And other Sketches
Seranus (Susie Frances Harrison)
The Gilded Hammock.
Who does not know the beautiful Miss De Grammont? Isabel De Grammont, who lives by herself and is sole mistress of the brown-stone mansion in Fifth Avenue, the old family estate on the Hudson, the villa at Cannes, the first floor of a magnificently decayed palace at Naples, who has been everywhere, seen everything and—cared for nobody?
She reclines now in her latest craze—a hammock made of pure gold wire, fine and strong and dazzling as the late October sun shines upon it stretched from corner to corner of her regally-furnished drawing-room. Two gilded tripods securely fastened to the floor hold the ends of the hammock in which she lies. The rage for yellow holds her as it holds everyone who loves beauty and light and sunshine. Cushions of yellow damask support her head, and a yellow tiger-skin is under her feet. The windows are entirely hidden with thick amber draperies, and her own attire is a clinging gown of some soft silk of a deep creamy tint that as she sways to and fro in the hammock is slightly lifted, displaying a petticoat of darker tint, and Russian slippers of bronzed kid. Amber, large,clear and priceless, gleams in its soft waxy glow in her hair, on her neck, round her waist, where it clasps a belt of thick gold cloth and makes a chain for a fan of yellow feathers.
Because you see, although it is autumn, it is very warm all through Miss De Grammont’s mansion, as she insists on fires, huge bonfires, you may call them, of wood and peat in every room and on every hearth. Out of the fires grew the desire for the hammock.
“Why,” said Miss De Grammont, with a faint yawn, “why [page 156] must I only lie in a hammock in the Summer, and then, where nobody can see me? I will have a hammock made for the winter, to lie in and watch my fires by.”
And so she did, for money is law and beauty creates duty, and one day, when the fashionable stream, the professional cliques and the artistic hangers-on called upon her “from three to six,” they were confronted by the vision of an exquisitely beautiful woman dressed in faint yellow with great bunches of primroses in brass bowls from Morocco on a table by her side, who received them in a “gilded hammock,” with her feet on a tiger-skin, and her chestnut hair catching a brighter tinge from the flames of her roaring fire, and the sunlight as it came in through the amber medium of the silken-draped windows.
The tea was Russian, like the slippers, and the butler who presented it was a mysterious foreigner who spoke five languages. The guests all wondered, as people always did at De Gammont. Nobody knew quite what she had done with herself since she had been left an orphan at the age of nineteen. She suddenly shot up into a woman, beautiful, with that patrician and clear-cut loveliness with yet a touch of the bohémienne about it which only les belles Américaines know. Then she took unto herself a maid, two dogs, and three Saratoga trunks and went over to Europe wandering about everywhere. At Cannes, she met and subjugated the heir to the crown; of this friendship the tiger-skin remained as a souvenir. The heir to the crown was not generous. Next came various members of embassies, all proud, all poor, and all frantically in love. She laid all manner of traps for her lovers and discovered in nearly every case that these men were after her money. A certain Russian Grand Duke, from whom had come some superb amber ornaments—he being a man of more wealth than the others—never forgave her the insult she offered him. He sent her these ornaments from the same shop in Paris that he ordered—at the same time—a diamond star for a well-known ballet dancer, and the two purchases were charged to his account. Through some stupidity, the star came to her. She ordered her horses and drove the same day to the jewelers, who was most humble and anxious to retrieve his error. He showed her the amber. She examined it carefully. “It is genuine, very fine,” she said gravely. “I have lived in Russia and I know. I am very fond of amber. I will buy this myself from you, and you may inform His Highness of the fact.” [page 157]
The delighted shop-keeper did not ask her very much more than its genuine value and next day all Paris knew of the transaction and flocked to the Opera to see her in the ornaments which had cost the Russian Duke his friendship for the bearer. But though eccentric, impulsive and domineering, no whisper had ever attached itself to her name. On her return to her native New York, was she not welcomed, fêted, honored, besieged with invitations everywhere? People felt she was different from the girl who went away. She had been undecided, emotional, a trifle vain, self-conscious, guilty of moods—no small offence in society; this glorious creature was a queen, a goddess, always calm, always serene, always a trifle bored, always superbly the same. Her house she re-furnished altogether. The three Saratoga trunks were now represented by nine or ten English ones, dress baskets, large packing cases, and one mysterious long box which when opened contained several panels of old Florentine carved wood-work which interested all New York immensely. Pictured and tapestries, armor and screens, and a gate of mediæval wrought iron were all among her art treasures. The foreign butler was her chargé d’affaires, and managed everything most wisely and even economically. He engaged a few servants in New York, her maid, housekeeper and the two housemaids she had brought out with her. Her house was the perfect abode of the most faultless aestheticism. It was perfection in every detail and in the ensemble which greeted the eye, the ear, every sense, and all mental endowments, from the vestibule in marble and rugs to the inner boudoir and sanctum of the mistress of the house, hung with pale rose and straw-color in mingled folds of stamped Indian silks, priceless in color and quality. Two Persian cats adorned the lounge and one of her great dogs—a superb mastiff—occupied the rug before the door night and day, almost without rest.
