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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 34. The Peacemakers
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 34. The Peacemakers Post by :64525 Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2266

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 34. The Peacemakers

CHAPTER XXXIV. THE PEACEMAKERS

Some four of the _Votaress's "family," one seated, three standing at ease, were allowing their mild, slow conversation its haphazard way under barely enough constraint to hold it in the channel of discretion. It drifted as unpretentiously as a raft or flatboat, now and then merely floating without progress, like a floating alligator; that is, with one small eye imperceptibly open to every point of the compass.

He who sat was the first clerk, a man of thirty-seven or so, and therefore, as age then counted, fairly started on the decline of life. He occupied the high stool in the clerk's office, his limp back against its standing desk. Nearest him the second clerk, standing, leaned on an elbow thrown out upon the desk and rested one foot on a rung of the stool. A second clerk might do that; a third or "mud" clerk would hardly have made so free. The youthful mud clerk, with his hat under his folded arms, leaned on the jamb of a door that let back into the clerks' stateroom. Opposite him the youngest of the four, latest come among them, stood out in the cabin and hung in over the broad window counter, across which the office did business with the world. Watson's "cub pilot" he was, on the sick list, thin and weak with swamp-fever.

The forenoon watch was half gone. The boat was fluttering along at high speed under a bright but fickle sky, and the clerks and the "cub" hardly needed to glance out the nearest larboard window to know that she was already turning northward into a pleasant piece of river called Nine Mile Reach. A certain Point Lookout was some five miles behind in the east, and the town of Providence, negligibly small, with Lake Providence, an old cut-off, hid in the woods behind it, was close ahead. One of the number mentioned the boat's failure during the night to make the miles expected of her, but the four agreed that the cause was not any lack of speed power but an overplus of landings below Vicksburg--two being for burials--and a long delay at Vicksburg itself, providing for the sick.

This explanation, the second clerk said, had been as gratifying to the planter of Milliken's Bend and his "lady" as their not having to be called up before day. They had taken breakfast in the general company, which, with the commodore at one end of the cabin and Hugh at the other, had sat down when Old River and the mouth of the Yazoo were on the starboard bow, and had risen while passing My Wife's Island. Finally they had gone ashore in great elation, thanking Hugh with high voices and fervent hand-shakings, and his father with wavings from the bank to the roof, for the "most delightful trip anybody ever made"; careless as infants of the hundreds of strangers gazing on them, both native and alien, both woe-stricken and self-content, and, even when the great wheels were backing the boat away, calling fond messages to Hugh for the still invisible "Miss Ramsey" as if she were in his exclusive keeping and all those strangers were trees.

So recounted the second clerk, not to criticise such innocent disdain of the public eye and ear--to him an every-day sight--but with a feeling for the picturesque and in mild humor making the point that such messages, so given, were hardly calculated to make life easier for Hugh. The mud clerk and the cub pilot grunted their accord yet privately envied Hugh. To be message bearer to that young lady would have been rapture to either of them under whatever hardness or peril of life, the more the better. Oddly enough, with Milliken's Bend now forty miles astern the messages had not been delivered.

"No fault of his," said the first clerk, the second said no, and the mud clerk and the cub loyally echoed them. For they knew, at least the three clerks knew, always knew, not by flat inquiry but by trained perceptions and the alligator's eye, whatever was going on in each and every part of the boat. Indeed, the boat's news naturally flowed to them; flowed to and ran forth again from them, aerated and cleansed, as normally as blood to and from the breast of a strong man. By the sound of the steam they knew the water was right in the boilers. By the rhythm of the machinery they knew all was right in the engine room. They could have said, nearly enough, how soon the boat would have to stop again for wood. To them the quiet of the populous boiler deck, where nearly every man sat reading some stale newspaper of Louisville, Saint Louis, or Cincinnati--brought aboard from the Vicksburg wharf-boat--was informational, witnessing a general resigned admission that there was already "trouble enough." Of three notables not there they knew that one, the bishop, was in his berth, very weary, and that the senator and the general had been for some time with Hayle's twins. They could have greeted every cabin passenger by name. They knew who were filling the places lately vacated at the ladies' table, whose was each ubiquitous child selling tickets for the appointed "show," and whose each private servant, however rarely seen: not such as old Joy merely, but the senator's black Cato, the general's yellow Tom, Mrs. Gilmore's theatrically handsome Harriet, or the nearly as white Dora of the young lady from Napoleon. And they knew well that the non-delivery of those messages was no fault of Hugh's.

