A Tale Untold

THE stranger was not of the age to be called venerable, but his silvered hair and the bloom of his elderly good looks had won upon the serious favor of the ladies, and they made him welcome in their cabin at the stern of the boat. In the fashion of Western river-travel sixty years ago, they sat there with their sewing and knitting in the morning, and played and sang at the melodeon in the afternoon. Usually they played and sang hymns, and then the stranger led what might be called their devotions, from a better acquaintance with the hymns.

When he left them, with polite excuses, for a walk on the hurricane-deck, he had to pass the men who sat at euchre around a table in the forward cabin. He always faltered for a glance at the cards they held and for a glance from the cards to their faces, while he kept humming the psalm-tune he had been singing. At last one of the men asked him with humorous deference if he would not sit down.

‘But you don’t like the sight of this, deacon,’ the gambler suggested.

‘Then I wish he would lump it, damn him!’ another gambler broke out. He had been losing heavily. ‘Move on, now,’ he called savagely up at the stranger, who hurried away.

‘Well, I don’t know,’ the other gambler objected, ‘as I would want to damn him away, exactly.’

‘You take this hand,’the loser blazed back, ‘and you may do the damnin’ yourself.’

The stranger put himself beyond hearing, and after that he seemed anxious not to glance at the gamblers as he passed, though other people stopped and followed the game to the end from the hands of the players.

A day or two later, as he stole by with his face carefully turned from the players, the losing gambler jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘Now you see here, will you! I ain’t goin’ to have you overlookin’ my hand and settin’ the cards ag’inst me. If I did n’t know we was all gentlemen at this game, I would say you was in cahoots with somebody; but I ain’t a goin’ to have it, anyway. Now you just leave! You go back to your psalm-singin’!’

He shook his cards in the stranger’s face and roared away his protest that he had not meant to look at them, much less tried to overlook them; that he did not believe in the power of overlooking a hand, and should consider it wrong to use the power if he had it. The other players sided with the stranger and clamored at the man to sit down, to go on with the game, and not be a fool. The gambler said he wanted the stranger to keep away, that was all, and he violently shrugged off the touch which the stranger laid on his shoulder in mild entreaty, and slumped back into his chair. He studied the cards he held, and ‘Can’t tell,’ he growled, ‘what the hell I have got, any more.’

The sight and sound of the affair sickened Stephen West, who had stopped on his way to the hurricane-deck. The voyage was his farthest travel from the village where he had lived in a vision of the world, as he knew it equally from Tennyson and Longfellow and from Thackeray and Cervantes. In this vision the good and the evil of the world had the same charm for him, but he liked to verify it from the experience of a practical man like the pilot, and he had the habit of talking with him about life. Stephen’s reading and thinking had aged him beyond his years, but the pilot was of a worldly wisdom which he could not hope to gain when the years had made them contemporaries.

The pilot’s worldly wisdom, though it was so wide and varied, was of a decency which the boy could share without fear or shame. Stephen came away refreshed and strengthened in his ideals, with increasing respect for a person who seemed to be as fearless with men as he was blameless with women, and able to meet danger from either with steady courage. There seemed few incidents which the pilot’s experience had not included. In Stephen’s unenvious eyes he bore himself becomingly in a tall silk hat, a broadcloth coat, and a velvet waistcoat. He wore very thinsoled, high-heeled boots, such as Stephen never found for sale in his village.

Stephen was not going to talk with him now, or even willingly look at him. A few days before, in the wide range which their conversation often took, the pilot had come out with the abominable doctrine that the Declaration of Independence could not apply to negroes in its axiom that all men were created equal, because negroes had no souls and might be fitly enslaved for their defect. Stephen had heard this doctrine before, but in his amazement at hearing it from the pilot, he lost hold of the counter-arguments commonly used in that day against it. He could only allege the example of the fathers of the country in their abhorrence of slavery, and he recalled the saying of Jefferson that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just. He thrilled with the poetic solemnity of the words as he pronounced them; but the pilot flew into a sudden Celtic fury and cursed himself, and swore that he did not care for what Jefferson said, or for any fool who did care.