Such were the general surroundings of Isabel de Grammont. Art and letters, music and general culture were inseparable from the daily life of such a woman as well as immediate beautiful presences, so that into this faultless house came everything new that the world offered in books, magazines, songs and new editions. Thanks to European travel, there was no language she could not read, no modern work she had not studied. Also came to her receptions the literary lions of New York. Aspiring journalists, retiring editors, playwrights and composers, a few actors and crowds of would-be poets flocked to the exquisite drawing-rooms [page 158] hung with yellow, wherein the owner of so much magnificence lounged in her golden hammock. Sonnets were written of her descriptive of orioles flying in the golden west, and newspaper paragraphs indited weekly in her praise referred to her as the “Semiramus of a new and adoring society world.” Baskets of flowers, tubs of flowers, barrels of flowers were sent weekly to her communistic, orthodox and socialistic grounds as lady patroness of this or member of that and subscriber to the other. In short, she was a success, and as nothing succeeds like success, we may take it that as the months rolled on, and the great house still maintained its superb hospitality and Miss De Grammont still appeared in her sumptuous carriage either smothered in furs or laces according to the seasons, she still maintained in like manner her position in society and her right to the homage and admiration of all classes.
But this was not the case. Even a worm will turn and public opinion is very often a little vermicular, let us say. And it happened, that public opinion in the case of Miss De Grammont, began to turn, to raise itself up in fact and look a little about it and beyond it as we have all seen worms do—both in cheeses and out of them—when the fact that she lay most of the time in a gilded hammock swung in front of her drawing-room fire was announced from the pulpits of society journals. It may have been that her friends were devoid of imagination, that they were cold, prudish, satirical, unpoetical, unaesthetic, anything we like to call them, that will explain their action in the matter, for they clearly, one and all, disliked the notion of the hammock. One spoke of it disparagingly to another, who took it up and abused it to a third, who described it to a friend who “wrote for the papers.” This gifted gentleman who lodged with a lady of the same temper and edited a fashion journal, concocted with her help a description of the thing which soon found its way into his paper and was then copied into hers. The public grew uneasy. It would swallow any story it was told about the Heir apparent, for instance and a Russian Grand Duke—is it not the sublime prerogative of American women to dally with such small game as those gentlemen—but it kicked against the probability of such an actual fact as the hammock already described which seemed too ridiculous a whim to possess any real existence. However, the tongues of the fashionable callers, the professional cliques and the artistic hangers-on coincided in [page 159] the affair to that extent that soon the existence of the gilded hammock was established and from that time Miss De Grammonts’ popularity was on the wane. Dowagers looked askance and matrons posed in a patronizing manner, the flippant correspondents of society journals and the compilers of sonnets in which that very hammock had been eulogized and metaphored to distraction now waited upon her, if at all in an entirely different manner. Strange how all classes began to recall the many peculiar or unaccountable things she had done, the extraordinary costumes she had worn, the fact that she lived alone, and the other fact that she made so few friends. From aspersions cast on her house, her equipage, her dresses, there came to be made strictures on her private character, her love affairs, her friends and career in Europe, her ménage at present in New York and the members thereof. Finally public opinion finding that all this made very little impression outwardly, upon the regal disdain of Miss De Grammont in her carriage or in her Opera-stall, however she might writhe and chafe when safely ensconced within that rose and straw-colored boudoir, made up its mind that the secret of the whole three volume novel, the key to the entire mystery lay with the—butler.
That black-moustached functionary, they whispered, had his mistress in his power. He had been a courier, and she had fallen in love with him abroad. Or he had been a well-known conjurer and coerced her through means little less than infernal to run away with him. He was a mesmerist, so they said, and could send her into trances at will. Then he had been the famous Man Milliner of Vienna, whose disappearance one fine day with the entire trousseau of an Austrian Grand Duchess had been a nine days wonder. These dresses she wore, strange mixtures never seen on earth before of violet and blue, pink and pea-green, rose and lemon, were the identical ones prepared for the Grand Duchess. Finally, he was an Italian Prince rescued from a novel of “Ouida’s,” whom she had found living in exile, having to suffer punishment for some fiendish crime perpetrated in the days of his youth.
