A NIGHT AT WINGDAM
by Bret Harte
I had been stage-ridden and bewildered all day, and when
we swept down with the darkness into the Arcadian hamlet
of "Wingdam," I resolved to go no further, and rolled out
in a gloomy and dyspeptic state. The effects of a mysterious
pie, and some sweetened carbonic acid known to the proprietor
of the "Half-Way House" as "lemming sody," still oppressed
me. Even the facetiae of the gallant expressman who knew
everybody's Christian name along the route, who rained
letters, newspapers, and bundles from the top of the stage,
whose legs frequently appeared in frightful proximity to
the wheels, who got on and off while we were going at full
speed, whose gallantry, energy, and superior knowledge of
travel crushed all us other passengers to envious silence,
and who just then was talking with several persons and
manifestly doing something else at the same time--even
this had failed to interest me. So I stood gloomily,
clutching my shawl and carpet-bag, and watched the stage
roll away, taking a parting look at the gallant expressman
as he hung on the top rail with one leg, and lit his cigar
from the pipe of a running footman. I then turned toward
the Wingdam Temperance Hotel.
It may have been the weather, or it may have been the pie,
but I was not impressed favorably with the house. Perhaps
it was the name extending the whole length of the building,
with a letter under each window, making the people who
looked out dreadfully conspicuous. Perhaps it was that
"Temperance" always suggested to my mind rusks and weak
tea. It was uninviting. It might have been called the
"Total Abstinence" Hotel, from the lack of anything to
intoxicate or enthrall the senses. It was designed with
an eye to artistic dreariness. It was so much too large
for the settlement, that it appeared to be a very slight
improvement on out-doors. It was unpleasantly new. There
was the forest flavor of dampness about it, and a slight
spicing of pine. Nature outraged, but not entirely subdued,
sometimes broke out afresh in little round, sticky, resinous
tears on the doors and windows. It seemed to me that boarding
there must seem like a perpetual picnic. As I entered the
door, a number of the regular boarders rushed out of a long
room, and set about trying to get the taste of something out
of their mouths, by the application of tobacco in various
forms. A few immediately ranged themselves around the
fireplace, with their legs over each other's chairs, and
in that position silently resigned themselves to indigestion.
Remembering the pie, I waived the invitation of the landlord
to supper, but suffered myself to be conducted into the
sitting-room. "Mine host" was a magnificent-looking, heavily
bearded specimen of the animal man. He reminded me of somebody
or something connected with the drama. I was sitting beside
the fire, mutely wondering what it could be, and trying to
follow the particular chord of memory thus touched, into the
intricate past, when a little delicate-looking woman appeared
at the door, and, leaning heavily against the casing, said
in an exhausted tone, "Husband!" As the landlord turned
toward her, that particular remembrance flashed before me,
in a single line of blank verse. It was this: "Two souls
with but one single thought, two hearts that beat as one."
It was Ingomar and Parthenia his wife. I imagined a different
denouement from the play. Ingomar had taken Parthenia back
to the mountains, and kept a hotel for the benefit of the
Alemanni, who resorted there in large numbers. Poor Parthenia
was pretty well fagged out, and did all the work without
"help." She had two "young barbarians," a boy and a girl. She
was faded--but still good-looking.
