The Happy Failure
by Herman Melville
A STORY OF THE RIVER HUDSON
The appointment was that I should meet my elderly uncle at the riverside, precisely at nine in the morning. The skiff was to be ready, and the apparatus to be brought down by his grizzled old black man. As yet, the nature of the wonderful experiment remained a mystery to all but the projector.
I was first on the spot. The village was high up the river, and the inland summer sun was already oppressively warm. Presently I saw my uncle advancing beneath the trees, hat off, and wiping his brow; while far behind struggled poor old Yorpy, with what seemed one of the gates of Gaza on his back.
“Come, hurrah, stump along, Yorpy!” cried my uncle, impatiently turning round every now and then.
Upon the black’s staggering up to the skiff, I perceived that the great gate of Gaza was transformed into a huge, shabby, oblong box, hermetically sealed. The sphinx-like blankness of the box quadrupled the mystery in my mind.
“Is this the wonderful apparatus,” said I in amazement. “Why, it’s nothing but a battered old dry-goods box, nailed up. And is this the thing, uncle, that is to make you a million of dollars ere the year be out ? What a forlorn-looking, lack-lustre, old ash-box it is.” “Put it into the skiff!” roared my uncle to Yorpy, without heeding my boyish disdain.
“Put it in, you grizzled-headed cherub put it in carefully, carefully! If that box bursts, my everlasting fortune collapses.”
“Bursts?—collapses?” cried I, in alarm. “It ain’t full of combustibles ? Quick, let me go to the further end of the boat !”
“Sit still, you simpleton!” cried my uncle again. “Jump in, Yorpy, and hold on to the box like grim death while I shove off. Carefully! carefully! you dunderheaded black! Mind t’other side of the box, I say! Do you mean to destroy the box?”
“Duyvel take te pox !” muttered old Yorpy, who was a sort of Dutch African. “De pox has been my cuss for de ten long ‘ear.”
“Now, then, we’re off—take an oar, youngster ; you, Yorpy, clinch the box fast. Here we go now. Carefully! carefully! You, Yorpy, stop shaking the box ! Easy ! there’s a big snag. Pull now. Hurrah! deep water at last! Now give way, youngster, and away to the island.”
“The island!” said I. “There’s no island hereabouts.”
“There is ten miles above the bridge, though,” said my uncle, determinately.
“Ten miles off! Pull that old dry-goods box ten miles up the river in this blazing sun?”
“All that I have to say,” said my uncle, firmly, “is that we are bound to Quash Island.”
“Mercy, uncle! if I had known of this great long pull of ten mortal miles in this fiery sun, you wouldn’t have juggled me into the skiff so easy. What’s in that box?—paving-stones? See how the skiff settles down under it. I won’t help pull a box of paving-stones ten miles. What’s the use of pulling ’em?”
“Look you, simpleton,” quoth my uncle, pausing upon his suspended oar. “Stop rowing, will ye! Now then, if you don’t want to share in the glory of my experiment; if you are wholly indifferent to halving its immortal renown ; I say, sir, if you care not to be present at the first trial of my Great Hydraulic- Hydrostatic Apparatus for draining swamps and marshes, and converting them, at the rate of one acre the hour, into fields more fertile than those of the Genesee ; if you care not, I repeat, to have this proud thing to tell—in far future days, when poor old I shall have been long dead and gone, boy—to your children and your children’s children; in that case, sir, you are free to land forthwith.”
“Oh, uncle! I did not mean—
“No words, sir! Yorpy, take his oar, and help pull him ashore.”
“But, my dear uncle; I declare to you that—”
“Not a syllable, sir; you have cast open scorn upon the Great Hydraulic-Hydrostatic Apparatus. Yorpy, put him ashore, Yorpy. It’s shallow here again. Jump out, Yorpy, and wade with him ashore.”
“Now, my dear, good, kind uncle, do but pardon me this one time, and I will say nothing about the apparatus.”
“Say nothing about it ! when it is my express end and aim it shall be famous ! Put him ashore, Yorpy.”
“Nay, uncle, I will not give up my oar. I have an oar in this matter, and I mean to keep it. You shall not cheat me out my share of your glory.”
“Ah, now there—that’s sensible. You may stay, youngster. Pull again now.” We were all silent for a time, steadily plying our way. At last I ventured to break water once more.
“I am glad, dear uncle, you have revealed to me at last the nature and end of your great experiment. It is the effectual draining of swamps; an attempt, dear uncle, in which, if you do but succeed (as I know you will), you will earn the glory denied to a Roman emperor. He tried to drain the Pontine marsh, but failed.”
“The world has shot ahead the length of its own diameter since then,” quoth my uncle, proudly. “If that Roman emperor were here, I’d show him what can be done in the present enlightened age.”
