By Charles Dudley Warner
"The way to mount a horse"—said the Professor.
"If you have no ladder—put in the Friend of Humanity."
The Professor had ridden through the war for the Union on the right side, enjoying a much better view of it than if he had walked, and knew as much about a horse as a person ought to know for the sake of his character. The man who can recite the tales of the Canterbury Pilgrims, on horseback, giving the contemporary pronunciation, never missing an accent by reason of the trot, and at the same time witch North Carolina and a strip of East Tennessee with his noble horsemanship, is a kind of Literary Centaur of whose double instruction any Friend of Humanity may be glad to avail himself.
"The way to mount a horse is to grasp the mane with the left hand holding the bridle-rein, put your left foot in the stirrup, with the right hand on the back of the saddle, and—-"
Just then the horse stepped quickly around on his hind feet, and looked the Professor in the face. The Superintendents of Affairs, who occupy the flagging in front of the hotel, seated in cane-bottomed chairs tilted back, smiled. These useful persons appear to have a life-lease of this portion of the city pavement, and pretty effectually block it up nearly all day and evening. When a lady wishes to make her way through the blockade, it is the habit of these observers of life to rise and make room, touching their hats, while she picks her way through, and goes down the street with a pretty consciousness of the flutter she has caused. The war has not changed the Southern habit of sitting out-of-doors, but has added a new element of street picturesqueness in groups of colored people lounging about the corners. There appears to be more leisure than ever.
The scene of this little lesson in horsemanship was the old town of Abingdon, in southwest Virginia, on the Virginia and East Tennessee railway; a town of ancient respectability, which gave birth to the Johnstons and Floyds and other notable people; a town, that still preserves the flavor of excellent tobacco and, something of the easy-going habits of the days of slavery, and is a sort of educational center, where the young ladies of the region add the final graces of intellectual life in moral philosophy and the use of the globes to their natural gifts. The mansion of the late and left Floyd is now a seminary, and not far from it is the Stonewall Jackson Institute, in the midst of a grove of splendid oaks, whose stately boles and wide-spreading branches give a dignity to educational life. The distinction of the region is its superb oak-trees. As it was vacation in these institutions of learning, the travelers did not see any of the vines that traditionally cling to the oak.
The Professor and the Friend of Humanity were about starting on a journey, across country southward, through regions about which the people of Abingdon could give little useful information. If the travelers had known the capacities and resources of the country, they would not have started without a supply train, or the establishment of bases of provisions in advance. But, as the Professor remarked, knowledge is something that one acquires when he has no use for it. The horses were saddled; the riders were equipped with flannel shirts and leather leggings; the saddle-bags were stuffed with clean linen, and novels, and sonnets of Shakespeare, and other baggage, it would have been well if they had been stuffed with hard-tack, for in real life meat is more than raiment.
The hotel, in front of which there is cultivated so much of what the Germans call sitzfleisch, is a fair type of the majority of Southern hotels, and differs from the same class in the North in being left a little more to run itself. The only information we obtained about it was from its porter at the station, who replied to the question, "Is it the best?" "We warrant you perfect satisfaction in every respect." This seems to be only a formula of expression, for we found that the statement was highly colored. It was left to our imagination to conjecture how the big chambers of the old house, with their gaping fireplaces, might have looked when furnished and filled with gay company, and we got what satisfaction we could out of a bygone bustle and mint-julep hilarity. In our struggles with the porter to obtain the little items of soap, water, and towels, we were convinced that we had arrived too late, and that for perfect satisfaction we should have been here before the war. It was not always as now. In colonial days the accommodations and prices at inns were regulated by law. In the old records in the court-house we read that if we had been here in 1777, we could have had a gallon of good rum for sixteen shillings; a quart bowl of rum toddy made with loaf sugar for two shillings, or with brown sugar for one shilling and sixpence. In 1779 prices had risen. Good rum sold for four pounds a gallon. It was ordered that a warm dinner should cost twelve shillings, a cold dinner nine shillings, and a good breakfast twelve shillings. But the item that pleased us most, and made us regret our late advent, was that for two shillings we could have had a "good lodging, with clean sheets." The colonists were fastidious people.
Abingdon, prettily situated on rolling hills, and a couple of thousand feet above the sea, with views of mountain peaks to the south, is a cheerful and not too exciting place for a brief sojourn, and hospitable and helpful to the stranger. We had dined—so much, at least, the public would expect of us—with a descendant of Pocahontas; we had assisted on Sunday morning at the dedication of a new brick Methodist church, the finest edifice in the region —a dedication that took a long time, since the bishop would not proceed with it until money enough was raised in open meeting to pay the balance due on it: a religious act, though it did give a business aspect to the place at the time; and we had been the light spots in the evening service at the most aristocratic church of color. The irresponsibility of this amiable race was exhibited in the tardiness with which they assembled: at the appointed time nobody was there except the sexton; it was three quarters of an hour before the congregation began to saunter in, and the sermon was nearly over before the pews were at all filled. Perhaps the sermon was not new, but it was fervid, and at times the able preacher roared so that articulate sounds were lost in the general effect. It was precisely these passages of cataracts of sound and hard breathing which excited the liveliest responses,—"Yes, Lord," and "Glory to God." Most of these responses came from the "Amen corner." The sermon contained the usual vivid description of the last judgment—ah, and I fancied that the congregation did not get the ordinary satisfaction out of it. Fashion had entered the fold, and the singing was mostly executed by a choir in the dusky gallery, who thinly and harshly warbled the emotional hymns. It occupied the minister a long time to give out the notices of the week, and there was not an evening or afternoon that had not its meetings, its literary or social gathering, its picnic or fair for the benefit of the church, its Dorcas society, or some occasion of religious sociability. The raising of funds appeared to be the burden on the preacher's mind. Two collections were taken up. At the first, the boxes appeared to get no supply except from the two white trash present. But the second was more successful. After the sermon was over, an elder took his place at a table within the rails, and the real business of the evening began. Somebody in the Amen corner struck up a tune that had no end, but a mighty power of setting the congregation in motion. The leader had a voice like the pleasant droning of a bag-pipe, and the faculty of emitting a continuous note like that instrument, without stopping to breathe. It went on and on like a Bach fugue, winding and whining its way, turning the corners of the lines of the catch without a break. The effect was soon visible in the emotional crowd: feet began to move in a regular cadence and voices to join in, with spurts of ejaculation; and soon, with an air of martyrdom, the members began to leave their seats and pass before the table and deposit their contributions. It was a cent contribution, and we found it very difficult, under the contagious influence of the hum from the Amen corner, not to rise and go forward and deposit a cent. If anything could extract the pennies from a reluctant worldling, it would be the buzzing of this tune. It went on and on, until the house appeared to be drained dry of its cash; and we inferred by the stopping of the melody that the preacher's salary was secure for the time being. On inquiring, we ascertained that the pecuniary flood that evening had risen to the height of a dollar and sixty cents.
All was ready for the start. It should have been early in the morning, but it was not; for Virginia is not only one of the blessed regions where one can get a late breakfast, but where it is almost impossible to get an early one. At ten A. M. the two horsemen rode away out of sight of the Abingdon spectators, down the eastern turnpike. The day was warm, but the air was full of vitality and the spirit of adventure. It was the 22d of July. The horses were not ambitious, but went on at an easy fox-trot that permits observation and encourages conversation. It had been stipulated that the horses should be good walkers, the one essential thing in a horseback journey. Few horses, even in a country where riding is general, are trained to walk fast. We hear much of horses that can walk five miles an hour, but they are as rare as white elephants. Our horses were only fair walkers. We realized how necessary this accomplishment is, for between the Tennessee line and Asheville, North Carolina, there is scarcely a mile of trotting-ground.
We soon turned southward and descended into the Holston River Valley. Beyond lay the Tennessee hills and conspicuous White-Top Mountain (5530 feet), which has a good deal of local celebrity (standing where the States of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina corner), and had been pointed out to us at Abingdon. We had been urged, personally and by letter, to ascend this mountain, without fail. People recommend mountains to their friends as they do patent medicines. As we leisurely jogged along we discussed this, and endeavored to arrive at some rule of conduct for the journey. The Professor expressed at once a feeling about mountain-climbing that amounted to hostility,—he would go nowhere that he could not ride. Climbing was the most unsatisfactory use to which a mountain could be put. As to White-Top, it was a small mountain, and not worth ascending. The Friend of Humanity, who believes in mountain-climbing as a theory, and for other people, and knows the value of being able to say, without detection, that he has ascended any high mountain about which he is questioned,—since this question is the first one asked about an exploration in a new country,—saw that he should have to use a good deal of diplomacy to get the Professor over any considerable elevation on the trip. And he had to confess also that a view from a mountain is never so satisfactory as a view of a mountain, from a moderate height. The Professor, however, did not argue the matter on any such reasonable ground, but took his stand on his right as a man not to ascend a mountain. With this appeal to first principles,—a position that could not be confuted on account of its vagueness (although it might probably be demonstrated that in society man has no such right), there was no way of agreement except by a compromise. It was accordingly agreed that no mountain under six thousand feet is worth ascending; that disposed of White-Top. It was further agreed that any mountain that is over six thousand feet high is too high to ascend on foot.
