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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grandissimes - Chapter 27. The Fete De Grandpere
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The Grandissimes - Chapter 27. The Fete De Grandpere Post by :aeyates Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :765

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The Grandissimes - Chapter 27. The Fete De Grandpere

CHAPTER XXVII. THE FETE DE GRANDPERE

Sojourners in New Orleans who take their afternoon drive down Esplanade street will notice, across on the right, between it and that sorry streak once fondly known as Champs Elysees, two or three large, old houses, rising above the general surroundings and displaying architectural features which identify them with an irrevocable past--a past when the faithful and true Creole could, without fear of contradiction, express his religious belief that the antipathy he felt for the Americain invader was an inborn horror laid lengthwise in his ante-natal bones by a discriminating and appreciative Providence. There is, for instance, or was until lately, one house which some hundred and fifteen years ago was the suburban residence of the old sea-captain governor, Kerlerec. It stands up among the oranges as silent and gray as a pelican, and, so far as we know, has never had one cypress plank added or subtracted since its master was called to France and thrown into the Bastile. Another has two dormer windows looking out westward, and, when the setting sun strikes the panes, reminds one of a man with spectacles standing up in an audience, searching for a friend who is not there and will never come back. These houses are the last remaining--if, indeed, they were not pulled down yesterday--of a group that once marked from afar the direction of the old highway between the city's walls and the suburb St. Jean. Here clustered the earlier aristocracy of the colony; all that pretty crew of counts, chevaliers, marquises, colonels, dons, etc., who loved their kings, and especially their kings' moneys, with an _abandon which affected the accuracy of nearly all their accounts.

Among these stood the great mother-mansion of the Grandissimes. Do not look for it now; it is quite gone. The round, white-plastered brick pillars which held the house fifteen feet up from the reeking ground and rose on loftily to sustain the great overspreading roof, or clustered in the cool, paved basement; the lofty halls, with their multitudinous glitter of gilded brass and twinkle of sweet-smelling wax-candles; the immense encircling veranda, where twenty Creole girls might walk abreast; the great front stairs, descending from the veranda to the garden, with a lofty palm on either side, on whose broad steps forty Grandissimes could gather on a birthday afternoon; and the belvidere, whence you could see the cathedral, the Ursulines', the governor's mansion, and the river, far away, shining between the villas of Tchoupitoulas Coast--all have disappeared as entirely beyond recall as the flowers that bloomed in the gardens on the day of this _fete de grandpere_.

Odd to say, it was not the grandpere's birthday that had passed. For weeks the happy children of the many Grandissime branches--the Mandarins, the St. Blancards, the Brahmins--had been standing with their uplifted arms apart, awaiting the signal to clap hands and jump, and still, from week to week, the appointed day had been made to fall back, and fall back before--what think you?--an inability to understand Honore.

It was a sad paradox in the history of this majestic old house that her best child gave her the most annoyance; but it had long been so. Even in Honore's early youth, a scant two years after she had watched him, over the tops of her green myrtles and white and crimson oleanders, go away, a lad of fifteen, supposing he would of course come back a Grandissime of the Grandissimes--an inflexible of the inflexibles--he was found "inciting" (so the stately dames and officials who graced her front veranda called it) a Grandissime-De Grapion reconciliation by means of transatlantic letters, and reducing the flames of the old feud, rekindled by the Fusilier-Nancanou duel, to a little foul smoke. The main difficulty seemed to be that Honore could not be satisfied with a clean conscience as to his own deeds and the peace and fellowships of single households; his longing was, and had ever been--he had inherited it from his father--to see one unbroken and harmonious Grandissime family gathering yearly under this venerated roof without reproach before all persons, classes, and races with whom they had ever had to do. It was not hard for the old mansion to forgive him once or twice; but she had had to do it often. It seems no over-stretch of fancy to say she sometimes gazed down upon his erring ways with a look of patient sadness in her large and beautiful windows.

