“Yes, suh here we
are at that old-time place!” And our dark driver
drew up his little victoria gently.
Through the open doorway, into a dim,
cavernous, ruined house of New Orleans we passed.
The mildew and dirt, the dark denuded dankness of
that old hostel, rotting down with damp and time!
And our guide, the tall, thin, grey-haired
dame, who came forward with such native ease and moved
before us, touching this fungused wall, that rusting
stairway, and telling, as it were, no one in her soft,
slow speech, things that any one could see what
a strange and fitting figure!
Before the smell of the deserted,
oozing rooms, before that old creature leading us
on and on, negligent of all our questions, and talking
to the air, as though we were not, we felt such discomfort
that we soon made to go out again into such freshness
as there was on that day of dismal heat. Then
realising, it seemed, that she was losing us, our old
guide turned; for the first time looking in our faces,
she smiled, and said in her sweet, weak voice, like
the sound from the strings of a spinet long unplayed
on: “Don’ you wahnd to see the dome-room:
an’ all the other rooms right here, of this
Again those words! We had not
the hearts to disappoint her. And as we followed
on and on, along the mouldering corridors and rooms
where the black peeling papers hung like stalactites,
the dominance of our senses gradually dropped from
us, and with our souls we saw its soul the
soul of this old-time place; this mustering house
of the old South, bereft of all but ghosts and the
grey pigeons niched in the rotting gallery round a
narrow courtyard open to the sky.
“This is the dome-room, suh
and lady; right over the slave-market it is.
Here they did the business of the State sure;
old-time heroes up therein the roof Washington,
Hamilton, Jefferson, Davis, Lee there they
are! All gone now! Yes, suh!”
A fine yea, even a splendid
room, of great height, and carved grandeur, with hand-wrought
bronze sconces and a band of metal bordering, all
blackened with oblivion. And the faces of those
old heroes encircling that domed ceiling were blackened
too, and scarred with damp, beyond recognition.
Here, beneath their gaze, men had banqueted and danced
and ruled. The pride and might and vivid strength
of things still fluttered their uneasy flags of spirit,
moved disherited wings! Those old-time feasts
and grave discussions we seemed to see them
printed on the thick air, imprisoned in this great
chamber built above their dark foundations. The
pride and the might and the vivid strength of things gone,
We became conscious again of that soft, weak voice.
“Not hearing very well, suh,
I have it all printed, lady beautifully
told here yes, indeed!”
She was putting cards into our hands;
then, impassive, maintaining ever her impersonal chant,
the guardian of past glory led us on.
“Now we shall see the slave-market downstairs,
underneath! It’s wet for the lady the
water comes in now yes, suh!”
On the crumbling black and white marble
floorings the water indeed was trickling into pools.
And down in the halls there came to us wandering strangest
thing that ever strayed through deserted grandeur a
brown, broken horse, lean, with a sore flank and a
head of tremendous age. It stopped and gazed
at us, as though we might be going to give it things
to eat, then passed on, stumbling over the ruined marbles.
For a moment we had thought him ghost one
of the many. But he was not, since his hoofs
sounded. The scrambling clatter of them had died
out into silence before we came to that dark, crypt-like
chamber whose marble columns were ringed in iron,
veritable pillars of foundation. And then we
saw that our old guide’s hands were full of newspapers.
She struck a match; they caught fire and blazed.
Holding high that torch, she said: “See!
Up there’s his name, above where he stood.
The auctioneer. Oh yes, indeed! Here’s
where they sold them!”
Below that name, decaying on the wall,
we had the slow, uncanny feeling of some one standing
there in the gleam and flicker from that paper torch.
For a moment the whole shadowy room seemed full of
forms and faces. Then the torch lied out, and
our old guide, pointing through an archway with the
blackened stump of it, said:
“’Twas here they kept them indeed, yes!”
We saw before us a sort of vault,
stone-built, and low, and long. The light there
was too dim for us to make out anything but walls and
heaps of rusting scrap-iron cast away there and mouldering
own. But trying to pierce that darkness we became
conscious, as it seemed, of innumerable eyes gazing,
not at us, but through the archway where we stood;
innumerable white eyeballs gleaming out of blackness.
From behind us came a little laugh. It floated
past through the archway, toward those eyes.
Who was that? Who laughed in there? The
old South itself that incredible, fine,
lost soul! That “old-time” thing
of old ideals, blindfolded by its own history!
That queer proud blend of simple chivalry and tyranny,
of piety and the abhorrent thing! Who was it
laughed there in the old slave-market laughed
at these white eyeballs glaring from out of the blackness
of their dark cattle-pen? What poor departed
soul in this House of Melancholy? But there was
no ghost when we turned to look only our
old guide with her sweet smile.
“Yes, suh. Here they all
came ’twas the finest hotel before
the war-time; old Southern families buyin’
an’ sellin’ their property. Yes,
ma’am, very interesting! This way!
And here were the bells to all the rooms. Broken,
you see all broken!”
And rather quickly we passed away,
out of that “old-time place”; where something
had laughed, and the drip, drip, drip of water down
the walls was as the sound of a spirit grievin.