The Singletons

At the time of which I speak steam was only just coming into use on the Mississippi, and men went far out of their way to see the great boats that plied back and forth, and seeing them, stood spellbound, as did I. Nor have change and lengthening years served in any way to dull the recollection of that far-off day. Every detail comes back to me now; the clanging bell, the hoarse whistle sounding croupily across the water, the great boat coming buoyantly on, its busy decks, the passengers standing by, the gurgling water, the swash of the wheels, the rhythmic music of the exhaust, the black smoke trailing on behind, and, most striking of all—so simple are the impressions of youth—the letters painted in vivid plainness on the surface of the rounded wheelhouse. Naught is wanting to complete the picture, and if by chance some sound like the deep bell or croaking whistle strikes on my listening ear, it awakens afresh the scenes of that far-off time as if they were but yesterday. Not, however, as then, to thrill with ecstasy, but rather with pleasurable melancholy, like an echo from the past, so sad it is.
While the boat was making its way to the channel of the river, our little party ascended the stairs which led to the saloon above. Reaching the quarter-deck, what was our surprise to find Blott facing us, and unconcernedly, as if knowing us but casually, if at all. At sight of him, Uncle Job stopped abruptly, and after regarding him a moment, angrily inquired:
“What are you doing here, constable?”
“I’m holdin’ down this mattin’, an’ as you’ve got feet, s’pose you come an’ help me,” Blott answered, moving about uneasily on the piece of carpet whereon he stood.
“You are following this lad,” Uncle Job answered, paying no attention to what he said.
“Now, don’t lose yourself, old man; I’m no trailer. Moth done you dirt, mebbe, but I never did nothin’ to you, have I?” he asked, facing us and striving to appear calm.
“Perhaps not, but you are here to spy on us now.”
“Not on your life; an’ let me advise you, my friend,” he answered, opening and shutting his hands nervously, “not to use that word too much in this country, or it’ll git you into trouble. I’m no spy, least of all for Pickle.”
“Then what are you doing on this boat?” Uncle Job inquired, by no means convinced of the other’s good intention.
“Mebbe I’m toorin’, but I ain’t,” he answered, more quietly. “I’m doin’ the disappearin’ act, though, an’ to-morrow they’ll be draggin’ the river, I ‘spect, thinkin’ I’m drowned.”
“Where are you going?”
“That’s nothin’ to you, but I don’t mind tellin’ now we’re off. I’m goin’ to Rock River, where I fit Black Hawk, to lie on its shady banks an’ listen to the birds an’ ripplin’ waters. It’s too noisy an’ excitin’ here, an’ people stare, for I’ve bin seein’ things that ain’t real, they say—though you seed them cats yourself, didn’t you?” he went on, excitedly, peering into Uncle Job’s face. “They was as plain as day to me.”
“Is that all you have seen?” Uncle Job answered, evasively.
“No; monkeys an’ snakes, an’ wassops as big as eagles. Things like that, out of the way, sorty, but all real, though it seems queer.”
“Well, you know what causes it,” Uncle Job answered.
“You bet; it comes from usin’ toothache drops an ole woman give me, filled with opium or pisen of some sort.”
“Toothache drops! Bosh! It comes from drinking whisky.”
“Well, there’s no use disputin’ ’bout it; but if it’s whisky, I’m all right, an’ll git over it, for I’m goin’ to cut myself down, an’ that I’ve made up my mind to.”
“Why don’t you stop altogether?” Uncle Job asked.
“I can’t, Job; I’d rather fall ninety-nine times than resist oncet. That’s the way I’m built, you see, an’ it’s no use tryin’.”
“Nonsense! You can stop if you want to.”
“That’s what people say; but if you had the thirst in the throat an’ hot cravin’ an’ crawlin’ in the stomach that I have, when the malary’s comin’ on an’ the sky’s red, an’ you dasn’t put out the light, nor shut your eyes for seein’ things at night, you’d not give it up. Nor’ll I, but I’m goin’ to be more moderate-like.” And ceasing to speak, he reached out as if to pick some object from Uncle Job’s coat, but finding nothing, looked up abashed, and without saying more, turned and walked away.
Thus reassured in some measure in regard to Blott’s purpose, we went on to the saloon of the majestic vessel. Here again I live in the memory of the past and what I saw, but not without a sob filling the throat, that it should all have proven so unreal. For it is not what we see as children, but the newness and strangeness of it, that causes our hearts to beat and our eyes to open with wonder. Never afterward, and that is the pity of it, does the splendor of real things cause the pulse to throb as do the small things of youth. For the vast apartment on the threshold of which I now stood seemed to my inexperienced eyes grand beyond the power of speech. Nor was it cut off in its limits, but reached away in perspective like the lengthened glade of a forest—a forest wherein overhanging clouds were frescoed with golden filigree and glistening silver, from which descended, as if held by outstretched arms, row upon row of glistening chandeliers, resplendent with radiating surfaces and pendent crystals. Such was the view; not cramped or confined, but reaching far away and bathed in light and soft, illusive shadows.