And how had that forbearance been rewarded? Take one short instance: when, seven years before this present _fete de grandpere_, he came back from Europe, and she (this old home which we cannot help but personify), though in trouble then--a trouble that sent up the old feud flames again--opened her halls to rejoice in him with the joy of all her gathered families, he presently said such strange things in favor of indiscriminate human freedom that for very shame's sake she hushed them up, in the fond hope that he would outgrow such heresies. But he? On top of all the rest, he declined a military commission and engaged in commerce--"shopkeeping, _parbleu!_"

However, therein was developed a grain of consolation. Honore became--as he chose to call it--more prudent. With much tact, Agricola was amiably crowded off the dictator's chair, to become, instead, a sort of seneschal. For a time the family peace was perfect, and Honore, by a touch here to-day and a word there to-morrow, was ever lifting the name, and all who bore it, a little and a little higher; when suddenly, as in his father's day--that dear Numa who knew how to sacrifice his very soul, as a sort of Iphigenia for the propitiation of the family gods--as in Numa's day came the cession to Spain, so now fell this other cession, like an unexpected tornado, threatening the wreck of her children's slave-schooners and the prostration alike of their slave-made crops and their Spanish liberties; and just in the fateful moment where Numa would have stood by her, Honore had let go. Ah, it was bitter!

"See what foreign education does!" cried a Mandarin de Grandissime of the Baton Rouge Coast. "I am sorry now"--derisively--"that I never sent _my boy to France, am I not? No! No-o-o! I would rather my son should never know how to read, than that he should come back from Paris repudiating the sentiments and prejudices of his own father. Is education better than family peace? Ah, bah! My son make friends with Americains and tell me they--that call a negro 'monsieur'--are as good as his father? But that is what we get for letting Honore become a merchant. Ha! the degradation! Shaking hands with men who do not believe in the slave trade! Shake hands? Yes; associate--fraternize! with apothecaries and negrophiles. And now we are invited to meet at the _fete de grandpere_, in the house where he is really the chief--the _cacique!_"

No! The family would not come together on the first appointment; no, nor on the second; no, not if the grandpapa did express his wish; no, nor on the third--nor on the fourth.

"_Non, Messieurs_!" cried both youth and reckless age; and, sometimes, also, the stronger heads of the family, the men of means, of force and of influence, urged on from behind by their proud and beautiful wives and daughters.

Arms, generally, rather than heads, ruled there in those days. Sentiments (which are the real laws) took shape in accordance with the poetry, rather than the reason, of things, and the community recognized the supreme domination of "the gentleman" in questions of right and of "the ladies" in matters of sentiment. Under such conditions strength establishes over weakness a showy protection which is the subtlest of tyrannies, yet which, in the very moment of extending its arm over woman, confers upon her a power which a truer freedom would only diminish; constitutes her in a large degree an autocrat of public sentiment and thus accepts her narrowest prejudices and most belated errors as veriest need-be's of social life.

The clans classified easily into three groups; there were those who boiled, those who stewed, and those who merely steamed under a close cover. The men in the first two groups were, for the most part, those who were holding office under old Spanish commissions, and were daily expecting themselves to be displaced and Louisiana thereby ruined. The steaming ones were a goodly fraction of the family--the timid, the apathetic, the "conservative." The conservatives found ease better than exactitude, the trouble of thinking great, the agony of deciding harrowing, and the alternative of smiling cynically and being liberal so much easier--and the warm weather coming on with a rapidity-wearying to contemplate.

"The Yankee was an inferior animal."

"Certainly."

"But Honore had a right to his convictions."

"Yes, that was so, too."

"It looked very traitorous, however."

"Yes, so it did."

"Nevertheless, it might turn out that Honore was advancing the true interests of his people."

"Very likely."

"It would not do to accept office under the Yankee government."

"Of course not."

"Yet it would never do to let the Yankees get the offices, either."

"That was true; nobody could deny that."

"If Spain or France got the country back, they would certainly remember and reward those who had held out faithfully."

"Certainly! That was an old habit with France and Spain."

"But if they did not get the country back--"

"Yes, that is so; Honore is a very good fellow, and--"

And, one after another, under the mild coolness of Honore's amiable disregard, their indignation trickled back from steam to water, and they went on drawing their stipends, some in Honore's counting-room, where they held positions, some from the provisional government, which had as yet made but few changes, and some, secretly, from the cunning Casa-Calvo; for, blow the wind east or blow the wind west, the affinity of the average Grandissime for a salary abideth forever.

Then, at the right moment, Honore made a single happy stroke, and even the hot Grandissimes, they of the interior parishes and they of Agricola's squadron, slaked and crumbled when he wrote each a letter saying that the governor was about to send them appointments, and that it would be well, if they wished to _evade them, to write the governor at once, surrendering their present commissions. Well! Evade? They would evade nothing! Do you think they would so belittle themselves as to write to the usurper? They would submit to keep the positions first.

