La Juanita by Alice Dunbar
If you never lived in Mandeville, you cannot appreciate the thrill
of wholesome, satisfied joy which sweeps over its inhabitants every
evening at five o'clock. It is the hour for the arrival of the "New
Camelia," the happening of the day. As early as four o'clock the
trailing smoke across the horizon of the treacherous Lake
Pontchartrain appears, and Mandeville knows then that the hour for its
siesta has passed, and that it must array itself in its coolest and
fluffiest garments, and go down to the pier to meet this sole
connection between itself and the outside world; the little, puffy,
side-wheel steamer that comes daily from New Orleans and brings the
mail and the news.
On this particular day there was an air of suppressed excitement
about the little knot of people which gathered on the pier. To be
sure, there were no outward signs to show that anything unusual had
occurred. The small folks danced with the same glee over the worn
boards, and peered down with daring excitement into the perilous
depths of the water below. The sun, fast sinking in a gorgeous glow
behind the pines of the Tchefuncta region far away, danced his
mischievous rays in much the same manner that he did every other day.
But there was a something in the air, a something not tangible, but
mysterious, subtle. You could catch an indescribable whiff of it in
your inner senses, by the half-eager, furtive glances that the small
crowd cast at La Juanita.
"Gar, gar, le bateau!" said one dark-tressed mother to the
wide-eyed baby. "Et, oui," she added, in an undertone to her
companion. "Voila, La Juanita!"
La Juanita, you must know, was the pride of Mandeville, the
adored, the admired of all, with her petite, half-Spanish,
half-French beauty. Whether rocking in the shade of the
Cherokee-rose-covered gallery of Grandpere Colomes' big house, her
fair face bonnet-shaded, her dainty hands gloved to keep the sun from
too close an acquaintance, or splashing the spray from the bow of her
little pirogue, or fluffing her skirts about her tiny feet on the
pier, she was the pet and ward of Mandeville, as it were, La Juanita
Alvarez, since Madame Alvarez was a widow, and Grandpere Colomes was
strict and stern.
And now La Juanita had set her small foot down with a passionate
stamp before Grandpere Colomes' very face, and tossed her black curls
about her wilful head, and said she would go to the pier this evening
to meet her Mercer. All Mandeville knew this, and cast its furtive
glances alternately at La Juanita with two big pink spots in her
cheeks, and at the entrance to the pier, expecting Grandpere Colomes
and a scene.
The sun cast red glows and violet shadows over the pier, and the
pines murmured a soft little vesper hymn among themselves up on the
beach, as the "New Camelia" swung herself in, crabby, sidewise, like a
fat old gentleman going into a small door. There was the clang of an
important bell, the scream of a hoarse little whistle, and Mandeville
rushed to the gang-plank to welcome the outside world. Juanita put
her hand through a waiting arm, and tripped away with her Mercer, big
and blond and brawny. "Un Americain, pah!" said the little mother of
the black eyes. And Mandeville sighed sadly, and shook its head, and
was sorry for Grandpere Colomes.
This was Saturday, and the big regatta would be Monday. Ah, that
regatta, such a one as Mandeville had never seen! There were to be
boats from Madisonville and Amite, from Lewisburg and Covington, and
even far-away Nott's Point. There was to be a Class A and Class B and
Class C, and the little French girls of the town flaunted their
ribbons down the one oak-shaded, lake-kissed street, and dared anyone
to say theirs were not the favourite colours.
In Class A was entered, "La Juanita,' captain Mercer Grangeman,
colours pink and gold." Her name, her colours; what impudence!
Of course, not being a Mandevillian, you could not understand the
shame of Grandpere Colomes at this. Was it not bad enough for his
petite Juanita, his Spanish blossom, his hope of a family that had
held itself proudly aloof from "dose Americain" from time immemorial,
to have smiled upon this Mercer, this pale-eyed youth? Was it not bad
enough for her to demean herself by walking upon the pier with him?
But for a boat, his boat, "un bateau Americain," to be named La
Juanita! Oh, the shame of it! Grandpere Colomes prayed a devout
prayer to the Virgin that "La Juanita" should be capsized.
