The Weekly Occidental—A Ready Editor—A Novel—A Concentration of Talent—The Heroes and the Heroines—The Dissolute Author Engaged—Extraordinary Havoc With the Novel—A Highly Romantic Chapter—The Lovers Separated—Jonah Out-done—A Lost Poem—The Aged Pilot Man—Storm On the Erie Canal—Dollinger the Pilot Man—Terrific Gale—Danger Increases—A Crisis Arrived—Saved as if by a Miracle
Vice flourished luxuriantly during the hey-day of our “flush times.” The saloons were overburdened with custom; so were the police courts, the gambling dens, the brothels and the jails—unfailing signs of high prosperity in a mining region—in any region for that matter. Is it not so? A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty. Still, there is one other sign; it comes last, but when it does come it establishes beyond cavil that the “flush times” are at the flood. This is the birth of the “literary” paper. The Weekly Occidental, “devoted to literature,” made its appearance in Virginia. All the literary people were engaged to write for it. Mr. F. was to edit it. He was a felicitous skirmisher with a pen, and a man who could say happy things in a crisp, neat way. Once, while editor of the Union, he had disposed of a labored, incoherent, two-column attack made upon him by a contemporary, with a single line, which, at first glance, seemed to contain a solemn and tremendous compliment—viz.: “THE LOGIC OF OUR ADVERSARY RESEMBLES THE PEACE OF GOD,”—and left it to the reader's memory and after-thought to invest the remark with another and “more different” meaning by supplying for himself and at his own leisure the rest of the Scripture—“in that it passeth understanding.” He once said of a little, half-starved, wayside community that had no subsistence except what they could get by preying upon chance passengers who stopped over with them a day when traveling by the overland stage, that in their Church service they had altered the Lord's Prayer to read: “Give us this day our daily stranger!”
We expected great things of the Occidental. Of course it could not get along without an original novel, and so we made arrangements to hurl into the work the full strength of the company. Mrs. F. was an able romancist of the ineffable school—I know no other name to apply to a school whose heroes are all dainty and all perfect. She wrote the opening chapter, and introduced a lovely blonde simpleton who talked nothing but pearls and poetry and who was virtuous to the verge of eccentricity. She also introduced a young French Duke of aggravated refinement, in love with the blonde. Mr. F. followed next week, with a brilliant lawyer who set about getting the Duke's estates into trouble, and a sparkling young lady of high society who fell to fascinating the Duke and impairing the appetite of the blonde. Mr. D., a dark and bloody editor of one of the dailies, followed Mr. F., the third week, introducing a mysterious Roscicrucian who transmuted metals, held consultations with the devil in a cave at dead of night, and cast the horoscope of the several heroes and heroines in such a way as to provide plenty of trouble for their future careers and breed a solemn and awful public interest in the novel. He also introduced a cloaked and masked melodramatic miscreant, put him on a salary and set him on the midnight track of the Duke with a poisoned dagger. He also created an Irish coachman with a rich brogue and placed him in the service of the society-young-lady with an ulterior mission to carry billet-doux to the Duke.
About this time there arrived in Virginia a dissolute stranger with a literary turn of mind—rather seedy he was, but very quiet and unassuming; almost diffident, indeed. He was so gentle, and his manners were so pleasing and kindly, whether he was sober or intoxicated, that he made friends of all who came in contact with him. He applied for literary work, offered conclusive evidence that he wielded an easy and practiced pen, and so Mr. F. engaged him at once to help write the novel. His chapter was to follow Mr. D.'s, and mine was to come next. Now what does this fellow do but go off and get drunk and then proceed to his quarters and set to work with his imagination in a state of chaos, and that chaos in a condition of extravagant activity. The result may be guessed. He scanned the chapters of his predecessors, found plenty of heroes and heroines already created, and was satisfied with them; he decided to introduce no more; with all the confidence that whisky inspires and all the easy complacency it gives to its servant, he then launched himself lovingly into his work: he married the coachman to the society-young-lady for the sake of the scandal; married the Duke to the blonde's stepmother, for the sake of the sensation; stopped the desperado's salary; created a misunderstanding between the devil and the Roscicrucian; threw the Duke's property into the wicked lawyer's hands; made the lawyer's upbraiding conscience drive him to drink, thence to delirium tremens, thence to suicide; broke the coachman's neck; let his widow succumb to contumely, neglect, poverty and consumption; caused the blonde to drown herself, leaving her clothes on the bank with the customary note pinned to them forgiving the Duke and hoping he would be happy; revealed to the Duke, by means of the usual strawberry mark on left arm, that he had married his own long-lost mother and destroyed his long-lost sister; instituted the proper and necessary suicide of the Duke and the Duchess in order to compass poetical justice; opened the earth and let the Roscicrucian through, accompanied with the accustomed smoke and thunder and smell of brimstone, and finished with the promise that in the next chapter, after holding a general inquest, he would take up the surviving character of the novel and tell what became of the devil!
