Life On The Mississippi, Part 11.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Produced by David Widger
LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI
BY MARK TWAIN
Chapter 51 Reminiscences
WE left for St. Louis in the 'City of Baton Rouge,' on a delightfully
hot day, but with the main purpose of my visit but lamely accomplished.
I had hoped to hunt up and talk with a hundred steamboatmen, but got so
pleasantly involved in the social life of the town that I got nothing
more than mere five-minute talks with a couple of dozen of the craft.
I was on the bench of the pilot-house when we backed out and
'straightened up' for the start--the boat pausing for a 'good ready,' in
the old-fashioned way, and the black smoke piling out of the chimneys
equally in the old-fashioned way. Then we began to gather momentum, and
presently were fairly under way and booming along. It was all as natural
and familiar--and so were the shoreward sights--as if there had been no
break in my river life. There was a 'cub,' and I judged that he would
take the wheel now; and he did. Captain Bixby stepped into the pilot-
house. Presently the cub closed up on the rank of steamships. He made
me nervous, for he allowed too much water to show between our boat and
the ships. I knew quite well what was going to happen, because I could
date back in my own life and inspect the record. The captain looked on,
during a silent half-minute, then took the wheel himself, and crowded
the boat in, till she went scraping along within a hand-breadth of the
ships. It was exactly the favor which he had done me, about a quarter
of a century before, in that same spot, the first time I ever steamed
out of the port of New Orleans. It was a very great and sincere pleasure
to me to see the thing repeated--with somebody else as victim.
We made Natchez (three hundred miles) in twenty-two hours and a half--
much the swiftest passage I have ever made over that piece of water.
The next morning I came on with the four o'clock watch, and saw Ritchie
successfully run half a dozen crossings in a fog, using for his guidance
the marked chart devised and patented by Bixby and himself. This
sufficiently evidenced the great value of the chart.
By and by, when the fog began to clear off, I noticed that the
reflection of a tree in the smooth water of an overflowed bank, six
hundred yards away, was stronger and blacker than the ghostly tree
itself. The faint spectral trees, dimly glimpsed through the shredding
fog, were very pretty things to see.
We had a heavy thunder-storm at Natchez, another at Vicksburg, and still
another about fifty miles below Memphis. They had an old-fashioned
energy which had long been unfamiliar to me. This third storm was
accompanied by a raging wind. We tied up to the bank when we saw the
tempest coming, and everybody left the pilot-house but me. The wind bent
the young trees down, exposing the pale underside of the leaves; and
gust after gust followed, in quick succession, thrashing the branches
violently up and down, and to this side and that, and creating swift
waves of alternating green and white according to the side of the leaf
that was exposed, and these waves raced after each other as do their
kind over a wind-tossed field of oats. No color that was visible
anywhere was quite natural--all tints were charged with a leaden tinge
from the solid cloud-bank overhead. The river was leaden; all distances
the same; and even the far-reaching ranks of combing white-caps were
dully shaded by the dark, rich atmosphere through which their swarming
legions marched. The thunder-peals were constant and deafening;
explosion followed explosion with but inconsequential intervals between,
and the reports grew steadily sharper and higher-keyed, and more trying
to the ear; the lightning was as diligent as the thunder, and produced
effects which enchanted the eye and sent electric ecstasies of mixed
delight and apprehension shivering along every nerve in the body in
unintermittent procession. The rain poured down in amazing volume; the
ear-splitting thunder-peals broke nearer and nearer; the wind increased
in fury and began to wrench off boughs and tree-tops and send them
sailing away through space; the pilot-house fell to rocking and
straining and cracking and surging, and I went down in the hold to see
what time it was.
People boast a good deal about Alpine thunderstorms; but the storms
which I have had the luck to see in the Alps were not the equals of some
which I have seen in the Mississippi Valley. I may not have seen the
Alps do their best, of course, and if they can beat the Mississippi, I
don't wish to.
On this up trip I saw a little towhead (infant island) half a mile long,
which had been formed during the past nineteen years. Since there was so
much time to spare that nineteen years of it could be devoted to the
construction of a mere towhead, where was the use, originally, in
rushing this whole globe through in six days? It is likely that if more
time had been taken, in the first place, the world would have been made
right, and this ceaseless improving and repairing would not be necessary
now. But if you hurry a world or a house, you are nearly sure to find
out by and by that you have left out a towhead, or a broom-closet, or
some other little convenience, here and there, which has got to be
supplied, no matter how much expense and vexation it may cost.
We had a succession of black nights, going up the river, and it was
observable that whenever we landed, and suddenly inundated the trees
with the intense sunburst of the electric light, a certain curious
effect was always produced: hundreds of birds flocked instantly out from
the masses of shining green foliage, and went careering hither and
thither through the white rays, and often a song-bird tuned up and fell
to singing. We judged that they mistook this superb artificial day for
the genuine article. We had a delightful trip in that thoroughly well-
ordered steamer, and regretted that it was accomplished so speedily. By
means of diligence and activity, we managed to hunt out nearly all the
old friends. One was missing, however; he went to his reward, whatever
it was, two years ago. But I found out all about him. His case helped
me to realize how lasting can be the effect of a very trifling
occurrence. When he was an apprentice-blacksmith in our village, and I a
schoolboy, a couple of young Englishmen came to the town and sojourned a
while; and one day they got themselves up in cheap royal finery and did
the Richard III swordfight with maniac energy and prodigious powwow, in
the presence of the village boys. This blacksmith cub was there, and
the histrionic poison entered his bones. This vast, lumbering,
ignorant, dull-witted lout was stage-struck, and irrecoverably. He
disappeared, and presently turned up in St. Louis. I ran across him
there, by and by. He was standing musing on a street corner, with his
left hand on his hip, the thumb of his right supporting his chin, face
bowed and frowning, slouch hat pulled down over his forehead--imagining
himself to be Othello or some such character, and imagining that the
passing crowd marked his tragic bearing and were awestruck.
I joined him, and tried to get him down out of the clouds, but did not
succeed. However, he casually informed me, presently, that he was a
member of the Walnut Street theater company--and he tried to say it with
indifference, but the indifference was thin, and a mighty exultation
showed through it. He said he was cast for a part in Julius Caesar, for
that night, and if I should come I would see him. IF I should come! I
said I wouldn't miss it if I were dead.
I went away stupefied with astonishment, and saying to myself, 'How
strange it is! WE always thought this fellow a fool; yet the moment he
comes to a great city, where intelligence and appreciation abound, the
talent concealed in this shabby napkin is at once discovered, and
promptly welcomed and honored.'
But I came away from the theater that night disappointed and offended;
for I had had no glimpse of my hero, and his name was not in the bills.
I met him on the street the next morning, and before I could speak, he
'Did you see me?'
'No, you weren't there.'
He looked surprised and disappointed. He said--
'Yes, I was. Indeed I was. I was a Roman soldier.'
'Why didn't you see them Roman soldiers that stood back there in a rank,
and sometimes marched in procession around the stage?'
'Do you mean the Roman army?--those six sandaled roustabouts in
nightshirts, with tin shields and helmets, that marched around treading
on each other's heels, in charge of a spider-legged consumptive dressed
'That's it! that's it! I was one of them Roman soldiers. I was the next
to the last one. A half a year ago I used to always be the last one;
but I've been promoted.'
