A sheet of paper always infolded the bank-notes. It always bore, in fine but sexless tracery, “From one who owes you much.”
There, that was it, that sentence, which, like a locomotive, bore the General and his wife far on these firsts of the month to two opposite points of the horizon, in fact, one from the other—“From one who owes you much.”
The old gentleman would toss the paper aside with the bill receipt. In the man to whom the bright New Orleans itself almost owed its brightness, it was a paltry act to search and pick for a debtor. Friends had betrayed and deserted him; relatives had forgotten him; merchants had failed with his money; bank presidents had stooped to deceive him; for he was an old man, and had about run the gamut of human disappointments—a gamut that had begun with a C major of trust, hope, happiness, and money.
His political party had thrown him aside. Neither for ambassador, plenipotentiary, senator, congressman, not even for a clerkship, could he be nominated by it. Certes! “From one who owed him much.” He had fitted the cap to a new head, the first of every month, for five years, and still the list was not exhausted. Indeed, it would have been hard for the General to look anywhere and not see some one whose obligations to him far exceeded this thirty dollars a month. Could he avoid being happy with such eyes?
But poor Madame Honorine! She who always gathered up the receipts, and the “From one who owes you much”; who could at an instant’s warning produce the particular ones for any month of the past half-decade. She kept them filed, not only in her armoire, but the scrawled papers—skewered, as it were, somewhere else—where women from time immemorial have skewered such unsigned papers. She was not original in her thoughts—no more, for the matter of that, than the General was. Tapped at any time on the first of the month, when she would pause in her drudgery to reimpale her heart by a sight of the written characters on the scrap of paper, her thoughts would have been found flowing thus, “One can give everything, and yet be sure of nothing.”
When Madame Honorine said “everything,” she did not, as women in such cases often do, exaggerate. When she married the General, she in reality gave the youth of sixteen, the beauty (ah, do not trust the denial of those wrinkles, the thin hair, the faded eyes!) of an angel, the dot of an heiress. Alas! It was too little at the time. Had she in her own person united all the youth, all the beauty, all the wealth, sprinkled parsimoniously so far and wide over all the women in this land, would she at that time have done aught else with this than immolate it on the burning pyre of the General’s affection? “And yet be sure of nothing.”
It is not necessary, perhaps, to explain that last clause. It is very little consolation for wives that their husbands have forgotten, when some one else remembers. Some one else! Ah! there could be so many some one Else’s in the General’s life, for in truth he had been irresistible to excess. But this was one particular some one else who had been faithful for five years. Which one?