Ghost Town On The River

PrintPrintEmailEmail Their boys run away from school to go fishing and swimming, and they know nothing but the river. The only ambition they are ever guilty of is that vague yearning which stirs in the breasts of all river boys, to go down the river into the big world some day, clear down, as far as the river goes. But they never go. They build a skiff and live on catfish and driftwood and play their banjos and sit around on the sidewalks, wherever they are strong enough to sit on, and hold their hands. They are thoroughly content, they never agitate themselves enough to worry about the dilapidation of things. Their lives drift along in the sunlight as slowly and peacefully as the old white ferry-boat, which is the last of the steamers, and whatever vain regrets they may have are silenced by the monotonous roar of the river.

But even the river has its moods and changes, and it is not altogether unlovely. In the early morning it is still and dusky, cold and colored like tarnished silver. Along the shore it is darkened by shadows and in the distance it is hidden by mists. At noon it is yellow as ochre and rushes frantically along in little waves crested with dirty foam. Maddened by the heat and scourged by the wind it writhes between its banks like a thing tormented. At night it is calm and deeply peaceful. All its troubles cease when the stars come out. By night it forgets that it is not clear and beautiful like other rivers. It murmurs on between its banks, telling the bluffs stories of the old days, of red men and of white, how it once bore the civilization of all the West on its bosom and was necessary to history. How the big boats used to swing around its thousand curves and the bands of music on their deck play to its thousand hills, and so, all the night long, it sings its sad old heart to sleep.

The only person I met who seemed to me at all above the dead level was a young girl who even dared to laugh and make jokes at the old town. But when I noticed an unusually large diamond on her third finger and heard her singing Gounod’s waltz song from Roméo et Juliette to a caller that night in the dark, I understood her elation and reckless indifference. I suppose one could be desperately in love, even in Brownville. Indeed one would be likely to have it in the most exaggerated form just because there is nothing else to do. The only thing which I saw which looked modern or up with the times was a glimpse of a young man’s room I caught through an open door at the hotel. On the wall were six panel photographs of Lillian Russell. If Lillian only knew how vastly much it means to be great, to be even heard of in Brownville, she would take another husband on the strength of it.

In spite of the heat and the dust and the fact that toilet soap cannot be procured in the town, one is sorry to leave it. One becomes attached to the trees and the quiet and even the dilapidation. The world that troubles and frets and struggles seems so incalculably far away. Effort seems like a fable. One begins to wonder if anything is worth exertion. The temptation is strong to stay there among the sunlit hills and eat lotus forever. I am afraid I should have done so had it not been that in that country, people who eat lotus also have to drink Missouri River water. The place in itself is beautiful with that complete and restful beauty which leaves one nothing to wish for but unlimited leisure. I had not been there long before I understood the feeling of the old Indian chief, who, when he lay dying, sent for Governor Furnas and asked him to bury him high up on the bluff, sitting upright in his chair, with his face to the east so he could see the sun rise and watch the steamboats go up and down the river. The governor buried him so and for aught I know his bleached bones sit there yet, in these days when steamboats are no more, looking out over three states, watching the silver folds of mist loop and unloop themselves along the bluffs of the river, rising and descending like the curtains of an air theatre. Watching those glorious river sunrises as the light changes the little clouds into ridges of burning opals, and through the rifts of the great cloud behind which the sun hides, the light sifts down in a golden shower upon the hills of Missouri until at last the veil of mist and cloud is eaten through and through with the inner glory and is utterly consumed in light, and the sun rises in his fullness, throwing a band of light across the river like a thread of gold drawn through riffles of clouded silver. …