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OLD CREOLE DAYS

A STORY OF CREOLE LIFE

BY

GEORGE W. CABLE

1907


CONTENTS


MADAME DELPHINE
CAFÉ DES EXILÉS
BELLES DEMOISELLES PLANTATION
"POSSON JONE'"
JEAN-AH POQUELIN
'TITE POULETTE
'SIEUR GEORGE
MADAME DÉLICIEUSE


MADAME DELPHINE.


CHAPTER I.


AN OLD HOUSE.

A few steps from the St. Charles Hotel, in New Orleans, brings you to
and across Canal Street, the central avenue of the city, and to that
corner where the flower-women sit at the inner and outer edges of the
arcaded sidewalk, and make the air sweet with their fragrant
merchandise. The crowd - and if it is near the time of the carnival it
will be great - will follow Canal Street.

But you turn, instead, into the quiet, narrow way which a lover of
Creole antiquity, in fondness for a romantic past, is still prone to
call the Rue Royale. You will pass a few restaurants, a few
auction-rooms, a few furniture warehouses, and will hardly realize that
you have left behind you the activity and clatter of a city of merchants
before you find yourself in a region of architectural decrepitude, where
an ancient and foreign-seeming domestic life, in second stories,
overhangs the ruins of a former commercial prosperity, and upon every
thing has settled down a long sabbath of decay. The vehicles in the
street are few in number, and are merely passing through; the stores are
shrunken into shops; you see here and there, like a patch of bright
mould, the stall of that significant fungus, the Chinaman. Many great
doors are shut and clamped and grown gray with cobweb; many street
windows are nailed up; half the balconies are begrimed and rust-eaten,
and many of the humid arches and alleys which characterize the older
Franco-Spanish piles of stuccoed brick betray a squalor almost oriental.

Yet beauty lingers here. To say nothing of the picturesque, sometimes
you get sight of comfort, sometimes of opulence, through the unlatched
wicket in some _porte-cochère_ - red-painted brick pavement, foliage of
dark palm or pale banana, marble or granite masonry and blooming
parterres; or through a chink between some pair of heavy batten
window-shutters, opened with an almost reptile wariness, your eye gets a
glimpse of lace and brocade upholstery, silver and bronze, and much
similar rich antiquity.

The faces of the inmates are in keeping; of the passengers in the street
a sad proportion are dingy and shabby; but just when these are putting
you off your guard, there will pass you a woman - more likely two or
three - of patrician beauty.

Now, if you will go far enough down this old street, you will see, as
you approach its intersection with - - . Names in that region elude one
like ghosts.

However, as you begin to find the way a trifle more open, you will not
fail to notice on the right-hand side, about midway of the square, a
small, low, brick house of a story and a half, set out upon the
sidewalk, as weather-beaten and mute as an aged beggar fallen asleep.
Its corrugated roof of dull red tiles, sloping down toward you with an
inward curve, is overgrown with weeds, and in the fall of the year is
gay with the yellow plumes of the golden-rod. You can almost touch with
your cane the low edge of the broad, overhanging eaves. The batten
shutters at door and window, with hinges like those of a postern, are
shut with a grip that makes one's knuckles and nails feel lacerated.
Save in the brick-work itself there is not a cranny. You would say the
house has the lockjaw. There are two doors, and to each a single chipped
and battered marble step. Continuing on down the sidewalk, on a line
with the house, is a garden masked from view by a high, close
board-fence. You may see the tops of its fruit-trees - pomegranate,
peach, banana, fig, pear, and particularly one large orange, close by
the fence, that must be very old.

The residents over the narrow way, who live in a three-story house,
originally of much pretension, but from whose front door hard times have
removed almost all vestiges of paint, will tell you: "Yass, de 'ouse is
in'abit; 'tis live in."

And this is likely to be all the information you get - not that they
would not tell, but they cannot grasp the idea that you wish to
know - until, possibly, just as you are turning to depart, your
informant, in a single word and with the most evident non-appreciation
of its value, drops the simple key to the whole matter:

"Dey's quadroons."

He may then be aroused to mention the better appearance of the place in
former years, when the houses of this region generally stood farther
apart, and that garden comprised the whole square.

