Trent's Trust and Other Stories by Bret Harte - HTML preview
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For a moment Randolph gazed at the dispatch with a half-hysterical laugh, and then became as suddenly sane and cool. One thought alone was uppermost in his mind: the captain could not have heard this news yet, and if he was still within reach, or accessible by any means whatever, however determined his purpose, he must know it at once. The only clue to his whereabouts was the Victoria Docks. But that was something. In another moment Randolph was in the lower hall, had learned the quickest way of reaching the docks, and plunged into the street.
The fog here swooped down, and to the embarrassment of his mind was added the obscurity of light and distance, which halted him after a few hurried steps, in utter perplexity. Indistinct figures were here and there approaching him out of nothingness and melting away again into the greenish gray chaos. He was in a busy thoroughfare; he could hear the slow trample of hoofs, the dull crawling of vehicles, and the warning outcries of a traffic he could not see. Trusting rather to his own speed than that of a halting conveyance, he blundered on until he reached the railway station. A short but exasperating journey of impulses and hesitations, of detonating signals and warning whistles, and he at last stood on the docks, beyond him a vague bulk or two, and a soft, opaque flowing wall—the river!
But one steamer had left that day—the Dom Pedro, for the River Plate—two hours before, but until the fog thickened, a quarter of an hour ago, she could be seen, so his informant said, still lying, with steam up, in midstream. Yes, it was still possible to board her. But even as the boatman spoke, and was leading the way toward the landing steps, the fog suddenly lightened; a soft salt breath stole in from the distant sea, and a veil seemed to be lifted from the face of the gray waters. The outlines of the two shores came back; the spars of nearer vessels showed distinctly, but the space where the huge hulk had rested was empty and void. There was a trail of something darker and more opaque than fog itself lying near the surface of the water, but the Dom Pedro was a mere speck in the broadening distance.
A bright sun and a keen easterly wind were revealing the curling ridges of the sea beyond the headland when Randolph again passed the gates of Dornton Hall on his way to the rectory. Now, for the first time, he was able to see clearly the outlines of that spot which had seemed to him only a misty dream, and even in his preoccupation he was struck by its grave beauty. The leafless limes and elms in the park grouped themselves as part of the picturesque details of the Hall they encompassed, and the evergreen slope of firs and larches rose as a background to the gray battlements, covered with dark green ivy, whose rich shadows were brought out by the unwonted sunshine. With a half-repugnant curiosity he had tried to identify the garden entrance and the fateful yew hedge the captain had spoken of as he passed. But as quickly he fell back upon the resolution he had taken in coming there—to dissociate his secret, his experience, and his responsibility to his patron from his relations to Sibyl Eversleigh; to enjoy her companionship without an obtruding thought of the strange circumstances that had brought them together at first, or the stranger fortune that had later renewed their acquaintance. He had resolved to think of her as if she had merely passed into his life in the casual ways of society, with only her personal charms to set her apart from others. Why should his exclusive possession of a secret—which, even if confided to her, would only give her needless and hopeless anxiety—debar them from an exchange of those other confidences of youth and sympathy? Why could he not love her and yet withhold from her the knowledge of her cousin's existence? So he had determined to make the most of his opportunity during his brief holiday; to avail himself of her naive invitation, and even of what he dared sometimes to think was her predilection for his companionship. And if, before he left, he had acquired a right to look forward to a time when her future and his should be one—but here his glowing fancy was abruptly checked by his arrival at the rectory door.
Mr. Brunton received him cordially, yet with a slight business preoccupation and a certain air of importance that struck him as peculiar. Sibyl, he informed him, was engaged at that moment with some friends who had come over from the Hall. Mr. Trent would understand that there was a great deal for her to do—in her present position. Wondering why SHE should be selected to do it instead of older and more experienced persons, Randolph, however, contented himself with inquiries regarding the details of Sir William's seizure and death. He learned, as he expected, that nothing whatever was known of the captain's visit, nor was there the least suspicion that the baronet's attack was the result of any predisposing emotion. Indeed, it seemed more possible that his medical attendants, knowing something of his late excesses and their effect upon his constitution, preferred, for the sake of avoiding scandal, to attribute the attack to long-standing organic disease.
Randolph, who had already determined, as a forlorn hope, to write a cautious letter to the captain (informing him briefly of the news without betraying his secret, and directed to the care of the consignees of the Dom Pedro in Brazil, by the next post), was glad to be able to add this medical opinion to relieve his patron's mind of any fear of having hastened his brother's death by his innocent appearance. But here the entrance of Sibyl Eversleigh with her friends drove all else from his mind.
She looked so tall and graceful in her black dress, which set off her dazzling skin, and, with her youthful gravity, gave to her figure the charming maturity of a young widow, that he was for a moment awed and embarrassed. But he experienced a relief when she came eagerly toward him in all her old girlish frankness, and with even something of yearning expectation in her gray eyes.
"It was so good of you to come," she said. "I thought you would imagine how I was feeling"—She stopped, as if she were conscious, as Randolph was, of a certain chill of unresponsiveness in the company, and said in an undertone, "Wait until we are alone." Then, turning with a slight color and a pretty dignity toward her friends, she continued: "Lady Ashbrook, this is Mr. Trent, an old friend of both my cousins when they were in America."
In spite of the gracious response of the ladies, Randolph was aware of their critical scrutiny of both himself and Miss Eversleigh, of the exchange of significant glances, and a certain stiffness in her guardian's manner. It was quite enough to affect Randolph's sensitiveness and bring out his own reserve.
Fancying, however, that his reticence disturbed Miss Eversleigh, he forced himself to converse with Lady Ashbrook—avoiding many of her pointed queries as to himself, his acquaintance with Sibyl, and the length of time he expected to stay in England—and even accompanied her to her carriage. And here he was rewarded by Sibyl running out with a crape veil twisted round her throat and head, and the usual femininely forgotten final message to her visitor. As the carriage drove away, she turned to Randolph, and said quickly,—"Let us go in by way of the garden."
It was a slight detour, but it gave them a few moments alone. "It was so awful and sudden," she said, looking gravely at Randolph, "and to think that only an hour before I had been saying unkind things of him! Of course," she added naively, "they were true, and the groom admitted to me that the mare was overdriven and Sir William could hardly stand. And only to think of it! he never recovered complete consciousness, but muttered incoherently all the time. I was with him to the last, and he never said a word I could understand—only once.""What did he say?" asked Randolph uneasily. "I don't like to say—it was TOO dreadful!" Randolph did not press her. Yet, after a pause, she said in a low voice, with a naivete impossible to describe, "It was, 'Jack, damn you!'"
He did not dare to look at her, even with this grim mingling of farce and tragedy which seemed to invest every scene of that sordid drama. Miss Eversleigh continued gravely: "The groom's name was Robert, but Jack might have been the name of one of his boon companions."
Convinced that she suspected nothing, yet in the hope of changing the subject, Randolph said quietly: "I thought your guardian perhaps a little less frank and communicative today."
"Yes," said the young girl suddenly, with a certain impatience, and yet in half apology to her companion, "of course. He—THEY—all and everybody—are much more concerned and anxious about my new position than I am. It's perfectly dreadful—this thinking of it all the time, arranging everything, criticising everything in reference to it, and the poor man who is the cause of it all not yet at rest in his grave! The whole thing is inhuman and unchristian!""I don't understand," stammered Randolph vaguely. "What IS your new position? What do you mean?" The girl looked up in his face with surprise. "Why, didn't you know? I'm the next of kin—I'm the heiress—and will succeed to the property in six months, when I am of age."
In a flash of recollection Randolph suddenly recalled the captain's words, "There are only three lives between her and the property." Their meaning had barely touched his comprehension before. She was the heiress. Yes, save for the captain!
She saw the change, the wonder, even the dismay, in his face, and her own brightened frankly. "It's so good to find one who never thought of it, who hadn't it before him as the chief end for which I was born! Yes, I was the next of kin after dear Jack died and Bill succeeded, but there was every chance that he would marry and have an heir. And yet the moment he was taken ill that idea was uppermost in my guardian's mind, good man as he is, and even forced upon me. If this—this property had come from poor Cousin Jack, whom I loved, there would have been something dear in it as a memory or a gift, but from HIM, whom I couldn't bear—I know it's wicked to talk that way, but it's simply dreadful!"
"And yet," said Randolph, with a sudden seriousness he could not control, "I honestly believe that Captain Dornton would be perfectly happy—yes, rejoiced!—if he knew the property had come to YOU."There was such an air of conviction, and, it seemed to the simple girl, even of spiritual insight, in his manner that her clear, handsome eyes rested wonderingly on his.
"Do you really think so?" she said thoughtfully. "And yet HE knows that I am like him. Yes," she continued, answering Randolph's look of surprise, "I am just like HIM in that. I loathe and despise the life that this thing would condemn me to; I hate all that it means, and all that it binds me to, as he used to; and if I could, I would cut and run from it as HE did."
She spoke with a determined earnestness and warmth, so unlike her usual grave naivete that he was astonished. There was a flush on her cheek and a frank fire in her eye that reminded him strangely of the captain; and yet she had emphasized her words with a little stamp of her narrow foot and a gesture of her hand that was so untrained and girlish that he smiled, and said, with perhaps the least touch of bitterness in his tone, "But you will get over that when you come into the property.""I suppose I shall," she returned, with an odd lapse to her former gravity and submissiveness. "That's what they all tell me." "You will be independent and your own mistress," he added.
"Independent," she repeated impatiently, "with Dornton Hall and twenty thousand a year! Independent, with every duty marked out for me! Independent, with every one to criticise my smallest actions—every one who would never have given a thought to the orphan who was contented and made her own friends on a hundred a year! Of course you, who are a stranger, don't understand; yet I thought that you"—she hesitated,—"would have thought differently.""Why?" "Why, with your belief that one should make one's own fortune," she said. "That would do for a man, and in that I respected Captain Dornton's convictions, as you told them to me. But for a girl, how could she be independent, except with money?"
She shook her head as if unconvinced, but did not reply. They were nearing the garden porch, when she looked up, and said: "And as YOU'RE a man, you will be making your way in the world. Mr. Dingwall said you would."
There was something so childishly trustful and confident in her assurance that he smiled. "Mr. Dingwall is too sanguine, but it gives me hope to hear YOU say so."