It read with singular smoothness, and with a “dead” earnestness that was funny enough to suffocate a body. But there was war when it came in. The other novelists were furious. The mild stranger, not yet more than half sober, stood there, under a scathing fire of vituperation, meek and bewildered, looking from one to another of his assailants, and wondering what he could have done to invoke such a storm. When a lull came at last, he said his say gently and appealingly—said he did not rightly remember what he had written, but was sure he had tried to do the best he could, and knew his object had been to make the novel not only pleasant and plausible but instructive and——
The bombardment began again. The novelists assailed his ill-chosen adjectives and demolished them with a storm of denunciation and ridicule. And so the siege went on. Every time the stranger tried to appease the enemy he only made matters worse. Finally he offered to rewrite the chapter. This arrested hostilities. The indignation gradually quieted down, peace reigned again and the sufferer retired in safety and got him to his own citadel.
But on the way thither the evil angel tempted him and he got drunk again. And again his imagination went mad. He led the heroes and heroines a wilder dance than ever; and yet all through it ran that same convincing air of honesty and earnestness that had marked his first work. He got the characters into the most extraordinary situations, put them through the most surprising performances, and made them talk the strangest talk! But the chapter cannot be described. It was symmetrically crazy; it was artistically absurd; and it had explanatory footnotes that were fully as curious as the text. I remember one of the “situations,” and will offer it as an example of the whole. He altered the character of the brilliant lawyer, and made him a great-hearted, splendid fellow; gave him fame and riches, and set his age at thirty-three years. Then he made the blonde discover, through the help of the Roscicrucian and the melodramatic miscreant, that while the Duke loved her money ardently and wanted it, he secretly felt a sort of leaning toward the society-young-lady. Stung to the quick, she tore her affections from him and bestowed them with tenfold power upon the lawyer, who responded with consuming zeal. But the parents would none of it. What they wanted in the family was a Duke; and a Duke they were determined to have; though they confessed that next to the Duke the lawyer had their preference. Necessarily the blonde now went into a decline. The parents were alarmed. They pleaded with her to marry the Duke, but she steadfastly refused, and pined on. Then they laid a plan. They told her to wait a year and a day, and if at the end of that time she still felt that she could not marry the Duke, she might marry the lawyer with their full consent. The result was as they had foreseen: gladness came again, and the flush of returning health. Then the parents took the next step in their scheme. They had the family physician recommend a long sea voyage and much land travel for the thorough restoration of the blonde's strength; and they invited the Duke to be of the party. They judged that the Duke's constant presence and the lawyer's protracted absence would do the rest—for they did not invite the lawyer.
So they set sail in a steamer for America—and the third day out, when their sea-sickness called truce and permitted them to take their first meal at the public table, behold there sat the lawyer! The Duke and party made the best of an awkward situation; the voyage progressed, and the vessel neared America.
But, by and by, two hundred miles off New Bedford, the ship took fire; she burned to the water's edge; of all her crew and passengers, only thirty were saved. They floated about the sea half an afternoon and all night long. Among them were our friends. The lawyer, by superhuman exertions, had saved the blonde and her parents, swimming back and forth two hundred yards and bringing one each time—(the girl first). The Duke had saved himself. In the morning two whale ships arrived on the scene and sent their boats. The weather was stormy and the embarkation was attended with much confusion and excitement. The lawyer did his duty like a man; helped his exhausted and insensible blonde, her parents and some others into a boat (the Duke helped himself in); then a child fell overboard at the other end of the raft and the lawyer rushed thither and helped half a dozen people fish it out, under the stimulus of its mother's screams. Then he ran back—a few seconds too late—the blonde's boat was under way. So he had to take the other boat, and go to the other ship. The storm increased and drove the vessels out of sight of each other—drove them whither it would.
