“The Story Of The Cotton-Wool” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, February 1844; pp. 43-45)
Several weeks ago I took a ramble through the beautiful town of Dorchester. In the course of my perambulation, I came to a paper-mill, and being attracted by the stirring sound of the machinery within, I entered and looked around me. In one place I saw an immense bin of rags, of all sizes and shapes, and of all hues, and apparently gathered from the four quarters of the globe. Never did I see such a motley congregation, crowded together in one place. As I was looking on the heap, the thought occurred to me that if each rag could speak and tell the adventures of its existence, we should have a collection of romances equal in extent, and perhaps rivalling in wonders, the thousand and one tales of the Arabian Nights.
While I was gazing at the heap of rags, which, by the by, was in a dim and dusky room, I thought I saw something rise up in the midst, looking very much like the skinny visage of a very thin, old woman, about to speak. I approached the bin, and looked steadily at the grisly image—but, on closer inspection, it appered to be only an old rag, which had, accidentally, assumed the questionable shape I have described.
I proceeded to examine the several
process of the mill, and great was my admiration at seeing their magical result. I discovered that the rags of any hue, being put into a vat, were bleached as white as the “driven snow;" that they were then reduced to a kind of pulp, as soft as paste; that this, being mixed with water, produced a liquid like milk; that this liquid passed over a wire cloth, through which the water oozed, leaving a thin, white, even scum, which, settling upon the wire cloth, formed the sheet of paper.
I looked on this beautiful process with wonder and delight. I saw the sheet of paper pass over several cylinders, gradually become firmer and firmer, by pressure and heat, until, at last, I could see it coiled up, smooth, white and polished, and several hundred yards in length. I then saw it unrolled, and, by a simple machine, cut into sheets, ready to be sent to market.
I have never seen any manufacture which seemed to me so admirable. When I left the mill, I sauntered along the banks of the river, which turned the wheels of the mill. The place was shady, and, it being summer, I sat down. While I was there, a pretty, black-eyed girl came along, and I beckoned her to me. She came smiling, and we fell into conversation. She asked me to go to her house, and being introduced to her parents, they gave the old man some food, and treated him kindly. “Will you tell a story?” said the little girl. “I will write you one,” said I—and so we parted.
For some weeks I forgot my promise, when I received a note from the black-eyed girl, refreshing my memory on this point. At evening I sat down to write the tale: but, instead of writing, a drowsiness stole over me, and I fell into a dream. Methought I was at my writing-desk, when I heard a rustling amid a heap of papers on my table, and presently something rose up, and assumed precisely the appearance of the rag in the bin of the paper-mill, which had seemed to me so much like a haggish old woman. A sort of strange fear came over me. I could now see the distinct features of a face, though the general aspect of the horrid visage was that of an old calico rag. There was a long, thin, crooked nose; deep, twinkling, tallow-colored eyes; a pointed chin, and a mouth that seemed capable of uttering unutterable things.
I rose up and stood aloof in fear. I was about to speak, when the ghost put her finger on her lip, and, stepping forward, stood upon the middle of the table. There was something awful about this scene, and I felt chilled, with a creeping horror, to my very heart. The creature reached out a kind of crumpled hand, and in a sort of frenzy I clasped it. But no sooner had I touched it, than the image vanished, and I found in my grasp a roll of paper. This I unfolded, and found it to be an immense sheet, written over in a neat, close hand. Casting my eye at the beginning, I saw that it read as follows:
“As the rising sun was just peeping over the bosom of the Atlantic, and tinging with gold the waters that play along the borders of Amelia Island, a negro man, named Bob Squash, was seen
putting some little seeds into the ground, upon the eastern slope of said island. This event occurred on the 4th of March, 1839, as the wooden clock of the plantation was on the stroke of four.
