Paul Marchand, F.M.C.by Charles W. Chesnutt, Dean McWilliams
Evoking the atmosphere of early-nineteenth-century New Orleans and the deadly aftermath of the San Domingo slave revolution, this historical novel begins as its protagonist puzzles over the seemingly prophetic dream of an aged black praline seller in the famous Place d'Armes. Paul Marchand, a free man of color living in New Orleans in the 1820s, is despised by white society for being a quadroon, yet he is a proud, wealthy, well-educated man. In this city where great wealth and great poverty exist side by side, the richest Creole in town lies dying. The family of the aged Pierre Beaurepas eagerly, indeed greedily, awaits disposition of his wealth. As the bombshell of Beaurepas's will explodes, an old woman's dream takes on new meaning, and Marchand is drawn ever more closely into contact with a violently racist family. Bringing to life the entwined racial cultures of New Orleans society, Charles Chesnutt not only writes an exciting tale of adventure and mystery but also makes a provocative comment on the nature of racial identity, self-worth, and family loyalty.
Although he was the first African-American writer of fiction to gain acceptance by America's white literary establishment, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) has been eclipsed in popularity by other writers who later rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. Recently, this pathbreaking American writer has been receiving an increasing amount of attention. Two of his novels, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (completed in 1921) and The Quarry (completed in 1928), were considered too incendiary to be published during Chesnutt's lifetime. Their publication now provides us not only the opportunity to read these two books previously missing from Chesnutt's oeuvre but also the chance to appreciate better the intellectual progress of this literary pioneer. Chesnutt was the author of many other works, including The Conjure Woman & Other Conjure Tales, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow Tradition, and Mandy Oxendine. Princeton University Press recently published To Be an Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905 (edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III).
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IN THE VIEUX CARRE
Toward the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, New Orleans, the little city planted on the banks of the Mississippi, was in the full tide of a newborn prosperity. Always French at heart, in spite of the successive strains of alien humanity which penetrated and mingled with its population--Spanish, Indian, African, English, Irish, American--it had been nearly a score of years under the government of the United States. Eight or ten years before, General Jackson, defeating the British in a famous battle, had firmly established the American influence, and made the word "Yankee" a symbol of respect, instead of, as formerly, a term of suspicion and reproach. Prosperity had followed the incorporation of the colony into the Republic. From 1812 to 1821 the population had nearly doubled. The Mississippi swarmed with steamboats, laden with cotton and sugar from the up-river districts, destined for shipment to Europe or the North. The old city walls had been torn down, the moat filled up and converted into boulevards. From a sleepy, slow, but picturesque provincial French town, with a Spanish veneer, the Crescent City had been swept into the current of American life, and pulsed and throbbed with the energy of the giant young nation of the West.
Nevertheless, these changes were in many respects as yet merely superficial. The great heart of the community,--the thoughts, the feelings, the customs, the prejudices, the religion of the people,--remained substantially unchanged. The current was swifter, but the water was the same. The Americans, while tolerated socially, were still a class apart, though by virtue of their superior energy and genius for politics they were rapidly becoming the ruling class. The Creoles had their own very proud and exclusive society. They had resented the Spanish dominion; they were not yet quite reconciled to the American occupation. They were the professional men and the owners of land and slaves, the rentiers, or gentlemen of independent income.
Descending by easy grades, there were the people of color--octoroons, quadroons, mulattoes--many of them small tradesmen, a few of them large merchants or planters, and more than one the inheritor of substantial means from a white father or grandfather--an inferior but not entirely degraded class. A battalion of free colored men, for instance, had served gallantly in the War of 1812, and had won the praise of the commander-in-chief; while the quadroon women were famous for their beauty and their charm, neither of which could have existed without some friendly encouragement. At the basis of all lay the black slaves, whose arduous and unrequited toil, upon the broad, deep-soiled plantations of indigo, rice, cotton and sugar cane, furnished the wherewithal to maintain the wealth and luxury of the capital.
One day in the spring of 1821, about ten o'clock in the morning, an old colored woman entered the vieux carre, or old square, with a large basket upon her head, and took up her stand in front of the porch of the Cabildo, or Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, as it was successively called under the various regimes, the beautiful old Spanish building which still faces the Place d'Armes, now Jackson Square. She placed her basket on the pavement, removed the clean white cotton cloth which covered it, and disposed for exhibition the contents, consisting of pralines, or little crisp sweet cakes, a popular Creole delicacy. She then pulled out from behind one of the columns of the porch a three-legged wooden stool, hers by right of property or prescription, and took her seat upon it by the basket.
