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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 37. Basile Uses A Cane
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 37. Basile Uses A Cane Post by :64525 Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1094

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 37. Basile Uses A Cane

CHAPTER XXXVII. BASILE USES A CANE

There was a gorgeous sunset that day. Many were on the uppermost decks to see or show it, amid a lively social confusion dull to Hugh but delightful to Ramsey. In fact, Hugh had begun to want her and the hurricane-deck to himself.

The actor and his wife were there. And there, indifferent to sunsets but as hungry as ever for company, was Basile. Dinner, at midday, had dissolved the group which the twins had for a time held together. The captain had squared Basile with the ticket treasurer and by some adroitness of Ramsey and Mrs. Gilmore the restless boy had been won from his brothers and given a hand at euchre with the actor, the senator, and a picturesque Kentuckian, late of California, "back East" by way of the Isthmus and about to return by the Plains.

Another of this hurricane-roof assemblage was a young gentleman whom Ramsey told Basile it was not a bit nice to speak of as Watson's cub. And there were all the amateur players, eager for the evening's performance; and there, too, the senator, the general, John the Baptist, and others with whom Ramsey had not made better acquaintance only for lack of moments! One of these was the Californian. Think of it! A man whose shirt-pin was a gold nugget of his own digging, yet a man so modest as to play euchre with Basile, and who stood thus far utterly uncatechised save by John the Baptist. Oh, time, time! A history of this voyage must and should be written with large room given to these last ten hours: "Chronicles of a Busy Life," by "A Young Lady of Natchez."

Captain Courteney stood near the bell. Watson was up at the wheel. His cub--whose attentions to Basile, like the Californian's, only Ramsey could not fathom--told her this was the second dog-watch. He was telling her everything he knew. She was asking him everything he knew not. Indeed, among all there was great giving and getting of information on matters alow and aloft. There was, too, frequent praise of the commodore, the doctor, the priest, the sisters of charity, Madame Hayle--all those heroic ones on the immigrant deck, where the pestilence was making awful headway. But there was so perfect a silence as to the bishop that it was manifest that every one knew about him but was too discreet to tell.

Matters beyond the boat, too, far and near, were much discussed, though some actually saw the sunset they were all there to see. Nowhere within five hundred miles the compass round, the actor said, was there a town of ten thousand souls, if of five thousand. Nowhere within a hundred miles was there a town population of five hundred. Since the morning thundershower the _Votaress had come ninety miles, yet the great Yazoo Delta was still ahead, abeam, astern, on the river's Mississippi side. Some one told two or three, who told four or five, it was a hundred and seventy-five miles long by an average of sixty wide, and covered seven thousand square miles. From zenith to farthest east the clouds that overhung it were pink and ashes-of-roses in a sea of blue. The entire west was one splendor of crimson and saffron, scarlet and gold, with intervals of black and green. Even the turbid river between was an unbroken rosy glow. The vast wooded swamps over on that shore were in Arkansas. Louisiana had been left behind in that vivid moment when Ramsey and Hugh were making their discovery of "Harriet" and when Hugh, we may here add, was handing back her "veil of mystery."

"When I saw you do that," Ramsey had later said to him, "I knew she was safe--and she knew she was!" The laughing girl's mind was brimful yet of the amazing incident, at every pause in her talk, which was now with this one, now with that, and often with the cub.

It was interesting to note the masterful-careless air with which Watson's apprentice more than once endeavored to make it clear to Hugh, concerning this daughter of Gideon, that, whereas the mud clerk, at his desk below, was utterly love-bemired, his, the cub's, liking for her was solely for her countless questions, of which he said that "you never could tell where the next one would hit." No singed moth he! To prove it he offered Hugh a very blase query: "What do women ever do with all the answers we men give 'em, hey?"

