It was in the Theatre St. Philippe (they had laid a temporary floor over the parquette seats) in the city we now call New Orleans, in the month of September, and in the year 1803. Under twinkle of numberless candles, and in a perfumed air thrilled with the wailing ecstasy of violins, the little Creole capital's proudest and best were offering up the first cool night of the languidly departing summer to the divine Terpsichore. For summer there, bear in mind, is a loitering gossip, that only begins to talk of leaving when September rises to go. It was like hustling her out, it is true, to give a select bal masque at such a very early - such an amusingly early date; but it was fitting that something should be done for the sick and the destitute; and why not this? Everybody knows the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.
And so, to repeat, it was in the Theatre St. Philippe (the oldest, the first one), and, as may have been noticed, in the year which the First Consul of France gave away Louisiana. Some might call it "sold." Old Agricola Fusilier in the rumbling pomp of his natural voice - for he had an hour ago forgotten that he was in mask and domino - called it "gave away." Not that he believed it had been done; for, look you, how could it be? The pretended treaty contained, for instance, no provision relative to the great family of Brahmin Mandarin Fusilier de Grandissime. It was evidently spurious.
Being being bumped against, he moved a step or two aside, and was going on to denounce further the detestable rumor, when a masker - one of four who had just finished the contra-dance and were moving away in the column of promenaders - brought him smartly around with the salutation:
"Comment to ye, Citoyen Agricola!"
H-you young kitten!" said the old man in a growling voice, and with the teased, half laugh of aged vanity as he bent a baffled scrutiny at the back-turned face of an ideal Indian Queen. It was not merely the tutoiement that struck him as saucy, but the further familiarity of using the slave dialect. His French was unprovincial.
"H-the cool rascal he added laughingly, and only half to himself; "get into the garb of your true sex, sir, h-and I will guess who you are!"
But the Queen, in the same feigned voice as before, retorted:
"Ah! mo pitit fils, to pas connais to zancestres? Don't you know your ancestors, my little son!"
"H-the g-hods preserve usl" said Agricola, with a pompous laugh muffled under his mask, "the queen of the Tchopitoulas I proudly acknowledge, and my great-grandfather, Epaminon- das Fusilier, lieutenant of dragoons under Bienville; but," - he laid his hand upon his heart, and bowed to the other two figures, whose smaller stature betrayed the gentler sex - "pardon me, ladies, neither Monks nor Filles a la Cassette grow on our family tree."
The four maskers at once turned their glance upon the old man in the domino; but if any retort was intended it gave way as the violins burst into an agony of laughter. The floor was immediately filled with waltzers and the four figures disappeared.
"I wonder," murmured Agricola to himself, "if that Dragoon can possibly be Honore Grandissime."
Wherever those four maskers went there were cries of delight: "Ho, ho, ho! see there! here! there! a group of first colonists! One of Iberville's Dragoons! don't you remember great-great-grandfather Fusilier's portrait - the gilded casque and heron plumes? And that one behind in the fawn-skin leggings and shirt of bird's skins is an Indian Queen. As sure as sure can be, they are intended for Epaminondas and his wife, Lufki- Humma!" All, of course, in Louisiana French.
"But why, then, does he not walk with her?"
"Why, because, Simplicity, both of them are men, while the little Monk on his arm is a lady, as you can see, and so is the masque that has the arm of the Indian Queen; look at their little hands."
In another part of the room the four were greeted with, "Ha, ha, ha! well, that is magnificent! But see that Huguenotte Girl on the Indian Queen's arm! Isn't that fine! Ha, ha! she carries a little trunk. She is a Fille a la Cassette!"
Two partners in a cotillion were speaking in an undertone, behind a fan.
"And you think you know who it is?" asked one.
"Know?" replied the other. "Do I know I have a head on my shoulders? If that Dragoon is not our cousin Honore Grandissime - well -"
"Honore in mask? he is too sober-sided to do such a thing."
"I tell you it is he! Listen. Yesterday I heard Doctor Charlie Keene begging him to go, and telling him there were two ladies, strangers, newly arrived in the city, who would be there, and whom he wished him to meet. Depend upon it the Dragoon is Honore, Lufki-Humma is Charlie Keene, and the Monk and the Huguenotte are those two ladies."
But all this is an outside view; let us draw nearer and see what chance may discover to us behind those four masks.
An hour has passed by. The dance goes on; hearts are beating, wit is flashing, eyes encounter eyes with the leveled lances of their beams, merriment and joy and sudden bright surprises thrill the breast, voices are throwing off disguise, and beauty's coy ear is bending with a venturesome docility; here love is baffled, there deceived, yonder takes prisoners and here surrenders. The very air seems to breathe, to sigh, to laugh, while the musicians, with disheveled locks, streaming brows and furious bows, strike, draw, drive, scatter from the anguished violins a never-ending rout of screaming harmonies. But the Monk and the Huguenotte are not on the floor. They are sitting where they have been left by their two companions, in one of the boxes of the theater, looking out upon the unwearied whirl and flash of gauze and light and color.
"Oh, cherie, cherie!" murmured the little lady in the Monk's disguise to her quieter companion, and speaking in the soft dialect of old Louisiana, "now you get a good idea of heaven!"
The Fille a la Cassette replied with a sudden turn of her face and a murmur of surprise and protest against this impiety. A low, merry laugh came out of the Monk's cowl, and the Huguenotte let her form sink a little in her chair with a gentle sigh.
