Visit to Valcour Aime Plantation
Passages from Social Life in Old New Orleans,
Being Recollections of my Girlhood
Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatton, 1832-1912
It was after midnight when the plank was thrown out to touch the levee of the Valcour Aime plantation; midnight in late March, 1847. Deckhands steadied the wabbling plank till three persons and their little baggage were safely landed ashore. A tram (as it is called to- day) was awaiting the doctor, Tante Lise and myself, then a girl of fifteen... The tram was nothing more than a flat car, fitted for the occasion with seats, on a short railroad leading to the sugar refinery, which I believe was the first in the state. A dusky housekeeper received us at the house. Not knowing at what hour we might appear, the family had retired. Belle Creole (riverboat), as may be supposed, had no fixed schedule of arrivals or departures. Fires were already alight in our rooms, affording a cheery welcome.
Before we were ready for bed basins of hot water were brought for the inevitable foot bath of the Creole. Something warm to drink, a tisane probably—I remember I thought it might be ambrosia, fit for the gods, it was so deliciously refreshing. Then I was tenderly tucked into bed, and told to "dormez bien," which I straightway proceeded to do.
The sun was already proclaiming a bright spring day when I inhaled the odor, and opened my eyes to a full- blown rose on my pillow; and gracious, how good! a steaming cup of café au lait. On our descent to the breakfast room we received an effusive and cordial greeting from M. and Mme. Valcour, and their daughter Félicie, a girl of my own age. The air was redolent of the delicious odor of roses, the windows open to the floor upon the garden, the floor of the room not one step higher than the garden walks. The Valcour Aime house was a two-story structure. The long, main building faced, of course, the roadway and the river; there was a long L at each end, running back, thus forming three sides of a square court. A broad and partly jalousied balcony extended entirely around the three sides of the building, fronting the court. This balcony afforded the entrances to a seemingly endless series of living and sleeping rooms, the whole house being, so to say, one room deep only. The first floor, flush with the ground, was entirely paved with square blocks of stone or brick. There were to be found the small and the grand dining rooms, the master's office and den and the various and sundry domestic departments. The salon opened on the second floor balcony. The paved court below was protected by the deep balconies and an awning. The assemblage of all the family and the favorite resort of their multitudinous guests, madame's basket, mademoiselle's embroidery frame, the box of cigars, the comfortable lounging chairs, were to be found in that entrancing court.
M. Valcour, tall and graceful, was at that time in the prime of life, and was my (romantic) ideal of a French marquis; Mme. Valcour, inclined to embonpoint and vivacious, kissed me and called me "ma petite," though I was quite her height. But the charm of my visit to that incomparable mansion, the like of which is not to be found on the Mississippi River to-day, was the daughter, Félicie, who at once took me under her wing and entertained me as only a well-bred young girl can. She showed me all over the premises, opening door after door, that I could see how adequate the accommodations for the guests who frequently filled the house; into the salon that I might see and listen to the chimes of the gilt clock Gabie had sent from Paris. Gabriel Aime, the only son, was then in Europe. Sweet Félicie never tired of talking of Gabie and showing me the pretty trifles from abroad (so far away then) he had sent home from time to time. She sent for the key, and opened the door of Gabie's room, that I might see how he had left it, and, "Mamma won't have a thing changed; she wants him to find his gun and boots and cap just where he left them." Girl-like, she confided to me that she would be a young lady when Gabie came, and they would have a house in the city and a box at the opera, for Gabie loved music.
Félicie and I, with a whole escort of followers, explored the spacious grounds, considered the finest in Louisiana. There was a miniature river, meandering in and out and around the beautifully kept parterres, the tiny banks of which were an unbroken mass of blooming violets. A long-legged man might have been able to step across this tiny stream, but it was spanned at intervals by bridges of various designs, some rustic, some stone, but all furnished with parapets, so one would not tumble in and drown, as a little Roman remarked. If it had not been before Perry's expedition to Japan, at any rate before his report was printed and circulated, one might have supposed M. Valcour received his inspiration in landscape gardening from the queer little Eastern people. There were summer houses draped with strange, foreign-looking vines; a pagoda on a mound, the entrance of which was reached by a flight of steps. It was an octagonal building, with stained-glass windows, and it struck my inexperienced eye as a very wonderful and surprising bit of architecture. Further on was—a mountain! covered from base to top with beds of blooming violets. A narrow, winding path led to the summit, from which a comprehensive view was obtained of the extensive grounds, bounded by a series of conservatories. It was enchanting. There I saw for the first time the magnolia frascati, at that date a real rarity.
Another day, doctor, Tante Lise, Félicie and I were rowed in a skiff across the river to Sacré Coeur Convent to see tante's adopted daughter, Marie. I recall spending the day there, the kindly nuns showing the little heretic all through the building, and being rowed back to the plantation at sunset.
Next morning the Belle Creole was due, and our visit to fairyland was drawing to a close. The call, "la Vapeur," rushed us to the landing in the tram, the "whole pack in full cry" of the Roman children running by the side and calling adieu to dear Tante Lise. We gingerly walked the plank, in single file. The boat backed out to get her leeway, and once more for a moment we were in full view of the house. Two figures fluttered handkerchiefs from the balcony, Mme. Valcour and Félicie waving a last adieu—alas! a last. On entering the cabin, behold the ubiquitous M. Champomier, with his everlasting book and pencil. As he greeted the doctor I heard (in French, of course), "Can you tell me the exact amount of-?" I fled, and at the rear end of the boat I had one more last glimpse of Valcour Aime's plantation. Alas! the last.
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