THE HAPPY FAILURE:
A STORY OF THE RIVER HUDSON
BY HERMAN MELVILLE
The appointment was that I should meet my elderly uncle at the
river-side, precisely at nine in the morning. The skiff was to
be ready, and the apparatus to be brought down by his grizzled
old black man. As yet, the nature of the wonderful experiment
remained a mystery to all but the projector.
I was first on the spot. The village was high up the river, and
the inland summer sun was already oppressively warm. Presently
I saw my uncle advancing beneath the trees, hat off, and wiping
his brow; while far behind staggered poor old Yorpy, with what
seemed one of the gates of Gaza on his back.
"Come, hurrah, stump along, Yorpy!" cried my uncle, impatiently
turning round every now and then.
Upon the black's staggering up to the skiff, I perceived that
the great gate of Gaza was transformed into a huge, shabby,
oblong box, hermetically sealed. The sphinx-like blankness of
the box quadrupled the mystery in my mind.
"Is this the wonderful apparatus?" said I, in amazement.
"Why, it's nothing but a battered old dry-goods box, nailed
up. And is this the thing, uncle, that is to make you a
million of dollars ere the year be out? What a forlorn-looking,
lack-lustre, old ash-box it is."
"Put it into the skiff!" roared my uncle to Yorpy, without
heeding my boyish disdain.
"Put it in, you grizzled-headed cherub--put it in carefully,
carefully! If that box bursts, my everlasting fortune collapses."
"Bursts?"--collapses?" cried I, in alarm. "It ain't full of
combustibles? Quick! let me go to the further end of the boat!"
"Sit still, you simpleton!" cried my uncle again. "Jump in, Yorpy,
and hold on to the box like grim death while I shove off. Carefully!
carefully! you dunderheaded black! Mind t'other side of the box,
I say! Do you mean to destroy the box?"
"Duyvel take de pox!" muttered old Yorpy, who was a sort of Dutch
African. "De pox has been my cuss for de ten long 'ear."
"Now, then, we're off--take an oar, youngster; you, Yorpy, clinch the
box fast. Here we go now. Carefully! carefully! You, Yorpy, stop shaking
the box! Easy! easy! there's a big snag. Pull now. Hurrah! deep water
at last! Now give way, youngster, and away to the island."
"The island!" said I. "There's no island hereabouts."
"There is ten miles above the bridge, though," said my uncle,
"Ten miles off! Pull that old dry-goods box ten miles up the river in
this blazing sun!"
"All that I have to say," said my uncle, firmly, "is that we are bound
to Quash Island."
"Mercy, uncle! If I had known of this great long pull of ten mortal
miles in this fiery sun, you wouldn't have juggled me into the skiff
so easy. What's in that box?--paving-stones? See how the skiff settles
down under it. I won't help pull a box of paving-stones ten miles.
What's the use of pulling 'em?"
"Look you, simpleton," quoth my uncle, pausing upon his suspended oar.
"Stop rowing, will ye! Now then, if you don't want to share in the glory
of my experiment; if you are wholly indifferent to halving its immortal
renown; I say, sir, if you care not to be present at the first trial
of my Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus for draining swamps and
marshes, and converting them, at the rate of one acre the hour, into
fields more fertile than those of the Genesee; if you care not, I
repeat, to have this proud thing to tell--in far future days, when poor
old I shall have been long dead and gone, boy--to your children, and your
children's children; in that case, sir, you are free to land forthwith."
"Oh, uncle! I did not mean--"
"No words, sir! Yorpy, take his oar, and help pull him ashore."
"But, my dear uncle; I declare to you that--"
"Not a syllable, sir; you have cast open scorn upon the Great
Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus. Yorpy, put him ashore, Yorpy. It's
shallow here again. Jump out, Yorpy, and wade with him ashore."
"Now, my dear, good, kind uncle, do but pardon me this one time, and I
will say nothing about the apparatus."
"Say nothing about it! When it is my express end and aim it shall be
famous! Put him ashore, Yorpy."
"Nay, uncle, I will not give up my oar. I have an oar in this
matter, and I mean to keep it. You shall not cheat me out my share
of your glory."
"Ah, now there--that's sensible. You may stay, youngster. Pull again
We were all silent for a time, steadily plying our way. At last I
ventured to break water once more.
"I am glad, dear uncle, you have revealed to me at last the nature and
end of your great experiment. It is the effectual draining of swamps;
an attempt, dear uncle, in which, if you do but succeed (as I know you
will), you will earn the glory denied to a Roman emperor. He tried to
drain the Pontine marsh, but failed."
"The world has shot ahead the length of its own diameter since then,"
quoth my uncle, proudly. "If that Roman emperor were here, I'd show him
what can be done in the present enlightened age."
Seeing my good uncle so far mollified now as to be quite
self-complacent, I ventured another remark.
