What more formidable combatant than one’s own stubbornness, turned to
confront him, in his children?
The initial munificence of chartering one of the great Mississippi
steamboats for the first stage of the journey set the pace for the
entire occasion. Host and hostess met their guests at the river landing
with carriages and cane wagons gaily bedecked with evergreens, mosses,
and dogwood branches in flower, and a merry drive through several miles
of forest brought them to the banks of the bayou, where a line of
rowboats awaited them.
The negro boatmen, two to man each skiff, wearing jumpers of the Harvard
crimson, stood uncovered in line at the bayou’s edge, and as the party
alighted, they served black coffee from a fire in the open.
The negro with a cup of coffee his own hue and clear as wine is ever an
ubiquitous combination in the Louisiana lowlands. He bobs up so
unexpectedly in strange places balancing his tiny tray upon his hand,
that a guest soon begins to look for him almost anywhere after an
interval of about three dry hours, and with a fair chance of not being
Before this intangible emotion had time to crystallize into fear,
however, each pilot who manipulated the rudder astern had drawn from
under his seat a great torch of pine and set it ablaze.
Under festoons of gray Spanish moss, often swung so low that heads and
torches were obliged to defer to them, and between flowering banks which
seemed sometimes almost to meet in the floating growths which the
dividing bows of the boats plowed under, the little crafts sped lightly
Occasionally a heavy plunging thing would strike the water with a thud,
so near a boat that a girlish shriek would pierce the wood, spending
itself in laughter. A lazy alligator, sleepily enjoying a lily-pool,
might have been startled by the light, or a line of turtles, clinging
like knots to a log over the water, suddenly let go.
Streaks of darting incandescence marked the eccentric flights of a
million fireflies flecking the deep wood whose darkness they failed to
dispel; and once or twice two reflected lights a few inches apart,
suggesting a deer in hiding, increased the tremulous interest of this
super-safe but most exciting journey.
But presently, before impressions had time to repeat themselves, and
objects dimly discerned to become familiar, a voice from the leading
boat started a song.
It was a great voice, vibrant, strong, and soft as velvet, and when
presently it was augmented by another, insidiously thrown in, then
another in the next boat, until all the untutored Harvard oarsmen were
bravely singing and the dipping oars fell into the easy measure, all
sense of fear or place was lost in the great uplift of the rhythmic
At special turns through the wood ringing echoes gave back the strains.
A mocking-bird, excited by the unusual noise, poured forth a rival
disputatious song, and an owl hooted, and something barked like a fox;
but it was the great singing of the men which filled the wood.
Common songs of the plantation followed one another — songs of love, of
night and bats, of devils and hobgoblins, selected according to the will
of the leader — all excepting the opening song, which, although of the
same repertoire, was “by request,” and for obvious reasons.
Then, changing to a solemn, staccato measure, it went on:
Ole Marse Adam! Ole Marse Adam!
Et de lady’s apple up an’ give her all de blame.
Greedy-gut, greedy-gut, whar is yo’ shame?
Ole Marse Adam, man, whar is yo’ shame?
Ole Marse Adam! Ole Marse Adam!
Caught de apple in ’is neck an’ made it
An’ so we po’ gran’chillen has to swaller
roun’ de co’e.
Ole Marse Adam, man, whar is yo’ shame?
Ole Marse Adam! Ole Marse Adam!
Praised de lady’s attitudes an’ compliment
’er figur’ —
Didn’t have de principle of any decent
Ole Marse Adam, man, whar is yo’ shame?
It was a long pull of five miles up the winding stream, but the spirit
of jollity had dispelled all sense of time, and when at last the
foremost boat, doubling a jutting clump of willows, came suddenly into
the open at the foot of the hill, the startling presentment of the white
house illuminated with festoons of Chinese lanterns, which extended
across its entire width and down to the landing, was like a dream of
It was indeed a smiling welcome, and exclamations of delight announced
the passage of the boats in turn as they rounded the willow bend.
The firing of a single cannon, with a simultaneous display of
fireworks, and music by the plantation band, celebrated the landing of
the last boat.
Servants in the simple old-fashioned dress — checked homespun with white
accessories, to which were added for the occasion, great rosettes of
crimson worn upon the breast — took care of the party at the landing,
bringing up the rear with hand-luggage, which they playfully balanced
upon their heads or shifted with fancy steps.
The old-time supper — of the sort which made the mahogany groan — was
served on the broad back “gallery,” while the plantation folk danced in
the clearing beyond, a voice from the basement floor calling out the
This was a great sight.
Left here to their own devices as to dress, the negroes made so dazzling
a display that, no matter how madly they danced, they could scarcely
answer the challenge of their own riotous color schemes.
Single dancers followed; then “ladyes and gentiles” in pairs, taking
fantastic steps which would shame a modern dancing-master without once
awakening a blush in a maiden’s cheek.
The dancing was refined, even dainty, to-night, the favorite achievement
of the women being the mincing step taken so rapidly as to simulate
suspension of effort, which set the dancers spinning like so many tops,
although there was much languid posing, with exchange of salutations and
Yet not a twirl of fan or dainty lift of flounce — to grace a figure or
display a dexterous foot — but expressed a primitive idea of high
The “fragments” left over from the banquet of the upper porch — many of
them great unbroken dishes, meats, game, and sweets — provided a great
banquet for the dancers below, and the gay late feasters furnished
entertainment, fresh and straight from life, to the company above, for
whose benefit many of their most daring sallies were evidently thrown
out — and who, after their recent experiences, were pleased to be so
Toasts, drunk in ginger-pop and persimmon beer innocent of guile, were
offered after grace at the beginning of the supper, the toaster stepping
out into the yard and bowing to the gallery while he raised his glass
or, literally, his tin cup — the passage of the master’s bottle among the
men, later in the evening, being a distinct feature.
The first toast was offered to the ladies — “Mistus an’ Company-ladies”;
and the next, following a suggestion of the first table, where the host
had been much honored, was worded about in this wise:
“We drinks to de health, an’ wealth, an’ de long life of de leadin’
gentleman o’ Brake Island, who done put ’isself to so much pains an’
money to give dis party. But to make de toast accordin’ to manners, so
hit’ll fit de gentleman’s visitors long wid hisself, I say let’s drink
to who but ‘Ole Marse Adam!’”
It is easy to start a laugh when a festive crowd is primed for fun, and
this toast, respectfully submitted with a low bow by an ancient and
privileged veteran of the rosined bow, was met with screams of delight.
little island it was that could provide entertainment for
a party of society folk for nearly a fortnight with never a repetition
to pall or to weary.
The men, equipped for hunting or fishing, and accompanied by several
negro men-servants with a supplementary larder on wheels, — which is to
say, a wagon-load of bread, butter, coffee, condiments, and wines, with
cooking utensils, — left the house early every morning, before the ladies
They discussed engineering schemes over their fishing-poles and
game-bags, explored the fastnesses of the brake, eavesdropped for the
ultimate secret of the woods, and plumbed for the bayou’s heart,
bringing from them all sundry tangible witnesses of geologic or other
conditions of scientific values.
Most of these “witnesses,” however, it must be confessed, were
immediately available for spit or grill, while many went — so bountiful
was the supply — to friends in the city with the cards of their captors.
There are champagne bottles even yet along the marshes of Brake Island,
bottles whose bellies are as full of suggestion as of mud, and whose
tongueless mouths fairly whistle as if to recount the canards which
enlivened the swampland in those halcyon days of youth and hope and
Until the dressing-hour, in the early afternoons which they frankly
called the evening, the young women coddled their bloom in linen cambric
night-gowns, mostly, reading light romance and verse, which they quoted
freely under the challenge of the masculine presence.
Or they told amazing mammy-tales of voudoo-land and the ghost-country
for the amused delectation of their gentle hostess, who felt herself
warmed and cheered in the sunshine of these Southern temperaments. It
seemed all a part of the poetry and grace of a novel and romantic life.
Here were a dozen young women, pretty and care-free as flowers, any one
of whom could throw herself across the foot of a bed and snatch a
superfluous “beauty-sleep” in the midst of all manner of jollity and
Most of them spoke several languages and as many dialects, frequently
passing from one to another in a single sentence for easy subtlety or
color, and with distinct gain in the direction of music.
Possibly they knew somewhat of the grammar of but a single tongue beside
their own, their fluency being more of a traditional inheritance than an
acquisition. Such is the mellow equipment of many of our richest
Not one but could pull to pieces her Olympe bonnet and nimbly retrim it
with pins, to match her face or fancy — or dance a Highland fling in her
’broidered nightie, or sing —
How they all did sing — and play! Several were accomplished musicians.
One knew the Latin names of much of the flora of the island, and found
time and small coins sufficient to interest a colony of eager
pickaninnies to gather specimens for her “herbarium.”
Without ever having prepared a meal, they could even cook, as they had
soon amply proven by the heaping confections which were always in
evidence at the man-hour — bon-bons, kisses, pralines, what not — all
fragrant with mint, orange-flower, rose-leaf, or violet, or heavy with
pecans or cocoanut.
In the afternoon, when the men came home, they frequently engaged in
contests of skill — in rowing or archery or croquet; or, following
nature’s manifold suggestions, they drifted in couples, paddling
indolently among the floating lily-pads on the bayou, or reclining among
the vines in the summer-houses, where they sipped iced orange syrup or
claret sangaree, either one a safe lubricator, by mild inspiration or
suggestion, of the tongue of young love, which is apt to become tied at
the moment of most need.
“Sipped iced orange syrup or claret sangaree”
With the poems of Moore to reinforce him with easy grace of words, a
broad-shouldered fellow would naïvely declare himself a peri, standing
disconsolate at the gate of his lady’s heart, while she quoted Fanny
Fern for her defense, or, if she were passing intellectual and of a
broader culture, she would give him invitation in form of rebuff from
“The Lady of the Lake,” or a scathing line from Shakspere. Of course,
all the young people knew their Shakspere — more or less.
They had their fortunes told in a half-dozen fashions, by withered old
crones whose dim eyes, discerning life’s secrets held lightly in
supension, mated them recklessly on suspicion.
Visiting the colored churches, they attended some of the novel services
of the plantation, as, for instance, a certain baptismal wedding, which
is to say a combined ceremony, which was in this case performed quite
regularly and decorously in the interest of a coal-black piccaninny,
artlessly named Lily Blanche in honor of two of the young ladies present
whom the bride-mother had seen but once out driving, but whose gowns of
flowered organdy, lace parasols, and leghorn hats had stirred her sense
of beauty and virtue to action.
Although there was much amusement over this incongruous function, the
absence of any sense of embarrassment in witnessing so delicate a
ceremony — one which in another setting would easily have become
indelicate — was no doubt an unconscious tribute to the primitive
simplicity of the contracting parties.
