Story type: Literature
There was not much promise of pleasure in the sodden afternoon of a mid- March day at Pittsburg, where the smoke of a thousand foundry chimneys gave up trying to rise through the thick, soft air, and fell with the constant rain which it dyed its own black. But early memories stirred joyfully in the two travellers in whose consciousness I was making my tour, at sight of the familiar stern-wheel steamboat lying beside the wharf boat at the foot of the dilapidated levee, and doing its best to represent the hundreds of steamboats that used to lie there in the old days. It had the help of three others in its generous effort, and the levee itself made a gallant pretence of being crowded with freight, and succeeded in displaying several saturated piles of barrels and agricultural implements on the irregular pavement whose wheel-worn stones, in long stretches, were sunken out of sight in their parent mud. The boats and the levee were jointly quite equal to the demand made upon them by the light-hearted youngsters of sixty-five and seventy, who were setting out on their journey in fulfilment of a long-cherished dream, and for whom much less freight and much fewer boats would have rehabilitated the past.
When they mounted the broad stairway, tidily strewn with straw to save it from the mud of careless boots, and entered the long saloon of the steamboat, the promise of their fancy was more than made good for them. From the clerk’s office, where they eagerly paid their fare, the saloon stretched two hundred feet by thirty away to the stern, a cavernous splendor of white paint and gilding, starred with electric bulbs, and fenced at the stern with wide windows of painted glass. Midway between the great stove in the bow where the men were herded, and the great stove at the stern where the women kept themselves in the seclusion which the tradition of Western river travel still guards, after well-nigh a hundred years, they were given ample state-rooms, whose appointments so exactly duplicated those they remembered from far-off days that they could have believed themselves awakened from a dream of insubstantial time, with the events in which it had seemed to lapse, mere feints of experience. When they sat down at the supper-table and were served with the sort of belated steamboat dinner which it recalled as vividly, the kind, sooty faces and snowy aprons of those who served them were so quite those of other days that they decided all repasts since were mere Barmecide feasts, and made up for the long fraud practised upon them with the appetites of the year 1850.
A rigider sincerity than shall be practised here might own that the table of the good steamboat ‘Avonek’ left something to be desired, if tested by more sophisticated cuisines, but in the article of corn-bread it was of an inapproachable preeminence. This bread was made of the white corn which North knows not, nor the hapless East; and the buckwheat cakes at breakfast were without blame, and there was a simple variety in the abundance which ought to have satisfied if it did not flatter the choice. The only thing that seemed strangely, that seemed sadly, anomalous in a land flowing with ham and bacon was that the ‘Avonek’ had not imagined providing either for the guests, no one of whom could have had a religious scruple against them.
The thing, indeed, which was first and last conspicuous in the passengers, was their perfectly American race and character. At the start, when with an acceptable observance of Western steamboat tradition the ‘Avonek’ left her wharf eight hours behind her appointed time, there were very few passengers; but they began to come aboard at the little towns of both shores as she swam southward and westward, till all the tables were so full that, in observance of another Western steamboat tradition; one did well to stand guard over his chair lest some other who liked it should seize it earlier. The passengers were of every age and condition, except perhaps the highest condition, and they seemed none the worse for being more like Americans of the middle of the last century than of the beginning of this. Their fashions were of an approximation to those of the present, but did not scrupulously study detail; their manners were those of simpler if not sincerer days.
The women kept to themselves at their end of the saloon, aloof from the study of any but their husbands or kindred, but the men were everywhere else about, and open to observation. They were not so open to conversation, for your mid-Westerner is not a facile, though not an unwilling, talker. They sat by their tall, cast-iron stove (of the oval pattern unvaried since the earliest stove of the region), and silently ruminated their tobacco and spat into the clustering, cuspidors at their feet. They would always answer civilly if questioned, and oftenest intelligently, but they asked nothing in return, and they seemed to have none of that curiosity once known or imagined in them by Dickens and other averse aliens. They had mostly faces of resolute power, and such a looking of knowing exactly what they wanted as would not have promised well for any collectively or individually opposing them. If ever the sense of human equality has expressed itself in the human countenance it speaks unmistakably from American faces like theirs.