"Pralines! fresh and sweet! Pralines, messieurs! Pralines, mesdames! Pralines, mes enfants!"
Her mellow voice resounded beneath the arches of the porch, and out over the Place d'Armes. The leisurely activities of the city were in full swing. It was about the hour for the courts to open, and, as it was a feast day in Lent, a second service in the Cathedral was to begin shortly. More than one gentleman with a sweet tooth stopped in front of the old woman long enough to purchase one of the crisp cakes, which he munched surreptitiously as he went on. Others dropped a coin into the basket, accepting nothing in return but a bow, a curtsey, or the old woman's voluble thanks. A minor city official, entering the Cabildo, stopped a moment to chaff with the old street vendor. The day was warm, the gentleman was stout, and he had removed his hat, which he held in his hand.
"Bon jour, Zabet!" he said, "You grow younger and younger. You do not look a day over a hundred." Zabet's reputed great age was a popular myth.
"Bon jour, miche (monsieur). Voulez vous des pralines? It is hard to determine your age, Monsieur l'Interprete, by looking at you. Did you lose your hair from age or early piety?"
The bystanders laughed, and the interpreter, acknowledging his defeat with a shrug and a grimace, entered the building.
An elderly lawyer, with a dignified and imposing mien, attended by a colored servant carrying a brief-case, drew near. He was absorbed in thought and seemed not to observe the old woman's deferential salute. She respected his mood and did not accost him.
"There, my children," she observed sententiously to the group of loiterers about her, "there goes Miche Jules Renard, the great advocate. He is lawyer for Pere Antoine, the rector of the parish, and for the very rich Miche Pierre Beaurepas. It was not from any lack of courtesy or consideration that he did not speak to me, for he is one of my best friends, but because he has business on his mind of such moment that he can think of nothing else."
A judge went by. To him Zabet bowed as deeply as her seated position and her girth would permit. No native of New Orleans respected authority more than old Zabet Philosophe--as she was called--Elizabeth the wise woman. For twenty-odd years a fixture in the vieux carre, she had been a public institution, known and respected of all men, since General Jackson, nine years before, in the flail tide of his popularity, had publicly shaken hands with her on the steps of the Cathedral, had praised her patriotism, commended the gallantry of the free colored troops, and given Zabet a silver dollar. She had kept the dollar ever since, though often offered for it many times its value. It was a standing joke to try to purchase this souvenir.
The judge nodded to the cake-woman. Zabet gave to her audience details, in Gumbo or Negro French, of the judge's imposing pedigree and the grandeur of his ancestors. When addressing white people she spoke excellent French, having lived the greater part of her life in the houses of the rich and cultured, first in San Domingo, from which she had fled, with her master's children, during the insurrection of 1793, and later in New Orleans, where, in recognition of her loyalty, she had for half a century enjoyed the privileges of a free woman. Indeed, her immunity from slavery had lasted so long that her free papers were never asked for--no more than one would have looked for the charter of the city or the title deeds of the Cabildo. She was old, and fat, and brown as old mahogany; but she had once been young and fair and slender, and her wisdom was that of a varied, not to say variegated experience. She had been by turns seamstress, hairdresser, laundress, nurse and midwife, and had become a seller of cakes only when age and rheumatism had disqualified her somewhat for more active pursuits. She was the repository of more than one family secret, and discretion was one of her few virtues.
Shortly after the judge had disappeared within the doorway of the city hall, a Creole gentleman of about thirty, dressed in the European fashion which the Creoles affected, with very high collar, full shirt front and voluminous cravat, top boots with large flaps, and somewhat stouter of build and less open of countenance than most men of his race, approached old Zabet on the way to the Cabildo. To this gentleman, a member of the family which held the dormant title to the old cake-woman,--she being, though she had forgotten it, a chattel personal,--Zabet Philosophe instinctively yielded the deference due his name, and, rising laboriously from her stool, greeted him with a profound curtsey, to which he responded with an absent-minded nod.
"Miche Adolphe seems depressed," suggested the old woman, insinuatingly.
The appearance of the stout gentleman bore out this conjecture. He looked decidedly worried. At the old woman's remark he paused in front of her and sighed.
"I had a dream, last night, Miche Adolphe," she said, "in which you had fallen into the river. You had gone down twice, and were throwing up your hands for the last time."
