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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 52. Love Runs Rough But Runs On
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 52. Love Runs Rough But Runs On Post by :mattscotney Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2982

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 52. Love Runs Rough But Runs On


Turning east in the upper arm of Saint Francis Bend, with the mouth of Saint Francis River just swinging out of sight astern and Helena an hour's run behind, the _Votaress faced the rising sun.

Before the eyes of Hugh and Ramsey it soared gloriously into a sky reddened not by presage of rain but by the smoke of the _Antelope and _Westwood_. The intervening shore and waters glowed and quivered in exquisite tints that renewed the world's youth and quite ignored all human, especially all young human, troubles. Suddenly it lighted up the black chimneys and scapes and white pilot-houses of the two boats ahead, as, a league or so apart, they came doubling back northwest, up Walnut Bend, to save in Bordeaux Chute the wide circuit of Bordeaux and Whiskey Islands, to hurry on round the long north-and-south loop of Council Bend and so have done with one of the most tortuous forty miles of the Mississippi.

We mention these things because Hugh and Ramsey were students of them, now and then together but never quite comfortable so, and now and then apart but never quite comfortable so. Everywhere the boat's people were awake. On the freight deck the crew squatted in circles, eating from tubs. Away aft on the roof, from their quarters in the far end of the texas, the whole flock of white-jackets had risen like gulls and were down in the cook-house, pantry, and cabin rattling the crockery till it echoed in every waking stomach. Already the _Votaress's divine breath smelt of coffee, real coffee--_chaud comme l'enfer et noir comme le diable--smelt of it, as, we fear, we shall never smell it again in this trust-ridden world. It was Ned's watch at the wheel. Watson and his cub had turned in. So had the first clerk. So had the twins, the senator, the general. Few of us, at that hour, not having slept, are skylarks.

Yet the actor and the Californian still held vigil by the captain's bed. Joy still hovered after her "young missy," and "Harriet" after Mrs. Gilmore and the parson's wife. Ramsey and "Harriet" betrayed a vivid interest in each other, a wonderfully generous thing on the maid's part, Ramsey thought, the two being who they were. The commodore was better, but the captain was not, and together or apart Hugh and Ramsey were more consciously the prisoners, albeit the undaunted prisoners, of care and sorrow than of anything else. When their feeling for the river's lore drew them, by a spiritual gravitation, to a common centre--to learn, for instance, that Council Bend and Council Island were named for one of those historic "confabs" between the white man and the red which shouldered the red brother once and forever away from the sunrise and across the great river--that centre of gravity was the captain's chair, their tutor the first mate.

Under the circumstances we hardly need begrudge a line or two more to tell how, as far back as Delta, the _Votaress had begun to meet the Louisville Saturday evening packets and to receive and return their special salutes. One was a Hayle boat and one a Courteney. Such moments were refreshing. Inquiry and information flowed through them as naturally and beguilingly as a brook through a meadow and gave Hugh opportunity to contemplate incidentally the play of air and light in Ramsey's curls without her having the slightest suspicion of him!--gave her chances to ply him with questions in autobiography and social casuistry and to enjoy keenly the ridiculous majesty of his eyes and voice, while the two dear chaperons talked apart as obliviously as if she were merely asking him how deep the whiskey was in Whiskey Chute.

In the long run from Commerce to Norfolk came breakfast. Commerce was another case of infant-city still-birth, Norfolk was less. Breakfast, double-ranked, stoop-shouldered, mute: beefsteak and fried onions its solar centre, with hot rolls for planets; Hugh at the ladies' table, the first clerk at the gentlemen's. Then the boiler deck, toothpicks, cigars, breezes, armchairs, spittoons, the sad news of the two deaths up-stairs, the ugly news of the five passengers set ashore and the reason thereof. Men spat straight and hard as they heard or told the latter item, yet with tacit unanimity awaited the re-emergence of the still secluded senator, general, and twins.

By Hugh's unsmiling forethought Madame Hayle, Ramsey, and the Gilmores breakfasted in the pilot-house. With "Harriet" close to her elbow, Ramsey ate at a window, standing, to watch the gliding shores and floods and privily cross-examine, again in autobiography and at printing-press speed, the willing maid-servant. At Island Fifty-Two another boat, the _Shooting Star_, streamed by. At a plantation and wood-yard the _Votaress paused to restock with dairy and kitchen-garden supplies and to lash to her either side a thirty-cord wood flat, and now swept on with the foam twenty feet broad at the square front of each while the deck-hands trotted aboard under their great shoulder loads by one narrow hook plank and came leaping back for more, and the loaders and pilers chanted and chorussed:

"Oh, Shan-a-do'e, I loves yo' daught-eh--
Ah! ha! roll-in' riveh!--
Oh, ef she don't love me she'd ought teh--
Ah! ha!... bound away!... faw de wile ... Mis-'ou-ree!"

The foam and the swift wooding-up gave an illusion of speed to the boat herself, and in what seemed no time at all the empty scows were dropping away astern; but it was farewell for good and all to the _Westwood_, the _Antelope_. And now Cat Island, its bend, its chute; Cow Island, its bend, its chute; Horn Lake, a prehistoric loop of twelve miles, reduced to three by Horn Lake Bend----

"Come, Ramsey." The call smote like a buffet. Memphis was almost in sight. In the southwestern corner of Tennessee, just above Tennessee Chute and the northwestern corner of Mississippi, was the fourth of the Chickasaw Bluffs. On it sat Memphis, a city with churches, banks, and the "electromagnetic telegraph." Its twelve thousand people of that day are a hundred and thirty-five thousand now and have taken in almost out of remembrance the small settlement of Pickering, or Fort Pickering, on the down-stream end of the bluff, where the _Votaress that beautiful morning landed and laid to rest Madame Marburg, the bishop, and Basile.

