John Brent/Chapter VII
Enter, the Brutes
The sun had just gone down. There was a red wrangle of angry vapors over the mounds of mountain westward. A brace of travellers from Salt Lake way rode up and lighted their camp-fire near ours. More society in that lonely world. Two families, with two sets of Lares and Penates.
Not attractive society. They were a sinister-looking couple of hounds. A lean wolfish and a fat bony dog.
One was a rawboned, stringy chap, — as gaunt, unkempt, and cruel a Pike as ever pillaged the cabin, insulted the wife, and squirted tobacco over the dead body of a Free State settler in Kansas. The other was worse, because craftier. A little man, stockish, oily, and red in the face. A jaunty fellow, too, with a certain shabby air of coxcombry even in his travel-stained attire.
They were well mounted, both. The long ruffian rode a sorrel, big and bony as himself, and equally above such accidents as food or no food. The little villain’s mount was a red roan, a Flathead horse, rather naggy, but perfectly hardy and wiry, — an animal that one would choose to do a thousand miles in twenty days, or a hundred between sunrise and sunset. They had also two capital mules, packed very light. One was branded, “A. & A.”
Distrust and disgust are infallible instincts. Men’s hearts and lives are written on their faces, to warn or charm. Never reject that divine or devilish record!
Brent read the strangers, shivered at me, and said, sotto voce, “What a precious pair of cut-throats! We must look sharp for our horses while they are about.”
“Yes,” returned I, in the same tone; “they look to me like Sacramento gamblers, who have murdered somebody, and had to make tracks for their lives.”
“The Cassius of the pair is bad enough,” said Brent; “but that oily little wretch sickens me. I can imagine him when he arrives at St. Louis, blossomed into a purple coat with velvet lappels, a brocaded waistcoat, diamond shirt-studs, or a flamboyant scarf pinned with a pinchbeck dog, and red-legged patent-leather boots, picking his teeth on the steps of the Planters’ House. Faugh! I feel as if a snake were crawling over me, when I look at him.”
“They are not very welcome neighbors to our friends here.”
“No. Roughs abhor brutes as much as you or I do. Roughs are only nature; brutes are sin. I do not like this brutal element coming in. It portends misfortune. You and I will inevitably come into collision with those fellows.”
“You take your hostile attitude at once, and without much reluctance.”
“You know something of my experience. I have had a struggle all my life with sin in one form or other, with brutality in one form or other. I have been lacerated so often from unwillingness to strike the first blow, that I have at last been forced into the offensive.”
“You believe in flooring Apollyon before he floors you.”
“There must be somebody to do the merciless. It’s not my business — the melting mood — in my present era.”
“We are going off into generalities, apropos of those two brutes. What, O volunteer champion of virtue, dost thou propose in regard to them? When will you challenge them to the ordeal, to prove themselves holiest men and good fellows?”
“Aggression always comes from evil. They are losels; we are true knights. They will do some sneaking villany. You and I will thereupon up and at ’em.”
“Odd fellow are you, with your premonitions!”
“They are very vague, of course, but based on a magnetism which I have learnt to trust, after much discipline, because I refused to obey it. Look at that big brute, how he kicks and curses his mule!”
“Perhaps he has stolen it, and is revenging his theft on its object. That brand ‘A. & A.’ may remind him what a thief he is.”
“Here comes the fat brother. He’ll propose to camp with us.”
“It is quite natural he should, saint or sinner, — all the more if he is sinner. It must be terrible for a man who has ugly secrets to wake up at night, alone in bivouac, with a grisly dream, no human being near, and find the stars watching him keenly, or the great white, solemn moon pitying him, yet saying, with her inflexible look, that, moan and curse as he may, no remorse will save him from despair.”
“Yes,” said Brent, knocking the ashes out of his pipe;” night always seems to judge and sentence the day. A foul man, or a guilty man, so long as he intends to remain foul and guilty, dreads pure, quiet, orderly Nature.”
The objectionable stranger came up to our camp-fire.
“Hello, men!” said he, with a familiar air, “it’s a fine night”; and meeting with no response, he continued: “But, I reckon, you don’t allow nothin’ else but fine nights in this section.”
