When the Bayou Overflows by Alice Dunbar
When the sun goes down behind the great oaks along the Bayou Teche
near Franklin, it throws red needles of light into the dark woods, and
leaves a great glow on the still bayou. Ma'am Mouton paused at her
gate and cast a contemplative look at the red sky.
"Hit will rain to-morrow, sho'. I mus' git in my t'ings."
Ma'am Mouton's remark must have been addressed to herself or to
the lean dog, for no one else was visible. She moved briskly about
the yard, taking things from the line, when Louisette's voice called
"Ah, Ma'am Mouton, can I help?"
Louisette was petite and plump and black-haired. Louisette's eyes
danced, and her lips were red and tempting. Ma'am Mouton's face
relaxed as the small brown hands relieved hers of their burden.
"Sylves', has he come yet?" asked the red mouth.
"Mais non, ma chere," said Ma'am Mouton, sadly, "I can' tell fo'
w'y he no come home soon dese day. Ah me, I feel lak' somet'ing
goin' happen. He so strange."
Even as she spoke a quick nervous step was heard crunching up the
brick walk. Sylves' paused an instant without the kitchen door, his
face turned to the setting sun. He was tall and slim and agile; a
"Bon jour, Louisette," he laughed. "Eh, maman!"
"Ah, my son, you are ver' late."
Sylves' frowned, but said nothing. It was a silent supper that
followed. Louisette was sad, Ma'am Mouton sighed now and then,
Sylves' was constrained.
"Maman," he said at length, "I am goin' away."
Ma'am Mouton dropped her fork and stared at him with unseeing
eyes; then, as she comprehended his remark, she put her hand out to
him with a pitiful gesture.
"Sylves'!" cried Louisette, springing to her feet.
"Maman, don't, don't!" he said weakly; then gathering strength
from the silence, he burst forth:
"Yaas, I 'm goin' away to work. I 'm tired of dis, jus' dig, dig,
work in de fiel', nothin' to see but de cloud, de tree, de bayou. I
don't lak' New Orleans; it too near here, dere no mo' money dere. I
go up fo' Mardi Gras, an' de same people, de same strit'. I'm goin' to
"Sylves'!" screamed both women at once.
Chicago! That vast, far-off city that seemed in another world.
Chicago! A name to conjure with for wickedness.
"W'y, yaas," continued Sylves', "lots of boys I know dere. Henri
an' Joseph Lascaud an' Arthur, dey write me what money dey mek' in
cigar. I can mek' a livin' too. I can mek' fine cigar. See how I do
in New Orleans in de winter."
"Oh, Sylves'," wailed Louisette, "den you'll forget me!"
"Non, non, ma chere," he answered tenderly. "I will come back
when the bayou overflows again, an' maman an' Louisette will have
Ma'am Mouton had bowed her head on her hands, and was rocking to
and fro in an agony of dry-eyed misery.
Sylves' went to her side and knelt. "Maman," he said softly,
"maman, you mus' not cry. All de boys go 'way, an' I will come back
reech, an' you won't have fo' to work no mo'."
But Ma'am Mouton was inconsolable.
It was even as Sylves' had said. In the summer-time the boys of
the Bayou Teche would work in the field or in the town of Franklin,
hack-driving and doing odd jobs. When winter came, there was a
general exodus to New Orleans, a hundred miles away, where work was to
be had as cigar-makers. There is money, plenty of it, in
cigar-making, if one can get in the right place. Of late, however,
there had been a general slackness of the trade. Last winter
oftentimes Sylves' had walked the streets out of work. Many were the
Creole boys who had gone to Chicago to earn a living, for the
cigar-making trade flourishes there wonderfully. Friends of Sylves'
had gone, and written home glowing accounts of the money to be had
almost for the asking. When one's blood leaps for new scenes, new
adventures, and one needs money, what is the use of frittering away
time alternately between the Bayou Teche and New Orleans? Sylves' had
brooded all summer, and now that September had come, he was determined
Louisette, the orphan, the girl-lover, whom everyone in Franklin
knew would some day be Ma'am Mouton's daughter-in-law, wept and
pleaded in vain. Sylves' kissed her quivering lips.
"Ma chere," he would say, "t'ink, I will bring you one fine
diamon' ring, nex' spring, when de bayou overflows again."