But the next move was Honore's making the whole town aware of his apostasy. The great mansion, with the old grandpere sitting out in front, shivered. As we have seen, he had ridden through the Place d'Armes with the arch-usurper himself. Yet, after all, a Grandissime would be a Grandissime still; whatever he did he did openly. And wasn't that glorious--never to be ashamed of anything, no matter how bad? It was not everyone who could ride with the governor.

And blood was so much thicker than vinegar that the family, that would not meet either in January or February, met in the first week of March, every constituent one of them.

The feast has been eaten. The garden now is joyous with children and the veranda resplendent with ladies. From among the latter the eye quickly selects one. She is perceptibly taller than the others; she sits in their midst near the great hall entrance; and as you look at her there is no claim of ancestry the Grandissimes can make which you would not allow. Her hair, once black, now lifted up into a glistening snow-drift, augments the majesty of a still beautiful face, while her full stature and stately bearing suggest the finer parts of Agricola, her brother. It is Madame Grandissime, the mother of Honore.

One who sits at her left, and is very small, is a favorite cousin. On her right is her daughter, the widowed senora of Jose Martinez; she has wonderful black hair and a white brow as wonderful. The commanding carriage of the mother is tempered in her to a gentle dignity and calm, contrasting pointedly with the animated manners of the courtly matrons among whom she sits, and whose continuous conversation takes this direction or that, at the pleasure of Madame Grandissime.

But if you can command your powers of attention, despite those children who are shouting Creole French and sliding down the rails of the front stair, turn the eye to the laughing squadron of beautiful girls, which every few minutes, at an end of the veranda, appears, wheels and disappears, and you note, as it were by flashes, the characteristics of face and figure that mark the Louisianaises in the perfection of the new-blown flower. You see that blondes are not impossible; there, indeed, are two sisters who might be undistinguishable twins but that one has blue eyes and golden hair. You note the exquisite pencilling of their eyebrows, here and there some heavier and more velvety, where a less vivacious expression betrays a share of Spanish blood. As Grandissimes, you mark their tendency to exceed the medium Creole stature, an appearance heightened by the fashion of their robes. There is scarcely a rose in all their cheeks, and a full red-ripeness of the lips would hardly be in keeping; but there is plenty of life in their eyes, which glance out between the curtains of their long lashes with a merry dancing that keeps time to the prattle of tongues. You are not able to get a straight look into them, and if you could you would see only your own image cast back in pitiful miniature; but you turn away and feel, as you fortify yourself with an inward smile, that they know you, you man, through and through, like a little song. And in turning, your sight is glad to rest again on the face of Honore's mother. You see, this time, that she _is his mother, by a charm you had overlooked, a candid, serene and lovable smile. It is the wonder of those who see that smile that she can ever be harsh.

The playful, mock-martial tread of the delicate Creole feet is all at once swallowed up by the sound of many heavier steps in the hall, and the fathers, grandfathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews of the great family come out, not a man of them that cannot, with a little care, keep on his feet. Their descendants of the present day sip from shallower glasses and with less marked results.

The matrons, rising, offer the chief seat to the first comer, the great-grandsire--the oldest living Grandissime--Alcibiade, a shaken but unfallen monument of early colonial days, a browned and corrugated souvenir of De Vaudreuil's pomps, of O'Reilly's iron rule, of Galvez' brilliant wars--a man who had seen Bienville and Zephyr Grandissime. With what splendor of manner Madame Fusilier de Grandissime offers, and he accepts, the place of honor! Before he sits down he pauses a moment to hear out the companion on whose arm he had been leaning. But Theophile, a dark, graceful youth of eighteen, though he is recounting something with all the oblivious ardor of his kind, becomes instantly silent, bows with grave deference to the ladies, hands the aged forefather gracefully to his seat, and turning, recommences the recital before one who hears all with the same perfect courtesy--his beloved cousin Honore.

Meanwhile, the gentlemen throng out. Gallant crew! These are they who have been pausing proudly week after week in an endeavor (?) to understand the opaque motives of Numa's son.