And always there were revival meetings to which they might go and hear
dramatic recitals of marvelous personal “experiences,” full of
imagery, — travels in heaven or hell, — with always the resounding human
note which ever prevails in vital reach for truth. Through it all they
discerned the cry which finds the heart of a listener and brings him
into indissoluble relation with his brother man, no matter how great the
darkness out of which the note may come. It is universal.
The call is in every heart, uttered or unexpressed, and one day it will
pierce the heavens, finding the blue for him who sends it forth, and for
the listener as well if his heart be attuned.
Let who will go and sit through one of these services, and if he does
not come away subdued and silent, more tender at heart, and, if need be,
stronger of hand to clasp and to lift, perhaps — well, perhaps his mind
is open only to the pictorial and the spectacular.
There is no telling how long the house-party would have remained in
Paradise but for the inexorable calendar which warned certain of its
members that they would be expected to answer the royal summons of Comus
at the approaching carnival; and of course the important fact that
certain bills from the legislature affecting the public weal were
awaiting the governor’s signature.
A surprising number of marriages followed this visit, seeming to confirm
a report of an absurd number of engagements made on the island.
There is a certain old black woman living yet “down by the old basin” in
French New Orleans, a toothless old crone who, by the irony of
circumstance, is familiarly known as “Ol’ Mammy Molar,” who “remembers”
many things of this time and occasion, which she glibly calls “de
silveringineer party,” and who likes nothing better than an audience.
If she is believed, this much too literal account of a far-away time is
most meager and unfaithful, for she does most strenuously insist that,
for instance, there was served at the servants’ table on that first
But let her have her way of it for a moment — just a single breath:
“Why, honey,” she closes her eyes as she begins, the better to see
memory behind them. “Why, honey, de champagne wine was passed aroun’ to
de hands all dat indurin’ infair in water-buckets, an’ dipped out in
gou’d dippers-full, bilin’ over so fast an’ fizzin’ so it’d tickle yo’
mouf to drink it. An’ Marse Harol’ Le Duc, he stood on a pianner-stool
on de back gallery an’ th’owed out gol’ dollars by de hatful for any of
us niggers to pick up; an’ de guv’ner, ol’ Marse Abe Lincolm, he fired
off sky-rockers an’ read out freedom papers.
“An’ mids’ all de dance an’ reveltry, a bolt o’ thunder fell like a
cannon-ball outen a clair sky, an’ we looked up an’ lo an’ beholst, here
was a vision of a big hand writin’ on de sky, an’ a voice say, ‘Eat up
de balance ef anything is found wantin’!’ an’ wid dat, dey plunged in
like a herd o’ swine boun’ for de sea, an’ dey devoured de fragmints an’
popped mo’ corks, an’ dipped out mo’ champagne wine, an’ de mo’ dey
dipped out champagne wine, de mo’ dey ’d dance. An’ de mo’ dey ’d dance,
de mo’ de wine would flow.”
Possibly the old woman’s obvious confusion of thought has some
explanation in the fact of the presence of the governor of the State,
who, introduced as a high dignitary, did make a little speech late that
night, thanking the colored people in terms of compliment for their
dancing; and any impression made here was so quickly overlaid by the
deeper experiences of the war that a blending can easily be explained.
There was a shower of coins — “picayunes” only — thrown during the evening
by the master, a feature of the dance being to recover as many of them
as possible without breaking step. So the old woman’s memory is not so
far afield, although as a historian she might need a little editing. But
such even as this is much of the so-called “history” which, bound in
calf, dishonors the world’s libraries to-day.
It is so easy, seeing cobwebs upon a record, — cobwebs which may not be
quite construed as alphabet, — to interpret them as hieroglyphics of
import, instead of simply brushing them away, or relegating them, where
they belong, to the dusky domain of the myth out of which we may expect
only weird suggestion, as from the mold of pressed rosemary, typifying
The house-party, which in this poor retrospect seems to have devoted
itself almost wholly to pleasure, was nevertheless followed by immediate
work upon the project in behalf of which it was planned.
With this main motive was also the ulterior and most proper one in
Harold’s mind of introducing his wife in so intimate a fashion to some
of the important members of society, who would date life-friendships
from the pleasant occasion of helping him to open his own door to them.
Some thousands of dollars went into the quicksands of the marshes before
the foundations were laid for the arch of a proposed great bridge,
beneath which his boats should sail to their landing. With the arrogant
bravado of an impulsive boy challenged to action, he began his arch
first. Its announcement of independence and munificence would express
the position he had taken. Sometimes it is well to put up a bold front,
even if one needs to work backward from it.
Harold moved fast — but the gods of war moved faster!
Scarcely had a single column of solid masonry risen above the palmetto
swamp when Fort Sumter’s guns sounded. The smell of gunpowder penetrated
the fastnesses of the brake, and yet, though his nostrils quivered like
those of an impetuous war-horse, the master held himself in rein with
the thought of her who would be cruelly alone without him. And he said
to himself, while he reared his arch: “Two out of three are enough! I
have taken their terror island for my portion. They may have garlands
upon my bridge — when they come sailing up my canal as heroes!”
But the next whiff from the battleground stopped work on the arch. The
brothers had fallen side by side.
“The brave, unthinking fellow, after embracing his
dashed to the front”
Madly seizing both the recovered swords, declaring he would “fight as
three,” the brave, unthinking fellow, after embracing his beloved, put
one of her hands in Hannah’s and the other in Israel’s, and, commending
them to God by a speechless lift of his dark eyes, mounted his horse and
dashed, as one afraid to look back, to the front.
knows the story of “poor Harold Le Duc” — how, captured,
wounded, he lay for more than a year on the edge of insanity in a
Federal hospital. Every one knows of the birth of his child on the
lonely island, with only black hands to receive and tend it, and how the
waiting mother, guarded by the faithful two, and loved by the three
hundred loyal slaves who prayed for her life, finally passed out of it
on the very day of days for which she had planned a great Christmas
banquet for them in honor of their master’s triumphant return.
The story is threadbare. Everyone knows how it happened that “the old
people,” Colonel and Madame Le Duc, having taken flight upon report of a
battle, following their last son, had crossed the lines and been unable
from that day to communicate with the island; of the season of the
snake-plague in the heart of the brake, when rattlers and copperheads,
spreading-adders, moccasins, and conger-eels came up to the island,
squirming, darting, or lazily sunning themselves in its flowering
grounds and lily-ponds, some even finding their way into the very beds
of the people; when the trees were deserted of birds, and alligators
prowled across the terraces, depredating the poultry-yard and even
threatening the negro children.
In the presence of so manifold disaster many of the negroes returned to
voodooism, and nude dances by weird fires offered to Satan supplanted
the shouting of the name of Christ in the churches. A red streak in the
sky over the brake was regarded as an omen of blood — the thunderbolt
which struck the smoke-stack of the sugar-house a command to stop work.
Old women who had treated the sick with savory teas of roots and herbs
lapsed into conjuring with bits of hair and bones. A rabbit’s foot was
more potent than medicine; a snake’s tooth wet with swamp scum and dried
in the glare of burning sulphur more to be feared than God.
War, death and birth and death again, followed by scant provender
threatening famine, and then by the invasion of serpents, had struck
terror into hearts already tremulous and half afraid.
The word “freedom” had scarcely reached the island and set the air
vibrating with hope, commingled with dread, when the reported death of
the master came as a grim corroboration of the startling prospect.
All this is an open story.
But how Israel and Hannah, aided in their flight by a faithful few,
slipped away one dark night, carrying the young child with them to bear
her safely to her father’s people, knowing nothing of their absence,
pending the soldier’s return — for the two never believed him dead; how,
when they had nearly reached the rear lands of the paternal place, they
were met by an irresistible flood which turned them back; and how,
barely escaping with their lives, they were finally rowed in a skiff
quite through the hall of the great house — so high, indeed, that Mammy
rescued a family portrait from the wall as they passed; how the baby
slept through it all, and the dog followed, swimming.
This is part of the inside history never publicly told.
The little party was taken aboard a boat which waited midstream, a tug
which became so overcrowded that it took no account of passengers whom
it carried safely to the city. Of the poor forlorn lot, a few found
their way back to the plantations in search of survivors, but in most
instances, having gone too soon, they returned disheartened.
Madame Le Duc, who, with her guests and servants, had fled from the
homestead at the first warning, did not hear for months of the flight of
the old people with her grandchild, and of their supposed fate. No one
doubted that all three had perished in the river, and the news came as
tardy death tidings again — tidings arriving after the manner of war
news, which often put whole families in and out of mourning, in and out
is not space here to dwell upon Harold’s final return to Brake
Island, bent and broken, unkempt, — disguised by the marks of sorrow,
unrecognized, as he had hoped to be, of the straggling few of his own
negroes whom he encountered camping in the wood, imprisoned by fear.
These, mistaking him for a tramp, avoided him. He had heard the news en
route, — the “news,” then several years old, — and had, nevertheless,
yielded to a sort of blind, stumbling fascination which drew him back to
the scene of his happiness and his despair. Here, after all, was the
real battle-field — and he was again vanquished.
When he reached the homestead, he found it wholly deserted. The “big
house,” sacred to superstition through its succession of tragedies, was
as Mammy and Israel had left it. Even its larder was untouched, and the
key of the wine-cellar lay imbedded in rust in sight of the cob-webbed
It was a sad man, prematurely gray, and still gaunt — and white with the
pallor of the hospital prison — who, after this sorrowful pilgrimage to
Brake Island, appeared, as from the grave, upon the streets of New
Orleans. When he was reinstated in his broken home, and known once more
of his family and friends, he would easily have become the popular hero
of the hour, for the gay world flung its gilded doors open to him.
The Latin temperament of old New Orleans kept always a song in her
throat, even through all the sad passages of her history; and there was
never a year when the French quarter, coquette that she was, did not
shake her flounces and dance for a season with her dainty toes against
the lower side of Canal Street.
But Harold was not a fellow of forgetful mind. The arch of his life was
broken, it is true, but like that of the bridge he had begun — a bridge
which was to invite the gay world, yes, but which would ever have
dominated it, letting its sails pass under — he could be no other than a
worthy ruin. Had his impetuous temper turned upon himself on his return
to the island, where devastation seemed to mock him at every turn, there
is no telling where it might have driven him. But a lonely mother, and
the knowledge that his father had died of a broken heart upon the report
of his death, the last of his three sons — the pathetic, dependence of
his mother upon him — the appeal of her doting eyes and the exigencies of
an almost hopeless financial confusion — all these combined as a
challenge to his manhood to take the helm in the management of a wrecked
It was a saving situation. How often is work the great savior of men!
