John Bennett's classic tale, based on Gullah folklore, is set in antebellum Charleston, where a desperate mother sells her soul to ensure her daughter's happiness. With a new introduction by Harlan Greene.
|Publisher:||History Press (SC)|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Harlan Greene is a native of Charleston, and the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. His novel What the Dead Remember won the Lambda Literary Award for best gay male fiction, and his current novel is The German Officer's Boy. He has also published on Charleston literary figures, slave badges, and early American Jewish history. He has published in such magazines as Art and Antiques and Metropolitan Home and is considered an authority on Charleston history, being interviewed on National Public Radio, the BBC and other international sources. He has served as assistant director of the South Carolina Historical Society, director the North Carolina Preservation Consortium and is now affiliated with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston.
Read an Excerpt
In an age so glorious, so rich and fine, and so bestarred with splendor that one almost forgets the bottomless abyss into which it plunged at last, there lived a woman in Charleston of whom a very odd story is told.
The languid, lovely, tired old town was then a city brave and gay, with Mediterranean manners and Caribbean ways.
The perfume of ten thousand flowers drifted upon the winds, which came and went over a thousand gardens, ebbing and flowing like the tide.
Clouds of snowy gold and roses rolled across the sky, like the vast rotundas of a city builded of colored ivory. Slowly rising overhead, in windy and ethereal masses, they stood, carvings of pale porphyry upon a turquoise wall. The earth was transfigured with beauty.
It was a golden age, when all things were fair; nothing had grown old; even the tragic and the terrible were comely then. Wonder lay on everything. Merely to exist was to be happy. It was a world of unextinguished youth; life was brimful to the lips with delight.
In the gardens rare flowers bloomed, and rare fruits ripened,-pomegranates, oranges, medlars, figs, jujubes, and the purple Indian peach; and among the flowers, like winged flames, small and bright, sped the harlequins, the painted nonpareils, delicately beating the soft wind with their pied wings; while in the pomegranate-tree, among the dull bronze fruit, the mocking-bird sang his love and rapture. Through the green-hedged close, women, beautiful and stately, paced the shade, with men beside them, slender and straight, passionate and haughty, with fierce, bright eyes as ardent as the goshawk's and as bold; and lovely girls, with dark hair and skins of alabaster, as gracefuland as timid as fawns, and with fawn's eyes, slipped among the green leaves like flowers alive.
Those were charmed days indeed. The town has changed since then. The world seems to have grown weary and gray, and the hearts of men bitter. The young were younger then; the old not so sorry for everything as they have been since. Then, somehow, it seemed to be always summer morning, morning before the sun had burned the world to a dun crisp with his meridian heat, scorching bitter and blinding bright; before the advent of gasping afternoon with its languid leafage and evaporated sap. The calendar seemed to have paused among the daffodils, between the jessamine and the June, in that paradise of the year. The delicate and virginal camellia bloomed then, untarnished by rough wind or rain; its petals were sweet, which since then have grown so bitter. The elm-trees did not then bloom thrice for one green coat. And no one ever paused to think that no good and lovely thing exists on earth without its corresponding shadow.
The world was full of the sound of sweet, flute-like voices of young women calling after their lovers; and the singing of small birds made slender, pleasant melodies among the cool myrtles. Life was simpler; perhaps more child-like though more passionate. Two who loved each other might walk together, hand in hand, along the path, singing their happiness, without reproach, save, perchance from some lugubrious gray-bearded presbyter mourning, among mossy tombstones, life's evanescence.
And happy youth was without a fault, unless it were a trivial one, some p‚ch‚ mignon, a guileless, guiltless, girlish sin, like kissing oneself in the looking-glass for lack of another lover.
In all the town there were none so pretty, none so graceful or so sweet, as the golden girls of San Domingo. They flowed along the windy streets, their turbans nodding, like a stream of tulips. They fluttered down the byways in their white muslin dresses like bevies of butterflies. The loveliness of their slender bodies and the beauty of their youthful faces were far beyond all dull description; they were a bed of tiger-lilies in the sun. The earth loved the tread of their flying feet, which seemed to be forever dancing pastourelles; and the narrow lanes of the city laughed with the lilt of their Creole tongue.
