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The only book that Mark twain ever wrote in collaboration with another author, The Gilded Age is a novel that viciously and hilariously satirizes the greed, materialism, and corruption that characterized much of upper-class America in the nineteenth century. The title term — inspired by a line in Shakespeare's King John — has become synonymous with the excess of the era.
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The Gilded Age
June 18--. Squire Hawkins sat upon the pyramid of large blocks, called the "stile," in front of his house, contemplating the morning.
The locality was Obedstown, East Tennessee. You would not know that Obedstown stood on the top of a mountain, for there was nothing about the landscape to indicate it--but it did: a mountain that stretched abroad over whole counties, and rose very gradually. The district was called the "Knobs of East Tennessee," and had a reputation like Nazareth, as far as turning out any good thing was concerned.
The Squire's house was a double log cabin, in a state of decay; two or three gaunt hounds lay asleep about the threshold, and lifted their heads sadly whenever Mrs. Hawkins or the children stepped in and out over their bodies. Rubbish was scattered about the grassless yard; a bench stood near the door with a tin wash basin on it and a pail of water and a gourd; a cat had begun to drink from the pail, but the exertion was overtaxing her energies, and she had stopped to rest. There was an ash-hopper by the fence, and an iron pot, for soft-soap-boiling, near it.
This dwelling constituted one-fifteenth of Obedstown; the other fourteen houses were scattered about among the tall pine trees and among the corn-fields in such a way that a man might stand in the midst of the city and not know but that he was in the country if he only depended on his eyes for information.
"Squire" Hawkins got his title from being postmaster of Obedstown--not that the title properly belonged to the office, but because in those regions the chief citizens always must have titles of some sort, and so the usual courtesy had been extended to Hawkins. The mail was monthly, and sometimes amounted to as much as three or four letters at a single delivery. Even a rush like this did not fill up the postmaster's whole month, though, and therefore he "kept store" in the intervals.
The Squire was contemplating the morning. It was balmy and tranquil, the vagrant breezes were laden with the odor of flowers, the murmur of bees was in the air, there was everywhere that suggestion of repose that summer woodlands bring to the senses, and the vague, pleasurable melancholy that such a time and such surroundings inspire.
Presently the United States mail arrived, on horseback. There was but one letter, and it was for the postmaster. The long-legged youth who carried the mail tarried an hour to talk, for there was no hurry; and in a little while the male population of the village had assembled to help. As a general thing, they were dressed in homespun "jeans," blue or yellow--here were no other varieties of it; all wore one suspender and sometimes two--yarn ones knitted at home,--some wore vests, but few wore coats. Such coats and vests as did appear, however, were rather picturesque than otherwise, for they were made of tolerably fanciful patterns of calico--a fashion which prevails thereto this day among those of the community who have tastes above the common level and are able to afford style. Every individual arrived with his hands in his pockets; a hand came out occasionally for a purpose, but it always went back again after service; and if it was the head that was served, just the cant that the dilapidated straw hat got by being uplifted and rooted under, was retained until the next call altered the inclination; many' hats were present, but none were erect and no two were canted just alike. We are speaking impartially of men, youths and boys. And we are also speaking of these three estates when we say that every individual was either chewing natural leaf tobacco prepared on his own premises, or smoking the same in a corn-cob pipe. Few of the men wore whiskers; none wore moustaches; some had a thick jungle of hair under the chin and hiding the throat--the only pattern recognized there as being the correct thing in whiskers; but no part of any individual's face had seen a razor for a week.
These neighbors stood a few moments looking at the mail carrier reflectively while he talked; but fatigue soon began to show itself, and one after another they climbed up and occupied the top rail of the fence, hump-shouldered and grave, like a company of buzzards assembled for supper and listening for the death-rattle. Old Damrell said:
"Tha hain't no news 'bout the jedge, hit ain't likely?"
"Cain't tell for sartin; some thinks he's gwyne to be 'long toreckly, and some thinks 'e hain't. Russ Mosely he tote ole Hanks he mought git to Obeds tomorrer or nex' day he reckoned."
"Well, I wisht I knowed. I got a 'prime sow and pigs in the, cote-house, and I hain't got no place for to put 'em. If the jedge is a gwyne to hold cote, I got to roust 'em out, I reckon. But tomorrer'll do, I 'spect."
The speaker bunched his thick lips together like the stem-end of a tomato and shot a bumble-bee dead that had lit on a weed seven feet away. One after another the several chewers expressed a charge of tobacco juice and delivered it at the deceased with steady, aim and faultless accuracy.
"What's a stirrin', down 'bout the Forks?" continued Old Damrell.
"Well, I dunno, skasely. Ole, Drake Higgins he's ben down to Shelby las' week. Tuck his crap down; couldn't git shet o' the most uv it; hit wasn't no time for to sell, he say, so he 'fotch it back agin, 'lowin' to wait tell fall. Talks 'bout goin' to Mozouri--lots uv 'ems talkin' that-away down thar, Ole Higgins say. Cain't make a livin' here no mo', sich times as these. Si Higgins he's ben over to Kaintuck n' married a high-toned gal thar, outen the fust families, an' he's come back to the Forks with jist a hell's-mint o' whoop-jamboree notions, folks says. He's tuck an' fixed up the ole house like they does in Kaintuck, he say, an' tha's ben folks come cler from Turpentine for to see it. He's tuck an gawmed it all over on the inside with plarsterin'."
"I dono. Hit's what he calls it. 'Ole Mam Higgins, she tole me. She say she wasn't gwyne to hang out in no sich a dern hole like a hog. Says it's mud, or some sich kind o' nastiness that sticks on n' covers up everything. Plarsterin', Si calls it."