Once stirred in the direction of effort, Harold soon developed great
genius for the manipulation of affairs. Reorganization began with his
Square-shouldered and straight as an Indian, clear of profile,
deep-eyed, and thoughtful of visage, the young man with the white hair
was soon a marked figure. When even serious men “went foolish over him,”
it is not surprising that ambitious mothers of marriageable daughters,
in these scant days of dearth of men, should have exhibited occasional
fluttering anxieties while they placed their broken fortunes in his
Reluctantly at first, but afterward seeing his way through experience,
Harold became authorized agent for some of the best properties along the
river, saving what was left, and sometimes even recovering whole estates
for the women in black who had known before only how to be good and
beautiful in the romantic homes and gardens whose pervading perfume had
been that of the orange-blossom.
It was on returning hurriedly from a trip to one of these places on the
upper river — the property of one Marie Estelle Josephine Ramsey de La
Rose, widowed at “Yellow Tavern” — that he sought the ferry skiff on the
night old man Israel answered the call.
the old man dreamed, while he waited, midstream, trying to think
out his problem, that the solution was so near at hand.
We have seen how the old wife waited and prayed on the shore; how with
her shaded mind she groped, as many a wiser has done, for a comforting,
common-sense understanding of faith, that intangible “substance of
things hoped for,” that elusive “evidence of things not seen.”
In a moment after she heard the creaking of the timbers as the skiff
chafed the landing, even while she rose, as was her habit, to see who
might be coming over so late, she dimly perceived two men approaching,
Israel and another; and presently she saw that Israel held the man’s
hand and that he walked unsteadily.
She started, fearing that her man was hurt; but before she could find
voice of fear or question, Israel had drawn the stranger to her and was
saying in a broken voice:
“Hannah! Hannah! Heah Mars’ Harol’!”
Only a moment before, with her dim eyes fixed upon the sky, she had
experienced a realization of faith, and believed herself confidently
awaiting her master’s coming. And yet, seeing him now in the flesh
before her, she exclaimed:
“What foolishness is dis, ole man? Don’t practice no jokes on me
Her voice was almost gruff, and she drew back as she spoke. But even
while she protested, Harold had laid his hand upon her arm.
“Mammy,” he whispered huskily,
“don’t you know your ’indurin’ devil’ — ?”
(This had been her last, worst name for her favorite during his mischief
Harold never finished his sentence. The first sound of his voice had
identified him, but the shock had confused her. When at last she sobbed
“Hush! I say, hush!” her arms were about his knees and she was crying
“Her arms were about his knees”
“Glo-o-o — oh — glo-o-o — glo-o-ry! Oh, my Gord!” But presently, wiping her
eyes, she stammered: “What kep’ you so, Baby? Hol’ me up, chile — hol’
She was falling, but Harold steadied her with strong arms, pressing her
into her chair, but retaining her trembling hand while he sat upon the
low table beside her.
He could not speak at once, but, seeing her head drop upon her bosom, he
called quickly to Israel. For answer, a clarion note, in no wise muffled
by the handkerchief from which it issued, came from the woodpile. Israel
was shy of his emotions and had hidden himself.
By the time he appeared, sniffling, Hannah had rallied, and was pressing
Harold from her to better study his face at long range.
“What happened to yo’ hair, Baby?” she said presently. “Hit looks as
bright as dat flaxion curl o’ yoze I got in my Testamen’. I was lookin’
at it only a week ago las’ Sunday, an’ wishin’ I could read de book
’long wid de curl.”
“It is much lighter than that, Mammy. It is whiter than yours. I have
lived the sorrows of a long life in a few years.”
Israel still stood somewhat aside and was taking no note of their
speech, which he presently interrupted nervously:
“H-how you reckon Mars’ Harol’ knowed me, Hannah? He — he reco’nized his
horn! You ricollec’ when I fotched dat horn f’om de islan’ roun’ my
neck, clean ’crost de flood, you made game o’ me, an’ I say I mought
have need of it? But of co’se I didn’t ca’culate to have it ac-chilly
call Mars’ Harol’ home! I sho’ didn’t! But dat’s what it done. Cep’n’
for de horn’s call bein’ so familius, he’d ’a’ paid me my dime like a
stranger an’ passed on.”
At this Harold laughed.
“Sure enough, Uncle Israel; you didn’t collect my ferriage, did you? I
reckon you’ll have to charge that.”
“Lord, Hannah, listen! Don’t dat soun’ like ole times? Dey don’t charge
nothin’ in dese han’-to-mouf days, Marse Harol’ — not roun’ heah.”
“But tell me, Uncle Israel, how did you happen to bring that old horn
with you — sure enough?” Harold interrupted.
“I jes fotched it ’ca’se I couldn’t leave it — de way Hannah snatched
yo’ po’trit off de wall — all in dat deluge. Hit’s heah in de cabin now
to witness de trip. But in co’se o’ time de horn, hit come handy when I
tuk de ferry-skift.
“Well, Hannah, when he stepped aboa’d, he all but shuk de ole skift to
pieces. I ought to knowed dat Le Duc high-step, but I didn’t. I jes felt
his tread, an’ s’luted him for a gentleman, an’ axed him for Gord sake
to set down befo’ we’d be capsided in de river. I war n’t cravin’ to
git drownded wid no aristoc’acy.
“De moon she was hidin’, dat time, an’ we couldn’t see much; but he
leant over an’ he say, ‘Uncle,’ he say, ‘who blowed dat horn ’crost de
river?’ An’ I say, ’Me, sir. I blowed it.’ Den he say, ’Whose horn is
dat?’ An’ I ’spon’, ’Hit’s my horn, sir.’ Den my conscience begin to
gnaw, an’ I sort o’ stammered, ’Leastways, it b’longs to a frien’ o’
mine wha’ look like he ain’t nuver gwine to claim it.’ I ain’t say who
de frien’ was, but d’rec’ly he pushed me to de wall. He ax me p’intedly
to my face, ’What yo’ frien’ name, uncle?’ An at dat I got de big head
an’ I up an’ snap out:
“’Name Le Duc, sir, Harry Le Duc.’
“Jes free an’ easy, so, I say it. Lord have mussy! Ef I’d s’picioned dat
was Mars’ Harol’ settin’ up dar listenin’ at me callin’ his name so
sociable an’ free, I’d ’a’ drapped dem oa’s overbo’ad. I sho’ would.
“Well, when I say ‘Harry Le Duc,’ seem like he got kind o’ seasick, de
way he bent his head down, an’ I ax him how he come on — ef he got de
miz’ry anywhars. An’ wid dat he sort o’ give out a dry laugh, an’ den
what you reckon he ax me? He say, ‘Uncle, is you married?’ An’ wid dat
I laughed. ’T war n’t no trouble for me to laugh at dat. I ’spon’,
’Yas, sirree! You bet I is! Does I look like air rovin’ bachelor?’ I was
jes about half mad by dis time.
“Well, so he kep’ on quizzifyin’ me: ax me whar I live, an’ I tol’ ’im I
was a ole risidenter on de levee heah for five years past; an’ so we run
on, back an’ fo’th, tell we teched de sho’. An’ time de skift bumped de
landin’ he laid his han’ on me an’ he say, ’Unc’ Isrul, whar’s Mammy
Hannah?’ An’ den — bless Gord! I knowed him! But I ain’t trus’ myself to
speak. I des nachelly clawed him an’ drug him along to you. I seen de
fulfilment o’ promise, an’ my heart was bustin’ full, but I ain’t got no
halleluiah tongue like you. I jes passed him along to you an’ made for
It was a great moment for Harold, this meeting with the only people
living who could tell all there was to know of those who were gone.
Hannah’s memory was too photographic for judicious reminiscence. The
camera’s great imperfection lies in its very accuracy in recording
non-essentials, with resulting confusion of values. So the old woman,
when she turned her mental search-light backward, “beginning at the
beginning,” which to Harold seemed the end of all — the day of his
departure, — recounted every trivial incident of the days, while Harold
listened through the night, often suffering keenly in his eagerness to
know the crucial facts, yet fearing to interrupt her lest some precious
thing be lost.
A reflected sunrise was reddening the sky across the river when she
reached the place in the story relating to the baby. Her description
needed not any coloring of love to make it charming, and while he
listened the father murmured under his breath:
“And then to have lost her!”
“What dat you say, Marse Harol’?” Hannah gasped, her quick ears having
caught his despairing tone.
“Oh, nothing, Mammy. Go on. It did seem cruel to have the little one
drowned. But I don’t blame you. It is a miracle that you old people
The old woman turned to her husband and threw up her hands.
“Wh-why, Isrul!” she stammered.
“What’s de matter wid you — to set heah all night an’ listen at me
talkin’ all roun’ de baby — an’ ain’t named her yit!”
She rose and, drawing Harold after her, entered the door at her back. As
she pulled aside the curtain a ray of sunlight fell full upon the
“Heah yo’ baby, Baby!” Her low voice, steadied by its passages through
greater crises, was even and gentle.
She laid her hand upon the child.
“Wek up, baby! Wek up!” she cried. “Yo’ pa done come! Wek up!”
Without stirring even so much as a thread of her golden hair upon the
pillow, the child opened a pair of great blue eyes and looked from
Mammy’s face to the man’s. Then, — so much surer is a child’s faith than
another’s, — doubting not at all, she raised her little arms.
Her father, already upon his knees beside her, bent over, bringing his
neck within her embrace, while he inclosed her slender body with his
arms. Thus he remained, silent, for a moment, for the agony of his joy
was beyond tears or laughter. But presently he lifted his child, and,
sitting, took her upon his lap. He could not speak yet, for while he
smoothed her beautiful hair and studied her face, noting the blue depths
of her darkly fringed eyes, the name that trembled for expression within
his lips was “Agnes — Agnes.”
“How beautiful she is!” he whispered presently; and then, turning to
Hannah, “And how carefully you have kept her! Everything — so sweet.”
“Oh, yas!” the old woman hastened to answer. “We ain’t spared no pains
on ’er, Marse Harol’. She done had eve’ything we could git for her, by
hook or by crook. Of co’se she ain’t had no white kin to christen her,
an’ dat was a humiliation to us. She didn’t have no to say legal person
to bring ’er for’ard, so she ain’t nuver been ca’yed up in church; but
she’s had every sort o’ christenin’ we could reach.
“I knowed yo’ pa’s ma, ole Ma’am Toinette, she’d turn in her grave
lessen her gran’chil’ was christened Cat’lic, so I had her christened
dat way. Dat ole half-blind priest, Father Some’h’n’ other, wha’ comes
from Bayou de Glaise, he was conductin’ mass meetin’ or some’h’n’ other,
down here in Bouligny, an’ I took de baby down, an’ he sprinkled her in
Latin or some’h’n’ other, an’ ornamented behind her ears wid unctious
ile, an’ crossed her little forehead, an’ made her eat a few grains o’
table salt. He done it straight, wid all his robes on, an’ I g’in him
a good dollar, too. An’ dat badge you see on her neck, a sister o’
charity, wid one o’ dese clair-starched ear-flap sunbonnets on, she put
dat on her. She say she give it to her to wear so ’s she could n’t git
drownded — like as ef I’d let her drownd. Yit an’ still I lef’ it so,
an’ I even buys a fresh blue ribbin for it, once-t an’a while. I hear
’em say dat blue hit’s de Hail Mary color — an’ it becomes her eyes, too.
