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OLD CREOLE DAYS

A STORY OF CREOLE LIFE

BY

GEORGE W. CABLE

1907




CONTENTS


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




MADAME DELPHINE.


CHAPTER I.


AN OLD HOUSE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Dey's quadroons."

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

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




CHAPTER II.


MADAME DELPHINE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us to speak of another person.




CHAPTER III.


CAPITAINE LEMAITRE.

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

He had not been brought up by mother or father.



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