A NIGHT AT WINGDAM

A NIGHT AT WINGDAM


I had been stage-ridden and bewildered all day, and when we swept down
with the darkness into the Arcadian hamlet of "Wingdam," I resolved
to go no farther, and rolled out in a gloomy and dyspeptic state. The
effects of a mysterious pie, and some sweetened carbonic acid known
to the proprietor of the "Half-Way House" as "lemming sody," still
oppressed me. Even the facetiae of the gallant expressman who knew
everybody's Christian name along the route, who rained letters,
newspapers, and bundles from the top of the stage, whose legs frequently
appeared in frightful proximity to the wheels, who got on and off while
we were going at full speed, whose gallantry, energy, and superior
knowledge of travel crushed all us other passengers to envious silence,
and who just then was talking with several persons and manifestly doing
something else at the same time,--even this had failed to interest me.
So I stood gloomily, clutching my shawl and carpet-bag, and watched the
stage roll away, taking a parting look at the gallant expressman as he
hung on the top rail with one leg, and lit his cigar from the pipe of a
running footman. I then turned toward the Wingdam Temperance Hotel.

It may have been the weather, or it may have been the pie, but I was not
impressed favorably with the house. Perhaps it was the name extending
the whole length of the building, with a letter under each window,
making the people who looked out dreadfully conspicuous. Perhaps it was
that "Temperance" always suggested to my mind rusks and weak tea. It was
uninviting. It might have been called the "Total Abstinence" Hotel,
from the lack of anything to intoxicate or inthrall the senses. It was
designed with an eye to artistic dreariness. It was so much too large
for the settlement, that it appeared to be a very slight improvement
on out-doors. It was unpleasantly new. There was the forest flavor of
dampness about it, and a slight spicing of pine. Nature outraged,
but not entirely subdued, sometimes broke out afresh in little round,
sticky, resinous tears on the doors and windows. It seemed to me that
boarding there must seem like a perpetual picnic. As I entered the door,
a number of the regular boarders rushed out of a long room, and set
about trying to get the taste of something out of their mouths, by
the application of tobacco in various forms. A few immediately ranged
themselves around the fireplace, with their legs over each other's
chairs, and in that position silently resigned themselves to
indigestion. Remembering the pie, I waived the invitation of the
landlord to supper, but suffered myself to be conducted into the
sitting-room. "Mine host" was a magnificent-looking, heavily bearded
specimen of the animal man. He reminded me of somebody or something
connected with the drama. I was sitting beside the fire, mutely
wondering what it could be, and trying to follow the particular chord
of memory thus touched, into the intricate past, when a little
delicate-looking woman appeared at the door, and, leaning heavily
against the casing, said in an exhausted tone, "Husband!" As the
landlord turned toward her, that particular remembrance flashed before
me in a single line of blank verse. It was this: "Two souls with but one
single thought, two hearts that beat as one."

It was Ingomar and Parthenia his wife. I imagined a different denouement
from the play. Ingomar had taken Parthenia back to the mountains, and
kept a hotel for the benefit of the Alemanni, who resorted there in
large numbers. Poor Parthenia was pretty well fagged out, and did all
the work without "help." She had two "young barbarians," a boy and a
girl. She was faded, but still good-looking.

