Takes me through Bret Harte’s Country, and to Portland with ‘Old Man California.’ Explains how Two Vagabonds became Homesick through looking at Other People’s Houses.
I walked in the lonesome even,
And who so sad as I,
As I saw the young men and maidens
Merrily passing by?
SAN FRANCISCO has only one drawback. ’Tis hard to leave. When like the pious Hans Breitmann I ‘cut that city by the sea’ it was with regrets for the pleasant places left behind, for the men who were so clever, and the women who were so witty, for the ‘dives,’ the beer-halls, the bucket-shops, and the poker-hells where humanity was going to the Devil with shouting and laughter and song and the rattle of dice-boxes. I would fain have stayed, but I feared that an evil end would come to me when my money was all spent and I descended to the street corner. A voice inside me said: ‘Get out of this. Go north. Strike for Victoria and Vancouver. Bask for a day under the shadow of the old flag.’ So I set forth from San Francisco to Portland in Oregon: and that was a railroad run of thirty-six hours.
The Oakland railway terminus, whence all the main lines start, does not own anything approaching to a platform. A yard with a dozen or more tracks is roughly asphalted, and the traveller laden with handbags skips merrily across the metals in search of his own particular train. The bells of half a dozen shunting engines are tolling suggestively in his ears. If he is run down, so much the worse for him. ‘When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.’ Long use has made the nation familiar and even contemptuous towards trains to an extent which God never intended. Women who in England would gather up their skirts and scud timorously over a level crossing in the country, here talk dress and babies under the very nose of the cow-catcher, and little children dally with the moving car in a manner horrible to behold. We pulled out at the wholly insignificant speed of twenty-five miles an hour through the streets of a suburb of fifty thousand, and in our progress among the carts and the children and the shop fronts slew nobody; at which I was not a little disappointed.
When the negro porter bedded me up for the night and I had solved the problem of undressing while lying down — I was much cheered by the thought that if anything happened I should have to stay where I was and wait till the kerosene lamps set the overturned car alight and burned me to death. It is easier to get out of a full theatre than to leave a Pullman in haste.
By the time I had discovered that a profusion of nickel-plating, plush, and damask does not compensate for closeness and dust, the train ran into the daylight on the banks of the Sacramento River. A few windows were gingerly opened after the bunks, had been reconverted into seats, but that long coffin-car was by no means ventilated, and we were a gummy grimy crew who sat there. At six in the morning the heat was distinctly unpleasant, but seeing with the eye of the flesh that I was in Bret Harte’s own country, I rejoiced. There were the pines and madrone-clad hills his miners lived and fought among; there was the heated red earth that showed whence the gold had been washed; the dry gulch, the red, dusty road where Hamblin was used to stop the stage in the intervals of his elegant leisure and superior card-play; there was the timber felled and sweating resin in the sunshine; and, above all, there was the quivering pungent heat that Bret Harte drives into your dull brain with the magic of his pen. When we stopped at a collection of packing-cases dignified by the name of a town, my felicity was complete. The name of the place was something offensive — Amberville or Jacksonburgh — but it owned a cast-iron fountain worthy of a town of thirty thousand. Next to the fountain was a ‘hotel,’ at least seventeen feet high including the chimney, and next to the hotel was the forest — the pine, the oak, and the untrammelled undergrowth of the hillside. A cinnamon-bear cub — Baby Sylvester in the very fur — was tied to the stump of a tree opposite the fountain; a pack-mule dozed in the dust-haze, a red-shirted miner in a slouch-hat supported the hotel, a blue-shirted miner swung round the corner, and the two went indoors for a drink. A girl came out of the only other house but one, and shading her eyes with a brown hand stared at the panting train. She didn’t recognise me, but I knew her — had known her for years. She was M’liss. She never married the schoolmaster, after all, but stayed, always young and always fair, among the pines. I knew Red-Shirt too. He was one of the bearded men who stood back when Tennessee claimed his partner from the hands of the Law. The Sacramento River, a few yards away, shouted that all these things were true., The train went on while Baby Sylvester stood on’ his downy head, and M’liss swung her sun-bonnet by the strings.