"This is a rather severe, hot pull, dear uncle."
"Glory is not to be gained, youngster, without pulling hard for
it--against the stream, too, as we do now. The natural tendency
of man, in the mass, is to go down with the universal current
"But why pull so far, dear uncle, upon the present occasion? Why pull
ten miles for it? You do but propose, as I understand it, to put to
the actual test this admirable invention of yours. And could it not
be tested almost anywhere?"
"Simple boy," quoth my uncle, "would you have some malignant spy steal
from me the fruits of ten long years of high-hearted, persevering
endeavor? Solitary in my scheme, I go to a solitary place to test
it. If I fail--for all things are possible--no one out of the family
will know it. If I succeed, secure in the secrecy of my invention,
I can boldly demand any price for its publication."
"Pardon me, dear uncle; you are wiser than I."
"One would think years and gray hairs should bring wisdom, boy."
"Yorpy there, dear uncle; think you his grizzled locks thatch a brain
improved by long life?"
"Am I Yorpy, boy? Keep to your oar!"
Thus padlocked again, I said no further word till the skiff grounded
on the shallows, some twenty yards from the deep-wooded isle.
"Hush!" whispered my uncle, intensely; "not a word now!" and he sat
perfectly still, slowly sweeping with his glance the whole country
around, even to both banks of the here wide-expanded stream.
"Wait till that horseman, yonder, passes!" he whispered again, pointing
to a speck moving along a lofty, river-side road, which perilously wound
on midway up a long line of broken bluffs and cliffs. "There--he's out
of sight now, behind the copse. Quick! Yorpy! Carefully, though! Jump
overboard, and shoulder the box, and--Hold!"
We were all mute and motionless again.
"Ain't that a boy, sitting like Zacchaeus in yonder tree of the orchard on
the other bank? Look, youngster--young eyes are better than old--don't
you see him?"
"Dear uncle, I see the orchard, but I can't see any boy."
"He's a spy--I know he is," suddenly said my uncle, disregardful of my
answer, and intently gazing, shading his eyes with his flattened hand.
"Don't touch the box, Yorpy. Crouch! crouch down, all of ye!"
"Why, uncle--there--see--the boy is only a withered white bough. I see
it very plainly now."
"You don't see the tree I mean," quoth my uncle, with a decided air of
relief, "but never mind; I defy the boy. Yorpy, jump out, and shoulder
the box. And now then, youngster, off with your shoes and stockings,
roll up your trousers legs, and follow me. Carefully, Yorpy, carefully.
That's more precious than a box of gold, mind."
"Heavy as de gelt, anyhow," growled Yorpy, staggering and splashing in
the shallows beneath it.
"There, stop under the bushes there--in among the flags--so--gently,
gently--there, put it down just there. Now, youngster, are you ready?
"I can't wade in this mud and water on my tiptoes, uncle; and I don't
see the need of it either."
"Go ashore, sir--instantly!"
"Why, uncle, I am ashore."
"Peace! follow me, and no more."
Crouching in the water in complete secrecy, beneath the bushes and among
the tall flags, my uncle now stealthily produced a hammer and wrench
from one of his enormous pockets, and presently tapped the box. But the
sound alarmed him.
"Yorpy," he whispered, "go you off to the right, behind the bushes, and
keep watch. If you see anyone coming, whistle softly. Youngster, you do
the same to the left."
We obeyed; and presently, after considerable hammering and supplemental
tinkering, my uncle's voice was heard in the utter solitude, loudly
commanding our return.
Again we obeyed, and now found the cover of the box removed. All
eagerness, I peeped in, and saw a surprising multiplicity of convoluted
metal pipes and syringes of all sorts and varieties, all sizes and
calibres, inextricably inter-wreathed together in one gigantic coil.
It looked like a huge nest of anacondas and adders.
"Now then, Yorpy," said my uncle, all animation, and flushed with the
foretaste of glory, "do you stand this side, and be ready to tip when I
give the word. And do you, youngster, stand ready to do as much for the
other side. Mind, don't budge it the fraction of a barley-corn till I
say the word. All depends on a proper adjustment."
"No fear, uncle. I will be careful as a lady's tweezers."
"I s'ant life de heavy pox," growled old Yorpy, "till de wort pe given;
no fear o' dat."
"Oh, boy," said my uncle now, upturning his face devotionally, while a
really noble gleam irradiated his gray eyes, locks, and wrinkles; "Oh,
boy! this, this is the hour which for ten long years has, in the
prospect, sustained me through all my painstaking obscurity. Fame will
be the sweeter because it comes at the last; the truer, because it
comes to an old man like me, not to a boy like you. Sustainer! I glorify
He bowed over his venerable head, and--as I live--something like
a shower-drop somehow fell from my face into the shallows.
