THE SLEEPER WAKES -- HARLEM RENAISSANCE STORIES BY WOMEN
It was all on account of that last Mardi Gras Ball. Mlle. 'Tasie felt it. Indeed she was absolutely sure of it. The night had been cold and damp and she had not had a wrap suited for such weather. So she had gone in a thin blue organdy dress, the best she owned, with simply a white scarf thrown over her shoulders. A "white" scarf, and a "blue" organdy. It was scandalous! And her "tante" but one year dead. No wonder bad luck in the shape of ill health had followed her ever since -- putting off her mourning so soon to go to a Mardi Gras ball. Well, what was the use of thinking of it now? "De milk has been speel, so to speak," she mused, "eet ees a grat wonder, yes, as de doctah say, I deed not go into decline."
But try as she would Mlle. 'Tasie could not stop thinking of it. The heavy cold caught at that Mardi Gras ball was the direct cause of her being about to take the momentous step that she was planning to take to-day. And momentous it was, for a fact; there was not the slightest doubt about that. How it would all end, she was at a loss to comprehend.
Not that it counted so much with her now; for ill health and deprivation had forced her to accept with resignation many things that before had seemed unendurable. But her neighbors, ah! and her relatives who knew how thoroughly she had formerly hated the very thing that she was about to do. Mon Dieu! What were they not saying of her now?
Yes, there was a time in her life when Mlle. 'Tasie would rather have fainted, actually, than to even so much as have been seen on the street with a certain kind of individual, which she and her class designated as a "Negre Americain aux grosses orielles" -- an American Negro with large ears. In a word, with a black American. How many times had she not said of such a contingency, "h-eet h-ees a thing not to be thought h-of h-at h-all." And now -- O, now see what she was fixing to do!
For Mlle. 'Tasie was a Creole lady of much less color than a black American. Be pleased to know first of all, that there are colored Creoles as well as white Creoles, just as there are Creole eggs and Creole cabbages. Any person or article brought up in the French Quarter of old New Orleans, the downtown section across Canal Street, is strictly Creole. And to carry the thought to its final conclusion is, in the highest sense of the word, Superior. Mlle. 'Tasie was what was designated by her lightly colored contemporaries, in a whisper, as "un briquet," that is, she had a reddish yellow complexion, and very crinkled red hair. "In a whisper," because the hair of a "briquet" is usually so short and so crinkled that no one feels flattered at being called one. Yet in spite of all that, Mlle. 'Tasie was a Creole, came of a good family, and spoke "patois French" for the most part, sometimes English, and hence, thinking herself superior, had not mingled with English-speaking Negroes known as Americans. And being yellow, she had never been accustomed, until now, to even be on speaking terms with blacks.
It was a positive fact, Mlle. 'Tasie had come of an exceptional Creole family. Everyone with whom she came in contact knew that well. How could they help knowing it when they had heard it so often? As for the corner grocer from whom Mlle. 'Tasie bought charcoal for her diminutive furnace -- she couldn't afford a stove -- and various other sundries for her almost empty larder, why, had you awakened him from the soundest sort of sleep, he could have told you about her family, word for word, as she had told it, embellished it with glowing incidents, as she had done. In a word, he could have torn that family tree to pieces for you, from root to apex at the shortest possible notice. That was because, of course, so many circumstances had given rise there in his store, for the frequent telling of her history; having incurred, as she had, the hostility of her English speaking black neighbors, at whom she rarely ever glanced. By some strange trick of fortune, these black neighbors were much better off than she, and loved to put their little ones up to poking fun at her whenever she came to the store for the small purchases that she made -- beans and rice, almost invariably, with a whispered request for meat-scrapings, thrown in by way of courtesy. Poking their heads in roguishly, thru the half-opened door, these taunting, little urchins were wont to scream at her, "Dere she goes, fellahs, look at 'er. A picayune o' red beans, a picayune o' rice, lagricappe salt meat to make it taste nice." Then Mile 'Tasie would laugh loudly to hide her embarrassment. Pityingly she would say with up-lifted shoulders and outwardly turned palms, "Ow you ken h-expec' any bettah fum dem? My own fadda h-own plenty lak dat. -- But h-I know, me. H-eet ees dey madda, yes, teach 'em lak dat. She ees mad 'cause h-I doan associate wid 'er. But 'er mahster wheep 'er back plenty, yes. Me -- h-I nevva know a mahster, me. H-ask h-any one eef h-eet ees de trufe and dey will tell you."
