Rambling on foot in the spring of my life and the summer of the year, I came one afternoon to a point which gave me the choice of three directions. Straight before me the main road extended its dusty length to Boston; on the left a branch went toward the sea, and would have lengthened my journey a trifle of twenty or thirty miles, while by the right-hand path I might have gone over hills and lakes to Canada, visiting in my way the celebrated town of Stamford. On a level spot of grass at the foot of the guide-post appeared an object which, though locomotive on a different principle, reminded me of Gulliver’s portable mansion among the Brobdignags. It was a huge covered wagon — or, more properly, a small house on wheels — with a door on one side and a window shaded by green blinds on the other. Two horses munching provender out of the baskets which muzzled them were fastened near the vehicle. A delectable sound of music proceeded from the interior, and I immediately conjectured that this was some itinerant show halting at the confluence of the roads to intercept such idle travellers as myself. A shower had long been climbing up the western sky, and now hung so blackly over my onward path that it was a point of wisdom to seek shelter here.
“Halloo! Who stands guard here? Is the doorkeeper asleep?” cried I, approaching a ladder of two or three steps which was let down from the wagon.
The music ceased at my summons, and there appeared at the door, not the sort of figure that I had mentally assigned to the wandering showman, but a most respectable old personage whom I was sorry to have addressed in so free a style. He wore a snuff-colored coat and small-clothes, with white top-boots, and exhibited the mild dignity of aspect and manner which may often be noticed in aged schoolmasters, and sometimes in deacons, selectmen or other potentates of that kind. A small piece of silver was my passport within his premises, where I found only one other person, hereafter to be described.
“This is a dull day for business,” said the old gentleman as he ushered me in; “but I merely tarry here to refresh the cattle, being bound for the camp-meeting at Stamford.”
Perhaps the movable scene of this narrative is still peregrinating New England, and may enable the reader to test the accuracy of my description. The spectacle — for I will not use the unworthy term of “puppet-show” — consisted of a multitude of little people assembled on a miniature stage. Among them were artisans of every kind in the attitudes of their toil, and a group of fair ladies and gay gentlemen standing ready for the dance; a company of foot-soldiers formed a line across the stage, looking stern, grim and terrible enough to make it a pleasant consideration that they were but three inches high; and conspicuous above the whole was seen a Merry Andrew in the pointed cap and motley coat of his profession. All the inhabitants of this mimic world were motionless, like the figures in a picture, or like that people who one moment were alive in the midst of their business and delights and the next were transformed to statues, preserving an eternal semblance of labor that was ended and pleasure that could be felt no more. Anon, however, the old gentleman turned the handle of a barrel-organ, the first note of which produced a most enlivening effect upon the figures and awoke them all to their proper occupations and amusements. By the selfsame impulse the tailor plied his needle, the blacksmith’s hammer descended upon the anvil and the dancers whirled away on feathery tiptoes; the company of soldiers broke into platoons, retreated from the stage, and were succeeded by a troop of horse, who came prancing onward with such a sound of trumpets and trampling of hoofs as might have startled Don Quixote himself; while an old toper of inveterate ill-habits uplifted his black bottle and took off a hearty swig. Meantime, the Merry Andrew began to caper and turn somersets, shaking his sides, nodding his head and winking his eyes in as lifelike a manner as if he were ridiculing the nonsense of all human affairs and making fun of the whole multitude beneath him. At length the old magician (for I compared the showman to Prospero entertaining his guests with a masque of shadows) paused that I might give utterance to my wonder.
“What an admirable piece of work is this!” exclaimed I, lifting up my hands in astonishment.
Indeed, I liked the spectacle and was tickled with the old man’s gravity as he presided at it, for I had none of that foolish wisdom which reproves every occupation that is not useful in this world of vanities. If there be a faculty which I possess more perfectly than most men, it is that of throwing myself mentally into situations foreign to my own and detecting with a cheerful eye the desirable circumstances of each. I could have envied the life of this gray-headed showman, spent as it had been in a course of safe and pleasurable adventure in driving his huge vehicle sometimes through the sands of Cape Cod and sometimes over the rough forest-roads of the north and east, and halting now on the green before a village meeting-house and now in a paved square of the metropolis. How often must his heart have been gladdened by the delight of children as they viewed these animated figures, or his pride indulged by haranguing learnedly to grown men on the mechanical powers which produced such wonderful effects, or his gallantry brought into play — for this is an attribute which such grave men do not lack — by the visits of pretty maidens! And then with how fresh a feeling must he return at intervals to his own peculiar home! “I would I were assured of as happy a life as his,” thought I.
