ORPHEUS IN KENTUCKY ; OR, THE FORCED FIDDLER.
BY DENIS DEFOE.
“Often our seers and poets have confest
That music’s force can tame the furious breast—
Can make the wolf or foaming boar restrain
His rage—the lion drop his crested mane.”—PRIOR.
Chateaubriand has a pleasant story, which we would not for worlds believe to be pure invention, however, in our cooler moments we may suspect it, about the very gentlemanly behavior of an amateur rattle-snake with whom he brushed up a passing acquaintance beneath the cataract of Niagara. In consequence of his great powers of tongue, his stinging sarcasm, and backbiting propensities, Chateaubriand and his friends very much dreaded too close an intimacy with this very showy-looking denizen of the woods ; and as he was beginning to manifest signs of displeasure at the abrupt intrusion of an European party upon his privacy, it was the most fortunate circumstance in the world, quoth Chateaubriand, that one of the gentlemen in his company bethought him of pulling a flute out of his pocket, and trying the effect of a tune. Lo and behold you! this most cultivated of rattle-snakes forthwith manifested a very admirable dilettante taste for music—became charmed into quietude by the sweet strains poured from the Frenchman’s flauto magico, and repaid the gentleman’s double-tonguing by abstaining from any tonguing of his own, and suffering the party to proceed without molestation. We propose to hang up as a pendant for this fanciful sketch of Chateaubriand’s a real fact which occurred some time since in the backwoods of America.
Ephraim Elbow, a Kentuckian of the genuine breed, possessed a talent which made him very popular in a thinly-inhabited country. He was an accomplished player on the fiddle ; and at the dances with which the settlers cheered the long winter nights, each giving a rude but truly jocund entertainment in succession, Ephraim was sure to be an invited guest. He was a good fellow, and a capital hand at spinning “a tough yarn,” a quality for which most Kentuckians are conspicuous ; and when to this was added the rare talent of playing dancing-tunes very respectably on the violin, it will be readily inferred that he was judged no small acquisition to these rustic parties.
Upon one occasion it happened that Ephraim staid for rather a longer period than usual at one of these dances, partly detained by the potency and other excellent qualities of the liquor which was served by the proprietor of the loghouse, partly by a little flirtation, verging upon matrimony, in which he happened just then to be engaged. As he was wending his way homeward, the first grey light of morning was beginning to peep over the Eastern hills. Ephraim had just arrived at an old clearing near the edge of the woods, upon which stood the withering frame of a dilapidated log-hut. Here he sat down for an instant to rest his wearied limbs, for he had danced and played all night, and to muse on the beauties of face, form, and mind, which centred in the future Mrs. Elbow.
Suddenly a terrific howling came from all sides on his ears, and imagine his horror when he found himself beset in every direction by an immense pack of wolves!
They had scented him from afar, and on they came at full speed, excessively pleased with the prospect of so savoury a breakfast. A flying assault of Platoff’s Cossacks never produced greater consternation in the breasts of Napoleon’s militaires at the retreat from Moscow.
Ephraim remained for an instant horror-chained to the spot ; the next, he bounded up from the block on which he was seated, like a man struck through the heart by a musket-ball, and rushed into the interior of the hut ; the door stood wide open, and he made a violent effort to close it, but its rusty treacherous hinges gave way, and it fell to the ground. Here was a new consternation.
Ephraim had not an instant left for reflection. The foe was fast closing upon him. They howled, as it were, in his very ear, and with terrific loudness. Ephraim thought he had never heard sounds so loud before. He sprang upon a beam with a degree of agility which would make the fortune of Hervio Nano, the Man-Fly. The wolves were now in the log-house.
Ephraim sprang to a second and still higher beam ; but the foremost of the pack had already reached the first. They were evidently bent upon breakfasting in the log-house.
