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The Origin of the Hatchet Story



WHEN I FIRST HEARD OF George Washington and his Little Hatchet, I thought it a very affecting incident, and I determined to emulate so worthy an example. The next time I heard the story, it had lost some of its freshness, but was still interesting. But afterwards, as I had it dinned into my ears, and the example of Washington held up to me early and late, and very frequently in a close and painful personal connection, I began to hate the very name of Washington. When I grew older, and took up the study of American history, I perceived the nobility of his character, and felt it a patriotic duty to place his name first on my list of heros. But that fatal anecdote and its associations stood in the way; I could not do it.

Growing to manhood, a fondness for foreign travel and archæological research took me one beautiful Spring on an extended voyage up the Nile in the good steamer Wm. E. Gladstone. On our return trip the fuel gave out; and, being unable to obtain wood, the captain purchased a job-lot of mummies from a speculator near Bab-el-Mezook. In handling one of the mummies, a small roll dropped from the folds of the cotton cloth in which the mummy was enveloped. The engineer brought it to me; and, carefully moistening the dry roll and cautiously unrolling it, I found it to be a papyrus of the 19th Dynasty. It contained a legend of the childhood of Rameses III., and, from the simple character of the illustrations, was evidently designed for the instruction of youth. It ran as follows:

"When Rameses III. returned from the conquest of Libya, he rested from warlike deeds for a year and twelve months, a great part of which he spent in the personal supervision of the education of his son, afterward Rameses IV., a child of fine parts, but too much under the influence of the priests to please his royal father, who wished him trained for a career of war and conquest.

"One day after the noontide meal, Rameses III., being in a pleasant mood, gave his son a small curved sword, or cimeter, of exquisite workmanship. Little Rammy, as he was called, went about the palace, trying the temper of his new blade. First he neatly sliced off the ear of the Nubian eunuch who waited at the door of the royal presence chamber. Then, toddling to the apartments of his mama, he deftly sliced off the head-dress of one of the ladies in waiting, taking quite a slice of the scalp along with it; and, proceeding to the palace kitchen, skillfully amputated the little finger of one of the cooks, whose hand happened to be in a position convenient for the experiment.

"Passing thence out into the courtyard, he came up, unperceived, behind a servant who was kneeling before a wooden bench, polishing the royal crown with a soft brick. His head was bent forward, exposing the back of his neck in such a manner that Rammy could not resist the temptation, and playfully raising his puny right arm, he severed the head from the servant's body with one stroke,–such was the keenness of his blade. What was his embarrassment, however, to discover, when the head rolled over at his feet, that he had slain his father's favorite Hebrew slave, Abednego.

"The situation was a painful one, and he did not have time to reflect upon it before he heard the footsteps of his royal father approaching. Yielding to the impulse of the moment, the royal infant hastily concealed himself in a large earthen water-jar which stood close by.

"When Rameses III. saw the dead body of his favorite slave, his rage at first knew no bounds: 'Who slew my Hebrew slave?' he cried.

"In a moment all the members of the household had gathered in the courtyard. They, one and all, had disclaimed any responsibility for the slave's unfortunate death, when the head of young Rammy appeared above the rim of the water-jar, from which he lightly sprang and prostrated himself at his father's feet.

"'Sire,' he said, 'I can not tell a lie. I did it with my little cimeter.'

"For a moment Rameses III. was speechless with conflicting emotions. Then the trembling bystanders saw the great monarch's face soften, and heard him exclaim in feeling tones:

"'Come to my arms, my son! I would rather you had killed a thousand Hebrew slaves than to have told a lie. I thank Isis that she has given me such a son.'"

The perusal of this interesting papyrus at once convinced me that the hated Hatchet Story was merely one of those myths which, floating down the stream of tradition, become attached in successive generations to popular heros, and that, consequently, no obstacle stood in the way of my complete veneration of the name of Washington.