“Bad company makes all nights bad,” says Jake Shamberlain, gruffly enough.
“Ay; and good company betters the orneriest sort er weather. The more the merrier, eh?”
‘‘ Supposin’ its more perarer wolves, or more rattlesnakes, or more horse-thieving, scalpin Utes!” says Jake, unpropitiated.
“O,” said the new-comer a little uneasily, “I don’t mean sech. I mean jolly dogs, like me and my pardener. We allowed you’d choose company in camp. We’d like to stick our pegs in alongside of yourn, ef no gent haint got nothin’ to say agin it.”
“It’s a free country,” Jake said, “and looks pooty roomy round here. You ken camp whar you blame please, — off or on.”
“Well,” says the fellow, laying hold of this very slight encouragement, “since you’re agreeable, we’ll fry our pork over your fire, and hev a smoke to better acquaintance.”
“He ain’t squimmidge,” said Jake to us, as the fellow walked off to call his comrade. “He’s bound to ring himself into this here party, whoever says stickleback. He’s one er them Algerines what don’t know a dark hint, till it begins to make motions, and kicks ’em out. Well, two more men, with two regiments’ allowance of shootin’ irons won’t do no harm in this Ingine country.”
“Well, boys!” said the unpleasant fatling, approaching again. “Here is my pardener, Sam Smith, from Sacramenter; what he don’t know about a horse ain’t worth knowin’. My name is Jim Robinson. I ken sing a song, tell a story, or fling a card with any man, in town or out er town.”
While the strangers cooked their supper, my friend and I lounged off apart upon the prairie. A few steps gave us a capital picture. The white wagon; the horses feeding in the distance, a dusky group; the men picturesquely disposed about the fire, now glowing ruddy against the thickening night. A Gypsy scene. Literal “Vie de Bohême.”
“I am never bored,” said Brent to me, “with the company or the talk of men like those, good or bad. Homo sum; nil humani, and so forth, — a sentiment of the late Plautus, now first quoted.”
“You do not yet feel a reaction toward scholarly society.”
“No; this Homeric life, with its struggle against elements, which I can deify if I please, and against crude forces in man or nature, suits the youth of my manhood, my Achilles time. The world went through an epoch of just such life as we are leading. Every man must, to be complete and not conventional.”
“A man who wants to know his country and his age must clash with all the people and all the kinds of life in it. You and I have had the college, the salon, the club, the street, Europe, the Old World, and Yankeedom through and through; when do you expect to outgrow Ishmael, my Jonathan?”
“Whenever Destiny gives me the final accolade of merit, and names me Lover.”
“What! have you never been that happy wretch?”
“Never. I have had transitory ideals. I have been enchanted by women willowy and women dumpy; by the slight and colorless mind and body, by the tender and couleur de rose, and by the buxom and ruddy. I have adored Zobeide and Hildegarde, Dolores and Dorothy Ann, imp and angel, sprite and fiend. I have had my little irritation of a foolish fancy, my sharp scourge of an unworthy passion. I am heart-whole still, and growing a little expectant of late.”
“You are not cruising the plains for a lady-love! It is not, ‘I will wed a savage woman’? It is not for a Pawnee squaw that you go clad in skins and disdain the barber?”
“No. My business in Cosmos is not to be the father of half-breeds. But soberly, old fellow, I need peace after a life driven into premature foemanship. I need tranquillity to let my character use my facts. I want the bitter drawn out of me, and the sweet fostered. I yearn to be a lover.”
As he said this, we had approached the camp-fire. Jim Robinson, by this time quite at home, was making his accomplishments of use. He was debasing his audience with a vulgar song. The words and air jarred upon both of us.
“Nil humani a me alienum puto, I repeat,” said Brent, “but that foul stuff is not the voice of humanity. Let’s go look at the horses. They do not belie their nobler nature, and are not in the line of degradation. I cannot harden myself not to shrink from the brutal element wherever I find it; whether in two horse-thieves on the plains, or in a well-dressed reprobate of society at the club in New York.”
“Brutes in civilization are just as base, but not so blatant.”
“Old Pumps and the Don, here, are a gentler and more honorable pair than these strangers.”
“They are the gentlemen of their race.”