Hugh could not tell him. Yet to Hugh the riddle was at least as old as his acquaintance with Ramsey. He pondered it as he and Mrs. Gilmore conversed in undertone while gazing on the wonderful changes of the sky, and while Ramsey, near by, visibly studied the exhorter, whom she was cross-examining together with the actor on the lore of the river as they had known it in the days before steam. For she had actually got those two antipodes face to face again in a sort of truce-rampant like that of the lion and the unicorn on the _Votaress's very thick plates and massive coffee-cups. She was not like most girls, Hugh thought. While their interrogations were generally for the entertainment, not to say flattery, of their masculine informants, hers were the outreachings of an eager mind free from self-concern and athirst for knowledge to be stored, honey-like, for future use. Some women have butterfly minds, that merely drink the social garden's nectar. Others are more like bees. The busy bee Ramsey, Hugh felt assured, was by every instinct a honey gatherer.

But who, at a single cast, ever netted the whole truth as to any one? Even while he so mused--at the same time doing his best to give Mrs. Gilmore his whole attention--Ramsey, with her back turned yet vividly aware of him, willing--preferring--that he should hear alone from that lady what she would later draw from him, and ardently mindful of his word that he "wanted her help," was not merely gathering facts regarding her beloved river but was also deep in diplomacy, endeavoring with all her youthful arts, such as they were, to help him.

Her manoeuvres were fairly good. To her it seemed as though this spirit of strife so electrically pervading the _Votaress might yet be tranquilized through a war of wits exclusively and she was using her own with the tactical nimbleness of the feminine mind. She knew the twins were down on the boiler deck again, one faint, yet both pursuing, egged on by him of the stallion's eye and him of the eagle's, and all the more socially and dangerously active because, by strict orders to every one, cut off from the gaming-table and the bar. She could not do a hundred things at once--though she could do six or seven--and it was well to grapple this one task first. Thus she kept Hugh free to confer with the player's wife as to "Harriet."

Her husband, the wife told Hugh, had drawn "Harriet" from the water just as Dan Hayle sank, and husband and wife had concealed her on their flatboat, unable to resist her wild appeal not to be given back into slavery.

"We didn't dream she'd done anything wrong; she didn't tell us that for years. Players, Mr. Hugh, don't meddle much in politics and we'd never thought whether we were for slavery or against it until there was the whole awful question sprung on us in an instant."

"So you took her----?"

"For my maid, yes--on wages, of course--down to New Orleans--we were bound there--and kept her when we went North and ever since."

"And she's always been----?"

"Well-behaved, faithful, kind, and wise. That one terrible deed, which she says you know all about----"

"I do."

"It seemed to change the very foundations of her character, to convert her soul."

"Yes," said Hugh, as if speaking from experience.

"Yet she kept her high spirit. She would never put on a disguise. And really that was safest since she wasn't being looked for by any one. 'I'm no advertised runaway,' she said. Still she's never been foolhardy. She'd never have come--we'd never have brought her--aboard this boat could we have foreseen the mishap to her captain which decided you and your father and grandfather to come on her."

So ran the story hurriedly, but before it had got thus far Hugh's attention, in spite of him, was divided. It was wise, we have implied, for Ramsey to take the exhorter while he was in a manageable humor. He had come to the roof with an improved regard, got by his fall in the cabin, for the "'Piscopalian play-actoh," and with brute shrewdness was glad to make an outward show of good-will to Gilmore, and accepted with avidity every pretty advance of Gid Hayle's "bodacious brick-top gal." Hugh could hear him answering Ramsey's inquiries regarding various pieces of river seen or unseen during the day.

"Spanish-moss Ben'? Why, they calls it that by reason 'at when we-all used to come down the riveh in flatboats, that's whah we al'ays fus' see the moss a-swingin' f'om the trees. Yass, sawt o' like scalps f'om wigwam poles. An' that ho'pe us to know whah'bouts we 'uz at. We knowed we 'uz at Spanish-moss Ben'. Didn' we, Mr. play-actoh?"

The actor would have said yes, but the fountain of information flowed straight on: "Yass, same as at Islan' Ten--aw Twenty--aw any numbeh, we knowed by count we 'uz that many islan's f'om whah the Ohio comes in. Ef that wah the tenth islan' we'd seed then we knowed that 'uz Islan' Ten aw whaheveh it wah, whetheh it wah a' islan' yit aw b'en j'inded on to the main sho' sence it got its numbeh."