It was a superstitious age, and Zabet's dreams were an easy expedient, by which she was able to talk to white people with a freedom which would not have been permitted to less privileged colored persons.
"You should not presume to dream of me, old witch, unless your dreams are good ones. No need to predict bad luck--it is mine already!"
"But you are too impatient, master! That was not all of my dream. You were rescued at the last moment."
"By whom?" he demanded eagerly.
Zabet Philosophe's dreams had often come true; this had been known to happen many times. The guesses of a shrewd observer who understands the character and circumstances of those about, may often hit the mark. Moreover Zabet's dreams were often shrewdly calculated, as in this instance, to accomplish indirectly some very definite purpose.
"By your uncle Pierre," she rejoined, "who threw you a plank, mon Dieu, upon which you swam safely ashore!"
Adolphe Beaurepas's face lit up with hope. Was this dream of the old mulatress a good omen? Was it at all possible that his close-fisted uncle Pierre would help him to lift the miserable mortgage, ripe for foreclosure, which covered the whole of his small estate?
"Tell me, Zabet!" he said, dropping into the Philosophe's basket one of his few pieces of silver, "do you think he would care to see me?"
"He received you affectionately in my dream," returned Zabet, "which was one of the true kind. I saw Miche Pierre only last night, and he spoke of his dear nephews and of how much he loved them. And he added that he was growing old, and must decide upon his heir."
"Dear, good uncle! replied Adolph Beaurepas, with a cunning smile. "He does not know how much I love him. I think I shall pay him a visit."
"By all means," returned Zabet. "I should not neglect it. Out of sight, out of mind."
"Merci, Zabet, I'll go and see him."
"Go in the morning, Miche Adolphe, when he is fresh and his mind clear. You will have a better reception."
The court had not yet opened, but the hour for opening was at hand, and several belated lawyers hurried past with their clients and witnesses. As a gentleman, taller of stature than most Creole men, who as a rule, though athletic, were of about the middle height, passed old Zabet in too great haste to notice her, she called out to him.
"There is no need to hurry, Miche Henri. The judge has not yet gone in. I was at Miche Pierre's house this morning."
"And how is my uncle?" queried Henri Beaurepas, another of the nephews of the rich Creole proprietor referred to by Zabet.
"Failing, Miche Henri, though he does not seem to realize it."
Standing in the glare of the morning sun, Henri Beaurepas's face showed indubitable marks of dissipation. Late hours do not conduce to early rising or firm cheeks or clear eyes. He had sat in a gambling house on Canal Street until three o'clock that morning, and had suffered heavy losses at cards, for which he had given his notes of hand, payable on demand, thus increasing the total of his debts by several thousand dollars. His expression brightened when the old woman spoke.
"Why do you think he is failing, Zabet?" he asked with restrained eagerness.
"Why, Miche Henri? Because he is thinking of his heir. He asked about you. He spoke very kindly. I think he would like to see you."
Another silver piece dropped into the old woman's basket.
"I'll go and see him, Zabet. When is he in the best humor?"
"I should go just before noon, Miche Henri--before luncheon. He is apt then to be in a pleasant mood. But there comes your judge."
"Then I must hurry in, and finish my testimony. I am a witness in the Janvier case. Merci, Zabet; when I come into the estate, I'll not forget you." The Janvier case was a famous, long drawn out piece of litigation involving the tide to a large tract of valuable land.
"Merci, Miche," said Zabet, with a curtsey, but the smile with which she followed the gentleman as he entered the city hall, had more of shrewd cynicism than of the servility which had marked it when face to face with her interlocutor. Among other things which slavery had taught Zabet, if she needed any instruction, was, when she chose, the ability to so control her features that they did not reveal her thoughts, a very valuable accomplishment for one of her condition.
There was a lull in the street movement for a brief space, and then the bells of the Cathedral nearby rang out for morning mass. This venerable and imposing pile, with its mixture of rustic, Tuscan and Roman Doric styles of architecture, its towers lined with low spires, and its arched door with clustered columns on either hand, occupied one side of the old square, and was the recognized center of the Creole life of New Orleans.
As the bells rang out, a shabby one-horse carriage, drawn by a flea-bitten gray gelding, which, in spite of its age, showed signs of breeding, entered the Square from St. Anne Street, and passing old Zabet, who dropped an unnoticed curtsey to the occupants, drew up in front of the Cathedral door. From it dismounted an elderly Spaniard, with the pointed Velasquez beard affected by men of his race. He was followed by a young woman of rare beauty, whom he assisted to alight. They might have been, as they were in fact, father and daughter.
