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AMONGST THE AMERICANS.
BY F. GERSTACKER.
IN EIGHT PARTS.—PART I. “On the 31st of July, at 10 A.M., the fast and splendid steamer, the Oceanic, G. Wilkins, master, will leave the Levee for St. Louis. For freight or passage apply on board, or to Smith and
Richfield, agents, No. 52, Custom Ilouse-street." This announcement might be seen in the New Orleans Commercial Times on the 29th of July, 181–, along with twenty similar ones of as many various boats, bound for the Mississippi, Red River, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, or for the Gulf of Mexico.
The Levce was all alive, and boxes and portmanteaus, hat-boxes, beds, and all sorts of furniture were being carried in a great hurry to the steamer, from whose two immense chimneys thick clouds of smoke had been pouring out during the last half hour; for the first bell had been rung, and the Oceanic would start before the hour, as the captain assured several passengers while walking up and down before the cabin.
Fresh drays, however, still poured in-laden with sugar, coffee, molasses, cotton, and coarse salt-whose burthen disappeared, almost as soon as it arrived, in the immense hold of the vessel, by the aid of some thirty firemen and sailors. A number of little wherries tossed and glided among the steamers, stopping chiefly near those that were just ready to start, in order to sell the fruit that was piled up in them to the passengers, partly to cat, and partly to carry with them into a more northern climate. These little gaily-painted boats presented a pleasing sight. One
was pulled by a sun-burnt Spaniard, with a broad-leaved straw hat and black beard, at whose feet lay, in picturesque confusion, pine-apples, oranges, figs, pomegranates, bananas, cocoa-nuts, &c., on which a parrot was constantly moving about, and appearing to invite the travellers to purchase by his noisy chattering; while, in the stern of the little boat, fastened by a thin chain, a monkey was playing all sorts of antics, and showing his teeth at the passengers of the various vessels past which his master pulled, and who tormented him by throwing peel and shells at him.
The bell had been rung for the second time, and passengers hurried up from all sides in order to reach it before its immediate departure, as they fancied. Many of them bore heavy burdens, and groaned along beneath them with the exertion of their utmost strength, while one even waved his handkerchief as a signal that he was coming. The captain turned away with a smile. Loaded drays still arrived with more freight for the vessel, and two-thirds of the hold were not yet filled, but the smoke rose thicker and blacker from the chimney, and that must be the surest sign of immediate departure.
Three boats had already left the Levee, also bound for St. Louis ; but the Oceanic was notoriously a quick vessel, and many of the passengers preferred waiting half an hour to going on board another which they expected to be passed by her in a short time. The third bell was now rung, long and loudlyalmost always the sure signal for departure and again fresh passengers flocked in, but at the same time fresh freight, and the chains were still fastened to the Levee.
“Captain, when do you start ?" a Mississippi planter asked, who had just sent a nigger up into town for something.
“Well, sir,” he replied, “hardly before evening - your freight is not arrived yet."
“Good, good !” he said. “It's all the same to me. I only wanted to know. Then I can go up to the St. Charles, and dine there ?"
“Of course," the captain said politely. “If the boat starts before night, I will send one of my people up to you."
The planter lounged on shore, and went quietly up to the hotel.
He had scarcely left the captain, when a poor emigrant, a German-who, with his family, were 'tween-deck passengerswalked up to him, and asked timidly, in very broken English, whether he could go on shore, if he made haste, to buy some things absolutely necessary for his family, as he had heard the bell ring in the morning, and, for fear of being too late, had come on board without them.
“Good, good !" the captain replied, tired with the long address; "but make haste; the boat starts in half an hour, and I can't wait for you."
The man flew into the town—ran from one shop to the other gave the price demanded, for there was no time for bargaining-and returned, fatigued to death, at the expiration of half an hour, to find the vessel in the same state of rest as when he had left it.
Thus the afternoon arrived, and the last boat bound for St. Louis, except the Oceanic, had just left the quay, in which many of the passengers would, undoubtedly, have sailed, had they not had their luggage on board the latter. So they were forced to stay; and the chief mate now informed all who asked him
when the boat would really start, that the captain was on shore, but that their departure would hardly take place before morning.