Among the golden San Domingans the loveliest of all admittedly was Marguerite Lagoux, the milliner, by her patronage called Rita, by her familiars Margoton, by envious rivalry Madame Margot; and, after all was over and done, known merely as Old Mother Go-go.
Hers was glorious physical loveliness in its fullest maturity. It was in an hour of inspiration the indolent god of beauty drew the lines on which her body was built.
Her passionate, rich-colored, handsome face was like a line from an old enchantment which took men's souls captive, then cast them away without the least regret, or with a Circean spell turned them into beasts. Her neck was a deep-colored, ivory tower poised perfectly over her breast. The dazzling, orange-tawny skin of her broad bust turned to golden-russet before it reached her cheeks, and was there flushed to dusky rose, like the skin of a ruddy-gold peach. In the burnt splendor of her cheek the darkly eloquent blood in her veins made its golden proclamation. Her mouth was long and strangely curved like a retroverted bow; the lips of a queer fruit-color, not crimson, carmine, nor magenta, but a little of all three. The upper lip was brief to a fault, and curled back on itself like a rich-pulped fruit which has parted in ripening. The full under-lip cast a heavier shade than the lips the old masters chose, when they painted a picture of the Madonna. Her hair, like a dark, uncertain cloud, fell down in heavy coils, gathered and knotted at the nape of the neck, bound there in a golden net; or lay in an unfilleted band across the broad, low brow, drawn back into braids over her ears, or collected into a turban tied with peculiar dexterity. Her body was cast in a glorious mould: she was tall; in figure perfect; and full of a stately, tiger-like grace, the envy of other women. She moved, when she walked, as an empress might if heaven but gave her grace, with an exquisite, perfect motion, devoid of every appearance of effort,-not striding, but seeming to glide like a swan swimming on untroubled water. In the sluggish grace of her heavy lips and deep-lidded, brooding eyes, she was as full of an indolent, sleepy beauty as midsummer afternoon. Dressed in bright merino, crimson, orange, and blue, with a kerchief of blood-colored silk around her head bound in oriental fashion, beads of amber around her neck, and in each ear a hoop of gold, she looked like a great golden lily dusted with sang-dieu.
One day she was the lily; the next a yellow rose; and the next she was a tulip,-gold, crimson, purple and black. She was a Caribbean summer incarnate, of flower-blooms, thunder and gold. The passing traveler, seeing her, stopped while he caught his breath. There was something about her commanded attention besides her remarkable beauty. One spoke of Ducie Poincignon casually; but one spoke of Rita Lagoux with an accent.
Of all the milliners of her day Margot was first beyond compare. Her taste was perfect; her instinct for color was never at fault; her choice of fabrics exquisite. None equaled her in dexterity; she was like a marvelous spider weaving webs of gossamer. Those who sought beauty found it; her patrons were patrician; all of the very best employed her art; she had no successful competitor; beside her Eloise Couesnon was esteemed but maladroit.
Margot's shop was in King street, near Mignot's Garden, a little above the Bend. She lived in a little alley known as Lilac lane, a narrow, crooked, private path between two large estates, which rambled into the interspace like a brown brook into a wood. Beneath high green hedges it wandered into the solitude, growing narrower as it went, until the hedge boughs, meeting, knit themselves together, interlacing their elastic, leafy twigs There the baffled foot-path seemed to lose its way and to abandon every purpose for which foot-paths are designed, ran on a little, hesitated, crept on again uncertainly, then gave up hope and disappeared in a green perplexity. The unfamiliar traveler paused here, bewildered, and turned back to find a bolder thoroughfare; familiar feet alone pressed on through Lilac lane.
