Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Cape Jessamine

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE two came from beneath the dripping trees out upon the cleared bank of the Mississippi, and into a glare of pine torches. The rain had lessened, the fitful wind beat the flames sideways, but failed to conquer them. There was, too, a tar barrel burning. The light was strong and red enough, a pulsing heart of light shading at its edges into smoky bronze and copper, then, a little further, lost in the wild night. The river curved like a scimitar, and the glare showed the turbulent edge of it and the swirling cross-current that was setting a tooth into the Cape Jessamine levee.

'Rasmus spoke. "Dis was always de danger place. Many er time I've seen de Cun'l ride down heah, en' stand er-lookin'!"

There seemed as many as a hundred negroes. They swarmed about the imperilled point; they went to it in two converging lines. Each man was bent under a load of something. He swung it from his shoulder, straightened himself, and hurried, right or left, back to shadowy heaps from which he lifted another load. "Dey sho' gwine need de sand bags dishyer night!" said 'Rasmus.

In the leaping and hovering light the negroes looked gigantic. Coal black, bending, lifting, rushing forward, set about with night and the snarl of the tiger, they had the seeming of genii from an Eastern tale. Their voices came chantingly, or, after a silence, in a sudden shout. Their shadows moved with them on the ground. Edward glanced around for the directing white man. "Dar ain't none," said 'Rasmus. "De haid oberseer when he heah dat New Orleans been taken he up en' say dey need mo' soldiers than dey do oberseers, en' he went ter Baton Rouge! En' de second oberseer dat come up en' tek he place, en' is er good man, las' week he broke he hip. En' dar wuz two-three others er-drif tin' erroun, doin' what dey wuz tol' ter do, en' dey gone too. When hit wants ter, de river kin pull 'em in en' drown 'em en' tek 'em erway, but dishyer war's de wust yet! Yaas, sah, dishyer war's er master han' at eatin' men! No, sah, dar ain't no white man, but dar's a white woman —"

Then Edward looked and saw Désirée Gaillard. She was standing high, beneath her heaped logs, behind her the night. She had clasped around her throat a soldier's cloak. The wind raised it, blew it outward, the crimson lining gleaming in the torchlight. All the red light beat upon her, upon the blowing hair, upon the deep eyes and parted lips, the outstretched arm and pointing hand, the dress of some bronze and clinging stuff, the bent knee, the foot resting upon a log end higher than its fellows. The out-flung and lifted cloak had the seeming of the floating drapery in some great canvas, billowing mantle of heroine, saint, or genius.

"Saintly," however, was certainly not the word, and Désirée would not have called herself heroine or genius. She was simply fearless and intent, and since, to keep the negroes in courage and energy, it was needful to keep them in good spirits, she was, also, to-night, cheerful, humorous, abounding in praise. Her voice rang out, deep and sweet. " Good man, Mingo ! Mingo 's carrying two to every-body else's one! Lawrence is doing well, though! So is Hannah's Tom! —

`Levee! levee! lock your hands hard!
Levee, levee! keep the river from my home! —'

Par ici, François ! Christopher, Harper, Sambo, Haiti, Mingo Second, make a line! Big Corinth, throw them the sacks! Work hard — work hard! You shall have rest to-morrow, and at night a feast! Look at Mingo, how he works! He is n't going to let the river cover Cape Jessamine! When the Colonel comes home he is going to say, `Good boy, Mingo!' To-morrow night all the banjos playing, and good things to eat, and the house-servants down at the quarters, and a dance like Christmas! — Mingo, Mingo, put ten sacks just there —"

When she saw the soldier beside her her eyes opened wide in a moment's query, after which she accepted him as an item of the storm and the night. All the land was in storm, and the stream of events rapid. From every quarter and from distant forests the wind blew the leaves. Sometimes one knew the tree from which they came, sometimes not. On presumption, though, if the leaf were grey, the tree was a proper tree, humble, perhaps, in its region and dime, but sound at heart and of a right grain. When Private Edward Cary, gaunt, ragged, muddy, unshaven, asked what he could do, she considered him gravely, then gave him Mingo Second and thirty men, with whom he set to strengthening a place of danger not so imminent. From where he worked he heard at intervals her clear voice, now insouciante, now thrilling. There came a moment of leisure. He turned and saw her where she stood, her knee bent, her hand and arm outstretched against the river, the horseman's cloak blown backward and upward into a canopy, the red light over all, strong and clear upon her face and throat and bronze-sheathed body — saw her and loved her.

