Elia Peattie, an Uncommon Woman


Omaha World-Herald | Short Stories of the West | Ghost Stories | Short Novels | Children's Stories | Miscellaneous



By Mrs. Elia W. Peattie.


I am no dreamer. I am not sentimental. I have been educated to be severely accurate. My grandfather was a professor of higher mathematics in a well known eastern university. My father was also an instructor in the exact sciences. I was educated in the west, and, having been graduated without honors, calmly faced the fact that there was very little use in the world for a dull young man who had chosen to call himself an ethnographer—or at least a student of ethnography. My friends wanted me to write a book on this subject in which I thought I was interested. As I had no knowledge which was not second hand, and no theories which were not some other man's, this was obviously absurd.

Living in St. Paul as I did, I found no lack of opportunity for pursuing my favorite reflections, for there are races of men in plenty at that place; but ethnography, like many other subjects, is a study which is pleasantest confined to the leaves of a book in a quiet library. What cause had I to be practically interested in the origin of my laundryman, of my bootmaker and of my waiter? None. Abstractly, the race question was interesting. Concretely it was stupid. In short, I was a fool. I was in earnest about nothing. My boasted common sense and accuracy, my power of concentrating my mind on one thing to the exclusion of others, which had been thought so fine an attribute at college, and my disdain of the pleasures of other young men, began to seem very poor things indeed.

I got so at last that I would have bartered that huge library left me by my scientific and lugubrious ancestors, and all the learnings which I was supposed to have accumulated, for the cheap ability to enjoy myself for one hour in the hearty way that other young fellows enjoyed themselves. In my desperation I even thought of throwing ancestral precedent to the winds, and engaging myself as salesman in a dry goods store, and experimenting with the simple pleasures of half holidays and lunches in the corner restaurant.

It will be seen that I was rather a poor fellow. I prefer to make this plain at the outset, that I may appear as I am—the historian of certain events, and not the hero of adventures.

It is necessary, though disagreeable, for me to tell a few facts about myself. They are not amusing facts. Having passed my early boyhood in a great library which was guiltless of fiction, and my later years in schools, under the supervision of a number of very grave and thorough old gentlemen, I had no experiences which were not associated with the school or my quiet home. I was not acquainted with life, with amusement, with women of any sort or degree, or with speculation in any form, except intellectual speculation in lines more scientific than sentimental. By sentimental I mean political, ethical and religious. These things, being matters of opinion, prejudice or passion, had no interest for me.

Unfortunately I had a little money—which effectually threw cold water over what slight ambition I might naturally stand possessed of. This is the mental portrait of myself—Hilbert H. Shadwin, aged 25. My physical portrait I cannot give. I have never been able to make out what sort of a man I was in appearance, and as my acquaintances have preserved a unanimous silence on the subject, I must suppose that they also have found it difficult to note any individuality in me.

Most expectedly, and just when I had come to consider myself absolutely useless, a use was found for me. I was invited by the government of the United States, at the suggestion of some influential friends, to go south and count the Seminole Indians. Counting, in this case, meant something about their present habits of life, their dispositions, their outlook and their general condition. I took fresh heart at once and thought with disdain of the white goods counter and half-holidays, and determined to justify my family name by doing something worthy of it.

I reflected that I might not find something original to write about. My faint desire to prepare a work on the cave-dwellers of North America vanished. I determined to employ that practical sense which I had often been told I possessed—perhaps because I could be accredited with nothing better—and put my foot on the first ladder of a reputable career.

That is how I found myself at St. Augustine at the Hotel Ponce de Leon, looking from a lofty balcony upon a scene of such luxuriant beauty as my northern eyes had never seen even in dreams. Is it necessary for me to describe that remarkable place, with its courts, its Spanish architecture, its fountains, its wonderful grays of ground and wall and wharf, its peculiar cosmopolitan life or its atmosphere of exquisite indolence? In a way St. Augustine is like Saratogoa. At least one meets with a most remarkable collection of celebrities there. Not that I knew any of them. I knew no one. I knew nothing but the wharves, by the green water, the palmettos, the indigo skies of the night, the heavy perfume of the Magnolia. They were all new to me. They were intoxicating. At first I fought against the languor and the enticement of it all. It did not seem in accordance with my new resolutions. But in time the beauty was too much for me. I let my dreams of ambition float splendidly through a brain that was becoming intoxicated with beauty—with novelty—with the sudden-found joy of real living.