‘What do you think?’ said a lawyer who was travelling with me. ‘It’s a new world to you; isn’t it?’
‘No. It’s quite familiar. I was never out of England; it’s as if I saw it all.’
Quick as light came the answer: ‘“Yes, they lived once thus at Venice when the miners were the kings.”’
I loved that lawyer on the spot. We drank to Bret Harte who, you remember, ‘claimed California, but California never claimed him. He’s turned English.’
Lying back in state, I waited for the flying miles to turn over the pages of the book I knew. They brought me all I desired — from the Man of no Account sitting on a stump and playing with a dog, to ‘that most sarcastic man, the quiet Mister Brown.’ He boarded the train from out of the woods, and there was venom and sulphur on his tongue. He had just lost a lawsuit. Only Yuba Bill failed to appear. The train had taken his employment from him. A nameless ruffian backed me into a corner and began telling me about the resources of the country, and what it would eventually become. All I remember of his lecture was that you could catch trout in the Sacramento River — the stream that we followed so faithfully.
Then rose a tough and wiry old man with grizzled hair and made inquiries about the trout. To him was added the secretary of a life-insurance company. I fancy he was travelling to rake in the dead that the train killed. But he, too, was a fisherman, and the two turned to meward. The frankness of a Westerner is delightful. They tell me that in the Eastern States I shall meet another type of man and a more reserved. The Californian always speaks of the man from the New England States as a different breed. It is our Punjab and Madras over again, but more so. The old man was on a holiday in search of fish. When he discovered a brother-loafer he proposed a confederation of rods. Quoth the insurance-agent, ‘I’m not staying any time in Portland, but I will introduce you to a man there who’ll tell you about fishing.’ The two told strange tales as we slid through the forests and saw afar off the snowy head of a great mountain. There were vineyards, fruit orchards, and wheat fields where the land opened out, and every ten miles or so, twenty or thirty wooden houses and at least three churches. A large town would have a population of two thousand and an infinite belief in its own capacities. Sometimes a flaring advertisement flanked the line, calling for men to settle down, take up the ground, and make their home there. At a big town we could pick up the local newspaper, narrow as the cutting edge of a chisel and twice as keen — a journal filled with the prices of stock, notices of improved reaping and binding machines, movements of eminent citizens —‘whose fame beyond their own abode extends — for miles along the Harlem road.’ There was not much grace about these papers, but all breathed the same need for good men, sturdy men who would plough, and till, and build schools for their children, and make a township in the hills. Once only I found a sharp change in the note and a very pathetic one. I think it was a young soul in trouble who was writing poetry. The editor had jammed the verses between the flamboyant advertisement of a real-estate agent — a man who sells you land and lies about it — and that of a Jew tailor who disposed of ‘nobby’ suits at ‘cut-throat prices.’ Here are two verses; I think they tell their own story:—
God made the pine with its root in the earth,
Its top in the sky;
They have burned the pine to increase the worth
Of the wheat and the silver rye.
Go weigh the cost of the soul of the pine
Cut-off from the sky;
And the price of the wheat that grows so fine
And the worth of the silver rye!
The thin-lipped, keen-eyed men who boarded the train would not read that poetry, or, if they did, would not understand. Heaven guard that poor pine in the desert and keep ‘its top in the sky’!
When the train took to itself an extra engine and began to breathe heavily, some one said that we were ascending the Siskiyou Mountains. We had been climbing steadily from San Francisco, and at last won to over four thousand feet above sea-level, always running through forest: Then, naturally enough, we came down, but we dropped two thousand two hundred feet in about thirteen miles. It was not so much the grinding of the brakes along the train, or the sight of three curves of track apparently miles below us, or even the vision of a goods-train apparently just under our wheels, or even the tunnels, that made me reflect; it was the trestles over which we crawled — trestles something over a hundred feet high and looking like a collection of match-sticks.
‘I guess our timber is as much a curse as a blessing,’ said the old man from Southern California. ‘These trestles last very well for five or six years; then they get out of repair, and a train goes through ’em, or else a forest fire burns ’em up.’
