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San Francisco Alta California, August 1, 1869



Much Married -- Story of the Crown Prince of Timbuctoo -- A California Magazine Abroad -- Blind Tom and His Performances -- Where is the Avitor?

HARTFORD, Conn., July, 1869

EDITORS ALTA: There is some little talk about a circumstance which happened the other day to an exalted Washington official. It seems to be my duty to record it. I will call the sufferer General George Belding, for the sake of convenience. He is said to be a right good man, but was always liberal in his views and a very sociable sort of person. He used to go about a good deal, and among other places, he used to go up to Socrates, on the Hudson River Railroad, every now and then, and stay all night at a hotel kept by a Mr. and Mrs. Wagner. In due time he fell in love with a refined and cultivated young lady in Brooklyn, and immediately put himself upon his very best behavior. In the course of six months she married him, and gave it as her opinion that she was marrying perfection itself. The young couple were very happy. They began to frisk around and enjoy the honeymoon. Presently they ran up to Socrates and camped at Mr. Wagner's hotel. In the evening George was sitting on a sofa in the parlor, with is arm around his bride's shoulders, when Mrs. Wagner entered. She struck an attitude. She began to get angry in a minute. Then she said:

"Look here, my fine fellow, I've had as much of this as I'm going to stand. There you are, down on that register as 'Gen. George Belding and lady,' again. You've done that thing sixteen times in eighteen months, and you've fetched a fresh trollop along every time. Young woman, march! Vamos the ranch, you brazen-faced huzzy!" It was a very sad circumstance. Now wasn't it?

Romance in Real Life.

The other day I saw in a dwelling in Hartford a well-executed portrait, by Inman, of an aged, bushy-headed, dignified darkey of patriarchal aspect, and a question concerning it brought out its story. In 1790, a party of American and English gentlemen, travelling in Africa, fell into misfortune, got lost, and in their wanderings were exposed for many days to the perils of starvation, sun-stroke, miasmatic fevers, snake-bite, mastication by wild beasts or wilder cannibals -- as varied and picturesque a combination of deadly menaces as it often falls to the luck of one small party of strangers to stumble on in a new country. But variety is the spice of life. So they struggled on, fighting against hope, until at last, when hunger and thirst, and pain and fatigue had well-nigh conquered them, and they were ready to succumb to death, and even welcome it as a deliverance, a stalwart young native suddenly appeared upon then and they were saved. He was a Crown Prince by hereditary right, and likewise by nature and merit. He was the eldest son of the King of Timbuctoo, who was great and powerful, and lived in regal state, and wore a stove-pipe hat and a pair of spectacles upon solemn occasions when it was necessary to put on clothes. He was a good King and a good man. The Prince brought his starvelings home, and the entire royal family turned out to welcome them. Comfortable quarters were provided for them in the palace, and for weeks the Prince and his people nursed them, nourished them, doctored them, watched by their bed sides. At last the patients grew strong and well again, and then they thanked their generous benefactors from full hearts, and bade them farewell and journeyed away toward their homes beyond the sea.

Thirty years after this, namely, in 1820, one of the Americans of this party happened to be going along the street in Louisville, when in the person of a gray and venerable slave, he recognized his preserver, the Crown Prince of Timbuctoo! The poor fellow had been taken prisoner in battle with a neighboring tribe and sold to the traders on the coast, and now for five and twenty years he had been doing service as an American slave.