This marvel was discussed at considerable length; and almost with animation. But presently there was a dog-fight over in the neighborhood of the blacksmith shop, and the visitors slid off their perch like so many turtles and strode to the battle-field with an interest bordering on eagerness. The Squire remained, and read his letter. Then he sighed, and sat long in meditation. At intervals he said:
"Missouri. Missouri. Well, well, well, everything is so uncertain."
At last he said:
"I believe I'll do it.--A man will just rot, here. My house my yard, everything around me, in fact, shows' that I am becoming one of these cattle--and I used to be thrifty in other times."
He was not more than thirty-five, but he had a worn look that made him seem older. He left the stile, entered that part of his house which was the store, traded a quart of thick molasses for a coonskin and a cake of beeswax, to an old dame in linsey-woolsey, put his letter away, an went into the kitchen. His wife was there, constructing some dried apple pies; a slovenly urchin of ten was dreaming over a rude weather-vane of his own contriving; his small sister, close upon four years of age, was sopping corn-bread in some gravy left in the bottom of a frying-pan and trying hard not to sop over a finger-mark that divided the pan through the middle--for the other side belonged to the brother, whose musings made him forget his stomach for the moment; a negro woman was busy cooking, at a vast fire-place. Shiftlessness and poverty reigned in the place.
"Nancy, I've made up my mind. The world is done with me, and perhaps I ought to be done with it. But no matter--I can wait. I am going to Missouri. I won't stay in this dead country and decay with it. I've had it on my mind sometime. I'm going to sell out here for whatever I can get, and buy a wagon and team and put you and the children in it and start."
"Anywhere that suits you, suits me, Si. And the children can't be any worse off in Missouri than, they are here, I reckon."
Motioning his wife to a private conference in their own room, Hawkins said: "No, they'll be better off. I've looked out for them, Nancy," and his face lighted. "Do you see these papers? Well, they are evidence that I have taken up Seventy-five Thousand Acres of Land in this county --think what an enormous fortune it will be some day! Why, Nancy, enormous don't express it--the word's too tame! I tell your Nancy----"
"For goodness sake, Si----"
"Wait, Nancy, wait--let me finish--I've been secretly bailing and fuming with this grand inspiration for weeks, and I must talk or I'll burst! I haven't whispered to a soul--not a word--have had my countenance under lock and key, for fear it might drop something that would tell even these animals here how to discern the gold mine that's glaring under their noses. Now all that is necessary to hold this land and keep it in the family is to pay the trifling taxes on it yearly--five or ten dollars --the whole tract would not sell for over a third of a cent an acre now, but some day people wild be glad to get it for twenty dollars, fifty dollars, a hundred dollars an acre! What should you say to" [here he dropped his voice to a whisper and looked anxiously around to see that there were no eavesdroppers,] "a thousand dollars an acre!
"Well you may open your eyes and stare! But it's so. You and I may not see the day, but they'll see it. Mind I tell you; they'll see it. Nancy, you've heard of steamboats, and maybe you believed in them--of course you did. You've heard these cattle here scoff at them and call them lies and humbugs,--but they're not lies and humbugs, they're a reality and they're going to be a more wonderful thing some day than they are now. They're going to make a revolution in this world's affairs that will make men dizzy to contemplate. I've been watching--I've been watching while some people slept, and I know what's coming.
"Even you and I will see the day that steamboats will come up that little Turkey river to within twenty miles of this land of ours--and in high water they'll come right to it! And this is not all, Nancy--it isn't even half! There's a bigger wonder--the railroad! These worms here have never even heard of it--and when they do they'll not believe in it. But it's another fact. Coaches that fly over the ground twenty miles an hour--heavens and earth, think of that, Nancy! Twenty miles an hour. It makes a main's brain whirl. Some day, when you and I are in our graves, there'll be a railroad stretching hundreds of miles--all the way down from the cities of the Northern States to New Orleans--and its got to run within thirty miles of this land--may be even touch a corner of it. Well; do you know, they've quit burning wood in some places in the Eastern States? And what do you suppose they burn? Coal!" [He bent over and whispered again:] "There's world--worlds of it on this land! You know that black stuff that crops out of the bank of the branch?--well, that's it. You've taken it for rocks; so has every body here; and they've built little dams and such things with it. One man was going to build a chimney out of it. Nancy I expect I turned as white as a sheet! Why, it might have caught fire and told everything. I showed him it was too crumbly. Then he was going to build it of copper ore--splendid yellow forty-per-cent. ore! There's fortunes upon fortunes of copper ore on our land! It scared me to death, the idea of this fool starting a smelting furnace in his house without knowing it, and getting his dull eyes opened. And then he was going to build it of iron ore! There's mountains of iron ore here, Nancy--whole mountains of it. I wouldn't take any chances. I just stuck by him--I haunted him--I never let him alone till he built it of mud and sticks like all the rest of the chimneys in this dismal country. Pine forests, wheat land, corn land, iron, copper, coal-wait till the railroads come, and the steamboats! We'll never see the day, Nancy--never in the world---never, never, never, child. We've got to drag along, drag along, and eat crusts in toil and poverty, all hopeless and forlorn--but they'll ride in coaches, Nancy! They'll live like the princes of the earth; they'll be courted and worshiped; their names will be known from ocean to ocean! Ah, well-a-day! Will they ever come back here, on the railroad and the steamboat, and say, 'This one little spot shall not be touched--this hovel shall be sacred--for here our father and our mother suffered for us, thought for us, laid the foundations of our future as solid as the hills!'"
"You are a great, good, noble soul, Si Hawkins, and I am an honored woman to be the wife of such a man"--and the tears stood in her eyes when she said it. "We will go to Missouri. You are out of your place, here, among these groping dumb creatures. We will find a higher place, where you can walk with your own kind, and be understood when you speak--not stared at as if you were talking some foreign tongue. I would go anywhere, anywhere in the wide world with you I would rather my body would starve and die than your mind should hunger and wither away in this lonely land."