Stephen could scarcely believe that the thing had happened. He got himself somehow out of the place and went about trying to think how he could best resent the outrage put upon him. He was still boy enough to feel that a blow could be the only fit retort to such an insult, but he had not sufficiently dramatized the action when he saw the stranger, who had followed him up to the hurricane-deck and was now making towards the pilot-house. He felt that the right moment had come and that he could not do better than follow him and deal with the pilot in his presence; he had not contrived just how he should knock the pilot over his wheel and then have the stranger interpose and quiet the passions of both, but the scene enacted itself in his seething fancy without specific details, while he walked back and forth across the deck. Through the vindictive tumult of his revery he kept fitting certain aspects of the river scenery with apt phrases, and it embittered his resentment the more to realize that a person who could do this should have been so vulgarly insulted. He controlled his impulse to burst into the pilot-house and fling himself on the pilot, no matter how the boat ran wild among the snags and sandbars; and he set his teeth hard and clenched his fists so tight that the nails cut into the palms of his hands. But the pilot stretched forward on tip-toe and called through his open window, ‘Come in here a minute, Mr. West, won’t you?’ Stephen eagerly construed his appeal as an overture to apology, and obeyed.

The stranger was sitting on the benching behind the pilot and humming one of his psalm tunes, with an air of courteous abstraction. He saluted Stephen blandly, but offered no reason for the pilot’s invitation, and the pilot gave none. He said to the stranger, over his shoulder, ‘Just show them to him, will you?’

The stranger returned from his absence. ‘Oh! I was merely letting our friend here see some pieces of jewelry which I secured at a low rate from a bankrupt stock a few days before we left Cincinnati.’

He had a tone of excuse, as if the fact was something too trivial to be more than passingly noted to a person of Stephen’s quality; but the glitter of the things dazzled the boy in their variety of brooches, bracelets, rings, neckchains, and watch-charms.

Stephen had a silver watch, with no present hope of a gold one; he had meant some time to have his watch plated, but he did not like the notion, and he had thought he would wait; but now the sight of a guard very rich and massive tempted him. Until he could buy a gold watch he might wear such a chain, and leave the spectators to imagine a gold watch at the end of it in his pocket. He did not like the notion of that, either, and he stood looking at the jewelry and then at the stranger who had not offered it for sale to him.

‘I was just saying to our friend the captain,’ the stranger remarked, giving the pilot his courtesy-title, ‘ that these guards were such a bargain, that I doubted whether the auctioneer knew their value; but I did not feel bound to inform him that they were 18karats fine.’

‘Tell him,’ the pilot commanded, ‘what you offered one to me for.’

‘Oh, well, captain,’ the stranger deprecated, ‘that was to you.' But he lifted the chain which he seemed to have seen Stephen admire, and viewed it with something like surprise, as he spread it with his thumb and finger. ‘I am not sure that I could let another go for that.’ He dropped the chain back into the shining heap in the handkerchief opened on his knees, and began to muse his hymn tune again.

‘Would you say, Mr. West,’ the pilot asked, more to give dignity to the transaction than to Stephen, as the boy felt, by the ceremonious use of his surname, ‘that a watch-guard like that was worth three dollars?’

‘Oh, no, captain!’ the stranger interposed, ‘three-fifty, three-fifty!’

‘Three,’ the pilot insisted.

The stranger was sure of three-fifty, the pilot of three, and the pilot was reddening under the contradiction. The stranger made a courteous inclination toward him, and waved his hand in concession. ‘Very well, three, if that is your recollection, captain.’

‘What do you say, Stephen?’ the pilot repeated toward West.

‘I don’t know, Captain Ryan,’ Stephen answered stiffly. ‘I never bought anything like it.’

‘I would put one to you, as a friend of the captain here, on the same terms,’ the stranger suggested. ‘There are two, I see, exactly alike.’ He examined the jewelry as if he had not observed the fact before. ‘I bid off the lot together, and I can’t tell whether I am losing money or not, but I should like to get back a little cash. I will let the two go at the same figure. The figure Captain Ryan says.’

He held up a guard in each hand.

It was very convincing. If Stephen should yet decide to have his watch gold-plated, a gold watch-guard was the irresistible logic of the event. He drew a deep sigh, but he shook his head. ‘I could n’t afford it,’ he said finally.

The stranger smiled benignly. ‘I know just how you feel, and I can’t help approving of your caution in a young man; but there is this to be said on the other hand. If this guard here is the same as cash and more than the same, why it is n’t parting with your money at all. It is like putting it in the bank where you can draw against it whenever you want it.’

In treating the case as a hypothetical abstraction the stranger appealed to the caution which was a strong principle in Stephen’s nature.

The boy heaved another sigh. ‘I could n’t, I could n’t.’

‘The boy is right,’ the pilot violently interposed. ‘I did n’t ask him to buy one of them guards. I asked his opinion, but I don’t want him to take mine.’

He was holding the wheel with one hand and with the other rummaging in his waistcoat pocket. He drew out some bank-notes and flung them toward the stranger. ’How much is there there ?’

