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Chapter 61 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Bidding for my Betrothed

Yes, Aurore appeared in the doorway of that infernal hall, and stood timidly pausing upon its threshold.

She was not alone. A mulatto girl was by her side—like herself a slave—like herself brought there to be sold!

A third individual was of the party, or rather with it; for he did not walk by the side of the girls, but in front, evidently conducting them to the place of sale. This individual was no other than Larkin, the brutal overseer.

“Come along!” said he, roughly, at the same time beckoning to Aurore and her companion: “this way, gals—foller me!”

They obeyed his rude signal, and, passing in, followed him across the hall towards the rostrum.

I stood with slouched hat and averted face. Aurore saw me not.

As soon as they were fairly past, and their backs towards me, my eyes followed them. Oh, beautiful Aurore!—beautiful as ever!

I was not single in my admiration. The appearance of the Quadroon created a sensation. The din ceased as if by a signal; every voice became hushed, and every eye was bent upon her as she moved across the floor. Men hurried forward from distant parts of the hall to get a nearer glance; others made way for her, stepping politely back as if she had been a queen. Men did this who would have scorned to offer politeness to another of her race—to the “yellow girl” for instance, who walked by her side! Oh, the power of beauty! Never was it more markedly shown than in the entrée of that poor slave.

I heard the whispers, I observed the glances of admiration, of passion. I marked the longing eyes that followed her, noting her splendid form and its undulating outlines as she moved forward.

All this gave me pain. It was a feeling worse than mere jealousy I experienced. It was jealousy embittered by the very brutality of my rivals.

Aurore was simply attired. There was no affectation of the fine lady—none of the ribbons and flounces that bedecked the dresses of her darker-skinned companion. Such would have ill assorted with the noble melancholy that appeared upon her beautiful countenance. None of all this.

A robe of light-coloured muslin, tastefully made, with long skirt and tight sleeves—as was the fashion of the time—a fashion that displayed the pleasing rotundity of her figure. Her head-dress was that worn by all quadroons—the “toque” of the Madras kerchief, which sat upon her brow like a coronet, its green, crimson, and yellow checks contrasting finely with the raven blackness of her hair. She wore no ornaments excepting the broad gold rings that glittered against the rich glow of her cheeks; and upon her finger one other circlet of gold—the token of her betrothal. I knew it well.

I buried myself in the crowd, slouching my hat on that side towards the rostrum. I desired she should not see me, while I could not help gazing upon her. I had taken my stand in such a situation, that I could still command a view of the entrance. More than ever was I anxious about the coming of D’Hauteville.

Aurore had been placed near the foot of the rostrum. I could just see the edge of her turban over the shoulders of the crowd. By elevating myself on my toes, I could observe her face, which by chance was turned towards me. Oh! how my heart heaved as I struggled to read its expression—as I endeavoured to divine the subject of her thoughts!

She looked sad and anxious. That was natural enough. But I looked for another expression—that unquiet anxiety produced by the alternation of hope and fear.

Her eye wandered over the crowd. She scanned the sea of faces that surrounded her. She was searching for some one. Was it for me?

I held down my face as her glance passed over the spot. I dared not meet her gaze. I feared that I could not restrain myself from addressing her. Sweet Aurore!

I again looked up. Her eye was still wandering in fruitless search—oh! surely it is for me!

Again I cowered behind the crowd, and her glance was carried onward.

I raised myself once more. I saw the shadow darkening upon her face. Her eye filled with a deeper expression—it was the look of despair.

“Courage! courage!” I whispered to myself. “Look again, lovely Aurore! This time I shall meet you. I shall speak to you from mine eyes—I shall give back glance for glance—”

“She sees—she recognises me! That start—the flash of joy in her eyes—the smile curling upon her lips! Her glance wanders no more—her gaze is fixed—proud heart! It was for me!”

Yes, our eyes met at length—met, melting and swimming with love. Mine had escaped from my control. For some moments I could not turn them aside, but surrendered them to the impulse of my passion. It was mutual. I doubted it not. I felt as though the ray of love-light was passing between us. I had almost forgotten where I stood!

A murmur from the crowd, and a movement, restored me to my senses. Her stedfast gaze had been noticed, and by many—skilled to interpret such glances—had been understood. These, in turning round to see who was the object of that glance, had caused the movement. I had observed it in time, and turned my face in another direction.

I watched the entrance for D’Hauteville. Why had he not arrived? My anxiety increased with the minutes.