When the stories had reached this point, Miss De Grammont, to whom they were conveyed through papers, notes from “confidential friends,” her maid and others, wrote a letter one day directed to the [page 160]
REV. LUKE FIELDING,
Pastor Congregational Church,
A week or ten days after, Miss De Grammont seated—not in the gilded hammock though it still swung gracefully before the glowing fire—but in the cushions which graced her window looking on the front of the house, saw a gentleman arrive in a cab. She rose hastily and opened the door of the room herself for her visitor. This was the Rev. Luke Fielding, a gentleman of the severest Puritanical cut and a true New Englander to boot. With his hat in his hand he advanced with an expression on his face of the deepest amazement and dismay which increased momentarily as he saw not only the gorgeous coloring and appointments of the room but the fair figure of its occupant. To be sure, she had with infinite difficulty selected the plainest dress she could find in her wardrobe to receive him in, a gown of dark green velvet made very simply and high to the throat. But alas! there was no disguising the priceless lace at her wrists, or the gems that glittered on her firm white hands.
“My dear cousin!” said the lady, giving him both her hands.
“My dear cousin Isabel,” returned the minister, laying his hat down on a plush-covered chair on which it looked curiously out of place, and taking her hands in his.
“My dear cousin Isabel, after so many years!”
“It is only eight years, cousin,” returned the lady.
“True,” replied the minister gravely. “Yet to one like myself that seems a long time. You sent for me, cousin.” His gaze wandered round the room and then fastened once more upon Miss De Grammont.
“Yes,” she said faintly. “I could not tell you all in my letter. I wanted—I want still—somebody’s help.”
“And it is very natural you should apply for mine, cousin. I will do anything I can. I have”—the minister grew sensibly more severe, more grave—“I have this day, on the train, seen a paper—a new kind of paper to me, I confess,—a Society Journal it calls itself, in which a name is mentioned. Is your—trouble—connected with that?
Miss De Grammont blushed deeply, “Yes. That is my name. I would not have troubled you—but I must ask your advice for you are the only one of the family, of my mother’s family—” Her voice broke. [page 161]
“Yes, cousin, you are right.”
The minister rose and stood up before her, a stern though no unsympathetic figure in his stiff black coat and iron gray hair. “I know what you are going to ask me to do. You will ask me to see these people, these editors, reviewers, whatever they are, to talk to them, to impress upon them what you are and who you are, and who your mother was, and what is the end of the base man who imagines lies and the end of all the workers of iniquity. You will ask me to tell them that it is all false, all abominable intrigue and treachery and I shall demand in your name and in my own as your only near relative and a minister of the Gospel, an apology. It is but jealousy, cousin. Forgive me, but you are too beautiful and too young to live alone in such a house, in such a manner. You must marry. Or else you must give up such a life. It maketh enemies within your gates and behold! there shall be no man to say a good thing of thee!”
The minister had lifted up his voice as if he had been in the pulpit and for one instant laid his hand on his cousin’s hair. Then he went back to his seat.
Miss De Grammont was profoundly moved. Great tears coursed down her cheeks and until they had stopped she could not trust herself to speak.
“The paper!” she said dismally. “You have seen a paper, you say, with—my—my name in it! There is nothing new in that. I have been in the papers for months past. I am never out of them. And this one says—“
The minister drew it out of his pocket.
“That with you, in this house lives, in the character of a butler, an exiled Italian Prince who committed grave personal and political offences many years ago and was sent to prison. That you are married to him. My dear cousin, it is monstrous!”
Miss De Grammont took her handkerchief already wet through with her tears and pressed it to her eyes.
“It is not monstrous,” she said, “but it is most extraordinary. He is an Italian Prince, and I am married to him.”
To use a hackneyed phrase, the room swam around Mr. Fielding for an instant. When he recovered he could only sit and gaze at the beautiful woman before him. The details of village life in Vermont had not educated him up to exigencies of this sort. A fearful chasm seemed to have opened under his feet, and he began to comprehend dimly that there were other lives [page 162] than his own and that of his estimable but commonplace wife being daily lived out in this world.
“Yes,” said Miss De Grammont, a little more bravely now that the worst shock was over. “That is quite true. And the extraordinary part of it is that they can only have guessed at it; evolved it, as it were from the depths of their inner consciousness, they can’t possible have discovered it. It is’nt known anywhere, save perhaps to one or two in Italy.”
“In Italy,” murmured the Rev. Mr. Fielding. “You met him in Italy? And why keep it secret? My dear cousin, you have made a great mistake. And all this sad and singular story is true?”
“Very nearly true. All but the offences. They never happened.”
“Your husband is not a political character then?”
“O! not in the least. He knows nothing of politics. My José! he could’nt hurt anything, moreover!”
“José is a Spanish name, surely,” said Mr. Fielding.
