Chapter 2 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Six Months in the Crescent City.

Like other striplings escaped from college, I was no longer happy at home. The yearning for travel was upon me; and I longed to make acquaintance with that world, as yet only known to me through the medium of books.

My longing was soon to be gratified; and without a sigh I beheld the hills of my native land sink behind the black waves—not much caring whether I should ever see them again.

Though emerging from the walls of a classic college, I was far from being tinctured with classic sympathies. Ten years spent in pondering over the wild hyperbole of Homer, the mechanical verse-work of Virgil, and the dry indelicacies of Horatius Flaccus, had failed to imbue me with a perception of that classic beauty felt, or pretended to be felt, by the spectacled savant. My mind was not formed to live on the ideal, or dream over the past. I delight rather in the real, the positive, and the present. Don Quixotes may play the troubadour among ruined castles, and mincing misses cover the ground of the guide-books. For my part I have no belief in the romance of old-world life. In the modern Tell I behold a hireling, ready to barter his brawny limbs to the use of whatever tyrant; and the picturesque Mazzaroni, upon closer acquaintance, dwindles down to the standard of a hen-roost thief. Amid the crumbling walls of Athens and the ruins of Rome I encounter inhospitality and hunger. I am not a believer in the picturesqueness of poverty. I have no relish for the romance of rags.

And yet it was a yearning for the romantic that called me from home. I longed for the poetic and picturesque, for I was just at that age when the mind is imbued with its strongest faith in their reality. Ha! mine is not yet disabused of this belief. I am older now, but the hour of disenchantment has not yet come upon me—nor ever will. There is a romance in life, that is no illusion. It lives not in the effete forms and childish ceremonies of the fashionable drawing-room—it has no illustration in the tinsel trappings and gaudy puerilities of a Court. Stars, garters, and titles are its antidotes; red cloth and plush the upas-trees of its existence.

Its home is elsewhere, amid the grand and sublime scenes of Nature—though these are not necessary accompaniments. It is no more incidental to field and forest, rock, river, and mountain, than to the well-trodden ways of the trading-town. Its home is in human hearts—hearts that throb with high aspirations—bosoms that burn with the noble passions of Liberty and Love!

My steps then were not directed towards classic shores, but to lands of newer and more vigorous life. Westward went I in search of romance. I found it in its most attractive form under the glowing skies of Louisiana.

In the month of January, 18—, I set foot upon the soil of the New-World—upon a spot stained with English blood. The polite skipper, who had carried me across the Atlantic, landed me in his gig. I was curious to examine the field of this decisive action; for at that period of my life I had an inclination for martial affairs. But something more than mere curiosity prompted me to visit the battle-ground of New Orleans. I then held an opinion deemed heterodox—namely, that the improvised soldier is under certain circumstances quite equal to the professional hireling, and that long military drill is not essential to victory. The story of war, superficially studied, would seem to antagonise this theory, which conflicts also with the testimony of all military men. But the testimony of mere military men on such a matter is without value. Who ever heard of a military man who did not desire to have his art considered as mythical as possible? Moreover, the rulers of the world have spared no pains to imbue their people with false ideas upon this point. It is necessary to put forward some excuse for that terrible incubus upon the nations, the “standing army.”

My desire to view the battle-ground upon the banks of the Mississippi had chiefly reference to this question. The action itself had been one of my strong arguments in favour of my belief; for upon this spot some six thousand men—who had never heard the absurd command, “Eyes right!”—out-generalled, “whipped,” in fact nearly annihilated, a well-equipped and veteran army of twice their number!

Since standing upon that battle-ground I have carried a sword in more than one field of action. What I then held only as a theory, I have since proved as an experience. The “drill” is a delusion. The standing army a cheat.

In another hour I was wandering through the streets of the Crescent City, no longer thinking of military affairs. My reflections were turned into a far different channel. The social life of the New-World, with all its freshness and vigour, was moving before my eyes, like a panorama; and despite of my assumption of the nil admirari, I could not help wondering as I went.

And one of my earliest surprises—one that met me on the very threshold of Transatlantic existence—was the discovery of my own utter uselessness. I could point to my desk and say, “There lie the proofs of my erudition—the highest prizes of my college class.” But of what use they? The dry theories I had been taught had no application to the purposes of real life. My logic was the prattle of the parrot. My classic lore lay upon my mind like lumber; and I was altogether about as well prepared to struggle with life—to benefit either my fellow-man or myself—as if I had graduated in Chinese mnemonics.

And oh! ye pale professors, who drilled me in syntax and scansion, ye would deem me ungrateful indeed were I to give utterance to the contempt and indignation which I then felt for ye—then, when I looked back upon ten years of wasted existence spent under your tutelage—then, when, after believing myself an educated man, the illusion vanished, and I awoke to the knowledge that I knew nothing!

With some money in my purse, and very little knowledge in my head, I wandered through the Streets of New Orleans, wondering as I went.

Six months later, and I was traversing the same streets, with very little money in my purse, but with my stock of knowledge vastly augmented. During this six months I had acquired an experience of the world more extensive, than in any six years of my previous life.

I had paid somewhat dearly for this experience. My travelling fund had melted away in the alembic of cafés, theatres, masquerades, and “quadroon” balls. Some of it had been deposited in that bank (faro) which returns neither principal nor interest!

I was almost afraid to “take stock” of my affairs. At length with an effort I did so; and found, after paying my hotel bills, a balance in my favour of exactly twenty-five dollars! Twenty-five dollars to live upon until I could write home, and receive an answer—a period of three months at the least—for I am talking of a time antecedent to the introduction of Atlantic steamers.

For six months I had been sinning bravely. I was now all repentance, and desirous of making amends. I was even willing to engage in some employment. But my cold classic training, that had not enabled me to protect my purse, was not likely to aid me in replenishing it; and in all that busy city I could find no office that I was fitted to fill!

Friendless—dispirited—a little disgusted—not a little anxious in regard to my immediate future, I sauntered about the streets. My acquaintances were becoming scarcer every day. I missed them from their usual haunts—the haunts of pleasure. “Whither had they gone?”

There was no mystery in their disappearance. It was now mid-June. The weather had become intensely hot, and every day the mercury mounted higher upon the scale. It was already dancing in the neighbourhood of 100 degrees of Fahrenheit. In a week or two might be expected that annual but unwelcome visitor known by the soubriquet of “Yellow Jack,” whose presence is alike dreaded by young and old; and it was the terror inspired by him that was driving the fashionable world of New Orleans, like birds of passage, to a northern clime.

I am not more courageous than the rest of mankind.

I had no inclination to make the acquaintance of this dreaded demon of the swamps; and it occurred to me, that I, too, had better get out of his way. To do this, it was only necessary to step on board a steamboat, and be carried to one of the up-river towns, beyond the reach of that tropical malaria in which the vomito delights to dwell.

Saint Louis was at this time the place of most attractive name; and I resolved to go thither; though how I was to live there I could not tell—since my funds would just avail to land me on the spot.

Upon reflection, it could scarce be “out of the frying-pan into the fire,” and my resolution to go to Saint Louis became fixed. So, packing up my impedimenta, I stepped on board the steamboat “Belle of the West,” bound for the far “City of the Mounds.”