Cajun History

Here and There in the South – Part 2

 

Excerpt from Here and There in the South by Rebecca Harding Davis
Originally published October 1887 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

The second installment of a story about Mr. Ely, a clergyman who recently moved from the North to New Orleans with his wife.  When his wife takes a trip to Atlanta, Mr. Ely takes his chance to explore the bayous and prairies of Louisiana.

 

IN ATTAKAPAS

Our voyager, on leaving Morgan City, found that his road entered again into the stretch of low-lying impenetrable swamps and somber cypress forests.  They closed in upon the cheerful old man, significant and threatening, and cowed him as if they had been full of actual crime and death.  It was a gray, airless day; at every moment some grotesque unknown form of vegetable life thrust itself into view; rank vines headed like serpents hung form the trees; monstrous growths of fungus of every color choked the swamps; huge saffron-colored flowers leered up at him out of the muddy depths.  The masses of moss, black in the twilight, hung from the tops of the trees to the ground, and shut out the farther recesses of the forest.  What unimaginable horrors might they not hide there?  These vague and vast lairs were a fitting entrance to the Land of the Cannibals, as this region was called by the tribes of Indians who inhabited it when the Spaniards came.

In the valley of the Teche, however, rich English plantations stretched on either side of the road, and at New Iberia, Mr. Ely came suddenly into open light and brightness.  A plain of singular loveliness lay open before him.  It was like the breaking of dawn after a close night.

He was in the heart of Attakapas—a country of vast prairies and countless watercourses, which sweep down from the Atchafalaya literally into the Gulf, for sea and land become one on its border.

The interminable plains of tall grass are webbed by a labyrinth of bayous and rigolets glittering like lines of silver, and dotted here and there like blots of shadow with forests of hoary old trees, which are shrouded from head to foot with the funereal moss, and crowned with the mysterious mistletoe.  The streams and the numberless lakes are edged with feathery willows and creeping vines.  Every grain of the soil gives birth to a flower; when the wind blows it brings gusts of the odor of magnolia or roses or jasmine.  It is a country, too, of swift, startling lights and shadows.  The keen sunlight is incessantly darkened by clouds driving in from the Gulf.  These clouds pass in never-ending procession, one hour swooping down in black fury of tempest upon the plain, and the next rising in slow soft brilliance, mere breaths of mist, into the highest heaven.

Mr. Ely found New Iberia a peculiarly picturesque town, with some beautiful modern dwellings in the suburbs.  It had become famous, the year before, as the scene of a miniature civil war between the two political parties, for the possession of the court-house.  During the day that he staid there he heard from both sides the details of the battle told with high good-humor; but carefully kept silent, having no mind to stir up any muddy question of politics.  He was much more anxious to determine the exact point on the Teche where, according to Longfellow, Evangeline with Père Felician landed from their bateau after their long voyage in search of Gabriel.

The next day he hired a light conveyance, and with a garrulous negro driver and his mules set off across the prairie.  It stretched in green shimmering waves to the horizon on every side.  Mr. Ely drew a long breath, as a man does in coming from a stifling house out-of-doors.  There was all the breadth and freedom of the sea here.

After a while the intense silence of the place began to oppress him.  It was a clear morning.  The wind passing from the Gulf bent the grass in long furrows now and then, but made no sound; there was a spell of absolute silence in the sunshine on the bright sluggish bayou, even on the herds of native cattle that lifted their heads from grazing to stare at them with curious eyes.  Flocks of huge black buzzards rose from the prairie occasionally, swooped and wheeled over their heads, and settled again on their prey when they had passed by.  Sometimes an eagle swept across the sky with slow majestic directness.  Bright-colored lizards darted in and out of the matted grass; on the lower marshes the tiny mud chimneys of the crawfish rose in thousands; a head and two beady black eyes would appear for an instant at the top, and then vanish; but all in unbroken silence.  Mr. Ely was grateful when Jabez, the driver, began to talk to his mules, with whom he was on intimate terms.   He had never guessed how companionable a mule could be until they answered the negro jokes with hideous snorts.

