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« That it was full of monsters who devoured canoes as well as men; that the devil stopped its passage, and sunk all those who ventured to approach the place where he stood; and that the river itself at last was swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of a tremendous whirlpool.”Quarterly Review.
“Hic ver purpureum : varios hic flumina circum
Fundit humus flores : hic candida populus antro
ABOUT four o'clock in the afternoon of the 6th of May we were convoyed, by a large party of friends, to the “Henry Clay,” on board of which accommodations had been secured for us by great exertion on the part of a fellow-voyager. The "Henry Clay" had the highest reputation of any boat on the river, having made ninety-six trips without accident; a rare feat on this dangerous river. As I was stepping on board, Judge P. said he hoped we were each provided with a life-preserver. I concluded he was in joke ; but he declared himself perfectly serious, adding that we should probably find ourselves the only cabin passengers unprovided with this means of safety. We should have been informed of this before ; it was too late now. Mr. E., of our party on board, told me all that this inquiry made me anxious to know. He had been accustomed to ascend and descend the river annually with his family, and he made his arrangements according to his knowledge of the danger of the navigation. It was his custom to sit up till near the time of other people's
rising, and to sleep in the day. There are always companies of gamblers in these boats, who, being awake and dressed during the hours of darkness, are able to seize the boats on the first alarm of an accident in the night, and are apt to leave the rest of the passengers behind. Mr. E. a friend of the captain ; he is a man of gigantic bodily strength and cool temper, every way fitted to be of use in an emergency; and the captain gave him the charge of the boats in case of a night accident. Mr. E. told me that, as we were particularly under his charge, his first thought in a time of danger would be of us. He had a life-preserver, and was an excellent swimmer, so that he had little doubt of being able to save us in any case. He only asked us to come the instant we were called, to do as we were bid, and to be quiet. As we looked at the stately vessel, with her active captain, her two pilots, the crowds of gay passengers, and all the provision for safety and comfort, it was scarcely possible to realize the idea of danger; but we knew that the perils of this extraordinary river, sudden and overwhelming, are not like those of the ocean, which can be, in a great measure, guarded against by skill and care. The utmost watchfulness cannot here provide against danger from squalls, from changes in the channel of the river, and from the snags, planters, and sawyers (trunks of trees brought down from above by the current, and fixed in the mud under water) which may at any moment pierce the hull of the vessel.
Our New Orleans friends remained with us upward of an hour, introducing us to the captain, and to such of the passengers as they knew. Among these were Mr. and Mrs. L., of Boston, Massachusetts. We little imagined that afternoon how close an intimacy would grow out of this casual meeting; how many weeks we should afterward spend in each other's society, with still-increasing esteem and regard. The last thing one of my friends said was that he was glad we were going, as there had been forty cases of cholera in the city the day before.
After five o'clock the company on deck and in the cabins, who had bidden farewell to their friends some time before, began to inquire of one another why we were not setting off. We had found the sun too warm on deck, and had had enough of mutual staring with the groups on the wharf; we turned over the books, and made acquaintance with the prints in the ladies' cabin, and then leisurely arranged our staterooms to our liking; and still there was no symptom of departure. The captain was obviously annoyed. It was the nonarrival of a party of passengers which occasioned the delay. A multitude of Kentuckians and other western men had almost forced their way on board as deckpassengers ; men who had come down the river in flatboats with produce, who were to work their way up again by carrying wood at the wooding-places, morning and evening, to supply the engine fire. These men, like others, prefer a well-managed to a perilous boat, and their eagerness to secure a passage was excessive. More thronged in after the captain had declared that he was sull; more were bustling on the wharf, and still the expected party did not come. The captain ordered the plank to be taken up which formed a communication with the shore. Not till six o'clock was it put down for the dilatory passengers, who did not seem to be aware of the inconvenience they had occasioned. They were English. A man on the wharf took advantage of the plank being put down to come on board in spite of prohibition. He went with his bundle to the spot on the second deck which he chose for a sleeping-place, and immediately lay down, without attracting particular notice from any one.
We braved the heat on the hurricane deck for the sake of obtaining last views of New-Orleans. The city soon became an indistinguishable mass of buildings lying in the swamp, yet with something of a cheerful air, from the brightness of the sun. The lofty Cotton-press, so familiar to the eye of every one acquainted with that region, was long visible amid the windings of the river, which seemed to bring us quite near the city again when we thought we should see it no more.
At seven we were summoned to supper, and obtained a view of the company in whose society we were to pass the next ten days. There was a great mixture. There was a physician from New York, with his wife and a friend or two ; an ultra-exclusive party. There were Mr. and Mrs. B., also from New York, amiable elderly people, with some innocent peculiarities, and showing themselves not the less mindful of other people from taking great care of each other. There was the party that had kept the eaptain waiting, some of them very agreeable; and the Li's, whom it would have been a privilege to meet anywhere. There were long trains of
young men, so many as to extinguish all curiosity as to
who they were and where they came from ; and a family party belonging to the West, father, mother, grandmother, and six children, who had a singular gift of squalling; and their nurses, slaves. These are all that I distinctly remember among the multitude that surrounded the almost interminable table in the cabin. This table, long as it was, would not hold all the company. Many had to wait till seats were vacated, and yet we were to go on receiving passengers all the way to Natchez.
We took in more this evening. After supper we hastened again to the hurricane deck, where the air was breathing cool, and, to our great joy, strong enough to relieve us from moschetoes. The river was lined with plantations of cotton and sugar, as it continued to be for two hundred miles farther. Almost every turn of the mighty stream disclosed a sugarhouse of red brick, with a centre and wings, all much alike. Groups of slaves, most of them nearly naked, were chopping wood, or at other kinds of toil along the shore. As the twilight melted into the golden moonlight of this region, I saw sparkles among the reeds on the margin of the stream. It did not occur to me what they were till I saw a horse galloping in a meadow, and apparently emitting gleams of fire. I then knew that I at length saw fireflies. One presently alighted on the linen coat of a gentleman standing beside me, where it spread its gleam over a space as large as the palm of my hand, making the finest of the threads distinctly visible.
In a dark recess of the shore a large fire suddenly blazed up, and disclosed a group of persons standing on the brink of the stream. Our boat neared the shore, for this was a signal from a party who had secured their passage with us. Night after night I was struck with the same singular combination of lights which I now beheld ; the moonlight, broad and steady; the blazing brands, sometimes on the shore, and sometimes on board the flatboats we met ; and the glancing fireflies.
When we went down for the night we had our first experience of the crying of the little H.'s. They were indefatigable children ; when one became quiet, another began; and, among them, they kept up the squall nearly the twentyfour hours round. Their mother scolded them ; their nurses humoured them; and, between these two methods of management, there was no peace for anybody within hearing.