She colored slightly, and said gravely: "We must go in now." Yet she lingered for a moment before the door. For a long time afterward he had a very vivid recollection of her charming face, in its childlike gravity and its quaint frame of black crape, standing out against the sunset-warmed wall of the rectory. "Promise me you will not mind what these people say or do," she said suddenly."I promise," he returned, with a smile, "to mind only what YOU say or do." "But I might not be always quite right, you know," she said naively. "I'll risk that." "Then, when we go in now, don't talk much to me, but make yourself agreeable to all the others, and then go straight home to the inn, and don't come here until after the funeral." The faintest evasive glint of mischievousness in her withdrawn eyes at this moment mitigated the austerity of her command as they both passed in.
Randolph had intended not to return to London until after the funeral, two days later, and spent the interesting day at the neighboring town, whence he dispatched his exploring and perhaps hopeless letter to the captain. The funeral was a large and imposing one, and impressed Randolph for the first time with the local importance and solid standing of the Dorntons. All the magnates and old county families were represented. The inn yard and the streets of the little village were filled with their quaint liveries, crested paneled carriages, and silver-cipher caparisoned horses, with a sprinkling of fashion from London. He could not close his ears to the gossip of the villagers regarding the suddenness of the late baronet's death, the extinction of the title, the accession of the orphaned girl to the property, and even, to his greater exasperation, speculations upon her future and probable marriage. "Some o' they gay chaps from Lunnon will be lordin' it over the Hall afore long," was the comment of the hostler.
It was with some little bitterness that Randolph took his seat in the crowded church. But this feeling, and even his attempts to discover Miss Eversleigh's face in the stately family pew fenced off from the chancel, presently passed away. And then his mind began to be filled with strange and weird fancies. What grim and ghostly revelations might pass between this dead scion of the Dorntons lying on the trestles before them and the obscure, nameless ticket of leave man awaiting his entrance in the vault below! The incongruity of this thought, with the smug complacency of the worldly minded congregation sitting around him, and the probable smiling carelessness of the reckless rover—the cause of all—even now idly pacing the deck on the distant sea, touched him with horror. And when added to this was the consciousness that Sibyl Eversleigh was forced to become an innocent actor in this hideous comedy, it seemed as much as he could bear. Again he questioned himself, Was he right to withhold his secret from her? In vain he tried to satisfy his conscience that she was happier in her ignorance. The resolve he had made to keep his relations with her apart from his secret, he knew now, was impossible. But one thing was left to him. Until he could disclose his whole story—until his lips were unsealed by Captain Dornton—he must never see her again. And the grim sanctity of the edifice seemed to make that resolution a vow.
He did not dare to raise his eyes again toward her pew, lest a sight of her sweet, grave face might shake his resolution, and he slipped away first among the departing congregation. He sent her a brief note from the inn saying that he was recalled to London by an earlier train, and that he would be obliged to return to California at once, but hoping that if he could be of any further assistance to her she would write to him to the care of the bank. It was a formal letter, and yet he had never written otherwise than formally to her. That night he reached London. On the following night he sailed from Liverpool for America.
Six months had passed. It was difficult, at first, for Randolph to pick up his old life again; but his habitual earnestness and singleness of purpose stood him in good stead, and a vague rumor that he had made some powerful friends abroad, with the nearer fact that he had a letter of credit for a thousand pounds, did not lessen his reputation. He was reinstalled and advanced at the bank. Mr. Dingwall was exceptionally gracious, and minute in his inquiries regarding Miss Eversleigh's succession to the Dornton property, with an occasional shrewdness of eye in his interrogations which recalled to Randolph the questioning of Miss Eversleigh's friends, and which he responded to as cautiously. For the young fellow remained faithful to his vow even in thinking of her, and seemed to be absorbed entirely in his business. Yet there was a vague ambition of purpose in this absorption that would probably have startled the more conservative Englishman had he known it.
He had not heard from Miss Eversleigh since he left, nor had he received any response from the captain. Indeed, he had indulged in little hopes of either. But he kept stolidly at work, perhaps with a larger trust than he knew. And then, one day, he received a letter addressed in a handwriting that made his heart leap, though he had seen it but once, when it conveyed the news of Sir William Dornton's sudden illness. It was from Miss Eversleigh, but the postmark was Callao! He tore open the envelope, and for the next few moments forgot everything—his business devotion, his lofty purpose, even his solemn vow.It read as follows:—
DEAR MR. TRENT,—I should not be writing to you now if I did not believe that I NOW understand why you left us so abruptly on the day of the funeral, and why you were at times so strange. You might have been a little less hard and cold even if you knew all that you did know. But I must write now, for I shall be in San Francisco a few days after this reaches you, and I MUST see you and have YOUR help, for I can have no other, as you know. You are wondering what this means, and why I am here. I know ALL and EVERYTHING. I know HE is alive and never was dead. I know I have no right to what I have, and never had, and I have come here to seek him and make him take it back. I could do no other. I could not live and do anything but that, and YOU might have known it. But I have not found him here as I hoped I should, though perhaps it was a foolish hope of mine, and I am coming to you to help me seek him, for he MUST BE FOUND. You know I want to keep his and your secret, and therefore the only one I can turn to for assistance and counsel is YOU.
You are wondering how I know what I do. Two months ago I GOT A LETTER FROM HIM—the strangest, quaintest, and yet THE KINDEST LETTER—exactly like himself and the way he used to talk! He had just heard of his brother's death, and congratulated me on coming into the property, and said he was now perfectly happy, and should KEEP DEAD, and never, never come to life again; that he never thought things would turn out as splendidly as they had—for Sir William MIGHT have had an heir—and that now he should REALLY DIE HAPPY. He said something about everything being legally right, and that I could do what I liked with the property. As if THAT would satisfy me! Yet it was all so sweet and kind, and so like dear old Jack, that I cried all night. And then I resolved to come here, where his letter was dated from. Luckily I was of age now, and could do as I liked, and I said I wanted to travel in South America and California; and I suppose they didn't think it very strange that I should use my liberty in that way. Some said it was quite like a Dornton! I knew something of Callao from your friend Miss Avondale, and could talk about it, which impressed them. So I started off with only a maid—my old nurse. I was a little frightened at first, when I came to think what I was doing, but everybody was very kind, and I really feel quite independent now. So, you see, a girl may be INDEPENDENT, after all! Of course I shall see Mr. Dingwall in San Francisco, but he need not know anything more than that I am traveling for pleasure. And I may go to the Sandwich Islands or Sydney, if I think HE is there. Of course I have had to use some money—some of HIS rents—but it shall be paid back. I will tell you everything about my plans when I see you.Yours faithfully, SIBYL EVERSLEIGH. P. S. Why did you let me cry over that man's tomb in the church?
Randolph looked again at the date, and then hurriedly consulted the shipping list. She was due in ten days. Yet, delighted as he was with that prospect, and touched as he had been with her courage and naive determination, after his first joy he laid the letter down with a sigh. For whatever was his ultimate ambition, he was still a mere salaried clerk; whatever was her self-sacrificing purpose, she was still the rich heiress. The seal of secrecy had been broken, yet the situation remained unchanged; their association must still be dominated by it. And he shrank from the thought of making her girlish appeal to him for help an opportunity for revealing his real feelings.
This instinct was strengthened by the somewhat formal manner in which Mr. Dingwall announced her approaching visit. "Miss Eversleigh will stay with Mrs. Dingwall while she is here, on account of her—er—position, and the fact that she is without a chaperon. Mrs. Dingwall will, of course, be glad to receive any friends Miss Eversleigh would like to see."
Randolph frankly returned that Miss Eversleigh had written to him, and that he would be glad to present himself. Nothing more was said, but as the days passed he could not help noticing that, in proportion as Mr. Dingwall's manner became more stiff and ceremonious, Mr. Revelstoke's usually crisp, good-humored suggestions grew more deliberate, and Randolph found himself once or twice the subject of the president's penetrating but smiling scrutiny. And the day before Miss Eversleigh's arrival his natural excitement was a little heightened by a summons to Mr. Revelstoke's private office.As he entered, the president laid aside his pen and closed the door.
"I have never made it my business, Trent," he said, with good-humored brusqueness, "to interfere in my employees' private affairs, unless they affect their relations to the bank, and I haven't had the least occasion to do so with you. Neither has Mr. Dingwall, although it is on HIS behalf that I am now speaking." As Randolph listened with a contracted brow, he went on with a grim smile: "But he is an Englishman, you know, and has certain ideas of the importance of 'position,' particularly among his own people. He wishes me, therefore, to warn you of what HE calls the 'disparity' of your position and that of a young English lady—Miss Eversleigh—with whom you have some acquaintance, and in whom," he added with a still grimmer satisfaction, "he fears you are too deeply interested."
Randolph blazed. "If Mr. Dingwall had asked ME, sir," he said hotly, "I would have told him that I have never yet had to be reminded that Miss Eversleigh is a rich heiress and I only a poor clerk, but as to his using her name in such a connection, or dictating to me the manner of"—
"Hold hard," said Revelstoke, lifting his hand deprecatingly, yet with his unchanged smile. "I don't agree with Mr. Dingwall, and I have every reason to know the value of YOUR services, yet I admit something is due to HIS prejudices. And in this matter, Trent, the Bank of Eureka, while I am its president, doesn't take a back seat. I have concluded to make you manager of the branch bank at Marysville, an independent position with its salary and commissions. And if that doesn't suit Dingwall, why," he added, rising from his desk with a short laugh, "he has a bigger idea of the value of property than the bank has."
"One moment, sir, I implore you," burst out Randolph breathlessly, "if your kind offer is based upon the mistaken belief that I have the least claim upon Miss Eversleigh's consideration more than that of simple friendship—if anybody has dared to give you the idea that I have aspired by word or deed to more, or that the young lady has ever countenanced or even suspected such aspirations, it is utterly false, and grateful as I am for your kindness, I could not accept it."
"Look here, Trent," returned Revelstoke curtly, yet laying his hand on the young man's shoulder not unkindly. "All that is YOUR private affair, which, as I told you, I don't interfere with. The other is a question between Mr. Dingwall and myself of your comparative value. It won't hurt you with ANYBODY to know how high we've assessed it. Don't spoil a good thing!"
Grateful even in his uncertainty, Randolph could only thank him and withdraw. Yet this fateful forcing of his hand in a delicate question gave him a new courage. It was with a certain confidence now in his capacity as HER friend and qualified to advise HER that he called at Mr. Dingwall's the evening she arrived. It struck him that in the Dingwalls' reception of him there was mingled with their formality a certain respect.
