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Chapter 9 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Eugénie Besançon

No, Eugénie Besançon was not forgotten. Every now and then her sylph-like form flitted before my imagination, and I could not help associating it with the scenery through which we were passing, and amidst which, no doubt, she was born and nurtured—its fair indigène. The glimpse of the fête champètre, where several Creole-like girls were conspicuous, brought her more forcibly into my thoughts; and, descending from the hurricane-deck, I entered the cabin with some curiosity, once more to look upon this interesting lady.

For some time I dreaded disappointment. The great glass folding-door of the ladies’ cabin was closed; and although there were several ladies outside in the main saloon, the Creole was not among the number. The ladies’ cabin, which occupies the after-part of the boat, is a sacred precinct, into which bachelors are admitted only when they enjoy the privilege of having a friend inside—then only at certain hours.

I was not one of the privileged. Out of the hundred and odd passengers on board, I did not know a soul, male or female; and I had the happiness or misfortune of being equally unknown to them. Under these circumstances my entry into the ladies’ cabin would have been deemed an intrusion; and I sat down in the main saloon, and occupied myself in studying the physiognomy and noting the movements of my fellow-passengers.

They were a mixed throng. Some were wealthy merchants, bankers, money or commission brokers from New Orleans, with their wives and daughters, on their annual migration to the north, to escape from the yellow fever, and indulge in the more pleasant epidemic of life at a fashionable watering-place. There were corn and cotton-planters from the up-country, on their return home, and storekeepers from the up-river towns; boatmen who, in jean trousers and red flannel shirts, had pushed a “flat” two thousand miles down stream, and who were now making the back trip in shining broadcloth and snow-white linen. What “lions” would these be on getting back to their homes about the sources of Salt River, the Cumberland, the Licking, or the Miami! There were Creoles, too—old wine-merchants of the French quarter—and their families; the men distinguished by a superabundance of ruffles, plaited pantaloons, shining jewellery, and light-coloured cloth boots.

There was a sprinkling of jauntily-dressed clerks, privileged to leave New Orleans in the dull season; and there were some still more richly-dressed gentlemen, with the finest of cloth in their coats, the whitest of linen and raffles, the brightest of diamonds in their studs, and the most massive of finger-rings. These last were “sportsmen.” They had already fathered around a table in the “smoking-saloon,” and were fingering a span new pack of cards—the implements of their peculiar industry.

Among these I observed the fellow who had so loudly challenged me to bet upon the boat-race. He had passed me several times, regarding me with a glance that appeared anything but friendly.

Our close friend the steward was seated in the saloon. You must not suppose that his holding the office of steward, or overseer, disentitled him to the privileges of the first-class cabin. There is no “second saloon” on board an American steamer. Such a distinction is not known so far west as the Mississippi.

The overseers of plantations are usually men of rude and brutal dispositions. The very nature of their calling makes them so. This Frenchman, however, seemed to be an exception. He appeared a most respectable old gentleman. I rather liked his looks, and began to feel quite an interest in him, though he by no means appeared to reciprocate the feeling.

Some one complained of the mosquitoes, and suggested the opening of the folding-doors of the ladies’ cabin. This suggestion was backed up by several others—ladies and gentlemen. The clerk of the boat is the man charged with such responsibilities. He was at length appealed to. The appeal was reasonable—it was successful; and the great gates of the steamboat Paradise were thrown open. The result was a current of air which swept through the long saloon from stem to stern; and in less than five minutes not a mosquito remained on board, except such as had escaped the blast by taking shelter in the state-rooms. This was certainly a great relief.

