Chapter 14 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Where am I?

When I awoke to consciousness, it was day. A bright sun was pouring his yellow light across the floor of my chamber; and from the diagonal slanting of the beam, I could perceive that it was either very early in the morning, or near sunset.

But birds were singing without. It must be morning, reasoned I.

I perceived that I was upon a low couch of elegant construction—without curtains—but in their stead a mosquito-netting spread its gauzy meshes above and around me. The snow-white colour and fineness of the linen, the silken gloss of the counterpane, and the soft yielding mattress beneath, imparted to me the knowledge that I lay upon a luxurious bed. But for its extreme elegance and fineness, I might not have noticed this; for I awoke to a sense of severe bodily pain.

The incidents of the preceding night soon came into my memory, and passed rapidly one by one as they had occurred. Up to our reaching the bank of the river, and climbing out of the water, they were all clear enough. Beyond that time I could recall nothing distinctly. A house, a large gateway, a garden, trees, flowers, statues, lights, black servants, were all jumbled together on my memory.

There was an impression on my mind of having beheld amid this confusion a face of extraordinary beauty—the face of a lovely girl! Something angelic it seemed; but whether it had been a real face that I had seen, or only the vision of a dream, I could not now tell. And yet its lineaments were still before me, so plainly visible to the eye of my mind, so clearly outlined, that, had I been an artist, I could have portrayed them! The face alone I could remember nothing else. I remembered it as the opium-eater his dream, or as one remembers a beautiful face seen during an hour of intoxication, when all else is forgotten! Strange to say, I did not associate this face with my companion of the night; and my remembrance painted it not at all like that of Eugénie Besançon!

Was there any one besides—any one on board the boat that my dream resembled? No, not one—I could not think of one. There was none in whom I had taken even a momentary interest—with the exception of the Creole—but the lineaments my fancy, or memory, now conjured up were entirely unlike to hers: in fact, of quite an opposite character!

Before my mind’s eye hung masses of glossy black hair, waving along the brows and falling over the shoulders in curling clusters. Within this ebon framework were features to mock the sculptor’s chisel. The mouth, with its delicate rose-coloured ellipse; the nose, with smooth straight outline, and small recurvant nostril; the arching brows of jet; the long fringes upon the eyelids; all were vividly before me, and all unlike the features of Eugénie Besançon. The colour of the skin, too—even that was different. It was not that Circassian white that characterised the complexion of the Creole, but a colour equally clear, though tinged with a blending of brown and olive, which gave to the red upon the cheeks a tint of crimson. The eye I fancied, or remembered well—better than aught else. It was large, rounded, and of dark-brown colour; but its peculiarity consisted in a certain expression, strange but lovely. Its brilliance was extreme, but it neither flashed nor sparkled. It was more like a gorgeous gem viewed by the spectator while at rest. Its light did not blaze—it seemed rather to burn.

Despite some pain which I felt, I lay for many minutes pondering over this lovely portrait, and wondering whether it was a memory or a dream. A singular reflection crossed my mind. I could not help thinking, that if such a face were real, I could forget Mademoiselle Besançon, despite the romantic incident that had attended our introduction!

The pain of my arm at length dissipated the beautiful vision, and recalled me to my present situation. On throwing back the counterpane, I observed with surprise that the wound had been dressed, and evidently by a surgeon! Satisfied on this head, I cast my eye abroad to make a reconnoissance of my quarters.

The room I occupied was small, but notwithstanding the obstruction of the mosquito bar, I could see that it was furnished with taste and elegance. The furniture was light—mostly cane-work—and the floor was covered with a matting of sea-grass finely woven, and stained into various colours. The windows were garnished with curtains of silk damask and muslin, corresponding to the colour of the wood-work. A table richly inlaid was near the centre of the floor, another, with portefeuille, pens, and ornamental ink stand, stood by the wall, and over this last was a collection of books ranged upon shelves of red cedar-wood. A handsome clock adorned the mantelpiece; and in the open fireplace was a pair of small “andirons,” with silver knobs, cast after a fanciful device, and richly chased. Of course, there was no fire at that season of the year. Even the heat caused by the mosquito bar would have been annoying, but that the large glass-door on one side, and the window on the other, both standing open, gave passage to the breeze that penetrated through the nettings of my couch.

