Mad Madame Lalaurie

The L. Souvestre Story

An early “report” of Madame Delphine Lalaurie making an appearance in France after the "Catastrophe of 1834" was printed in the Le Courier des Estates-Unis on December 8, 1838. Written by an L. Souvestre, who cannot be definitively identified, the article relates a story told by a Methodist minister, Dr. Miller. The narrative reads more like a short story than a newspaper article, and it most likely is a work of fiction. However, this is an interesting interpretation of what Madame might have faced in the tight communities of the French socialites after fleeing New Orleans. Presented here is the entire L. Souvestre story.

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    Dinner was over, and everyone had gone into the park. I had stopped near a summer-house from which the eye took in, at a glance, the wooded areas of Saint-Cloud and the capricious windings of the Seine, when I saw, at the foot of the path, Doctor Miller coming to join me.

    He was a Methodist minister who had arrived from America a few months before and who had been presented only that morning to Henri Varin at whose home we were. Up to this time I had had one long conversation with him which had shown him to be a man of singular distinction. I had, moreover, been struck by the mixture of seriousness and audacity, of inflexibility and gentleness, which was revealed in all his thoughts and all his decisions. It was the first time I had found myself in contact with one of these round-hatted missionaries, preaching without embarrassment in the midst of men in the world, passionately condemning evil, speaking of religion and virtue in the simple tone of a familiar conversation, and daring to attempt goodness without seeming to force it upon others. Doctor Miller, in short, had seemed to me the model of those Quakers of whom I had read so many stories in books, but for whom I had until then searched in vain in life.

    It was, therefore, with a friendly gesture and a pleasant smile that I welcomed him to the entrance of the kiosk where I had stopped. I pointed out the marvelous countryside which spread at our feet and before which he remained for some time in silent contemplation.

    At that moment, the sound of fresh and laughing voices rose to us. I leaned over and saw in the meadow the young women with whom we had just passed the day. The American suddenly became thoughtful.

    “What do you call that woman dressed in white whom M. Henri Varin is escorting? He asked me.

    “Madame de Larcy.”

    “Has she been in France long?”

    “I didn’t know she had ever lived abroad.”

    “You know her?”

    “As one knows someone in society. I meet her at Varin’s every time I’m here.”

    “Indeed,” the doctor responded, throwing me a thoughtful glance. “It seemed to me that she was much at home here.”

    I could not repress a smile; he shook his head.

    “How could M. Varin so quickly forsake his young wife?” he continued; “Does he not see that she has divined everything and is dying of jealousy?”

    I shrugged my shoulders sadly.

    “And how has Madame de Larcy been able to gain such power over your friend?”

    “Haven’t you seen how beautiful the woman is, monsieur? When she was presented to you, you yourself seemed surprised and moved by that beauty, for you started."

    The doctor did not answer but appeared to reflect deeply.

    “And no one has attempted to recall M. Varin to his duty? He finally responded.

    “It would have been in vain.”

    “Is there no means of separating him from that woman?”

    “Which one?

    Miller became silent and remained so a long time.

    I began to fear that the doctor was either preparing a sermon, for which I knew Varin was ill prepared, or would expose us to some embarrassing scene. I had always considered reformers so awkwardly indiscreet that I would even dissociate myself from this one. I ventured, in consequence, some observations on the uselessness of any attempt at reform in the case of our host. M. Miller undoubtedly realized my intention, for he said to me:

    “Never fear, monsieur. I respect morality too much to expose it to a bad reception.”

    Darkness approached and several strollers joined us. We returned together to the salon. The ladies were already there, and the conversation became general.

    Doctor Miller had seated himself to one side, near a window, and his eyes never left Madame de Larcy. It would have been difficult to say just what sentiment dominated that attentive examination. The doctor’s features lightened up at one instant as if all his doubts had been dissipated; then uncertainty again cast a cloud over them. Sometimes he bowed his head, listened to Madame de Larcy speaking without looking at her and seemed to question her accent. Another time, he followed the movement of her lips with his eyes and thus so to speak, watched her words formed and enunciated.

