OLD CREOLE DAYS
A STORY OF CREOLE LIFE
GEORGE W. CABLE
MADAME DELPHINE CAFE DES EXILES BELLES DEMOISELLES PLANTATION "POSSON JONE'" JEAN-AH POQUELIN 'TITE POULETTE 'SIEUR GEORGE MADAME DELICIEUSE
AN OLD HOUSE.
A few steps from the St. Charles Hotel, in New Orleans, brings you to and across Canal Street, the central avenue of the city, and to that corner where the flower-women sit at the inner and outer edges of the arcaded sidewalk, and make the air sweet with their fragrant merchandise. The crowd—and if it is near the time of the carnival it will be great—will follow Canal Street.
But you turn, instead, into the quiet, narrow way which a lover of Creole antiquity, in fondness for a romantic past, is still prone to call the Rue Royale. You will pass a few restaurants, a few auction-rooms, a few furniture warehouses, and will hardly realize that you have left behind you the activity and clatter of a city of merchants before you find yourself in a region of architectural decrepitude, where an ancient and foreign-seeming domestic life, in second stories, overhangs the ruins of a former commercial prosperity, and upon every thing has settled down a long sabbath of decay. The vehicles in the street are few in number, and are merely passing through; the stores are shrunken into shops; you see here and there, like a patch of bright mould, the stall of that significant fungus, the Chinaman. Many great doors are shut and clamped and grown gray with cobweb; many street windows are nailed up; half the balconies are begrimed and rust-eaten, and many of the humid arches and alleys which characterize the older Franco-Spanish piles of stuccoed brick betray a squalor almost oriental.
Yet beauty lingers here. To say nothing of the picturesque, sometimes you get sight of comfort, sometimes of opulence, through the unlatched wicket in some porte-cochere—red-painted brick pavement, foliage of dark palm or pale banana, marble or granite masonry and blooming parterres; or through a chink between some pair of heavy batten window-shutters, opened with an almost reptile wariness, your eye gets a glimpse of lace and brocade upholstery, silver and bronze, and much similar rich antiquity.
The faces of the inmates are in keeping; of the passengers in the street a sad proportion are dingy and shabby; but just when these are putting you off your guard, there will pass you a woman—more likely two or three—of patrician beauty.
Now, if you will go far enough down this old street, you will see, as you approach its intersection with ——. Names in that region elude one like ghosts.
However, as you begin to find the way a trifle more open, you will not fail to notice on the right-hand side, about midway of the square, a small, low, brick house of a story and a half, set out upon the sidewalk, as weather-beaten and mute as an aged beggar fallen asleep. Its corrugated roof of dull red tiles, sloping down toward you with an inward curve, is overgrown with weeds, and in the fall of the year is gay with the yellow plumes of the golden-rod. You can almost touch with your cane the low edge of the broad, overhanging eaves. The batten shutters at door and window, with hinges like those of a postern, are shut with a grip that makes one's knuckles and nails feel lacerated. Save in the brick-work itself there is not a cranny. You would say the house has the lockjaw. There are two doors, and to each a single chipped and battered marble step. Continuing on down the sidewalk, on a line with the house, is a garden masked from view by a high, close board-fence. You may see the tops of its fruit-trees—pomegranate, peach, banana, fig, pear, and particularly one large orange, close by the fence, that must be very old.
The residents over the narrow way, who live in a three-story house, originally of much pretension, but from whose front door hard times have removed almost all vestiges of paint, will tell you: "Yass, de 'ouse is in'abit; 'tis live in."
And this is likely to be all the information you get—not that they would not tell, but they cannot grasp the idea that you wish to know—until, possibly, just as you are turning to depart, your informant, in a single word and with the most evident non-appreciation of its value, drops the simple key to the whole matter:
He may then be aroused to mention the better appearance of the place in former years, when the houses of this region generally stood farther apart, and that garden comprised the whole square.
Here dwelt, sixty years ago and more, one Delphine Carraze; or, as she was commonly designated by the few who knew her, Madame Delphine. That she owned her home, and that it had been given her by the then deceased companion of her days of beauty, were facts so generally admitted as to be, even as far back as that sixty years ago, no longer a subject of gossip. She was never pointed out by the denizens of the quarter as a character, nor her house as a "feature." It would have passed all Creole powers of guessing to divine what you could find worthy of inquiry concerning a retired quadroon woman; and not the least puzzled of all would have been the timid and restive Madame Delphine herself.
During the first quarter of the present century, the free quadroon caste of New Orleans was in its golden age. Earlier generations—sprung, upon the one hand, from the merry gallants of a French colonial military service which had grown gross by affiliation with Spanish-American frontier life, and, upon the other hand from comely Ethiopians culled out of the less negroidal types of African live goods, and bought at the ship's side with vestiges of quills and cowries and copper wire still in their head-dresses,—these earlier generations, with scars of battle or private rencontre still on the fathers, and of servitude on the manumitted mothers, afforded a mere hint of the splendor that was to result from a survival of the fairest through seventy-five years devoted to the elimination of the black pigment and the cultivation of hyperian excellence and nymphean grace and beauty. Nor, if we turn to the present, is the evidence much stronger which is offered by the gens de couleur whom you may see in the quadroon quarter this afternoon, with "Ichabod" legible on their murky foreheads through a vain smearing of toilet powder, dragging their chairs down to the narrow gateway of their close-fenced gardens, and staring shrinkingly at you as you pass, like a nest of yellow kittens.
But as the present century was in its second and third decades, the quadroones (for we must contrive a feminine spelling to define the strict limits of the caste as then established) came forth in splendor. Old travellers spare no terms to tell their praises, their faultlessness of feature, their perfection of form, their varied styles of beauty,—for there were even pure Caucasian blondes among them,—their fascinating manners, their sparkling vivacity, their chaste and pretty wit, their grace in the dance, their modest propriety, their taste and elegance in dress. In the gentlest and most poetic sense they were indeed the sirens of this land where it seemed "always afternoon"—a momentary triumph of an Arcadian over a Christian civilization, so beautiful and so seductive that it became the subject of special chapters by writers of the day more original than correct as social philosophers.
The balls that were got up for them by the male sang-pur were to that day what the carnival is to the present. Society balls given the same nights proved failures through the coincidence. The magnates of government,—municipal, state, federal,—those of the army, of the learned professions and of the clubs,—in short, the white male aristocracy in every thing save the ecclesiastical desk,—were there. Tickets were high-priced to insure the exclusion of the vulgar. No distinguished stranger was allowed to miss them. They were beautiful! They were clad in silken extenuations from the throat to the feet, and wore, withal, a pathos in their charm that gave them a family likeness to innocence.
Madame Delphine, were you not a stranger, could have told you all about it; though hardly, I suppose, without tears.
But at the time of which we would speak (1821-22) her day of splendor was set, and her husband—let us call him so for her sake—was long dead. He was an American, and, if we take her word for it, a man of noble heart and extremely handsome; but this is knowledge which we can do without.
Even in those days the house was always shut, and Madame Delphine's chief occupation and end in life seemed to be to keep well locked up in-doors. She was an excellent person, the neighbors said,—a very worthy person; and they were, maybe, nearer correct then they knew. They rarely saw her save when she went to or returned from church; a small, rather tired-looking, dark quadroone of very good features and a gentle thoughtfulness of expression which would take long to describe: call it a widow's look.
In speaking of Madame Delphine's house, mention should have been made of a gate in the fence on the Royal-street sidewalk. It is gone now, and was out of use then, being fastened once for all by an iron staple clasping the cross-bar and driven into the post.
Which leads us to speak of another person.
He was one of those men that might be any age,—thirty, forty, forty-five; there was no telling from his face what was years and what was only weather. His countenance was of a grave and quiet, but also luminous, sort, which was instantly admired and ever afterward remembered, as was also the fineness of his hair and the blueness of his eyes. Those pronounced him youngest who scrutinized his face the closest. But waiving the discussion of age, he was odd, though not with the oddness that he who had reared him had striven to produce.
He had not been brought up by mother or father. He had lost both in infancy, and had fallen to the care of a rugged old military grandpa of the colonial school, whose unceasing endeavor had been to make "his boy" as savage and ferocious a holder of unimpeachable social rank as it became a pure-blooded French Creole to be who would trace his pedigree back to the god Mars.
"Remember, my boy," was the adjuration received by him as regularly as his waking cup of black coffee, "that none of your family line ever kept the laws of any government or creed." And if it was well that he should bear this in mind, it was well to reiterate it persistently, for, from the nurse's arms, the boy wore a look, not of docility so much as of gentle, judicial benevolence. The domestics of the old man's house used to shed tears of laughter to see that look on the face of a babe. His rude guardian addressed himself to the modification of this facial expression; it had not enough of majesty in it, for instance, or of large dare-deviltry; but with care these could be made to come.
And, true enough, at twenty-one (in Ursin Lemaitre), the labors of his grandfather were an apparent success. He was not rugged, nor was he loud-spoken, as his venerable trainer would have liked to present him to society; but he was as serenely terrible as a well-aimed rifle, and the old man looked upon his results with pride. He had cultivated him up to that pitch where he scorned to practise any vice, or any virtue, that did not include the principle of self-assertion. A few touches only were wanting here and there to achieve perfection, when suddenly the old man died. Yet it was his proud satisfaction, before he finally lay down, to see Ursin a favored companion and the peer, both in courtesy and pride, of those polished gentlemen famous in history, the brothers Lafitte.
