How To Tell A Story And Other Essays (2 page)

BOOK: How To Tell A Story And Other Essays
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How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

I seem sixty and married, but these effects are due to my condition and
sufferings, for I am a bachelor, and only forty-one.  It will be hard for
you to believe that I, who am now but a shadow, was a hale, hearty man
two short years ago, a man of iron, a very athlete! --yet such is the
simple truth.  But stranger still than this fact is the way in which I
lost my health.  I lost it through helping to take care of a box of guns
on a two-hundred-mile railway journey one winter's night.  It is the
actual truth, and I will tell you about it.

I belong in Cleveland, Ohio.  One winter's night, two years ago, I
reached home just after dark, in a driving snow-storm, and the first
thing I heard when I entered the house was that my dearest boyhood friend
and schoolmate, John B. Hackett, had died the day before, and that his
last utterance had been a desire that I would take his remains home to
his poor old father and mother in Wisconsin.  I was greatly shocked and
grieved, but there was no time to waste in emotions; I must start at
once.  I took the card, marked "Deacon Levi Hackett, Bethlehem,

Wisconsin," and hurried off through the whistling storm to the railway
station.  Arrived there I found the long white-pine box which had been
described to me; I fastened the card to it with some tacks, saw it put
safely aboard the express car, and then ran into the eating-room to
provide myself with a sandwich and some cigars.  When I returned,

presently, there was my coffin-box back again, apparently, and a young
fellow examining around it, with a card in his hands, and some tacks and
a hammer!  I was astonished and puzzled.  He began to nail on his card,

and I rushed out to the express car, in a good deal of a state of mind,

to ask for an explanation.  But no--there was my box, all right, in the
express car; it hadn't been disturbed.  [The fact is that without my
suspecting it a prodigious mistake had been made.  I was carrying off a
box of guns which that young fellow had come to the station to ship to a
rifle company in Peoria, Illinois, and he had got my corpse!]  Just then
the conductor sung out “All aboard,” and I jumped into the express car
and got a comfortable seat on a bale of buckets.  The expressman was
there, hard at work,--a plain man of fifty, with a simple, honest, good-

natured face, and a breezy, practical heartiness in his general style.

As the train moved off a stranger skipped into the car and set a package
of peculiarly mature and capable Limburger cheese on one end of my
coffin-box--I mean my box of guns.  That is to say, I know now that it
was Limburger cheese, but at that time I never had heard of the article
in my life, and of course was wholly ignorant of its character.  Well, we
sped through the wild night, the bitter storm raged on, a cheerless
misery stole over me, my heart went down, down, down!  The old expressman
made a brisk remark or two about the tempest and the arctic weather,

slammed his sliding doors to, and bolted them, closed his window down
tight, and then went bustling around, here and there and yonder, setting
things to rights, and all the time contentedly humming “Sweet By and By,”

in a low tone, and flatting a good deal.  Presently I began to detect a
most evil and searching odor stealing about on the frozen air.  This
depressed my spirits still more, because of course I attributed it to my
poor departed friend.  There was something infinitely saddening about his
calling himself to my remembrance in this dumb pathetic way, so it was
hard to keep the tears back.  Moreover, it distressed me on account of
the old expressman, who, I was afraid, might notice it.  However, he went
humming tranquilly on, and gave no sign; and for this I was grateful.

Grateful, yes, but still uneasy; and soon I began to feel more and more
uneasy every minute, for every minute that went by that odor thickened up
the more, and got to be more and more gamey and hard to stand.

Presently, having got things arranged to his satisfaction, the expressman
got some wood and made up a tremendous fire in his stove.

This distressed me more than I can tell, for I could not but feel that it
was a mistake.  I was sure that the effect would be deleterious upon my
poor departed friend.  Thompson--the expressman's name was Thompson, as I
found out in the course of the night--now went poking around his car,

stopping up whatever stray cracks he could find, remarking that it didn't
make any difference what kind of a night it was outside, he calculated to
make us comfortable, anyway.  I said nothing, but I believed he was not
choosing the right way.  Meantime he was humming to himself just as
before; and meantime, too, the stove was getting hotter and hotter, and
the place closer and closer.  I felt myself growing pale and qualmish,

but grieved in silence and said nothing.

