By the Bayou St. John by Alice Dunbar
The Bayou St. John slowly makes its dark-hued way through reeds
and rushes, high banks and flat slopes, until it casts itself into
the turbulent bosom of Lake Pontchartrain. It is dark, like the
passionate women of Egypt; placid, like their broad brows; deep,
silent, like their souls. Within its bosom are hidden romances and
stories, such as were sung by minstrels of old. From the source to the
mouth is not far distant, visibly speaking, but in the life of the
bayou a hundred heart-miles could scarce measure it. Just where it
winds about the northwest of the city are some of its most beautiful
bits, orange groves on one side, and quaint old Spanish gardens on the
other. Who cares that the bridges are modern, and that here and there
pert boat-houses rear their prim heads? It is the bayou, even though
it be invaded with the ruthless vandalism of the improving idea, and
can a boat-house kill the beauty of a moss-grown centurion of an oak
with a history as old as the city? Can an iron bridge with tarantula
piers detract from the song of a mocking-bird in a fragrant orange
grove? We know that farther out, past the Confederate Soldiers'
Home,--that rose-embowered, rambling place of gray-coated,
white-haired old men with broken hearts for a lost cause,--it flows,
unimpeded by the faintest conception of man, and we love it all the
more that, like the Priestess of Isis, it is calm-browed, even in
To its banks at the end of Moss Street, one day there came a man
and a maiden. They were both tall and lithe and slender, with the
agility of youth and fire. He was the final concentration of the
essence of Spanish passion filtered into an American frame; she, a
repressed Southern exotic, trying to fit itself into the niches of a
modern civilisation. Truly, a fitting couple to seek the bayou banks.
They climbed the levee that stretched a feeble check to waters
that seldom rise, and on the other side of the embankment, at the
brink of the river, she sat on a log, and impatiently pulled off the
little cap she wore. The skies were gray, heavy, overcast, with an
occasional wind-rift in the clouds that only revealed new depths of
grayness behind; the tideless waters murmured a faint ripple against
the logs and jutting beams of the breakwater, and were answered by the
crescendo wail of the dried reeds on the other bank,--reeds that
rustled and moaned among themselves for the golden days of summer
He stood up, his dark form a slender silhouette against the sky;
she looked upward from her log, and their eyes met with an exquisite
shock of recognising understanding; dark eyes into dark eyes, Iberian
fire into Iberian fire, soul unto soul: it was enough. He sat down
and took her into his arms, and in the eerie murmur of the storm
coming they talked of the future.
"And then I hope to go to Italy or France. It is only there,
beneath those far Southern skies, that I could ever hope to attain to
anything that the soul within me says I can. I have wasted so much
time in the mere struggle for bread, while the powers of a higher
calling have clamoured for recognition and expression. I will go some
day and redeem myself."
She was silent a moment, watching with half-closed lids a
dejected-looking hunter on the other bank, and a lean dog who trailed
through the reeds behind him with drooping tail. Then she asked:
"And I--what will become of me?"
"You, Athanasia? There is a great future before you, little
woman, and I and my love can only mar it. Try to forget me and go
your way. I am only the epitome of unhappiness and ill-success."
But she laughed and would have none of it.
Will you ever forget that day, Athanasia? How the little gamins,
Creole throughout, came half shyly near the log, fishing, and
exchanging furtive whispers and half-concealed glances at the silent
couple. Their angling was rewarded only by a little black
water-moccasin that wriggled and forked its venomous red tongue in an
attempt to exercise its death-dealing prerogative. This Athanasia
insisted must go back into its native black waters, and paid the price
the boys asked that it might enjoy its freedom. The gamins laughed and
chattered in their soft patois; the Don smiled tenderly upon
Athanasia, and she durst not look at the reeds as she talked, lest
their crescendo sadness yield a foreboding. Just then a wee girl
appeared, clad in a multi-hued garment, evidently a sister to the
small fishermen. Her keen black eyes set in a dusky face glanced
sharply and suspiciously at the group as she clambered over the wet
embankment, and it seemed the drizzling mist grew colder, the sobbing
wind more pronounced in its prophetic wail. Athanasia rose suddenly.
"Let us go," she said; "the eternal feminine has spoiled it all."
The bayou flows as calmly, as darkly, as full of hidden passions
as ever. On a night years after, the moon was shining upon it with a
silvery tenderness that seemed brighter, more caressingly lingering
than anywhere within the old city. Behind, there rose the spires and
towers; before, only the reeds, green now, and soft in their rustlings
and whisperings for the future. False reeds! They tell themselves of
their happiness to be, and it all ends in dry stalks and drizzling
skies. The mocking-bird in the fragrant orange grove sends out his
night song, and blends it with the cricket's chirp, as the blossoms of
orange and magnolia mingle their perfume with the earthy smell of a
summer rain just blown over. Perfect in its stillness, absolute in
its beauty, tenderly healing in its suggestion of peace, the night in
its clear-lighted, cloudless sweetness enfolds Athanasia, as she
stands on the levee and gazes down at the old log, now almost hidden
in the luxuriant grass.
"It was the eternal feminine that spoiled our dream that day as it
spoiled the after life, was it not?"
But the Bayou St. John did not answer. It merely gathered into
its silent bosom another broken-hearted romance, and flowed
dispassionately on its way.