A DISMAL SORT OF DAY—A FEW ABLE REMARKS ABOUT UMBRELLAS—THE UMBRELLA IN A HUMOROUS ASPECT—THE CALAMITY THAT BEFEL COLONEL COOMBS—AN AMBITIOUS BUT MISERABLE MONARCH—INFLUENCE OF UMBRELLAS ON THE WEATHER—AN IMPROVED WEATHER SYSTEM—A LITTLE NONSENSE—JUDGE PITMAN'S VIEWS OF WEATHER OF VARIOUS KINDS.
T is difficult to imagine anything more dismal than a rainy day at New Castle, particularly at this late period in the year. The river especially is robbed of much of its attractiveness. The falling drops obscure the view, so that the other shore is not visible through the gray curtain of mist, and the few vessels that can be seen out in the channel struggling upward with the tide or beating slowly downward to the bay look so drenched and cold and utterly forlorn that one shivers as he watches them, with their black sails and their dripping cordage, and sees the moist sailors in tarpaulins and sea-boots hurrying over the slippery decks. The grain schooner lying at the wharf has all her hatches down, and there is about her no other sign of life than one soaked vagabond, who sits upon the bowsprit angling in a most melancholy fashion for fish which will not bite. He may be seeking for his supper, poor, damp sinner! or he may be an infatuated being who deceives himself with the notion that he is having sport. There is a peculiar feeling of comfort on such a day to stand in a room where a bright fire blazes in the grate, and from the window to watch this solitary fisherman as the fitful gusts now and then blow the rain down upon his head in sheets, and to observe the few people who remain upon the streets hurrying by under their umbrellas, each anxious to reach a place of shelter. The water pours in yellow torrents through the gutter-ways, the carriages which go swiftly past have their leathern aprons drawn high up in front of the drivers, the stripped branches of the trees are black with moisture, and from each twig the drops trickle to the earth; the water-spout upon the side of the house continues its monotonous song all day long, drip, drip, drip, until the very sound contributes to the gloominess of the time; there is desolation in the yard and in the garden, where a few yellow corn-stalks and headless trunks of cabbage remain from the summer's harvest to face the wintry storms, and where the chickens gathered under the woodshed are standing with ruffled feathers, hungry, damp and miserable, some on one leg and some on two, and with an expression upon their faces that tells plainly the story of their dejection at the poor prospect of having any dinner.
It is a good time, Mrs. Adeler, to offer a few remarks upon that subject of perennial interest, the weather, and especially to refer to some facts in reference to that useful but uncertain implement, the umbrella. I do not know why it is so, but by common agreement the umbrella has been permitted to assume a comic aspect. No man, particularly no journalist, can be considered as having wholly discharged his duty to his fellow-creatures unless he has permitted himself to make some jocular remarks concerning the exception of umbrellas from the laws which govern other kinds of property. The amount of facetiousness that has attended the presentation of that theory is already incalculably great, and there is no reason for believing that it will not be increased to an infinite extent throughout the coming ages. It is perhaps a feeble idea upon which to erect so vast a structure; but if it makes even a dismal sort of merriment, we should not complain. And then reflect with what humorous effect the comic artists introduce the excessive and corpulent umbrella to their pictures of nervous or emphatic old ladies, and how much more convulsive the laughter becomes at the theatre when the low-comedy man carries with him an umbrella of that unwieldy description! It is universally admitted that an umbrella with distended sides is funny; and if general consent is given to such a proposition, the consequences are quite as satisfactory as if the article in question was really plethoric with humor.
There are occasions when the simple elevation of an umbrella is grotesquely absurd, as when a group of British guardsmen sheltered themselves in this fashion from the rain during a certain battle, to the infinite disgust of Wellington, who ordered the tender warriors to put their umbrellas down lest the service should be made ridiculous. It was a Frenchman, Emile Girardin, I think, who brought an umbrella with him to the dueling-ground, and insisted upon holding it over his head during the combat. "I do not mind being killed," he said, "but I object decidedly to getting wet." They gave him much credit for admirable coolness; but I cherish a private opinion that he was scared, and hoped, by making the affair ridiculous, to bring it to a conclusion without burning powder; and he succeeded, for the combatants shook hands and went away friends.
And there was the case of Colonel Coombs—Coombs of Colorado. He had heard that the most ferocious wild beast could be frightened and put to flight if an umbrella should suddenly be opened in its face, and he determined to test the matter at the earliest opportunity. One day, while walking in the woods, Coombs perceived a panther crouching, preparatory to making a spring at him. Coombs held his umbrella firmly in his hand, and presenting it at the panther, unfurled it. The result was not wholly satisfactory, for the next moment the animal leaped upon the umbrella, flattened it out and began to lunch upon Coombs. Not only did the beast eat that anxious inquirer after truth, but it swallowed the hooked handle of the umbrella, which was held tightly in Coombs's grasp, and for two or three weeks it wandered about with its nose buried among the ribs of the umbrella. It was very handy when there was rain, but it obstructed the animal's vision, and consequently it walked into town and was killed.