The two Lafittes were, at the time young Lemaitre reached his majority (say 1808 or 1812), only merchant-blacksmiths, so to speak, a term intended to convey the idea of blacksmiths who never soiled their hands, who were men of capital, stood a little higher than the clergy, and moved in society among its autocrats. But they were full of possibilities, men of action, and men, too, of thought, with already a pronounced disbelief in the custom-house. In these days of big carnivals they would have been patented as the dukes of Little Manchac and Barataria.
Young Ursin Lemaitre (in full the name was Lemaitre-Vignevielle) had not only the hearty friendship of these good people, but also a natural turn for accounts; and as his two friends were looking about them with an enterprising eye, it easily resulted that he presently connected himself with the blacksmithing profession. Not exactly at the forge in the Lafittes' famous smithy, among the African Samsons, who, with their shining black bodies bared to the waist, made the Rue St. Pierre ring with the stroke of their hammers; but as a—there was no occasion to mince the word in those days—smuggler.
Smuggler—patriot—where was the difference? Beyond the ken of a community to which the enforcement of the revenue laws had long been merely so much out of every man's pocket and dish, into the all-devouring treasury of Spain. At this date they had come under a kinder yoke, and to a treasury that at least echoed when the customs were dropped into it; but the change was still new. What could a man be more than Capitaine Lemaitre was—the soul of honor, the pink of courtesy, with the courage of the lion, and the magnanimity of the elephant; frank—the very exchequer of truth! Nay, go higher still: his paper was good in Toulouse Street. To the gossips in the gaming-clubs he was the culminating proof that smuggling was one of the sublimer virtues.
Years went by. Events transpired which have their place in history. Under a government which the community by and by saw was conducted in their interest, smuggling began to lose its respectability and to grow disreputable, hazardous, and debased. In certain onslaughts made upon them by officers of the law, some of the smugglers became murderers. The business became unprofitable for a time until the enterprising Lafittes—thinkers—bethought them of a corrective—"privateering".
Thereupon the United States Government set a price upon their heads. Later yet it became known that these outlawed pirates had been offered money and rank by Great Britain if they would join her standard, then hovering about the water-approaches to their native city, and that they had spurned the bribe; wherefore their heads were ruled out of the market, and, meeting and treating with Andrew Jackson, they were received as lovers of their country, and as compatriots fought in the battle of New Orleans at the head of their fearless men, and—here tradition takes up the tale—were never seen afterward.
Capitaine Lemaitre was not among the killed or wounded, but he was among the missing.
The roundest and happiest-looking priest in the city of New Orleans was a little man fondly known among his people as Pere Jerome. He was a Creole and a member of one of the city's leading families. His dwelling was a little frame cottage, standing on high pillars just inside a tall, close fence, and reached by a narrow out-door stair from the green batten gate. It was well surrounded by crape myrtles, and communicated behind by a descending stair and a plank-walk with the rear entrance of the chapel over whose worshippers he daily spread his hands in benediction. The name of the street—ah! there is where light is wanting. Save the Cathedral and the Ursulines, there is very little of record concerning churches at that time, though they were springing up here and there. All there is certainty of is that Pere Jerome's frame chapel was some little new-born "down-town" thing, that may have survived the passage of years, or may have escaped "Paxton's Directory" "so as by fire." His parlor was dingy and carpetless; one could smell distinctly there the vow of poverty. His bed-chamber was bare and clean, and the bed in it narrow and hard; but between the two was a dining-room that would tempt a laugh to the lips of any who looked in. The table was small, but stout, and all the furniture of the room substantial, made of fine wood, and carved just enough to give the notion of wrinkling pleasantry. His mother's and sister's doing, Pere Jerome would explain; they would not permit this apartment—or department—to suffer. Therein, as well as in the parlor, there was odor, but of a more epicurean sort, that explained interestingly the Pere Jerome's rotundity and rosy smile.
In this room, and about this miniature round table, used sometimes to sit with Pere Jerome two friends to whom he was deeply attached—one, Evariste Varrillat, a playmate from early childhood, now his brother in-law; the other, Jean Thompson, a companion from youngest manhood, and both, like the little priest himself, the regretful rememberers of a fourth comrade who was a comrade no more. Like Pere Jerome, they had come, through years, to the thick of life's conflicts,—the priest's brother-in-law a physician, the other an attorney, and brother-in-law to the lonely wanderer,—yet they loved to huddle around this small board, and be boys again in heart while men in mind. Neither one nor another was leader. In earlier days they had always yielded to him who no longer met with them a certain chieftainship, and they still thought of him and talked of him, and, in their conjectures, groped after him, as one of whom they continued to expect greater things than of themselves.
They sat one day drawn thus close together, sipping and theorizing, speculating upon the nature of things in an easy, bold, sophomoric way, the conversation for the most part being in French, the native tongue of the doctor and priest, and spoken with facility by Jean Thompson the lawyer, who was half Americain; but running sometimes into English and sometimes into mild laughter. Mention had been made of the absentee.
Pere Jerome advanced an idea something like this:
"It is impossible for any finite mind to fix the degree of criminality of any human act or of any human life. The Infinite One alone can know how much of our sin is chargeable to us, and how much to our brothers or our fathers. We all participate in one another's sins. There is a community of responsibility attaching to every misdeed. No human since Adam—nay, nor Adam himself—ever sinned entirely to himself. And so I never am called upon to contemplate a crime or a criminal but I feel my conscience pointing at me as one of the accessories."
"In a word," said Evariste Varrillat, the physician, "you think we are partly to blame for the omission of many of your Paternosters, eh?"
Father Jerome smiled.
"No; a man cannot plead so in his own defence; our first father tried that, but the plea was not allowed. But, now, there is our absent friend. I tell you truly this whole community ought to be recognized as partners in his moral errors. Among another people, reared under wiser care and with better companions, how different might he not have been! How can we speak of him as a law-breaker who might have saved him from that name?" Here the speaker turned to Jean Thompson, and changed his speech to English. "A lady sez to me to-day: 'Pere Jerome, 'ow dat is a dreadfool dat 'e gone at de coas' of Cuba to be one corsair! Ain't it?' 'Ah, madame,' I sez, ''tis a terrible! I 'ope de good God will fo'give me an' you fo' dat!'"
Jean Thompson answered quickly:
"You should not have let her say that."
"Mais, fo' w'y?"
"Why, because, if you are partly responsible, you ought so much the more to do what you can to shield his reputation. You should have said,"—the attorney changed to French,—"'He is no pirate; he has merely taken out letters of marque and reprisal under the flag of the republic of Carthagena!'"
"Ah, bah!" exclaimed Doctor Varrillat, and both he and his brother-in-law, the priest, laughed.
"Why not?" demanded Thompson.
"Oh!" said the physician, with a shrug, "say id thad way iv you wand."
Then, suddenly becoming serious, he was about to add something else, when Pere Jerome spoke.
"I will tell you what I could have said, I could have said: 'Madame, yes; 'tis a terrible fo' him. He stum'le in de dark; but dat good God will mek it a mo' terrible fo' dat man oohever he is, w'at put 'at light out!'"
"But how do you know he is a pirate?" demanded Thompson, aggressively.
"How do we know?" said the little priest, returning to French. "Ah! there is no other explanation of the ninety-and-nine stories that come to us, from every port where ships arrive from the north coast of Cuba, of a commander of pirates there who is a marvel of courtesy and gentility"—
[Footnote 1: See gazettes of the period.]
"And whose name is Lafitte," said the obstinate attorney.
"And who, nevertheless, is not Lafitte," insisted Pere Jerome.
"Daz troo, Jean," said Doctor Varrillat. "We hall know daz troo."
Pere Jerome leaned forward over the board and spoke, with an air of secrecy, in French.
"You have heard of the ship which came into port here last Monday. You have heard that she was boarded by pirates, and that the captain of the ship himself drove them off."
"An incredible story," said Thompson.
"But not so incredible as the truth. I have it from a passenger. There was on the ship a young girl who was very beautiful. She came on deck, where the corsair stood, about to issue his orders, and, more beautiful than ever in the desperation of the moment, confronted him with a small missal spread open, and her finger on the Apostles' Creed, commanded him to read. He read it, uncovering his head as he read, then stood gazing on her face, which did not quail; and then with a low bow, said: 'Give me this book and I will do your bidding.' She gave him the book and bade him leave the ship, and he left it unmolested."
Pere Jerome looked from the physician to the attorney and back again, once or twice, with his dimpled smile.
"But he speaks English, they say," said Jean Thompson.
"He has, no doubt, learned it since he left us," said the priest.
"But this ship-master, too, says his men called him Lafitte."
"Lafitte? No. Do you not see? It is your brother-in-law, Jean Thompson! It is your wife's brother! Not Lafitte, but" (softly) "Lemaitre! Lemaitre! Capitaine Ursin Lemaitre!"
The two guests looked at each other with a growing drollery on either face, and presently broke into a laugh.
"Ah!" said the doctor, as the three rose up, "you juz kip dad cog-an'-bull fo' yo' negs summon."
Pere Jerome's eyes lighted up—
"I goin' to do it!"
"I tell you," said Evariste, turning upon him with sudden gravity, "iv dad is troo, I tell you w'ad is sure-sure! Ursin Lemaitre din kyare nut'n fo' doze creed; he fall in love!"
Then, with a smile, turning to Jean Thompson, and back again to Pere Jerome:
"But anny'ow you tell it in dad summon dad 'e hyare fo' dad creed."
