How I met Certain People of Importance between Salt Lake and Omaha
Much have I seen,
Cities and men.
LET there be no misunderstanding about the matter. I love this People, and if any contemptuous criticism has to be done, I will do it myself. My heart has gone out to them beyond all other peoples; and for the life of me I cannot tell why. They are bleeding-raw at the edges, almost more conceited than the English, vulgar with a massive vulgarity which is as though the Pyramids were coated with Christmas-cake sugarworks. Cocksure they are, lawless and as casual as they are cocksure; but I love them, and I realised it when I met an Englishman who laughed at them. He proved conclusively that they were all wrong, from their tariff to their go-as-you please Civil Service, and beneath the consideration of a true Briton.
‘I admit everything,’ said I. ‘Their Government’s provisional; their law’s the notion of the moment; their railways are made of hairpins and match-sticks, and most of their good luck lives in their woods and mines and rivers and not in their brains; but for all that, they be the biggest, finest, and best people on the surface of the globe! Just you wait a hundred years and see how they’ll behave when they’ve had the screw put on them and have forgotten a few of the patriarchal teachings of the late Mister George Washington. Wait till the Anglo-American-German-Jew — the Man of the Future — is properly equipped. He’ll have just the least little kink in his hair now and again; he’ll carry the English lungs above the Teuton feet that can walk for ever; and he will wave long, thin, bony Yankee hands with the big blue veins on the wrist, from one end of the earth to the other. He’ll be the finest writer, poet, and dramatist, ’specially dramatist, that the world as it recollects itself has ever seen. By virtue of his Jew blood just a little, little drop — he’ll be a musician and a painter too. At present there is too much balcony and too little Romeo in the lifeplays of his fellow-citizens. Later on, when the proportion is adjusted and he sees the possibilities of his land, he will produce things that will make the effete East stare. He will also be a complex and highly composite administrator. There is nothing known to man that he will not be, and his country will sway the world with one foot as a man tilts a see-saw plank!’
‘But this is worse than the Eagle at its worst. Do you seriously believe all that?’ said the Englishman.
‘If I believe anything seriously, all this I most firmly believe. You wait and see. Sixty million people, chiefly of English instincts, who are trained from youth to believe that nothing is impossible, don’t slink through the centuries like Russian peasantry. They are bound to leave their mark somewhere, and don’t you forget it.’
But isn’t it sad to think that with all Eternity behind and before us we cannot, even though we would pay for it with sorrow, filch from the Immensities one hundred poor years of life, wherein to watch the two Great Experiments? A hundred years hence India and America will be worth observing. At present the one is burned out and the other is only just stoking up. When I left my opponent there was much need for faith, because I fell into the hands of a perfectly delightful man whom I had met casually in the street, sitting in a chair on the pavement, smoking a huge cigar. He was a commercial traveller, and his beat lay through Southern Mexico, and he told me tales, of forgotten cities, stone gods up to their sacred eyes in forest growth, Mexican priests, rebellions, and dictatorships, that made my hair curl. It was he who dragged me forth to bathe in Salt Lake, which is some fifteen miles away from the city, and reachable by many trains which are but open tram-cars. The track, like all American tracks, was terrifying in its roughness; and the end of the journey disclosed the nakedness of the accommodation. There were piers and band houses and refreshment stalls built over the solid grey levels of the lake, but they only accentuated the utter barrenness of the place. Americans don’t mix with their scenery as yet.
And ‘Have faith,’ said the commercial traveller as he walked into water heavy as quicksilver. ‘Walk!’ I walked, and I walked till my legs flew up and I had to walk as one struggling with a high wind, but still I rode head and shoulders above the water. It was a horrible feeling, this inability to sink. Swimming was not much use. You couldn’t get a grip of the water, so I e’en sat me down and drifted like a luxurious anemone among the hundreds that were bathing in that place. You could wallow for three-quarters of an hour in that warm, sticky brine and fear no evil consequences; but when you came out you were coated with white salt from top to toe. And if you accidentally swallowed a mouthful of the water, you died. This is true, because I swallowed half a mouthful and was half-dead in consequence.
