The Lost Chapter
Mr. William L. Groft
Harper & Brothers Publishing
331 Pearl Street
New York, New York
November 12, 1871
Dear Mr. Groft,
What I am about to propose is highly unorthodox, yet I would never deem it unethical, for I am a believer in truth and transparency, if not the sublime selfishness of altruism. My name, sir, is Samuel L. Clemens, but my authorship is known by my pen name, Mark Twain. I am a journalist, writer and, I'd like to think, an observer of the most absurd of humanity's conditions. One such absurdity I dutifully chronicled for my upcoming publication, a travel tome detailing my adventures in the American west from 1861 until 1867.
The title of the publication is Roughing It, but the esteemed publishers of the enterprise in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California have refused to include one chapter, and one chapter only, a chapter I feel gives a substantial account of one Vera Hamblin of Salt Lake City, in the territory of Utah. The rationale of their omission is one of prudery and fear of obscenity charge. I, myself, find censorship to be a more obscene value, and I must follow the dictates of my conscience in the matters of literary obligation.
The following account, sir, I include for your consideration. As a person of intellect and liberal tendencies, as I have observed from some of your other publications, my hope is you will see past the puerile charge of obscenity, and instead find the sublime humanity, if not with compassion, at least with a keen eye for knowledge about the most mystifying of cultures found in America today: the phenomenon of the Mormon religion and its accompanying component, polygamy.
I may testify to you at this time, Mr. Groft, that behind closed doors and underneath the plentiful skirts of this nefarious practice, I have uncovered a secret life of those poor, ungainly women mired in a life of religious bombasticism! Indeed this life unfolded before my eyes within the span of two days' time as I passed through Salt Lake City on my way to the Nevada silver mines. The story I have included here, as I have said, has been removed from Chapter XV of the text due out next year, but you and I could tell this story together: the story of Vera Hamblin, and her life as a Mormon plural wife—a life with fifteen other women living in a vipers' den of revenge, spite, and petty thievery.
I humbly submit to you my findings in the hopes you will consider it, upon review, as suitable for a publication of its own, if not for the sake of literary fortitude, then at the very least for the sake of testicular fortitude, the likes of which my other publishers are sorely bereft.
With Admiration and Sincerity,
The 16th Wife
Whereupon our retreat from the Gentile den, where we had submitted to smoking pipes and listening to tales of heedless misfortunates who unwittingly remark on Brigham Young and his wives, only to find themselves in some muddy alley in the repose of death for their exacting recriminations, my brother, Orion, and I came upon the most piteous, ungainly creature I had yet set my eyes upon in all of my days. The poor girl had teeth as buck as a mud-horse, eyes bulging like a witless frog, and the form of a withered stick dangling from an arid tree.
But we could not just pass her by, for wretched as she was, she was bent over herself, weeping and wailing and uttering, "Why me? Why me?" We stopped there, on that side street, and I worried for her safety, as we were near certain establishments that would be a danger to a young girl, surely no more than eighteen she was, and clearly of the ilk of the devout, upon which we had cast our eyes before: hair in a bonnet, shapeless dress of gingham, hands callused and ruby red, her dappled skin blotched with her outburst of emotion.
"There, there, young lady, please, avail yourself of the remaining daylight and return to the safety of your father's house, for this is not a place for a young girl alone," I said.
She looked up to us with those obscene bulging sockets, wet with tears, and cried, "Not my father's house, no! But my husband's, in which I am a leper, a sullied sore, an outcast!"
My brother, Orion, a man of fairness and restraint, said with mild outrage, "Your husband has cast you out thusly?"
"No," said she, "my husband treasures me—even so, he values me above all others and that, sir, is my greatest burden and how I came to this desperate end!"
I spoke gently to the putrid creature, for even a toad in distress can tug at the compassion of an enlightened man; even a mangy dog can enlist a sincere soul's sympathies. "Tell us how we may assist you, young lady, and we shall do our best to rectify your situation, for on this lovely spring night, a bird as lovely as you should at least have the safety of her nest."