Pere Jerome sat up late that night, writing a letter. The remarkable effects upon a certain mind, effects which we shall presently find him attributing solely to the influences of surrounding nature, may find for some a more sufficient explanation in the fact that this letter was but one of a series, and that in the rover of doubted identity and incredible eccentricity Pere Jerome had a regular correspondent.
THE CAP FITS.
About two months after the conversation just given, and therefore somewhere about the Christmas holidays of the year 1821, Pere Jerome delighted the congregation of his little chapel with the announcement that he had appointed to preach a sermon in French on the following sabbath—not there, but in the cathedral.
He was much beloved. Notwithstanding that among the clergy there were two or three who shook their heads and raised their eyebrows, and said he would be at least as orthodox if he did not make quite so much of the Bible and quite so little of the dogmas, yet "the common people heard him gladly." When told, one day, of the unfavorable whispers, he smiled a little and answered his informant,—whom he knew to be one of the whisperers himself,—laying a hand kindly upon his shoulder:
"Father Murphy,"—or whatever the name was,—"your words comfort me."
"How is that?"
"Because—'Voe quum benedixerint mihi homines!'" 
[Footnote 1: "Woe unto me when all men speak well of me!"]
The appointed morning, when it came, was one of those exquisite days in which there is such a universal harmony, that worship rises from the heart like a spring.
"Truly," said Pere Jerome to the companion who was to assist him in the mass, "this is a sabbath day which we do not have to make holy, but only to keep so."
Maybe it was one of the secrets of Pere Jerome's success as a preacher, that he took more thought as to how he should feel, than as to what he should say.
The cathedral of those days was called a very plain old pile, boasting neither beauty nor riches; but to Pere Jerome it was very lovely; and before its homely altar, not homely to him, in the performance of those solemn offices, symbols of heaven's mightiest truths, in the hearing of the organ's harmonies, and the yet more elegant interunion of human voices in the choir, in overlooking the worshipping throng which knelt under the soft, chromatic lights, and in breathing the sacrificial odors of the chancel, he found a deep and solemn joy; and yet I guess the finest thought of his the while was one that came thrice and again:
"Be not deceived, Pere Jerome, because saintliness of feeling is easy here; you are the same priest who overslept this morning, and over-ate yesterday, and will, in some way, easily go wrong to-morrow and the day after."
He took it with him when—the Veni Creator sung—he went into the pulpit. Of the sermon he preached, tradition has preserved for us only a few brief sayings, but they are strong and sweet.
"My friends," he said,—this was near the beginning,—"the angry words of God's book are very merciful—they are meant to drive us home; but the tender words, my friends, they are sometimes terrible! Notice these, the tenderest words of the tenderest prayer that ever came from the lips of a blessed martyr—the dying words of the holy Saint Stephen, 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.' Is there nothing dreadful in that? Read it thus: 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.' Not to the charge of them who stoned him? To whose charge then? Go ask the holy Saint Paul. Three years afterward, praying in the temple at Jerusalem, he answered that question: 'I stood by and consented.' He answered for himself only; but the Day must come when all that wicked council that sent Saint Stephen away to be stoned, and all that city of Jerusalem, must hold up the hand and say: 'We, also, Lord—we stood by.' Ah! friends, under the simpler meaning of that dying saint's prayer for the pardon of his murderers is hidden the terrible truth that we all have a share in one another's sins."
Thus Pere Jerome touched his key-note. All that time has spared us beside may be given in a few sentences.
"Ah!" he cried once, "if it were merely my own sins that I had to answer for, I might hold up my head before the rest of mankind; but no, no, my friends—we cannot look each other in the face, for each has helped the other to sin. Oh, where is there any room, in this world of common disgrace, for pride? Even if we had no common hope, a common despair ought to bind us together and forever silence the voice of scorn!"
And again, this:
"Even in the promise to Noe, not again to destroy the race with a flood, there is a whisper of solemn warning. The moral account of the antediluvians was closed off, and the balance brought down in the year of the deluge; but the account of those who come after runs on and on, and the blessed bow of promise itself warns us that God will not stop it till the Judgment Day! O God, I thank thee that that day must come at last, when thou wilt destroy the world, and stop the interest on my account!"
It was about at this point that Pere Jerome noticed, more particularly than he had done before, sitting among the worshippers near him, a small, sad-faced woman, of pleasing features, but dark and faded, who gave him profound attention. With her was another in better dress, seemingly a girl still in her teens, though her face and neck were scrupulously concealed by a heavy veil, and her hands, which were small, by gloves.
"Quadroones," thought he, with a stir of deep pity.
Once, as he uttered some stirring word, he saw the mother and daughter (if such they were), while they still bent their gaze upon him, clasp each other's hand fervently in the daughter's lap. It was at these words:
"My friends, there are thousands of people in this city of New Orleans to whom society gives the ten commandments of God with all the nots rubbed out! Ah! good gentlemen! if God sends the poor weakling to purgatory for leaving the right path, where ought some of you to go who strew it with thorns and briers!"
The movement of the pair was only seen because he watched for it. He glanced that way again as he said:
"O God, be very gentle with those children who would be nearer heaven this day had they never had a father and mother, but had got their religious training from such a sky and earth as we have in Louisiana this holy morning! Ah! my friends, nature is a big-print catechism!"
The mother and daughter leaned a little farther forward, and exchanged the same spasmodic hand-pressure as before. The mother's eyes were full of tears.
"I once knew a man," continued the little priest, glancing to a side aisle where he had noticed Evariste and Jean sitting against each other, "who was carefully taught, from infancy to manhood, this single only principle of life: defiance. Not justice, not righteousness, not even gain; but defiance: defiance to God, defiance to man, defiance to nature, defiance to reason; defiance and defiance and defiance."
"He is going to tell it!" murmured Evariste to Jean.
"This man," continued Pere Jerome, "became a smuggler and at last a pirate in the Gulf of Mexico. Lord, lay not that sin to his charge alone! But a strange thing followed. Being in command of men of a sort that to control required to be kept at the austerest distance, he now found himself separated from the human world and thrown into the solemn companionship with the sea, with the air, with the storm, the calm the heavens by day, the heavens by night. My friends, that was the first time in his life that he ever found himself in really good company.
"Now, this man had a great aptness for accounts. He had kept them—had rendered them. There was beauty, to him, in a correct, balanced, and closed account. An account unsatisfied was a deformity. The result is plain. That man, looking out night after night upon the grand and holy spectacle of the starry deep above and the watery deep below, was sure to find himself, sooner or later, mastered by the conviction that the great Author of this majestic creation keeps account of it; and one night there came to him, like a spirit walking on the sea, the awful, silent question: 'My account with God—how does it stand?' Ah! friends, that is a question which the book of nature does not answer.
"Did I say the book of nature is a catechism? Yes. But, after it answers the first question with 'God,' nothing but questions follow; and so, one day, this man gave a ship full of merchandise for one little book which answered those questions. God help him to understand it! and God help you, monsieur, and you, madame, sitting here in your smuggled clothes, to beat upon the breast with me and cry, 'I, too, Lord—I, too, stood by and consented.'"
Pere Jerome had not intended these for his closing words; but just there, straight away before his sight and almost at the farthest door, a man rose slowly from his seat and regarded him steadily with a kind, bronzed, sedate face, and the sermon, as if by a sign of command, was ended. While the Credo was being chanted he was still there; but when, a moment after its close, the eye of Pere Jerome returned in that direction, his place was empty.
As the little priest, his labor done and his vestments changed, was turning into the Rue Royale and leaving the cathedral out of sight, he just had time to understand that two women were purposely allowing him to overtake them, when the one nearer him spoke in the Creole patois, saying, with some timid haste:
"Good-morning, Pere—Pere Jerome; Pere Jerome, we thank the good God for that sermon."
"Then, so do I," said the little man. They were the same two that he had noticed when he was preaching. The younger one bowed silently; she was a beautiful figure, but the slight effort of Pere Jerome's kind eyes to see through the veil was vain. He would presently have passed on, but the one who had spoken before said:
"I thought you lived in the Rue des Ursulines."
"Yes; but I am going this way to see a sick person."
The woman looked up at him with an expression of mingled confidence and timidity.
"It must be a blessed thing to be so useful as to be needed by the good God," she said.
Pere Jerome smiled:
"God does not need me to look after his sick; but he allows me to do it, just as you let your little boy in frocks carry in chips." He might have added that he loved to do it, quite as much.
It was plain the woman had somewhat to ask, and was trying to get courage to ask it.
"You have a little boy?" asked the priest.
"No, I have only my daughter;" she indicated the girl at her side. Then she began to say something else, stopped, and with much nervousness asked:
"Pere Jerome, what was the name of that man?"
"His name?" said the priest. "You wish to know his name?"
"Yes, Monsieur" (or Miche, as she spoke it); "it was such a beautiful story." The speaker's companion looked another way.
"His name," said Father Jerome,—"some say one name and some another. Some think it was Jean Lafitte, the famous; you have heard of him? And do you go to my church, Madame——?"
"No, Miche; not in the past; but from this time, yes. My name"—she choked a little, and yet it evidently gave her pleasure to offer this mark of confidence—"is Madame Delphine—Delphine Carraze."
A CRY OF DISTRESS.
Pere Jerome's smile and exclamation, as some days later he entered his parlor in response to the announcement of a visitor, were indicative of hearty greeting rather than surprise.