Though the showman’s wagon might have accommodated fifteen or twenty spectators, it now contained only himself and me and a third person, at whom I threw a glance on entering. He was a neat and trim young man of two or three and twenty; his drab hat and green frock-coat with velvet collar were smart, though no longer new, while a pair of green spectacles that seemed needless to his brisk little eyes gave him something of a scholar-like and literary air. After allowing me a sufficient time to inspect the puppets, he advanced with a bow and drew my attention to some books in a corner of the wagon. These he forthwith began to extol with an amazing volubility of well-sounding words and an ingenuity of praise that won him my heart as being myself one of the most merciful of critics. Indeed, his stock required some considerable powers of commendation in the salesman. There were several ancient friends of mine — the novels of those happy days when my affections wavered between the Scottish Chiefs and Thomas Thumb — besides a few of later date whose merits had not been acknowledged by the public. I was glad to find that dear little venerable volume the New England Primer, looking as antique as ever, though in its thousandth new edition; a bundle of superannuated gilt picture-books made such a child of me that, partly for the glittering covers and partly for the fairy-tales within, I bought the whole, and an assortment of ballads and popular theatrical songs drew largely on my purse. To balance these expenditures, I meddled neither with sermons nor science nor morality, though volumes of each were there, nor with a Life of Franklin in the coarsest of paper, but so showily bound that it was emblematical of the doctor himself in the court-dress which he refused to wear at Paris, nor with Webster’s spelling-book, nor some of Byron’s minor poems, nor half a dozen little Testaments at twenty-five cents each. Thus far the collection might have been swept from some great bookstore or picked up at an evening auction-room, but there was one small blue-covered pamphlet which the pedler handed me with so peculiar an air that I purchased it immediately at his own price; and then for the first time the thought struck me that I had spoken face to face with the veritable author of a printed book.
The literary-man now evinced a great kindness for me, and I ventured to inquire which way he was travelling.
“Oh,” said he, “I keep company with this old gentlemen here, and we are moving now toward the camp-meeting at Stamford.”
He then explained to me that for the present season he had rented a corner of the wagon as a book-store, which, as he wittily observed, was a true circulating library, since there were few parts of the country where it had not gone its rounds. I approved of the plan exceedingly, and began to sum up within my mind the many uncommon felicities in the life of a book-pedler, especially when his character resembled that of the individual before me. At a high rate was to be reckoned the daily and hourly enjoyment of such interviews as the present, in which he seized upon the admiration of a passing stranger and made him aware that a man of literary taste, and even of literary achievement, was travelling the country in a showman’s wagon. A more valuable yet not infrequent triumph might be won in his conversations with some elderly clergyman long vegetating in a rocky, woody, watery back-settlement of New England, who as he recruited his library from the pedler’s stock of sermons would exhort him to seek a college education and become the first scholar in his class. Sweeter and prouder yet would be his sensations when, talking poetry while he sold spelling-books, he should charm the mind, and haply touch the heart, of a fair country schoolmistress, herself an unhonored poetess, a wearer of blue stockings which none but himself took pains to look at. But the scene of his completest glory would be when the wagon had halted for the night and his stock of books was transferred to some crowded bar-room. Then would he recommend to the multifarious company, whether traveller from the city, or teamster from the hills, or neighboring squire, or the landlord himself, or his loutish hostler, works suited to each particular taste and capacity, proving, all the while, by acute criticism and profound remark, that the lore in his books was even exceeded by that in his brain. Thus happily would he traverse the land, sometimes a herald before the march of Mind, sometimes walking arm in arm with awful Literature, and reaping everywhere a harvest of real and sensible popularity which the secluded bookworms by whose toil he lived could never hope for.
“If ever I meddle with literature,” thought I, fixing myself in adamantine resolution, “it shall be as a travelling bookseller.”
