Creole families of New Orleans (scan version with content links)

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Now the land of which I tell thee is a low land, where all things seem to have remained unchanged since the beginning of the world,—a winterless land where winds are warm and weak, so that the leaves are not moved by them,—a beshadowed land that ever seemeth to mourn with a great mourning.

For it is one mighty wold, and the trees there be all hung with drooping plants and drooling vines, and dribbling mossy things that pend queerly from the uppermost branchings even to the crankling roots. And there be birds in that wold which do sing only when the moon shineth full,—and they have voices, like to monks,—and measured is their singing, and solemn, and of vasty sound,—and they are not at all afraid. But when the sun shineth there prevaileth such quiet as if some mighty witchcraft weighed upon the place; and all things drowse in the great green silence.

Now on the night of which I tell thee, we had camped there; and it seemed to me that we might in sooth have voyaged beyond the boundaries of the world; for even the heavens were changed above us, and the stars were not the same; and I could not sleep for thinking of the strangeness of the land and of the sky. And about the third watch I rose and went out under those stars, and looked at them, and listened to the psalmody of the wonderful birds chanting in the night like friars.

Then a curious desire to wander alone into the deep woods came upon me. The grizzled sentry desired to question me;—I cursed him and passed on. And I was far away from the camp when the night grew pale, and the fire of the great strange Cross of stars, about which I have told thee, faded out, and I watched the edge of the East glow ruddy and ruddier with the redness of iron in a smithy; until the sun rose up, yellow like an orange is, with palm-leaves sharply limned against his face.

Then I heard the Spanish trumpets sounding their call through the morning; but I did not desire to return. Whether it was the perfume of the flowers, or the odors of unknown spice-trees or some enchantment in the air, I could not tell thee; but I do remember that, as I wandered on, a sudden resolve came to me never to rejoin those comrades of mine.

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And a stranger feeling grew upon me like a weakness of heart,—like a great sorrow for I knew not what; and the fierceness of the life that I had lived passed away from me, and I was even as one about to weep. Wild doves whirred down from the trees to perch on my casque and armored shoulders; and I wondered that they suffered me to touch them with my hands, and were in no wise afraid. So day broadened and brightened above me; and it came to pass that I found myself following a path where the trunks of prodigious trees filed away like lines of pillars, reaching out of sight,—and their branches made groinings like work of arches above me, so that it was like a monstrous church; and the air was heavy with a perfume like incense.

All about me blazed those birds which are not bigger than bees, but do seem to have been made by God out of all manner of jewels and colored fire; also there were apes in multitude, and reptiles beyond reckoning, and singing insects, and talking birds. Then I asked myself whether I were not in one of those lands old Moors in Spain told of,—lands near the sinking of the sun, where fountains of magical water are. And fancy begetting fancy, it came to pass that I found me dreaming of that which Juan Ponce de Leon sought. Thus dreaming as I went on, it appeared to me that the green dimnesses deepened, and the forest became loftier.

And the trees now looked older than the deluge; and the stems of the things that coiled and climbed about them were enormous and gray; and the tatters of the pendent mosses were blanched as with the hoariness of ages beyond reckoning. Again I heard the trumpet sounding,—but so far off that the echo was not louder than the droning of the great flies; and I was gladdened by the fancy that it would soon have no power to reach mine ears.

And all suddenly I found myself within a vast clear space,—ringed about by palms so lofty that their tops appeared to touch the sky, and their shadows darkened all within the circle of them. And there was a great silence awhile, broken only by the whispering of waters. My feet made no sound, so thick was the moss I trod upon; and from the circle of the palms on every side the ground sloped down to a great basin of shimmering water.

So clear it was that I could perceive sparkles of gold in the sands below; and the water seemed forced upward in a mighty underflow from the centre of the basin, where there was a deep, dark place. And into the bright basin there trickled streamlets also from beneath the roots of the immense trees; and I became aware of a great subterrene murmuring, as if those waters—which are beneath the earth—were all seeking to burst their way up to the sun. Then, being foredone with heat and weariness, I doffed my armor and my apparel and plunged into the pool of the fountain. And I discovered that the brightness of the water had deluded me; for so deep was it that by diving I could not reach the bottom.

Neither was the fountain tepid as are the slow river currents of that strange land, but of a pleasant frigidness,—like those waters that leap among the rocks of Castile.

And I felt a new strength and a puissant joy, as one having long traveled with burning feet through some fevered and fiery land feeleth new life when the freshness of sea-winds striketh against his face, and the jocund brawling of the great billows smiteth his ears through the silence of desolation. And the joyousness I knew as a boy seemed to flame through all my blood again,—so that I sported in the luminous ripples and laughed aloud, and uttered shouts of glee; and high above me in the ancient trees wonderful birds mocked my shoutings and answered my laughter hoarsely, as with human voices.