When it calmed, at the end of three days, the blonde's ship was seven hundred miles north of Boston and the other about seven hundred south of that port. The blonde's captain was bound on a whaling cruise in the North Atlantic and could not go back such a distance or make a port without orders; such being nautical law. The lawyer's captain was to cruise in the North Pacific, and he could not go back or make a port without orders. All the lawyer's money and baggage were in the blonde's boat and went to the blonde's ship—so his captain made him work his passage as a common sailor. When both ships had been cruising nearly a year, the one was off the coast of Greenland and the other in Behring's Strait. The blonde had long ago been well-nigh persuaded that her lawyer had been washed overboard and lost just before the whale ships reached the raft, and now, under the pleadings of her parents and the Duke she was at last beginning to nerve herself for the doom of the covenant, and prepare for the hated marriage.
But she would not yield a day before the date set. The weeks dragged on, the time narrowed, orders were given to deck the ship for the wedding—a wedding at sea among icebergs and walruses. Five days more and all would be over. So the blonde reflected, with a sigh and a tear. Oh where was her true love—and why, why did he not come and save her? At that moment he was lifting his harpoon to strike a whale in Behring's Strait, five thousand miles away, by the way of the Arctic Ocean, or twenty thousand by the way of the Horn—that was the reason. He struck, but not with perfect aim—his foot slipped and he fell in the whale's mouth and went down his throat. He was insensible five days. Then he came to himself and heard voices; daylight was streaming through a hole cut in the whale's roof. He climbed out and astonished the sailors who were hoisting blubber up a ship's side. He recognized the vessel, flew aboard, surprised the wedding party at the altar and exclaimed:
“Stop the proceedings—I'm here! Come to my arms, my own!”
There were foot-notes to this extravagant piece of literature wherein the author endeavored to show that the whole thing was within the possibilities; he said he got the incident of the whale traveling from Behring's Strait to the coast of Greenland, five thousand miles in five days, through the Arctic Ocean, from Charles Reade's “Love Me Little Love Me Long,” and considered that that established the fact that the thing could be done; and he instanced Jonah's adventure as proof that a man could live in a whale's belly, and added that if a preacher could stand it three days a lawyer could surely stand it five!
There was a fiercer storm than ever in the editorial sanctum now, and the stranger was peremptorily discharged, and his manuscript flung at his head. But he had already delayed things so much that there was not time for some one else to rewrite the chapter, and so the paper came out without any novel in it. It was but a feeble, struggling, stupid journal, and the absence of the novel probably shook public confidence; at any rate, before the first side of the next issue went to press, the Weekly Occidental died as peacefully as an infant.
An effort was made to resurrect it, with the proposed advantage of a telling new title, and Mr. F. said that The Phenix would be just the name for it, because it would give the idea of a resurrection from its dead ashes in a new and undreamed of condition of splendor; but some low- priced smarty on one of the dailies suggested that we call it the Lazarus; and inasmuch as the people were not profound in Scriptural matters but thought the resurrected Lazarus and the dilapidated mendicant that begged in the rich man's gateway were one and the same person, the name became the laughing stock of the town, and killed the paper for good and all.