The commercial traveller on our return journey across the level flats that fringe the lake’s edge bade me note some of the customs of his people. The great open railway car held about a hundred men and maidens, ‘coming up with a song from the sea.’ They sang and they shouted and they exchanged witticisms of the most poignant, and comported themselves like their brothers and sisters over the seas — the ’Arries and the ’Arriets of the older world. And there sat behind me two modest maidens in white, alone and unattended. To these the privileged youth of the car — a youth of a marvellous range of voice — proffered undying affection. They laughed, but made no reply in words. The suit was renewed, and with extravagant imagery; the nearest seats applauding. When we arrived at the city the maidens turned and went their way up a dark treeshaded street, and the boys elsewhere. Whereat, recollecting what the London rough was like, I marvelled that they did not pursue. ‘It’s all right,’ said the commercial traveller. ‘If they had followed — well, I guess some one would ha’ shot ’em.’ The very next day on those very peaceful cars returning from the Lake some one was shot — dead. He was what they call a ‘sport,’ which is American for a finished ‘leg,’ and he had an argument with a police officer, and the latter slew him. I saw his funeral go down the main street. There were nearly thirty carriages, filled with doubtful men, and women not in the least doubtful, and the local papers said that deceased had his merits, but it didn’t much matter, because if the Sheriff hadn’t dropped him he would assuredly have dropped the Sheriff. Somehow this jarred on my sensitive feelings, and I went away, though the commercial traveller would fain have entertained me in his own house, he, knowing not my name. Twice through the long hot nights we talked, tilting up our chairs on the sidewalk, of the future of America.
You should hear the Saga of the States reeled off by a young and enthusiastic citizen who had just carved out for himself a home, filled it with a pretty little wife, and is preparing to embark on commerce on his own account. I was tempted to believe that pistol-shots were regrettable accidents and lawlessness only the top-scum on the great sea of humanity. I am tempted to believe that still, though baked and dusty Utah is very many miles behind me.
Then chance threw me into the arms of another and very different commercial traveller, as we pulled out of Utah on our way to Omaha via the Rockies. He travelled in biscuits, of which more anon, and Fate had smitten him very heavily, having at one stroke knocked all the beauty and joy out of his poor life. So he journeyed with a case of samples as one dazed, and his eyes took no pleasure in anything that he saw. In his despair he had withdrawn himself to his religion — he was a Baptist — and spoke of its consolation with the artless freedom that an American generally exhibits when he is talking about his most sacred private affairs. There was a desert beyond Utah, hot and barren as Mian Mir in May. The sun baked the car-roof, and the dust caked the windows, and through the dust and the glare the man with the biscuits bore witness to his creed, which seems to include one of the greatest miracles in the world — the immediate unforeseen, self-conscious redemption of the soul by means very similar to those which turned Paul to the straight path.
‘You must experience religion,’ he repeated, his mouth twitching and his eyes black-ringed with his recent loss. ‘You must experience religion. You can’t tell when you’re goin’ to get, or haow; but it will come — it will come, Sir, like a lightning stroke, an’ you will wrestle with yourself before you receive full conviction and assurance.’
‘How long does that take?’ I asked reverently.
‘It may take hours. It may take days. I knew a man in San Jo who lay under conviction for a month an’ then he got the sperrit — as you must git it.’
‘And then you are saved. You feel that, an’ you can endure anything,’ he sighed. ‘Yes, anything. I don’t care what it is, though I allow that some things are harder than others.’
‘Then you have to wait for the miracle to be worked by powers outside yourself. And if the miracle doesn’t work?’
‘But it must. I tell you it must. It comes to all who profess with faith.’
I learned a good deal about that creed as the train fled on; and I wondered as I learned. It was a strange thing to watch that poor human soul, broken and bowed by its loss, nerving itself against each new pang of pain with the iterated assurance that it was safe against the pains of Hell.
The heat was stifling. We quitted the desert and launched into the rolling green plains of Colorado. Dozing uneasily with every removable rag removed, I was roused by a blast of intense cold, and the drumming of a hundred drums. The train had stopped. Far as the eye could range the land was white under two feet of hail — each hailstone as big as the top of a sherry-glass. I saw a young colt by the side of the track standing with his poor little fluffy back to the pitiless pelting. He was pounded to death. An old horse met his doom on the run. He galloped wildly towards the train, but his hind legs dropped into a hole half water and half ice. He beat the ground with his fore-feet for a minute and then rolling over on his side submitted quietly to be killed.