Monday came, clear and blue and stifling. The waves of hot air
danced on the sands and adown the one street merrily. Glassily calm
lay the Pontchartrain, heavily still hung the atmosphere. Madame
Alvarez cast an inquiring glance toward the sky. Grandpere Colomes
chuckled. He had not lived on the shores of the treacherous Lake
Pontchartrain for nothing. He knew its every mood, its petulances and
passions; he knew this glassy warmth and what it meant. Chuckling
again and again, he stepped to the gallery and looked out over the
lake, and at the pier, where lay the boats rocking and idly tugging at
their moorings. La Juanita in her rose-scented room tied the pink
ribbons on her dainty frock, and fastened cloth of gold roses at her
It was said that just before the crack of the pistol La Juanita's
tiny hand lay in Mercer's, and that he bent his head, and whispered
softly, so that the surrounding crowd could not hear,--
"Juanita mine, if I win, you will?"
"Oui, mon Mercere, eef you win."
In another instant the white wings were off scudding before the
rising breeze, dipping their glossy boat-sides into the clear water,
straining their cordage in their tense efforts to reach the stake
boats. Mandeville indiscriminately distributed itself on piers, large
and small, bath-house tops, trees, and craft of all kinds, from
pirogue, dory, and pine-raft to pretentious cat-boat and
shell-schooner. Mandeville cheered and strained its eyes after all
the boats, but chiefly was its attention directed to "La Juanita."
"Ah, voila, eet is ahead!"
"Mais non, c'est un autre!"
"La Juanita! La Juanita!"
"Regardez Grandpere Colomes!"
Old Colomes on the big pier with Madame Alvarez and his
granddaughter was intently straining his weather-beaten face in the
direction of Nott's Point, his back resolutely turned upon the
scudding white wings. A sudden chuckle of grim satisfaction caused La
Petite's head to toss petulantly.
But only for a minute, for Grandpere Colomes' chuckle was followed
by a shout of dismay from those whose glance had followed his. You
must know that it is around Nott's Point that the storm king shows his
wings first, for the little peninsula guards the entrance which leads
into the southeast waters of the stormy Rigolets and the blustering
Gulf. You would know, if you lived in Mandeville, that when the pines
on Nott's Point darken and when the water shows white beyond like the
teeth of a hungry wolf, it is time to steer your boat into the mouth
of some one of the many calm bayous which flow silently throughout St.
Tammany parish into the lake. Small wonder that the cry of dismay
went up now, for Nott's Point was black, with a lurid light overhead,
and the roar of the grim southeast wind came ominously over the
La Juanita clasped her hands and strained her eyes for her
namesake. The racers had rounded the second stake-boat, and the
course of the triangle headed them directly for the lurid cloud.
You should have seen Grandpere Colomes then. He danced up and
down the pier in a perfect frenzy. The thin pale lips of Madame
Alvarez moved in a silent prayer; La Juanita stood coldly silent.
And now you could see that the advance guard of the southeast
force had struck the little fleet. They dipped and scurried and
rocked, and you could see the sails being reefed hurriedly, and
almost hear the rigging creak and moan under the strain. Then the
wind came up the lake, and struck the town with a tumultuous force.
The waters rose and heaved in the long, sullen ground-swell, which
betokened serious trouble. There was a rush of lake-craft to shelter.
Heavy gray waves boomed against the breakwaters and piers, dashing
their brackish spray upon the strained watchers; then with a shriek
and a howl the storm burst full, with blinding sheets of rain, and a
great hurricane of Gulf wind that threatened to blow the little town
La Juanita was proud. When Grandpere and Madame led her away in
the storm, though her face was white, and the rose mouth pressed
close, not a word did she say, and her eyes were as bright as ever
before. It was foolish to hope that the frail boats could survive
such a storm. There was not even the merest excuse for shelter out in
the waters, and when Lake Pontchartrain grows angry, it devours
Your tropical storm is soon over, however, and in an hour the sun
struggled through a gray and misty sky, over which the wind was
sweeping great clouds. The rain-drops hung diamond-like on the thick
foliage, but the long ground-swell still boomed against the
breakwaters and showed white teeth, far to the south.