Zabet, who stood not far from the door of the church, with her eyes fixed upon the couple, did not, for the moment, perceive two gentlemen who were approaching her on the street from opposite directions. Each of these, it seemed, was also intent upon the pair in front of the Cathedral, and neither perceived the other until they came into personal contact, though with no great degree of violence, for both were walking slowly, immediately in front of the old cake merchant.
One of the two, a handsome young man, of about the middle height, with a proud expression, tinged with a melancholy discontent, had drawn back deprecatingly, and was lifting his hat with a murmured apology, when the other, with a truculent air, drew back his arm almost involuntarily, and struck the first a stinging blow upon the cheek.
"You should stick to the gutter, canaille, if you cannot keep out of the way of gentlemen! If you kept your eyes in front of you, instead of stating insolently at white ladies, it would be the better for you. This is not your first offense. You will need more than one lesson to teach you your place."
The person thus addressed, who was apparently no more responsible for the accident than the speaker, turned white at first,--whether with fear or with anger,--but almost instantly the tide of blood flowed back and flushed his cheek a dark crimson, and from his black eyes blazed the fierce resentment to which the blow had given rise. Such of the bystanders as did not know the two men, held their breath for a moment, in anticipation of the tragedy which would in all probability follow so grievous an insult. The men of New Orleans were hot-blooded and impulsive, prone to act first and think afterwards, if the matter demanded thought. Among the Creole French and Spaniards the point of honor was jealously guarded, and frequent resort was had to the code for its maintenance, while among the American adventurers who came down the Mississippi were many violent men who had sought the city because of its distance from courts where their presence was urgently desired. Only the week before, a prominent citizen had been shot down for a less offense than a blow or running into another, and brawls between commoner men were of frequent occurrence.
To the surprise and disappointment of the bystanders, however, the man who had been struck, after a visible effort to restrain himself, made no reply, but merely turned upon his heel and walked quietly away. Around the next corner, however, in a quiet street where he was out of sight and hearing, he first relieved his mind by a flow of strong language which he muttered under his breath, accompanied by gestures significative of defiance and revenge, and then, after this harmless and somewhat childish though perfectly natural performance, drew from his pocket a set of tablets, glanced at the clock in the cathedral nearby, and made a careful memorandum with the gold lead pencil which dangled from his watch-chain.
"It is an interesting record," he muttered, running his eye over the page, "and when the credit entries are made, it will be more interesting still. My time will come--I feel it! I am free-born,--I am rich--I am as white as they; and I have been better educated. Yet they treat me like a Negro, and when I am struck I cannot return the blow, under pain of losing my liberty or my life. Ah, could I but face them as man to man!" he cried, putting his hand to his side, upon an imaginary sword-hilt. "But I forget--nom de Dieu--a man of color cannot bear arms! But we shall see! We shall see!"
"What insolence!" cried old Zabet, insinuatingly, as the other gentleman, maintaining his position upon the sidewalk, still stared across toward the cathedral door into which the Spaniard and his daughter were disappearing.
The gentleman, absorbed in his own thoughts, made no reply.
"What heavenly beauty, Monsieur Raoul!" crooned the old woman.
The young man glanced at the speaker. The white girl had gone in, and the old brown woman offered a ready foil to her radiant youth and beauty. Nevertheless his irritation had not yet subsided, and he only scowled at the old cakewoman.
"If only justice were done, Monsieur Raoul," Zabet, intent upon her own purpose, persisted, "and you, as the eldest born, were acknowledged as your uncle's heir, you would not need to look at her from a distance. I saw old Miche Pierre this morning. He is in a bad way, poor man!"
"How so, Zabet?" demanded the gentleman, his brow clearing somewhat at the old woman's words. "Is it his heart, or his gout, or both together?"
Zabet shook her head with a portentous sigh.
"His gout, Monsieur Raoul, is threatening his heart. And his spirits are low. He complains that his nephews do not love him, that they neglect their old uncle, that they seldom come near him."
Raoul Beaurepas, sugar and cotton broker, roue and speculator, who had just received a call for additional margins to save him from a loss which threatened bankruptcy, jumped at the hook, like a hungry fish at a fat worm. Another silver piece found lodgment in Zabet's basket. The younger Beaurepas were prodigal, while their money lasted.
"Merci, Zabet, he shall no longer complain. When is he in the most amiable mood?"
"In the afternoon, Monsieur Raoul, after his siesta, you will make a better impression."
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