Yet surprise could hardly have been altogether absent, for though another Sunday had not yet come around, the slim, smallish figure sitting in a corner, looking very much alone, and clad in dark attire, which seemed to have been washed a trifle too often, was Delphine Carraze on her second visit. And this, he was confident, was over and above an attendance in the confessional, where he was sure he had recognized her voice.
She rose bashfully and gave her hand, then looked to the floor, and began a faltering speech, with a swallowing motion in the throat, smiled weakly and commenced again, speaking, as before, in a gentle, low note, frequently lifting up and casting down her eyes while shadows of anxiety and smiles of apology chased each other rapidly across her face. She was trying to ask his advice.
"Sit down," said he; and when they had taken seats she resumed, with downcast eyes:
"You know,—probably I should have said this in the confessional, but"—
"No matter, Madame Delphine; I understand; you did not want an oracle, perhaps; you want a friend."
She lifted her eyes, shining with tears, and dropped them again.
"I"—she ceased. "I have done a"—she dropped her head and shook it despondingly—"a cruel thing." The tears rolled from her eyes as she turned away her face.
Pere Jerome remained silent, and presently she turned again, with the evident intention of speaking at length.
"It began nineteen years ago—by"—her eyes, which she had lifted, fell lower than ever, her brow and neck were suffused with blushes, and she murmured—"I fell in love."
She said no more, and by and by Pere Jerome replied:
"Well, Madame Delphine, to love is the right of every soul. I believe in love. If your love was pure and lawful I am sure your angel guardian smiled upon you; and if it was not, I cannot say you have nothing to answer for, and yet I think God may have said 'She is a quadroone; all the rights of her womanhood trampled in the mire, sin made easy to her—almost compulsory,—charge it to account of whom it may concern.'"
"No, no!" said Madame Delphine, looking up quickly, "some of it might fall upon"—Her eyes fell, and she commenced biting her lips and nervously pinching little folds in her skirt. "He was good—as good as the law would let him be—better, indeed, for he left me property, which really the strict law does not allow. He loved our little daughter very much. He wrote to his mother and sisters, owning all his error and asking them to take the child and bring her up. I sent her to them when he died, which was soon after, and did not see my child for sixteen years. But we wrote to each other all the time, and she loved me. And then—at last"—Madame Delphine ceased speaking, but went on diligently with her agitated fingers, turning down foolish hems lengthwise of her lap.
"At last your mother-heart conquered," said Pere Jerome.
"The sisters married, the mother died; I saw that even where she was she did not escape the reproach of her birth and blood, and when she asked me to let her come"—The speaker's brimming eyes rose an instant. "I know it was wicked, but—I said, come."
The tears dripped through her hands upon her dress.
"Was it she who was with you last Sunday?"
"And now you do not know what to do with her?"
"Ah! c'est ca oui!—that is it."
"Does she look like you, Madame Delphine?"
"Oh, thank God", no! you would never believe she was my daughter, she is white and beautiful!"
"You thank God for that which is your main difficulty, Madame Delphine."
Pere Jerome laid his palms tightly across his knees with his arms bowed out, and fixed his eyes upon the ground, pondering.
"I suppose she is a sweet, good daughter?" said he, glancing at Madame Delphine, without changing his attitude.
Her answer was to raise her eyes rapturously.
"Which gives us the dilemma in its fullest force," said the priest, speaking as if to the floor. "She has no more place than if she had dropped upon a strange planet." He suddenly looked up with a brightness which almost as quickly passed away, and then he looked down again. His happy thought was the cloister; but he instantly said to himself: "They cannot have overlooked that choice, except intentionally—which they have a right to do." He could do nothing but shake his head.
"And suppose you should suddenly die," he said; he wanted to get at once to the worst.
The woman made a quick gesture, and buried her head in her handkerchief, with the stifled cry:
"Oh, Olive, my daughter!"
"Well, Madame Delphine," said Pere Jerome, more buoyantly, "one thing is sure: we must find a way out of this trouble."
"Ah!" she exclaimed, looking heavenward, "if it might be!"
"But it must be!" said the priest.
"But how shall it be?" asked the desponding woman.
"Ah!" said Pere Jerome, with a shrug, "God knows."
"Yes," said the quadroone, with a quick sparkle in her gentle eye; "and I know, if God would tell anybody, He would tell you!"
The priest smiled and rose.
"Do you think so? Well, leave me to think of it. I will ask Him."
"And He will tell you!" she replied. "And He will bless you!" She rose and gave her hand. As she withdrew it she smiled. "I had such a strange dream," she said, backing toward the door.
"Yes. I got my troubles all mixed up with your sermon. I dreamed I made that pirate the guardian of my daughter."
Pere Jerome smiled also, and shrugged.
"To you, Madame Delphine, as you are placed, every white man in this country, on land or on water, is a pirate, and of all pirates, I think that one is, without doubt, the best."
"Without doubt," echoed Madame Delphine, wearily, still withdrawing backward. Pere Jerome stepped forward and opened the door.
The shadow of some one approaching it from without fell upon the threshold, and a man entered, dressed in dark blue cottonade, lifting from his head a fine Panama hat, and from a broad, smooth brow, fair where the hat had covered it, and dark below, gently stroking back his very soft, brown locks. Madame Delphine slightly started aside, while Pere Jerome reached silently, but eagerly, forward, grasped a larger hand than his own, and motioned its owner to a seat. Madame Delphine's eyes ventured no higher than to discover that the shoes of the visitor were of white duck.
"Well, Pere Jerome," she said, in a hurried undertone, "I am just going to say Hail Marys all the time till you find that out for me!"
"Well, I hope that will be soon, Madame Carraze. Good-day, Madame Carraze."
And as she departed, the priest turned to the newcomer and extended both hands, saying, in the same familiar dialect in which he had been addressing the quadroone:
"Well-a-day, old playmate! After so many years!"
They sat down side by side, like husband and wife, the priest playing with the other's hand, and talked of times and seasons past, often mentioning Evariste and often Jean.
Madame Delphine stopped short half-way home and returned to Pere Jerome's. His entry door was wide open and the parlor door ajar. She passed through the one and with downcast eyes was standing at the other, her hand lifted to knock, when the door was drawn open and the white duck shoes passed out. She saw, besides, this time the blue cottonade suit.
"Yes," the voice of Pere Jerome was saying, as his face appeared in the door—"Ah! Madame"—
"I lef' my parasol," said Madame Delphine, in English.
There was this quiet evidence of a defiant spirit hidden somewhere down under her general timidity, that, against a fierce conventional prohibition, she wore a bonnet instead of the turban of her caste, and carried a parasol.
Pere Jerome turned and brought it.
He made a motion in the direction in which the late visitor had disappeared.
"Madame Delphine, you saw dat man?"
"Not his face."
"You couldn' billieve me iv I tell you w'at dat man purpose to do!"
"Is dad so, Pere Jerome?"
"He's goin' to hopen a bank!"
"Ah!" said Madame Delphine, seeing she was expected to be astonished.
Pere Jerome evidently longed to tell something that was best kept secret; he repressed the impulse, but his heart had to say something. He threw forward one hand and looking pleasantly at Madame Delphine, with his lips dropped apart, clenched his extended hand and thrusting it toward the ground, said in a solemn undertone:
"He is God's own banker, Madame Delphine."
Madame Delphine sold one of the corner lots of her property. She had almost no revenue, and now and then a piece had to go. As a consequence of the sale, she had a few large bank-notes sewed up in her petticoat, and one day—maybe a fortnight after her tearful interview with Pere Jerome—she found it necessary to get one of these changed into small money. She was in the Rue Toulouse, looking from one side to the other for a bank which was not in that street at all, when she noticed a small sign hanging above a door, bearing the name "Vignevielle." She looked in. Pere Jerome had told her (when she had gone to him to ask where she should apply for change) that if she could only wait a few days, there would be a new concern opened in Toulouse Street,—it really seemed as if Vignevielle was the name, if she could judge; it looked to be, and it was, a private banker's,—"U.L. Vignevielle's," according to a larger inscription which met her eyes as she ventured in. Behind the counter, exchanging some last words with a busy-mannered man outside, who, in withdrawing, seemed bent on running over Madame Delphine, stood the man in blue cottonade, whom she had met in Pere Jerome's doorway. Now, for the first time, she saw his face, its strong, grave, human kindness shining softly on each and every bronzed feature. The recognition was mutual. He took pains to speak first, saying, in a re-assuring tone, and in the language he had last heard her use: "'Ow I kin serve you, Madame?"
"Iv you pliz, to mague dad bill change, Miche."
She pulled from her pocket a wad of dark cotton handkerchief, from which she began to untie the imprisoned note. Madame Delphine had an uncommonly sweet voice, and it seemed so to strike Monsieur Vignevielle. He spoke to her once or twice more, as he waited on her, each time in English, as though he enjoyed the humble melody of its tone, and presently, as she turned to go, he said:
She started a little, but bethought herself instantly that he had heard her name in Pere Jerome's parlor. The good father might even have said a few words about her after her first departure; he had such an overflowing heart. "Madame Carraze," said Monsieur Vignevielle, "doze kine of note wad you 'an' me juz now is bein' contrefit. You muz tek kyah from doze kine of note. You see"—He drew from his cash-drawer a note resembling the one he had just changed for her, and proceeded to point out certain tests of genuineness. The counterfeit, he said, was so and so.
"Bud," she exclaimed, with much dismay, "dad was de manner of my bill! Id muz be—led me see dad bill wad I give you,—if you pliz, Miche."