Dey say what don’t pizen fattens, an’ I know dem charms couldn’t do her
no hurt, an’, of ’co’se, we don’t know all. Maybe dey mought ketch de
eye of a hoverin’ angel in de air an’ bring de baby into Heavenly
notice. Of co’se, I wouldn’t put no sech as dat on her. I ain’t been
raised to it, an’ I ain’t no beggin’ hycoprite. But I wouldn’t take it
“Den, I knowed ole Mis’, yo’ ma, she was ’Pistopal, an’ Miss Aggie she
was Numitarium; so every time a preacher’d be passin’ I’d git him to
perform it his way. Me bein’ Baptis’ I didn’t have no nigger baptism to
saddle on her.
“So she’s bounteously baptized — yas, sir. I reasoned it out dat ef dey’s
only one true baptism, an’ I war n’t to say shore which one it was,
I better git ’em all, an’ only de onlies’ true one would count; an’
den ag’in, ef all honest baptisms is good, den de mo’ de merrier, as de
Book say. Of co’se I knowed pyore rain-water sprinkled on wid a blessin’
couldn’t hurt no chile.
“You see, when one side de house is French distraction an’ de yether
is English to-scent, an’ dey’s a dozen side-nations wid blood to
tell in all de branches, — well, hit minds me o’ dis ba’m of a thousan’
flowers dat ole Mis’ used to think so much of. Hits hard to ’stinguish
out any one flagrams.
“But talkin’ about de baby, she ain’t been deprived, no mo’ ’n de Lord
deprived her, for a season, of her rights to high livin’ an’ — an’
aristoc’acy — an’ — an’ petigree, an’ posterity, an’ all sech as dat.
“What dat you say, Mars’ Harol’? What name is we?’
“We ain’t dast to give ’er no name, Baby, no mo’ ’n jes Blossom. I got
’er wrote down in five citificates ‘Miss Blossom,’ jes so. No, sir. I
knows my colored place, an’ I’ll go so far, an’ dat’s all de further.
She was jes as much a blossom befo’ she was christened as she was
arterwards, so my namin’ ’er don’t count. I was ’mos’ tempted to call
out ’Agnes’ to de preachers, when dey’d look to me for a name, seem’ it
was her right — like as ef she was borned to it; but — I ain’t nuver
imposed on her. No, sir, we ain’t imposed on her noways.
“De on’iest wrong I ever done her — an’ Gord knows I done it to save her
to my arms, an’ for you, marster — de on’iest wrong was to let her go
widout her little sunbonnet an’ git her skin browned up so maybe nobody
wouldn’t s’picion she was clair white an’ like as not try to wrest her
from me. An’ one time, when a uppish yo’ng man ast me her name, I
said it straight, but I see him look mighty cu’yus, an’ I spoke up an’
say, ‘What other name you ’spect’ her to have? My name is Hannah Le Duc,
an’ I’s dat child’s daddy’s mammy.’ Excuse me, Mars’ Harold, but you
know I is yo’ black mammy — an’ I was in so’e straits.
“So de yo’ng man, well, he didn’t seem to have no raisin’. He jes sort
o’ whistled, an’ say I sho is got one mighty blon’ gran’chil’ — an’ I
’spon’, ‘Yas, sir; so it seems.’
“An’ dat’s de on’ies’ wrong I ever done her. She sets up at her little
dinner-table sot wid a table-cloth an’ a white napkin, — an’ I done buyed
her a ginuine silver-plated napkin-ring to hold it in, too, — an’ she
says her own little blessin’ — dat short ‘Grace o’ Gord — material
binefets,’ one o’ Miss Aggie’s; I learned it to her. No, she ain’t been
handled keerless, ef she is been livin’ on de outside o’ de levee, like
free niggers. But we ain’t to say lived here, ’not perzackly,
marster. We jes been waitin’ along, so, dese five years — waitin’ for
“I ain’t nuver sorted her clo’es out into no bureau; I keeps ’em all in
her little trunk, perpared to move along.”
For a moment the realization of the culmination of her faith seemed to
suffuse her soul, and as she proceeded, her voice fell in soft, rhythmic
“Ya-as, Mars’ Harol’, Mammy’s baby boy, yo’ ol’ nuss she been waitin’,
an’ o-ole man Isrul he been waitin’, an’ de Blossom she been
waitin’. I ’spec’ she had de firmes’ faith, arter all, de baby did. Day
by day we all waited — an’ night by night. An’ sometimes when courage
would burn low an’ de lamp o’ faith grow dim, seem like we’d a’ broke
loose an’ started a-wanderin’ in a sort o’ blind search, ’cep’n’ for de
“Look like ef we’d ever went beyan’ de river’s call, we’d been same as
de chillen o’ Isrul lost in de tanglement o’ de wilderness. All we river
chillen, we boun’ to stay by her, same as toddlin’ babies hangs by a
mammy’s skirts. She’ll whup us one day, an’ chastise us severe; den
she’ll bring us into de light, same as she done to-night — same as reel
“An’, Mars’ Harol’?”
She lowered her voice.
“Mars’ Harol’, don’t tell me she don’t know! I tell yer, me an’ dis
River we done spent many a dark night together under de stars, an’ we
done talked an’ answered one another so many lonely hours — an’ she done
showed us so many mericles on land an’ water?
“I tell yer, I done found out some’h’n’ about de River, Mars’ Harol’.
She’s — why, she’s —
“Oh, ef I could only write it all down to go in a book! We been th’ough
some merac’lous times together, sho’ ’s you born — sho’ ’s you born.
“She’s a mericle mystery, sho’!
“You lean over an’ dip yo’ han’ in her an’ you take it up an’ you say
it’s wet. You dig yo’ oars into her, an’ she’ll spin yo’ boat over her
breast. You dive down into her, an’ you come up — or don’t come up.
Some eats her. Some drinks her. Some gethers wealth outen her. Some
draps it into her. Some drownds in her.
“An’ she gives an’ takes, an’ seem like all her chillen gits
satisfaction outen her, one way an’ another; but yit an’ still, she
ain’t nuver flustered. On an’ on she goes — rain or shine — high
water — low water — all de same — on an’ on.
“When she craves diamonds for her neck, she reaches up wid long
onvisible hands an’ gethers de stars out’n de firmamint.
“De moon is her common breastpin, an’ de sun?
“Even he don’t faze her. She takes what she wants, an’ sends back his
fire every day.
“De mists is a veil for her face, an’ de showers fringes it.
“Sunrise or dusklight, black night or midday, every change she answers
whilst she’s passin’.
“But who ever inticed her to stop or to look or listen? Nobody, Baby.
“Oh, Lord! ef eve’ybody only knowed!
“You see, all sech as dat, I used to study over it an’ ponder befo’ we
started to talk back an’ fo’th — de River an’ me.
“One dark night she heared me cryin’ low on de bank, whilst de ole man
stepped into de boat to row ’crost de water, an’ she felt Wood-duck
settle heavy on her breast, an’ she seen dat we carried de same
troublous thought — searchin’ an’ waitin’ for the fulfilment o’ promise.
“An’ so we started to call — an’ to answer, heart to heart.”
The story is nearly told. No doubt many would be willing to have it stop
here. But a tale of the river is a tale of greed, and must have
While father and child sat together, Israel came, bringing fresh chips.
He had been among the woodpiles again. This time there followed him the
“Why, Blucher!” Harold exclaimed. “Blucher, old fellow!” And at his
voice the dog, whining and sniffing, climbed against his shoulder, even
licking his face and his hand. Then, running off, he barked at Israel
and Hannah, telling them in fine dog Latin who the man was who had come.
Then he crouched at his feet, and, after watching his face a moment,
laid his head upon his master’s right foot, a trick Harold had taught
him as a pup.
course Harold wished to take the entire family home with him at once,
and would hear to nothing else until Hannah, serving black coffee to him
from her furnace, in the dawn, begged that she and Israel might have “a
few days to rest an’ to study” before moving.
It was on the second evening following this, at nightfall, while her man
was away in his boat, that the old woman rose from her chair and, first
studying the heavens and then casting about her to see that no one was
near, she went down to the water, slowly picking her way to a shallow
pool between the rafts and the shore. She sat here at first, upon the
edge of the bank, frankly dropping her feet into the water while she
seemed to begin to talk — or possibly she sang, for the low sound which
only occasionally rose above the small noises of the rafts was faintly
suggestive of a priest’s intoning.
For a moment only, she sat thus. Then she began to lower herself into
the water, until, leaning, she could lay her face against the sod, so
that a wave passed over it, and when, letting her weight go, she
subsided, with arms extended, into the shallow pool, a close listener
might have heard an undulating song, so like the river’s in tone as to
be separable from it only through the faint suggestion of words,
interrupted or drowned at intervals by the creaking and knocking of the
rafts and the gurgling of the sucking eddies about them.
The woman’s voice — song, speech, or what not — seemed intermittent, as
if in converse with another presence.
Suddenly, while she stood thus, she dropped bodily, going fully under
the water for a brief moment, as if renewing her baptism, and when she
presently lifted herself, she was crying aloud, sobbing as a child sobs
in the awful momentary despair of grief at the untwining of
arms — shaken, unrestrained.
While she stood thus for a few minutes only, — a pathetic waste of
sorrow, wet, dark and forlorn, alone on the night-shore, — a sudden wind,
a common evening current, threw a foaming wave over the logs beside her
so that its spray covered her over; while the straining ropes, breaking
and bumping timbers, with the slow dripping of the spent wave through
the raft, seemed to answer and possibly to assuage her agitation; for,
as the wind passed and the waters subsided, she suddenly grew still,
and, climbing the bank as she had come, walked evenly as one at peace,
into her cabin.
No one will ever know what, precisely, was the nature of this last
communion. Was it simply an intimate leave-taking of a faithful
companionship grown dear through years of stress? Or had it deeper
meaning in a realization — or hallucination — as to the personality of the
river — the “secret” to which she only once mysteriously referred in a
gush of confidence on her master’s return?
Perhaps she did not know herself, or only vaguely felt what she could
not tell. Certainly not even to her old husband, one with her in life
and spirit, did she try to convey this mystic revelation. We know by
intuition the planes upon which our minds may meet with those of our
nearest and dearest. To the good man and soldier, Israel, — the prophet,
even, who held up the wavering hands of the imaginative woman when her
courage waned, pointing to the hour of fulfilment, — the great river,
full of potencies for good or ill, could be only a river. As a mirror it
had shown him divinity, and in its character it might typify to his
image-loving mind another thing which service would make it precious.