With this amicable adjustment we forded the Holston, crossing it twice within a few miles. This upper branch of the Tennessee is a noble stream, broad, with a rocky bed and a swift current. Fording it is ticklish business except at comparatively low water, and as it is subject to sudden rises, there must be times when it seriously interrupts travel. This whole region, full of swift streams, is without a bridge, and, as a consequence, getting over rivers and brooks and the dangers of ferries occupy a prominent place in the thoughts of the inhabitants. The life necessarily had the "frontier" quality all through, for there can be little solid advance in civilization in the uncertainties of a bridgeless condition. An open, pleasant valley, the Holston, but cultivation is more and more negligent and houses are few and poorer as we advance.
We had left behind the hotels of "perfect satisfaction," and expected to live on the country, trusting to the infrequent but remunerated hospitality of the widely scattered inhabitants. We were to dine at Ramsey's. Ramsey's had been recommended to us as a royal place of entertainment the best in all that region; and as the sun grew hot in the sandy valley, and the weariness of noon fell upon us, we magnified Ramsey's in our imagination,—the nobility of its situation, its cuisine, its inviting restfulness,—and half decided to pass the night there in the true abandon of plantation life. Long before we reached it, the Holston River which we followed had become the Laurel, a most lovely, rocky, winding stream, which we forded continually, for the valley became too narrow much of the way to accommodate a road and a river. Eagerly as we were looking out for it, we passed the great Ramsey's without knowing it, for it was the first of a little settlement of two houses and a saw-mill and barn. It was a neat log house of two lower rooms and a summer kitchen, quite the best of the class that we saw, and the pleasant mistress of it made us welcome. Across the road and close, to the Laurel was the spring-house, the invariable adjunct to every well-to-do house in the region, and on the stony margin of the stream was set up the big caldron for the family washing; and here, paddling in the shallow stream, while dinner was preparing, we established an intimacy with the children and exchanged philosophical observations on life with the old negress who was dabbling the clothes. What impressed this woman was the inequality in life. She jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that the Professor and the Friend were very rich, and spoke with asperity of the difficulty she experienced in getting shoes and tobacco. It was useless to point out to her that her alfresco life was singularly blessed and free from care, and the happy lot of any one who could loiter all day by this laughing stream, undisturbed by debt or ambition. Everybody about the place was barefooted, except the mistress, including the comely daughter of eighteen, who served our dinner in the kitchen. The dinner was abundant, and though it seemed to us incongruous at the time, we were not twelve hours older when we looked back upon it with longing. On the table were hot biscuit, ham, pork, and green beans, apple-sauce, blackberry preserves, cucumbers, coffee, plenty of milk, honey, and apple and blackberry pie. Here we had our first experience, and I may say new sensation, of "honey on pie." It has a cloying sound as it is written, but the handmaiden recommended it with enthusiasm, and we evidently fell in her esteem, as persons from an uncultivated society, when we declared our inexperience of "honey on pie." "Where be you from?" It turned out to be very good, and we have tried to introduce it in families since our return, with indifferent success. There did not seem to be in this family much curiosity about the world at large, nor much stir of social life. The gayety of madame appeared to consist in an occasional visit to paw and maw and grandmaw, up the river a few miles, where she was raised.
Refreshed by the honey and fodder at Ramsey's, the pilgrims went gayly along the musical Laurel, in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, which played upon the rapids and illumined all the woody way. Inspired by the misapprehension of the colored philosopher and the dainties of the dinner, the Professor soliloquized:
"So am I as the rich, whose blessed key Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure, The which he will not every hour survey, For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure. Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare, Since seldom coming, in the long year set, Like stones of wealth they thinly placed are, Or captain jewels in the carcanet."
Five miles beyond Ramsey's the Tennessee line was crossed. The Laurel became more rocky, swift, full of rapids, and the valley narrowed down to the riverway, with standing room, however, for stately trees along the banks. The oaks, both black and white, were, as they had been all day, gigantic in size and splendid in foliage. There is a certain dignity in riding in such stately company, and the travelers clattered along over the stony road under the impression of possible high adventure in a new world of such freshness. Nor was beauty wanting. The rhododendrons had, perhaps, a week ago reached their climax, and now began to strew the water and the ground with their brilliant petals, dashing all the way with color; but they were still matchlessly beautiful. Great banks of pink and white covered the steep hillsides; the bending stems, ten to twenty feet high, hung their rich clusters over the river; avenues of glory opened away in the glade of the stream; and at every turn of the winding way vistas glowing with the hues of romance wrenched exclamations of delight and wonder from the Shakespearean sonneteer and his humble Friend. In the deep recesses of the forest suddenly flamed to the view, like the splashes of splendor on the somber canvas of an old Venetian, these wonders of color,—the glowing summer-heart of the woods.
It was difficult to say, meantime, whether the road was laid out in the river, or the river in the road. In the few miles to Egger's (this was the destination of our great expectations for the night) the stream was crossed twenty-seven times,—or perhaps it would be more proper to say that the road was crossed twenty-seven times. Where the road did not run in the river, its bed was washed out and as stony as the bed of the stream. This is a general and accurate description of all the roads in this region, which wind along and in the streams, through narrow valleys, shut in by low and steep hills. The country is full of springs and streams, and between Abingdon and Egger's is only one (small) bridge. In a region with scarcely any level land or intervale, farmers are at a disadvantage. All along the road we saw nothing but mean shanties, generally of logs, with now and then a decent one-story frame, and the people looked miserably poor.
As we picked our way along up the Laurel, obliged for the most part to ride single-file, or as the Professor expressed it,
"Let me confess that we two must be twain, Although our undivided loves are one,"
we gathered information about Egger's from the infrequent hovels on the road, which inflamed our imaginations. Egger was the thriving man of the region, and lived in style in a big brick house. We began to feel a doubt that Egger would take us in, and so much did his brick magnificence impress us that we regretted we had not brought apparel fit for the society we were about to enter.
It was half-past six, and we were tired and hungry, when the domain of Egger towered in sight,—a gaunt, two-story structure of raw brick, unfinished, standing in a narrow intervale. We rode up to the gate, and asked a man who sat in the front-door porch if this was Egger's, and if we could be accommodated for the night. The man, without moving, allowed that it was Egger's, and that we could probably stay there. This person, however, exhibited so much indifference to our company, he was such a hairy, unkempt man, and carried on face, hands, and clothes so much more of the soil of the region than a prudent proprietor would divert from raising corn, that we set him aside as a poor relation, and asked for Mr. Egger. But the man, still without the least hospitable stir, admitted that that was the name he went by, and at length advised us to "lite" and hitch our horses, and sit on the porch with him and enjoy the cool of the evening. The horses would be put up by and by, and in fact things generally would come round some time. This turned out to be the easy way of the country. Mr. Egger was far from being inhospitable, but was in no hurry, and never had been in a hurry. He was not exactly a gentleman of the old school. He was better than that. He dated from the time when there were no schools at all, and he lived in that placid world which is without information and ideas. Mr. Egger showed his superiority by a total lack of curiosity about any other world.
This brick house, magnificent by comparison with other dwellings in this country, seemed to us, on nearer acquaintance, only a thin, crude shell of a house, half unfinished, with bare rooms, the plastering already discolored. In point of furnishing it had not yet reached the "God bless our Home" stage in crewel. In the narrow meadow, a strip of vivid green south of the house, ran a little stream, fed by a copious spring, and over it was built the inevitable spring-house. A post, driven into the bank by the stream, supported a tin wash-basin, and here we performed our ablutions. The traveler gets to like this freedom and primitive luxury.
The farm of Egger produces corn, wheat, grass, and sheep; it is a good enough farm, but most of it lies at an angle of thirty-five to forty degrees. The ridge back of the house, planted in corn, was as steep as the roof of his dwelling. It seemed incredible that it ever could have been plowed, but the proprietor assured us that it was plowed with mules, and I judged that the harvesting must be done by squirrels. The soil is good enough, if it would stay in place, but all the hillsides are seamed with gullies. The discolored state of the streams was accounted for as soon as we saw this cultivated land. No sooner is the land cleared of trees and broken up than it begins to wash. We saw more of this later, especially in North Carolina, where we encountered no stream of water that was not muddy, and saw no cultivated ground that was not washed. The process of denudation is going on rapidly wherever the original forests are girdled (a common way of preparing for crops), or cut away.