Though it was still mid-afternoon, the air had now grown dark about us, and a few drops of rain came down upon the roof of our vehicle, pattering like the feet of birds that had flown thither to rest. A sound of pleasant voices made us listen, and there soon appeared halfway up the ladder the pretty person of a young damsel whose rosy face was so cheerful that even amid the gloomy light it seemed as if the sunbeams were peeping under her bonnet. We next saw the dark and handsome features of a young man who, with easier gallantry than might have been expected in the heart of Yankee-land, was assisting her into the wagon. It became immediately evident to us, when the two strangers stood within the door, that they were of a profession kindred to those of my companions, and I was delighted with the more than hospitable — the even paternal — kindness of the old showman’s manner as he welcomed them, while the man of literature hastened to lead the merry-eyed girl to a seat on the long bench.
“You are housed but just in time, my young friends,” said the master of the wagon; “the sky would have been down upon you within five minutes.”
The young man’s reply marked him as a foreigner — not by any variation from the idiom and accent of good English, but because he spoke with more caution and accuracy than if perfectly familiar with the language.
“We knew that a shower was hanging over us,” said he, “and consulted whether it were best to enter the house on the top of yonder hill, but, seeing your wagon in the road — ”
“We agreed to come hither,” interrupted the girl, with a smile, “because we should be more at home in a wandering house like this.”
I, meanwhile, with many a wild and undetermined fantasy was narrowly inspecting these two doves that had flown into our ark. The young man, tall, agile and athletic, wore a mass of black shining curls clustering round a dark and vivacious countenance which, if it had not greater expression, was at least more active and attracted readier notice, than the quiet faces of our countrymen. At his first appearance he had been laden with a neat mahogany box of about two feet square, but very light in proportion to its size, which he had immediately unstrapped from his shoulders and deposited on the floor of the wagon.
The girl had nearly as fair a complexion as our own beauties, and a brighter one than most of them; the lightness of her figure, which seemed calculated to traverse the whole world without weariness, suited well with the glowing cheerfulness of her face, and her gay attire, combining the rainbow hues of crimson, green and a deep orange, was as proper to her lightsome aspect as if she had been born in it. This gay stranger was appropriately burdened with that mirth-inspiring instrument the fiddle, which her companion took from her hands, and shortly began the process of tuning. Neither of us the previous company of the wagon needed to inquire their trade, for this could be no mystery to frequenters of brigade-musters, ordinations, cattle-shows, commencements, and other festal meetings in our sober land; and there is a dear friend of mine who will smile when this page recalls to his memory a chivalrous deed performed by us in rescuing the show-box of such a couple from a mob of great double-fisted countrymen.
“Come,” said I to the damsel of gay attire; “shall we visit all the wonders of the world together?”
She understood the metaphor at once, though, indeed, it would not much have troubled me if she had assented to the literal meaning of my words. The mahogany box was placed in a proper position, and I peeped in through its small round magnifying-window while the girl sat by my side and gave short descriptive sketches as one after another the pictures were unfolded to my view. We visited together — at least, our imaginations did — full many a famous city in the streets of which I had long yearned to tread. Once, I remember, we were in the harbor of Barcelona, gazing townward; next, she bore me through the air to Sicily and bade me look up at blazing Ætna; then we took wing to Venice and sat in a gondola beneath the arch of the Rialto, and anon she set me down among the thronged spectators at the coronation of Napoleon. But there was one scene — its locality she could not tell — which charmed my attention longer than all those gorgeous palaces and churches, because the fancy haunted me that I myself the preceding summer had beheld just such a humble meeting-house, in just such a pine-surrounded nook, among our own green mountains. All these pictures were tolerably executed, though far inferior to the girl’s touches of description; nor was it easy to comprehend how in so few sentences, and these, as I supposed, in a language foreign to her, she contrived to present an airy copy of each varied scene.
When we had travelled through the vast extent of the mahogany box, I looked into my guide’s face.
“‘Where are you going, my pretty maid?’” inquired I, in the words of an old song.
“Ah!” said the gay damsel; “you might as well ask where the summer wind is going. We are wanderers here and there and everywhere. Wherever there is mirth our merry hearts are drawn to it. To-day, indeed, the people have told us of a great frolic and festival in these parts; so perhaps we may be needed at what you call the camp-meeting at Stamford.”
