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   Chapter 17 THE FELLOW.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 14001

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


ALTHOUGH I met him almost every day, I never cared to renew my acquaintance with Clinton Bragg. The dislike was evidently mutual, for while he never came in my way, I knew he made fun of me, as he did of every one else, and I believe he had an ill word for whatever I did or attempted.

Although it was said that he drank more than was good for him, he did not have the appearance of a drunkard, and it seemed to me that when he was drinking, he was anxious that everybody know it, and that he drank more because it was contemptible and depraved than because he had an appetite. A few of the sentimental people said that were it not for his dissipating, he could greatly distinguish himself, and that he was very talented; therefore I think he drank as an apology for his worthlessness, knowing he could never accomplish what the people said he could if he remained sober. He probably argued that if he kept his breath smelling with liquor, he would only have to answer to the public for that one fault (receiving at the same time a large amount of sympathy, which a better man would have rejected), whereas if he kept sober he would be compelled to answer to the charge of being an insolent loafer, and a worthless vagabond.

From a long experience with it, I have come to believe that the question of intemperance has never been treated with the intelligence which has distinguished this country in most other particulars. We pet drunkards too much, and a halo of sentimentality surrounds them, instead of the disgust and contempt they deserve. If a man is a noted liar, or a noted vagrant, society allows him to find his proper level, and reform himself (since no one else can do it for him), but if he drinks too much, great numbers of men and women who are perhaps temperate in nothing except that they do not drink, attempt to reform him with kindness, although that method prevails in nothing else. As a reason why he should not dissipate, he is told what distinguished positions he could occupy but for the habit, and while this is well-intended, the facts generally are that the fellow is entirely worthless whether drunk or sober. The young man who practises temperance in the whiskey and other particulars because it is necessary in his ambition to be of use to himself and to those around him, is entirely neglected that the disgusting pigs who swill that which is ruinous to health, mind, and pocket may be "encouraged," and who perhaps only drink for the poor kind of attention it insures them, and from being told of it so often, they come to believe themselves that but for their dissipation they would be wonderful fellows, so it often happens that their egotism is even more detestable than their maudlin drunkenness. Many young men are thus led into the false notion that great brains feed on stimulants, and regard an appetite as intellectual.

The same mistaken people also talk too much about the allurements and pleasures of drink; of the gilded palaces where drink is sold, and of its pleasing effects, causing young men and boys who would otherwise never have thought of it to be seized with an uncontrollable desire to try the experiment for themselves, although there is nothing more certain than that all of this is untrue. They visit these places, to begin with, because they have been warned so frequently against them, and before they find out-which they are certain to, sooner or later-that whiskey is man's enemy in every particular, and his friend in nothing; that the "gilded palaces" in which it is sold are low dens kept by men whose company is not desirable; that the reputed pleasure in the cup is a myth; and that drinking is an evidence of depravity as plainly marked as idleness and viciousness,-they form the habit, and become saloon loafers. I firmly believe that hundreds of young men become drunkards by misrepresentation of this sort, whereas the truth is easier told, and would prove more effective in keeping them away.

The first step in a career of dissipation is not the first glass, as is sometimes asserted, but a cultivation of saloon society. There is nothing to do in a place where drink is sold, no other amusement or excuse for being there, than to drink, gamble and gossip, and when a man learns to relish the undesirable company common to such places, the liquor habit follows as a matter of course, but not before. It is an effort for most men to drink whiskey, even after they have become accustomed to its use; it is naturally disgusting to every good quality, and every good thought; it jars every healthy nerve as it is poured down the throat; it looks hot and devilish in the bottle, and gurgles like a demon's laugh while it is being poured out, and until the young men of the country are taught that drinking is low and vicious rather than intellectual, we cannot hope for a reform in this grave matter.

I believe that familiarity with it breeds contempt, for I have noticed that very few drunkard's sons follow in the footsteps of their fathers, and the men who sell it seldom drink it. Most drunkards are such notorious liars that little can be told from their confessions, but if accurate statistics could be collected, it would no doubt turn out that most men having the habit formed it because they were particularly warned against it. To say to a man that he shall not drink creates within him a strong desire to drink to excess, and prohibitory laws generally increase rather than decrease the consumption of liquor, because of this strange peculiarity. We regulate other evils, and admit they cannot be blotted out, but with strange inconsistency we insist that liquor of every kind must be driven from the face of the earth; that to regulate such a horrible evil is a compromise with the Devil, and that efforts for its extermination only are worthy of temperate men and women.

The most convincing argument for reform in any particular is necessity. When a man says to himself, "I must quit this habit or starve," or "I can never obtain a position of trust in business, or a place of respectability in society, until I convince the people of my intelligence and manhood by reforming a habit which is the most contemptible as well as injurious of all other habits," he is on the right road, and will in time accomplish a victory over himself, and the best thing society can do for him-however heartless it may seem-is to let him alone during his reformation, only visiting upon him its severe contempt when he falls, for if the fall is hard and disagreeable, he will be more careful the next time. When a man disgraces himself in any other way, we insist that he must be humiliated, as sending him to jail for petty larceny, or to public work for vagrancy; but when he becomes a disgusting, beastly drunkard, we tell him in confidence that he is not to blame, and that his enemies the saloon-keepers are responsible. The man who sells the pistol or the poison is not to blame for the suicide, nor is the man w

ho sells the whiskey to blame for the drunkard.