But what he would have called his sanity — had he known the word — would
have obliged him to stop there.
The stars do not tell, and the poor moon — at best only hinting what the
sun says — is fully half-time off her mind. And the
soul of the
River — if, indeed, it has once broken silence — may not speak again.
And, so, her secret is safe — safe even if the broken winds did catch a
breath, here and there, sending it flurriedly through and over the logs
until they trembled with a sort of mad harp-consciousness, and were set
a-quivering for just one full strain — one coherent expression of
soul-essence — when the wave broke. Perhaps the arms of the twin spirits
were untwined — and they went their separate ways smiling — the woman and
When, after a short time, the old wife came out, dressed in fresh
clothing, her white, starched tignon shining in the moonlight, to sit
and talk with her husband, her composure was as perfect as that of the
face of the water which in its serenity suggested the voice of the
Master, when Peter would have sunk but for his word.
This was to be their last night here. Harold was to bring a carriage on
the next day to take them to his mother and Blossom, and, despite the
joy in their old hearts, it cost them a pang to contemplate going away.
Every woodpile seemed to hold a memory, each feature of the bank a
tender association. Blucher lay sleeping beside them.
Israel spoke first.
“Hannah!” he said.
“I ready to go home to-night, Hannah. Marse Harol’ done come. We done
finished our ’sponsibility — an’ de big river’s a-flowin’ on to de
sea — an’ settin’ heah, I ’magines I kin see Mis’ Aggie lookin’ down on
us, an’ seem like she mought want to consult wid us arter our meetin’
wid Marse Harol’ an’ we passin’ Blossom along. What you say, Hannah?”
“I been tired, ole man, an’ ef we could ’a’ went las’ night, like you
say, seem like I ’d ’a’ been ready — an’, of co’se, I’m ready now, ef
Gord wills. Peace is on my sperit. Yit an’ still, when we rests off a
little an’ studies freedom free-handed, we won’t want to hasten along
maybe. Ef we was to set heah an’ wait tell Gord calls us, — He ain’t ap’
to call us bofe together, an’ dey’d be lonesome days for the last one.
But ef we goes ’long wid Marse Harol’, he an’ Blossom’ll be a heap o’
comfort to de one what’s left.”
“We’s a-settin’ to-night close to de brink — ain’t dat so?”
“An’ de deep waters is in sight, eh, Hannah?”
“An’ we heah it singin’, ef we listen close, eh, Hannah?”
“Well, don’t let ’s forgit it, dat ’s all. Don’t let’s forgit, when we
turns our backs on dis swellin’ tide, dat de river o’ Jordan is jes
befo’ us, all de same — an’ it can’t be long befo’ our crossin’-time.”
“Amen!” said the woman.
The moon shone full upon the great river, making a shimmering path of
light from shore to shore, when the old couple slowly rose and went to
Toward morning there was a quick gurgling sound in front of the cabin.
Blucher caught it, and, springing out, barked at the stars. The sleepers
within the levee hut slept on, being overweary.
The watchman in the Carrollton garden heard the sound, — heard it swell
almost to a roar, — and he ran to the new levee, reaching its summit just
in time to see the roof of the cabin as it sank, with the entire point
of land upon which it rested, into the greedy flood.
When Harold Le Duc arrived that morning to take the old people home, the
river came to meet him at the brim of the near bank, and its face was as
the face of smiling innocence.
While he stood awe-stricken before the awful fact so tragically
expressed in the river’s bland denial, a wet dog came, and, whining,
crouched at his feet. He barked softly, laid his head a moment upon his
master’s boot, moaned a sort of confidential note, and, looking into the
air, barked again, softly.
Did he see more than he could tell? Was he trying to comfort his master?
He had heard all the sweet converse of the old people on that last
night, and perhaps he was saying in his poor best speech that all was
Mammy Hannah and Uncle Israel, having discharged their responsibility,
had crossed the River together.
“Oh, it ’s windy,
On de river-bank to-night,
An’ de moontime
Beats de noontime,
When de trimblin’ water ’s white.”
runs the plantation love-song, and so sang a great brown fellow as,
with oars over his shoulder, he strolled down “Lovers’ Lane,” between
the bois d’arcs, toward the Mississippi levee.
He repeated it correctly until he neared the gourd-vine which marked the
home of his lady, when he dropped his voice a bit and, eschewing rhyme
for the greater value, sang:
“Oh, it ’s windy,
On de river-bank to-night —”
And slackening his pace until he heard footsteps behind him, he stopped
and waited while a lithe yellow girl overtook him languidly.
“Heah, you take yo’ sheer o’ de load!” he laughed as he handed her one
of the oars. “Better begin right. You tote half an’ me half.” And as she
took the oar he added, “How is you to-night, anyhow, sugar-gal?”
While he put his right arm around her waist, having shifted the
remaining oar to his left side, the girl instinctively bestowed the one
she carried over her right shoulder, so that her left arm was free for
reciprocity, to which it na?vely devoted itself.
“I tell yer, hit ’s fine an’ windy to-night, sho’ enough,” he said. “De
breeze on de levee is fresh an’ cool, an’ de skift she’s got a new
yaller-buff frock, an’ she?”
“Which skift? De Malviny? Is you give her a fresh coat o’ paint? An’
dat’s my favoryte color — yaller-buff!” This with a chuckle.
“No; dey ain’t no Malviny skift no mo’ — not on dis plantation. I done
changed her name.”
“You is, is yer? What is you named her dis time?”
She was preparing to express surprise in the surely expected. Of course
the boat was renamed the Maria. What else, in the circumstances?
“I painted her after a lady-frien’s complexion, a bright, clair yaller;
but as to de name — guess!” said the man, with a lunge toward the girl,
as the oar he carried struck a tree — a lunge which brought him into
position to touch her ear with his lips while he repeated: “What you
reckon I named her, sweetenin’?”
“How should I know? I ain’t in yo’ heart!”
“You ain’t, ain’t yer? Ef you ain’t, I’d like mighty well to know who
is. You’s a reg’lar risidenter, you is — an’ you knows it, too! Guess
along, gal. What you think de boat’s named?”
“Well, ef you persises for me to guess, I’ll say Silv’ Ann. Dat ’s a
purty title for a skift.”
“Silv’ Ann!“ contemptuously. “I ’clare, M’ria, I b’lieve you ’s
jealous-hearted. No, indeedy! I know I run ’roun’ wid Silv’ Ann awhile
back, jes to pass de time, but she can’t name none o’ my boats! No; ef
you won’t guess, I’ll tell yer — dat is, I’ll give you a hint. She named
for my best gal! Now guess!“
“I never was no hand at guessin’.” The girl laughed while she tossed her
head. “Heah, take dis oah, man, an’ lemme walk free. I ain’t ingaged to
tote no half-load yit — as I knows on. Lordy, but dat heavy paddle done
put my whole arm to sleep. Ouch! boy. Hands off tell de pins an’ needles
draps out. I sho’ is glad to go rowin’ on de water to-night.”
So sure was she now of her lover, and of the honor which he tossed as a
ball in his hands, never letting her quite see it, that she whimsically
put away the subject.
She had been to school several summers and could decipher a good many
words, but most surely, from proud practice, she could spell her own
name. As they presently climbed the levee together, she remarked, seeing
the water: “Whar is de boat, anyhow — de What-you-may-call-it? She ain’t
in sight — not heah!”
“No; she’s a little piece up de current — in de willer-clump. I didn’t
want nobody foolin’ wid ’er — an’ maybe readin’ off my affairs. She got
her new intitlemint painted on her stern — every letter a different
color, to match de way her namesake treats me — in a new light every
The girl giggled foolishly. She seemed to see the contour of her own
name, a bouquet of color reaching across the boat, and it pleased her.
It would be a witness for her — to all who could read.
“I sho’ does like boats an’ water,” she generalized, as they walked on.
“Me, too,” agreed her lover; “but I likes anything — wid my chosen
company. What is dat whizzin’ past my face? Look like a honey-bee.”
“’T is a honey-bee. Dey comes up heah on account o’ de chiny-flowers.
But look out! Dat’s another! You started ’em time you drug yo’ oah in de
mids’ o’ dem chiny-blossoms. Whenever de chiny-trees gits too sickenin’
sweet, look out for de bees!”
“Yas,” chuckled de man; “an’ dey’s a lesson in dat, ef we’d study over
it. Whenever life gits too sweet, look out for trouble! But we won’t
worry ’bout dat to-night. Is you ’feared o’ stingin’ bees?”
“No, not whilst dey getherin’ honey — dey too busy. Hit ’s de idlers dat
I shun. An’ I ain’t afeared o’ trouble, nuther. Yit an’ still, ef
happiness is a sign, I better look sharp.”
“Is you so happy, my Sugar?”
The girl laughed.
“I don’t know ef I is or not — I mus’ see de name on dat skift befo’ I
can say. Take yo’ han’ off my wais’, boy! Ef you don’t I’ll be ’feared
o’ stingin’ bees, sho’ enough! Don’t make life too sweet!”
They were both laughing when the girl dashed ahead into the
willow-clump, Love close at her heels, and in a moment the Maria, in
her gleaming dress of yellow, darted out into the sunset.
A boat or two had preceded them, and another followed presently, but it
takes money to own a skiff, or even to build one of the driftwood, which
is free to the captor. And so most of the couples who sought the river
strolled for a short space, finding secluded seats on the rough-hewn
benches between the acacia-trees or on the drift-dogs which lined the
water’s edge. It was too warm for continued walking.
From some of the smaller vessels, easily recognizable as of the same
family as the fruit-luggers which crowd around “Picayune Tier” at the
French market, there issued sweet songs in the soft Italian tongue,
often accompanied by the accordeon.
Young Love sang on the water in half a dozen tongues, as he sings there
yet at every summer eventide.
The skiffs for the most part kept fairly close to the shore, skirting
the strong current of the channel, avoiding, too, the large steamboats,
whose passage ever jeopardized the small craft which crossed in their
Indeed, the passage of one of these great “packets” generally cleared
the midstream, although a few venturesome oarsmen would often dare fate
in riding the billows in her wake. These great steamboats were known
among the humble river folk more for their wave-making power than for
the proud features which distinguished them in their personal relations.
There were those, for instance, who would watch for a certain great boat
called the Capitol, just for the bravado of essaying the bubbling
storm which followed her keel, while some who, enjoying their fun with
less snap of danger, preferred to have their skiffs dance behind the
Laurel Hill. Or perhaps it was the other way: it may have been the
Laurel Hill, of the sphere-topped smoke-stacks, which made the more
It all happened a long time ago, although only about thirteen years had
passed since the events last related, and both boats are dead. At least
they are out of the world of action, and let us hope they have gone to
their rest. An old hulk stranded ashore and awaiting final dissolution
is ever a pathetic sight, suggesting a patient paralytic in his chair,
grimly biding fate — the waters of eternity at his feet.
