Table of Content

Chapter 19 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

A Louisian Landscape

Life in the chamber of an invalid—who cares to listen to its details? They can interest no one—scarce the invalid himself. Mine was a daily routine of trifling acts, and consequent reflections—a monotony, broken, however, at intervals, by the life-giving presence of the being I loved. At such moments I was no longer ennuyé; my spirit escaped from its death-like lassitude; and the sick chamber for the time seemed an Elysium.

Alas! these scenes were but of a few minutes’ duration, while the intervals between them were hours—long hours—so long, I fancied them days. Twice every day I was visited by my fair host and her companion. Neither ever came alone!

There was constraint on my part, often bordering upon perplexity. My conversation was with the Creole, my thoughts dwelt upon the Quadroon. With the latter I dare but exchange glances. Etiquette restrained the tongue, though all the conventionalities of the world could not hinder the eyes from speaking in their own silent but expressive language.

Even in this there was constraint. My love-glances were given by stealth. They were guided by a double dread. On one hand, the fear that their expression should not be understood and reciprocated by the Quadroon. On the other, that they might be too well understood by the Creole, who would regard me with scorn and contempt. I never dreamt that they might awaken jealousy—I thought not of such a thing. Eugénie was sad, grateful, and friendly, but in her calm demeanour and firm tone of voice there was no sign of love. Indeed the terrible shock occasioned by the tragic occurrence, appeared to have produced a complete change in her character. The sylph-like elasticity of her mind, formerly a characteristic, seemed to have quite forsaken her. From a gay girl she had all at once become a serious woman. She was not the less beautiful, but her beauty impressed me only as that of the statue. It failed to enter my heart, already filled with beauty of a still rarer and more glowing kind. The Creole loved me not; and, strange to say, the reflection, instead of piquing my vanity, rather gratified me!

How different when my thoughts dwelt upon the Quadroon! Did she love me? This was the question, for whose answer my heart yearned with fond eagerness. She always attended upon Mademoiselle during her visits; but not a word dare I exchange with her, although my heart was longing to yield up its secret. I even feared that my burning glances might betray me. Oh! if Mademoiselle but knew of my love, she would scorn and despise me. What! in love with a slave! her slave!

I understood this feeling well—this black crime of her nation. What was it to me? Why should I care for customs and conventionalities which I at heart despised, even outside the levelling influence of love? But under that influence, less did I care to respect them. In the eyes of Love, rank loses its fictitious charm—titles seem trivial things. For me, Beauty wears the crown.

So far as regarded my feelings, I would not have cared a straw if the whole world had known of my love—not a straw for its scorn. But there were other considerations—the courtesy due to hospitality—to friendship; and there were considerations of a less delicate but still graver nature—the promptings of prudence. The situation in which I was placed was most peculiar, and I knew it. I knew that my passion, even if reciprocated, must be secret and silent. Talk of making love to a young miss closely watched by governess or guardian—a ward in Chancery—an heiress of expectant thousands! It is but “child’s play” to break through the entourage that surrounds one of such. To scribble sonnets and scale walls is but an easy task, compared with the bold effrontery that challenges the passions and prejudices of a people!

My wooing promised to be anything but easy; my love-path was likely to be a rugged one.

Notwithstanding the monotony of confinement to my chamber, the hours of my convalescence passed pleasantly enough. Everything was furnished me that could contribute to my comfort or recovery. Ices, delicious drinks, flowers, rare and costly fruits, were constantly supplied to me. For my dishes I was indebted to the skill of Scipio’s helpmate, Chloe, and through her I became acquainted with the Creole delicacies of “gumbo,” “fish chowder,” fricasséed frogs, hot “waffles,” stewed tomatoes, and many other dainties of the Louisiana cuisine. From the hands of Scipio himself I did not refuse a slice of “roasted ’possum,” and went even so far as to taste a “’coon steak,”—but only once, and I regarded it as once too often. Scipio, however, had no scruples about eating this fox-like creature, and could demolish the greater part of one at a single sitting!

By degrees I became initiated into the little habitudes and customs of life upon a Louisiana plantation. “Ole Zip” was my instructor, as he continued to be my constant attendant. When Scipio’s talk tired me, I had recourse to books, of which a good stock (mostly French authors,) filled the little book-case in my apartment. I found among them nearly every work that related to Louisiana—a proof of rare judgment on the part of whoever had made the collection. Among others, I read the graceful romance of Chateaubriand, and the history of Du Pratz. In the former I could not help remarking that want of vraisemblance which, in my opinion, forms the great charm of a novel; and which must ever be absent where an author attempts the painting of scenes or costumes not known to him by actual observation.

With regard to the historian, he indulges largely in those childish exaggerations so characteristic of the writers of the time. This remark applies, without exception, to all the old writers on American subjects—whether English, Spanish, or French—the chroniclers of two-headed snakes, crocodiles twenty yards long, and was big enough to swallow both horse and rider! Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how these old authors gained credence for their incongruous stories; but it must be remembered that science was not then sufficiently advanced “to audit their accounts.”

More than in anything else was I interested in the adventures and melancholy fate of La Salle; and I could not help wondering that American writers have done so little to illustrate the life of the brave chevalier—surely the most picturesque passage in their early history—the story and the scene equally inviting.