Thanks to this, perhaps, he found her alone. She seemed to him more beautiful than his recollection had painted her, in the development that maturity, freedom from restraint, and time had given her. For a moment his new, fresh courage was staggered. But she had retained her youthful simplicity, and came toward him with the same naive and innocent yearning in her clear eyes that he remembered at their last meeting. Their first words were, naturally, of their great secret, and Randolph told her the whole story of his unexpected and startling meeting with the captain, and the captain's strange narrative, of his undertaking the journey with him to recover his claim, establish his identity, and, as Randolph had hoped, restore to her that member of the family whom she had most cared for. He recounted the captain's hesitation on arriving; his own journey to the rectory; the news she had given him; the reason of his singular behavior; his return to London; and the second disappearance of the captain. He read to her the letter he had received from him, and told her of his hopeless chase to the docks only to find him gone. She listened to him breathlessly, with varying color, with an occasional outburst of pity, or a strange shining of the eyes, that sometimes became clouded and misty, and at the conclusion with a calm and grave paleness."But," she said, "you should have told me all." "It was not my secret," he pleaded. "You should have trusted me." "But the captain had trusted ME."
She looked at him with grave wonder, and then said with her old directness: "But if I had been told such a secret affecting you, I should have told you." She stopped suddenly, seeing his eyes fixed on her, and dropped her own lids with a slight color. "I mean," she said hesitatingly, "of course you have acted nobly, generously, kindly, wisely—but I hate secrets! Oh, why cannot one be always frank?"A wild idea seized Randolph. "But I have another secret—you have not guessed—and I have not dared to tell you. Do you wish me to be frank now?" "Why not?" she said simply, but she did not look up.
Then he told her! But, strangest of all, in spite of his fears and convictions, it flowed easily and naturally as a part of his other secret, with an eloquence he had not dreamed of before. But when he told her of his late position and his prospects, she raised her eyes to his for the first time, yet without withdrawing her hand from his, and said reproachfully,—"Yet but for THAT you would never have told me."
"How could I?" he returned eagerly. "For but for THAT how could I help you to carry out YOUR trust? How could I devote myself to your plans, and enable you to carry them out without touching a dollar of that inheritance which you believe to be wrongfully yours?"
Then, with his old boyish enthusiasm, he sketched a glowing picture of their future: how they would keep the Dornton property intact until the captain was found and communicated with; and how they would cautiously collect all the information accessible to find him until such time as Randolph's fortunes would enable them both to go on a voyage of discovery after him. And in the midst of this prophetic forecast, which brought them so closely together that she was enabled to examine his watch chain, she said,—"I see you have kept Cousin Jack's ring. Did he ever see it?" "He told me he had given it to you as his little sweetheart, and that he"— There was a singular pause here. "He never did THAT—at least, not in that way!" said Sybil Eversleigh.
And, strangely enough, the optimistic Randolph's prophecies came true. He was married a month later to Sibyl Eversleigh, Mr. Dingwall giving away the bride. He and his wife were able to keep their trust in regard to the property, for, without investing a dollar of it in the bank, the mere reputation of his wife's wealth brought him a flood of other investors and a confidence which at once secured his success. In two years he was able to take his wife on a six months' holiday to Europe via Australia, but of the details of that holiday no one knew. It is, however, on record that ten or twelve years ago Dornton Hall, which had been leased or unoccupied for a long time, was refitted for the heiress, her husband, and their children during a brief occupancy, and that in that period extensive repairs were made to the interior of the old Norman church, and much attention given to the redecoration and restoration of its ancient tombs.
Mr. Macglowrie's Widow
Very little was known of her late husband, yet that little was of a sufficiently aweinspiring character to satisfy the curiosity of Laurel Spring. A man of unswerving animosity and candid belligerency, untempered by any human weakness, he had been actively engaged as survivor in two or three blood feuds in Kentucky, and some desultory dueling, only to succumb, through the irony of fate, to an attack of fever and ague in San Francisco. Gifted with a fine sense of humor, he is said, in his last moments, to have called the simple-minded clergyman to his bedside to assist him in putting on his boots. The kindly divine, although pointing out to him that he was too weak to rise, much less walk, could not resist the request of a dying man. When it was fulfilled, Mr. MacGlowrie crawled back into bed with the remark that his race had always "died with their boots on," and so passed smilingly and tranquilly away.
It is probable that this story was invented to soften the ignominy of MacGlowrie's peaceful end. The widow herself was also reported to be endowed with relations of equally homicidal eccentricities. Her two brothers, Stephen and Hector Boompointer, had Western reputations that were quite as lurid and remote. Her own experiences of a frontier life had been rude and startling, and her scalp—a singularly beautiful one of blond hair—had been in peril from Indians on several occasions. A pair of scissors, with which she had once pinned the intruding hand of a marauder to her cabin doorpost, was to be seen in her sitting room at Laurel Spring. A fair-faced woman with eyes the color of pale sherry, a complexion sallowed by innutritious food, slight and tall figure, she gave little suggestion of this Amazonian feat. But that it exercised a wholesome restraint over the many who would like to have induced her to reenter the married state, there is little reason to doubt. Laurel Spring was a peaceful agricultural settlement. Few of its citizens dared to aspire to the dangerous eminence of succeeding the defunct MacGlowrie; few could hope that the sister of living Boompointers would accept an obvious mesalliance with them. However sincere their affection, life was still sweet to the rude inhabitants of Laurel Spring, and the preservation of the usual quantity of limbs necessary to them in their avocations. With their devotion thus chastened by caution, it would seem as if the charming mistress of Laurel Spring House was secure from disturbing attentions.
It was a pleasant summer afternoon, and the sun was beginning to strike under the laurels around the hotel into the little office where the widow sat with the housekeeper—a stout spinster of a coarser Western type. Mrs. MacGlowrie was looking wearily over some accounts on the desk before her, and absently putting back some tumbled sheaves from the stack of her heavy hair. For the widow had a certain indolent Southern negligence, which in a less pretty woman would have been untidiness, and a characteristic hook and eyeless freedom of attire which on less graceful limbs would have been slovenly. One sleeve cuff was unbuttoned, but it showed the blue veins of her delicate wrist; the neck of her dress had lost a hook, but the glimpse of a bit of edging round the white throat made amends. Of all which, however, it should be said that the widow, in her limp abstraction, was really unconscious.
"I reckon we kin put the new preacher in Kernel Starbottle's room," said Miss Morvin, the housekeeper. "The kernel's going to-night."
"Oh," said the widow in a tone of relief, but whether at the early departure of the gallant colonel or at the successful solution of the problem of lodging the preacher, Miss Morvin could not determine. But she went on tentatively:—"The kernel was talkin' in the bar room, and kind o' wonderin' why you hadn't got married agin. Said you'd make a stir in Sacramento—but you was jest berried HERE." "I suppose he's heard of my husband?" said the widow indifferently. "Yes—but he said he couldn't PLACE YOU," returned Miss Morvin. The widow looked up. "Couldn't place ME?" she repeated. "Yes—hadn't heard o' MacGlowrie's wife and disremembered your brothers." "The colonel doesn't know everybody, even if he is a fighting man," said Mrs. MacGlowrie with languid scorn.
"That's just what Dick Blair said," returned Miss Morvin. "And though he's only a doctor, he jest stuck up agin' the kernel, and told that story about your jabbin' that man with your scissors—beautiful; and how you once fought off a bear with a red-hot iron, so that you'd have admired to hear him. He's awfully gone on you!"The widow took that opportunity to button her cuff. "And how long does the preacher calculate to stay?" she added, returning to business details.
"Only a day. They'll have his house fixed up and ready for him to-morrow. They're spendin' a heap o' money on it. He ought to be the pow'ful preacher they say he is—to be worth it."But here Mrs. MacGlowrie's interest in the conversation ceased, and it dropped. In her anxiety to further the suit of Dick Blair, Miss Morvin had scarcely reported the colonel with fairness.
That gentleman, leaning against the bar in the hotel saloon with a cocktail in his hand, had expatiated with his usual gallantry upon Mrs. MacGlowrie's charms, and on his own "personal" responsibility had expressed the opinion that they were thrown away on Laurel Spring. That—blank it all—she reminded him of the blankest beautiful woman he had seen even in Washington—old Major Beveridge's daughter from Kentucky. Were they sure she wasn't from Kentucky? Wasn't her name Beveridge—and not Boompointer? Becoming more reminiscent over his second drink, the colonel could vaguely recall only one Boompointer—a blank skulking hound, sir—a mean white shyster—but, of course, he couldn't have been of the same breed as such a blank fine woman as the widow! It was here that Dick Blair interrupted with a heightened color and a glowing eulogy of the widow's relations and herself, which, however, only increased the chivalry of the colonel—who would be the last man, sir, to detract from—or suffer any detraction of—a lady's reputation. It was needless to say that all this was intensely diverting to the bystanders, and proportionally discomposing to Blair, who already experienced some slight jealousy of the colonel as a man whose fighting reputation might possibly attract the affections of the widow of the belligerent MacGlowrie. He had cursed his folly and relapsed into gloomy silence until the colonel left.
For Dick Blair loved the widow with the unselfishness of a generous nature and a first passion. He had admired her from the first day his lot was cast in Laurel Spring, where coming from a rude frontier practice he had succeeded the district doctor in a more peaceful and domestic ministration. A skillful and gentle surgeon rather than a general household practitioner, he was at first coldly welcomed by the gloomy dyspeptics and ague-haunted settlers from riparian lowlands. The few bucolic idlers who had relieved the monotony of their lives by the stimulus of patent medicines and the exaltation of stomach bitters, also looked askance at him. A common-sense way of dealing with their ailments did not naturally commend itself to the shopkeepers who vended these nostrums, and he was made to feel the opposition of trade. But he was gentle to women and children and animals, and, oddly enough, it was to this latter dilection that he owed the widow's interest in him—an interest that eventually made him popular elsewhere.