This was said in the middle of a groaning, shivering trestle. An occasional plate-layer took a look at us as we went down, but that railway didn’t waste men on inspection-duty. Very often there were cattle on the track, against which the engine used a diabolical form of whistling. The old man had been a driver in his youth, and beguiled the way with cheery anecdotes of what might be expected if we fouled a young calf.
You see, they get their legs under the cowcatcher, and that’ll put an engine off the line. I remember when a hog wrecked an excursion-train and killed sixty people. ‘Guess the engineer will look out, though.’
There is considerably too much guessing about this large nation. As one of them put it rather forcibly: ‘We guess a trestle will stand for ever, and we guess that we can patch up a washout on the track, and we guess the road’s clear, and sometimes we guess ourselves into the deepot, and sometimes we guess ourselves into Hell.’
. . . . .
. . . . .
The descent brought us far into Oregon and a timber and wheat country. We drove through wheat and pine in alternate slices, but pine chiefly, till we reached Portland, which is a city of fifty thousand, possessing the electric light of course, equally, of course, devoid of pavements, and a port of entry about a hundred miles from the sea at which big steamers can load. It is a poor city that cannot say it has no equal on the Pacific coast. Portland shouts this to the pines which run down from a thousand-foot ridge clear up to the city. You may sit in a bedizened bar-room furnished with telephone and clicker, and in half an hour be in the woods.
Portland produces lumber and jig-saw fittings for houses, and beer and buggies, and bricks and biscuits; and, in case you should miss the fact, there are glorified views of the town hung up in public places with the value of the products set down in dollars. All this is excellent and exactly suitable to the opening of a new country; but when a man tells you it is civilisation, you object. The first thing that the civilised man learns to do is to keep the dollars in the background, because they are only the oil of the machine that makes life go smoothly.
Portland is so busy that it can’t attend to its own sewage or paving, and the four-story brick blocks front cobble-stones and plank sidewalks and other things much worse. I saw a foundation being dug out. The sewage of perhaps twenty years ago, had thoroughly soaked into the soil, and there was a familiar and Oriental look about the compost that flew up with each shovel-load. Yet the local papers, as was just and proper, swore there was no place like Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., chronicled the performances of Oregonians, ‘claimed’ prominent citizens elsewhere as Oregonians, and fought tooth and nail for dock, rail, and wharfage projects. And you could find men who had thrown in their lives with the city, who were bound up in it, and worked their life out for what they conceived to be its material prosperity. Pity it is to record that in this strenuous, labouring town there had been, a week before, a shooting-case. One well-known man had shot another on the street, and was now pleading self-defence because the other man had, or the murderer thought he had, a pistol about him. Not content with shooting him dead, he squibbed off his revolver into him as he lay. I read the pleadings, and they made me ill. So far as I could judge, if the dead man’s body had been found with a pistol on it, the shooter would have gone free. Apart from the mere murder, cowardly enough in itself, there was a refinement of cowardice in the plea. Here in this civilised city the surviving brute was afraid he would be shot — fancied he saw the other man make a motion to his hip-pocket, and so on. Eventually the jury disagreed. And the degrading thing was that the trial was reported by men who evidently understood all about the pistol, was tried before a jury who were versed in the etiquette of the hip-pocket, and was discussed on the streets by men equally initiate.
But let us return to more cheerful things. The insurance-agent introduced us as friends to a real-estate man, who promptly bade us go up the Columbia River for a day while he made inquiries about fishing. There was no overwhelming formality. The old man was addressed as ‘California,’ I answered indifferently to ‘England’ or ‘Johnny Bull,’ and the real-estate man was ‘Portland.’ This was a lofty and spacious form of address.