And when I provoked them further, they did imitate my speech till it seemed that a thousand echoes repeated me. And, having left the fount, no hunger nor weariness weighed upon me,—but I yielded unto a feeling of delicious drowsihead, and laid me down upon the moss to sleep as deeply as an infant sleepeth.

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Now, when I opened mine eyes again, I wondered greatly to behold a woman bending over me,—and presently I wondered even much more, for never until then had it been given me to look upon aught so comely. Begirdled with flowers she was, but all ungarmented,—and lithe to see as the rib of a palmleaf is,—and so aureate of color that she seemed as one created of living gold. And her hair was long and sable as wing-feathers of ravens are, with shifting gleams of blue,—and was interwoven with curious white blossoms.

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And her eyes, for color like to her hair, I could never describe for thee,—that large they were, and limpid, and lustrous, and sweet-lidded! So gracious her stature and so wonderful the lissomeness of her, that, for the first time, I verily knew fear,—deeming it never possible that earthly being might be so goodly to the sight. Nor did the awe that was upon me pass away until I had seen her smile,—having dared to speak to her in my own tongue, which she understood not at all. But when I had made certain signs she brought me fruits fragrant and golden as her own skin; and as she bent over me again our lips met, and with the strange joy of it I felt even as one about to die,—for her mouth was—.

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Already the hand of death is on thee; waste not these priceless moments in speech of vanity,—rather confess thee speedily that I may absolve thee from thy grievous sin. So be it, padre mio , I will speak to thee only of that which a confessor should know. But I may surely tell thee those were the happiest of my years; for in that low dim land even Earth and Heaven seemed to kiss; and never did other mortal feel the joy I knew of, love that wearies never and youth that passeth never away.

Verily, it was the Eden-garden, the Paradise of Eve. Fruits succulent and perfume were our food,—the moss, springy and ever cool, formed our bed, made odorous with flowers; and for night-lamps we prisoned those wondrous flies that sparkle through darkness like falling stars. Never a cloud or tempest,—no fierce rain nor parching heat, but spring everlasting, filled with scent of undying flowers, and perpetual laughter of waters, and piping of silver-throated birds.

Rarely did we wander far from that murmuring hollow.

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My cuirass, and casque, and good sword of Seville, I allowed to rust away; my garments fell into dust; but neither weapon nor garment were needed where all was drowsy joy and unchanging warmth. Once she whispered to me in my own tongue, which she had learned with marvelous ease, though I, indeed, never could acquire hers: 'Dost know, Querido mio , here one may never grow old?

But she smiled, and pressed her pliant golden fingers upon my lips, and would not suffer me to ask more,—neither could I at any time after find heart to beseech her further regarding matters she was not fain to converse of. Yet ever and anon she bade me well beware that I should not trust myself to stray alone into the deep dimness beyond the dale of the fountains: ' Lest the Shadows lay hold upon thee ,' she said.

And I laughed low at her words, never discerning that the Shadows whereof she spake were those that Age and Death cast athwart the sunshine of the world.

Be not fearful, father; I may not die before I have told thee all I have spoken of our happiness; now must I tell thee of our torment—the strangest thing of all? Dost remember what I related to thee about the sound of the trumpet summoning me?

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Now was it not a ghostly thing that I should hear every midnight that same summons,—not faintly as before, but loud and long—once? Night after night, ever at the same hour, and ever with the same sonority, even when lying in her arms, I heard it—as a voice of brass, rolling through the world. And whensoever that cursed sound came to us, she trembled in the darkness, and linked her arms more tightly about me, and wept, and would not be comforted till I had many times promised that I should not forsake her.

And through all those years I heard that trumpet-call—years, said I?

And nightly I strove to shut out the sound from my ears and could not; and nightly the torment of hearing it ever increased like a torment of hell— ay de mit nightly, for uncounted generations of years! So that in time a great fury would seize me whenever the cursed echoes came; and, one dark hour, when she seemed to hear it not, and slept deeply, I sought my rusted blade, and betook me toward the sound,—beyond the dale of fountains—into the further dimness of swaying mosses,—whither, meseems, the low land trendeth southward and toward those wan wastes which are not land nor water, yet which do quake to a great and constant roaring as of waves in wrath.

Now I feel, padre, that but little time is allotted me to speak. I may never recount to thee my wanderings, and they, indeed, are of small moment.

And when I found myself again among men, lo! And my tale I dared tell to none, through fear of being confined with madmen, save to thee alone, and for this purpose only I summoned thee. Surely had I lived much in this new age of thine men must have deemed me bereft of reason, seeing that my words and ways were not like unto theirs; but I have passed my years in the morasses of unknown tropics, with the python and the cayman,—and in the dark remoteness of forests inhabited by monstrous things,—and in forgotten ruins of dead Indian cities,—and by shores of strange rivers that have no names,—until my hair whitened and my limbs were withered and my great strength was utterly spent in looking for her.

