by George W. Cable
An Extract from
Old Creole Days
In the first decade of the present century, when the nicely
established American Government was the most hateful thing in Louisiana
- when the Creoles were still kicking at such vile innovations as the
trial by jury, American dances, anti-smuggling laws, and the printing
of the Governor's proclamation in English—when the Anglo-American
flood that was presently to burst in a crevasse of immigration upon the
delta had thus far been felt only as slippery seepage which made the
Creole tremble for his footing—there stood, a short distance above
what is now Canal Street, and considerably back from the line of villas
which fringed the river-bank on Tchoupitoulas Road, an old colonial
plantation-house half in ruin.
It stood aloof from civilization, the tracts that had once been its
indigo fields given over to their first noxious wildness, and grown up
into one of the horridest marshes within a circuit of fifty miles.
The house was of heavy cypress, lifted up on pillars, grim, solid,
and spiritless, its massive build a strong reminder of days still
earlier, when every man had been his own peace officer and the
insurrection of the blacks a daily contingency. Its dark,
weather-beaten roof and sides were hoisted up above the jungly plain in
a distracted way, like a gigantic ammunition-wagon stuck in the mud and
abandoned by some retreating army. Around it was a dense growth of low
water willows, with half a hundred sorts of thorny or fetid bushes,
savage strangers alike to the "language of flowers" and to the
botanist's Greek. They were hung with countless strands of discolored
and prickly smilax, and the impassable mud below bristled with chevaux
de frise of the dwarf palmetto. Two lone forest-trees, dead cypresses,
stood in the centre of the marsh, dotted with roosting vultures. The
shallow strips of water were hid by myriads of aquatic plants, under
whose coarse and spiritless flowers, could one have seen it, was a
harbor of reptiles, great and small, to make one shudder to the end of
The house was on a slightly raised spot, the levee of a draining
canal. The waters of this canal did not run; they crawled, and were
full of big, ravening fish and alligators, that held it against all
Such was the home of old Jean Marie Poquelin, once an opulent
indigo planter, standing high in the esteem of his small, proud circle
of exclusively male acquaintances in the old city; now a hermit, alike
shunned by and shunning all who had ever known him. "The last of his
line," said the gossips. His father lies under the floor of the St.
Louis Cathedral, with the wife of his youth on one side, and the wife
of his old age on the other. Old Jean visits the spot daily. His
half-brother—alas! there was a mystery; no one knew what had become
of the gentle, young half-brother, more than thirty years his junior,
whom once he seemed so fondly to love, but who, seven years ago, had
disappeared suddenly, once for all, and left no clew of his fate.
They had seemed to live so happily in each other's love. No father,
mother, wife to either, no kindred upon earth. The elder a bold, frank,
impetuous, chivalric adventurer; the younger a gentle, studious,
book-loving recluse; they lived upon the ancestral estate like mated
birds, one always on the wing, the other always in the nest.
There was no trait in Jean Marie Poquelin, said the old gossips,
for which he was so well known among his few friends as his apparent
fondness for his "little brother." "Jacques said this," and "Jacques
said that;" he "would leave this or that, or any thing to Jacques," for
"Jacques was a scholar," and "Jacques was good," or "wise," or "just,"
or "far-sighted," as the nature of the case required; and "he should
ask Jacques as soon as he got home," since Jacques was never elsewhere
to be seen.
It was between the roving character of the one brother, and the
bookishness of the other, that the estate fell into decay. Jean Marie,
generous gentleman, gambled the slaves away one by one, until none was
left, man or woman, but one old African mute.
The indigo-fields and vats of Louisiana had been generally
abandoned as unremunerative. Certain enterprising men had substituted
the culture of sugar; but while the recluse was too apathetic to take
so active a course, the other saw larger, and, at that time, equally
respectable profits, first in smuggling, and later in the African
slave-trade. What harm could he see in it? The whole people said it was
vitally necessary, and to minister to a vital public necessity,—good
enough, certainly, and so he laid up many a doubloon, that made him
none the worse in the public regard.
One day old Jean Marie was about to start upon a voyage that was to
be longer, much longer, than any that he had yet made. Jacques had
begged him hard for many days not to go, but he laughed him off, and
finally said, kissing him:
"Adieu, 'tit frere."
"No," said Jacques, "I shall go with you."
They left the old hulk of a house in the sole care of the African
mute, and went away to the Guinea coast together.
Two years after, old Poquelin came home without his vessel. He must
have arrived at his house by night. No one saw him come. No one saw
"his little brother;" rumor whispered that he, too, had returned, but
he had never been seen again.
A dark suspicion fell upon the old slave-trader. No matter that the
few kept the many reminded of the tenderness that had ever marked his
bearing to the missing man. The many shook their heads. "You know he
has a quick and fearful temper;" and "why does he cover his loss with
mystery?" "Grief would out with the truth."