At intervals, this evening, fishermen alongshore — old negroes
mostly — pottered among the rafts, setting their lines, and if the
oarsmen listened keenly, they might almost surely have caught from these
gentle toilers short snatches of low-pitched song, hymns mostly, of
content or rejoicing.
There was no sense of the fitness of the words when an ancient fisher
sang “Sweet fields beyan’ de swelling flood,” or of humor in “How firm
a foundation,” chanted by one standing boot-deep in suspicious sands.
The favorite hymn of several of the colored fishermen, however, seemed
to be “Cometh our fount of every blessin’,” frankly so pronounced with
At a distant end of his raft, hidden from its owner by a jutting point
from which they leaped, naked boys waded and swam, jeering the deaf
singer as they jeered each passing boat, while occasionally an
adventurous fellow would dive quite under a skiff, seizing his
opportunity while the oars were lifted.
None of the little rowboats carried sail as a rule, although sometimes a
sloop would float by with an air of commanding a squadron of the sparse
fleet which extended along the length of the river.
The sun was fallen nearly to the levee-line this evening when one of the
finest of the “river palaces” hove in sight.
The sky-hour for “dousing the great glim” was so near — and the actual
setting of the sun is always sudden — that, while daylight still
prevailed, all the steamer’s lights were lit, and although the keen sun
which struck her as a search-light robbed her thousand lamps of their
value, the whole scene was greater for the full illumination.
The people along shore waved to the passing boat — they always do it — and
the more amiable of the passengers answered with flying handkerchiefs.
As she loomed radiant before them, an aged negro, sitting mending his
net, remarked to his companion:
“What do she look like to you, Br’er Jones?”
“’What she look like to me?’” The man addressed took his pipe from his
lips at the question. “What she look like — to me?” he repeated again.
“Why, tell the trufe, I was jes’ studyin’ ’bout dat when you spoke. She
’minds me o’ Heaven; dat what she signifies to my eyes — Heavenly
mansions. What do she look like to you?”
“Well,” the man shifted the quid in his mouth and lowered his shuttle as
he said slowly, “well, to my observance, she don’t answer for Heaven; I
tell yer dat: not wid all dat black smoke risin’ outen ’er ’bominable
regions. She’s mo’ like de yether place to me. She may have Heavenly
gyarments on, but she got a hell breath, sho’. An’ listen at de band o’
music playin’ devil-dance time inside her! An’ when she choose to let it
out, she’s got a-a-nawful snort — she sho’ is!”
“Does you mean de cali-ope?”
“No; she ain’t got no cali-ope. I means her clair whistle. Hit’s got a
jedgment-day sound in it to my ears.”
“Dat music you heah’, dat ain’t no dance-music. She plays dat for de
passengers to eat by, so dey tell me. But I reckon dey jes p’onounces
supper dat-a-way, same as you’d ring a bell. An’ when de people sets
down to de table, dey mus’ sho’ly have de manners to stop long enough to
let ’em eat in peace. Yit an’ still, whilst she looks like Heaven, I’d a
heap ruther set heah an’ see her go by ’n to put foot in her, ’ca’se I’d
look for her to ’splode out de minute I landed in her an’ to scatter my
body in one direction an’ my soul somewhars else. No; even ef she was
Heaven, I’d ruther ’speriment heah a little longer, settin’ on de sof’
grass an’ smellin’ de yearnin’ trees an’ listenin’ at de bumblebees
a-bumblin’, an’ go home an’ warm up my bacon an’ greens for supper, an’
maybe go out foragin’ for my Sunday chicken to-night in de dark o’ de
moon. Hyah! My stomach hit rings de dinner-bell for me, jes as good as a
“Me, too!” chuckled the smoker. “I’ll take my chances on dry lan’, every
time. I know I’ll nuver lead a p’ocession but once-t, and dat’ll be at
my own fun’al, an’ I don’t inten’ to resk my chances. But she is sho’
one noble-lookin’ boat.”
By this time the great steamboat — the wonderful apparition so aptly
typifying Heaven and hell — had passed.
She carried only the usual number of passengers, but at this evening
hour they crowded the guards, making a brilliant showing. Family parties
they were mostly, with here and there groups of young folk, generally
collected about some popular girl who formed a center around which
coquetry played mirthfully in the breeze. A piquant Arcadian bride,
“pretty as red shoes,” artlessly appearing in all her white wedding
toggery, her veil almost crushed by its weight of artificial
orange-flowers, looked stoically away from the little dark husband who
persisted in fanning her vigorously, while they sat in the sun-filled
corner which they had taken for its shade while the boat was turned into
the landing to take them aboard. And, of course, there was the usual
quota of staid couples who had survived this interesting stage of life’s
Nor was exhibition of rather intimate domesticity entirely missing.
Infancy dined in Nature’s own way, behind the doubtful screening of
waving palmetto fans. While among the teething and whooping-cough
contingents the observer of life might have found both tragedy and
comedy for his delectation.
Mild, submissive mothers of families, women of the Creole middle class
mainly, — old and withered at thirty-five, all their youthful magnolia
tints gone wrong, as in the flower when its bloom is passed — exchanged
maternal experiences, and agreed without dissent that the world was full
of trouble, but “God was good.”
Even a certain slight maternal wisp who bent over a tiny waxen thing
upon her lap, dreading each moment to perceive the flicker in her breath
which would show that a flame went out — even she, poor tear-dimmed soul,
said it while she answered sympathetic inquiry:
“Oh, yas; it is for her we are taking de trip. Yas, she is very sick,
mais God is good. It is de eye-teet’. De river’s breath it is de bes’
medicine. De doctor he prescribe it. An’ my father he had las’ winter
such a so much trouble to work his heart, an’ so, seeing we were coming,
he is also here — yas, dat’s heem yonder, asleep. ’T is his most best
sleep for a year, lying so. De river she give it. An’ dose ferryboat dey
got always on board too much whooping-cough to fasten on to eye-teet.”
Somewhat apart from the other passengers, their circle loosely but
surely defined by the irregular setting of their chairs toward a common
center, sat a group, evidently of the great world — most conspicuous
among them a distinguished-looking couple in fresh mid-life, who led the
animated discussion, and who were seen often to look in the direction of
a tall and beautiful girl who stood in the midst of a circle of young
people within easy call. It was impossible not to see that their
interest in the girl was vital, for they often exchanged glances when
her laughter filled the air, and laughed with her, although they knew
only that she had laughed.
The girl stood well in sight, although “surrounded six deep” by an
adoring crowd; nor was this attributable alone to her height which set
her fine little head above most of her companions. A certain distinction
of manner — unrelated to haughtiness, which may fail in effect, or
arrogance, which may over-ride but never appeal; perhaps it was a
graciousness of bearing — kept her admirers ever at a tasteful distance.
There was an ineffable charm about the girl, a thing apart from the
unusual beauty which marked her in any gathering of which she became a
Descriptions are hazardous and available words often inadequate to the
veracious presentment of beauty, and yet there is ever in perfection a
challenge to the pen.
As the maiden stood this evening in the sunlight, her radiant yellow
hair complementing the blue of her sea-deep eyes, her fair cheeks
aglow, and one color melting to another in her quick movements, the
effect was almost like an iridescence. Tender in tints as a sea-shell,
there might have been danger of lapse into insipidity but for the accent
of dark rims and curled lashes which individualized the eyes, and, too,
the strong, straight lines of her contour, which, more than the note of
dark color, marked her a Le Duc.
There are some women who naturally hold court, no matter what the
conditions of life, and to whom tribute comes as naturally as the air
they breathe. It often dates back into their spelling-class days, and I
am not sure that it does not occasionally begin in the “perambulator.”
This magnetic quality — one hesitates to use an expression so nervously
prostrated by strenuous overwork, and yet it is well made and to
hand — this magnetic quality, then, was probably, in Agnes Le Duc, the
gift of the Latin strain grafted upon New England sturdiness and
reserve, the one answering, as one might say, for ballast, while the
other lent sail for the equable poising of a safe and brilliant
So, also, was her unusual beauty markedly a composite and of elements so
finely contrasting that their harmonizing seemed rather a succession of
flashes, as of opposite electric currents meeting and breaking through
the caprice of temperamental disturbance; as in the smile which won by
its witchery, or the illumination with which rapid thought or sudden
pity kindled her eye.
Educated alternately in Louisiana where she had recited her history
lessons in French, and in New England, the pride and pet of a charmed
Cambridge circle, with occasional trips abroad with her “parents,” she
was emerging, all unknowingly, a rather exceptional young woman for any
place or time.
Seeing her this evening, an enthusiast might have likened her to the
exquisite bud of a great tea-rose, regal on a slender stem — shy of
unfolding, yet ultimately unafraid, even through the dewy veil of
immaturity — knowing full well, though she might not stop to remember,
the line of court roses in her pedigree.
Watching her so at a safe distance, one could not help wondering that
she thought it worth her while to listen at all, seeing how her admirers
waited upon her every utterance. To listen well has long been considered
a grace — just to listen; but there is a still higher art, perhaps, in
going a step beyond. It is to listen with enthusiasm, yes, even with
eloquence. One having a genius for this sort of oratory, speaking
through the inspired utterance of another, and of course supplying the
inspiration, gains easily the reputation of “delightful conversational
And this was precisely an unsuspected quality which made for the sweet
girl much of the popularity which she had never analyzed or questioned.
She could talk, and in several languages, familiarly, and when the
invitation arrived, she did — upward, with respect, to her elders (she
had learned that both in New Orleans and in Boston); downward to her
inferiors — with gentle directness, unmixed with over-condescension; to
right and to left among her companions, quite as a free-hearted girl,
with spirit and camaraderie.
A quality, this, presaging social success certainly, and, it must be
admitted, it is a quality which sometimes adorns natures wanting in
depth of affection. That this was not true of Agnes Le Duc, however,
seems to be clearly shown in an incident of this trip.
As she stood with her companions this evening, while one and another
commented upon this or that feature of the shore, they came suddenly
upon a congregation of negroes encircling an inlet between two curves in
the levee, and, as the low sun shone clearly into the crowd, it became
immediately plain that a baptism was in progress.
A line of women, robed in white, stood on one side; several men,
likewise in white, on the other, while the minister, knee-deep in the
water, was immersing a subject who shouted wildly as he went under and
came up struggling as one in a fit, while two able-bodied men with
difficulty bore him ashore.
The scene was scarcely one to inspire reverence to a casual observer,
and there was naturally some merriment at its expense. One playful
comment led to another until a slashing bit of ridicule brought the
entire ceremony into derision, and, as it happened, the remark with its
accompanying mimicry was addressed to Agnes.
“Oh, please!” she pleaded, coloring deeply. “I quite understand how it
may affect you; but — oh, it is too serious for here — too personal and
While she hesitated, the culprit, ready to crawl at her feet, — innocent,
indeed, of the indelicacy of which he had become technically
guilty, — begged to be forgiven. He had quite truly “meant no harm.”
