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Chapter 44 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Houma

I had not much longer to remain on the wharf-boat. The hoarse barking of a ’scape-pipe fell upon my ear and shortly after the fires of a steamboat furnace appeared, glittering red upon the stream. Then was heard the crashing plunging sound of the paddle-wheels as they beat the brown water, and then the ringing of the bell, and the shouts of command passing from captain to mate, and from mate to “deck hands,” and in five minutes after, the “Houma”—Red River-boat,—lay side by side with the old “Sultana.”

I stepped aboard, threw my luggage over the guard, and, climbing up-stairs, seated myself under the awning.

Ten minutes of apparent confusion—the quick trampling of feet over the decks and staging—half-a-dozen passengers hastening ashore—others hurrying in the opposite direction—the screeching of the steam—the rattling of huge fire-logs thrust endways up the furnace—at intervals the loud words of command—a peal of laughter at some rude jest, or the murmur of voices in the sadder accents of adieu. Ten minutes of these sights and sounds, and again was heard the ringing of the large bell—the signal that the boat was about to continue her course.

I had flung myself into a chair that stood beside one of the awning-posts, and close to the guards. From my position I commanded a view of the gangway, the staging-plank, and the contiguous wharf-boat, which I had just left.

I was looking listlessly on what was passing below, taking note of nothing in particular. If I had a special thought in my mind the subject of it was not there, and the thought itself caused me to turn my eyes away from the busy groups and bend them downward along the left bank of the river. Perhaps a sigh was the concomitant of these occasional glances; but in the intervals between, my mind dwelt upon nothing in particular, and the forms that hurried to and fro impressed me only as shadows.

This apathy was suddenly interrupted. My eyes, by pure accident, fell upon two figures whose movements at once excited my attention. They stood upon the deck of the wharf-boat—not near the stage-plank, where the torch cast its glare over the hurrying passengers, but in a remote corner under the shadow of the awning. I could see them only in an obscure light,—in fact, could scarce make out their forms, shrouded as they were in dark cloaks—but the attitudes in which they stood, the fact of their keeping thus apart in the most obscure quarter of the boat, the apparent earnestness with which they were conversing—all led me to conjecture that they were lovers. My heart, guided by the sweet instinct of love, at once accepted this explanation, and looked for no other.

“Yes—lovers! how happy! No—perhaps not so happy—it is a parting! Some youth who makes a trip down to the city—perhaps some young clerk or merchant, who goes to spend his winter there. What of that? He will return in spring, again to press those delicate fingers, again to fold that fair form in his arms, again to speak those tender words that will sound all the sweeter after the long interval of silence.

“Happy youth! happy girl! Light is the misery of a parting like yours! How easy to endure when compared with that violent separation which I have experienced! Aurore!—Aurore!—Would that you were free! Would that you were some high-born dame! Not that I should love you the more—impossible—but then might I boldly woo, and freely win. Then I might hope—but now, alas! this horrid gulf—this social abyss that yawns between us. Well! it cannot separate souls. Our love shall bridge it—Ha!”

“Hilloa, Mister! What’s gwine wrong? Anybody fell overboard!”

I heeded not the rude interrogatory. A deeper pang absorbed my soul, forcing from me the wild exclamation that had given the speaker cause.

The two forms parted—with a mutual pressure of the hand, with a kiss they parted! The young man hastened across the staging. I did not observe his face, as he passed under the light. I had taken no notice of him, my eyes by some strange fascination remaining fixed upon her. I was curious to observe how she would act in this final moment of leave-taking.

The planks were drawn aboard. The signal-bell sounded. I could perceive that we were moving away.

At this moment the shrouded form of the lady glided forward into the light. She was advancing to catch a farewell glance of her lover. A few steps brought her to the edge of the wharf-boat, where the torch was glaring. Her hood-like gun-bonnet was thrown back. The light fell full upon her face, glistened along the undulating masses of black hair that shrouded her temples, and danced in her glorious eyes. Good God! they were the eyes of Aurore!

No wonder I uttered the wild ejaculation—

“It is she!”

“What?—a female! overboard, do you say? Where? Where?”

The man was evidently in earnest. My soliloquy had been loud enough to reach his ears.

He believed it to be a reply to his previous question, and my excited manner confirmed him in the belief that a woman had actually fallen into the river!

His questions and exclamations were overheard and repeated in the voices of others who stood near. Like wildfire an alarm ran through the boat. Passengers rushed from the cabins, along the guards, and out to the front awning, and mingled their hurried interrogatories, “Who? What? Where?” A loud voice cried out—

“Some one overboard! A woman! it’s a woman!”

Knowing the cause of this ridiculous alarm, I gave no heed to it. My mind was occupied with a far different matter. The first shock of a hideous passion absorbed my whole soul, and I paid no attention to what was going on around me.

I had scarce recognised the face, when the boat rounding up-stream brought the angle of the cabin between it and me. I rushed forward, as far as the gangway. I was too late:—the wheel-house obstructed the view. I did not halt, but ran on, directing myself towards the top of the wheel-house. Passengers in their excitement were rushing along the guards. They hindered my progress, and it was some time before I could climb up the wheel-house, and stand upon its rounded roof. I did so at length, but too late. The boat had forged several hundred yards into the stream. I could see the wharf-boat with its glaring lights. I could even see human forms standing along its deck, but I could no longer distinguish that one that my eyes were in search of.

Disappointed I stepped on to the hurricane-deck, which was almost a continuation of the roof of the wheel-house. There I could be alone, and commune with my now bitter thoughts.

I was not to have that luxury just then. Shouts, the trampling of heavy boots bounding over the planks, and the pattering of lighter feet, sounded in my ears; and next moment a stream of passengers, male and female, came pouring up the sides of the wheel-house.

“That’s the gentleman—that’s him!” cried a voice.

In another instant the excited throng was around me, several inquiring at once—

“Who’s overboard? Who? Where?”

Of course I saw that these interrogatories were meant for me. I saw, too, that an answer was necessary to allay their ludicrous alarm.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” I said, “there is no one overboard that I am aware of. Why do you ask me?”

“Hilloa, Mister!” cried the cause of all this confusion, “didn’t you tell me—?”

“I told you nothing.”

“But didn’t I ask you if thar wan’t some one overboard?”

“You did.”

“And you said in reply—”

“I said nothing in reply.”

“Darned if you didn’t! you said ‘Thar she is!’ or, ‘It was she!’ or something o’ that sort.”

I turned towards the speaker, who I perceived was rather losing credit with his auditory.

“Mister!” said I, imitating his tone, “it is evident you have never heard of the man who grew immensely rich by minding his own business.”

My remark settled the affair. It was received by a yell of laughter, that completely discomfited my meddling antagonist, who, after some little swaggering and loud talk, at length went below to the “bar” to soothe his mortified spirit with a “gin-sling.”

The others dropped away one by one, and dispersed themselves through the various cabins and saloons; and I found myself once more the sole occupant of the hurricane-deck.

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