Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Child of Calamity
By Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From ‘Life on the Mississippi’

BY way of illustrating keelboat talk and manners, and that now departed and hardly remembered raft life, I will throw in, in this place, a chapter from a book which I have been working at by fits and starts during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more. The book is a story which details some passages in the life of an ignorant village boy, Huck Finn, son of the town drunkard of my time out West there. He has run away from his persecuting father, and from a persecuting good widow who wishes to make a nice truth-telling respectable boy of him; and with him a slave of the widow’s has also escaped. They have found a fragment of a lumber raft (it is high water and dead summer-time), and are floating down the river by night and hiding in the willows by day,—bound for Cairo,—whence the negro will seek freedom in the heart of the free States. But in a fog, they pass Cairo without knowing it. By-and-by they begin to suspect the truth, and Huck Finn is persuaded to end the dismal suspense by swimming down to a huge raft which they have seen in the distance ahead of them, creeping aboard under cover of the darkness, and gathering the needed information by eaves-dropping:—  1
  But you know a young person can’t wait very well when he is impatient to find a thing out. We talked it over, and by-and-by Jim said it was such a black night now that it wouldn’t be no risk to swim down to the big raft and crawl aboard and listen,—they would talk about Cairo, because they would be calculating to go ashore there for a spree, maybe, or anyway they would send boats ashore to buy whisky or fresh meat or something. Jim had a wonderful level head, for a nigger: he could ’most always start a good plan when you wanted one.  2
  I stood up and shook my rags off and jumped into the river, and struck out for the raft’s light. By-and-by, when I got down nearly to her, I eased up and went slow and cautious. But everything was all right—nobody at the sweeps. So I swum down along the raft till I was ’most abreast the camp fire in the middle, then I crawled aboard and inched along and got in amongst some bundles of shingles on the weather side of the fire. There was thirteen men there—they was the watch on deck, of course. And a mighty rough-looking lot too. They had a jug, and tin cups, and they kept the jug moving. One man was singing—roaring, you may say; and it wasn’t a nice song—for a parlor anyway. He roared through his nose, and strung out the last word of every line very long. When he was done they all fetched a kind of Injun war-whoop, and then another was sung. It begun:—

  “There was a woman in our towdn,
  In our towdn did dwed’l (dwell),
She loved her husband dear-i-lee,
  But another man twyste as wed’l.
“Singing too, riloo, riloo, riloo,
  Ri-loo, riloo, rilay - - - e,
She loved her husband dear-i-lee,
  But another man twyste as wed’l.”

And so on—fourteen verses. It was kind of poor, and when he was going to start on the next verse one of them said it was the tune the old cow died on; and another one said, “Oh, give us a rest.” And another one told him to take a walk. They made fun of him till he got mad and jumped up and begun to cuss the crowd, and said he could lam any thief in the lot.
  They was all about to make a break for him, but the biggest man there jumped up and says:—  4
  “Set whar you are, gentlemen. Leave him to me; he’s my meat.”  5
  Then he jumped up in the air three times and cracked his heels together every time. He flung off a buckskin coat that was all hung with fringes, and says, “You lay thar tell the chawin-up’s done;” and flung his hat down, which was all over ribbons, and says, “You lay thar tell his sufferins is over.”  6
  Then he jumped up in the air and cracked his heels together again and shouted out:—  7
  “Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whisky for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m ’bout to turn myself loose!”  8
  All the time he was getting this off, he was shaking his head and looking fierce and kind of swelling around in a little circle, tucking up his wrist-bands and now and then straightening up and beating his breast with his fist, saying “Look at me, gentlemen!” When he got through he jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, and let off a roaring “Whoo-oop! I’m the bloodiest son of a wildcat that lives!”  9
  Then the man that had started the row tilted his old slouch hat down over his right eye; then he bent stooping forward, with his back sagged and his south end sticking out far, and his fists a-shoving out and drawing in in front of him, and so went around in a little circle about three times, swelling himself up and breathing hard. Then he straightened, and jumped up and cracked his heels together three times before he lit again (that made them cheer), and he begun to shout like this:—  10
  “Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow’s a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-oop! I’m a child of sin; don’t let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don’t attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen! When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand on the sun’s face and make it night in the earth; I bite a piece out of the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the mountains! Contemplate me through leather—don’t use the naked eye! I’m the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my inclosed property, and I bury my dead on my own premises!” He jumped up and cracked his heels together three times before he lit (they cheered him again), and as he came down he shouted out: “Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming!”  11
  Then the other one went to swelling around and blowing again—the first one—the one they called Bob; next, the Child of Calamity chipped in again, bigger than ever; then they both got at it at the same time, swelling round and round each other and punching their fists ’most into each other’s faces, and whooping and jawing like Injuns; then Bob called the Child names, and the Child called him names back again: next, Bob called him a heap rougher names, and the Child come back at him with the very worst kind of language; next, Bob knocked the Child’s hat off, and the Child picked it up and kicked Bob’s ribbony hat about six foot; Bob went and got it and said never mind, this warn’t going to be the last of this thing, because he was a man that never forgot and never forgive, and so the Child better look out; for there was a time a-coming, just as sure as he was a living man, that he would have to answer to him with the best blood in his body. The Child said no man was willinger than he was for that time to come, and he would give Bob fair warning, now, never to cross his path again, for he could never rest till he had waded in his blood; for such was his nature, though he was sparing him now on account of his family, if he had one.  12
  Both of them was edging away in different directions, growling and shaking their heads and going on about what they was going to do; but a little black-whiskered chap skipped up and says:—  13
  “Come back here, you couple of chicken-livered cowards, and I’ll thrash the two of ye!”  14
  And he done it, too. He snatched them, he jerked them this way and that, he booted them around, he knocked them sprawling faster than they could get up. Why, it warn’t two minutes till they begged like dogs—and how the other lot did yell and laugh and clap their hands all the way through, and shout “Sail in, Corpse-Maker!” “Hi! at him again, Child of Calamity!” “Bully for you, little Davy!” Well, it was a perfect pow-wow for a while. Bob and the Child had red noses and black eyes when they got through. Little Davy made them own up that they was sneaks and cowards, and not fit to eat with a dog or drink with a nigger; then Bob and the Child shook hands with each other very solemn, and said they had always respected each other and was willing to let bygones be bygones. So then they washed their faces in the river; and just then there was a loud order to stand by for a crossing, and some of them went forward to man the sweeps there, and the rest went aft to handle the after-sweeps.  15

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