Aboard the _Votaress_, as in Tennessee Chute she faced again the morning sun, two scenes were enacted at the same time. One took place below, on the fore-castle; the other above and just aft of it, on the boiler deck. In the lower there was but a single pine box, in the upper there were two. In the lower stood the black-gowned priest, the two white-bonneted, gray-robed sisters, Otto Marburg alone, and here a mass of immigrants and there a majority of the crew. The upper scene included all the cabin passengers--ladies seated--and half the boat's family. In fulfilment of Basile's wish Hugh read: "I am the resurrection and the life." By Hugh's invitation, given beforehand, the senator delivered a eulogy on the bishop and added such tender praises of the boy, whom every one had liked so early and so well, and gilded them with such delicate allusions to the heroism of his mother, that few eyes were dry. The very twins wept, though there was a touch of rage in their tears. By choice of the parson's wife and sweetly led by her, they sang: "I would not live alway." With streaming eyes Ramsey remembered how yearningly the poor lad had clung to this dear earth, and she could only sit silent and modestly wonder how anybody, under any fate that left them power to sing at all, could sit there--stand there--on that boat, that river, in the splendor of that sun, the beauty of that landscape, and call life a "few lurid mornings."

A third scene occurred as the boat, facing westward, reached the head of President's Island, fairest island in all the river, and coming into full view of Memphis, a short league beyond, tolled her solemn bell and landed at Pickering. Others on the lower deck besides Madame Marburg had passed away in the night but had either been laid under the wet sands of the water's edge in some wild grove down-stream or were not quite in time, so to speak, for this landing. Contemplated from each deck by a numerous gathering and from the pilot-house by Watson, Mrs. Gilmore, and "Harriet," a small procession followed the priest and the three boxes--borne by white-jackets--ashore and out of sight where a small wooden church spire, inland behind the bluff, peered over its crest. Madame Hayle leaned on Julian's arm, Ramsey on Lucian's, Hugh walked with Marburg, the senator with the general, the first clerk with Ned, the Californian with the cub pilot. By and by they returned, outwardly unburdened, and the moment the last tread, the Californian's, was on the stage, Watson's bells jingled and the _Votaress swung out and moved up to the Memphis wharf-boat. But there Hugh, the first clerk, the steward, and the doctor went up into town, and it was a long hour before they reappeared and the black smoke billowed again from her chimneys and she backed out and started up and away around "Paddy's Hen and Chickens."

The "family of that name"--to quote Watson--were a group of four islands so entitled from earliest flatboat days, clustered in the river, just above the town. Since that day two of the chicks have flown, or grown, to the mainland, and the mother bird is now merely the "Old Hen" with one "Chicken Island," while "Poor Paddy," we are told, "works on the railway."

In its first forty leagues above Memphis the river went--has gone--still goes--through more violent writhings than in any like part of its whole course, running almost twenty crazy miles to make two sane ones--made finally, in the republic's hundredth year, by Centennial Cut-off. On an average there was an island for every four miles of river, or, say, three for every hour of the _Votaress's progress, and in this high water she was running all their chutes. A great resource such incidents were, on that particular day, to Ramsey. At any moment when conversation needed to be started, stopped, or turned, here was her chance. Some of the islands covered many square miles, contained large plantations, and had names as well as numbers. Island Forty, reached about ten o'clock, was also Beef Island. Number Thirty-eight, which they began to pass half an hour later, was Brandywine Island. To pass Island Thirty-five on its short side at full speed took half an hour, and Forked-Deer Island, which kept the boat flying up a narrow chute from half-past two till three o'clock, was old Twenty-seven and Twenty-six grown together.

Now, these things are geography rather than history. But for at least two souls aboard the _Votaress they were more history than geography. History--they were life! the outer frame of life so really lived that for those two souls it would be history thenceforth to life's end. And here comes in some pure philosophy from the two pilots: to wit, that if you turn any old maxim over you will always find another truth on its other side. They reached this conclusion, through Ned's remarking that the course of true love never runs smooth.

"That," said Watson, "depends. It depends a lot on who they air that's a-takin' the course. Ef they're the right ones, a real for-true pair, sech as the wayfarin' man though a pilot kin see _air a pair, like----"

"Two gloves," said Ned.

"Yass, or galluses--I misdoubt ef there's anything in the world that'll run so smooth through and over and around and under so much cussed roughness as what true love will."

The remark was justified before their eyes. The two whom they contemplated, outwardly so unlike, were in their essence so of a kind that they belonged each to each as simply and patently as the first human pair. They saw it so themselves. Society about them was strangely primitive--a "clapboard civilization," the actor named it to his wife at their pilot-house point of view--and the "for-true" pair in sight below them took frank advantage of its conditions to appropriate and accept each other as simply and completely as if these weird conditions--with their Devil's Elbow, Race-ground, Island, Tea-table, and Back-oven--were a veritable Eden as Eden was before the devil got in. Without a note of courtship or coquetry love ran ever more and more smoothly, growing hourly and receiving each accession as we have seen the Mississippi receive Red River--merely by deepening its own flow--but, unlike the Mississippi, gaining in transparency as it gained in depth and power.

Since leaving Memphis this love without courtship or coquetry had grown under the effulgence of Madame Hayle's immediate presence like a grain-field in sunshine. On her return from the triple burial, through sheer exhaustion, she had fainted away. Borne upstairs by the physician's command and allowed the roof but forbidden the lower deck for twenty-four hours, she had let Mrs. Gilmore and "Harriet" assume her pious task turn about, going and coming by after stairs. And so love grew on. But so did hate, so did craft, all three, to borrow the figure, going and coming by the after stairs of general intercourse.

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