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The Southern Planter by Will Wallace Harney

1873

While Philadelphia hibernates in the ice and snow of February, the spring season opens in the Southern woods and pastures. The fragrant yellow jessamine clusters in golden bugles over shrubs and trees, and the sward is enameled with the white, yellow and blue violet. The crocus and cowslip, low anemone and colts-foot begin to show, and the land brightens with waxy flowers of the huckleberry, set in delicate gamboge edging. Yards, greeneries, conservatories breathe a June like fragrance, and aviaries are vocal with songsters, mocked outside by the American mocking-bird, who chants all night under the full moon, as if day was too short for his medley.

New Orleans burgeons with the season. The broad fair avenues, the wide boulevards, famed Canal street, are luxuriant with spring life and drapery. Dashing equipages glance down the Shell Road with merry driving-and picnic-parties. There is boating on the lake, and delicious French collations at pleasant resorts, spread by neat-handed mulatto waiters speaking a patois of French, English and negro. There spring meats and sauces and light French wines allure to enjoyments less sensual than the coarser Northern climate affords.

The unrivaled French opera is in season, the forcing house of that bright garden of exotics. Other and Northern cities boast of such entertainments, but I apprehend they resemble the Simon-Pure much as an Englishman's French resembles the native tongue. In New Orleans it is the natural, full-flavored article, lively with French taste and talent, and for a people instinct with a truer Gallic spirit, perhaps, than that of Paris itself. It is antique and colonial, but age and the sea-voyage have preserved more distinctly the native bouquet of the wine after all grosser flavors have wasted away. The spectacle within the theatre on a fine night is brilliant, recherché and French. From side-scene to dome, and from gallery after gallery to the gay parquette, glitters the bright, shining audience. There are loungers, American and French, blasé and roué, who in the intervals drink brandy and whisky, or anisette, maraschino, curçoa or some other fiery French cordial. The French loungers are gesticulatory, and shoulders, arms, fingers, eyes and eyebrows help out the tongue's rapid utterance; but they are never rude or boisterous. There are belles, pretty French belles, with just a tint of deceitless rouge for fashion's sake, and tinkling, crisp, low French voices modulated to chime with the music and not disharmonize it; nay, rather add to the sweetness of its concord.

And there is the Creole dandy, the small master of the revels. There is nothing perfumed in the latest box of bonbons from Paris so exquisite, sparkling, racy, French and happy in its own sweet conceit as he is. He has hands and feet a Kentucky girl might envy for their shapely delicacy and dainty size, cased in the neatest kid and prunella. His hair is negligent in the elegantest grace of the perruquier's art, his dress fashioned to the very line of fastidious elegance and simplicity, yet a simplicity his Creole taste makes unique and attractive. He has the true French persiflage, founded on happy content, not the blank indifference of the Englishman's disregard. It becomes graceful self-forgetfulness, and yet his vanity is French and victorious. In the atmosphere of breathing music and faint perfume he looks around the glancing boxes, and knows he has but to throw his sultanic handkerchief to have the handsomest Circassian in the glowing circle of female beauty. But he does not throw it, for all that. His manner plainly says: "Beautiful dames, it would do me much of pleasure if I could elope with you all on the road of iron, but the bête noir, the Moral, will not permit. Behold for which, as an opened box of Louvin's perfumeries, I dispense my fragrant affection to you all: breathe it and be happy!" Such homage he receives with graceful acquiescence, believing his recognition of it a sweet fruition to the fair adorers. He accepts it as he does the ices, wines and delicate French dishes familiar to his palate. Life is a fountain of eau sucrée, where everything is sweet to him, and he tries to make it so to you, for he is a kindly-natured, true-hearted, valiant little French gentleman. His loves, his innocent dissipations, his grand passions, his rapier duels, would fill the volumes of a Le Sage or a Cervantes. In the gay circles of New Orleans he floats with lambent wings and irresistible fine eyes, its serenest butterfly, admired and spoiled alike by the French and American element.

At this early spring season a new atom of the latter enters the charmed circle, breaking its merry round into other sparkles of foam. A well-formed, stately, rather florid gentleman alights at the St. Charles, and is ushered into the hospitalities of that elegant caravansary. There is something impressive about him, or there would be farther North. He is American, from the strong, careless Anglo-Saxon face, through all the stalwart bones and full figure, to the strong, firm, light step. He will crush through the lepidoptera of this half-French society like a silver knife through Tourtereaux soufflés à la crême. He brings letters to this and that citizen, or he is well known already, and "coloneled" familiarly by stamp-expectant waiters and the courteous master of ceremonies at the clerk's desk. He calls, on his bankers, and is received with gracious familiarity in the pleasant bank-parlor. Correspondence has made them acquainted with Colonel Beverage in the way of business: they are glad to see him in person, and will be happy to wait on him. He makes them happy in that way, for they do wait upon him satisfactorily. There is a little pleasant interchange of news and city gossip, and of something else. There is a crinkling of a certain crispy, green foliage, and the colonel withdraws in the midst of civilities.