Soon I noticed that the “Sweet By and By ” was gradually fading out; next
it ceased altogether, and there was an ominous stillness.  After a few
moments Thompson said,

“Pfew!  I reckon it ain't no cinnamon 't I've loaded up thish-yer stove

He gasped once or twice, then moved toward the cof--gun-box, stood over
that Limburger cheese part of a moment, then came back and sat down near
me, looking a good deal impressed.  After a contemplative pause, he said,

indicating the box with a gesture,

“Friend of yourn?”

“Yes,” I said with a sigh.

“He's pretty ripe, ain't he!”

Nothing further was said for perhaps a couple of minutes, each being busy
with his own thoughts; then Thompson said, in a low, awed voice,

"Sometimes it's uncertain whether they're really gone or not,--seem gone,

you know--body warm, joints limber--and so, although you think they're
gone, you don't really know.  I've had cases in my car.  It's perfectly
awful, becuz you don't know what minute they'll rise up and look at you!"

Then, after a pause, and slightly lifting his elbow toward the box,--

“But he ain't in no trance!  No, sir, I go bail for him!”

We sat some time, in meditative silence, listening to the wind and the
roar of the train; then Thompson said, with a good deal of feeling,

"Well-a-well, we've all got to go, they ain't no getting around it.  Man
that is born of woman is of few days and far between, as Scriptur' says.

Yes, you look at it any way you want to, it's awful solemn and cur'us:

they ain't nobody can get around it; all's got to go--just everybody, as
you may say.  One day you're hearty and strong"--here he scrambled to his
feet and broke a pane and stretched his nose out at it a moment or two,

then sat down again while I struggled up and thrust my nose out at the
same place, and this we kept on doing every now and then--“ and next day
he's cut down like the grass, and the places which knowed him then knows
him no more forever, as Scriptur' says.  Yes'ndeedy, it's awful solemn
and cur'us; but we've all got to go, one time or another; they ain't no
getting around it.”

There was another long pause; then,--

“What did he die of?”

I said I didn't know.

“How long has he ben dead?”

It seemed judicious to enlarge the facts to fit the probabilities; so I

“Two or three days.”

But it did no good; for Thompson received it with an injured look which
plainly said, “Two or three years, you mean.”  Then he went right along,

placidly ignoring my statement, and gave his views at considerable length
upon the unwisdom of putting off burials too long.  Then he lounged off
toward the box, stood a moment, then came back on a sharp trot and
visited the broken pane, observing,

“'Twould 'a' ben a dum sight better, all around, if they'd started him
along last summer.”

Thompson sat down and buried his face in his red silk handkerchief, and
began to slowly sway and rock his body like one who is doing his best to
endure the almost unendurable.  By this time the fragrance--if you may
call it fragrance--was just about suffocating, as near as you can come at
it.  Thompson's face was turning gray; I knew mine hadn't any color left
in it.  By and by Thompson rested his forehead in his left hand, with his
elbow on his knee, and sort of waved his red handkerchief towards the box
with his other hand, and said,--

"I've carried a many a one of 'em,--some of 'em considerable overdue,

too,--but, lordy, he just lays over 'em all!--and does it easy Cap., they
was heliotrope to HIM!"

This recognition of my poor friend gratified me, in spite of the sad
circumstances, because it had so much the sound of a compliment.

Pretty soon it was plain that something had got to be done.  I suggested
cigars.  Thompson thought it was a good idea.  He said,

“Likely it'll modify him some.”

We puffed gingerly along for a while, and tried hard to imagine that
things were improved.  But it wasn't any use.  Before very long, and
without any consultation, both cigars were quietly dropped from our
nerveless fingers at the same moment.  Thompson said, with a sigh,

“No, Cap., it don't modify him worth a cent.  Fact is, it makes him
worse, becuz it appears to stir up his ambition.  What do you reckon we
better do, now?”

I was not able to suggest anything; indeed, I had to be swallowing and
swallowing, all the time, and did not like to trust myself to speak.

