AN ARRIVAL—A PRESENT FROM A CONGRESSMAN—MEDITATIONS UPON HIS PURPOSE—THE PATENT OFFICE REPORT OF THE FUTURE—A PLAN FOR REVOLUTIONIZING PUBLIC DOCUMENTS AND OPENING A NEW DEPARTMENT OF LITERATURE—OUR TRIP TO SALEM—A TRAGICAL INCIDENT—THE LAST OF LIEUTENANT SMILEY.
VERY mysterious package came to me through the post-office yesterday. I brought it home unopened, and, as is usual in such cases, we began to speculate upon the nature of the contents before we broke the seals. Everybody has a disposition to dally for a while with a letter or a package from an unknown source. Mrs. Adeler felt the parcel carefully, and said she was sure it was something from her aunt—something for the baby, probably. Bob imagined that it was an infernal machine forwarded by the revengeful Stonebury, and he insisted that I should put it to soak in a bucket of water for a few hours before removing the wrapper. The children were hopeful that some benign fairy had adopted this method of supplying the Adeler family with supernatural confectionery; and for my part, I had no doubt that some one of my friends among the publishers had sent me half a dozen of the latest books.
We opened the bundle gradually. When the outside casing was torn away, another envelope remained, and as this was slowly removed the excitement and curiosity reached an almost painful degree of intensity. At last all the papers were taken off, and I lifted from among them a large black volume. It was only a patent-office report sent to me by that incorruptible statesman and devoted patriot, the Congressman from our State.
I have endeavored to conjecture why he should have selected me as the object of such a demonstration. Certainly he did not expect me to read the report. He knows that I, as a man of at least ordinary intelligence, would endure torture first. I cannot think that he hoped to purchase my vote by such a cheap expedient. Congressmen do, I believe, still cherish the theory that the present of a patent-office report to a constituent secures for the donor the fealty of the recipient; but it is a delusion. Such a gift fills the soul of an unoffending man with gloomy and murderous thoughts. Every one feels at times as if he would like to butcher some of his fellow-men; and my appetite for slaughter only becomes keen when I meet a Congressman who has sent me a patent-office report. Neither can I accept the suggestion that my representative was deceived by the supposition that I would be grateful for such an intimation that an eminent man, even amid the oppressive cares of State, has not forgotten so humble a worm as I. He knows me well; and although I am aware that there is in Washington a prevalent theory that a wild thrill of exultation agitates the heart of a constituent when be receives a public document or a flatulent oration from a lawmaker, my Congressman is better informed. He would not insult me in such a manner. I can only account for his conduct upon the theory that he misdirected the volume, which he intended for some one else, or upon the supposition that he has heard me speak of the necessity for the occasional bombardment of Cooley's dog at night, and he conceived that he would be helping a good cause by supplying me with a new and formidable missile. I have never attacked a dog with a patent-office report, but I can imagine that the animal might readily be slain with such a weapon. A projectile should have ponderosity; and a patent-office report has more of that quality to the cubic inch than any other object with which I am familiar. Still, I do not care to tax the treasury of the United States for material with which to assail Cooley's dog. I would rather endure the nocturnal ululations, and have the money applied to the liquidation of the national debt.
It is, however, apparent that Congressmen will never surrender the patent-office report; and if this is admitted, it seems to me that the man who succeeds in infusing into those volumes such an amount of interest that people will be induced to read them will have a right to be regarded as a great public benefactor. I suppose no human being ever did read one of them. It is tolerably certain that any man who would deliberately undertake to peruse one from beginning to end would be regarded as a person who ought not to be at large. His friends would be justified in placing him in an asylum. I think I can suggest a method by which a reform can be effected. It is to take the material that comes to hand each year and to work it up into a continuous story, which may be filled in with tragedy and sentiment and humor.
For instance, if a man came prowling around the patent office with an improvement in hayrakes, I should name that man Alphonso and start him off in the story as the abandoned villain; Alphonso lying in wait, as it were, behind a dark corner, for the purpose of scooping his rival with that improved hay-rake. And then the hero would be a man, suppose we say, who desired an extension of a patent on accordeons. I should call such a person Lucullus, and plant him, with a working model of the accordeon, under the window of the boarding-house where the heroine, Amelia, who would be a woman who had applied for a patent on a new kind of red flannel frills, lay sleeping under the soothing influence of the tunes squeezed from the accordeon of Lucullus.
In the midst of the serenade, let us suppose, in comes a man who has just got out some extraordinary kind of a fowling-piece about which he wants to interview the head of the department. I should make this being Amelia's father and call him Smith, because that name is full of poetry and sweetness and wild, unearthly music. Then, while Lucullus was mashing out delicious strains, I might make Alphonso rush on Smith with his hay-rake, thinking he was Lucullus, and in the fight which would perhaps ensue Smith might blow out Alphonso's brains somehow on the spot by a single discharge, we might assume, of Smith's extraordinary fowling-piece, while Lucullus could be arrested upon the suit of the composer who had a copyright on the tune with which he solaced Amelia.
