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Chapter 59 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Rotundo

The thousand and one reflections of a sleepless night—the thousand and one alternations of hope, and doubt, and fear—the theoretic tentation of a hundred projects—all passed before my waking spirit. Yet when morning came, and the yellow sunlight fell painfully on my eyes, I had advanced no farther in any plan of proceeding. All my hopes centred upon D’Hauteville—for I no longer dwelt upon the chances of the mail.

To be assured upon this head, however, as soon as it had arrived, I once more sought the banking-house of Brown and Co. The negative answer to my inquiry was no longer a disappointment. I had anticipated it. When did money ever arrive in time for a crisis? Slowly roll the golden circles—slowly are they passed from hand to hand, and reluctantly parted with. This supply was due by the ordinary course of the mail; yet those friends at home, into whose executive hands I had intrusted my affairs, had made some cause of delay.

Never trust your business affairs to a friend. Never trust to a day for receiving a letter of credit, if to a friend belongs the duty of sending it. So swore I, as I parted from the banking-house of Brown and Co.

It was twelve o’clock when I returned to the Rue Saint Louis. I did not re-enter the hotel—I walked direct to the Rotundo.

My pen fails to paint the dark emotions of my soul, as I stepped under the shadow of that spacious dome. I remember no fooling akin to what I experienced at that moment.

I have stood under the vaulted roof of the grand cathedral, and felt the solemnity of religious awe—I have passed through the gilded saloons of a regal palace, that inspired me with pity and contempt—pity for the slaves who had sweated for that gilding, and contempt for the sycophants who surrounded me—I have inspected the sombre cells of a prison with feelings of pain—but remembered no scene that had so painfully impressed me as that which now presented itself before my eyes.

Not sacred was that spot. On the contrary, I stood upon desecrated ground—desecrated by acts of the deepest infamy. This was the famed slave-market of New Orleans—the place where human bodies—I might almost say human souls—were bought and sold!

Many a forced and painful parting had these walls witnessed. Oft had the husband been here severed from his wife—the mother from her child. Oft had the bitter tear-bedewed that marble pavement—oft had that vaulted dome echoed back the sigh—nay more—the cry of the anguished heart!

I repeat it—my soul was filled with dark emotions as I entered within the precincts of that spacious hall. And no wonder—with such thoughts in my heart, and such a scene before my eyes, as I then looked upon.

You will expect a description of that scene. I must disappoint you. I cannot give one. Had I been there as an ordinary spectator—a reporter cool and unmoved by what was passing—I might have noted the details, and set them before you. But the case was far otherwise. One thought alone was in my mind—my eyes sought for one sole object—and that prevented me from observing the varied features of the spectacle.

A few things I do remember. I remember that the Rotundo, as its name imports, was a circular hall, of large extent, with a flagged floor, an arched coiling, and white walls. These were without windows, for the hall was lighted from above. On one side, near the wall, stood a desk or rostrum upon an elevated daïs, and by the side of this a large block of cut stone of the form of a parallelopipedon. The use of these two objects I divined.

A stone “kerb,” or banquette, ran around one portion of the wall. The purpose of this was equally apparent.

The hall when I entered was half filled with people. They appeared to be of all ages and sorts. They stood conversing in groups, just as men do when assembled for any business, ceremony, or amusement, and waiting for the affair to begin. It was plain, however, from the demeanour of these people, that what they waited for did not impress them with any feelings of solemnity. On the contrary a merry-meeting might have been anticipated, judging from the rough jests and coarse peals of laughter that from time to time rang through the hall.

There was one group, however, which gave out no such signs or sounds. Seated along the stone banquette, and standing beside it, squatted down upon the floor, or leaning against the wall in any and every attitude, were the individuals of this group. Their black and brown skins, the woolly covering of their skulls, their rough red “brogans,” their coarse garments of cheap cottonade, of jeans, of “nigger cloth” died cinnamon colour by the juice of the catalpa-tree,—these characteristics marked them as distinct from all the other groups in the hall—a distinct race of beings.

But even without the distinctions of dress or complexion—even without the thick lips or high cheekbones and woolly hair, it was easy to tell that those who sat upon the banquette were under different circumstances from these who strutted over the floor. While these talked loudly and laughed gaily, those were silent and sad. These moved about with the air of the conqueror—those were motionless with the passive look and downcast mien of the captive. These were masters—those were slaves! They were the slaves of the plantation Besançon.

