A Old-Time Mugging

August 8, 2011

Just for fun, I attach a selection from the novel Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia (1834) by William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). Edgar Allen Poe considered Simms to be our best novelist, but his pro-South, pro-slavery views ensured him obscurity in the 20th century. Simms wrote a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin entitled The Sword and the Distaff.

Another reason Simms is no longer in favor is probably the ultra-refined verbosity and contrived elegance of his narrations and dialogues, which violate contemporary aesthetic norms. But this is really a matter of taste, of what you are reading for. 19th-century readers delighted in detailed description of people and scenes, in dramatic and romantic situations that took one away from ordinary life, in conversations and descriptions teeming with wit and color. These are the qualities that drew them to the writings of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.

I enjoyed the following scene from Chapter 3 of Guy Rivers. If only all robberies and ambushes were conducted like this.The scene finds the protagonist, Ralph Colleton, traveling alone in a wild area of Georgia, when he is accosted by a stranger:

The traveller himself looked forward at his own query, and soon discovered the occasion of his steed’s alarm. No occasion for alarm, either, judging by appearances; no panther, no wolf, certainly—a man only—looking innocent enough, were it not for the suspicious fact that he seemed to have put himself in waiting, and stood directly in the midst of the path that the horseman was pursuing.

Our traveller, as we have seen, was not wholly unprepared, as well to expect as to encounter hostilities. In addition to his pistols, which were well charged, and conveniently at hand, we may now add that he carried another weapon, for close quarters, concealed in his bosom. The appearance of the stranger was not, however, so decided a manifestation of hostility, as to justify his acting with any haste by the premature use of his defences. Besides, no man of sense, and such we take our traveller to be, will force a quarrel where he can make his way peacefully, like a Christian and a gentleman. Our young traveller very quietly observed as he approached the stranger—

“You scare my horse, sir. Will it please you to give us the road?”

“Give you the road?—Oh! yes! when you have paid the toll, young master!”

The manner of the man was full of insolence, and the blood, in a moment, rushed to the cheeks of the youth. He divined, by instinct, that there was some trouble in preparation for him, and his teeth were silently clenched together, and his soul nerved itself for anticipated conflict. He gazed calmly, however, though sternly, at the stranger, who appeared nothing daunted by the expression in the eyes of the traveller. His air was that of quiet indifference, bordering on contempt, as if he knew his duties, or his man, and was resolved upon the course he was appointed to pursue. When men meet thus, if they are persons of even ordinary intelligence, the instincts are quick to conceive and act, and the youth was now more assured than ever, that the contest awaited him which should try his strength. This called up all his resources, and we may infer that he possessed them in large degree, from his quiet forbearance and deliberation, even when he became fully sensible of the insolence of the person with whom he felt about to grapple.

As yet, however, judging from other appearances, there was no violence meditated by the stranger. He was simply insolent, and he was in the way. He carried no weapons—none which met the sight, at least, and there was nothing in his personal appearance calculated to occasion apprehension. His frame was small, his limbs slight, and they did not afford promise of much activity. His face wad not ill favored, though a quick, restless black eye, keen and searching, had in it a lurking malignity, like that of a snake, which impressed the spectator with suspicion at the first casual glance. His nose, long and sharp, was almost totally fleshless; the skin being drawn so tightly over the bones, as to provoke the fear that any violent effort would cause them to force their way through the frail integument. An untrimmed beard, run wild; and a pair of whiskers so huge, as to refuse all accordance with the thin diminutive cheeks which wore them; thin lips, and a sharp chin; — completed the outline of a very unprepossessing face, which a broad high forehead did not tend very much to improve or dignify.

Though the air of the stranger was insolent, and his manner rude, our young traveller was unwilling to decide unfavorably. At all events, his policy and mood equally inclined him to avoid any proceeding which should precipitate or compel violence.

“There are many good people in the world”—so he thought — “who are better than they promise; many good Christians, whose aspects would enable them to pass, in any crowd, as very tolerable and becoming ruffians. This fellow may be one of the unfortunate order of virtuous people, cursed with an unbecoming visage. We will see before we shoot.”

Thus thought our traveller, quickly, as became his situation. He determined accordingly, while foregoing none of his precautions, to see farther into the designs of the stranger, before he resorted to any desperate issues. He replied, accordingly, to the requisition of the speaker; the manner, rather than the matter of which, had proved offensive.

“Toll! You ask toll of me? By what right, sir, and for whom do you require it?”

“Look you, young fellow, I am better able to ask questions myself, than to answer those of other people. In respect to this matter of answering, my education has been wofully neglected.”

The reply betrayed some intelligence as well as insolence. Our traveller could not withhold the retort.

 “Ay, indeed! and in some other respects too, not less important, if I am to judge from your look and bearing. But you mistake your man, let me tell you. I am not the person whom you can play your pranks upon with safety, and unless you will be pleased to speak a little more respectfully, our parley will have a shorter life, and a rougher ending, than you fancy.”

 “It would scarcely be polite to contradict so promising a young gentleman as yourself,” was the response;  “but I am disposed to believe our intimacy likely to lengthen, rather than diminish. I hate to part over-soon with company that talks so well; particularly in these woods, where, unless such a chance come about as the present, the lungs of the heartiest youth in the land would not be often apt to find the echo they seek, though they cried for it at the uttermost pitch of the pipe.”