I was obliged to wait where I was for several days, for I had been requested to go southward in the company of an engineer corps, which was to survey a part of the Everglades adjoining the Big Cypress.

At the old Spanish fort I fell in with a gentleman who was afterward to become a firm friend. Perhaps you have never been at the Spanish fort and do not know the feeling one has as he walks through the labyrinth of dark and moldy passages, nor the sensation of disgust and almost fear that one has when he is left alone for a moment in the dungeon—a place so solitary, and so terrible in its gloom that it seems impossible that men living in it kept their reason. I became so interested in the place, and so fascinated with the train of reflections summoned by the dark chambers, and the wild shadows leaping up and down in the flicker of the torches, that suddenly I found myself alone, and the guide and party with whom I had come, quite out of sight. At first I thought to stand still, and wait for the return of the party, then remembering that I had spoken with no one, and that probably my existence had not been noticed, I concluded that it would be best for me to go on, in the hope of finding some passage that should bring me safely to daylight. I wandered about for several moments, and was on the point of hallowing for help when I stumbled up against a form in the darkness.

"Sir," cried a voice indignantly.

"I beg your pardon," I said, taking off my hat, though we were in profound darkness.

"I should say so," said the voice.

"Now that we have met," said I very politely—for I had not then had enough experience with the world to realize the value of rudeness—"perhaps you can tell me the way out."

"I can do nothing of the sort, sir! Do you suppose I am walking around in this hell's own hole for pleasure?"

"I see my mistake, sir," I apologized. "I beg your pardon."

"I'm glad you can even see a mistake, sir," irascibly interrupted my companion, "for I'll swear I could not see the devil himself if he were to appear."

I began to get irritated.

"You seem to have a very intimate acquaintance with the lower regions," I said.

"It is likely to become more intimate," retorted the voice.

"I hope your remarks are not personal," said I, tartly.

"My dear sir," responded the voice, in protest, "nothing is further from my thought. It's just my way, sir; nothing more, I assure you. I am always getting myself in hell's own hole with my darned foolishness. Shake hands, sir." I had a good deal of difficulty in finding his hand, but after the two of us had plunged around in the gloom for a few moments I received the gentleman's hand in the region of my left lung. He apologized, our palms met, and we were friends.

"I would like to give you a card, sir," said my friend.

"I should be very much pleased. Under the circumstances you might give it to me verbally." He did. His name was Thomas Bridges. His occupations was a difficult one—he was engaged in killing time. Apparently, he was not a dead shot at it.

"Speaking of the devil," he cried, suddenly, "there he comes!" It looked as if he was right. A towering figure, which seemed to fill the passage, and to lap over on the wall above, came down the long vista of blackness toward us, surrounded by radiations of dim fire. I t was a guide with a torch. He seemed surprised at finding that there were two of us.

"I remember you," he said to my companion, "but I hain't no rekulection of t'other." I was not hurt. It was what I had expected.

"You have done me a service already," said I. My companion looked me over by the light of the torch.

"Huh!" said he, concluding the survey, "I'd just as soon do you another. Shake hands again." This time we did it without embarrassment. And I thought I had never seen such a peculiar or such a friendly young man. We were not sorry to get out of the cave, and to return to the luxurious surroundings of the hotel. We dined together and I told him what my mission was. He listened attentively.

"I'm going with you," he announced.

"But, my dear fellow," I demurred, "you'll never be able to kill him down there. From all I hear you are more likely to kill yourself with breakbone fever."

"That will suit me better," he said sullenly. I saw that it would be indelicate to make a reply. His remark had evidently aroused an unhappy train of thought, for he did not speak to me the rest of the evening, but sat staring up at the stars, and listening to the metallic stirring of the foliage in the court, till he shook hands, and made his way to his room.

