Chapter 20 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

My Journal.

I varied the monotony of my invalid existence by keeping a journal.

The journal of a sick chamber must naturally be barren of incident. Mine was a diary of reflections rather than acts. I transcribe a few passages from it—not on account of any remarkable interest which they possess—but because, dotted down at the time, they represent more faithfully some of the thoughts and incidents that occurred to me during the remainder of my stay on the plantation Besançon.

July 12th.—To-day I am able to sit up and write a little. The weather is intensely hot. It would be intolerable were it not for the breeze which sweeps across my apartment, charged with the delicious perfume of the flowers. This breeze blows from the Gulf of Mexico, by Lakes Borgne, Pontchartrain, and Maauepas. I am more than one hundred miles from the Gulf itself—that is, following the direction of the river—but these great inland seas deeply penetrate the delta of the Mississippi, and through them the tidal wave approaches within a few miles of New Orleans, and still farther to the north. Sea-water might be reached through the swamps at a short distance to the rear of Bringiers.

This sea-breeze is a great benefit to the inhabitants of Lower Louisiana. Without its cooling influence New Orleans during the summer months would hardly be habitable.

Scipio tells me that a new “overseer” has arrived on the plantation, and thinks that he has been appointed through the agency of Mass’r Dominick. He brought a letter from the avocat. It is therefore probable enough.

My attendant does not seem very favourably impressed with the new comer, whom he represents as a “poor white man from de norf, an a Yankee at daat.”

Among the blacks I find existing an antipathy towards what they are pleased to call “poor white men”—individuals who do not possess slave or landed property. The phrase itself expresses this antipathy; and when applied by a negro to a white man is regarded by the latter as a dire insult, and usually procures for the imprudent black a scoring with the “cowskin,” or a slight “rubbing down” with the “oil of hickory.”

Among the slaves there is a general impression that their most tyrannical “overseers” are from the New England States, or “Yankees,” as they are called in the South. This term, which foreigners apply contemptuously to all Americans, in the United States has a restricted meaning; and when used reproachfully it is only applied to natives of New England. At other times it is used jocularly in a patriotic spirit; and in this sense every American is proud to call himself a Yankee. Among the southern blacks, “Yankee” is a term of reproach, associated in their minds with poverty of fortune, meanness of spirit, wooden nutmegs, cypress hams, and such-like chicanes. Sad and strange to say, it is also associated with the whip, the shackle, and the cowhide. Strange, because these men are the natives of a land peculiarly distinguished for its Puritanism! A land where the purest religion and strictest morality are professed.

This would seem an anomaly, and yet perhaps it is not so much an anomaly after all. I had it explained to me by a Southerner, who spoke thus:—

“The countries where Puritan principles prevail are those which produce vice, and particularly the smaller vices, in greatest abundance. The villages of New England—the foci of blue laws and Puritanism.—furnish the greatest number of the nymphes du pavé of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans; and even furnish a large export of them to the Catholic capital of Cuba! From the same prolific soil spring most of the sharpers, quacks, and cheating traders, who disgrace the American name. This is not an anomaly. It is but the inexorable result of a pseudo-religion. Outward observance, worship, Sabbath-keeping, and the various forms, are engrafted in the mind; and thus, by complicating the true duties which man owes to his fellow-man, obscure or take precedence of them. The latter grow to be esteemed as only of secondary importance, and are consequently neglected.”

The explanation was at least ingenious.

July 14th.—To-day, twice visited by Mademoiselle; who, as usual, was accompanied by Aurore.

Our conversation does not flow easily or freely, nor is it of long continuance. She (Mademoiselle) is still evidently suffering, and there is a tone of sadness in everything she says. At first I attributed this to her sorrow for Antoine, but it has now continued too long to be thus explained. Some other grief presses upon her spirit. I suffer from restraint. The presence of Aurore restrains me; and I can ill give utterance to those common-places required in an ordinary conversation. She (Aurore) takes no part in the dialogue; but lingers by the door, or stands behind her mistress, respectfully listening. When I regard her steadfastly, her fringed eyelids droop, and shut out all communion with her soul. Oh that I could make her understand me!

