Chapter 42 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Wharf-Boat.

I now only waited a boat to convey me to New Orleans. I knew that I should not have long to wait. The annual epidemic was on the decline, and the season of business and pleasure in the “Crescent City” was about commencing. Already the up-river steamers were afloat on all the tributary streams of the mighty Mississippi, laden with the produce of its almost limitless valley, and converging towards the great Southern entrepôt of American commerce. I might expect a “down-boat” every day, or rather indeed every hour.

I resolved to take the first boat that came along.

The hotel in which I dwelt, as well as the whole village, stood at a considerable distance from the boat landing. It had been built so from precaution. The banks of the Mississippi at this place, and for a thousand miles above and below, are elevated but a few feet above the surface level of its water; and, in consequence of the continuous detrition, it is no uncommon occurrence for large slips to give way, and be swept off in the red whirling current. It might be supposed that in time this never-ceasing action of the water would widen the stream to unnatural dimensions. But, no. For every encroachment on one bank there is a corresponding formation against the opposite,—a deposit caused by the eddy which the new curve has produced, so that the river thus preserves its original breadth. This remarkable action may be noted from the embouchure of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi itself, though at certain points the extent of the encroachment and the formation that neutralises it is much greater than at others. In some places the “wearing away” of the bank operates so rapidly that in a few days the whole site of a village, or even a plantation, may disappear. Not unfrequently, too, during the high spring-floods this eccentric stream takes a “near cut” across the neck of one of its own “bends,” and in a few hours a channel is formed, through which pours the whole current of the river. Perhaps a plantation may have been established in the concavity of this bend,—perhaps three or four of them,—and the planter who has gone to sleep under the full belief that he had built his house upon a continent, awakes in the morning to find himself the inhabitant of an island! With dismay he beholds the vast volume of red-brown water rolling past, and cutting off his communication with the mainland. He can no longer ride to his neighbouring village without the aid of an expensive ferry. His wagons will no longer serve him to “haul” to market his huge cotton-bales or hogsheads of sugar and tobacco; and, prompted by a feeling of insecurity—lest the next wild sweep of the current may carry himself, his house, and his several hundred half-naked negroes along with it—he flees from his home, and retires to some other part of the stream, where he may deem the land in less danger of such unwelcome intrusion.

In consequence of these eccentricities a safe site for a town is extremely rare upon the Lower Mississippi. There are but few points in the last five hundred miles of its course where natural elevations offer this advantage. The artificial embankment, known as the “Levee,” has in some measure remedied the deficiency, and rendered the towns and plantations comparatively secure.

As already stated, my hotel was somewhat out of the way. A boat might touch at the landing and be off again without my being warned of it. A down-river-boat, already laden, and not caring to obtain further freight, would not stop long; and in a “tavern” upon the Mississippi you must not confide in the punctuality of “Boots,” as you would in a London hotel. Your chances of being waked by Sambo, ten times sleepier than yourself, are scarcely one in a hundred.

I had ample experience of this; and, fearing that the boat might pass if I remained at the hotel, I came to the resolve to settle my affairs in that quarter and at once transport myself and my impedimenta to the landing.

I should not be entirely without shelter. There was no house; but an old steamboat, long since condemned as not “river-worthy,” lay at the landing. This hulk, moored by strong cables to the bank, formed an excellent floating wharf; while its spacious deck, cabins, and saloons, served as a storehouse for all sorts of merchandise. It was, in fact, used both as a landing and warehouse, and was known as the “wharf-boat.”

It was late,—nearly midnight,—as I stepped aboard the wharf-boat. Stragglers from the town, who may have had business there, had all gone away, and the owner of the store-boat was himself absent. A drowsy negro, his locum tenens, was the only human thing that offered itself to my eyes. The lower deck of the boat was tenanted by this individual, who sat behind a counter that enclosed one corner of the apartment. Upon this counter stood a pair of scales, with weights, a large ball of coarse twine, a rude knife, and such other implements as may be seen in a country “store;” and upon shelves at the back were ranged bottles of coloured liquors, glasses, boxes of hard biscuit, “Western reserve” cheeses, kegs of rancid butter, plugs of tobacco, and bundles of inferior cigars,—in short, all the etceteras of a regular “grocery.” The remaining portion of the ample room was littered with merchandise, packed in various forms. There were boxes, barrels, bags, and bales; some on their way up-stream, that had come by New Orleans from distant lands, while others were destined downward: the rich product of the soil, to be borne thousands of miles over the wide Atlantic. With these various packages every part of the floor was occupied, and I looked in vain for a spot on which to stretch myself. A better light might have enabled me to discover such a place; but the tallow candle, guttering down the sides of an empty champagne-bottle, but dimly lit up the confusion. It just sufficed to guide me to the only occupant of the place, upon whose sombre face the light faintly flickered.