"Spoken like yourself, my child! But we'll not starve, Nancy. Far from it. I have a letter from Beriah Sellers--just came this day. A letter that--I'll read you a line from it!"
He flew out of the room. A shadow blurred the sunlight in Nancy's face --there was uneasiness in it, and disappointment. A procession of disturbing thoughts began to troop through her mind. Saying nothing aloud, she sat with her hands in her lap; now and then she clasped them, then unclasped them, then tapped the ends of the fingers together; sighed, nodded, smiled--occasionally paused, shook her head. This pantomime was the elocutionary expression of an unspoken soliloquy which had something of this shape:
"I was afraid of it--was afraid of it. Trying to make our fortune in Virginia, Beriah Sellers nearly ruined us and we had to settle in Kentucky and start over again. Trying to make our fortune in Kentucky he crippled us again and we had to move here. Trying to make our fortune here, he brought us clear down to the ground, nearly. He's an honest soul, and means the very best in the world, but I'm afraid, I'm afraid he's too flighty. He has splendid ideas, and he'll divide his chances with his friends with a free hand, the good generous soul, but something does seem to always interfere and spoil everything. I never did think he was right well balanced. But I don't blame my husband, for I do think that when that man gets his head full of a new notion, he can out-talk a machine. He'll make anybody believe in that notion that'll listen to him ten minutes--why I do believe he would make a deaf and dumb man believe in it and get beside himself, if you only set him where he could see his eyes tally and watch his hands explain. What a head he has got! When he got up that idea there in Virginia of buying up whole loads of negroes in Delaware and Virginia and Tennessee, very quiet, having papers drawn to have them delivered at a place in Alabama and take them and pay for them, away yonder at a certain time, and then in the meantime get a law made stopping everybody from selling negroes to the south after a certain day --it was somehow that way--mercy how the man would have made money! Negroes would have gone up to four prices. But after he'd spent money and worked hard, and traveled hard, and had heaps of negroes all contracted for, and everything going along just right, he couldn't get the laws passed and down the whole thing tumbled. And there in Kentucky, when he raked up that old numskull that had been inventing away at a perpetual motion machine for twenty-two years, and Beriah Sellers saw at a glance where just one more little cog-wheel would settle the business, why I could see it as plain as day when he came in wild at midnight and hammered us out of bed and told the whole thing in a whisper with the doors bolted and the candle in an empty barrel. Oceans of money in it --anybody could see that. But it did cost a deal to buy the old numskull out--and then when they put the new cog wheel in they'd overlooked something somewhere and it wasn't any use--the troublesome thing wouldn't go. That notion he got up here did look as handy as anything in the world; and how him and Si did sit up nights working at it with the curtains down and me watching to see if any neighbors were about. The man did honestly believe there was a fortune in that black gummy oil that stews out of the bank Si says is coal; and he refined it himself till it was like water, nearly, and it did burn, there's no two ways about that; and I reckon he'd have been all right in Cincinnati with his lamp that he got made, that time he got a house full of rich speculators to see him exhibit only in the middle of his speech it let go and almost blew the heads off the whole crowd. I haven't got over grieving for the money that cost yet. I am sorry enough Beriah Sellers is in Missouri, now, but I was glad when he went. I wonder what his letter says. But of course it's cheerful; he's never down-hearted--never had any trouble in his life--didn't know it if he had. It's always sunrise with that man, and fine and blazing, at that--never gets noon; though--leaves off and rises again. Nobody can help liking the creature, he means so well--but I do dread to come across him again; he's bound to set us all crazy, of coarse. Well, there goes old widow Hopkins--it always takes her a week to buy a spool of thread and trade a hank of yarn. Maybe Si can come with the letter, now."
And he did:
"Widow Hopkins kept me--I haven't any patience with such tedious people. Now listen, Nancy--just listen at this:
"'Come right along to Missouri! Don't wait and worry about a good price but sell out for whatever you can get, and come along, or you might be too late. Throw away your traps, if necessary, and come empty-handed. You'll never regret it. It's the grandest country --the loveliest land--the purest atmosphere--I can't describe it; no pen can do it justice. And it's filling up, every day--people coming from everywhere. I've got the biggest scheme on earth--and I'll take you in; I'll take in every friend I've got that's ever stood by me, for there's enough for all, and to spare. Mum's the word--don't whisper--keep yourself to yourself. You'll see! Come! --rush!--hurry!--don't wait for anything!'
"It's the same old boy, Nancy, jest the same old boy--ain't he?"
"Yes, I think there's a little of the old sound about his voice yet. I suppose you--you'll still go, Si?"
"Go! Well, I should think so, Nancy. It's all a chance, of course, and, chances haven't been kind to us, I'll admit--but whatever comes, old wife, they're provided for. Thank God for that!"
"Amen," came low and earnestly.
And with an activity and a suddenness that bewildered Obedstown and almost took its breath away, the Hawkinses hurried through with their arrangements in four short months and flitted out into the great mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee.
Toward the close of the third day's journey the wayfarers were just beginning to think of camping, when they came upon a log cabin in the woods. Hawkins drew rein and entered the yard. A boy about ten years old was sitting in the cabin door with his face bowed in his hands. Hawkins approached, expecting his footfall to attract attention, but it did not. He halted a moment, and then said:
"Come, come, little chap, you mustn't be going to sleep before sundown"
With a tired expression the small face came up out of the hands,--a face down which tears were flowing.
"Ah, I'm sorry I spoke so, my boy. Tell me--is anything the matter?"