    Madame de Larcy did not at first notice that searching gaze, but she finally observed it and seemed to be made uneasy by it. She turned in order to escape it and suddenly stopped speaking.

    In every group, there is someone who rules and dominates—leader by good fortune, beauty, or intelligence. It is to him conversation is addressed. If he is silent, the talk stops like a watch whose mainspring is broken. Such a one was Madame de Larcy; since she had become silent, the sound of voices languished, then died, little by little.

    Varin, made uneasy by this caprice, tried in vain to revive the conversation. After several useless efforts, he proposed setting up several tables of whist; but he met with general opposition. To play cards in the country! Boredom was a thousand times the better part! Some talked of reading, but without being able to decide on which book to choose.

    “If only we had Larcy here!” cried Varin, disappointed. “He would tell us more of his travels in Africa and his adventures in the Atlas.”

    “As for travels and adventures I said, in my turn, “I suggest Doctor Miller.”

    “Of course, Doctor, you tell us something then, said Varin. Miller bowed and tried to excuse himself.

    “We will accept no excuses, I cried. “You interested me too keenly this morning for me to let you off this evening. Come, sir, another of those stories you tell so well.”

    The doctor smiled.

    “Truly, I’m searching in vain among my memories,” he said.

    “Then, catching himself up as though a shaft of light had struck him:

    “I am wrong; there is one that I would like to tell you. The event occurred before my eyes, and I can vouch for all the details.”

    Everyone gathered inquisitively around the doctor, who began thus:

    “It was about six years ago that I arrived in New Orleans, where my work called me. It was the first time I had left the northern states, and I had been struck by the strange appearance that the French city presented. The women walked about the streets with heads covered by Spanish veils or bare; the graceful quadroons visited on the doorsteps, secretly challenging the passers-by with their soft glances. A huge population of negroes stirred about in every direction, speaking a strange French that I had never heard before. Foreigners, wearing all sorts of costumes, filled the public places. There was, moreover, a noisy confusion, a freedom of habits and of demeanor of which I have never seen the like.

    “Surprised an alarmed by these new impressions, I resolved to combat them with reflection and solitude. I had letters to the principal inhabitants; I didn’t present a one. And I busied myself exclusively with the affairs which had brought me.

    “I lived in the bank of the river, a little below the corner where the railroat to Lake Pontchartrain had been constructed, a little distance from an elegant dwelling occupied by a Creole widow. Madame Lalorie had been married three times; and her husbands, each of whom had died after a brief union, had left her a considerable fortune. She was noted for her charm, her elegance, her wit; no gathering sparkled without her, no merry-making was complete. I had met her one time at the house of a French merchant whose house was open to me. Her countenance had produced in me an almost sorrowful sensation. This woman was beautiful, but with a strange beauty, almost an evil beauty. I know not what terrible force she hid under the softness of her form. Her clear blue eyes had a keen fixity which forced one to lower his own; the smile on her rosy lips, rather than exciting confidence, inspired a sort of reserve. Everyone around her seemed under the sway of this instinctive fear. Her daughters, pale sad children whom some unknown evil tormented, never lifted their eyes in her presence. If she extended her hand to caress their curly heads, those heads were lowered with a frightened shudder. I had seen other children invite them in vain to join in their races and their songs; the children of Madame Lalorie did not know how to play. They usually kept to one side, pressed against one another as if for protection, mute and casting about them unquiet glances.

    “This silent fright was shared by all who approached Madame Lalorie. Nothing seemed to justify it; she showed herself on every occasion tender toward her children, benevolent with her slaves, and she never addressed to them a word except in a gentle voice and the most amiable tone. One never heard a reprimand leave her lips. She smiled at everyone, never using any but familiar names and carassing terms. I had dined with her that one time at the home of the French shipowner. I had noticed that, after having moistened her lips with the wine that was served us, she passed the glass over her shoulder to her slave with a smile full of good will.