The stranger caught them without dropping his jewelry and counted the bank-notes. ‘Just three. I thought there were four. All right, captain.’

He held the notes in one hand while he reached the watch-guard to the pilot with the other. The pilot pushed it into his pocket without looking round. The stranger remained seated and began absent-mindedly humming again. Then he began to speak to Stephen of the scenery and of the high water. By a natural transition he spoke of the life on the steamboats of our Western rivers and its differing character from north to south. He touched upon its darker aspects, and he said he would take the privilege of an elder man in warning Stephen against the games of chance which might tempt him by the sight of the easy winnings. Then, as if unwilling to remind him of the treatment Stephen had seen him suffer from that blackleg, he turned from the point and remarked that he had not met Stephen at the evening singing in the ladies’ cabin. Every one was welcome; he asked Stephen if he sang.

He let himself, blandly smiling, out of the pilot-house; but when he had pulled the door shut, Stephen suddenly pulled it open and bounded after him. ‘Have you, — have you,’ he panted, ‘another of those watchguards? But, of course — I mean I want one, if it’s three dollars.’

All the time that the pilot had been buying the chain his example had wrought with the boy as one that might be followed with honor and profit. He had not in the least forgiven him for his brutality, but he fancied that his apology had been delayed by the presence of the stranger. From the first sight of the jewelry he had been tempted by the fitness of acquiring a watch-guard, and his contempt for the pilot as an unreasonable ruffian rested on unbroken faith in him as a man of worldly knowledge who might be safely trusted in such a matter. He had been struck by his ease in meeting the stranger’s different recollection of the price and his own figure of three dollars. A person less versed in business matters might have yielded the point of half a dollar in the purchase of a thing clearly worth three or four times the stranger’s demand.

‘But I could n’t— “I could n’t give more than three dollars,’ he cautioned the stranger, who had drawn the chain promptly from his pocket again.

The stranger hesitated almost imperceptibly. Then he said, ‘I really ought to have more for the value, but as a friend of the captain, well, we will say three dollars. And let me caution you, my young friend,’ he added, while taking Stephen’s money and giving him the watch-guard wrapped in tissue paper, ‘to beware of your dealings with strangers in the course of your travels, and try to have witnesses to every transaction. Is this the guard you wanted? Look at it, please. Though I don’t know that there is any difference in the chains. Is it all right? If you find it different I may be able to exchange it for you during the day. I could n’t say later; I shall be showing them — ’

‘Yes, yes; it is all right.’ Stephen stopped him, and put the chain into his pocket with a feeling of shame, and walked rather giddily away to his stateroom. He felt that he was taking an advantage of the stranger in letting him suppose he was a friend of the pilot. But it was some comfort to take the watch-guard out and look at it, alone there in his stateroom — to try it across from his waistcoat pocket to the buttonhole where he meant to hook it, and to hold it up in different lights. He attached it to his watch for the effect; but because the watch was still silver and the guard was gold, the effect was not good. If he pulled it out suddenly the effect would be ridiculous; he must wait to get his watch gold-plated.

When he wont to dinner he glanced at the pilot, who was already there, and he did not know whether it was a relief or not to find that he was not wearing his watch-guard. If the stranger had sold other guards, they were not to be seen. Toward evening Stephen noticed some of the ladies with neck-chains; one wore a bracelet, and the things all looked as if they wore out of the stranger’s lot of jewelry.

The gamblers went back to their cards after dinner and played until supper. Sometimes the stranger’s enemy seemed to be winning, but mostly he was losing. Stephen noticed that the stranger avoided looking at the player’s hand as he passed the card-table, and otherwise kept quite away from him. There w’as a good deal of loud talking and quarreling among the gamblers. Now and then one of them left his place and went to the bar, and came back with his face redder than before. All their faces wore red.

The enchantment of the river, with its life afloat and ashore, continued for Stephen. They met some of the large New Orleans side-wheel packets whose swelling vastness dwarfed the sternwheeler from the Ohio; but when this had the river to itself, it seemed of no mean size, as it pushed among the flat boats and traders. When it stopped beside a wharf-boat in landing or loading freight it was of even towering grandeur.

Sometimes it stopped at little towns where there was no wharf-boat; but at night there were beacons of blazing fatpine, swinging from ironshod poles driven into the bank to light the embarking or disembarking passengers. At such a point a planter, dazzling in white linen from head to foot, came aboard through the glare of the beacons, with his wife and daughters, and slave-women bringing their handbags after them.