“The seed was covered up in the ground, but in a few days it shot forth, and, in process of time, it became a large plant, covered with tufts of cotton. These were gathered by Bob Squash, and rolled into a wad and from this time I began to have a consciousness of existence. That ball of cotton was myself. I was packed into a bag with an immense heap of other cotton, and being put into a mill, we were awfully torn into pieces, in order to separate the seeds from the fibres. The teeth of the mill, which consisted of a thousand books, went through and through us, and thus we were parted forever from the seeds which had been born and bred with us, and which we had cherished from our infancy. The seeds, however, were black, and the combing process made us look very nice and clean.
“I was now taken, with the rest of the cotton-wool, and put into a large, coarse sack, and, in order to make us lie snug, a little negro got into the sack and trod us down. He did n’t stop to consider how we might like it, but he went on stamping and jumping, and singing Jim Crow, all the time. When the bag was full, the mouth was sewed up, and we were marked as weighing three hundred and seventy-five pounds. In this state we were called a bale of cotton.
[“]You must know that there are two kinds of cotton—the short staple, or upland cotton, and the long staple, or sea island. The latter is the best, and our bale was of that sort. Of course, we, being of the aristocratic class, were proud of our descent; and, while we supposed the vulgar upland would be worked up into shirtings and sheetings, or, perhaps, cheap calicoes, we expected to be treated according to our quality, by being wrought into delicate muslins or cambrics for the fair. So it chanced, as you shall see, if you will peruse the next chapter.[”]
[To be continued.]
“Reminiscences of a Rag” (Robert Merry’s Museum, March 1844; pp. 82-84)
We shall now proceed to tell what appeared to be written on the mysterious scroll handed forth by the seeming ghost of the rag-bin.
“I remained for a long time in the bale of cotton, shut out from the light of heaven, and in a state of uncertainty as to my condition or fate. At last I felt the bale to be tumbled about, and finally I conjectured that we were now on shipboard. This proved to be correct; for in about a month we were landed at Liverpool, a great city on the western coast of England. In a few weeks we were taken by canal through a beautiful coun-
try, to Manchester, thirty-six miles east of Liverpool.
“As we glided along, I could see that the whole country was highly cultivated, and almost covered with cities and villages. Hundreds of tall steepling chimneys rose from their places, and poured forth volumes of smoke or flame, thus showing that the people, on all hands, were busy in their various manufactories. Never did I imagine such scenes of industry and activity.
“On arriving at Manchester, I was amazed to see so great a city; it consisted, in part, of many buildings four and five stories high, some of them having a hundred windows! It was night when we arrived, and these buildings, which were chiefly cotton factories, were all lighted up. Never did I see such a display; it seemed as if the whole city was illuminated.
“Our bale was soon landed at one of the factories, and we were stowed into a ware-room, almost as big as a church. Here were at least three hundred bales of cotton, as big as ours. Thinks I to myself, it will be a long time before it will be our turn to be spun, and twisted, and woven into cloth. In this, however, I was mistaken, for, in about a month, I found myself twitched out of the bale and put into a machine, where I was picked all to pieces. I was then put into the carding machine, which made me dance up and down and whirl about and about with such velocity, and amid such an everlasting hubbub, that I completely lost my senses. When I came to myself, I was made into a smooth roll, about a yard long, and one end of me was being twisted into thread. The room where this took place, was as big as a church, and several thousand spindles were twirling about and twisting the cotton into threads as fine as a hair. I was fairly giddy with the operation, and did not feel comfortable till I found myself wound snug and smooth upon a little spool or bobbin.
“I was not permitted to remain long in this state, for I was shortly placed upon a loom with a multitude of other spools, and was soon woven into a piece of fine muslin. I now went through various operations, and was finally done up with the piece, consisting of twenty-seven yards. I was despatched in a car, with forty-nine other pieces, to London, and in about a month we were shipped to Brazil, in South America. Our case was then purchased by an American merchant: this was bought by a shopkeeper of Rio de Janeiro, who soon opened it and took out the piece I was in and laid it upon a shelf. In a day or two I was bought by a beautiful lady, and made into a frock for her infant.