"But," said the charitable few, "look in his face; see that
expression of true humanity." The many did look in his face, and, as he
looked in theirs, he read the silent question: "Where is thy brother
Abel?" The few were silenced, his former friends died off, and the name
of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and
hideous nursery fictions.
The man and his house were alike shunned. The snipe and duck
hunters forsook the marsh, and the wood-cutters abandoned the canal.
Sometimes the hardier boys who ventured out there snake-shooting heard
a slow thumping of oar-locks on the canal. They would look at each
other for a moment half in consternation, half in glee, then rush from
their sport in wanton haste to assail with their gibes the unoffending,
withered old man who, in rusty attire, sat in the stern of a skiff,
rowed homeward by his white-headed African mute.
"O Jean-ah Poquelin! O Jean-ah! Jean-ah Poquelin!"
It was not necessary to utter more than that. No hint of
wickedness, deformity, or any physical or moral demerit; merely the
name and tone of mockery: "Oh, Jean-ah Poquelin!" and while they
tumbled one over another in their needless haste to fly, he would rise
carefully from his seat, while the aged mute, with downcast face, went
on rowing, and rolling up his brown fist and extending it toward the
urchins, would pour forth such an unholy broadside of French
imprecation and invective as would all but craze them with delight.
Among both blacks and whites the house was the object of a
thousand superstitions. Every midnight, they affirmed, the feu follet
came out of the marsh and ran in and out of the rooms, flashing from
window to window. The story of some lads, whose words in ordinary
statements was worthless, was generally credited, that the night they
camped in the woods, rather than pass the place after dark, they saw,
about sunset, every window blood-red, and on each of the four chimneys
an owl sitting, which turned his head three times round, and moaned and
laughed with a human voice. There was a bottomless well, everybody
professed to know, beneath the sill of the big front door under the
rotten veranda; whoever set his foot upon that threshold disappeared
forever in the depth below.
What wonder the marsh grew as wild as Africa! Take all the Faubourg
Ste. Marie, and half the ancient city, you would not find one graceless
dare-devil reckless enough to pass within a hundred yards of the house
The alien races pouring into old New Orleans began to find the few
streets named for the Bourbon princes too strait for them. The wheel of
fortune, beginning to whirl, threw them off beyond the ancient
corporation lines, and sowed civilization and even trade upon the lands
of the Graviers and Girods. Fields became roads, roads streets.
Everywhere the leveller was peering through his glass, rodsmen were
whacking their way through willow-brakes and rose-hedges, and the
sweating Irishmen tossed the blue clay up with their long-handled
"Ha! that is all very well," quoth the Jean-Baptistes, feeling the
reproach of an enterprise that asked neither co-operation nor advice of
them, "but wait till they come yonder to Jean Poquelin's marsh; ha! ha!
ha!" The supposed predicament so delighted them, that they put on a
mock terror and whirled about in an assumed stampede, then caught their
clasped hands between their knees in excess of mirth, and laughed till
the tears ran; for whether the street-makers mired in the marsh, or
contrived to cut through old "Jean-ah's" property, either event would
be joyful. Meantime a line of tiny rods, with bits of white paper in
their split tops, gradually extended its way straight through the
haunted ground, and across the canal diagonally.
"We shall fill that ditch," said the men in mud-boots, and brushed
close along the chained and padlocked gate of the haunted mansion. Ah,
Jean-ah Poquelin, those were not Creole boys, to be stampeded with a
little hard swearing.
He went to the Governor. That official scanned the odd figure with
no slight interest. Jean Poquelin was of short, broad frame, with a
bronzed leonine face. His brow was ample and deeply furrowed. His eye,
large and black, was bold and open like that of a war-horse, and his
jaws shut together with the firmness of iron. He was dressed in a suit
of Attakapas cottonade, and his shirt unbuttoned and thrown back from
the throat and bosom, sailor-wise, showed a herculean breast, hard and
grizzled. There was no fierceness or defiance in his look, no harsh
ungentleness, no symptom of his unlawful life or violent temper; but
rather a peaceful and peaceable fearlessness. Across the whole face,
not marked in one or another feature, but as it were laid softly upon
the countenance like an almost imperceptible veil, was the imprint of
some great grief. A careless eye might easily overlook it, but, once
seen, there it hung—faint, but unmistakable.
The Governor bowed.
"Parlez-vous franais?" asked the figure.
"I would rather talk English, if you can do so," said the Governor.
"My name, Jean Poquelin."
"How can I serve you, Mr. Poquelin?"
"My 'ouse is yond'; dans le marais lˆ-bas."
The Governor bowed.
"Dat marais billong to me."
"To me; Jean Poquelin; I hown 'im meself."
"He don't billong to you; I get him from me father."