If any ingenious undertaker should haunt the patent-office at this crisis of the story with a species of metallic coffin, I might lay Alphonso away comfortably in one of them and have a funeral, or I might add a thrill of interest to the narrative by resuscitating him with vegetable pills, in case any benefactor of the race should call to secure his rights as the sole manufacturer of such articles. In the mean time, Lucullus, languishing in jail, could very readily burst his fetters and regain his liberty, provided some man of inventive talent called on the commissioner to take out searches, say, on some kind of a revertible crowbar.
Then the interest of the story would be sustained, and a few more machines of various kinds could be worked in, if, for instance, I should cause this escaped convict of mine to ascertain that the musical composer had won the heart of Amelia, in the absence of her lover, by offering to bring her flannel frills into market, and to allow her a royalty, we will assume, of ten cents a frill. When Lucullus hears of this, I should induce him to try to obtain the influence of Amelia's parents in his behalf by propitiating old Mr. Smith with the latest variety of bunion plaster for which a patent was wanted, while Mrs. Smith could be appeased either with a gingham umbrella with an improvement of six or seven extra ribs, or else a lot of galvanized gum rings, if any inventor brought such things around, for her grandchildren.
Then, for the sake of breaking the monotony of these intrigues, we could have a little more of the revivified Alphonso. I could very readily fill the heart of that reanimated corpse with baffled rage, and cause him to sell to old Smith one of McBride's improved hydraulic rams. Smith could be depicted as an infatuated being who placed that ram down in the meadow and caused it to force water up to his house. And Alphonso, of course, with malignant hatred in his soul, would meddle with the machine, and fumble around until he spoiled it, so that Smith could not stop it, and it would continue to pump until the Smiths had a cascade flowing from their attic window. Mrs. Smith, in her despair, might impale herself on a variety of reversible toasting-fork,and die mingling the inventor's name with maledictions and groans, while Smith, in the anguish of his soul, could live in the barn, from whence he could use an ingenious kind of breech-loading gun—patent applied for—to perforate artists who came around to sketch the falls.
In the mean time, Lucullus might come to the rescue with a suction pump and save the Smith mansion, only to find that Amelia had flown with the composer, and had gone to sea in a ship with a patent copper bottom, and a kind of a binnacle for which an extension had been granted by Congress on the 26th of February. It would then be well, perhaps, to have that copper-bottomed ship attacked by pirates, and after a bloody hand-to-hand contest, in which the composer could sink the pirate craft with the model of a gunpowder pile-driver which he has in the cabin, the enraged corsairs should swarm upon the deck of the other ship for the purpose of putting the whole party to the sword. And, of course, at this painful crisis it would be singularly happy to cause it to turn out that the chief pirate is our old friend Alphonso, who had sold out his interest in his hay-rake, discontinued his speculations in hydraulic rams and become a rover upon the seas. The composer, it would seem, would then be in a particularly tight place; and if the commissioner of patents had any romance in his Soul, he would permit me to cause that pirate to toss the musician overboard. Amelia would then tear herself from the pirate's loathsome embrace and plunge in after him. The two would float ashore on a life-raft, if any applications of that kind happened to be presented to the department. When they got to land, Amelia would shiver with cold until her jaws rattled, and the painful truth would be disclosed to her lover that she wore teeth which were attached to one of the gutta-percha plates about which there was a controversy in the courts.
Then, if we seemed to be approaching the end of the report, I think I would cause the composer to shriek "False! false!" or to use some exciting language of that kind, and to tear out his hair and wring his nose and fly off with a broken heart and a blasted life to join the pirates and to play melancholy airs in a minor key, expressive of delusive dreams, for ever and for ever, upon some kind of a double-barreled flute with a copyright on it.
Thus even the prosaic material of which the patent-office reports are constructed could be made to yield entertainment and instruction, and afford a basis of succulent and suggestive fact for a superstructure of pathetic and blood-curdling fiction. The advantages of adopting such a method in constructing these documents would be especially marked in the case of Congressmen. The member who now sends a patent-office report to one of his constituents is regarded by that man as a kind of moral ruin who ought to be put in some place where it would be impossible for him to destroy the happiness and poison the peace of unoffending families. But when a competent novelist prepares those reports, when he throws over them the glamour of his fancy, when he adorns them with his graceful rhetoric, and gives a certain intense human interest to all the hay-rakes and gum rings and suction pumps which now fill the leaden pages, these reports will be sought after; their tone will be changed; children will cry for them; Sunday-schools will offer them as rewards, and the intelligent American voter whose mind craves healthy literature will elect to Congress the man who will promise to send him the greatest number of copies.