In some countries the umbrella is the symbol of dignity and power. One of the magnates of Siam is proud to begin his list of titles with "Lord of Thirty-seven Umbrellas." Conceive, if you can, the envy and hatred with which that bloated aristocrat must be regarded by a man who is lord of only fifteen umbrellas! Among certain African tribes the grandeur of the individual increases with the size, and not with the number, of the umbrellas. Did I ever tell you the story of the African chieftain who determined to surpass all his rivals in this respect?
He made up his mind to procure the largest umbrella in the world, and he induced a trader to send his order to London for the article. Its ribs were forty feet in length, and its handle was like a telegraph pole. When it was distended, the effect was sublime. The machine resembled a green gingham circus tent, and it was crowned with a ferrule as large as a barrel. When the umbrella arrived, there was great rejoicing in the domestic circle of that dusky sovereign, and so impatient was the owner to test its qualities that he fairly yearned for the arrival of a rainy day. At last, one morning, he awoke to find that his opportunity had come. The rain was pouring in torrents. Exultingly he called forth his vassals, and the work of opening the umbrella began in the presence of an awestricken multitude. Two entire days were consumed by the effort to elevate the monster, and at the end of the second day, as the task was done, the storm ceased, and there was a general clearing up. The disappointed chieftain waited a day or two in vain for another shower, and finally, sick at heart, he commanded the umbrella to be closed. The work occupied precisely forty-eight hours, and just as the catch snapped upon the handle a thunder-gust came up, and it rained furiously all day. The frenzied monarch then consulted with his medicine man, and was assured that there would certainly be rain on the following Wednesday. The king therefore ordered the gingham giant up again. While the swarthy myrmidons were struggling with it there were at least sixty or seventy violent showers, but just as it was fairly open the clouds drifted away, and the sun came out with terrific force. And it remained out. There was not a drop of rain or so much as a fragment of cloud in the sky for two hundred and seventy-three days, and the umbrella remained open during all the time, while the potentate who owned it went dancing about daily in an ecstasy of rage. At the end of the period he sought the medicine man and slew him upon the spot. Then he ordered the umbrella down. The very next morning after it was closed the rain began, and it has been raining ever since.
Mrs. Adeler, that unfortunate savage thus became intimately familiar with one of the most striking of meteorological phenomena.
The influence of the umbrella upon the weather is a subject that has engaged the attention of millions of mankind. The precise laws by which that influence is exerted and governed have not yet been defined, but the fact of the existence of the influence is universally recognized. If there seems to be a promise of rain in the morning when I leave home, and I carry my umbrella with me, the sky clears before noon; but if I neglect to take my umbrella, I will certainly be drenched. If I carry an umbrella forty days in order to be prepared in case of sudden showers, there will be perfect dryness during that period; but if I forget the umbrella on the forty-first day, the floodgates of heaven will assuredly be opened. Sometimes the conduct of the elements is peculiarly aggravating. When I have been caught in town by a rain-storm and I had no umbrella, I have sometimes darted through the shower to a store to purchase one, but always, just as the man has given me the change, the rain has stopped. And when I have kept one umbrella at the house and another at the office, in order to be prepared at both ends of the line, all the storms have begun and expended their fury while I was passing between the two points.
This experience is not peculiar. It is that of every man who uses an umbrella. I am persuaded, Mrs. Adeler, that the time will come when science, having detected the character of the mysterious sympathy existing between umbrellas and the weather, will be able to give to a suffering world sunshine or rain as we want it. Whether we shall then be any better off is another matter.
In the mean time, while we are waiting for science to penetrate the hidden secrets of the umbrella, let me unfold to you a plan which I have devised for the better management of the weather bureau at Washington. I confided the scheme, once upon a time, to Old Probabilities himself, through the medium of a newspaper at the capital, but he did not deign to express an opinion concerning it. Perhaps it contained too much levity to entitle it to the consideration of a man who meditates upon the thunder and tries to trace the pathway of the cyclone. I have called it
THE IMPROVED WEATHER SYSTEM.
The Probability man who meddles with our great American weather means well, and tries conscientiously to do his best, but his system is radically defective, and the consequence is that his conjectures are despicably incorrect quite half the time. The inconvenience caused by these mistakes, not only to the people generally, but to me personally, is inconceivably great, and it is not to be endured any longer.