"That is perfectly true, Mr. Poquelin, as far as I am aware."
"You want to make strit pass yond'?"
"I do not know, sir; it is quite probable; but the city will
indemnify you for any loss you may suffer—you will get paid, you
"Strit can't pass dare."
"You will have to see the municipal authorities about that, Mr.
A bitter smile came upon the old man's face: "Pardon, Monsieur,
you is not le Gouverneur?"
"Mais, yes. You har le Gouverneur—yes. Veh- well. I come to you.
I tell you, strit can't pass at me 'ouse."
"But you will have to see"—
"I come to you. You is le Gouverneur. I know not the new laws. I
ham a Fr-r-rench-a-man! Fr-rench-a-man have something aller au
contraire—he come at his Gouverneur. I come at you. If me not had
been bought from me king like bossals in the hold time, ze king gof—
France would-a-show Monsieur le Gouverneur to take care his men to make
strit in right places. Mais, I know; we billong to Monsieur le
President. I want you do somesin for me, eh?"
"What is it?" asked the patient Governor.
"I want you tell Monsieur le President, strit—can't—pass—at—
"Have a chair, Mr. Poquelin;" but the old man did not stir. The
Governor took a quill and wrote a line to a city official, introducing
Mr. Poquelin, and asking for him every possible courtesy. He handed it
to him, instructing him where to present it.
"Mr. Poquelin," he said, with a conciliatory smile, "tell me, is it
your house that our Creole citizens tell such odd stories about?"
The old man glared sternly upon the speaker, and with immovable
"You don't see me trade some Guinea nigga'?"
"You don't see me make some smugglin'?"
"No, sir; not at all."
"But, I am Jean Marie Poquelin. I mine me hown bizniss. Dat all
He put his hat on and withdrew. By and by he stood, letter in hand,
before the person to whom it was addressed. This person employed an
"He says," said the interpreter to the officer, "he come to make
you the fair warning how you muz not make the street pas' at his
The officer remarked that "such impudence was refreshing;" but the
experienced interpreter translated freely.
"He says: 'Why you don't want?' " said the interpreter.
The old slave-trader answered at some length.
"He says," said the interpreter, again turning to the officer, "the
marass is a too unhealth' for peopl' to live."
"But we expect to drain his old marsh; it's not going to be a
"Il dit"—The interpreter explained in French.
The old man answered tersely.
"He says the canal is a private," said the interpreter.
"Oh! that old ditch; that's to be filled up. Tell the old man we're
going to fix him up nicely."
Translation being duly made, the man in power was amused to see a
thunder-cloud gathering on the old man's face.
"Tell him," he added, "by the time we finish, there'll not be a
ghost left in his shanty."
The interpreter began to translate, but—
"J' comprends, J' comprends," said the old man, with an impatient
gesture, and burst forth, pouring curses upon the United States, the
President, the Territory of Orleans, Congress, the Governor and all his
subordinates, striding out of the apartment as he cursed, while the
object of his maledictions roared with merriment and rammed the floor
with his foot.
"Why, it will make his old place worth ten dollars to one," said
the official to the interpreter.
" 'Tis not for de worse of de property," said the interpreter.
"I should guess not," said the other, whittling his chair,—"seems
to me as if some of these old Creoles would liever live in a crawfish
hole than to have a neighbor."
"You know what make old Jean Poquelin make like that? I will tell
you. You know"—
The interpreter was rolling a cigarette, and paused to light his
tinder; then, as the smoke poured in a thick double stream from his
nostrils, he said, in a solemn whisper:
"He is a witch."
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed the other.
"You don't believe it? What you want to bet?" cried the
interpreter, jerking himself half up and thrusting out one arm while he
bared it of its coat-sleeve with the hand of the other. "What you want
"How do you know?" asked the official.
"Dass what I goin' to tell you. You know, one evening I was
shooting some grosbec. I killed three; but I had trouble to fine them,
it was becoming so dark. When I have them I start' to come home; then I
got to pas' at Jean Poquelin's house."
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed the other, throwing his leg over the arm of
"Wait," said the interpreter. "I come along slow, not making some
noises; still, still"—
"And scared," said the smiling one.
"Mais, wait. I get all pas' the 'ouse. 'Ah!' I say; 'all right!'
Then I see two thing' before! Hah! I get as cold and humide, and shake
like a leaf. You think it was nothing? There I see, so plain as can be
(though it was making nearly dark), I see Jean—Marie—Po-que-lin
walkin' right in front, and right there beside of him was something
like a man—but not a man—white like paint !—I dropp' on the grass
from scared—they pass'; so sure as I live 'twas the ghos' of Jacques
Poquelin, his brother!"
"Pooh!" said the listener.
"I'll put my han' in the fire," said the interpreter.
"But did you never think," asked the other, "that that might be
Jack Poquelin, as you call him, alive and well, and for some cause hid
away by his brother?"