They were neither handsome nor unhandsome; but for a few striking exceptions, they had been impartially treated by nature; and where they were notably plain their look of force made up for their lack of beauty. They were notably handsomest in a tall young fellow of a lean face, absolute Greek in profile, amply thwarted with a branching mustache, and slender of figure, on whom his clothes, lustrous from much sitting down and leaning up, grew like the bark on a tree, and who moved slowly and gently about, and spoke with a low, kind voice. In his young comeliness he was like a god, as the gods were fancied in the elder world: a chewing and a spitting god, indeed, but divine in his passionless calm.
He was a serious divinity, and so were all the mid-Western human-beings about him. One heard no joking either of the dapper or cockney sort of cities, or the quaint graphic phrasing of Eastern country folk; and it may have been not far enough West for the true Western humor. At any rate, when they were not silent these men still were serious.
The women were apparently serious, too, and where they were associated with the men were, if they were not really subject, strictly abeyant, in the spectator’s eye. The average of them was certainly not above the American woman’s average in good looks, though one young mother of six children, well grown save for the baby in her arms, was of the type some masters loved to paint, with eyes set wide under low arched brows. She had the placid dignity and the air of motherly goodness which goes fitly with such beauty, and the sight of her was such as to disperse many of the misgivings that beset the beholder who looketh upon the woman when she is New. As she seemed, so any man might wish to remember his mother seeming.
All these river folk, who came from the farms and villages along the stream, and never from the great towns or cities, were well mannered, if quiet manners are good; and though the men nearly all chewed tobacco and spat between meals, at the table they were of an exemplary behavior. The use of the fork appeared strange to them, and they handled it strenuously rather than agilely, yet they never used their knives shovel-wise, however they planted their forks like daggers in the steak: the steak deserved no gentler usage, indeed. They were usually young, and they were constantly changing, bent upon short journeys between the shore villages; they were mostly farm youth, apparently, though some were said to be going to find work at the great potteries up the river for wages fabulous to home-keeping experience.
One personality which greatly took the liking of one of our tourists was a Kentucky mountaineer who, after three years’ exile in a West Virginia oil town, was gladly returning to the home for which he and all his brood-of large and little comely, red-haired boys and girls-had never ceased to pine. His eagerness to get back was more than touching; it was awing; for it was founded on a sort of mediaeval patriotism that could own no excellence beyond the borders of the natal region. He had prospered at high wages in his trade at that oil town, and his wife and children had managed a hired farm so well as to pay all the family expenses from it, but he was gladly leaving opportunity behind, that he might return to a land where, if you were passing a house at meal-time, they came out and made you come in and eat. “When you eat where I’ve been living you pay fifty cents,” he explained. “And are you taking all your household stuff with you?” “Only the cook-stove. Well, I’ll tell you: we made the other things ourselves; made them out of plank, and they were not worth-moving.” Here was the backwoods surviving into the day of Trusts; and yet we talk of a world drifted hopelessly far from the old ideals!
The new ideals, the ideals of a pitiless industrialism, were sufficiently expressed along the busy shores, where the innumerable derricks of oil- wells silhouetted their gibbet shapes against the horizon, and the myriad chimneys of the foundries sent up the smoke of their torment into the quiet skies and flamed upon the forehead of the evening like baleful suns. But why should I be so violent of phrase against these guiltless means of millionairing? There must be iron and coal as well as wheat and corn in the world, and without their combination we cannot have bread. If the combination is in the form of a trust, such as has laid its giant clutch upon all those warring industries beside the Ohio and swept them into one great monopoly, why, it has still to show that it is worse than competition; that it is not, indeed, merely the first blind stirrings of the universal cooperation of which the dreamers of ideal commonwealths have always had the vision.
