[Thomas Bangs Thorpe, born at Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1815, was an artist of some distinction and a humorous writer of considerable ability. His works consist of sketches of Western and Southern life, comprising “Tom Owen the Bee-Hunter” and other volumes of tales and sketches. He was a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine. He died in 1878.) ]
WE shall never forget the excitement which seized upon the inhabitants of the little village of Hardscrabble as the report spread through the community that a real piano had actually arrived within its precincts.
Speculation was afloat as to its appearance and its use. The name was familiar to everybody; but what it precisely meant, no one could tell. That is had legs was certain; for a stray volume of some literary traveller was one of the most conspicuous works in the floating library of Hardscrabble, and said traveller stated that he had seen a piano somewhere in New England with pantalets on; also, an old foreign paper was brought forward, in which there was an advertisement headed “Soirée,” which informed the “citizens, generally,” that Mr. Bobolink would preside at the piano.
This was presumed by several wiseacres, who had been to a menagerie, to mean that Mr. Bobolink stirred the piano with a long pole, in the same way that the showman did the lions and rhi-no-ce-rus.
So, public opinion was in favor of its being an animal, though a harmless one; for there had been a land-speculator through the village a few weeks previously, who distributed circulars of a “Female Academy” for the accomplishment 17 of young ladies. These circulars distinctly stated “the use of the piano to be one dollar per month.”
One knowing old chap said, if they would tell him what so-i-ree meant, he would tell them what a piano was, and no mistake.
The owner of this strange instrument was no less than a very quiet and very respectable late merchant of a little town somewhere “north,” who, having failed at home, had emigrated into the new and hospitable country of Arkansas, for the purpose of bettering his fortune and escaping the heartless sympathy of his more lucky neighbors, who seemed to consider him a very bad and degraded man because he had become honestly poor.
The new-comers were strangers, of course. The house in which they were setting up their furniture was too little arranged “to admit of calls;” and, as the family seemed very little disposed to court society, all prospects of immediately solving the mystery that hung about the piano seemed hopeless. In the mean time, public opinion was “rife.”
The depository of this strange thing was looked upon by the passers-by with indefinable awe; and, as noises unfamiliar sometimes reached the street, it was presumed that the piano made them, and the excitement rose higher than ever. In the midst of it, one or two old ladies, presuming upon their age and respectability, called upon the strangers and inquired after their health, and offered their services and friendship; meantime, everything in the house was eyed with great intensity, but, seeing nothing strange, a hint was given about the piano. One of the new family observed, carelessly, “that it had been much injured by bringing out, that the damp had affected its tones, and that one of its legs was so injured that it would not stand up, and for the present it would not ornament the parlor.”18
Here was an explanation indeed: injured in bringing out; damp affecting its tones; leg broken. “Poor thing!” ejaculated the old ladies, with real sympathy, as they proceeded homeward; “travelling has evidently fatigued it; the Mass-is-sip fogs has given it a cold, poor thing!” and they wished to see it with increased curiosity.
The “village” agreed that if Moses Mercer, familiarly called “Mo Mercer,” was in town, they would have a description of the piano, and the uses to which it was put; and, fortunately, in the midst of the excitement “Mo” arrived, he having been temporarily absent on a hunting expedition.
Moses Mercer was the only son of “old Mercer,” who was, and had been, in the State Senate ever since Arkansas was admitted into the “Union.” Mo from this fact received great glory, of course; his father’s greatness alone would have stamped him with superiority; but his having been twice in the “Capitol” when the legislature was in session stamped his claims to pre-eminence over all competitors.
Mo Mercer was the oracle of the renowned village of Hardscrabble.
“Mo” knew everything; he had all the consequence and complacency of a man who had never seen his equal, and never expected to. “Mo” bragged extensively upon his having been to the “Capitol” twice, — of his there having been in the most “fashionable society,” — of having seen the world. His return to town was therefore received with a shout. The arrival of the piano was announced to him, and he alone of all the community was not astonished at the news.
His insensibility was considered wonderful. He treated the piano as a thing that he was used to, and went on, among other things, to say that he had seen more pianos 19 in the “Capitol,” than he had ever seen woodchucks, and that it was not an animal, but a musical instrument played upon by the ladies; and he wound up his description by saying that the way “the dear creeturs could pull music out of it was a caution to hoarse owls.”
The new turn given to the piano-excitement in Hardscrabble by Mo Mercer was like pouring oil on fire to extinguish it, for it blazed out with more vigor than ever. That it was a musical instrument made it a rarer thing in that wild country than if it had been an animal, and people of all sizes, colors, and degrees were dying to see and hear it.
Jim Cash was Mo Mercer’s right-hand man: in the language of refined society, he was “Mo’s toady;” in the language of Hardscrabble, he was “Mo’s wheel-horse.” Cash believed in Mo Mercer with an abandonment that was perfectly ridiculous. Mr. Cash was dying to see the piano, and the first opportunity he had alone with his Quixote he expressed the desire that was consuming his vitals.
“We’ll go at once and see it,” said Mercer.
“Strangers!” echoed the frightened Cash.
“Humbug! Do you think I have visited the ‘Capitol” twice, and don’t know how to treat fashionable society? Come along at once, Cash,” said Mercer.
Off the pair started, Mercer all confidence, and Cash all fears as to the propriety of the visit. These fears Cash frankly expressed; but Mercer repeated for the thousandth time his experience in the fashionable society of the “Capitol, and pianos,” which he said “was synonymous;” and he finally told Cash, to comfort him, that, however abashed and ashamed he might be in the presence of the ladies, “he needn’t fear of sticking, for he would pull him through.”