The widow had a pet dog—a beautiful spaniel, who, however, had assimilated her graceful languor to his own native love of ease to such an extent that he failed in a short leap between a balcony and a window, and fell to the ground with a fractured thigh. The dog was supposed to be crippled for life even if that life were worth preserving—when Dr. Blair came to the rescue, set the fractured limb, put it in splints and plaster after an ingenious design of his own, visited him daily, and eventually restored him to his mistress's lap sound in wind and limb. How far this daily ministration and the necessary exchange of sympathy between the widow and himself heightened his zeal was not known. There were those who believed that the whole thing was an unmanly trick to get the better of his rivals in the widow's good graces; there were others who averred that his treatment of a brute beast like a human being was sinful and unchristian. "He couldn't have done more for a regularly baptized child," said the postmistress. "And what mo' would a regularly baptized child have wanted?" returned Mrs. MacGlowrie, with the drawling Southern intonation she fell back upon when most contemptuous.
But Dr. Blair's increasing practice and the widow's preoccupation presently ended their brief intimacy. It was well known that she encouraged no suitors at the hotel, and his shyness and sensitiveness shrank from ostentatious advances. There seemed to be no chance of her becoming, herself, his patient; her sane mind, indolent nerves, and calm circulation kept her from feminine "vapors" of feminine excesses. She retained the teeth and digestion of a child in her thirty odd years, and abused neither. Riding and the cultivation of her little garden gave her sufficient exercise. And yet the unexpected occurred! The day after Starbottle left, Dr. Blair was summoned hastily to the hotel. Mrs. MacGlowrie had been found lying senseless in a dead faint in the passage outside the dining room. In his hurried flight thither with the messenger he could learn only that she had seemed to be in her usual health that morning, and that no one could assign any cause for her fainting.
He could find out little more when he arrived and examined her as she lay pale and unconscious on the sofa of her sitting room. It had not been thought necessary to loosen her already loose dress, and indeed he could find no organic disturbance. The case was one of sudden nervous shock—but this, with his knowledge of her indolent temperament, seemed almost absurd. They could tell him nothing but that she was evidently on the point of entering the dining room when she fell unconscious. Had she been frightened by anything? A snake or a rat? Miss Morvin was indignant! The widow of MacGlowrie—the repeller of grizzlies—frightened at "sich"! Had she been upset by any previous excitement, passion, or the receipt of bad news? No!—she "wasn't that kind," as the doctor knew. And even as they were speaking he felt the widow's healthy life returning to the pulse he was holding, and giving a faint tinge to her lips. Her blue-veined eyelids quivered slightly and then opened with languid wonder on the doctor and her surroundings. Suddenly a quick, startled look contracted the yellow brown pupils of her eyes, she lifted herself to a sitting posture with a hurried glance around the room and at the door beyond. Catching the quick, observant eyes of Dr. Blair, she collected herself with an effort, which Dr. Blair felt in her pulse, and drew away her wrist."What is it? What happened?" she said weakly. "You had a slight attack of faintness," said the doctor cheerily, "and they called me in as I was passing, but you're all right now." "How pow'ful foolish," she said, with returning color, but her eyes still glancing at the door, "slumping off like a green gyrl at nothin'." "Perhaps you were startled?" said the doctor.
Mrs. MacGlowrie glanced up quickly and looked away. "No!—Let me see! I was just passing through the hall, going into the dining room, when—everything seemed to waltz round me—and I was off! Where did they find me?" she said, turning to Miss Morvin."I picked you up just outside the door," replied the housekeeper. "Then they did not see me?" said Mrs. MacGlowrie.
"Who's they?" responded the housekeeper with more directness than grammatical accuracy.
"The people in the dining room. I was just opening the door—and I felt this coming on— and—I reckon I had just sense enough to shut the door again before I went off."
"Then that accounts for what Jim Slocum said," uttered Miss Morvin triumphantly. "He was in the dining room talkin' with the new preacher, when he allowed he heard the door open and shut behind him. Then he heard a kind of slump outside and opened the door again just to find you lyin' there, and to rush off and get me. And that's why he was so mad at the preacher!—for he says he just skurried away without offerin' to help. He allows the preacher may be a pow'ful exhorter—but he ain't worth much at 'works.'""Some men can't bear to be around when a woman's up to that sort of foolishness," said the widow, with a faint attempt at a smile, but a return of her paleness. "Hadn't you better lie down again?" said the doctor solicitously.
"I'm all right now," returned Mrs. MacGlowrie, struggling to her feet; "Morvin will look after me till the shakiness goes. But it was mighty touching and neighborly to come in, Doctor," she continued, succeeding at last in bringing up a faint but adorable smile, which stirred Blair's pulses. "If I were my own dog—you couldn't have treated me better!"
With no further excuse for staying longer, Blair was obliged to depart—yet reluctantly, both as lover and physician. He was by no means satisfied with her condition. He called to inquire the next day—but she was engaged and sent word to say she was "better."
In the excitement attending the advent of the new preacher the slight illness of the charming widow was forgotten. He had taken the settlement by storm. His first sermon at Laurel Spring exceeded even the extravagant reputation that had preceded him. Known as the "Inspired Cowboy," a common unlettered frontiersman, he was said to have developed wonderful powers of exhortatory eloquence among the Indians, and scarcely less savage border communities where he had lived, half outcast, half missionary. He had just come up from the Southern agricultural districts, where he had been, despite his rude antecedents, singularly effective with women and young people. The moody dyspeptics and lazy rustics of Laurel Spring were stirred as with a new patent medicine. Dr. Blair went to the first "revival" meeting. Without undervaluing the man's influence, he was instinctively repelled by his appearance and methods. The young physician's trained powers of observation not only saw an overwrought emotionalism in the speaker's eloquence, but detected the ring of insincerity in his more lucid speech and acts. Nevertheless, the hysteria of the preacher was communicated to the congregation, who wept and shouted with him. Tired and discontented housewives found their vague sorrows and vaguer longings were only the result of their "unregenerate" state; the lazy country youths felt that the frustration of their small ambitions lay in their not being "convicted of sin." The mourners' bench was crowded with wildly emulating sinners. Dr. Blair turned away with mingled feelings of amusement and contempt. At the door Jim Slocum tapped him on the shoulder: "Fetches the wimmin folk every time, don't he, Doctor?" said Jim.
"So it seems," said Blair dryly.
"'Tain't no religion," said Slocum emphatically; "it's jest pure fas'nation. Did ye look at his eye? It's like a rattlesnake's, and them wimmin are like birds. They're frightened of him—but they hev to do jest what he 'wills' 'em. That's how he skeert the widder the other day."The doctor was alert and on fire at once. "Scared the widow?" he repeated indignantly.
"Yes. You know how she swooned away. Well, sir, me and that preacher, Brown, was the only one in that dinin' room at the time. The widder opened the door behind me and sorter peeked in, and that thar preacher give a start and looked up; and then, that sort of queer light come in his eyes, and she shut the door, and kinder fluttered and flopped down in the passage outside, like a bird! And he crawled away like a snake, and never said a word! My belief is that either he hadn't time to turn on the hull influence, or else she, bein' smart, got the door shut betwixt her and it in time! Otherwise, sure as you're born, she'd hev been floppin' and crawlin' and sobbin' arter him—jist like them critters we've left."
"Better not let the brethren hear you talk like that, or they'll lynch you," said the doctor, with a laugh. "Mrs. MacGlowrie simply had an attack of faintness from some overexertion, that's all."
Nevertheless, he was uneasy as he walked away. Mrs. MacGlowrie had evidently received a shock which was still unexplained, and, in spite of Slocum's exaggerated fancy, there might be some foundation in his story. He did not share the man's superstition, although he was not a skeptic regarding magnetism. Yet even then, the widow's action was one of repulsion, and as long as she was strong enough not to come to these meetings, she was not in danger. A day or two later, as he was passing the garden of the hotel on horseback, he saw her lithe, graceful, languid figure bending over one of her favorite flower beds. The high fence partially concealed him from view, and she evidently believed herself alone. Perhaps that was why she suddenly raised herself from her task, put back her straying hair with a weary, abstracted look, remained for a moment quite still staring at the vacant sky, and then, with a little catching of her breath, resumed her occupation in a dull, mechanical way. In that brief glimpse of her charming face, Blair was shocked at the change; she was pale, the corners of her pretty mouth were drawn, there were deeper shades in the orbits of her eyes, and in spite of her broad garden hat with its blue ribbon, her light flowered frock and frilled apron, she looked as he fancied she might have looked in the first crushing grief of her widowhood. Yet he would have passed on, respecting her privacy of sorrow, had not her little spaniel detected him with her keener senses. And Fluffy being truthful—as dogs are—and recognizing a dear friend in the intruder, barked joyously.
The widow looked up, her eyes met Blair's, and she reddened. But he was too acute a lover to misinterpret what he knew, alas! was only confusion at her abstraction being discovered. Nevertheless, there was something else in her brown eyes he had never seen before. A momentary lighting up of RELIEF—of even hopefulness—in his presence. It was enough for Blair; he shook off his old shyness like the dust of his ride, and galloped around to the front door.But she met him in the hall with only her usual languid good humor. Nevertheless, Blair was not abashed.
"I can't put you in splints and plaster like Fluffy, Mrs. MacGlowrie," he said, "but I can forbid you to go into the garden unless you're looking better. It's a positive reflection on my professional skill, and Laurel Spring will be shocked, and hold me responsible."Mrs. MacGlowrie had recovered enough of her old spirit to reply that she thought Laurel Spring could be in better business than looking at her over her garden fence. "But your dog, who knows you're not well, and doesn't think me quite a fool, had the good sense to call me. You heard him." But the widow protested that she was as strong as a horse, and that Fluffy was like all puppies, conceited to the last degree.
"Well," said Blair cheerfully, "suppose I admit you are all right, physically, you'll confess you have some trouble on your mind, won't you? If I can't make you SHOW me your tongue, you'll let me hear you USE it to tell me what worries you. If," he added more earnestly, "you won't confide in your physician—you will perhaps—to—to—a— FRIEND."
But Mrs. MacGlowrie, evading his earnest eyes as well as his appeal, was wondering what good it would do either a doctor, or—a—a—she herself seemed to hesitate over the word—"a FRIEND, to hear the worriments of a silly, nervous old thing—who had only stuck a little too closely to her business."
"You are neither nervous nor old, Mrs. MacGlowrie," said the doctor promptly, "though I begin to think you HAVE been too closely confined here. You want more diversion, or— excitement. You might even go to hear this preacher"—he stopped, for the word had slipped from his mouth unawares.
But a swift look of scorn swept her pale face. "And you'd like me to follow those skinny old frumps and leggy, limp chits, that slobber and cry over that man!" she said contemptuously. "No! I reckon I only want a change—and I'll go away, or get out of this for a while."
