THE FIRST PIANO IN CAMP
by Sam Davis
|IN 1858 — it might have been five years earlier or later; this is not the history for the public schools — there was a little camp about ten miles from Pioche, occupied by upward of three hundred miners, every one of whom might have packed his prospecting implements and left for more inviting fields any time before sunset.
When the day was over, these men did not rest from their labours, like honest New England agriculturists but sang, danced, gambled, and shot each other, as the mood seized them.
One evening the report spread along the main street (which was the only street) that three men had been killed at Silver Reef and that the bodies were coming in. Presently a lumbering old conveyance laboured up the hill, drawn by a couple of horses, well worn out with their pull. The cart contained a good-sized box, and no sooner did its outlines become visible through the glimmer of a stray light, than it began to affect the idlers.
Death always enforces respect, and even though no one had caught sight of the remains the crowd gradually became subdued, and when the horses came to a standstill the cart was immediately surrounded. The driver, however, was not in the least impressed with the solemnity of his commission.
“All there?” asked one.
“Haven’t examined. Guess so.”
The driver filled his pipe, and lit it as he continued:
“Wish the bones and load had gone over the grade!”
A man who had been looking on stepped up to the man at once.
“I don’t know who you have in that box, but if they happen to be any friends of mine I’ll lay you alongside.”
“We can mighty soon see,” said the teamster coolly. “Just burst the lid off, and if they happen to be the men you want, I’m here.”
The two looked at each other for a moment, and then the crowd gathered a little closer, anticipating trouble.
“I believe that dead men are entitled to good treatment, and when you talk about hoping to see corpses go over a bank, all I have to say is, that it will be better for you if the late lamented ain’t my friends.”
“We’ll open the box. I don’t take back what I’ve said, and if my language don’t suit your ways of thinking, I guess I can stand it.” With these words the teamster began to pry up the lid. He got a board off, and then pulled out some rags. A strip of something dark, like rosewood, presented itself.
“Eastern coffins, by thunder!” said several, and the crowd looked quite astonished.
Some more boards flew up, and the man who was ready to defend his friend’s memory shifted his weapon a little. The cool manner of the teamster had so irritated him that he had made up his mind to pull his weapon at the first sight of the dead, even if the deceased was his worst and oldest enemy. Presently the whole of the box-cover was off, and the teamster, clearing away the packing revealed to the astonished group the top of something which puzzled all alike.
“Boys,” said he, “this is a pianner.”
A general shout of laughter went up, and the man who had been so anxious to enforce respect for the dead muttered something about feeling dry, and the keeper of the nearest bar was several ounces better off by the time the boys had given the joke all the attention it called for.
Had a dozen dead men been in the box their presence in the camp could not have occasioned half the excitement that the arrival of that lonely piano caused. But the next morning it was known that the instrument was to grace a hurdy-gurdy saloon, owned by Tom Goskin, the leading gambler in the place. It took nearly a week to get this wonder on its legs, and the owner was the proudest individual in the State. It rose gradually from a recumbent to an upright position amid a confusion of tongues, after the manner of the Tower of Babel.
Of course everybody knew just how such an instrument should be put up. One knew where the “off hind leg” should go, and another was posted on the “front piece.”
Scores of men came to the place every day to assist.
“I’ll put the bones in good order.”
“If you want the wires tuned up, I’m the boy.”
“I’ve got music to feed it for a month.”
Another brought a pair of blankets for a cover, and all took the liveliest interest in it. It was at last in a condition for business.
“It’s been showin’ its teeth all the week. We’d like to have it spit out something.”
Alas! there wasn’t a man to be found who could play upon the instrument. Goskin began to realise that he had a losing speculation on his hands. He had a fiddler, and a Mexican who thrummed a guitar. A pianist would have made his orchestra complete. One day a three-card monte player told a friend confidentially that he could “knock any amount of music out of the piano, if he only had it alone a few hours to get his hand in.” This report spread about the camp, but on being questioned he vowed that he didn’t know a note of music. It was noted, however, as a suspicious circumstance, that he often hung about the instrument and looked upon it longingly, like a hungry man gloating over a beef-steak in a restaurant window. There was no doubt but that this man had music in his soul, perhaps in his finger-ends, but did not dare to make trial of his strength after the rules of harmony had suffered so many years of neglect. So the fiddler kept on with his jigs, and the Mexican pawed his discordant guitar, but no man had the nerve to touch the piano. There were doubtless scores of men in the camp who would have given ten ounces of gold-dust to have been half-an-hour alone with it, but every man’s nerve shrank from the jeers which the crowd would shower upon him should his first attempt prove a failure. It got to be generally understood that the hand which first essayed to draw music from the keys must not slouch its work.
It was Christmas eve, and Goskin, according to his custom, had decorated his gambling-hell with sprigs of mountain cedar and a shrub whose crimson berries did not seem a bad imitation of English holly. The piano was covered with evergreens, and all that was wanting to completely fill the cup of Goskin’s contentment was a man to play the instrument.
“Christmas night, and no piano-pounder,” he said. “This is a nice country for a Christian to live in.”
Getting a piece of paper, he scrawled the words:
This he stuck up on the music-rack, and, though the inscription glared at the frequenters of the room until midnight, it failed to draw any musician from his shell.
So the merrymaking went on; the hilarity grew apace. Men danced and sang to the music of the squeaky fiddle and worn-out guitar as the jolly crowd within tried to drown the howling of the storm without. Suddenly they became aware of the presence of a white-haired man, crouching near the fireplace. His garments — such as were left — were wet with melting snow, and he had a half-starved, half-crazed expression. He held his thin, trembling hands toward the fire and the light of the blazing wood made them almost transparent. He looked about him once in a while as if in search of something, and his presence cast such a chill over the place that gradually the sound of the revelry was hushed, and it seemed that this waif of the storm had brought in with it all the gloom and coldness of the warring elements. Goskin, mixing up a cup of hot egg-nog, advanced and remarked cheerily:
“Here, stranger, brace up! This is the real stuff.”