July 15th.—Scipio is confirmed in his dislike for the new overseer. His first impressions were correct. From two or three little matters which I have heard about this gentleman, I am satisfied that he is a bad successor to the good Antoine.

A propos of poor Antoine, it was reported that his body had been washed up among some drift-timber below the plantation; but the report proved incorrect. A body was found, but not that of the steward. Some other unfortunate, who had met with a similar fate. I wonder if the wretch who wounded me is yet above water!

There are still many of the sufferers at Bringiers. Some have died of the injuries they received on board the boat. A terrible death is this scalding by steam. Many who fancied themselves scarce injured, are now in their last agonies. The doctor has given me some details that are horrifying.

One of the men, a “fireman,” whose nose is nearly gone, and who is conscious that he has but a short while to live, requested to see his face in a looking-glass. Upon the request being granted, he broke into a diabolical laugh, crying out at the same time, in a loud voice, “What a damned ugly corpse I’ll make.”

This reckless indifference to life is a characteristic of these wild boatmen. The race of “Mike Fink” is not extinct: many true representatives of this demi-savage still navigate the great rivers of the West.

July 20th. Much better to-day. The doctor tells me that in a week I may leave my room. This is cheering; and yet a week seems a long while to one not used to being caged in this way. The books enable me to kill time famously. All honour to the men who make books!

July 21st.—Scipio’s opinion of the new overseer is not improved. His name is “Larkin.” Scipio says that he is well-known in the village as “Bully Bill Larkin”—a soubriquet which may serve as a key to his character. Several of the “field-hands” complain (to Scipio) of his severity, which they say is daily on the increase. He goes about constantly armed with a “cowhide,” and has already, once or twice, made use of it in a barbarous manner.

To-day is Sunday, and I can tell from the “hum” that reaches me from the negro “quarters,” that it is a day of rejoicing. I can see the blacks passing the Levee road, dressed in their gayest attire—the men in white beaver hats, blue long-tailed coats, and shirts with enormous ruffles; the women in gaudy patterns of cotton, and not a few in silks brilliant enough for a ball-room! Many carry silk parasols, of course of the brightest colours. One would almost be tempted to believe that in this slave-life there was no great hardship, after all; but the sight of Mr Larkin’s cowhide must produce a very opposite impression.

July 24th.—I noticed to-day more than ever the melancholy that seems to press upon the spirit of Mademoiselle. I am now convinced that Antoine’s death is not the cause of it. There is some present source of distraction, which renders her ill at ease. I have again observed that singular glance with which she at first regarded me; but it was so transitory, I could not read its meaning, and my heart and eyes were searching elsewhere. Aurore gazes upon me less timidly, and seems to be interested in my conversation, though it is not addressed to her. Would that it were! Converse with her would perhaps relieve my heart, which burns all the more fiercely under the restraint of silence.

July 25th.—Several of the “field-hands” indulged too freely on yesternight. They had “passes” to the town, and came back late. “Bully Bill” has flogged them all this morning, and very severely—so as to draw the blood from their backs. This is rough enough for a new overseer; but Scipio learns that he is an “old hand” at the business. Surely Mademoiselle does not know of these barbarities!

July 26th.—The doctor promises to let me out in three days. I have grown to esteem this man—particularly since I made the discovery that he is not a friend of Gayarre. He is not his medical attendant either. There is another medico in the village, who has charge of Monsieur Dominique and his blacks, as also the slaves of the Besançon plantation. The latter chanced to be out of the way, and so Reigart was called to me. Professional etiquette partly, and partly my own interference, forbade any change in this arrangement; and the latter continued to attend me. I have seen the other gentleman, who came once in Reigart’s company, and he appears much more suited to be the friend of the avocat.

Reigart is a stranger in Bringiers, but seems to be rapidly rising in the esteem of the neighbouring planters. Indeed, many of these—the “grandees” among them—keep physicians of their own, and pay them handsomely, too! It would be an unprofitable speculation to neglect the health of the slave; and on this account it is better looked after than that of the “poor white folks” in many a European state.