None knew better of Mlle. 'Tasie's family than Paul Donseigneur, the clothier of Orleans Street. Paul had been owned by Mlle. 'Tasie's father, Jose Gomez, who belonged to that class of mulattoes known before the Civil War as free men of color. Escaping from the island of Guadaloupe, during a West Indian insurrection, Gomez had settled in New Orleans, purchased a number of slaves and a goodly portion of land, ultimately becoming a "rentier" of some importance. Paul, a tailor by trade, had been assigned to the making of his master's clothes. Because of his efficiency and estimable character, he had rapidly risen in favor. But Paul was aspiring also. He longed for his freedom and begged permission of Gomez to purchase it from him. After much deliberation, the latter surprised him one day with a gift of himself, -- that is, with free papers showing a complete bestowal of Paul and all that he possessed upon himself.
Paul was deeply grateful. It was not in his nature, as it was with so many of his race, to hate the hand that lifted him, when that hand was black. He never forgot the generosity of his master, nor his subsequent assistance in the way of influence, immediately after the Civil War, toward the foundation of the very business in which he was still engaged.
But times had been precarious in New Orleans for any business-venture during the early years of reconstruction. Especially so for Paul, efficient and alert though he was, yet an ex-slave, with no capital and no business experience. During the general upheaval, he saw nothing of his master who, like many men of his class, had kept well out of the way of all danger. When the smoke and powder of wrought-up feelings had at last cleared away, Paul again looked about for his old master, with the hope that things had not gone so badly with him. But alas! There was not the slightest trace of him to be found. Had he left the city, or had he only gone uptown? Either step would have been fatal for Paul's finding him. For people in the Faubourg Ste. Marie -- the American quarter -- were as completely lost at any time, to the people of the French quarter, as if they had gone to New York.
Paul knew that out of that great family of many sons and daughters, only two remained. At least there had been two when last he saw them -- his master and Mlle. 'Tasie, the youngest daughter. How had they fared during all those troublous times? Wherever they were, he knew that they were poorer; for the Civil War had stripped them of most of their possessions, and unprepared as they were for service, they would never be able to retrieve them, he was certain. It was all very sad. But there was nothing to be done, since he knew not where to find them.
Chance, however, some ten years later, just before the opening of our story, discovered to him one member of that family at least, Mlle. 'Tasie. He was crossing over to the French Market, one morning, from the old Place D'Armes, en route to his clothing store, when he heard the guttural tones of a Gascon restauranteur raised in heated discussion. Hastening to the spot he saw seated upon one of the high stools, before the oil cloth-covered counter of the "coffee stand," a shabby, little colored woman in a black calico dress, much-worn but speckless gaiters, and a long, cotton crepe veil thrown back from a faded straw hat -- a perfect picture of bitter poverty trying to be genteel.
Thru the cracked and much be-scratched mirror that ran around the wall of the "coffee stand" in front of her, he saw reflected her small pinched face, courageously rouged and powdered, and recognized Mlle. 'Tasie.
Wonderingly, Paul took in the situation. The merchant's prices, it seems, were higher than some of the others in the market, or more, anyhow, than Mile 'Tasie had been aware of. When the time came to pay for what she had eaten, small tho' it was, she was unprepared to do so completely. Hence the Gasconian war of words.
Mlle. 'Tasie's embarrassment at the turn of affairs was beyond description. With trembling fingers peeping out from cotton lace mittens that time had worn from black to green, she hurriedly lowered her veil, then fumbled about in her lace-covered reticule as if seeking the desired change with absolute fright. Going forward, Paul touched the enraged Gascon on the elbow. The sight of his proffered coin was like oil poured upon troubled waters. Mlle. 'Tasie was saved.
When she lifted her tearful eyes to Paul's pitying face, he saw even through the faded veil what privation had done for her. Gently he took her by the arm and led her to the Place D'Armes thru which he had but just passed. And there upon one of the benches, he coaxed out of her, her whole tragic story. She told him how their poverty becoming greater and greater, she and her father had hidden themselves as he had feared, in the American quarter across Canal Street, away from the people who had known them in brighter days; of her father's subsequent death, and her struggles to support herself with her needle; of her many failures at doing so, because of her complete unpreparedness. To his reproachful query as to why she had not appealed to him, she had answered, shoulders up-lifted and mitten-covered palms turned outward, "Ow h-I could do dat, my deah? Come wid my 'and h-open to you? Me? H-eet was h-impossible."