True, it would still be an hour—perhaps two—before her time should come.—Ha!—what?

There was silence for a moment—something of interest was going on. I looked towards the rostrum for an explanation. A dark man had climbed upon one of the steps, and was whispering to the auctioneer.

He remained but a moment. He appeared to have asked some favour, which was at once conceded him, and he stepped back to his place among the crowd.

A minute or two intervened, and then, to my horror and astonishment, I saw the overseer take Aurore by the arm, and raise her upon the block! The intention was plain. She was to be sold next!

In the moments that followed, I cannot remember exactly how I acted. I ran wildly for the entrance. I looked out into the street. Up and down I glanced with anxious eyes. No D’Hauteville!

I rushed back into the hall—again through the outer circles of the crowd, in the direction of the rostrum.

The bidding had begun. I had not heard the preliminaries, but as I re-entered there fell upon my ears the terrible words—

“A thousand dollars for the Quadroon.—A thousand dollars bid!”

“O Heaven! D’Hauteville has deceived me. She is lost!—lost!”

In my desperation I was about to interrupt the sale. I was about to proclaim aloud its unfairness, in the fact that the Quadroon had been taken out of the order advertised! Even on this poor plea I rested a hope.

It was the straw to the drowning man, but I was determined to grasp it.

I had opened my lips to call out, when some one pulling me by the sleeve caused me to turn round. It was D’Hauteville! Thank Heaven, it was D’Hauteville!

I could scarce restrain myself from shouting with joy. His look told me that he was the bearer of bright gold.

“In time, and none to spare,” whispered he, thrusting a pocket-book between my fingers; “there is three thousand dollars—that will surely be enough; ’tis all I have been able to procure. I cannot stay here—there are those I do not wish to see. I shall meet you after the sale is over. Adieu!”

I scarce thanked him. I saw not his parting. My eyes were elsewhere.

“Fifteen hundred dollars bid for the Quadroon!—good housekeeper—sempstress—fifteen hundred dollars!”

“Two thousand!” I called out, my voice husky with emotion. The sudden leap over such a large sum drew the attention of the crowd upon me. Looks, smiles, and innuendoes were freely exchanged at my expense.

I saw, or rather heeded them not. I saw Aurore, only Aurore, standing upon the daïs like a statue upon its pedestal—the type of sadness and beauty. The sooner I could take her thence, the happier for me; and with that object in view I had made my “bid.”

“Two thousand dollars bid—two thousand—twenty-one hundred dollars—two thousand, one, two—twenty-two hundred dollars bid—twenty-two—”

“Twenty-five hundred dollars!” I again cried out, in as firm a voice as I could command.

“Twenty-five hundred dollars,” repeated the auctioneer, in his monotonous drawl; “twenty-five—six—you, sir? thank you! twenty-six hundred dollars for the Quadroon—twenty-six hundred!”

“Oh God! they will go above three thousand; if they do—”

“Twenty-seven hundred dollars!” bid the fop Marigny.

“Twenty-eight hundred!” from the old Marquis.

“Twenty-eight hundred and fifty!” assented the young merchant, Moreau.

“Nine!” nodded the tall dark man who had whispered to the auctioneer.

Twenty-nine hundred dollars bid—two thousand nine hundred.

“Three thousand!” I gasped out in despair.

It was my last bid. I could go no farther.

I waited for the result, as the condemned waits for the falling of the trap or the descent of the axe. My heart could not have endured very long that terrible suspense. But I had not long to endure it.

“Three thousand one hundred dollars!—three thousand one hundred bid—thirty-one hundred dollars—”

I cast one look upon Aurore. It was a look of hopeless despair; and turning away, I staggered mechanically across the hall.

Before I had reached the entrance I could hear the voice of the auctioneer, in the same prolonged drawl, calling out, “Three thousand five hundred bid for the Quadroon girl?”

I halted and listened. The sale was coming to its close.

“Three thousand five hundred—going at three thousand five hundred—going—going—”

The sharp stroke of the hammer fell upon my ear. It drowned the final word “gone!” but my heart pronounced that word in the emphasis of its agony.

There was a noisy scene of confusion, loud words and high excitement among the crowd of disappointed bidders. Who was the fortunate one?

I leant over to ascertain. The tall dark man was in conversation with the auctioneer. Aurore stood beside him. I now remembered having seen the man on the boat. He was the agent of whom D’Hauteville had spoken. The Creole had guessed aright, and so, too, had Le Ber.

Gayarre had outbid them all!

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