A few minutes’ walk brought the parties on the broad galleries of the house that contained the object of so much 20 curiosity. The doors and windows were closed, and a suspicious look was on everything.
“Do they always keep a house closed up this way that has a piano in it?” asked Cash, mysteriously.
“Certainly,” replied Mercer: “the damp would destroy its tones.”
Repeated knocks at the doors, and finally at the windows, satisfied both Cash and Mercer that nobody was at home. In the midst of their disappointment, Cash discovered a singular machine at the end of the gallery, crossed by bars and rollers and surmounted with an enormous crank. Cash approached it on tiptoe; he had a presentiment that he beheld the object of his curiosity, and, as its intricate character unfolded itself, he gazed with distended eyes, and asked Mercer, with breathless anxiety, what that strange and incomprehensible box was.
Mercer turned to the thing as coolly as a north wind to an icicle, and said, that was it.
“That it!” exclaimed Cash, opening eyes still wider; and then, recovering himself, he asked to see “the tone.”
Mercer pointed to the cross-bars and rollers, With trembling hands, with a resolution that would enable a man to be scalped without winking, Cash reached out his hand and seized the handle of the crank (Cash, at heart, was a brave and fearless man). He gave it a turn: the machinery grated harshly, and seemed to clamor for something to be put in its maw.
“What delicious sounds!” said Cash.
“Beautiful!” observed the complacent Mercer, at the same time seizing Cash’s arm and asking him to desist, for fear of breaking the instrument or getting it out of tune.
The simple caution was sufficient; and Cash, in the joy of the moment at what he had done and seen, looked as conceited as Mo Mercer himself.21
Busy indeed was Cash, from this time forward, in explaining to gaping crowds the exact appearance of the piano, how he had actually taken hold of it, and, as his friend Mo Mercer observed, “pulled music out of it.”
The curiosity of the village was thus allayed, and consequently died comparatively away, — Cash, however, having risen to almost as much importance as Mo Mercer, for having seen and handled the thing.
Our “Northern family” knew little or nothing of all this excitement; they received meanwhile the visits and congratulations of the hospitable villagers, and resolved to give a grand party to return some of the kindness they had received, and the piano was, for the first time, moved into the parlor. No invitation was neglected; early at the post was every visitor, for it was rumored that Miss Patience Doolittle would, in the course of the evening, “perform on the piano.”
The excitement was immense. The supper was passed over with a contempt rivalling that which is cast upon an excellent farce played preparatory to a dull tragedy in which the star is to appear. The furniture was all critically examined, but nothing could be discovered answering Cash’s description. an enormously thick-leafed table with a “spread” upon it, attracted little attention, timber being so very cheap in a new country, and so everybody expected soon to see the piano “brought in.”
Mercer, of course, was the hero of the evening: he talked much and loudly. Cash, as well as several young ladies, went into hysterics at his wit. Mercer, as the evening wore away, grew exceedingly conceited, even for him; and he graciously asserted that the company present reminded him to his two visits to the “Capitol,” and other associations equally exclusive and peculiar.
The evening wore on apace, and still — no piano. That 22 hope deferred which maketh the heart sick was felt by some elderly ladies and by a few younger ones; and Mercer was solicited to ask Miss Patience Doolittle to favor the company with the presence of the piano.
“Certainly,” said Mercer, and with the grace of a city dandy he called upon the lady to gratify all present with a little music, prefacing his request with the remark that if she was fatigued “his friend Cash would give the machine a turn.”
Miss Patience smiled, and looked at Cash.
Cash’s knees trembled.
All eyes in the room turned upon him.
Cash trembled all over.
Miss Patience said she was gratified to hear that Mr. Cash was a musician: she admired people who had a musical taste. Whereupon Cash fell into a chair, as he afterwards observed, “chawed up.”
Oh that Beau Brummel or any of his admirers could have seen Mo Mercer all this while! Calm as a summer morning, complacent as a newly-painted sign, he smiled and patronized, and was the only unexcited person in the room.
Miss Patience rose. A sigh escaped from all present; the piano was evidently to be brought it. She approached the thick-leafed table, and removed the covering, throwing it carelessly and gracefully aside, opened the instrument, and presented the beautiful arrangement of dark and white keys.
Mo Mercer at this, for the first time in his life, looked confused: he was Cash’s authority in his descriptions of the appearance of the piano; while Cash himself began to recover the moment that he ceased to be an object of attention. Many a whisper now ran through the room as to the “tones,” and more particularly the “crank:” none could see them.23
Miss Patience took her seat, ran her fingers over a few octaves, and if “Moses in Egypt” was not perfectly executed, Moses in Hardscrabble was. The dulcet sound ceases. “Miss,” said Cash, the moment that he could express himself, so entranced was he by the music, — “Miss Doolittle, what was that instrument Mo Mercer showed me in your gallery once, that went by a crank and had rollers in it?”
It was now the time for Miss Patience to blush: so away went the blood from confusion to her cheeks. She hesitated, stammered, and said, if Mr. Cash must know, it was a—a—a— Yankee washing-machine.
The name grated on Mo Mercer’s ears as if rusty nails had been thrust into them; the heretofore invulnerable Mercer’s knees trembled, the sweat started to his brow, as he heard the taunting whispers of “visiting the Capitol twice” and seeing pianos as plenty as woodchucks.
The fashionable vices of envy and maliciousness were that moment sown in the village of Hardscrabble; and Mo Mercer, the great, the confident, the happy and self-possessed, surprising as it may seem, was the first victim sacrificed to their influence.
Time wore on, and pianos became common, and Mo Mercer less popular; and he finally disappeared altogether on the evening of the day on which a Yankee peddler of notions sold to the highest bidder, “six patent, warranted, and improved Mo Mercer pianos.”