Monsieur Vigneville turned to engage in conversation with an employe and a new visitor, and gave no sign of hearing Madame Delphine's voice. She asked a second time, with like result, lingered timidly, and as he turned to give his attention to a third visitor, reiterated:
"Miche Vignevielle, I wizh you pliz led"—
"Madame Carraze," he said, turning so suddenly as to make the frightened little woman start, but extending his palm with a show of frankness, and assuming a look of benignant patience, "'ow I kin fine doze note now, mongs' all de rez? Iv you p'iz nod to mague me doze troub'."
The dimmest shadow of a smile seemed only to give his words a more kindly authoritative import, and as he turned away again with a manner suggestive of finality, Madame Delphine found no choice but to depart. But she went away loving the ground beneath the feet of Monsieur U.L. Vignevielle.
"Oh, Pere Jerome!" she exclaimed in the corrupt French of her caste, meeting the little father on the street a few days later, "you told the truth that day in your parlor. Mo conne li a c't heure. I know him now; he is just what you called him."
"Why do you not make him your banker, also, Madame Delphine?"
"I have done so this very day!" she replied, with more happiness in her eyes than Pere Jerome had ever before seen there.
"Madame Delphine," he said, his own eyes sparkling, "make him your daughter's guardian; for myself, being a priest, it would not be best; but ask him; I believe he will not refuse you."
Madame Delphine's face grew still brighter as he spoke.
"It was in my mind," she said.
Yet to the timorous Madame Delphine many trifles became, one after another, an impediment to the making of this proposal, and many weeks elapsed before further delay was positively without excuse. But at length, one day in May, 1822, in a small private office behind Monsieur Vignevielle's banking-room,—he sitting beside a table, and she, more timid and demure than ever, having just taken a chair by the door,—she said, trying, with a little bashful laugh, to make the matter seem unimportant, and yet with some tremor of voice:
"Miche Vignevielle, I bin maguing my will." (Having commenced their acquaintance in English, they spoke nothing else.)
"'Tis a good idy," responded the banker.
"I kin mague you de troub' to kib dad will fo' me Miche Vignevielle?"
She looked up with grateful re-assurance; but her eyes dropped again as she said:
"Miche Vignevielle"—Here she choked, and began her peculiar motion of laying folds in the skirt of her dress, with trembling fingers. She lifted her eyes, and as they met the look of deep and placid kindness that was in his face, some courage returned, and she said:
"Wad you wand?" asked he, gently.
"If it arrive to me to die"—
Her words were scarcely audible:
"I wand you teg kyah my lill' girl."
"You 'ave one lill' gal, Madame Carraze?"
She nodded with her face down.
"An' you godd some mo' chillen?"
"I nevva know dad, Madame Carraze. She's a lill small gal?"
Mothers forget their daughters' stature. Madame Delphine said:
"Yez." For a few moments neither spoke, and then Monsieur Vignevielle said:
"I will do dad."
"Lag she been you' h-own?" asked the mother, suffering from her own boldness.
"She's a good lill' chile, eh?"
"Miche, she's a lill' hangel!" exclaimed Madame Delphine, with a look of distress.
"Yez; I teg kyah 'v 'er, lag my h-own. I mague you dad promise."
"But"—There was something still in the way, Madame Delphine seemed to think.
The banker waited in silence.
"I suppose you will want to see my lill' girl?"
He smiled; for she looked at him as if she would implore him to decline.
"Oh, I tek you' word fo' hall dad, Madame Carraze. It mague no differend wad she loog lag; I don' wan' see 'er."
Madame Delphine's parting smile—she went very shortly—was gratitude beyond speech.
Monsieur Vignevielle returned to the seat he had left, and resumed a newspaper,—the Louisiana Gazette in all probability,—which he had laid down upon Madame Delphine's entrance. His eyes fell upon a paragraph which had previously escaped his notice. There they rested. Either he read it over and over unwearyingly, or he was lost in thought. Jean Thompson entered.
"Now," said Mr. Thompson, in a suppressed tone bending a little across the table, and laying one palm upon a package of papers which lay in the other, "it is completed. You could retire, from your business any day inside of six hours without loss to anybody." (Both here and elsewhere, let it be understood that where good English is given the words were spoken in good French.)
Monsieur Vignevielle raised his eyes and extended the newspaper to the attorney, who received it and read the paragraph. Its substance was that a certain vessel of the navy had returned from a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida, where she had done valuable service against the pirates—having, for instance, destroyed in one fortnight in January last twelve pirate vessels afloat, two on the stocks, and three establishments ashore.
"United States brig Porpoise" repeated Jean Thompson. "Do you know her?"
"We are acquainted," said Monsieur Vignevielle.
A quiet footstep, a grave new presence on financial sidewalks, a neat garb slightly out of date, a gently strong and kindly pensive face, a silent bow, a new sign in the Rue Toulouse, a lone figure with a cane, walking in meditation in the evening light under the willows of Canal Marigny, a long-darkened window re-lighted in the Rue Conti—these were all; a fall of dew would scarce have been more quiet than was the return of Ursin Lemaitre-Vignevielle to the precincts of his birth and early life.
But we hardly give the event its right name. It was Capitaine Lemaitre who had disappeared; it was Monsieur Vignevielle who had come back. The pleasures, the haunts, the companions, that had once held out their charms to the impetuous youth, offered no enticements to Madame Delphine's banker. There is this to be said even for the pride his grandfather had taught him, that it had always hald him above low indulgences; and though he had dallied with kings, queens, and knaves through all the mazes of Faro, Rondeau, and Craps, he had done it loftily; but now he maintained a peaceful estrangement from all. Evariste and Jean, themselves, found him only by seeking.
"It is the right way," he said to Pere Jerome, the day we saw him there. "Ursin Lemaitre is dead. I have buried him. He left a will. I am his executor."
"He is crazy," said his lawyer brother-in-law, impatiently.
"On the contr-y," replied the little priest, "'e 'as come ad hisse'f."
"Look at his face, Jean. Men with that kind of face are the last to go crazy."
"You have not proved that," replied Jean, with an attorney's obstinacy. "You should have heard him talk the other day about that newspaper paragraph I have taken Ursin Lemaitre's head; I have it with me; I claim the reward, but I desire to commute it to citizenship.' He is crazy."
Of course Jean Thompson did not believe what he said; but he said it, and, in his vexation, repeated it, on the banquettes and at the clubs; and presently it took the shape of a sly rumor, that the returned rover was a trifle snarled in his top-hamper.
This whisper was helped into circulation by many trivial eccentricities of manner, and by the unaccountable oddness of some of his transactions in business.
"My dear sir!" cried his astounded lawyer, one day, "you are not running a charitable institution!"
"How do you know?" said Monsieur Vignevielle. There the conversation ceased.
"Why do you not found hospitals and asylums at once," asked the attorney, at another time, with a vexed laugh, "and get the credit of it?"
"And make the end worse than the beginning,' said the banker, with a gentle smile, turning away to a desk of books.
"Bah!" muttered Jean Thompson.
Monsieur Vignevielle betrayed one very bad symptom. Wherever he went he seemed looking for somebody. It may have been perceptible only to those who were sufficiently interested in him to study his movements; but those who saw it once saw it always. He never passed an open door or gate but he glanced in; and often, where it stood but slightly ajar, you might see him give it a gentle push with his hand or cane It was very singular.
He walked much alone after dark. The gurchinangoes (garroters, we might say), at those times the city's particular terror by night, never crossed his path. He was one of those men for whom danger appears to stand aside.
One beautiful summer night, when all nature seemed hushed in ecstasy, the last blush gone that told of the sun's parting, Monsieur Vignevielle, in the course of one of those contemplative, uncompanioned walks which it was his habit to take, came slowly along the more open portion of the Rue Royale, with a step which was soft without intention, occasionally touching the end of his stout cane gently to the ground and looking upward among his old acquaintances, the stars.
It was one of those southern nights under whose spell all the sterner energies of the mind cloak themselves and lie down in bivouac, and the fancy and the imagination, that cannot sleep, slip their fetters and escape, beckoned away from behind every flowering bush and sweet-smelling tree, and every stretch of lonely, half-lighted walk, by the genius of poetry. The air stirred softly now and then, and was still again, as if the breezes lifted their expectant pinions and lowered them once more, awaiting the rising of the moon in a silence which fell upon the fields, the roads, the gardens, the walls, and the suburban and half-suburban streets, like a pause in worship. And anon she rose.
Monsieur Vignevielle's steps were bent toward the more central part of the town, and he was presently passing along a high, close, board-fence, on the right hand side of the way, when, just within this enclosure, and almost overhead, in the dark boughs of a large orange-tree, a mocking-bird began the first low flute-notes of his all-night song. It may have been only the nearness of the songster that attracted the passer's attention, but he paused and looked up.
And then he remarked something more,—that the air where he had stopped was filled with the overpowering sweetness of the night-jasmine. He looked around; it could only be inside the fence. There was a gate just there. Would he push it, as his wont was? The grass was growing about it in a thick turf, as though the entrance had not been used for years. An iron staple clasped the cross-bar, and was driven deep into the gate-post. But now an eye that had been in the blacksmithing business—an eye which had later received high training as an eye for fastenings—fell upon that staple, and saw at a glance that the wood had shrunk from it, and it had sprung from its hold, though without falling out. The strange habit asserted itself; he laid his large hand upon the cross-bar; the turf at the base yielded, and the tall gate was drawn partly open.
At that moment, as at the moment whenever he drew or pushed a door or gate, or looked in at a window, he was thinking of one, the image of whose face and form had never left his inner vision since the day it had met him in his life's path and turned him face about from the way of destruction.