When the storm ceased, we picked our way cautiously and crippledly over a track that might give way at any moment. The Western driver urges his train much as does the Subaltern the bounding pony, and ’twould seem with an equal sense of responsibility. If a foot does go wrong, why there you are, don’t you know, and if it is all right, why all right it is, don’t you know. But I would sooner be on the pony than the train.
This seems a good place wherein to preach on American versatility. When Mr. Howells writes a novel, when a reckless hero dams a flood by heaving a dynamite-shattered mountain into it, or when a notoriety-hunting preacher marries a couple in a balloon, you shall hear the great American press rise on its hind-legs and walk round mouthing over the versatility of the American citizen. And he is versatile — horribly so. The unlimited exercise of the right of private judgment (which, by the way, is a weapon not one man in ten is competent to handle), his blatant cocksureness, and the dry-air-bred restlessness that makes him crawl all over the furniture when he is talking to you, conspire to make him versatile. But what he calls versatility the impartial bystander of Anglo-Indian extraction is apt to deem mere casualness, and dangerous casualness at that. No man can grasp the inwardness of an employ by the light of pure reason — even though that reason be Republican. He must serve an apprenticeship to one craft and learn that craft all the days of his life if he wishes to excel therein. Otherwise he merely ‘puts the thing through somehow’; and occasionally he doesn’t. But wherein lies the beauty of this form of mental suppleness? Old man California, whom I shall love and respect always, told me one or two anecdotes about American versatility and its consequences that came back to my mind with direful force as the train progressed. We didn’t upset, but I don’t think that that was the fault of the driver or the men who made the track. Take up — you can easily find them — the accounts of ten consecutive railway catastrophes — not little accidents, but first-class fatalities, when the long cars turn over, take fire, and roast the luckless occupants alive. To seven out of the ten you shall find appended the cheerful statement: ‘The accident is supposed to have been due to the rails spreading.’ That means the metals were spiked down to the ties with such versatility that the spikes or the tracks drew under the constant vibration of the traffic, and the metals opened out. No one is hanged for these little affairs.
We began to climb hills, and then we stopped — at night in darkness, while men threw sand under the wheels and crowbarred the track and then ‘guessed’ that we might proceed. Not being in the least anxious to face my Maker half asleep and rubbing my eyes, I went forward to a common car, and was rewarded by two hours’ conversation with the stranded, broken-down, husband-abandoned actress of a fourth-rate, stranded, broken-down, manager-bereft company. She was muzzy with beer, reduced to her last dollar, fearful that there would be no one to meet her at Omaha, and wept at intervals because she had given the conductor a five-dollar bill to change, and he hadn’t come back. He was an Irishman, so I knew he couldn’t steal; and I addressed myself to the task of consolation. I was rewarded, after a decent interval, by the history of a life so wild, so mixed, so desperately improbable, and yet so simply probable, and above all so quick — not fast — in its kaleidoscopic changes that the Pioneer would reject any summary of it. And so you will never know how she, the beery woman with the tangled blonde hair, was once a girl on a farm in far-off New Jersey. How he, a travelling actor, had wooed and won her — ‘but Paw he was always set against Alf,’— and how he and she embarked all their little capital on the word of a faithless manager who disbanded his company a hundred miles from nowhere, and how she and Alf and a third person who had not yet made any noise in the world, had to walk the railway-track and beg from the farm-houses; how that third person arrived and went away again with a wail, and how Alf took to the whisky, and other things still more calculated to make a wife unhappy; and how after barn-stormings, insults, shooting-scrapes, and pitiful collapses of poor companies, she had once won an encore. It was not a cheerful tale to listen to. There was a real actress in the Pullman — such an one as travels sumptuously with a maid and dressing-case — and my draggle-tail thought of appealing to her for help, but broke down after several attempts to walk into the car jauntily as befitted a sister in the profession. Then the conductor reappeared — the five-dollar bill honestly changed — and she wept by reason of beer and gratitude together, and then fell asleep waveringly, alone in the car, and became almost beautiful and quite kissable; while the Man with the Sorrow stood at the door between actress and actress and preached grim sermons on the certain end of each if they did not mend their ways and find regeneration through the miracle of the Baptist creed. Yes, we were a queer company going up to the Rockies together. I was the luckiest, because when a breakdown occurred, and we were delayed for twelve hours, I ate all the Baptist’s sample-biscuits. They were various in composition, but nourishing. Always travel with a ‘drummer.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56