As chickens creep from under shelter after a rain, so the people
of Mandeville crept out again on the piers, on the bath-houses, on
the breakwater edge, and watched eagerly for the boats. Slowly upon
the horizon appeared white sails, and the little craft swung into
sight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, counted
Mandeville. Every one coming in! Bravo! And a great cheer that swept
the whole length of the town from the post-office to Black Bayou went
up. Bravo! Every boat was coming in. But--was every man?
This was a sobering thought, and in the hush which followed it you
could hear the Q. and C. train thundering over the great lake-bridge,
Well, they came into the pier at last, "La Juanita" in the lead;
and as Captain Mercer landed, he was surrounded by a voluble,
chattering, anxious throng that loaded him with questions in patois,
in broken English, and in French. He was no longer "un Americain"
now, he was a hero.
When the other eight boats came in, and Mandeville saw that no one
was lost, there was another ringing bravo, and more chattering of
We heard the truth finally. When the storm burst, Captain Mercer
suddenly promoted himself to an admiralship and assumed command of
his little fleet. He had led them through the teeth of the gale to a
small inlet on the coast between Bayou Lacombe and Nott's Point, and
there they had waited until the storm passed. Loud were the praises of
the other captains for Admiral Mercer, profuse were the thanks of the
sisters and sweethearts, as he was carried triumphantly on the
shoulders of the sailors adown the wharf to the Maison Colomes.
The crispness had gone from Juanita's pink frock, and the cloth of
gold roses were wellnigh petalless, but the hand that she slipped into
his was warm and soft, and the eyes that were upturned to Mercer's
blue ones were shining with admiring tears. And even Grandpere
Colomes, as he brewed on the Cherokee-rose-covered gallery, a fiery
punch for the heroes, was heard to admit that "some time dose
Americain can mos' be lak one Frenchman."
And we danced at the betrothal supper the next week.
Titee shivered as the wind swept round the freight-cars. There
isn't much warmth in a bit of a jersey coat.
"Wish 'twas summer," he murmured, casting another sailor's glance
at the sky. "Don't believe I like snow; it's too wet and cold." And
with a last parting caress at the little fire he had builded for a
minute's warmth, he plunged his hands in his pockets, shut his teeth,
and started manfully on his mission out the railroad track toward the
It was late when Titee came home, to such a home as it was, and he
had but illy performed his errand; so his mother beat him and sent him
to bed supperless. A sharp strap stings in cold weather, and a long
walk in the teeth of a biting wind creates a keen appetite. But if
Titee cried himself to sleep that night, he was up bright and early
next morning, had been to mass, devoutly kneeling on the cold floor,
blowing his fingers to keep them warm, and was home almost before the
rest of the family were awake.
There was evidently some great matter of business on the young
man's mind, for he scarcely ate his breakfast, and left the table
soon, eagerly cramming the remainder of his meal in his pockets.
"Ma foi, but what now?" mused his mother, as she watched his
little form sturdily trudging the track in the face of the wind; his
head, with the rimless cap thrust close on the shock of black hair,
bent low; his hands thrust deep in the bulging pockets.
"A new live play-toy h'it may be," ventured the father; "he is one
The next day Titee was late for school. It was something unusual,
for he was always the first on hand to fix some plan of mechanism to
make the teacher miserable. She looked reprovingly at him this
morning, when he came in during arithmetic class, his hair all
wind-blown, his cheeks rosy from a hard fight with the sharp blasts.
But he made up for his tardiness by his extreme goodness all day;
just think, Titee did not even eat once before noon, a something
unparalleled in the entire previous history of his school life.
When the lunch-hour came, and all the yard was a scene of feast
and fun, one of the boys found him standing by a post, disconsolately
watching a ham sandwich as it rapidly disappeared down the throat of a
sturdy, square-headed little fellow.
"Hello, Edgar," he said, "what you got fer lunch?"
"Nothin'," was the mournful reply.
"Ah, why don't you stop eatin' in school, fer a change? You don't
ever have nothin' to eat."
"I didn't eat to-day," said Titee, blazing up.
"I tell you I didn't!" and Titee's hard little fist planted a
punctuation mark on his comrade's eye.
A fight in the schoolyard! Poor Titee was in disgrace again.
Still, in spite of his battered appearance, a severe scolding from
the principal, lines to write, and a further punishment from his
mother, Titee scarcely remained for his dinner, but was off down the
railroad track with his pockets partly stuffed with the remnants of
the scanty meal.