They were rounding Cypress Bend and Ramsey had asked another question. "Was this where you first used to see cypress woods?"

"Thundeh, no! This gits h-its name by reason 'at they steals mo' millions o' dollahs wuth o' cyp'ess timbeh f'om the gove'ment out'n this ben' than any otheh on the whole Fatheh o' Watehs, es the Injins say. You know that, Mr. play-actoh. Lawd! all the places ain't name' alike. 'Way back down yondeh whah we met the _Troubado' this mawnin'----"

"Oh!" moaned Ramsey, "another o' pop-a's boats!"

"Yass, whilst you-all 'uz a-temptin' Provi-_dence a-practisin' of a play! Down yondeh by Islan' Ninety, Seary's Islan'--which it ain't be'n a raal islan' these fawty year'--you 'membeh, Mr. play-actoh, that ole san'-bah jess below it, full o' snags as my granny's mouth, which befo' the earthquake it used to be a reg-lah death-trap fo' flatboats? Well, _you know h-it didn' git its name by reason 'at anybody fo' the fust time see thah Gen'al Hull's Lef' Leg! No; an' likewise away up yondeh pas' the Tennessee line, at Islan' Thutty-eight, whah the current's so full o' biles an' swells an' snags an' sawyehs 'at they calls it the Devil's Elbow! Now, nobody ain't neveh sho' 'nough see' the devil's identical elbow--in this life. No, suh, you'd ought to know that ef anybody. Oh, no, Devil's Elbow, Presi-_dent's Islan', Paddy's Hen an' Chickens, Devil's Race-groun', Devil's Bake-ov'm, they jess sahcaystic names." He turned to Watson's cub, who with Basile had joined the trio, and was watching to get in a word. "You know that."

The boy assented. "But did you see," he asked Ramsey, "the swarms of birds down around Island Eighty-eight?"

"No!" interposed the exhorter, "she wah still atemptin' Provi-_dence in like manneh as afo'said!"

Basile flashed resentment. "To put it politely," he retorted. But the actor and Ramsey laughed.

"Oh, John the Babtis' wouldn't 'a' putt it no politer. I see' the birds. We 'uz a meetin' the _Southe'n Cross_----"

"Anoth'--!" Ramsey began to wail.

"Anotheh o' Gid Hayle's boats, yass, an' mighty nigh his bes'. Round'n' the foot o' the islan' our whistle bellered howdy to her an' we riz one solid squah mile o' wings; an' when she bellered back, a-round'n' its head, she riz anotheh. Yit them birds wa'n't a pinch naw a patchin' to what I hev see' thah; millions an' millions an' millions _uv millions o' swan, pelikin, san'-hill crane, geese----"

"Birds of paradise?" asked Brick-top.

"They 'uz all birds o' paradise! the whole kit an' bilin'! by reason 'at this _wah a paradise them days, this-yeh whole 'Azoo Delta, which you, suh"--the speaker turned to Gilmore with reviving spleen. By opposite stairs, larboard and starboard, the twins, each carrying a sword-cane, as Hugh saw by the double gold band around it a finger-length from the top, had just reached the roof, and the emboldened orator began to make it plain that despite his "bodacious" criticism of their sister, overheard by Julian, he had at least half righted himself with both brothers and was on their side in whatever was now afoot.

"Which you, suh," he repeated, "hev tuck on yoseff to drap hints 'at it ain't a civilize' country!--by reason 'at it ain't cityfied! Like Paris, I s'pose, my Gawd!--with thah high-heel' shoes an' low-neck' dresses!"

His voice rose as the twins, Mrs. Gilmore, and Hugh came close. "Aw Babylon with thah jeweldry!--rings on thah fingehs an' bells on thah toes! Aw Sodom an' Gomorrah!--with thah staht-neckid statutes! Well, thaynk the Lawd, yo're plumb right, we ain't! Thaynk Gawd we _air a 'new-bawn civilization'--as says you when you didn' suspicion I wah a-listenin'"--he fell into a mincing mimicry--"'a new-bawn civilization with all the chahm an' all the pity o' new-bawn things,' says you to yo' wife--ef she air yo' wife."

