Chapter 7 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Starting.

The last bell rings—the “can’t-get-away” folks rush ashore—the staging-plank is drawn in—some heedless wight has to jump for it—the cable is pulled aboard and coiled—the engineer’s bell tinkles—the great wheels revolve, lashing the brown water into foam—the steam “whistles” and screams at the boilers, and booms from the ’scape-pipe in regular repetitions—neighbouring boats are pressed out of their places—their planks cringe and crackle—guards are broken, or the slight timbers of wheel-houses, causing a cross-fire of curses between the crews—and after some minutes of this pandemoniac confusion, the huge craft clears herself, and rides out upon the broad bosom of the river.

She heads up-stream; a few strokes of the revolving paddles and the current is mastered; and the noble boat yielding to the mighty propulsion, cleaves her liquid way, “walking the water like a thing of life!”

Perchance the boom of a cannon announces her departure; perchance it is animated by the harmonious swell of brazen instruments; or still more appropriate, some old “boatman’s song,” with its lively chorus, is heard issuing from the rude, though not unmusical throats of the “hands” below.

Lafayette and Carrolton are soon passed; the humbler roofs of stores and dwellings sink out of sight; and the noble dome of Saint Charles, the spires of churches, and the towers of the great cathedral, are all of the Crescent City that remain above the horizon. These, at length, go down; and the “floating palace” moves on in stately grandeur between the picturesque shores of the Mississippi.

I have said “picturesque.” This word does not satisfy me, nor can I think of one that will delineate my idea. I must make use of a phrase, “picturesquely beautiful,” to express my admiration of the scenery of those shores. I have no hesitation in pronouncing it the finest in the world.

I am not gazing upon it with a mere cold eye-glance. I cannot separate scenery from its associations—not its associations of the past, but with the present. I look upon the ruined castles of the Rhine, and their story impresses me with a feeling of disgust for what has been. I look upon its modern homes and their dwellers; I am equally filled with disgust for what is. In the Bay of Naples I experience a similar feeling, and roaming “around” the lordly parks of England, I see them through an enclosure of wretchedness and rags, till their loveliness seems an illusion!

Here alone, upon the banks of this majestic river, do I behold wealth widely diffused, intelligence broadcast, and comfort for all. Here, in almost every house, do I meet the refined taste of high civilisation—the hospitality of generous hearts combined with the power to dispense it. Here can I converse with men by thousands, whose souls are free—not politically alone, but free from vulgar error and fanatic superstition; here, in short, have I witnessed, not the perfectedness—for that belongs to a far future time—but the most advanced stage of civilisation yet reached upon the globe.

A dark shadow crosses my eye-glance, and my heart is stung with sudden pain. It is the shadow of a human being with a black skin. He is a slave!

For a moment or two the scene looks black! What is there to admire here—in these fields of golden sugar-cane, of waving maize, of snow-white cotton? What to admire in those grand mansions, with their orangeries, their flowery gardens, their drooping shade-trees, and their soft arbours? All this is but the sweat of the slave!

For a while I behold without admiring. The scene has lost its couleur de rose; and a gloomy wilderness is before me! I reflect. Slowly and gradually the cloud passes away, and the brightness returns. I reflect and compare.

True, he with the black skin is a slave—but not a voluntary slave. That is a difference in his favour at least.

In other lands—mine own among them—I see around me slaves as well, and far more numerous. Not the slaves of an individual, but of an association of individuals—a class—an oligarchy. Not slaves of the corvée—serfs of the feud—but victims of its modern representative the tax, which is simply its commutation, and equally baneful in its effects.

On my soul, I hold that the slavery of the Louisiana black is less degrading than that of the white pleb of England. The poor, woolly-headed helot is the victim of conquest, and may claim to place himself in the honourable category of a prisoner of war. He has not willed his own bondage; while you, my grocer, and butcher, and baker—ay, and you, my fine city merchant, who fondly fancy yourself a freeman—ye are voluntary in your serfdom; ye are loyal to a political juggle that annually robs ye of half your year’s industry; that annually requires some hundred thousands of your class to be sloughed off into exile, lest your whole body should gangrene and die. And all this without even a protest. Nay, worse—you are ever ready to cry “crucify” to him who would attempt to counteract this condition—ever ready to glorify the man and the motion that would fix another rivet in your fetters!

Even while I write, the man who loves you least; he who for forty years—for all his life, in fact—has been your systematic enemy, is the most popular of your rulers! Even while I write the Roman wheel is revolving before your eyes, squibs and crackers sound sweetly in your ears, and you are screaming forth your rejoicings over the acts of a convention that had for its sole object the strengthening of your chains! But a short twelve months ago, you were just as enthusiastic for a war that was equally antagonistic to your interests, equally hostile to the liberties of your kind! Miserable delusion!

I repeat what I have uttered with a feeling of solemnity. On my soul, I hold that the slavery of the Louisiana black is less degrading than that of the white pleb of England.

True, this black man is a slave, and there are three millions of his race in the same condition. Painful thought! but less painful when accompanied by the reflection that the same broad land is trodden by twenty millions of free and sovereign men. Three millions of slaves to twenty millions of masters! In mine own land the proportion is exactly reversed!

The truth may be obscure. For all that, I dare say there are some who will understand it.

Ah! how pleasant to turn from these heart-stirring but painful thoughts to the calmer contemplation of themes furnished by science and nature. How sweet was it to study the many novel forms that presented themselves to my eyes on the shores of that magnificent stream! There is a pleasaunce even in the retrospect; and as I now sit dreaming over them far away—perhaps never more to behold them with mortal eye—I am consoled by a fond and faithful memory, whose magic power enables me to recall them before the eye of my mind in all their vivid colouring of green and gold!