Whom I have known in divers and sundry places
about the world, and whose many and manifold virtues
did always command my esteem, I
Dedicated this Book.
It is said that the man to whom a volume is dedicated, always buys a copy. If this prove true in the present instance, a princely affluence is about to burst upon
In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.
I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley — Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley — a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him.
Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat mo down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was anything ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendant genius in finesse. To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd. As I said before, I asked him to tell me what he knew of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and he replied as follows. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once:
There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 — or may be it was the spring of ’50 — I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiosest man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides. Anyway that suited the other man would suit him — anyway just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied. But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner. He was always ready and laying for a chance; there couldn’t be no solit’ry thing mentioned but that feller’d offer to bet on it, and take any side you please, as I was just telling you. If there was a horse-race, you’d find him flush, or you’d find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why, if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first; or if there was a camp-meeting, he would be there reg’lar, to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and so he was, too, and a good man. If he even seen a straddle-bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get wherever he was going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle-bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road. Lots of the boys here has seen that Smiley, and can tell you about him. Why, it never made no difierence to him — he would bet on any thing — the dangdest feller. Parson Walker’s wife laid very sick once, for a good while, and it seemed as if they warn’t going to save her; but one morning he come in, and Smiley asked how she was, and he said she was considerable better — thank the Lord for his inf’nit mercy — and coming on so smart that, with the blessing of Prov’dence, she’d get well yet; and Smiley, before he thought, says, “Well, I’ll risk two-and-a-half that she don’t, anyway.”
Thish-yer Smiley had a mare — the boys called her the fifteen-minute nag, but that was only in fun, you know, because, of course, she was faster than that — and he used to win money on that horse, for all she was so slow and always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something of that kind. They used to give her two or three hundred yards’ start, and then pass her under way; but always at the fag-end of the race she’d get excited and desperate-like, and come cavorting and straddling up; and scattering her legs around limber, sometimes in the air and sometimes out to one side amongst the fences, and kicking up m-o-r-e dust and raising m-o-r-e racket with her coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose — and always fetch up at the stand just about a neck ahead, as near as you could cypher it down.
And he had a little small bull pup, that to look at him you’d think he wan’t worth a cent, but to set around and look ornery, and lay for a chance to steal something. But as soon as money was upon him, he was a different dog; his under-jaw’d begin to stick out like the fo’castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces. And a dog might tackle him, and bully-rag him, and bite him, and throw him over his shoulder two or three times, and Andrew Jackson — which was the name of the pup — Andrew Jackson would never let on but what he was satisfied, and hadn’t expected nothing else — and the bets being doubled and doubled on the other side all the time, till the money was all up; and then all of a sudden he would grab that other dog jest by the j’int of his hind leg and freeze to it — not chaw, you understand, but only jest grip and hang on till they throwed up the sponge, if it was a year. Smiley always come out winner on that pup, till he harnessed a dog once that didn’t have no hind legs, because they’d been sawed off by a circular saw, and when the thing had gone along far enough, and the money was all up, and he come to make a snatch for his pet holt, he saw in a minute how he’d been imposed on, and how the other dog had him in the door, so to speak, and he ’peared surprised, and then he looked sorter discouraged-like, and didn’t try no more to win the fight, and so he got shucked out bad. He give Smiley a look, as much as to say his heart was broke, and it was his fault, for putting up a dog that hadn’t no hind legs for him to take holt of, which was his main dependance in a fight, and then he limped off a piece and laid down and died. It was a good pup, was that Andrew Jackson, and would have made a name for hisself if he’d lived, for the stuff was in him, and he had genius — I know it, because he hadn’t had no opportunities to speak of, and it don’t stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as he could under them circumstances, if he hadn’t no talent. It always makes me feel sorry when I think of that last fight of his’n, and the way it turned out.
Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom-cats, and all them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut — see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of catching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most anything — and I believe him. Why, I’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor — Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog — and sing out, “Flies, Dan’l, flies!” and quicker’n you could wink, he’d spring straight up, and snake a fly off’n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn’t no idea he’d been doin’ any more’n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor’ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had travelled and been every-wheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.
Well, Smiley kept the beast in a little lattice box, and he used to fetch him down town sometimes and lay for a bet. One day a feller — a stranger in the camp, he was — come across him with his box, and says:
“What might it be that you’ve got in the box?”
And Smiley says, sorter indifferent like, “It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, maybe, but it an’t — it’s only just a frog.”