The boy signified with a scarcely perceptible gesture that the trouble was in the, house, and made room for Hawkins to pass. Then he put his face in his hands again and rocked himself about as one suffering a grief that is too deep to find help in moan or groan or outcry. Hawkins stepped within. It was a poverty stricken place. Six or eight middle-aged country people of both sexes were grouped about an object in the middle of the room; they were noiselessly busy and they talked in whispers when they spoke. Hawkins uncovered and approached. A coffin stood upon two backless chairs. These neighbors had just finished disposing the body of a woman in it--a woman with a careworn, gentle face that had more the look of sleep about it than of death. An old lady motioned, toward the door and said to Hawkins in a whisper:
"His mother, po' thing. Died of the fever, last night. Tha warn't no sich thing as saving of her. But it's better for her--better for her. Husband and the other two children died in the spring, and she hain't ever hilt up her head sence. She jest went around broken-hearted like, and never took no intrust in anything but Clay--that's the boy thar. She jest worshiped Clay--and Clay he worshiped her. They didn't 'pear to live at all, only when they was together, looking at each other, loving one another. She's ben sick three weeks; and if you believe me that child has worked, and kep' the run of the med'cin, and the times of giving it, and sot up nights and nussed her, and tried to keep up her sperits, the same as a grown-up person. And last night when she kep' a sinking and sinking, and turned away her head and didn't know him no mo', it was fitten to make a body's heart break to see him climb onto the bed and lay his cheek agin hern and call her so pitiful and she not answer. But bymeby she roused up, like, and looked around wild, and then she see him, and she made a great cry and snatched him to her breast and hilt him close and kissed him over and over agin; but it took the last po' strength she had, and so her eyelids begin to close down, and her arms sort o' drooped away and then we see she was gone, po' creetur. And Clay, he--Oh, the po' motherless thing--I cain't talk abort it--I cain't bear to talk about it."
Clay had disappeared from the door; but he came in, now, and the neighbors reverently fell apart and made way for him. He leaned upon the open coffin and let his tears course silently. Then he put out his small hand and smoothed the hair and stroked the dead face lovingly. After a bit he brought his other hand up from behind him and laid three or four fresh wild flowers upon the breast, bent over and kissed the unresponsive lips time and time again, and then turned away and went out of the house without looking at any of the company. The old lady said to Hawkins:
"She always loved that kind o' flowers. He fetched 'em for her every morning, and she always kissed him. They was from away north somers--she kep' school when she fust come. Goodness knows what's to become o' that po' boy. No father, no mother, no kin folks of no kind. Nobody to go to, nobody that k'yers for him--and all of us is so put to it for to get along and families so large."
Hawkins understood. All, eyes were turned inquiringly upon him. He said:
"Friends, I am not very well provided for, myself, but still I would not turn my back on a homeless orphan. If he will go with me I will give him a home, and loving regard--I will do for him as I would have another do for a child of my own in misfortune."
One after another the people stepped forward and wrung the stranger's hand with cordial good will, and their eyes looked all that their hands could not express or their lips speak.
"Said like a true man," said one.
"You was a stranger to me a minute ago, but you ain't now," said another.
"It's bread cast upon the waters--it'll return after many days," said the old lady whom we have heard speak before.
"You got to camp in my house as long as you hang out here," said one. "If tha hain't room for you and yourn my tribe'll turn out and camp in the hay loft."
A few minutes afterward, while the preparations for the funeral were being concluded, Mr. Hawkins arrived at his wagon leading his little waif by the hand, and told his wife all that had happened, and asked her if he had done right in giving to her and to himself this new care? She said:
"If you've done wrong, Si Hawkins, it's a wrong that will shine brighter at the judgment day than the rights that many' a man has done before you. And there isn't any compliment you can pay me equal to doing a thing like this and finishing it up, just taking it for granted that I'll be willing to it. Willing? Come to me; you poor motherless boy, and let me take your grief and help you carry it."
When the child awoke in the morning, it was as if from a troubled dream. But slowly the confusion in his mind took form, and he remembered his great loss; the beloved form in the coffin; his talk with a generous stranger who offered him a home; the funeral, where the stranger's wife held him by the hand at the grave, and cried with him and comforted him; and he remembered how this, new mother tucked him in his bed in the neighboring farm house, and coaxed him to talk about his troubles, and then heard him say his prayers and kissed him good night, and left him with the soreness in his heart almost healed and his bruised spirit at rest.
And now the new mother came again, and helped him to dress, and combed his hair, and drew his mind away by degrees from the dismal yesterday, by telling him about the wonderful journey he was going to take and the strange things he was going to see. And after breakfast they two went alone to the grave, and his heart went out to his new friend and his untaught eloquence poured the praises of his buried idol into her ears without let or hindrance. Together they planted roses by the headboard and strewed wild flowers upon the grave; and then together they went away, hand in hand, and left the dead to the long sleep that heals all heart-aches and ends all sorrows.
Whatever the lagging dragging journey may have been to the rest of the emigrants, it was a wonder and delight to the children, a world of enchantment; and they believed it to be peopled with the mysterious dwarfs and giants and goblins that figured in the tales the negro slaves were in the habit of telling them nightly by the shuddering light of the kitchen fire.
At the end of nearly a week of travel, the party went into camp near a shabby village which was caving, house by house, into the hungry Mississippi. The river astonished the children beyond measure. Its mile-breadth of water seemed an ocean to them, in the shadowy twilight, and the vague riband of trees on the further shore, the verge of a continent which surely none but they had ever seen before.
"Uncle Dan'l"(colored,) aged 40; his wife, "aunt Jinny," aged 30, "Young Miss" Emily Hawkins, "Young Mars" Washington Hawkins and "Young Mars" Clay, the new member of the family, ranged themselves on a log, after supper, and contemplated the marvelous river and discussed it. The moon rose and sailed aloft through a maze of shredded cloud-wreaths; the sombre river just perceptibly brightened under the veiled light; a deep silence pervaded the air and was emphasized, at intervals, rather than broken, by the hooting of an owl, the baying of a dog, or the muffled crash of a raving bank in the distance.