He next appears on Canal street, by and beyond the Clay Monument, with occasional pauses at clothiers', and buys his shirts at Moody's, as he has probably often sworn not to do, because of its annoyingly frequent posters everywhere. He enters jewelers' shops and examines trinkets—serpents with ruby eyes curled in gold on beds of golden leaves with emerald dews upon them; pearls, pear-shaped and tearlike, brought up by swart, glittering divers, seven fathom deep, at Tuticorin or in the Persian Gulf; rubies and sapphires mined in Burmese Ava, and diamonds from Borneo and Brazil. Is he choosing a bridal present? It looks so; but no, he selects a splendid, brilliant solitaire, for which he pays eight hundred dollars out of a plethoric purse, and also a finger-ring, diamond too, for two hundred and fifty dollars. The jewelers are polite, as the bankers were. He must be a large cotton-planter, one of a class with whom a fondness for jewels serves as a means of dozing away life in a kind of crystallization. He otherwise adorns his stately person, till he has a Sublime Porte indeed, the very vizier of a fairy tale glittering in barbaric gems and gold. His taste, to speak it mildly, is expressed rather than subdued—not to be compared with the quiet elegance of your husband or lover, madam or miss, but not unsuited to his showy style, for all that. As the crimson-purple, plume-like prince's feather has its own royal charm in Southern gardens beside the pale and placidlily, so these luxuriant adornments, do not misbecome his full and not too fleshy person. There is a certain harmony in the Oriental sumptuousness of his attire, like radiant sunsets, appropriate to certain styles of man and woman. Let us humble creatures be content to have our portraits done in crayon, but the colonel calls for the color-box.

So adorned and radiant, this variety of the American aloe floats into the charmed circle of New Orleans society—that lively, sparkling epitome and relic of the old régime. He has good letters and a fair name, and mingles in the Mystick Krewe, that curious club, possible nowhere else, that has raised mummery into the sphere of aesthetics. Perhaps he has worn the gray, perhaps the blue. It is only in the very arcana of exclusive passion it makes much difference. But gray or blue, or North or South in birth, he is in every essential a Southerner, as many, like S.S. Prentiss, curiously independent of nativity, are. He is well received and courteously entreated. He has his little suppers at Moreau's, and knows the ways of the place and names of the waiters. He has his promenades, his drives, his club visits, is seen everywhere—a brilliant convolvulus now, twining the espaliers of that Saracenic fabric of society; to speak architecturally, its very summer-house. He visits the opera and gives it his frank approval, but confesses a preference for the old plantation-melodies. He crushes through the meshes of the Creole dandies, not offensively, but as the law of his volume and momentum dictates, and they yield the pas to his superior weight and metal. They are civil, and he is civil, but they do not like one another, for all that. That Zodiac passed, they continue their own summery orbit of charm and conquest. He tends toward the aureal spheres and the green and pleasant banks of issue. The colonel is not here for pleasure, though he takes a little pleasure, as is his way, seasonably; but he means business, and that several thirsty, eager cotton-houses of repute know.

Of course they know. It came in his letters and distills in the aroma of his talk. It may even have slipped into the personals of the Pic and Times that Colonel Beverage has taken Millefleur and Rottenbottom plantations on Red River, and is going extensively into the cultivation of the staple. The colonel is modest over this: "not extensively, no, but to the extent of his limited means." In the mean while he looks out for some sound, well-recommended cotton-house.

This means business. In the North the farmer raises his crop on his own capital, and turns it over unencumbered to the merchant for the public. The credit system prevails in the agriculture of the South, and brings another precarious element into the already hazardous occupation of cotton-growing. A new party appears in the cotton-merchant. He is not merely the broker, yielding the proceeds, less a commission, to the planter. Either, by hypothecation on advances made during the year, he secures a legal pre-emption in the crop, or, by initiatory contract, he becomes an actual partner of limited liability in the crop itself. He agrees to furnish so much cash capital at periods for the cultivation and securing of the crop, which is husbanded by the planter. The money for these advances he obtains from the banks; and hence it is that in every cotton-crop raised South there are three or more principals actually interested—the banker, the merchant and the planter. This condition of planting is almost invariable. Even the small farmer, whose crop is a few bags, is ground into it. In his case the country-side grocer and dealer is banker and merchant, and his advances the bare necessaries. In this blending of interests the curious partnership rises, thrives, labors and sometimes falls—the planter, as a rule, undermost in that accident.