As the time passed and there was no sign of supper, the question became a burning one, and we went to explore the kitchen. No sign of it there. No fire in the stove, nothing cooked in the house, of course. Mrs. Egger and her comely young barefooted daughter had still the milking to attend to, and supper must wait for the other chores. It seemed easier to be Mr. Egger, in this state of existence, and sit on the front porch and meditate on the price of mules and the prospect of a crop, than to be Mrs. Egger, whose work was not limited from sun to sun; who had, in fact, a day's work to do after the men-folks had knocked off; whose chances of neighborhood gossip were scanty, whose amusements were confined to a religious meeting once a fortnight. Good, honest people these, not unduly puffed up by the brick house, grubbing away year in and year out. Yes, the young girl said, there was a neighborhood party, now and then, in the winter. What a price to pay for mere life!
Long before supper was ready, nearly nine o'clock, we had almost lost interest in it. Meantime two other guests had arrived, a couple of drovers from North Carolina, who brought into the circle—by this time a wood-fire had been kindled in the sitting-room, which contained a bed, an almanac, and some old copies of a newspaper—a rich flavor of cattle, and talk of the price of steers. As to politics, although a presidential campaign was raging, there was scarcely an echo of it here. This was Johnson County, Tennessee, a strong Republican county but dog-gone it, says Mr. Egger, it's no use to vote; our votes are overborne by the rest of the State. Yes, they'd got a Republican member of Congress,—he'd heard his name, but he'd forgotten it. The drover said he'd heard it also, but he didn't take much interest in such things, though he wasn't any Republican. Parties is pretty much all for office, both agreed. Even the Professor, who was traveling in the interest of Reform, couldn't wake up a discussion out of such a state of mind.
Alas! the supper, served in a room dimly lighted with a smoky lamp, on a long table covered with oilcloth, was not of the sort to arouse the delayed and now gone appetite of a Reformer, and yet it did not lack variety: cornpone (Indian meal stirred up with water and heated through), hot biscuit, slack-baked and livid, fried salt-pork swimming in grease, apple-butter, pickled beets, onions and cucumbers raw, coffee (so-called), buttermilk, and sweet milk when specially asked for (the correct taste, however, is for buttermilk), and pie. This was not the pie of commerce, but the pie of the country,—two thick slabs of dough, with a squeezing of apple between. The profusion of this supper staggered the novices, but the drovers attacked it as if such cooking were a common occurrence and did justice to the weary labors of Mrs. Egger.
Egger is well prepared to entertain strangers, having several rooms and several beds in each room. Upon consultation with the drovers, they said they'd just as soon occupy an apartment by themselves, and we gave up their society for the night. The beds in our chamber had each one sheet, and the room otherwise gave evidence of the modern spirit; for in one corner stood the fashionable aesthetic decoration of our Queen Anne drawing-rooms,—the spinning-wheel. Soothed by this concession to taste, we crowded in between the straw and the home-made blanket and sheet, and soon ceased to hear the barking of dogs and the horned encounters of the drovers' herd.
We parted with Mr. Egger after breakfast (which was a close copy of the supper) with more respect than regret. His total charge for the entertainment of two men and two horses—supper, lodging, and breakfast—was high or low, as the traveler chose to estimate it. It was $1.20: that is, thirty cents for each individual, or ten cents for each meal and lodging.
Our road was a sort of by-way up Gentry Creek and over the Cut Laurel Gap to Worth's, at Creston Post Office, in North Carolina,—the next available halting place, said to be fifteen miles distant, and turning out to be twenty-two, and a rough road. There is a little settlement about Egger's, and the first half mile of our way we had the company of the schoolmistress, a modest, pleasant-spoken girl. Neither she nor any other people we encountered had any dialect or local peculiarity of speech. Indeed, those we encountered that morning had nothing in manner or accent to distinguish them. The novelists had led us to expect something different; and the modest and pretty young lady with frank and open blue eyes, who wore gloves and used the common English speech, had never figured in the fiction of the region. Cherished illusions vanish often on near approach. The day gave no peculiarity of speech to note, except the occasional use of "hit" for "it."
The road over Cut Laurel Gap was very steep and stony, the thermometer mounted up to 80 deg., and, notwithstanding the beauty of the way, the ride became tedious before we reached the summit. On the summit is the dwelling and distillery of a colonel famous in these parts. We stopped at the house for a glass of milk; the colonel was absent, and while the woman in charge went after it, we sat on the veranda and conversed with a young lady, tall, gent, well favored, and communicative, who leaned in the doorway.
"Yes, this house stands on the line. Where you sit, you are in Tennessee; I'm in North Carolina."
"Do you live here?"
"Law, no; I'm just staying a little while at the colonel's. I live over the mountain here, three miles from Taylorsville. I thought I'd be where I could step into North Carolina easy."
"Well, they wanted me to go before the grand jury and testify about some pistol-shooting down by our house, some friends of mine got into a little difficulty,—and I did n't want to. I never has no difficulty with nobody, never says nothing about nobody, has nothing against nobody, and I reckon nobody has nothing against me."
"Did you come alone?"
"Why, of course. I come across the mountain by a path through the woods. That's nothing."
A discreet, pleasant, pretty girl. This surely must be the Esmeralda who lives in these mountains, and adorns low life by her virgin purity and sentiment. As she talked on, she turned from time to time to the fireplace behind her, and discharged a dark fluid from her pretty lips, with accuracy of aim, and with a nonchalance that was not assumed, but belongs to our free-born American girls. I cannot tell why this habit of hers (which is no worse than the sister habit of "dipping") should take her out of the romantic setting that her face and figure had placed her in; but somehow we felt inclined to ride on farther for our heroine.
"And yet," said the Professor, as we left the site of the colonel's thriving distillery, and by a winding, picturesque road through a rough farming country descended into the valley,—"and yet, why fling aside so readily a character and situation so full of romance, on account of a habit of this mountain Helen, which one of our best poets has almost made poetical, in the case of the pioneer taking his westward way, with ox-goad pointing to the sky:
"'He's leaving on the pictured rock His fresh tobacco stain.'
"To my mind the incident has Homeric elements. The Greeks would have looked at it in a large, legendary way. Here is Helen, strong and lithe of limb, ox-eyed, courageous, but woman-hearted and love-inspiring, contended for by all the braves and daring moonshiners of Cut Laurel Gap, pursued by the gallants of two States, the prize of a border warfare of bowie knives and revolvers. This Helen, magnanimous as attractive, is the witness of a pistol difficulty on her behalf, and when wanted by the areopagus, that she may neither implicate a lover nor punish an enemy (having nothing, this noble type of her sex against nobody), skips away to Mount Ida, and there, under the aegis of the flag of her country, in a Licensed Distillery, stands with one slender foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina"
"Like the figure of the Republic itself, superior to state sovereignty," interposed the Friend.
"I beg your pardon," said the Professor, urging up Laura Matilda (for so he called the nervous mare, who fretted herself into a fever in the stony path), "I was quite able to get the woman out of that position without the aid of a metaphor. It is a large and Greek idea, that of standing in two mighty States, superior to the law, looking east and looking west, ready to transfer her agile body to either State on the approach of messengers of the court; and I'll be hanged if I didn't think that her nonchalant rumination of the weed, combined with her lofty moral attitude, added something to the picture."
The Friend said that he was quite willing to join in the extremest defense of the privileges of beauty,—that he even held in abeyance judgment on the practice of dipping; but when it came to chewing, gum was as far as he could go as an allowance for the fair sex.
"When I consider everything that grows Holds in perfection but a little moment..."
The rest of the stanza was lost, for the Professor was splashing through the stream. No sooner had we descended than the fording of streams began again. The Friend had been obliged to stipulate that the Professor should go ahead at these crossings, to keep the impetuous nag of the latter from throwing half the contents of the stream upon his slower and uncomplaining companion.
What a lovely country, but for the heat of noon and the long wearisomeness of the way!—not that the distance was great, but miles and miles more than expected. How charming the open glades of the river, how refreshing the great forests of oak and chestnut, and what a panorama of beauty the banks of rhododendrons, now intermingled with the lighter pink and white of the laurel! In this region the rhododendron is called laurel and the laurel (the sheep-laurel of New England) is called ivy.
At Worth's, well on in the afternoon, we emerged into a wide, open farming intervale, a pleasant place of meadows and streams and decent dwellings. Worth's is the trading center of the region, has a post office and a saw-mill and a big country store; and the dwelling of the proprietor is not unlike a roomy New England country house. Worth's has been immemorially a stopping-place in a region where places of accommodation are few. The proprietor, now an elderly man, whose reminiscences are long ante bellum, has seen the world grow up about him, he the honored, just center of it, and a family come up into the modern notions of life, with a boarding-school education and glimpses of city life and foreign travel. I fancy that nothing but tradition and a remaining Southern hospitality could induce this private family to suffer the incursions of this wayfaring man. Our travelers are not apt to be surprised at anything in American life, but they did not expect to find a house in this region with two pianos and a bevy of young ladies, whose clothes were certainly not made on Cut Laurel Gap, and to read in the books scattered about the house the evidences of the finishing schools with which our country is blessed, nor to find here pupils of the Stonewall Jackson Institute at Abingdon. With a flush of local pride, the Professor took up, in the roomy, pleasant chamber set apart for the guests, a copy of Porter's "Elements of Moral Science."