Then, in my happy youth, and while her pleasant voice yet sounded in my ears, I sighed; for none but myself, I thought, should have been her companion in a life which seemed to realize my own wild fancies cherished all through visionary boyhood to that hour. To these two strangers the world was in its Golden Age — not that, indeed, it was less dark and sad than ever, but because its weariness and sorrow had no community with their ethereal nature. Wherever they might appear in their pilgrimage of bliss, Youth would echo back their gladness, care-stricken Maturity would rest a moment from its toil, and Age, tottering among the graves, would smile in withered joy for their sakes. The lonely cot, the narrow and gloomy street, the sombre shade, would catch a passing gleam like that now shining on ourselves as these bright spirits wandered by. Blessed pair, whose happy home was throughout all the earth! I looked at my shoulders, and thought them broad enough to sustain those pictured towns and mountains; mine, too, was an elastic foot as tireless as the wing of the bird of Paradise; mine was then an untroubled heart that would have gone singing on its delightful way.
“Oh, maiden,” said I aloud, “why did you not come hither alone?”
While the merry girl and myself were busy with the show-box the unceasing rain had driven another wayfarer into the wagon. He seemed pretty nearly of the old showman’s age, but much smaller, leaner and more withered than he, and less respectably clad in a patched suit of gray; withal, he had a thin, shrewd countenance and a pair of diminutive gray eyes, which peeped rather too keenly out of their puckered sockets. This old fellow had been joking with the showman in a manner which intimated previous acquaintance, but, perceiving that the damsel and I had terminated our affairs, he drew forth a folded document and presented it to me. As I had anticipated, it proved to be a circular, written in a very fair and legible hand and signed by several distinguished gentlemen whom I had never heard of, stating that the bearer had encountered every variety of misfortune and recommending him to the notice of all charitable people. Previous disbursements had left me no more than a five-dollar bill, out of which, however, I offered to make the beggar a donation provided he would give me change for it. The object of my beneficence looked keenly in my face, and discerned that I had none of that abominable spirit, characteristic though it be, of a full-blooded Yankee, which takes pleasure in detecting every little harmless piece of knavery.
“Why, perhaps,” said the ragged old mendicant, “if the bank is in good standing, I can’t say but I may have enough about me to change your bill.”
“It is a bill of the Suffolk Bank,” said I, “and better than the specie.”
As the beggar had nothing to object, he now produced a small buff leather bag tied up carefully with a shoe-string. When this was opened, there appeared a very comfortable treasure of silver coins of all sorts and sizes, and I even fancied that I saw gleaming among them the golden plumage of that rare bird in our currency the American eagle. In this precious heap was my bank-note deposited, the rate of exchange being considerably against me.
His wants being thus relieved, the destitute man pulled out of his pocket an old pack of greasy cards which had probably contributed to fill the buff leather bag in more ways than one.
“Come!” said he; “I spy a rare fortune in your face, and for twenty-five cents more I’ll tell you what it is.”
I never refuse to take a glimpse into futurity; so, after shuffling the cards and when the fair damsel had cut them, I dealt a portion to the prophetic beggar. Like others of his profession, before predicting the shadowy events that were moving on to meet me he gave proof of his preternatural science by describing scenes through which I had already passed.
Here let me have credit for a sober fact. When the old man had read a page in his book of fate, he bent his keen gray eyes on mine and proceeded to relate in all its minute particulars what was then the most singular event of my life. It was one which I had no purpose to disclose till the general unfolding of all secrets, nor would it be a much stranger instance of inscrutable knowledge or fortunate conjecture if the beggar were to meet me in the street today and repeat word for word the page which I have here written.
The fortune-teller, after predicting a destiny which time seems loth to make good, put up his cards, secreted his treasure-bag and began to converse with the other occupants of the wagon.
“Well, old friend,” said the showman, “you have not yet told us which way your face is turned this afternoon.”
“I am taking a trip northward this warm weather,” replied the conjurer, “across the Connecticut first, and then up through Vermont, and maybe into Canada before the fall. But I must stop and see the breaking up of the camp-meeting at Stamford.”
I began to think that all the vagrants in New England were converging to the camp-meeting and had made this wagon, their rendezvous by the way.
