John Brent/Chapter I
Auri Sacre Fames
I write in the first person; but I shall not maunder about myself. I am in no sense the hero of this drama. Call me Chorus, if you please, — not Chorus merely observant and impassive; rather Chorus a sympathizing monitor and helper. Perhaps I gave a certain crude momentum to the movement of the play, when finer forces were ready to flag; but others bore the keen pangs, others took the great prizes, while I stood by to lift the maimed and cheer the victor.
It is a healthy, simple, broad-daylight story.
No mystery in it. There is action enough, primeval action of the Homeric kind. Deeds of the heroic and chivalric times do not utterly disdain our day. There are men as ready to gallop for love and strike for love now, as in the age of Amadis.
Roughs and brutes, as well as gentlemen, take their places in this drama. None of the characters have scruples or qualms. They act according to their laws, and are scourged or crowned, as their laws suit Nature’s or not.
To me these adventures were episode; to my friend, the hero, the very substance of life.
But enough backing and filling. Enter Richard Wade — myself — as Chorus.
A few years ago I was working a gold-quartz mine in California.
It was a worthless mine, under the conditions of that time. I had been dragged into it by the shifts and needs of California life. Destiny probably meant to teach me patience and self-possession in difficulty. So Destiny thrust me into a bitter bad business of quartz mining.
If I had had countless dollars of capital to work my mine, or quicksilver for amalgamation as near and plenty as the snow on the Sierra Nevada, I might have done well enough.
As it was, I got but certain pennyworths of gold to a most intolerable quantity of quartz. The precious metal was to the brute mineral m the proportion of perhaps a hundred pin-heads to the ton. My partners, down in San Francisco, wrote to me: “Only find twice as many pin-heads, and our fortune is made.” So thought those ardent fellows, fancying that gold would go up and labor go down, — that presently I would strike a vein where the mineral would show yellow threads and yellow dots, perhaps even yellow knobs, in the crevices, instead of empty crannies which Nature had prepared for monetary deposits and forgotten to fill.
So thought the fellows in San Francisco. They had been speculating in beef, bread-stuffs, city lots, Rincon Point, wharf property, mission lands, Mexican titles, Sacramento boats, politics, Oregon lumber. They had been burnt out, they had been cleaned out, they had been drowned out. They depended upon me and the quartz mine to set them up again. So there was a small, steady stream of money flowing up from San Francisco from the depleted coffers of those sanguine partners, flowing into our mine, and sinking there, together with my labor and my life.
Our ore — the San Francisco partners liked to keep up the complimentary fiction of calling it ore — was pretty stuff for an amateur mineralogical cabinet. A professor would have exhibited specimens to a lecture-room with delight. There never was any quartz where the matrix was better defined, better shaped to hold the gold that was not in it. For Macadam, what royal material it would have been! Park roads made of it would have glittered gayer than marble. How brilliantly paths covered with its creamy-white fragments would have meandered through green grass!
If I had had no fond expectations of these shining white and yellow stones, I should have deemed their mass useful and ornamental enough, — useful skeleton material to help hold the world together, ornamental when it lay in the sun and sparkled. But this laughing sparkle had something of a sneer in it. The stuff knew that it had humbugged me. Let a man or a woman be victor over man or woman, and the chances are that generosity will suppress the pæan. But matter is so often insulted and disdained, that when it triumphs over mind it is merciless.
Yes; my quartz had humbugged me. Or rather — let me not be unjust even to undefended stone, not rich enough to pay an advocate — I had humbugged myself with false hopes. I have since ascertained that my experience is not singular. Other men have had false hopes of other things than quartz mines. Perhaps it was to teach me this that the experience came. Having had my lesson, I am properly cool and patient now when I see other people suffering in the same way, — whether they dig for gold, fame, or bliss; digging for the bread of their life, and getting only a stone. The quartz was honest enough as quartz. It was my own fault that I looked for gold-bearing quartz, and so found it bogus and a delusion. What right have we to demand the noble from the ignoble!
I used sometimes fairly to shake my fist at my handsome pile of mineral, my bullionless pockets of ore. There was gold in the quartz; there are pearls in the Jersey muds; there are plums in boarding-house puddings; there are sixpences in the straw of Broadway omnibuses.
Steady disappointment, by and by, informs a man that he is in the wrong place. All work, no play, no pay, is a hint to work elsewhere. But men must dig in the wrong spots to learn where these are, and so narrow into the right spot at last. Every man, it seems, must waste so much life. Every man must have so much imprisonment to teach him limits and fit him for freedom.
Nearly enough, however of Miei Prigioni. A word or two of my companions in jail. A hard lot they were, my neighbors within twenty miles! Jail-birds, some of them, of the worst kind. It was as well, perhaps, that my digging did not make money, and theirs did. They would not have scrupled to bag my gold and butcher me. But they were not all ruffians; some were only barbarians.
Pikes, most of these latter. America is manufacturing several new types of men. The Pike is one of the newest. He is a bastard pioneer. With one hand he clutches the pioneer vices; with the other he beckons forward the vices of civilization. It is hard to understand how a man can have so little virtue in so long a body, unless the shakes are foes to virtue in the soul, as they are to beauty in the face.
He is a terrible shock, this unlucky Pike, to the hope that the new race on the new continent is to be a handsome race. I lose that faith, which the people about me now have nourished, when I recall the Pike. He is hung together, not put together. He inserts his lank fathom of a man into a suit of molasses-colored homespun. Frowzy and husky is the hair Nature crowns him with; frowzy and stubby the beard. He shambles in his walk. He drawls in his talk. He drinks whiskey by the tank. His oaths are to his words as Falstaff’s sack to his bread. I have seen Maltese beggars, Arab camel-drivers, Dominican friars, New York Aldermen, Digger Indians; the foulest, frowziest creatures I have ever seen are thorough-bred Pikes. The most vigorous of them leave their native landscape of cotton-wood and sand-bars along the yellow ditches of the West, and emigrate with a wagon-load of pork and pork-fed progeny across the plains to California. There the miasms are roasted out of them; the shakes warmed away; they will grow rich, and possibly mellow, in the third or fourth generation. They had not done so in my time. I lived among them ad nauseam, month after month, and I take this opportunity to pay them parting compliments.
I went on toiling, day after day, week after week, two good years of my life, over that miserable mine. Nothing came of it. I was growing poorer with every ton we dug, poorer with every pound we crushed. In a few months more, I should have spent my last dollar and have gone to day labor, perhaps among the Pikes. The turnpike stuff refused to change into gold. I saw, of course, that something must be done. What, I did not know. I was in that state when one needs an influence without himself to take him by the hand gently, by the shoulder forcibly, by the hair roughly, or even by the nose insultingly, and drag him off into a new region.
The influence came. Bad news reached me. My only sister, a widow, my only near relative, died, leaving two young children to my care. It was strange how this sorrow made the annoyance and weariness of my life naught! How this responsibility cheered me! My life seemed no longer lonely and purposeless. Point was given to all my intentions at once. I must return home to New York. Further plans when I am there! But now for home! If any one wanted my quartz mine, he might have it. I could not pack it in my saddle-bags to present to a college cabinet of mineralogy.
I determined, as time did not absolutely press, to ride home across the plains. It is a grand journey. Two thousand miles, or so, on horse-back. Mountains, deserts, prairies, rivers, Mormons, Indians, buffalo, — adventures without number in prospect. A hearty campaign, and no carpet knighthood about it.
It was late August. I began my preparations at once.