For instance, if I read in the morning that this Probability person entertains a conviction that we shall have a clear day in my neighborhood, I place confidence in his assurance. I remove the roof from my house in order to dry the garret thoroughly, and I walk down town with a new umbrella under my arm. Now, it is plainly evident that if; after all, it does begin to rain, and I am obliged to unfurl that umbrella and ruin it with the wet, and I am compelled, when I arrive at home, to witness my family floating around in the dining-room upon a raft constructed out of the clothes-horse and a few bed-slats and pie-boards, the government for which Washington died is a failure.
Or suppose that our friend at the weather office asserts that a thunder-storm is certain to strike my section of the country upon a given day. I believe him. I bring out my lightning-rods and buckle them to the chimneys and set them around on the roof and plant them out in the yard and rivet them upon my hired girl; and I place my family safely in feather beds in the middle of the room, and drink all the milk in the neighborhood, and prevail upon the tax collector to go and stand an hour or two under a tree where he will be almost certain to be struck by lightning. And when all these arrangements are completed, so that I feel equal to the promised emergency, suppose that thunder-storm does not come? When I watch that tax collector sally out and begin to assess my property, counting in all those lightning-rods at double their cost, is there any reason to wonder that I sit down and sigh for some responsible despot who will give us a Probability man who grasps the subject of the weather, as it were, in a more comprehensive manner?
But I lost all faith in him after his ill-treatment of Cooley. He said that a cyclone would sweep over this district upon a certain morning, and Cooley was so much alarmed at the prospect that he made elaborate preparations to receive the storm. He arose before daybreak and went into the middle of his garden, where he filled his pockets with pig lead, fettered himself to the apple tree and fixed the preserving kettle securely upon his head with a dog chain in order to preserve his hair. Cooley stayed there until five o'clock in the afternoon waiting for the simoom to swoop down upon him.
But it was a failure—a disgraceful failure. And when Cooley looked out from under the kettle in the afternoon, he was surprised to observe that the fence was filled with men and boys who were watching him with intense interest. Then the boys began to whistle upon their fingers and to make unpleasant remarks, and finally Cooley was obliged to cut loose and go into the house to avoid arrest by a policeman upon a charge of lunacy.
Now, this is all wrong. The feelings of American citizens ought not to be trifled with in such a manner, and I propose to arrange a plan by which meteorological facts and conditions can be observed with something like certainty.
The basis of my system is Corns. The marvelous accuracy with which changes in the weather can be foretold by a man whose feet are decorated with those excrescences is so well known that it is hardly worth while to consider at length, at this particular crisis, the human corn in its meteorological characteristics. It is quite certain, however, that it will be impossible to expect the Probability being to walk around the country once or twice every day for the purpose of submitting his corns to the diverse atmospheric influences which exist between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It would wear out any man. It will be better, therefore, to have him kept stationary. I propose, in that event, that he should buy up any available corn that is in the market in any given State, and have it transplanted and grafted upon his own toe. Doubtless there are patriotic citizens in every portion of the land who would be willing to lay upon the altar of their beloved country their most cherished corns.
The Probability official then might obtain, let us assume, one corn from each State and a reliable bunion to represent each Territory. When these were engrafted upon his feet in a healthful condition, each one would, as a matter of course, be peculiarly susceptible to the atmospheric influences which prevail in its native clime. All we have to do, then, is to compel the weather man to wear exceptionally tight boots while he is not attending to business, so that his barometers will acquire the requisite amount of sensibility. Then I should have pipes laid from each State to the office in Washington for the purpose of conveying the different varieties of atmosphere to the foot of the Probability person. Suppose, then, he desired to make a guess in regard to the weather in Louisiana. I should have a man stationed at the end of the pipe in New Orleans with a steam fan, and he could waft zephyrs, as it were, upon the Louisiana corn, which would respond instantly, and we should have the facts about the weather in that State with precision and accuracy. When we admitted a new State, our friend could weld on a new corn; or if the Mormons succeeded in procuring the admission of their Territory as a State, we could plough up the Utah bunion and plant a corn, so as to preserve the proprieties.
Of course this system of excrescences would be of no value as an indicator of the movements of thunder-storms and hurricanes. But in order to acquire information concerning the former, how would it do to build up stacks of lightning-rods in every portion of every State, and to connect each State group, if I may be allowed the expression, with a wire which shall be permanently fastened to the arm or leg of the Probability man in Washington? Because, in such a case, whenever a thunder-gust appeared in any portion of the country, some one out of all those bunches of lightning-rods would certainly be struck, and our conjectural friend at the weather office would be likely to know about it right away.