"But there har' no cause!" said the other, and the entrance of
third parties changed the subject.
Some months passed and the street was opened. A canal was first dug
through the marsh, the small one which passed so close to Jean
Poquelin's house was filled, and the street, or rather a sunny road,
just touched a corner of the old mansion's dooryard. The morass ran
dry. Its venomous denizens slipped away through the bulrushes; the
cattle roaming freely upon its hardened surface trampled the
superabundant undergrowth. The bellowing frogs croaked to westward.
Lilies and the flower-de-luce sprang up in the place of reeds; smilax
and poison-oak gave way to the purple-plumed iron-weed and pink
spiderwort; the bindweeds ran everywhere blooming as they ran, and on
one of the dead cypresses a giant creeper hung its green burden of
foliage and lifted its scarlet trumpets. Sparrows and red-birds flitted
through the bushes, and dewberries grew ripe beneath. Over all these
came a sweet, dry smell of salubrity which the place had not known
since the sediments of the Mississippi first lifted it from the sea.
But its owner did not build. Over the willow-brakes, and down the
vista of the open street, bright new houses, some singly, some by
ranks, were prying in upon the old man's privacy. They even settled
down toward his southern side. First a wood-cutter's hut or two, then a
market gardener's shanty, then a painted cottage, and all at once the
faubourg had flanked and half surrounded him and his dried-up marsh.
Ah! then the common people began to hate him. "The old tyrant!"
"You don't mean an old tyrant?" "Well, then, why don't he build when
the public need demands it? What does he live in that unneighborly way
for?" "The old pirate!" "The old kidnapper!" How easily even the most
ultra Louisianians put on the imported virtues of the North when they
could be brought to bear against the hermit. "There he goes, with the
boys after him! Ah! ha! ha! Jean-ah Poquelin! Ah! Jean-ah! Aha! aha!
Jean-ah Marie! Jean-ah Poquelin! The old villain!" How merrily the
swarming Americains echo the spirit of persecution! "The old fraud,"
they say—"pretends to live in a haunted house, does he? We'll tar and
feather him some day. Guess we can fix him."
He cannot be rowed home along the old canal now; he walks. He has
broken sadly of late, and the street urchins are ever at his heels. It
is like the days when they cried: "Go up, thou bald-head," and the old
man now and then turns and delivers ineffectual curses.
To the Creoles—to the incoming lower class of superstitious
Germans, Irish, Sicilians, and others—he became an omen and
embodiment of public and private ill-fortune. Upon him all the vagaries
of their superstitions gathered and grew. If a house caught fire, it
was imputed to his machinations. Did a woman go off in a fit, he had
bewitched her. Did a child stray off for an hour, the mother shivered
with the apprehension that Jean Poquelin had offered him to strange
gods. The house was the subject of every bad boy's invention who loved
to contrive ghostly lies. "As long as that house stands we shall have
bad luck. Do you not see our pease and beans dying, our cabbages and
lettuce going to seed and our gardens turning to dust, while every day
you can see it raining in the woods? The rain will never pass old
Poquelin's house. He keeps a fetich. He has conjured the whole Faubourg
St. Marie. And why, the old wretch? Simply because our playful and
innocent children call after him as he passes."
A "Building and Improvement Company," which had not yet got its
charter, "but was going to," and which had not, indeed, any tangible
capital yet, but "was going to have some," joined the "Jean-ah
Poquelin" war. The haunted property would be such a capital site for a
market-house! They sent a deputation to the old mansion to ask its
occupant to sell. The deputation never got beyond the chained gate and
a very barren interview with the African mute. The President of the
Board was then empowered (for he had studied French in Pennsylvania and
was considered qualified) to call and persuade M. Poquelin to subscribe
to the company's stock; but—
"Fact is, gentlemen," he said at the next meeting, "it would take
us at least twelve months to make Mr. Pokaleen understand the rather
original features of our system, and he wouldn't subscribe when we'd
done; besides, the only way to see him is to stop him on the street."
There was a great laugh from the Board; they couldn't help it.
"Better meet a bear robbed of her whelps," said one.
"You're mistaken as to that," said the President. "I did meet him,
and stopped him, and found him quite polite. But I could get no
satisfaction from him; the fellow wouldn't talk in French, and when I
spoke in English he hoisted his old shoulders up, and gave the same
answer to every thing I said."
"And that was—?" asked one or two, impatient of the pause.
