Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 61 of 274

There was a second-floor corner room in less unkempt shape than the rest of the house, and into this my host led me, setting down his small lamp and lighting a somewhat larger one. From the cleanliness and contents of the room, and from the books ranged along the walls, I could see that I had not guessed amiss in thinking the man a gentleman of taste and of breeding. He was a hermit and eccentric, no doubt, but he still had standards and intellectual interests. As he waved me to a seat I began a conversation on general topics, and was pleased to find him not at all taciturn. If anything, he seemed glad of someone to talk to, and did not even attempt to swerve the discussion from personal topics.

He was, I learned, one Antoine de Russy, of an ancient, powerful, and cultivated line of Louisiana planters. More than a century ago his grandfather, a younger son, had migrated to southern Missouri and founded a new estate in the lavish ancestral manner; building this pillared mansion and surrounding it with all the accessories of a great plantation. There had been, at one time, as many as 200 negroes in the cabins which stood on the flat ground in the rear–ground that the river had now invaded–and to hear them singing and laughing and playing the banjo at night was to know the fullest charm of a civilization and social order now sadly extinct. In front of the house, where the great guardian oaks and willows stood, there had been a lawn like a broad green carpet, always watered and trimmed and with flagstoned, flower-bordered walks curving through it. “Riverside”–for such the place was called–had been a lovely and idyllic homestead in its day; and my host could recall it when many traces of its best period remained.

It was raining hard now, with dense sheets of water beating against the insecure roof, walls, and windows, and sending in drops through a thousand chinks and crevices. Moisture trickled down to the floor from unsuspected places, and the mounting wind rattled the rotting, loose-hinged shutters outside. But I minded none of this, for I saw that a story was coming. Incited to reminiscence, my host made a move to shew me to sleeping-quarters; but kept on recalling the older, better days. Soon, I saw, I would receive an inkling of why he lived alone in that ancient place, and why his neighbours thought it full of undesirable influences. His voice was very musical as he spoke on, and his tale soon took a turn which left me no chance to grow drowsy.

“Yes–Riverside was built in 1816, and my father was born in 1828. He’d be over a century old now if he were alive, but he died young–so young I can just barely remember him. In ’64 that was–he was killed in the war, Seventh Louisiana Infantry C.S.A., for he went back to the old home to enlist. My grandfather was too old to fight, yet he lived on to be ninety-five, and helped my mother bring me up. A good bringing-up, too–I’ll give them credit. We always had strong traditions–high notions of honor–and my grandfather saw to it that I grew up the way de Russys have grown up, generation after generation, ever since the Crusades. We weren’t quite wiped out financially, but managed to get on very comfortable after the war. I went to a good school in Louisiana, and later to Princeton. Later on I was able to get the plantation on a fairly profitable basis–though you see what it’s come to now.

“My mother died when I was twenty, and my grandfather two years later. It was rather lonely after that; and in ’85 I married a distant cousin in New Orleans. Things might have been different if she’d lived, but she died when my son Denis was born. Then I had only Denis. I didn’t try marriage again, but gave all my time to the boy. He was like me–like all the de Russys–darkish and tall and thin, and with the devil of a temper. I gave him the same training my grandfather had give me, but he didn’t need much training when it came to points of honor. It was in him, I reckon. Never saw such high spirit–all I could do to keep him from running away to the Spanish War when he was eleven! Romantic young devil, too–full of high notions–you’d call ’em Victorian, now–no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone. I sent him to the same school I’d gone to, and to Princeton, too. He was Class of 1909.

“In the end he decided to be a doctor, and went a year to the Harvard Medical School. Then he hit on the idea of keeping to the old French tradition of the family, and argued me into sending him across to the Sorbonne. I did–and proudly enough, though I knew how lonely I’d be with him so far off. Would to God I hadn’t! I thought he was the safest kind of boy to be in Paris. He had a room in the Rue St. Jacques–that’s near the University in the ‘Latin Quarter’–but according to his letters and his friends he didn’t cut up with the gayer dogs at all. The people he knew were mostly young fellows from home–serious students and artists who thought more of their work than of striking attitudes and painting the town red.

“But of course there were lots of fellows who were on a sort of dividing line between serious studies and the devil. The aesthetes–the decadents, you know. Experiments in life and sensation–the Baudelaire kind of a chap. Naturally Denis ran up against a good many of these, and saw a good deal of their life. They had all sorts of crazy circles and cults–imitation devil-worship, fake Black Masses, and the like. Doubt if it did them much harm on the whole–probably most of ’em forgot all about it in a year or two. One of the deepest in this queer stuff was a fellow Denis had known at school–for that matter, whose father I’d known myself. Frank Marsh, of New Orleans. Disciple of Lafcadio Hearn and Gauguin and Van Gogh–regular epitome of the yellow ’nineties. Poor devil–he had the makings of a great artist, at that.

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