I sat and talked with Ingomar, who seemed perfectly at home and told
me several stories of the Alemanni, all bearing a strong flavor of
the wilderness, and being perfectly in keeping with the house. How he,
Ingomar, had killed a certain dreadful "bar," whose skin was just up
"yar," over his bed. How he, Ingomar, had killed several "bucks," whose
skins had been prettily fringed and embroidered by Parthenia, and even
now clothed him. How he, Ingomar, had killed several "Injins," and was
once nearly scalped himself. All this with that ingenious candor which
is perfectly justifiable in a barbarian, but which a Greek might feel
inclined to look upon as "blowing." Thinking of the wearied Parthenia, I
began to consider for the first time that perhaps she had better married
the old Greek. Then she would at least have always looked neat. Then she
would not have worn a woollen dress flavored with all the dinners of
the past year. Then she would not have been obliged to wait on the table
with her hair half down. Then the two children would not have hung about
her skirts with dirty fingers, palpably dragging her down day by day. I
suppose it was the pie which put such heartless and improper ideas in
my head, and so I rose up and told Ingomar I believed I'd go to bed.
Preceded by that redoubtable barbarian and a flaring tallow candle, I
followed him up stairs to my room. It was the only single room he had,
he told me; he had built it for the convenience of married parties who
might stop here, but, that event not happening yet, he had left it half
furnished. It had cloth on one side, and large cracks on the other. The
wind, which always swept over Wingdam at night-time, puffed through the
apartment from different apertures. The window was too small for the
hole in the side of the house where it hung, and rattled noisily.
Everything looked cheerless and dispiriting. Before Ingomar left me,
he brought that "bar-skin," and throwing it over the solemn bier which
stood in one corner, told me he reckoned that would keep me warm, and
then bade me good night. I undressed myself, the light blowing out in
the middle of that ceremony, crawled under the "bar-skin," and tried to
compose myself to sleep.

But I was staringly wide awake. I heard the wind sweep down the
mountain-side, and toss the branches of the melancholy pine, and then
enter the house, and try all the doors along the passage. Sometimes
strong currents of air blew my hair all over the pillow, as with strange
whispering breaths. The green timber along the walls seemed to be
sprouting, and sent a dampness even through the "bar-skin." I felt like
Robinson Crusoe in his tree, with the ladder pulled up,--or like the
rocked baby of the nursery song. After lying awake half an hour, I
regretted having stopped at Wingdam; at the end of the third quarter, I
wished I had not gone to bed; and when a restless hour passed, I got up
and dressed myself. There had been a fire down in the big room. Perhaps
it was still burning. I opened the door and groped my way along the
passage, vocal with the snores of the Alemanni and the whistling of
the night wind; I partly fell down stairs, and at last entering the big
room, saw the fire still burning. I drew a chair toward it, poked it
with my foot, and was astonished to see, by the upspringing flash, that
Parthenia was sitting there also, holding a faded-looking baby.

I asked her why she was sitting up.

"She did not go to bed on Wednesday night before the mail arrived, and
then she awoke her husband, and there were passengers to 'tend to."

"Did she not get tired sometimes?"

"A little, but Abner" (the barbarian's Christian name) "had promised to
get her more help next spring, if business was good."

"How many boarders had she?"

"She believed about forty came to regular meals, and there was transient
custom, which was as much as she and her husband could 'tend to. But HE
did a great deal of work."

"What work?"

"O, bringing in the wood, and looking after the traders' things."

"How long had she been married?"

"About nine years. She had lost a little girl and boy. Three children
living. HE was from Illinois. She from Boston. Had an education (Boston
Female High School,--Geometry, Algebra, a little Latin and Greek).
Mother and father died. Came to Illinois alone, to teach school.
Saw HIM--yes--a love match." ("Two souls," etc., etc.) "Married and
emigrated to Kansas. Thence across the Plains to California. Always on
the outskirts of civilization. HE liked it.

"She might sometimes have wished to go home. Would like to on account
of her children. Would like to give them an education. Had taught them
a little herself, but couldn't do much on account of other work. Hoped
that the boy would be like his father, strong and hearty. Was fearful
the girl would be more like her. Had often thought she was not fit for a
pioneer's wife."

"Why?"

"O, she was not strong enough, and had seen some of his friends' wives
in Kansas who could do more work. But he never complained,--was so
kind." ("Two souls," etc.)