They travelled all day.  Still the interminable prairie, the sunshine, the driving winds, the abounding life, and still the brooding quiet.  The rank excess of growth, the exhaustless waste of life and beauty and color, startled the old man, who had been used to the niggardly soil and pinched crops of New England.  The very mud, in which the feet of the mules sank to the fetlocks, was hid by exquisite lilies and blush-roses.  Vines, which in the North would have sent timid thread-like tendrils through the grass, knotted themselves here overhead with thick trunks like saplings, and flung masses of white flowers up into the air.   There was something paganish in this silent, fierce extravagance of nature.

The houses of the Acadians are of unpainted wood, dropped down at long intervals on the prairie, with not a fence or hedge near them.  Mr. Ely found a little comfort usually in them, and always beauty; masses of grape-vines and yellow roses climbing up the old walls and covering the roofs of black curled shingles.  Inside a bit of ruddy color in the curtains, or a gay picture, or a wreath about the crucifix.  The persecuted fugitives from Acadia took possession of this “Eden of Louisiana” in 1754; they are scattered from the Teche to the Sabine prairie.  There has been very little apparent change in that time in the country or in themselves.  Each family, as a rule, hold the same portion of prairie or marsh which their ancestors first took as a home, and live usually in the same gray old houses, adding a room from generation to generation when necessity drives them to do it.  Their grounds are separated by no visible boundaries, except in the neighborhood of one or two settlements by Americans.  The Acadians there have caught the idea of meum and tuum from civilization, and have begun to drive in a few feeble posts and to run fences between their plantations.  Mr. Ely fell in with a creole tax-collector from one of the lower parishes, who put the case pathetically to him.

“I live here, m’sieu, forty years, man and boy, and I have no trouble to cross Attakapas until five years ago.  My business calls me to ride or drive every day.  Who  ever thought of fences?  People drive along, now here, now there, only keeping out of wet ground.  The Acadians grow no crops; they have no grain, no sugar, no cotton, to carry to market.  What do they want with fences or roads?”

“How do they live?” asked Mr. Ely.

“They have cattle:  each man—every man—has cattle.  They run loose; they pasture wherever there is grass, on the upland or on the sea-marsh, keeping on the driest ground.  What use of fences?  See how convenient, how free, how agreeable it is!  I start in the morning to go from Abbeville to M’sieu Del Farge, on the Gulf, and I go as the bee flies, through twenty plantations, provided I can ford the lagoons.  But now near the villages I must wind in and out, no matter where I will want to go, in a narrow rut no wider than this room, a fence on either side.  That is a ‘road,’ of which they boast!  Bah!  It chokes me!  A road!  It is a nuisance!”

The region through which Jabez drove was restricted by no such nuisances.  He urged his mules in a straight line, over the unending green plain or through the bayou, with perfect impartiality.  The mules seemed, indeed, to prefer to trudge along half under water, to going by land.  At long distances over the flat prairies rose windmills, by which fresh-water is brought to the surface.  Huge solitary trees, the live-oaks, or lofty, shapely cottonwoods, stood like pillars upholding the low sky.

As the evening began to fall they saw in advance of them a tall, lonely black figure on horseback, like a silhouette against the rosy sunset, and made haste to overtake it.  Mr. Ely began to find the solitude insupportable.  The traveler, Jabez told him, was Père Nedaud, on his way to hold mass the next morning in one of the little chapels of the Acadians.  The good father had a clean-cut, watchful face.  He scanned the stranger with a swift, penetrating glance, then touched his wide-rimmed hat, and smiling as to an old acquaintance, drew his horse in line.  They naturally fell into talk of the country and its peculiar features.

“I do not understand the lakes or ponds,” said Mr. Ely.  “We have passed to-day at least a thousand, I think, from three feet to three miles in diameter, and all almost perfectly circular.  The water in them, too, is live and sparkling, as if from springs, not stagnant.  How do you account for their shape?  Look at the one we are passing.  No surveyor could lay out a more perfect ring.”

“The Acadians have many superstitious reasons for their shape,” the priest said, smiling.  “They were worn by the accursed Voudoo dances, or they were the places where human beings were sacrificed in ancient times.  Some of the fermiers will tell you that when two bulls fight they tear up a round hole with their horns and fore-hoofs, into which the water oozes, enlarging it year by year, but still keeping the circular shape.  It is a singular fact, though, that in the next parish there are mounds, of every size, exactly corresponding in shape to the ponds here.”

“How do you account for them?”