She smiled through her tears, the slightly yellowed bulk of her buck teeth protruding forth from her upper lip like an errant, unsightly foot bunion, and I saw her lashes bat as the tears clung to them in clumps. "I do not know that it is proper for me to say such things to strangers. The matter is a personal one, a marital one. But oh, how I am afflicted!" Her wailing commenced again in full force and my brother and I quickly sat either side of her there on the planks, and we encouraged her to speak to us. My brother told her that he was the Secretary of Nevada, and that I was an esteemed journalist, and he was certain beyond doubt that between the two of us, we could find a way to lessen her terrible, yet thus far, unknown burden.
With these reassurances, she began to speak freely, and my brother and I were systematically shocked by each disclosure that issued forth from this unseemly, repugnant waif.
"My name is Vera, Vera Hamblin, and I am the wife of Welcome Hamblin, who is a textile merchant and vendor. I am his newest wife, having been married to him in the covenant of the Lord just this year of my eighteenth birthday. Fifteen wives, all older, precede me. At first, they all welcomed me with open arms."
"As I'm sure your husband did as well, if his name is an indication of his nature," I murmured to Orion behind her.
"How old is this husband of yours?" I queried.
"He is sixty-one in July," she said, a glimmer of pride in her bulging eyes. "I hoped to provide him with many sons, devoted to their father, as he already has twenty-three children, all by his other wives, my sister-wives."
"That's quite a brood," said Orion.
"Of calves and cattle," said I, behind her head and into my brother's ear.
"The trouble started," she began, "after my first week. There is the Small House, the Main House, and the Welcome House. My sisters and I all sleep with the children in the Main House. We take meals and guests in the Welcome House. The Small House is where my dear husband takes his accounts and has his sleep. What he does not know is this: after the children sleep, the wives gather in the Welcome House by candle light, and oh, to my shame, we commit sin!"
She buried her barnacled face in her chafed hands and my brother and I looked in astonishment towards one another. What could this sin be? Witchcraft? Hedonism of some kind that we could not fathom? My brother spoke, a hand on her bony shoulder.
"What sin, dear girl?"
"Oh," she cried, then brought her voice to a low timbre, "we use the dice and we gamble!"
We stifled a laugh between us, such as it were, since my brother and I had sat 'round many a gaming tables in our day. But quelling our smiles, we asked her with what did they gamble.
"With the dice, we play on chance. We use as collateral buttons, hairpins and precious things of our own. But you see, kind sirs, I must be terrible at this game, or I am being punished for my part in the wickedness, for I lost everything, including my most precious possession, a breast pin, given to me by my darling Welcome on the night of our wedding!"
"And this is why you are cast out?" I asked.
"Oh no, my own foolishness cast me out, my trusting nature betrayed me. You see, I had nestled in my personal things a treasure trove of buttons, procured from the finest makers in Philadelphia, whence my parents hail. Benedict and Burnham, John. F Boylan in New York—buttons of the finest craftsmanship and quality. In my foolish and youthful pride, I had boasted to some of the other wives that they were part of my troth.
"One night when I had lost all, I bet an amount such as caused a gasp of incredulity among the other wives; I was ever confident that my poor luck would change, knowing I had the proper currency in my troth if it did not. The dice, sirs, they were bedeviled, and they once again did not go my way, much to my horror, and it seemed, much to the delight of the evil hens with whom I cavorted. In shame and distress, I scurried back to the Main House to bring forth these treasures as my cursed payment. But when I sought to retrieve my precious trinkets, they were gone!"
"Gone?" I said.
"Stolen," she whispered, conspiracy laden heavily in her voice. "I returned empty handed, and my sister-wives, those wretched biddies, told me that for my debt, I would pay by being removed from the schedule and given the poorest and most vile and arduous tasks of the whole of the compound, until such time my debt is paid off."
"Wait," my brother said, holding up his hand. "You said 'removed from the schedule.' May I ask from what schedule you are removed?"
At this query her horse-like face crumpled into a mass of horrific contortions, and her floppy lips trembled with emotion.
"The schedule, sir. I feel in violation already, but my grief outshines my trepidation, so I will tell you--the schedule for marital relations with my husband!"
"Oh my!" Orion exclaimed.
"Dear Lord," said I. I wish that my expression had been in accordance with her deplorable circumstance, but alas, my utterance was indeed on account of the hideous and disturbingly unwanted mental visual that accompanied her sketch.