Sitting there with her head leaning pensively on one hand, holding the
poor, wearied, and limp-looking baby wearily on the other arm, dirty,
drabbled, and forlorn, with the firelight playing upon her features no
longer fresh or young, but still refined and delicate, and even in her
grotesque slovenliness still bearing a faint reminiscence of birth and
breeding, it was not to be wondered that I did not fall into excessive
raptures over the barbarian's kindness. Emboldened by my sympathy, she
told me how she had given up, little by little, what she imagined to be
the weakness of her early education, until she found that she acquired
but little strength in her new experience. How, translated to a
backwoods society, she was hated by the women, and called proud and
"fine," and how her dear husband lost popularity on that account with
his fellows. How, led partly by his roving instincts, and partly from
other circumstances, he started with her to California. An account of
that tedious journey. How it was a dreary, dreary waste in her memory,
only a blank plain marked by a little cairn of stones,--a child's
grave. How she had noticed that little Willie failed. How she had called
Abner's attention to it, but, man-like, he knew nothing about children,
and pooh-poohed it, and was worried by the stock. How it happened that
after they had passed Sweetwater, she was walking beside the wagon one
night, and looking at the western sky, and she heard a little voice say
"Mother." How she looked into the wagon and saw that little Willie was
sleeping comfortably and did not wish to wake him. How that in a few
moments more she heard the same voice saying "Mother." How she came
back to the wagon and leaned down over him, and felt his breath upon her
face, and again covered him up tenderly, and once more resumed her weary
journey beside him, praying to God for his recovery. How with her face
turned to the sky she heard the same voice saying "Mother," and directly
a great bright star shot away from its brethren and expired. And how
she knew what had happened, and ran to the wagon again only to pillow
a little pinched and cold white face upon her weary bosom. The thin red
hands went up to her eyes here, and for a few moments she sat still. The
wind tore round the house and made a frantic rush at the front door,
and from his couch of skins in the inner room--Ingomar, the barbarian,
snored peacefully.

"Of course she always found a protector from insult and outrage in the
great courage and strength of her husband?"

"O yes; when Ingomar was with her she feared nothing. But she was
nervous and had been frightened once!"

"How?"

"They had just arrived in California. They kept house then, and had
to sell liquor to traders. Ingomar was hospitable, and drank with
everybody, for the sake of popularity and business, and Ingomar got to
like liquor, and was easily affected by it. And how one night there was
a boisterous crowd in the bar-room; she went in and tried to get him
away, but only succeeded in awakening the coarse gallantry of the
half-crazed revellers. And how, when she had at last got him in the room
with her frightened children, he sank down on the bed in a stupor, which
made her think the liquor was drugged. And how she sat beside him all
night, and near morning heard a step in the passage, and, looking toward
the door, saw the latch slowly moving up and down, as if somebody were
trying it. And how she shook her husband, and tried to waken him, but
without effect. And how at last the door yielded slowly at the top (it
was bolted below), as if by a gradual pressure without; and how a hand
protruded through the opening. And how as quick as lightning she nailed
that hand to the wall with her scissors (her only weapon), but the point
broke, and somebody got away with a fearful oath. How she never told her
husband of it, for fear he would kill that somebody; but how on one day
a stranger called here, and as she was handing him his coffee, she saw a
queer triangular scar on the back of his hand."

She was still talking, and the wind was still blowing, and Ingomar was
still snoring from his couch of skins, when there was a shout high
up the straggling street, and a clattering of hoofs, and rattling of
wheels. The mail had arrived. Parthenia ran with the faded baby to
awaken Ingomar, and almost simultaneously the gallant expressman stood
again before me addressing me by my Christian name, and inviting me
to drink out of a mysterious black bottle. The horses were speedily
watered, and the business of the gallant expressman concluded, and,
bidding Parthenia good by, I got on the stage, and immediately fell
asleep, and dreamt of calling on Parthenia and Ingomar, and being
treated with pie to an unlimited extent, until I woke up the next
morning in Sacramento. I have some doubts as to whether all this was not
a dyspeptic dream, but I never witness the drama, and hear that noble
sentiment concerning "Two souls," etc., without thinking of Wingdam and
poor Parthenia.

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Główna Czytelnia Literatura Legendy A NIGHT AT WINGDAM
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