"Where you see the 'Elements of Moral Science,'" the Friend generalized, "there'll be plenty of water and towels;" and the sign did not fail. The friends intended to read this book in the cool of the day; but as they sat on the long veranda, the voice of a maiden reading the latest novel to a sewing group behind the blinds in the drawing-room; and the antics of a mule and a boy in front of the store opposite; and the arrival of a spruce young man, who had just ridden over from somewhere, a matter of ten miles' gallop, to get a medicinal potion for his sick mother, and lingered chatting with the young ladies until we began to fear that his mother would recover before his return; the coming and going of lean women in shackly wagons to trade at the store; the coming home of the cows, splashing through the stream, hooking right and left, and lowing for the hand of the milker,—all these interruptions, together with the generally drowsy quiet of the approach of evening, interfered with the study of the Elements. And when the travelers, after a refreshing rest, went on their way next morning, considering the Elements and the pianos and the refinement, to say nothing of the cuisine, which is not treated of in the text-book referred to, they were content with a bill double that of brother Egger, in his brick magnificence.
The simple truth is, that the traveler in this region must be content to feed on natural beauties. And it is an unfortunate truth in natural history that the appetite for this sort of diet fails after a time, if the inner man is not supplied with other sort of food. There is no landscape in the world that is agreeable after two days of rusty-bacon and slack biscuit.
"How lovely this would be," exclaimed the Professor, if it had a background of beefsteak and coffee!
We were riding along the west fork of the Laurel, distinguished locally as Three Top Creek,—or, rather, we were riding in it, crossing it thirty-one times within six miles; a charming wood (and water) road, under the shade of fine trees with the rhododendron illuminating the way, gleaming in the forest and reflected in the stream, all the ten miles to Elk Cross Roads, our next destination. We had heard a great deal about Elk Cross Roads; it was on the map, it was down in the itinerary furnished by a member of the Coast Survey. We looked forward to it as a sweet place of repose from the noontide heat. Alas! Elk Cross Roads is a dirty grocery store, encumbered with dry-goods boxes, fly-blown goods, flies, loafers. In reply to our inquiry we were told that they had nothing to eat, for us, and not a grain of feed for the horses. But there was a man a mile farther on, who was well to do and had stores of food,—old man Tatern would treat us in bang-up style. The difficulty of getting feed for the horses was chronic all through the journey. The last corn crop had failed, the new oats and corn had not come in, and the country was literally barren. We had noticed all along that the hens were taking a vacation, and that chickens were not put forward as an article of diet.
We were unable, when we reached the residence of old man Tatem, to imagine how the local superstition of his wealth arose. His house is of logs, with two rooms, a kitchen and a spare room, with a low loft accessible by a ladder at the side of the chimney. The chimney is a huge construction of stone, separating the two parts of the house; in fact, the chimney was built first, apparently, and the two rooms were then built against it. The proprietor sat in a little railed veranda. These Southern verandas give an air to the meanest dwelling, and they are much used; the family sit here, and here are the washbasin and pail (which is filled from the neighboring spring-house), and the row of milk-pans. The old man Tatern did not welcome us with enthusiasm; he had no corn,—these were hard times. He looked like hard times, grizzled times, dirty times. It seemed time out of mind since he had seen comb or razor, and although the lovely New River, along which we had ridden to his house,—a broad, inviting stream,—was in sight across the meadow, there was no evidence that he had ever made acquaintance with its cleansing waters. As to corn, the necessities of the case and pay being dwelt on, perhaps he could find a dozen ears. A dozen small cars he did find, and we trust that the horses found them.
We took a family dinner with old man Tatern in the kitchen, where there was a bed and a stove,—a meal that the host seemed to enjoy, but which we could not make much of, except the milk; that was good. A painful meal, on the whole, owing to the presence in the room of a grown-up daughter with a graveyard cough, without physician or medicine, or comforts. Poor girl! just dying of "a misery."
In the spare room were two beds; the walls were decorated with the gay-colored pictures of patent-medicine advertisements—a favorite art adornment of the region; and a pile of ancient illustrated papers with the usual patent-office report, the thoughtful gift of the member for the district. The old man takes in the "Blue Ridge Baptist," a journal which we found largely taken up with the experiences of its editor on his journeys roundabout in search of subscribers. This newspaper was the sole communication of the family with the world at large, but the old man thought he should stop it, —he did n't seem to get the worth of his money out of it. And old man Tatem was a thrifty and provident man. On the hearth in this best room—as ornaments or memento mori were a couple of marble gravestones, a short headstone and foot-stone, mounted on bases and ready for use, except the lettering. These may not have been so mournful and significant as they looked, nor the evidence of simple, humble faith; they may have been taken for debt. But as parlor ornaments they had a fascination which we could not escape.
It was while we were bathing in the New River, that afternoon, and meditating on the grim, unrelieved sort of life of our host, that the Professor said, "judging by the face of the 'Blue Ridge Baptist,' he will charge us smartly for the few nubbins of corn and the milk." The face did not deceive us; the charge was one dollar. At this rate it would have broken us to have tarried with old man Tatem (perhaps he is not old, but that is the name he goes by) over night.
It was a hot afternoon, and it needed some courage to mount and climb the sandy hill leading us away from the corn-crib of Tatem. But we entered almost immediately into fine stretches of forest, and rode under the shade of great oaks. The way, which began by the New River, soon led us over the hills to the higher levels of Watauga County. So far on our journey we had been hemmed in by low hills, and without any distant or mountain outlooks. The excessive heat seemed out of place at the elevation of over two thousand feet, on which we were traveling. Boone, the county seat of Watauga County, was our destination, and, ever since morning, the guideboards and the trend of the roads had notified us that everything in this region tends towards Boone as a center of interest. The simple ingenuity of some of the guide-boards impressed us. If, on coming to a fork, the traveler was to turn to the right, the sign read,
To BOONE 10 M. If he was to go to the left, it read, .M 01 ENOOB oT
A short ride of nine miles, on an ascending road, through an open, unfenced forest region, brought us long before sundown to this capital. When we had ridden into its single street, which wanders over gentle hills, and landed at the most promising of the taverns, the Friend informed his comrade that Boone was 3250 feet above Albemarle Sound, and believed by its inhabitants to be the highest village east of the Rocky Mountains. The Professor said that it might be so, but it was a God-forsaken place. Its inhabitants numbered perhaps two hundred and fifty, a few of them colored. It had a gaunt, shaky court-house and jail, a store or two, and two taverns. The two taverns are needed to accommodate the judges and lawyers and their clients during the session of the court. The court is the only excitement and the only amusement. It is the event from which other events date. Everybody in the county knows exactly when court sits, and when court breaks. During the session the whole county is practically in Boone, men, women, and children. They camp there, they attend the trials, they take sides; half of them, perhaps, are witnesses, for the region is litigious, and the neighborhood quarrels are entered into with spirit. To be fond of lawsuits seems a characteristic of an isolated people in new conditions. The early settlers of New England were.
Notwithstanding the elevation of Boone, which insured a pure air, the thermometer that afternoon stood at from 85 to 89 deg. The flies enjoyed it. How they swarmed in this tavern! They would have carried off all the food from the dining-room table (for flies do not mind eating off oilcloth, and are not particular how food is cooked), but for the machine with hanging flappers that swept the length of it; and they destroy all possibility of sleep except in the dark. The mountain regions of North Carolina are free from mosquitoes, but the fly has settled there, and is the universal scourge. This tavern, one end of which was a store, had a veranda in front, and a back gallery, where there were evidences of female refinement in pots of plants and flowers. The landlord himself kept tavern very much as a hostler would, but we had to make a note in his favor that he had never heard of a milk punch. And it might as well be said here, for it will have to be insisted on later, that the traveler, who has read about the illicit stills till his imagination dwells upon the indulgence of his vitiated tastes in the mountains of North Carolina, is doomed to disappointment. If he wants to make himself an exception to the sober people whose cooking will make him long for the maddening bowl, he must bring his poison with him. We had found no bread since we left Virginia; we had seen cornmeal and water, slack-baked; we had seen potatoes fried in grease, and bacon incrusted with salt (all thirst-provokers), but nothing to drink stronger than buttermilk. And we can say that, so far as our example is concerned, we left the country as temperate as we found it. How can there be mint juleps (to go into details) without ice? and in the summer there is probably not a pound of ice in all the State north of Buncombe County.
