Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 56
THE slaughter-house is gone from the mouth of Bear Creek and so is the small jail (or 'calaboose') which once stood in its neighborhood. A citizen asked, 'Do you remember when Jimmy Finn, the town drunkard, was burned to death in the calaboose?'
Observe, now, how history becomes defiled, through lapse of time and the help of the bad memories of men. Jimmy Finn was not burned in the calaboose, but died a natural death in a tan vat, of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion. When I say natural death, I mean it was a natural death for Jimmy Finn to die. The calaboose victim was not a citizen; he was a poor stranger, a harmless whiskey-sodden tramp. I know more about his case than anybody else; I knew too much of it, in that bygone day, to relish speaking of it. That tramp was wandering about the streets one chilly evening, with a pipe in his mouth, and begging for a match; he got neither matches nor courtesy; on the contrary, a troop of bad little boys followed him around and amused themselves with nagging and annoying him. I assisted; but at last, some appeal which the wayfarer made for forbearance, accompanying it with a pathetic reference to his forlorn and friendless condition, touched such sense of shame and remnant of right feeling as were left in me, and I went away and got him some matches, and then hied me home and to bed, heavily weighted as to conscience, and unbuoyant in spirit. An hour or two afterward, the man was arrested and locked up in the calaboose by the marshal--large name for a constable, but that was his title. At two in the morning, the church bells rang for fire, and everybody turned out, of course--I with the rest. The tramp had used his matches disastrously: he had set his straw bed on fire, and the oaken sheathing of the room had caught. When I reached the ground, two hundred men, women, and children stood massed together, transfixed with horror, and staring at the grated windows of the jail. Behind the iron bars, and tugging frantically at them, and screaming for help, stood the tramp; he seemed like a black object set against a sun, so white and intense was the light at his back. That marshal could not be found, and he had the only key. A battering-ram was quickly improvised, and the thunder of its blows upon the door had so encouraging a sound that the spectators broke into wild cheering, and believed the merciful battle won. But it was not so. The timbers were too strong; they did not yield. It was said that the man's death-grip still held fast to the bars after he was dead; and that in this position the fires wrapped him about and consumed him. As to this, I do not know. What was seen after I recognized the face that was pleading through the bars was seen by others, not by me.
I saw that face, so situated, every night for a long time afterward; and I believed myself as guilty of the man's death as if I had given him the matches purposely that he might burn himself up with them. I had not a doubt that I should be hanged if my connection with this tragedy were found out. The happenings and the impressions of that time are burnt into my memory, and the study of them entertains me as much now as they themselves distressed me then. If anybody spoke of that grisly matter, I was all ears in a moment, and alert to hear what might be said, for I was always dreading and expecting to find out that I was suspected; and so fine and so delicate was the perception of my guilty conscience, that it often detected suspicion in the most purposeless remarks, and in looks, gestures, glances of the eye which had no significance, but which sent me shivering away in a panic of fright, just the same. And how sick it made me when somebody dropped, howsoever carelessly and barren of intent, the remark that 'murder will out!' For a boy of ten years, I was carrying a pretty weighty cargo.
All this time I was blessedly forgetting one thing--the fact that I was an inveterate talker in my sleep. But one night I awoke and found my bed-mate--my younger brother--sitting up in bed and contemplating me by the light of the moon. I said--
'What is the matter?'
'You talk so much I can't sleep.'
I came to a sitting posture in an instant, with my kidneys in my throat and my hair on end.
'What did I say. Quick--out with it--what did I say?'
'It's a lie--you know everything.'
'Everything about what?'
'You know well enough. About THAT.'
'About WHAT?--I don't know what you are talking about. I think you are sick or crazy or something. But anyway, you're awake, and I'll get to sleep while I've got a chance.'
He fell asleep and I lay there in a cold sweat, turning this new terror over in the whirling chaos which did duty as my mind. The burden of my thought was, How much did I divulge? How much does he know?--what a distress is this uncertainty! But by and by I evolved an idea--I would wake my brother and probe him with a supposititious case. I shook him up, and said--
'Suppose a man should come to you drunk--'
'This is foolish--I never get drunk.'