The December night, already well advanced, grew old. Always the river attacked, always the land opposed. The yellow current sucked and dragged, but the dyke held and the dyke grew stronger. The rain ceased; far up in the sky, through a small, small rift peered a star. The wind died into a whisper. By three o'clock there came a feeling that the crisis had passed. 'Rasmus, working well with Ed-ward's detachment, gave it voice. "Cape Jessamine's done stood heah sence de flood, en' I specs days two hundred yeahs! Yaas, Bawd! En' when Gabriel blow he trump, Cape Jessamine gwine up en' say, `Heah I is, sah! "

And at that moment there came running through the fields a wild-eyed negro, panic in his outstretched hands. "De levee by de backwoods — de levee by de backwoods — de levee what nobody eber thinks ob, hit's so safe! De ribber done swing ergin hit — de ribber done gouge er hole big ez de debbil ! De yerth 's er-tumblin' in, en' de ribber's comin' out —"

Through the last half-hour of the night, up a broad avenue between water oaks, Edward found himself hurrying with Désirée. Before them raced the negroes, some upon the road, others streaming through the bordering fields. Désirée ran like a huntress of Diana's. Her soldier's cloak, blown by the wind, impeded her flight. She unclasped it as she ran, and Edward took it from her.

"Will the house go ?" he asked. "How great is the danger ?"

She shook her head. "I don't think we are in danger of our lives. I don't think the water can get to the house. It is not as though the levee had broken where we were working. What would happen then does n't stand contemplating. This other is but an arm of the river not deep nor strong. I think that the house quarters are safe and the stables. But we must get the women and children and the old men from the lower quarter. And the cattle in the fields—" She ran faster.

In the pallor of the dawn the house of Cape Jessamine rose before them. Winged, with columns and verandahs, it loomed in the grey light above leisurely climbing wide lawns and bosky garden. At the house gates, — iron scroll and tracery between brick pillars, antique, graceful, — they were met by the younger, less responsible of the house servants.

"O my Lawd! O Lawd Jesus! O my Lawd, Missy! de ribber's out O my Lawd, my sins! What we gwine ter do ?"

"We 're going to stand a siege," said Désirée. "Have they brought Mr. Marcus in ?

"No'm. Dey waitin' fer you ter tell dem —"

She pushed the cluster aside and ran on up the broad path, Ed-ward following. They mounted the steps, passed between the pillars, entered, and sped through a wide panelled hall and came out upon another verandah commanding a grassy space between house and offices. At a little distance, upon the same level, straggling away beneath pecan and pine and moss-draped oak, could be seen the house quarter.

The negroes came crowding, men and women, big and little. "De ribber, Missy! De ribber, Missy! I don' climb er tree en' see hit! I see hit er-comin' en' er-eatin' up de cotton en' de cane! O my Lawd, hit er comin' lak er thief in de night-time! O my Lawd, hit er comin' lak er ha'nt!"

Désirée stood on the verandah steps and issued her orders. "Mingo, you take four men and go to the overseer's house. Tell Mr. Marcus that I say he's not to trust to the water not coming high in his house. Tell him I order him to come to the big house. Take him up on his mattress and bring him. Hurry, now, hurry! Mingo Second, Lawrence, Adolph, Creed, Lot, — six more of you! Try what you can do for the cattle in the lower fields! Try hard! If you bring them in, you shall have everything double to-night! — Haiti, Sambo, Hannah's Tom, all of you men on this side, — yes, you too, soldier, if you will! we'll go now and bring the women and children and old men from the lower quarter!"

They were brought in — brought the last part of the distance through the knee-deep flood. When they got to the rising ground and the house quarter the water was close behind them. Yellow now in the strengthening light, beneath a tempestuous morning sky, it washed and sucked and drew against the just-out-of-reach demesne.