The Millefleur and Rottenbottom plantations are famous, and a hand well over the crops raised under such shrewd, experienced management as that of Colonel Beverage is a stroke of policy. Therefore, as the bankers and jewelers have been polite, so now the cotton-merchants are civil; but the colonel is shy—an old bird and a game bird.

Shy, but not suspicious. He chooses his own time, and at an early day walks into the business-house of Negocier & Duthem. They are pleased to see the colonel in the way of business, as they have been in society, and the pleasure is mutual. As he expounds his plans they are more and more convinced that he is a plumy bird of much waste feather.

He has taken Rottenbottom and Millefleur, and is going pretty well into cotton. He thinks he understands it: he ought to. Then he has his own capital—an advantage, certainly. Some of his friends, So-and-so—running over commercial and bankable names easily—have suggested the usual co-operation with some reputable house, and an extension, but he believes He will stay within limits. He has five thousand dollars in cash he wishes to deposit with some good firm for the year's supplies. He believes that will be sufficient, and he has called to hear their terms. All this comes not at once, but here and there in the business-conversation.

The reader will perceive one strong bait carelessly thrown out by the auriferous or folliferous colonel—the five thousand dollars cash in hand. The immediate use of that is a strong incentive to the house. They covet the colonel's business: they think well of the proposed extension. Cotton is sure to be up, and under practical, experienced cultivation must yield a handsome fortune. The result is foreseen. The cotton-house and the colonel enter into the usual agreement of such transactions. The colonel leaves his five thousand dollars, and draws on that, and for as much more as may be necessary in securing the crop.

The commercial reader North who has had no dealings South will smile at the credulous merchant who entrusts his credit to such a full-blown, thirsty tropical pitcher-plant as the colonel, who carries childish extravagances in his very dress; but he will judge hastily. We have seen this gaudy efflorescence pass over the curiously-wrought enameled gold-work, opals, pearls and rubies, and adorn himself with solid diamonds. The careful economist North puts his superfluous thousands in government bonds, or gambles them away in Erie stocks, because he likes the increase of Jacob's speckled sheep. The Southerner invests his in diamonds because he likes show, and diamonds have a pretty steady market value. There is method, too, in the colonel's associations, and all his acquaintance is gilt-edged and bankable.

His business is now done, and he does not tarry, but wings his way to Millefleur and Rottenbottom, where he moults all his fine feathers. He goes into fertilizers, beginning with crushed cotton-seed and barnyard manure, if possible, before February is over. He follows the shovel-plough with a slick-jack, and plants, and then the labor begins to fail him. He talks about importing Chinese, and writes about it in the local paper. He is sure it will do, as he is positive in all his opinions. He is true pluck, and tries to make new machinery make up for deficient labor. He buys "bull-tongues," "cotton-shovels," "fifteen-inch sweeps," "twenty-inch sweeps," "team-ploughs with seven-inch twisters," and a "finishing sweep of twenty-six inches." He hears of other inventions, and orders them. The South is flooded with a thousand quack contrivances now, about as applicable to cotton-raising as a pair of nut-crackers; but the colonel buys them. He is going to dispense with the hoe. That is the plan; and by that plan of furnishing a large plantation with new tools before Lent is over the five thousand dollars are gone. But he writes cheerfully. It is his nature to be sanguine, and to hope loudly, vaingloriously; and he writes it honestly enough to his merchant—and draws. The labor gets worse and worse. In the indolent summer days the negro, careless, thriftless, ignorant, works only at intervals. Perhaps the June rise catches him, and there is a heavy expense in ditching and damming to save the Rottenbottom crop. Maybe the merchant hears of the army-worm and is alarmed, but the colonel writes back assuring letters that it is only the grasshopper, and the grasshopper has helped more than hurt—and draws. Then possibly the army-worm comes sure enough, and cripples him. But he keeps up his courage—and draws. The five thousand dollars appear to have been employed in digging or building a sluice through which a constant current of currency flows from the city to Rottenbottom and Millefleur. The merchant has gone into bank, and the tide flows on. At last the planter writes: "The most magnificent crop ever raised on Red River, just waiting for the necessary hands to gather it in!" Of course the necessary sums are supplied, and at last the crop gets to market. It finds the market low, and declining steadily week by week. The banks begin to press: money is tight, as it is now while I write. The crop is sacrificed, for the merchant cannot wait, and some fine morning the house of Negocier & Duthem is closed, and Colonel Beverage is bankrupt.

And both are ruined? No. We will suppose the business-house is old and reputable: the banks are obliging and creditors prudently liberal, and by and by the firm resumes its old career. As for the colonel, the reader sees that to ruin him would be an absolute contradiction of nature. His friends or relations give him assistance, or he sells his diamonds, and soon you meet him at the St. Charles, as blooming, sanguine and splendiferous as ever. No, he cannot be ruined, but his is not an infrequent episode in the life of a Southern Planter.