Yet I do believe thy tale. Awesome it is and strange; but the traditions of the Holy Church contain things that are not less strange: witness the legend of the Blessed Seven of Ephesus, whose lives were three hundred and sixty years preserved that the heresy concerning the resurrection of the flesh might be confounded forever. Even in some such way hath the Lord preserved thee through the centuries for this thine hour of repentance. Commend, therefore, thy soul to God, repentingly, and banish utterly from thee that evil spirit who still tempts thee in the semblance of woman.

Kneeling devoutly, the confessor covered his face with his hands, and prayed even as he had never prayed before. When he lifted his eyes again, lo! And all the East brightened;—and, touched by the yellow magic of the sun, the vapors above the place of his rising formed themselves into a Fountain of Gold. Sometimes, in that Gloaming that divides deep sleep from the awakening,—when out of the world of wavering memories the first thin fancies begin to soar, like neuroptera, rising on diaphanous wing from a waste of marsh-grasses,—there suddenly comes an old, old longing that stings thought into nervous activity with a sharp pain.

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The impression in the first moment of wakefulness might be likened to a sense of nostalgia,—but the nostalgia which is rather a world-sickness than a homesickness; there is something in it also resembling the vain regret for what has been left perhaps twenty-years' journey behind us, and has now become a tropical remembrance because we have traveled so far toward the Northern Circle of life. Yet the longing I refer to is more puissant and more subtle than these definable feelings are;—it has almost the force of an impulse; it has no real affinity with the recognizable Past; its visions are archipelagoes which never loomed for us over the heaving of any remembered seas; it is like an unutterable wish to flee away from the Present into the Unknown,—a beautiful unknown, radiant with impossible luminosities of azure and sun-gold!

I do not know how to account for this impulse,—unless as an unexplained Something in Man corresponding to the instinct of migration in lower forms of life—especially in those happy winged creatures privileged to follow the perfumed Summer round about the world. And I think it comes to us usually either with the first lukewarm burst of spring, or with the windy glories of autumn. Nevertheless, in the morning it came, out of season, and remained with me, while I watched from the balcony birds and ships alike fleeting tropicward with many-colored wings outspread, and thought of a tame crane at home,—with one wing hopelessly maimed,—that used to cry out bitterly to processions of his wild kindred sailing above the city roofs on their way to other skies.

Why these longings for lands in which we shall never be? Has it not often seemed to you that the more antiquated and the more unfamiliar an object or a place is, the more it appears at first sight to live,—to possess a sort of inner being, a fetish-spirit, a soul?

I thought that morning the ancient Plaza had such a soul, and that it spoke to me in its mysterious dumb way, as if saying: 'Come look at me, because I am very, very old;—but do not look at the sulphur fountain which the Americans have made, nor at the monument they have built; for those are not of the centuries to which I belong.

Suddenly my indifferent eye noted a graven word which revealed that the newer structure had been erected by Love, and for Love's sake only. And then, all unexpectedly, the very artlessness of the monument touched me as with a voiceless reproach,—touched me like the artlessness of a face in tears: so much of tender pain revealed itself through the simplicity of the chiseled words, OUR DEAD ,—through the commonplaceness of the inscription, ' Erected by the Ladies' Memorial Association.

I read them every one; carefully spelling out many a Spanish name of Andalusian origin: sonorous appellations holding in their syllables etymological suggestions of Arabian ancestry—names swarthy and beautiful as an Oriental face might be. And all the while, —dominating the perfume of blossoms, and the keen sweet scent of aromatic grasses,—the sulphureous smell of the Volcanic spring came to me grimly through the warm aureate air,—like an odor of battles!

There was a name upon that white stone which affected me in a singular way,—a name that by contrast with those dark Spanish ones seemed fair, blonde as gold! In someplace—at some time, I had known that name. Even as a perfume may create for us the spectre of a vanished day, or as a melody may suddenly evoke for us the forgotten tone of some dear voice,—so may the sound or sight of a name momentarily revive for us all the faded colors of some memory-portrait so beautiful, so beloved, that we had become afraid to look at it, and had permitted innumerable spiders of Monotony to weave their tintless gauze before its face.

But we have had experiences which are now so long dead and so profoundly sepultured in the Cemetery of Recollection that no mnemonic necromancy can lend them recognizable outline; they have become totally spiritualized, and reveal themselves only as faint wind-stirrings in the atmosphere of Thought. Surely the experience connected in some vague way with that blonde name must have belonged to these:—the memory had been; for I knew the presence of its ghost; but viewless it obstinately remained. It pursued me through the amber afternoon.