The poor doctor had not thought of this possible alternative. His heart sank, but he was brave. "Yes, perhaps you are right," he said sadly, "though it would be a dreadful loss— to Laurel Spring—to us all—if you went."
The doctor thought her upturned face very adorable, but restrained his feelings heroically, and contented himself with replying to the pathetic half of her smile. "You look as if you had been suffering," he said gravely, "and I never saw you look so before. You seem as if you had experienced some great shock. Do you know," he went on, in a lower tone and with a half-embarrassed smile, "that when I saw you just now in the garden, you looked as I imagined you might have looked in the first days of your widowhood—when your husband's death was fresh in your heart."
A strange expression crossed her face. Her eyelids dropped instantly, and with both hands she caught up her frilled apron as if to meet them and covered her face. A little shudder seemed to pass over her shoulders, and then a cry that ended in an uncontrollable and half-hysterical laugh followed from the depths of that apron, until shaking her sides, and with her head still enveloped in its covering, she fairly ran into the inner room and closed the door behind her.
Amazed, shocked, and at first indignant, Dr. Blair remained fixed to the spot. Then his indignation gave way to a burning mortification as he recalled his speech. He had made a frightful faux pas! He had been fool enough to try to recall the most sacred memories of that dead husband he was trying to succeed—and her quick woman's wit had detected his ridiculous stupidity. Her laugh was hysterical—but that was only natural in her mixed emotions. He mounted his horse in confusion and rode away.
For a few days he avoided the house. But when he next saw her she had a charming smile of greeting and an air of entire obliviousness of his past blunder. She said she was better. She had taken his advice and was giving herself some relaxation from business. She had been riding again—oh, so far! Alone?—of course; she was always alone—else what would Laurel Spring say?
"True," said Blair smilingly; "besides, I forgot that you are quite able to take care of yourself in an emergency. And yet," he added, admiringly looking at her lithe figure and indolent grace, "do you know I never can associate you with the dreadful scenes they say you have gone through."
"Then please don't!" she said quickly; "really, I'd rather you wouldn't. I'm sick and tired of hearing of it!" She was half laughing and yet half in earnest, with a slight color on her cheek.
Blair was a little embarrassed. "Of course, I don't mean your heroism—like that story of the intruder and the scissors," he stammered.
"Oh, THAT'S the worst of all! It's too foolish—it's sickening!" she went on almost angrily. "I don't know who started that stuff." She paused, and then added shyly, "I really am an awful coward and horribly nervous—as you know."
He would have combated this—but she looked really disturbed, and he had no desire to commit another imprudence. And he thought, too, that he again had seen in her eyes the same hopeful, wistful light he had once seen before, and was happy.
This led him, I fear, to indulge in wilder dreams. His practice, although increasing, barely supported him, and the widow was rich. Her business had been profitable, and she had repaid the advances made her when she first took the hotel. But this disparity in their fortunes which had frightened him before now had no fears for him. He felt that if he succeeded in winning her affections she could afford to wait for him, despite other suitors, until his talents had won an equal position. His rivals had always felt as secure in his poverty as they had in his peaceful profession. How could a poor, simple doctor aspire to the hand of the rich widow of the redoubtable MacGlowrie?
It was late one afternoon, and the low sun was beginning to strike athwart the stark columns and down the long aisles of the redwoods on the High Ridge. The doctor, returning from a patient at the loggers' camp in its depths, had just sighted the smaller groves of Laurel Springs, two miles away. He was riding fast, with his thoughts filled with the widow, when he heard a joyous bark in the underbrush, and Fluffy came bounding towards him. Blair dismounted to caress him, as was his wont, and then, wisely conceiving that his mistress was not far away, sauntered forward exploringly, leading his horse, the dog hounding before him and barking, as if bent upon both leading and announcing him. But the latter he effected first, for as Blair turned from the trail into the deeper woods, he saw the figures of a man and woman walking together suddenly separate at the dog's warning. The woman was Mrs. MacGlowrie—the man was the revival preacher!
Amazed, mystified, and indignant, Blair nevertheless obeyed his first instinct, which was that of a gentleman. He turned leisurely aside as if not recognizing them, led his horse a few paces further, mounted him, and galloped away without turning his head. But his heart was filled with bitterness and disgust. This woman—who but a few days before had voluntarily declared her scorn and contempt for that man and his admirers—had just been giving him a clandestine meeting like one of the most infatuated of his devotees! The story of the widow's fainting, the coarse surmises and comments of Slocum, came back to him with overwhelming significance. But even then his reason forbade him to believe that she had fallen under the preacher's influence—she, with her sane mind and indolent temperament. Yet, whatever her excuse or purpose was, she had deceived him wantonly and cruelly! His abrupt avoidance of her had prevented him from knowing if she, on her part, had recognized him as he rode away. If she HAD, she would understand why he had avoided her, and any explanation must come from her.
Then followed a few days of uncertainty, when his thoughts again reverted to the preacher with returning jealousy. Was she, after all, like other women, and had her gratuitous outburst of scorn of THEIR infatuation been prompted by unsuccessful rivalry? He was too proud to question Slocum again or breathe a word of his fears. Yet he was not strong enough to keep from again seeking the High Ridge, to discover any repetition of that rendezvous. But he saw her neither there, nor elsewhere, during his daily rounds. And one night his feverish anxiety getting the better of him, he entered the great "Gospel Tent" of the revival preacher.
It chanced to be an extraordinary meeting, and the usual enthusiastic audience was reinforced by some sight-seers from the neighboring county town—the district judge and officials from the court in session, among them Colonel Starbottle. The impassioned revivalist—his eyes ablaze with fever, his lank hair wet with perspiration, hanging beside his heavy but weak jaws—was concluding a fervent exhortation to his auditors to confess their sins, "accept conviction," and regenerate then and there, without delay. They must put off "the old Adam," and put on the flesh of righteousness at once! They were to let no false shame or worldly pride keep them from avowing their guilty past before their brethren. Sobs and groans followed the preacher's appeals; his own agitation and convulsive efforts seemed to spread in surging waves through the congregation, until a dozen men and women arose, staggering like drunkards blindly, or led or dragged forward by sobbing sympathizers towards the mourners' bench. And prominent among them, but stepping jauntily and airily forward, was the redoubtable and worldly Colonel Starbottle!
At this proof of the orator's power the crowd shouted—but stopped suddenly, as the colonel halted before the preacher, and ascended the rostrum beside him. Then taking a slight pose with his gold-headed cane in one hand and the other thrust in the breast of his buttoned coat, he said in his blandest, forensic voice:—
"If I mistake not, sir, you are advising these ladies and gentlemen to a free and public confession of their sins and a—er—denunciation of their past life—previous to their conversion. If I am mistaken I—er—ask your pardon, and theirs and—er—hold myself responsible—er—personally responsible!"The preacher glanced uneasily at the colonel, but replied, still in the hysterical intonation of his exordium:— "Yes! a complete searching of hearts—a casting out of the seven Devils of Pride, Vain Glory"—
"Thank you—that is sufficient," said the colonel blandly. "But might I—er—be permitted to suggest that you—er—er—SET THEM THE EXAMPLE! The statement of the circumstances attending your own past life and conversion would be singularly interesting and exemplary."
The preacher turned suddenly and glanced at the colonel with furious eyes set in an ashy face.
"If this is the flouting and jeering of the Ungodly and Dissolute," he screamed, "woe to you! I say—woe to you! What have such as YOU to do with my previous state of unregeneracy?"
"Nothing," said the colonel blandly, "unless that state were also the STATE OF ARKANSAS! Then, sir, as a former member of the Arkansas BAR—I might be able to assist your memory—and—er—even corroborate your confession."
But here the enthusiastic adherents of the preacher, vaguely conscious of some danger to their idol, gathered threateningly round the platform from which he had promptly leaped into their midst, leaving the colonel alone, to face the sea of angry upturned faces. But that gallant warrior never altered his characteristic pose. Behind him loomed the reputation of the dozen duels he had fought, the gold-headed stick on which he leaned was believed to contain eighteen inches of shining steel—and the people of Laurel Spring had discretion.He smiled suavely, stepped jauntily down, and made his way to the entrance without molestation. But here he was met by Blair and Slocum, and a dozen eager questions:— "What was it?" "What had he done?" "WHO was he?" "A blank shyster, who had swindled the widows and orphans in Arkansas and escaped from jail." "And his name isn't Brown?" "No," said the colonel curtly. "What is it?" "That is a matter which concerns only myself and him, sir," said the colonel loftily; "but for which I am—er—personally responsible." A wild idea took possession of Blair. "And you say he was a noted desperado?" he said with nervous hesitation. The colonel glared. "Desperado, sir! Never! Blank it all!—a mean, psalm-singing, crawling, sneak thief!"
And Blair felt relieved without knowing exactly why. The next day it was known that the preacher, Gabriel Brown, had left Laurel Spring on an urgent "Gospel call" elsewhere.
Colonel Starbottle returned that night with his friends to the county town. Strange to say, a majority of the audience had not grasped the full significance of the colonel's unseemly interruption, and those who had, as partisans, kept it quiet. Blair, tortured by doubt, had a new delicacy added to his hesitation, which left him helpless until the widow should take the initiative in explanation.
A sudden summons from his patient at the loggers' camp the next day brought him again to the fateful redwoods. But he was vexed and mystified to find, on arriving at the camp, that he had been made the victim of some stupid blunder, and that no message had been sent from there. He was returning abstractedly through the woods when he was amazed at seeing at a little distance before him the flutter of Mrs. MacGlowrie's well-known dark green riding habit and the figure of the lady herself. Her dog was not with her, neither was the revival preacher—or he might have thought the whole vision a trick of his memory. But she slackened her pace, and he was obliged to rein up abreast of her in some confusion."I hope I won't shock you again by riding alone through the woods with a man," she said with a light laugh. Nevertheless, she was quite pale as he answered, somewhat coldly, that he had no right to be shocked at anything she might choose to do.
"But you WERE shocked, for you rode away the last time without speaking," she said; "and yet"—she looked up suddenly into his eyes with a smileless face—"that man you saw me with once had a better right to ride alone with me than any other man. He was"—"Your lover?" said Blair with brutal brevity. "My husband!" returned Mrs. MacGlowrie slowly. "Then you are NOT a widow," gasped Blair.