“The scene! Ah! lovely indeed!”

With such an exclamation did I hail it, when, for the first time, I sat at my window and gazed out upon a Louisiana landscape.

The windows, as in all Creole houses, reached down to the floor; and seated in my lounge-chair, with the sashes wide open, with the beautiful French curtains thrown back, I commanded an extended view of the country.

A gorgeous picture it presented. The pencil of the painter could scarcely exaggerate its vivid colouring.

My window faces westward, and the great river rolls its yellow flood before my face, its ripples glittering like gold. On its farther shore I can see cultivated fields, where wave the tall graceful culms of the sugar-cane, easily distinguished from the tobacco-plant, of darker hue. Upon the bank of the river, and nearly opposite, stands a noble mansion, something in the style of an Italian villa, with green Venetians and verandah. It is embowered in groves of orange and lemon-trees, whose frondage of yellowish green glistens gaily in the distance. No mountains meet the view—there is not a mountain in all Louisiana; but the tall dark wall of cypress, rising against the western rim of the sky, produces an effect very similar to a mountain background.

On my own side of the river the view is more gardenesque, as it consists principally of the enclosed pleasure-ground of the plantation Besançon. Here I study objects more in detail, and am able to note the species of trees that form the shrubbery. I observe the Magnolia, with large white wax-like flowers, somewhat resembling the giant nympha of Guiana. Some of these have already disappeared, and in their stead are seen the coral-red seed-cones, scarce less ornamental than the flowers themselves.

Side by side with this western-forest queen, almost rivalling her in beauty and fragrance, and almost rivalling her in fame, is a lovely exotic, a native of Orient climes—though here long naturalised. Its large doubly-pinnate leaves of dark and lighter green,—for both shades are observed on the same tree; its lavender-coloured flowers hanging in axillary clusters from the extremities of the shoots; its yellow cherry-like fruits—some of which are already formed,—all point out its species. It is one of the meliaceae, or honey-trees,—the “Indian-lilac,” or “Pride of China” (Melia azedarach). The nomenclature bestowed upon this fine tree by different nations indicates the estimation in which it is held. “Tree of Pre-eminence,” lays the poetic Persian, of whose land it is a native; “Tree of Paradise” (Arbor de Paraiso), echoes the Spaniard, of whose land it is an exotic. Such are its titles.

Many other trees, both natives and exotics, meet my gaze. Among the former I behold the “catalpa,” with its silvery bark and trumpet-shaped blossoms; the “Osage orange,” with its dark shining leaves; and the red mulberry, with thick shady foliage, and long crimson calkin-like fruits. Of exotics I note the orange, the lime, the West Indian guava (Psidium pyriferum), and the guava of Florida, with its boxwood leaves; the tamarisk, with its spreading minute foliage, and splendid panicles of pale rose-coloured flowers; the pomegranate, symbol of democracy—“the queen who carries her crown upon her bosom”—and the legendary but flowerless fig-tree, here not supported against the wall, but rising as a standard to the height of thirty feet.

Scarcely exotic are the yuccas, with their spherical heads of sharp radiating blades; scarcely exotic the cactacea, of varied forms—for species of both are indigenous to the soil, and both are found among the flora of a not far-distant region.

The scene before my window is not one of still life. Over the shrubbery I can see the white-painted gates leading to the mansion, and outside of these runs the Levee road. Although the foliage hinders me from a full view of the road itself, I see at intervals the people passing along it. In the dress of the Creoles the sky-blue colour predominates, and the hats are usually palmetto, or “grass,” or the costlier Panama, with broad sun-protecting brims. Now and then a negro gallops past, turbaned like a Turk; for the chequered Madras “toque” has much the appearance of the Turkish head-dress, but is lighter and even more picturesque. Now and then an open carriage rolls by, and I catch a glimpse of ladies in their gossamer summer-dresses. I hear their clear ringing laughter; and I know they are on their way to some gay festive scene. The travellers upon the road—the labourers in the distant cane-field, chanting their chorus songs—occasionally a boat booming past on the river—more frequently a flat silently floating downward—a “keel,” or a raft with its red-shirted crew—are all before my eyes, emblems of active life.

Nearer still are the winged creatures that live and move around my window. The mock-bird (Turdus polyglotta) pipes from the top of the tallest magnolia; and his cousin, the red-breast (Turdus migratorius), half intoxicated with the berries of the melia, rivals him in his sweet song. The oriole hops among the orange-trees, and the bold red cardinal spreads his scarlet wings amidst the spray of the lower shrubbery.

Now and then I catch a glimpse of the “ruby-throat,” coming and going like the sparkle of a gem. Its favourite haunt is among the red and scentless flowers of the buck-eye, or the large trumpet-shaped blossoms of the bignonia.

Such was the view from the window of my chamber. I thought I never beheld so fair a scene. Perhaps I was not looking upon it with an impartial eye. The love-light was in my glance, and that may have imparted to it a portion of its couleur de rose. I could not look upon the scene without thinking of that fair being, whose presence alone was wanted to make the picture perfect.

 Table of Content