"A little more!"
We tipped a little more.
"A leetle more!"
We tipped a leetle more.
"Just a leetle, very leetle bit more."
With great difficulty we tipped just a leetle, very leetle more.
All this time my uncle was diligently stooping over, and striving to
peep in, up, and under the box where the coiled anacondas and adders
lay; but the machine being now fairly immersed, the attempt was wholly
He rose erect, and waded slowly all round the box; his countenance firm
and reliant, but not a little troubled and vexed.
It was plain something or other was going wrong. But as I was left in
utter ignorance as to the mystery of the contrivance, I could not tell
where the difficulty lay, or what was the proper remedy.
Once more, still more slowly, still more vexedly, my uncle waded round
the box, the dissatisfaction gradually deepening, but still controlled,
and still with hope at the bottom of it.
Nothing could be more sure than that some anticipated effect had, as
yet, failed to develop itself. Certain I was, too, that the waterline
did not lower about my legs.
"Tip it a leetle bit--very leetle now."
"Dear uncle, it is tipped already as far as it can be. Don't you see it
rests now square on its bottom?"
"You, Yorpy, take your black hoof from under the box!"
This gust of passion on the part of my uncle made the matter seem still
more dubious and dark. It was a bad symptom, I thought.
"Surely you can tip it just a leetle more!"
"Not a hair, uncle."
"Blast and blister the cursed box, then!" roared my uncle, in a terrific
voice, sudden as a squall. Running at the box, he dashed his bare foot
into it, and with astonishing power all but crushed in the side. Then,
seizing the whole box, he disemboweled it of all its anacondas and
adders, and, tearing and wrenching them, flung them right and left over
"Hold, hold, my dear, dear uncle!--do, for Heaven's sake, desist. Don't
destroy so, in one frantic moment, all your long calm years of devotion
to one darling scheme. Hold, I conjure!"
Moved by my vehement voice and uncontrollable tears, he paused in his
work of destruction, and stood steadfastly eyeing me, or rather blankly
staring at me, like one demented.
"It is not yet wholly ruined, dear uncle; come put it together now. You
have hammer and wrench; put it together again, and try it once more.
While there is life there is hope."
"While there is life hereafter there is despair," he howled.
"Do, do now, dear uncle--here, here, put these pieces together; or, if
that can't be done without more tools, try a section of it--that will
do just as well. Try it once; try, uncle."
My persistent persuasiveness told upon him. The stubborn stump of hope,
plowed at and uprooted in vain, put forth one last miraculous green sprout.
Steadily and carefully pulling out of the wreck some of the more
curious-looking fragments, he mysteriously involved them together, and
then, clearing out the box, slowly inserted them there, and ranging
Yorpy and me as before, bade us tip the box once again.
We did so; and as no perceptible effect yet followed, I was each moment
looking for the previous command to tip the box over yet more, when,
glancing into my uncle's face, I started aghast. It seemed pinched,
shriveled into mouldy whiteness, like a mildewed grape. I dropped the
box, and sprang toward him just in time to prevent his fall.
Leaving the woeful box where we had dropped it, Yorpy and I helped the
old man into the skiff, and silently pulled from Quash Isle.
How swiftly the current now swept us down! How hardly before had we
striven to stem it! I thought of my poor uncle's saying, not an hour
gone by, about the universal drift of the mass of humanity toward utter
"Boy!" said my uncle at last, lifting his head.
I looked at him earnestly, and was gladdened to see that the terrible
blight of his face had almost departed.
"Boy, there's not much left in an old world for an old man to invent."
I said nothing.
"Boy, take my advice, and never try to invent anything but--happiness."
I said nothing.
"Boy, about ship, and pull back for the box."
"It will make a good wood-box, boy. And faithful old Yorpy can sell
the old iron for tobacco-money."
"Dear massa! dear old massa! dat be very fust time in de ten long 'ear
yoo hab mention kindly old Yorpy. I tank yoo, dear old massa; I tank
yoo so kindly. Yoo is yourself agin in de ten long 'ear."
"Aye, long ears enough," sighed my uncle; "AEsopian ears. But it's
all over now. Boy, I'm glad I've failed. I say, boy, failure has
made a good old man of me. It was horrible at first, but I'm glad
I've failed. Praise be to God for the failure!"
His face kindled with a strange, rapt earnestness. I have never
forgotten that look. If the event made my uncle a good old man, as
he called it, it made me a wise young one. Example did for me the
work of experience.
When some years had gone by, and my dear old uncle began to fail, and,
after peaceful days of autumnal content, was gathered gently to his
fathers--faithful old Yorpy closing his eyes--as I took my last look at
his venerable face, the pale resigned lips seemed to move. I seemed to
hear again his deep, fervent cry--"Praise be to God for the failure!"
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~