The bird ceased. The cause of the interruption, standing within the opening, saw before him, much obscured by its own numerous shadows, a broad, ill-kept, many-flowered garden, among whose untrimmed rose-trees and tangled vines, and often, also, in its old walks of pounded shell, the coco-grass and crab-grass had spread riotously, and sturdy weeds stood up in bloom. He stepped in and drew the gate to after him. There, very near by, was the clump of jasmine, whose ravishing odor had tempted him. It stood just beyond a brightly moonlit path, which turned from him in a curve toward the residence, a little distance to the right, and escaped the view at a point where it seemed more than likely a door of the house might open upon it. While he still looked, there fell upon his ear, from around that curve, a light footstep on the broken shells—one only, and then all was for a moment still again. Had he mistaken? No. The same soft click was repeated nearer by, a pale glimpse of robes came through the tangle, and then, plainly to view, appeared an outline—a presence—a form—a spirit—a girl!
From throat to instep she was as white as Cynthia. Something above the medium height, slender, lithe, her abundant hair rolling in dark, rich waves back from her brows and down from her crown, and falling in two heavy plaits beyond her round, broadly girt waist and full to her knees, a few escaping locks eddying lightly on her graceful neck and her temples,—her arms, half hid in a snowy mist of sleeve, let down to guide her spotless skirts free from the dewy touch of the grass,—straight down the path she came!
Will she stop? Will she turn aside? Will she espy the dark form in the deep shade of the orange, and, with one piercing scream, wheel and vanish? She draws near. She approaches the jasmine; she raises her arms, the sleeves falling like a vapor down to the shoulders; rises upon tiptoe, and plucks a spray. O Memory! Can it be? Can it be? Is this his quest, or is it lunacy? The ground seems to Monsieur Vignevielle the unsteady sea, and he to stand once more on a deck. And she? As she is now, if she but turn toward the orange, the whole glory of the moon will shine upon her face. His heart stands still; he is waiting for her to do that. She reaches up again; this time a bunch for her mother. That neck and throat! Now she fastens a spray in her hair. The mockingbird cannot withhold; he breaks into song—she turns—she turns her face—it is she, it is she! Madame Delphine's daughter is the girl he met on the ship.
She was just passing seventeen—that beautiful year when the heart of the maiden still beats quickly with the surprise of her new dominion, while with gentle dignity her brow accepts the holy coronation of womanhood. The forehead and temples beneath her loosely bound hair were fair without paleness, and meek without languor. She had the soft, lack-lustre beauty of the South; no ruddiness of coral, no waxen white, no pink of shell; no heavenly blue in the glance; but a face that seemed, in all its other beauties, only a tender accompaniment for the large, brown, melting eyes, where the openness of child-nature mingled dreamily with the sweet mysteries of maiden thought. We say no color of shell on face or throat; but this was no deficiency, that which took its place being the warm, transparent tint of sculptured ivory.
This side doorway which led from Madame Delphine's house into her garden was over-arched partly by an old remnant of vine-covered lattice, and partly by a crape-myrtle, against whose small, polished trunk leaned a rustic seat. Here Madame Delphine and Olive loved to sit when the twilights were balmy or the moon was bright.
"Cherie," said Madame Delphine on one of those evenings, "why do you dream so much?"
She spoke in the patois most natural to her, and which her daughter had easily learned.
The girl turned her face to her mother, and smiled, then dropped her glance to the hands in her own lap; which were listlessly handling the end of a ribbon. The mother looked at her with fond solicitude. Her dress was white again; this was but one night since that in which Monsieur Vignevielle had seen her at the bush of night-jasmine. He had not been discovered, but had gone away, shutting the gate, and leaving it as he had found it.
Her head was uncovered. Its plaited masses, quite black in the moonlight, hung down and coiled upon the bench, by her side. Her chaste drapery was of that revived classic order which the world of fashion was again laying aside to re-assume the medaeval bondage of the staylace; for New Orleans was behind the fashionable world, and Madame Delphine and her daughter were behind New Orleans. A delicate scarf, pale blue, of lightly netted worsted, fell from either shoulder down beside her hands. The look that was bent upon her changed perforce to one of gentle admiration. She seemed the goddess of the garden.
Olive glanced up. Madame Delphine was not prepared for the movement, and on that account repeated her question:
"What are you thinking about?"
The dreamer took the hand that was laid upon hers between her own palms, bowed her head, and gave them a soft kiss.
The mother submitted. Wherefore, in the silence which followed, a daughter's conscience felt the burden of having withheld an answer, and Olive presently said, as the pair sat looking up into the sky:
"I was thinking of Pere Jerome's sermon."
Madame Delphine had feared so. Olive had lived on it ever since the day it was preached. The poor mother was almost ready to repent having ever afforded her the opportunity of hearing it. Meat and drink had become of secondary value to her daughter; she fed upon the sermon.
Olive felt her mother's thought and knew that her mother knew her own; but now that she had confessed, she would ask a question:
"Do you think, maman, that Pere Jerome knows it was I who gave that missal?"
"No," said Madame Delphine, "I am sure he does not."
Another question came more timidly:
"Do—do you think he knows him?"
"Yes, I do. He said in his sermon he did."
Both remained for a long time very still, watching the moon gliding in and through among the small dark-and-white clouds. At last the daughter spoke again.
"I wish I was Pere—I wish I was as good as Pere Jerome."
"My child," said Madame Delphine, her tone betraying a painful summoning of strength to say what she had lacked the courage to utter,—"my child, I pray the good God you will not let your heart go after one whom you may never see in this world!"
The maiden turned her glance, and their eyes met. She cast her arms about her mother's neck, laid her cheek upon it for a moment, and then, feeling the maternal tear, lifted her lips, and, kissing her, said:
"I will not! I will not!"
But the voice was one, not of willing consent, but of desperate resolution.
"It would be useless, anyhow," said the mother, laying her arm around her daughter's waist.
Olive repeated the kiss, prolonging it passionately.
"I have nobody but you," murmured the girl; "I am a poor quadroone!"
She threw back her plaited hair for a third embrace, when a sound in the shrubbery startled them.
"Qui ci pa?" called Madame Delphine, in a frightened voice, as the two stood up, holding to each other.
"It was only the dropping of a twig," she whispered, after a long holding of the breath. But they went into the house and barred it everywhere.
It was no longer pleasant to sit up. They retired, and in course of time, but not soon, they fell asleep, holding each other very tight, and fearing, even in their dreams, to hear another twig fall.
Monsieur Vigneville looked in at no more doors or windows; but if the disappearance of this symptom was a favorable sign, others came to notice which were especially bad,—for instance, wakefulness. At well-nigh any hour of the night, the city guard, which itself dared not patrol singly, would meet him on his slow, unmolested, sky-gazing walk.
"Seems to enjoy it," said Jean Thompson; "the worst sort of evidence. If he showed distress of mind, it would not be so bad; but his calmness,—ugly feature."
The attorney had held his ground so long that he began really to believe it was tenable.
By day, it is true, Monsieur Vignevielle was at his post in his quiet "bank." Yet here, day by day, he was the source of more and more vivid astonishment to those who held preconceived notions of a banker's calling. As a banker, at least, he was certainly out of balance; while as a promenader, it seemed to those who watched him that his ruling idea had now veered about, and that of late he was ever on the quiet alert, not to find, but to evade, somebody.
"Olive, my child," whispered Madame Delphine one morning, as the pair were kneeling side by side on the tiled floor of the church, "yonder is Miche Vignevielle! If you will only look at once—he is just passing a little in—Ah, much too slow again; he stepped out by the side door."
The mother thought it a strange providence that Monsieur Vignevielle should always be disappearing whenever Olive was with her.
One early dawn, Madame Delphine, with a small empty basket on her arm, stepped out upon the banquette in front of her house, shut and fastened the door very softly, and stole out in the direction whence you could faintly catch, in the stillness of the daybreak, the songs of the Gascon butchers and the pounding of their meat-axes on the stalls of the distant market-house. She was going to see if she could find some birds for Olive,—the child's appetite was so poor; and, as she was out, she would drop an early prayer at the cathedral. Faith and works.
"One must venture something, sometimes, in the cause of religion," thought she, as she started timorously on her way. But she had not gone a dozen steps before she repented her temerity. There was some one behind her.
There should not be any thing terrible in a footstep merely because it is masculine; but Madame Delphine's mind was not prepared to consider that. A terrible secret was haunting her. Yesterday morning she had found a shoe-track in the garden. She had not disclosed the discovery to Olive, but she had hardly closed her eyes the whole night.
The step behind her now might be the fall of that very shoe. She quickened her pace, but did not leave the sound behind. She hurried forward almost at a run; yet it was still there—no farther, no nearer. Two frights were upon her at once—one for herself, another for Olive, left alone in the house; but she had but the one prayer—"God protect my child!" After a fearful time she reached a place of safety, the cathedral. There, panting, she knelt long enough to know the pursuit was, at least, suspended, and then arose, hoping and praying all the saints that she might find the way clear for her return in all haste to Olive.
She approached a different door from that by which she had entered, her eyes in all directions and her heart in her throat.
She started wildly and almost screamed, though the voice was soft and mild. Monsieur Vignevielle came slowly forward from the shade of the wall. They met beside a bench, upon which she dropped her basket.
"Ah, Miche Vignevielle, I thang de good God to mid you!"
"Is dad so, Madame Carraze? Fo' w'y dad is?"