When the crippled overseer had been laid in a wing of the house, and the lower-quarter people had been disposed of in the house quarter and the innumerable out-buildings, when the cattle Mingo Second brought in had been stalled and penned, when with great iron keys Désirée had opened smokehouse and storehouse and given out rations, when fires had been kindled on cabin hearths, and old Daddy Martin had taken his banjo, and the house servants had regained equanimity and importance, and "Missy" had lavishly praised everybody, even the piccaninnies who had n't cried — the plantation, so suddenly curtailed, settled under a stormy yellow sun-rise into a not unpleasurable excitement and holiday feeling — much like that of an important funeral.

Désirée stood at last alone but for Edward, and for two or three house servants, hovering in the doorway. She had again about her the scarlet-lined cloak; her throat, face, and head were drawn superbly against the lighted east.

She pushed back her wind-blown hair and laughed. "It might have been worse! — which is my habitual philosophy! We will have fair weather now, and the water will go down."

"I am strange to this country," said Edward. "How can I find the road to Vidalia ?"

He stood illumined by the morning glow, his rifle beside him where he had leaned it against the pillar. Now and again, through the past hours, his voice had been in her ear. In the first hearing it, in the moil and anxiety, she had at once the knowledge that this chance soldier possessed breeding. In this time and region the "private" before the "soldier" had the slightest of qualificatory value. University and professional men, wealthy planters, sons of commanding generals — all sorts and conditions were private soldiers. This one was, it appeared from his voice, of her own condition. But though she had noted his voice, by torchlight or by daybreak she had scarce looked at him. Now she did so; each looked into the other's eyes.

"Vidalia ? The road to Vidalia is covered. You must wait until the water goes down."

"How long will that be ?"

"Three days, perhaps. . . . You gave me good help. Permit me now to regard you as my guest."

"You are all goodness. If you will give yourself no concern — I am Edward Cary, private in the —th Virginia Infantry, lately transferred South. An accident, yesterday evening, left me behind my company on the road to Vidalia. I must follow as soon as it is at all possible."

"It is not so yet. My father is with General Beauregard. My brother is at Grenada with General Van Dorn. I am Désirée Gail-lard. We Louisianians know what soldiers are the Virginia troops. Cape Jessamine gives you welcome and says, `Be at home for these three days.' "

She turned and spoke. The old butler came forward. "Etienne, this gentleman is our guest. Show him to the panelled room, and tell Simon he is to wait upon him." She spoke again to Edward. "Break-fast will be sent to you there. And then you must sleep. — No, there is nothing we can do. The danger to the main levee has passed for this time, I am sure. — Yes, there is still food. We can only fold our hands and wait. I am used to that if you are not. Refresh yourself and sleep. Supper is at seven, and I hope that you will take it with me."

The panelled room, with a lightwood fire crackling upon the hearth, with jalousied windows just brushed against from without by a superb magnolia, with a cricket chirping, with a great soft white bed — ah, the panelled room was a place in which to sleep! The weary soldier from Virginia slept like the dead. The day passed, the afternoon was drawing toward evening, before he began to dream. First he dreamed of battle; of A. P. Hill in his red battle-shirt, and of an order from "Old Jack" which nobody could read, but which everybody knew must be immediately obeyed. In the midst of the whole division trying to decipher it, it suddenly became perfectly plain, and the Light Division marched to carry it out, — only he himself was suddenly back home at Greenwood and Mammy was singing to him

"The buzzards and the butterflies."

He turned upon his side and drifted to the University, and then turned again and dreamed of a poem which it seemed he was writing, — a great poem, — a string of sonnets, like Petrarch or Surrey or Philip Sidney. The sonnets were all about Love. . . . He woke fully and his mind filled at once with the red torchlight, the wild river beyond the levee, and the face and form of Désirée Gaillard.