The derricks and the chimneys, when one saw them, seem to have all the land to themselves; but this was an appearance only, terrifying in its strenuousness, but not, after all, the prevalent aspect. That was rather of farm, farms, and evermore farms, lying along the rich levels of the stream, and climbing as far up its beautiful hills as the plough could drive. In the spring and in the Mall, when it is suddenly swollen by the earlier and the later rains, the river scales its banks and swims over those levels to the feet of those hills, and when it recedes it leaves the cornfields enriched for the crop that, has never failed since the forests were first cut from the land. Other fertilizing the fields have never had any, but they teem as if the guano islands had been emptied into their laps. They feel themselves so rich that they part with great lengths and breadths of their soil to the river, which is not good for the river, and is not well for the fields; so that the farmers, whose ease learns slowly, are beginning more and more to fence their borders with the young willows which form a hedge in the shallow wash such a great part of the way up and down the Ohio. Elms and maples wade in among the willows, and in time the river will be denied the indigestion which it confesses in shoals and bars at low water, and in a difficulty of channel at all stages.
Meanwhile the fields flourish in spite of their unwise largesse to the stream, whose shores the comfortable farmsteads keep so constantly that they are never out of sight. Most commonly they are of brick, but sometimes of painted wood, and they are set on little eminences high enough to save them from the freshets, but always so near the river that they cannot fail of its passing life. Usually a group of planted evergreens half hides the house from the boat, but its inmates will not lose any detail of the show, and come down to the gate of the paling fence to watch the ‘Avonek’ float by: motionless men and women, who lean upon the supporting barrier, and rapt children who hold by their skirts and hands. There is not the eager New England neatness about these homes; now and then they have rather a sloven air, which does not discord with their air of comfort; and very, very rarely they stagger drunkenly in a ruinous neglect. Except where a log cabin has hardily survived the pioneer period, the houses are nearly all of one pattern; their facades front the river, and low chimneys point either gable, where a half-story forms the attic of the two stories below. Gardens of pot-herbs flank them, and behind cluster the corn-cribs, and the barns and stables stretch into the fields that stretch out to the hills, now scantily wooded, but ever lovely in the lines that change with the steamer’s course.
Except in the immediate suburbs of the large towns, there is no ambition beyond that of rustic comfort in the buildings on the shore. There is no such thing, apparently, as a summer cottage, with its mock humility of name, up or down the whole tortuous length of the Ohio. As yet the land is not openly depraved by shows of wealth; those who amass it either keep it to themselves or come away to spend it in European travel, or pause to waste it unrecognized on the ungrateful Atlantic seaboard. The only distinctions that are marked are between the homes of honest industry above the banks and the homes below them of the leisure, which it is hoped is not dishonest. But, honest or dishonest, it is there apparently to stay in the house-boats which line the shores by thousands, and repeat on Occidental terms in our new land the river-life of old and far Cathay.
They formed the only feature of their travel which our tourists found absolutely novel; they could clearly or dimly recall from the past every other feature but the houseboats, which they instantly and gladly naturalized to their memories of it. The houses had in common the form of a freight-car set in a flat-bottomed boat; the car would be shorter or longer, with one, or two, or three windows in its sides, and a section of stovepipe softly smoking from its roof. The windows might be curtained or they might be bare, but apparently there was no other distinction among the houseboat dwellers, whose sluggish craft lay moored among the willows, or tied to an elm or a maple, or even made fast to a stake on shore. There were cases in which they had not followed the fall of the river promptly enough, and lay slanted on the beach, or propped up to a more habitable level on its slope; in a sole, sad instance, the house had gone down with the boat and lay wallowing in the wash of the flood. But they all gave evidence of a tranquil and unhurried life which the soul of the beholder envied within him, whether it manifested itself in the lord of the house-boat fishing from its bow, or the lady coming to cleanse some household utensil at its stern. Infrequently a group of the house- boat dwellers seemed to be drawing a net, and in one high event they exhibited a good-sized fish of their capture, but nothing so strenuous characterized their attitude on any other occasion. The accepted theory of them was that they did by day as nearly nothing as men could do and live, and that by night their forays on the bordering farms supplied the simple needs of people who desired neither to toil nor to spin, but only to emulate Solomon in his glory with the least possible exertion. The joyful witness of their ease would willingly have sacrificed to them any amount of the facile industrial or agricultural prosperity about them and left them slumberously afloat, unmolested by dreams of landlord or tax- gatherer. Their existence for the fleeting time seemed the true interpretation of the sage’s philosophy, the fulfilment of the poet’s aspiration.