Along with this breeze came the most delicious fragrance—the essence of flowers. Through both door and window I could see their thousand clustering corollas—roses, red, pink, and white—the rare camelia—azaleas, and jessamines—the sweet-scented China-tree—and farther off a little I could distinguish the waxen leaves and huge lily-like blossoms of the great American laurel—the Magnolia grandiflora. I could hear the voices of many singing-birds, and a low monotonous hum that I supposed to be the noise of falling water. These were the only sounds that reached my ears.

Was I alone? I looked inquiringly around the chamber. It appeared so—no living thing met my glance.

I was struck with a peculiarity in the apartment I occupied. It appeared to stand by itself, and did not communicate with any other! The only door I could see, opened directly to the outside. So did the window, reaching door-like to the ground. Both appeared to lead into a garden filled with shrubs and flowers. Excepting the chimney, I could perceive no other inlet or outlet to the apartment!

This at first seemed odd; but a moment’s reflection explained it. It is not uncommon upon American plantations to have a kind of office or summer-house apart from the main building, and often fitted up in a style of comfort and luxuriance. This becomes upon occasions the “stranger’s room.” Perhaps I was in such an apartment.

At all events, I was under an hospitable roof, and in good hands; that was evident. The manner in which I was encouched, along with certain preparations,—the signs of a projected dejeuner that appeared upon the table, attested this. But who was my host? or was it a hostess? Was it Eugénie Besançon? Did she not say something of her house—“ma maison?” or did I only dream it?

I lay guessing and reflecting over a mass of confused memories; but I could not from these arrive at any knowledge of whose guest I was. Nevertheless, I had a sort of belief that I was in the house of my last night’s companion.

I became anxious, and in my weakness perhaps felt a little vexed at being left alone. I would have rung, but no bell was within reach. At that moment, however, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps.

Romantic miss! you will fancy that those footsteps were light and soft, made by a small satin slipper, scarcely discomposing the loosest, tiniest pebble—stealthily drawing near lest their sound might awake the sleeping invalid—and then, in the midst of bird-music, and humming waters, and the sweet perfume of flowers, a fair form appeared in the doorway, and I saw a gentle face, with a pair of soft, lovely eyes, in a timid inquiring glance, gazing upon me. You will fancy all this, no doubt; but your fancy is entirely at fault, and not at all like the reality.

The footsteps I heard were made by a pair of thick “brogans” of alligator leather, and full thirteen inches in length; which brogans the next moment rested upon the sill of the door directly before my eyes.

On raising my glance a little higher, I perceived a pair of legs, in wide copper-coloured “jeans,” pantaloons; and carrying my eye still higher, I perceived a broad, heavy chest, covered with a striped cotton shirt; a pair of massive arms and huge shoulders, surmounted by the shining face and woolly head of a jet black negro!

The face and head came under my observation last; but on these my eyes dwelt longest, scanning them over and over, until I at length, despite the pain I was suffering, burst out into a sonorous laugh! If I had been dying, I could not have helped it; there was something so comic, so irresistibly ludicrous, in the physiognomy of this sable intruder.

He was a full-grown and rather large negro, as black as charcoal, with a splendid tier of “ivories;” and with eyeballs, pupil and irides excepted, as white as his teeth. But it was not these that had tickled my fancy. It was the peculiar contour of his head, and the set and size of his ears. The former was as round as a globe, and thickly covered with small kinky curlets of black wool, so closely set that they seemed to root at both ends, and form a “nap!” From the sides of this sable sphere stood out a pair of enormous ears, suggesting the idea of wings, and giving to the head a singularly ludicrous appearance.

It was this peculiarity that had set me laughing; and, indecorous though it was, for the life of me I could not help it.

My visitor, however, did not seem to take it amiss. On the contrary, he at once opened his thick lips, and displaying the splendid armature of his mouth in a broad and good-natured grin, began laughing as loudly as myself!

Good-natured was he. His bat-like ears had infused nothing of the vampire into his character. No—the very type of jollity and fun was the broad black face of “Scipio Besançon,” for such was the cognomen of my visitor.