The next morning there arrived from New York the corps of engineers which I had been expecting. The chief had the advantage of me by not more than five years. I was disappointed at finding him so young. I was shy with young men. Bridges was the first fellow of my own age that had ever felt comfortable with. But then it did not matter how old Bridges was. His individuality would have been the same whether he was 16 or 60. I am sure I should have been struck with him under any circumstances.

This young engineer was very elegant—much more elegant than there was any occasion for, I thought. He forced me into all sorts of elaborations of manner. But he had no effect at all on Bridges.

"I should get in hell's own hole," he confided in me, "if I tried all that sort of thing"—meaning Bryan's fine flourishes.

"I shouldn't wonder if he is a nincompoop," I said to Bridges.

"No, there you're wrong," he said, thoughtfully. "He may be a gentleman, but he is not a nincompoop."

"I hope," I said rather coldly, "that you don't think it requires any apology for one to be a gentleman?"

"Well," he returned, "I don't know. I'm one myself, in a way. At least my folks haven't done anything for three generations I guess that makes a gentleman of me. And I have always been apologizing to every one I've met with, for encumbering the earth."

It is always impossible to tell whether Bridges is guying a man or not. I was saved a reply by the appearance of Paul Bryan, the engineer. He was as handsome a fellow as I ever laid eyes on. In height he lacked a quarter of an inch of six feet. His legs and arms were fine enough to be cut in marble. His face was severe, calm and rather massive. His eyes were gray, his voice rich, his tone incisive, and his carriage commanding. It was easy to see that the twenty men under him recognized a leader in him.

He bowed to first one and then to the other of us. And this Bridges sniffed the air.

"If it suits your convenience, Mr. Shadwin," he said to me, "we will leave tomorrow morning, immediately after breakfast."

"I am at your disposal, Mr. Bryan."

"You are on no account to inconvenience yourself," he protested.

"But I have no plans," I returned, somewhat impatiently.

"I hope I am going to be invited," broke in Bridges, "for I certainly intend going."

"An invitation is superfluous," gravely returned the engineer. "You will be perfectly welcome. And," he hesitated and flushed, "and—I hope that we are going to be very good friends." He lifted his hat again and hurried out. We looked at each other—Bridges and I—and smiled.

"Why, he's not a prig after all," cried I.

"I tried to dislike him," Bridges confessed, "but there was something in him that made me feel if a man were in hell's own hole and Bryan was by, he would help him out."

The next morning we started—twenty-two of us. We were all young fellows, and were anxious to get the most out of everything, so that we were not well on our way before we became conscious of a decided and very gratifying esprit de corps.

Bridges was the gayest of the party, ostensibly, and yet he said to me as we ate together: "If I get the breakbone fever I shan't care a—tarnation!" And he was silent for ten minutes after he had made this remark. Bridges didn't look like a man with a secret sorrow. But then, it is difficult to judge a man's soul by an outward sign, and it is possible that even a man with a pug nose, such as Bridges carried around with him, may have the soul of a Romeo.


By day or night, a journey through Florida is wonderful. It is mysterious. Above all, it is melancholy. The pine lands of the north are gayety itself, compared with the pine lands of the south. Bryan's merry fellows kept up noise enough, but when we dashed through one of those cypress groves, where the trees loomed gray as ghosts and black shadows hung over the vistas like shrouds, I had to go away by myself and give up to the feeling of settled, but not distressful gloom. Once I caught Bryan's eyes fixed on me with a flush, and we did not speak. But some way that look, in which he told me that he read my feelings, cemented the friendship between us.

My spirits lightened when we got to a palm grove. These stately things seemed to be trooping down to the banks of a slow and dark river. They had skins like satin, and they carried their plumed heads as if they were young queens. I couldn't get over the idea that there was a procession of them, and at any moment I might hear a strain of lofty processional music. When will I ever see anything again so exquisitely lithe, so perfectly poised, so bewitchingly indulating? I have never seen but one other sight which could compare with a grove of palms, for charm of form, of grace, of suppleness—but I am not going to anticipate myself.

At twilight, when the tremendous vistas begin fading, and the ebony sky hangs over, the dance of the trees grows weird. The gray moss flings up its arms, beckoning; the curved trunks seem to crouch and supplicate, the heavy perfumes seem like the distillation of all the languorous and sleep-bringing flowers that grow in the field or forest, and over me steals a feeling that I am being whirled to some strange and undreamed of fate.