In the middle of the veranda pauses a tall, muscular man of fifty, with the usual smooth face and an iron-gray queue. That is Colonel Agamemnon Brahmin de Grandissime, purveyor to the family's military pride, conservator of its military glory, and, after Honore, the most admired of the name. Achille Grandissime, he who took Agricola away from Frowenfeld's shop in the carriage, essays to engage Agamemnon in conversation, and the colonel, with a glance at his kinsman's nether limbs and another at his own, and with that placid facility with which the graver sort of Creoles take up the trivial topics of the lighter, grapples the subject of boots. A tall, bronzed, slender young man, who prefixes to Grandissime the maternal St. Blancard, asks where his wife is, is answered from a distance, throws her a kiss and sits down on a step, with Jean Baptiste de Grandissime, a piratical-looking black-beard, above him, and Alphonse Mandarin, an olive-skinned boy, below. Valentine Grandissime, of Tchoupitoulas, goes quite down to the bottom of the steps and leans against the balustrade. He is a large, broad-shouldered, well-built man, and, as he stands smoking a cigar, with his black-stockinged legs crossed, he glances at the sky with the eye of a hunter--or, it may be, of a sailor.

"Valentine will not marry," says one of two ladies who lean over the rail of the veranda above. "I wonder why."

The other fixes on her a meaning look, and she twitches her shoulders and pouts, seeing she has asked a foolish question, the answer to which would only put Valentine in a numerous class and do him no credit.

Such were the choice spirits of the family. Agricola had retired. Raoul was there; his pretty auburn head might have been seen about half-way up the steps, close to one well sprinkled with premature gray.

"No such thing!" exclaimed his companion.

(The conversation was entirely in Creole French.)

"I give you my sacred word of honor!" cried Raoul.

"That Honore is having all his business carried on in English?" asked the incredulous Sylvestre. (Such was his name.)

"I swear--" replied Raoul, resorting to his favorite pledge--"on a stack of Bibles that high!"

"Ah-h-h-h, pf-f-f-f-f!"

This polite expression of unbelief was further emphasized by a spasmodic flirt of one hand, with the thumb pointed outward.

"Ask him! ask him!" cried Raoul.

"Honore!" called Sylvestre, rising up. Two or three persons passed the call around the corner of the veranda.

Honore came with a chain of six girls on either arm. By the time he arrived, there was a Babel of discussion.

"Raoul says you have ordered all your books and accounts to be written in English," said Sylvestre.

"Well?"

"It is not true, is it?"

"Yes."

The entire veranda of ladies raised one long-drawn, deprecatory "Ah!" except Honore's mother. She turned upon him a look of silent but intense and indignant disappointment.

"Honore!" cried Sylvestre, desirous of repairing his defeat, "Honore!"

But Honore was receiving the clamorous abuse of the two half dozens of girls.

"Honore!" cried Sylvestre again, holding up a torn scrap of writing-paper which bore the marks of the counting-room floor and of a boot-heel, "how do you spell 'la-dee?'"

There was a moment's hush to hear the answer.

"Ask Valentine," said Honore.

Everybody laughed aloud. That taciturn man's only retort was to survey the company above him with an unmoved countenance, and to push the ashes slowly from his cigar with his little finger. M. Valentine Grandissime, of Tchoupitoulas, could not read.

"Show it to Agricola," cried two or three, as that great man came out upon the veranda, heavy-eyed, and with tumbled hair.

Sylvestre, spying Agricola's head beyond the ladies, put the question.

"How is it spelled on that paper?" retorted the king of beasts.

"L-a-y--"

"Ignoramus!" growled the old man.

"I did not spell it," cried Raoul, and attempted to seize the paper. But Sylvestre throwing his hand behind him, a lady snatched the paper, two or three cried "Give it to Agricola!" and a pretty boy, whom the laughter and excitement had lured from the garden, scampered up the steps and handed it to the old man.

"Honore!" cried Raoul, "it must not be read. It is one of your private matters."

But Raoul's insinuation that anybody would entrust him with a private matter brought another laugh.

Honore nodded to his uncle to read it out, and those who could not understand English, as well as those who could, listened. It was a paper Sylvestre had picked out of a waste-basket on the day of Aurore's visit to the counting-room. Agricola read:


"What is that layde want in thare with Honore?"
"Honore is goin giv her bac that proprety--that is
Aurore De Grapion what Agricola kill the husband."


That was the whole writing, but Agricola never finished. He was reading aloud--"that is Aurore De Grap--"

At that moment he dropped the paper and blackened with wrath; a sharp flash of astonishment ran through the company; an instant of silence followed and Agricola's thundering voice rolled down upon Sylvestre in a succession of terrible imprecations.

It was painful to see the young man's face as, speechless, he received this abuse. He stood pale and frightened, with a smile playing about his mouth, half of distress and half of defiance, that said as plain as a smile could say, "Uncle Agricola, you will have to pay for this mistake."

