Black & White on White paper
THE AUTOCRAT OF THE STAGECOACH.
No leader of a cavalry charge ever put more authority into his tones than did Whisky Jim, as he drew the lines over his four bay horses in the streets of Red Owl Landing, a village two years old, boasting three thousand inhabitants, and a certain prospect of having four thousand a month later.
Even ministers, poets, and writers of unworldly romances are sometimes influenced by mercenary considerations. But stage-drivers are entirely consecrated to their high calling. Here was Whisky Jim, in the very streets of Red Owl, in the spring of the year 1856, when money was worth five and six per cent a month on bond and mortgage, when corner lots doubled in value over night, when everybody was frantically trying to swindle everybody else—here was Whisky Jim, with the infatuation of a life-long devotion to horse-flesh, utterly oblivious to the chances of robbing green emigrants which a season of speculation affords. He was secure from the infection. You might have shown him a gold-mine under the very feet of his wheel-horses, and he could not have worked it twenty-four hours. He had an itching palm, which could be satisfied with nothing but the “ribbons” drawn over the backs of a four-in-hand.
The coach moved away—slowly at first—from the front door of the large, rectangular, unpainted Red Owl Hotel, dragging its wheels heavily through the soft turf of a Main street from which the cotton-wood trees had been cut down, but in which the stumps were still standing, and which remained as innocent of all pavement as when, three years before, the chief whose name it bore, loaded his worldly goods upon the back of his oldest and ugliest wife, slung his gun over his shoulder, and started mournfully away from the home of his fathers, which he, shiftless fellow, had bargained away to the white man for an annuity of powder and blankets, and a little money, to be quickly spent for whisky. And yet, I might add digressively, there is comfort in the saddest situations. Even the venerable Red Owl bidding adieu to the home of his ancestors found solace in the sweet hope of returning under favorable circumstances to scalp the white man’s wife and children.
“Git up, thair! G’lang!” The long whip swung round and cracked threateningly over the haunches of the leaders, making them start suddenly as the coach went round a corner and dipped into a hole at the same instant, nearly throwing the driver, and the passenger who was enjoying the outride with him, from their seats.
“What a hole!” said the passenger, a studious-looking young man, with an entomologist’s tin collecting-box slung over his shoulders.
The driver drew a long breath, moistened his lips, and said in a cool and aggravatingly deliberate fashion:
“That air blamed pollywog puddle sold las’ week fer tew thaousand.”
[Illustration: THE SUPERIOR BEING.]
“Dollars?” asked the young man.
Jim gave him an annihilating look, and queried: “Didn’ think I meant tew thaousand acorns, did ye?”
“It’s an awful price,” said the abashed passenger, speaking as one might in the presence of a superior being.
Jim was silent awhile, and then resumed in the same slow tone, but with something of condescension mixed with it:
“Think so, do ye? Mebbe so, stranger. Fool what bought that tadpole lake done middlin’ well in disposin’ of it, how-sumdever.”
Here the Superior Being came to a dead pause, and waited to be questioned.
“How’s that?” asked the young man.
After a proper interval of meditation, Jim said: “Sol’ it this week. Tuck jest twice what he invested in his frog-fishery.”
“Four thousand?” said the passenger with an inquisitive and surprised rising inflection.
“Hey?” said Jim, looking at him solemnly. “Tew times tew use to be four when I larnt the rewl of three in old Varmount. Mebbe ‘taint so in the country you come from, where they call a pail a bucket.”
The passenger kept still awhile. The manner of the Superior Being chilled him a little. But Whisky Jim graciously broke the silence himself.
“Sell nex’ week fer six.”
The young man’s mind had already left the subject under discussion, and it took some little effort of recollection to bring it back.
“How long will it keep on going up?” he asked.
“Tell it teches the top. Come daown then like a spile-driver in a hurry. Higher it goes, the wuss it’ll mash anybody what happens to stan’ percisely under it.”
“When will it reach the top?”
The Superior Being turned his eyes full upon the student, who blushed a little under the half-sneer of his look.
“Yaou tell! Thunder, stranger, that’s jest what everybody’d pay money tew find out. Everybody means to git aout in time, but—thunder!—every piece of perrary in this territory’s a deadfall. Somebody’ll git catched in every one of them air traps. Gee up! G’lang! Git up, won’t you? Hey?” And this last sentence was ornamented with another magnificent writing-master flourish of the whip-lash, and emphasized by an explosive crack at the end, which started the four horses off in a swinging gallop, from which Jim did not allow them to settle back into a walk until they had reached the high prairie land in the rear of the town.
“What are those people living in tents for?” asked the student as he pointed back to Red Owl, now considerably below them, and which presented a panorama of balloon-frame houses, mostly innocent of paint, with a sprinkling of tents pitched here and there among the trees; on lots not yet redeemed from virgin wildness, but which possessed the remarkable quality of “fetching” prices that would have done honor to well-located land in Philadelphia.
