A Carnival Jangle by Alice Dunbar
There is a merry jangle of bells in the air, an all-pervading sense of
jester's noise, and the flaunting vividness of royal colours. The
streets swarm with humanity,—humanity in all shapes, manners, forms,
laughing, pushing, jostling, crowding, a mass of men and women and
children, as varied and assorted in their several individual
peculiarities as ever a crowd that gathered in one locality since the
days of Babel.
It is Carnival in New Orleans; a brilliant Tuesday in February, when
the very air gives forth an ozone intensely exhilarating, making one
long to cut capers. The buildings are a blazing mass of royal purple
and golden yellow, national flags, bunting, and decorations that laugh
in the glint of the Midas sun. The streets are a crush of jesters and
maskers, Jim Crows and clowns, ballet girls and Mephistos, Indians and
monkeys; of wild and sudden flashes of music, of glittering pageants
and comic ones, of befeathered and belled horses; a dream of colour and
melody and fantasy gone wild in an effervescent bubble of beauty that
shifts and changes and passes kaleidoscope-like before the bewildered
A bevy of bright-eyed girls and boys of that uncertain age that hovers
between childhood and maturity, were moving down Canal Street when
there was a sudden jostle with another crowd meeting them. For a
minute there was a deafening clamour of shouts and laughter, cracking
of the whips, which all maskers carry, a jingle and clatter of carnival
bells, and the masked and unmasked extricated themselves and moved from
each other's paths. But in the confusion a tall Prince of Darkness had
whispered to one of the girls in the unmasked crowd: "You'd better come
with us, Flo; you're wasting time in that tame gang. Slip off, they'll
never miss you; we'll get you a rig, and show you what life is."
And so it happened, when a half-hour passed, and the bright-eyed bevy
missed Flo and couldn't find her, wisely giving up the search at last,
she, the quietest and most bashful of the lot, was being initiated into
the mysteries of "what life is."
Down Bourbon Street and on Toulouse and St. Peter Streets there are
quaint little old-world places where one may be disguised effectually
for a tiny consideration. Thither, guided by the shapely Mephisto and
guarded by the team of jockeys and ballet girls, tripped Flo. Into one
of the lowest-ceiled, dingiest, and most ancient-looking of these shops
"A disguise for the demoiselle," announced Mephisto to the woman who
met them. She was small and wizened and old, with yellow, flabby jaws,
a neck like the throat of an alligator, and straight, white hair that
stood from her head uncannily stiff.
"But the demoiselle wishes to appear a boy, un petit garcon?" she
inquired, gazing eagerly at Flo's long, slender frame. Her voice was
old and thin, like the high quavering of an imperfect tuning-fork, and
her eyes were sharp as talons in their grasping glance.
"Mademoiselle does not wish such a costume," gruffly responded Mephisto.
"Ma foi, there is no other," said the ancient, shrugging her shoulders.
"But one is left now; mademoiselle would make a fine troubadour."
"Flo," said Mephisto, "it's a dare-devil scheme, try it; no one will
ever know it but us, and we'll die before we tell. Besides, we must;
it's late, and you couldn't find your crowd."
And that was why you might have seen a Mephisto and a slender
troubadour of lovely form, with mandolin flung across his shoulder,
followed by a bevy of jockeys and ballet girls, laughing and singing as
they swept down Rampart Street.
When the flash and glare and brilliancy of Canal Street have palled
upon the tired eye, when it is yet too soon to go home to such a
prosaic thing as dinner, and one still wishes for novelty, then it is
wise to go into the lower districts. There is fantasy and fancy and
grotesqueness run wild in the costuming and the behaviour of the
maskers. Such dances and whoops and leaps as these hideous Indians and
devils do indulge in; such wild curvetings and long walks! In the open
squares, where whole groups do congregate, it is wonderfully amusing.
Then, too, there is a ball in every available hall, a delirious ball,
where one may dance all day for ten cents; dance and grow mad for joy,
and never know who were your companions, and be yourself unknown. And
in the exhilaration of the day, one walks miles and miles, and dances
and skips, and the fatigue is never felt.
In Washington Square, away down where Royal Street empties its stream
of children great and small into the broad channel of Elysian Fields
Avenue, there was a perfect Indian pow-wow. With a little imagination
one might have willed away the vision of the surrounding houses, and
fancied one's self again in the forest, where the natives were holding
a sacred riot. The square was filled with spectators, masked and
un-masked. It was amusing to watch these mimic Red-men, they seemed so
fierce and earnest.
Suddenly one chief touched another on the elbow. "See that Mephisto
and troubadour over there?" he whispered huskily.
"Yes; who are they?"
"I don't know the devil," responded the other, quietly, "but I'd know
that other form anywhere. It's Leon, see? I know those white hands
like a woman's and that restless head. Ha!"
"But there may be a mistake."
"No. I'd know that one anywhere; I feel it is he. I'll pay him now.
Ah, sweetheart, you've waited long, but you shall feast now!" He was
caressing something long and lithe and glittering beneath his blanket.
In a masked dance it is easy to give a death-blow between the
shoulders. Two crowds meet and laugh and shout and mingle almost
inextricably, and if a shriek of pain should arise, it is not noticed
in the din, and when they part, if one should stagger and fall bleeding
to the ground, can any one tell who has given the blow? There is
nothing but an unknown stiletto on the ground, the crowd has dispersed,
and masks tell no tales anyway. There is murder, but by whom? for
what? Quien sabe?
And that is how it happened on Carnival night, in the last mad moments
of Rex's reign, a broken-hearted mother sat gazing wide-eyed and mute
at a horrible something that lay across the bed. Outside the long
sweet march music of many bands floated in as if in mockery, and the
flash of rockets and Bengal lights illumined the dead, white face of
the girl troubadour.