Thompson fell to maundering, in a desultory and low-spirited way, about
the miserable experiences of this night; and he got to referring to my
poor friend by various titles,--sometimes military ones, sometimes civil
ones; and I noticed that as fast as my poor friend's effectiveness grew,

Thompson promoted him accordingly,--gave him a bigger title.  Finally he

“I've got an idea.  Suppos' n we buckle down to it and give the Colonel a
bit of a shove towards t'other end of the car? --about ten foot, say.  He
wouldn't have so much influence, then, don't you reckon?”

I said it was a good scheme.  So we took in a good fresh breath at the
broken pane, calculating to hold it till we got through; then we went
there and bent over that deadly cheese and took a grip on the box.

Thompson nodded “All ready,” and then we threw ourselves forward with all
our might; but Thompson slipped, and slumped down with his nose on the
cheese, and his breath got loose.  He gagged and gasped, and floundered
up and made a break for the door, pawing the air and saying hoarsely,

“Don't hender me! --gimme the road!  I'm a-dying; gimme the road!”

Out on the cold platform I sat down and held his head a while, and he
revived.  Presently he said,

“Do you reckon we started the Gen'rul any?”

I said no; we hadn't budged him.

"Well, then, that idea's up the flume.  We got to think up something
else.  He's suited wher' he is, I reckon; and if that's the way he feels
about it, and has made up his mind that he don't wish to be disturbed,

you bet he's a-going to have his own way in the business.  Yes, better
leave him right wher' he is, long as he wants it so; becuz he holds all
the trumps, don't you know, and so it stands to reason that the man that
lays out to alter his plans for him is going to get left."

But we couldn't stay out there in that mad storm; we should have frozen
to death.  So we went in again and shut the door, and began to suffer
once more and take turns at the break in the window.  By and by, as we
were starting away from a station where we had stopped a moment Thompson.

pranced in cheerily, and exclaimed,

“We're all right, now!  I reckon we've got the Commodore this time.  I
judge I've got the stuff here that'll take the tuck out of him.”

It was carbolic acid.  He had a carboy of it.  He sprinkled it all around
everywhere; in fact he drenched everything with it, rifle-box, cheese and
all.  Then we sat down, feeling pretty hopeful.  But it wasn't for long.

You see the two perfumes began to mix, and then--well, pretty soon we
made a break for the door; and out there Thompson swabbed his face with
his bandanna and said in a kind of disheartened way,

“It ain't no use.  We can't buck agin him.  He just utilizes everything
we put up to modify him with, and gives it his own flavor and plays it
back on us.  Why, Cap., don't you know, it's as much as a hundred times
worse in there now than it was when he first got a-going.  I never did
see one of 'em warm up to his work so, and take such a dumnation interest
in it.  No, Sir, I never did, as long as I've ben on the road; and I've
carried a many a one of 'em, as I was telling you.”

We went in again after we were frozen pretty stiff; but my, we couldn't
stay in, now.  So we just waltzed back and forth, freezing, and thawing,

and stifling, by turns.  In about an hour we stopped at another station;

and as we left it Thompson came in with a bag, and said,--

“Cap., I'm a-going ,to chance him once more,--just this once; and if we
don't fetch him this time, the thing for us to do, is to just throw up
the sponge and withdraw from the canvass.  That's the way I put it up.”

He had brought a lot of chicken feathers, and dried apples, and leaf
tobacco, and rags, and old shoes, and sulphur, and asafoetida, and one
thing or another; and he, piled them on a breadth of sheet iron in the
middle of the floor, and set fire to them.

When they got well started, I couldn't see, myself, how even the corpse
could stand it.  All that went before was just simply poetry to that
smell,--but mind you, the original smell stood up out of it just as
sublime as ever,--fact is, these other smells just seemed to give it a
better hold; and my, how rich it was!  I didn't make these reflections
there--there wasn't time--made them on the platform.  And breaking for
the platform, Thompson got suffocated and fell; and before I got him
dragged out, which I did by the collar, I was mighty near gone myself.

BOOK: How To Tell A Story And Other Essays
13.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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