I was sorry enough, for I was very proud of being connected with a literary paper—prouder than I have ever been of anything since, perhaps. I had written some rhymes for it—poetry I considered it—and it was a great grief to me that the production was on the “first side” of the issue that was not completed, and hence did not see the light. But time brings its revenges—I can put it in here; it will answer in place of a tear dropped to the memory of the lost Occidental. The idea (not the chief idea, but the vehicle that bears it) was probably suggested by the old song called “The Raging Canal,” but I cannot remember now. I do remember, though, that at that time I thought my doggerel was one of the ablest poems of the age:
THE AGED PILOT MAN. On the Erie Canal, it was, All on a summer's day, I sailed forth with my parents Far away to Albany. From out the clouds at noon that day There came a dreadful storm, That piled the billows high about, And filled us with alarm. A man came rushing from a house, Saying, “Snub up your boat I pray, [The customary canal technicality for 'tie up.'] Snub up your boat, snub up, alas, Snub up while yet you may.” Our captain cast one glance astern, Then forward glanced he, And said, “My wife and little ones I never more shall see.” Said Dollinger the pilot man, In noble words, but few,-- “Fear not, but lean on Dollinger, And he will fetch you through.” The boat drove on, the frightened mules Tore through the rain and wind, And bravely still, in danger's post, The whip-boy strode behind. “Come 'board, come 'board,” the captain cried, “Nor tempt so wild a storm;" But still the raging mules advanced, And still the boy strode on. Then said the captain to us all, “Alas, 'tis plain to me, The greater danger is not there, But here upon the sea. “So let us strive, while life remains, To save all souls on board, And then if die at last we must, Let . . . . I cannot speak the word!” Said Dollinger the pilot man, Tow'ring above the crew, “Fear not, but trust in Dollinger, And he will fetch you through.” “Low bridge! low bridge!” all heads went down, The laboring bark sped on; A mill we passed, we passed church, Hamlets, and fields of corn; And all the world came out to see, And chased along the shore Crying, “Alas, alas, the sheeted rain, The wind, the tempest's roar! Alas, the gallant ship and crew, Can nothing help them more?” And from our deck sad eyes looked out Across the stormy scene: The tossing wake of billows aft, The bending forests green, The chickens sheltered under carts In lee of barn the cows, The skurrying swine with straw in mouth, The wild spray from our bows! “She balances! She wavers! Now let her go about! If she misses stays and broaches to, We're all"--then with a shout, “Huray! huray! Avast! belay! Take in more sail! Lord, what a gale! Ho, boy, haul taut on the hind mule's tail!” “Ho! lighten ship! ho! man the pump! Ho, hostler, heave the lead!” “A quarter-three!--'tis shoaling fast! Three feet large!--t-h-r-e-e feet!-- Three feet scant!” I cried in fright “Oh, is there no retreat?” Said Dollinger, the pilot man, As on the vessel flew, “Fear not, but trust in Dollinger, And he will fetch you through.” A panic struck the bravest hearts, The boldest cheek turned pale; For plain to all, this shoaling said A leak had burst the ditch's bed! And, straight as bolt from crossbow sped, Our ship swept on, with shoaling lead, Before the fearful gale! “Sever the tow-line! Cripple the mules!” Too late! There comes a shock! Another length, and the fated craft Would have swum in the saving lock! Then gathered together the shipwrecked crew And took one last embrace, While sorrowful tears from despairing eyes Ran down each hopeless face; And some did think of their little ones Whom they never more might see, And others of waiting wives at home, And mothers that grieved would be. But of all the children of misery there On that poor sinking frame, But one spake words of hope and faith, And I worshipped as they came: Said Dollinger the pilot man,-- (O brave heart, strong and true!)-- “Fear not, but trust in Dollinger, For he will fetch you through.” Lo! scarce the words have passed his lips The dauntless prophet say'th, When every soul about him seeth A wonder crown his faith! “And count ye all, both great and small, As numbered with the dead: For mariner for forty year, On Erie, boy and man, I never yet saw such a storm, Or one't with it began!” So overboard a keg of nails And anvils three we threw, Likewise four bales of gunny-sacks, Two hundred pounds of glue, Two sacks of corn, four ditto wheat, A box of books, a cow, A violin, Lord Byron's works, A rip-saw and a sow. A curve! a curve! the dangers grow! “Labbord!--stabbord!--s-t-e-a-d-y!--so!-- Hard-a-port, Dol!--hellum-a-lee! Haw the head mule!--the aft one gee! Luff!--bring her to the wind!” For straight a farmer brought a plank,-- (Mysteriously inspired)-- And laying it unto the ship, In silent awe retired. Then every sufferer stood amazed That pilot man before; A moment stood. Then wondering turned, And speechless walked ashore.