A Carnival Jangle by Alice Dunbar
There is a merry jangle of bells in the air, an all-pervading
sense of jester's noise, and the flaunting vividness of royal
colours. The streets swarm with humanity,--humanity in all shapes,
manners, forms, laughing, pushing, jostling, crowding, a mass of men
and women and children, as varied and assorted in their several
individual peculiarities as ever a crowd that gathered in one locality
since the days of Babel.
It is Carnival in New Orleans; a brilliant Tuesday in February,
when the very air gives forth an ozone intensely exhilarating, making
one long to cut capers. The buildings are a blazing mass of royal
purple and golden yellow, national flags, bunting, and decorations
that laugh in the glint of the Midas sun. The streets are a crush of
jesters and maskers, Jim Crows and clowns, ballet girls and Mephistos,
Indians and monkeys; of wild and sudden flashes of music, of
glittering pageants and comic ones, of befeathered and belled horses;
a dream of colour and melody and fantasy gone wild in an effervescent
bubble of beauty that shifts and changes and passes kaleidoscope-like
before the bewildered eye.
A bevy of bright-eyed girls and boys of that uncertain age that
hovers between childhood and maturity, were moving down Canal Street
when there was a sudden jostle with another crowd meeting them. For a
minute there was a deafening clamour of shouts and laughter, cracking
of the whips, which all maskers carry, a jingle and clatter of
carnival bells, and the masked and unmasked extricated themselves and
moved from each other's paths. But in the confusion a tall Prince of
Darkness had whispered to one of the girls in the unmasked crowd:
"You'd better come with us, Flo; you're wasting time in that tame
gang. Slip off, they'll never miss you; we'll get you a rig, and show
you what life is."
And so it happened, when a half-hour passed, and the bright-eyed
bevy missed Flo and couldn't find her, wisely giving up the search at
last, she, the quietest and most bashful of the lot, was being
initiated into the mysteries of "what life is."
Down Bourbon Street and on Toulouse and St. Peter Streets there
are quaint little old-world places where one may be disguised
effectually for a tiny consideration. Thither, guided by the shapely
Mephisto and guarded by the team of jockeys and ballet girls, tripped
Flo. Into one of the lowest-ceiled, dingiest, and most
ancient-looking of these shops they stepped.
"A disguise for the demoiselle," announced Mephisto to the woman
who met them. She was small and wizened and old, with yellow, flabby
jaws, a neck like the throat of an alligator, and straight, white hair
that stood from her head uncannily stiff.
"But the demoiselle wishes to appear a boy, un petit garcon?" she
inquired, gazing eagerly at Flo's long, slender frame. Her voice was
old and thin, like the high quavering of an imperfect tuning-fork, and
her eyes were sharp as talons in their grasping glance.
"Mademoiselle does not wish such a costume," gruffly responded
"Ma foi, there is no other," said the ancient, shrugging her
shoulders. "But one is left now; mademoiselle would make a fine
"Flo," said Mephisto, "it's a dare-devil scheme, try it; no one
will ever know it but us, and we'll die before we tell. Besides, we
must; it's late, and you couldn't find your crowd."
And that was why you might have seen a Mephisto and a slender
troubadour of lovely form, with mandolin flung across his shoulder,
followed by a bevy of jockeys and ballet girls, laughing and singing
as they swept down Rampart Street.
When the flash and glare and brilliancy of Canal Street have
palled upon the tired eye, when it is yet too soon to go home to such
a prosaic thing as dinner, and one still wishes for novelty, then it
is wise to go into the lower districts. There is fantasy and fancy
and grotesqueness run wild in the costuming and the behaviour of the
maskers. Such dances and whoops and leaps as these hideous Indians
and devils do indulge in; such wild curvetings and long walks! In the
open squares, where whole groups do congregate, it is wonderfully
amusing. Then, too, there is a ball in every available hall, a
delirious ball, where one may dance all day for ten cents; dance and
grow mad for joy, and never know who were your companions, and be
yourself unknown. And in the exhilaration of the day, one walks miles
and miles, and dances and skips, and the fatigue is never felt.
In Washington Square, away down where Royal Street empties its
stream of children great and small into the broad channel of Elysian
Fields Avenue, there was a perfect Indian pow-wow. With a little
imagination one might have willed away the vision of the surrounding
houses, and fancied one's self again in the forest, where the natives
were holding a sacred riot. The square was filled with spectators,
masked and un-masked. It was amusing to watch these mimic Red-men,
they seemed so fierce and earnest.
Suddenly one chief touched another on the elbow. "See that
Mephisto and troubadour over there?" he whispered huskily.
"Yes; who are they?"
"I don't know the devil," responded the other, quietly, "but I'd
know that other form anywhere. It's Leon, see? I know those white
hands like a woman's and that restless head. Ha!"
"But there may be a mistake."
"No. I'd know that one anywhere; I feel it is he. I'll pay him
now. Ah, sweetheart, you've waited long, but you shall feast now!"
He was caressing something long and lithe and glittering beneath his
In a masked dance it is easy to give a death-blow between the
shoulders. Two crowds meet and laugh and shout and mingle almost
inextricably, and if a shriek of pain should arise, it is not noticed
in the din, and when they part, if one should stagger and fall
bleeding to the ground, can any one tell who has given the blow?
There is nothing but an unknown stiletto on the ground, the crowd has
dispersed, and masks tell no tales anyway. There is murder, but by
whom? for what? Quien sabe?
And that is how it happened on Carnival night, in the last mad
moments of Rex's reign, a broken-hearted mother sat gazing wide-eyed
and mute at a horrible something that lay across the bed. Outside the
long sweet march music of many bands floated in as if in mockery, and
the flash of rockets and Bengal lights illumined the dead, white face
of the girl troubadour.