Miss Ramsey was up, yes; but she had breakfasted in seclusion and was then in a small under-cabin for ladies' maids, close beneath the main one, rehearsing with Mrs. Gilmore and others. Gilmore had been coaching them but was now momentarily out on the boiler deck. Through the extensive glass of the cabin's front they could see him standing before a knot of men: John the Baptist and the man with the eagle eye and the man with the eye of a stallion and the man who knew so slap-bang that the Hayles and Courteneys had all but locked horns when the _Quakeress burned. They were the only exponents of unrest out there and only the actor wore an air both spirited and kind. No one in the office openly kept an eye on the outer group. In there the gossip lingered on Hugh. Hugh had plenty, it was agreed, of the Courteney stuff and something besides which these four hoped was the very thing with which to meet this new phase so plainly at hand in the Hayle-Courteney contest.

Suddenly the first clerk looked straight out on Gilmore, so obviously at bay, and murmured to the cub pilot: "Go, bring him." While the cub went, the clerk spoke on. Hugh, he said, would one day be the best-liked of his name.

In kindly dissent the second clerk shook his head, but the first would have it so. The liking might be slow coming, he allowed, because of Hugh's oddities, but in the end men would like even the oddities.

The mud clerk named one as if he liked it: "When he's by himself he's got the iron-est phiz----"

The second clerk laughed his appreciation. "And when he's poked up," he said, "it gets ironer and ironer."

"It'll need to mighty soon," observed the first clerk.

"When he runs into Gid Hayle," said the second.

The actor came. His pleased manner was more thankful than inquiring and he insisted on remaining outside the window shelf with the cub.

"Mr. Gilmore," said the first clerk gravely, "we thought you might condescend to inspect our ceiling decorations through fresh foliage."

The player looked puzzled an instant but a smell of mint from the bar cleared his mental vision. Yet again he declined. Later in the day he shouldn't be so coy, he admitted, but one oughtn't to take too long a running start for his jump into bed.

"No, he _might get there too soon," said the clerk. "My boys, sir, want to ask you a riddle. You know Gid Hayle. How can his daughter, here, be just like him for all the world and yet those twins be just like him for all the same identical world, too?"

"Well put!" was the prompt rejoinder. "My wife and I have been toying with that riddle these twenty-four hours. Those brothers are Gideon Hayle's sons if ever a man had sons; that daughter is his from the ground up; yet the two and the one are as unlike as night and noon."

The clerks and cub pilot agreed so approvingly that the actor, lover of lines, was inspired to go on at more length. He remarked, in effect, that he had never seen so striking an instance of a parent's natural traits growing into--blemishes--in one inheritor and into graces in another. Yet to know Gideon Hayle was to read the riddle. As quick to anger as his sons, as full of mirth as his daughter; open-hearted, wrong-headed, generous, tyrannous, valorous, contemptuous of all book wisdom yet an incessant, keen inquirer with a fantastical explanation of his own for everything in nature, science, politics, or religion. Implacable in his prejudices, he----

"Yes," interrupted the first clerk, with amazing irrelevancy, "but a man of Henry Clay's experience ought to have known better. Kossuth is a gentleman who--well, general, how are you now? Mr. Gilmore, you know the general? Senator, you know Mr. Gilmore?"

"Assuredly!" The condescending senator had known Mr. Gilmore, "a day by contact but long by fame."

The general was civil but not suave. He remembered the player's hard names for the committee's dead scheme. "Taking care of Henry Clay, too, sir?" he asked him. "With so many pleasanter cares"--that meant Ramsey--"you might let Henry Clay take care of himself."

"That's something," put in the second clerk, flushing defensively, while the senator, with cigar cocked one way and his silk hat another, drew Gilmore aside, "that's something Henry Clay never does."

"Right, young man. He merely tries. Th-there's no one in the nation has t-tried harder or f-failed worse!"

The youth turned to his work at the high desk. "Sir," said the general to the first clerk, who rose, "the senator and I have been up to your texas----"

"Contrary to orders," mildly said the first clerk.

"I admit it, sir, but our intentions were only th-the k-kindest. It seems to us, sir, or to me--us or me, sir, as you will--that th-those sons of our old friend Hayle are not getting justice."

"They ought to be mighty glad of that, general."

"S-s-sir, they'd rather have it! We admit, of course,--we or I--I, if you prefer, sir, or if the senator prefers--I admit they are not unbiassed."

"No, I admit they're not."

"Th-they are supe-perbly stiff-necked and illogical young barons from four centuries back, sir, without a f-f-fault that isn't a v-v-virtue overdrawn--or out of date."

The speaker turned to the actor and senator and they to him: "If those boys have the pride of L-l-lucifer, Mr. Gilmore, they have also his intrep-idity. Th-they may be as high-headed as giraffes, sir, but they're as s-s-straightf-f-forward as a charging bull! Mr. clerk, the splendid surge of their imp-pulses should excuse their f-f-foibles even if their s-s-souls were _not wr-wri-writhing under the lash of a new whip on old sores, sir."

