Chapter 22

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT AND WHAT FOLLOWED

 

IT was a beautiful Sunday in September, with a cloudless sky, and the rays of the sun parching the already thirsty earth, that Clotelle stood at an upper window in Slater's slave-pen in New Orleans, gasping for a breath of fresh air. The bells of thirty churches were calling the people to the different places of worship. Crowds were seen wending their way to the houses of God; one followed by a negro boy carrying his master's Bible; another followed by her maid-servant holding the mistress' fan; a third supporting an umbrella over his master's head to shield him from the burning sun. Baptists immersed, Presbyterians sprinkled, Methodists shouted, and Episcopalians read their prayers, while ministers of the various sects preached that Christ died for all. The chiming of the bells seemed to mock the sighs and deep groans of the forty human beings then incarcerated in the slave-pen. These imprisoned children of God were many of them Methodists, some Baptists, and others claiming to believe in the faith of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

Oh, with what anxiety did these creatures await the close of that Sabbath, and the dawn of another day, that should deliver them from those dismal and close cells. Slowly the day passed away, and once more the evening breeze found its way through the barred windows of the prison that contained these injured sons and daughters of America.

The clock on the calaboose had just struck nine on Monday morning, when hundreds of persons were seen threading the gates and doors of the negro-pen. It was the same gang that had the day previous been stepping to the tune and keeping time with the musical church bells. Their Bibles were not with them, their prayer-books were left at home, and even their long and solemn faces had been laid aside for the week. They had come to the man-market to make their purchases. Methodists were in search of their brethren. Baptists were looking for those that had been immersed, while Presbyterians were willing to buy fellow-Christians, whether sprinkled or not. The crowd was soon gazing at and feasting their eyes upon the lovely features of Clotelle.

"She is handsomer," muttered one to himself, "than the lady that sat in the pew next to me yesterday."

"I would that my daughter was half so pretty," thinks a second.

Groups are seen talking in every part of the vast building, and the topic on 'Change, is the "beautiful quadroon." By and by, a tall young man with a foreign face, the curling mustache protruding from under a finely-chiseled nose, and having the air of a gentleman, passes by. His dark hazel eye is fastened on the maid, and he stops for a moment; the stranger walks away, but soon returns-- he looks, he sees the young woman wipe away the silent tear that steals down her alabaster cheek; he feels ashamed that he should gaze so unmanly on the blushing face of the woman. As he turns upon his heel he takes out his white handkerchief and wipes his eyes. It may be that he has lost a sister, a mother, or some dear one to whom he was betrothed. Again he comes, and the quadroon hides her face. She has heard that foreigners make bad masters, and she shuns his piercing gaze. Again he goes away and then returns. He takes a last look and then walks hurriedly off.

The day wears away, but long before the time of closing the sale the tall young man once more enters the slave-pen. He looks in every direction for the beautiful slave, but she is not there--she has been sold! He goes to the trader and inquires, but he is too late, and he therefore returns to his hotel.

Having entered a military school in Paris when quite young, and soon after been sent with the French army to India, Antoine Devenant had never dabbled in matters of love. He viewed all women from the same stand-point--respected them for their virtues, and often spoke of the goodness of heart of the sex, but never dreamed of taking to himself a wife. The unequalled beauty of Clotelle had dazzled his eyes, and every look that she gave was a dagger that went to his heart. He felt a shortness of breath, his heart palpitated, his head grew dizzy, and his limbs trembled; but he knew not its cause. This was the first stage of "love at first sight."

He who bows to the shrine of beauty when beckoned by this mysterious agent seldom regrets it. Devenant reproached himself for not having made inquiries concerning the girl before he left the market in the morning. His stay in the city was to be short, and the yellow fever was raging, which caused him to feel like making a still earlier departure. The disease appeared in a form unusually severe and repulsive. It seized its victims from amongst the most healthy of the citizens. The disorder began in the brain by oppressive pain accompanied or followed by fever. Fiery veins streaked the eye, the face was inflamed and dyed of a dark dull red color; the ears from time to time rang painfully. Now mucous secretions surcharged the tongue and took away the power of speech; now the sick one spoke, but in speaking had foresight of death. When the violence of the disease approached the heart, the gums were blackened. The sleep broken, troubled by convulsions, or by frightful visions, was worse than the waking hours; and when the reason sank under a delirium which had its seat in the brain, repose utterly forsook the patient's couch. The progress of the fever within was marked by yellowish spots, which spread over the surface of the body. If then, a happy crisis came not, all hope was gone. Soon the breath infected the air with a fetid odor, the lips were glazed, despair painted itself in the eyes, and sobs, with long intervals of silence, formed the only language. From each side of the mouth, spread foam tinged with black and burnt blood. Blue streaks mingled with the yellow all over the frame. All remedies were useless. This was the yellow fever. The disorder spread alarm and confusion throughout the city. On an average more than four hundred died daily. In the midst of disorder and confusion, death heaped victims on victims. Friend followed friend in quick succession. The sick were avoided from the fear of contagion, and for the same reason the dead were left unburied. Nearly two thousand dead bodies lay uncovered in the burial-ground, with only here and there a little lime thrown over them, to prevent the air becoming infected. The negro, whose home is in a hot climate, was not proof against the disease. Many plantations had to suspend their work for want of slaves to take the places of those who had been taken off by the fever.

 

 

 


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