John Brent/Chapter XIII
Jake Shamberlain’s Ball
It grew dusk. Glimmering camp-fires marked the circle of the Mormon caravan. The wagons seemed each one, in the gloaming, a giant white nightcap of an ogress leaning over her coals. The world looked drowsy, and invited the pilgrims toward the Mecca of the new Thingamy to repose. They did not seem inclined to accept. The tramping and lowing cattle kept up a tumult like the noise of a far city. And presently another din!
As Brent and I approached the fort, forth issued Jake Shamberlain, with a drummer on this side and a fifer on that. “Pop goes the Weasel,” the fifer blew. A tuneless bang resounded from the drum. If there was one thing these rival melodists scorned, time was that one thing. They might have been beating and blowing with the eight thousand miles of the globe’s diameter between them, instead of Jake Shamberlain’s person, for any consideration they showed to each other.
Jake, seeing us, backed out from between his orchestra, who continued on, beating and blowing in measureless content.
“We’re going to give a ball, gentlemen, and request the honor of your company in ten minutes, precisely. Kids not allowed on account of popular prejudice. Red-flannel shirts and boots with yaller tops is rayther the go fur dress.”
“A ball, Jake! Where?”
“Why, in that rusty hole of old Bridger’s. Some of them John Bulls has got their fiddles along. I allowed ’t would pay to scare up a dance. Guess them gals wont be the wus fur a break-down or an old-fashioned hornpiper. They hain’t seen much game along back, ef their looks tells the story. I never seed sech a down-heel lot.”
Jake ran off after his music. We heard them, still disdaining time, march around the camp announcing the fandango,
“This helps us,” said Brent. “Our friends, of course, will not join the riot. When the Mormons are fairly engaged, we will make our visit.”
“It is a good night for a gallop,” said I.
He nodded, but said nothing.
Presently Jake, still supported by his pair of melodists, reappeared. A straggling procession of Saints followed him. They trooped into the enclosure, a motley throng indeed. Even that dry husk of music, hardly even cadence, had put some spirits into them. Noise, per se, is not without virtue; it means life. Shamberlain’s guests came together, laughing and talking. Their laughter was not liquid. But swallowing prairie-dust does not instruct in dulcet tones. Rather wrinkled merriment; but still better than no merriment at all.
We entered with the throng. Within was a bizarre spectacle. A strange night-scene for a rough-handed Flemish painter of low life to portray.
The palisades of old Bridger’s Malakoff enclosed a space of a hundred feet square. A cattle-shed, house, and trading-shop surrounded three sides of the square. The rest was open court, paved with clod, the native carpet of the region. Adobes, crumbling as the most strawless bricks ever moulded by a grumbling Hebrew with an Egyptian taskmaster, were the principal material of Bridger’s messuage. The cattle on Mr. Mechi’s model farm would have whisked their tails and turned away in utter contempt from these inelegant accommodations. No high-minded pig would have consented to wallow there. The khan of Cheronæa, abhorred of Grecian travellers, is a sweeter place. The khan of Tiberias, terror of pilgrims, is a cleaner refuge. Bridger’s Fort was as musty and infragrant a caravansary as any of those dirty cloisters of the Orient, where the disillusioned howadji sinks into the arms of that misery’s bed-fellow, the King of the Fleas, — which kangaroo-legged caliph, let me say, was himself, or in the person of a vigorous vizier, on the spot at the Fort, entertaining us strangers according to his royal notions of hospitality.
Into this Court of Dirt thronged the Latter-Day Saints, in raiment also in its latter day.
“The ragamuffin brigade,” whispered I to Brent. “Jake Shamberlain’s red-flannel shirts and yaller-topped boots would be better than this seediness of the furbelowed nymphs and ole clo’ swains. Evidently suits of full dress are not to be hired at a pinch on the boulevards of Sizzumville.”
Brent made no answer, and surveyed the throng anxiously.
“They have not come, — the father and daughter,” he said. “I cannot think of the others now.”
“Shall we go to them?”
“Not yet. Sizzum sees us and will suspect.”
We stood by regarding, too much concerned for our new friends to feel thoroughly the humor of the scene. But it made its impression.
For lights at the Shamberlain ball, instead of the gas and wax of civilization, a fire blazed in one corner of the court, and sundry dips of unmitigated tallow, with their perfume undiluted, flared from perches against the wall. Overhead, up in the still, clear sky, the bare-faced stars stared at the spectacle, and shook their cheeks over the laughable manœuvres of terrestrials.
The mundane lights, fire and dips, flashed and glimmered; the skylights twinkled merrily; the guests were assembled; the ball waited to begin.
Jake Shamberlain, the master of ceremonies, cleared a space in the middle, and “called for his fiddlers three.”
A board was laid across two barrels, and upon it Jake arrayed his orchestra, with Brother Bottery, so called, for leader. Twang went the fiddles. “Pardners for a kerdrille!” cried Jake.
Sizzum led off the ball with one of the Blowsalinds before mentioned. Dancing is enjoined in the Latter-Day Church. They cite Jephthah’s daughter and David dancing by the ark as good Scriptural authority for the custom.