The little company assembled on the log were all children (at least in simplicity and broad and comprehensive ignorance,) and the remarks they made about the river were in keeping with the character; and so awed were they by the grandeur and the solemnity of the scene before then, and by their belief that the air was filled with invisible spirits and that the faint zephyrs were caused by their passing wings, that all their talk took to itself a tinge of the supernatural, and their voices were subdued to a low and reverent tone. Suddenly Uncle Dan'l exclaimed:
"Chil'en, dah's sum fin a comin!"
All crowded close together and every heart beat faster.
Uncle Dan'l pointed down the river with his bony finger.
A deep coughing sound troubled the stillness, way toward a wooded cape that jetted into the stream a mile distant. All in an instant a fierce eye of fire shot out froth behind the cape and sent a long brilliant pathway quivering athwart the dusky water. The coughing grew louder and louder, the glaring eye grew larger and still larger, glared wilder and still wilder. A huge shape developed itself out of the gloom, and from its tall duplicate horns dense volumes of smoke, starred and spangled with sparks, poured out and went tumbling away into the farther darkness. Nearer and nearer the thing came, till its long sides began to glow with spots of light which mirrored themselves in the river and attended the monster like a torchlight procession.
"What is it! Oh, what is it, Uncle Dan'l!"
With deep solemnity the answer came:
"It's de Almighty! Git down on yo' knees!"
It was not necessary to say it twice. They were all kneeling, in a moment. And then while the mysterious coughing rose stronger and stronger and the threatening glare reached farther and wider, the negro's voice lifted up its supplications:
"O Lord', we's ben mighty wicked, an' we knows dat we 'zerve to go to de bad place, but good Lord, deah Lord, we ain't ready yit, we ain't ready --let dese po' chilen hab one mo' chance, jes' one mo' chance. Take de ole niggah if you's, got to hab somebody.--Good Lord, good deah Lord, we don't know whah you's a gwyne to, we don't know who you's got yo' eye on, but we knows by de way you's a comin', we knows by de way you's a tiltin' along in yo' charyot o' fiah dat some po' sinner's a gwyne to ketch it. But good Lord, dose chilen don't b'long heah, dey's f'm Obedstown whah dey don't know nuffin, an' you knows, yo' own sef, dat dey ain't 'sponsible. An' deah Lord, good Lord, it ain't like yo' mercy, it ain't like yo' pity, it ain't like yo' long-sufferin' lovin' kindness for to take dis kind o' 'vantage o' sick little chil'en as dose is when dey's so many ornery grown folks chuck full o' cussedness dat wants roastin' down dah. Oh, Lord, spah de little chil'en, don't tar de little chil'en away f'm dey frens, jes' let 'em off jes' dis once, and take it out'n de ole niggah. HEAH I IS, LORD, HEAH I IS! De ole niggah's ready, Lord, de ole----"
The flaming and churning steamer was right abreast the party, and not twenty steps away. The awful thunder of a mud-valve suddenly burst forth, drowning the prayer, and as suddenly Uncle Dan'l snatched a child under each arm and scoured into the woods with the rest of the pack at his heels. And then, ashamed of himself, he halted in the deep darkness and shouted, (but rather feebly:)
"Heah I is, Lord, heah I is!"
There was a moment of throbbing suspense, and then, to the surprise and the comfort of the party, it was plain that the august presence had gone by, for its dreadful noises were receding. Uncle Dan'l headed a cautious reconnaissance in the direction of the log. Sure enough "the Lord" was just turning a point a short distance up the river, and while they looked the lights winked out and the coughing diminished by degrees and presently ceased altogether.
"H'wsh! Well now dey's some folks says dey ain't no 'ficiency in prah. Dis Chile would like to know whah we'd a ben now if it warn't fo' dat prah? Dat's it. Dat's it!"
"Uncle Dan'l, do you reckon it was the prayer that saved us?" said Clay.
"Does I reckon? Don't I know it! Whah was yo' eyes? Warn't de Lord jes' a cumin' chow! chow! CHOW! an' a goin' on turrible--an' do de Lord carry on dat way 'dout dey's sumfin don't suit him? An' warn't he a lookin' right at dis gang heah, an' warn't he jes' a reachin' for 'em? An' d'you spec' he gwyne to let 'em off 'dout somebody ast him to do it? No indeedy!"
"Do you reckon he saw, us, Uncle Dan'l?
"De law sakes, Chile, didn't I see him a lookin' at us?".
"Did you feel scared, Uncle Dan'l?"
"No sah! When a man is 'gaged in prah, he ain't fraid o' nuffin--dey can't nuffin tetch him."
"Well what did you run for?"
"Well, I--I--mars Clay, when a man is under de influence ob de sperit, he do-no, what he's 'bout--no sah; dat man do-no what he's 'bout. You mout take an' tah de head off'n dat man an' he wouldn't scasely fine it out. Date's de Hebrew chil'en dat went frough de fiah; dey was burnt considable--ob coase dey was; but dey didn't know nuffin 'bout it--heal right up agin; if dey'd ben gals dey'd missed dey long haah, (hair,) maybe, but dey wouldn't felt de burn."
"I don't know but what they were girls. I think they were."
"Now mars Clay, you knows bettern dat. Sometimes a body can't tell whedder you's a sayin' what you means or whedder you's a sayin' what you don't mean, 'case you says 'em bofe de same way."
"But how should I know whether they were boys or girls?"
"Goodness sakes, mars Clay, don't de Good Book say? 'Sides, don't it call 'em de HE-brew chil'en? If dey was gals wouldn't dey be de SHE-brew chil'en? Some people dat kin read don't 'pear to take no notice when dey do read."
"Well, Uncle Dan'l, I think that-----My! here comes another one up the river! There can't be two!"
