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Old Creole days; a story of Creole life online

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Charles Scribner's Sons
New York ^zzzzz 1905

COPYRIGHT, 1879, 1881, 1883,




DES EXILES ....... 85


"PossoN JONE'" ... ... 149


J TlTE POULETTE . ?T' * * ' ^^






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, over-
hangs 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 shrunk-
en 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 pic-
turesque, sometimes you get sight of comfort, some-
tunes of opulence, through the unlatched wicket in
some porte-cochere red-painted brick pavement, foli-
age 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, over-
hanging eaves. The batten shutters at door and win-
dow, with hinges like those of a postern, are shut with
a grip that makes one's knuckles and nails feel lacer-
ated. 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 side-
walk, 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 al-
most 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 aa
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 ap-
pearance of the place in former years, when the house*
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 quar-
ter 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 concern-
ing a retired quadroon woman ; and not the least puz-
zled of all would have been the timid and restive
Madame Delphine herself.



DURING the first quarter of the present century, th
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 Span-


ish-American frontier life, and, upon the other hancl
from comely Ethiopians culled out of the less negroi-
^al 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 manumit-
ted 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 excel-
lence 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 m the quadroon quarter this afternoon, with " Icha-
bod " 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 trav-
ellers spare no terms to tell their praises, their faultless-
ness of feature, their perfection of form, their varied
styles of oeauty, 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, sa
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 ex-
tenuations from the throat to the feet, and wore,
withal, a pathos in their charm that gave them a family
likeness to innocenee.

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 ia
knowledge which we can do without.

Even m 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

Which leads us to speak of another person.



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 lumi-
nous, 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 odri, 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 unimpeach-
able 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 Lemai-
tre) , the labors of his grandfather were an apparent
auccess. 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 re-
sults 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-asser-
tion. 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 gentle-
men famous in history, the brothers Lafitte.

The two Lafittes were, at the time young Lemaitre
reached his majority (say 1808 or 1812), only mer-
chant-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 auto-
crats. But they were full of possibilities, men of
action, and men, too, of thought, with already a pro-
nounced 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 Le-
maitre-Vignevielle) had not only the hearty friendship
of these good people, but also a natural turn for ac-
counts ; 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 enforce-
ment 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 smug-
gling was one of the sublimer virtues.

Years went by. Events transpired which have their
place in history. Under a government which the com-
munity by and by saw was conducted in their interest,
smuggling began to lose its respectability and to grow
disreputable, hazardous, and debased. In certain on-
slaughts 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-apprr. aches to their na-
tive city, and that they had spurned the bribe ; where-
fore their heads were ruled out of the market, and,


meeting and treating with Andrew o ackscn, they were
received as lovers of their country, and as compatriots
fought in the battle of New Orleans at the Lead of
their fearless men, and here tradition takes up th*
tale were never seen afterward.

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



THE roundest and happiest-looking priest in the city
of New Orleans was a little man fondly known among
his people as Pere 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 stab* from the green batten gate. It
was well surrounded by crape myrtles, and communi-
cated behind by a descending stair and a plank-walk
with the rear entrance of the chapel . over whose wor-
shippers he daily spread his hands in benediction.
The name of the street ah! there is where light is
wanting. Save the Cnthedral and the Ursunnes, 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 Pere 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, Pere 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 Pere Jerome's rotund-
ity and rosy smile.

In this room, and about this miniature round table,
used sometimes to sit with Pere Jerome two friends to
whom he was deeply attached one, Evariste Varril-
lat, 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 him-
self, the regretful rememberers of a fourth comrade
who was a comrade no more. Like Pere 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 Americain ; but
running sometimes into English and sometimes into
mild laughter. Mention had been made of the ab-

Pere 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 hu-
man 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 contem-
plate 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 physi-
cian, " you think we are partly to blame for the omis-
sion 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 al-


lowed. 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 peo-
ple, reared under wiser care and with better compan-
ions, 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 Eng-
lish. " A lady sez to me to-day: 'Pere 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."

"Jfais, 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 attor-
ney changed to French, " ' He is no pirate ; he has
merely taken out letters of marque and reprisal un-
der the flag of the republic of Carthagena ! ' "

"-47i, bah I" exclaimed Doctor Varrillat, and t>oth
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 Pere Jerome spoke.

" I will tell you what I could have said. I could
have said : ' Madame, yes ; 'tis a terrible fo' him. He


Btum'le in de dark ; but dat good God will mck it a
mo* terrible to 9 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, return-
ing 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 mar-
vel of courtesy and gentility" 1

"And whose name is Lafitte," said the obstinate

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

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

Pere 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.

1 BM gazettes of the period.


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."

Pere Jerome looked from the physician to the attor-
ney and back again, once or twice, with his dimpled

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

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

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

"Lafitte? No. Do you not see? It is your brother-
in-law, Jean Thompson I 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."'

Pere 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
oack again to Pere Jerome :


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

Pere 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 lettei
was but one of a series, and that in the rover of doubted
identity and incredible eccentricity Pere Jerome had a
regular correspondent.



ABOUT two months after the conversation just given,
and therefore somewhere about the Christmas holidays
of the year 1821, Pere Jerome delighted the congrega-

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableOld Creole days; a story of Creole life → online text (page 1 of 17)