“Oh, I am quite sure of it,” the girl smiled; “but now that I have
spoken, — and really I could not help it; I could not wish to let it
pass, understand, — but now that I have spoken — oh, what shall I say!
“Perhaps you will understand me when I tell you that I should not be
with you here to-day but for the devoted care of two old Christian
people who dated their joy in the spiritual life from precisely such a
ceremony as this. They are in Heaven now.
“My dear old Mammy often said that she ‘went under the water groaning in
sin, and came up shouting, a saved soul!’ I seem to hear her again as I
repeat the words, on this same river, in sight of her people and within
the sound of their voices. I was small when she died, and I do not
clearly remember many of her words; but this I do well recall, for we
lived for some years on the river-bank, only a few miles from the spot
where in her youth she had been immersed. She taught me to love the
river, and perhaps I am a little sentimental over it. I hope always to
be so. My father remembers many of her words. She was his nurse, too.
She told him as a boy that she had insisted on being baptized in flowing
water, so that her sins might be carried away to the sea. It was all
very sacred to her.”
Of course the romantic story of Agnes’s youth was known to every one
present, and this unexpected allusion awakened immediate interest.
“Oh, yes,” she replied to a question; “I suppose I do remember a good
deal, considering how very young I was, and yet I often wonder that I do
not remember more, as it was all so unusual;” and then she added,
laughing: “I seem to forget that no event could surprise a child in her
first experiences of life. Yet I remember trivial things, as, for
instance, the losing of a hat. I clearly recall our watching my hat on
one occasion when it blew into the river, and was never recovered!
Think of the tragedy of it! I can see it now, tossing like a little
boat, as it floated away.
“And the funny little cabin I remember — I know I do, for there were
things which papa never saw, on the inside, in what he calls my
‘boudoir,’ the white cabin, which I shall never forget. When anything is
kept ever in mind by constant description, it is hard to know how much
one really remembers. You know, papa spent only one night there and his
thoughts were turned backward, so that he naturally kept only vague
impressions of the place.
“Yes, he has made a sketch of it from memory, and I am sorry. Why? Oh,
because I was sure at first that it was not correct, and now it has come
to stand to me in place of the true picture, which has faded. It is a
way with pictures if we let them over-ride us. Why, my grandmother in
Boston has a friend who had his wife’s portrait painted after she was
lost at sea. He spent all the money he had to have it done by a ‘best
artist who had made a hasty sketch of her in life,’ and when it came
home he did not recognize it — really thought a mistake had been made.
Then, seeing that it was she as authoritatively pictured, and that he
had paid his all to get it, he bethought him to study it, hoping some
day to find her in it. And so he did, gradually.
“He had it hung over his smoking-table, and every evening he scrutinized
it until its insistence conquered. For a whole year he lived in the
companionship of an absent wife as seen in an artist’s mood (this last
sentence is a direct quotation from my Boston grandmama, who is fond of
the story). And — well, ‘what happened?’ Why, this: One day the woman
came home. People ‘lost at sea’ occasionally do, you know. And would you
believe it? Her widower — I mean to say her husband — refused to receive
her. He did not know her! He simply pointed to the painting and shook
his head. And if she hadn’t been a person of resolution and
resource, — descended from the Mayflower, — why, she would have had to
go away. But she had her trunk brought in and quietly paid the
expressman and took off her bonnet — and stayed. But it was an absurdly
long time before her husband was wholly convinced that he was not the
victim of an adventuress. And she says that even now he sometimes looks
at her in a way she does not like.
“So, you see, we cannot always believe our own eyes, which are so easily
“Still, even knowing all this, we consent to be duped. Now I like the
picture of the cabin, even while I regret it, and, although I know
better, I accept it.
“What is truth, anyway? That is what you hear said so often in Boston,
where we are said to try to make pivots of it for the wheels of all our
“’Do I like Boston?’ Like Boston? No. I adore it! Oh, yes! But yet,
when I am there, I am a little rebel. And at each place I am quite
honest, I assure you. You see, I have a grandmother at both places — here
and there. Such dears, they are — adorable, both, and so different!
“Yes, that is true. Papa’s portrait, the one Mammy had in the
cabin, — yes, we have it, — twice recovered from the river. My father
offered a reward, and a man brought it out of the mud, a little way down
the levee, and not seriously hurt. It is a funny little picture of papa
at six, in a Highland costume, with his arm over a strange dog which
belonged to the artist. He looks in the picture as if he were
stuffed — the dog does; but papa denies that. I believe this same dog
appeared in most of the portraits done by this man, in all of those of
boys, at least. For the girls he supplied a cat, or occasionally a
parrot. The bird was stuffed, I believe. He did my stepmother at
five, and she holds the cat. The portraits hang side by side now. If we
could find him, and the parrot, he should paint me, and we would start a
“Oh, yes; going back to the subject, there are many little things which
I remember, without a doubt, for I could never imagine them. For
instance, I remember at least one of my baptisms — the last, I suppose. I
know I was frightened because the minister shouted, and Mammy kept
whispering to me that he wouldn’t harm me; and then he suddenly threw
water all over me and I bawled. No, I have no idea who he was; but it
was out of doors, and there was a rooster in it someway. I suppose it
was on the levee and the rooster came to see what was happening.
“There is a picture which always reminds me of the time we lived behind
the woodpiles, that called ‘The Soldier’s Dream,’ in which a poor
fellow, asleep on the battle-field, sees dimly, as in the sky, a meeting
between himself and his family.
“I am sure that while we sat on the levee and Mammy talked to me of
papa’s coming, I used to picture it all against the sunset sky. Just
look at it now. Was anything ever more gorgeous and at the same time so
tender? One could easily imagine almost any miracle’s happening over
there in the west.
“Yes, I know the skies of Italy, and they’re no better. They are bluer
and pinker, perhaps, in a more paintable way; but when the sun sets
across the Mississippi, especially when we have their dreamy cloud
effects, it goes down with variation and splendor unmatched anywhere, I
do believe. But,” she added with a Frenchy shrug, “you know I am only a
river child, and everything belonging to the old muddy stream is dear to
“I beg your pardon — what did you ask?” This to a very young man who
colored after he had spoken. “Did we ever recover — ? Oh, no. Their
bodies went with the waters they loved — and it was better so. Certainly,
papa used every effort. I hope the current carried them to the sea. She
would have liked to have it so, I am sure, dear, dear Mammy Hannah!
“Oh, yes. The little monument on Brake Island is only ‘in memory,’ as
its inscription says.”
This was rather thoughtful talk for a girl scarcely eighteen, but Agnes
had ever been thoughtful, and by common inheritance — from her mother and
As the scene shifted, and conversation passed to lighter things, and her
laughter rippled again as a child’s, its range was sometimes startling.
It was as brilliant as a waterfall seen in the sun, and often while her
fond father watched her, as now, he wondered if, perchance, her laughter
might not be prophetic of a great career for which eyes less devoted
than his perceived her eminently fitted.
It is beyond the province of this tale of the river to follow Agnes Le
Duc through life. Some day, possibly, her story may be fully told; but
perhaps a foreshadowing of her future, in one phase of it at least, may
be discerned in an intimation let fall by one of the passengers who sat
with his companions at a card-table in the fore cabin. At least, they
had spent the day there, stopping not even for dinner, and now they were
moving away. As they found seats out on the guards, he was saying:
“’Rich!’ Well, I would say so! He own all doze plantation around de
town of Waterproof, and de strange part is he paid twice for some of
dem! Of co’se he could not do such a so-foolish t’ing except he made
dat invention. W’en you begin to collec’ so much on every one of
anyt’ing dat fill a want, you get rich, sure!
“No matter if it jus’ one picayune — w’en dey sell enough. Dey say you
can make sugar so quick by dat machine he invent — it is like
conjuring — a sort of hoodoo!”
“Yes,” said his companion, an American, “so I understand; and there is
no man I would rather see rich than Harold Le Duc. His marriage, so soon
after the recovery of his child, surprised some of us, but no doubt it
was a good thing.”
“A good t’ing! It was magnificent! If he is one of de finest men in
Louisiana, she is equal to him. Dat remark dat he married only for a
mudder for his child — dat’s all in my heye! I am sure he was in love to
her one year, maybe two, befo’ dat — mais, I am not sure he would
have asked any woman to marry him. He had not de courage. For him love
was past — and he was afraid of it. Mais de chil’ she wake him up
again! Oh, it is a good t’ing, sure! An’ de strange part, she t’ought
she wou’n’ never love again, jus’ de same as him — until — ”
“Well, until he spoke! Until w’at you t’ink?”
“Not’ing. I t’ought maybe it was somet’ing unusual.”
“Well, an’ is dat not somet’ing unusual — w’en a widow is sure she will
not love again? Dey often t’ink so, mais she was absolutely sure!
You see, her first husband he was one hero; he fell on de same
battle-field wid gallant ‘Jeb’ Stuart — from a stray shot w’en de
fighting was over, carrying dat poor imbecile, Philippe Delmaire, off
de fiel’, biccause he was yelling so, wid dat one li’l’ toe he los’! A
good fellow, yas, mais no account! Yas, he drank himself to deat’, all
on account for de loss of dat toe, so he say. Excuses dey are cheap,
yas. If it was not his toe it would have been somet’ing else. You know,
his figure, it was really perfection, no mistake, an’ to lose
perfection, even in so small a matter as one toe — it prey on his mind.
Tell de trut’, I used to feel sorry for him, an’ — an’ — w’en he always
would touch his glass an’ drink dat favorite toast, ‘To my big toe!’
well, dere was somet’ing pitiful in it. I used to drink it wid him. It
was no harm, an’ he had always good wine, poor fellow. Mais to t’ink of
Paul de La Rose dying for him! It make me mad, yet w’en I t’ink so, I
am almos’ sorry to reflect I have drunk to his toe! Bah — a valu’ble
man — to die like dat! Wat you say? Yas, da’s true. It makes not how de
soldier fall — de glory is de same. Well, any’ow, if he could have picked
out a successor, he could not have done better dan yo’ng Le Duc — sure!
W’at you say? ‘’Ow is he bought doze plantation twice?’ Well, dis way:
W’en he had to take dem on mortgage, an’ dey were sold at de door of de
court-house — bidding against him, understand — no rainy-day sale — he paid
double — I mean to say he paid so much as de mortagage again. Not in
every case, mais in many — to widows. I know two cousin of mine, he
paid dem so. I ricollec’ dey tol’ me dat he was de mos’ remembering man
to look out for dem, an’ de mos’ forgetting to sen’ de bills.