The door gently opened and Simon entered the panelled room, behind him two boys bearing great pitchers of heated water. The lightwood fire was burning brightly; through the jalousies stole the slant rays of the sinking sun; the magnolia, pushed by the evening wind, tapped against the window frame. Simon had across his extended arm divers articles of wearing apparel. These he laid with solemnity upon a couch by the fire, and then, having dismissed the boys and observed that Edward was awake, he bowed and hoped that the guest had slept well.

"Heavenly well," said Edward dreamily. "Hot water, soap, and towels."

"I hab tek de liberty, sah," said Simon, "ob extractin' yo' uniform from de room while you slep'. De mud whar we could clean off, we hab cleaned off, en' we hab pressed de uniform, but de sempstress she say 'scuse her fer not mendin' de tohn places better. She say dat uniform sut'n'y seen hard service."

"She's a woman of discernment," said Edward. "The tatters are not what troubles me. No end of knights and poets have appeared in tatters. But I do feel a touch when it comes to the shoes. There's nothing of the grand manner in your toes being out. And had it ever occurred to you, Simon, before this war, how valuable is a shoestring?" He sat up in bed. "At this moment I would give all the silken waistcoats I used to have for two real shoestrings. — What, may I ask, could you do for the shoes ?"

"King Hiram de cobbler, sah, he hab de shoes in han'. He shake he haid, but he say he gwine do all he kin. De sempstress, too, she say she gwine do her natchul bes'. But Miss Désirée, she say dat perhaps you will give Marse Louis, what am at Grenada wif Gineral Van Dorn, de pleasure ob sarvin' you? She say de Mississippi River all 'roun' Cape Jessamine fer three days, en' nobody gwine come heah Iess'n dey come in gunboats, en' you kin wear yo' uniform away de third day —" Simon, stepping backward, indicated with a gesture the apparel spread upon the sofa. "You en' Marse Louis, sah, am erbout ob er height en' make. Miss Désirée tol' me so, en' den I see fer myself. Marse Louis's evening clothes, sah, en' some ob his linen, en' a ruffled shu't, en' er pair ob his pumps dat ar mighty ol', but yet better than yo' shoes. — Dat am de bell-cord ober dar, sah, en' ef yo' please, ring when you ready fer me ter shave you.

Downstairs the last roses of the west tossed a glow into the Cape Jessamine drawing-room. It suffused the high, bare, distinguished place, lay in carmine pools upon the floor, glorified the bowls of late flowers and made splendid the silken, heavy, old-gold skirt of Désirée Gaillard. There was a low fire burning on the hearth. She sat beside it, in an old gilt French chair, her hands resting upon the arms. Folding doors between room and hall were opened. Désirée could see the spacious, finely built stairs from the gallery landing down; thus she had fair benefit of Edward Cary's entrance. The candles had been lighted before he came. Those in the hall sconces gave a beautiful, mellow light. Désirée had made no effort to explain to herself why all the candles were lighted, and why she was wearing that one of her year-before-last Mardigras dresses which she liked the best. She rarely troubled to explain her actions, to herself or to another. All her movements were characterized by a certain imperial sureness, harmony. If she merely wished — the Southern armies being held in passionate regard by all Southern women — to do a ragged Virginia private honour; if she wished, delicately, fleetingly, half-ironically to play-act a little in the mist of flood and war; if she wished, or out of caprice or in dead earnest, to make a fairy oasis — why, she wished it! Whatever had been her motive, she possibly felt, in the moment of Edward Cary's appearance on the stair, that gown and lights were justified.

He was a man eminently good to look at. Louis Gaillard, it appeared, knew how to dress; at any rate, the apparel that Edward wore to-night became him so well that it was at once forgotten. He was clean-shaven, and Simon had much shortened the sunburnt hair.

Down the stair and across hall and drawing-room he came to her side. "Did you ever get through the thorny wood and the briar hedge in the fairy story? That's what, without any doubt, I have done!"