“Asleep, uncle?” I said, approaching him.

A gruff reply from an American negro is indeed a rarity, and never given to a question politely put. The familiar style of my address touched a sympathetic chord in the bosom of the “darkie,” and a smile of satisfaction gleamed upon his features as he made answer. Of course he was not asleep. But my idle question was only meant as the prelude to further discourse.

“Ah, Gollys! it be massa Edward. Uncle Sam know’d you, massa Edward. You good to brack folk. Wat can do uncle Sam for massa?”

“I am going down to the city, and have come here to wait for a boat. Is it likely one will pass to-night?”

“Sure, massa—sure be a boat dis night. Bossy ’spect a boat from de Red ribber dis berry night—either de Houma or de Choctuma.”

“Good! and now, uncle Sam, if you will find me six feet of level plank, and promise to rouse me when the boat comes in sight, I shall not grudge you this half dollar.”

The sudden enlargement of the whites of undo Sam’s eyes showed the satisfaction he experienced at the sight of the shining piece of metal. Without more ado he seized the champagne-bottle that hold the candle; and, gliding among the boxes and bales, conducted me to a stairway that led to the second or cabin-deck of the boat. We climbed up, and entered the saloon.

“Dar, massa, plenty of room—uncle Sam he sorry dar’s ne’er a bed, but if massa could sleep on these yeer coffee-bags, he berry welcome—berry welcome. I leave dis light wi’ massa. I can get anoder for self b’low. Good night, massa Edward—don’t fear I wake you—no fear ob dat.”

And so saying, the kind-hearted black set the bottle-candlestick upon the floor; and, passing down the stair again, left me to my reflections.

With such poor light as the candle afforded, I took a careless survey of my apartment. There was plenty of room, as uncle Sam had said. It was the cabin of the old steamboat; and as the partition-doors had been broken off and carried away, the ladies’ cabin, main saloon, and front, were now all in one. Together they formed a hall of more than a hundred feet in length, and from where I stood, near the centre, both ends were lost to my view in the darkness. The state-rooms on each side were still there, with their green Venetian doors. Some of these were shut, while others stood ajar, or quite open. The gilding and ornaments, dim from age and use, adorned the sides and ceiling of the hall; and over the arched entrance of the main saloon the word “Sultana,” in gold letters that still glittered brightly, informed me that I was now inside the “carcase” of one of the most famous boats that ever cleft the waters of the Mississippi.

Strange thoughts came into my mind as I stood regarding this desolate saloon. Silent and solitary it seemed—even more so I thought than would some lonely spot in the midst of a forest. The very absence of those sounds that one is accustomed to hear in such a place—the grinding of the machinery—the hoarse detonations of the ’scape-pipe—the voices of men—the busy hum of conversation, or the ringing laugh—the absence of the sights, too—the brilliant chandeliers—the long tables sparkling with crystal—the absence of these, and yet the presence of the scene associated with such sights and sounds—gave to the place an air of indescribable desolation. I felt as one within the ruins of some old convent, or amidst the tombs of an antique cemetery.

No furniture of any kind relieved the monotony of the place. The only visible objects were the coarse gunny-bags strewed over the floor, and upon which uncle Sam had made me welcome to repose myself.

After surveying my odd chamber, and giving way to some singular reflections, I began to think of disposing of myself for sleep. I was wearied. My health was not yet restored. The clean bast of the coffee-bags looked inviting. I dragged half-a-dozen of them together, placed them side by side, and then, throwing myself upon my back, drew my cloak over me. The coffee-berries yielded to the weight of my body, giving me a comfortable position, and in less than five minutes I fell asleep.