The showman now proposed that when the shower was over they should pursue the road to Stamford together, it being sometimes the policy of these people to form a sort of league and confederacy.
“And the young lady too,” observed the gallant bibliopolist, bowing to her profoundly, “and this foreign gentleman, as I understand, are on a jaunt of pleasure to the same spot. It would add incalculably to my own enjoyment, and I presume to that of my colleague and his friend, if they could be prevailed upon to join our party.”
This arrangement met with approbation on all hands, nor were any of those concerned more sensible of its advantages than myself, who had no title to be included in it.
Having already satisfied myself as to the several modes in which the four others attained felicity, I next set my mind at work to discover what enjoyments were peculiar to the old “straggler,” as the people of the country would have termed the wandering mendicant and prophet. As he pretended to familiarity with the devil, so I fancied that he was fitted to pursue and take delight in his way of life by possessing some of the mental and moral characteristics — the lighter and more comic ones — of the devil in popular stories. Among them might be reckoned a love of deception for its own sake, a shrewd eye and keen relish for human weakness and ridiculous infirmity, and the talent of petty fraud. Thus to this old man there would be pleasure even in the consciousness — so insupportable to some minds — that his whole life was a cheat upon the world, and that, so far as he was concerned with the public, his little cunning had the upper hand of its united wisdom. Every day would furnish him with a succession of minute and pungent triumphs — as when, for instance, his importunity wrung a pittance out of the heart of a miser, or when my silly good-nature transferred a part of my slender purse to his plump leather bag, or when some ostentatious gentleman should throw a coin to the ragged beggar who was richer than himself, or when — though he would not always be so decidedly diabolical — his pretended wants should make him a sharer in the scanty living of real indigence. And then what an inexhaustible field of enjoyment, both as enabling him to discern so much folly and achieve such quantities of minor mischief, was opened to his sneering spirit by his pretensions to prophetic knowledge.
All this was a sort of happiness which I could conceive of, though I had little sympathy with it. Perhaps, had I been then inclined to admit it, I might have found that the roving life was more proper to him than to either of his companions; for Satan, to whom I had compared the poor man, has delighted, ever since the time of Job, in “wandering up and down upon the earth,” and, indeed, a crafty disposition which operates not in deep-laid plans, but in disconnected tricks, could not have an adequate scope, unless naturally impelled to a continual change of scene and society.
My reflections were here interrupted.
“Another visitor!” exclaimed the old showman.
The door of the wagon had been closed against the tempest, which was roaring and blustering with prodigious fury and commotion and beating violently against our shelter, as if it claimed all those homeless people for its lawful prey, while we, caring little for the displeasure of the elements, sat comfortably talking. There was now an attempt to open the door, succeeded by a voice uttering some strange, unintelligible gibberish which my companions mistook for Greek and I suspected to be thieves’ Latin. However, the showman stepped forward and gave admittance to a figure which made me imagine either that our wagon had rolled back two hundred years into past ages or that the forest and its old inhabitants had sprung up around us by enchantment. It was a red Indian armed with his bow and arrow. His dress was a sort of cap adorned with a single feather of some wild bird, and a frock of blue cotton girded tight about him; on his breast, like orders of knighthood, hung a crescent and a circle and other ornaments of silver, while a small crucifix betokened that our father the pope had interposed between the Indian and the Great Spirit whom he had worshipped in his simplicity. This son of the wilderness and pilgrim of the storm took his place silently in the midst of us. When the first surprise was over, I rightly conjectured him to be one of the Penobscot tribe, parties of which I had often seen in their summer excursions down our Eastern rivers. There they paddle their birch canoes among the coasting-schooners, and build their wigwam beside some roaring mill-dam, and drive a little trade in basket-work where their fathers hunted deer. Our new visitor was probably wandering through the country toward Boston, subsisting on the careless charity of the people while he turned his archery to profitable account by shooting at cents which were to be the prize of his successful aim.
The Indian had not long been seated ere our merry damsel sought to draw him into conversation. She, indeed, seemed all made up of sunshine in the month of May, for there was nothing so dark and dismal that her pleasant mind could not cast a glow over it; and the wild man, like a fir tree in his native forest, soon began to brighten into a sort of sombre cheerfulness. At length she inquired whether his journey had any particular end or purpose.