Many of the passengers swore and abused, but to the majority it was a matter of indifference, as they now knew, for certain, that they would pass another night in New Orleans.
The heat was oppressive, and every one, whom business did not force to go out, remained in the cool of the houses ; but those who had to attend to the shipping or unshipping of merchandise, lounged along the Levee, with their umbrellas up, to ward off the burning sunbeams.
Among the numerous bales piled up on the Levee, were hundreds of coffeebags, waiting for vessels to carry them to Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburg: Around them a throng of women and girls were collected, busily engaged, as it appeared, in picking up the berries that had fallen out, and placing them in their little baskets; but, in reality, the majority of them had sharp little knives in their hands, with which they cut holes in the bags, when they fancied themselves unnoticed, and so filled their baskets! These were mostly Germans and Irish.
The people on the vessels, however, for which the coffee had been brought down, were well acquainted with the tricks of these vagabonds, and attacked them now and then with whips, to drive them away; but, if scattered ten times in succession, they always returned, like vultures to their prey, and surrounded the wounded coffee-bags.
"Drat the Dutch !" the mate of the Oceanic at last growled, as he returned on board, bathed in perspiration, and quite worn out, after his sixth unsuccessful attempt to rout the feminine band. "I should like to know why Dutch, Irish, and musquitos were created? They're only sent to plague us !"
"And isn't it us who do all your work, honey?" an Irishman asked in his brogue, from another vessel. “Tell me, isn't it the Irish and Dutch who make your roads and canals, till your land, and build your houses ? Now, sir-r, what have ye to say to dat ?"
"Go on with your work, Pat!" said the mate of his vessel, interrupting the scarcely-commenced discussion. “Don't stand there arguing. Work, boys, work! and get the bales aboard."
The sun was now setting, and the streets, which till then had been deserted, became suddenly full of life. People flocked in, in picturesque groups, to enjoy the coolness of the evening on the Levee. The ice and sherbet-booths were filled with guests; crowds of coloured and remarkably handsome flower-girls traversed the throng, or seated themselves at the door-ways of the hotels; and the whole city seemed suddenly aroused from a deep and unconscious sleep.
On the vessel itself, it seemed that the quiet, which had deserted the city, had taken up its abode. After the decks had been washed, the sailors and firemen went ashore, and the watch walked slowly up and down the forecastle, busily engaged in repulsing the attacks of the furious musquitos.
Gradually, deep silence again lay over the town; the lights were extinguished, the coffee-houses and hotels were closed, and only on the lower market, close to the Levee, the lamps of the coffee and chocolate-stands still glistened, which were attended by pretty young girls nearly all of them Germans—who sold, through the whole night, hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, and some iced soda-water; and their bright coffee-cans, which glistened in the darkness their clean stands, covered with white cloths—their plates of cakes, as well as their pleasant, cheerful faces-formed a delightful contrast to the surrounding quiet and gloom.
In the still streets echoed the signals of the watchmen, who struck their heavy hickory sticks on the pavement; and groups of idlers, or single wanderers, stopped at the stalls, drank their cup of tea, paid their picayune, and walked, laughing and talking, to another street, or to another market, to pass the night in the open air, and throw themselves, at day break, on their beds, to sleep a few hours.
At twelve o'clock, a number of sailors, who were somewhat intoxicated, came in the lower market, drank their coffee, and laughed and sang.
"Listen, Tom," one of them at length said to the noisiest of the group. “Don't make such a thundering row, or you'll spend the night in the calebouse."
“ Hang the calebouse !" he replied.c"* I'm a white man, not a cursed nigger; and I'd like to see the man who'd put me in the calebouse! Here, girl, is your money !" He turned to the little one, who was timidly packing up her cups, through fear of having some of them broken. “Here—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven-here's half a dollar! Are you satisfied ?”
" You've a picayune change to receive," the girl replied modestly.
He tried to seize her, in spite of the advice of his more sober comrades, but the girl had scarce uttered a loud cry for help, when one of the watchmen, buttoned up in a coarse brown coat, with a helmet-shaped hat on his head, behind which, in sailor's fashion, a broad ribbon fluttered, while in front was a yellow number, came up, pushed back the disturbers, and ordered them to go away.