The look and the language of the speaker were alike significant, and the sinister meaning of the last sentence did not escape the notice of him to whom it was addressed. His reply was calm, however, and his mind grew more at ease, more collected, with his growing consciousness of annoyance and danger. He answered the stranger in a vein not unlike his own.

 “You are pleased to be eloquent, worthy sir—and, on any other occasion, I might not be unwilling to bestow my ear upon you; but as I have yet to find my way out of this labyrinth, for the use of which your facetiousness would have me pay a tax, I must forego that satisfaction, and leave the enjoyment for some better day.”

 “You are well bred, I see, young sir,” was the reply,  “and this forms an additional reason why I should not desire so soon to break our acquaintance. If you have mistaken your road, what do you on this?—why are you in this part of the country, which is many miles removed from any public thoroughfare?”

 “By what right do you ask the question?” was the hurried and unhesitating response.  “You are impertinent!”

 “Softly, softly, young sir. Be not rash, and let me recommend that you be more choice in the adoption of your epithets. Impertinent is an ugly word between gentlemen of our habit. Touching my right to ask this or that question of young men who lose the way, that’s neither here nor there, and is important in no way. But, I take it, I should have some right in this matter, seeing, young sir, that you are upon the turnpike and I am the gate-keeper who must take the toll.”

A sarcastic smile passed over the lips of the man as he uttered the sentence, which was as suddenly succeeded, however, by an expression of gravity, partaking of an air of the profoundest business. The traveller surveyed him for a moment before he replied, as if to ascertain in what point of view properly to understand his conduct.

 “Turnpike! this is something new. I never heard of a turnpike and a gate for toll, in a part of the world in which men, honest ones at least, are not yet commonly to be found. You think rather too lightly, my good sir, of my claim to that most vulgar commodity called common sense, if you suppose me likely to swallow this silly story.”

 “Oh, doubtless—you are a very sagacious young man, I make no question,” said the other, with a sneer—“but you’ll have to pay the turnpike for all that.”

 “You speak confidently on this point; but, if I am to pay this turnpike, at least, I may be permitted to know who is its proprietor.”

 “To be sure you may. I am always well pleased to satisfy the doubts and curiosity of young travellers who go abroad for information. I take you to be one of this class.”

 “Confine yourself, if you please, to the matter in hand—I grow weary of this chat,” said the youth with a haughty inclination, that seemed to have its effect even upon him with whom he spoke.

 “Your question is quickly answered. You have heard of the Pony Club—have you not?”

 “I must confess my utter ignorance of such an institution. I have never heard even the name before.”

 “You have not—then really it is high time to begin the work of enlightenment. You must know, then, that the Pony Club is the proprietor of everything and everybody, throughout the nation, and in and about this section. It is the king, without let or limitation of powers, for sixty miles around. Scarce a man in Georgia but pays in some sort to its support—and judge and jury alike contribute to its treasuries. Few dispute its authority, as you will have reason to discover, without suffering condign and certain punishment; and, unlike the tributaries and agents of other powers, its servitors, like myself, invested with jurisdiction over certain parts and interests, sleep not in the performance of our duties; but, day and night, obey its dictates, and perform the various, always laborious, and sometimes dangerous functions which it imposes upon us. It finds us in men, in money, in horses. It assesses the Cherokees, and they yield a tithe, and sometimes a greater proportion of their ponies, in obedience to its requisitions. Hence, indeed, the name of the club. It relieves young travellers, like yourself, of their small change—their sixpences; and when they happen to have a good patent lever, such a one as a smart young gentleman like yourself is very apt to carry about him, it is not scrupulous, but helps them of that too, merely by way of pas-time.”

And the ruffian chuckled in a half-covert manner at his own pun.

 “Truly, a well-conceived sort of sovereignty, and doubtless sufficiently well served, if I may infer from the representative before me. You must do a large business in this way, most worthy sir.”

 “Why, that we do, and your remark reminds me that I have quite as little time to lose as yourself. You now understand, young sir, the toll you have to pay, and the proprietor who claims it.”

 “Perfectly—perfectly. You will not suppose me dull again, most candid keeper of the Pony Turnpike. But have you made up your mind, in earnest, to relieve me of such trifling encumbrances as those you have just mentioned?”

 “I should be strangely neglectful of the duties of my station, not to speak of the discourtesy of such a neglect to yourself, were I to do otherwise; always supposing you burdened with such encumbrances. I put it to yourself, whether such would not be the effect of my omission.”

 “It most certainly would, most frank and candid of all the outlaws. Your punctiliousness on this point of honor entitles you, in my mind, to an elevation above and beyond all others of your profession. I admire the grace of your manner, in the commission of acts which the more tame and temperate of our kind are apt to look upon as irregular and unlovely. You, I see, have the true notion of the thing.”

The ruffian looked with some doubt upon the youth—inquiringly, as if to account in some way for the singular coolness, not to say contemptuous scornfulness, of his replies and manner. There was something, too, of a searching malignity in his glance, that seemed to recognise in his survey features which brought into activity a personal emotion in his own bosom, not at variance, indeed, with the craft he was pursuing, but fully above and utterly beyond it. Dismissing, however, the expression, he continued in the manner and tone so tacitly adopted between the parties.

 “I am heartily glad, most travelled young gentleman, that your opinion so completely coincides with my own, since it assures me I shall not be compelled, as is sometimes the case in the performance of my duties, to offer any rudeness to one seemingly so well taught as yourself. Knowing the relationship between us so fully, you can have no reasonable objection to conform quietly to all my requisitions, and yield the tollkeeper his dues.”