“Why should we only toil, that are the roof and crown of things.”
How did they pass their illimitable leisure, when they rested from the fishing-net by day and the chicken-coop by night? Did they read the new historical fictions aloud to one another? Did some of them even meditate the thankless muse and not mind her ingratitude? Perhaps the ladies of the house-boats, when they found themselves–as they often did–in companies of four or five, had each other in to “evenings,” at which one of them read a paper on some artistic or literary topic.
The trader’s boat, of an elder and more authentic tradition, sometimes shouldered the house-boats away from a village landing, but it, too, was a peaceful home, where the family life visibly went hand-in-hand with commerce. When the trader has supplied all the wants and wishes of a neighborhood, he unmoors his craft and drops down the river’s tide to where it meets the ocean’s tide in the farthermost Mississippi, and there either sells out both his boat and his stock, or hitches his home to some returning steamboat, and climbs slowly, with many pauses, back to the upper Ohio. But his home is not so interesting as that of the houseboatman, nor so picturesque as that of the raftsman, whose floor of logs rocks flexibly under his shanty, but securely rides the current. As the pilots said, a steamboat never tries to hurt a raft of logs, which is adapted to dangerous retaliation; and by night it always gives a wide berth to the lantern tilting above the raft from a swaying pole. By day the raft forms one of the pleasantest aspects of the river-life, with its convoy of skiffs always searching the stream or shore for logs which have broken from it, and which the skiffmen recognize by distinctive brands or stamps. Here and there the logs lie in long ranks upon the shelving beaches, mixed with the drift of trees and fence-rails, and frames of corn-cribs and hencoops, and even house walls, which the freshets have brought down and left stranded. The tops of the little willows are tufted gayly with hay and rags, and other spoil of the flood; and in one place a disordered mattress was lodged high among the boughs of a water- maple, where it would form building material for countless generations of birds. The fat cornfields were often littered with a varied wreckage which the farmers must soon heap together and burn, to be rid of it, and everywhere were proofs of the river’s power to devastate as well as enrich its shores. The dwellers there had no power against it, in its moments of insensate rage, and the land no protection from its encroachments except in the simple device of the willow hedges, which, if planted, sometimes refused to grow, but often came of themselves and kept the torrent from the loose, unfathomable soil of the banks, otherwise crumbling helplessly into it.
The rafts were very well, and the house-boats and the traders’ boats, but the most majestic feature of the riverlife was the tow of coal-barges which, going or coming, the ‘Avonek’ met every few miles. Whether going or coming they were pushed, not pulled, by the powerful steamer which gathered them in tens and twenties before her, and rode the mid-current with them, when they were full, or kept the slower water near shore when they were empty. They claimed the river where they passed, and the ‘Avonek’ bowed to an unwritten law in giving them the full right of way, from the time when their low bulk first rose in sight, with the chimneys of their steamer towering above them and her gay contours gradually making themselves seen, till she receded from the encounter, with the wheel at her stern pouring a cataract of yellow water from its blades. It was insurpassably picturesque always, and not the tapering masts or the swelling sails of any sea-going craft could match it.