"That it 'don't worse w'ile?' "
One of the Board said: "Mr. President, this market-house project,
as I take it, is not altogether a selfish one; the community is to be
benefited by it. We may feel that we are working in the public interest
[the Board smiled knowingly], if we employ all possible means to oust
this old nuisance from among us. You may know that at the time the
street was cut through, this old Poquelann did all he could to prevent
it. It was owing to a certain connection which I had with that affair
that I heard a ghost story [smiles, followed by a sudden dignified
check]—ghost story, which, of course, I am not going to relate; but I
may say that my profound conviction, arising from a prolonged study of
that story, is, that this old villain, John Poquelann, has his brother
locked up in that old house. Now, if this is so, and we can fix it on
him, I merely suggest that we can make the matter highly useful. I
don't know," he added, beginning to sit down, "but that it is an action
we owe to the community—hem!"
"How do you propose to handle the subject?" asked the President.
"I was thinking," said the speaker, "that, as a Board of Directors,
it would be unadvisable for us to authorize any action involving
trespass; but if you, for instance, Mr. President, should, as it were,
for mere curiosity, request some one, as, for instance, our excellent
Secretary, simply as a personal favor, to look into the matter—this
is merely a suggestion."
The Secretary smiled sufficiently to be understood that, while he
certainly did not consider such preposterous service a part of his
duties as secretary, he might, notwithstanding, accede to the
President's request; and the Board adjourned.
Little White, as the Secretary was called, was a mild, kind-hearted
little man, who, nevertheless, had no fear of any thing, unless it was
the fear of being unkind.
"I tell you frankly," he privately said to the President, "I go
into this purely for reasons of my own."
The next day, a little after nightfall, one might have descried
this little man slipping along the rear fence of the Poquelin place,
preparatory to vaulting over into the rank, grass-grown yard, and
bearing himself altogether more after the manner of a collector of rare
chickens than according to the usage of secretaries.
The picture presented to his eye was not calculated to enliven his
mind. The old mansion stood out against the western sky, black and
silent. One long, lurid pencil-stroke along a sky of slate was all that
was left of daylight. No sign of life was apparent; no light at any
window, unless it might have been on the side of the house hidden from
view. No owls were on the chimneys, no dogs were in the yard.
He entered the place, and ventured up behind a small cabin which
stood apart from the house. Through one of its many crannies he easily
detected the African mute crouched before a flickering pine-knot, his
head on his knees, fast asleep.
He concluded to enter the mansion, and, with that view, stood and
scanned it. The broad rear steps of the veranda would not serve him; he
might meet some one midway. He was measuring, with his eye, the
proportions of one of the pillars which supported it, and estimating
the practicability of climbing it, when he heard a footstep. Some one
dragged a chair out toward the railing, then seemed to change his mind
and began to pace the veranda, his footfalls resounding on the dry
boards with singular loudness. Little White drew a step backward, got
the figure between himself and the sky, and at once recognized the
short, broad-shouldered form of old Jean Poquelin.
He sat down upon a billet of wood, and, to escape the stings of a
whining cloud of mosquitoes, shrouded his face and neck in his
handkerchief, leaving his eyes uncovered.
He had sat there but a moment when he noticed a strange, sickening
odor, faint, as if coming from a distance, but loathsome and horrid.
Whence could it come? Not from the cabin; not from the marsh, for
it was as dry as powder. It was not in the air; it seemed to come from
Rising up, he noticed, for the first time, a few steps before him a
narrow footpath leading toward the house. He glanced down it—ha!
right there was some one coming—ghostly white!
Quick as thought, and as noiselessly, he lay down at full length
against the cabin. It was bold strategy, and yet, there was no denying
it, little White felt that he was frightened. "It is not a ghost," he
said to himself. "I know it cannot be a ghost;" but the perspiration
burst out at every pore, and the air seemed to thicken with heat. "It
is a living man," he said in his thoughts. "I hear his footstep, and I
hear old Poquelin's footsteps, too, separately, over on the veranda. I
am not discovered; the thing has passed; there is that odor again; what
a smell of death! Is it coming back? Yes. It stops at the door of the
cabin. Is it peering in at the sleeping mute? It moves away. It is in
the path again. Now it is gone." He shuddered. "Now, if I dare venture,
the mystery is solved." He rose cautiously, close against the cabin,
and peered along the path.
The figure of a man, a presence if not a body—but whether clad in
some white stuff or naked the darkness would not allow him to determine
- had turned, and now, with a seeming painful gait, moved slowly from
him. "Great Heaven! can it be that the dead do walk?" He withdrew again
the hands which had gone to his eyes. The dreadful object passed
between two pillars and under the house. He listened. There was a faint
sound as of feet upon a staircase; then all was still except the
measured tread of Jean Poquelin walking on the veranda, and the heavy
respirations of the mute slumbering in the cabin.