My boasted practicality dropped from me like a garment which had become too fine. I entered upon new realms, which seem to have been waiting for me since the beginning of earth, and clothed my mind in rich apparel to celebrate the event. Whatever of poetry, of enthusiasm, of aspiration had lain hidden in the mind which I had no assiduously labored to make severely commonplace, came to the surface then, and when I awoke in the morning I knew that I had entered upon a new life. I looked about me with a sensation of joy. I had suddenly discovered what life meant. I mean I had discovered that living is an art, and that I was to be initiated into its mysteries, whatever they might be. I turned an almost dizzy gaze around on my companions. The strength of their young limbs, the breadth of their chests, the happiness of their faces, all their palpitating, vigorous life communicated itself to me. I felt for a moment like embracing them. And again I met Bryan's eye. Again I saw that he was reading my thoughts. I went over to where he sat and held out my hand.

"Good morning," I said, in as commonplace a voice as I could summon. "We are going to have a magnificent day for our sail."

"It is a magnificent day for anything," he said, in his rich voice.

Bridges was writing in his note book, from which he detached the written pages. He did not participate in the general enthusiasm of the party.

"Can I mail a letter at Tampa?" he asked, absently.

"Why not?" said I.

"I'll be happy to send one of my men with it to the postoffice," Bryan said. Bridges looked frightened. He suddenly tore up the leaves and tossed them out of the window. "I don't see what they could carry to the postoffice," he said in his most irascible tones, "for I have written no letters." Ordinarily, I would have been irritated at this rudeness, but I was far above irritation this morning. I felt like a grub which had suddenly been changed into a butterfly, and, intoxicated with my new wings, I had no time to notice other grubs, still crawling in the dust of the earth.

The Laughing Belinda is a snug boat, capable, like some small people, of stowing away a surprising quantity of cargo. She hugs the shore affectionately from Tampa to the Punta Rassa, and, though she is said to be a spinster of many reasons, she still dances over the waves with the carelessness of a maiden. But I am writing nonsense. It is the consequence of remembering that strange and brilliant morning, when the glory of youth and life first came to me, and when, for he first time in my life, I was drunk with the liquors of happiness. Just as the boat pulled away from the wharf, Bridges rushed frantically to the traffrail.

"Here, somebody," he cried, in great excitement, "catch this letter, can't you? If I ever come to town again I'll do a favor for the fellow that will mail it for me." He flung a ship's envelope against the breeze, and had the satisfaction of seeing it fall in the water. Two little pickaninnies plunged into the water for it.

"Hi, there!" called Bridges angrily, "leave it alone, can't you? I don't want to send a water-soaked letter like that. Leave it alone, I say! I'll make it hot for anyone that touches it." His hand was on his pistol pocket.

"Mr. Bridges," said the calm voice of Bryan reproachfully. There was a moment's silence.

"I say," said Bridges in a low voice, "you don't want me to get off, do you? You don't think you're taking too big a fool along, eh? If you do say the word, and I'll swim ashore." He was just about to suit action to the word, when I pointed at the water.

"There's a shark not a ships length off, and they tell me that a little further out there is a shark to every man in Florida." Bridges looked anxiously at the pickaninnies, but they had not ventured far, and were already safe on shore again. "I can explain my conduct," he said to Bryan. The engineer gave a motion of protest.

"What have I to do with your conduct, Mr. Bridges?" said he. "You have done nothing offensive. Pray reassure yourself."

Bryan went away to assure himself that his supplies were all on board, and I heard Bridges mutter to himself, "The break-bone fever will probably settle it." Later on I heard him asking the captain if the break-bone fever was likely to take a man at any season of the year. He seemed quite cut up at learning that we were not in season for it.

The light on the water shifted and softened as noon passed and the day spent itself. Now the Laughing Belinda plowed her path through fields of green water unhindered; now she twisted among islands, emerald shores, dim with vapors, mysterious and beautiful. The mangrove trees circled about the edges of these isles, and the mastic and gumbolimbo trees grew on the high shell hammock of the interiors. Sometimes the islands were so close together that the trees reached out to clasp over the watery ways between, and thus made a long and dusky arch down which the shadows played and the echoes reverberated.