So at least the travellers thought who were here revisiting the earliest scenes of childhood, and who perhaps found them unduly endeared. They perused them mostly from an easy seat at the bow of the hurricane-deck, and, whenever the weather favored them, spent the idle time in selecting shelters for their declining years among the farmsteads that offered themselves to their choice up and down the shores. The weather commonly favored them, and there was at least one whole day on the lower river when the weather was divinely flattering. The soft, dull air lulled their nerves while it buffeted their faces, and the sun, that looked through veils of mist and smoke, gently warmed their aging frames and found itself again in their hearts. Perhaps it was there that the water- elms and watermaples chiefly budded, and the red-birds sang, and the drifting flocks of blackbirds called and clattered; but surely these also spread their gray and pink against the sky and filled it with their voices. There were meadow-larks and robins without as well as within, and it was no subjective plough that turned the earliest furrows in those opulent fields.
When they were tired of sitting there, they climbed, invited or uninvited, but always welcomed, to the pilothouse, where either pilot of the two who were always on watch poured out in an unstinted stream the lore of the river on which all their days had been passed. They knew from indelible association every ever-changing line of the constant hills; every dwelling by the low banks; every aspect of the smoky towns; every caprice of the river; every-tree, every stump; probably every bud and bird in the sky. They talked only of the river; they cared for nothing else. The Cuban cumber and the Philippine folly were equally far from them; the German prince was not only as if he had never been here, but as if he never had been; no public question concerned them but that of abandoning the canals which the Ohio legislature was then foolishly debating. Were not the canals water-ways, too, like the river, and if the State unnaturally abandoned them would not it be for the behoof of those railroads which the rivermen had always fought, and which would have made a solitude of the river if they could?
But they could not, and there was nothing more surprising and delightful in this blissful voyage than the evident fact that the old river traffic had strongly survived, and seemed to be more strongly reviving. Perhaps it was not; perhaps the fondness of those Ohio-river-born passengers was abused by an illusion (as subjective as that of the buds and birds) of a vivid variety of business and pleasure on the beloved stream. But again, perhaps not. They were seldom out of sight of the substantial proofs of both in the through or way packets they encountered, or the nondescript steam craft that swarmed about the mouths of the contributory rivers, and climbed their shallowing courses into the recesses of their remotest hills, to the last lurking-places of their oil and coal.
The Avonek was always stopping to put off or take on merchandise or men. She would stop for a single passenger, plaited in the mud with his telescope valise or gripsack under the edge of a lonely cornfield, or to gather upon her decks the few or many casks or bales that a farmer wished to ship. She lay long hours by the wharf-boats of busy towns, exchanging one cargo for another, in that anarchic fetching and carrying which we call commerce, and which we drolly suppose to be governed by laws. But wherever she paused or parted, she tested the pilot’s marvellous skill; for no landing, no matter how often she landed in the same place, could be twice the same. At each return the varying stream and shore must be studied, and every caprice of either divined. It was always a triumph, a miracle, whether by day or by night, a constant wonder how under the pilot’s inspired touch she glided softly to her moorings, and without a jar slipped from them again and went on her course.
But the landings by night were of course the finest. Then the wide fan of the search-light was unfurled upon the point to be attained and the heavy staging lowered from the bow to the brink, perhaps crushing the willow hedges in it’s fall, and scarcely touching the land before a black, ragged deck-hand had run out through the splendor and made a line fast to the trunk of the nearest tree. Then the work of lading or unlading rapidly began in the witching play of the light that set into radiant relief the black, eager faces and the black, eager figures of the deck-hands struggling up or down the staging under boxes of heavy wares, or kegs of nails, or bales of straw, or blocks of stone, steadily mocked or cursed at in their shapeless effort, till the last of them reeled back to the deck down the steep of the lifting stage, and dropped to his broken sleep wherever he could coil himself, doglike, down among the heaps of freight.
No dog, indeed, leads such a hapless life as theirs; and ah! and ah! why should their sable shadows intrude in a picture that was meant to be all so gay and glad? But ah! and ah! where, in what business of this hard world, is not prosperity built upon the struggle of toiling men, who still endeavor their poor best, and writhe and writhe under the burden of their brothers above, till they lie still under the lighter load of their mother earth?