The shock of the insult ran through the group and out to a dozen hearers beyond; to the captain and a knot of young people courting his conversation; to Watson, high above; to the stallion-eyed man and the eagle-eyed, who both had come up with the twins and were adhering to the senator, the general, and the Kentuckian from California.

Gilmore paled with anger. Ramsey's merriment, which had begun at the beginning, ceased for a breath and then, to the loathing of the twins, came on worse as she found herself very erect in one of Mrs. Gilmore's gentle arms. The eyes of both the wife and the girl were on the actor and their every nerve was unstrung. Beseechingly he waved them away.

"Come," the wife said, though without moving, "come on."

"Oh, not a step!" laughed Ramsey. "They--they need us! We must help!" She had turned her frank gaze to Hugh in mingled wonder, exultancy, and distress. It seemed a dream that he should be the dull boy of yesterday. He was speaking to the exhorter and appeared not to have her in sight or mind, although, in fact, her untimely levity ran him through like a dart. His absurdly deep voice was rich with a note not of mere forbearance but of veritable comradery, yet his eyes, as they held the offender's, were as big and dangerous as she had ever seen her mighty father's and she laughed on for what laughter might be worth, the only help she could furnish.

"Not that you mean the slightest offence," he prompted.

The exhorter stiffened up. The nearer few packed close. Slender Basile was just at Hugh's left between him and the twins. The exhorter opened his mouth to reply but the words hung in his throat. To help them out he gave his head a disputative tilt, but Basile's hysterical treble broke in:

"Say no! You slang-whanging lick-skillet, say no!"

The man gasped. The boy whirled to his convalescent brother. "Give me that cane!" He snatched it, whipped out its keen stiletto, and with all his light force smote the empty staff, left-handed, across the exhorter's cheek and ear, yelping: "Say no! Say it!"

"No!" said the victim, but the word was equivocal and the boy beside himself. For Hugh had wrenched the staff from him and was holding the hand that gripped the stiletto, while the lad, with streaming tears, plunged, whined and gnashed at the backwoodsman.

"Let me go!" he begged. "I see their game! Let me kill their insulter of ladies!"

The game was not hard to see. At a better moment than this blunderer had chosen, some one was to provoke the actor to an assault which the twins would make their pretext for a combined attack on that political "suspect" and common pest, using the canes as canes until Hugh should be drawn into the fray, when the canes would become swords, dirks, the actor a secondary consideration, and the game--interesting. Hugh saw it but saw it with even less sense of peril than Ramsey, who stood her ground nervously cling-ing to her chaperon, yet flashing and tinkling with a mirth as of some reckless sport; a mirth mildly reflected by her companion and which, for Hugh, suddenly shed a ludicrous light on every one: on himself and Basile; on the pallid Lucian as he peevishly, vainly, ordered Ramsey off the scene; on Julian as he posed in a tragical disdain more theatrical than the actor's--who also saw the game; on the captain's dumfounded young folk; on the senator, the general, and the Californian, standing agaze, and on the two men with them, whose extra--eagle-eyed, stallion-eyed--solicitude told him they were the lenders of the canes. All at once, still holding the anguished Basile, he saw, and observed that the actor saw, the heaped-up nonsense of the affair. Ramsey's mood leaped to both of them like a flame, and they laughed together while Hugh exhorted the exhorter: "Go below! For your life, go!"

The man cast a pleading look on the twins, but when Lucian granted him only a withering smile, and Julian with his cane in his folded arms said majestically, "Go, you hopeless ass," he went--with haste.

Out of the group by the bell John Courteney, apparently as unmoved as if all this were but common routine, answered Watson's silent look with his own while the pilot, taking his ear from a speaking-tube, grasped the bell-rope.

"Wood?" asked the captain.

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