"Will you just make that a little clearer, general?"

"I will," softly put in the senator--"by your leave, general?"

With limp majesty the general waved permission.

"All for peace, however," said the senator smilingly to the clerk. "There's been enough strife."

"Never saw so much aboard boat," said the clerk.

"Well,"--statesman and clerk laid elbows on the shelf and dropped their voices while the actor and the general drew a step aside,--"this thing can be settled only by the right friends and it's now or never." The two exchanged a look but the clerk was mute and the senator spoke on: "You've heard of Dan Hayle--and the girl Phyllis, hmm?"

"I was first clerk on the _Quakeress when she burned."

"Why, so you _was_. These twins believe, bitterly, that in that mysterious disaster all due search for their uncle was neglected to save the captain's son and that the girl and Dan Hayle were never fully accounted for."

"Shucks! Why--Dan--it was I found Dan's body."

"Yes, but they call it an outrage for him to have been there at all; to give him the wheel and take her aboard on the same trip."

"_Law'_! what did she count, with him about to marry?"

"Why, they think that for that very reason John Courteney let his wife--from Philadelphia, you know--abolitionist--bring the girl and Dan together, hoping he'd either set her free or else skip the wedding and somehow disgrace the whole Hayle family. Just those boys' guess but--they believe it. What they _see is a Hayle killed and no one killed for him."

"Oh, we settled that with their dad ten years ago."

"They say not. And, really, you know, some of the liveliest feuds along this river are founded on less cause. Gid Hayle, they claim, couldn't bring the Courteneys to law at the time because the only men he had to back him were his two in-laws. Now these twins are men and they feel honor-bound to throw down--no, to take up--the gage, thrown down to them every hour they've been on this boat."

"Shoo! They've been treated only too well."

"Tactfully, do you think?"

"Depends on what you call tact. Ordinary tact's the worst thing you could throw at 'em." The clerk spoke with both eyes on the general and the actor. His fellow clerk, second clerk, had nudged him. The general was raising his voice to the actor.

"They f-forbid your lady to chaperon their sister, since you both, last evening, all-llowed young Courteney to give her his account of the b-urning of the _Quakeress_."

"General!" the smiling senator cautioned him, "privately, if you please! more privately!"

But the soldier persisted. "Th-they even suspect you, sir, of s-s-piriting off to Canada their s-s-lave p-roperty, missing after that event."

"Why, gentlemen," began the player, looking very professional but also very handsome, and with a flash of annoyance only when he noticed that the exhorter had joined the group, "I never in my--nonsense! fantastical nonsense! Why, I'll be--I'll see you later! At present, as I've already said, I'm overdue at that rehearsal."

"Yes, Mr. Gilmore," said the first clerk, "you are."

"A moment," interposed the senator. "Purely in the interest of peace, Mr. Gilmore----"

"Oh, senator," the actor amiably laughed, "I don't question your good-will, or the general's; but you don't know, either of you, the interest of peace when you run against it--pardon! I take that back. My annoyance, at quite another thing, flew off the handle. I take it back. Excuse me, I'll make it a point to see you later." The three bowed. As he started away the exhorter blocked his path.

"Excuse _me_," said the zealot. "Fust tell us: Ef ye _mowt sperit a niggeh off to Canady would ye aw wouldn't ye?"

For an instant the player stood mute and then he said only, in a preoccupied tone: "Please let me pass." But at the same time he laid his unexpected left hand lightly on the questioner and by some stage trick sent him stumbling aside along a line of chairs and toppling to the floor. The cub and the younger clerks had him up in a twinkling, while a dozen men appeared from the boiler deck as if by magic, and the player walked away down the cabin.

"Now, no more noise here," said the second clerk to the lifted man, restraining both his arms. "No, you stay right here. He didn't do a thing to you, you just stepped a little too spry and sort o' tripped up."

From his window shelf the first clerk, in the tail of his eye, saw the zealot and his group disperse while he, the clerk, talked laughingly to the soldier on one subject and gravely to the statesman on another.

"You can't challenge a man, general," he said, "who apologizes for calling you a poor peacemaker."

"By--! s-sir, I can and I sh-shall!" was the retort.

The clerk ignored it. He and the senator bent heads together again. "No," he said, "Hugh only told him he _feared it was Basile. In fact, it wasn't. It isn't."

"Who is it, then? It's a passenger and a bad case."

"Will you keep it dark--by the patient's own request--till the show's over to-night?"

The senator nodded. The two heads came closer. The general scorned to listen. The name did not reach him.

"Jove!" gasped the senator. "Come, general." They went.

The first clerk turned to the second clerk's elbow at the high desk, saying dryly: "They came to demand those shooting-irons and couldn't muster the brass."

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