The American gentleman referred to made himself known, and he and his royal benefactor had a long talk over other days and stirring reminiscences. And then the gentleman naturally went forth in the world to lay the facts before humane people and achieve the Prince's liberation. He published the details of his ancient adventure far and wide, and called upon all charitable souls to contribute their voices and their money to the good object. Henry Clay took hold of the matter and talked earnestly and eloquently in the unfortunate Prince's behalf. So did Daniel Webster. So did other prominent men,. And how long to you suppose it took to set that stricken and gallant old Prince free? It took two years. I suppose they did not know how to do things in those days. I have seen a man start around with a subscription paper for a mere ordinary public benevolent institution of some kind, in San Francisco, and collect coin enough in a single afternoon to buy up a whole tribe of Crown Princes. Highest market price, too. But in this old African's cause the money came in fifteen cents at a time, though in several shining cases a community came down with as much as two dollars all in one lump. And so, finally, they managed to scrape the stipulated amount together and buy the old royalist, though, sooth to say, he was getting pretty mature before they accomplished it. The fact is, several obstructions were thrown in the way of the enterprise. The Louisvillains, and Southerners generally, tried to frown the thing down and stop its aggravating notoriety, for it attracted too much attention to the peculiar institution, and made it smell too unsavory to have crowned heads found among its victims and the grim story of how they came there detailed in the public prints. And then the owners of this royalty made stumbling-blocks of themselves. They declined to part with him at all, at first. He was the only Prince they had on the plantation, likely, and they didn't know where they could get another one, may be. And when they did consent to sell they put up the price on him. They were very loath to part with him -- yet he was over sixty years old and of no particular account to anybody, unless it might be to the people of Timbuctoo. They put up the price on him -- they said they warn't selling Kings, now, at the ruling rates for field hands -- not as much as there were. They demanded full price for a King, and only ten per cent off for damage (though in honest truth he was so old and rusty that he ought not to have ranked higher than a war-chief, or may be a First Gentleman of the Bedchamber, in good repair).

However, the Prince was bought and paid for, at last, and set at liberty, and he started around the country at once telling his story and collecting money to buy his wife with, for he had married in slavery. He was here in Hartford on this mission in 1822, when Inman painted the portrait of him which I have spoken of. The old scion of royalty raised money enough at last, and bought his wife and took her with him to Timbuctoo and remounted the throne the first chance he got -- and I, for one, sincerely hope that after all his trials he is now peacefully enjoying the evening of his life and eating and relishing unsaleable niggers from neighboring tribes who fall into his hand, and making a good thing out of other niggers from neighboring tribes that are saleable. For virtues like his should be rewarded, and misfortunes like his should be compensated. The story I have told is a neat little romance and is true. I have ornamented it, and furbished it up a little, here and there, but I have not marred or misstated any of the main facts.

The "Overland Monthly."

The Eastern press are unanimous in their commendation of your new magazine. Every paper and every periodical has something to say about it, and they lavish compliments upon it with a heartiness that is proof that they mean what they say. Even the Nation, that is seldom satisfied with anything, takes frequent occasion to demonstrate that it is satisfied with the Overland. And every now and then, it and the other critical reviews of acknowledged authority, take occasion to say that Bret Harte's sketch of the "Luck of Roaring Camp" is the best prose magazine article that has seen the light for many months on either side of the ocean. They never mention who wrote the sketch, of course (and I only guess at it), for they do not know. The Overland keeps it contributors' names in the dark. Harte's name would be very familiar in the land but for this. However, the magazine itself is well known in high literary circles. I have heard it handsomely praised by some of the most ponderous of America's literary chiefs; and they displayed a complimentary and appreciative familiarity with Harte's articles, and those of Brooks, Sam. Williams, Bartlett, etc. But are you sure that California prizes the magazine as much as the Eastern people do? I stepped into the bookstore the other day to buy an Overland, and I made some inquiries about it. The bookseller said he always disposed of twenty-five or thirty copies without trouble, and he thought another establishment did as well. He said the sale in Hartford could be run up to a hundred copies right easily. He said he had twelve regular subscribers -- and then I remembered that a good authority had told me that the magazine lay decaying under slow sale on all the news counters of San Francisco, and that when the canvassars first sallied out in its behalf, they got just twelve subscribers in the entire length of Montgomery street. Is that true? Any canvasser could do better than that with it in any ten blocks in Hartford. About this time his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor came along and showed that he knew more about the Overland and the names and contributions of its writers than I did myself, and so I assumed a dignified silence.