'I don't mean you, idiot--I mean the man. Suppose a MAN should come to you drunk, and borrow a knife, or a tomahawk, or a pistol, and you forgot to tell him it was loaded, and--'
'How could you load a tomahawk?'
'I don't mean the tomahawk, and I didn't say the tomahawk; I said the pistol. Now don't you keep breaking in that way, because this is serious. There's been a man killed.'
'What! in this town?'
'Yes, in this town.'
'Well, go on--I won't say a single word.'
'Well, then, suppose you forgot to tell him to be careful with it, because it was loaded, and he went off and shot himself with that pistol--fooling with it, you know, and probably doing it by accident, being drunk. Well, would it be murder?'
'No, no. I don't mean HIS act, I mean yours: would you be a murderer for letting him have that pistol?'
After deep thought came this answer--
'Well, I should think I was guilty of something--maybe murder--yes, probably murder, but I don't quite know.'
This made me very uncomfortable. However, it was not a decisive verdict. I should have to set out the real case--there seemed to be no other way. But I would do it cautiously, and keep a watch out for suspicious effects. I said--
'I was supposing a case, but I am coming to the real one now. Do you know how the man came to be burned up in the calaboose?'
'Haven't you the least idea?'
'Not the least.'
'Wish you may die in your tracks if you have?'
'Yes, wish I may die in my tracks.'
'Well, the way of it was this. The man wanted some matches to light his pipe. A boy got him some. The man set fire to the calaboose with those very matches, and burnt himself up.'
'Is that so?'
'Yes, it is. Now, is that boy a murderer, do you think?'
'Let me see. The man was drunk?'
'Yes, he was drunk.'
'And the boy knew it?'
'Yes, he knew it.'
There was a long pause. Then came this heavy verdict--
'If the man was drunk, and the boy knew it, the boy murdered that man. This is certain.'
Faint, sickening sensations crept along all the fibers of my body, and I seemed to know how a person feels who hears his death sentence pronounced from the bench. I waited to hear what my brother would say next. I believed I knew what it would be, and I was right. He said--
'I know the boy.'
I had nothing to say; so I said nothing. I simply shuddered. Then he added--
'Yes, before you got half through telling about the thing, I knew perfectly well who the boy was; it was Ben Coontz!'
I came out of my collapse as one who rises from the dead. I said, with admiration--
'Why, how in the world did you ever guess it?'
'You told it in your sleep.'
I said to myself, 'How splendid that is! This is a habit which must be cultivated.'
My brother rattled innocently on--
'When you were talking in your sleep, you kept mumbling something about "matches," which I couldn't make anything out of; but just now, when you began to tell me about the man and the calaboose and the matches, I remembered that in your sleep you mentioned Ben Coontz two or three times; so I put this and that together, you see, and right away I knew it was Ben that burnt that man up.'
I praised his sagacity effusively. Presently he asked--
'Are you going to give him up to the law?'
'No,' I said; 'I believe that this will be a lesson to him. I shall keep an eye on him, of course, for that is but right; but if he stops where he is and reforms, it shall never be said that I betrayed him.'
'How good you are!'
'Well, I try to be. It is all a person can do in a world like this.'
And now, my burden being shifted to other shoulders, my terrors soon faded away.
The day before we left Hannibal, a curious thing fell under my notice--the surprising spread which longitudinal time undergoes there. I learned it from one of the most unostentatious of men--the colored coachman of a friend of mine, who lives three miles from town. He was to call for me at the Park Hotel at 7.30 P.M., and drive me out. But he missed it considerably--did not arrive till ten. He excused himself by saying--
'De time is mos' an hour en a half slower in de country en what it is in de town; you'll be in plenty time, boss. Sometimes we shoves out early for church, Sunday, en fetches up dah right plum in de middle er de sermon. Diffunce in de time. A body can't make no calculations 'bout it.'
I had lost two hours and a half; but I had learned a fact worth four.