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OB THE WIDOW MOREL.
BY E. B. OABDETTE, M.D.
The spring rains in the latitude of Mow Orleans are so heavy and incessant, as to astonish and even terrify those who are unaccustomed to that climate, and sometimes involve a serious danger to person and property, from the singular rapidity with which the city may be flooded. The rain falls in such torrents, as almost to lose, or to seem-to lose, its character of multiplied drops of water, and become as one widespread stream pouring from the mouth of some enormous vessel, upheld by mighty and invisible hands, above this deluged spot of earth. The suddenness too with which these rain-clouds burst, affords but little notice to the unprotected pedestrian, who is often drenched before he has fairly thought of the necessity for seeking shelter or a safe footing.
About the year 1810, no attempt had yet been made to pave the streets of New Orleans, and indeed the character of the soil, which seems but a crust of earth with water a few inches below its surface, still induced the belief that paving was impracticable. At this period the citizens often witnessed the curious sight of navigation immediately through the streets— boats traversing the town, as the only medium of intercourse between the inhabitants for two or three days together; while through the same aquatic channel came the necessary supplies from the butcher and the baker.
It was but a few hours in advance of one of these heavy deluging rains in the month of April, that the poor Widow Morel had sent her little son, now about eight years of age, with the early flowers of the South, to deck his little sister's grave;—a pious duty, which yearly until that day, since the death of her promising Emma, had been faithfully performed by the fond mother. Leopold, the only remaining child of Mrs. Morel, was a fair-haired boy, whose pale cheek and languid blue eye bespoke an appearance of more fragile health than was really his portion; for this resulted rather from sedentary habits and close and constant companionship with his mother, than from any bodily ailment. The boy's heart beat proudly at the suggestion that he should go alone and perform the sacred task they had many times accomplished together, of strewing fresh flowers upon the tomb of their dear Emma.
Mrs. Morel, though still in the prime of life, was suffering from a rheumatic affection, which scarcely permitted her, on that morning, to reach the neighbouring market-place, supplied with green-house plants and flowers, and where she habitually procured those she needed for her holy purpose. Her lameness tempted her now, for the first time, to permit Leopold to go alone to the cemetery, about a mile distant from her humble dwelling. Accordingly he was soon dressed in his best suit, and in his hand held the little basket of sweet flowers, as he listened attentively to his good mother's parting instructions. She had more than once repeated her earnest injunctions "not to stop by the wayside," either going or returning, and "Remember, my darling boy," said the fond mother, as she constrained his eagerness to start upon his proud errand, and recalled inwardly the sentiments associated with flowers, "remember, my son, these are the blue violets and half-blown roses (expressing love); these the passion-flowers, amaranths and while daisies (hape and immortality and innocence), which you will carefully place at the head of sister's grave." With her hand still on the basket, she continued pointing to the flowers: "Next are the yellow and purple heart's ease (forget me not); the rosemary (for remembrance)—these are for the centre of the tomb; and then the heliotrope and locust (devotion and affection beyond the grave) are for the foot." Mrs. Morel made her interpretations of the language of flowers in thought only, and yet they seemed comforting to her heart. She now terminated her instructions by saying, "You will be sure to place the flowers, my son, as mother has directed you, and then think of the little prayer she has taught you to say at sister's grave." Imprinting a gentle kiss upon his cheek, that now was blooming with excitement, the mother, from her doorstep, saw her boy depart upon his sacred duty; her heart was sad with the associations of the past, and her eyes watched his cherished form, until it was no longer visible in the dim distance, and then with a feeling of irresistible melancholy, she returned to her neat little apartment, and sat down to her needlework.
In the first half hour after Leopold's departure, Mrs. Morel drew from her bosom an old silver lever watch, one of the few legacies that still remained of her late husband's limited property; and she was greatly surprised to discover that only thirty minutes had elapsed; it seemed so much longer, and yet ere another half hour had slowly passed away, the mother opened a door leading out upon her front baleony, and looked in the direction of the cemetery. The beloved object her eyes were in search of, was nowhere visible, but she plainly and quickly saw a coming storm; black clouds were rapidly and fearfully gathering, with all the indications of heavy thunder; and ere Mrs. Morel had
reached the chamber for preparations to go after her son, and again returned to the front of the house, the rain was already falling fast. Her anxiety of mind hurried her on, heedless of exposure and forgetful of her lameness or delicate health. She knew the dangerous character of the floods at that season, and her heart now pictured them in their most exaggerated form, when her little Leopold was alone
and exposed. No rheumatic pain could be imagined as having recently afflicted her, whilst with a scanty umbrella, upheld by a more fragile hand, she started at a rapid pace, seeming rather to run than walk. At the end of the first square, the high wind dragged the poor covering from her grasp, and her umbrella in another moment, was seen whirling round the corner, far beyond reach or recovery. But this did not delay her steps; her thin locks and clothing drenched, with uplifted hands, and calling aloud for Leopold! Leopold! she still attempted to make "headway" against the swelling streams that rushed across or followed her path, with equal danger at the various angles, as the ungraded streets' might direct them. From several windows as she passed, the promptly lifted sash and unheeded expressions, bespoke hospitable, kind hearts within, offering shelter from the storm; but so long as her strength endured she struggled onward, paying no heed to summons of kindness, or dangers and suffering to herself.
