Saturday, October 27, 2012

Samedi: Ghost Stories

The ghost story I'm about to tell is an old favorite down New Orleans way. It tells of a young woman who was the Devil's mistress, and the horrible fate that awaited her when she strayed from his bed. But the Devil gets a bit of his own back as well. Retold in writing a number of times, most famously in the Depression era collection of stories Gumbo Ya~Ya edited by the irrepressible Lyle Saxon, I was pleased to see it included in a library book brought home by my middle school daughter called Spooky South by S.E. Schlosser. The story is best told by someone who witnesses the haunting rather than by a detached third person, at least to my mind. So here is my version of "The Devil's Mansion" as told by young Arlette Panelle whose Maman knew a lady that lived there...

I'm old enough to sit at table with my parents, but not old enough to debut in society, and it's just now that Maman's best friend Madame Larendon moves into the biggest house on Rue St. Charles. There are rumors about the house and always have been. Folk say it's haunted and I have even overheard the servants' gossip about deaths and ghosts. Maman crosses herself and holds tight to the golden crucifix around her neck when our coach goes by the mansion. But no one will tell me what was wrong with the house. In the daylight, gleaming white and windows clean, it looks like a lovely place. I suppose I didn't think about it until Madame moved in.

Maman and Madame have been friends forever. My mother is from an old Creole family that claims men who stood on the line with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Madame Larendon is a Beauregard; her father is the famous General Pierre Gustav Toutant - the Little Creole. I was born after the war, but heard nothing but praise for the old man. When Madame's husband moved the family into the mansion on St. Charles, my mother was a bit upset. After all, Madame is in the family way at last. How could Monsieur make her move in such a state? Or is it the house that troubled Maman?

When the Larendons had lived in that old mansion awhile, our whole family is invited over for supper. I'm the eldest and of course expected to keep my four brothers in line. I imagined we'd be seated in the kitchen. Was I surprised when Madame had set a place for me at the head table. But what is even more shocking is that that table is set in the back dining room, a small rotunda where the family would normally break their fast in the morning. Madame called it cozy but it is, in fact, cramped what with Monsieur's older sons and all. When Papa inquires about the main dining room, Monsieur Larendon mumbles something about renovations. No one says any more on the subject.

We manage to finish without spearing one another with out meat knives, and we ladies retire to the back parlor for coffee and cakes. I'm not allowed coffee, but Madame makes up for is with warm milk. I'm bored with all the talk of fall fashions from France and who is marrying who and the scandalous painting of Madame Gatreau. When no one is making the least attention, I sneak out of the parlor. I'm determined - just red-head determined - to find  out if the main dining room really is being renovated. What if the haunting takes place there? I pass through the foyer and find a lamp at the bottom of the enormous staircase. Picking it up, I slide the dining room door open and enter the dark room.

The room is chilly and the furniture is covered with white sheets. Maybe Madame is renovating. The whole place smells musty and a breeze - seemingly from nowhere - makes the crystal chandeliers ripple and sing like a cold spring. I shiver; my late summer gown hardly covers my arms and goose flesh starts to rise. Nothing happens in the oppressive darkness, like sticky molasses. I turn to push the door back again and then I am made of marble. I literally can't move, other than to turn my head.

As if by a switch, the chandeliers glow with candles. The sheets are gone and a man and woman sit at the long table, the food before them making my mouth water despite the way I glutted myself at supper. The couple is dressed in ancient clothing; the man's cravat is so high he can hardly move his head, and the woman's gown is a scandalous sheath that accentuates every curve of her gorgeous figure. Her breasts spill over the lilac satin. The two are talking, but I can't hear a sound. Even the clink of china and silver is not to be heard.

As I watch, the woman's fair face darkens. Her onyx eyes flash and she stands up so abruptly that her chair falls to the ground. She is yelling now, screaming soundlessly at her supper companion while twisting her long, white, linen napkin in her hand. To my horror, she runs to him, whips the napkin round his neck, and chokes him clear to death. It is hard to believe her tiny hands can be so strong, but he falls to the floor as white as the linen around his neck.

A moment later and blood begins to drip from those slender hands. The woman, who has not seen me before this moment, begins to wipe her hands on her dress as her eyes cast their gaze on me. The blood keeps flowing, not from her but from some unseen source, and she wipes and wipes, staining the delicate satin with globs of purple gore. Finally she offers her hands to me, her mouth open in an unheard scream. It's worse not to hear than to hear. I drop the lamp and cover my ears but the specter just keeps screaming.

And then the world goes black.

I spend two weeks in bed, shivering with a fever no one understands. Finally, Maman answers my only question: what happened in that house?

A beautiful octoroon became the mistress of the Devil just after the Americans came to Louisiana. There was so much mischief for the Devil to do then, what with smugglers and pirates, bootleggers and new money, that he couldn't settle down with his gorgeous doxy. So he set her up in that mansion on Rue St. Charles and told her not to betray him. But she was bored and had a wondering eye. Soon enough she took a rich young Creole as a lover, and they supped in splendor every night in that grand dining room.

The Devil heard of his cocotte's betrayal and he met the young man on the levee one fall afternoon. "You can have her," he told the startled boy. "Marry her; I'll make you a gift of ten million silver reales if you do. But you must promise to always live under the names of Madame and Monsieur Elle."

Delighted, the couple celebrated with a feast. It was only then that the girl's beau told her he had changed his name. She knew the awful truth of that name. It was not Elle but L; L for Lucifer, a name that would brand the couple as infamous no matter where they went. The gorgeous octoroon saw red and, in her uncontrollable rage, she killed the young Creole before supper was done.

Seeing her crime, she lost her sanity and imagined blood on her guilty hands. As she tried to wipe it away, the Devil appeared and killed her. He carried the bodies of the octoroon and her lover to the roof of the mansion. There, in the yellow light of a full bayou moon, he butchered and gutted them whence he proceeded to feast on every part of them but their skins. And here my mother spares me not a word, even telling me that the stray cats ate the lovers' discarded flesh.

But the Devil had forgotten one detail - and isn't the devil always in the details? He'd promised Our Lord and Savior in the desert long ago that he would never, ever do his worst under the light of a full moon. And so, as he ate with the fluids of his kill running all over his hands and arms, he began to stick to the roof. Before the Devil knew it, the bodies of Madame and Monsieur L had molded his visage to the top of the gable above the front door of the mansion on Rue St. Charles. And there he sat, a living, motionless gargoyle. A reminder to all of New Orleans how evil once ruled their glorious, sunken city.

I recover at last. Ten days later we hear the awful news; Madame Larendon has died in childbed. But Monsieur lives on in that nasty house until his own death just after my wedding. Then another acquaintance, Madame Jacques, moves into the mansion on Rue St. Charles. She too sees that horrible incident replay itself and yet she stays for some time. At last, after the birth of my first child, she vacates that hated house too. And so it stands empty, with the Devil grimacing down at all who pass, and the story only whispered from one person to another while the foolish octoroon and the Creole boy suffer night after night after endless night...

The story ends long after Arlette's time. Though no one can say exactly where on St. Charles the Devil's mansion really was, everyone is sure it was demolished in 1930. And isn't that a curiously specific detail for a so called fable?

Header: Mansion on St. Charles Street in New Orleans via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Good story, Pauline!

Pauline said...

It is, too. A little convoluted, but good. "Anything with Devil, or Satan, is good."

Timmy! said...

Oh, hell yeah!