But he assured her that the success of his tailoring business, slow, to be sure, but very promising always, was such that he might have aided them at the time and was in a still better position of doing so now. She shook her head sadly at the suggestion, and her tears began to flow anew. "Me, h-I would die first!" she exclaimed passionately, "befo' h-I would come to dat."
When she grew calmer, he told her of an innovation that he was planning to bring into his business -- the making of blue jeans into trousers for the roustabouts on the Levee, and for other workmen. She mopped her eyes and looked at him with interest. It was jean trousers, she had told him, that she had been attempting to make ever since she had been a breadwinner. But the factories from which she had taken work to be done at home had been so exacting, "docking" her for every mis-stitch, and every mistake in hemming so that there was always very little money coming to her when she finally brought her work back.
Paul surmised as much but had already thought out a plan to meet the situation. He would put her directly under the seamstress in charge, for supervision and instruction. And so, at length, Mlle. 'Tasie was installed into the business of her former slave. Her backwardness in learning to do the work set before her was, at first, disheartening. But for the sake of "Auld Lang Syne," Paul nerved himself into forbearance. When, at last, she gave evidence of beginning to "get the hang" of it, so to speak, she caught a dreadful cold at that Creole Mardi Gras ball.
For Mlle. 'Tasie was still young enough to long for pleasure with something of the ardor of her happier days. She was no "spring chicken" she confessed to herself sadly; she was thirty-seven "come nex 'h-All Saints Day," but that did not prevent her from wanting to "h-enjoy herse'f, yes, once een a w'ile h-any 'ow." Since Mardi Gras comes but once a year, she decided to forget everything and go to the ball. Closing her eyes at the horror of the thing -- the laying aside of the mourning which she had worn for the past year for an aunt whom she had never seen -- she went down into her trunk and pulled out an ancient blue organdy and a thin, white scarf. It had been years since she had seen these things, for some distant relative of Mlle. 'Tasie was always passing away, and custom compelled her to remember them during a long period of mourning.
Perhaps it was her act of rebellion against this custom, she kept telling herself, that had brought such disaster to her health. Oh, if she only had to do it again, how differently would she act. It had meant the almost giving up of her work at Paul Donseigneur's store, for most of her time was now spent at home trying to get well.
Calling one day to ascertain for himself the cause of these frequent absences, Paul became much disturbed at her appearance. She looked more frail than he had ever seen her. Certainly work, he decided, was not what she wanted now, but care and attention. She had already refused from him, in her foolish pride, everything but what she strictly earned by the sweat of her brow. How to help her now in this new extremity was indeed a problem. He must think it out. And Paul left her more perplexed than he had been before.
As he was about to enter his clothing store, he was stopped by a traveling salesman, Titus Johnson, from whom he bought most of the cottonade that he used. Titus was large and black, well-fed and prosperous-looking, with a fat cigar forever in his mouth and a shiny watch-chain forever dangling from his vest. Titus was the idol of his associates, likewise the idol of the "cook-shop" where he ate, for besides ordering the largest and most expensive steaks they carried, together with hot biscuits, rice, French fried potatoes, buck-wheat cakes and coffee, he tipped the waiter lavishly and treated him to a cigar besides. Not only generous, but full of good cheer was Titus, his hearty laugh resounding from one end of the street to the other. Especially so after he had told one of his characteristic jokes, which invariably brought as great a laugh from himself as from his listeners. Simple, whole-hearted and kindly, Titus Johnson met the world with a beaming face and received much of its goodwill in return.
"Hey dere, boss," he shouted to Paul from across the narrow street, as the latter stood upon the sill of his odd-looking suit- store. "I ben waitin' for you. W'at kep' you?" In a stride or two he was at Paul's side. "I hope you ain't gotten so prosperous," he continued, "dat you dodgin' us black folks and fixin' ter pass for white. Hya! Hya! Hya! Hya!" His great voice sounded to the end of the block.
"No danger," smiled back Paul, whose physiognomy forbade any such intention. "I been visitin' de sick. An' --"
"De sick? Whose sick?" Titus' face bespoke concern.
"Mlle. 'Tasie," replied Paul, "De lil' lady who use to sit at dat machine dere by de winda."
"Sho' nuff?" Titus knitted his brow. "I knows her. Leastwise, I mean, I seen her time and time again. -- An' you say she's sick? -- Very sick? You know, I uster lak ter look at dat lil' body. 'Pere lak dere wuz somepun' so pitiful lak, about her."