Great as had been Ephraim’s consternation, and hurried as his retreat had been into the interior of the hut, he had not deserted his beloved fiddle. It was partly through instinct that he had held both fiddle and bow firmly grasped in his left hand, partly through the esteem in which he held it, for it was a very capital violin, and a new purchase. To that violin, strange as it may appear, its owner was indebted for his life.
Ephraim was not much of a scholar ; but as Tom Moore says in his cutting address to Sir Hudson Lowe, “perhaps he’d read or heard repeated,” the well-known line:--
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast!”
At all events the thought struck him—and a lucky one it was—that it might be of use, and could do no harm, to try the effect of “the concord of sweet sounds” on the furious beasts by which he was surrounded. Hey presto! he struck up, with a nervous twitch of the elbow, the briskest tune in existence—to wit, Yankee Doodle!
The effect which it produced was truly miraculous. All the stores of the art-magical could accomplish nothing like it. The wolves gave over their howling in an instant. A while ago they were bristling with rage—apparently untameable as hyænas, and the frightful monotony of their howls was only varied here and there by an angry bark, as one of the most forward of the pack bared his gleaming tusks. In fact, the party became pleased and attentive listeners.
It was a curious audience for which Ephraim was developing the precious mysteries of his art. A Swiss at the loved sounds of the Ranz des Vaches, a Scotchman at hearing Robin Adair, an Irishman at the inspiriting strain of Garryowen, played in a foreign land, would not sympathise with the melody more deeply.
But the wolves were only too attentive, and too anxious to witness the manifestation of Ephraim’s powers. The thing became frightfully tiresome, an “awful” pain took possession of his elbow and fore-arm, and the limb itself was ready to drop off. He found that his capabilities of endurance had never been so pinchingly taxed by a party of fifty country-dancers, as by a single pack of wolves. He could hold out no longer—he stopped playing for an instant. Growl! growl! jump! jump! One of the longest-tusked of the animals came within two inches of his leg at that last bound. Here was certainly a pressing call for the renewal of his orchestral labors.
To the diabolical fatigue of the elbow, a new grief was added. The morning was exceedingly cold ; and Ephraim’s fingers at length became benumbed—almost frozen. “Stopping” was out of the question—in two senses. He wisely continued scraping the strings ; and the music which he elicited, though Ole Bull would scarcely have acknowledged it for legitimate, was considered very passable by his audience. Probably none of them had a correctly educated ear, there being no Italian Opera in all Kentucky.
Ephraim’s visitors were resolutely bent upon having either the fiddling or the fiddler, and with the Kentuckian it was evidently a question of being eaten up, or continuing the music. Snap went string after string. Catgut is not indestructible asphaltus, and horse-hair will not last for ever. Another crack! Good lack, there is the third string gone, and the bass alone remains. That single bass-string was more valuable to Ephraim than even the illustrious bass-string of Paganini. But the few gruff notes which Ephraim was able to elicit from this string, were evidently dissatisfactory to their worships the wolves. Their ears were spoiled by the superior music which they had heard in the early part of the concert, when all the strings were perfect, and Ephraim’s elbow almost “as fresh as a daisy.” An occasional growl from his long-tailed critics made Ephraim start, and scrape upon his single string with vastly increased emphasis.
Just at this important conjuncture, when they were beginning to show their teeth, and snarl pretty freely, like other concert-critics, and when the conclusion to which they had arrived, seemed to be : “We’ve had enough of it,” a party of Ephraim’s neighbors, armed with axes, on their way to the woods, made their appearance, and the wolves, to this luckiest of fiddler’s great relief, affrighted by the sight of a number of men in company, made a precipitate retreat to the woods.
“I guess,” was Ephraim’s remark, when he had descended, “I guess I played a tarnation deal more this mornin’ than if I had been playin’ for a wager!”
The London Magazine for June, 1840.
Source: New York Spirit of the Times 10.19 (11 July 1840): 219. (University of Virginia Alderman Library).
Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.
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