Here dwelt, sixty years ago and more, one Delphine Carraze; or, as she
was commonly designated by the few who knew her, Madame Delphine. That
she owned her home, and that it had been given her by the then deceased
companion of her days of beauty, were facts so generally admitted as to
be, even as far back as that sixty years ago, no longer a subject of
gossip. She was never pointed out by the denizens of the quarter as a
character, nor her house as a "feature." It would have passed all Creole
powers of guessing to divine what you could find worthy of inquiry
concerning a retired quadroon woman; and not the least puzzled of all
would have been the timid and restive Madame Delphine herself.


CHAPTER II.


MADAME DELPHINE.

During the first quarter of the present century, the free quadroon caste
of New Orleans was in its golden age. Earlier generations - sprung, upon
the one hand, from the merry gallants of a French colonial military
service which had grown gross by affiliation with Spanish-American
frontier life, and, upon the other hand from comely Ethiopians culled
out of the less negroidal types of African live goods, and bought at the
ship's side with vestiges of quills and cowries and copper wire still in
their head-dresses, - these earlier generations, with scars of battle or
private rencontre still on the fathers, and of servitude on the
manumitted mothers, afforded a mere hint of the splendor that was to
result from a survival of the fairest through seventy-five years devoted
to the elimination of the black pigment and the cultivation of hyperian
excellence and nymphean grace and beauty. Nor, if we turn to the
present, is the evidence much stronger which is offered by the _gens de
couleur_ whom you may see in the quadroon quarter this afternoon, with
"Ichabod" legible on their murky foreheads through a vain smearing of
toilet powder, dragging their chairs down to the narrow gateway of their
close-fenced gardens, and staring shrinkingly at you as you pass, like a
nest of yellow kittens.

But as the present century was in its second and third decades, the
_quadroones_ (for we must contrive a feminine spelling to define the
strict limits of the caste as then established) came forth in splendor.
Old travellers spare no terms to tell their praises, their faultlessness
of feature, their perfection of form, their varied styles of
beauty, - for there were even pure Caucasian blondes among them, - their
fascinating manners, their sparkling vivacity, their chaste and pretty
wit, their grace in the dance, their modest propriety, their taste and
elegance in dress. In the gentlest and most poetic sense they were
indeed the sirens of this land where it seemed "always afternoon" - a
momentary triumph of an Arcadian over a Christian civilization, so
beautiful and so seductive that it became the subject of special
chapters by writers of the day more original than correct as social
philosophers.

The balls that were got up for them by the male _sang-pur_ were to that
day what the carnival is to the present. Society balls given the same
nights proved failures through the coincidence. The magnates of
government, - municipal, state, federal, - those of the army, of the
learned professions and of the clubs, - in short, the white male
aristocracy in every thing save the ecclesiastical desk, - were there.
Tickets were high-priced to insure the exclusion of the vulgar. No
distinguished stranger was allowed to miss them. They were beautiful!
They were clad in silken extenuations from the throat to the feet, and
wore, withal, a pathos in their charm that gave them a family likeness
to innocence.

Madame Delphine, were you not a stranger, could have told you all about
it; though hardly, I suppose, without tears.

But at the time of which we would speak (1821-22) her day of splendor
was set, and her husband - let us call him so for her sake - was long
dead. He was an American, and, if we take her word for it, a man of
noble heart and extremely handsome; but this is knowledge which we can
do without.

Even in those days the house was always shut, and Madame Delphine's
chief occupation and end in life seemed to be to keep well locked up
in-doors. She was an excellent person, the neighbors said, - a very
worthy person; and they were, maybe, nearer correct then they knew. They
rarely saw her save when she went to or returned from church; a small,
rather tired-looking, dark quadroone of very good features and a gentle
thoughtfulness of expression which would take long to describe: call it
a widow's look.

In speaking of Madame Delphine's house, mention should have been made of
a gate in the fence on the Royal-street sidewalk. It is gone now, and
was out of use then, being fastened once for all by an iron staple
clasping the cross-bar and driven into the post.

Which leads us to speak of another person.


CHAPTER III.


CAPITAINE LEMAITRE.

He was one of those men that might be any age, - thirty, forty,
forty-five; there was no telling from his face what was years and what
was only weather. His countenance was of a grave and quiet, but also
luminous, sort, which was instantly admired and ever afterward
remembered, as was also the fineness of his hair and the blueness of his
eyes. Those pronounced him youngest who scrutinized his face the
closest. But waiving the discussion of age, he was odd, though not with
the oddness that he who had reared him had striven to produce.