The man drained the cup, smacked his lips, and seemed more at home.
“Been prospecting, eh? Out in the mountains — caught in the storm? Lively night, this!”
“Pretty bad,” said the man.
“Must feel pretty dry?”
The man looked at his streaming clothes and laughed, as if Goskin’s remark was a sarcasm.
“How long out?”
The man rose up, and, walking over to the lunch-counter, fell to work upon some roast bear, devouring it like any wild animal would have done. As meat and drink and warmth began to permeate the stranger, he seemed to expand and lighten up. His features lost their pallor, and he grew more and more content with the idea that he was not in the grave. As he underwent these changes, the people about him got merrier and happier, and threw off the temporary feeling of depression which he had laid upon them.
“Do you always have your place decorated like this?” he finally asked of Goskin.
“This is Christmas Eve,” was the reply.
The stranger was startled.
“December 24th, sure enough.”
“That’s the way I put it up, pard.”
“When I was in England I always kept Christmas. But I had forgotten that this was the night. I’ve been wandering about in the mountains until I’ve lost track of the feasts of the Church.”
Presently his eye fell upon the piano.
“Where’s the player?” he asked.
“Never had any,” said Goskin, blushing at the expression.
“I used to play when I was young.”
Goskin almost fainted at the admission.
“Stranger, do tackle it, and give us a tune! Nary man in this camp ever had the nerve to wrestle with that music-box.” His pulse beat faster, for he feared that the man would refuse.
“I’ll do the best I can,” he said.
There was no stool, but seizing a candle-box, he drew it up and seated himself before the instrument. It only required a few seconds for a hush to come over the room.
“That old coon is going to give the thing a rattle.”
The sight of a man at the piano was something so unusual that even the faro-dealer, who was about to take in a fifty-dollar bet on the tray, paused and did not reach for the money. Men stopped drinking, with the glasses at their lips. Conversation appeared to have been struck with a sort of paralysis, and cards were no loner shuffled.
The old man brushed back his long white locks looked up to the ceiling, half closed his eyes, and in a mystic sort of reverie passed his fingers over the keys. He touched but a single note, yet the sound thrilled the room. It was the key to his improvisation, and as he wove his chords together the music laid its spell upon every ear and heart. He felt his way along the keys like a man treading uncertain paths, but he gained confidence as he progressed, and presently bent to his work like a master. The instrument was not an exact tune, but the ears of his audience did not detect anything radically wrong. They heard a succession of grand chords, a suggestion of paradise, melodies here and there and it was enough.
“See him counter with his left!” said an old rough enraptured.
“He calls the turn every time on the upper end of the board,” responded a man with a stack of chips in his hand.
The player wandered off into the old ballads they had heard at home. All the sad and melancholy and touching songs, that came up like dreams of childhood, this unknown player drew from the keys. His hands kneaded their hearts like dough and squeezed out tears as from a wet sponge.
As the strains flowed one upon the other, the listeners saw their homes of the long-ago reared again; they were playing once more where the apple-blossoms sank through the soft air to join the violets on the green turf of the old New England States; they saw the glories of the Wisconsin maples and the haze of the Indian summer blending their hues together; they recalled the heather of Scottish hills, the white cliffs of Britain, and heard the sullen roar of the sea, as it beat upon their memories, vaguely. Then came all the old Christmas carols, such as they had sung in church thirty years before; the subtle music that brings up the glimmer of wax tapers, the solemn shrines, the evergreen holly, mistletoe, and surpliced choirs. Then the remorseless performer planted his final stab in every heart with “Home, Sweet Home.”
When the player ceased the crowd slunk away from him. There was no more revelry and devilment left in his audience. Each man wanted to sneak off to his cabin and write the old folks a letter. The day was breaking as the last man left the place, and the player, with his head on the piano, fell asleep.
“I say, pard,” said Goskin, “don’t you want a little rest?”
“I feel tired,” the old man said. “Perhaps you’ll let me rest here for the matter of a day or so.”
He walked behind the bar, where some old blankets were lying, and stretched himself upon them.
“I feel pretty sick. I guess I won’t last long. I’ve got a brother down in the ravine — his name’s Driscoll. He don’t know I’m here. Can you get him before morning? I’d like to see his face once before I die.”
Goskin started up at the mention of the name. He knew Driscoll well.
“He your brother? I’ll have him here in half an hour.”
As Goskin dashed out into the storm the musician pressed his hand to his side and groaned. Goskin heard the word “Hurry!” and sped down the ravine to Driscoll’s cabin. It was quite light in the room when the two men returned. Driscoll was pale as death.
“My God! I hope he’s alive! I wronged him when we lived in England twenty years ago.”
They saw the old man had drawn the blankets over his face. The two stood a moment, awed by the thought that he might be dead. Goskin lifted the blanket and pulled it down, astonished. There was no one there!
“Gone!” cried Driscoll wildly.
“Gone!” echoed Goskin, pulling out his cash-drawer. “Ten thousand dollars in the sack, and the Lord knows how much loose change in the drawer!”
The next day the boys got out, followed a horse’s track through the snow, and lost them in the trail leading toward Pioche.
There was a man missing from the camp. It was the three-card monte man, who used to deny point-blank that he could play the scale. One day they found a wig of white hair, and called to mind when the “stranger” had pushed those locks back when he looked toward the ceiling for inspiration on the night of December 24, 1858.