CHAPTER VI. CAIRO AND CAMP WOOD.
To whatever period of life my days may be prolonged, I do not think that I shall ever forget Cairo. I do not mean Grand Cairo, which is also memorable in its way, and a place not to be forgotten, but Cairo in the State of Illinois, which by native Americans is always called Caaro. An idea is prevalent in the States - and I think I have heard the same broached in England - that a popular British author had Cairo, State of Illinois, in his eye when, under the name of Eden, he depicted a chosen, happy spot on the Mississippi River, and told us how certain English immigrants fixed themselves in that locality, and there made light of those little ills of life which are incident to humanity even in the garden of the valley of the Mississippi. But I doubt whether that author ever visited Cairo in midwinter, and I am sure that he never visited Cairo when Cairo was the seat of an American army. Had he done so, his love of truth would have forbidden him to presume that even Mark Tapley could have enjoyed himself in such an Eden.
I had no wish myself to go to Cairo, having heard it but indifferently spoken of by all men; but my friend with whom I was traveling was peremptory in the matter. He had heard of gun-boats and mortar-boats, of forts built upon the river, of Columbiads, Dahlgrens, and Parrotts, of all the pomps and circumstance of glorious war, and entertained an idea that Cairo was the nucleus or pivot of all really strategetic movements in this terrible national struggle. Under such circumstances I was as it were forced to go to Cairo, and bore myself, under the circumstances, as much like Mark Tapley as my nature would permit. I was not jolly while I was there certainly, but I did not absolutely break down and perish in its mud.
Cairo is the southern terminus of the Illinois Central Railway. There is but one daily arrival there, namely, at half-past four in the morning; and but one dispatch, which is at half-past three in the morning. Everything is thus done to assist that view of life which Mark Tapley took when he resolved to ascertain under what possible worst circumstances of existence he could still maintain his jovial character. Why anybody should ever arrive at Cairo at half-past four A.M., I cannot understand. The departure at any hour is easy of comprehension. The place is situated exactly at the point at which the Ohio and the Mississippi meet, and is, I should say - merely guessing on the matter - some ten or twelve feet lower than the winter level of the two rivers. This gives it naturally a depressed appearance, which must have much aided Mark Tapley in his endeavors. Who were the founders of Cairo I have never ascertained. They are probably buried fathoms deep in the mud, and their names will no doubt remain a mystery to the latest ages. They were brought thither, I presume, by the apparent water privileges of the place; but the water privileges have been too much for them, and by the excess of their powers have succeeded in drowning all the capital of the early Cairovians, and in throwing a wet blanket of thick, moist, glutinous dirt over all their energies.
The free State of Illinois runs down far south between the slave States of Kentucky to the east, and of Missouri to the west, and is the most southern point of the continuous free-soil territory of the Northern States. This point of it is a part of a district called Egypt, which is as fertile as the old country from whence it has borrowed a name; but it suffers under those afflictions which are common to all newly-settled lands which owe their fertility to the vicinity of great rivers. Fever and ague universally prevail. Men and women grow up with their lantern faces like specters. The children are prematurely old; and the earth, which is so fruitful, is hideous in its fertility. Cairo and its immediate neighborhood must, I suppose, have been subject to yearly inundation before it was "settled up." At present it is guarded on the shores of each river by high mud banks, built so as to protect the point of land. These are called the levees, and do perform their duty by keeping out the body of the waters. The shore between the banks is, I believe, never above breast-deep with the inundation; and from the circumstances of the place, and the soft, half-liquid nature of the soil, this inundation generally takes the shape of mud instead of water.