He had not been brought up by mother or father. He had lost both in
infancy, and had fallen to the care of a rugged old military grandpa of
the colonial school, whose unceasing endeavor had been to make "his boy"
as savage and ferocious a holder of unimpeachable social rank as it
became a pure-blooded French Creole to be who would trace his pedigree
back to the god Mars.

"Remember, my boy," was the adjuration received by him as regularly as
his waking cup of black coffee, "that none of your family line ever kept
the laws of any government or creed." And if it was well that he should
bear this in mind, it was well to reiterate it persistently, for, from
the nurse's arms, the boy wore a look, not of docility so much as of
gentle, _judicial_ benevolence. The domestics of the old man's house
used to shed tears of laughter to see that look on the face of a babe.
His rude guardian addressed himself to the modification of this facial
expression; it had not enough of majesty in it, for instance, or of
large dare-deviltry; but with care these could be made to come.

And, true enough, at twenty-one (in Ursin Lemaitre), the labors of his
grandfather were an apparent success. He was not rugged, nor was he
loud-spoken, as his venerable trainer would have liked to present him to
society; but he was as serenely terrible as a well-aimed rifle, and the
old man looked upon his results with pride. He had cultivated him up to
that pitch where he scorned to practise any vice, or any virtue, that
did not include the principle of self-assertion. A few touches only were
wanting here and there to achieve perfection, when suddenly the old man
died. Yet it was his proud satisfaction, before he finally lay down, to
see Ursin a favored companion and the peer, both in courtesy and pride,
of those polished gentlemen famous in history, the brothers Lafitte.

The two Lafittes were, at the time young Lemaitre reached his majority
(say 1808 or 1812), only merchant-blacksmiths, so to speak, a term
intended to convey the idea of blacksmiths who never soiled their hands,
who were men of capital, stood a little higher than the clergy, and
moved in society among its autocrats. But they were full of
possibilities, men of action, and men, too, of thought, with already a
pronounced disbelief in the custom-house. In these days of big carnivals
they would have been patented as the dukes of Little Manchac and
Barataria.

Young Ursin Lemaitre (in full the name was Lemaitre-Vignevielle) had not
only the hearty friendship of these good people, but also a natural turn
for accounts; and as his two friends were looking about them with an
enterprising eye, it easily resulted that he presently connected himself
with the blacksmithing profession. Not exactly at the forge in the
Lafittes' famous smithy, among the African Samsons, who, with their
shining black bodies bared to the waist, made the Rue St. Pierre ring
with the stroke of their hammers; but as a - there was no occasion to
mince the word in those days - smuggler.

Smuggler - patriot - where was the difference? Beyond the ken of a
community to which the enforcement of the revenue laws had long been
merely so much out of every man's pocket and dish, into the
all-devouring treasury of Spain. At this date they had come under a
kinder yoke, and to a treasury that at least echoed when the customs
were dropped into it; but the change was still new. What could a man be
more than Capitaine Lemaitre was - the soul of honor, the pink of
courtesy, with the courage of the lion, and the magnanimity of the
elephant; frank - the very exchequer of truth! Nay, go higher still: his
paper was good in Toulouse Street. To the gossips in the gaming-clubs he
was the culminating proof that smuggling was one of the sublimer
virtues.

Years went by. Events transpired which have their place in history.
Under a government which the community by and by saw was conducted in
their interest, smuggling began to lose its respectability and to grow
disreputable, hazardous, and debased. In certain onslaughts made upon
them by officers of the law, some of the smugglers became murderers. The
business became unprofitable for a time until the enterprising
Lafittes - thinkers - bethought them of a corrective - "privateering".

Thereupon the United States Government set a price upon their heads.
Later yet it became known that these outlawed pirates had been offered
money and rank by Great Britain if they would join her standard, then
hovering about the water-approaches to their native city, and that they
had spurned the bribe; wherefore their heads were ruled out of the
market, and, meeting and treating with Andrew Jackson, they were
received as lovers of their country, and as compatriots fought in the
battle of New Orleans at the head of their fearless men, and - here
tradition takes up the tale - were never seen afterward.

Capitaine Lemaitre was not among the killed or wounded, but he was among
the missing.


