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Chapter 20

TRAITS AND CHARACTERS.

In the Boy's Town a great many men gave nearly their whole time to the affairs of the state, and did hardly anything but talk politics all day; they even sat up late at night to do it. Among these politicians the Whigs were sacred in my boy's eyes, but the Democrats appeared like enemies of the human race; and one of the strangest things that ever happened to him was to find his father associating with men who came out of the Democratic party at the time he left the Whig party, and joining with them in a common cause against both. But when he understood what a good cause it was, and came to sing songs against slavery, he was reconciled, though he still regarded the Whig politicians as chief among the great ones, if not the good ones, of the earth. When he passed one of them on the street, he held his breath for awe till he got by, which was not always so very soon, for sometimes a Whig statesman wanted the whole sidewalk to himself, and it was hard to get by him. There were other people in that town who wanted the whole sidewalk, and these were the professional drunkards, whom the boys regarded as the keystones, if not corner-stones, of the social edifice. There were three or four of them, and the boys held them all, rich and poor alike, in a deep interest, if not respect, as persons of peculiar distinction. I do not think any boy realized the tragedy of those hopeless, wasted, slavish lives. The boys followed the wretched creatures, at a safe distance, and plagued them, and ran whenever one of them turned and threatened them. That was because the boys had not the experience to enable them to think rightly, or to think at all about such things, or to know what images of perdition they had before their eyes; and when they followed them and teased them, they did not know they were joining like fiends in the torment of lost souls. Some of the town-drunkards were the outcasts of good homes, which they had desolated, and some had merely destroyed in themselves that hope of any home which is the light of heaven in every human heart; but from time to time a good man held out a helping hand to one of them, and gave him the shelter of his roof, and tried to reclaim him. Then the boys saw him going about the streets, pale and tremulous, in a second-hand suit of his benefactor's clothes, and fighting hard against the tempter that beset him on every side in that town; and then some day they saw him dead drunk in a fence corner; and they did not understand how seven devils worse than the first had entered in the place which had been swept and garnished for them.

Besides the town-drunkards there were other persons in whom the boys were interested, like the two or three dandies, whom their splendor in dress had given a public importance in a community of carelessly dressed men. Then there were certain genteel loafers, young men of good families, who hung about the principal hotel, and whom the boys believed to be fighters of singular prowess. Far below these in the social scale, the boys had yet other heroes, such as the Dumb Negro and his family. Between these and the white people, among whom the boys knew of no distinctions, they were aware that there was an impassable gulf; and it would not be easy to give a notion of just the sort of consideration in which they held them. But they held the Dumb Negro himself in almost superstitious regard as one who, though a deaf-mute, knew everything that was going on, and could make you understand anything he wished. He was, in fact, a master of most eloquent pantomime; he had gestures that could not be mistaken, and he had a graphic dumb-show for persons and occupations and experiences that was delightfully vivid. For a dentist, he gave an upward twist of the hand from his jaw, and uttered a howl which left no doubt that he meant tooth-pulling; and for what would happen to a boy if he kept on misbehaving, he crossed his fingers before his face and looked through them in a way that brought the jail-window clearly before the eyes of the offender.

The boys knew vaguely that his family helped runaway slaves on their way North, and in a community that was for the most part bitterly pro-slavery these negroes were held in a sort of respect for their courageous fidelity to their race. The men were swarthy, handsome fellows, not much darker than Spaniards, and they were so little afraid of the chances which were often such fatal mischances to colored people in that day that one of them travelled through the South, and passed himself in very good company as a Cherokee Indian of rank and education.

As far as the boys knew, the civic affairs of the place were transacted entirely by two constables. Of mayors and magistrates, such as there must have been, they knew nothing, and they had not the least notion what the Whigs whom they were always trying to elect were to do when they got into office. They knew that the constables were both Democrats, but, if they thought at all about the fact, they thought their Democracy the natural outcome of their dark constabulary nature, and by no means imagined that they were constables because they were Democrats. The worse of the two, or the more merciless, was also the town-crier, whose office is now not anywhere known in America, I believe; though I heard a town-crier in a Swiss village not many years ago. In the Boy's Town the crier carried a good-sized bell; when he started out he rang it till he reached the street corner, and then he stopped, and began some such proclamation as, "O, yes! O, yes! O, yes! There will be an auction this evening at early candle-light, at Brown & Robinson's store! Dry goods, boots and shoes, hats and caps, hardware, queen's ware, and so forth, and so forth. Richard Roe, Auctioneer! Come one, come all, come everybody!" Then the crier rang his bell, and went on to the next corner, where he repeated his proclamation. After a while, the constable got a deputy to whom he made over his business of town-crier. This deputy was no other than that reckless boy who used to run out from the printing-office and shoot the turtle-doves; and he decorated his proclamation with quips and quirks of his own invention, and with personal allusions to his employer, who was auctioneer as well as constable. But though he was hail-fellow with every boy in town, and although every boy rejoiced in his impudence, he was so panoplied in the awfulness of his relation to the constabulary functions that, however remote it was, no boy would have thought of trifling with him when he was on duty. If ever a boy holloed something at him when he was out with his crier's bell, he turned and ran as hard as he could, and as if from the constable himself.

The boys knew just one other official, and that was the gauger, whom they watched at a respectful distance, when they found him employed with his mysterious instruments gauging the whiskey in the long rows of barrels on the Basin bank. They did not know what the process was, and I own that I do not know to this day what it was. My boy watched him with the rest, and once he ventured upon a bold and reckless act. He had so long heard that it was whiskey which made people drunk that at last the notion came to have an irresistible fascination for him, and he determined to risk everything, even life itself, to know what whiskey was like. As soon as the gauger had left them, he ran up to one of the barrels where he had seen a few drops fall from his instrument when he lifted it from the bunghole, and plunged the tip of his little finger into the whiskey, and then put it to his tongue. He expected to become drunk instantly, if not to end a town-drunkard there on the spot; but the whiskey only tasted very disgusting; and he was able to get home without help. Still, I would not advise any other boy to run the risk he took in this desperate experiment.

