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John Brent/Chapter IV

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John Brent[edit]

A man who does not love luxury is merely an incomplete man, or, if he prefers, an ignoramus. A man who cannot dispense with luxury, and who does not love hard fare, hard bed, hard travel, and all manner of robust, vigorous, tense work, is a weakling and a soft. Sybaris is a pretty town, rose-leaves are a delicate mattress, Lydian measures are dulcet to soul and body: also, the wilderness is “no mean city”; hemlock or heather for couch, brocken for curtain, are not cruelty; prairie gales are a brave lullaby for adults.

Simple furniture and simple fare a campaigner needs for the plains, — for chamber furniture, a pair of blankets; for kitchen furniture, a frying-pan and a coffee-pot; for table furniture, a tin mug and his bowie-knife: Sybaris adds a tin plate, a spoon, and even a fork. The list of provisions is as short, — pork, flour, and coffee; that is all, unless Sybaris should indulge in a modicum of tea, a dose or two of sugar, and a vial of vinegar for holidays.

I had several days for preparation, until my companions, the mail-riders, should arrive. One morning I was busy making up my packs of such luxuries as I have mentioned for the journey, when I heard the clatter of horses’ feet, and observed a stranger approach and ride up to the door of my shanty. He was mounted upon a powerful iron-gray horse, and drove a pack mule and an Indian pony.

My name was on an elaborately painted shingle over the door. It was my own handiwork, and quite a lion in that region. I felt, whenever I inspected that bit of high art, that, fail or win at the mine, I had a resource. Indeed, my Pike neighbors seemed to consider that I was unjustifiably burying my artistic talents. Many a not unseemly octagonal slug, with Moffatt & Co.’s imprimatur of value, had been offered me if I would paint up some miner’s hell, as “The True Paradise,” or “The Shades and Caffy de Paris.”

The new-comer read my autograph on the shingle, looked about, caught sight of me at work in the hot shade, dismounted, fastened his horses, and came toward me. It was not the fashion in California, at that time, to volunteer civility or acquaintance. Men had to announce themselves, and prove their claims. I sat where I was, and surveyed the stranger.

“The Adonis of the copper-skins!” I said to myself. “This is the ‘Young Eagle,’ or the ‘Sucking Dove,’ or the ‘Maiden’s Bane,’ or some other great chief of the cleanest Indian tribe on the continent. A beautiful youth! O Fenimore, why are you dead! There are a dozen romances in one look of that young brave. One chapter might be written on his fringed buckskin shirt; one on his equally fringed leggings, with their stripe of porcupine-quills; and one short chapter on his moccasons, with their scarlet cloth instep-piece, and his cap of otter fur decked with an eagle’s feather. What a poem the fellow is! I wish I was an Indian myself for such a companion; or, better, a squaw, to be made love to by him.”

As he approached, I perceived that he was not copper, but bronze. A pale-face certainly! That is, a pale-face tinged by the brazen sun of a California summer. Not less handsome, however, as a Saxon, than an Indian brave. As soon as I identified him as one of my own race I began to fancy I had seen him before.

“If he were but shaved and clipped, black-coated, booted, gloved, hatted with a shiny cylinder, disarmed of his dangerous looking arsenal and armed with a plaything of a cane, — in short if he were metamorphosed from a knight-errant into a carpet-knight, changed from a smooth rough into a smooth smooth, — seems to me I should know him, or know that I had known him once.”

He came up, laid his hand familiarly on my arm, and said, “What, “Wade? Don’t you remember me? John Brent.”

“I hear your voice. I begin to see you now. Hurrah!”

“How was it I did not recognize you,” said I, after a fraternal greeting.

“Ten years have presented me with this for a disguise,” said he, giving his moustache a twirl. “Ten years of experience have taken all the girl out of me.”

“What have you been doing these ten years, since College, many-sided man?”

“Grinding my sides against the Adamant, every one.”

“Has your diamond begun to see light, and shine?”

“The polishing-dust dims it still,”

“How have you found life, kind or cruel?”

“Certainly not kind, hardly cruel, unless indifference is cruelty.”

“But indifference, want of sympathy, must have been a positive relief after the aggressive cruelty of your younger days.”

“And what have you been doing, Richard?”

“Everything that Yankees do, — digging last.”

“That has been my business, too, as well as polishing.”

“The old work, I suppose, to root out lies and plant in truth.”

“That same slow task. Tunnelling too, to find my way out of the prison of doubt into the freedom of faith.”

“You are out, then, at last. Happy and at peace, I hope.”

“At peace, hardly happy. How can such a lonely fellow be happy?”