Désirée smiled, and the room seemed to fill with soft rose and golden lights. "I don't call it a thorny wood and a briar hedge. I always see a moat with a draw-bridge that you have to catch just at the right moment, or not at all —"

At table they talked of this or that — which is to say that they talked of War. War had gripped their land so closely and so long; War had harried their every field; War had marked their every door — all their world, when it talked of this and that, talked only of some expression on some one of War's many faces. It might be wildly gay, the talk, or simple and sad, or brief and grave, with tragic brows, or bitterer than myrrh, or curiously humorous, or sardonic, or angry, or ironic, or infinitely touching, or with flashing eyes, or with a hand that wiped the drop away; but always the usual, customary talk into which folk fell was merely War. So Désirée and Edward talked War while they ate the delicate, frugal supper.

But when it was eaten, and he followed her back into the drawing-room, they sat on either side the hearth, the leaping red and topaz flame between them lighting each face, and little by little forgot to talk of this and that.

It appeared that save for the servants she had had few to talk to for a long, long while. There was a relief, a childlike outpouring of thought and fancy caged for months. It was like the awakened princess, eager with her dreams of a hundred years. They were dreams of a distinction, now noble, now quaint, and always some-what strange. He learned a little of her outward life — of her ancestry, half French, half English; of her mother's death long ago; of her father, studious, courteous, silent, leaving her to go her own way, telling her that he, not she, was the rapier in action, the reincarnated, old adventurousness of his line. He learned that she idolized her brother; that, save for a year once in France and six weeks each winter in New Orleans, she rarely left Cape Jessamine. He gathered that here she reigned more absolute than her father, that she loved her life, the servants, and the great plantation. It was as large almost as a principality, yet, even principalities had neighbours up and down the river! He gathered that there had been visiting enough, comings and goings, before the war. Other principalities had probably come a-wooing - he hoped with passion to no purpose! He also was of the old, Southern life; he knew it all, and how her days had gone; she was only further South than his sisters in Virginia. He knew, too, how the last eighteen months had gone; he knew how they went with the women at home.

They sat by the jewelled fire and talked and talked — of all things but this and that. War, like a spent thunder-cloud, drifted from their minds. They did not continuously talk; there were silences when they looked into the exquisite flame, or, with quiet, wide eyes, each at the other. They were young, but their inner type was. ancient of days; they sat quiet, subtle, poised, not unlike a Leonardo canvas. Before ten o'clock she rose and said good night and they parted. In the panelled room Cary opened the window and stood gazing out. There was a great round moon whitening a garden, and tall, strange trees. He saw an opaline land of the heart, an immemorial, passion-pale Paradise, and around it all the watery barrier of the flood. Désirée, in her own room, walked up and down, up and down, then knelt before her fire and smiled to find that she was crying.

The next morning, although he was up early, he did not see her until eleven o'clock. Then he came upon her as she quitted the wing in which had been laid the crippled overseer. All around was an old, formal garden, the day grey pearl, a few coloured leaves falling. The two sat upon the step of a summer-house, and at first they talked of the recession of the water and the plantation round which had kept her through the morning. Then, answering her smiling questions, he told her of his home and family, lightly and readily, meaning that she should know how to place him. After this the note of last evening came back, and with its thrilling sound the two fell silent, sitting in the Southern sunshine, gazing past the garden upon the lessening crescent of the flood.

Late in the afternoon, as he sat in a dream before an excellent old collection of books, the door opened and she appeared on the thresh-old, about her the cloak of the other night. He rose, laying down an unopened book.

"I am going," she said, "to walk down the avenue to look at the levee."

They walked beneath the slant rays, through the deepening shade. Before them was the great river; turn the head and they saw, beyond the rising ground and the house gleaming from the trees, the encroaching backwater, the two horns of that sickle all but touching the main levee. When they came upon this, out of the long avenue, the cypresses behind them were black against the lit west, unearthly still and dark against the gold. The river, too, was gold, a red gold, deep and very wide and swift.

They stood upon the levee, and even his unaccustomed eye saw that the danger and strain of the other night was much lessened, but that always there was danger. — The price of safety hereabouts is vigilance."