“It was a gay time now, for I was dandled up and down and made a great deal of. Everybody said, what a beautiful baby! and what a pretty frock! But sorrow soon followed. The lovely infant died; it was laid in its coffin, and I was its burial dress! The corpse was borne to the church with a long retinue of priests, holding torches in their hands. When they came to the church, they sung a solemn dirge, and the dim arches of the holy edifice seemed to echo back the sad and wailing tones. The coffin was deposited in its vault—the music ceased—the throng dispersed, and a fearful stillness reigned around. I could see
and feel, even amid the darkness of my prison house, how sweet was the placid face of that lovely babe—smiling in its lonely, desolate grave! I clung to its bosom, and was happy, even though I had no other hope than to perish, and moulder, and be forgotten.
“A day passed, and midnight came. A fearful stillness rested upon the church and all around—save that, perchance, the wings of the bats might be heard, fanning the dark recesses of the cathedral; or the drops of moisture that fell upon the lids of the coffins, at long intervals, from the arches of the tombs, caught the listening ear of silence. But at last the stillness was disturbed; a light, sliding step was heard upon the marble floor of the church; the door of the tomb where I lay was opened, the lid of the coffin was lifted, and the rays of a dark lantern were turned upon the corpse of the babe. I could see that it was the sexton who thus invaded the sanctuary of the dead. He first took a diamond from the bosom of the infant, and then, disrobing the body, carried me away. I was borne to his house, where his wife soon took the frock to pieces, and the long skirt was now but a simple piece of muslin. It was carefully ironed and sold to a pawnbroker.
“I was soon purchased by a negro girl, a slave, black and glittering as anthracite, who carried me home and made me into a wedding turban. Three days after I had been sleeping as a shroud in the crypt of the church of St. Nicholas, I was the head-dress of a bride, named ‘Phillipina Squash!’ ”
[To be continued.]
“Reminiscences of a Rag” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, April 1844; pp. 116-120)
[“]Seldom has there been a gayer party than the one assembled to celebrate Phillipina’s wedding. The bride herself was in excellent spirits, and her husband, Bob, danced, frisked, and florished as if he were mad with delight. The whole company, indeed, seemed like a parcel of happy children, heedless of the past, careless of the future, and only intent upon enjoying the passing moment. They were all slaves, bought and sold like merchandize, but they seemed not to think of that. The banjo struck up its liveliest measure, and the bride and groom opened the ceremonies with a waltz. How Phillipina did swim round the room, turning, twisting and twirling about, like a crazy peg-top! Mounted upon her head, I performed my part, and having been nicely starched, and extending to the height of half a yard, you may believe I made rather a conspicuous figure. The pure white of my complexion set off Phillipina’s glistening skin to great advantage. As we went waltzing round the room, I heard some compliments upon the loveliness of the bride, but many more as to the beauty of the turban.
“Well, it was a happy night. We
danced ‘Coal black Rose,’ ‘Possum up a gum-tree,’ and many other favorite measures of the kind; but as this was some years ago, ‘Jim Crow’ and the ‘Cachucha’ had not got into vogue. At a late hour, the party broke up, and on the morrow, I was laid upon the shelf. For several weeks, I was occasionally called into service to attend at parties made for the bride and groom, after which, I had a long repose in a box, with a bunch of artificial flowers, some tousled ribbons, and other old finery.
“What length of time now passed, I cannot say, but after a long space, there was a rummaging in the box, and on looking up, I perceived that Phillipina had come to take me out. The poor creature had a very sad aspect, and tears as bright as those that fall from any eyes, coursed down her cheeks. I soon learned the cause of this. Her husband had been sold to a planter, who lived in the interior, and had left her forever. Thus, what the church had joined together, man had put asunder, agreeably to the laws and customs of that Christian land. Nor was this all. Phillipina had been purchased by a Portuguese nobleman, to attend his lady; and the whole party were immediately to proceed to Portugal!