As the old man ceased, Sylvestre turned and cast a look downward to Valentine Grandissime, then walked up the steps, and passing with a courteous bow through the group that surrounded Agricola, went into the house. Valentine looked at the zenith, then at his shoe-buckles, tossed his cigar quietly into the grass and passed around a corner of the house to meet Sylvestre in the rear.

Honore had already nodded to his uncle to come aside with him, and Agricola had done so. The rest of the company, save a few male figures down in the garden, after some feeble efforts to keep up their spirits on the veranda, remarked the growing coolness or the waning daylight, and singly or in pairs withdrew. It was not long before Raoul, who had come up upon the veranda, was left alone. He seemed to wait for something, as, leaning over the rail while the stars came out, he sang to himself, in a soft undertone, a snatch of a Creole song:


"La pluie--la pluie tombait,
Crapaud criait,
Moustique chantait--"


The moon shone so brightly that the children in the garden did not break off their hide-and-seek, and now and then Raoul suspended the murmur of his song, absorbed in the fate of some little elf gliding from one black shadow to crouch in another. He was himself in the deep shade of a magnolia, over whose outer boughs the moonlight was trickling, as if the whole tree had been dipped in quicksilver.

In the broad walk running down to the garden gate some six or seven dark forms sat in chairs, not too far away for the light of their cigars to be occasionally seen and their voices to reach his ear; but he did not listen. In a little while there came a light footstep, and a soft, mock-startled "Who is that?" and one of that same sparkling group of girls that had lately hung upon Honore came so close to Raoul, in her attempt to discern his lineaments, that their lips accidentally met. They had but a moment of hand-in-hand converse before they were hustled forth by a feminine scouting party and thrust along into one of the great rooms of the house, where the youth and beauty of the Grandissimes were gathered in an expansive semicircle around a languishing fire, waiting to hear a story, or a song, or both, or half a dozen of each, from that master of narrative and melody, Raoul Innerarity.

"But mark," they cried unitedly, "you have got to wind up with the story of Bras-Coupe!"

"A song! A song!"

"_Une chanson Creole! Une chanson des negres!_"

"Sing 'ye tole dance la doung y doung doung!'" cried a black-eyed girl.

Raoul explained that it had too many objectionable phrases.

"Oh, just hum the objectionable phrases and go right on."

But instead he sang them this:


"_La premier' fois mo te 'oir li,
Li te pose au bord so lit;
Mo di', Bouzon, bel n'amourese!
L'aut' fois li te si' so la saise
Comme vie Madam dans so fauteil,
Quand li vive cote soleil.

So gies ye te plis noir passe la nouitte,
So de la lev' plis doux passe la quitte!
Tou' mo la vie, zamein mo oir
Ein n' amourese zoli comme ca!
Mo' blie manze--mo' blie boir'--
Mo' blie tout dipi c' temps-la--
Mo' blie parle--mo' blie dormi,
Quand mo pense apres zami!_"


"And you have heard Bras-Coupe sing that, yourself?"

"Once upon a time," said Raoul, warming with his subject, "we were coming down from Pointe Macarty in three pirogues. We had been three days fishing and hunting in Lake Salvador. Bras-Coupe had one pirogue with six paddles--"

"Oh, yes!" cried a youth named Baltazar; "sing that, Raoul!"

And he sang that.

"But oh, Raoul, sing that song the negroes sing when they go out in the bayous at night, stealing pigs and chickens!"

"That boat song, do you mean, which they sing as a signal to those on shore?" He hummed.

(Illustration: Music)


"De zabs, de zabs, de counou ouaie ouaie,
De zabs, de zabs, de counou ouaie ouaie,
Counou ouaie ouaie ouaie ouaie,
Counou ouaie ouaie ouaie ouaie,
Counou ouaie ouaie ouaie, momza;
Momza, momza, momza, momza,
Roza, roza, roza-et--momza."


This was followed by another and still another, until the hour began to grow late. And then they gathered closer around him and heard the promised story. At the same hour Honore Grandissime, wrapping himself in a greatcoat and giving himself up to sad and somewhat bitter reflections, had wandered from the paternal house, and by and by from the grounds, not knowing why or whither, but after a time soliciting, at Frowenfeld's closing door, the favor of his company. He had been feeling a kind of suffocation. This it was that made him seek and prize the presence and hand-grasp of the inexperienced apothecary. He led him out to the edge of the river. Here they sat down, and with a laborious attempt at a hard and jesting mood, Honore told the same dark story.

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