A Wallula Night by Bill Nye

Story type: Essay

I have just returned after a short tour in the far West. I made the tour with my new lecture, which I am delivering this winter for the benefit, and under the auspices, of a young man who was a sufferer in the great rise-up-William-Biley-and-come-along-with-me cyclone, which occurred at Clear Lake, in this State, a year ago last September.

In said cyclone, said young man was severely caressed by the elements, and tipped over in such a way as to shatter the right leg, just below the gambrel joint. I therefore started out to deliver a few lectures for his benefit, and in so doing have made a 4,000 mile trip over the Northern Pacific railway, and the Oregon River and Navigation company’s road. On the former line the passenger is fed by means of the dining-car, a very good style of entertainment, indeed, and well worthy of the age in which we live; but at Wallula Junction I stopped over to catch a west-bound Oregon Railway and Navigation train.

That was where I fooled myself. I should have taken my valise and a rubber door mat from the sleeping-car, and crawled into the lee of a snow fence for the night. I did not give the matter enough thought. I just simply went into the hotel and registered my name as a man would in other hotels. This house was kept, or retained, I should say, by a relative of the late Mr. Shylock. You have heard, no doubt, how some of the American hotels have frowned on Mr. Shylock’s relatives. Well, Mr. Shylock’s family got even with the whole American people the night I stopped in No. 2, second floor of the Abomination of Desolation. As a representative of the American people, I received for my nation, vicariously, the stripes intended for many generations.

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No. 2 is regarded as a room by people who have not been in it. By those who have, it is looked upon as a morgue.

When I stepped into it, I noticed an odor of the dead past. It made me shudder my overshoes off. The first thing that attracted my attention after I was left alone, was the fact that other people had occupied this room before I had, and, although they were gone, they had left a kind of an air of inferiority that clung to the alleged apartment, an air of plug tobacco and perspiration, if you will pardon the expression.

They had also left a pair of Venetian pantaloons. From this clue, my active brain at once worked out the problem and settled the fact that the party who had immediately preceded me was a man. Long and close study of the habits and characteristics of humanity has taught me to reason out these matters, and to reach accurate conclusions with astonishing rapidity.

He was not only a man, but he was a short man, with parenthetical legs and a thoughtful droop to the seat of his pants. I also discovered that more of this man’s life had been expended in sitting on a pitch pine log than in prayer.

One of his front teeth was gone, also. This I learned from a large cast of his mouth, shown on the end of a plug of tobacco still left in the pocket.

In Wallula there is a marked feeling of childlike trust and confidence between people. It is a feature of Wallula society, I may say. The people of the junction trust strangers to a remarkable extent. In what other town in this whole republic would a pair of pantaloons be thus left in the complete power of a total stranger, a stranger, too, to whom pantaloons were a great boon? I could easily have caught those pantaloons off the nail, thrust them into my bosom, and fled past the drowsy night clerk, out into the great, sheltering arms of the silent night, but I did not.

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Anon through the long hours I would awake and listen fitfully to the wail of damned souls, as it seemed to me, the wail of those who tried to stay there a week, and had starved to death. Here was their favorite wailing place. Here was the place where damned souls seemed to throw aside all restraint and have a good time. I tried to keep out the sound by stuffing the pillow in my ear, but what is a cheap hotel pillow in a man’s ear, if he wants to keep the noise out.

So I lay there and listened to the soft sigh of the bath tub, the loud, defiant challenge of the athletic butler down stairs, the last weak death rattle in the throat of the coffee pot in the dining room, and the wail of the damned souls who had formerly stopped at this hotel, but who had been rescued at last, and had hilariously gone to perdition, only to come back at night and torment the poor guest by bragging over the superiority of hell as a refuge from the Wallula hotel.

Now and then in the night I would almost yield to a wild impulse and catch those pantaloons off the hook, to rush out and go to Canada with them, and then I would softly go through the pockets and hang them back again.

It was an awful night. When morning dawned at last, and I took the pillow out of my ear and looked in the delirious and soap-spattered mirror, I saw that my beautiful hair, which had been such a source of pride to me ten years ago, had disappeared in places. I paid my bill, called the attention of the landlord to the fact that I had not taken those pantaloons and ‘betrayed’ his trust, and then I went away.

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