“His mother was a Castilian, fair and proud as only a Castilian can be. She named him José. But he has other names, three, all Italian—Antonio—”
“I see,” said the minister dryly. “I am sorry that I cannot give you all the sympathy in this matter that you may desire, but you have entered on a course of action which is perplexing at least, to say no more. I feel, my dear cousin, that as a—married woman—your confidences are—ill placed and I must ask you to withdraw them. You must settle this matter with your—ahem—husband.” Mr. Fielding took up his hat and in another moment would have been gone forever, but that turning at the door he saw such intense supplication in his cousin’s eyes that his orthodox heart melted.
“Forgive me cousin,” he said coming back. “There may be still a way out of it. Will you tell me all?” Miss De Grammont then related her different heart episodes abroad, entanglements, half-engagements, desperate flirtations and all the rest of it to this sober, black-coated gentleman. Such a revelation poured forth in truly feminine style nearly drove him away the second time, but true to his word, he remained nevertheless, sitting bolt upright in a padded chair only meant for lounging. Finally, she told him of her snares to catch lovers and how one day she was caught herself by the dark-browed, eloquent Prince Curunna [page 163] She fell in love herself for the first time in her life, and he with her, so he declared. But he was miserably poor and with the pride of a Castilian would not woo her because of her money. She hated it, yet she could not live without it.
The minister smiled pityingly.
However she made him marry her, and then proposed as a test, in which he joyfully acquiesced, that he should make himself of use to her, be in fact, her major-domo, steward, butler, amanuensis, anything and everything.
“It is most unprecedented,” sighed the minister. “That a man with Castillian blood in his veins—“
Miss De Grammont interrupted him. “He was happier so, dear cousin. But I—I grew most unhappy. And since I have been here, I have bee very unhappy still. We are both in a false position now—thanks to that unlucky hammock—our secret has become common property.”
“The hammock!” said Mr. Fielding. “What has that go to do with it? It is a pretty idea.”
“So I think,” said Miss De Grammont, delighted beyond measure. Then she told him about the paragraphs, large and small, the confidential friends, the small beginnings that had lead insensibly up to the culminating point—that of scandal.
“I am being dropped gradually,” she said.
“Or course you are,” said the minister. “Of course you are. Soon you will be—forgive me—a dead letter. There is only one thing to be done and that I can do at once. A letter must be written to this paper, stating calmly in as few words as possible that this paragraph is true, that you are married to Prince—ah—Corunna, that he is a political offender and for that reason the marriage was kept secret, but that now of course as informers must already have given the secret away, you are obliged to endorse it yourself.”
“But José is not a political offender! Never did anything wrong in his life!”
“Of course not,” said the minister. “Some of us others, even clergymen, are not so fortunate. Now that must be included, else there is not good reason for having kept your marriage secret. Other explanations will not be taken. Besides this will entitle you to sympathy at once. Will you write the letter and I can leave it at the office for you? There is time for me to do that before my train starts.” [page 164]
Miss De Grammont wrote her letter as dictated by her cousin. He put it in his pocket and rose to go.
“Will you not stay and see my husband? she said timidly.”
“Thank you, no,” returned Mr. Fielding. “I haven’t met many foreigners. I don’t think, perhaps, we should get on. Down in Phippsville—well, my circle is so different from yours, Isabel. It is the fashion I hear to live abroad now, and desert America—at least to depreciate it, and not to care about its opinion—but that hasn’t spread yet to our little village. It seems as if it might have been better for instance, had you stayed in Europe. You see, having married an Italian, all this trouble would have been avoided—I mean—it could have gone on over there—but now—well, riches are a snare, my dear cousin, as you have by this time found. Good-bye, dear cousin, and God be with you.”
When a letter addressed to the editor of the Society Journal appeared the next day signed Isabel Corunna (née De Grammont) with its paralysing statement in a few concise words, New York was startled to its foundations. Public opinion which for a week had been at the culminating point of distrust, malevolence and resentment, turned the corner in a moment and for the moment believed implicitly in the faith of the lady it had abandoned. The greatest sympathy was shown Madame La Princesse Corunna, or Princess Corunna, or Miss De Grammont that was, or whatever her friends chose to call her. The butler disappeared for ever and the Prince came in. It was a transformation scene equal to Beauty and the Beast. Dark-browed and eloquent as ever, the Prince was a social success whenever he chose to be, but as time went on, he and his wife became more and more absorbed in each other and the world saw little of either of them. For a time he posed as a political offender which gave his wife no end of amusement. They were so far reinstated into public favor that the hammock—source of mingled joy and woe—was again considered as a thing of beauty and a thing to be imitated. There are a dozen such hammocks now in New York City.
But there are still a few ill-natured people, dowagers, matrons, an old love or two, and a handful of shrivelled spinsters who declare that the Prince is no Prince at all, but a Pastrycook. [page 165]
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