CHAPTER IV.


THREE FRIENDS.

The roundest and happiest-looking priest in the city of New Orleans was
a little man fondly known among his people as Père Jerome. He was a
Creole and a member of one of the city's leading families. His dwelling
was a little frame cottage, standing on high pillars just inside a tall,
close fence, and reached by a narrow out-door stair from the green
batten gate. It was well surrounded by crape myrtles, and communicated
behind by a descending stair and a plank-walk with the rear entrance of
the chapel over whose worshippers he daily spread his hands in
benediction. The name of the street - ah! there is where light is
wanting. Save the Cathedral and the Ursulines, there is very little of
record concerning churches at that time, though they were springing up
here and there. All there is certainty of is that Père Jerome's frame
chapel was some little new-born "down-town" thing, that may have
survived the passage of years, or may have escaped "Paxton's Directory"
"so as by fire." His parlor was dingy and carpetless; one could smell
distinctly there the vow of poverty. His bed-chamber was bare and clean,
and the bed in it narrow and hard; but between the two was a dining-room
that would tempt a laugh to the lips of any who looked in. The table was
small, but stout, and all the furniture of the room substantial, made of
fine wood, and carved just enough to give the notion of wrinkling
pleasantry. His mother's and sister's doing, Père Jerome would explain;
they would not permit this apartment - or department - to suffer. Therein,
as well as in the parlor, there was odor, but of a more epicurean sort,
that explained interestingly the Père Jerome's rotundity and rosy smile.

In this room, and about this miniature round table, used sometimes to
sit with Père Jerome two friends to whom he was deeply attached - one,
Evariste Varrillat, a playmate from early childhood, now his brother
in-law; the other, Jean Thompson, a companion from youngest manhood, and
both, like the little priest himself, the regretful rememberers of a
fourth comrade who was a comrade no more. Like Père Jerome, they had
come, through years, to the thick of life's conflicts, - the priest's
brother-in-law a physician, the other an attorney, and brother-in-law to
the lonely wanderer, - yet they loved to huddle around this small board,
and be boys again in heart while men in mind. Neither one nor another
was leader. In earlier days they had always yielded to him who no longer
met with them a certain chieftainship, and they still thought of him and
talked of him, and, in their conjectures, groped after him, as one of
whom they continued to expect greater things than of themselves.

They sat one day drawn thus close together, sipping and theorizing,
speculating upon the nature of things in an easy, bold, sophomoric way,
the conversation for the most part being in French, the native tongue of
the doctor and priest, and spoken with facility by Jean Thompson the
lawyer, who was half Américain; but running sometimes into English and
sometimes into mild laughter. Mention had been made of the absentee.

Père Jerome advanced an idea something like this:

"It is impossible for any finite mind to fix the degree of criminality
of any human act or of any human life. The Infinite One alone can know
how much of our sin is chargeable to us, and how much to our brothers or
our fathers. We all participate in one another's sins. There is a
community of responsibility attaching to every misdeed. No human since
Adam - nay, nor Adam himself - ever sinned entirely to himself. And so I
never am called upon to contemplate a crime or a criminal but I feel my
conscience pointing at me as one of the accessories."

"In a word," said Evariste Varrillat, the physician, "you think we are
partly to blame for the omission of many of your Paternosters, eh?"

Father Jerome smiled.

"No; a man cannot plead so in his own defence; our first father tried
that, but the plea was not allowed. But, now, there is our absent
friend. I tell you truly this whole community ought to be recognized as
partners in his moral errors. Among another people, reared under wiser
care and with better companions, how different might he not have been!
How can we speak of him as a law-breaker who might have saved him from
that name?" Here the speaker turned to Jean Thompson, and changed his
speech to English. "A lady sez to me to-day: 'Père Jerome, 'ow dat is a
dreadfool dat 'e gone at de coas' of Cuba to be one corsair! Ain't it?'
'Ah, madame,' I sez, ''tis a terrible! I 'ope de good God will fo'give
me an' you fo' dat!'"

Jean Thompson answered quickly:

"You should not have let her say that."

"_Mais_, fo' w'y?"

"Why, because, if you are partly responsible, you ought so much the more
to do what you can to shield his reputation. You should have said," - the
attorney changed to French, - "'He is no pirate; he has merely taken out
letters of marque and reprisal under the flag of the republic of
Carthagena!'"