“I go shoot at the camp-meeting at Stamford,” replied the Indian.
“And here are five more,” said the girl, “all aiming at the camp-meeting too. You shall be one of us, for we travel with light hearts; and, as for me, I sing merry songs and tell merry tales and am full of merry thoughts, and I dance merrily along the road, so that there is never any sadness among them that keep me company. But oh, you would find it very dull indeed to go all the way to Stamford alone.”
My ideas of the aboriginal character led me to fear that the Indian would prefer his own solitary musings to the gay society thus offered him; on the contrary, the girl’s proposal met with immediate acceptance and seemed to animate him with a misty expectation of enjoyment.
I now gave myself up to a course of thought which, whether it flowed naturally from this combination of events or was drawn forth by a wayward fancy, caused my mind to thrill as if I were listening to deep music. I saw mankind in this weary old age of the world either enduring a sluggish existence amid the smoke and dust of cities, or, if they breathed a purer air, still lying down at night with no hope but to wear out tomorrow, and all the tomorrows which make up life, among the same dull scenes and in the same wretched toil that had darkened the sunshine of today. But there were some full of the primeval instinct who preserved the freshness of youth to their latest years by the continual excitement of new objects, new pursuits and new associates, and cared little, though their birthplace might have been here in New England, if the grave should close over them in Central Asia. Fate was summoning a parliament of these free spirits; unconscious of the impulse which directed them to a common centre, they had come hither from far and near, and last of all appeared the representatives of those mighty vagrants who had chased the deer during thousands of years, and were chasing it now in the spirit-land. Wandering down through the waste of ages, the woods had vanished around his path; his arm had lost somewhat of its strength, his foot of its fleetness, his mien of its wild regality, his heart and mind of their savage virtue and uncultured force, but here, untamable to the routine of artificial life, roving now along the dusty road as of old over the forest-leaves, — here was the Indian still.
“Well,” said the old showman, in the midst of my meditations, “here is an honest company of us — one, two, three, four, five, six — all going to the camp-meeting at Stamford. Now, hoping no offence, I should like to know where this young gentleman may be going?”
I started. How came I among these wanderers? The free mind that preferred its own folly to another’s wisdom, the open spirit that found companions everywhere — above all, the restless impulse that had so often made me wretched in the midst of enjoyments, — these were my claims to be of their society.
“My friends,” cried I, stepping into the centre of the wagon, “I am going with you to the camp-meeting at Stamford.”
“But in what capacity?” asked the old showman, after a moment’s silence. “All of us here can get our bread in some creditable way. Every honest man should have his livelihood. You, sir, as I take it, are a mere strolling gentleman.”
I proceeded to inform the company that when Nature gave me a propensity to their way of life she had not left me altogether destitute of qualifications for it, though I could not deny that my talent was less respectable, and might be less profitable, than the meanest of theirs. My design, in short, was to imitate the story-tellers of whom Oriental travellers have told us, and become an itinerant novelist, reciting my own extemporaneous fictions to such audiences as I could collect.
“Either this,” said I, “is my vocation, or I have been born in vain.”
The fortune-teller, with a sly wink to the company, proposed to take me as an apprentice to one or other of his professions, either of which undoubtedly would have given full scope to whatever inventive talent I might possess. The bibliopolist spoke a few words in opposition to my plan — influenced partly, I suspect, by the jealousy of authorship, and partly by an apprehension that the vivâ-voce practice would become general among novelists, to the infinite detriment of the book trade.
Dreading a rejection, I solicited the interest of the merry damsel.
“‘Mirth,’” cried I, most aptly appropriating the words of L’Allegro, “‘to thee I sue! Mirth, admit me of thy crew!’”
“Let us indulge the poor youth,” said Mirth, with a kindness which made me love her dearly, though I was no such coxcomb as to misinterpret her motives. “I have espied much promise in him. True, a shadow sometimes flits across his brow, but the sunshine is sure to follow in a moment. He is never guilty of a sad thought but a merry one is twin-born with it. We will take him with us, and you shall see that he will set us all a-laughing before we reach the camp-meeting at Stamford.” Her voice silenced the scruples of the rest and gained me admittance into the league; according to the terms of which, without a community of goods or profits, we were to lend each other all the aid and avert all the harm that might be in our power.
