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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter III

The Gilded Age

Chapter III


Whatever the lagging dragging journey may have been to the rest of the
emigrants, it was a wonder and delight to the children, a world of
enchantment; and they believed it to be peopled with the mysterious
dwarfs and giants and goblins that figured in the tales the negro slaves
were in the habit of telling them nightly by the shuddering light of the
kitchen fire.

At the end of nearly a week of travel, the party went into camp near a
shabby village which was caving, house by house, into the hungry
Mississippi. The river astonished the children beyond measure. Its
mile-breadth of water seemed an ocean to them, in the shadowy twilight,
and the vague riband of trees on the further shore, the verge of a
continent which surely none but they had ever seen before.

"Uncle Dan'l"(colored,) aged 40; his wife, "aunt Jinny," aged 30, "Young
Miss" Emily Hawkins, "Young Mars" Washington Hawkins and "Young Mars"
Clay, the new member of the family, ranged themselves on a log, after
supper, and contemplated the marvelous river and discussed it. The moon
rose and sailed aloft through a maze of shredded cloud-wreaths; the
sombre river just perceptibly brightened under the veiled light; a deep
silence pervaded the air and was emphasized, at intervals, rather than
broken, by the hooting of an owl, the baying of a dog, or the muffled
crash of a raving bank in the distance.

The little company assembled on the log were all children (at least in
simplicity and broad and comprehensive ignorance,) and the remarks they
made about the river were in keeping with the character; and so awed were
they by the grandeur and the solemnity of the scene before then, and by
their belief that the air was filled with invisible spirits and that the
faint zephyrs were caused by their passing wings, that all their talk
took to itself a tinge of the supernatural, and their voices were subdued
to a low and reverent tone. Suddenly Uncle Dan'l exclaimed:

"Chil'en, dah's sum fin a comin!"

All crowded close together and every heart beat faster.

Uncle Dan'l pointed down the river with his bony finger.

A deep coughing sound troubled the stillness, way toward a wooded cape
that jetted into the stream a mile distant. All in an instant a fierce
eye of fire shot out froth behind the cape and sent a long brilliant
pathway quivering athwart the dusky water. The coughing grew louder and
louder, the glaring eye grew larger and still larger, glared wilder and
still wilder. A huge shape developed itself out of the gloom, and from
its tall duplicate horns dense volumes of smoke, starred and spangled
with sparks, poured out and went tumbling away into the farther darkness.
Nearer and nearer the thing came, till its long sides began to glow with
spots of light which mirrored themselves in the river and attended the
monster like a torchlight procession.

"What is it! Oh, what is it, Uncle Dan'l!"

With deep solemnity the answer came:

"It's de Almighty! Git down on yo' knees!"

It was not necessary to say it twice. They were all kneeling, in a
moment. And then while the mysterious coughing rose stronger and
stronger and the threatening glare reached farther and wider, the negro's
voice lifted up its supplications:

"O Lord', we's ben mighty wicked, an' we knows dat we 'zerve to go to de
bad place, but good Lord, deah Lord, we ain't ready yit, we ain't ready--
let dese po' chilen hab one mo' chance, jes' one mo' chance. Take de ole
niggah if you's, got to hab somebody.--Good Lord, good deah Lord, we
don't know whah you's a gwyne to, we don't know who you's got yo' eye on,
but we knows by de way you's a comin', we knows by de way you's a tiltin'
along in yo' charyot o' fiah dat some po' sinner's a gwyne to ketch it.
But good Lord, dose chilen don't b'long heah, dey's f'm Obedstown whah
dey don't know nuffin, an' you knows, yo' own sef, dat dey ain't
'sponsible. An' deah Lord, good Lord, it ain't like yo' mercy, it ain't
like yo' pity, it ain't like yo' long-sufferin' lovin' kindness for to
take dis kind o' 'vantage o' sick little chil'en as dose is when dey's so
many ornery grown folks chuck full o' cussedness dat wants roastin' down
dah. Oh, Lord, spah de little chil'en, don't tar de little chil'en away
f'm dey frens, jes' let 'em off jes' dis once, and take it out'n de ole
nibgah. HEAH I IS, LORD, HEAH I IS! De ole niggah's ready, Lord,
de ole----"

