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Lafcadio Hearn - A River Reverie

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


A DESCRIPTIVE sketch written in 1882 when Hearn was a reporter in New Orleans, and later published in Fantastics and Other Fancies. Hearn's prose is remarkable for its movement and color. His temper and method were particularly adapted to the portrayal of vivid beauty and exotic charm; and he was most at home in the warm South, or in Japan. Of his earlier books Chita and Youma are notable; among the fruits of a Japanese residence are Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Out of the East, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, In Ghostly Japan.

AN old Western river port, lying in a wrinkle of the hills, a sharp slope down to the yellow water, glowing under the sun like molten bronze, a broken hollow square of buildings framing it in, whose basements had been made green by the lipping of water during inundations periodical as the rising of the Nile, a cannonade rumble of drays over the boulders, and muffled drum thumping of cotton bales, white signs black lettered with names of steamboat companies, and the green latticework of saloon doors flanked by empty kegs, above, church spires cutting the blue, below, on the slope, hogsheads, bales, drays, cases, boxes, barrels, kegs, mules, wagons, policemen, loungers, and roustabouts, whose apparel is at once as picturesque, as ragged, and as colorless as the fronts of their favorite haunts on the water-front. Westward the purple of softly-rolling hills beyond the flood, through a diaphanous veil of golden haze, a marshaled array of white boats with arabesque lightness of painted woodwork, and a long and irregular line of smoking chimneys. The scene never varied save with the varying tints of weather and season. Sometimes the hills were gray through an atmosphere of rain, sometimes they vanished altogether in an autumn fog; but the port never changed. And in summer or spring, at the foot of the iron stairway leading up to a steamboat agency in the great middle building facing the river, there was a folding stool

which no one ever tried to steal which even the most hardened wharf thieves respected, and on that stool, at the same hour every day, a pleasant-faced old man with a very long white beard used to sit. If you asked anybody who it was, the invariable reply was: "Oh! that's old Captain ; used to be in the New Orleans trade; had to give up the river on account of rheumatism; comes down every day to look at things."

Wonder whether the old captain still sits there of bright afternoons, to watch the returning steamers panting with their mighty run from the Far South, or whether he has sailed away upon that other river, silent and colorless as winter's fog, to that vast and shadowy port where much ghostly freight is discharged from vessels that never return? He haunts us sometimes, even as he must have been haunted by the ghosts of dead years.

When some great white boat came in, uttering its long, wild cry of joy after its giant race of eighteen hundred miles, to be reechoed by the hundred voices of the rolling hills, surely the old man must have dreamed upon his folding stool of marvelous nights upon the Mississippi, nights filled with the perfume of orange blossoms under a milky palpitation of stars in amethystine sky, and witchery of tropical moonlight.

The romance of river-life is not like the romance of the sea, that romance memory evokes for us in the midst of the city by the simple exhalations of an asphalt pavement under the sun, divine saltiness, celestial freshness, the wild joy of wind kissed waves, the hum of rigging and crackling of cordage, the rocking as of a mighty cradle. But it is perhaps sweeter. There is no perceptible motion of the river vessel; it is like the movement of a balloon, so steady that not we but the world only seems to move. Under the stars there seems to unroll its endlessness like an immeasurable ribbon of silver-purple. There is a noiseless ripple in it, as of watered silk. There is a heavy, sweet smell of nature, of luxuriant verdure; the feminine outlines of the hills, dotted with the chrome-yellow of window-lights, are blue-black; the vast arch of stars blossoms overhead; there is no sound but the colossal breathing of the laboring engines; the stream widens; the banks lessen; the heavens seem to grow deeper, the stars whiter, the blue bluer. Under the night it is all a blue world, as in a planet illuminated by a colored sun. The calls of the passing boats, sonorous as the music of vast silver trumpets, ring out clear but echo-less; there are no hills to give ghostly answer. Days are born in gold and die in rose-color; and the stream widens, widens, broadens toward the eternity of the sea under the eternity of the sky. We sail out of Northern frosts into Southern lukewarmness, into the luxuriant and somnolent smell of magnolias and lemon-blossoms, the sugar country exhales its incense of welcome. And the giant crescent of lights, the stream song of joyous boats, the world of chimneys, the forests of spars, the burst of morning glory over New Orleans, viewed from the deck of a pilot-house.

These may never be wholly forgotten; after the lapse of fifty years in some dusty and dreary inland city, an odor, an echo, a printed name may resurrect their recollection, fresh as one of those Gulf winds that leave sweet odors after them, like coquettish women, like Talmudic angels.

So that we beheld all these things yesterday and heard all these dead voices once more; saw the old Western port with its water beslimed warehouses, and the Kentucky hills beyond the river, and the old captain on his folding stool, gazing wistfully at the boats; so that we heard once more the steam whistles of vessels that have long ceased to be, or that, changed into floating wharves, rise and fall with the flood, like corpses.

And all because there came an illustrious visitor to us, who reminded us of all these things; having once himself turned the pilot's wheel, through weird starlight or magical moonshine, gray rain or ghostly fog, golden sun or purple light, down the great river from Northern frosts to tepid Southern winds, and up the mighty stream into the misty North again.

Today his name is a household word in the English-speaking world; his thoughts have been translated into other tongues; his written wit creates mirth at once in Paris salons and in New Zealand homes. Fortune has also extended to him her stairway of gold; and he has hobnobbed much with the great ones of the world. But there is still something of the pilot's cheery manner in his greeting, and the keenness of the pilot's glance in his eyes, and a looking out and afar off, as of the man who of old was wont to peer into the darkness of starless nights, with the care of a hundred lives on his hands.

He has seen many strange cities since that day, -- sailed upon many seas, studied many peoples, written many wonderful books.

Yet, now that he is in New Orleans again, one cannot help wondering whether his heart does not sometimes prompt him to go to the river, like that old captain of the far North-western port, to watch the white boats panting at the wharves, and listen to their cries of welcome or farewell, and dream of nights beautiful, silver-blue, and silent, and the great Southern moon peering into a pilot-house.

Essays And Studies:
Robert Louis Stevenson - A Night Among The Pines

Lafcadio Hearn - A River Reverie

Francis Bacon - Of Travel

Tickner Edwardes - An English Village

Lafcadio Hearn - My First Day In The Orient

Henry James - Tours

F. Hopkinson Smith - A Veranda In The Alcazaria

Frederick M. Smith - Fifth Avenue

Frank Norris - Polk Street

Samuel Johnson - Know Thyself

Read More Articles About: Essays And Studies

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