The little Secretary was about to retreat; but as he looked once
more toward the haunted house a dim light appeared in the crack of a
closed window, and presently old Jean Poquelin came, dragging his
chair, and sat down close against the shining cranny. He spoke in a
low, tender tone in the French tongue, making some inquiry. An answer
came from within. Was it the voice of a human? So unnatural was it—so
hollow, so discordant, so unearthly—that the stealthy listener
shuddered again from head to foot, and when something stirred in some
bushes near by—though it may have been nothing more than a rat—and
came scuttling through the grass, the little Secretary actually turned
and fled. As he left the enclosure he moved with bolder leisure through
the bushes; yet now and then he spoke aloud: "Oh, oh! I see, I
understand!" and shut his eyes in his hands.
How strange that henceforth little White was the champion of Jean
Poquelin! In season and out of season—wherever a word was uttered
against him—the Secretary, with a quiet, aggressive force that
instantly arrested gossip, demanded upon what authority the statement
or conjecture was made; but as he did not condescend to explain his own
remarkable attitude, it was not long before the disrelish and suspicion
which had followed Jean Poquelin so many years fell also upon him.
It was only the next evening but one after his adventure that he
made himself a source of sullen amazement to one hundred and fifty
boys, by ordering them to desist from their wanton hallooing. Old Jean
Poquelin, standing and shaking his cane, rolling out his long-drawn
maledictions, paused and stared, then gave the Secretary a courteous
bow and started on. The boys, save one, from pure astonishment,
ceased; but a ruffianly little Irish lad, more daring than any had yet
been, threw a big hurtling clod, that struck old Poquelin between the
shoulders and burst like a shell. The enraged old man wheeled with
uplifted staff to give chase to the scampering vagabond; and—he may
have tripped, or he may not, but he fell full length. Little White
hastened to help him up, but he waved him off with a fierce imprecation
and staggering to his feet resumed his way homeward. His lips were
reddened with blood.
Little White was on his way to the meeting of the Board. He would
have given all he dared spend to have staid away, for he felt both too
fierce and too tremulous to brook the criticisms that were likely to be
"I can't help it, gentlemen; I can't help you to make a case
against the old man, and I'm not going to."
"We did not expect this disappointment, Mr. White."
"I can't help that, sir. No, sir; you had better not appoint any
more investigations. Somebody'll investigate himself into trouble. No,
sir; it isn't a threat, it is only my advice, but I warn you that
whoever takes the task in hand will rue it to his dying day—which may
be hastened, too."
The President expressed himself "surprised."
"I don't care a rush," answered little White, wildly and foolishly.
"I don't care a rush if you are, sir. No, my nerves are not disordered;
my head's as clear as a bell. No, I'm not excited."
A Director remarked that the Secretary looked as though he had
waked from a nightmare.
"Well, sir, if you want to know the fact, I have; and if you choose
to cultivate old Poquelin's society you can have one, too."
"White," called a facetious member, but White did not notice.
"White," he called again.
"What?" demanded White, with a scowl.
"Did you see the ghost?"
"Yes, sir; I did," cried White, hitting the table, and handing the
President a paper which brought the Board to other business.
The story got among the gossips that somebody (they were afraid to
say little White) had been to the Poquelin mansion by night and beheld
something appalling. The rumor was but a shadow of the truth, magnified
and distorted as is the manner of shadows. He had seen skeletons
walking, and had barely escaped the clutches of one by making the sign
of the cross.
Some madcap boys with an appetite for the horrible plucked up
courage to venture through the dried marsh by the cattle-path, and come
before the house at a spectral hour when the air was full of bats.
Something which they but half saw—half a sight was enough—sent them
tearing back through the willow-brakes and acacia bushes to their
homes, where they fairly dropped down, and cried:
"Was it white?" "No—yes—nearly so—we can't tell—but we saw
it." And one could hardly doubt, to look at their ashen faces, that
they had, whatever it was.
"If that old rascal lived in the country we come from," said
certain Americains, "he'd have been tarred and feathered before now,
wouldn't he, Sanders?"
"Well, now he just would."
"And we'd have rid him on a rail, wouldn't we?"
"That's what I allow."
"Tell you what you could do." They were talking to some rollicking
Creoles who had assumed an absolute necessity for doing something.
"What is it you call this thing where an old man marries a young girl,
and you come out with horns and"—
"Charivari?" asked the Creoles.
"Yes, that's it. Why don't you shivaree him?" Felicitous
Little White, with his wife beside him, was sitting on their
doorsteps on the sidewalk, as Creole custom had taught them, looking
toward the sunset. They had moved into the lately-opened street. The
view was not attractive on the score of beauty. The houses were small
and scattered, and across the flat commons, spite of the lofty tangle
of weeds and bushes, and spite of the thickets of acacia, they needs
must see the dismal old Poquelin mansion, tilted awry and shutting out
the declining sun. The moon, white and slender, was hanging the tip of
its horn over one of the chimneys.