"Those witches know he favors me," she said vehemently, steam almost bursting from her bulbous nose, "and they set me out to pasture like an old mare! And when my dear husband asks about me and why I am removed, they tell him a pack of lies, fictions that I am ill or heavy with my woman's time. He has not peeked under my skirts for three months' time!" A new barrage of crying overtook her and her shoulders quaked and rose and fell with each of her snorting, heaving sobs.
I offered her my handkerchief, whereupon she blithely shot two phlegm-filled nostrils' contents into it, then promptly held it forth for me to reclaim.
"No, no," I said gallantly, "please consider it a gift."
Her face brightened, her scuffed hands grabbed 'round my forearm and squeezed with the force of the Colorado River current. Her face transformed from the pathetically banal to the hideously revolting—and please know, dear reader, how generous are my words here in contrast to the vision I had before me.
"Oh sir, please! I am young and strong, and you yourself said a beauty—"
(Dearest God in heaven, had such blasphemy issued forth from my lips in earnest?)
"—please, sir, take me with you, let me be yours and I will renounce all I hold dear to be free of this infernal debt, those evil women, and even my dearest love, Welcome, whose manly endowments have brought me so much joy, so that I may once again be known as a woman!"
The evening's meal I had so enjoyed in abundance threatened my constitution with an unpleasantness that was sure to make my gills green and my vomit plentiful. My brother, my own flesh and blood, grew an evil and malicious grin so wide as to drive a mud cart through. I looked into her protruding eyes and revulsion blossomed in my bosom as I thought of this unsightly creature entwined in my arms.
"Young lady, although you're truly a wonder of our dear Maker, I'm afraid my company and devotion would not do such elegance justice."
"But you must," cried she, "I must have the service of a man, or I shall go mad with carnality!"
My dear brother, whom I shall never, ever forgive, had twisted up his face with contortions befitting a Chinese acrobat so as to not guffaw aloud at my mortification. Then, as if inspired by God's good grace and compassion, I formed an idea in my mind to the benefit of all.
"Young lady," I began, "I insist you take this from me as a parting token of my affections." I retrieved from my inner pocket a two-dollar bill, and incidentally, mine and my brother's meal and lodging capital for the remainder of our trip. My brother's face changed from mirth to dread.
"But sir—" she protested.
"No, I insist. Go now to the local shop, buy buttons and hairpins and pay your debt. But you must make a vow to me to never take to those dice again. They must have had them slanted against you, and your lesson has been learned."
"Oh sir, may I repay your kindness with a chaste kiss on your cheek?"
"Please do not, young miss, for I fear impropriety may ensue. Now then, off you go, home to your husband's bed."
Her smile had all of the charm of the puckered ass of a goat as she stood and ran from us into the evening.
"What had you thought, then, brother? How will we eat? Where shall we sleep?
"Orion, have gratitude. I weighed giving her our last dime versus telling her you would take her on as a bride, happily, and your word is your bond. Be grateful that we sleep in a barn and beg for charity."
My brother's mouth opened like a catfish caught, but then grudgingly he replied, "Yes, Samuel. You did a right and noble thing."
I am sure young Vera, upon returning that eve, got her proper "Welcome," a thought I will now happily expunge from my thoughts forever.
I read quite a bit of Mark Twain's writings before starting this story. I really wanted to get the essence, his voice, his unique perspective and his trademark sense of humor in order to capture his authorial voice and style. I paid special attention to parts in Roughing It where Twain references Mormons, Brigham Young and polygamy. His over-the-top hyperbole and extreme descriptions are what make him so enjoyable and hysterically funny. He uses a dry, matter of fact wit coupled with that famous hyperbole to tell his tales. If you lack a sense of humor, you could miss it altogether.
My story was judged and went on to the next round. After the judging, the contest judges gave us feedback. One judge, I will assume she is female, told me that my descritpions of Vera Hamblin were borderline "cruel," and way over the top, and in fact (she assumed I was a male writer) called me a "mysogynist." She did allow that it may have been to keep in accordance with the "period" of the writing, but that it (my misogyny) was something I should "be aware of" and "keep an eye on."
Very astute, madam judge. Well done.