This affair settled, a marvellous jollity entered into the whole tribe of us, manifesting itself characteristically in each individual. The old showman, sitting down to his barrel-organ, stirred up the souls of the pigmy people with one of the quickest tunes in the music-book; tailors, blacksmiths, gentlemen and ladies all seemed to share in the spirit of the occasion, and the Merry Andrew played his part more facetiously than ever, nodding and winking particularly at me. The young foreigner flourished his fiddle-bow with a master’s hand, and gave an inspiring echo to the showman’s melody. The bookish man and the merry damsel started up simultaneously to dance, the former enacting the double shuffle in a style which everybody must have witnessed ere election week was blotted out of time, while the girl, setting her arms akimbo with both hands at her slim waist, displayed such light rapidity of foot and harmony of varying attitude and motion that I could not conceive how she ever was to stop, imagining at the moment that Nature had made her, as the old showman had made his puppets, for no earthly purpose but to dance jigs. The Indian bellowed forth a succession of most hideous outcries, somewhat affrighting us till we interpreted them as the war-song with which, in imitation of his ancestors, he was prefacing the assault on Stamford. The conjurer, meanwhile, sat demurely in a corner extracting a sly enjoyment from the whole scene, and, like the facetious Merry Andrew, directing his queer glance particularly at me. As for myself, with great exhilaration of fancy, I began to arrange and color the incidents of a tale wherewith I proposed to amuse an audience that very evening; for I saw that my associates were a little ashamed of me, and that no time was to be lost in obtaining a public acknowledgment of my abilities.
“Come, fellow-laborers,” at last said the old showman, whom we had elected president; “the shower is over, and we must be doing our duty by these poor souls at Stamford.”
“We’ll come among them in procession, with music and dancing,” cried the merry damsel.
Accordingly — for it must be understood that our pilgrimage was to be performed on foot — we sallied joyously out of the wagon, each of us, even the old gentleman in his white top-boots, giving a great skip as we came down the ladder. Above our heads there was such a glory of sunshine and splendor of clouds, and such brightness of verdure below, that, as I modestly remarked at the time, Nature seemed to have washed her face and put on the best of her jewelry and a fresh green gown in honor of our confederation. Casting our eyes northward, we beheld a horseman approaching leisurely and splashing through the little puddle on the Stamford road. Onward he came, sticking up in his saddle with rigid perpendicularity, a tall, thin figure in rusty black, whom the showman and the conjurer shortly recognized to be what his aspect sufficiently indicated — a travelling preacher of great fame among the Methodists. What puzzled us was the fact that his face appeared turned from, instead of to, the camp-meeting at Stamford. However, as this new votary of the wandering life drew near the little green space where the guide-post and our wagon were situated, my six fellow-vagabonds and myself rushed forward and surrounded him, crying out with united voices, “What news? What news from the camp-meeting at Stamford?”
The missionary looked down in surprise at as singular a knot of people as could have been selected from all his heterogeneous auditors. Indeed, considering that we might all be classified under the general head of Vagabond, there was great diversity of character among the grave old showman, the sly, prophetic beggar, the fiddling foreigner and his merry damsel, the smart bibliopolist, the sombre Indian and myself, the itinerant novelist, a slender youth of eighteen. I even fancied that a smile was endeavoring to disturb the iron gravity of the preacher’s mouth.
“Good people,” answered he, “the camp-meeting is broke up.”
So saying, the Methodist minister switched his steed and rode westward. Our union being thus nullified by the removal of its object, we were sundered at once to the four winds of heaven. The fortune-teller, giving a nod to all and a peculiar wink to me, departed on his Northern tour, chuckling within himself as he took the Stamford road. The old showman and his literary coadjutor were already tackling their horses to the wagon with a design to peregrinate south-west along the sea-coast. The foreigner and the merry damsel took their laughing leave and pursued the eastern road, which I had that day trodden; as they passed away the young man played a lively strain and the girl’s happy spirit broke into a dance, and, thus dissolving, as it were, into sunbeams and gay music, that pleasant pair departed from my view. Finally, with a pensive shadow thrown across my mind, yet emulous of the light philosophy of my late companions, I joined myself to the Penobscot Indian and set forth toward the distant city.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55