Where the strait way vanished into the wilderness stood Margot's cottage, tucked snug as a plum stone in a plum. Around it was a garden hedged by box and bay. Of all the hedges in Lilac lane the highest were Margot's. They rose around her garden in an impenetrable thicket, tall, dark-tangled, dense and old, their green tops tossing against the blue beyond the reach of the hedger's bill. Within lay a little tranquil space, withdrawn alike from curious gaze and the town's brawl, and overshadowed by the wide boughs of two great magnolias, whose drowsy shade fell heavily on the sleepy oleanders and over the rows of tulips below, that lifted up their golden cups and filled the air with odor. Here day and night flowed by in undisturbed serenity; all noise was hushed and tumult quelled; the shyest wild birds nested here in perfect confidence, fear cast away and foes forgot. No place in all the town seemed more secure from rude intrusion. No apparition came by night, no terror by day; so quiet it was, so full of peace, it seemed a sanctuary withdrawn from the interrupting clash and rude alarms of the troubled world,-its tranquillity that of a convent close, with little, distant, ringing bells, recurrent chimes and subdued voices, muffled by distance, as of nuns chanting an office in the peaceful choir of a green-nooked nunnery.
Margot Lagoux had a daughter; her name was Gabrielle.
Though Margot was lovely, Gabrielle was lovelier. They differed in beauty as pompadour-pink differs from brier-rose. Margot's was a golden beauty; Gabrielle's an ivory loveliness. Margot was a pottery figurine moulded with marvelous skill; Gabrielle a statuette of exquisite porcelain. Margot was like the summer sun, dazzling, opulent, sumptuous; Gabrielle like the young spring moon in her slender loveliness; the lines of her flowed one into the other like the lines of a song. Her hands were delicate and fine, their touch as light as flowers blown by the wind, which drift like a whisper across the face of the passer-by. Her feet were arched like a Spanish girl's; her ankles were the loveliest things that ever sandal-ribbon bound; she walked like the wind of an April morning through meadows after rain.
Her face, with its delicate high cheek bones, was like the fair flower of Normandy; but her beauty was not Western, `twas Eastern; it was like the pale Persian roses which blow by the gray-marbled waterways among the fallen pillars of the forgotten gardens of Istakhr,-roses of yesterday, full of yesterday's unbearable loveliness, yesterday's happiness, yesterday's tragedy,-fragrant with passionate, heart-breaking perfume, piercingly sweet, with the pathos of swift-passing beauty, far keener than that of ruins and age. She was of a loveliness such as sometimes comes out of India unburned by the Indian sun, of which dreamers make dreams of unforgettable beauty.
Her slender young body was like a piece of perfect ivory laid away to be carved. Her long, dark, tangled eyelashes fell upon her cheeks like sudden gusts of darkening rain; her cheeks were japonica-color; her lips pale pomegranate-red; her hair ebony; her temples were traced with crocus-blue.
Her cheeks japonica-color? They were the hue of peach flowers at dusk: God who gave them knew whence came both peach flower color and dusk.
At every breath there came and went beneath her transparent skin a shadowy crimson under-dusk, ebbing and flowing with the beat of her heart like a somber, twilit tide,-San Domingo's sang de cr‚puscule and through her fingers the sunlight shone with a golden radiance like the glow of a rose through a glass of madeira.
She might have been sister to Scheherazade in her exquisite, aquiline, high-born loveliness, a patrician beauty strangely like that of old French romance. Far and away beyond compare she was the loveliest girl in St. Finbar's parish; and the faces of the young girls in St. Finbar's made that ancient, dim, gray parish bloom like the gardens of Paradise.
God, who knows everything, knows whence she had her exquisite, slender body, her aristocratic face, the dusky crimson tide, the touch of fantasy which made her lovely as a strain of wild, passionate music played on the deep strings of a gipsy violin.
For, as the rarest beauty remains imperfect without a touch of strangeness, without something to haunt and to fret the mind, forbidding it to forget, there was a something almost, if not quite, fantastic, in Gabrielle's loveliness-a touch of irregularity difficult to define-making her beauty more significant through being peculiar, more poignant through being strange. Something indefinite and conjectural tinged her being; the ghost of a vaguely intricate and tragical implication beneath her bright young innocence lurked shadowy and malign. Had her beauty been less perfect this, perhaps, had been less notable. Revealed in a casual attitude, for a moment startling in vividness, now for a moment it was lost, and now stole forth again in the stress of unstudied emotion to accent a passing mood.