I have endeavoured to draw from the doctor some facts, regarding the connexion existing between Gayarre and the family of Besançon. I could only make distant allusion to such a subject. I obtained no very satisfactory information. The doctor is what might be termed a “close man,” and too much talking would not make one of his profession very popular in Louisiana. He either knows but little of their affairs, or affects not to know; and yet, from some expressions that dropped from him, I suspect the latter to be the more probable.

“Poor young lady!” said he; “quite alone in the world. I believe there is an aunt, or something of the kind, who lives in New Orleans, but she has no male relation to look after her affairs. Gayarre seems to have everything in his hands.”

I gathered from the doctor that Eugénie’s father had been much richer at one period—one of the most extensive planters on the coast; that he had kept a sort of “open house,” and dispensed hospitality in princely style. “Fêtes” on a grand scale had been given, and this more particularly of late years. Even since his death profuse hospitality has been carried on, and Mademoiselle continues to receive her father’s guests after her father’s fashion. Suitors she has in plenty, but the doctor has heard of no one who is regarded in the light of a “lover.”

Gayarre had been the intimate friend of Besançon. Why, no one could tell; for their natures were as opposite as the poles. It was thought by some that their friendship had a little of the character of that which usually exists between debtor and creditor.

The information thus imparted by the doctor confirms what Scipio has already told me. It confirms, too, my suspicions in regard to the young Creole, that there is a cloud upon the horizon of her future, darker than any that has shadowed her past—darker even than that produced by the memory of Antoine!

July 28th.—Gayarre has been here to-day—at the house, I mean. In fact, he visits Mademoiselle nearly every day; but Scipio tells me something new and strange. It appears that some of the slaves who had been flogged, complained of the overseer to their young mistress; and she in her turn spoke to Gayarre on the subject. His reply was that the “black rascals deserved all they had got, and more,” and somewhat rudely upheld the ruffian Larkin, who is beyond a doubt his protégé. The lady was silent.

Scipio learns these facts from Aurore. There is something ominous in all this.

Poor Scipio has made me the confidant of another, and a private grief. He suspects that the overseer is looking too kindly upon “him kettle Chloe.” The brute! if this be so!—My blood boils at the thought—oh! slavery!

August 2nd.—I hear of Gayarre again. He has been to the house, and made a longer stay with Mademoiselle than usual. What can he have to do with her? Can his society be agreeable to her? Surely that is impossible! And yet such frequent visits—such long conferences! If she marry such a man as this I pity her, poor victim!—for victim will she be. He must have some power over her to act as he is doing. He seems master of the plantation, says Scipio, and issues his orders to every one with the air of its owner. All fear him and his “nigger-driver,” as the ruffian Larkin is called. The latter is more feared by Scipio, who has noticed some further rude conduct on the part of the overseer towards “him leettle Chloe.” Poor fellow! he is greatly distressed; and no wonder, when even the law does not allow him to protect the honour of his own child!

I have promised to speak to Mademoiselle about the affair; but I fear, from what reaches my ears, that she is almost as powerless as Scipio himself!

August 3rd.—To-day, for the first time, I am able to go out of my room. I have taken a walk through the shrubbery and garden. I encountered Aurore among the orange-trees, gathering the golden fruit; but she was accompanied by little Chloe, who held the basket. What would I not have given to have found her alone! A word or two only was I able to exchange with her, and she was gone.

She expressed her pleasure at seeing me able to be abroad. She seemed pleased; I fancied she felt so, I never saw her look so lovely. The exercise of shaking down the oranges had brought out the rich crimson bloom upon her cheeks, and her large brown eyes were shining like sapphires. Her full bosom rose and fell with her excited breathing, and the light wrapper she wore enabled me to trace the noble outlines of her form.

I was struck with the gracefulness of her gait as she walked away. It exhibited an undulating motion, produced by a peculiarity of figure—a certain embonpoint characteristic of her race. She was large and womanly, yet of perfect proportion and fine delicate outlines. Her hands were small and slender, and her little feet seemed hardly to press upon the pebbles. My eyes followed her in a delirium of admiration. The fire in my heart burned fiercer as I returned to my solitary chamber.