"No. I am only a divorced woman. That is why I have had to live a lie here. That man— that hypocrite—whose secret was only half exposed the other night, was my husband— divorced from me by the law, when, an escaped convict, he fled with another woman from the State three years ago." Her face flushed and whitened again; she put up her hand blindly to her straying hair, and for an instant seemed to sway in the saddle.
But Blair as quickly leaped from his horse, and was beside her. "Let me help you down," he said quickly, "and rest yourself until you are better." Before she could reply, he lifted her tenderly to the ground and placed her on a mossy stump a little distance from the trail. Her color and a faint smile returned to her troubled face.
"Had we not better go on?" she said, looking around. "I never went so far as to sit down in the woods with HIM that day."
"Yes, but not because he knew he was my husband, but because he knew he bore the same name. He thinks, as every one does, that my husband died in San Francisco. The man who died there was my husband's cousin—a desperate man and a noted duelist.""And YOU assumed to be HIS widow?" said the astounded Blair.
"Yes, but don't blame me too much," she said pathetically. "It was a wild, a silly deceit, but it was partly forced upon me. For when I first arrived across the plains, at the frontier, I was still bearing my husband's name, and although I was alone and helpless, I found myself strangely welcomed and respected by those rude frontiersmen. It was not long before I saw it was because I was presumed to be the widow of ALLEN MacGlowrie— who had just died in San Francisco.
I let them think so, for I knew—what they did not—that Allen's wife had separated from him and married again, and that my taking his name could do no harm. I accepted their kindness; they gave me my first start in business, which brought me here. It was not much of a deceit," she continued, with a slight tremble of her pretty lip, "to prefer to pass as the widow of a dead desperado than to be known as the divorced wife of a living convict. It has hurt no one, and it has saved me just now.""You were right! No one could blame you," said Blair eagerly, seizing her hand. But she disengaged it gently, and went on:— "And now you wonder why I gave him a meeting here?" "I wonder at nothing but your courage and patience in all this suffering!" said Blair fervently; "and at your forgiving me for so cruelly misunderstanding you."
"But you must learn all. When I first saw MacGlowrie under his assumed name, I fainted, for I was terrified and believed he knew I was here and had come to expose me even at his own risk.
That was why I hesitated between going away or openly defying him. But it appears he was more frightened than I at finding me here—he had supposed I had changed my name after the divorce, and that Mrs. MacGlowrie, Laurel Spring, was his cousin's widow. When he found out who I was he was eager to see me and agree upon a mutual silence while he was here. He thought only of himself," she added scornfully, "and Colonel Starbottle's recognition of him that night as the convicted swindler was enough to put him to flight.""And the colonel never suspected that you were his wife?" said Blair.
"Never! He supposed from the name that he was some relation of my husband, and that was why he refused to tell it—for my sake. The colonel is an old fogy—and pompous— but a gentleman—as good as they make them!"A slightly jealous uneasiness and a greater sense of shame came over Blair. "I seem to have been the only one who suspected and did not aid you," he said sadly, "and yet God knows"— The widow had put up her slim hand in half-smiling, half-pathetic interruption.
"Wait! I have not told you everything. When I took over the responsibility of being Allen MacGlowrie's widow, I had to take over HER relations and HER history as I gathered it from the frontiersmen. I never frightened any grizzly—I never jabbed anybody with the scissors; it was SHE who did it.
I never was among the Injins—I never had any fighting relations; my paw was a plain farmer. I was only a peaceful Blue Grass girl—there! I never thought there was any harm in it; it seemed to keep the men off, and leave me free—until I knew you! And you know I didn't want you to believe it—don't you?"She hid her flushed face and dimples in her handkerchief. "But did you never think there might be another way to keep the men off, and sink the name of MacGlowrie forever?" said Blair in a lower voice. "I think we must be going back now," said the widow timidly, withdrawing her hand, which Blair had again mysteriously got possession of in her confusion.
"But wait just a few minutes longer to keep me company," said Blair pleadingly. "I came here to see a patient, and as there must have been some mistake in the message—I must try to discover it."
"Oh! Is that all?" said the widow quickly. "Why?"—she flushed again and laughed faintly—"Well! I am that patient! I wanted to see you alone to explain everything, and I could think of no other way. I'm afraid I've got into the habit of thinking nothing of being somebody else."
"I wish you would let me select who you should be," said the doctor boldly.
A Ward Of Colonel Starbottle's"The kernel seems a little off color to-day," said the barkeeper as he replaced the whiskey decanter, and gazed reflectively after the departing figure of Colonel Starbottle. "I didn't notice anything," said a bystander; "he passed the time o' day civil enough to me."
"Oh, he's allus polite enough to strangers and wimmin folk even when he is that way; it's only his old chums, or them ez like to be thought so, that he's peppery with. Why, ez to that, after he'd had that quo'll with his old partner, Judge Pratt, in one o' them spells, I saw him the next minit go half a block out of his way to direct an entire stranger; and ez for wimmin!—well, I reckon if he'd just got a head drawn on a man, and a woman spoke to him, he'd drop his battery and take off his hat to her. No—ye can't judge by that!"
And perhaps in his larger experience the barkeeper was right. He might have added, too, that the colonel, in his general outward bearing and jauntiness, gave no indication of his internal irritation. Yet he was undoubtedly in one of his "spells," suffering from a moody cynicism which made him as susceptible of affront as he was dangerous in resentment.
Luckily, on this particular morning he reached his office and entered his private room without any serious rencontre. Here he opened his desk, and arranging his papers, he at once set to work with grim persistency. He had not been occupied for many minutes before the door opened to Mr. Pyecroft—one of a firm of attorneys who undertook the colonel's office work."I see you are early to work, Colonel," said Mr. Pyecroft cheerfully.
"You see, sir," said the colonel, correcting him with a slow deliberation that boded no good—"you see a Southern gentleman—blank it!—who has stood at the head of his profession for thirty-five years, obliged to work like a blank nigger, sir, in the dirty squabbles of psalm-singing Yankee traders, instead of—er—attending to the affairs of— er—legislation!""But you manage to get pretty good fees out of it—Colonel?" continued Pyecroft, with a laugh. "Fees, sir! Filthy shekels! and barely enough to satisfy a debt of honor with one hand, and wipe out a tavern score for the entertainment of—er—a few lady friends with the other!"
This allusion to his losses at poker, as well as an oyster supper given to the two principal actresses of the "North Star Troupe," then performing in the town, convinced Mr. Pyecroft that the colonel was in one of his "moods," and he changed the subject. "That reminds me of a little joke that happened in Sacramento last week. You remember Dick Stannard, who died a year ago—one of your friends?"
"I have yet to learn," interrupted the colonel, with the same deadly deliberation, "what right HE—or ANYBODY—had to intimate that he held such a relationship with me. Am I to understand, sir, that he—er—publicly boasted of it?"
"Don't know!" resumed Pyecroft hastily; "but it don't matter, for if he wasn't a friend it only makes the joke bigger. Well, his widow didn't survive him long, but died in the States t'other day, leavin' the property in Sacramento—worth about three thousand dollars—to her little girl, who is at school at Santa Clara. The question of guardianship came up, and it appears that the widow—who only knew you through her husband—had, some time before her death, mentioned YOUR name in that connection! He! he!""What!" said Colonel Starbottle, starting up.
"Hold on!" said Pyecroft hilariously. "That isn't all! Neither the executors nor the probate judge knew you from Adam, and the Sacramento bar, scenting a good joke, lay low and said nothing. Then the old fool judge said that 'as you appeared to be a lawyer, a man of mature years, and a friend of the family, you were an eminently fit person, and ought to be communicated with'—you know his hifalutin' style. Nobody says anything. So that the next thing you'll know you'll get a letter from that executor asking you to look after that kid. Ha! ha! The boys said they could fancy they saw you trotting around with a ten year old girl holding on to your hand, and the Senorita Dolores or Miss Bellamont looking on! Or your being called away from a poker deal some night by the infant, singing, 'Gardy, dear gardy, come home with me now, the clock in the steeple strikes one!' And think of that old fool judge not knowing you! Ha! ha!"
A study of Colonel Starbottle's face during this speech would have puzzled a better physiognomist than Mr. Pyecroft. His first look of astonishment gave way to an empurpled confusion, from which a single short Silenus-like chuckle escaped, but this quickly changed again into a dull coppery indignation, and, as Pyecroft's laugh continued, faded out into a sallow rigidity in which his murky eyes alone seemed to keep what was left of his previous high color. But what was more singular, in spite of his enforced calm, something of his habitual old-fashioned loftiness and oratorical exaltation appeared to be returning to him as he placed his hand on his inflated breast and faced Pyceroft.
"The ignorance of the executor of Mrs. Stannard and the—er—probate judge," he began slowly, "may be pardonable, Mr. Pyecroft, since his Honor would imply that, although unknown to HIM personally, I am at least amicus curiae in this question of—er— guardianship. But I am grieved—indeed I may say shocked—Mr. Pyecroft, that the— er—last sacred trust of a dying widow—perhaps the holiest trust that can be conceived by man—the care and welfare of her helpless orphaned girl—should be made the subject of mirth, sir, by yourself and the members of the Sacramento bar! I shall not allude, sir, to my own feelings in regard to Dick Stannard, one of my most cherished friends," continued the colonel, in a voice charged with emotion, "but I can conceive of no nobler trust laid upon the altar of friendship than the care and guidance of his orphaned girl! And if, as you tell me, the utterly inadequate sum of three thousand dollars is all that is left for her maintenance through life, the selection of a guardian sufficiently devoted to the family to be willing to augment that pittance out of his own means from time to time would seem to be most important."
Before the astounded Pyecroft could recover himself, Colonel Starbottle leaned back in his chair, half closing his eyes, and abandoned himself, quite after his old manner, to one of his dreamy reminiscences.
"Poor Dick Stannard! I have a vivid recollection, sir, of driving out with him on the Shell Road at New Orleans in '54, and of his saying, 'Star'—the only man, sir, who ever abbreviated my name—'Star, if anything happens to me or her, look after our child! It was during that very drive, sir, that, through his incautious neglect to fortify himself against the swampy malaria by a glass of straight Bourbon with a pinch of bark in it, he caught that fever which undermined his constitution. Thank you, Mr. Pyecroft, for—er— recalling the circumstance. I shall," continued the colonel, suddenly abandoning reminiscence, sitting up, and arranging his papers, "look forward with great interest to— er—letter from the executor."The next day it was universally understood that Colonel Starbottle had been appointed guardian of Pansy Stannard by the probate judge of Sacramento.