And the next day Titee was tardy again, and lunchless too, and the
next, until the teacher, in despair, sent a nicely printed note to his
mother about him, which might have done some good, had not Titee taken
great pains to tear it up on the way home.
One day it rained, whole bucketsful of water, that poured in
torrents from a miserable, angry sky. Too wet a day for bits of boys
to be trudging to school, so Titee's mother thought; so she kept him
at home to watch the weather through the window, fretting and fuming
like a regular storm in miniature. As the day wore on, and the rain
did not abate, his mother kept a strong watch upon him, for he tried
many times to slip away.
Dinner came and went, and the gray soddenness of the skies
deepened into the blackness of coming night. Someone called Titee to
go to bed, and Titee was nowhere to be found.
Under the beds, in closets and corners, in such impossible places
as the soap-dish and water-pitcher even, they searched, but he had
gone as completely as if he had been spirited away. It was of no use
to call up the neighbors, he had never been near their houses, they
affirmed, so there was nothing to do but to go to the railroad track
where Titee had been seen so often trudging in the shrill north-wind.
With lanterns and sticks, and his little yellow dog, the rescuing
party started down the track. The rain had ceased falling, but the
wind blew a gale, scurrying great gray clouds over a fierce sky. It
was not exactly dark, though in this part of the city there is neither
gas nor electricity, and on such a night as this neither moon nor
stars dared show their faces in so gray a sky; but a sort of
all-diffused luminosity was in the air, as though the sea of
atmosphere was charged with an ethereal phosphorescence.
Search as they did, there were no signs of Titee. The soft earth
between the railroad ties crumbled between their feet without showing
any small tracks or footprints.
"Mais, we may as well return," said the big brother; "he is not
"Oh, mon Dieu," urged the mother, "he is, he is; I know it."
So on they went, slipping on the wet earth, stumbling over the
loose rocks, until a sudden wild yelp from Tiger brought them to a
standstill. He had rushed ahead of them, and his voice could be heard
in the distance, howling piteously.
With a fresh impetus the little muddy party hurried forward.
Tiger's yelps could be heard plainer and plainer, mingled now with a
muffled, plaintive little wail.
After a while they found a pitiful little heap of sodden rags,
lying at the foot of a mound of earth and stones thrown upon the side
of the track. It was Titee with a broken leg, all wet and miserable
They picked him up tenderly, and started to carry him home. But
he cried and clung to the mother, and begged not to go.
"Ah, mon pauvre enfant, he has the fever!" wailed the mother.
"No, no, it's my old man. He's hungry," sobbed Titee, holding out
a little package. It was the remnants of his dinner, all wet and
"What old man?" asked the big brother.
"My old man. Oh, please, please don't go home till I see him. I'm
not hurting much, I can go."
So, yielding to his whim, they carried him farther away, down the
sides of the track up to an embankment or levee by the sides of the
Marigny Canal. Then the big brother, suddenly stopping, exclaimed:
"Why, here's a cave. Is it Robinson Crusoe?"
"It's my old man's cave," cried Titee. "Oh, please go in; maybe
There cannot be much ceremony in entering a cave. There is but
one thing to do,--walk in. This they did, and holding up the
lantern, beheld a weird sight. On a bed of straw and paper in one
corner lay a withered, wizened, white-bearded old man with wide eyes
staring at the unaccustomed light. In the other corner was an equally
"It's my old man!" cried Titee, joyfully. "Oh, please, grandpa, I
couldn't get here to-day, it rained all mornin' an' when I ran away, I
fell down an' broke something, an', oh, grandpa, I'm all tired an'
hurty, an' I'm so 'fraid you're hungry."
So the secret of Titee's jaunts down the railroad was out. In one
of his trips around the swamp-land, he had discovered the old man
exhausted from cold and hunger in the fields. Together they had found
this cave, and Titee had gathered the straw and paper that made the
bed. Then a tramp cow, old and turned adrift, too, had crept in and
shared the damp dwelling. And thither Titee had trudged twice a day,
carrying his luncheon in the morning and his dinner in the afternoon.
"There's a crown in heaven for that child," said the officer of
charity to whom the case was referred.
But as for Titee, when the leg was well, he went his way as before.