So California and I took a steamboat, and upon a sumptuous blue and gold morning steered up the Willamette River, on which Portland stands, into the great Columbia — the river that brings the salmon that goes into the tin that is emptied into the dish when the extra guest arrives in India. California introduced me to the boat and the scenery, showed me the ‘texas,’ the difference between a ‘towhead’ and a ‘sawyer,’ and the precise nature of a ‘slue.’ All I remember is a delightful feeling that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Mississippi Pilot were quite true, and that I could almost recognise the very reaches down which Huck and Jim had drifted. We were on the border line between Oregon State and Washington Territory, but that didn’t matter. The Columbia was the Mississippi so far as I was concerned. We ran along the sides of wooded islands whose banks were caving in with perpetual smashes, and we skipped from one side to another of the mile-wide stream in search of a channel, exactly like a Mississippi steamer, and when we wanted to pick up or set down a passenger we chose a soft and safe place on the shore and ran our very snub nose against it. California spoke to each new passenger as he came aboard and told me the man’s birthplace. A long-haired tender of kine crashed out of the underwood, waved his hat, and was taken aboard forthwith. ‘South Carolina,’ said California, almost without looking at him. ‘When he talks you will hear a softer dialect than mine.’ And it befell as he said: whereat I marvelled, and California chuckled. Every island in the river carried fields of rich wheat, orchards, and a white wooden house; or else, if the pines grew very thickly, a sawmill, the tremulous whine of whose saws flickered across the water like the drone of a tired bee. From remarks he let fall I gathered that California owned timber ships and dealt in lumber, had ranches too, a partner, and everything handsome about him; in addition to a chequered career of some thirty-five years. But he looked almost as disreputable a loafer as I.
‘Say, young feller, we’re going to see scenery now. You shout and sing,’ said California, when the bland wooded islands gave place to bolder outlines, and the steamer ran herself into a hornet’s nest of black-fanged rocks not a foot below the boiling broken water. We were trying to get up a slue, or back-channel, by a short cut, and the stern-wheel never spun twice in the same direction. Then we hit a floating log with a jar that ran through our system, and then, white-bellied, open-gilled, spun by a dead salmon — a lordly twenty-pound Chinook salmon who had perished in his pride. ‘You’ll see the salmon-wheels ’fore long,’ said a man who lived ‘way back on the Washoogle,’ and whose hat was spangled with trout-flies. ‘Those Chinook salmon never rise to the fly. The canneries take them by the wheel.’ At the next bend we sighted a wheel — an infernal arrangement of wire-gauze compartments worked by the current and moved out from a barge inshore to scoop up the salmon as he races up the river. California swore long and fluently at the sight, and the more fluently when he was told of the weight of a good night’s catch — some thousands of pounds. Think of the black and bloody murder of it! But you out yonder insist in buying tinned salmon, and the canneries cannot live by letting down lines.
About this time California was struck with madness. I found him dancing on the fore-deck shouting, ‘Isn’t she a daisy? Isn’t she a darling?’ He had found a waterfall — a blown thread of white vapour that broke from the crest of a hill — a waterfall eight hundred and fifty feet high whose voice was even louder than the voice of the river. ‘Bridal Veil,’ jerked out the purser. ‘D— n that purser and the people who christened her! Why didn’t they call her Mechlin-lace Falls at fifty dollars a yard while they were at it?’ said California. And I agreed with him. There are many ‘bridal veil’ falls in this country, but few, men say, lovelier than those that come down to the Columbia River. Then the scenery began — poured forth with the reckless profusion of Nature, who when she wants to be amiable succeeds only in being oppressively magnificent. The river was penned between gigantic stone walls crowned with the ruined bastions of Oriental palaces. The stretch of green water widened and was guarded by pine-clad hills three thousand feet high. A wicked devil’s thumbnail of rock shot up a hundred feet in midstream. A sand-bar of blinding white sand gave promise of flat country that the next bend denied; for, lo! we were running under a triple tier of fortifications, lava-topped, pine-clothed, and terrible. Behind them the white dome of Mount Hood shot fourteen thousand feet into the blue, and at their feet the river threshed among a belt of cottonwood trees. There I sat down and looked at California half out of the boat in his anxiety to see both sides. of the river at once. He had seen my note-book, and it offended him. ‘Young feller, let her go — and you shut your head. It’s not you nor anybody like you can put this down. Black, the novelist, he could. He can describe salmon-fishing, he can.’ And he glared at me as though he expected me to go and do likewise.