There is nothing special to be said about Boone. We were anxious to reach it, we were glad to leave it; we note as to all these places that our joy at departing always exceeds that on arriving, which is a merciful provision of nature for people who must keep moving. This country is settled by genuine Americans, who have the aboriginal primitive traits of the universal Yankee nation. The front porch in the morning resembled a carpenter's shop; it was literally covered with the whittlings of the row of natives who had spent the evening there in the sedative occupation of whittling.
We took that morning a forest road to Valle Crusis, seven miles, through noble growths of oaks, chestnuts, hemlocks, rhododendrons,—a charming wood road, leading to a place that, as usual, did not keep the promise of its name. Valle Crusis has a blacksmith shop and a dirty, flyblown store. While the Professor consulted the blacksmith about a loose shoe, the Friend carried his weariness of life without provisions up to a white house on the hill, and negotiated for boiled milk. This house was occupied by flies. They must have numbered millions, settled in black swarms, covering tables, beds, walls, the veranda; the kitchen was simply a hive of them. The only book in sight, Whewell's—"Elements of Morality," seemed to attract flies. Query, Why should this have such a different effect from Porter's? A white house,—a pleasant-looking house at a distance,—amiable, kindly people in it,—why should we have arrived there on its dirty day? Alas! if we had been starving, Valle Crusis had nothing to offer us.
So we rode away, in the blazing heat, no poetry exuding from the Professor, eight miles to Banner's Elk, crossing a mountain and passing under Hanging Rock, a conspicuous feature in the landscape, and the only outcropping of rock we had seen: the face of a ledge, rounded up into the sky, with a green hood on it. From the summit we had the first extensive prospect during our journey. The road can be described as awful,—steep, stony, the horses unable to make two miles an hour on it. Now and then we encountered a rude log cabin without barns or outhouses, and a little patch of feeble corn. The women who regarded the passers from their cabin doors were frowzy and looked tired. What with the heat and the road and this discouraged appearance of humanity, we reached the residence of Dugger, at Banner's Elk, to which we had been directed, nearly exhausted. It is no use to represent this as a dash across country on impatient steeds. It was not so. The love of truth is stronger than the desire of display. And for this reason it is impossible to say that Mr. Dugger, who is an excellent man, lives in a clean and attractive house, or that he offers much that the pampered child of civilization can eat. But we shall not forget the two eggs, fresh from the hens, whose temperature must have been above the normal, nor the spring-house in the glen, where we found a refuge from the flies and the heat. The higher we go, the hotter it is. Banner's Elk boasts an elevation of thirty-five to thirty-seven hundred feet.
We were not sorry, towards sunset, to descend along the Elk River towards Cranberry Forge. The Elk is a lovely stream, and, though not very clear, has a reputation for trout; but all this region was under operation of a three-years game law, to give the trout a chance to multiply, and we had no opportunity to test the value of its reputation. Yet a boy whom we encountered had a good string of quarter-pound trout, which he had taken out with a hook and a feather rudely tied on it, to resemble a fly. The road, though not to be commended, was much better than that of the morning, the forests grew charming in the cool of the evening, the whippoorwill sang, and as night fell the wanderers, in want of nearly everything that makes life desirable, stopped at the Iron Company's hotel, under the impression that it was the only comfortable hotel in North Carolina.
Cranberry Forge is the first wedge of civilization fairly driven into the northwest mountains of North Carolina. A narrow-gauge railway, starting from Johnson City, follows up the narrow gorge of the Doe River, and pushes into the heart of the iron mines at Cranberry, where there is a blast furnace; and where a big company store, rows of tenement houses, heaps of slag and refuse ore, interlacing tracks, raw embankments, denuded hillsides, and a blackened landscape, are the signs of a great devastating American enterprise. The Cranberry iron is in great esteem, as it has the peculiar quality of the Swedish iron. There are remains of old furnaces lower down the stream, which we passed on our way. The present "plant" is that of a Philadelphia company, whose enterprise has infused new life into all this region, made it accessible, and spoiled some pretty scenery.
When we alighted, weary, at the gate of the pretty hotel, which crowns a gentle hill and commands a pleasing, evergreen prospect of many gentle hills, a mile or so below the works, and wholly removed from all sordid associations, we were at the point of willingness that the whole country should be devastated by civilization. In the local imagination this hotel of the company is a palace of unequaled magnificence, but probably its good taste, comfort, and quiet elegance are not appreciated after all. There is this to be said about Philadelphia,—and it will go far in pleading for it in the Last Day against its monotonous rectangularity and the babel-like ambition of its Public Building,—that wherever its influence extends, there will be found comfortable lodgings and the luxury of an undeniably excellent cuisine. The visible seal that Philadelphia sets on its enterprise all through the South is a good hotel.
This Cottage Beautiful has on two sides a wide veranda, set about with easy chairs; cheerful parlors and pretty chambers, finished in native woods, among which are conspicuous the satin stripes of the cucumber-tree; luxurious beds, and an inviting table ordered by a Philadelphia landlady, who knows a beefsteak from a boot-tap. Is it "low" to dwell upon these things of the senses, when one is on a tour in search of the picturesque? Let the reader ride from Abingdon through a wilderness of cornpone and rusty bacon, and then judge. There were, to be sure, novels lying about, and newspapers, and fragments of information to be picked up about a world into which the travelers seemed to emerge. They, at least, were satisfied, and went off to their rooms with the restful feeling that they had arrived somewhere and no unquiet spirit at morn would say "to horse." To sleep, perchance to dream of Tatem and his household cemetery; and the Professor was heard muttering in his chamber,
"Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed, The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; But then begins a journey in my head, To work my mind, when body's work's expir'd."
The morning was warm (the elevation of the hotel must be between twenty-five hundred and three thousand feet), rainy, mildly rainy; and the travelers had nothing better to do than lounge upon the veranda, read feeble ten-cent fictions, and admire the stems of the white birches, glistening in the moisture, and the rhododendron —trees, twenty feet high, which were shaking off their last pink blossoms, and look down into the valley of the Doe. It is not an exciting landscape, nothing bold or specially wild in it, but restful with the monotony of some of the wooded Pennsylvania hills.
Sunday came up smiling, a lovely day, but offering no church privileges, for the ordinance of preaching is only occasional in this region. The ladies of the hotel have, however, gathered in the valley a Sunday-school of fifty children from the mountain cabins. A couple of rainy days, with the thermometer rising to 80 deg., combined with natural laziness to detain the travelers in this cottage of ease. They enjoyed this the more because it was on their consciences that they should visit Linville Falls, some twenty-five miles eastward, long held up before them as the most magnificent feature of this region, and on no account to be omitted. Hence, naturally, a strong desire to omit it. The Professor takes bold ground against these abnormal freaks of nature, and it was nothing to him that the public would demand that we should see Linville Falls. In the first place, we could find no one who had ever seen them, and we spent two days in catechizing natives and strangers. The nearest we came to information was from a workman at the furnace, who was born and raised within three miles of the Falls. He had heard of people going there. He had never seen them himself. It was a good twenty-five miles there, over the worst road in the State we'd think it thirty before we got there. Fifty miles of such travel to see a little water run down-hill! The travelers reflected. Every country has a local waterfall of which it boasts; they had seen a great many. One more would add little to the experience of life. The vagueness of information, to be sure, lured the travelers to undertake the journey; but the temptation was resisted—something ought to be left for the next explorer—and so Linville remains a thing of the imagination.
Towards evening, July 29, between showers, the Professor and the Friend rode along the narrow-gauge road, down Johnson's Creek, to Roan Station, the point of departure for ascending Roan Mountain. It was a ride of an hour and a half over a fair road, fringed with rhododendrons, nearly blossomless; but at a point on the stream this sturdy shrub had formed a long bower where under a table might have been set for a temperance picnic, completely overgrown with wild grape, and still gay with bloom. The habitations on the way are mostly board shanties and mean frame cabins, but the railway is introducing ambitious architecture here and there in the form of ornamental filigree work on flimsy houses; ornamentation is apt to precede comfort in our civilization.
Roan Station is on the Doe River (which flows down from Roan Mountain), and is marked at 1265 feet above the sea. The visitor will find here a good hotel, with open wood fires (not ungrateful in a July evening), and obliging people. This railway from Johnson City, hanging on the edge of the precipices that wall the gorge of the Doe, is counted in this region by the inhabitants one of the engineering wonders of the world. The tourist is urged by all means to see both it and Linville Falls.