At Punta Rassa the Laughing Belinda left us and we launched our canoes, loaded with supplies, in the clear waters of the bay. This was the morning of another day, and we were fresh and impatient—not one of us willing to delay any unnecessary hour. We had great difficulty in keeping Bridges from committing all kinds of extravagancies. He wanted to load us up with a lot of luxuries, and was bent on "paying his way," as he expressed it.

"I don't want to be an extra," he said. There are a great many men who are extras, and I have a horror of becoming one of them."

We assured him that he was vital to the life of the party, and he brightened up at that.

That night we anchored out boats, built a big fire of pine boughs, and, wrapping our light blankets about us, laid down to sleep, a good day's journey from the bay. We had eaten tarpon for supper, with plenty of canned fruit, and some guavas, and hunger had no hold on us.

Bridges confided to me the fact that he was sorry we were beyond reach of the mail, and my curiosity got the better of me.

"I say, old man," I ventured, "there is something the matter with your conscience, isn't there? What makes you so anxious to write a letter which you have never have the courage to send."

"That's it, that's it," he cried, sticking his head out of his blanket as we lay side by side in the star light. "Call me a fool! That's what I am, damme, and it's a real relief to hear some one say so."

But I didn't say so," I suggested.

"Oh, but you thought it!" he retorted, "and that is almost as much of a relief to me. The truth of the matter is, there is a girl at home" —

"Oh, of course," I groaned. I had never been in love, but the fellows I knew who had been always seemed to have a very hard time of it. I cannot say that I looked on love with anything but dread. Perhaps there was some curiosity in the matter too. But I infinitely preferred men to women. Perhaps there was some curiosity in the matter too. But I infinitely preferred men to women. Perhaps one reason was that I did not know any women.

"I want to write to the girl," went on Bridges. "I tried to talk to her. Couldn't do it. It was out of the question. Was laid up with heart failure or something for three days after the first attempt. Second attempt made me rush to Florida. Now I'm looking for break-bone fever, and have just found out that I'm not likely to get it. That's like me. Always getting in hell's own hole—some people are born to do that, aren't they? They just naturally go down and down.

There was a long pause. I wondered if it were true that some folk are born to high and happy estates, and others are left to see the wrong side of things, and destined to add to the great sum of misery. I fell asleep thinking the matter over, and knew nothing till I was awakened y the most frightful yell that ever fell upon my ears. I sat up just in time to get a strong whiff of fetid, hideous breath on my face. The yelling kept on.

It was Bridges who was doing the yelling. It was an alligator into whose jaws I was looking.

But the alligator had no bad motives, apparently. He made off and lumped himself down into the river with a sluggish splash, and the men who had got on their feet with their muskets in hand, began to quiet down.

Suddenly one of them began to laugh. I suppose it was at our frightened faces. Maybe it was at nothing at all. Later on I often heard Sam Grove laugh at nothing at all. There was never such another laugh since the beginning of the earth. It was a bubbling, undulating mixture of sounds that came from the innermost sources of the man's anatomy, and diffused itself like melodious thunder. It seemed to be a physical necessity that it should come out. And it was as contagious as measles.

After a few reproachful exclamations the company perforce joined in it and we became for a time a collection of amiable hyenas. I am sure the alligators down in the river were congratulating themselves on getting away. Only Bryan was irritated. It hurt his dignity to laugh when he didn't feel like it.

The next morning I kept thinking of Bridges' words. I kept wondering if a man could help his destiny. I even began to wonder about my own destiny.

So we went on. And from dawn to dusk I lived and thought through those strange days as I had never lived and thought before. I suppose it was the beauty of the place that brought it out.

One wonderful morning, when the water in the west was silver and the sky in the east was gold, we headed out boats up the Marco river and steered for the Big Cypress. It was not very hard work for the first few hours, although we were rowing against the current. As noon approached, however, the air grew heavier, till it became so hot that we were obliged to cease work for about two fine young fellows with us were beginning to droop.