"We gone dis time--we done gone dis time, sho'! Dey ain't two, mars Clay--days de same one. De Lord kin 'pear eberywhah in a second. Goodness, how do fiah and de smoke do belch up! Dat mean business, honey. He comin' now like he fo'got sumfin. Come 'long, chil'en, time you's gwyne to roos'. Go 'long wid you--ole Uncle Daniel gwyne out in de woods to rastle in prah--de ole nigger gwyne to do what he kin to sabe you agin"
He did go to the woods and pray; but he went so far that he doubted, himself, if the Lord heard him when He went by.
--Seventhly, Before his Voyage, He should make his peace with God, satisfie his Creditors if he be in debt; Pray earnestly to God to prosper him in his Voyage, and to keep him from danger, and, if he be 'sui juris' he should make his last will, and wisely order all his affairs, since many that go far abroad, return not home. (This good and Christian Counsel is given by Martinus Zeilerus in his Apodemical Canons before his Itinerary of Spain and Portugal.)
Early in the morning Squire Hawkins took passage in a small steamboat, with his family and his two slaves, and presently the bell rang, the stage-plank; was hauled in, and the vessel proceeded up the river. The children and the slaves were not much more at ease after finding out that this monster was a creature of human contrivance than they were the night before when they thought it the Lord of heaven and earth. They started, in fright, every time the gauge-cocks sent out an angry hiss, and they quaked from head to foot when the mud-valves thundered. The shivering of the boat under the beating of the wheels was sheer misery to them.
But of course familiarity with these things soon took away their terrors, and then the voyage at once became a glorious adventure, a royal progress through the very heart and home of romance, a realization of their rosiest wonder-dreams. They sat by the hour in the shade of the pilot house on the hurricane deck and looked out over the curving expanses of the river sparkling in the sunlight. Sometimes the boat fought the mid-stream current, with a verdant world on either hand, and remote from both; sometimes she closed in under a point, where the dead water and the helping eddies were, and shaved the bank so closely that the decks were swept by the jungle of over-hanging willows and littered with a spoil of leaves; departing from these "points" she regularly crossed the river every five miles, avoiding the "bight" of the great binds and thus escaping the strong current; sometimes she went out and skirted a high "bluff" sand-bar in the middle of the stream, and occasionally followed it up a little too far and touched upon the shoal water at its head--and then the intelligent craft refused to run herself aground, but "smelt" the bar, and straightway the foamy streak that streamed away from her bows vanished, a great foamless wave rolled forward and passed her under way, and in this instant she leaned far over on her side, shied from the bar and fled square away from the danger like a frightened thing--and the pilot was lucky if he managed to "straighten her up" before she drove her nose into the opposite bank; sometimes she approached a solid wall of tall trees as if she meant to break through it, but all of a sudden a little crack would open just enough to admit her, and away she would go plowing through the "chute" with just barely room enough between the island on one side and the main land on the other; in this sluggish water she seemed to go like a racehorse; now and then small log cabins appeared in little clearings, with the never-failing frowsy women and girls in soiled and faded linsey-woolsey leaning in the doors or against woodpiles and rail fences, gazing sleepily at the passing show; sometimes she found shoal water, going out at the head of those "chutes" or crossing the river, and then a deck-hand stood on the bow and hove the lead, while the boat slowed down and moved cautiously; sometimes she stopped a moment at a landing and took on some freight or a passenger while a crowd of slouchy white men and negroes stood on the bank and looked sleepily on with their hands in their pantaloons pockets,--of course--for they never took them out except to stretch, and when they did this they squirmed about and reached their fists up into the air and lifted themselves on tip-toe in an ecstasy of enjoyment.
When the sun went down it turned all the broad river to a national banner laid in gleaming bars of gold and purple and crimson; and in time these glories faded out in the twilight and left the fairy archipelagoes reflecting their fringing foliage in the steely mirror of the stream.
At night the boat forged on through the deep solitudes of the river, hardly ever discovering a light to testify to a human presence--mile after mile and league after league the vast bends were guarded by unbroken walls of forest that had never been disturbed by the voice or the foot-fall of man or felt the edge of his sacrilegious axe.
An hour after supper the moon came up, and Clay and Washington ascended to the hurricane deck to revel again in their new realm of enchantment. They ran races up and down the deck; climbed about the bell; made friends with the passenger-dogs chained under the lifeboat; tried to make friends with a passenger-bear fastened to the verge-staff but were not encouraged; "skinned the cat" on the hog-chains; in a word, exhausted the amusement-possibilities of the deck. Then they looked wistfully up at the pilot house, and finally, little by little, Clay ventured up there, followed diffidently by Washington. The pilot turned presently to "get his stern-marks," saw the lads and invited them in. Now their happiness was complete. This cosy little house, built entirely of glass and commanding a marvelous prospect in every direction was a magician's throne to them and their enjoyment of the place was simply boundless.
They sat them down on a high bench and looked miles ahead and saw the wooded capes fold back and reveal the bends beyond; and they looked miles to the rear and saw the silvery highway diminish its breadth by degrees and close itself together in the distance. Presently the pilot said:
"By George, yonder comes the Amaranth!"
A spark appeared, close to the water, several miles down the river. The pilot took his glass and looked at it steadily for a moment, and said, chiefly to himself:
"It can't be the Blue Wing. She couldn't pick us up this way. It's the Amaranth, sure!"
He bent over a speaking tube and said:
"Who's on watch down there?"
A hollow, unhuman voice rumbled up through the tube in answer:
"I am. Second engineer."
"Good! You want to stir your stumps, now, Harry--the Amaranth's just turned the point--and she's just a--humping herself, too!"
The pilot took hold of a rope that stretched out forward, jerked it twice, and two mellow strokes of the big bell responded. A voice out on the deck shouted:
"Stand by, down there, with that labboard lead!"
"No, I don't want the lead," said the pilot, "I want you. Roust out the old man--tell him the Amaranth's coming. And go and call Jim--tell him."