“We are peers in bereavement now. My family are all gone, except two little children of my sister.”

“Not quite peers. You remember your relatives tenderly. I have no such comfort.”

Odd talk this may seem, to hold with an old friend. Ten years apart! We ought to have met in merrier mood. We might, if we had parted with happy memories. But it was not so. Youth had been a harsh season to Brent. If Fate destines a man to teach, she compels him to learn, — bitter lessons, too, whether he will or no. Brent was a man of genius. All experience, therefore, piled itself upon him. He must learn the immortal consolations by probing all suffering himself.

Brent’s story is a short one or a long one. It can be told in a page, or in a score of volumes. We had met fourteen years before in the same pew of Berkeley College Chapel, grammars by our side and tutors before us, two well-crammed candidates for the Freshman Class. Brent was a delicate, beautiful, dreamy boy. My counterpart. I was plain prose, and needed the poetic element. We became friends. I was steady; he was erratic. I was calm; he was passionate. I was reasonably happy; he was totally miserable. For good cause.

The cause was this; and it has broken weaker hearts than Brent’s. His heart was made of stuff that does not know how to break.

Dr. Swerger was the cause of Brent’s misery. The Reverend Dr. Swerger was a brutal man. One who believes that God is vengeance naturally imitates his God, and does not better his model.

Swerger was Brent’s step-father. Mrs. Brent was pretty, silly, rich, and a widow. Swerger wanted his wife pretty, and not too wise; and that she was rich balanced, perhaps a little more than balanced, the slight objection of widowhood.

Swerger naturally hated his step-son. One intuition of Brent’s was worth all the thoughts of Swerger’ s life-time. A clergyman who starts with believing in hells, devils, original sin, and such crudities, can never be anything in the nineteenth century but a tyrant or a nuisance, if he has any logic, as fortunately few of such misbelievers have. Swerger had logic. So had the boy Brent, — the logic of a true, pure, loving heart. He could not stand Swerger’s coming into his dead father’s house and deluding his mother with a black fanaticism.

So Swerger gave him to understand that he was a child of hell. He won his wife to shrink from her son. Between them they lacerated the boy. He was a brilliant fellow, quite the king of us all. But he worked under a cloud. He could not get at any better religion than Swerger’s; and perhaps there was none better — or much better — to be had at that time.

One day matters came to a quarrel. Swerger cursed his step-son; of course not in the same terms the sailors used on Long Wharf, but with no better spirit. The mother, cowed by her husband, backed him, and abandoned the boy. They drove him out of the house, to go where he would. He came to me. I gave him half my quarters, and tried to cheer him. No use. This bitter wrong to his love to God and to man almost crushed him. He brooded and despaired. He began to fancy himself the lost soul Swerger had called him. I saw that he would die or go mad; or, if he had strength enough to react, it would be toward a hapless rebellion against conventional laws, and so make his blight ruin. I hurried him off to Europe, for change of scene. That was ten years ago, and I had not seen him since. I knew, however, that his mother was visited by compunctions; that she wished to be reconciled to her son; that Swerger refused, and renewed his anathemas; that he bullied the poor little woman to death; that Brent had to wring the property out of him by a long lawsuit, which the Swergerites considered an unconstitutional and devilish proceeding, another proof of total depravity. Miserable business! It went near to crush all the innocence, faith, hope, and religion out of my friend’s life.

Of course this experience had a tendency to drive Brent out of the common paths, to make him a seer instead of a doer. The vulgar cannot comprehend that, when a man is selected by character and circumstance, acting together under the name of destiny, to be a seer, he must see to the end before he begins to say what he sees, to be a guide, a monitor, and a helper. The vulgar, therefore, called Brent a wasted life, a man of genius manqué, a pointless investigator, a purposeless dreamer. The vulgar loves to make up its mind prematurely. The vulgar cannot abide a man who lives a blameless life so far as personal conduct goes, and yet declines to accept worldly tests of success, worldly principles of action. If a man rebels against laws, and takes the side of vice, that the vulgar can comprehend; but rebellion on the side of virtue is revolutionary, destroys all the old landmarks, must be crucified.

Brent, therefore, boy and man, had had tough experience. I knew of his career, though we had not met. He had wished and attempted, perhaps prematurely, to make his fine genius of definite use. He wanted to make the nation’s prayers; but the Swergerites pronounced his prayers Paganism. He wanted to put the nation’s holiest thoughts into poetry; they called his poetry impious. He wanted to stir up the young men of his day to a franker stand on the side of genuine liberty, and a keener hatred of all slavery, and so to uphold chivalry and heroism; the cynical people scoffed, they said he would get over his boyish folly, that he ought to have lived before Bayard, or half-way through the millennium, but that the kind of stuff he preached and wrote with such unnecessary fervor did not suit the nineteenth century, a practical country and a practical age.