"Pitiful," reiterated Paul, his face wearing its troubled look, "Mais, it is worse yet. It is trageec."
"You doan say! -- She ain' goin' die, is she?"
"Ah, I hope not dat, me. -- All de same, she need right now plenty of care, yes. An' -- you know, some one to see after her -- right." He led the way thru a disordered room where women of various shades of color were bending over their work, some at machines, others at long cutting tables. When at length he reached his crowded little office in another wing of the building, he sank heavily into a chair, and motioned Titus to be seated also.
Why talk of business now, he mused, when his mind was so full of Mlle. 'Tasie, and her problems? She was downright troublesome, to say the least, he decided. Why had she let herself get into that weakened condition, just when she was beginning to earn enough to support herself decently? And she was so foolishly proud! It was absurd, it was ridiculous.
Before he knew it, Paul found himself telling the whole story to Titus Johnson -- the history of Mlle. 'Tasie and of her remarkable family. Titus was astounded. He had heard that before the Civil War, New Orleans had held a number of men of his race who had not only been free themselves, but had owned a large number of slaves, but he had thought it only a myth. But here, according to Paul, was a representative of that class. He longed to meet her; to really be able, as he expressed it to Paul, to give her "his compliments." Never had he felt so much interest in anyone before. When she got better, if Paul would arrange a meeting between them he would be glad to take her some evening to the Spanish Fort -- the great, white way of New Orleans -- or to see the Minstrel -- some place where she could laugh and forget her troubles.
Titus, like most English-speaking Negroes, felt no inferiority to the better-born of his race, like Mlle. 'Tasie. Had anyone suggested it, he would have scoffed at the possibility of her looking down upon him. For was she not also a Negro? However low his origin, she could never get any higher than he. Her status had been fixed with his by the highest authority.
Paul pondered Titus' proposition. He knew Mlle. 'Tasie's prejudice to color, but he refrained from mentioning it. She was in great extremity and Titus was both prosperous and big-hearted. Suppose a match could be arranged between them in spite of her prejudices. Stranger things than that had happened. Paul was an old man, and had seen women, bigger than Mlle. 'Tasie let go their prejudices under economic stress. When insistently the stomach growls, he mused, and the shoe pinches, women cease to discriminate and take the relief at hand. The thing was worth trying.
Looking up into the eager face of Titus Johnson, Paul promised to arrange a meeting between him and Mlle. 'Tasie at the first possible opportunity. Titus went away highly pleased. Altho he would not have named it so the thing promised an adventure; and, approaching forty tho he was, it was nevertheless very pleasing to contemplate. As for Paul, that man realized with misgiving that there was much preparatory work to be done on Mlle. 'Tasie before the meeting could even be mentioned to her. He, therefore, planned to set about doing so without delay.
But strange to say, when he approached her on the subject, Mlle. 'Tasie was more tractable than he dared hope for. Undoubtedly she had been doing some serious thinking for herself. Here she was, she told herself, rapidly approaching forty, her health broken down, and no help in the way of a husband anywhere in sight. How different it was from what she had dreamed. Long before this, she had thought the "right one" would have turned up -- and she would have been settled down for life. But alas! the men she had wanted, had all gone to handsomer and younger women. She had been too discriminating, too exacting. That was her trouble. But all that must stop now. She must feel herself blessed if some well-to-do man, even tho he met but half her requirements, should come along and propose to her.
And so when Paul, after dilating upon the prosperity and bigheartedness of the black "Americain," advised in the most persuasive of language that she permit him to call, instead of flaring up, as he had been sure she would do, she heard him out quietly and consented after a moment or two of sad reflection. Surprised beyond measure at the ready acquiescence, he sat looking at her for a full second in openmouthed wonderment. Then he congratulated her on her good, common sense; shook hands with her heartily and left, promising to bring Titus as soon as he returned to New Orleans.
But Mlle. 'Tasie's cheerfulness after that seemed to have deserted her. Her health, tho far from being completely restored, enabled her, before long, to resume her duties at the store. And there she sat at her machine, perplexed and miserable, a dumb spectacle of defeat. Since necessity compelled an abandonment of her prejudices, she reflected, if only she could leave the neighborhood before this black man called, so that those who knew her sentiments might not have the pleasure of laughing in her face. But to be compelled to remain right there and receive with a pretense of welcome before a group of peeping, grinning back-biters, the very kind of "Negre aux grosses oreilles" whom she had been known to look down upon -- Mon Dieu! -- how could one be cheerful after that?