Well, they told me that that poor fellow remained a Roman soldier to the
last--a matter of thirty-four years. Sometimes they cast him for a
'speaking part,' but not an elaborate one. He could be trusted to go
and say, 'My lord, the carriage waits,' but if they ventured to add a
sentence or two to this, his memory felt the strain and he was likely to
miss fire. Yet, poor devil, he had been patiently studying the part of
Hamlet for more than thirty years, and he lived and died in the belief
that some day he would be invited to play it!
And this is what came of that fleeting visit of those young Englishmen
to our village such ages and ages ago! What noble horseshoes this man
might have made, but for those Englishmen; and what an inadequate Roman
soldier he DID make!
A day or two after we reached St. Louis, I was walking along Fourth
Street when a grizzly-headed man gave a sort of start as he passed me,
then stopped, came back, inspected me narrowly, with a clouding brow,
and finally said with deep asperity--
'Look here, HAVE YOU GOT THAT DRINK YET?'
A maniac, I judged, at first. But all in a flash I recognized him. I
made an effort to blush that strained every muscle in me, and answered
as sweetly and winningly as ever I knew how--
'Been a little slow, but am just this minute closing in on the place
where they keep it. Come in and help.'
He softened, and said make it a bottle of champagne and he was
agreeable. He said he had seen my name in the papers, and had put all
his affairs aside and turned out, resolved to find me or die; and make
me answer that question satisfactorily, or kill me; though the most of
his late asperity had been rather counterfeit than otherwise.
This meeting brought back to me the St. Louis riots of about thirty
years ago. I spent a week there, at that time, in a boarding-house, and
had this young fellow for a neighbor across the hall. We saw some of
the fightings and killings; and by and by we went one night to an armory
where two hundred young men had met, upon call, to be armed and go forth
against the rioters, under command of a military man. We drilled till
about ten o'clock at night; then news came that the mob were in great
force in the lower end of the town, and were sweeping everything before
them. Our column moved at once. It was a very hot night, and my musket
was very heavy. We marched and marched; and the nearer we approached the
seat of war, the hotter I grew and the thirstier I got. I was behind my
friend; so, finally, I asked him to hold my musket while I dropped out
and got a drink. Then I branched off and went home. I was not feeling
any solicitude about him of course, because I knew he was so well armed,
now, that he could take care of himself without any trouble. If I had
had any doubts about that, I would have borrowed another musket for him.
I left the city pretty early the next morning, and if this grizzled man
had not happened to encounter my name in the papers the other day in St.
Louis, and felt moved to seek me out, I should have carried to my grave
a heart-torturing uncertainty as to whether he ever got out of the riots
all right or not. I ought to have inquired, thirty years ago; I know
that. And I would have inquired, if I had had the muskets; but, in the
circumstances, he seemed better fixed to conduct the investigations than
One Monday, near the time of our visit to St. Louis, the 'Globe-
Democrat' came out with a couple of pages of Sunday statistics, whereby
it appeared that 119,448 St. Louis people attended the morning and
evening church services the day before, and 23,102 children attended
Sunday-school. Thus 142,550 persons, out of the city's total of 400,000
population, respected the day religious-wise. I found these statistics,
in a condensed form, in a telegram of the Associated Press, and
preserved them. They made it apparent that St. Louis was in a higher
state of grace than she could have claimed to be in my time. But now
that I canvass the figures narrowly, I suspect that the telegraph
mutilated them. It cannot be that there are more than 150,000 Catholics
in the town; the other 250,000 must be classified as Protestants. Out
of these 250,000, according to this questionable telegram, only 26,362
attended church and Sunday-school, while out of the 150,000 Catholics,
116,188 went to church and Sunday-school.
Chapter 52 A Burning Brand
ALL at once the thought came into my mind, 'I have not sought out Mr.
Upon that text I desire to depart from the direct line of my subject,
and make a little excursion. I wish to reveal a secret which I have
carried with me nine years, and which has become burdensome.
Upon a certain occasion, nine years ago, I had said, with strong
feeling, 'If ever I see St. Louis again, I will seek out Mr. Brown, the
great grain merchant, and ask of him the privilege of shaking him by the
The occasion and the circumstances were as follows. A friend of mine, a
clergyman, came one evening and said--
'I have a most remarkable letter here, which I want to read to you,
if I can do it without breaking down. I must preface it with some
explanations, however. The letter is written by an ex-thief and
ex-vagabond of the lowest origin and basest rearing, a man all stained with
crime and steeped in ignorance; but, thank God, with a mine of pure gold
hidden away in him, as you shall see. His letter is written to a burglar
named Williams, who is serving a nine-year term in a certain State
prison, for burglary. Williams was a particularly daring burglar, and
plied that trade during a number of years; but he was caught at last and
jailed, to await trial in a town where he had broken into a house at
night, pistol in hand, and forced the owner to hand over to him $8,000
in government bonds. Williams was not a common sort of person, by any
means; he was a graduate of Harvard College, and came of good New
England stock. His father was a clergyman. While lying in jail, his
health began to fail, and he was threatened with consumption. This fact,
together with the opportunity for reflection afforded by solitary
confinement, had its effect--its natural effect. He fell into serious
thought; his early training asserted itself with power, and wrought with
strong influence upon his mind and heart. He put his old life behind
him, and became an earnest Christian. Some ladies in the town heard of
this, visited him, and by their encouraging words supported him in his
good resolutions and strengthened him to continue in his new life. The
trial ended in his conviction and sentence to the State prison for the
term of nine years, as I have before said. In the prison he became
acquainted with the poor wretch referred to in the beginning of my talk,
Jack Hunt, the writer of the letter which I am going to read. You will
see that the acquaintanceship bore fruit for Hunt. When Hunt's time was
out, he wandered to St. Louis; and from that place he wrote his letter
to Williams. The letter got no further than the office of the prison
warden, of course; prisoners are not often allowed to receive letters
from outside. The prison authorities read this letter, but did not
destroy it. They had not the heart to do it. They read it to several
persons, and eventually it fell into the hands of those ladies of whom I
spoke a while ago. The other day I came across an old friend of mine--a
clergyman--who had seen this letter, and was full of it. The mere
remembrance of it so moved him that he could not talk of it without his
voice breaking. He promised to get a copy of it for me; and here it is
--an exact copy, with all the imperfections of the original preserved. It
has many slang expressions in it--thieves' argot--but their meaning has
been interlined, in parentheses, by the prison authorities'--
St. Louis, June 9th 1872.
Mr. W---- friend Charlie if i may call you so: i no you are surprised
to get a letter from me, but i hope you won't be mad at my writing to
you. i want to tell you my thanks for the way you talked to me when i
was in prison--it has led me to try and be a better man; i guess you
thought i did not cair for what you said, & at the first go off I
didn't, but i noed you was a man who had don big work with good men &
want no sucker, nor want gasing & all the boys knod it.
I used to think at nite what you said, & for it i nocked off swearing
months before my time was up, for i saw it want no good, nohow--the day
my time was up you told me if i would shake the cross (QUIT STEALING) &
live on the square for months, it would be the best job i ever done in
my life. The state agent give me a ticket to here, & on the car i
thought more of what you said to me, but didn't make up my mind. When
we got to Chicago on the cars from there to here, I pulled off an old
woman's leather; (ROBBED HER OF HER POCKETBOOK) i hadn't no more than
got it off when i wished i hadn't done it, for awhile before that i made
up my mind to be a square bloke, for months on your word, but forgot it
when i saw the leather was a grip (EASY TO GET)--but i kept clos to her
& when she got out of the cars at a way place i said, marm have you lost
anything. & she tumbled (DISCOVERED) her leather was off (GONE)--is this
it says i, giving it to her--well if you aint honest, says she, but i
hadn't got cheak enough to stand that sort of talk, so i left her in a
hurry. When i got here i had $1 and 25 cents left & i didn't get no work
for 3 days as i aint strong enough for roust about on a steam bote (FOR
A DECK HAND)--The afternoon of the 3rd day I spent my last 10 cts for
moons (LARGE, ROUND SEA-BISCUIT) & cheese & i felt pretty rough & was
thinking i would have to go on the dipe (PICKING POCKETS) again, when i
thought of what you once said about a fellows calling on the Lord when
he was in hard luck, & i thought i would try it once anyhow, but when i
tryed it i got stuck on the start, & all i could get off wos, Lord give
a poor fellow a chance to square it for 3 months for Christ's sake,
amen; & i kept a thinking, of it over and over as i went along--about an
hour after that i was in 4th St. & this is what happened & is the cause
of my being where i am now & about which i will tell you before i get
done writing. As i was walking along herd a big noise & saw a horse
running away with a carriage with 2 children in it, & I grabed up a
peace of box cover from the side walk & run in the middle of the street,
& when the horse came up i smashed him over the head as hard as i could
drive--the bord split to peces & the horse checked up a little & I
grabbed the reigns & pulled his head down until he stopped--the
gentleman what owned him came running up & soon as he saw the children
were all rite, he shook hands with me and gave me a $50 green back, & my
asking the Lord to help me come into my head, & i was so thunderstruck i
couldn't drop the reigns nor say nothing--he saw something was up, &
coming back to me said, my boy are you hurt? & the thought come into my
head just then to ask him for work; & i asked him to take back the bill
and give me a job--says he, jump in here & lets talk about it, but keep
the money--he asked me if i could take care of horses & i said yes, for
i used to hang round livery stables & often would help clean & drive
horses, he told me he wanted a man for that work, & would give me $16 a
month & bord me. You bet i took that chance at once. that nite in my
little room over the stable i sat a long time thinking over my past life
& of what had just happened & i just got down on my nees & thanked the
Lord for the job & to help me to square it, & to bless you for putting
me up to it, & the next morning i done it again & got me some new togs
(CLOTHES) & a bible for i made up my mind after what the Lord had done
for me i would read the bible every nite and morning, & ask him to keep
an eye on me. When I had been there about a week Mr. Brown (that's his
name) came in my room one nite and saw me reading the bible--he asked me
if i was a Christian & i told him no--he asked me how it was i read the
bible instead of papers & books--Well Charlie i thought i had better
give him a square deal in the start, so i told him all about my being in
prison & about you, & how i had almost done give up looking for work &
how the Lord got me the job when I asked him; & the only way i had to
pay him back was to read the bible & square it, & i asked him to give me
a chance for 3 months--he talked to me like a father for a long time, &
told me i could stay & then i felt better than ever i had done in my
life, for i had given Mr. Brown a fair start with me & now i didn't fear
no one giving me a back cap (EXPOSING HIS PAST LIFE) & running me off
the job--the next morning he called me into the library & gave me
another square talk, & advised me to study some every day, & he would
help me one or 2 hours every nite, & he gave me a Arithmetic, a spelling
book, a Geography & a writing book, & he hers me every nite--he lets me
come into the house to prayers every morning, & got me put in a bible
class in the Sunday School which i likes very much for it helps me to
understand my bible better.
Now, Charlie the 3 months on the square are up 2 months ago, & as you
said, it is the best job i ever did in my life, & i commenced another of
the same sort right away, only it is to God helping me to last a
lifetime Charlie--i wrote this letter to tell you I do think God has
forgiven my sins & herd your prayers, for you told me you should pray
for me--i no i love to read his word & tell him all my troubles & he
helps me i know for i have plenty of chances to steal but i don't feel
to as i once did & now i take more pleasure in going to church than to
the theater & that wasnt so once--our minister and others often talk
with me & a month ago they wanted me to join the church, but I said no,
not now, i may be mistaken in my feelings, i will wait awhile, but now i
feel that God has called me & on the first Sunday in July i will join
the church--dear friend i wish i could write to you as i feel, but i
cant do it yet--you no i learned to read and write while prisons & i
aint got well enough along to write as i would talk; i no i aint spelled
all the words rite in this & lots of other mistakes but you will excuse
it i no, for you no i was brought up in a poor house until i run away, &
that i never new who my father and mother was & i dont no my right name,
& i hope you wont be mad at me, but i have as much rite to one name as
another & i have taken your name, for you wont use it when you get out i
no, & you are the man i think most of in the world; so i hope you wont
be mad--I am doing well, i put $10 a month in bank with $25 of the $50--
if you ever want any or all of it let me know, & it is yours. i wish you
would let me send you some now. I send you with this a receipt for a
year of Littles Living Age, i didn't know what you would like & i told
Mr. Brown & he said he thought you would like it--i wish i was nere you
so i could send you chuck (REFRESHMENTS) on holidays; it would spoil
this weather from here, but i will send you a box next thanksgiving any
way--next week Mr. Brown takes me into his store as lite porter & will
advance me as soon as i know a little more--he keeps a big granary
store, wholesale--i forgot to tell you of my mission school, sunday
school class--the school is in the sunday afternoon, i went out two
sunday afternoons, and picked up seven kids (LITTLE BOYS) & got them to
come in. two of them new as much as i did & i had them put in a class
where they could learn something. i dont no much myself, but as these
kids cant read i get on nicely with them. i make sure of them by going
after them every Sunday hour before school time, I also got 4 girls to
come. tell Mack and Harry about me, if they will come out here when
their time is up i will get them jobs at once. i hope you will excuse
this long letter & all mistakes, i wish i could see you for i cant write
as i would talk--i hope the warm weather is doing your lungs good--i was
afraid when you was bleeding you would die--give my respects to all the
boys and tell them how i am doing--i am doing well and every one here
treats me as kind as they can--Mr. Brown is going to write to you
sometime--i hope some day you will write to me, this letter is from your
very true friend
who you know as Jack Hunt.
I send you Mr. Brown's card. Send my letter to him.
Here was true eloquence; irresistible eloquence; and without a single
grace or ornament to help it out. I have seldom been so deeply stirred
by any piece of writing. The reader of it halted, all the way through,
on a lame and broken voice; yet he had tried to fortify his feelings by
several private readings of the letter before venturing into company
with it. He was practising upon me to see if there was any hope of his
being able to read the document to his prayer-meeting with anything like
a decent command over his feelings. The result was not promising.
However, he determined to risk it; and did. He got through tolerably
well; but his audience broke down early, and stayed in that condition to
The fame of the letter spread through the town. A brother minister came
and borrowed the manuscript, put it bodily into a sermon, preached the
sermon to twelve hundred people on a Sunday morning, and the letter
drowned them in their own tears. Then my friend put it into a sermon and
went before his Sunday morning congregation with it. It scored another
triumph. The house wept as one individual.
My friend went on summer vacation up into the fishing regions of our
northern British neighbors, and carried this sermon with him, since he
might possibly chance to need a sermon. He was asked to preach, one day.
The little church was full. Among the people present were the late Dr.
J. G. Holland, the late Mr. Seymour of the 'New York Times,' Mr. Page,
the philanthropist and temperance advocate, and, I think, Senator Frye,
of Maine. The marvelous letter did its wonted work; all the people were
moved, all the people wept; the tears flowed in a steady stream down Dr.
Holland's cheeks, and nearly the same can be said with regard to all who
were there. Mr. Page was so full of enthusiasm over the letter that he
said he would not rest until he made pilgrimage to that prison, and had
speech with the man who had been able to inspire a fellow-unfortunate to
write so priceless a tract.
Ah, that unlucky Page!--and another man. If they had only been in
Jericho, that letter would have rung through the world and stirred all
the hearts of all the nations for a thousand years to come, and nobody
might ever have found out that it was the confoundedest, brazenest,
ingeniousest piece of fraud and humbuggery that was ever concocted to
fool poor confiding mortals with!
The letter was a pure swindle, and that is the truth. And take it by and
large, it was without a compeer among swindles. It was perfect, it was
rounded, symmetrical, complete, colossal!
The reader learns it at this point; but we didn't learn it till some
miles and weeks beyond this stage of the affair. My friend came back
from the woods, and he and other clergymen and lay missionaries began
once more to inundate audiences with their tears and the tears of said
audiences; I begged hard for permission to print the letter in a
magazine and tell the watery story of its triumphs; numbers of people
got copies of the letter, with permission to circulate them in writing,
but not in print; copies were sent to the Sandwich Islands and other far
Charles Dudley Warner was at church, one day, when the worn letter was
read and wept over. At the church door, afterward, he dropped a
peculiarly cold iceberg down the clergyman's back with the question--
'Do you know that letter to be genuine?'
It was the first suspicion that had ever been voiced; but it had that
sickening effect which first-uttered suspicions against one's idol
always have. Some talk followed--
'Why--what should make you suspect that it isn't genuine?'
'Nothing that I know of, except that it is too neat, and compact, and
fluent, and nicely put together for an ignorant person, an unpractised
hand. I think it was done by an educated man.'
The literary artist had detected the literary machinery. If you will
look at the letter now, you will detect it yourself--it is observable in
Straightway the clergyman went off, with this seed of suspicion
sprouting in him, and wrote to a minister residing in that town where
Williams had been jailed and converted; asked for light; and also asked
if a person in the literary line (meaning me) might be allowed to print
the letter and tell its history. He presently received this answer--
Rev. ---- ----
MY DEAR FRIEND,--In regard to that 'convict's letter' there can be no
doubt as to its genuineness. 'Williams,' to whom it was written, lay in
our jail and professed to have been converted, and Rev. Mr. ----, the
chaplain, had great faith in the genuineness of the change--as much as
one can have in any such case.
The letter was sent to one of our ladies, who is a Sunday-school
teacher,--sent either by Williams himself, or the chaplain of the
State's prison, probably. She has been greatly annoyed in having so
much publicity, lest it might seem a breach of confidence, or be an
injury to Williams. In regard to its publication, I can give no
permission; though if the names and places were omitted, and especially
if sent out of the country, I think you might take the responsibility
and do it.
It is a wonderful letter, which no Christian genius, much less one
unsanctified, could ever have written. As showing the work of grace in
a human heart, and in a very degraded and wicked one, it proves its own
origin and reproves our weak faith in its power to cope with any form of
'Mr. Brown' of St. Louis, some one said, was a Hartford man. Do all whom
you send from Hartford serve their Master as well?
P.S.--Williams is still in the State's prison, serving out a long
sentence--of nine years, I think. He has been sick and threatened with
consumption, but I have not inquired after him lately. This lady that I
speak of corresponds with him, I presume, and will be quite sure to look
This letter arrived a few days after it was written--and up went Mr.
Williams's stock again. Mr. Warner's low-down suspicion was laid in the
cold, cold grave, where it apparently belonged. It was a suspicion based
upon mere internal evidence, anyway; and when you come to internal
evidence, it's a big field and a game that two can play at: as witness
this other internal evidence, discovered by the writer of the note above
quoted, that 'it is a wonderful letter--which no Christian genius, much
less one unsanctified, could ever have written.'
I had permission now to print--provided I suppressed names and places
and sent my narrative out of the country. So I chose an Australian
magazine for vehicle, as being far enough out of the country, and set
myself to work on my article. And the ministers set the pumps going
again, with the letter to work the handles.
But meantime Brother Page had been agitating. He had not visited the
penitentiary, but he had sent a copy of the illustrious letter to the
chaplain of that institution, and accompanied it with--apparently
inquiries. He got an answer, dated four days later than that other
Brother's reassuring epistle; and before my article was complete, it
wandered into my hands. The original is before me, now, and I here
append it. It is pretty well loaded with internal evidence of the most
STATE'S PRISON, CHAPLAIN'S OFFICE, July 11, 1873.
DEAR BRO. PAGE,--Herewith please find the letter kindly loaned me. I am
afraid its genuineness cannot be established. It purports to be
addressed to some prisoner here. No such letter ever came to a prisoner
here. All letters received are carefully read by officers of the prison
before they go into the hands of the convicts, and any such letter could
not be forgotten. Again, Charles Williams is not a Christian man, but a
dissolute, cunning prodigal, whose father is a minister of the gospel.
His name is an assumed one. I am glad to have made your acquaintance. I
am preparing a lecture upon life seen through prison bars, and should
like to deliver the same in your vicinity.
And so ended that little drama. My poor article went into the fire; for
whereas the materials for it were now more abundant and infinitely
richer than they had previously been, there were parties all around me,
who, although longing for the publication before, were a unit for
suppression at this stage and complexion of the game. They said: 'Wait
--the wound is too fresh, yet.' All the copies of the famous letter
except mine disappeared suddenly; and from that time onward, the
aforetime same old drought set in in the churches. As a rule, the town
was on a spacious grin for a while, but there were places in it where
the grin did not appear, and where it was dangerous to refer to the
A word of explanation. 'Jack Hunt,' the professed writer of the letter,
was an imaginary person. The burglar Williams--Harvard graduate, son of
a minister--wrote the letter himself, to himself: got it smuggled out
of the prison; got it conveyed to persons who had supported and
encouraged him in his conversion--where he knew two things would happen:
the genuineness of the letter would not be doubted or inquired into; and
the nub of it would be noticed, and would have valuable effect--the
effect, indeed, of starting a movement to get Mr. Williams pardoned out
That 'nub' is so ingeniously, so casually, flung in, and immediately
left there in the tail of the letter, undwelt upon, that an indifferent
reader would never suspect that it was the heart and core of the
epistle, if he even took note of it at all, This is the 'nub'--
'i hope the warm weather is doing your lungs good--I WAS AFRAID WHEN YOU
WAS BLEEDING YOU WOULD DIE--give my respects,' etc.
That is all there is of it--simply touch and go--no dwelling upon it.
Nevertheless it was intended for an eye that would be swift to see it;
and it was meant to move a kind heart to try to effect the liberation of
a poor reformed and purified fellow lying in the fell grip of
When I for the first time heard that letter read, nine years ago, I felt
that it was the most remarkable one I had ever encountered. And it so
warmed me toward Mr. Brown of St. Louis that I said that if ever I
visited that city again, I would seek out that excellent man and kiss
the hem of his garment if it was a new one. Well, I visited St. Louis,
but I did not hunt for Mr. Brown; for, alas! the investigations of long
ago had proved that the benevolent Brown, like 'Jack Hunt,' was not a
real person, but a sheer invention of that gifted rascal, Williams--
burglar, Harvard graduate, son of a clergyman.
Chapter 53 My Boyhood's Home
WE took passage in one of the fast boats of the St. Louis and St. Paul
Packet Company, and started up the river.
When I, as a boy, first saw the mouth of the Missouri River, it was
twenty-two or twenty-three miles above St. Louis, according to the
estimate of pilots; the wear and tear of the banks have moved it down
eight miles since then; and the pilots say that within five years the
river will cut through and move the mouth down five miles more, which
will bring it within ten miles of St. Louis.
About nightfall we passed the large and flourishing town of Alton,
Illinois; and before daylight next morning the town of Louisiana,
Missouri, a sleepy village in my day, but a brisk railway center now;
however, all the towns out there are railway centers now. I could not
clearly recognize the place. This seemed odd to me, for when I retired
from the rebel army in '61 I retired upon Louisiana in good order; at
least in good enough order for a person who had not yet learned how to
retreat according to the rules of war, and had to trust to native
genius. It seemed to me that for a first attempt at a retreat it was not
badly done. I had done no advancing in all that campaign that was at
all equal to it.
There was a railway bridge across the river here well sprinkled with
glowing lights, and a very beautiful sight it was.
At seven in the morning we reached Hannibal, Missouri, where my boyhood
was spent. I had had a glimpse of it fifteen years ago, and another
glimpse six years earlier, but both were so brief that they hardly
counted. The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the
memory of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years
ago. That picture of it was still as clear and vivid to me as a
photograph. I stepped ashore with the feeling of one who returns out of
a dead-and-gone generation. I had a sort of realizing sense of what the
Bastille prisoners must have felt when they used to come out and look
upon Paris after years of captivity, and note how curiously the familiar
and the strange were mixed together before them. I saw the new houses--
saw them plainly enough--but they did not affect the older picture in my
mind, for through their solid bricks and mortar I saw the vanished
houses, which had formerly stood there, with perfect distinctness.
It was Sunday morning, and everybody was abed yet. So I passed through
the vacant streets, still seeing the town as it was, and not as it is,
and recognizing and metaphorically shaking hands with a hundred familiar
objects which no longer exist; and finally climbed Holiday's Hill to get
a comprehensive view. The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I
could mark and fix every locality, every detail. Naturally, I was a
good deal moved. I said, 'Many of the people I once knew in this
tranquil refuge of my childhood are now in heaven; some, I trust, are in
the other place.' The things about me and before me made me feel like a
boy again--convinced me that I was a boy again, and that I had simply
been dreaming an unusually long dream; but my reflections spoiled all
that; for they forced me to say, 'I see fifty old houses down yonder,
into each of which I could enter and find either a man or a woman who
was a baby or unborn when I noticed those houses last, or a grandmother
who was a plump young bride at that time.'
From this vantage ground the extensive view up and down the river, and
wide over the wooded expanses of Illinois, is very beautiful--one of the
most beautiful on the Mississippi, I think; which is a hazardous remark
to make, for the eight hundred miles of river between St. Louis and St.
Paul afford an unbroken succession of lovely pictures. It may be that
my affection for the one in question biases my judgment in its favor; I
cannot say as to that. No matter, it was satisfyingly beautiful to me,
and it had this advantage over all the other friends whom I was about to
greet again: it had suffered no change; it was as young and fresh and
comely and gracious as ever it had been; whereas, the faces of the
others would be old, and scarred with the campaigns of life, and marked
with their griefs and defeats, and would give me no upliftings of
An old gentleman, out on an early morning walk, came along, and we
discussed the weather, and then drifted into other matters. I could not
remember his face. He said he had been living here twenty-eight years.
So he had come after my time, and I had never seen him before. I asked
him various questions; first about a mate of mine in Sunday school--what
became of him?
'He graduated with honor in an Eastern college, wandered off into the
world somewhere, succeeded at nothing, passed out of knowledge and
memory years ago, and is supposed to have gone to the dogs.'
'He was bright, and promised well when he was a boy.'
'Yes, but the thing that happened is what became of it all.'
I asked after another lad, altogether the brightest in our village
school when I was a boy.
'He, too, was graduated with honors, from an Eastern college; but life
whipped him in every battle, straight along, and he died in one of the
Territories, years ago, a defeated man.'
I asked after another of the bright boys.
'He is a success, always has been, always will be, I think.'
I inquired after a young fellow who came to the town to study for one of
the professions when I was a boy.
'He went at something else before he got through--went from medicine to
law, or from law to medicine--then to some other new thing; went away
for a year, came back with a young wife; fell to drinking, then to
gambling behind the door; finally took his wife and two young children
to her father's, and went off to Mexico; went from bad to worse, and
finally died there, without a cent to buy a shroud, and without a friend
to attend the funeral.'
'Pity, for he was the best-natured, and most cheery and hopeful young
fellow that ever was.'
I named another boy.
'Oh, he is all right. Lives here yet; has a wife and children, and is
Same verdict concerning other boys.
I named three school-girls.
'The first two live here, are married and have children; the other is
long ago dead--never married.'
I named, with emotion, one of my early sweethearts.
'She is all right. Been married three times; buried two husbands,
divorced from the third, and I hear she is getting ready to marry an old
fellow out in Colorado somewhere. She's got children scattered around
here and there, most everywheres.'
The answer to several other inquiries was brief and simple--
'Killed in the war.'
I named another boy.
'Well, now, his case is curious! There wasn't a human being in this
town but knew that that boy was a perfect chucklehead; perfect dummy;
just a stupid ass, as you may say. Everybody knew it, and everybody said
it. Well, if that very boy isn't the first lawyer in the State of
Missouri to-day, I'm a Democrat!'
'Is that so?'
'It's actually so. I'm telling you the truth.'
'How do you account for it?'
'Account for it? There ain't any accounting for it, except that if you
send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don't tell them he's a damned
fool they'll never find it out. There's one thing sure--if I had a
damned fool I should know what to do with him: ship him to St. Louis--
it's the noblest market in the world for that kind of property. Well,
when you come to look at it all around, and chew at it and think it
over, don't it just bang anything you ever heard of?'
'Well, yes, it does seem to. But don't you think maybe it was the
Hannibal people who were mistaken about the boy, and not the St. Louis
'Oh, nonsense! The people here have known him from the very cradle--
they knew him a hundred times better than the St. Louis idiots could
have known him. No, if you have got any damned fools that you want to
realize on, take my advice--send them to St. Louis.'
I mentioned a great number of people whom I had formerly known. Some
were dead, some were gone away, some had prospered, some had come to
naught; but as regarded a dozen or so of the lot, the answer was
'Prosperous--live here yet--town littered with their children.'
I asked about Miss ----.
Died in the insane asylum three or four years ago--never was out of it
from the time she went in; and was always suffering, too; never got a
shred of her mind back.'