The flaming and churning steamer was right abreast the party, and not
twenty steps away. The awful thunder of a mud-valve suddenly burst
forth, drowning the prayer, and as suddenly Uncle Dan'l snatched a child
under each arm and scoured into the woods with the rest of the pack at
his heels. And then, ashamed of himself, he halted in the deep darkness
and shouted, (but rather feebly:)

"Heah I is, Lord, heah I is!"

There was a moment of throbbing suspense, and then, to the surprise and
the comfort of the party, it was plain that the august presence had gone
by, for its dreadful noises were receding. Uncle Dan'l headed a cautious
reconnaissance in the direction of the log. Sure enough "the Lord" was
just turning a point a short distance up the river, and while they looked
the lights winked out and the coughing diminished by degrees and
presently ceased altogether.

"H'wsh! Well now dey's some folks says dey ain't no 'ficiency in prah.
Dis Chile would like to know whah we'd a ben now if it warn't fo' dat
prah? Dat's it. Dat's it!"

"Uncle Dan'l, do you reckon it was the prayer that saved us?" said Clay.

"Does I reckon? Don't I know it! Whah was yo' eyes? Warn't de Lord
jes' a cumin' chow! chow! CHOW! an' a goin' on turrible--an' do de
Lord carry on dat way 'dout dey's sumfin don't suit him? An' warn't he a
lookin' right at dis gang heah, an' warn't he jes' a reachin' for 'em?
An' d'you spec' he gwyne to let 'em off 'dout somebody ast him to do it?
No indeedy!"

"Do you reckon he saw, us, Uncle Dan'l?

"De law sakes, Chile, didn't I see him a lookin' at us?".

"Did you feel scared, Uncle Dan'l?"

"No sah! When a man is 'gaged in prah, he ain't fraid o' nuffin--dey
can't nuffin tetch him."

"Well what did you run for?"

"Well, I--I--mars Clay, when a man is under de influence ob de sperit,
he do-no, what he's 'bout--no sah; dat man do-no what he's 'bout. You
mout take an' tah de head off'n dat man an' he wouldn't scasely fine it
out. Date's de Hebrew chil'en dat went frough de fiah; dey was burnt
considable--ob coase dey was; but dey didn't know nuffin 'bout it--heal
right up agin; if dey'd ben gals dey'd missed dey long haah, (hair,)
maybe, but dey wouldn't felt de burn."

"I don't know but what they were girls. I think they were."

"Now mars Clay, you knows bettern dat. Sometimes a body can't tell
whedder you's a sayin' what you means or whedder you's a sayin' what you
don't mean, 'case you says 'em bofe de same way."

"But how should I know whether they were boys or girls?"

"Goodness sakes, mars Clay, don't de Good Book say? 'Sides, don't it
call 'em de HE-brew chil'en? If dey was gals wouldn't dey be de SHE-brew
chil'en? Some people dat kin read don't 'pear to take no notice when dey
do read."

"Well, Uncle Dan'l, I think that-----My! here comes another one up the
river! There can't be two!"

"We gone dis time--we done gone dis time, sho'! Dey ain't two, mars
Clay--days de same one. De Lord kin 'pear eberywhah in a second.
Goodness, how do fiah and de smoke do belch up! Dat mean business,
honey. He comin' now like he fo'got sumfin. Come 'long, chil'en, time
you's gwyne to roos'. Go 'long wid you--ole Uncle Daniel gwyne out in de
woods to rastle in prah--de ole nigger gwyne to do what he kin to sabe
you agin"

He did go to the woods and pray; but he went so far that he doubted,
himself, if the Lord heard him when He went by.

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