The "old man" was the captain--he is always called so, on steamboats and ships; "Jim" was the other pilot. Within two minutes both of these men were flying up the pilothouse stairway, three steps at a jump. Jim was in his shirt sleeves,--with his coat and vest on his arm. He said:
"I was just turning in. Where's the glass"
He took it and looked:
"Don't appear to be any night-hawk on the jack-staff--it's the Amaranth, dead sure!"
The captain took a good long look, and only said:
George Davis, the pilot on watch, shouted to the night-watchman on deck:
"How's she loaded?"
"Two inches by the head, sir."
"'T ain't enough!"
The captain shouted, now:
"Call the mate. Tell him to call all hands and get a lot of that sugar forrard--put her ten inches by the head. Lively, now!"
A riot of shouting and trampling floated up from below, presently, and the uneasy steering of the boat soon showed that she was getting "down by the head."
The three men in the pilot house began to talk in short, sharp sentences, low and earnestly. As their excitement rose, their voices went down. As fast as one of them put down the spy-glass another took it up--but always with a studied air of calmness. Each time the verdict was:
"She's a gaining!"
The captain spoke through the tube:
"What steam are You carrying?"
"A hundred and forty-two, sir! But she's getting hotter and hotter all the time."
The boat was straining and groaning and quivering like a monster in pain. Both pilots were at work now, one on each side of the wheel, with their coats and vests off, their bosoms and collars wide open and the perspiration flowing down heir faces. They were holding the boat so close to the shore that the willows swept the guards almost from stem to stern.
"Stand by!" whispered George.
"All ready!" said Jim, under his breath.
"Let her come!"
The boat sprang away, from the bank like a deer, and darted in a long diagonal toward the other shore. She closed in again and thrashed her fierce way along the willows as before. The captain put down the glass:
"Lord how she walks up on us! I do hate to be beat!"
"Jim," said George, looking straight ahead, watching the slightest yawing of the boat and promptly meeting it with the wheel, "how'll it do to try Murderer's Chute?"
"Well, it's--it's taking chances. How was the cottonwood stump on the false point below Boardman's Island this morning?"
"Water just touching the roots."
"Well it's pretty close work. That gives six feet scant in the head of Murderer's Chute. We can just barely rub through if we hit it exactly right. But it's worth trying. She don't dare tackle it!"--meaning the Amaranth.
In another instant the Boreas plunged into what seemed a crooked creek, and the Amaranth's approaching lights were shut out in a moment. Not a whisper was uttered, now, but the three men stared ahead into the shadows and two of them spun the wheel back and forth with anxious watchfulness while the steamer tore along. The chute seemed to come to an end every fifty yards, but always opened out in time. Now the head of it was at hand. George tapped the big bell three times, two leadsmen sprang to their posts, and in a moment their weird cries rose on the night air and were caught up and repeated by two men on the upper deck:
"Mark under wa-a-ter three!"
Davis pulled a couple of ropes--there was a jingling of small bells far below, the boat's speed slackened, and the pent steam began to whistle and the gauge-cocks to scream:
"By the mark twain!"
"Eight and a half!"
Another jingling of little bells and the wheels ceased turning altogether. The whistling of the steam was something frightful now--it almost drowned all other noises.
"Stand by to meet her!"
George had the wheel hard down and was standing on a spoke.
The, boat hesitated seemed to hold her breath, as did the captain and pilots--and then she began to fall away to starboard and every eye lighted:
"Now then!--meet her! meet her! Snatch her!"
The wheel flew to port so fast that the spokes blended into a spider-web --the swing of the boat subsided--she steadied herself----
"Sev--six and a half!"
"Six feet! Six f----"
Bang! She hit the bottom! George shouted through the tube:
"Spread her wide open! Whale it at her!"
Pow-wow-chow! The escape-pipes belched snowy pillars of steam aloft, the boat ground and surged and trembled--and slid over into----
"Tap! tap! tap!" (to signify "Lay in the leads")
And away she went, flying up the willow shore, with the whole silver sea of the Mississippi stretching abroad on every hand.
No Amaranth in sight!
"Ha-ha, boys, we took a couple of tricks that time!" said the captain.
And just at that moment a red glare appeared in the head of the chute and the Amaranth came springing after them!
"Well, I swear!"
"Jim, what is the meaning of that?"
"I'll tell you what's the meaning of it. That hail we had at Napoleon was Wash Hastings, wanting to come to Cairo--and we didn't stop. He's in that pilot house, now, showing those mud turtles how to hunt for easy water."
"That's it! I thought it wasn't any slouch that was running that middle bar in Hog-eye Bend. If it's Wash Hastings--well, what he don't know about the river ain't worth knowing--a regular gold-leaf, kid-glove, diamond breastpin pilot Wash Hastings is. We won't take any tricks off of him, old man!"
"I wish I'd a stopped for him, that's all."
The Amaranth was within three hundred yards of the Boreas, and still gaining. The "old man" spoke through the tube:
"What is she-carrying now?"
"A hundred and sixty-five, sir!"
"How's your wood?"
"Pine all out-cypress half gone-eating up cotton-wood like pie!"
"Break into that rosin on the main deck-pile it in, the boat can pay for it!"
Soon the boat was plunging and quivering and screaming more madly than ever. But the Amaranth's head was almost abreast the Boreas's stern:
"How's your steam, now, Harry?"
"Hundred and eighty-two, sir!"
"Break up the casks of bacon in the forrard hold! Pile it in! Levy on that turpentine in the fantail-drench every stick of wood with it!"
The boat was a moving earthquake by this time:
"How is she now?"
"A hundred and ninety-six and still a-swelling!--water, below the middle gauge-cocks!--carrying every pound she can stand!--nigger roosting on the safety-valve!"
"Good! How's your draft?"
"Bully! Every time a nigger heaves a stick of wood into the furnace he goes out the chimney, with it!"