And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says, “H’m — so ’tis. Well, what’s he good for?”
“Well,” Smiley says, easy and careless, “he’s good enough for one thing, I should judge — he can outjump ary frog in Calaveras county.”
The feller took the box again, and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, “Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”
“Maybe you don’t,” Smiley says. “Maybe you understand frogs, and maybe you don’t understand ’em; maybe you’ve had experience, and maybe you an’t only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I’ve got my opinion, and I’ll risk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county.”
And the feller studied a minute, and then says, kinder sad like, “Well, I’m only a stranger here, and I an’t got no frog; but if I had a frog, I’d bet you.”
And then Smiley says, “That’s all right — that’s all right — if you’ll hold my box a minute, I’ll go and get you a frog.” And so the feller took the box, and put up his forty dollars along with Smiley ‘s and set down to wait.
So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a teaspoon and filled him full of quail shot — filled him pretty near up to his chin — and set him on the floor. Smiley he went to the swamp and slopped around in the mud for a long time, and finally he ketched a frog, and fetched him in, and give him to this feller, and says:
“Now, if you’re ready, set him alongside of Dan’l, with his fore-paws just even with Dan’l, and I’ll give the word.” Then he says, “One — two — three — jump!’ and him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind, and the new frog hopped off, but Dan’l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders — so — like a Frenchman, but it wan’t no use — he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil, and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out. Smiley was a good deal surprised, and he was disgusted too, but he didn’t have no idea what the matter was, of course.
The feller took the money and started away; and when he was going out at the door, he sorter jerked his thumb over his shoulder — this way — at Dan’l, and says again, very deliberate, “Well I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”
Smiley he stood scratching his head and looking down at Dan’l a long time, and at last be says, “I do wonder what in the nation that frog throw’d off for — I wonder if there an’t something the matter with him — he ’pears to look mighty baggy, somehow.” And he ketched Dan’l by the nap of the neck, and lifted him up and says, “Why, blame my cats, if he don’t weigh five pound!” and turned him upside down, and he belched out a double handful of shot. And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man — he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketched him. And —
[Here Simon Wheeler heard his name called from the front yard, and got up to see what was wanted.] And turning to me as he moved away, he said: “just set where you are, stranger, and rest easy — I an’t going to be gone a second.”
But, by your leave, I did not think that a continuation of the history of the enterprising vagabond Jim Smiley would be likely to afford me much information concerning the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and so I started away.
At the door I met the sociable Wheeler returning, and he button-holed me and recommenced:
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner, and — ”
“Oh! hang Smiley and his afflicted cow!” I muttered, good-naturedly, and bidding the old gentleman good day, I departed.
The facts in the following case came to me by letter from a young lady who lives in the beautiful city of San José; she is perfectly unknown to me, and simply signs herself “Aurelia Maria,” which may possibly be a fictitious name. But no matter, the poor girl is almost heart-broken by the misfortunes she has undergone, and so confused by the conflicting counsels of misguided friends and insidious enemies, that she does not know what course to pursue in order to extricate herself from the web of difficulties in which she seems almost hopelessly involved. In this dilemma she turns to me for help, and supplicates for my guidance and instruction with a moving eloquence that would touch the heart of a statue. Hear her sad story:
She says that when she was sixteen years old she met and loved, with all the devotion of a passionate nature, a young man from New Jersey, named Williamson Breckinridge Caruthers, who was some six years her senior. They were engaged, with the free consent of their friends and relatives, and for a time it seemed as if their career was destined to be characterized by an immunity from sorrow beyond the usual lot of humanity. But at last the tide of fortune turhed; young Caruthers became infected with small-pox of the most virulent type, and when he recovered from his illness, his face was pitted like a waffle-mould and his comeliness gone for ever. Aurelia thought to break off the engagement at first, but pity for her unfortunate lover caused her to postpone the marriage-day for a season, and give him another trial.
The very day before the wedding was to have taken place, Breckinridge, while absorbed in watching the flight of a balloon, walked into a well and fractured one of his legs, and it had to be taken off above the knee. Again Aurelia was moved to break the engagement, but again love triumphed, and she set the day forward and gave him another chance to reform.
