Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 32
'SUCH was Ritter's narrative,' said I to my two friends. There was a profound and impressive silence, which lasted a considerable time; then both men broke into a fusillade of exciting and admiring ejaculations over the strange incidents of the tale; and this, along with a rattling fire of questions, was kept up until all hands were about out of breath. Then my friends began to cool down, and draw off, under shelter of occasional volleys, into silence and abysmal reverie. For ten minutes now, there was stillness. Then Rogers said dreamily--
'Ten thousand dollars.'
Adding, after a considerable pause--
'Ten thousand. It is a heap of money.'
Presently the poet inquired--
'Are you going to send it to him right away?'
'Yes,' I said. 'It is a queer question.'
No reply. After a little, Rogers asked, hesitatingly:
'ALL of it?--That is--I mean--'
'Certainly, all of it.'
I was going to say more, but stopped--was stopped by a train of thought which started up in me. Thompson spoke, but my mind was absent, and I did not catch what he said. But I heard Rogers answer--
'Yes, it seems so to me. It ought to be quite sufficient; for I don't see that he has done anything.'
Presently the poet said--
'When you come to look at it, it is more than sufficient. Just look at it--five thousand dollars! Why, he couldn't spend it in a lifetime! And it would injure him, too; perhaps ruin him--you want to look at that. In a little while he would throw his last away, shut up his shop, maybe take to drinking, maltreat his motherless children, drift into other evil courses, go steadily from bad to worse--'
'Yes, that's it,' interrupted Rogers, fervently, 'I've seen it a hundred times--yes, more than a hundred. You put money into the hands of a man like that, if you want to destroy him, that's all; just put money into his hands, it's all you've got to do; and if it don't pull him down, and take all the usefulness out of him, and all the self-respect and everything, then I don't know human nature--ain't that so, Thompson? And even if we were to give him a THIRD of it; why, in less than six months--'
'Less than six WEEKS, you'd better say!' said I, warming up and breaking in. 'Unless he had that three thousand dollars in safe hands where he couldn't touch it, he would no more last you six weeks than--'
'Of COURSE he wouldn't,' said Thompson; 'I've edited books for that kind of people; and the moment they get their hands on the royalty--maybe it's three thousand, maybe it's two thousand--'
'What business has that shoemaker with two thousand dollars, I should like to know?' broke in Rogers, earnestly. 'A man perhaps perfectly contented now, there in Mannheim, surrounded by his own class, eating his bread with the appetite which laborious industry alone can give, enjoying his humble life, honest, upright, pure in heart; and BLEST!--yes, I say blest! blest above all the myriads that go in silk attire and walk the empty artificial round of social folly--but just you put that temptation before him once! just you lay fifteen hundred dollars before a man like that, and say--'
'Fifteen hundred devils!' cried I, 'FIVE hundred would rot his principles, paralyze his industry, drag him to the rumshop, thence to the gutter, thence to the almshouse, thence to ----'
'WHY put upon ourselves this crime, gentlemen?' interrupted the poet earnestly and appealingly. 'He is happy where he is, and AS he is. Every sentiment of honor, every sentiment of charity, every sentiment of high and sacred benevolence warns us, beseeches us, commands us to leave him undisturbed. That is real friendship, that is true friendship. We could follow other courses that would be more showy; but none that would be so truly kind and wise, depend upon it.'
After some further talk, it became evident that each of us, down in his heart, felt some misgivings over this settlement of the matter. It was manifest that we all felt that we ought to send the poor shoemaker SOMETHING. There was long and thoughtful discussion of this point; and we finally decided to send him a chromo.
Well, now that everything seemed to be arranged satisfactorily to everybody concerned, a new trouble broke out: it transpired that these two men were expecting to share equally in the money with me. That was not my idea. I said that if they got half of it between them they might consider themselves lucky. Rogers said--
'Who would have had ANY if it hadn't been for me? I flung out the first hint--but for that it would all have gone to the shoemaker.'
Thompson said that he was thinking of the thing himself at the very moment that Rogers had originally spoken.
I retorted that the idea would have occurred to me plenty soon enough, and without anybody's help. I was slow about thinking, maybe, but I was sure.
This matter warmed up into a quarrel; then into a fight; and each man got pretty badly battered. As soon as I had got myself mended up after a fashion, I ascended to the hurricane deck in a pretty sour humor. I found Captain McCord there, and said, as pleasantly as my humor would permit--
'I have come to say good-bye, captain. I wish to go ashore at Napoleon.'
'Go ashore where?'
The captain laughed; but seeing that I was not in a jovial mood, stopped that and said--
'But are you serious?'
'Serious? I certainly am.'
The captain glanced up at the pilot-house and said--
'He wants to get off at Napoleon!'
'That's what he says.'
'Great Caesar's ghost!'
Uncle Mumford approached along the deck. The captain said--
'Uncle, here's a friend of yours wants to get off at Napoleon!'
'Well, by ---?'
'Come, what is all this about? Can't a man go ashore at Napoleon if he wants to?'
'Why, hang it, don't you know? There ISN'T any Napoleon any more. Hasn't been for years and years. The Arkansas River burst through it, tore it all to rags, and emptied it into the Mississippi!'
'Carried the WHOLE town away?-banks, churches, jails, newspaper-offices, court-house, theater, fire department, livery stable EVERYTHING ?'
'Everything. just a fifteen-minute job.' or such a matter. Didn't leave hide nor hair, shred nor shingle of it, except the fag-end of a shanty and one brick chimney. This boat is paddling along right now, where the dead-center of that town used to be; yonder is the brick chimney-all that's left of Napoleon. These dense woods on the right used to be a mile back of the town. Take a look behind you--up-stream--now you begin to recognize this country, don't you?'
'Yes, I do recognize it now. It is the most wonderful thing I ever heard of; by a long shot the most wonderful--and unexpected.'
Mr. Thompson and Mr. Rogers had arrived, meantime, with satchels and umbrellas, and had silently listened to the captain's news. Thompson put a half-dollar in my hand and said softly--
'For my share of the chromo.'
Rogers followed suit.
Yes, it was an astonishing thing to see the Mississippi rolling between unpeopled shores and straight over the spot where I used to see a good big self-complacent town twenty years ago. Town that was county-seat of a great and important county; town with a big United States marine hospital; town of innumerable fights--an inquest every day; town where I had used to know the prettiest girl, and the most accomplished in the whole Mississippi Valley; town where we were handed the first printed news of the 'Pennsylvania's' mournful disaster a quarter of a century ago; a town no more--swallowed up, vanished, gone to feed the fishes; nothing left but a fragment of a shanty and a crumbling brick chimney!