"Yes. To keep up the levees. Now and then, before the War, we heard of catastrophes — though they were mostly down the river. Then, up and down, everything would be strengthened. But now — neglect because we cannot help it, and tremor in the night-time! Below Baton Rouge the Yankees have broken the levees. Oh, the distress, the loss! If Port Hudson falls and they come up the river, or Vicksburg and they come down it, Cape Jessamine will be as others." She drew her cloak close for a moment, then loosened it, held her head high and laughed. "But we shall win, and it will not happen! . . . If we walk to the bend yonder, we shall see far, far! — and it is lovely."

At the bend was a bench beneath a live-oak. The two sat down and looked forth upon vast levels and shining loops of the river. From the boughs above hung Spanish moss, long and dark, like cob-webs of all time, like mouldered banners of some contest long since fought out. The air was an amethyst profound.

For some minutes she kept the talk upon this and that, then with resolution he made it die away. They sat in a silence that soon grew speech indeed. Before them the golden river grew pale, the vast plain, here overflowed, there seamed with huge, shaggy forests, gathered shadow; above day at its latest breath shone out a silver planet.

Désirée shivered. "It is mournful, it is mournful," she said, "at Cape Jessamine."

"Is it so ? Then let me breathe mournfulness until I die." "The water is going down. Mingo says it is going down fast." "Yes. I could find it in my heart to wish it might never go down."

"It will. I am not old, but I see how what - what has been pleas-ant, dwindles, lessens — The road to Vidalia lies over there." "Yes. In the shadow, while the light stays here."

Silence fell again, save for a bird's deep cry in some canebrake. Presently she rose and set her face toward the house. They hardly spoke, all the way back, beneath the cypresses.

In a little while came night and candlelight. He found her in the dress of the evening before, by the jewelled flame, ruby and amber. They went into the next room, where there were tall candles upon the table, and ate of the delicate, frugal fare. There was some murmured dreamy talk. They soon rose and returned to the drawing-room. There was a chess-table, and she proposed a game, but they played languidly, moving the pieces slowly. Once their hands touched. She drew back; he lifted his eyes, then lowered them. It is probable that they did not know which won.

Again at ten, she said good night. Standing within the door he watched her slowly mount the stair—a form all wrapped in gold, a haunting face. At the turn of the stair there came a pause. She half turned, some parting courtesy upon her lips. It died there, for his upward look caught hers. Her face changed to meet the change in his, her body bent as his strained toward her; so they stayed while the clock ticked a quarter-minute. She was the first to recover herself. She uttered a low sound, half cry, half singing note, straightened herself and fled.

The next morning again solitude and the drift of leaves in the garden walks. He did not see her until the middle of the day, and then she was somewhat stately in her courtesy, dreamy and brief of speech.

"Would he excuse her at dinner ? There was a woman ill at the quarter —"

"I asked you to let me give you no trouble. Only the day is flying and to-morrow morning I must be gone."

"The water is not down yet!"

"Yes, it is, or all but so. I have been to see. I must go, you know that — go at dawn."

"I will be in the garden at four."

But in the garden, she said it was sad with the cold, dank paths and the fading roses. They came up upon the portico and passed through a long window into the drawing-room. She moved to the hearth and sat in her great, gilt chair, staring into a deep bed of coals above which, many-hued, played the flames. There was in the room a closed piano. "No; she did not use it. Her mother had." He opened it, sat down and sang to her. He sang old love-songs, old and passionate, and he sang as though the piano were a lute and he a minstrel knight, sang like Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli.

When he made an end and rose, she was no longer by the fire. She had moved to the end of the room, opened the long window, and was out in the sunset light. He found her leaning against a pillar, her eyes upon the narrow, ragged, and gleaming ribbon into which had shrunk the flood at Cape Jessamine.

For a moment there was silence, then he spoke. "Nice customs curtsy to great kings," he said, "and great love knows no wrong times and mistaken hours. Absence and the chance of war are on their way. I dare hold my tongue no longer. Moreover, you, too, — I believe that you, too, know what this is that has come upon us! The two halves of the whole real world must in some fashion know each other — I love you, Désirée Gaillard — loved you when I saw you first, there on the river bank —"

He put out his hands. Hers came to them, unhesitatingly. She uttered the same sound, half cry, half singing note, with which she had turned upon the stair the night before. In a moment they had embraced.

Home | More Articles | Email: