« PreviousContinue »
I believe we are talking metaphysics,' said Cecilia, stopping short, with a smile and a blush ; .I must pause before I get beyond my depth.'
If the champions you speak of would take good care to do the same,' said her husband, laughing, 'they would stand a better chance ; or at any rate, might hope to escape the sneers of the ignorant, and the censures of the wise and the good ; but they commit the fatal error of venturing beyond their depth.''
One morning, at early dawn, the door of Mrs. Hartwell's stateroom opened softly, and Mrs. Tompkins entered.
• You said you wished to be woke up early, ma'am,' whispered the chambermaid, if we was nigh the Mississippi; so I just looked in to tell you we shall be out of the mouth of the Ohio in about ten minutes, if you 'd like to put on your things, and come on deck. The captain 's up there already; and it's one of the prettiest mornings you ever see.'
Mrs. Hartwell had scarcely time to make a basty toilet, before she heard a tap at her window, and looking out, saw Hartwell on the guards, waiting to attend her, and with bim she soon mounted to the upper deck. Many of her fellow passengers laughed at the idea of the captain 's wife rising before the sun, to look at the Mississippi ;
as though she would not see enough, and too much, of that great, long, muddy river, before she reached New Orleans, beside having to go all the way up again, on her return trip!' There was, however, something of a traveller's curiosity about Mrs. Hartwell; and she was not willing to let pass that first opportunity of beholding the broad and beautiful Ohio pay its tribute to the yet mightier stream. With silent and absorbing interest, she watched the progress of the boat, as it gradually exchanged the bright waves of the river it was leaving, for the turbid waters of the Mississippi; and in the gray light of morning, she looked up the great bend of the river, and down over its watery expanse, until she could have fancied it was some dim lake she was entering, on whose dull, amphibious shores, man, with apparently strange perversity of taste, but in fact to indulge his darling pursuit of gain, raises his paltry towns, where bar-rooms and grocery stores are the only flourishing establishments, and forlorn plantations, where girdled timber is the most conspicuous crop.
The scene quickly changed, as with rapid progress they ploughed their way through the mighty current; and now the sun was up, and shed as glorious a light on those tame shores as he ever bestowed on the romantic highlands of the Hudson; and yet with all the cheerfulness that his early beams impart, even to such desolate scenes, Mrs. Hartwell could not forbear exclaiming, 'Oh! what a wretched habitation !' as the · Lord of the Isles' drew near the shore, and lay to at a wood-yard.
• What a wretched habitation !' she repeated, addressing her husband, as she pointed out a poor log hut, the only building on the premises. It stood on the bank, a little above the river; and though there was a small • clearing' round it, there was neither garden nor fence to give it the appearance of being secluded or protected from the unreclaimed wilderness that stretched far behind, down into immeasurable swamps, the abode of hordes of beasts of
and venomous reptiles; and from which mosquitoes ascend in clouds, and malignant vapors creep forth insidious.
Mrs. Hartwell had seen few such establishments, and felt curious to take a nearer survey of its domestic arrangements ; so while the deck passengers and the hands' were carrying in wood, she went on shore with the captain, and after a short walk up the sloping bank, found herself before the rude door-way of the poor wood-cutter's home. The cabin was raised on piles a few feet from the ground, that in case of the river's rising, the water might flow under the house instead of into it, and steps therefore were necessary, by which to gain the entrance. These were formed of two roughly-hewn logs, the uppermost of which had sunk on one side from its original position. It gave promise of an uncertain footing, as well as an alarming stride between it and the door-sill, on which, as it happened, a little urchin now appeared, attempting to descend backward. The one nondescripı garment of coarse .homespun' in which this little individual was semi-clothed, remained round his body on the door-sill, while the sun-burnt legs, and small dirty feet, dangled,
'Anxious in vain to reach the distant step.'
His cries called the attention of a little girl who was standing on the bank, gazing at the steam-boat.
Mammy!' she cried, “ look here! If there bai n't Jeff. comin' out of the house backward, all by his self; and he can't reach the doorstep, to save him!' * Take him down, then, can't ye, Cynthy, and fetch bim
right here,' called the mére de famille, at the top of her voice. But before Cynthia reached the door, Captain Hartwell had picked up the child, and was carrying him toward his mother, a sickly, dowdy-looking woman, in a scanty dress of homespun, with a large sun-bonnet of the same material, who was now engaged in the pretty, rural occupation of milking a cow. But there was nothing at all in accordance with the poet's or painter's imagination of such a scene. Indeed, lovers of the pastoral and the picturesque might search the wide tracts of the Mississippi valley in vain for a single personification of the trim waist, tidy skirt, rosy face, and plump, bare arms of a rustic milk-maid. The poor women who there perform the office, with all the endless drudg. ery belonging to the life of a backwoods-woman, pay dear for the blessed privilege of independence which their husbands enjoy, as they gird round them their hunting-shirts, and stalk, rifle in hand, as free as the wild game they pursue, through forests of which the proudest noblemen in Europe might envy them the possession.
It might be that some such thoughts were passing through Mrs. Hartwell's mind, for the scene was new to her, and she stood contemplating it in silence, while her husband deposited his dirty little burthen beside the no less dirty mother, nor left him till he had seen him contented with a pannikin of new milk.
• There !' said he, with a smile, as he returned to his wife, that was all the little fellow wanted. I am interested, you perceive, in
keeping him quiet, or the milking will be over too late for us; and he pointed to big Steven, who was now seen hastening up the bank, with a pitcher in his band, and basket under his arm.
. Good mornin', missis,' quoth Steven, addressing the milk-maid ; han't you got no eggs, nor butter, nor nothin' for me to put into this 'ere basket ?
No: the woman declared, in a lazy drawl, that the plaguy varmint had run off with all her chickens; there was 'ne'er a one left but the old rooster, as know'd how to take care of his self; and as for butter, she had not made out to make none since the dry weather sot in, in July.' But she had been slowly distilling the new milk with one hand into a tin cup, and turning it thence into a dingy-looking pail at her side; the cook bargained with her for that, and transferring it to his pitcher, was hastening toward the boat again, when a shrill outcry, round the corner of the cabin, electrified the whole party. The cow kicked up her heels, and looked ready to make the experiment of jumping over the moon, while the bereaved old rooster took refuge, with an inglorious squall, on the top of a stack of fire-wood; the woman pushed back her sun-bonnet, in the extremity of amazement, while the young ones clung to her skirts, squealing :
• Oh, mammy! · Lor, inammy! - look at the b’ar! – the b’ar! If there bain't the big b’ar a-runnin' loose!'
And sure enough, a formidable black bear, with a collar round his neck, and a chain dangling therefrom, came shambling toward the astonishing group.
Captain and Mrs. Hartwell ran forward, knowing, in the cries that alarmed them, the voice of their little daughter Anna, who had accompanied them from the boat. She had been making an exploring expedition round the log-cabin, when the bear, which was chained to a tree at the edge of the wood, broke loose, and approaching the child in a manner more familiar than agreeable, upset her with his fore-paws, and passed on hastily to avoid the acquaintance of a grim-looking mongrel mastiff, that was threatening an attack in the rear; while half a dozen lesser curs rushed in from all quarters, and mingling their barkings and snarlings with the yells of the children, raised a perplexed and deafening din.
As Steven ran back to the spot, he saw the Captain raising his child, who in falling, having struck her face against the stump of a tree, her nose and mouth were bleeding, and she was truly a rueful spectacle. The cook laid this to the account of some injury the bear had done her, and his choler rose. Setting down the pitcher of milk, and overturning it as he sprang forward, he threw himself on the bear, and seizing the collar with his redoubtable left hand, held him at arms' length, till some idlers from the wood-yard ran to the rescue, rifle in hand, and the owner of the animal lagged lazily up the bank, declaring that the critter warn’t dangerous, no how, if folks did n't be so darn'd scary, that it sort o' put mischief into the critter's head.'
• There, Jack, I told you so !' • Look what he's done, daddy!' • See what he's been at, neighbor!' reiterated the several voices of his wife, children, and friends, as they pointed to poor little Anna's bleeding and disfigured countenance.
• Twas n't the b'ar did that !' said he, staring incredulous. 'I know'd he would n't hurt nobody,' he continued, with a satisfied air, after ascertaining the truth. 'Little missy there hurt her own face. She was running like mad, I reckon, caase she was scared, and pitched right ag'in a stump. The b’ar could not help that,' he concluded, with a laugh, which, seen rather than heard, revealed his tobacco-stained teeth, and the huge quid on which they had been performing.
• It was the bear helped push me down, I know,' sobbed little Anna, ‘for I felt his great nasty paws on my back!'
Never mind, Miss Annie,' said Steven, coaxingly, as he lifted the little girl in his arms, to carry her back to the boat : Do n’t fret, my pretty beauty; we 'll go back and have some nice new milk for breakfast.' Steven stopped short, for lo! the pitcher was broken, and his treasure of new milk 'walered the plain,' as Paddy has it.
• If that big rascal was killed and made into bacon,' said the cook, shaking his right arm pugnaciously toward the bear, and if his owner was sarved the same, it would be a good thing for the steamboats on the Massissippi, I reckon;' and farther venting his spleen, by kicking the fragments of his pitcher in the same direction that his would-be fist had been brandished, he very good-humoredly descended to the boat, comforting little Anna with promises of good things in store for her.
A Bright day was drawing to a close, and the fitful wind which had been driving the autumn leaves in capricious eddies across the river, or scattering them in golden showers upon its surface, died away as the sun went down, and left a heaviness in the atmosphere, which gathering into thick clouds, threatened a night of unusual darkness, if not of storm.
Let me dwell for a moment on the scene through which the · Lord of the Isles' was now moving for the last time. Let me hang on the last rays of the sun, which then looked his last on the beautiful boat, or rose only to behold her a sinking and disabled wreck. Her commander was standing near the wheel, and his wife had seated herself apart, to study undisturbed the features of a scene so new to her. On one side, a recent growth of cotton-wood was springing up on the low shore, to the very edge of the still, shallow water; on the other, large forest trees, their roots laid bare by the vexed tide,' were spreading their giant arms over the curling · boils’and eddies, as though preparing for the plunge that sooner or later must overwhelm them. Lower down, this sweeping current set strong on the point of a low island, and there deposited enormous piles of driftwood, which lying on the narrow strand in tangled masses, mingled logs and boughs of dead timber with the live brush-wood, while fallen trees, and sticks, and poles, of every size and shape, were still rolling in the stream, or gradually embedding themselves on a low sand-bank, forming above the head of the island. In the midst of these, lay the wreck of a large flat-boat, upon which a turkey-buzzard sat solitary, as though mounting guard over the ruinous scene.
Above the influence of all these eddies and counter currents, the • Lord of the Isles' moved steadily across the river, and entered the
narrow channel between the island and the shore. On either side dark woods lined the banks, and mingled their shadows in the water, adding to the obscurity of the twilight hour, and even at noonday excluding the full light of the sun. There was something in the scene that rather resembled the narrow inlet of some sequestered lake, than a portion of the Mississippi, that much-frequented, though trackless thoroughfare. The steam-boat broke through straggling boughs of the water-willow, in her progress, and scared flocks of small birds from their sylvan haunts; while the red-headed woodpecker was disturbed from his evening meal on a log of decayed timber at the water's edge. In a few minutes they reached the lower end of the island, where the broad current of the river again opened before them, now smooth as a mirror, and reflecting as faithfully the purple hues left by the sun upon the thickly-gathering clouds. These, too, faded away, and night came on, still and dark ; so still, that each snort of the engine resounded down the edge of the forests, and seemed magnified into an impetuous roar; and so dark, that little was discernible beyond the misty glare round the boat, reflected fro n its numerous lights. To the experienced eye of the pilot, indeed, as he stood aloft at the wheel, the course of the river was far off visible through the gloom, as well as the dim outline of the wood against the cloudy sky.
In the cabins, all was silent. The passengers had retired to rest, and confident in the prudence and skill of the captain and his officers, slept profoundly; or if an anxious eye now and then opened and peered out into the darkness, it soon closed again, content with the quietness that reigned around. Thus midnight found all sunk in their first deep sleep, except the officers at their posts, and the, hands employed about the machinery and the fires.
This stillness of the elements, this profound repose of the sleepers, was disturbed by a shock, a thundering crash, that might break any rest, but the last which ‘knows no waking. The passengers, as with one accord, started from their berths, with a dreamy, instinctive sense of pressing danger. There was a sudden hurrying and trampling to and fro, and a confused murmur of many voices mingling in hasty exclamations and hoarse imprecations; in questions that no one paused to answer, and cries of 'alarm that passed unheeded. The only remaining light was overturned and extinguished in the tumult that followed; and as all rushed to the door-ways, they encountered each other with violence, or fell headlong over the furniture ; and in the blind zeal of self-preservation, grappled with each obstacle as with a mortal foe. Then came another crash, and the boat groaned and trembled ; and louder grew the din of voices, more clamorous the cries of terror; and a set of half-dressed, bewildered mortals crowded out, to learn with certainty the full and dire extent of the impending danger.
To the officers on watch, and those engaged in the fore part of the boat, it was only ton evident that the vessel was lost." She had struck on a snag, and being driven forward by the full power of the steam, it had forced its way through every obstacle, until it pierced the boiler deck, where the long log appeared, slanting up between the chimnies. They were now in deep water, not far from the VOL. XV.