Chapter 45 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid


Have you ever loved in humble life? some fair young girl, whose lot was among the lowly, but whose brilliant beauty in your eyes annihilated all social inequalities? Love levels all distinctions, is an adage old as the hills. It brings down the proud heart, and teaches condescension to the haughty spirit; but its tendency is to elevate, to ennoble. It does not make a peasant of the prince, but a prince of the peasant.

Behold the object of your adoration engaged in her ordinary duties! She fetches a jar of water from the well. Barefoot she treads the well-known path. Those nude pellucid feet are fairer in their nakedness than the most delicate chaussure of silk and satin. The wreaths and pearl circlets, the pins of gold and drupes of coral, the costliest coiffures of the dress circle,—all seem plain and poor compared with the glossy negligé of those bright tresses. The earthen jar sits upon her head with the grace of a golden coronet—every attitude is the pose of a statue, a study for a sculptor; and the coarse garment that drapes that form is in your eyes more becoming than a robe of richest velvet. You care not for that. You are not thinking of the casket, but of the pearl it conceals.

She disappears within the cottage—her humble home. Humble? In your eyes no longer humble; that little kitchen, with its wooden chairs, and scoured dresser, its deal shelf, with mugs, cups, and willow-pattern plates, its lime-washed walls and cheap prints of the red soldier and the blue sailor—that little museum of the penates of the poor, is now filled with a light that renders it more brilliant than the gilded saloons of wealth and fashion. That cottage with its low roof, and woodbine trellis, has become a palace. The light of love has transformed it! A paradise you are forbidden to enter. Yes, with all your wealth and power, your fine looks and your titles of distinction, your superfine cloth and bright lacquered boots, mayhap you dare not enter there.

And oh! how you envy those who dare!—how you envy the spruce apprentice, and the lout in the smock who cracks his whip, and whistles with as much nonchalance as if he was between the handles of his plough! as though the awe of that fair presence should not freeze his lips to stone! Gauché that he is, how you envy him his opportunities! how you could slaughter him for those sweet smiles that appear to be lavished upon him!

There maybe no meaning in those smiles. They may be the expressions of good-nature of simple friendship, perhaps of a little coquetry. For all that, you cannot behold them without envy—without suspicion If there be a meaning—if they be the smiles of love—if the heart of that simple girl has made its lodgement either upon the young apprentice or him of the smock—then are you fated to the bitterest pang that human breast can know. It is not jealousy of the ordinary kind. It is far more painful. Wounded vanity adds a poison to the sting. Oh! it is hard to bear!

A pang of this nature I suffered, as I paced that high platform. Fortunately they had left me alone. The feelings that worked within me could not be concealed. My looks and wild gestures must have betrayed them. I should have been a subject for satire and laughter. But I was alone. The pilot in his glass-box did not notice me. His back was towards me, and his keen eye, bent steadily upon the water, was too busy with logs and sand-bars, and snags and sawyers, to take note of my delirium.

It was Aurore! Of that I had no doubt whatever. Her face was not to be mistaken for any other. There was none like it—none so lovely—alas! too fatally fair.

Who could he be? Some young spark of the town? Some clerk in one of the stores? a young planter? who? Maybe—and with this thought came that bitter pang—one of her own proscribed race—a young man of “colour”—a mulatto—a quadroon—a slave! Ha! to be rivalled by a slave!—worse than rivalled.—Infamous coquette! Why had I yielded to her fascinations? Why had I mistaken her craft for naïvété?—her falsehood for truth?

Who could he be? I should search the boat till I found him. Unfortunately I had taken no marks, either of his face or his dress. My eyes had remained fixed upon her after their parting. In the shadow I had seen him only indistinctly; and as he passed under the lights I saw him not. How preposterous then to think of looking for him! I could not recognise him in such a crowd.

I went below, and wandered through the cabins, under the front awning, and along the guard-ways. I scanned every face with an eagerness that to some must have appeared impertinence. Wherever one was young and handsome, he was an object of my scrutiny and jealousy. There were several such among the male passengers; and I endeavoured to distinguish those who had come aboard at Bringiers. There were some young men who appeared as if they had lately shipped, themselves, but I had no clue to guide me, and I failed to find my rival.

In the chagrin of disappointment I returned once more to the roof; but I had hardly reached it, when a new thought came into my mind. I remembered that the slaves of the plantation were to be sent down to the city by the first boat. Were they not travelling by that very one? I had seen a crowd of blacks—men, women, and children—hastily driven aboard. I had paid but little heed to such a common spectacle—one that may be witnessed daily, hourly. I had not thought of it, that those might be the slaves of the plantation Besançon!