Père Nedaud shrugged his shoulders.  “How should I know?  There are many hints of other days, before even the Indians came to Attakapas—many mysteries.  Science cannot explain them.  Me?—I do not meddle with them.”

“You understand the people better?”

“The Acadians?  They belong to this world—to daylight.  They have been here not two centuries.  I am Acadian myself on my mother’s side.  Oh, I know my people!”

“I heard much of them at New Orleans.”

“Then,” hastily, “I am glad to have met you, to correct your false impressions of the lazy, wretched ‘Cajuns’!”

“They do not seem to be a progressive people,” ventured Mr. Ely.

“No, perhaps not.  But is progress everything?  They are not lazy.  The men work faithfully—when they work at all.  The women in these houses keep them tidy, cook, sew, and carry on their little métiers. They have rough looms, and weave the homespun cloths which they and their husbands wear.  They make, too, really beautiful fabrics of the Nankin cotton in its native dull yellow color, or beautifully striped with threads colored in vegetable dyes.  Some ladies, wives of the large planters, have found agents in New Orleans and New York who will sell the stuffs which these poor women weave.  I am told,” added the good father, cheerfully, “that it surpasses in beauty and durability the fabrics woven by the Chinese, and is much cheaper.  I do not say that it is so; I have never seen the stuffs made by the people of China.  But it is reasonable to suppose that good Christian women could surpass barbarous savages in civilized work.”

Mr. Ely was discreetly silent.

“It would be fortunate,” continued Père Nedaud, “if their little manufactures could be brought into the market.  They are very poor, many of them, and thus comfort and much pleasure would be brought into their lives.”

“They are a solitary, gloomy people, then?”

“By no means!—not at all!” exclaimed the father, eagerly.  “It is true, they are quite separate from the world in that they have no schools, no books, no newspapers.   Very few of them can read or write.  But they often act as overseers, or own large plantations and mange them skillfully.  Some of the shrewdest business men I know are Cajuns who sign a deed with their ‘mark.’ But m’sieu, the great nobles of England under the last Henry did the same, and you can’t deny that they took an active part in the world’s business.  The Acadian is a moral, sober, honorable man.  He is fond of his wife and children.  He goes to his duty regularly; confesses twice a year; hears mass as often as he can.  He has his balls and dances on saints’ days and Sundays, when he eats petits gateaux and drinks nisette. Sometimes he has races with the creole ponies.  The women are gay and happy, though they work hard.  Surely it is a harmless, innocent, useful life.  Would you teach them ‘progress,’ politics, newspaper gossip, American ideas?”  The priest’s tone was triumphantly sarcastic.

“Not I, indeed,” said Mr. Ely.

“Ah, m’sieu, progress, newspapers, railroads, do not make the hero; not even education.  He is born—here in the Cajun’s cabin just as in ancient Greece or Rome.  Let me tell you a story which comes to pass this spring.  One of my flock is Landry, a big, middle-aged man, with grown sons and grandchildren.  He is a shrewd, money-making fellow, overseer on a great cattle plantation.  His life counts for much, you see, to him and his family.  One evening I see Joseph in his bateau rowing down the bayou.  He does not return until morning.  Down yonder is nothing but a desolate island, inhabited only by alligators and wild birds.  Again and again I see him go.  I ask him what it means, and he tells me, against his will, that a month ago a wretched old negro took the small-pox, and was driven by his people out on the prairie.  Joseph took him to the island, made a deserted hut there habitable for him, and every night went down to nurse and care for him, stopping half-way to change his clothes.  He took his life in his hand every day, you see, for this miserable!  And Joseph is not a young, reckless fellow, but grave, middle-aged.  He tells nobody; he counts it for nothing.  Aha!” the priest broke into a tremulous laugh, stooping to pat the neck of his horse.  “Joseph is a rough-looking fellow.  He swears hard, and sleeps when I preach.  But it is out of such stuff God makes His servants.”

Mr. Ely and the priest lodged that night in the house of one of the petits habitants.  In the evening, when they were alone, the subject of leprosy came up.

“We hear at the North,” said Mr. Ely, “vague accounts of the Terre des Lépreux, which is said to be somewhere in Louisiana.  What truth is there in them?”