I sat and talked with Ingomar, who seemed perfectly at home
and told me several stories of the Alemanni, all bearing a
strong flavor of the wilderness, and being perfectly in keeping
with the house. How he, Ingomar, had killed a certain dreadful
"bar," whose skin was just up "yar," over his bed. How he,
Ingomar, had killed several "bucks," whose skins had been
prettily fringed and embroidered by Parthenia, and even now
clothed him. How he, Ingomar, had killed several "Injins," and
was once nearly scalped himself. All this with that ingenious
candor which is perfectly justifiable in a barbarian, but which
a Greek might feel inclined to look upon as "blowing." Thinking
of the wearied Parthenia, I began to consider for the first
time that perhaps she had better married the old Greek. Then
she would at least have always looked neat. Then she would not
have worn a woollen dress flavored with all the dinners of the
past year. Then she would not have been obliged to wait on the
table with her hair half down. Then the two children would not
have hung about her skirts with dirty fingers, palpably dragging
her down day by day. I suppose it was the pie which put such
heartless and improper ideas in my head, and so I rose up and
told Ingomar I believed I'd go to bed. Preceded by that redoubtable
barbarian and a flaring tallow candle, I followed him upstairs
to my room. It was the only single room he had, he told me; he
had built it for the convenience of married parties who might
stop here, but, that event not happening yet, he had left it
half furnished. It had cloth on one side, and large cracks on
the other. The wind, which always swept over Wingdam at night-time,
puffed through the apartment from different apertures. The window
was too small for the hole in the side of the house where it hung,
and rattled noisily. Everything looked cheerless and dispiriting.
Before Ingomar left me, he brought that "bar-skin," and throwing
it over the solemn bier which stood in one corner, told me he
reckoned that would keep me warm, and then bade me good night.
I undressed myself, the light blowing out in the middle of that
ceremony, crawled under the "bar-skin," and tried to compose
myself to sleep.
But I was staringly wide awake. I heard the wind sweep down the
mountainside, and toss the branches of the melancholy pine, and
then enter the house, and try all the doors along the passage.
Sometimes strong currents of air blew my hair all over the pillow,
as with strange whispering breaths. The green timber along the
walls seemed to be sprouting, and sent a dampness even through
the "bar-skin." I felt like Robinson Crusoe in his tree, with the
ladder pulled up--or like the rocked baby of the nursery song.
After lying awake half-an-hour, I regretted having stopped at
Wingdam; at the end of the third quarter, I wished I had not
gone to bed; and when a restless hour passed, I got up and
dressed myself. There had been a fire down in the big room.
Perhaps it was still burning. I opened the door and groped my
way along a passage, vocal with the snores of the Alemanni
and the whistling of the night wind; I partly fell down stairs,
and at last entering the big room, saw the fire still burning.
I drew a chair toward it, poked it with my foot, and was
astonished to see, by the upspringing flash, that Parthenia
was sitting there also, holding a faded-looking baby.
I asked her why she was sitting up.
She did not go to bed on Wednesday night, before the mail
arrived, and then she awoke her husband, and there were
passengers to 'tend to.
"Did she not get tired, sometimes?"
"A little, but Abner"--the Barbarian's Christian name--"had
promised to get her more help next spring, if business was
"How many boarders had she?"
"She believed about forty came to regular meals, and there
was transient custom, which was as much as she and her
husband could 'tend to. But he did a great deal of work."
"Oh! bringing in the wood, and looking after the traders'
"How long had she been married?"
"About nine years. She had lost a little girl and boy.
Three children living. He was from Illinois; she from Boston.
Had an education (Boston Female High School--Geometry,
Algebra, a little Latin and Greek). Mother and father died.
Came to Illinois alone, to teach school. Saw him--yes--a
love match." ("Two souls," etc., etc.) Married and
emigrated to Kansas. Thence across the Plains to California.
Always on the outskirts of civilization. He liked it.
"She might sometimes have wished to go home. Would like
to, on account of her children. Would like to give them an
education. Had taught them a little herself, but couldn't
do much on account of other work. Hoped that the boy would
be like his father--strong and hearty. Was fearful the girl
would be more like her. Had often thought she was not fit
for a pioneer's wife."
"Oh, she was not strong enough, and had seen some of his
friends' wives in Kansas who could do more work. But he
never complained--he was so kind."--("Two souls," etc.)
Sitting there with her head leaning pensively on one hand,
holding the poor, wearied, and limp-looking baby wearily
on the other arm--dirty, drabbled, and forlorn, with the
firelight playing upon her features no longer fresh or
young, but still refined and delicate, and even in her
grotesque slovenliness still bearing a faint reminiscence
of birth and breeding, it was not to be wondered that I
did not fall into excessive raptures over the barbarian's
kindness. Emboldened by my sympathy, she told me how she
had given up, little by little, what she imagined to be
the weakness of her early education, until she found that
she acquired but little strength in her new experience.