"A man was chase me all dad way since my 'ouse!"
"Yes, Madame, I sawed him."
"You sawed 'im? Oo it was?"
"'Twas only one man wad is a foolizh. De people say he's crezzie. Mais, he don' goin' to meg you no 'arm."
"But I was scare' fo' my lill' girl."
"Noboddie don' goin' trouble you' lill' gal, Madame Carraze."
Madame Delphine looked up into the speaker's strangely kind and patient eyes, and drew sweet reassurance from them.
"Madame," said Monsieur Vignevielle, "wad pud you bout so hearly dis morning?"
She told him her errand. She asked if he thought she would find any thing.
"Yez," he said, "it was possible—a few lill' becassines-de-mer, ou somezin' ligue. But fo' w'y you lill' gal lose doze hapetide?"
"Ah, Miche,"—Madame Delphine might have tried a thousand times again without ever succeeding half so well in lifting the curtain upon the whole, sweet, tender, old, old-fashioned truth,—"Ah, Miche, she wone tell me!"
"Bud, anny'ow, Madame, wad you thing?"
"Miche," she replied, looking up again with a tear standing in either eye, and then looking down once more as she began to speak, "I thing—I thing she's lonesome."
"Ah! Madame Carraze," he said, partly extending his hand, "you see? 'Tis impossible to mague you' owze shud so tighd to priv-en dad. Madame, I med one mizteg."
"Ah, non, Miche!"
"Yez. There har nod one poss'bil'ty fo' me to be dad guardian of you' daughteh!"
Madame Delphine started with surprise and alarm.
"There is ondly one wad can be," he continued.
"But oo, Miche?"
"Ah, Miche Vignevielle"—She looked at him appealingly.
"I don' goin' to dizzerd you, Madame Carraze," he said.
She lifted her eyes. They filled. She shook her head, a tear fell, she bit her lip, smiled, and suddenly dropped her face into both hands, sat down upon the bench and wept until she shook.
"You dunno wad I mean, Madame Carraze?"
She did not know.
"I mean dad guardian of you' daughteh godd to fine 'er now one 'uzban'; an' noboddie are hable to do dad egceb de good God 'imsev. But, Madame, I tell you wad I do."
She rose up. He continued:
"Go h-open you' owze; I fin' you' daughteh dad uzban'."
Madame Delphine was a helpless, timid thing; but her eyes showed she was about to resent this offer. Monsieur Vignevielle put forth his hand—it touched her shoulder—and said, kindly still, and without eagerness:
"One w'ite man, Madame: 'tis prattycabble. I know 'tis prattycabble. One w'ite jantleman, Madame. You can truz me. I goin' fedge 'im. H-ondly you go h-open you' owze."
Madame Delphine looked down, twining her handkerchief among her fingers.
He repeated his proposition.
"You will come firz by you'se'f?" she asked.
"Iv you wand."
She lifted up once more her eye of faith. That was her answer.
"Come," he said, gently, "I wan' sen' some bird ad you' lill' gal."
And they went away, Madame Delphine's spirit grown so exaltedly bold that she said as they went, though a violent blush followed her words:
"Miche Vignevielle, I thing Pere Jerome mighd be ab'e to tell you someboddie."
FACE TO FACE.
Madame Delphine found her house neither burned nor rifled.
"Ah! ma, piti sans popa! Ah I my little fatherless one!" Her faded bonnet fell back between her shoulders, hanging on by the strings, and her dropped basket, with its "few lill' becassines-de-mer" dangling from the handle, rolled out its okra and soup-joint upon the floor. "Ma piti! kiss!—kiss!—kiss!"
"But is it good news you have, or bad?" cried the girl, a fourth or fifth time.
"Dieu sait, ma cere; mo pas conne!"—God knows, my darling; I cannot tell!
The mother dropped into a chair, covered her face with her apron, and burst into tears, then looked up with an effort to smile, and wept afresh.
"What have you been doing?" asked the daughter, in a long-drawn, fondling tone. She leaned forward and unfastened her mother's bonnet-strings. "Why do you cry?"
"For nothing at all, my darling; for nothing—I am such a fool."
The girl's eyes filled. The mother looked up into her face and said:
"No, it is nothing, nothing, only that"—turning her head from side to side with a slow, emotional emphasis, "Miche Vignevielle is the best—best man on the good Lord's earth!"
Olive drew a chair close to her mother, sat down and took the little yellow hands into her own white lap, and looked tenderly into her eyes. Madame Delphine felt herself yielding; she must make a show of telling something:
"He sent you those birds!"
The girl drew her face back a little. The little woman turned away, trying in vain to hide her tearful smile, and they laughed together, Olive mingling a daughter's fond kiss with her laughter.
"There is something else," she said, "and you shall tell me."
"Yes," replied Madame Delphine, "only let me get composed."
But she did not get so. Later in the morning she came to Olive with the timid yet startling proposal that they would do what they could to brighten up the long-neglected front room. Olive was mystified and troubled, but consented, and thereupon the mother's spirits rose.
The work began, and presently ensued all the thumping, the trundling, the lifting and letting down, the raising and swallowing of dust, and the smells of turpentine, brass, pumice and woollen rags that go to characterize a housekeeper's emeute; and still, as the work progressed, Madame Delphine's heart grew light, and her little black eyes sparkled.
"We like a clean parlor, my daughter, even though no one is ever coming to see us, eh?" she said, as entering the apartment she at last sat down, late in the afternoon. She had put on her best attire.
Olive was not there to reply. The mother called but got no answer. She rose with an uneasy heart, and met her a few steps beyond the door that opened into the garden, in a path which came up from an old latticed bower. Olive was approaching slowly, her face pale and wild. There was an agony of hostile dismay in the look, and the trembling and appealing tone with which, taking the frightened mother's cheeks between her palms, she said:
"Ah! ma mere, qui vini 'ci ce soir?"—Who is coming here this evening?
"Why, my dear child, I was just saying, we like a clean"—
But the daughter was desperate:
"Oh, tell me, my mother, who is coming?"
"My darling, it is our blessed friend, Miche Vignevielle!"
"To see me?" cried the girl.
"Oh, my mother, what have you done?"
"Why, Olive, my child," exclaimed the little mother, bursting into tears, "do you forget it is Miche Vignevielle who has promised to protect you when I die?"
The daughter had turned away, and entered the door; but she faced around again, and extending her arms toward her mother, cried:
"How can—he is a white man—I am a poor"—
"Ah! cherie," replied Madame Delphine, seizing the outstretched hands, "it is there—it is there that he shows himself the best man alive! He sees that difficulty; he proposes to meet it; he says he will find you a suitor!"
Olive freed her hands violently, motioned her mother back, and stood proudly drawn up, flashing an indignation too great for speech; but the next moment she had uttered a cry, and was sobbing on the floor.
The mother knelt beside her and threw an arm about her shoulders.
"Oh, my sweet daughter, you must not cry! I did not want to tell you at all! I did not want to tell you! It isn't fair for you to cry so hard. Miche Vignevielle says you shall have the one you wish, or none at all, Olive, or none at all."
"None at all! none at all! None, none, none!"
"No, no, Olive," said the mother, "none at all. He brings none with him to-night, and shall bring none with him hereafter."
Olive rose suddenly, silently declined her mother's aid, and went alone to their chamber in the half-story.
Madame Delphine wandered drearily from door to window, from window to door, and presently into the newly-furnished front room which now seemed dismal beyond degree. There was a great Argand lamp in one corner. How she had labored that day to prepare it for evening illumination! A little beyond it, on the wall, hung a crucifix. She knelt under it, with her eyes fixed upon it, and thus silently remained until its outline was indistinguishable in the deepening shadows of evening.
She arose. A few minutes later, as she was trying to light the lamp, an approaching step on the sidewalk seemed to pause. Her heart stood still. She softly laid the phosphorus-box out of her hands. A shoe grated softly on the stone step, and Madame Delphine, her heart beating in great thuds, without waiting for a knock, opened the door, bowed low, and exclaimed in a soft perturbed voice:
He entered, hat in hand, and with that almost noiseless tread which we have noticed. She gave him a chair and closed the door; then hastened, with words of apology, back to her task of lighting the lamp. But her hands paused in their work again,—Olive's step was on the stairs; then it came off the stairs; then it was in the next room, and then there was the whisper of soft robes, a breath of gentle perfume, and a snowy figure in the door. She was dressed for the evening.
Madame Delphine was struggling desperately with the lamp, and at that moment it responded with a tiny bead of light.
"I am here, my daughter."
She hastened to the door, and Olive, all unaware of a third presence, lifted her white arms, laid them about her mother's neck, and, ignoring her effort to speak, wrested a fervent kiss from her lips. The crystal of the lamp sent out a faint gleam; it grew; it spread on every side; the ceiling, the walls lighted up; the crucifix, the furniture of the room came back into shape.
"Maman!" cried Olive, with a tremor of consternation.
"It is Miche Vignevielle, my daughter"—
The gloom melted swiftly away before the eyes of the startled maiden, a dark form stood out against the farther wall, and the light, expanding to the full, shone clearly upon the unmoving figure and quiet face of Capitaine Lemaitre.
THE MOTHER BIRD.
One afternoon, some three weeks after Capitaine Lemaitre had called on Madame Delphine, the priest started to make a pastoral call and had hardly left the gate of his cottage, when a person, overtaking him, plucked his gown:
The face that met his was so changed with excitement and distress that for an instant he did not recognize it.