All were silent, or spoke only in whispers. Most of them seemed ill at ease. Mothers sat holding their “piccaninnies” in their sable embrace, murmuring expressions of endearment, or endeavouring to hush them to rest. Here and there big tears rolled over their swarthy cheeks, as the maternal heart rose and fell with swelling emotions. Fathers looked on with drier eyes, but with the stern helpless gaze of despair, which bespoke the consciousness, that they had no power to avert their fate—no power to undo whatever might be decreed by the pitiless wretches around them.

Not all of them wore this expression. Several of the younger slaves, both boys and girls, were gaily-dressed in stuffs of brilliant colours, with flounces, frills, and ribbons. Most of these appeared indifferent to their future. Some even seemed happy—laughing and chatting gaily to each other, or occasionally exchanging a light word with one of the “white folks.” A change of masters could not be such a terrible idea, after the usage they had lately had. Some of them rather anticipated such an event with hopeful pleasure. These were the dandy young men, and the yellow belles of the plantation. They would, perhaps, be allowed to remain in that great city, of which they had so often heard—perhaps a brighter future was before them. Dark must it be to be darker than their proximate past.

I glanced over the different groups, but my eyes rested not long upon them. A glance was enough to satisfy me that she was not there. There was no danger of mistaking any one of those forms or faces for that of Aurore. She was not there, Thank Heaven! I was spared the humiliation of seeing her in such a crowd! She was, no doubt, near at hand and would be brought in when her turn came.

I could ill brook the thought of seeing her exposed to the rude and insulting glances—perhaps insulting speeches—of which she might be the object. And yet that ordeal was in store for me.

I did not discover myself to the slaves. I knew their impulsive natures, and that a scene would be the result. I should be the recipient of their salutations and entreaties, uttered loud enough to draw the attention of all upon me.

To avoid this, I took my station behind one of the groups of white men that screened me from their notice, and kept my eyes fixed upon the entrance, watching for D’Hauteville. In him now lay my last and only hope.

I could not help noting the individuals who passed out and in. Of course they were all of my own sex, but of every variety. There was the regular “negro-trader,” a tall lathy fellow, with harsh horse-dealer features, careless dress, loose coat, slouching broad-brimmed hat, coarse boots, and painted quirt of raw hide,—the “cowskin,”—fit emblem of his calling.

In strong contrast to him was the elegantly-attired Creole, in coat of claret or blue, full-dress, with gold buttons, plated pantaloons, gaiter “bootees,” laced shirt, and diamond studs.

An older variety of the same might be seen in trousers of buff, nankeen jacket of the same material, and hat of Manilla or Panama set over his short-cropped snow-white hair.

The American merchant from Poydras or Tehoupitoulas Street, from Camp, New Levee, or Saint Charles, in dress-coat of black cloth, vest of black satin, shining like glaze—trousers of like material with the coat—boots of calf-skin, and gloveless hands.

The dandy clerk of steamboat or store, in white grass frock, snowy ducks, and beaver hat, long furred and of light yellowish hue. There, too, the snug smooth banker—the consequential attorney, here no longer sombre and professional, but gaily caparisoned—the captain of the river-boat, with no naval look—the rich planter of the coast—the proprietor of the cotton press or “pickery”—with a sprinkling of nondescripts made up the crowd that had now assembled in the Rotundo.

As I stood noting these various forms and costumes, a large heavy-built man, with florid face, and dressed in a green “shad-bellied” coat, passed through the entrance. In one hand he carried a bundle of papers, and in the other a small mallet with ivory head—that at once proclaimed his calling.

His entrance produced a buzz, and set the various groups in motion. I could hear the phrases, “Here he comes!” “Yon’s him!” “Here comes the major!”

This was not needed to proclaim to all present, who was the individual in the green “shad-belly.” The beautiful dome of Saint Charles itself was not better known to the citizens of New Orleans than was Major B—, the celebrated auctioneer.

In another minute, the bright bland face of the major appeared above the rostrum. A few smart raps of his hammer commanded silence, and the sale began.

Scipio was ordered first upon the block. The crowd of intended bidders pressed around him, poked their fingers between his ribs, felt his limbs as if he had been a fat ox, opened his mouth and examined his teeth as if he had been a horse, and then bid for him just like he had been one or the other.

Under other circumstances I could have felt compassion for the poor fellow; but my heart was too full—there was no room in it for Scipio; and I averted my face from the disgusting spectacle.

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