The sailors tried in vain to drag away their comrade; he used most vehement language to the watchman, and tried to take a stick from one of the bystanders to attack him. "K-r-r-r!" the rattle sounded ; and the watchman sprang on the drunkard, seized him with the left hand, and said —
"You're my prisoner !"
The others drew back, and were surrounded in a second by some twenty wellarmed and powerful watchmen. The drunken man gave in, and was led away, while the others quietly dispersed.
Now the first beams of day broke in the East, and the Oceanic became again all alive. The watch awoke the firemen and sailors; and, while the first kindled the fire under the boilers, the latter washed the several decks, so that they glistened and shone in the first beams of the morning sun. Breakfast was eaten, and again drays arrived with freight, or boxes and trunks belonging to passengers; the fruit-boats glided once again among the vessels, and once more the sound of the great bell was heard above all the noise of the port.
Little boys with newspapers, others with fruit, or baskets full of books, novels, and stories; young negro and mulatto girls, with coloured handkerchiefs tied gracefully and coquettishly round their woolly heads, with large pewter cans filled with sweet or buttermilk, crowded over the narrow planks which connected the steamer with the shore, and tried to sell their various articles.
Two of the milk-girls, a mulatto and a negress, neither more than eighteen years of age, and both tall and graceful in their figures, had commenced quarrelling on board, and went on with it on shore. One word brought on another, and the mulatto girl at length put her milk-can on the ground, tucked up her sleeves, and challenged the other to fight it out. In a second, sailors and firemen rushed up from the vessels, and formed a large circle round the two girls, who now were eager for the fray. The negress had also tucked up her sleeves, and had boldly and successfully withstood the attack of the “yaller" girl.
" That's right, Mary," some one cried, guessing at her name, “that's right. Give it her!"
While, on the other side, might be heard such encouraging shouts as these
“Between the eyes, Jinny! That was a famous blow! Now another! That's your sort !"
A man forced his way through the crowd, and, seizing the mulatto by the arm, tried to drag her away.
"Let loose_let loose !" five shouted simultaneously. “It's a fair battle! Let 'em fight it out !"
“She's my slave;" the new comer said angrily, while still striving to separate the two girls.
“Confound you and your slave !" said a gigantic sailor, as he hurled him back. " Let 'em have it out !"
“Yes; let 'em fight it out!" the mob shouted; and the owner of the slave was obliged to leave her to her fate, unless he wished to be attacked himself.
The two fighters had given up their fisticuffs, and had seized one another by their woolly hair and clothes, so that the latter hung in rags; at length the negress saw an opening, seized the mulatto by both hands round the neck, and struck her own forehead with such violence against her temples that she fell down unconscious.
“Look at the nigger," the mob shouted. “Well done, little one! you're a famous fighter! Your husband will have a benefit !” and so on, sounded from all sides, and they willingly made way for the girl, whose clothes hung in strips about her, that she might go home and receive a beating from her mistress for destroying her raiment, which, as much as herself, were her mistress's property ; while the man lifted up his mulatto girl, threw her on one of the empty drays, and ordered the driver to carry her to his house. In two minutes the whole mob had dispersed, and no one thought any more of the occurrence.
Serious preparations appeared, however, now to be making on board the Oceanic for starting, and not merely the thick smoke poured from the chimneys, but the white steam rose in a cloud from the 'scape-pipe. The bell had been rung for the second time this morning, the chains were pulled in, and the vessel was only held by two thin warps ; the paddle-wheels were working slowly against the current, and the mate sent two of his sailors out to stand by the iron rings on the quay, and throw off the ropes on a given signal.
The bell now sounded for the last time, with quick, re-echoing strokes. All who were still on board to take leave of their friends sprang hastily over the single plank, for fear of being carried off. Others, who were still on shore, jumped on board. The ropes were unfastened, the pilot stood in his little round-house, the two sailors ran over the plank on board, and some twenty men exerted themselves in pushing the vessel away from shore with long poles. The pilot rang his bell, the engineer answered by another bell that he understood the signal, and the immense vessel clove its way noisily through the fruit-boats, which quickly got