As one who, looking into her mirror, sees a face there not her own, Margot perceived in her daughter's face an intricately blended likeness, to banish which into forgetfulness she strove desperately in vain,-the recollection of a wild, sweet, irrevocable hour whose memory was fear. Gabrielle's beauty made her tremble.
It is a perilous privilege for a girl to possess loveliness rising above her station in life; there is a price always to be paid for it, sorrow the common fee; such a heritage of beauty often proves but a legacy of shame,-a beauty built for destruction, a loveliness for scorn; haggard wisdom reaps in tears what innocence sowed with laughter.
There was a thought from which Margot shrank as from a draught of poison: Gabrielle degraded and desolate. There was nothing to her more precious than her daughter's innocence; nothing so important as her earthly happiness; these seemed to Margot even more necessary than her eternal peace.
Yet ever a shadow hung over her child, from cradle to grave; her delicate grace and refinement were signatures of dread. Margot's eyes hunted from side to side as do a deer's hard pressed by the dogs-can one elude destiny?
Where were the lovely and the fair she had known in her own youth? Dead, long ago; the graveyard sand lay cold upon their lips; their passion and their sweetness were forgotten long ago. Margot knew that youth and summer night are made for ecstasy. She knew, too, that in forgotten graveyards are many unmarked graves of hapless beauty. Looking into the mirror where life is stripped of its illusions, and truth stands stark and bare in its unmitigated ugliness, panic terror seized Margot.
Was there no refuge, no escape, nor safety anywhere; no retreat, nor harbor, but in hopeless longing; always the far-off lightning and threatening of storm? Peering into the future she was filled with apprehension. In dreams she saw Gabrielle's innocence hanging over a black abyss; in dreams saw a fawn torn by ravening wolves. She awoke, starting up, crying out! There was nothing but the night. Yet she arose from her bed, and, crouched by her crucifix, prayed for her daughter as she never had prayed for herself.
At adolescence Gabrielle was a vision of delight. In temperament she was ardent as is a summer shower, which gives, when it gives, all that it has to give, in a rush of wind and rain. Unspoiled by knowledge, unruined by folly, too innocent to be perplexed by life's anxieties, her soul mistook Earth for the pathway to Paradise, and nothing as yet had discovered her error. With her each hour began afresh the tale of life, a long, sweet, glad surprise.
Rose-winged days and golden nights were come to Gabrielle, whose feet stood at the smiling gate of the Primrose Way. But Margot's days and nights were filled with passionate anxiety, as with increasing doubts and fears she confronted destiny.
The inner house-door gave upon a little paved court, where two twisted old fig-trees grew, many-branched candelabra, tipped in spring with green-leaved lights. Green-leaved shadows wavered below on a duck-pool's marble bowl, stained green from the copper tenons which tied its stones together. Here ducks praised Jove with yellow bills, and splashed viridian wings. In the pool, glimmering, one saw the stuccoed cottage-wall, on the irregular surface of which old colors showed in broken chequers through the new until the wall was patched with unpremeditated beauty. Across the pool the silvery sunlight glimmered like a streak of flame. But the fairest thing reflected there was Gabrielle, dancing on the old stones which paved the court,-dances fantastic as her mood; sarabands to the stately rhythm of odd old songs, deliberately slow; canzons whose pathos was lost in a pirouette; minuets which mimicked the swallows overhead with their swift glissades among the trees and undulating sweeps among the flowers,-snatching the poppies as she passed, and thrusting them in her hair, and pausing at last like a wind-blown flower above her reflection in the pool,-Gabrielle, singing old songs by the world forgotten,-strains of wild beauty, that by wayward loveliness have a peculiar power to please, with old melodies, alluring and sweet; songs such as long ago stole the souls of saints determined upon salvation, and gave themes for many troubadour lays, of which, though all are lovely, the greater part are sad, being memories of loveliness departed into the dust: one of life's paradoxes, that the memory of beauty should be bitter.
Here, remote from the curious world, preserved by the cloistral hedges from prying indiscretion, flowed her secluded existence. Few ever saw her. Such as by chance observed her through some green interstice, dazzled by her beauty, hurried off to spread the tale of an enchanted princess in an enchanted wood; hedge-balked and bewildered, few had ever seen her twice; by which she had been the more thought of through being the less seen.