"Ah, for shame, tired!" softly laughed the other; then suddenly with her eyes fixed across the room, she seized her companion's hand and pressed it tightly. "Do you not see it?" she whispered eagerly, "just by the door - the casque with the heron feathers. Ah, Clotilde, I cannot believe he is one of those Grandissimes!"
"Well," replied the Huguenotte, "Doctor Keene says he is not."
Doctor Charlie Keene, speaking from under the disguise of the Indian Queen, had indeed so said; but the RecordingAngel, whom we understand to be particular about those things, had immediately made a memorandum of it to the debit of Doctor Keene's account.
"If I had believed that it was he," continued the whisperer, "I would have turned about and left him in the midst of the contra-dance!"
Behind them sat unmasked a well-aged pair, "bredouille," as they used to say of the wall-flowers, with that look of blissful repose which marks the married and established Creole. The lady in monk's attire turned about in her chair and leaned back to laugh with these. The passing maskers looked that way, with a certain instinct that there was beauty under those two costumes. As they did so, they saw the Fille a la Cassette join in this over-shoulder conversation. A moment later, they saw the old gentleman protector and the Fille a la Cassette rising to the dance. And when presently the distant passers took a final backward glance, that same Lieutenant of Dragoons had returned and he and the little Monk were once more upon the floor, waiting for the music.
"But your late companion?" said the voice in the cowl.
"My Indian Queen?" asked the Creole Epaminondas.
"Say, rather, your Medicine-Man," archly replied the Monk.
"In these times," responded the Cavalier, "a medicine-man cannot dance long without professional interruption, even when he dances for a charitable object. He has been called to two relapsed patients." The music struck up; the speaker addressed himself to the dance; but the lady did not respond.
"Do dragoons ever moralize?" she asked.
"They do more," replied her partner; "sometimes, when beauty's enjoyment of the ball is drawing toward its twilight, they catch its pleasant melancholy, and confess; will the good father sit in the confessional?"
The pair turned slowly about and moved toward the box from which they had come, the lady remaining silent; but just as they were entering she half withdrew her arm from his, and, confronting him with a rich sparkle of the eyes within the immobile mask of the monk, said:
"Why should the conscience of one poor little monk carry all the frivolity of this ball? I have a right to dance, if I wish. I give you my word, Monsieur Dragoon, I dance only for the benefit of the sick and the destitute. It is you men - you dragoons and others who will not help them without a compensation in this sort of nonsense. Why should we shrive you when you ought to burn?"
"Then lead us to the altar," said the Dragoon.
"Pardon, sir," she retorted, her words entangled with a musical, open-hearted laugh, "I am not going in that direction." She cast her glance around the ball-room. "As you say, it is the twilight of the ball; I am looking for the evening star, - that is, my little Huguenotte."
"Then you are well mated."
"For you are Aurora."
The lady gave a displeased start.
"Pardon," said the Cavalier, "if by accident I have hit upon your real name -"
She laughed again - a laugh which was as exultantly joyous as it was high-bred.
"Ah, my name? Oh no, indeed!" (More work for the Recording Angel. )
She turned to her protectress.
"Madame, I know you think we should be going home."
The senior lady replied in amiable speech, but with sleepy eyes, and the Monk began to lift and unfold a wrapping. As the Cavalier drew it into his own possession, and, agreeably to his gesture, the Monk and he sat down side by side, he said, in a low tone:
"One more laugh before we part."
"A monk cannot laugh for nothing."
"I will pay for it."
"But with nothing to laugh at?" The thought of laughing at nothing made her laugh a little on the spot.
"We will make something to laugh at," said the cavalier; "we will unmask to each other, and when we find each other first cousins, the laugh will come of itself."
"Ah! we will unmask? - no! I have no cousins. I am certain we are strangers."
"Then we will laugh to think that I paid for the disappoint."
Much more of this child-like badinage followed, and by and by they came around again to the same last statement. Another little laugh escaped from the cowl.
"You will pay? Let us see; how much will you give to the sick and destitute?"
"To see who it is I am laughing with, I will give whatever you ask."
"Two hundred and fifty dollars, cash, into the hands of the managers!"
The Monk laughed, and her chaperon opened her eyes and smiled apologetically. The Cavalier laughed, too, and said:
"Good! That was the laugh; now the unmasking."
"And you positively will give the money to the managers not later than to-morrow evening?"
"Not later. It shall be done without fail."
"Well, wait till I put on my wrappings; I must be ready to run."
This delightful nonsense was interrupted by the return of the Fille a la Cassette and her aged, but sprightly, escort, from a circuit of the floor. Madame again opened her eyes, and the four prepared to depart. The Dragoon helped the Monk to fortify herself against the outer air. She was ready before the others. There was a pause, a low laugh, a whispered "Now!" She looked upon an unmasked, noble countenance, lifted her own mask a little, and then a little more; and then shut it quickly down again upon a face whose beauty was more than even those fascinaing graces had promised which Honore Grandissime had fitly named the Morning; but it was a face he had never seen before.
"Hush!" she said, "the enemies of religion are watching us; the Huguenotte saw me. Adieu" - and they were gone.
M. Honore Grandissime turned on his heel and very soon left the ball.
"Now, sir," thought he to himself, "we'll return to our senses."
"Now I'll put my feathers on again," says the plucked bird.
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