Chapter 50 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The City.

I am strongly in favour of a country life. I am a lover of the chase and the angle.

Perhaps if I were to analyse the feeling, I might find that these predilections have their source in a purer fountain—the love of Nature herself. I follow the deer in his tracks, because they lead me into the wildest solitudes of the forest—I follow the trout in its stream, because I am guided into still retreats, by the margin of shady pools, where human foot rarely treads. Once in the haunts of the fish and the game, my sporting energy dies within me. My rod-spear pierces the turf, my gun lies neglected by my side, and I yield up my soul to a diviner dalliance with the beauties of Nature. Oh, I am a rare lover of the sylvan scene!

And yet, for all this, I freely admit that the first hours spent in a great city have for me a peculiar fascination. A world of new pleasures is suddenly placed within reach—a world of luxury opened up. The soul is charmed with rare joys. Beauty and song, wine and the dance, vary their allurements. Love, or it may be passion, beguiles you into many an incident of romantic adventure; for romance may be found within the walled city. The human heart is its home, and they are but Quixotic dreamers who fancy that steam and civilisation are antagonistic to the purest aspirations of poetry. A sophism, indeed, is the chivalry of the savage. His rags, so picturesque, often cover a shivering form and a hungry stomach. Soldier though I may claim to be, I prefer the cheering roll of the busy mill to the thunder of the cannon—I regard the tall chimney, with its banner of black smoke, a far nobler sight than the fortress turret with its flouting and fickle flag. I hear sweet music in the plashing of the paddle-wheel; and in my ears a nobler sound is the scream of the iron horse than the neigh of the pampered war-steed. A nation of monkeys may manage the business of gunpowder: they must be men to control the more powerful element of steam.

These ideas will not suit the puling sentimentalism of the boudoir and the boarding-school. The Quixotism of the modern time will be angry with the rough writer who thus rudely lays his hand upon the helm of the mailed knight, and would deflower it of its glory and glossy plumes. It is hard to yield up prejudices and preconceptions, however false; and the writer himself in doing so confesses to the cost of a struggle of no ordinary violence. It was hard to give up the Homeric illusion, and believe that Greeks were men, not demigods—hard to recognise in the organ-man and the opera-singer the descendants of those heroes portrayed in the poetic pictures of a Virgil; and yet in the days of my dreamy youth, when I turned my face to the West, I did so under the full conviction that the land of prose was before me and the land of poetry behind my back!

Thanks to Saint Hubert and the golden ring of the word “Mexico,” I did turn my face in that direction: and no sooner had I set foot on those glorious shores, trodden by a Columbus and a Cortez, than I recognised the home both of the poetic and the picturesque. In that very land, called prosaic—the land of dollars—I inhaled the very acmé of the poetic spirit; not from the rhythm of books, but expressed in the most beautiful types of the human form, in the noblest impulses of the human soul, in rock and stream, in bird, and leaf and flower. In that very city, which, thanks to perjured and prejudiced travellers, I had been taught to regard as a sort of outcast camp, I found humanity in its fairest forms—progress blended with pleasure—civilisation adorned with the spirit of chivalry as with a wreath. Prosaic indeed! a dollar-loving people! I make bold to assert, that in the concave of that little crescent where lies the city of New Orleans will be found a psychological mélange of greater variety and interest than exists in any space of equal extent on the globe’s surface. There the passions, favoured by the clime, reach their fullest, highest development, Love and hate, joy and grief, avarice, ambition—all attain to perfect vigour. There, too, the moral virtues are met with in full purity. Cant has there no home, hypocrisy must be deep indeed to avoid exposure and punishment. Genius is almost universal—universal, too, is activity. The stupid and the slothful cannot exist in this moving world of busy life and enjoyment.