"Why, Madame Delphine"—
"Oh, Pere Jerome! I wan' see you so bad, so bad! Mo oule dit quic'ose,—I godd some' to tell you."
The two languages might be more successful than one, she seemed to think.
"We had better go back to my parlor," said the priest, in their native tongue.
Madame Delphine's very step was altered,—nervous and inelastic. She swung one arm as she walked, and brandished a turkey-tail fan.
"I was glad, yass, to kedge you," she said, as they mounted the front, outdoor stair; following her speech with a slight, unmusical laugh, and fanning herself with unconscious fury.
"Fe chaud," she remarked again, taking the chair he offered and continuing to ply the fan.
Pere Jerome laid his hat upon a chest of drawers, sat down opposite her, and said, as he wiped his kindly face:
"Well, Madame Carraze?"
Gentle as the tone was, she started, ceased fanning, lowered the fan to her knee, and commenced smoothing its feathers.
"Pere Jerome"—She gnawed her lip and shook her head.
She burst into tears.
The priest rose and loosed the curtain of one of the windows. He did it slowly—as slowly as he could, and, as he came back, she lifted her face with sudden energy, and exclaimed:
"Oh, Pere Jerome, de law is brogue! de law is brogue! I brogue it! 'Twas me! 'Twas me!"
The tears gushed out again, but she shut her lips very tight, and dumbly turned away her face. Pere Jerome waited a little before replying; then he said, very gently:
"I suppose dad muss 'ave been by accyden', Madame Delphine?"
The little father felt a wish—one which he often had when weeping women were before him—that he were an angel instead of a man, long enough to press the tearful cheek upon his breast, and assure the weeper God would not let the lawyers and judges hurt her. He allowed a few moments more to pass, and then asked:
"N'est-ce-pas, Madame Delphine? Daz ze way, ain't it?'
"No, Pere Jerome, no. My daughter—oh, Pere Jerome, I bethroath my lill' girl—to a w'ite man!" And immediately Madame Delphine commenced savagely drawing a thread in the fabric of her skirt with one trembling hand, while she drove the fan with the other. "Dey goin' git marry."
On the priest's face came a look of pained surprise. He slowly said:
"Is dad possib', Madame Delphine?"
"Yass," she replied, at first without lifting her eyes; and then again, "Yass," looking full upon him through her tears, "yaas, 'tis tru'."
He rose and walked once across the room, returned, and said, in the Creole dialect:
"Is he a good man—without doubt?"
"De bez in God's world!" replied Madame Delphine, with a rapturous smile.
"My poor, dear friend," said the priest, "I am afraid you are being deceived by somebody."
There was the pride of an unswerving faith in the triumphant tone and smile with which she replied, raising and slowly shaking her head:
"Ah-h, no-o-o, Miche! Ah-h, no, no! Not by Ursin Lemaitre-Vignevielle!"
Pere Jerome was confounded. He turned again, and, with his hands at his back and his eyes cast down, slowly paced the floor.
"He is a good man," he said, by and by, as if he thought aloud. At length he halted before the woman "Madame Delphine"—
The distressed glance with which she had been following his steps was lifted to his eyes.
"Suppose dad should be true w'at doze peop' say 'bout Ursin."
"Qui ci ca? What is that?" asked the quadroone, stopping her fan.
"Some peop' say Ursin is crezzie."
"Ah, Pere Jerome!" She leaped to her feet as if he had smitten her, and putting his words away with an outstretched arm and wide-open palm, suddenly lifted hands and eyes to heaven, and cried: "I wizh to God—I wizh to God—de whole worl' was crezzie dad same way!" She sank, trembling, into her chair. "Oh, no, no," she continued, shaking her head, "'tis not Miche Vignevielle w'at's crezzie." Her eyes lighted with sudden fierceness. "'Tis dad law! Dad law is crezzie! Dad law is a fool!"
A priest of less heart-wisdom might have replied that the law is—the law; but Pere Jerome saw that Madame Delphine was expecting this very response. Wherefore he said, with gentleness:
"Madame Delphine, a priest is not a bailiff, but a physician. How can I help you?"
A grateful light shone a moment in her eyes, yet there remained a piteous hostility in the tone in which she demanded:
"Mais, pou'quoi ye, fe cette mechanique la?"—What business had they to make that contraption?
His answer was a shrug with his palms extended and a short, disclamatory "Ah." He started to resume his walk, but turned to her again and said: "Why did they make that law? Well, they made it to keep the two races separate."
Madame Delphine startled the speaker with a loud, harsh, angry laugh. Fire came from her eyes and her lip curled with scorn.
"Then they made a lie, Pere Jerome! Separate! No-o-o! They do not want to keep us separated; no, no! But they do want to keep us despised!" She laid her hand on her heart, and frowned upward with physical pain. "But, very well! from which race do they want to keep my daughter separate? She is seven parts white! The law did not stop her from being that; and now, when she wants to be a white man's good and honest wife, shall that law stop her? Oh, no!" She rose up. "No; I will tell you what that law is made for. It is made to—punish—my—child—for—not—choosing—her—father! Pere Jerome—my God, what a law!" She dropped back into her seat. The tears came in a flood, which she made no attempt to restrain.
"No," she began again—and here she broke into English—"fo' me I don' kyare; but, Pere Jerome,—'tis fo' dat I came to tell you,—dey shall not punizh my daughter!" She was on her feet again, smiting her heaving bosom with the fan. "She shall marrie oo she want!"
Pere Jerome had heard her out, not interrupting by so much as a motion of the hand. Now his decision was made, and he touched her softly with the ends of his fingers.
"Madame Delphine, I want you to go at 'ome Go at 'ome."
"Wad you goin' mague?" she asked.
"Nottin'. But go at 'ome. Kip quite; don put you'se'f sig. I goin' see Ursin. We trah to figs dat aw fo' you."
"You kin figs dad!" she cried, with a gleam of joy.
"We goin' to try, Madame Delphine. Adieu!"
He offered his hand. She seized and kissed it thrice, covering it with tears, at the same time lifting up her eyes to his and murmuring:
"De bez man God evva mague!"
At the door she turned to offer a more conventional good-by; but he was following her out, bareheaded. At the gate they paused an instant, and then parted with a simple adieu, she going home and he returning for his hat, and starting again upon his interrupted business.
* * * * *
Before he came back to his own house, he stopped at the lodgings of Monsieur Vignevielle, but did not find him in.
"Indeed," the servant at the door said, "he said he might not return for some days or weeks."
So Pere Jerome, much wondering, made a second detour toward the residence of one of Monsieur Vignevielle's employes.
"Yes," said the clerk, "his instructions are to hold the business, as far as practicable, in suspense, during his absence. Every thing is in another name." And then he whispered:
"Officers of the Government looking for him. Information got from some of the prisoners taken months ago by the United States brig Porpoise. But"—a still softer whisper—"have no fear; they will never find him: Jean Thompson and Evariste Varrillat have hid him away too well for that."
The Saturday following was a very beautiful day. In the morning a light fall of rain had passed across the town, and all the afternoon you could see signs, here and there upon the horizon, of other showers. The ground was dry again, while the breeze was cool and sweet, smelling of wet foliage and bringing sunshine and shade in frequent and very pleasing alternation.
There was a walk in Pere Jerome's little garden, of which we have not spoken, off on the right side of the cottage, with his chamber window at one end, a few old and twisted, but blossom-laden, crape-myrtles on either hand, now and then a rose of some unpretending variety and some bunches of rue, and at the other end a shrine, in whose blue niche stood a small figure of Mary, with folded hands and uplifted eyes. No other window looked down upon the spot, and its seclusion was often a great comfort to Pere Jerome.
Up and down this path, but a few steps in its entire length, the priest was walking, taking the air for a few moments after a prolonged sitting in the confessional. Penitents had been numerous this afternoon. He was thinking of Ursin. The officers of the Government had not found him, nor had Pere Jerome seen him; yet he believed they had, in a certain indirect way, devised a simple project by which they could at any time "figs dad law," providing only that these Government officials would give over their search; for, though he had not seen the fugitive, Madame Delphine had seen him, and had been the vehicle of communication between them. There was an orange-tree, where a mocking-bird was wont to sing and a girl in white to walk, that the detectives wot not of. The law was to be "figs" by the departure of the three frequenters of the jasmine-scented garden in one ship to France, where the law offered no obstacles.
It seemed moderately certain to those in search of Monsieur Vignevielle (and it was true) that Jean and Evariste were his harborers; but for all that the hunt, even for clews, was vain. The little banking establishment had not been disturbed. Jean Thompson had told the searchers certain facts about it, and about its gentle proprietor as well, that persuaded them to make no move against the concern, if the same relations did not even induce a relaxation of their efforts for his personal discovery.
Pere Jerome was walking to and fro, with his hands behind him, pondering these matters. He had paused a moment at the end of the walk farthest from his window, and was looking around upon the sky, when, turning, he beheld a closely veiled female figure standing at the other end, and knew instantly that it was Olive.
She came forward quickly and with evident eagerness.
"I came to confession," she said, breathing hurriedly, the excitement in her eyes shining through her veil, "but I find I am too late."
"There is no too late or too early for that; I am always ready," said the priest. "But how is your mother?"
Her voice failed.
"Ah, sir, I have made trouble. Oh, Pere Jerome, I am bringing so much trouble upon my poor mother!"
Pere Jerome moved slowly toward the house, with his eyes cast down, the veiled girl at his side.
"It is not your fault," he presently said. And after another pause: "I thought it was all arranged."