    “Yet everyone commented on the gauntness and dejection of her numerous slaves. To see them, with their somber and suffering air around their gracious mistress, one might say that the condemned served an angel. Only one, the coachman, glowed with good health in the midst of that emaciated and sullen crowd. One asked oneself in vain the cause of the difference: his prosperity was a mystery as well as was the decay of his companions in slavery. All these circumstances which I noticd successively, unintentionally, excited my curiosity in the highest degree. Madame Lalorie had, from first sight, made a profound impression on me. I did not doubt that the life of the woman hid some strange secret.

    “On the house where I lived there was a balcony where I went every evening, and from which the view spread across her domain. Often my gaze was turned toward it, seeking a sign which could help me divine that which she hid, but all was calm and silent in the dwelling of the young widow. One time only I had seen Madame Lalorie enter an outbuilding located at the bottom of the garden, and I had thought I heard stifled groans. Soon, though, the young woman had reappeared, tranquil and smiling. She had gone along the walks among the flower beds, lifting up the blossoms bruised by rain; then she had turned back, dreamily and slowly, tearing apart a magnolia blossom.

    “Chance had acquainted me with an old negress of Madame Lalorie’s called Rachel, whose grandson sometimes came in to see me. He was a child of uncommon beauty and rare intelligence, and I was striving to instruct him in the truths of our religion. Mingo liked me and I was deeply interested in him. Two or three times, seeing him downcast, I ventured some questions about his mistress, but the child kept silent. Rachel, whom I questioned indirectly, equally could or would tell me nothing. I began to believe that my imagination had deceived me, and I ceased my surveillance of the French dwelling.

    “One evening, though, I remained on the balcony later than usual. The air was scorching and I avidly breathed in the breezes that rose from the river. All the stars were sparkling. In the midst of the calm of the night, the least sound traveled directly to me.

    “I was leaning on the balustrade of the balcony, sunk deep in my thoughts, when a piercing cry made me start. I lifted my head. Two more cries rang out, one after the other. At the same instant, I saw in Madame Lalorie’s garden what seemed like two shadows which passed rapidly. One of them, svelte and dressed in white, held in its hand a weapon which I couldn’t identify and seemed to pursue the other, who fled. I saw the two of them dash toward the house, whose lighted windows shone out in the darkness, and ascend the stairs. The passed thus from floor to floor. Suddenly the black shadow appeared on the roof, still pursued. I saw it bend over the balustrade; I heard a cry, then a dull muffled sound like a body which is dashed to pieces. Then everything returned to silence! …The white shadow stood near the railing and looked down tranquilly.

    “Soon, though, I saw it go down again. There was a movement in the house for some minutes; lights hurried from room to room. Finally, four slaves came slowly out, lanterns in hand. They lifted from the terrace something shapeless that they carried silently to the bottom of the garden. A grave was dug. At last the excavation was filled in, the slaves retreated, and everything became silent again.

    “I had followed this scene with horror mixed with fright. I spent the night in a kind of delirium! When I went out the next day, Rachel was seated at the door of the house, her hands folded and her head hidden in her lap. I spoke to her twice without her hearing me; finally she lifted her head and her look frightened me.

    “Are you ill, Rachel? I cried.

    “The elderly negress shook her head.

    “Then what has happened to you?

    “She didn’t answer. I looked about me.

    “Where is Mingo? I demanded.

    “At that name, Rachel uttered a cry. She leaped up and striking the earth with her foot with a terrible gesture:

    “There! There! She cried; “my child, his eyes closed!”

    “And, covering her face with her hands, she turned back into the house.