"And you say," said the Secretary, "the old black man has been
going by here alone? Patty, suppose old Poquelin should be concocting
some mischief; he don't lack provocation; the way that clod hit him the
other day was enough to have killed him. Why, Patty, he dropped as
quick as that! No wonder you haven't seen him. I wonder if they haven't
heard something about him up at the drug-store. Suppose I go and see."
"Do," said his wife.
She sat alone for half an hour, watching that sudden going out of
the day peculiar to the latitude.
"That moon is ghost enough for one house," she said, as her husband
returned. "It has gone right down the chimney."
"Patty," said little White, "the drug-clerk says the boys are going
to shivaree old Poquelin to-night. I'm going to try to stop it."
"Why, White," said his wife, "you'd better not. You'll get hurt."
"No, I'll not."
"Yes, you will."
"I'm going to sit out here until they come along. They're compelled
to pass right by here."
"Why, White, it may be midnight before they start; you're not going
to sit out here till then."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, you're very foolish," said Mrs. White in an undertone,
looking anxious, and tapping one of the steps with her foot.
They sat a very long time talking over little family matters.
"What's that?" at last said Mrs. White.
"That's the nine-o'clock gun," said White, and they relapsed into a
long-sustained, drowsy silence.
"Patty, you'd better go in and go to bed," said he at last.
"I'm not sleepy."
"Well, you're very foolish," quietly remarked little White, and
again silence fell upon them.
"Patty, suppose I walk out to the old house and see if I can find
out any thing."
"Suppose," said she, "you don't do any such—listen!"
Down the street arose a great hubbub. Dogs and boys were howling
and barking; men were laughing, shouting, groaning, and blowing horns,
whooping, and clanking cow-bells, whinnying, and howling, and rattling
pots and pans.
"They are coming this way," said little White. "You had better go
into the house, Patty."
"So had you."
"No. I'm going to see if I can't stop them."
"I'll be back in a minute," said White, and went toward the noise.
In a few moments the little Secretary met the mob. The pen
hesitates on the word, for there is a respectable difference,
measurable only on the scale of the half century, between a mob and a
charivari. Little White lifted his ineffectual voice. He faced the head
of the disorderly column, and cast himself about as if he were made of
wood and moved by the jerk of a string. He rushed to one who seemed,
from the size and clatter of his tin pan, to be a leader. "Stop these
fellows, Bienvenu, stop them just a minute, till I tell them
something." Bienvenu turned and brandished his instruments of discord
in an imploring way to the crowd. They slackened their pace, two or
three hushed their horns and joined the prayer of little White and
Bienvenu for silence. The throng halted. The hush was delicious.
"Bienvenu," said little White, "don't shivaree old Poquelin
"My fwang," said the swaying Bienvenu, "who tail you I goin' to
chahivahi somebody, eh? You sink bickause I make a little playfool wiz
zis tin pan zat I am dhonk?"
"Oh, no, Bienvenu, old fellow, you're all right. I was afraid you
might not know that old Poquelin was sick, you know, but you're not
going there, are you?"
"My fwang, I vay soy to tail you zat you ah dhonk as de dev'. I am
shem of you. I ham ze servan' of ze publique. Zese citoyens goin' to
wickwest Jean Poquelin to give to the Ursuline' two hondred fifty
"He quoi!" cried a listener, "Cinq cent piastres, oui!"
"Oui!" said Bienvenu, "and if he wiffuse we make him some lit'
musique; ta-ra-ta!" He hoisted a merry hand and foot, then frowning,
added: "Old Poquelin got no bizniz dhink s'much w'isky."
"But, gentlemen," said little White, around whom a circle had
gathered, "the old man is very sick."
"My faith!" cried a tiny Creole, "we did not make him to be sick.
W'en we have say we going make le charivari, do you want that we hall
tell a lie? My faith! 'sfools!"
"But you can shivaree somebody else," said desperate little White.
"Oui!" cried Bienvenu, "et chahivahi Jean-ah Poquelin tomo'w!"
"Let us go to Madame Schneider!" cried two or three, and amid
huzzas and confused cries, among which was heard a stentorian Celtic
call for drinks, the crowd again began to move.
"Cent piastres pour l'h™pital de charite!"
"One hongred dolla' for Charity Hospital!"
"Whang!" went a tin pan, the crowd yelled, and Pandemonium gaped
again. They were off at a right angle.
Nodding, Mrs. White looked at the mantle-clock.
"Well, if it isn't away after midnight."
The hideous noise down street was passing beyond earshot. She
raised a sash and listened. For a moment there was silence. Some one
came to the door.
"Is that you, White?"
"Yes." He entered. "I succeeded, Patty."
"Did you?" said Patty, joyfully.
"Yes. They've gone down to shivaree the old Dutchwoman who married
her step-daughter's sweetheart. They say she has got to pay a hundred
dollars to the hospital before they stop."
The couple retired, and Mrs. White slumbered. She was awakened by
her husband snapping the lid of his watch.