There are of record two distinct accounts of Colonel Starbottle's first meeting with his ward after his appointment as her guardian. One, given by himself, varying slightly at times, but always bearing unvarying compliment to the grace, beauty, and singular accomplishments of this apparently gifted child, was nevertheless characterized more by vague, dreamy reminiscences of the departed parents than by any personal experience of the daughter.
"I found the young lady, sir," he remarked to Mr. Pyecroft, "recalling my cherished friend Stannard in—er—form and features, and—although—er—personally unacquainted with her deceased mother—who belonged, sir, to one of the first families of Virginia—I am told that she is—er—remarkably like her. Miss Stannard is at present a pupil in one of the best educational establishments in Santa Clara, where she is receiving tuition in—er—the English classics, foreign belles lettres, embroidery, the harp, and—er—the use of the— er—globes, and—er—blackboard—under the most fastidious care, and my own personal supervision. The principal of the school, Miss Eudoxia Tish—associated with—er—er— Miss Prinkwell—is—er—remarkably gifted woman; and as I was present at one of the school exercises, I had the opportunity of testifying to her excellence in—er—short address I made to the young ladies." From such glittering but unsatisfying generalities as these I prefer to turn to the real interview, gathered from contemporary witnesses.
It was the usual cloudless, dazzling, Californian summer day, tempered with the asperity of the northwest trades that Miss Tish, looking through her window towards the roseembowered gateway of the seminary, saw an extraordinary figure advancing up the avenue. It was that of a man slightly past middle age, yet erect and jaunty, whose costume recalled the early water-color portraits of her own youthful days. His tightly buttoned blue frock coat with gilt buttons was opened far enough across the chest to allow the expanding of a frilled shirt, black stock, and nankeen waistcoat, and his immaculate white trousers were smartly strapped over his smart varnished boots. A white bell-crowned hat, carried in his hand to permit the wiping of his forehead with a silk handkerchief, and a gold-headed walking stick hooked over his arm, completed this singular equipment. He was followed, a few paces in the rear, by a negro carrying an enormous bouquet, and a number of small boxes and parcels tied up with ribbons. As the figure paused before the door, Miss Tish gasped, and cast a quick restraining glance around the classroom. But it was too late; a dozen pairs of blue, black, round, inquiring, or mischievous eyes were already dancing and gloating over the bizarre stranger through the window."A cirkiss—or nigger minstrels—sure as you're born!" said Mary Frost, aged nine, in a fierce whisper. "No!—a agent from 'The Emporium,' with samples," returned Miss Briggs, aged fourteen.
"Young ladies, attend to your studies," said Miss Tish, as the servant brought in a card. Miss Tish glanced at it with some nervousness, and read to herself, "Colonel Culpeper Starbottle," engraved in script, and below it in pencil, "To see Miss Pansy Stannard, under favor of Miss Tish." Rising with some perturbation, Miss Tish hurriedly intrusted the class to an assistant, and descended to the reception room. She had never seen Pansy's guardian before (the executor had brought the child); and this extraordinary creature, whose visit she could not deny, might be ruinous to school discipline. It was therefore with an extra degree of frigidity of demeanor that she threw open the door of the reception room, and entered majestically. But to her utter astonishment, the colonel met her with a bow so stately, so ceremonious, and so commanding that she stopped, disarmed and speechless.
"I need not ask if I am addressing Miss Tish," said the colonel loftily, "for without having the pleasure of—er—previous acquaintance, I can at once recognize the—er—Lady Superior and—er—chatelaine of this—er—establishment." Miss Tish here gave way to a slight cough and an embarrassed curtsy, as the colonel, with a wave of his white hand towards the burden carried by his follower, resumed more lightly: "I have brought—er— few trifles and gewgaws for my ward—subject, of course, to your rules and discretion. They include some—er—dainties, free from any deleterious substance, as I am informed—a sash—a ribbon or two for the hair, gloves, mittens, and a nosegay—from which, I trust, it will be HER pleasure, as it is my own, to invite you to cull such blossoms as may suit your taste. Boy, you may set them down and retire!"
"At the present moment," stammered Miss Tish, "Miss Stannard is engaged on her lessons. But"—She stopped again, hopelessly.
"I see," said the colonel, with an air of playful, poetical reminiscence—"her lessons! Certainly!
'We will—er—go to our places,
With smiles on our faces,
And say all our lessons distinctly and slow.'
"No! no!" interrupted the horrified, principal, with a dreadful presentiment of the appalling effect of the colonel's entry upon the class. "No!—that is—I mean—our rules exclude—except on days of public examination"—"Say no more, my dear madam," said the colonel politely. "Until she is free I will stroll outside, through—er—the groves of the Academus"—
But Miss Tish, equally alarmed at the diversion this would create at the classroom windows, recalled herself with an effort. "Please wait here a moment," she said hurriedly; "I will bring her down;" and before the colonel could politely open the door for her, she had fled.
Happily unconscious of the sensation he had caused, Colonel Starbottle seated himself on the sofa, his white hands resting easily on the gold-headed cane. Once or twice the door behind him opened and closed quietly, scarcely disturbing him; or again opened more ostentatiously to the words, "Oh, excuse, please," and the brief glimpse of a flaxen braid, or a black curly head—to all of which the colonel nodded politely—even rising later to the apparition of a taller, demure young lady—and her more affected "Really, I beg your pardon!" The only result of this evident curiosity was slightly to change the colonel's attitude, so as to enable him to put his other hand in his breast in his favorite pose. But presently he was conscious of a more active movement in the hall, of the sounds of scuffling, of a high youthful voice saying "I won't" and "I shan't!" of the door opening to a momentary apparition of Miss Tish dragging a small hand and half of a small blackribboned arm into the room, and her rapid disappearance again, apparently pulled back by the little hand and arm; of another and longer pause, of a whispered conference outside, and then the reappearance of Miss Tish majestically, reinforced and supported by the grim presence of her partner, Miss Prinkwell."This—er—unexpected visit," began Miss Tish—"not previously arranged by letter"— "Which is an invariable rule of our establishment," supplemented Miss Prinkwell— "And the fact that you are personally unknown to us," continued Miss Tish— "An ignorance shared by the child, who exhibits a distaste for an interview," interpolated Miss Prinkwell, in a kind of antiphonal response— "For which we have had no time to prepare her," continued Miss Tish—
"Compels us most reluctantly"—But here she stopped short. Colonel Starbottle, who had risen with a deep bow at their entrance and remained standing, here walked quietly towards them. His usually high color had faded except from his eyes, but his exalted manner was still more pronounced, with a dreadful deliberation superadded.
"I believe—er—I had—the honah—to send up my kyard!" (In his supreme moments the colonel's Southern accent was always in evidence.) "I may—er—be mistaken—but— er—that is my impression." The colonel paused, and placed his right hand statuesquely on his heart.The two women trembled—Miss Tish fancied the very shirt frill of the colonel was majestically erecting itself—as they stammered in one voice,— "Ye-e-es!" "That kyard contained my full name—with a request to see my ward—Miss Stannard," continued the colonel slowly. "I believe that is the fact." "Certainly! certainly!" gasped the women feebly. "Then may I—er—point out to you that I AM—er—WAITING?"
Although nothing could exceed the laborious simplicity and husky sweetness of the colonel's utterance, it appeared to demoralize utterly his two hearers—Miss Prinkwell seemed to fade into the pattern of the wall paper, Miss Tish to droop submissively forward like a pink wax candle in the rays of the burning sun."We will bring her instantly. A thousand pardons, sir," they uttered in the same breath, backing towards the door.
But here the unexpected intervened. Unnoticed by the three during the colloquy, a little figure in a black dress had peeped through the door, and then glided into the room. It was a girl of about ten, who, in all candor, could scarcely be called pretty, although the awkward change of adolescence had not destroyed the delicate proportions of her hands and feet nor the beauty of her brown eyes. These were, just then, round and wondering, and fixed alternately on the colonel and the two women. But like many other round and wondering eyes, they had taken in the full meaning of the situation, with a quickness the adult mind is not apt to give them credit for. They saw the complete and utter subjugation of the two supreme autocrats of the school, and, I grieve to say, they were filled with a secret and "fearful joy." But the casual spectator saw none of this; the round and wondering eyes, still rimmed with recent and recalcitrant tears, only looked big and innocently shining.
The relief of the two women was sudden and unaffected. "Oh, here you are, dearest, at last!" said Miss Tish eagerly. "This is your guardian, Colonel Starbottle. Come to him, dear!"
She took the hand of the child, who hung back with an odd mingling of shamefacedness and resentment of the interference, when the voice of Colonel Starbottle, in the same deadly calm deliberation, said,—"I—er—will speak with her—alone." The round eyes again saw the complete collapse of authority, as the two women shrank back from the voice, and said hurriedly,— "Certainly, Colonel Starbottle; perhaps it would be better," and ingloriously quitted the room.
But the colonel's triumph left him helpless. He was alone with a simple child, an unprecedented, unheard-of situation, which left him embarrassed and—speechless. Even his vanity was conscious that his oratorical periods, his methods, his very attitude, were powerless here. The perspiration stood out on his forehead; he looked at her vaguely, and essayed a feeble smile. The child saw his embarrassment, even as she had seen and understood his triumph, and the small woman within her exulted. She put her little hands on her waist, and with the fingers turned downwards and outwards pressed them down her hips to her bended knees until they had forced her skirts into an egregious fullness before and behind, as if she were making a curtsy, and then jumped up and laughed."You did it! Hooray!" "Did what?" said the colonel, pleased yet mystified.
"Frightened 'em!—the two old cats! Frightened 'em outen their slippers! Oh, jiminy! Never, never, NEVER before was they so skeert! Never since school kept did they have to crawl like that! They was skeert enough FIRST when you come, but just now!— Lordy! They wasn't a-goin' to let you see me—but they had to! had to! HAD TO!" and she emphasized each repetition with a skip."I believe—er," said the colonel blandly, "that I—er—intimated with some firmness"— "That's it—just it!" interrupted the child delightedly. "You—you—overdid 'em" "What?"
