A PIANO IN ARKANSAS
by Thomas Bangs Thorpe
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 it had legs was certain; for a stray volume of
some literary traveler was one of the most conspicuous works in
the floating library of Hardscrabble, and said traveler 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 "Soiree," 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 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 meantime, 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."
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;
"traveling has evidently fatigued it; the Mass-is-sip fogs has
given it a cold, poor thing!" and they wished to see it with
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
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 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 creatures 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,"
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 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 his 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.
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
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 on this occasion 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
rivaling 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 of his two visits to the "Capitol," and other
associations equally exclusive and peculiar.
The evening wore on apace, and still no piano. That 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 afterward 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 in. 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
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 ceased. "Miss," said Cash, the
moment that he could express himself, so entranced was he by the
music,--"Miss Doolittle, what was the instrument Mo Mercer showed
me in your gallery once, it 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."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~