“Right and left!” cried Jake Shamberlain. “Forrud the gent! The lady forrud! Forrud the hull squad. Jerk pardners! Scrape away, Bottery! Kick out and no walkin’! Prance in, gals! Lamm ahead, boys! Time, Time! All hands round! Catch a gal and spin her! Well, that was jest as harnsome a kerdrille as ever I seed.”
And so on with another quadrille, minuet, and quadrille again. But the subsequent dances were not so orderly as the first. Filled with noise and romping, they frequently ended in wild disorder. The figures tangled themselves into a labyrinth, and the music, drowned by the tumult, ceased to be a clew of escape. Nor could Jake’s voice, half suffocated by the dust, be heard above the din, until, having hushed his orchestra, he had called “Halt!” a dozen times.
In the intervals between the dances we observed Larrap distributing whiskey to the better class of the emigrants. Sizzum did not disdain to accept the hospitality of the stranger. Old Bridger’s liquid stores, now Mormon property, and for sale at the price of Johannisberger, diminished fast on this festal night.
“Shall we go?” whispered I to Brent, after a while.
“Not quite yet. Old Bottery announces that he is going to play a polka. Fancy a polka here! That will engage Sizzum after his potations, so that he will forget our friends.”
“Now, brethren and saints,” cried Jake, “attention for the polky! Pipe up, Bottery!”
Evidently not the first time that this Strauss of some Manchester casino had played the very rollicking polka he now rattled off from his strings. How queerly ignoble those strident notes sounded in the silence of night in the great wilderness. For loud as was the uproar in the court, overhead were the stars, quiet and amazed, and, without, the great, still prairie protested against the discordant tumult. Some barbaric harmony, wild and thrilling, poured forth from strong-lunged brass, or a strain like that of the horns in Der Freischutz, would have chimed with the spirit of the desert. But Bottery’s mean twang suited better the bastard civilization that had invaded this station of the banished pioneer.
At the sound of the creaking polka, a youth, pale and unwholesome as a tailor’s apprentice, led out a sister saint. Others followed. Some danced teetotum fashion. Others bounced clumsily about. Around them all stood an applauding circle. The fiddles scraped; the dust flew. Sizzum and Larrap, two bad elements in combination, stood together, cheering the dancers.
“Come,” said Brent, “let us get into purer air and among nobler creatures. How little we thought,” he continued, “when we were speaking of such scenes and people as we have just left as a possible background, what figures would stand in the foreground!”
“I am glad to be out of that noisy rabble,” said I, as we passed from the gate. “The stars seem to look disdainfully on them. I cannot be entertained by that low comedy, with tragedy sitting beside our friends’ wagon.”
“The stars,” said Brent, bitterly, “are cold and cruel as destiny. There is heaven overhead, pretending to be calming and benignant, and giving no help, while I am thinking in agony what can be done to save from any touch of shame or deeper sorrow that noble daughter.”
“It is a fine night for a gallop,” I repeated.
“There they are. We must keep them out of the fort. Wade. If you love me, detain the old man in talk for half an hour.”
“Certainly; half a century, if it will do any good.”
Mr. Clitheroe and his daughter were walking slowly toward the fort. He appealed to us as we approached.
“I am urging my daughter to join in the amusements of the evening,” said he. “You know, my dear, that many of our old Lancashire neighbors still would be pleased to see you a lady patroness of their innocent sports, and lending your countenance to their healthy hilarity. A little gayety will do you good, I am sure. This ball may not be elegant; but it will be cheerful, and of course conducted with great propriety, since Brother Sizzum is present. I am afraid he will miss us, and be offended. That must not be, Ellen dear. “We must not offend Brother Sizzum in any way whatever. We must consider that his wishes are sovereign; for is he not the chosen apostle?”
Brent and I could both have wept to hear this crazy, senile stuff.
“Pray, father dear,” said Miss Clitheroe, “do not insist upon it. We shall both be wearied out, if we are up late after our day’s march.”
It was clearly out of tenderness to him that she avoided the real objections she must have to such a scene.
“It is quite too noisy and dusty for Miss Clitheroe in the fort,” said I, and I took his arm. “Come, sir, let us walk about and have a chat in the open air.”
I led him off, poor old gentleman, facile under my resolute control. All he had long ago needed was a firm man friend to take him in hand and be his despot; but the weaker he was, the less he could be subject to his daughter. It is the feeble, unmasculine men who fight most petulantly against the influence and power of women.
“Well, Mr. Wade,” said he, “perhaps you are right. We have only to fancy this the terrace outside the chateau, and it is as much according to rule to promenade here, as to stifle in the ball-room. You are very kind, gentlemen, both, to prefer our society to the entertainment inside. Certainly Brother Bottery’s violin is not like one of our modern bands; but when I was your age I could dance to anything and anywhere. I suppose young men see so much more of the world now, that they outgrow those fancies sooner.”
So we walked on, away from the harsh sounds of the ball. Brent dropped behind, talking earnestly with the lady. How sibylline she looked in that dim starlight! How Cassandra-like, — as one dreams that heroic and unflinching prophetess of ills unheeded or disdained!