If he spoke the truth, here was a heavy tragedy, indeed. Thirty-six
years in a madhouse, that some young fools might have some fun! I was a
small boy, at the time; and I saw those giddy young ladies come
tiptoeing into the room where Miss ---- sat reading at midnight by a
lamp. The girl at the head of the file wore a shroud and a doughface,
she crept behind the victim, touched her on the shoulder, and she looked
up and screamed, and then fell into convulsions. She did not recover
from the fright, but went mad. In these days it seems incredible that
people believed in ghosts so short a time ago. But they did.
After asking after such other folk as I could call to mind, I finally
inquired about MYSELF:
'Oh, he succeeded well enough--another case of damned fool. If they'd
sent him to St. Louis, he'd have succeeded sooner.'
It was with much satisfaction that I recognized the wisdom of having
told this candid gentleman, in the beginning, that my name was Smith.
Chapter 54 Past and Present
Being left to myself, up there, I went on picking out old houses in the
distant town, and calling back their former inmates out of the moldy
past. Among them I presently recognized the house of the father of Lem
Hackett (fictitious name). It carried me back more than a generation in
a moment, and landed me in the midst of a time when the happenings of
life were not the natural and logical results of great general laws, but
of special orders, and were freighted with very precise and distinct
purposes--partly punitive in intent, partly admonitory; and usually
local in application.
When I was a small boy, Lem Hackett was drowned--on a Sunday. He fell
out of an empty flat-boat, where he was playing. Being loaded with sin,
he went to the bottom like an anvil. He was the only boy in the village
who slept that night. We others all lay awake, repenting. We had not
needed the information, delivered from the pulpit that evening, that
Lem's was a case of special judgment--we knew that, already. There was
a ferocious thunder-storm, that night, and it raged continuously until
near dawn. The winds blew, the windows rattled, the rain swept along the
roof in pelting sheets, and at the briefest of intervals the inky
blackness of the night vanished, the houses over the way glared out
white and blinding for a quivering instant, then the solid darkness shut
down again and a splitting peal of thunder followed, which seemed to
rend everything in the neighborhood to shreds and splinters. I sat up in
bed quaking and shuddering, waiting for the destruction of the world,
and expecting it. To me there was nothing strange or incongruous in
heaven's making such an uproar about Lem Hackett. Apparently it was the
right and proper thing to do. Not a doubt entered my mind that all the
angels were grouped together, discussing this boy's case and observing
the awful bombardment of our beggarly little village with satisfaction
and approval. There was one thing which disturbed me in the most serious
way; that was the thought that this centering of the celestial interest
on our village could not fail to attract the attention of the observers
to people among us who might otherwise have escaped notice for years. I
felt that I was not only one of those people, but the very one most
likely to be discovered. That discovery could have but one result: I
should be in the fire with Lem before the chill of the river had been
fairly warmed out of him. I knew that this would be only just and fair.
I was increasing the chances against myself all the time, by feeling a
secret bitterness against Lem for having attracted this fatal attention
to me, but I could not help it--this sinful thought persisted in
infesting my breast in spite of me. Every time the lightning glared I
caught my breath, and judged I was gone. In my terror and misery, I
meanly began to suggest other boys, and mention acts of theirs which
were wickeder than mine, and peculiarly needed punishment--and I tried
to pretend to myself that I was simply doing this in a casual way, and
without intent to divert the heavenly attention to them for the purpose
of getting rid of it myself. With deep sagacity I put these mentions
into the form of sorrowing recollections and left-handed sham-
supplications that the sins of those boys might be allowed to pass
unnoticed--'Possibly they may repent.' 'It is true that Jim Smith broke
a window and lied about it--but maybe he did not mean any harm. And
although Tom Holmes says more bad words than any other boy in the
village, he probably intends to repent--though he has never said he
would. And whilst it is a fact that John Jones did fish a little on
Sunday, once, he didn't really catch anything but only just one small
useless mud-cat; and maybe that wouldn't have been so awful if he had
thrown it back--as he says he did, but he didn't. Pity but they would
repent of these dreadful things--and maybe they will yet.'
But while I was shamefully trying to draw attention to these poor chaps
--who were doubtless directing the celestial attention to me at the same
moment, though I never once suspected that--I had heedlessly left my
candle burning. It was not a time to neglect even trifling precautions.
There was no occasion to add anything to the facilities for attracting
notice to me--so I put the light out.
It was a long night to me, and perhaps the most distressful one I ever
spent. I endured agonies of remorse for sins which I knew I had
committed, and for others which I was not certain about, yet was sure
that they had been set down against me in a book by an angel who was
wiser than I and did not trust such important matters to memory. It
struck me, by and by, that I had been making a most foolish and
calamitous mistake, in one respect: doubtless I had not only made my own
destruction sure by directing attention to those other boys, but had
already accomplished theirs!--Doubtless the lightning had stretched them
all dead in their beds by this time! The anguish and the fright which
this thought gave me made my previous sufferings seem trifling by
Things had become truly serious. I resolved to turn over a new leaf
instantly; I also resolved to connect myself with the church the next
day, if I survived to see its sun appear. I resolved to cease from sin
in all its forms, and to lead a high and blameless life for ever after.
I would be punctual at church and Sunday-school; visit the sick; carry
baskets of victuals to the poor (simply to fulfil the regulation
conditions, although I knew we had none among us so poor but they would
smash the basket over my head for my pains); I would instruct other boys
in right ways, and take the resulting trouncings meekly; I would subsist
entirely on tracts; I would invade the rum shop and warn the drunkard--
and finally, if I escaped the fate of those who early become too good to
live, I would go for a missionary.
The storm subsided toward daybreak, and I dozed gradually to sleep with
a sense of obligation to Lem Hackett for going to eternal suffering in
that abrupt way, and thus preventing a far more dreadful disaster--my
But when I rose refreshed, by and by, and found that those other boys
were still alive, I had a dim sense that perhaps the whole thing was a
false alarm; that the entire turmoil had been on Lem's account and
nobody's else. The world looked so bright and safe that there did not
seem to be any real occasion to turn over a new leaf. I was a little
subdued, during that day, and perhaps the next; after that, my purpose
of reforming slowly dropped out of my mind, and I had a peaceful,
comfortable time again, until the next storm.
That storm came about three weeks later; and it was the most
unaccountable one, to me, that I had ever experienced; for on the
afternoon of that day, 'Dutchy' was drowned. Dutchy belonged to our
Sunday-school. He was a German lad who did not know enough to come in
out of the rain; but he was exasperatingly good, and had a prodigious
memory. One Sunday he made himself the envy of all the youth and the
talk of all the admiring village, by reciting three thousand verses of
Scripture without missing a word; then he went off the very next day and
Circumstances gave to his death a peculiar impressiveness. We were all
bathing in a muddy creek which had a deep hole in it, and in this hole
the coopers had sunk a pile of green hickory hoop poles to soak, some
twelve feet under water. We were diving and 'seeing who could stay under
longest.' We managed to remain down by holding on to the hoop poles.
Dutchy made such a poor success of it that he was hailed with laughter
and derision every time his head appeared above water. At last he seemed
hurt with the taunts, and begged us to stand still on the bank and be
fair with him and give him an honest count--'be friendly and kind just
this once, and not miscount for the sake of having the fun of laughing
at him.' Treacherous winks were exchanged, and all said 'All right,
Dutchy--go ahead, we'll play fair.'