“My mistress, who had a heart, notwithstanding her complexion, took leave of her friends, shed many tears, and we went on board the ship. During the voyage, I was packed away with my old companions, the faded flowers, and tousled ribbons. We reached Lisbon, and after a few months, we proceeded toward the country seat of Phillipina’s master—a fine castle upon the mountains, on the borders of Spain. As we were passing through a deep and dark ravine, our party was attacked by robbers; a desperate scuffle ensued between our company and that of the banditti, but the latter at last prevailed, and taking our entire baggage, hurried it away into the recesses of the mountains. I was taken with the rest, and thus was forever separated from Phillipina.
“When I next saw the light, it was in a splendid castle. The robbers had selected the choicest articles from their booty, and one of them, assuming the disguise of a pedlar, took these to the castle. I was purchased by the lady, a stately dame, with beautiful black eyes, black hair, and a soft, but melancholy expression of countenance. She paid for me an enormous price, and after the pedlar was gone, she sat down and gazed at me with a delighted look. I may say it without vanity, those fair eyes had never before looked upon a piece of muslin, so sher, even and dazzling. Phillipina—thanks to the kind-hearted creature!—had put me in the best condition; and behold, the slave’s turban now the favorite of a duchess!
“Nothing could exceed the gloomy magnificence of the castle in which I now dwelt. It stood upon the brow of a lofty rock, from the battlements of which, you looked down upon a valley threaded by a silver stream, and dotted over with vineyards and groves of olive, lemon, and orange trees. The air was filled with the most delicious fragrance, and far as the eye could reach, the lovely valley seemed to stretch out, presenting a scene of luxuriance and peace. On the other side of the castle, was a suc-
cession of rugged mountains, covered with gloomy forests of cork trees, with occasional groups of oak and chestnut. The view resembled a sea of waving leaves covered by a thin atmospheric veil of a purple hue. Nothing could exceed the grandeur and richness of the spectacle.
“The castle was itself a kind of village, where there were at least a hundred people. Its master was a duke, of an ancient family, and bearing at least a dozen titles attached to his name. He was a dark, sallow and gloomy man, yet very handsome. He bore a military title, and had served in the wars. There was about him a stern, stately demeanor, befitting the soldier, yet, when he addressed the fair duchess, his manner was gentle and winning.
“The dame, however, for some cause, was unhappy. Still youthful, she spent her time in seclusion, and seemed to devote almost all her thoughts to religious duties and ceremonies. I learned that she had been married contrary to her inclination, and that in the midst of the luxuries that surrounded her, she was far less happy than the menials about the castle. In vain were all the attentions of her lord to soothe her melancholy. The heart was given to another, and her happiness had gone with it.
“The lady had no books, save a few old Spanish ballads, and these she had learned by heart. She took an occasional drive; sometimes sauntered through the magnificent gardens attached to the castle, but more frequently buried herself amid the dark labyrinths of the park, where she sometimes met a cavlier, who kissed her hand, and departed, leaving her in tears. With these exceptions, the lady spent the greater part of her time in the little chapel of the castle, on her knees, before the image of the Virgin, and in her boudoir engaged in needle work.
“A new thought now occurred to her, which was to work me into a handkerchief for the Virgin in the chapel. This design was immediately entered upon, and industriously pursued for more than a year. Some tears fell upon me during that period, but they were too bright to leave any stain behind. At last I was finished, and after a meeting between the lady and the strange cavalier in the wood, I was one evening placed around the neck of the holy mother’s image, and fastened with a diamond of inestimable value.