Blind Tom.
[click here to see a picture of Blind Tom]

One day last winter I was on my way from Galena to another Illinois town to fill a lecture engagement. I went into the smoking car and sat down to meditate; but it was not a good meditating place, for pretty soon a burly negro man on the opposite side of the car began to sway his body violently forward and back, and mimic with his mouth the hiss and clatter of the train, in the most savagely excited way. Every time he came forward I was sure he was going to brain himself on the seat-back in front of him, and every time he reversed I was as certain he was going to throw a back-somersault over his own seat. What a wild state he was in! Clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a row and a racket like everything going to pieces, whooping through tunnels, running over cows -- Heavens! I thought, will this devil never run his viewless express off the track and give us a rest? No, sir. For three dreadful hours he kept it up -- and you may know by that what muscles and what wind he had. His wild eyes were sightless. For the most part he kept his head turned sideways and upward as blind people usually do who get a dim ray of light from apparently above the eye somewhere. He kept his face constantly twisted and distorted out of all shape. When he spoke he talked excitedly to himself, in an idiotic way and incoherently, but never slowed down on his imaginary express train to do it. He looked about thirty, was coarsely and slouchily dressed, and was as ungainly in build and uncomely of countenance as any half-civilized plantation slave. After I had endured his furious entertainment until I was becoming as crazy as he was and getting ready to start an opposition express on my own hook, I inquired who this barbarian was, and where he was bound for, and why he was not chained or throttled? They said it was Blind Tom, the celebrated pianist -- a harmless idiot to whom all sounds were music, and the imitation of them an unceasing delight. Even discord had a charm for his exquisite ear. Even the groaning and clattering and hissing of a railway train was harmony to him. And this stalwart brute was to torture his muscles all day with this terrific exercise, and then instead of lying down at night to die of exhaustion, was to sit behind a grand piano and bewitch a multitude with the pathos, the tenderness, the gaiety, the thunder, the brilliant and varied inspiration of his music!

A month or two ago I attended his performances three nights in succession. If ever there was an inspired idiot this is the individual. He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis. It was not from egotism, but because it is his natural instinct to imitate pretty much every sound he hears. When anybody else plays, the music so crazes him with delight that he can only find relief in uplifting a leg, depressing his head half way to the floor and jumping around on one foot so fast that it almost amounts to spinning -- and he claps his hands all the while, too. His head misses the piano about an inch or an inch and a half every time he comes around, but some astonishing instinct keeps him forever from hitting it. It must be instinct, because he cannot see, and he must surely grow too dizzy with his spinning to be able to measure distances and know where he is going to and whither he is drifting. And when the volunteer is done, Tom stops spinning, sits down and plays the piece over, exactly as the volunteer had played it, and puts in all the slips, mistakes, discords, corrections, and everything just where they occurred in the original performance! He will exactly reproduce the piece, no matter how fast it was played or how slow, or whether he ever heard it before or not. The second night that I attended, two musical professors sat down together and played a duet, which they had composed themselves beforehand for the occasion. It was wonderfully tangled and complicated, wonderfully fast in movement, and was bristling with false notes. In the midst of it "Yankee Doodle" was interpolated, but so mutilated with intentional discords that one could not help writhing in his seat when they rattled it off. The bass was a brilliant piece of complication, and fitted the composition about as well as it would have fitted any other tune -- just about. When the piece was finished, Tom stopped spinning and took the treble player's place alongside the bass performer, and clattered it furiously through, with his nose in the air, and never missed a note of any kind; and when he faithfully put in the ludicrous discords in "Yankee Doodle," the house came down. Then the treble man came back, and Tom took the wonderful bass and played it perfectly.

Tom will play two tunes and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in. I heard him play "Fisher's Hornpipe" with his right hand in two sharps (D), and "Yankee Doodle" with his left in three flats (E flat), and sing "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the Boys are Marching," in the key of C -- all at the same time. It was a dreadful and disorganizing mixture of meaningless sounds, but you could easily discover that there was "no deception," as the magician's say, by taking up the tunes one at a time and following them a little while, and then you would perceive that in time, movement and melody, each was without fault.