Dutchy plunged in, but the boys, instead of beginning to count, followed
the lead of one of their number and scampered to a range of blackberry
bushes close by and hid behind it. They imagined Dutchy's humiliation,
when he should rise after a superhuman effort and find the place silent
and vacant, nobody there to applaud. They were 'so full of laugh' with
the idea, that they were continually exploding into muffled cackles.
Time swept on, and presently one who was peeping through the briers,
said, with surprise--
'Why, he hasn't come up, yet!'
The laughing stopped.
'Boys, it 's a splendid dive,' said one.
'Never mind that,' said another, 'the joke on him is all the better for
There was a remark or two more, and then a pause. Talking ceased, and
all began to peer through the vines. Before long, the boys' faces began
to look uneasy, then anxious, then terrified. Still there was no
movement of the placid water. Hearts began to beat fast, and faces to
turn pale. We all glided out, silently, and stood on the bank, our
horrified eyes wandering back and forth from each other's countenances
to the water.
'Somebody must go down and see!'
Yes, that was plain; but nobody wanted that grisly task.
So we did--with hands which shook so, that we hardly knew what we were
about. The lot fell to me, and I went down. The water was so muddy I
could not see anything, but I felt around among the hoop poles, and
presently grasped a limp wrist which gave me no response--and if it had
I should not have known it, I let it go with such a frightened
The boy had been caught among the hoop poles and entangled there,
helplessly. I fled to the surface and told the awful news. Some of us
knew that if the boy were dragged out at once he might possibly be
resuscitated, but we never thought of that. We did not think of
anything; we did not know what to do, so we did nothing--except that the
smaller lads cried, piteously, and we all struggled frantically into our
clothes, putting on anybody's that came handy, and getting them wrong-
side-out and upside-down, as a rule. Then we scurried away and gave the
alarm, but none of us went back to see the end of the tragedy. We had a
more important thing to attend to: we all flew home, and lost not a
moment in getting ready to lead a better life.
The night presently closed down. Then came on that tremendous and
utterly unaccountable storm. I was perfectly dazed; I could not
understand it. It seemed to me that there must be some mistake. The
elements were turned loose, and they rattled and banged and blazed away
in the most blind and frantic manner. All heart and hope went out of
me, and the dismal thought kept floating through my brain, 'If a boy who
knows three thousand verses by heart is not satisfactory, what chance is
there for anybody else?'
Of course I never questioned for a moment that the storm was on Dutchy's
account, or that he or any other inconsequential animal was worthy of
such a majestic demonstration from on high; the lesson of it was the
only thing that troubled me; for it convinced me that if Dutchy, with
all his perfections, was not a delight, it would be vain for me to turn
over a new leaf, for I must infallibly fall hopelessly short of that
boy, no matter how hard I might try. Nevertheless I did turn it over--a
highly educated fear compelled me to do that--but succeeding days of
cheerfulness and sunshine came bothering around, and within a month I
had so drifted backward that again I was as lost and comfortable as
Breakfast time approached while I mused these musings and called these
ancient happenings back to mind; so I got me back into the present and
went down the hill.
On my way through town to the hotel, I saw the house which was my home
when I was a boy. At present rates, the people who now occupy it are of
no more value than I am; but in my time they would have been worth not
less than five hundred dollars apiece. They are colored folk.
After breakfast, I went out alone again, intending to hunt up some of
the Sunday-schools and see how this generation of pupils might compare
with their progenitors who had sat with me in those places and had
probably taken me as a model--though I do not remember as to that now.
By the public square there had been in my day a shabby little brick
church called the 'Old Ship of Zion,' which I had attended as a Sunday-
school scholar; and I found the locality easily enough, but not the old
church; it was gone, and a trig and rather hilarious new edifice was in
its place. The pupils were better dressed and better looking than were
those of my time; consequently they did not resemble their ancestors;
and consequently there was nothing familiar to me in their faces. Still,
I contemplated them with a deep interest and a yearning wistfulness, and
if I had been a girl I would have cried; for they were the offspring,
and represented, and occupied the places, of boys and girls some of whom
I had loved to love, and some of whom I had loved to hate, but all of
whom were dear to me for the one reason or the other, so many years gone
by--and, Lord, where be they now!
I was mightily stirred, and would have been grateful to be allowed to
remain unmolested and look my fill; but a bald-summited superintendent
who had been a tow-headed Sunday-school mate of mine on that spot in the
early ages, recognized me, and I talked a flutter of wild nonsense to
those children to hide the thoughts which were in me, and which could
not have been spoken without a betrayal of feeling that would have been
recognized as out of character with me.
Making speeches without preparation is no gift of mine; and I was
resolved to shirk any new opportunity, but in the next and larger
Sunday-school I found myself in the rear of the assemblage; so I was
very willing to go on the platform a moment for the sake of getting a
good look at the scholars. On the spur of the moment I could not recall
any of the old idiotic talks which visitors used to insult me with when
I was a pupil there; and I was sorry for this, since it would have given
me time and excuse to dawdle there and take a long and satisfying look
at what I feel at liberty to say was an array of fresh young comeliness
not matchable in another Sunday-school of the same size. As I talked
merely to get a chance to inspect; and as I strung out the random
rubbish solely to prolong the inspection, I judged it but decent to
confess these low motives, and I did so.
If the Model Boy was in either of these Sunday-schools, I did not see
him. The Model Boy of my time--we never had but the one--was perfect:
perfect in manners, perfect in dress, perfect in conduct, perfect in
filial piety, perfect in exterior godliness; but at bottom he was a
prig; and as for the contents of his skull, they could have changed
place with the contents of a pie and nobody would have been the worse
off for it but the pie. This fellow's reproachlessness was a standing
reproach to every lad in the village. He was the admiration of all the
mothers, and the detestation of all their sons. I was told what became
of him, but as it was a disappointment to me, I will not enter into
details. He succeeded in life.
Chapter 55 A Vendetta and Other Things
DURING my three days' stay in the town, I woke up every morning with the
impression that I was a boy--for in my dreams the faces were all young
again, and looked as they had looked in the old times--but I went to bed
a hundred years old, every night--for meantime I had been seeing those
faces as they are now.
Of course I suffered some surprises, along at first, before I had become
adjusted to the changed state of things. I met young ladies who did not
seem to have changed at all; but they turned out to be the daughters of
the young ladies I had in mind--sometimes their grand-daughters. When
you are told that a stranger of fifty is a grandmother, there is nothing
surprising about it; but if, on the contrary, she is a person whom you
knew as a little girl, it seems impossible. You say to yourself, 'How
can a little girl be a grandmother.' It takes some little time to accept
and realize the fact that while you have been growing old, your friends
have not been standing still, in that matter.
