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December 11, 2022

The Idyl of a French Snuff-Box

The old Creole gentleman had forgotten his snuff-box—the snuff-box he had carried constantly with him for thirty years, and which he had purchased in Paris in days when Louisiana planters traveled through Europe leaving a wake of gold behind them, the trail of a tropical sunset of wealth. It was lying upon my table. Decidedly the old gentleman's memory was failing!


There was a dream of Theocritus wrought upon the ivory lid of the snuff-box, created by a hand so cunning that its work had withstood unscathed all the accidents of thirty odd years of careless usage—a slumbering dryad; an amorous faun!


The dryad was sleeping like a bacchante weary of love and wine, half-lying upon her side; half upon her bosom, pillowing her charming head upon one arm. Her bed was a mossy knoll; its front transformed by artistic magic into one of those Renaissance scroll-reliefs which are dreams of seashells; her ivory body moulded its nudity upon the curve of the knoll with antique grace.


Above her crouched the faun—a beautiful and mischievous faun. Lightly as a summer breeze, he lifted the robe she had flung over herself, and gazed upon her beauty. But around her polished thigh clung a loving snake, the guardian of her sleep; and the snake raised its jeweled head and fixed upon the faun its glittering topaz eyes.


There the graven narrative closed its chapter of ivory: forever provokingly motionless the lithe limbs of the dryad and the serpent thigh-bracelet and the unhappily amorous faun holding the drapery rigid in his outstretched hand.


I fell asleep, still haunted by the unfinished idyl. The night filled the darkness with whispers and with dreams; and in a luminous cloud I beheld again the faun and the sleeping nymph and the serpent with topaz eyes coiled about her thigh.


Then the scene grew clear and large and warm; the figures moved and lived. It was an Arcadian vale, myrtle-shadowed, and sweet with the breath of summer winds. The brooks purled in the distance; bird voices twittered in the rustling laurels; the sun's liquid gold filtered through the leafy network above; the flowers swung their fragile censers and sweetened all the place. I saw the smooth breast of the faun rise and fall with his passionate panting; I fancied I could see his heart beat. And the serpent stirred its jeweled head with the topaz eyes.


Then the faun moved his lips in sound—a sound like the cooing of a dove in the coming of summer, and an answering coo rippled out from the myrtle trees. And softly as a flake of snow, a white-bosomed thing with bright, gentle eyes alighted beside the faun, and cooed and cooed again, and drew yet a little farther off and cooed once more.


Then the serpent looked upon the dove—which is sacred to Aphrodite—and glided from its smooth resting-place, as water glides between the fingers of a hunter who drinks from the hollow of his hand in hours of torrid heat and weariness. And the dove, still retreating, drew after her the guardian snake with topaz eyes.


Then with all her body kissed by the summer breeze, the nymph awoke, and her opening eyes looked into the eager eyes of the faun; and she started not, neither did she seem afraid. And stretching herself upon the soft moss after the refreshment of slumber, she flung her rounded arms back, and linked them about the neck of the faun; and they kissed each other, and the doves cooed in the myrtles.


And from afar off came yet a sweeter sound than the caressing voices of the doves—a long ripple of gentle melody, rising and falling like the sighing of an amorous zephyr, melancholy yet pleasing like the melancholy of love—Pan playing upon his pipe!—


There was a sudden knocking at the door:


"Pardon, mon jeune ami; j'oubliais ma tabatière! Ah! la voici! Je vous remercie!"


Alas! the vision never returned! The idyl remains a fragment! I cannot tell you what became of the dove and the serpent with topaz eyes.


Originally published in The New Orleans Item, April 5, 1881 

© public domain

by Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (1850 - 1904), later known as Koizumi Yakumo, was the archetypical traveler, seeker, and shape-shifter, as evidenced in his writings and nomadic bent. The author traversed extraordinary distances spanning Greece, England, New Orleans, and Japan; each stage of his life bringing to bear continual reinvention across page and globe. Read more about his singular life and work in The Paris Review:

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