Seeing my good uncle so far mollified now as to be quite self-complacent, I ventured another remark.
“This is a rather severe, hot pull, dear uncle.”
“Glory is not to be gained, youngster, without pulling hard for it—against the stream, too, as we do now. The natural tendency of man, in the mass, is to go down with the universal current into oblivion.”
“But why pull so far, dear uncle, upon the present occasion? Why pull ten miles for it? You do but propose, as I understand it, to put to the actual test this admirable invention of yours. And could it not be tested almost anywhere?”
“Simple boy,” quoth my uncle, would you have some malignant spy steal from me the fruits of ten long years of high-hearted, persevering endeavor? Solitary in my scheme, I go to a solitary place to test it. If I fail—for all things are possible—no one out of the family will know it. If I succeed, secure in the secrecy of my invention, I can boldly demand any price for its publication.”
“Pardon me, dear uncle; you are wiser than I.”
“One would think years and gray hairs should bring wisdom, boy.”
“Yorpy there, dear uncle; think you his grizzled locks thatch a brain improved by long life?”
“Am I Yorpy, boy? Keep to your oar!”
Thus padlocked again, I said no further word till the skiff grounded on the shallows, some twenty yards from the deep-wooded isle.
“Hush!” whispered my uncle, intensely; “not a word now!” and he sat perfectly still, slowly sweeping with his glance the whole country around, even to both banks of the here wide-expanded stream.
“Wait till that horseman, yonder, passes!” he whispered again, pointing to a speck moving along a lofty, riverside road, which perilously wound on midway up a long line of broken bluffs and cliffs. “There—he’s out of sight now, behind the copse. Quick! Yorpy! Carefully, though! Jump overboard, and shoulder the box, and—Hold!”
We were all mute and motionless again.
“Ain’t that a boy, sitting like Zaccheus in yonder tree of the orchard on the other bank? Look, youngster—young eyes are better than old—don’t you see him?”
“Dear uncle, I see the orchard, but I can’t see any boy.”
“He’s a spy—I know he is,” suddenly said my uncle, disregardful of my answer, and intently gazing, shading his eyes with his flattened hand. “Don’t touch the box, Yorpy. Crouch! crouch down, all of ye!”
“Why, uncle—there—see—the boy is only a withered white bough. I see it very plainly now.”
“You don’t see the tree I mean,” quoth my uncle, with a decided air of relief, “but never mind; I defy the boy. Yorpy, jump out, and shoulder the box. And now then, youngster, off with your shoes and stockings, roll up your trousers legs, and follow me. Carefully, Yorpy, carefully. That’s more precious than a box of gold, mind.”
“Heavy as de gelt anyhow,” growled Yorpy, staggering and splashing in the shallows beneath it.
“There, stop under the bushes there—in among the flags—so—gently, gently—there, put it down just there. Now youngster, are you ready? Follow—tiptoes, tiptoes!”
“I can’t wade in this mud and water on my tiptoes, uncle; and I don’t see the need of it either.”
“Go ashore, sir—instantly!”
“Why, uncle, I am ashore.”
“Peace! follow me, and no more.”
Crouching in the water in complete secrecy, beneath the bushes and among the tall flags, my uncle now stealthily produced a hammer and wrench from one of his enormous pockets, and presently tapped the box. But the sound alarmed him.
“Yorpy,” he whispered, “go you off to the right, behind the bushes, and keep watch. If you see any one coming, whistle softly. Youngster, you do the same to the left.”
We obeyed; and presently, after considerable hammering and supplemental tinkering, my uncle’s voice was heard in the utter solitude, loudly commanding our return.
Again we obeyed, and now found the cover of the box removed. All eagerness, I peeped in, and saw a surprising multiplicity of convoluted metal pipes and syringes of all sorts and varieties, all sizes and calibres, inextricably interwreathed together in one gigantic coil. It looked like a huge nest of anacondas and adders.
“Now then, Yorpy,” said my uncle, all animation, and flushed with the foretaste of glory, “do you stand this side, and be ready to tip when I give the word. And do you, youngster, stand ready to do as much for the other side. Mind, don’t budge it the fraction of a barley-corn till I say the word. All depends on a proper adjustment.”
“No fear, uncle. I will be careful as a lady’s tweezers.”
“I s’ant life de heavy pox,” growled old Yorpy, “till de wort pe given; no fear o’ dat.”
“Oh, boy,” said my uncle now, upturning his face devotionally, while a really noble gleam irradiated his gray eyes, locks, and wrinkles; “Oh, boy! this, this is the hour which for ten long years has, in the prospect, sustained me through all my painstaking obscurity. Fame will be the sweeter because it comes at the last ; the truer, because it comes to an old man like me, not to a boy like you. Sustainer! I glorify Thee.”