And again misfortune overtook the unhappy youth. He lost one arm by the premature discharge of a Fourth-of-July cannon, and within three months he got the other pulled out by a carding-machine. Aurelia’s heart was almost crushed by these latter calamities. She could not but be deeply grieved to see her lover passing from her by piecemeal, feeling, as she did, that he could not last for ever under this disastrous process of reduction, yet knowing of no way to stop its dreadful career, and in her tearful despair she almost regretted, like brokers who hold on and lose, that she had not taken him at first, before he had suffered such an alarming depreciation. Still, her brave soul bore her up, and she resolved to bear with her friend’s unnatural disposition yet a little longer.
Again the wedding-day approached, and again disappointment overshadowed it: Caruthers fell ill with the erysipelas, and lost the use of one of his eyes entirely. The friends and relatives of the bride, considering that she had already put up with more than could reasonably be expected of her, now came forward and insisted that the match should be broken off; but after wavering awhile, Aurelia, with a generous spirit which did her credit, said she had reflected calmly upon the matter, and could not discover that Breckinridge was to blame.
So she extended the time once more, and he broke his other leg.
It was a sad day for the poor girl when she saw the surgeons reverently bearing away the sack whose uses she had learned by previous experience, and her heart told her the bitter truth that some more of her lover was gone. She felt that the field of her aflfeotions was growing more and more circumscribed every day, but once more she frowned down her relatives and renewed her betrothal.
Shortly before the time set for the nuptials another disaster occurred. There was but one man scalped by the Owens River Indians last year. That man was Williamson Breckinridge Caruthers, of New Jersey. He was hurrying home with happiness in his heart, when he lost his hair for ever, and in that hour of bitterness he almost cursed the mistaken mercy that had spared his head.
At last Aurelia is in serious perplexity as to what she ought to do. She still loves her Breckinridge, she writes, with truly womanly feeling — she still loves what is left of him — but her parents are bitterly opposed to the match, because he has no property and is disabled from working, and she has not sufficient means to support both comfortably. “Now, what should she do?” she asks with painful and anxious solicitude.
It is a delicate question; it is one which involves the lifelong happiness of a woman, and that of nearly two-thirds of a man, and I feel that it would be assuming too great a responsibility to do more than make a mere suggestion in the case. How would it do to build to him? If Aurelia can afford the expense, let her furnish her mutilated lover with wooden arms and wooden legs, and a glass eye and a wig, and give him another show; give him ninety days, without grace, and if he does not break his neck in the meantime, marry him and take the chances. It does not seem to me that there is much risk, any way, Aurelia, because if he sticks to his infernal propensity for damaging himself every time he sees a good opportunity, his next experiment is bound to finish him, and then you are all right, you know, married or single. If married, the wooden legs and such other valuables as he may possess, revert to the widow, and you see you sustain no actual loss save the cherished fragment of a noble but most unfortunate husband, who honestly strove to do right, but whose extra-ordinary instincts were against him. Try it, Maria! I have thought the matter over carefully and well, and it is the only chance I see for you. It would have been a happy conceit on the part of Caruthers if he had started with his neck and broken that first; but since he has seen fit to choose a different policy and string himself out as long as possible, I do not think we ought to upbraid him for it if he has enjoyed it. We must do the best we can under the circumstances, and try not to feel exasperated at him.
What do you take us for on this side of the continent? I am addressing myself personally, and with asperity, to every man, woman, and child east of the Rocky Mountains. How do you suppose our minds are constituted, that you will write us such execrable letters — such poor, bald; uninteresting trash? You complain that by the time a man has been on the Pacific coast six months, he seems to lose all concern about matters and things and people in the distant East, and ceases to answer the letters of his friends and even his relatives. It is your own fault. You need a lecture on the subject — a lecture which ought to read about as follows: —
There is only one brief, solitary law for letter-writing, and yet you either do not know that law, or else you are so stupid that you never think of it. It is very easy and simple: — Write only about things and people your correspondent takes a living interest in.
Can you not remember that law, hereafter, and abide by it? If you are an old friend of the person you are writing to, you know a number of his acquaintances, and you can rest satisfied that even the most trivial things you can write about them will be read with avidity out here on the edge of sunset.
Yet how do you write? — how do the most of you write? Why, you drivel and drivel and drivel along in your wooden-headed way about people one never heard of before, and things which one knows nothing at all about and cares less. There is no sense in that. Let me show up your style with a specimen or so. Here is a paragraph from my Aunt Nancy’s last letter — received four years ago, and not answered immediately — not at all, I may say: —
St. Louis, 1862.
