled.

"No," she succeeded in saying.

"Yes," said Palmyre, "you must get your rent money." But the charm which she was meditating had no reference to rent money. "She knows that," thought the voudou.

As she rose and called her Congo slave-woman, Aurora made as if to protest further; but utterance failed her. She clenched her hands and prayed to fate for Clotilde to come and lead her away as she had done at the apothecary's. And well she might.

The articles brought in by the servant were simply a little pound-cake and cordial, a tumbler half-filled with the _sirop naturelle of the sugar-cane, and a small piece of candle of the kind made from the fragrant green wax of the candleberry myrtle. These were set upon the small table, the bit of candle standing, lighted, in the tumbler of sirup, the cake on a plate, the cordial in a wine-glass. This feeble child's play was all; except that as Palmyre closed out all daylight from the room and received the offering of silver that "paid the floor" and averted _guillons (interferences of outside imps), Aurora,--alas! alas!--went down upon her knees with her gaze fixed upon the candle's flame, and silently called on Assonquer (the imp of good fortune) to cast his snare in her behalf around the mind and heart of--she knew not whom.

By and by her lips, which had moved at first, were still and she only watched the burning wax. When the flame rose clear and long it was a sign that Assonquer was enlisted in the coveted endeavor. When the wick sputtered, the devotee trembled in fear of failure. Its charred end curled down and twisted away from her and her heart sank; but the tall figure of Palmyre for a moment came between, the wick was snuffed, the flame tapered up again, and for a long time burned, a bright, tremulous cone. Again the wick turned down, but this time toward her,--a propitious omen,--and suddenly fell through the expended wax and went out in the sirup.

The daylight, as Palmyre let it once more into the apartment, showed Aurora sadly agitated. In evidence of the innocence of her fluttering heart, guilt, at least for the moment, lay on it, an appalling burden.

"That is all, Palmyre, is it not? I am sure that is all--it must be all. I cannot stay any longer. I wish I was with Clotilde; I have stayed too long."

"Yes; all for the present," replied the quadroon. "Here, here is some charmed basil; hold it between your lips as you walk--"

"But I am going to my landlord's office!"

"Office? Nobody is at his office now; it is too late. You would find that your landlord had gone to dinner. I will tell you, though, where you _must go. First go home; eat your dinner; and this evening (the Creoles never say afternoon), about a half-hour before sunset, walk down Royale to the lower corner of the Place d'Armes, pass entirely around the square and return up Royale. Never look behind until you get into your house again."

Aurora blushed with shame.

"Alone?" she exclaimed, quite unnerved and tremulous.

"You will seem to be alone; but I will follow behind you when you pass here. Nothing shall hurt you. If you do that, the charm will certainly work; if you do not--"

The quadroon's intentions were good. She was determined to see who it was that could so infatuate her dear little Momselle; and, as on such an evening as the present afternoon promised to merge into all New Orleans promenaded on the Place d'Armes and the levee, her charm was a very practical one.

"And that will bring the money, will it?" asked Aurora.

"It will bring anything you want."

"Possible?"

"These things that _you want, Momselle Aurore, are easy to bring. You have no charms working against you. But, oh, I wish to God I could work the _curse I want to work!" The woman's eyes blazed, her bosom heaved, she lifted her clenched hand above her head and looked upward, crying: "I would give this right hand off at the wrist to catch Agricola Fusilier where I could work him a curse! But I shall; I shall some day be revenged!" She pitched her voice still higher. "I cannot die till I have been! There is nothing that could kill me, I want my revenge so bad!" As suddenly as she had broken out, she hushed, unbarred the door, and with a stern farewell smile saw Aurora turn homeward.

"Give me something to eat, _cherie_," cried the exhausted lady, dropping into Clotilde's chair and trying to die.

"Ah! _maman_, what makes you look so sick?"

Aurora waved her hand contemptuously and gasped.

"Did you see him? What kept you so long--so long?"

"Ask me nothing; I am so enraged with disappointment. He was gone to dinner!"

"Ah! my poor mother!"

"And I must go back as soon as I can take a little _sieste_. I am determined to see him this very day."

"Ah! my poor mother!"

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