Chapter 52 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Brown and Co.

The banking-house of Brown and Co. was in Canal Street. From the Saint Louis Exchange, Canal Street may be approached by the Rue Conti, or the parallel street of the Rue Royale. The latter is the favourite promenade of the gay Creole-French, as Saint Charles Street is for the fashionable Americans.

You will wonder at this mélange of French and English in the nomenclature of streets. The truth is, that New Orleans has a peculiarity somewhat rare. It is composed of two distinct cities—a French and an American one. I might even say three, for there is a Spanish quarter with a character distinct from either, and where you may see on the corner the Spanish designation “Calle,” as the Calle de Casacalvo, Calle del Obispo, etcetera. This peculiarity is explained by referring to the history of Louisiana. It was colonised by the French in the early part of the eighteenth century, New Orleans being founded in 1717. The French held Louisiana till 1762, when it was ceded to Spain, and remained in her possession for a period of nearly fifty years—till 1798, when France once more became its master. Five years after, in 1803, Napoleon sold this valuable country to the American government for 15,000,000 of dollars—the best bargain which Brother Jonathan has ever made, and apparently a slack one on the part of Napoleon. After all, Napoleon was right. The sagacious Corsican, no doubt, foresaw that it could not have long remained the property of France. Sooner or later the American flag would wave over the Crescent City, and Napoleon’s easy bargain has no doubt saved America a war, and France a humiliation.

This change of masters will explain the peculiarity of the population of New Orleans. The characteristics of all three nations are visible in its streets, in its houses, in the features, habits, and dress of its citizens. In nothing are the national traces more distinctly marked than in the different styles of architecture. In the American quarter you have tall brick dwellings, several stories in height, their shining fronts half occupied with rows of windows, combining the light and ornamental with the substantial and useful. This is typical of the Anglo-American. Equally typical of the French character are the light wooden one-storey houses, painted in gay colours, with green verandah palings; windows that open as doors, and a profusion of gauzy curtains hanging behind them.

Equally a type of the grand solemn character of the Spaniard, are the massive sombre structures of stone and lime, of the imposing Moorish style, that is still seen in many of the streets of New Orleans. Of these, the Great Cathedral is a fine specimen—that will stand as a monument of Spanish occupancy, long after both the Spanish and French population has been absorbed and melted down in the alembic of the Anglo-American propagandism. The American part of New Orleans is that which is highest on the river—known as the Faubourgs Saint Mary and Annunciation. Canal Street separates it from the French quarter—which last is the old city, chiefly inhabited by Creole-French and Spaniards.

A few years ago, the French and American populations were about equal. Now the Saxon element predominates, and rapidly absorbs all the others. In time the indolent Creole must yield to the more energetic American—in other words, New Orleans will be Americanised. Progress and civilisation will gain by this, at the expense—according to the sentimental school—of the poetic and picturesque.

Two distinct cities, then, are there in New Orleans. Each has its Exchange distinct from the other—a distinct municipal court and public offices—each has its centre of fashionable resort—its favourite promenade for the flaneurs, of which the South-western metropolis can boast a large crowd—its own theatres, ballrooms, hotels, and cafés. In fact, a walk of a few paces transports one into quite a different world. The crossing of Canal Street is like being transferred from Broadway to the Boulevards.

In their occupations there is a wide difference between the inhabitants of the two quarters. The Americans deal in the strong staples of human life. The great depôts of provisions, of cotton, of tobacco, of lumber, and the various sorts of raw produce, will be found among them. On the other hand, the finer fabrics, the laces, the jewels, the modes and modistes, the silks and satins, and all articles of bijouterie and virtu, pass through the lighter fingers of the Creoles—for these inherit both the skill and taste of their Parisian progenitors. Fine old rich wine-merchants, too, will be found in the French part, who have made fortunes by importing the wines of Bordeaux and Champagne—for claret and champagne are the wines that flow most freely on the banks of the Mississippi.

A feeling of jealousy is not wanting between the two races. The strong energetic Kentuckian affects to despise the gay pleasure-loving Frenchman, while the latter—particularly the old Creole noblesse—regard with contempt the bizarrerie of the Northern, so that feuds and collisions between them are not infrequent. New Orleans is, par excellence, the city of the duello. In all matters of this kind the Kentuckian finds the Creole quite his equal—his full match in spirit, courage, and skill. I know many Creoles who are notorious for the number of their duels. An opera-singer or danseuse frequently causes half a score or more—according to her merits, or mayhap her demerits. The masqued and quadroon-balls are also frequent scenes of quarrel among the wine-heated bloods who frequent them. Let no one fancy that life in New Orleans is without incident or adventure. A less prosaic city it would be hard to find.

These subjects did not come before my mind as I walked towards the banking-house of Brown and Co. My thoughts were occupied with a far different theme—one that caused me to press on with an agitated heart and hurried steps.

The walk was long enough to give me time for many a hypothetic calculation. Should my letter and the bill of exchange have arrived, I should be put in possession of funds at once,—enough, as I supposed, for my purpose—enough to buy my slave-bride! If not yet arrived, how then? Would Brown advance the money? My heart throbbed audibly as I asked myself this question. Its answer, affirmative or negative, would be to me like the pronouncement of a sentence of life or death.

And yet I felt more than half certain that Brown would do so. I could not fancy his smiling generous John-Bull face clouded with the seriousness of a refusal. Its great importance to me at that moment—the certainty of its being repaid, and in a few days, or hours at the farthest—surely he would not deny me! What to him, a man of millions, could be the inconvenience of advancing five hundred pounds? Oh! he would do it to a certainty. No fear but he would do it!

I crossed the threshold of the man of money, my spirits buoyant with sweet anticipation. When I recrossed it my soul was saddened with bitter disappointment. My letter had not yet arrived—Brown refused the advance!

I was too inexperienced in business to comprehend its sordid calculations—its cold courtesy. What cared the banker for my pressing wants? What to him was my ardent appeal? Even had I told him my motives, my object, it would have been all the same. That game cold denying smile would have been the reply—ay, even had my life depended upon it.

I need not detail the interview. It was brief enough. I was told, with a bland smile, that my letter had not yet come to hand. To my proposal for the advance the answer was blunt enough. The kind generous smile blanked off Brown’s ruddy face. It was not business. It could not be done. There was no sign thrown out—no invitation to talk farther. I might have appealed in a more fervent strain. I might have confessed the purpose for which I wanted the money, but Brown’s face gave me no encouragement. Perhaps it was as well I did not. Brown would have chuckled over my delicate secret. The town, over its tea-table, would have relished it as a rich joke.

Enough—my letter had not arrived—Brown refused the advance. With Hope behind me and Despair in front, I hurried back to the hotel.