The Lost Portfolio
While I was at Natchez, on the 31st of December 1820, my kind friend Nicholas Berthoud, Esq. proposed to me to accompany him in his keel-boat to New Orleans. At one o’clock, the steam-boat Columbus hauled off from the landing, and took our bark in two. The steamer was soon ploughing along at full speed, and little else engaged our minds than the thought of our soon arriving at the emporium of the commerce of the Mississippi. Towards evening, however, several inquiries were made respecting particular portions of the luggage, among which ought to have been one of my portfolios containing a number of drawings made by me while gliding down the Ohio and Mississippi from Cincinnati to Natchez, and of which some were to be peculiarly valuable, being of birds previously unfigured, and perhaps undescribed. The portfolio was nowhere to be found, and I recollected that I had brought it under my arm to the margin of the stream, and there left it to the care of one of my friend’s servants, who, in the hurry of our departure, had neglected to take it on board. Besides the drawings of birds, there was in this collection a sketch in black chalk, to which I always felt greatly attached while from home. It is true the features which it represented were indelibly engraved in my heart; but the portrait of her to whom I owe so much of the happiness that I have enjoyed was not the less dear to me. When I thought during the following night of the loss I had sustained in consequence of my own negligence, imagined the possible fate of the collection, and saw it in the hands of one of the numerous boatmen lounging along the shores, who might paste the drawings to the walls of his cabin, nail them to the steering-oars of his flat-boat, or distribute them among his fellows, I felt little less vexed than I did some years before when the rats, as you know, devoured a much larger collection.
It was useless to fret myself, and so I began to devise a scheme for recovering the drawings. I wrote to Mr. Garnier and my venerable friend Charles Carré. Mr. Berthoud also wrote to a mercantile acquaintance. The letters were forwarded to Natchez from the first landing place at which we stopped, and in the course of time we reached the great eddy running by the Levee or artificial embankment at New Orleans. But before I present you with the answers to the letters sent to our acquaintances at Natchez, allow me to offer a statement of our adventures on the Mississippi.
After leaving the eddy at Natchez, we passed a long file of exquisitely beautiful Bluffs. At the end of twenty hours we reached Bayou Sara, where we found two brigs at anchor, several steamers, and a number of flat-boats, the place being of considerable mercantile importance. Here the Columbus left us to shift for ourselves, her commander being anxious to get to Baton Rouge by a certain hour, in order to secure a good cargo of cotton. We now proceeded along the great stream, sometimes floating and sometimes rowing. The shores gradually became lower and flatter, orange-trees began to make their appearance around the dwellings of the wealthy planters, and the verdure along the banks assumed a brighter tint. The thermometer stood at 68° in the shade at noon; butterflies fluttered among the flowers, of which many were in full blow; and we expected to have seen alligators half-awake floating on the numberless logs that accompanied us in our slow progress. The eddies were covered with ducks of various kinds, more especially with the beautiful species that breeds by preference on the great sycamores that every now and then present themselves along our southern waters. Baton Rouge is a very handsome place, but at present I have not time to describe it. Levees now began to stretch along the river, and wherever there was a sharp point on the shore, Negroes were there amusing themselves by raising shrimps, and now and then a cat-fish, with scooping-nets.
The river increased in breadth and depth, and the sawyers and planters, logs so called, diminished in number the nearer we drew towards the famed city. At every bend we found the plantations increased, and now the whole country on both sides became so level and destitute of trees along the water’s edge, that we could see over the points before us, and observe the great stream stretching along for miles. Within the levees the land is much lower than the surface of the river when the water is high; but at this time we could see over the levee from the deck of our boat only the upper windows of the planters’ houses, or the tops of the trees about them, and the melancholy looking cypresses covered with Spanish moss forming the back ground. Persons rode along the levees at full speed; pelicans, gulls, vultures, and carrion crows sailed over the stream, and at times there came from the shore a breeze laden with the delicious perfume of the orange-trees, which were covered with blossoms and golden fruits.
Having passed Bayou Lafourche, our boat was brought-to on account of the wind, which blew with violence. We landed, and presently made our way to the swamps, where we shot a number of those beautiful birds called Boat-tailed Grakles. The mocking birds on the fence-stakes saluted us with so much courtesy and with such delightful strains, that we could not think of injuring them; but we thought it no harm to shoot a whole covey of partridges. In the swamps we met with warblers of various kinds, lively and beautiful, waiting in these their winter retreats for the moment when Boreas should retire to his icy home, and the gentle gales of the south should waft them toward their breeding places in the north. Thousands of swallows flew about us, the cat-birds mewed in answer to their chatterings, the cardinal grosbeak elevated his glowing crest as he stood perched on the magnolia branch, the soft notes of the doves echoed among the woods, nature smiled upon us, and we were happy.
On the fourth of January we stopped at Bonnet Carré, where I entered a house to ask some questions about birds. I was received by a venerable French gentleman, whom I found in charge of about a dozen children of both sexes, and who was delighted to hear that I was a student of nature. He was well acquainted with my old friend Charles Carré, and must, I thought, be a good man, for he said he never suffered any of his pupils to rob a bird of her egg or young, although, said he with a smile, “they are welcome to peep at them and love them.” The boys at once surrounded me, and from them I received satisfactory answers to most of my queries respecting birds.
The sixth of January was so cold that the thermometer fell to 30°, and we had seen ice on the running boards of our keel boat. This was quite unlooked for, and we felt uncomfortable; but before the middle of the day, all nature was again in full play. Several beautiful steamers passed us. The vegetation seemed not to have suffered from the frost; green pease [sic], artichokes and other vegetables were in prime condition. This reminds me that on one of my late journeys, I ate green pease in December in the Floridas, and had them once a-week at least in my course over the whole of the Union, until I found myself and my family feeding on the same vegetable more than a hundred miles to the North of the St. John’s River in New Brunswick.
Early on the seventh, thousands of tall spars, called masts by the mariners, came in sight; and as we drew nearer, we saw the port filled with ships of many nations, each bearing the flag of its country. At length we reached the Levee, and found ourselves once more at New Orleans. In a short time my companions dispersed, and I commenced a search for something that might tend to compensate me for the loss of my drawings.
On the 16th of March following, I had the gratification of receiving a letter from Mr. A.P. Bodley, of Natchez, informing me that my portfolio had been found and deposited at the office of “the Mississippi Republican,” whence an order from me would liberate it. Through the kindness of Mr. Garnier, I received it on the 5th of April. So very generous had been the finder of it, that when I carefully examined the drawings in succession, I found them all present and uninjured, save one, which had probably been kept by way of commission.