The tourist on horseback, in search of exercise and recreation, is not probably expected to take stock of moral conditions. But this Mitchell County, although it was a Union county during the war and is Republican in politics (the Southern reader will perhaps prefer another adverb to "although"), has had the worst possible reputation. The mountains were hiding-places of illicit distilleries; the woods were full of grog-shanties, where the inflaming fluid was sold as "native brandy," quarrels and neighborhood difficulties were frequent, and the knife and pistol were used on the slightest provocation. Fights arose about boundaries and the title to mica mines, and with the revenue officers; and force was the arbiter of all disputes. Within the year four murders were committed in the sparsely settled county. Travel on any of the roads was unsafe. The tone of morals was what might be expected with such lawlessness. A lady who came up on the road on the 4th of July, when an excursion party of country people took possession of the cars, witnessed a scene and heard language past belief. Men, women, and children drank from whisky bottles that continually circulated, and a wild orgy resulted. Profanity, indecent talk on topics that even the license of the sixteenth century would not have tolerated, and freedom of manners that even Teniers would have shrunk from putting on canvas, made the journey horrible.
The unrestrained license of whisky and assault and murder had produced a reaction a few months previous to our visit. The people had risen up in their indignation and broken up the groggeries. So far as we observed temperance prevailed, backed by public-opinion. In our whole ride through the mountain region we saw only one or two places where liquor was sold.
It is called twelve miles from Roan Station to Roan Summit. The distance is probably nearer fourteen, and our horses were five hours in walking it. For six miles the road runs by Doe River, here a pretty brook shaded with laurel and rhododendron, and a few cultivated patches of ground, and infrequent houses. It was a blithe morning, and the horsemen would have given full indulgence to the spirit of adventure but for the attitude of the Professor towards mountains. It was not with him a matter of feeling, but of principle, not to ascend them. But here lay Roan, a long, sprawling ridge, lifting itself 6250 feet up into the sky. Impossible to go around it, and the other side must be reached. The Professor was obliged to surrender, and surmount a difficulty which he could not philosophize out of his mind.
From the base of the mountain a road is very well engineered, in easy grades for carriages, to the top; but it was in poor repair and stony. We mounted slowly through splendid forests, specially of fine chestnuts and hemlocks. This big timber continues till within a mile and a half of the summit by the winding road, really within a short distance of the top. Then there is a narrow belt of scrubby hardwood, moss-grown, and then large balsams, which crown the mountain. As soon as we came out upon the southern slope we found great open spaces, covered with succulent grass, and giving excellent pasturage to cattle. These rich mountain meadows are found on all the heights of this region. The surface of Roan is uneven, and has no one culminating peak that commands the country, like the peak of Mount Washington, but several eminences within its range of probably a mile and a half, where various views can be had. Near the highest point, sheltered from the north by balsams, stands a house of entertainment, with a detached cottage, looking across the great valley to the Black Mountain range. The surface of the mountain is pebbly, but few rocks crop out; no ledges of any size are seen except at a distance from the hotel, on the north side, and the mountain consequently lacks that savage, unsubduable aspect which the White Hills of New Hampshire have. It would, in fact, have been difficult to realize that we were over six thousand feet above the sea, except for that pallor in the sunlight, that atmospheric thinness and want of color which is an unpleasant characteristic of high altitudes. To be sure, there is a certain brilliancy in the high air,—it is apt to be foggy on Roan,—and objects appear in sharp outline, but I have often experienced on such places that feeling of melancholy, which would, of course, deepen upon us all if we were sensible that the sun was gradually withdrawing its power of warmth and light. The black balsam is neither a cheerful nor a picturesque tree; the frequent rains and mists on Roan keep the grass and mosses green, but the ground damp. Doubtless a high mountain covered with vegetation has its compensation, but for me the naked granite rocks in sun and shower are more cheerful.
The advantage of Roan is that one can live there and be occupied for a long time in mineral and botanical study. Its mild climate, moisture, and great elevation make it unique in this country for the botanist. The variety of plants assembled there is very large, and there are many, we were told, never or rarely found elsewhere in the United States. At any rate, the botanists rave about Roan Mountain, and spend weeks at a time on it. We found there ladies who could draw for us Grey's lily (then passed), and had kept specimens of the rhododendron (not growing elsewhere in this region) which has a deep red, almost purple color.
The hotel (since replaced by a good house) was a rude mountain structure, with a couple of comfortable rooms for office and sitting-room, in which big wood fires were blazing; for though the thermometer might record 60 deg., as it did when we arrived, fire was welcome. Sleeping-places partitioned off in the loft above gave the occupants a feeling of camping out, all the conveniences being primitive; and when the wind rose in the night and darkness, and the loose boards rattled and the timbers creaked, the sensation was not unlike that of being at sea. The hotel was satisfactorily kept, and Southern guests, from as far south as New Orleans, were spending the season there, and not finding time hang heavy on their hands. This statement is perhaps worth more than pages of description as to the character of Roan, and its contrast to Mount Washington.
The summer weather is exceedingly uncertain on all these North Carolina mountains; they are apt at any moment to be enveloped in mist; and it would rather rain on them than not. On the afternoon of our arrival there was fine air and fair weather, but not a clear sky. The distance was hazy, but the outlines were preserved. We could see White Top, in Virginia; Grandfather Mountain, a long serrated range; the twin towers of Linville; and the entire range of the Black Mountains, rising from the valley, and apparently lower than we were. They get the name of Black from the balsams which cover the summits.
The rain on Roan was of less annoyance by reason of the delightful company assembled at the hotel, which was in a manner at home there, and, thrown upon its own resources, came out uncommonly strong in agreeableness. There was a fiddle in the house, which had some of the virtues of that celebrated in the history of old Mark Langston; the Professor was enabled to produce anything desired out of the literature of the eighteenth century; and what with the repartee of bright women, big wood fires, reading, and chat, there was no dull day or evening on Roan. I can fancy, however, that it might tire in time, if one were not a botanist, without the resource of women's society. The ladies staying here were probably all accomplished botanists, and the writer is indebted to one of them for a list of plants found on Roan, among which is an interesting weed, catalogued as Humana, perplexia negligens. The species is, however, common elsewhere.
The second morning opened, after a night of high wind, with a thunder-shower. After it passed, the visitors tried to reach Eagle Cliff, two miles off, whence an extensive western prospect is had, but were driven back by a tempest, and rain practically occupied the day. Now and then through the parted clouds we got a glimpse of a mountain-side, or the gleam of a valley. On the lower mountains, at wide intervals apart, were isolated settlements, commonly a wretched cabin and a spot of girdled trees. A clergyman here, not long ago, undertook to visit some of these cabins and carry his message to them. In one wretched hut of logs he found a poor woman, with whom, after conversation on serious subjects, he desired to pray. She offered no objection, and he kneeled down and prayed. The woman heard him, and watched him for some moments with curiosity, in an effort to ascertain what he was doing, and then said:
"Why, a man did that when he put my girl in a hole."
Towards night the wind hauled round from the south to the northwest, and we went to High Bluff, a point on the north edge, where some rocks are piled up above the evergreens, to get a view of the sunset. In every direction the mountains were clear, and a view was obtained of the vast horizon and the hills and lowlands of several States—a continental prospect, scarcely anywhere else equaled for variety or distance. The grandeur of mountains depends mostly on the state of the atmosphere. Grandfather loomed up much more loftily than the day before, the giant range of the Blacks asserted itself in grim inaccessibility, and we could see, a small pyramid on the southwest horizon, King's Mountain in South Carolina, estimated to be distant one hundred and fifty miles. To the north Roan falls from this point abruptly, and we had, like a map below us, the low country all the way into Virginia. The clouds lay like lakes in the valleys of the lower hills, and in every direction were ranges of mountains wooded to the summits. Off to the west by south lay the Great Smoky Mountains, disputing eminence with the Blacks.
Magnificent and impressive as the spectacle was, we were obliged to contrast it unfavorably with that of the White Hills. The rock here is a sort of sand or pudding stone; there is no limestone or granite. And all the hills are tree-covered. To many this clothing of verdure is most restful and pleasing. I missed the sharp outlines, the delicate artistic sky lines, sharply defined in uplifted bare granite peaks and ridges, with the purple and violet color of the northern mountains, and which it seems to me that limestone and granite formations give. There are none of the great gorges and awful abysses of the White Mountains, both valleys and mountains here being more uniform in outline. There are few precipices and jutting crags, and less is visible of the giant ribs and bones of the planet.
Yet Roan is a noble mountain. A lady from Tennessee asked me if I had ever seen anything to compare with it—she thought there could be nothing in the world. One has to dodge this sort of question in the South occasionally, not to offend a just local pride. It is certainly one of the most habitable of big mountains. It is roomy on top, there is space to move about without too great fatigue, and one might pleasantly spend a season there, if he had agreeable company and natural tastes.