But the most surprising thing this High-You Muck-a-Muck of all the negro minstrels does, is to analyze musical sounds. If you will turn your back to the piano and let somebody strike a key at random here and there, you will see that you cannot call the name of two of the notes in succession except by pure guess work; and when just one note is touched by itself you cannot tell whether it was a black key or a white one. Blind Tom is your superior, then, in some respects. For he can stand off at a distance, and face the audience, with his back to the piano, and you may strike any key you please, and he will tell its name and its color; and two persons from the audience may select twenty keys (mixed so as to form a discord that will give you the lockjaw), and strike them suddenly and all at once, with their four hands -- and while the sound lingers in the air, the listening idiot will incline his head and make a fine assay of that sound, separate the web of discord into its individual elements, and then begin with the first note and rapidly call the name of every key of the twenty in succession, and never make a mistake! And twenty more may be struck, and the fingers of the performers instantly sent scattering at random over the full compass of the piano -- but by the time the flash of sound had died Thomas has analyzed it and can name the notes that made it. All the schooling of a life-time could not teach a man to do this wonderful thing, I suppose -- but this blind, uninstructed idiot of nineteen does it without any trouble. Some archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan, inhabits this coarse casket; and he comforts himself and makes his prison beautiful with thoughts and dreams and memories of another time and another existence that fire this dull clod with impulses and inspirations it no more comprehends than does the stupid worm the stirring of the spirit within her of the gorgeous captive whose wings she fetters and whose flight she stays. It is not Blind Tom that does these wonderful things and plays this wonderful music -- it is the other party.

How Is Your Avitor?
[click here to see a picture of the Avitor]

Send us more news about Mr. Marriott's air-ship -- the telegraph is too reticent. Some of our people take the remarks about the Avitor for mere "talk," and so pay little attention to it. Others receive in good faith what the telegraph says, and get up a good deal of enthusiasm about it. It is a subject that is bound to stir the pulses of any man one talks seriously to about, for in this age of inventive wonders all men have come to believe that in some genius' brain sleeps the solution of the grand problem of aerial navigation -- and along with that belief is the hope that that genius will reveal his miracle before they die, and likewise a dread that he will poke off somewhere and die himself before he finds out that he has such a wonder lying dormant in his brain. We all know the air can be navigated -- therefore, hurry up your sails and bladders -- satisfy us -- let us have peace. And then, with railroads, steamers, the ocean telegraph, the air ship -- with all these in motion and secured to us for all time, we shall have only one single wonder left to work at and pry into and worry about -- namely, commerce, or at least telegraphic communion with the people of Jupiter and the Moon. I am dying to see some of those fellows! We shall see what we shall see, before we die. I have faith -- a world of it. A telescope is building in Europe, now, which will distinctly show objects in the moon two hundred and fifty feet in length, but I feel satisfied that the inhabitants of the moon have telescopes still stronger, with which they read our newspapers, look down our chimneys and pry into our private business -- and I wish I might catch them at it once. I am certain that the moon-calves have been trying for a long time to communicate with us, else why are they always shying meteoric stones at us? It is to attract attention. That is the way I attract people's attention. I never hear of the falling of a meteoric stone but I sigh to think of the disappointment of the philosopher who threw it when he sees that no notice is taken of it on earth -- and the irritation which will follow the disappointment and make him say: "Dang it, I wish I had broke a window!" I love to revel in philosophical matters -- especially astronomy. I study astronomy more than any other foolishness there is. I am a perfect slave to it. I am at it all the time. I have got more smoked glass than clothes. I am as familiar with the stars as the comets are. I know all the facts and figures and have all the knowledge there is concerning them. I yelp astronomy like a sun-dog, and paw the constellations like Ursa Major. When Horatio Nelson discovered the principle of attraction of gravitation by the falling of an apple tree ---. However, we will not go into that. Tell us about the "Avitor." We wish to hear that it is a success.


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