It is no more remarkable that men drink too much than that men eat too much, and die, before their time, of dyspepsia. The one we regard as a glutton, and despise him that he does not use the knowledge God has given him to better advantage, but the other is fondled and pitied until he is made to feel almost comfortable in his disgrace. The result is that men are oftener cured of excessive eating than of excessive drinking. We never think of punishing the grocer for selling unhealthy but palatable food, but we are very severe on the men who sell palatable but demoralizing drink. Men have frequently been cured of kleptomania by a term in jail, and of lying and loafing by the contempt of the people among whom they live, and the same rule applied to drunkards would be equally satisfactory in its results.

Because temperance is right, too many insist that it must prevail, although the experience of ages proves that it never was, and never will become a common virtue. We might reason with equal goodness of heart that because children are pretty and healthy, they should never be stricken down with disease, and die, although our sorrowing hearts tell us that the reverse is the rule.

In everything else we profit from experience, but we seem to have learned nothing from the past in dealing with intemperance. The methods used for its suppression now are exactly the same as were used hundreds of years ago, although we know them to be ineffective. As a sensible people, as a people desiring the good of the unfortunate, we cannot afford to practise methods which we know beforehand will be of no avail. Intemperance is growing too rapidly to admit of an unsatisfactory pretence that we have discharged our duty, and while the theory advanced by the writer of this may not be the best one, it is certain that the one generally adopted is wrong, for the people are disheartened and discouraged because with all their work they have accomplished nothing.

Clinton Bragg was this sort of a drunkard, and drank whiskey for no other reason than that everybody said it wasn't good for him. It was known that he always drank large quantities of water after using his bottle, as if the liquor had set fire to his throat, and the water was intended to put it out. While I never knew him to be helplessly intoxicated, he was frequently under the influence of his bottle, or pretended to be, although I have seen him sober very suddenly, and I always thought he was dissatisfied that the people did not talk more about his dissipation, as they did of Fin Wilkinson's, the town drunkard, who was often on the streets in danger of being run over by wagons.

Every two or three months he received an allowance of money from his father, which he expended selfishly but lavishly as long as it lasted, but for a few weeks before his money came, and while he was without it, he was a more decent fellow, and it occurred to me that had he been compelled to make his own way in the world, he might in time have developed into a respectable man. But as it was he had no friends, and spent the mornings of his days in sleeping, and his nights in aimless excursions over the country, riding a horse as mean and vicious as himself. A decent man would not have owned the animal, for he had a reputation for biting and kicking, but Bragg lavished upon him the greatest attention, and was delighted to hear occasionally that he had injured a stable boy. It was a pleasure to Bragg to know that his horse laid back his ears in anger at the approach of any one, in the street or on the road, and his master teased him for hours to cultivate his devilish disposition.

Where he went on these excursions nobody ever knew except that I knew he frequently rode by Barker's mill, as if on his way to the Shepherds, galloping back the same way at a late hour, to create the impression that he was so popular there that he only got away with difficulty, though I believe he usually rode aimlessly about to be different from other men, for while he often rode that way, it was only on rare occasions that he went to the house of the minister.

Bragg was educated, and when he talked to the town people at all it was to point out their ignorance, which he did with a bitter tongue. If he was seated in front of the usual loitering places on a summer evening, which he sometimes did because there was nothing else to do, he made everybody uncomfortable by intently watching for opportunity to insolently point out mistakes, and if he ever read or studied at all it was for this purpose. Occasionally there came to the town a traveller who was his equal in information, who beat him in argument and threatened to whip him for an insolent dog, which afforded the people much satisfaction. I remember a commercial traveller who sold the merchants nearly all their goods because he once threw a plate of soup in Bragg's face at the hotel table, and then, leading him out into the yard by the ear, gave him a sound beating; but I do not remember what the occasion of the difficulty between them was, though it was probably no more than his ordinary impudence.

He had an office and apartments over a leather store a few doors above the place where I worked, in front of which there was a porch, and he sat out upon this, when the weather was pleasant, for hours at a time, smoking cigars, and spitting spitefully into the street. The only man I ever knew who visited his rooms was the leather dealer, who called on Bragg once every three months to collect his rent. It was a part of the town gossip that this man said the rooms were splendidly furnished, but always darkened with rich and heavy curtains at the windows, and that it was full of stuffed snakes, lizards, bats, and other hideous things; that his match-safe was a human skull, and that a grinning skeleton hung against the wall, which rattled and wildly swung its arms and legs every time a draft or a visitor came in at the door. It was also related that by means of ingenious strings he made the skeleton shake or nod its head, and point with its arms, and I have imagined that when he was in his apartments he employed himself in causing the figure to nod its head in response to the assertion that Clinton Bragg was a fine fellow, or shake it violently when asked if Clinton Bragg was a worthless dog, as the people said.

Occasionally people who had lines to run knocked at his door in response to the sign, "C. Bragg, C. Engineer," but even if he was at home he would not let them in, for he had no intention of walking over the prairie in the hot sun when he put out the sign. I never knew of his doing anything in his line, although he might have been a great deal employed, and finally no one applied there for admission except the saddler for his rent, and a lame negro who swept and cleaned his apartments, although it was quite generally believed that the Devil called on him every bad night.

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