There was a time not long after that when he really did get drunk, but it was not with whiskey. One morning after a rain, when the boys were having fun in one of those open canal-boats with the loose planks which the over-night shower had set afloat, a fellow came up and said he had got some tobacco that was the best kind to learn to chew with. Every boy who expected to be anything in the world expected to chew tobacco; for all the packet-drivers chewed; and it seemed to my boy that his father and grandfather and uncles were about the only people who did not chew. If they had only smoked, it would have been something, but they did not even smoke; and the boy felt that he had a long arrears of manliness to bring up, and that he should have to retrieve his family in spite of itself from the shame of not using tobacco in any form. He knew that his father abhorred it, but he had never been explicitly forbidden to smoke or chew, for his father seldom forbade him anything explicitly, and he gave himself such freedom of choice in the matter that when the boy with the tobacco began to offer it around, he judged it right to take a chew with the rest. The boy said it was a peculiar kind of tobacco, and was known as molasses-tobacco because it was so sweet. The other boys did not ask how he came to know its name, or where he got it; boys never ask anything that it would be well for them to know; but they accepted his theory, and his further statement that it was of a mildness singularly adapted to learners, without misgiving. The boy was himself chewing vigorously on a large quid, and launching the juice from his lips right and left like a grown person; and my boy took as large a bite as his benefactor bade him. He found it as sweet as he had been told it was, and he acknowledged the aptness of its name of molasses-tobacco; it seemed to him a golden opportunity to acquire a noble habit on easy terms. He let the quid rest in his cheek as he had seen men do, when he was not crushing it between his teeth, and for some moments he poled his plank up and down the canal-boat with a sense of triumph that nothing marred. Then, all of a sudden, he began to feel pale. The boat seemed to be going round, and the sky wheeling overhead; the sun was dodging about very strangely. Drops of sweat burst from the boy's forehead; he let fall his pole, and said that he thought he would go home. The fellow who gave him the tobacco began to laugh, and the other fellows to mock, but my boy did not mind them. Somehow, he did not know how, he got out of the canal-boat and started homeward; but at every step the ground rose as high as his knees before him, and then when he got his foot high enough, and began to put it down, the ground was not there. He was deathly sick, as he reeled and staggered on, and when he reached home, and showed himself white and haggard to his frightened mother, he had scarcely strength to gasp out a confession of his attempt to retrieve the family honor by learning to chew tobacco. In another moment nature came to his relief, and then he fell into a deep sleep which lasted the whole afternoon, so that it seemed to him the next day when he woke up, glad to find himself alive, if not so very lively. Perhaps he had swallowed some of the poisonous juice of the tobacco; perhaps it had acted upon his brain without that. His father made no very close inquiry into the facts, and he did not forbid him the use of tobacco. It was not necessary; in that one little experiment he had got enough for a whole lifetime. It shows that, after all, a boy is not so hard to satisfy in everything.

There were some people who believed that tobacco would keep off the fever-and-ague, which was so common then in that country, or at any rate that it was good for the toothache. In spite of the tobacco, there were few houses where ague was not a familiar guest, however unwelcome. If the family was large, there was usually a chill every day; one had it one day, and another the next, so that there was no lapse. This was the case in my boy's family, after they moved to the Faulkner house, which was near the Basin and its water-soaked banks; but they accepted the ague as something quite in the course of nature, and duly broke it up with quinine. Some of the boys had chills at school; and sometimes, after they had been in swimming, they would wait round on the bank till a fellow had his chill out, and then they would all go off together and forget about it. The next day that fellow would be as well as any one; the third day his chill would come on again, but he did not allow it to interfere with his business or pleasure, and after a while the ague would seem to get tired of it, and give up altogether. That strange earth-spirit who was my boy's friend simply beat the ague, as it were, on its own ground. He preferred a sunny spot to have his chill in, a cosy fence-corner or a warm back door-step, or the like; but as for the fever that followed the chill, he took no account of it whatever, or at least made no provision for it.

The miasm which must have filled the air of the place from so many natural and artificial bodies of fresh water showed itself in low fevers, which were not so common as ague, but common enough. The only long sickness that my boy could remember was intermittent fever, which seemed to last many weeks, and which was a kind of bewilderment rather than a torment. When it was beginning he appeared to glide down the stairs at school without touching the steps with his feet, and afterwards his chief trouble was in not knowing, when he slept, whether he had really been asleep or not. But there was rich compensation for this mild suffering in the affectionate petting which a sick boy always gets from his mother when his malady takes him from his rough little world and gives him back helpless to her tender arms again. Then she makes everything in the house yield to him; none of the others are allowed to tease him or cross him in the slightest thing. They have to walk lightly; and when he is going to sleep, if they come into the room, they have got to speak in a whisper. She sits by his bed and fans him; she smooths the pillow and turns its cool side up under his hot and aching head; she cooks dainty dishes to tempt his sick appetite, and brings them to him herself. She is so good and kind and loving that he cannot help having some sense of it all, and feeling how much better she is than anything on earth. His little ruffian world drifts far away from him. He hears the yells and shouts of the boys in the street without a pang of envy or longing; in his weakness, his helplessness, he becomes a gentle and innocent child again; and heaven descends to him out of his mother's heart.

William Dean Howells

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