It must have been this which put a sudden idea into my head.

For it came over me with a stinging pain, how every easy it would be for death to spring upon our company and strike it to the earth—death, lurking like a jaguar in the shadows, unseen, vengeful, and irresistible. All the joy and pride I had felt at the sight of these splendid young men vanished. A horror of death, a loathing of what must follow, seized me, and my imagination refused to be turned into more pleasant channels, but ran riot in nauseating details of the grave. Our surroundings were calculated to depress. Above us was a sky of pitiless blue, blazing down upon us. The air, humid and hot, seemed to poison our lungs. Up the trees clambered noisome and poisonous vines. The Marco river narrowed into Little Palm Hammock creek not far from where we were camped and up its winding intricacies we had heard grew plants as deadly as the upas tree. Dan Sheldon, one of the crew, lay groaning on the ground in frightful illness, which was the result of having eaten a prairie hawk in spite of the protestations of Rothery—the one man of our party acquainted with the country and its products.

It came over me that Nature, so far from being a protecting mother, was a murderess, who laid snares for man, and rejoiced when he fell into them. In short, I awakened, within a few vivid moments, to the certainty of death. I believe that every man is destined to have the terribleness of it come over him with the sharp force of an unexpected and tragic discovery. To be sure, he knows from youth that death is inevitable. But he does not feel it. It is the same with love. He has been told that man is destined to love, but he pays no attention to the fact until he is suddenly confronted with the personal fact.

Emotions cannot be conveyed to us by the experience of others. They must be personally felt. Therefore, when I for the first time discovered the certainty of death, and the uncertainty of anything else, I was seized with a melancholy almost unbearable.

I rolled over in the long grass to where Bryan lay on his stomach reading from a tiny book he carried in his pocked.

I say, Bryan, there isn't any cure for death that you know of, is there?" He looked up with a quiet smile.

"You're not attacked, I hope," he said lightly. "I suppose you do not consider your death imminent?"

"It has on the contrary, just occurred to me for the first time that I must die. And I don't like it."

"You haven't put in much time thinking, have you?" he remarked gently. I felt myself blushing.

"They have always called me studious," I said in a tone which was not free from chagrin.

"Oh, studious–I dare say! But no doubt you were busy with text books. They are well enough, but they often keep a man from thinking. There is a great difference between finding out what other men think, thinking yourself."

"Look here," called Briggs, "what are you fellows talking about?"

"Death and the worm," said I.

"Not a proper subject for this part of the world," he replied. "You may run across the Fountain of Youth at any moment. Ponce de Leon didn't find it, you know, but he was sure it lay about somewhere, and it would be just my luck to stumble upon it."

"Bridges," said the young engineer in his deep tones, "if the Fountain of Youth bubbled up there before you, and you knew that by drinking of its waters you would live forever, would you take a cup with me?" Bryan's searching gaze was fastened on the other man. I saw Bridges start to answer, pause, look at his interlocutor a moment and then flush.

"That's rather a wide question, isn't it?" said he.

"But would you?" persisted Bryan.

"Well, ho, then!" explosively cried Bridges, "not for the world. I'm in no rush to shake off this mortal coil, but when it comes to carrying about this rather indifferent body and second rate brain indefinitely—no thank you. I want to go to bed and sleep when I've had my play out."

Bryan made no reply and a silence fell on us. I actually indulged in a train of thought in spite of Bryan's suspicious that I did not think. On we went in the afternoon to the southeast, till, night falling, calm and cool, we laid ourselves out with blankets under our heads, and were in the land of dreams, oblivious of the stars, burning so magnificently above us, oblivious of all the disappointments of our short lives, oblivious of the death that would certainly terminate them.

Dan Sheldon had recovered, but he was very weak, and Rothery assured us that he had narrowly escaped an untimely end. I had given him my blanket to lie on, and made him use his own for a pillow. One of the darkies bathed his arms and legs, which were still dripping with the sweat caused by his suffering. He was soon asleep after this service had been performed, and we went to our rest with thankful hearts.

(To be Continued Next Sunday.)

Omaha World-Herald, 28 October 1894, 18

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