Louisette would fain be content with this promise. As for Ma'am
Mouton, she seemed to have grown ages older. Her Sylves' was going
from her; Sylves', whose trips to New Orleans had been a yearly source
of heart-break, was going far away for months to that mistily wicked
city, a thousand miles away.
October came, and Sylves' had gone. Ma'am Mouton had kept up
bravely until the last, when with one final cry she extended her arms
to the pitiless train bearing him northward. Then she and Louisette
went home drearily, the one leaning upon the other.
Ah, that was a great day when the first letter came from Chicago!
Louisette came running in breathlessly from the post-office, and
together they read it again and again. Chicago was such a wonderful
city, said Sylves'. Why, it was always like New Orleans at Mardi Gras
with the people. He had seen Joseph Lascaud, and he had a place to
work promised him. He was well, but he wanted, oh, so much, to see
maman and Louisette. But then, he could wait.
Was ever such a wonderful letter? Louisette sat for an hour
afterwards building gorgeous air-castles, while Ma'am Mouton fingered
the paper and murmured prayers to the Virgin for Sylves'. When the
bayou overflowed again? That would be in April. Then Louisette
caught herself looking critically at her slender brown fingers, and
blushed furiously, though Ma'am Mouton could not see her in the
Next week there was another letter, even more wonderful than the
first. Sylves' had found work. He was making cigars, and was
earning two dollars a day. Such wages! Ma'am Mouton and Louisette
began to plan pretty things for the brown cottage on the Teche.
That was a pleasant winter, after all. True, there was no
Sylves', but then he was always in New Orleans for a few months any
way. There were his letters, full of wondrous tales of the great
queer city, where cars went by ropes underground, and where there was
no Mardi Gras and the people did not mind Lent. Now and then there
would be a present, a keepsake for Louisette, and some money for
maman. They would plan improvements for the cottage, and Louisette
began to do sewing and dainty crochet, which she would hide with a
blush if anyone hinted at a trousseau.
It was March now, and Spring-time. The bayou began to sweep down
between its banks less sluggishly than before; it was rising, and
soon would spread over its tiny levees. The doors could be left open
now, though the trees were not yet green; but then down here the trees
do not swell and bud slowly and tease you for weeks with promises of
greenness. Dear no, they simply look mysterious, and their twigs
shake against each other and tell secrets of the leaves that will soon
be born. Then one morning you awake, and lo, it is a green world!
The boughs have suddenly clothed themselves all in a wondrous
garment, and you feel the blood run riot in your veins out of pure
One day in March, it was warm and sweet. Underfoot were violets,
and wee white star flowers peering through the baby-grass. The sky
was blue, with flecks of white clouds reflecting themselves in the
brown bayou. Louisette tripped up the red brick walk with the Chicago
letter in her hand, and paused a minute at the door to look upon the
leaping waters, her eyes dancing.
"I know the bayou must be ready to overflow," went the letter in
the carefully phrased French that the brothers taught at the
parochial school, "and I am glad, for I want to see the dear maman
and my Louisette. I am not so well, and Monsieur le docteur says it
is well for me to go to the South again."
Monsieur le docteur! Sylves' not well! The thought struck a
chill to the hearts of Ma'am Mouton and Louisette, but not for long.
Of course, Sylves' was not well, he needed some of maman's tisanes.
Then he was homesick; it was to be expected.
At last the great day came, Sylves' would be home. The brown
waters of the bayou had spread until they were seemingly trying to
rival the Mississippi in width. The little house was scrubbed and
cleaned until it shone again. Louisette had looked her dainty little
dress over and over to be sure that there was not a flaw to be found
wherein Sylves' could compare her unfavourably to the stylish Chicago
The train rumbled in on the platform, and two pair of eyes opened
wide for the first glimpse of Sylves'. The porter, all officiousness
and brass buttons, bustled up to Ma'am Mouton.
"This is Mrs. Mouton?" he inquired deferentially.
Ma'am Mouton nodded, her heart sinking. "Where is Sylves'?"
"He is here, madam."
There appeared Joseph Lascaud, then some men bearing Something.
Louisette put her hands up to her eyes to hide the sight, but Ma'am
Mouton was rigid.
"It was too cold for him," Joseph was saying to almost deaf ears,
"and he took the consumption. He thought he could get well when he
come home. He talk all the way down about the bayou, and about you
and Louisette. Just three hours ago he had a bad hemorrhage, and he
died from weakness. Just three hours ago. He said he wanted to get
home and give Louisette her diamond ring, when the bayou overflowed."