He bowed over his venerable head, and—as I live something like a shower-drop somehow fell from my face into the shallows.
“A leetle more!”
We tipped a little more.
“A leetle more!”
We tipped a leetle more.
“Just a leetle, very leetle bit more.”
With great difficulty we tipped just a leetle, very leetle more.
All this time my uncle was diligently stooping over, and striving to peep in, up, and under the box where the coiled anacondas and adders lay; but the machine being now fairly immersed, the attempt was wholly vain.
He rose erect, and waded slowly all round the box ; his countenance firm and reliant, but not a little troubled and vexed.
It was plain something or other was going wrong. But as I was left in utter ignorance as to the mystery of the contrivance, I could not tell where the difficulty lay, or what was the proper remedy.
Once more, still more slowly, still more vexedly, my uncle waded round the box, the dissatisfaction gradually deepening, but still controlled, and still with hope at the bottom of it.
Nothing could be more sure than that some anticipated effect had, as yet, failed to develop itself. Certain I was, too, that the water-line did not lower about my legs.
“Tip it a leetle bit—very leetle’ now.”
“Dear uncle, it is tipped already as far as it can be. Don’t you see it rests now square on its bottom?”
“You, Yorpy, take your black hoof from under the box!”
This gust of passion on the part of my uncle made the matter seem still more dubious and dark. It was a bad symptom, I thought.
“Surely you can tip it just a leetle more !”
“Not a hair, uncle.”
“Blast and blister the cursed box then!” roared my uncle, in a terrific voice, sudden as a squall. Running at the box, he dashed his bare foot into it, and with astonishing power all but crushed in the side. Then seizing the whole box, he disemboweled it of all its anacondas and adders, and, tearing and wrenching them, flung them right and left over the water.
“Hold, hold, my dear, dear uncle!—do for heaven’s sake desist. Don’t destroy so, in one frantic moment, all your long calm years of devotion to one darling scheme. Hold, I conjure!”
Moved by my vehement voice and uncontrollable tears, he paused in his work of destruction, and stood steadfastly eyeing me, or rather blankly staring at me, like one demented.
“It is not yet wholly ruined, dear uncle; come put it together now. You have hammer and wrench ; put it together again, and try it once more. While there is life there is hope.”
“While there is life hereafter there is despair,” he howled.
“Do, do now, dear uncle—here, here, put those pieces together ; or, if that can’t be done without more tools, try a section of it—that will do just as well. Try it once; try, uncle.”
My persistent persuasiveness told upon him. The stubborn stump of hope, plowed at and uprooted in vain, put forth one last miraculous green sprout.
Steadily and carefully pulling out of the wreck some of the more curious-looking fragments, he mysteriously involved them together, and then, clearing out the box, slowly inserted them there, and ranging Yorpy and me as before, bade us tip the box once again.
We did so; and as no perceptible effect yet followed, I was each moment looking for the previous command to tip the box over yet more, when, glancing into my uncle’s face, I started aghast. It seemed pinched, shriveled into mouldy whiteness, like a mildewed grape. I dropped the box, and sprang toward him just in time to prevent his fall.
Leaving the woeful box where we had dropped it, Yorpy and I helped the old man into the skiff and silently pulled from Quash Isle.
How swiftly the current now swept us down! How hardly before had we striven to stem it! I thought of my poor uncle’s saying, not an hour gone by, about the universal drift of the mass of humanity toward utter oblivion.
“Boy!” said my uncle at last, lifting his head. I looked at him earnestly, and was gladdened to see that the terrible blight of his face had almost departed.
“Boy, there’s not much left in an old world for an old man to invent.”
I said nothing.
“Boy, take my advice, and never try to invent anything but—happiness.”
I said nothing.
“Boy, about ship, and pull back for the box.”
“It will make a good wood-box, boy. And faithful old Yorpy can sell the old iron for tobacco-money.”
“Dear massa! dear old massa! dat be very fust time in de ten long ‘ear yoo hab mention kindly old Yorpy. I tank yoo, dear old massa ; I tank yoo so kindly. Yoo is yourself agin in de ten long ‘ear.”
“Ay, long ears enough,” sighed my uncle; “Esopian ears. But it’s all over now. Boy. I’m glad I’ve failed. I say, boy, failure has made a good old man of me. It was horrible at first, but I’m glad I’ve failed. Praise be to God for the failure!”
His face kindled with a strange, rapt earnestness. I have never forgotten that look. If the event made my uncle a good old man as he called it, it made me a wise young one. Example did for me the work of experience.
When some years had gone by, and my dear old uncle began to fail, and, after peaceful days of autumnal content, was gathered gently to his fathers—faithful old Yorpy closing his eyes—as I took my last look at his venerable face, the pale resigned lips seemed to move. I seemed to hear again his deep, fervent cry— “Praise be to God for the failure!”