“What they live that a-way fer? Hey? Mos’ly ’cause they can’t live no other.” Then, after a long pause, the Superior Being resumed in a tone of half-soliloquy: “A’n’t a bed nur a board in the hull city of Red Owl to be had for payin’ nur coaxin’. Beds is aces. Houses is trumps. Landlords is got high, low, Jack, and the game in ther hands. Looky there! A bran-new lot of fools fresh from the factory.” And he pointed to the old steamboat “Ben Bolt,” which was just coming up to the landing with deck and guards black with eager immigrants of all classes.
But Albert Charlton, the student, did not look back any longer. It marks an epoch in a man’s life when he first catches sight of a prairie landscape, especially if that landscape be one of those great rolling ones to be seen nowhere so well as in Minnesota. Charlton had crossed Illinois from Chicago to Dunleith in the night-time, and so had missed the flat prairies. His sense of sublimity was keen, and, besides his natural love for such scenes, he had a hobbyist passion for virgin nature superadded.
“What a magnificent country!” he cried.
“Talkin’ sense!” muttered Jim. “Never seed so good a place fer stagin’ in my day.”
For every man sees through his own eyes. To the emigrants whose white-top “prairie schooners” wound slowly along the road, these grass-grown hills and those far-away meadowy valleys were only so many places where good farms could be opened without the trouble of cutting off the trees. It was not landscape, but simply land where one might raise thirty or forty bushels of spring wheat to the acre, without any danger of “fevernager;” to the keen-witted speculator looking sharply after corner stakes, at a little distance from the road, it was just so many quarter sections, “eighties,” and “forties,” to be bought low and sold high whenever opportunity offered; to Jim it was a good country for staging, except a few “blamed sloughs where the bottom had fell out.” But the enthusiastic eyes of young Albert Charlton despised all sordid and “culinary uses” of the earth; to him this limitless vista of waving wild grass, these green meadows and treeless hills dotted everywhere with purple and yellow flowers, was a sight of Nature in her noblest mood. Such rolling hills behind hills! If those rolls could be called hills! After an hour the coach had gradually ascended to the summit of the “divide” between Purple River on the one side and Big Gun River on the other, and the rows of willows and cotton-woods that hung over the water’s edge—the only trees under the whole sky—marked distinctly the meandering lines of the two streams. Albert Charlton shouted and laughed; he stood up beside Jim, and cried out that it was a paradise.
“Mebbe ’tis,” sneered Jim, “Anyway, it’s got more’n one devil into it. Gil—lang!”
And under the inspiration of the scenery, Albert, with the impulsiveness of a young man, unfolded to Whisky Jim all the beauties of his own theories: how a man should live naturally and let other creatures live; how much better a man was without flesh-eating; how wrong it was to speculate, and that a speculator gave nothing in return; and that it was not best to wear flannels, seeing one should harden his body to endure cold and all that; and how a man should let his beard grow, not use tobacco nor coffee nor whisky, should get up at four o’clock in the morning and go to bed early.
“Looky here, mister!” said the Superior Being, after a while. “I wouldn’t naow, ef I was you!”
“Wouldn’t fetch no sich notions into this ked’ntry. Can’t afford tew. ‘Taint no land of idees. It’s the ked’ntry of corner lots. Idees is in the way—don’t pay no interest. Haint had time to build a ‘sylum fer people with idees yet, in this territory. Ef you must have ’em, why let me rec-ommend Bost’n. Drove hack there wunst, myself.” Then after a pause he proceeded with the deliberation of a judge: “It’s the best village I ever lay eyes on fer idees, is Bost’n. Thicker’n hops! Grow single and in bunches. Have s’cieties there fer idees. Used to make money outen the fellows with idees, cartin ’em round to anniversaries and sich. Ef you only wear a nice slick plug-hat there, you kin believe anything you choose or not, and be a gentleman all the same. The more you believe or don’t believe in Bost’n, the more gentleman you be. The don’t-believers is just as good as the believers. Idees inside the head, and plug-hats outside. But idees out here! I tell you, here it’s nothin’ but per-cent.” The Superior Being puckered his lips and whistled. “Git up, will you! G’lang! Better try Bost’n.”
Perhaps Albert Charlton, the student passenger, was a little offended with the liberty the driver had taken in rebuking his theories. He was full of “idees,” and his fundamental idea was of course his belief in the equality and universal brotherhood of men. In theory he recognized no social distinctions. But the most democratic of democrats in theory is just a little bit of an aristocrat in feeling—he doesn’t like to be patted on the back by the hostler; much less does he like to be reprimanded by a stage-driver. And Charlton was all the more sensitive from a certain vague consciousness that he himself had let down the bars of his dignity by unfolding his theories so gushingly to Whisky Jim. What did Jim know—what could a man who said “idees” know—about the great world-reforming thoughts that engaged his attention? But when dignity is once fallen, all the king’s oxen and all the king’s men can’t stand it on its legs again. In such a strait, one must flee from him who saw the fall.
Albert Charlton therefore determined that he would change to the inside of the coach when an opportunity should offer, and leave the Superior Being to sit “wrapped in the solitude of his own originality.”
Categories: English Literature