Here is the story of a tragical event of which I was a witness, and which has created a profound impression upon the people of this community. An aunt of Bessie Magruder's lives at Salem; and as she had never seen Bob, she invited him and his betrothed to visit her one day last week, coupling the invitation with a request that we and the elder Magruders would come at the same time and take dinner with her. When the boat from up the river arrived at New Castle, the entire party of us went aboard. As the steamer shot across the water to Delaware City, Bob and Bessie wandered away by themselves, while the rest of us passed the time pleasantly in conversation. At Delaware City we came out of the cabin to watch the people as they passed over the gangway. To our surprise and vexation, Lieutenant Smiley appeared among them. As he pressed forward in the throng some one jostled him roughly, when he uttered a fierce oath and aimed a blow at the offender. It missed the mark, and he plunged forward heavily. He would have fallen had not one of the boat's crew caught him in his arms. We saw then that he was intoxicated.
I watched Bob as he looked at the wretched man. His face flushed with indignation as he recalled the injury done to him by Smiley, and he looked as if he would have found intense satisfaction in an attempt to give the lieutenant a thrashing on the spot. But he did not contemplate such a performance, and Bessie clung tightly to his arm, half afraid that he might have a sudden and irresistible impulse to revenge, and half afraid lest Smiley might make some shocking demonstration against the party in that public place. As he staggered past us he recognized us; and, brutalized as he was with liquor, he seemed to feel the shame of his condition and the infamy of his past conduct. He went away to the other side of the boat and concealed himself from view.
When the vessel left the wharf and proceeded down the bay, past the fort, we walked about the lower deck, looking at the scenery and at the shipping which thronged the water. No one of us perceived Smiley or knew that he was near us. We had, indeed, suffered ourselves to forget the scene we had just witnessed, and we were speaking of other matters. As I stood by the railing with my wife and the Magruders, Bob and Bessie came out from the cabin, and Bob had just spoken one word, when a man came with a hurried and uneven step to the gangway. It was Smiley. He had been sitting in the corner behind one of the beams of the boat, with his hat pulled over his eyes. The rail at the gangway swings aside to admit of passage to and from the wharf. Now it opened out upon the water. Smiley paused for one moment, with his fingers clenched upon it; then he flung it wide open, and leaped forward into the sea.
A cry of horror came from the lips of those who saw him make the plunge, and instantly the steamer resounded with screams for help. Before any of us could recover from the paralysis of terror occasioned by the act, Smiley rose to the surface far away from the boat, and with a shriek so awful, so full of agony and despair, that it chilled the blood of those who heard it, he threw up his arms and sank. In a second Bob tossed off his coat, and before I could restrain him he leaped into the water. He rose instantly, and struck out boldly in the direction in which Smiley had been seen.
Bessie almost fainted in her father's arms, and Mrs. Adeler was white with fear. The next moment the steamer stopped, and an attempt was made to lower the boat. The operation required time; and meanwhile, Bob, who is a good swimmer, gallantly cleft his way through the waves. 1 think Smiley never rose again. For as I entered the life-boat I could see Bob turning about and endeavoring to swim toward the steamer. He was a long way from us, for the vessel had gone far before her headway could be overcome. Our boatmen pulled with desperate energy lest the brave fellow should be unable to sustain himself; and as I stood in the stern and watched him with eager eyes, I could see that he gave signs of being in distress. It was heavy work in the water, with his clothing on, and the sea was rough. We were within a hundred yards of him when he sank, and I felt my heart grow sick as I saw him dragged beneath the waves.
But as we reached the spot one of the men, who was leaning over the side, uttered an exclamation; and extending his arms, he pulled the lad's head and shoulders above the surface. A moment later he was in the boat, but insensible. As we turned about to seek the steamer, we rubbed his hands and his temples and strove to bring him back to life, and we seemed to have partial success.
But when we reached the vessel and placed him upon the cushions in the cabin, we committed him to better hands than ours. Mrs. Magruder's medical skill then was of the highest service. She cared for the poor lad with a motherly tenderness which was as admirable as her art. In a brief while he revived; and though suffering greatly, he seemed sure of life. It would have made him blush, even in his weakness, to have heard the praises heaped upon him for his splendid courage; we rejoiced at them, but we rejoiced more to think how he had avenged himself upon his enemy by an act of sublime self-sacrifice.
And so, as he came back to consciousness, we neared our journey's end; and while we carried Bob from the boat to the carriage and placed him among his loving friends, we shuddered to think how the wretched man who had wrought so much evil was even now sweeping past us in the embrace of that swift current to burial beneath the rolling billows of the sea.