Had the alarmed and excited feelings of Mrs. Morel permitted her to notice the scene of passing events around her, at such a moment of general consternation, her better judgment would have pointed out the fruitless helplessness of her attempt. At one point, ere she reached it, she might have seen the long line of a funeral procession, with priests at its head, greatly quicken the slow dignified movement habitual in the journeys with the dead, and eventually take shelter, as best they could, within the houses in front of which they were passing. Had she then paused for a short time, she might have observed the drenched driver of the lightly framed hearse quit his seat for safety, as he found his horse about to be swamped and eventually disappear in the middle of Custom-house Street.
But the poor mother saw none of these troufcles or difficulties; her own were too overwhelming to allow attention to any others. Her progress had been but slight in comparison with her wishes or her exertions, and she had scarcely accomplished more than half the distance to the cemetery, when the cry of" Creveute! Crevasse!" was hoarsely shouted in her ears by a man, who ran past her at the top of his speed. Thh startling word added greatly to the existing terror of the drooping woman, and she fell prostrate upon the door-sill of the nearest house, fainting with suffering and fatigue. She was soon perceived by the family and carried in, the citizens being very generally watchful at such moments, either to succour the helpless and distressed, or to laugh at the precipitate movements of those who are unwilling to receive such duckings upon broadcloth. ...,i..( .
Whilst the cries of " Crevasse!" were multiplying with the increasing sense of danger, too well understood in those days by the inhabitants of New Orleans, the poor widow was kindly and tenderly cared for under the hospitable roof of a wealthy lady; and while dry clothing and restoratives were being provided for her, little Leopold was not so lucky in misfortune. The city had become at once in a convulsed condition of excitement and apprehension, from the announcement by many voices that the longfeared crevasse had at last taken place. For some weeks, rumour, with her many exaggerating tongues, had alarmed the timid, and roused the preparations of the prudent, with unfounded reports of a break in the Levee at one point or another above the town. The state of the waters in the Mississippi at season of floods, gave good grounds for fear, and now they were destined to be realized by this sweeping and frightful visitation. So well is the danger of a crevasse understood on the Mississippi, that the dwellings, and particularly those out of the city in isolated situations, are built upon piers, with hydraulic cement, eight or ten feet high, which brings the first floors above high-water mark. In the city of New Orleans this may be the reason why the basement story, in those days of insecurity, was generally devoted to horses and cows, while the family resided above them.
But to return to Leopold. Intent upon the strict performance of the duty entrusted to him, he had quickly reached his little sister's tomb, and the fresh flowers were disposed of according to his mother's directions. He had murmured the inward prayer, and rubbing off the War from his cheek, he started on his return homeward. Not many paces from the gate of the cemetery, Leopold encountered boys at play. The marble-ring and chalked fingers were rare and seducing sights to one of his domestic habits, and he stopped but a brief vO*. Tt 17
moment, as he thought, to observe them, while interest in the scene made him a poor judge how rapidly the minutes were passing away.
The cemetery was situated in the lowest ground about New Orleans, and presented at the period we speak of, an appearance quite peculiar to itself, and very different from such domiciles for the dead, at the North. The shallow earth did not permit the digging of graves,* and hence the bodies are disposed of (we cannot say buried) above the ground in a species of ovens or narrow vaults, several of which often cluster together, both side by side and over one another; a few are sufficiently spacious to bear some resemblance upon the surface of the earth, to our vaults below it. The shrubs and flowers indigenous to the climate, ornament the grounds, but the deficiency of shade trees, and especially of solemn lofty evergreens, deprived the spot of an important feature, lending an air of sanctity and quietude such as belong to "Laurel Hill" and "Mount Auburn."
