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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 47. Insomnia
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 47. Insomnia Post by :64525 Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :865

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 47. Insomnia


Down in the cabin, in one of its best staterooms, where all were choice, the senator wooed slumber.

In vain. Sounds were no obstacle. They abounded but they were normal. Except--"Peck-peck-peck" and so on, which the steady pulse of normal sounds practically obliterated. The peck-pecking was not for him.

An unwelcome odor may keep one awake, but the senator's berth was fragrant of fresh mattresses and new linen, the wash-stand of jasmine soap, and the room at large of its immaculate zinc-white walls and doors and their gilt trimmings. Nor could the cause be his supper of beefsteak and onions, black coffee, hot rolls, and bananas, for every one about him had had those, and every one about him was sound asleep. It could not be for lack of the bath; he had already slept well without it too many nights hand-running. Nor could it be a want of special nightclothes; he had won his election over a nightshirt aristocrat, as being not too pampered to sleep, like the sons of toil, in the shirt he had worn all day and would wear again to-morrow. Nor yet was it nicotine or alcohol, the putting of which into him was like feeding cottonwood to Hayle's old _Huntress_. Such, at least, was his private conviction. Oh, he knew the cause! He believed he could drop into sleep as this boat's sounding-lead could drop to the river's bottom, if for one minute he could get his mind off that singularly old, contemptibly young poker-face.

Recalling that face and the grandfather's as he had confronted them together earlier in the journey, they were a double reminder of the Franklinian maxim--he kept a store of such things for stump use--that an old young man makes a young old man. But maxims didn't bring sleep; he turned the pillow and damned the maxim and the men, with Benjamin Franklin to boot.

It tossed him from his right side to his left, to think of his own part in this two days' episode, and of the flocks of passengers stepping ashore at various landings who, as sure as--hmm!--would at every step drop that story into the public ear as corn is dropped into the furrow. It tossed him back again, to think how his adversaries in the political game, where cunning was always trumps, would light down on that story like crows behind the plough. He mixed his metaphors by habit; the people loved them mixed. Another maxim, his own invention, was, Take care of your character and your reputation will take care of itself. The ---- it will! You've got to take _at least as much care of reputation. But here both were concerned. He could not, for the sake either of his character _or his reputation, let himself be made a fool of by any one, however small, anywhere. He had got to recover a personal importance solemnly pilfered from him by a half-grown Shanghai still in his pin-feathers. Against Hayle's girl he was excusably helpless, but him he had got to get the upper hand of and get it quick. Memphis in the morning! More passengers to be dropped there and the whole town's attention to be attracted by the burial of the bishop. Good Lord! That "verbatim report for the newspapers"! And of all papers the Memphis papers! _Avalanche_--_Appeal_--it was all one, he happening to be at the moment equally at odds with both. It, the "report," would not take a defensive attitude. Poker-face was too sharp for that. It would take the offensive from the start and it would take the start. Gentlemen of the jury, in a war of words there's just one word better than the last, and that's the first! And moreover! the brief "report's" main theme would not be he, the senator, nor his vanished committee of seven. No, sir-ee, it would be the cholera, and he would be dished up in a purely casual way; as the French say "on, pass on."

He rubbed his head and sat up. There was a chance that he might find Hugh awake and on duty. If so his cast-iron lordship might yet be browbeaten, or wheedled, into inaction. Or if sleeping he might yet be circumvented. Was he worth circumventing? How absurdly troubles magnify on a waking pillow. Despise your enemy and sleep! Well--hardly. Let _him do that, especially when _you can't_.

He threw off the light cover, rose, and dressed. He began to see a way to win. He would countermine. He would raise a counter-issue--"Harriet." Loitering by the twins' door he listened and rightly judged they were asleep, Lucian being so feeble and Julian so full. The office was open but empty. Its clock read two. The card-tables were vacant. The bar was closed. Out on the dim boiler deck he found only the two who had fleeced Basile. They sat at the very front, elbow to elbow, with their feet up on the rail. Their quiet talk ceased as he came near and stood looking out over the gliding bow and the waters beyond, which were out of their banks and stretched everywhere off into the night, a veritable deluge.

"A good forty miles wide, no doubt," he remarked to the pair, and they assured him he was right.

"What piece of river is this?" he inquired, and was told that they were in the long, winding, desolate sixty-mile stretch between White River and Horseshoe Bend; that they had just put Islands Sixty-two and Sixty-three astern and would be more than two hours yet in reaching Helena.

"Arkansas your State?" he asked. "Helena your town?"

"No," they said, they were of the "hoop-pole State," meaning Indiana. He knew better but changed the subject. "The Ohio," he remarked, "must be up on her hind legs."

"Yes, everything was up: the Saint Francis, the Tennessee, Cumberland, Illinois, Wabash, Kentucky, Miami, Scioto--" The pair did not talk like men narrowly of the hoop-pole commonwealth. Modestly speaking on, they seemed to know the whole great valley quite by heart.

So the senator, to show how quite by heart he knew this whole little world, said affably: "The pan-fish ain't biting so very lively this trip."

The reply was as flawless for candor as though they had the same hope to use him which he had to use them. Said one:

"No, we ain't paying expenses."

And his mate: "We've caught a few little flappers."

"Captain's son make it hard to do business?"

"Oh, he--we've all got our prejudices, you know."

"Yes, you ought to have some against him by now."

"Maybe so. You've got yourn, senator, we've noticed."

"I? No! I admire him. The way he runs this cabin----"

"Makes her keep up with the boat," they admitted.

"I never saw his like," laughed the statesman.

"Wouldn't want to, would you?"

"N-no, he makes big mistakes. But--he's got a future!"