An ethnological mélange as well this singular city presents. Perhaps no other city exhibits so great a variety of nationalities as in its streets. Founded by the French, held by the Spaniards, “annexed” by the Americans, these three nations form the elements of its population. But you may, nevertheless, there meet with representatives of most other civilised, and of many “savage” people. The Turk in his turban, the Arab in his burnouse, the Chinaman with shaven scalp and queue, the black son of Africa, the red Indian, the swarthy Mestize, yellow Mulatto, the olive Malay, the light graceful Creole, and the not less graceful Quadroon, jostle each other in its streets, and jostle with the red-blooded races of the North, the German and Gael, the Russ and Swede, the Fleming, the Yankee, and the Englishman. An odd human mosaic—a mottled piebald mixture is the population of the Crescent City.

In truth, New Orleans is a great metropolis, more of a city than places of much greater population either in Europe or America. In passing through its streets you feel that you are not in a provincial town. Its shops exhibit the richest goods, of best workmanship. Palace-like hotels appear in every street. Luxurious cafés invite you into their elegant saloons. Theatres are there—grand architectural temples—in which you may witness the drama well performed in French, and German, and English, and in its season you may listen to the soul-moving music of the Italian opera. If you are a lover of the Terpsichorean art, you will fold New Orleans, par excellence, the town to your taste.

I knew the capacities of New Orleans to afford pleasure. I was acquainted with the sources of enjoyment, yet I sought them not. After a long interval of country life I entered the city without a thought of its gaieties—a rare event in the life even of the most sedate. The masquerades, the quadroon-balls, the drama, the sweet strains of the Opera, had lost their attractions for me. No amusement could amuse me at that moment. One thought alone had possession of my heart—Aurore! There was room for no other.

I pondered as to how I should act.

Place yourself in my position, and you will surely acknowledge it a difficult one. First, I was in love with this beautiful quadroon—in love beyond redemption. Secondly, she, the object of my passion, was for sale, and by public auction! Thirdly, I was jealous—ay jealous, of that which might be sold and bought like a bale of cotton,—a barrel of sugar! Fourthly, I was still uncertain whether I should have it in my power to become the purchaser. I was still uncertain whether my banker’s letter had yet reached New Orleans. Ocean steamers were not known at this period, and the date of a European mail could not be relied upon with any degree of certainty. Should that not come to hand in due time, then indeed should my misery reach its culminating point. Some one else would become possessed of all I held dear on earth—would be her lord and master—with power to do aught—oh God! the idea was fearful. I could not bear to dwell upon it.

Again, even should my letter reach me in time, would the amount I expected be enough? Five hundred pounds sterling—five times five—twenty-five hundred dollars! Would twenty-five hundred be the price of that which was priceless?

I even doubted whether it would. I knew that a thousand dollars was at that time the “average value” of a slave, and it was rare when one yielded twice that amount. It must be a strong-bodied man—a skilful mechanic, a good blacksmith, an expert barber, to be worth such a sum!

But for Aurore. Oh! I had heard strange tales of “fancy prices,” for such a “lot”—of brisk competition in the bidding—of men with long purses and lustful thoughts eagerly contending for such a prize.

Such thoughts might harrow the soul even under the most ordinary circumstances! what was their effect upon me? I cannot describe the feelings I experienced.

Should the sum reach me in time—should it prove enough—should I even succeed in becoming the owner of Aurore, what then? What if my jealousy were well founded? What if she loved me not? Worse dilemma than ever. I should only have her body—then her heart and soul would be another’s. I should live in exquisite torture—the slave of a slave!

Why should I attempt to purchase her at all? Why not make a bold effort, and free myself from this delirious passion? She is not worthy of the sacrifice I would make for her. No—she has deceived me—surely she has deceived me. Why not break my promise, plighted though it be in words of fervid love? Why not flee from the spot, and endeavour to escape the torture that is maddening both my heart and brain? Oh! why not?

In calmer moments, such questions might be thought worthy of an answer. I could not answer them. I did not even entertain them,—though, like shadows, they flitted across my mind. In the then state of my feelings, prudence was unknown. Expediency had no place. I would not have listened to its cold counsels. You who have passionately loved can alone understand me. I was resolved to risk fortune, fame, life—all—to possess the object I so deeply adored.