Getting down from Roan on the south side is not as easy as ascending on the north; the road for five miles to the foot of the mountain is merely a river of pebbles, gullied by the heavy rains, down which the horses picked their way painfully. The travelers endeavored to present a dashing and cavalier appearance to the group of ladies who waved good-by from the hotel, as they took their way over the waste and wind-blown declivities, but it was only a show, for the horses would neither caracole nor champ the bit (at a dollar a day) down-hill over the slippery stones, and, truth to tell, the wanderers turned with regret from the society of leisure and persiflage to face the wilderness of Mitchell County.
"How heavy," exclaimed the Professor, pricking Laura Matilda to call her attention sharply to her footing—
"How heavy do I journey on the way, When what I seek—my weary travel's end Doth teach that ease and that repose to say, Thus far the miles are measur'd from thy friend! The beast that bears me, tired with my woe, Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me, As if by some instinct the wretch did know His rider loved not speed, being made from thee: The bloody spur cannot provoke him on That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide, Which heavily he answers with a groan, More sharp to me than spurring to his side; For that same groan doth put this in my mind; My grief lies onward and my joy behind."
This was not spoken to the group who fluttered their farewells, but poured out to the uncomplaining forest, which rose up in ever statelier—and grander ranks to greet the travelers as they descended—the silent, vast forest, without note of bird or chip of squirrel, only the wind tossing the great branches high overhead in response to the sonnet. Is there any region or circumstance of life that the poet did not forecast and provide for? But what would have been his feelings if he could have known that almost three centuries after these lines were penned, they would be used to express the emotion of an unsentimental traveler in the primeval forests of the New World? At any rate, he peopled the New World with the children of his imagination. And, thought the Friend, whose attention to his horse did not permit him to drop into poetry, Shakespeare might have had a vision of this vast continent, though he did not refer to it, when he exclaimed:
"What is your substance, whereof are you made, That millions of strange shadows on you tend?"
Bakersville, the capital of Mitchell County, is eight miles from the top of Roan, and the last three miles of the way the horsemen found tolerable going, over which the horses could show their paces. The valley looked fairly thrifty and bright, and was a pleasing introduction to Bakersville, a pretty place in the hills, of some six hundred inhabitants, with two churches, three indifferent hotels, and a court-house. This mountain town, 2550 feet above the sea, is said to have a decent winter climate, with little snow, favorable to fruit-growing, and, by contrast with New England, encouraging to people with weak lungs.
This is the center of the mica mining, and of considerable excitement about minerals. All around, the hills are spotted with "diggings." Most of the mines which yield well show signs of having been worked before, a very long time ago, no doubt by the occupants before the Indians. The mica is of excellent quality and easily mined. It is got out in large irregular-shaped blocks and transported to the factories, where it is carefully split by hand, and the laminae, of as large size as can be obtained, are trimmed with shears and tied up in packages for market. The quantity of refuse, broken, and rotten mica piled up about the factories is immense, and all the roads round about glisten with its scales. Garnets are often found imbedded in the laminae, flattened by the extreme pressure to which the mass was subjected. It is fascinating material, this mica, to handle, and we amused ourselves by experimenting on the thinness to which its scales could be reduced by splitting. It was at Bakersville that we saw specimens of mica that resembled the delicate tracery in the moss-agate and had the iridescent sheen of the rainbow colors—the most delicate greens, reds, blues, purples, and gold, changing from one to the other in the reflected light. In the texture were the tracings of fossil forms of ferns and the most exquisite and delicate vegetable beauty of the coal age. But the magnet shows this tracery to be iron. We were shown also emeralds and "diamonds," picked up in this region, and there is a mild expectation in all the inhabitants of great mineral treasure. A singular product of the region is the flexible sandstone. It is a most uncanny stone. A slip of it a couple of feet long and an inch in diameter each way bends in the hand like a half-frozen snake. This conduct of a substance that we have been taught to regard as inflexible impairs one's confidence in the stability of nature and affects him as an earthquake does.
This excitement over mica and other minerals has the usual effect of starting up business and creating bad blood. Fortunes have been made, and lost in riotous living; scores of visionary men have been disappointed; lawsuits about titles and claims have multiplied, and quarrels ending in murder have been frequent in the past few years. The mica and the illicit whisky have worked together to make this region one of lawlessness and violence. The travelers were told stories of the lack of common morality and decency in the region, but they made no note of them. And, perhaps fortunately, they were not there during court week to witness the scenes of license that were described. This court week, which draws hither the whole population, is a sort of Saturnalia. Perhaps the worst of this is already a thing of the past; for the outrages a year before had reached such a pass that by a common movement the sale of whisky was stopped (not interdicted, but stopped), and not a drop of liquor could be bought in Bakersville nor within three miles of it.
The jail at Bakersville is a very simple residence. The main building is brick, two stories high and about twelve feet square. The walls are so loosely laid up that it seems as if a colored prisoner might butt his head through. Attached to this is a room for the jailer. In the lower room is a wooden cage, made of logs bolted together and filled with spikes, nine feet by ten feet square and perhaps seven or eight feet high. Between this cage and the wall is a space of eighteen inches in width. It has a narrow door, and an opening through which the food is passed to the prisoners, and a conduit leading out of it. Of course it soon becomes foul, and in warm weather somewhat warm. A recent prisoner, who wanted more ventilation than the State allowed him, found some means, by a loose plank, I think, to batter a hole in the outer wall opposite the window in the cage, and this ragged opening, seeming to the jailer a good sanitary arrangement, remains. Two murderers occupied this apartment at the time of our visit. During the recent session of court, ten men had been confined in this narrow space, without room enough for them to lie down together. The cage in the room above, a little larger, had for tenant a person who was jailed for some misunderstanding about an account, and who was probably innocent —from the jailer's statement. This box is a wretched residence, month after month, while awaiting trial.
We learned on inquiry that it is practically impossible to get a jury to convict of murder in this region, and that these admitted felons would undoubtedly escape. We even heard that juries were purchasable here, and that a man's success in court depended upon the length of his purse. This is such an unheard-of thing that we refused to credit it. When the Friend attempted to arouse the indignation of the Professor about the barbarity of this jail, the latter defended it on the ground that as confinement was the only punishment that murderers were likely to receive in this region, it was well to make their detention disagreeable to them. But the Friend did not like this wild-beast cage for men, and could only exclaim,
"Oh, murder! what crimes are done in thy name."
If the comrades wished an adventure, they had a small one, more interesting to them than to the public, the morning they left Bakersville to ride to Burnsville, which sets itself up as the capital of Yancey. The way for the first three miles lay down a small creek and in a valley fairly settled, the houses, a store, and a grist-mill giving evidence of the new enterprise of the region. When Toe River was reached, there was a choice of routes. We might ford the Toe at that point, where the river was wide, but shallow, and the crossing safe, and climb over the mountain by a rough but sightly road, or descend the stream by a better road and ford the river at a place rather dangerous to those unfamiliar with it. The danger attracted us, but we promptly chose the hill road on account of the views, for we were weary of the limited valley prospects.
The Toe River, even here, where it bears westward, is a very respectable stream in size, and not to be trifled with after a shower. It gradually turns northward, and, joining the Nollechucky, becomes part of the Tennessee system. We crossed it by a long, diagonal ford, slipping and sliding about on the round stones, and began the ascent of a steep hill. The sun beat down unmercifully, the way was stony, and the horses did not relish the weary climbing. The Professor, who led the way, not for the sake of leadership, but to be the discoverer of laden blackberry bushes, which began to offer occasional refreshment, discouraged by the inhospitable road and perhaps oppressed by the moral backwardness of things in general, cried out:
"Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,— As, to behold desert a beggar born, And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity, And purest faith unhappily foresworn, And gilded honor shamefully misplaced, And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, And right perfection wrongfully disgraced, And strength by limping sway disabled, And art made tongue-tied by authority, And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill, And simple truth miscall'd simplicity, And captive good attending captain ill: Tired with all these, from these would I be gone, Save that, to die, I leave my love alone."
In the midst of a lively discussion of this pessimistic view of the inequalities of life, in which desert and capacity are so often put at disadvantage by birth in beggarly conditions, and brazen assumption raises the dust from its chariot wheels for modest merit to plod along in, the Professor swung himself off his horse to attack a blackberry bush, and the Friend, representing simple truth, and desirous of getting a wider prospect, urged his horse up the hill. At the top he encountered a stranger, on a sorrel horse, with whom he entered into conversation and extracted all the discouragement the man had as to the road to Burnsville.