    “Now I understood everything. I went to the house of an American planter who was my relative, and I told him what I had seen. He took me to the magistrates, to whom I made my deposition. An inquiry was begun the same day; but I do not know what it revealed, for the French party succeeded in hushing up the affair. One knew only that the fact of illegal cruelty had been proven in the case of nine of Madame Lalorie’s slaves, who were consequently confiscated and sold for the benefit of the state. I had not been called as a witness, and my name had not appeared in this affair. Madame Lalorie, who had seen me without noticing me and who did not know me, was not aware of the part I had taken. I carefully avoided meeting her; the sight of that woman made me ill. I imagined I still saw her pursuing Mingo and gazing coldly at his corpse at the foot of the terrace.

    “The months passed, however, and the gossip which had spread for a moment about the beautiful widow’s cruelty toward her slaves was stilled. Thus, sought after as always, her salon was open to all the aristocracy of New Orleans; her house was pointed out for its elegance and opulent hospitality. Admirers continued to surround her; and, if anyone dared venture to recall the past, doubts where raised—they objected because of the known gentleness of the young widow; they boasted of her affecting graces; and they ended by treating as calumnies the whispered accusations to which she had been exposed.

    “Matters were at this stand, when one day the alarm was heard—fire was just taking hold at Madame Lalorie’s! Immediately everyone hurried toward her house on the corner of Quartier and Royal streets. She had sold her place to a company which had established vast cotton compresses. Aroused by the noise, I followed the crowd. The fire was appearing in the outbuildings where the kitchens were. At the moment we arrived, the flames spurted out across the roofs, where they scattered in sparks. On the property there was no means of arresting the progress of the fire; everyone was awaiting the fire engines, which had not yet arrived.

    “All eyes were turned toward that part of the building which was burning, when suddenly a loud scream rose from the midst of the flames, a window opened, and a woman appeared there; it was Rachel, who shook her arms with menacing rage.

    “A frightened exclamation rose at her appearance, and with an involuntary movement the crowd drew near the building. But the flames repulsed all approach. Howeer, Rachel leaned out of the window and pointing to the fire which was spreading toward the house:

    “'Burn, mistress! Burn, mistress!' She cried, beating her hands together with an insane laugh. 'Avenge Mingo! Avenge me! Avenge all the blacks!'

    “And she fell back exhausted. During this time, a ladder had been brought. It was placed at the window and a young man mounted. Arriving near the old negress, he tried to lift her, but couldn’t.

    “’She is chained!’ He cried suddenly.

    “'Yes, yes, this poor black, chained in the entry for six months,’ babbled Rachel. ‘Mistress want poor Rachel to cook good dinners for her… But Rachel have too much trouble. Rachel think about Mingo. Rachel start the fire to die.’

    “At that moment, the flames reached the window, and the young man was forced to descend. We saw the old negress lift herself up with a woeful cry, twist about for an instant in the midst of the fire, and then fall back and disappear.

    “A long sigh of horror had stirred the crowd. Oaths were beginning to rise when the firemen arrived. The fire, which they were not able to stop, reached the neighboring windows, which were carefully closed. The crowd was going to that side, when Madame Lalorie herself appeared at a window. She was pale; her hand trembled slightly as she pressed it against the railing. A murmur arose; then there was silence.

    “’The keys!’ was the cry from all sides.

    “’Let the kitchens burn, gentlemen,’ the pretty woman said in a troubled voice.

    “But the crowd didn’t listen.

    “’The keys! The keys!’ a hundred voices repeated.

    “I don’t have them.

    “’Then let the doors be forced!’

    “The doors yielded. There was a movement, then a long murmur began, but Madame Lalorie had retired precipitatively. I had entered among the first; and, if I lived a thousand years, I should never forget the sight which struck my eyes. Nine posts had been set up in a circle in a low, dark room. At the two first hung corpses that were already skeletons. To the other seven were chained slaves; some had their hands fastened above their heads; others were twisted on themselves without being able to straighten out; still others, necks encircled by heavy collars, were fixed to the stake in eternal immobility. No appearance of humanity remained to them. There was a something impossible to name and that one sensed only as a doleful shuddering and a dull groaning. Their bodies were formed of one immense sore on which the whip had left deep grooves. In the midst of the circle formed by the posts a platform rose, skillfully situated so that the blows could be better placed; and it was still damp with reddish filth. The whip, stiff with blood, hung there!