“They are no doubt greatly exaggerated,” said Father Nedaud.  “A spurious leprosy, elephantiasis, was so common among the negros under the Spanish domination that Governor Miro founded a hospital for lepers near New Orleans, on the Bayou St. John.  It has been gone these many years, and Lepers’ Land is now built up with pretty houses.  It was in the suburb Treme.”

“The disease is extinct, then?”

“There were some cases of genuine Asiatic leprosy near Abbeville, in this parish, about twenty years ago.  An old creole lady was the first.  Her father doubtless brought the terrible taint in his blood from France.  When the white scales appeared in her face her husband and family fled from her.  There was a young girl, daughter of M’sieu Dubois, who went to her and nursed her alone during the three years in which she fought with death.  Another of God’s servants, m’sieu!  Four of this old woman’s children, who deserted her, became lepers.  The young girl who had nursed her, after she died married a young fermier, and lived happily in her little cabin with her husband and pretty baby.  But one day a shining white spot appeared on her forehead.  That was the end.”

“She died?”

“M’sieu, after four years.  There is no cure.  It surely does not matter to her now by what road God called her to Him.  There have been since then no lepers in this parish except in these tainted families.  The real Terre des Lépreux in Louisiana is now on the lower Lafourche, below Harang’s Canal.  The bayou there is turbid and foul; it flows through malarious swamps lower than itself.  The creole planters there are honest and temperate folk, but they are wretchedly poor.  They raise only rice, and live on it and fish.  The wet rice fields come up to the very doors of their cabins.  The leprosy which certain families among them have inherited is developed by these conditions.  Five years ago Professor Joseph Jones, president of the State Board of Health, went himself with his son to explore the cypress swamps and lagoons of the lower Lafourche.  M’sieu, it is the region of the shadow of death.  He found many poor lepers hiding there.  They were as dead men who walk and talk.  They could handle burning coals; they felt no longer cold nor heat nor pain.   Their bodies were as corpses.  One man lived alone in a hut, thatched with palmettos, which he had built for himself, eating only the rice which he had planted.  No man nor woman had come near him for years.  The Terre des Lépreux extends as far as Chénière Caminada, where the bayou empties into the Gulf.”

Mr. Ely remained silent, though a torrent of angry queries rushed to his lips.  Why was nothing done to mitigate the horrors of such a life-in-death?  How could this priest, a man of God, so calmly discuss these poor accursed creatures from his safe, comfortable point of vantage, jogging on his easy-going mare from one farm to another?  He bade him presently a rather curt good-night, and went to the loft where he was to sleep.  When he came done in the morning, Père Nedaud had gone.

“M’sieu,” said his smiling host, “le père haf lef’ you bon-matin,” waving his hand to the black figure passing southward far across the prairie.

“This is the father’s parish, I suppose?” asked Mr. Ely.

“But no!” Gaspard answered, gliding into French in his hurry.  “Nine years ago he was here.  He married me; he baptized all my babies.  Then, at his own request, he was transferred.”  His face grew grave with some unexpressed remembrance.  “At times he comes back to refresh himself—to see his old friends.  As now, for example.”

“Where is his charge now?”

“M’sieu—“ Gaspard paused a moment.  “In hell, I think.  It is near Chénière Caminada, in la Terre des Lépreux.”

Mr. Ely walked away from him, and paced up and down the levee for a long time.

“God forgive me!” he muttered to himself.

Mr. Ely’s letters brought him in contact with a few influential creoles, planters for the most part, on the borders of the Teche and Atchafalaya.  This last bayou, like all great rivers, has a character of its own; it is a driving, impetuous torrent.

“As if,” our fanciful traveler remarked, “it was bent on some vengeful purpose.”

“Its purpose is vengeful, and plain enough,” said Dr. C—–, a sugar planter, with whom he was driving along the levee.  “This bayou carries out of the Mississippi a volume of water quite equal to Red River.  Tradition states that it was once the channel of the Mississippi itself.  It is its direct road to the Gulf now.  Captain Eads has examined into the matter, and reports that unless proper defences are erected at the head of the Atchafalaya the entire body of water in the Mississippi will deflect into this bayou, and that shortly.”

“What would be the consequences?”

“Consequences?  The towns and plantations on the shores of the Atchafalaya would be lost in the flood, and New Orleans would be left high and dry, an inland town.  The bayou has an ugly purpose, as you guessed.”