“I had scarcely remained a month in this condition, when, one night, a person, whose features I could not discover, entered the chapel, took the diamond pin, and crossing himself repeatedly before the Virgin, telling his beads, and saying a number of ‘ave marias,’ he went away. The theft was not discovered, for a paste pin was put in the place of the stolen jewel. Not long after this, an attack was made upon the castle by a party of French soldiers. It was bravely defended by the duke and his attendants, but without avail. He escaped with his fair dame through some of the winding passages; and their further story I am unable to tell. My own fate was melancholy indeed. One of the cannon pierced the chapel, and striking the breast of the holy Virgin, scattered the image in a thousand fragments. Torn and blackened, I was thrown upon the floor, by the side of a bleeding soldier. He took
me up, to staunch his wound, and when he was carried away by his comrades, I was taken with him.
“his wound was not serious; and after a short space, I was thrust into his pocket, stained with blood. For several weeks, I performed the office of wiping the fellow’s nose. Thus I was reduced to the most miserable and degraded condition. At last I was thrust into the soldier’s knapsack, and for a long period, travelled about with him. My companions consisted of a wad of lint, an old cigar, the handle of a jack-knife, a little black cross, an old seal-skin purse, besides sundry damaged articles of dress.
“After a great variety of marches and countermarches, the soldier was finally wounded in battle, and carried to some barracks. Here he was stretched out upon a bed of straw, with several other miserable wretches. They were visited once a day by the surgeon, and every morning the man with the dead-cart came round to carry away those who had expired. The dead-cart-men had become so hardened as to perform their office with as much indifference as if they were dealing with so many sacks of salt. If they could perceive no motion in the bodies, they would seize upon them and carry them away, hardly pausing to consider whether they were yet dead. So long as life and consciousness remained, the poor soldiers were accustomed to give a kick as these hearsemen performed their rounds, in order to save themselves from being borne away to the charnel-house. One morning no motion was perceived in my poor soldier. He had given his last kick, and he was borne to his grave. His knapsack was left behind, and I became the plunder of one of the attendants of the hospital.
“For a time, I remained with a heap of rubbish, where I found myself with a parcel of old rags, each of which could have told a tale, perhaps, as curious as my own. There was an old shirt, which had belonged to a man who had died of the plague; a pocket handkerchief, spun by the silk-worms of India, and manufactured by Hindoo artizans, and after being borne to Europe, had ministered to the conveniences of at least three different persons; an old frill which had flourished upon the bosom of a beau, and sundry other fragments equally curious. After a long space, we were bundled together, taken to the city of Cadiz, parked in an enormous bale, and shipped to Boston.
“Thus, I made my fourth voyage across the Atlantic, and found myself restored to the country of my birth. I had passed through various adventures, but alas, what was my present condition! How sadly did it contrast with the brighter days of my existence. Once the favorite of a duchess; once the ornament of the holy Virgin, and fit to be decorated with a priceless gem; now an old rag tumbled in, cheek by jowl, with a thousand vulgar fragments of shirts, sheets, and nose-wipers.
“I did not remain in this condition long. I was soon purchased by Messrs. Tileston & Hollingsworth, and transported to their mill at Dorchester; and here I am awaiting my fate. And what is that to be? Am I to be manufactured into a pure sheet, upon which Mr. Longfellow shall write one of his beautiful
sonnets; or make an immortal leaf in a new edition of Prescott’s Cortez; or shall I go gilt-edged, to some fair lady, and receive her confession to her lover; or shall I be impressed with the magic figures of a bank, and bear a value a hundred times my weight in gold; or shall I go to the office of a penny paper, and be cried about the streets by the boys,—‘Here’s the second edition of the Mail, Bee, and Times, with a full account of the last horrible murder!’ ”
Thus I read, or seemed to read, from the scroll, which the haggish old rag in the bin had put into my hands. As I finished the last sentence recorded above, the paper shrunk from my grasp. At the same instant, I saw the grisly image rise again from the rag-bin, but with a look so portentous, that I trembled in every limb. In the agony of the moment, I uttered a shriek, which awoke me, and behold, “The Reminiscences of a Rag” were but a dream!