The folding-doors were permitted to remain open—an arrangement quite satisfactory to all, but particularly to a number of the gaily-dressed young clerks, who could now command a full view of the interior of the harem. Several of them might be observed taking advantage of the new arrangement—not staring broadly, as that would be accounted rude and noted against them. They only appealed to the sacred shrine by side-glances, or over books which they pretended to read, or pacing up and down approached the favoured limit, glancing in at intervals, as if undesignedly. Some appeared to have acquaintances inside, though not upon terms of sufficient familiarity to give them the right of entry. Others were in hopes of making acquaintances, should opportunity offer. I could detect expressive looks, and occasionally a smile that seemed to denote a mutual intelligence. Many a pleasant thought is conveyed without words. The tongue is often a sad disenchanter. I have known it to spoil many a nice love-plot silently conceived, and almost ripe for being carried out.

I was amused at this speechless pantomime, and sat for some minutes regarding it. My eyes wandered at intervals towards the interior of the ladies’ saloon, guided thither partly by a common curiosity. I have an observant habit. Anything new interests me, and this cabin-life on an American steamboat was entirely new, and not a little piquante. I desired to study it. Perhaps I was somewhat interested in another way—desirous of having one more look at the young Creole, Besançon.

My desire, then, was gratified. I saw the lady at last. She had come out of her state-room, and was moving around the saloon, graceful and gay. She was now unbonneted, and her rich golden tresses were arranged à la Chinoise—a Creole fashion as well. The thick masses, coiled into a large “club” at the back of the head, denoted the luxuriance of her hair: and the style of coiffure, displaying her noble forehead and finely-formed neck, became her well. Fair hair with blonde complexion, although rare among the Creoles, is sometimes met with. Dark hair with a brunette skin is the rule, to which Eugénie Besançon was a remarkable exception.

Her features expressed gaiety, approaching to volatility; yet one could not help feeling that there was firmness of character en perdu. Her figure was beyond criticism; and the face, if not strikingly beautiful was one that you could not look upon without emotions of pleasure.

She appeared to know some of her fellow-passengers—at least she was conversing with them in a style of easy freedom. Women, however, rarely exhibit embarrassment among themselves; women of French race, never.

One thing I observed—her cabin companions appeared to regard her with deference. Perhaps they had already learnt that the handsome carriage and horses belonged to her. That was very, very likely!

I continued to gaze upon this interesting lady. Girl I cannot call her, for although young enough, she had the air of a woman—a woman of experience. She appeared quite at ease; seemed mistress of herself, and indeed of everything else.

“What an air of insouciance,” thought I. “That woman is not in love!”

I cannot tell why I should have made these reflections, or why the thought pleased me; but certainly it did. Why? She was nothing to me—she was far above me. I dared scarce look upon her. I regarded her as some superior being, and with timid stolen glances, as I would regard beauty in a church. Ho! she was nothing to me. In another hour it would be night, and she was to land in the night; I should never see her again! I should think of her though for an hour or two, perhaps for a day—the longer that was now foolish enough to sit gazing upon her! I was weaving a net for myself—a little agony that might last for some time after she was gone.

I had formed a resolution to withdraw from the fascinating influence, and return to my meditation on the hurricane-deck. A last look at the fair Creole, and I should depart.

Just at that moment she flung herself into a chair.

It was of the kind known as a “rocking-chair,” and its motions displayed the fine proportion and outlines of her form. As she now sat she was facing the door, and her eye for the first time rested upon me. By Heavens! she was gazing on me just as before! What meant that strange glance? those burning eyes?

Stedfast and fixed, they remained bent upon mine—and mine trembled to answer them!

Thus for some moments her eyes dwelt upon me, without motion or change of direction. I was too young at that time to understand the expression that was in them. I could translate such an one afterwards, but not then.

At length she rose from her seat with an air of uneasiness, as if displeased either with herself or me; and, turning away her head, she opened the latticed door and passed into her state-room.

Had I done anything to give offence? No! not by word, nor look, nor gesture. I had not spoken—I had not moved, and my timid glance could not have been construed into one of rudeness.

I was somewhat bewildered by the conduct of Mademoiselle Besançon; and, in the full belief that I should never see her again, I hurried away from the saloon, and once more climbed up to the hurricane-deck.

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