If they were, then indeed there might still be hope; Aurore had not gone with them—but what of that? Though, like them, only a slave, it was not probable she would have been forced to herd with them upon the deck. But she had not come aboard! The staging had been already taken in, as I recognised her on the wharf-boat. On the supposition that the slaves of Besançon were aboard, my heart felt relieved. I was filled with a hope that all might yet be well.

Why? you may ask. I answer—simply because the thought occurred to me, that the youth, who so tenderly parted from Aurore, might be a brother, or some near relative. I had not heard of such relationship. It might be so, however; and my heart, reacting from its hour of keen anguish, was eager to relieve itself by any hypothesis.

I could not endure doubt longer; and turning on my heel, I hastened below. Down the kleets of the wheel-house, along the guard-way, then down the main stairs to the boiler-deck. Threading my way among bags of maize and hogsheads of sugar, now stooping under the great axle, now climbing over huge cotton-bales, I reached the after-part of the lower deck, usually appropriated to the “deck passengers”—the poor immigrants of Ireland and Germany, who here huddle miscellaneously with the swarthy bondsmen of the South.

As I had hoped, there were they,—those black but friendly faces,—every one of them. Old Zip, and Aunt Chloe, and the little Chloe; Hannibal, the new coachman, and Caesar and Pompey, and all,—all on their way to the dreaded mart.

I had halted a second or two before approaching them. The light was in my favour, and I saw them before discovering my presence. There were no signs of mirth in that sable group. I heard no laughter, no light revelry, as was their wont to indulge in in days gone by, among their little cabins in the quarter. A deep melancholy had taken possession of the features of all. Gloom was in every glance. Even the children, usually reckless of the unknown future, seemed impressed with the same sentiment. They rolled not about, tumbling over each other. They played not at all. They sat without stirring, and silent. Even they, poor infant helots, knew enough to fear for their dark future,—to shudder at the prospect of the slave-market.

All were downcast. No wonder. They had been used to kind treatment. They might pass to a hard taskmaster. Not one of them knew where in another day should be his home—what sort of tyrant should be his lord. But that was not all. Still worse. Friends, they were going to be parted; relatives, they would be torn asunder—perhaps never to meet more. Husband looked upon wife, brother upon sister, father upon child, mother upon infant, with dread in the heart and agony in the eye.

It was painful to gaze upon this sorrowing group, to contemplate the suffering, the mental anguish that spoke plainly in every face; to think of the wrongs which one man can legally put upon another—the deep sinful wrongs, the outrage of every human principle. Oh, it was terribly painful to look on that picture!

It was some relief to me to know that my presence threw at least a momentary light over its shade. Smiles chased away the sombre shadows as I appeared, and joyous exclamations hailed me. Had I been their saviour, I could not have met a more eager welcome.

Amidst their fervid ejaculations I could distinguish earnest appeals that I would buy them—that I would become their master—mingled with zealous protestations of service and devotion. Alas! they knew not how heavily at that moment the price of one of their number lay upon my heart.

I strove to be gay, to cheer them with words of consolation. I rather needed to be myself consoled.

During this while my eyes were busy. I scanned the faces of all. There was light enough glimmering from two oil-lamps to enable me to do so. Several were young mulattoes. Upon these my glance rested, one after the other. How my heart throbbed in this examination! It triumphed at length. Surely there was no face there that she could love? Were they all present? Yes, all—so Scipio said; all but Aurore.

“And Aurore?” I asked; “have you heard any more of her?”

“No, mass’; ’blieve ’Rore gone to de city. She go by de road in a carriage—not by de boat, some ob de folks say daat, I b’lieve.”

This was strange enough. Taking the black aside—

“Tell me, Scipio,” I asked, “has Aurore any relative among you?—any brother, or sister, or cousin?”

“No, mass’, ne’er a one. Golly, mass’! ’Rore she near white as missa ’Génie all de rest be black, or leas’wise yeller! ’Rore she quaderoom, yeller folks all mulatto—no kin to ’Rore—no.”

I was perplexed and puzzled. My former doubts came crowding back upon me. My jealousy returned.

Scipio could not clear up the mystery. His answer to other questions which I put to him gave me no solution to it; and I returned up-stairs with a heart that suffered under the pressure of disappointment.

The only reflection from which I drew comfort was, that I might have been mistaken. Perhaps, after all, it was not Aurore!