The storm came up suddenly, as we have said, and it had begun to rain quite fast ere Leopold was conscious of it, and when, with the rest of the boys, he felt its rapid increase, in his momentary fright at seeing himself thus caught unprotected, he started to run with all possible speed, as he thought, towards his home. But he had unluckily gone up the wrong street, at right angles with that he should have taken to reach his mother's house, and was unconsciously directing his course towards a bayou or basin on the outskirts of the town. The increasing rain and fast-swelling waters hastened him along, and amounted to a stream that would have greatly impeded his progress had he been going in the opposite direction; but its even more unfortunate tendency was towards the low grounds of the bayou, and when, after a short time, there came added to the rain, a sudden and heavy rush of waters in the rear of poor little Leopold, he was soon overtaken by a strong, irresistible current, and his feet wenj.carried from under him. The efforts of the alarmed boy to regain his footing were unavailing, and his resisting limbs were overpowered by the violence with which he was, from time to time, thrown against projecting
* It is among the painful tales connected with this fact, that at periods of great mortality from the yellow fever, a summary mode of disposing of the dead was adopted, by opening a small hole about eighteen inches square, and of no greater depth, into which one end of the coffin being placed, a single kick from the undertaker at once and effectually finished the job. The coffin instantly disappeared, and the same opening admitted of as many repetitions of the same quick ceremony as might be needed. But whether any increased faith in the theory of Captain Semmes and his big hollow at the north pole, resulted to the people of Louisiana from this mysterioua disposition of their dead, we are unable to determine.
fragments of trees or other obstructions encountered as they were hurled along, by the swollen, discoloured torrent. The little sufferer was deprived of all sensibility, and his piteously bruised and lacerated person was now unresistingly tossed about and hurried onward by the muddy stream, amid logs and portions of buildings or trees, into the bayou, where the angry element sought its level.
Meanwhile the cries of "Crevasse!" had sounded in the ears of Mrs. Morel with fearful associations of danger to her precious boy, until the loss of all consciousness gave the relief of temporary death. When sufficiently recovered, the presence of strange faces around her brought back the reality of her sad position. Her first words were to call for Leopold, whilst the frantic manner and unintelligible nature of her demand, to the strangers with whom she now chanced to be, gave rise to the thought that they had sheltered a poor maniac. When the distressed mother more calmly insisted upon personally going in search of her Leopold, at a moment when the streets were scarcely safe to the stoutest man, there remained no doubt in the minds of those around her, as to the nature of the duty they had to perform. Gentle but positive restraint was now resorted to, and the suffering stranger, while in a supposed lucid interval, was promised that efforts more effective than her own should at once be made, to find her lost Leopold. Orders were accordingly given in her hearing, but with the accompanying wink that negatives their fulfilment, that the servants of the house should with all possible speed and assistance, go towards the cemetery in search of the lost boy.
The poor afflicted widow gradually sank into a state of calm submission to the will of heaven; her good sense told her how vain were her own individual exertions to aid in finding her son, and her drooping heart seemed yet sustained by hope, and her burning brain relieved by tears. Her mind dwelt unavoidably upon the dreadful consequences to life and property that had been known to follow a serious break or crevasse in the Levee, occasioned by a sudden or great rise in the Mississippi; and then she would attempt to persuade herself, against her better judgment, that possibly Leopold had been able to reach his home before the severity of the storm, or at least before the greater danger from the crevasse.
The Levee, banking out the river and reclaiming thousands of acres of valuable land between its channel and the more or less distant bluffs, consists of artificial mounds, thrown up, and composed of cypress logs and clay, to the height of about fifteen feet, and thirty at their base. At New Orleans, the spring floods often create a rise of twelve feet in the Mississippi, causing the singular spectacle of a city lying as many feet below the threatening level of that mighty stream first seen by De Soto, which receives the swelling waters of numerous tributaries, during its circuitous and hurried course of more than three thousand miles.
For the two or three succeeding days after that on which the Widow Morel was left under the surveillance of strangers, who had mistaken her misery for madness, the flooded city was still navigated by small boats; and each day brought intelligence to the housed inhabitants, of newly discovered calamities. Among these painful recitals was one of a fair-haired boy, apparently nine years of age, drowned in the bayou, whose body, rescued by two sailors, remained unclaimed by his friends. This sad story, on the third day of the flood, reached the mansion where Mrs. Morel was still a guest against her will, and at the moment too when its misjudging inmates had succeeded in securing a place in the lunatic department of the hospital, for the bereaved mother whom Heaven had permitted them thus accidentally to succour.
Expressions of regret and well-founded sympathy now came too late, as they mostly do, when deep and irreparable injuries or neglect have been inflicted. The opulent are as helpless in restoring life, as the poor and suffering to whom it is equally precious; and the bereaved mother heard the idle words, feeling that God alone could bring quiet or resignation to her lonely heart.
Each succeeding spring, for some years after the date of our story, a fragile pale woman might be seen strewing fresh flowers upon an unostentatious tomb, where more newly-made letters from the sculptor's chisel had added to the words "My Emma," those of "Mv LroTold," with only these simple lines:
"Twins In a mother's love and care,
Their spirits shall in union rise,
BY MBS. C.
Huerah for too snow, the winter iDow,
It cometh with stealthy tread,
And it whirleth overhead.
H. Es LING.
It peepcth in at the window pane,
It lodgeth upon the sill,
Though its stormy breath be chill