Stephen instantly contrived how, by a happy chance, he should get to speak with one of the girls whom he had fallen in love with more than the others and who loved him again. He overcame her father’s ill-will and married her, and she freed her portion of the slaves. In a swift process of time the planter freed all the other slaves, and came to live with Stephen in the North, or, perhaps, England. ‘Slaves cannot breathe in England,’ he remembered. At the same time, before the gangplank could be pulled in after the embarkation of the planter’s family, he was aware of the second mate pushing one of those drunken gamblers down to the shore on it. It was the one who had been so brutal to the stranger; he was swrearing at the mate over his shoulder; their faces almost touched, and it was as if their curses clashed together.

The deck-hands began to lift the gang-plank, when a passenger carrying a carpet-bag in one hand and holding his hat on with the other ran tottering over it to the land. He stumbled up the bank on the heels of the gambler, and kept himself from falling by catching his hand through the gambler’s arm and pulling himself close up to him. He lifted his face and Stephen saw in the light of the beacon at their shoulders that it was the face of the stranger. He was smiling on his enemy as if he might have chosen to follow him and share his banishment and disgrace. Then the two burst into a jeering laugh together and turned and wagged their hands in mockery at the boat.

Stephen kept his watch-guard in his pocket till the boat got back to Pittsburg, and the pilot never wore his chain so far as Stephen saw. They did not speak of the man who had sold it to them; Stephen in fact did not make friends with the pilot again. Certain of the ladies wore their neck-chains for a day or two; but as if some rumor went about that made them ashamed, they ceased to wear them.

At Pittsburg Stephen carried his watch-guard to have it tested by a jeweler. The jeweler took a little bottle and touched the chain with the acid from it. Then he pushed it across the showcase.

‘Is it good?’ Stephen faltered.

‘Good to throw at a dog,’ the jeweler said.

Stephen knew this or the like of it already, but now he had final authority to drop the thing into the street when he went out. A skulking loafer slipped from a doorway and picked it up, in the delusion that he was stealing value.

This was the beginning of Stephen’s pleasure in the ironical color of his experience and the ending of his wrath for being the easy prey of a plausible scoundrel. What had happened was nothing to what could happen. He thought how he might turn the adventure to account in the sort of literature which he loved almost as much as he loved the highest poetry. He wondered whether he should treat it like certain of the episodes in Don Quixote, or like Thackeray in some of those picaresque sketches of his. But he was aware of a certain crudeness in the setting. Could polite lovers of such fiction be made to care for something that happened on a stern-wheel steamboat between Pittsburg and St. Louis? At the same time, did not that very crudeness of the setting give a novel value to the facts? He played with the amusing risks and chances of his rascals, their scrapes and escapes; their cunning flourished under the magic of his fancy; he became fond of them in the growth of their qualities which were the defects of other men’s virtues. Lie exulted in their iniquitous courage, their wicked self-devotion. He tasted a deleterious delight in working out their devices of cheating and swindling. Without really beginning their story, by a quite original stroke of invention he had them end in a prosperity defiant of both literary and moral convention. He admired the boldness and novelty of the thing; he imagined its flattering recognition by criticism.

But when he looked again at the material which fortune had thrown into his hands, he saw its chances of tragedy increasing with the passage of time. The field of his rascals’ adventures narrowed every year; always haunting the rivers, they must often take the same boat at such short intervals that the officers would come to know them; they must often escape at the same landing, where they would be recognized with welcome more and more ironical; their game would often be spoiled from the start; their dupes would know them and their lives would never be safe; they would be in constant danger of violence. He followed them from one squalid event to another, through the mud or the dust of the brutal little riverside towns, where they were tarred and feathered and ridden on rails by the hooting mob, or stabbed or shot.

When the law sometimes saved them from the mob and sent them to prison, he saw them come out white and weak and bewildered, in a world where they could find nothing but harm to do. They grew old on his hands and became each other’s foes in the lapse of the black arts which had kept them friends. At last, one of them would sicken and die, after weeks, or months, or years; Stephen rejected a melodramatic chance that should take them off together. The one who was left would wander back to the village where he had been a worthless boy and end there a friendless pauper.

If the right moral could be read from it, Stephen felt that their fable would be one of the saddest of the human stories. In the hands of a master it would be one of the most powerful, because the elements were the dust of the earth which all men were made from; but Stephen knew himself wanting in the mastery needed. Perhaps some day he would win that mastery, but now he could only wait; and as he did not write the comedy of those evil lives, because he rejected it, so he did not write the tragedy of them, because it rejected him. Their story remained with him a tale untold.