Nevertheless, the view opened finely and extensively. There are few exhilarations comparable to that of riding or walking along a high ridge, and the spirits of the traveler rose many degrees above the point of restful death, for which the Professor was crying when he encountered the blackberry bushes. Luckily the Friend soon fell in with a like temptation, and dismounted. He discovered something that spoiled his appetite for berries. His coat, strapped on behind the saddle, had worked loose, the pocket was open, and the pocket-book was gone. This was serious business. For while the Professor was the cashier, and traveled like a Rothschild, with large drafts, the Friend represented the sub-treasury. That very morning, in response to inquiry as to the sinews of travel, the Friend had displayed, without counting, a roll of bills. These bills had now disappeared, and when the Friend turned back to communicate his loss, in the character of needy nothing not trimm'd in jollity, he had a sympathetic listener to the tale of woe.
Going back on such a journey is the woefulest experience, but retrace our steps we must. Perhaps the pocket-book lay in the road not half a mile back. But not in half a mile, or a mile, was it found. Probably, then, the man on the sorrel horse had picked it up. But who was the man on the sorrel horse, and where had he gone? Probably the coat worked loose in crossing Toe River and the pocket-book had gone down-stream. The number of probabilities was infinite, and each more plausible than the others as it occurred to us. We inquired at every house we had passed on the way, we questioned every one we met. At length it began to seem improbable that any one would remember if he had picked up a pocketbook that morning. This is just the sort of thing that slips an untrained memory.
At a post office or doctor's shop, or inn for drovers, it might be either or neither, where several horses were tied to the fence, and a group of men were tilted back in cane chairs on the veranda, we unfolded our misfortune and made particular inquiries for a man on a sorrel horse. Yes, such a man, David Thomas by name, had just ridden towards Bakersville. If he had found the pocket-book, we would recover it. He was an honest man. It might, however, fall into hands that would freeze to it.
Upon consultation, it was the general verdict that there were men in the county who would keep it if they had picked it up. But the assembly manifested the liveliest interest in the incident. One suggested Toe River. Another thought it risky to drop a purse on any road. But there was a chorus of desire expressed that we should find it, and in this anxiety was exhibited a decided sensitiveness about the honor of Mitchell County. It seemed too bad that a stranger should go away with the impression that it was not safe to leave money anywhere in it. We felt very much obliged for this genuine sympathy, and we told them that if a pocket-book were lost in this way on a Connecticut road, there would be felt no neighborhood responsibility for it, and that nobody would take any interest in the incident except the man who lost, and the man who found.
By the time the travelers pulled up at a store in Bakersville they had lost all expectation of recovering the missing article, and were discussing the investment of more money in an advertisement in the weekly newspaper of the capital. The Professor, whose reform sentiments agreed with those of the newspaper, advised it. There was a group of idlers, mica acquaintances of the morning, and philosophers in front of the store, and the Friend opened the colloquy by asking if a man named David Thomas had been seen in town. He was in town, had ridden in within an hour, and his brother, who was in the group, would go in search of him. The information was then given of the loss, and that the rider had met David Thomas just before it was discovered, on the mountain beyond the Toe. The news made a sensation, and by the time David Thomas appeared a crowd of a hundred had drawn around the horsemen eager for further developments. Mr. Thomas was the least excited of the group as he took his position on the sidewalk, conscious of the dignity of the occasion and that he was about to begin a duel in which both reputation and profit were concerned. He recollected meeting the travelers in the morning.
The Friend said, "I discovered that I had lost my purse just after meeting you; it may have been dropped in Toe River, but I was told back here that if David Thomas had picked it up, it was as safe as if it were in the bank."
"What sort of a pocket-book was it?" asked Mr. Thomas.
"It was of crocodile skin, or what is sold for that, very likely it is an imitation, and about so large indicating the size."
"What had it in it?"
"Various things. Some specimens of mica; some bank checks, some money."
"Yes, a photograph. And, oh, something that I presume is not in another pocket-book in North Carolina,—in an envelope, a lock of the hair of George Washington, the Father of his Country." Sensation mixed with incredulity. Washington's hair did seem such an odd part of an outfit for a journey of this kind.
"How much money was in it?"
"That I cannot say, exactly. I happen to remember four twenty-dollar United States notes, and a roll of small bills, perhaps something over a hundred dollars."
"Is that the pocket-book?" asked David Thomas, slowly pulling the loved and lost out of his trousers pocket.
"You'd be willing to take your oath on it?"
"I should be delighted to."
"Well, I guess there ain't so much money in it. You can count it [handing it over]; there hain't been nothing taken out. I can't read, but my friend here counted it over, and he says there ain't as much as that."
Intense interest in the result of the counting. One hundred and ten dollars! The Friend selected one of the best engraved of the notes, and appealed to the crowd if they thought that was the square thing to do. They did so think, and David Thomas said it was abundant. And then said the Friend:
"I'm exceedingly grateful to you besides. Washington's hair is getting scarce, and I did not want to lose these few hairs, gray as they are. You've done the honest thing, Mr. Thomas, as was expected of you. You might have kept the whole. But I reckon if there had been five hundred dollars in the book and you had kept it, it wouldn't have done you half as much good as giving it up has done; and your reputation as an honest man is worth a good deal more than this pocket-book. [The Professor was delighted with this sentiment, because it reminded him of a Sunday-school.] I shall go away with a high opinion of the honesty of Mitchell County."
"Oh, he lives in Yancey," cried two or three voices. At which there was a great laugh.
"Well, I wondered where he came from." And the Mitchell County people laughed again at their own expense, and the levee broke up. It was exceedingly gratifying, as we spread the news of the recovered property that afternoon at every house on our way to the Toe, to see what pleasure it gave. Every man appeared to feel that the honor of the region had been on trial—and had stood the test.
The eighteen miles to Burnsville had now to be added to the morning excursion, but the travelers were in high spirits, feeling the truth of the adage that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all. They decided, on reflection, to join company with the mail-rider, who was going to Burnsville by the shorter route, and could pilot them over the dangerous ford of the Toe.
The mail-rider was a lean, sallow, sinewy man, mounted on a sorry sorrel nag, who proved, however, to have blood in her, and to be a fast walker and full of endurance. The mail-rider was taciturn, a natural habit for a man who rides alone the year round, over a lonely road, and has nothing whatever to think of. He had been in the war sixteen months, in Hugh White's regiment,—reckon you've heerd of him?
"Was he on the Union or Confederate side?"
"Were you in any engagements?"
"Did you have any fighting?"
"What did you do?"
"What did you do in Hugh White's regiment?"
"Oh, just cavorted round the mountains."
"You lived on the country?"
"Picked up what you could find, corn, bacon, horses?"
"That's about so. Did n't make much difference which side was round, the country got cleaned out."
"Plunder seems to have been the object?"
"You got a living out of the farmers?"
Our friend and guide seemed to have been a jayhawker and mountain marauder—on the right side. His attachment to the word "which" prevented any lively flow of conversation, and there seemed to be only two trains of ideas running in his mind: one was the subject of horses and saddles, and the other was the danger of the ford we were coming to, and he exhibited a good deal of ingenuity in endeavoring to excite our alarm. He returned to the ford from every other conversational excursion, and after every silence.
"I do' know's there 's any great danger; not if you know the ford. Folks is carried away there. The Toe gits up sudden. There's been right smart rain lately.
"If you're afraid, you can git set over in a dugout, and I'll take your horses across. Mebbe you're used to fording? It's a pretty bad ford for them as don't know it. But you'll get along if you mind your eye. There's some rocks you'll have to look out for. But you'll be all right if you follow me."
Not being very successful in raising an interest in the dangers of his ford, although he could not forego indulging a malicious pleasure in trying to make the strangers uncomfortable, he finally turned his attention to a trade. "This hoss of mine," he said, "is just the kind of brute-beast you want for this country. Your hosses is too heavy. How'll you swap for that one o' yourn?" The reiterated assertion that the horses were not ours, that they were hired, made little impression on him. All the way to Burnsville he kept referring to the subject of a trade. The instinct of "swap" was strong in him. When we met a yoke of steers, he turned round and bantered the owner for a trade. Our saddles took his fancy. They were of the army pattern, and he allowed that one of them would just suit him. He rode a small flat English pad, across which was flung the United States mail pouch, apparently empty. He dwelt upon the fact that his saddle was new and ours were old, and the advantages that would accrue to us from the exchange. He did n't care if they had been through the war, as they had, for he fancied an army saddle. The Friend answered for himself that the saddle he rode belonged to a distinguished Union general, and had a bullet in it that was put there by a careless Confederate in the first battle of Bull Run, and the owner would not part with it for money. But the mail-rider said he did n't mind that. He would n't mind swapping his new saddle for my old one and the rubber coat and leggings. Long before we reached the ford we thought we would like to swap the guide, even at the, risk of drowning. The ford was passed, in due time, with no inconvenience save that of wet feet, for the stream was breast high to the horses; but being broad and swift and full of sunken rocks and slippery stones, and the crossing tortuous, it is not a ford to be commended. There is a curious delusion that a rider has in crossing a swift broad stream. It is that he is rapidly drifting up-stream, while in fact the tendency of the horse is to go with the current.