The Amaranth drew steadily up till her jack-staff breasted the Boreas's wheel-house--climbed along inch by inch till her chimneys breasted it --crept along, further and further, till the boats were wheel to wheel --and then they, closed up with a heavy jolt and locked together tight and fast in the middle of the big river under the flooding moonlight! A roar and a hurrah went up from the crowded decks of both steamers--all hands rushed to the guards to look and shout and gesticulate--the weight careened the vessels over toward each other--officers flew hither and thither cursing and storming, trying to drive the people amidships--both captains were leaning over their railings shaking their fists, swearing and threatening--black volumes of smoke rolled up and canopied the scene,--delivering a rain of sparks upon the vessels--two pistol shots rang out, and both captains dodged unhurt and the packed masses of passengers surged back and fell apart while the shrieks of women and children soared above the intolerable din----
And then there was a booming roar, a thundering crash, and the riddled Amaranth dropped loose from her hold and drifted helplessly away!
Instantly the fire-doors of the Boreas were thrown open and the men began dashing buckets of water into the furnaces--for it would have been death and destruction to stop the engines with such a head of steam on.
As soon as possible the Boreas dropped down to the floating wreck and took off the dead, the wounded and the unhurt--at least all that could be got at, for the whole forward half of the boat was a shapeless ruin, with the great chimneys lying crossed on top of it, and underneath were a dozen victims imprisoned alive and wailing for help. While men with axes worked with might and main to free these poor fellows, the Boreas's boats went about, picking up stragglers from the river.
And now a new horror presented itself. The wreck took fire from the dismantled furnaces! Never did men work with a heartier will than did those stalwart braves with the axes. But it was of no use. The fire ate its way steadily, despising the bucket brigade that fought it. It scorched the clothes, it singed the hair of the axemen--it drove them back, foot by foot-inch by inch--they wavered, struck a final blow in the teeth of the enemy, and surrendered. And as they fell back they heard prisoned voices saying:
"Don't leave us! Don't desert us! Don't, don't do it!"
And one poor fellow said:
"I am Henry Worley, striker of the Amaranth! My mother lives in St. Louis. Tell her a lie for a poor devil's sake, please. Say I was killed in an instant and never knew what hurt me--though God knows I've neither scratch nor bruise this moment! It's hard to burn up in a coop like this with the whole wide world so near. Good-bye boys--we've all got to come to it at last, anyway!"
The Boreas stood away out of danger, and the ruined steamer went drifting down the stream an island of wreathing and climbing flame that vomited clouds of smoke from time to time, and glared more fiercely and sent its luminous tongues higher and higher after each emission. A shriek at intervals told of a captive that had met his doom. The wreck lodged upon a sandbar, and when the Boreas turned the next point on her upward journey it was still burning with scarcely abated fury.
When the boys came down into the main saloon of the Boreas, they saw a pitiful sight and heard a world of pitiful sounds. Eleven poor creatures lay dead and forty more lay moaning, or pleading or screaming, while a score of Good Samaritans moved among them doing what they could to relieve their sufferings; bathing their chinless faces and bodies with linseed oil and lime water and covering the places with bulging masses of raw cotton that gave to every face and form a dreadful and unhuman aspect.
A little wee French midshipman of fourteen lay fearfully injured, but never uttered a sound till a physician of Memphis was about to dress his hurts. Then he said:
"Can I get well? You need not be afraid to tell me."
"No--I--I am afraid you can not."
"Then do not waste your time with me--help those that can get well."
"Help those that can get well! It is, not for me to be a girl. I carry the blood of eleven generations of soldiers in my veins!"
The physician--himself a man who had seen service in the navy in his time--touched his hat to this little hero, and passed on.
The head engineer of the Amaranth, a grand specimen of physical manhood, struggled to his feet a ghastly spectacle and strode toward his brother, the second engineer, who was unhurt. He said:
"You were on watch. You were boss. You would not listen to me when I begged you to reduce your steam. Take that!--take it to my wife and tell her it comes from me by the hand of my murderer! Take it--and take my curse with it to blister your heart a hundred years--and may you live so long!"
And he tore a ring from his finger, stripping flesh and skin with it, threw it down and fell dead!
But these things must not be dwelt upon. The Boreas landed her dreadful cargo at the next large town and delivered it over to a multitude of eager hands and warm southern hearts--a cargo amounting by this time to 39 wounded persons and 22 dead bodies. And with these she delivered a list of 96 missing persons that had drowned or otherwise perished at the scene of the disaster.
A jury of inquest was impaneled, and after due deliberation and inquiry they returned the inevitable American verdict which has been so familiar to our ears all the days of our lives--"NOBODY TO BLAME."
**[The incidents of the explosion are not invented. They happened just as they are told.--The Authors.]
Il veut faire secher de la neige au four et la vendre pour du sel blanc.
When the Boreas backed away from the land to continue her voyage up the river, the Hawkinses were richer by twenty-four hours of experience in the contemplation of human suffering and in learning through honest hard work how to relieve it. And they were richer in another way also. In the early turmoil an hour after the explosion, a little black-eyed girl of five years, frightened and crying bitterly, was struggling through the throng in the Boreas' saloon calling her mother and father, but no one answered. Something in the face of Mr. Hawkins attracted her and she came and looked up at him; was satisfied, and took refuge with him. He petted her, listened to her troubles, and said he would find her friends for her. Then he put her in a state-room with his children and told them to be kind to her (the adults of his party were all busy with the wounded) and straightway began his search.
It was fruitless. But all day he and his wife made inquiries, and hoped against hope. All that they could learn was that the child and her parents came on board at New Orleans, where they had just arrived in a vessel from Cuba; that they looked like people from the Atlantic States; that the family name was Van Brunt and the child's name Laura. This was all. The parents had not been seen since the explosion. The child's manners were those of a little lady, and her clothes were daintier and finer than any Mrs. Hawkins had ever seen before.
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