I noticed that the greatest changes observable were with the women, not
the men. I saw men whom thirty years had changed but slightly; but
their wives had grown old. These were good women; it is very wearing to
There was a saddler whom I wished to see; but he was gone. Dead, these
many years, they said. Once or twice a day, the saddler used to go
tearing down the street, putting on his coat as he went; and then
everybody knew a steamboat was coming. Everybody knew, also, that John
Stavely was not expecting anybody by the boat--or any freight, either;
and Stavely must have known that everybody knew this, still it made no
difference to him; he liked to seem to himself to be expecting a hundred
thousand tons of saddles by this boat, and so he went on all his life,
enjoying being faithfully on hand to receive and receipt for those
saddles, in case by any miracle they should come. A malicious Quincy
paper used always to refer to this town, in derision as 'Stavely's
Landing.' Stavely was one of my earliest admirations; I envied him his
rush of imaginary business, and the display he was able to make of it,
before strangers, as he went flying down the street struggling with his
But there was a carpenter who was my chiefest hero. He was a mighty
liar, but I did not know that; I believed everything he said. He was a
romantic, sentimental, melodramatic fraud, and his bearing impressed me
with awe. I vividly remember the first time he took me into his
confidence. He was planing a board, and every now and then he would
pause and heave a deep sigh; and occasionally mutter broken sentences--
confused and not intelligible--but out of their midst an ejaculation
sometimes escaped which made me shiver and did me good: one was, 'O
God, it is his blood!' I sat on the tool-chest and humbly and
shudderingly admired him; for I judged he was full of crime. At last he
said in a low voice--
'My little friend, can you keep a secret?'
I eagerly said I could.
'A dark and dreadful one?'
I satisfied him on that point.
'Then I will tell you some passages in my history; for oh, I MUST
relieve my burdened soul, or I shall die!'
He cautioned me once more to be 'as silent as the grave;' then he told
me he was a 'red-handed murderer.' He put down his plane, held his hands
out before him, contemplated them sadly, and said--
'Look--with these hands I have taken the lives of thirty human beings!'
The effect which this had upon me was an inspiration to him, and he
turned himself loose upon his subject with interest and energy. He left
generalizing, and went into details,--began with his first murder;
described it, told what measures he had taken to avert suspicion; then
passed to his second homicide, his third, his fourth, and so on. He had
always done his murders with a bowie-knife, and he made all my hairs
rise by suddenly snatching it out and showing it to me.
At the end of this first seance I went home with six of his fearful
secrets among my freightage, and found them a great help to my dreams,
which had been sluggish for a while back. I sought him again and again,
on my Saturday holidays; in fact I spent the summer with him--all of it
which was valuable to me. His fascinations never diminished, for he
threw something fresh and stirring, in the way of horror, into each
successive murder. He always gave names, dates, places--everything.
This by and by enabled me to note two things: that he had killed his
victims in every quarter of the globe, and that these victims were
always named Lynch. The destruction of the Lynches went serenely on,
Saturday after Saturday, until the original thirty had multiplied to
sixty--and more to be heard from yet; then my curiosity got the better
of my timidity, and I asked how it happened that these justly punished
persons all bore the same name.
My hero said he had never divulged that dark secret to any living being;
but felt that he could trust me, and therefore he would lay bare before
me the story of his sad and blighted life. He had loved one 'too fair
for earth,' and she had reciprocated 'with all the sweet affection of
her pure and noble nature.' But he had a rival, a 'base hireling' named
Archibald Lynch, who said the girl should be his, or he would 'dye his
hands in her heart's best blood.' The carpenter, 'innocent and happy in
love's young dream,' gave no weight to the threat, but led his 'golden-
haired darling to the altar,' and there, the two were made one; there
also, just as the minister's hands were stretched in blessing over their
heads, the fell deed was done--with a knife--and the bride fell a corpse
at her husband's feet. And what did the husband do? He plucked forth
that knife, and kneeling by the body of his lost one, swore to
'consecrate his life to the extermination of all the human scum that
bear the hated name of Lynch.'
That was it. He had been hunting down the Lynches and slaughtering
them, from that day to this--twenty years. He had always used that same
consecrated knife; with it he had murdered his long array of Lynches,
and with it he had left upon the forehead of each victim a peculiar
mark--a cross, deeply incised. Said he--
'The cross of the Mysterious Avenger is known in Europe, in America, in
China, in Siam, in the Tropics, in the Polar Seas, in the deserts of
Asia, in all the earth. Wherever in the uttermost parts of the globe, a
Lynch has penetrated, there has the Mysterious Cross been seen, and
those who have seen it have shuddered and said, "It is his mark, he has
been here." You have heard of the Mysterious Avenger--look upon him, for
before you stands no less a person! But beware--breathe not a word to
any soul. Be silent, and wait. Some morning this town will flock aghast
to view a gory corpse; on its brow will be seen the awful sign, and men
will tremble and whisper, "He has been here--it is the Mysterious
Avenger's mark!" You will come here, but I shall have vanished; you will
see me no more.'
This ass had been reading the 'Jibbenainosay,' no doubt, and had had his
poor romantic head turned by it; but as I had not yet seen the book
then, I took his inventions for truth, and did not suspect that he was a
However, we had a Lynch living in the town; and the more I reflected
upon his impending doom, the more I could not sleep. It seemed my plain
duty to save him, and a still plainer and more important duty to get
some sleep for myself, so at last I ventured to go to Mr. Lynch and tell
him what was about to happen to him--under strict secrecy. I advised him
to 'fly,' and certainly expected him to do it. But he laughed at me; and
he did not stop there; he led me down to the carpenter's shop, gave the
carpenter a jeering and scornful lecture upon his silly pretensions,
slapped his face, made him get down on his knees and beg--then went off
and left me to contemplate the cheap and pitiful ruin of what, in my
eyes, had so lately been a majestic and incomparable hero. The carpenter
blustered, flourished his knife, and doomed this Lynch in his usual
volcanic style, the size of his fateful words undiminished; but it was
all wasted upon me; he was a hero to me no longer, but only a poor,
foolish, exposed humbug. I was ashamed of him, and ashamed of myself; I
took no further interest in him, and never went to his shop any more.
He was a heavy loss to me, for he was the greatest hero I had ever
known. The fellow must have had some talent; for some of his imaginary
murders were so vividly and dramatically described that I remember all
their details yet.
The people of Hannibal are not more changed than is the town. It is no
longer a village; it is a city, with a mayor, and a council, and water-
works, and probably a debt. It has fifteen thousand people, is a
thriving and energetic place, and is paved like the rest of the west and
south--where a well-paved street and a good sidewalk are things so
seldom seen, that one doubts them when he does see them. The customary
half-dozen railways center in Hannibal now, and there is a new depot
which cost a hundred thousand dollars. In my time the town had no
specialty, and no commercial grandeur; the daily packet usually landed a
passenger and bought a catfish, and took away another passenger and a
hatful of freight; but now a huge commerce in lumber has grown up and a
large miscellaneous commerce is one of the results. A deal of money
changes hands there now.
Bear Creek--so called, perhaps, because it was always so particularly
bare of bears--is hidden out of sight now, under islands and continents
of piled lumber, and nobody but an expert can find it. I used to get
drowned in it every summer regularly, and be drained out, and inflated
and set going again by some chance enemy; but not enough of it is
unoccupied now to drown a person in. It was a famous breeder of chills
and fever in its day. I remember one summer when everybody in town had
this disease at once. Many chimneys were shaken down, and all the
houses were so racked that the town had to be rebuilt. The chasm or
gorge between Lover's Leap and the hill west of it is supposed by
scientists to have been caused by glacial action. This is a mistake.
There is an interesting cave a mile or two below Hannibal, among the
bluffs. I would have liked to revisit it, but had not time. In my time
the person who then owned it turned it into a mausoleum for his
daughter, aged fourteen. The body of this poor child was put into a
copper cylinder filled with alcohol, and this was suspended in one of
the dismal avenues of the cave. The top of the cylinder was removable;
and it was said to be a common thing for the baser order of tourists to
drag the dead face into view and examine it and comment upon it.
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