Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
People wonder about the transformation of Jean Marie Poquelin. He had been a gregarious, successful indigo planter, but his gambling led to the loss of his fortune and all but one slave, and indigo ceased to be a profitable crop. In an effort to recoup his fortune, Poquelin turned to smuggling and the slave trade. However, there, too, success eluded him: His last voyage to Africa ended in disaster, and he came home one night without his ship or his cargo.
He also returned without his younger brother, Jacques, who had insisted on going along, and people wonder about this circumstance, too. Poquelin was devoted to Jacques, always praising his bookish brother’s learning and intelligence, but Poquelin also is known for his bad temper. Did he murder Jacques in a fit of rage?
No one knows, and no one asks. The once proud estate decays, its fields reverting to marsh. Dwarf palmettos grow up as a fence around the property; in the canal alligators crawl, and in the brackish ponds snakes lurk beneath the carpet of water plants. Strange stories, like the strange flora, grow up about the house: At sunset all the windows are reputed to turn blood red; beneath the front door there is rumored to be a bottomless well to receive unwelcome visitors—and no visitor is welcome. Only an occasional hardy schoolboy ventures near to watch Jean Poquelin being rowed by his one remaining slave, an old mute.
With time, though, developers come. They want to drain the marsh, fill in the canal, and run streets through Poquelin’s property. The new American government will pay Poquelin for this land, which it wants in order to provide housing for the influx of Yankee immigrants.
Poquelin, however, does not want anyone encroaching on his property. He goes first to the governor and then to the municipal authorities, where, with growing irritation, he insists on his right to keep his land, but the official is adamant. Finally Poquelin departs, bestowing a shower of French curses on the Americans and their government.
After Poquelin leaves, the official wonders aloud why Poquelin objects to having the value of his property increased through drainage and development. His interpreter tells him that Poquelin does not want neighbors because he is a witch. One evening, the interpreter had been hunting in the swamps and had returned after dark. As he passed Poquelin’s house he saw the old man walking, but Jean was not alone. Beside him was something that resembled a man but could not have been because it was too white.
Despite Poquelin’s objections, the street is opened, the marsh drained, and the canal filled. Snakes and alligators retreat, and in their place come new buildings and new settlers. Amid these changes, Poquelin clings to his old house and old ways, thereby increasing his reputation as a witch. If a woman dies, a child is lost, or a crop fails, Poquelin is blamed. Children taunt him in the street. A Building and Improvement Committee organizes to buy Poquelin’s house.
Among the committee’s members is the city official who heard the interpreter’s ghost story. He suspects that the white figure is Poquelin’s brother, who is being held in seclusion against his will. If the committee can prove that this is so, they can proceed against Poquelin and thereby get his property. White, the committee’s secretary, is sent to spy.
The next day, shortly before dark, White steals onto the Poquelin property. He sees Jean and, shortly afterward, the white figure, from which comes the odor of death and decay. As soon as the two go inside, White prepares to leave. Then he hears voices, one belonging to Jean, the other hollow, unearthly. White flees.
Henceforth, the secretary becomes Poquelin’s defender. He orders the children to leave Poquelin alone. He squelches every rumor about the old man and stands up for him at the committee’s meetings. When a group of Creoles comes to taunt Poquelin with a noisy charivari, White confronts the mob and turns it away.
Hours later, toward morning, the noisemakers return, and this time White cannot stop them. However, Poquelin has escaped their jeers; when they invade Poquelin’s property, they find him dead beneath a tree, attended by his African mute. Chastened, the mob wants to leave, but White insists that its members attend the funeral to discover Poquelin’s secret. As they watch, the slave leads a brown bull pulling a cart with the coffin, and behind walks Jacques Poquelin, a leper. As they go off into the swamp, everyone realizes how much Poquelin suffered and sacrificed to guard his brother’s secret, the discovery of which would have led to their separation.
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