So Brent paused in his work. The boyhood’s unquestioning ardor went out of him. The interregnum between youth and complete manhood came. He gave up his unripe attempt to be a doer, and turned seer again. Observation is the proper business of a man’s third decade; the less a spokesman has to say about his results until thirty, the better, unless he wants to eat his words, or to sustain outgrown formulas. Brent discovered this, and went about the world still pointless, purposeless, manqué, as they said, — minding his own business, getting his facts. His fortune made him independent. He could go where he pleased.

This was the man who rode up on the iron-gray horse. This was the Indianesque Saxon who greeted me. It put color and poetry into my sulky life to see him.

“Off, old fellow?” said Brent, pointing his whip at my traps. “I can’t hear him squeak, but I’m sure there is pig in that gunny-bag, and flour in that sack. I hope you’re not away for a long trip just as I have come to squat with you.”

“No longer than home across the plains.”

“Bravo! then we’ll ride together, instead of squatting together. Instead of your teaching me quartz-mining, I’ll guide you across the Rockys.”

“You know the way, then.”

“Every foot of it. Last fall I hunted up from Mexico and New Mexico with an English friend. We made winter head-quarters with Captain Ruby at Fort Laramie, knocking about all winter in that neighborhood, and at the North among the Wind River Mountains. Early in the spring we went off toward Luggernel Alley and the Luggernel Springs, and camped there for a month.”

“Luggernel Alley! Luggernel Springs! Those are new names to me; in fact, my Rocky Mountain geography is naught.”

“You ought to see them. Luggernel Alley is one of the wonders of this continent.”

So I think now that I have seen it. It was odd too, what afterward I remembered as a coincidence, that our first talk should have turned to a spot where we were to do and to suffer, by and by.

“There is something Frenchy in the name Luggernel,” said I.

“Yes; it is a corruption of La Grenouille. There was a famous Canadian trapper of that name, or nickname. He discovered the springs. The Alley, a magnificent gorge, grand as the Via Mala, leads to them. I will describe the whole to you at length, some time.”

“Who was your English friend?”

“Sir Biron Biddulph, — a capital fellow, pink in the cheeks, warm in the heart, strong in the shanks, mighty on the hunt,”

“Hunting for love of it?”

“No; for love itself, or rather the lack of love. A lovely lady in his native Lancashire would not smile; so he turned butcher of buffalo, bears, and big-horn.”

“Named he the ‘fair but frozen maid ‘?”

“Never. It seems there is something hapless or tragic about her destiny. She did not love him; so he came away to forget her. He made no secret of it. We arrived in Utah last July, on our way to see California. There he got letters from home, announcing, as he told me, some coming misfortune to the lady. As a friend, no longer a lover, he proposed to do what he could to avert the danger. I left him in Salt Lake, preparing to return, and came across country alone.”

“Alone! through the Indian country, with that tempting iron-gray, those tempting packs, that tempting scalp, with its love-locks! Why, the sight of your scalp alone would send a thrill through every Indian heart from Bear River to the Dalles of the Columbia! Perhaps, by the way, you’ve been scalped already, and are safe?”

“No; the mop’s my own mop. Scalp’s all right. Wish I could say the same of the brains. The Indians would not touch me. I am half savage, you know. In this and my former trip, I have become a privileged character, — something of a medicine-man.”

“I suppose you can talk to them. You used to have the gift of tongues.”

“Yes; I have choked down two or three of their guttural lingos, and can sputter them up as easily as I used to gabble iambic trimeters, I like the fellows. They are not ideal heroes; they have not succeeded in developing a civilization, or in adopting ours, and therefore I suppose they must go down, as pine-trees go down to make room for tougher stalks and fruitier growth: but I like the fellows, and don’t believe in their utter deviltry. I have always given the dogs a good name, and they have been good dogs to me. I like thorough men, too; and what an Indian knows, he knows, so that it is a part of him. It is a good corrective for an artificial man to find himself less of a man, under certain difficulties, than a child of nature. You know this, of course, as well as I do.”

“Yes; we campaigners get close to the heart of Mother Nature, and she teaches us, tenderly or roughly, but thoroughly. By the way, how did you find me out?”

“I heard some Pikes, at a camp last night, talking of a person who had sold a quartz mine for a wonderful horse. I asked the name. They told me yours, and directed me here. Except for this talk, I should have gone down to San Francisco, and missed you.”

“Lucky horse! He brings old friends together, — a good omen! Come and see him.”