"_Ah, bah_!" exclaimed Doctor Varrillat, and both he and his
brother-in-law, the priest, laughed.

"Why not?" demanded Thompson.

"Oh!" said the physician, with a shrug, "say id thad way iv you wand."

Then, suddenly becoming serious, he was about to add something else,
when Père Jerome spoke.

"I will tell you what I could have said, I could have said: 'Madame,
yes; 'tis a terrible fo' him. He stum'le in de dark; but dat good God
will mek it a _mo' terrible fo'_ dat man oohever he is, w'at put 'at
light out!'"

"But how do you know he is a pirate?" demanded Thompson, aggressively.

"How do we know?" said the little priest, returning to French. "Ah!
there is no other explanation of the ninety-and-nine stories that come
to us, from every port where ships arrive from the north coast of Cuba,
of a commander of pirates there who is a marvel of courtesy and
gentility" - [1]

[Footnote 1: See gazettes of the period.]

"And whose name is Lafitte," said the obstinate attorney.

"And who, nevertheless, is not Lafitte," insisted Père Jerome.

"Daz troo, Jean," said Doctor Varrillat. "We hall know daz troo."

Père Jerome leaned forward over the board and spoke, with an air of
secrecy, in French.

"You have heard of the ship which came into port here last Monday. You
have heard that she was boarded by pirates, and that the captain of the
ship himself drove them off."

"An incredible story," said Thompson.

"But not so incredible as the truth. I have it from a passenger. There
was on the ship a young girl who was very beautiful. She came on deck,
where the corsair stood, about to issue his orders, and, more beautiful
than ever in the desperation of the moment, confronted him with a small
missal spread open, and her finger on the Apostles' Creed, commanded him
to read. He read it, uncovering his head as he read, then stood gazing
on her face, which did not quail; and then with a low bow, said: 'Give
me this book and I will do your bidding.' She gave him the book and bade
him leave the ship, and he left it unmolested."

Père Jerome looked from the physician to the attorney and back again,
once or twice, with his dimpled smile.

"But he speaks English, they say," said Jean Thompson.

"He has, no doubt, learned it since he left us," said the priest.

"But this ship-master, too, says his men called him Lafitte."

"Lafitte? No. Do you not see? It is your brother-in-law, Jean Thompson!
It is your wife's brother! Not Lafitte, but" (softly) "Lemaitre!
Lemaitre! Capitaine Ursin Lemaitre!"

The two guests looked at each other with a growing drollery on either
face, and presently broke into a laugh.

"Ah!" said the doctor, as the three rose up, "you juz kip dad
cog-an'-bull fo' yo' negs summon."

Père Jerome's eyes lighted up -

"I goin' to do it!"

"I tell you," said Evariste, turning upon him with sudden gravity, "iv
dad is troo, I tell you w'ad is sure-sure! Ursin Lemaitre din kyare
nut'n fo' doze creed; _he fall in love!_"

Then, with a smile, turning to Jean Thompson, and back again to Père
Jerome:

"But anny'ow you tell it in dad summon dad 'e hyare fo' dad creed."

Père Jerome sat up late that night, writing a letter. The remarkable
effects upon a certain mind, effects which we shall presently find him
attributing solely to the influences of surrounding nature, may find for
some a more sufficient explanation in the fact that this letter was but
one of a series, and that in the rover of doubted identity and
incredible eccentricity Père Jerome had a regular correspondent.


CHAPTER V.


THE CAP FITS.

About two months after the conversation just given, and therefore
somewhere about the Christmas holidays of the year 1821, Père Jerome
delighted the congregation of his little chapel with the announcement
that he had appointed to preach a sermon in French on the following
sabbath - not there, but in the cathedral.

He was much beloved. Notwithstanding that among the clergy there were
two or three who shook their heads and raised their eyebrows, and said
he would be at least as orthodox if he did not make quite so much of the
Bible and quite so little of the dogmas, yet "the common people heard
him gladly." When told, one day, of the unfavorable whispers, he smiled
a little and answered his informant, - whom he knew to be one of the
whisperers himself, - laying a hand kindly upon his shoulder:

"Father Murphy," - or whatever the name was, - "your words comfort me."

"How is that?"

"Because - _'Voe quum benedixerint mihi homines!'_" [1]


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