As for hurricanes, I am in favor of putting an end to them at once, instead of telegraphing around the country to warn people to look out for them When I reorganize the weather service, I shall have men stationed everywhere with machines fixed up like the wind sails that are used on ship-board for sending air into the hold. I should make the mouth of each one a mile wide, construct it of stout canvas, and run the lower end into a coal-mine, or a mammoth cave, or a volcano. Then, when a tornado approached, I should place a man at each side of the sail, put the men into balloons, send them up, and spread the sail directly across the route of the approaching cyclone. When it arrived, it would strike the sail, of course; there would be a momentary flapping and jerking around, and in a minute or two I should have that hurricane comfortably packed away in the volcano, suppose we say. A man would then be upon the spot, of course, to drive a plug into the crater, so as to make everything tight and snug, and one more nuisance is taken off the face of the earth.
"Is that the whole of the article?" inquired Mrs. Adeler.
"Yes, that is all of it."
"Well, I am not surprised that no notice was taken of it. It is perfectly nonsensical."
"I admit the fact, but still I shall not smother the article. It will not do to take all the nonsense out of the world. While thousands of learned fools are hard at work trying to stupefy mankind, we must be permitted sometimes to indulge in absurdities of a less weighty kind in order to counteract them."
And while we are discussing the weather, let me not forget to allude to the most remarkable of Judge Pitman's peculiarities. He is the only man in the world of whom I know anything who is always satisfied with the weather. No matter what the condition of the atmosphere, he is contented and happy, and willing to affirm, that the state of things at any given moment is the very best that could have been devised.
In summer, when the mercury bolted up among the nineties, the judge would come to the front door with beads of perspiration standing out all over his red face, and would look at the sky and say, "Splendid! perfectly splendid! Noble weather for the poor and for the ice companies and the washerwomen! I never saw sich magnificent weather for dryin' clothes. They don't shake up any such climate as this in Italy. Gimme me my umbreller, Harriet, while I sit out yer on the steps and enjoy it."
In winter, when the mercury would creep down fifteen degrees below zero, and the cold was nearly severe enough to freeze the inside of Vesuvius solid to the centre of the globe, Pitman would sit out on my fence and exclaim, "By gracious, Adeler! did you ever see sich weather as this? I like an atmosphere that freezes up yer very marrer. It helps the coal trade an' gives us good skeetin'. Don't talk of summer-time to me. Gimme cold, and give it to me stiff."
When there was a drought, Pitman used to meet me in the street and remark, "No rain yet, I see! Magnificent, isn't it? I want my weather dry, I want it with the dampness left out. Moisture breeds fevers and ague, an' ruins yer boots. If there's anything I despise, it's to carry an umbreller. No rain for me, if you please."
When it rained for a week and flooded the country, the judge often dropped in to see me and to observe, "I dunno how you feel about this yer rain, Adeler, but it allers seems to me that the heavens never drop no blessin's but when we have a long wet spell. It makes the corn jump an' cleans the sewers an' keeps the springs from gittin' too dry. I wouldn't give a cent to live in a climate where there was no rain. Put me on the Nile, an' I'd die in a week. Soak me through an' through to the inside of my bones, and I feel as if life was bright and beautiful, an' sorrer of no account."
On a showery day, when the sun shone brightly at one moment and at the next the rain poured in torrents, the judge has been known to stand at the window and exclaim, "Harriet, if you'd've asked me how I liked the weather, I'd've said, just as it is now. What I want is weather that is streaked like a piece of fat an' lean bacon—a little shine an' a little rain. Mix 'em up an' give us plenty of both, an’ I'm yer man."
The judge is always happy in a thunder-storm, and one day, after the lightning had knocked down two of his best apple trees and splintered them into fragments, and the wind had torn his chimney to pieces, I went over to see him. He was standing by the prostrate trees, and he at once remarked, "Did you ever know of a man havin' sich luck as this? I was goin' to chop down them two trees tomorrer, an' as that chimney never draw'd well, I had concluded to have it rebuilt. An' that gorgeous old storm has fixed things just the way I want 'em. Put me in a thunder-storm an' let the lightnin' play around me, an' I'm at home. I'd rather have one storm that 'd tear the bowels out of the American continent than a dozen of yer little dribblin' waterin'-pot showers. If I can't have a rippin' and roarin' storm, I don't want none."
They say here in the village, but I do not believe it, that one day the judge was upon his roof fixing a shingle, when a tornado struck him, lifted him off, carried him a quarter of a mile, and dashed him with such terrible force against a fence that his leg was broken. As they carried him home, he opened his eyes languidly and said, "Immortal Moses! What a storm that was! When it does blow, it suits me if it blows hard. I'd give both legs if we could have a squall like that every day. I—I—" Then he fainted.
If contentment is happiness, then the life of Pitman is an uninterrupted condition of bliss.