Dear Mark, — We spent the evening very pleasantly at home yesterday. The Rev. Dr. Macklin and his wife, from Peoria, were here. He is an humble labourer in the vineyard, and takes his coffee strong. He is also subject to neuralgia — neuralgia in the head — and is so unassuming and prayerful. There are few such men. We had soup for dinner likewise. Although I am not fond of it. O Mark! why don’t you try to lead a better life? Read II. Kings, from chap. 2 to chap. 24 inclusive. It would be so gratifying to me if you would experience a change of heart. Poor Mrs. Gabrick is dead. You did not know her. She had fits, poor soul. On the 14th the entire army took up the line of march from — ”
I always stopped there, because I knew what was coming — the war news, in minute and dry detail — for I could never drive it into those numskulls that the overland telegraph enabled me to know here in San Francisco every day all that transpired in the United States the day before, and that the pony express brought me exhaustive details of all matters pertaining to the war at least two weeks before their letters could possibly reach me. So I naturally skipped their stale war reports, even at the cost of also skipping the inevitable suggestions to read this, that, and the other batch of chapters in the Scriptures, with which they were interlarded at intervals, like snares wherewith to entrap the unwary sinner.
Now what was the Rev. Macklin to me? Of what consequence was it to me that he was “an humble labourer in the vineyard,” and “took his coffee strong?” — and was “unassuming,” and “neuralgic,” and “prayerful”? Such a strange conglomeration of virtues could only excite my admiration — nothing more. It could awake no living interest. That there are few such men, and that we had soup for dinner, is simply gratifying — that is all. “Read twenty-two chapters of II. Kings” is a nice shell to fall in the camp of a man who is not studying for the ministry. The intelligence that “poor Mrs. Gabrick” was dead, aroused no enthusiasm — mostly because of the circumstance that I had never heard of her before, I presume. But I was glad she had fits — although a stranger.
Don’t you begin to understand, now? Don’t you see that there is not a sentence in that letter of any interest in the world to me? I had the war news in advance of it; I could get a much better sermon at church when I needed it; I didn’t care anything about poor Gabrick, not knowing deceased; nor yet the Rev. Macklin, not knowing him either. I said to myself, “Here’s not a word about Mary Ann Smith — I wish there was; nor about Georgiana Brown, or Zeb Leavenworth, or Sam Bowen, or Strothet Wiley — or about anybody else I care a straw for.” And so, as this letter was just of a pattern with all that went before it, it was not answered, and one useless correspondence ceased.
My venerable mother is a tolerably good correspondent — she is above the average, at any rate. She puts on her spectacles and takes her scissors and wades into a pile of newspapers, and slashes out column after column — editorials, hotel arrivals, poetry, telegraph news, advertisements, novelettes, old jokes, recipes for making pies, cures for “biles” — anything that comes handy; it don’t matter to her; she is entirely impartial; she slashes out a column, and runs her eye down it over her spectacles — (she looks over them because she can’t see through them, but she prefers them to her more serviceable ones because they have got gold rims to them) — runs her eye down the column, and says, “Well, it’s from a St. Louis paper, any way,” and jams it into the envelope along with her letter. She writes about everybody I ever knew or ever heard of; but unhappily, she forgets that when she tells me that “J. B. is dead,” and that “W. L. is going to marry T. D.,” and that “B. K. and R. M. and L. P. J. have all gone to New Orleans to live,” it is more than likely that years of absence may have so dulled my recollection of once familiar names, that their unexplained initials will be as unintelligible as Hebrew unto me. She never writes a name in full, and so I never know whom she is talking about. Therefore I have to guess: and this was how it came that I mourned the death of Bill Kribben when I should have rejoiced over the dissolution of Ben Kenfuron. I failed to cipher the initials out correctly.
The most useful and interesting letters we get here from home are from children seven or eight years old. This is petrified truth. Happily they have got nothing to talk about but home, and neighbours, and family — things their betters think unworthy of transmission thousands of miles. They write simply and naturally, and without straining for effect. They tell all they know, and then stop. They seldom deal in abstractions, or moral homilies. Consequently their epistles are brief; but, treating as they do of familiar scenes and persons, always entertaining. Now, therefore, if you would learn the art of letter-writing, let a little child teach you. I have preserved a letter from a small girl eight years of age — preserved it as a curiosity, because it was the only letter I ever got from the States that had any information in it. It runs thus :
St. Louis, 1865.