In the center of this vast room, tables succeeded each other as far as the eye could reach, while on either side chairs with gilded backs stretched away like disks of beaten gold. Above these, and from the borders of the ceiling, ferns and wild roses drooped, and beside them windows, half-concealed, gave a soft and glimmering light, as if the day were just beginning. On the sides of the room there were doors without number, of pearly white, inlaid with gold, and on the floor crimson carpets that gave back no sound to the footfall more than the moss one finds in the shadows of the dark woods. Such things I saw, and standing, wondered, and there I would have stayed; but to those about me it was only commonplace, so quickly are our impressions dulled by use. So, with scarce time to catch my breath or give expression to my thoughts, we hurried on to our room—and oh, its snugness and compactness! A playhouse fit for children indeed, but for bigger animals all too small!
When we emerged the great hall was full of the bustle and stir of supper, but of this last I remember only a little. For my mind was busy with other thoughts—with Wild Plum, my mother, Constance, the forlorn highwayman, the weazen-faced lawyer. This so fully that I scarce noticed the eager throng that laughed and chatted by my side. When supper was over, Uncle Job went forward to smoke, and I being alone, set out to explore the great palace, so calm and steadfast, yet pulsating as with the breath of life. This last in greater semblance of reality because of the far-off sound of the exhaust, so like a man breathing heavily in his sleep. Curious and loitering by the way, I after a while approached a part of the saloon set off by a great screen. This division I for a time respected, but presently reaching the barrier, and being curious, passed beyond. A group of ladies occupied the space thus set apart, and seeing this, I stopped, and would have turned about.
No sooner, however, did I come into view than one of them of gentle presence, detached herself from those about her and came toward me. Reaching the spot where I stood, to my great amazement, she clapped down on me as my mother was wont to do. Folding me in close embrace against her bosom, she kissed me as if I were her son, saying with tender emotion:
“My sweet child! how glad I am to see you again, and to know you got safely off from that little dragon of a lawyer. I have not thought of anything else since I returned to the boat, and oh, the pity of it and the pathos of the trial! I could not stay to see the end, but still I felt that no one, and least of all that kind-faced judge, could resist the adorable man who pleaded for you as for his son.” Thus she went on, and giving me no chance to say a word, led me to a sofa, and drawing me to a seat beside her, sat down, her arm about my body. “Come now, my dear, tell me all about yourself and your Uncle Job, and that acrid old Aunt Jane, for I know she is both old and sour.”
“My aunt’s cold, madam, but she’s more like ice than vinegar,” I answered, not knowing what to say.
“Because of that you do not love her?”
“How can I, for she doesn’t love me as my mother did.”
“No one, my sweet child, ever will, save one, if you are lucky. But where do you come from?” the lady went on, as if to make me forget my unhappy state.
“From Little Sandy, madam.”
“How quaint! And who is Uncle Job? What a droll name for so sprightly a gentleman.”
“He is my mother’s brother, and is to be my guardian, I hope.”
“I hope so too, for I am sure he will be more indulgent than the other; and children do so much need indulgence,” she went on, looking over at the little group she had just left. “Where are you going? How I wish you might live near us! I have children of my own, but I am sure I could love you too”; and with that she bent over and kissed me again, as my mother might.
“It would be better than I could hope, to be near you, but I am glad I’ve seen you, anyway,” I replied, returning her caress, so gentle and kind were her ways. NORFLOXACIN HCL
“You have not told me where you are going. In this sparsely settled country one can never hope to live near anybody; but still,” she went on comfortingly, “you might not be far away.”
“I’m going to Appletop, where Uncle Job lives, but I have no idea where it is,” I answered.
“Why, that is where we are going. How fine! You will be near us, and can come to me when you want anything—and you will come, anyway, I know, my dear?” she went on, pressing her cheek against mine.
“I will indeed,” I replied, scarce able to restrain my tears.
“Well, now that we are to be neighbors, I am going to get acquainted with your Uncle Job, and make him promise to leave you with me when he is away. But come, I want you to get acquainted with my children”; and rising, she took my hand and led me across the room to the group she had left when I entered. “This is the young gentleman, my dears, I was telling you about when he came in just now,” and she smiled as if expecting them to be as interested as herself. “This is my daughter Amelia, Gilbert,” she went on, “and this is Viola, and this is the baby, Betty, though she is sixteen, and a pert miss, as you will find out when you come to know her,” the sweet lady concluded, kissing her affectionately.
They were all fine-looking children, like their mother, with smiling faces and amiable manners, having about them the air of young people who have no thought beyond the present. Seating myself, I was overjoyed at being again in such company: for, as I may have told you, I have ever found my greatest pleasure in the society of women. Seated thus, it seemed a long time since I had felt the fragrance of their presence or listened to their gentle talk. Thus I was in the mood, ever more common to me than any other, to sit without speaking, and watch the faces of the dear creatures, and smile back my heart’s response to their sweet ways and pretty speeches.