How, translated to a backwoods society, she was hated by
the women, and called proud and "fine," and how her dear
husband lost popularity on that account with his fellows.
How, led partly by his roving instincts, and partly from
other circumstances, he started with her to California.
An account of that tedious journey. How it was a dreary,
dreary waste in her memory, only a blank plain marked by
a little cairn of stones--a child's grave. How she had
noticed that little Willie failed. How she had called
Abner's attention to it, but, man-like, he knew nothing
about children, and pooh-poohed it, and was worried by
the stock. How it happened that after they had passed
Sweetwater, she was walking beside the wagon one night,
and looking at the western sky, and she heard a little
voice say "mother." How she looked into the wagon and
saw that little Willie was sleeping comfortably, and did
not wish to wake him. How that in a few moments more she
heard the same voice saying, "mother." How she came back
to the wagon and leaned down over him, and felt his breath
upon her face, and again covered him up tenderly, and
once more resumed her weary journey beside him, praying
to God for his recovery. How, with her face turned to the
sky, she heard the same voice saying, "mother," and directly
a great, bright star shot away from its brethren and expired.
And how she knew what had happened, and ran to the wagon
again only to pillow a little pinched and cold white face
upon her weary bosom. The thin, red hands went up to her
eyes here, and for a few moments she sat still. The wind
tore round the house and made a frantic rush at the front
door, and from his couch of skins in the inner room, Ingomar,
the barbarian, snored peacefully.
"Of course she always found a protector from insult and
outrage in the great courage and strength of her husband?"
"Oh yes; when Ingomar was with her she feared nothing. But
she was nervous, and had been frightened once!"
"They had just arrived in California. They kept house then,
and had to sell liquor to traders. Ingomar was hospitable,
and drank with everybody, for the sake of popularity and
business, and Ingomar got to like liquor, and was easily
affected by it. And how one night there was a boisterous
crowd in the bar-room; she went in and tried to get him
away, but only succeeded in awakening the coarse gallantry
of the half-crazed revellers. And how, when she had at last
got him in the room with her frightened children, he sank
down on the bed in a stupor, which made her think the liquor
was drugged. And how she sat beside him all night, and near
morning heard a step in the passage, and, looking toward the
door, saw the latch slowly moving up and down, as if somebody
were trying it. And how she shook her husband, and tried to
waken him, but without effect. And how at last the door
yielded slowly at the top (it was bolted below), as if by a
gradual pressure without; and how a hand protruded through
the opening. And how, as quick as lightning she nailed that
hand to the wall with her scissors (her only weapon), but
the point broke, and somebody got away with a fearful oath.
How she never told her husband of it, for fear he would kill
that somebody; but how on one day a stranger called here,
and as she was handing him his coffee, she saw a queer
triangular scar on the back of his hand."
She was still talking, and the wind was still blowing, and
Ingomar was still snoring from his couch of skins, when there
was a shout high up the straggling street, and a clattering
of hoofs, and rattling of wheels. The mail had arrived.
Parthenia ran with the faded baby to awaken Ingomar, and
almost simultaneously the gallant expressman stood again
before me, addressing me by my Christian name, and inviting
me to drink out of a mysterious black bottle. The horses
were speedily watered, and the business of the gallant
expressman concluded, and, bidding Parthenia good-bye, I got
on the stage, and immediately fell asleep, and dreamt of
calling on Parthenia and Ingomar, and being treated with
pie to an unlimited extent, until I woke up the next morning
in Sacramento. I have some doubts as to whether all this
was not a dyspeptic dream, but I never witness the drama,
and hear that noble sentiment concerning "Two souls," etc.,
without thinking of Wingdam and poor Parthenia.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~