“It’s not their cue to talk; but if the gift of tongues should come to them, they would disdain all unchivalric and discourteous words. They do now, with those brave eyes and scornful nostrils, rebuke whatever is unmanly in men.”
“Yes; they certainly look ready to co-operate in all knightly duties.”
“One of those, as I hinted before, is riding down caitiffs.”
We left our horses, busy at their suppers, beside the brawling river, and walked back to camp. It was a Caravaggio scene by the firelight. Jim Robinson had produced cards. The men of the mail party were intent over the game. Even Jake Shamberlain had easily forgotten his distrust of the strangers. The two suspects, whether with an eye to future games, or because they could not offend their comrades and protectors for this dangerous journey, were evidently playing fair. Robinson would sometimes exhibit a winning hand, and say, with an air of large liberality, “Ye see, boys, I ked rake down yer dimes, ef I chose; but this here is a game among friends. I’m playin’ for pastime. I’ve made my pile olreddy, and so’s my pardener.”
The gambler’s face and the gambler’s manner are the same all over the world. Always the same impassible watchfulness. Always the same bullying cruelty or feline cruelty. Always the same lurking triumph, and the same lurking sneer at the victim. The same quiet satisfaction that gamesters will be geese, and gamblers are deputed to pluck them; the same suppressed chuckle over the efforts of the luckless to retrieve bad luck; the same calm confidence that the lucky player will by and by back the wrong card, the wrong color, or the wrong number, and the bank will take back its losses. What hard faces they wear! “Wear, — for their faces seem masks merely, dropped only at stealthy moments. Always the same look and the same manner. Young and beautiful faces curdle into it. Women’s even. I have seen women, the slaves of the hells their devils kept, whose faces would have been fair and young, if this ugly mask could but be torn away. All men and all women who make prey of their fellows, who lie in wait to seize and dismember brothers and sisters, get this same relentless expression. It fixes itself deepest on a gambler; he must hold the same countenance from the first lamp-lighting until indignant dawn pales the sickly light of lamps, and the first morning air creeps in to stir the heavy-hearted atmosphere, and show that it is poison.
“I’ve seen villains just like those two,” said Brent, “in every hell in Europe and America. They always go in pairs; a tiger and a snake; a bully and a wheedler.
“Mind and matter. The old partnership, like yours and mine.”
Next morning the two strangers were free and accepted members of the party. They travelled on with us without question. Smith the gaunt affected a rough frankness of manner. Robinson was low comedy. His head was packed with scurvy jokes and stories. He had a foul leer on his face whenever he was thinking his own thoughts. But either, if suddenly startled, showed the unmistakable look that announces worse crime than mere knavery.
They tangled their names so that we perceived each was an alias hastily assumed. Smith compared six-shooters with me. I detected on his the name Murker, half erased. Once, too, Brent heard Murker, alias Smith, call his partner Larrap.
“Larrap is appropriate,” said I, when Brent told me this; “just the name for him, as that unlucky mule branded ‘ A. & A.’ could testify.”
“The long ruffian studied my face, when he made that slip, to see if I had heard. He might as well have inspected the air for the mark of his traitorous syllables.”
“You claim that your phiz is so covered with hieroglyphs, inscriptions of fine feeling, that there is no room to write suspicions of other men’s villany?”
“A clean heart keeps a clean face. A guilty heart will announce itself at eyes and lips and cheeks, and by a thousand tremors of the nerves. I have no prejudices against the family Larrap. But when Larrap’s mate spoke the name, he looked at me as if he had been committing a murder, and had by an irresistible impulse proclaimed the fact. Look at him now! how he starts and half turns whenever one of our horses makes a clatter. He dares not quite look back. He knows there is something after him.”
“The dread of a vengeance, you think. That’s a blacker follower than ‘Atra cura post equitem.’”
I tire of these unwholesome characters I am describing. But I did not put them into the story. They took their places themselves. I find that brutality interferes in most dramas and most lives. Brutality the male sin, disloyalty the female sin, — these two are always doing their best to baffle and blight heroism and purity. Often they succeed. Oftener they fail. And so the world exists, and is not annulled; its history is the history of the struggle and the victory. This episode of my life is a brief of the world’s complete experience.