“Oh, yas. An’ his daughter, dey say she is in love to her
stepmother — an’ she is jus’ so foolish about de chil’ — an’ wid good
reason. She had never children — an’ she is proud for dat daughter, an’
jealous, too, of dose Yankee rillation. Still, she invite dem to
come every year, so the chil’ can stay — an’ now, would you believe it?
Dey are come to be great friends, mais, of co’se, her father sends her
every year at Boston to her grandmother. Dey all want her, an’ no
wonder. If she was one mud fence, I suppose it would be all de same,
mais you know, she is one great beauty! I say one gr-r-r-reat
beauty! Wh! An’w’en I whistle so ’wh!’ I mean w’at I say. You see me so,
I am one ol’ man, now — pas’ forty — an’ rich in children, an’ not
bad-looking children, neither; mais I would walk, me, all de way from
de barracks up to Bouligny, an’ back, just to see her pass in de
street an’ smile on me. You take my word, if she is not snapped up by
some school-boy, she can marry anyt’ing — a coronet! An’ I know
somet’ing about women — not to brag.”
“If you are so anxious to see dat young lady, Felix,” said another, “you
don’t need to walk so far. She is, at dis moment, wid her father an’ her
stepmudder, on dis trip.”
“W’at! w’at you say? Well, wait. I di’n’ inten’, me, to dress
for de ladies’ cabin to-night, mais w’en I have my supper I will
put on my Sunday t’ings — jus’ to go an’ sit down in de cabin
w’ere — I — can — look — at innocent — beauty! It pleasure me, yas, to
see some t’ing like dat. Maybe I am not all good, mais I am not all
given over for bad so long I can enjoy a rose-vine all in pink, or a
fair yo’ng girl more beautiful yet.
“I tell you, my friends, I was sitting, week before las’, at my ’ouse on
Esplanade Street, on de back gallerie, w’ere de vines is t’ick, an’ dey
were, as you might say, honey-suckling de bees — an’ de perfume from my
night-bloomin’ jasmine filled my nose. It was in de evening, an’ de moon
on de blue sky was like a map of de city, jus’ a silver crescent, an’
close by, one li’l’ star, shining, as de children say, ’like a diamond
in de sky,’ an’ I tell you — I tell you —
“Well, I tell you, I wished I had been a good man all my life!”
His friends laughed gaily at this.
“You don’ say!” laughed one. “Well, you fooled us, any’ow! I was holding
my breat’. I t’ought somet’ing was getting ready to happen!”
“Well — an’ ain’t dat somet’ing — w’en a hard ol’ sinner like me can see
in nature a t’ing sweet an’ good an’ — an’ resolute himself!”
“Sure, dat is a great happening; mais for such a beginning, so
dramatic, we expected to see Hamlet — or maybe his father’s ghost — or
“I am thinking more of this exceptional beauty” — it was the American who
interrupted now — “I am more interested in her than in the confessions of
old sinners like ourselves. I am rather practical, and beauty is only
skin-deep — sometimes at least. I should like to take a peep at this rare
product of our State. Louisiana’s record up to date is hard to beat, in
“Well,” slowly remarked the man known throughout as Felix, “I am not
telling! If I knew, I could not tell, and, of co’se, it is all
guess-work, mais you may believe me or not — “he lowered his voice,
suggesting mystery. “I say you can riffuse to believe me or not, I
was — well, I was not long ago, one day, sitting at de table down at
Leon’s, — eating an oyster wid a friend of mine, and, looking out of de
window, I happened to see, sitting in a tree, one li’l’ bird — jus’ one
small li’l’ bird, no bigger dan yo’ t’umb.
“I was not t’inking about de bird, mind you. We were jus’ talking about
anyt’ing in partic’lar — I mean to say not’ing in general. W’at is de
matter wid me to-day? I cannot talk straight — my tongue is all twis’. I
say we were speaking of partic’lar t’ings in general, an’ he remarked to
me, ’Who you t’ink will be de Queen of de Carnival dis coming Mardi
“I was pouring a glass of Ch?teau Yquem at de time, — to look after de
oysters, — an’ I di’n’ pay so much attention to w’at he was saying — I can
never pour a glass an’ speak at de same time. I spill my words or de
wine, sure. So it happened dat w’en I put me de bottle down, my eye
passed out de window. Oh, hush! No, not my eye, of co’se — I mean my
sight. Well, dat li’l’ bird it was still waiting in the same place, in
de magnolia-tree, an’ w’en I looked, it give me one glance, sideways,
like a finger on de nose, an’ it opened wide its bill, an’ just so plain
as I am speaking now, it spoke a name.” This in still lower voice.
“But I said nothing, immediately. A little wine, for a few glasses, it
make me prudent — up to a certain point, of co’se. Mais, direc’ly, I
looked at my friend, an’ wid w’at you might call an air of
nonchalance, I repeat to him de name exac’ly as it was tol’ to me by
de li’l’ bird in de magnolia-tree. An’ wa’t you t’ink he said?”
“Oh, go on. W’at he say?”
“You want to know w’at he said? Well, dat I can tell you. He was greatly
astonish’, an’ he whispered to me, ’Who tol’ you? You are not in de
“Oh, a little bird tol’ me!” I answered him. ”No, I am not in de
“But the name — Do tell us!“
“Oh, no. I cannot. If I told, dat would be telling, eh?”
“Sure! It is not necessary,” said another. “Well, I am pleased, me.”
“I like always to listen w’en you tell somet’ing, Felix. Your story is
all right — an’ I believe you. I always believe any man in de Pickwick
Club — on some subjects! Mais, ol’ man, de nex’ time you make a story
at Leon’s restaurant, suppose you move off dat magnolia-tree. A bird
could stand on de window-sill across de street jus’ as well — a real
“T’ank you. I am sure a real somet’ing-to-stand-on would be better for
a real bird. Mais, for dis particular bird, I t’ink my magnolia is
more suitable. Don’t forget de story of de Mongoose!”
“Nobody can get ahead of you, Felix. Well, it is a good t’ing. It is
true, her fodder was de King at las’ year’s Carnival — an’ it is
lightning striking twice in de same place; an’ yet?”
“And yet,” the American interrupted, “and yet it will sometimes strike
twice in the same place — if the attraction is sufficient. I have a
friend who has a summer home in the Tennessee mountains which was twice
struck — three times, nearly. That is the house next door got it the
third time. And then they began to investigate, and they found the
mountain full of iron — iron convertible into gold.”
“Well, and our man of iron, let us hope he may prove always an
attraction — for bolts of good fortune!”
“A wish that may come true; if reports be correct, he is rapidly turning
into gold,” said the American. “I am told that he has found salt in
immense deposits on his island — and that he has resumed the work begun
just before the war — that of opening up the place.”
“Oh, yas. ’Tis true. Over a hundred t’ousand dollars he has already put
in — an’ as much more ready to drop. Mais it is fairyland! An’ me,
I was t’inking too — sometimes I t’ink a little myself — I was t’inking
dat if — I say if sometime his daughter would be de Comus Queen, not
insinuating anything, you know — no allusion to de bird — w’at a fine
house-party dey could have now, eh? Dey could invite de royal party,
maids of honor, and so fort’ — whoever is rich enough to lose so much
“T’ink of sailing up de new canal on de barge?”
“An’ under de bridge?”
“No, not de bridge. He will never touch dat. He has made a new plan,
entering another way. Dat span of de bridge he commenced — it is standing
beside de beautiful w’ite marble tomb — to hold his family. His wife she
is dere, an’ de ol’ negroes w’at care for his chil’ — dey are laying in
one corner, wid also a small monument.”
“Are you sure dey are dere?”
“I have seen de monument, I tell you.”
“Well, Harold he was always sentimental, if you will. I suppose dat
broken bridge is, as he says — it is history, and he needs to keep it
before him, not to be too rash. Maybe so. Who can tell? Two boys in de
war, it was enough — if he had stopped to t’ink.”
“Yas — mais de barge, de Cleopatra; dey say she is be’-u-tiful!”
“Cleopatra! For w’at he di’n’ name her somet’ing sensible?”
“Dat is not only sensible — it is diplomatic. You know, w’en a man has
only a daughter and a step-wife — w’at is de matter wid me to-night?
You understand me. I say, in — well, in some cases, to discriminate,
it is enough to drive a man to?”
“Oh, don’t say dat, Felix.”
“Let me finish, will you? I say it is one of dose indelicate
situations dat drive a man to dodge! An’ w’en he can dodge into
history and romance at once, so much de better! An’ Cleopatra, it
sound well for a barge. An’ so, really, if de beautiful daughter
should be de queen an’ dey could arrange one house-party?”
“Suppose, Felix, ol’ man, you would bring out yo’ magnolia-tree once
more, you don’t t’ink de li’l’ bird would come again an’ stan’ on one
limb an’ maybe?”
“Ah, no. I am sure not. If dey had a grain of salt in dat story, I would
try. I would put it on his tail.
how can you catch a bird widout
So idly, playfully, the talk rippled on, ever insensibly flavored with
rich romance of life, even as the fitful breeze skirting the shores
held, in shy suspension, an occasional hint of orange-blossoms or of
the Cuban fruits which, heaping the luggers in the slanting sun, laid
their gay bouquets of color against the river’s breast.
It is many years since the maid Agnes Le Duc, on her way to coronation
at the carnival, stood while the sun went down in all her vestal beauty
on deck of the Laurel Hill, and smiled through tears of tenderness at
life as half revealed to her.
Many things are changed since then, and yet the great river flows on,
Laden to their guards, so that their weighty cargoes of cotton and
sugar, traveling to mill and to market, are wet with the spray of
playful condescension, panting ships of commerce, some flying foreign
colors, still salute each other in passing, with ever a word of
solicitude as to milady’s health.
Old Lady Mississippi, is she high or low in spirits — And will her hand
of benediction turn to smite and to despoil —
But, whether she be obdurate or kindly, hysterical or melancholy, or so
serene as to invite the heavens, life and love and song are hers.
Uniting while she seems to divide, bringing together whom she appears to
separate, a raft of logs contributed by her grace affording free passage
the length of her realm to whoever will take it, paying no toll, she
invites Romance to set sail under the stars in primal simplicity,
eschewing the “bridal chambers” of white and gold which lie in the
hearts of all the busy steamers, no matter how otherwise prosaic their
And still, afloat and alongshore, astride a molasses-barrel or throwing
dice between the cotton-bales, taking no thought of the morrow, the
“Cometh our fount of every blessing!”
Pas du tout.
Not at all.
Prie-dieux. Piece of furniture for prayer.
- Amanda Abadie
- Erica Clark
- Alyssa Leder
- Bruce R. Magee
- Courtney Rushing
Stuart, Ruth McEnery. The River’s
Children: An Idyl of the Mississippi. Illus. Harry C. Edwards. New York: Century, 1904. Internet Archive. 14 June 2006. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
<https:// archive.org/ details/ rivers children 00stuarich>.
Anthology of Louisiana