Yet in spite of this dread, the time came at last, when Titus, traveling agent that he was, again arrived in New Orleans. To say that he was eager to meet Mlle. 'Tasie, is far, very far, from the mark, for he fairly lived in the expectation. But Titus was a natural psychologist. On the day of his arrival, contrary to his usual custom, he remained away from Paul's store during the hours that he knew Mlle. 'Tasie was in it, altho he saw to it that Paul got a message that he had not only arrived in town, but would call on Mlle. 'Tasie that evening. For an adventure such as this must not be spoiled thru haste or lack of preparation.
"Ef you wants a lady to 'preciate you," Titus mused, "you must fust have de proper settin'; 'cause settin's everything. You mustn't on'y fix yo'self up for her, but you must git her all worked up fixin' up for you. Den w'en you comes in swaggerin' on yo' cane, a half hour or an hour after she expected you to come, you got her jes' as anxious to meet you, as you is her. All de rest den is clare sailin'."
Arriving in the morning, Titus spent the day shopping. Nothing but the newest apparel must meet her eye when first she beheld him. When Paul, therefore, rather falteringly presented him in the evening after having apprised Mlle. 'Tasie much earlier of his expected visit, Titus was resplendent in brand new "malakoff" -- bottom trousers, well creased in the middle, a "coffin-back" shaped coat to match, creaking red brogues, lemon colored tie, and a deep red Camellia in the buttonhole of his coat.
To a man, less self-conscious than Titus was at the moment, the meeting would have been a dismal failure. For there was nothing of cordiality in Mlle. 'Tasie's subdued and rather mournful greeting. Paul was so impressed by the chilliness of it, that he beat a hasty retreat, leaving Romeo to the winning of his Juliet unaided. And Titus proved that he was not unequal to the task, for he soon had Mlle. 'Tasie interested in spite of herself. He told her of his travels up and down the state, described the dreary islands of Barataria with their secret passages, where smugglers and robbers nearly a hundred years before had hidden their ill-gotten gains. And had a world of news about the folks of Opoulousas and Point Coupee, places she had not visited since she was a girl. When at length he rose to go, she felt something very much like regret, and before she knew it, entirely forgetful of his color, she had invited him to call again.
Not only was Titus' "gift of gab" an asset to his courting but his frequent absences from town as well. For Mlle. 'Tasie could not help but feel the contrast between the quiet, uneventful evenings without him, and the cheer, the jokes, the kindly gossip that filled the hours when he was there. If only she had not to face the "pryers" with explanations as to why she had become suddenly so "cosmopel" as to bring into her home an American of his complexion. Relatives whom she hadn't seen for months hearing of the strangeness of her conduct, came way from Bayou Rouge and Elysian Fields Street to beg her with tears in their eyes not to disgrace them by allying herself with an American "Negre aux grosses orielles."
Mlle. 'Tasie became distracted. The opinion of these people meant much to her; but after long thinking she realized that the protection and assistance of a husband would mean vastly more. So she nerved herself to defiance. When at length, Titus proposed marriage to her, she accepted him, not with any feeling stronger than liking, it is true, but with a sense of great satisfaction that now she was for a truth, to have a protector at last.
But now that the marriage day had arrived she felt all the old hesitancy, the repugnance, the sensitiveness because of what the others had been saying, come back upon her, with painful intensity. Yet, nevertheless, she bravely prepared for the event. When, at length, evening came and her shabby, little parlor where the ceremony took place became enlivened by the cheery presence of Titus and the only two invited guests -- Paul and the owner of the "cook-shop" where Titus ate -- Mlle. 'Tasie felt herself grow calmer.
After partaking lavishly of her "wine sangeree" and her carefully prepared tea-cakes, the guests finally took their departure, Titus went up to her and putting both his fat hands upon her shoulders, smiled reassuringly into her eyes. "Well ole 'oman," he said, "you an' me goin' ter make it fine! It's me an' you 'gainst de whole worl', you heah me? You po' lil' critter! You needs somebody ter take care o' you, an' Titus Johnson is de one ter take de job." Then Mlle. 'Tasie felt a sort of peace steal over her, the harbinger, she hoped of happier days.
FROM OPPORTUNITY, SEPTEMBER I925