"So mind his heels," said one of the pair. They were enjoying their politician. He saw that by their gravity. In their world men looked gravest when amused, and saved their smiles for emergencies. While he offered, and they accepted, cigars he spoke absently:

"The young gentleman's making a mistake right now that he ought to be saved from."

"Another?" they dryly asked as they used his cigar for a light. So far had he fallen in the general esteem.

He chose not to hear. "I wish," he insisted, "we could save him from it."

"Why, yes!--wish you could. But 'we' ain't us. We sporting men, we're mighty bashful, you know."

"Naturally," admitted the senator.

"Yes, glass, with care. But there's another mistake maker we wish you wished you could save. We ev'm might help."

"Aha!" thought the senator. He was right, after all. He had felt confident that these men, treated by Hugh as they had been, would privately "have it in for him"; that they would be glad of any safe chance to "get away with him"--not so utterly as to imperil their necks, yet not too lightly for their spiritual comfort the rest of their days--and that they saw their chance just where he saw his.

"Ye-es?" He mused. They let him muse. The exhorter, he reflected, having picked up the trail and opened the cry--trail which the headlong twins had so witlessly overrun--these older dogs were on it hot; trail of the Gilmores and "Harriet." Somewhere on that trail the captain's son would show up, and when the game should be treed they would be able, in the general mix-up, to "go and see Hugh" and "cook his goose."

The musing ceased. "You mean the actor?"

The pair warmed up. "Yes, sir-ee, him. _That fellow's making a mistake we might help you to handle. God! sir, he's a nigger-stealer. His wife has got a stolen nigger wench with her now. Had her these ten years. Save _him_. Save _them_."

"Our friend John the Baptist suggests that," began the senator.

"Adzac'ly!" was the facetious affirmation. "Smelt 'em out at the show. That's how come the mate has locked him up."

The senator stiffened. "Oh, you must be mistaken!"

"Want to bet? Pull out. Go you a thousand they've jugged him and them two Arkansas killers. Yes, sir, to stay jugged till they leave us, at Helena."

"Who!--have done that?"

"Same as you're thinking; they; them; him; that believes he's bossing the boat--which maybe he is."

"Where is he?"

"Up on the roof, with a select few, both sexes."

"Gentlemen, he must let them go at once!"

"Senator, not with money, but just on your word, you sort o' bail 'em out. If they cut up, nobody'll blame you."

"I'll do it! We don't want an owner of the finest boat on Southern waters to have any part in _that sort of mistake, whatever his youth."

"Youth!" (Profanity.) "That boy's forty year' old. Oh, he's all right; if he thinks he'd ought to protect every galoot on his boat, why, maybe he'd ought. What you know is that that white nigger's _got to be took away from them two barnstormers instanter and restored back to her own Hayle folks. That's a mistake you ain't never got to ask nobody's leaves to save nobody from."

"You don't mean to-night?" Capital disguise for eagerness--the cigar. The senator puffed. The pair puffed.

"We mean now; when the right men can be woke up and the others--and the ladies--sleep on. Now, straightaway, while the shouter's still aboard--and the two shooters. If we wa'n't sporting men we'd like to sit into that game ourselves. Maybe we can if it's kept--dignified."

"Even if there's resistance?"

"Who'll resist? The boat's people? Only thing they dassen't resist. Couldn't never run another trip on this river. Resist! Couldn't ever resist, any time; but now? Look at their fix. Sweet time to set everybody a-kicking like steers. Bishop dead, chief Dutch woman ditto, that nice young Hayle boy that they took away from us when he wanted to stay like a man, ditto----"

"Oh, not dead? My God! I hadn't heard that."

"No, it ain't been properly advertised. But Hamlet knows it--I mean your actor. The way him and his wife--or lady--are buzzing around, you'd think they was the undertakers. Maybe they are. _He won't resist. He knows how well resistance would suit you--oh, not yourself, no more'n us, but--the crowd; men like them three that's locked up and must be turned loose first thing. He knows if he lifts a finger, or so much as gives anybody any of his lip--and maybe anyhow--he'll be took ashore and lost in the woods, first time we stop to bury some more Dutch; say daybreak."

"Ah, but we mustn't let that happen, either."

"Oh, no! we mustn't let that happen, either."

"Well"--the senator put on a bustling frown--"I'll see Hugh. I wish--I wonder if that Californian has----"

"Put up his shutters? No, he's on the roof. Why?"

"He might help wake up the right men, as you say."

One of the pair, without rising, tapped the senator caressingly. "You--let--California--sweat. Trust in Providence. The right men'll get woke up somehow, beginning with the general. That right?... All gay, but don't you take no California in yourn to-night."

"No? Very well. But--I wonder if you gentlemen really recognize the seriousness of this affair."

"Look a-here, senator, you go up-stairs and save Mr. Innocence from running his boat into this mistake." The sleek pair rose, evidently to begin their part.

The senator rummaged his mind for a word that would give him creditable exit but had to hurry off without it. Turning, the two exchanged a calm gaze and one luxurious puff, which meant that the "old sucker's" use of them would suit them exactly. They rummaged for no words; had no more need for words than two leopards.

Before falling to work they glanced out over the flood. This was Horseshoe Cut-off. Kangaroo Point was just astern in the west. Yonder ahead, under the old moon, came Friar's Point. In these hundred miles between Napoleon and Helena they were meeting one by one the Saturday evening boats out of Saint Louis. Now one came round the upper bend, four days from Cincinnati. They knew her; the Courteneys' fine old _Marchioness_. The young _Votaress swept by her saluting and saluted like the belle of a ball, a flying vision of luxury, innocence, and joy.

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