‘I can’t. I know it,’ I said humbly.
‘Then thank God that you came along this way.’
We reached a little railway, on an island, which was to convey us to a second steamer, because, as the purser explained, the river was ‘a trifle broken.’ We had a six-mile run, sitting in the sunshine on a dummy waggon, whirled just along the edge of the river-bluffs. Sometimes we dived into the fragrant pine woods, ablaze with flowers; but we generally watched the river now narrowed into a turbulent mill-race. Just where the whole body of water broke in riot over a series of cascades, the United States Government had chosen to build a lock for steamers, and the stream was one boiling, spouting mob of water. A log shot down the race, struck on a rock, split from end to end, and rolled over in white foam. I shuddered because my toes were not more than sixty feet above the log, and I feared that a stray splinter might have found me. But the train ran into the river on a sort of floating trestle, and I was upon another steamer ere I fully understood why. The cascades were not two hundred yards below us, and when we cast off to go upstream, the rush of the river, ere the wheel struck the water, dragged us as though we had been towed. Then the country opened out, and California mourned for his lost bluffs and crags, till we struck a rock wall four hundred feet high, crowned by the gigantic figure of a man watching us. On a rocky island we saw the white tomb of an old-time settler who had made his money in San Francisco, but had chosen to be buried in an Indian burying-ground. A decayed wooden ‘wickyup,’ where the bones of the Indian dead are laid, almost touched the tomb. The river ran into a canal of basaltic rock, painted in yellow, vermilion, and green by Indians and, by inferior brutes, adorned with advertisements of ‘bile beans.’ We had reached The Dalles — the centre of a great sheep and wool district, and the head of navigation.
When an American arrives at a new town it is his bounden duty ‘to take it in.’ California swung his coat over his shoulder with the gesture of a man used to long tramps, and together, at eight in the evening, we explored The Dalles. The sun had not yet set, and it would be light for at least another hour. All the inhabitants seemed to own a little villa and one church apiece. The young men were out walking with the young maidens, the old folks were sitting on the front steps — not the ones that led to the religiously shuttered best drawing-room, but the side-front-steps — and the husbands and wives were tying back pear trees or gathering cherries. A scent of hay reached me, and in the stillness we could hear the cattle bells as the cows came home across the lava-sprinkled fields. California swung down the wooden pavements, audibly criticising the housewives’ hollyhocks and the more perfect ways of pear-grafting, and, as the young men and maidens passed, giving quaint stories of his youth. I felt that I knew all the people aforetime, I was so interested in them and their life. A woman hung over a gate talking to another woman, and as I passed I heard her say, ‘skirts,’ and again, ‘skirts,’ and ‘I’ll send you over the pattern’; and I knew they were talking dress. We stumbled upon a young couple saying goodbye in the twilight, and ‘When shall I see you again?’ quoth he; and I understood that to the doubting heart the tiny little town we paraded in twenty minutes might be as large as all London and as impassable as an armed camp. I gave them both my blessing, because ‘When shall I see you again?’ is a question that lies very near to hearts of all the world. The last garden gate shut with a click that travelled far down the street, and the lights of the comfortable families began to shine in the confidingly uncurtained windows.
‘ Say, Johnny Bull, doesn’t all this make you feel lonesome?’ said California. ‘Have you got any folks at home? So’ve I— a wife and five children — and I’m only on a holiday.’
‘And I’m only on a holiday,’ I said, and we went back to the Spittoon-wood Hotel. Alas! for the peace and purity of the little town that I had babbled about. At the back of a shop, and discreetly curtained, was a room where the young men who had been talking to the young maidens could play poker and drink and swear, and on the shop were dime novels of bloodshed to corrupt the mind of the little boy, and prurient servant-girl-slush yarns to poison the mind of the girl.
California only laughed grimly. He said that all these little one-house towns were pretty much the same all over the States.
That night I dreamed I was back in India with no place to sleep in; tramping up and down the Station Mall and asking everybody, ‘When shall I see you again?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56