"What time?" she asked.
"Half-past three. Patty, I haven't slept a wink. Those fellows are
out yet. Don't you hear them?"
"Why, White, they're coming this way!"
"I know they are," said White, sliding out of bed and drawing on
his clothes, "and they're coming fast. You'd better go away from that
window, Patty. My! what a clatter!"
"Here they are," said Mrs. White, but her husband was gone. Two or
three hundred men and boys pass the place at a rapid walk straight down
the broad, new street, toward the hated house of ghosts. The din was
terrific. She saw little White at the head of the rabble brandishing
his arms and trying in vain to make himself heard; but they only shook
their heads, laughing and hooting the louder, and so passed, bearing
him on before them.
Swiftly they pass out from among the houses, away from the dim oil
lamps of the street, out into the broad starlit commons, and enter the
willowy jungles of the haunted ground. Some hearts fail and their
owners lag behind and turn back, suddenly remembering how near morning
it is. But the most part push on, tearing the air with their clamor.
Down ahead of them in the long, thicket-darkened way there is—
singularly enough—a faint, dancing light. It must be very near the
old house; it is. It has stopped now. It is a lantern, and is under a
well-known sapling which has grown up on the wayside since the canal
was filled. Now it swings mysteriously to and fro. A goodly number of
the more ghost-fearing give up the sport; but a full hundred move
forward at a run, doubling their devilish howling and banging.
Yes; it is a lantern, and there are two persons under the tree. The
crowd draws near—drops into a walk; one of the two is the old African
mute; he lifts the lantern up so that it shines on the other; the crowd
recoils; there is a hush of all clangor, and all at once, with a cry of
mingled fright and horror from every throat, the whole throng rushes
back, dropping every thing, sweeping past little White and hurrying on,
never stopping until the jungle is left behind, and then to find that
not one in ten has seen the cause of the stampede, and not one of the
tenth is certain what it was.
There is one huge fellow among them who looks capable of any
villany. He finds something to mount on, and, in the Creole patois,
calls a general halt. Bienvenu sinks down, and, vainly trying to
recline gracefully, resigns the leadership. The herd gather round the
speaker; he assures them that they have been outraged. Their right
peaceably to traverse the public streets has been trampled upon. Shall
such encroachments be endured? It is now daybreak. Let them go now by
the open light of day and force a free passage of the public highway!
A scattering consent was the response, and the crowd, thinned now
and drowsy, straggled quietly down toward the old house. Some drifted
ahead, others sauntered behind, but every one, as he again neared the
tree, came to a stand-still. Little White sat upon a bank of turf on
the opposite side of the way looking very stern and sad. To each
new-comer he put the same question:
"Did you come here to go to old Poquelin's?"
"He's dead." And if the shocked hearer started away he would say:
"Don't go away."
"I want you to go to the funeral presently."
If some Louisianian, too loyal to dear France or Spain to
understand English, looked bewildered, some one would interpret for
him; and presently they went. Little White led the van, the crowd
trooping after him down the middle of the way. The gate, that had never
been seen before unchained, was open. Stern little White stopped a
short distance from it; the rabble stopped behind him. Something was
moving out from under the veranda. The many whisperers stretched upward
to see. The African mute came very slowly toward the gate, leading by a
cord in the nose a small brown bull, which was harnessed to a rude
cart. On the flat body of the cart, under a black cloth, were seen the
outlines of a long box.
"Hats off, gentlemen," said little White, as the box came in view,
and the crowd silently uncovered.
"Gentlemen," said little White, "here come the last remains of Jean
Marie Poquelin, a better man, I'm afraid, with all his sins,—yes a
better—a kinder man to his blood—a man of more self-forgetful
goodness—than all of you put together will ever dare to be."
There was a profound hush as the vehicle came creaking through the
gate; but when it turned away from them toward the forest, those in
front started suddenly. There was a backward rush, then all stood still
again staring one way; for there, behind the bier, with eyes cast down
and labored step, walked the living remains—all that was left—of
little Jacques Poquelin, the long-hidden brother—a leper, as white as
Dumb with horror, the cringing crowd gazed upon the walking death.
They watched, in silent awe, the slow cortege creep down the long,
straight road and lessen on the view, until by and by it stopped where
a wild, unfrequented path branched off into the undergrowth toward the
rear of the ancient city.
"They are going to the Terre aux Lepreux," said one in the crowd.
The rest watched them in silence.
The little bull was set free; the mute, with the strength of an
ape, lifted the long box to his shoulder. For a moment more the mute
and the leper stood in sight, while the former adjusted his heavy
burden; then, without one backward glance upon the unkind human world,
turning their faces toward the ridge in the depths of the swamp known
as the Leper's Land, they stepped into the jungle, disappeared, and
were never seen again.