    “After the first shock, people hurried to break the chains of the seven slaves who still lived and to carry them into the open air. Two died in our hands on seeing the sun. The others, stronger, were able to respond to the questions which were put to them. We learned then that these nine slaves, of whom only five survived, were those that had been confiscated from the widow and had been sold for the benefit of the state. Wishing to avenge herself for their testimony, Madame Lalorie had had them brought back and secretly taken to her home. Since then, she had kept them shut up in that place, where she had everything arranged for their torture.

    “Each morning, this elegant, frail woman came to the top of the bloody platform to exercise her insatiable revenge. With the whip in her hand, a kind of joyous madness possessed her; her strength revived at the sight of the wounds and the smell of blood. She savored with delight the dying flesh, the shriveling limbs, the life quivering and expiring under her blows. She abandoned herself to a joy a thousand times over—horrible madness, which enjoyed only the woe of others and found pleasure only in their agony!

    “The crowd had, at first, listened silently to all these details given by the slaves; but their indignation, which curiosity had for the moment contained, was not slow to take over. The uproar which had hushed started up again. The negroes, come from all parts of the city, looked on with somber air; and the whites, frightened by the thought of the reactions which such a discovery could lead to, vented their wrath with great cries.

    “Already threats were becoming more direct, more immediate, for, in America, public opinion passes swiftly from words to deeds. The habit of wielding power gives the people confidence in their strength; and when the cry of all is raised, execution follows on the heels of judgment. Madame Lalorie was not unaware of this and she knew, too, what the provocation of the crowd was. The throng grew by the moment.

    “Cries of ‘Death!’ had already been uttered. The more eager were seeking to find a passage to the house, determined to enter by force, when suddenly Madame’s carriage appeared, the coachman in his place. The door of the entry opened; the Creole, richly dressed, face calm and lips smiling, entered nonchalantly breathing the fragrance of a bouquet of heliotrope. At that sight, cries were stilled; the noise ceased; everyone remained, for a moment, stupefied.

    “The black coachman profits; he cleaves the crowd; he advances; he passes beyond them as the muttering begins in the distance. The first moment of surprise past, angered by such audacity, they try to stop the insolent turnout; but it has already reached the narrow jetty that leads to Lake Pontchartrain. Pursuit is useless, for it is ahead of them and the horses fly like light!

    “The more rabid ones tried, however, but in vain. When they arrived at the lake, Madame Lalorie had embarked on a small ship, the sails of which were already disappearing over the horizon! Only the carriage was left at the edge of the lake—it was upon that the popular indignation was vented. The carriage was torn to pieces; the horses stabbed. When it was known in New Orleans that the Creole had escaped, the fury was transferred to the house, which was demolished in a few hours.”

    Everyone had listened to the doctor’s story with growing attention. When he was done, they cried out: “What became of that horrible woman?”

    “I did not know yesterday,” the doctor answered.

    “And—today?”

    “Today… I have seen her!”

    “What do you mean?”

    “She is here!”

    Exclamations were heard on all sides; everyone got up.

    Darkness had come during the American’s story, and the gloom was profound. There was a moment of terror.

    A footman entered with lights; all eyes were turning from side to side with a kind of doubt and frightened curiosity.

    “Monsieur!” cried Varin, bewildered, starting toward Miller. “In heaven’s name! Finish.”

    As his only reply, the doctor pointed to the place of Madame de Larcy, which was empty. At that moment, the sound of a carriage was heard; everyone hurried to the window. A caleche, driven by a negro, appeared and passed rapidly under the balcony. Madame de Larcy was seated there, calm and proud, holding in her hand a bouquet of heliotrope.

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