"OVERDID 'EM! Don't you know? They're always so high and mighty! Kinder 'Don't tech me. My mother's an angel; my father's a king'—all that sort of thing. They did THIS"—she drew herself up in a presumable imitation of the two women's majestic entrance—"and then," she continued, "you—YOU jest did this"—here she lifted her chin, and puffing out her small chest, strode towards the colonel in evident simulation of his grandest manner.
A short, deep chuckle escaped him—although the next moment his face became serious again. But Pansy in the mean time had taken possession of his coat sleeve and was rubbing her cheek against it like a young colt. At which the colonel succumbed feebly and sat down on the sofa, the child standing beside him, leaning over and transferring her little hands to the lapels of his frock coat, which she essayed to button over his chest as she looked into his murky eyes.
"The other girls said," she began, tugging at the button, "that you was a 'cirkiss'"— another tug—"'a nigger minstrel'"—and a third tug—"'a agent with samples'—but that showed all they knew!""Ah," said the colonel with exaggerated blandness, "and—er—what did YOU—er— say?"
The child smiled. "I said you was a Stuffed Donkey—but that was BEFORE I knew you. I was a little skeert too; but NOW"—she succeeded in buttoning the coat and making the colonel quite apoplectic,—"NOW I ain't frightened one bit—no, not one TINY bit! But," she added, after a pause, unbuttoning the coat again and smoothing down the lapels between her fingers, "you're to keep on frightening the old cats—mind! Never mind about the GIRLS. I'll tell them."
The colonel would have given worlds to be able to struggle up into an upright position with suitable oral expression. Not that his vanity was at all wounded by these irresponsible epithets, which only excited an amused wonder, but he was conscious of an embarrassed pleasure in the child's caressing familiarity, and her perfect trustfulness in him touched his extravagant chivalry. He ought to protect her, and yet correct her. In the consciousness of these duties he laid his white hand upon her head. Alas! she lifted her arm and instantly transferred his hand and part of his arm around her neck and shoulders, and comfortably snuggled against him. The colonel gasped. Nevertheless, something must be said, and he began, albeit somewhat crippled in delivery:—"The—er—use of elegant and precise language by—er—young ladies cannot be too sedulously cultivated"—
But here the child laughed, and snuggling still closer, gurgled: "That's right! Give it to her when she comes down! That's the style!" and the colonel stopped, discomfited. Nevertheless, there was a certain wholesome glow in the contact of this nestling little figure.Presently he resumed tentativery: "I have—er—brought you a few dainties."
"Yes," said Pansy, "I see; but they're from the wrong shop, you dear old silly! They're from Tomkins's, and we girls just abominate his things. You oughter have gone to Emmons's. Never mind. I'll show you when we go out. We're going out, aren't we?" she said suddenly, lifting her head anxiously. "You know it's allowed, and it's RIGHTS 'to parents and guardians'!""Certainly, certainly," said the colonel. He knew he would feel a little less constrained in the open air.
"Then we'll go now," said Pansy, jumping up. "I'll just run upstairs and put on my things. I'll say it's 'orders' from you. And I'll wear my new frock—it's longer." (The colonel was slightly relieved at this; it had seemed to him, as a guardian, that there was perhaps an abnormal display of Pansy's black stockings.) "You wait; I won't be long."
She darted to the door, but reaching it, suddenly stopped, returned to the sofa, where the colonel still sat, imprinted a swift kiss on his mottled cheek, and fled, leaving him invested with a mingled flavor of freshly ironed muslin, wintergreen lozenges, and recent bread and butter. He sat still for some time, staring out of the window. It was very quiet in the room; a bumblebee blundered from the jasmine outside into the open window, and snored loudly at the panes. But the colonel heeded it not, and remained abstracted and silent until the door opened to Miss Tish and Pansy—in her best frock and sash, at which the colonel started and became erect again and courtly.
"I am about to take my ward out," he said deliberately, "to—er—taste the air in the Alameda, and—er—view the shops. We may—er—also—indulge in—er—slight suitable refreshment;—er—seed cake—or—bread and butter—and—a dish of tea."
Miss Tish, now thoroughly subdued, was delighted to grant Miss Stannard the half holiday permitted on such occasions. She begged the colonel to suit his own pleasure, and intrusted "the dear child" to her guardian "with the greatest confidence."
The colonel made a low bow, and Pansy, demurely slipping her hand into his, passed with him into the hall; there was a slight rustle of vanishing skirts, and Pansy pressed his hand significantly. When they were well outside, she said, in a lower voice:—
"Don't look up until we're under the gymnasium windows." The colonel, mystified but obedient, strutted on. "Now!" said Pansy. He looked up, beheld the windows aglow with bright young faces, and bewildering with many handkerchiefs and clapping hands, stopped, and then taking off his hat, acknowledged the salute with a sweeping bow. Pansy was delighted. "I knew they'd be there; I'd already fixed 'em. They're just dyin' to know you."The colonel felt a certain glow of pleasure, "I—er—had already intimated a—er— willingness to—er—inspect the classes; but—I—er—understood that the rules"—
"They're sick old rules," interrupted the child. "Tish and Prinkwell are the rules! You say just right out that you WILL! Just overdo her!"
The colonel had a vague sense that he ought to correct both the spirit and language of this insurrectionary speech, but Pansy pulled him along, and then swept him quite away with a torrent of prattle of the school, of her friends, of the teachers, of her life and its infinitely small miseries and pleasures. Pansy was voluble; never before had the colonel found himself relegated to the place of a passive listener. Nevertheless, he liked it, and as they passed on, under the shade of the Alameda, with Pansy alternately swinging from his hand and skipping beside him, there was a vague smile of satisfaction on his face. Passers-by turned to look after the strangely assorted pair, or smiled, accepting them, as the colonel fancied, as father and daughter. An odd feeling, half of pain and half of pleasure, gripped at the heart of the empty and childless man.
And now, as they approached the more crowded thoroughfares, the instinct of chivalrous protection was keen in his breast. He piloted her skillfully; he jauntily suited his own to her skipping step; he lifted her with scrupulous politeness over obstacles; strutting beside her on crowded pavements, he made way for her with his swinging stick. All the while, too, he had taken note of the easy carriage of her head and shoulders, and most of all of her small, slim feet and hands, that, to his fastidious taste, betokened her race. "Ged, sir," he muttered to himself, "she's 'Blue Grass' stock, all through." To admiration succeeded pride, with a slight touch of ownership. When they went into a shop, which, thanks to the ingenuous Pansy, they did pretty often, he would introduce her with a wave of the hand and the remark, "I am—er—seeking nothing to-day, but if you will kindly—er—serve my WARD—Miss Stannard!" Later, when they went into the confectioner's for refreshment, and Pansy frankly declared for "ice cream and cream cakes," instead of the "dish of tea and bread and butter" he had ordered in pursuance of his promise, he heroically took it himself—to satisfy his honor. Indeed, I know of no more sublime figure than Colonel Starbottle—rising superior to a long-withstood craving for a "cocktail," morbidly conscious also of the ridiculousness of his appearance to any of his old associates who might see him—drinking luke-warm tea and pecking feebly at his bread and butter at a small table, beside his little tyrant.
And this domination of the helpless continued on their way home. Although Miss Pansy no longer talked of herself, she was equally voluble in inquiry as to the colonel's habits, ways of life, friends and acquaintances, happily restricting her interrogations, in regard to those of her own sex, to "any LITTLE girls that he knew." Saved by this exonerating adjective, the colonel saw here a chance to indulge his postponed monitorial duty, as well as his vivid imagination. He accordingly drew elaborate pictures of impossible children he had known—creatures precise in language and dress, abstinent of play and confectionery, devoted to lessons and duties, and otherwise, in Pansy's own words, "loathsome to the last degree!" As "daughters of oldest and most cherished friends," they might perhaps have excited Pansy's childish jealousy but for the singular fact that they had all long ago been rewarded by marriage with senators, judges, and generals—also associates of the colonel. This remoteness of presence somewhat marred their effect as an example, and the colonel was mortified, though not entirely displeased, to observe that their surprising virtues did not destroy Pansy's voracity for sweets, the recklessness of her skipping, nor the freedom of her language. The colonel was remorseful—but happy. When they reached the seminary again, Pansy retired with her various purchases, but reappeared after an interval with Miss Tish.
"I remember," hesitated that lady, trembling under the fascination of the colonel's profound bow, "that you were anxious to look over the school, and although it was not possible then, I shall be glad to show you now through one of the classrooms."
The colonel, glancing at Pansy, was momentarily shocked by a distortion of one side of her face, which seemed, however, to end in a wink of her innocent brown eyes, but recovering himself, gallantly expressed his gratitude. The next moment he was ascending the stairs, side by side with Miss Tish, and had a distinct impression that he had been pinched in the calf by Pansy, who was following close behind.
It was recess, but the large classroom was quite filled with pupils, many of them older and prettier girls, inveigled there, as it afterwards appeared, by Pansy, in some precocious presentiment of her guardian's taste. The colonel's apologetic yet gallant bow on entering, and his erect, old-fashioned elegance, instantly took their delighted attention. Indeed, all would have gone well had not Miss Prinkwell, with the view of impressing the colonel as well as her pupils, majestically introduced him as "a distinguished jurist deeply interested in the cause of education, as well as guardian of their fellow pupil." That opportunity was not thrown away on Colonel Starbottle.
Stepping up to the desk of the astounded principal, he laid the points of his fingers delicately upon it, and, with a preparatory inclination of his head towards her, placed his other hand in his breast, and with an invocatory glance at the ceiling, began.
It was the colonel's habit at such moments to state at first, with great care and precision, the things that he "would not say," that he "NEED not say," and apparently that it was absolutely unnecessary even to allude to. It was therefore, not strange that the colonel informed them that he need not say that he counted his present privilege among the highest that had been granted him; for besides the privilege of beholding the galaxy of youthful talent and excellence before him, besides the privilege of being surrounded by a garland of the blossoms of the school in all their freshness and beauty, it was well understood that he had the greater privilege of—er—standing in loco parentis to one of these blossoms. It was not for him to allude to the high trust imposed upon him by—er— deceased and cherished friend, and daughter of one of the first families of Virginia, by the side of one who must feel that she was the recipient of trusts equally supreme (here the colonel paused, and statuesquely regarded the alarmed Miss Prinkwell as if he were in doubt of it), but he would say that it should be HIS devoted mission to champion the rights of the orphaned and innocent whenever and wherever the occasion arose, against all odds, and even in the face of misguided authority. (Having left the impression that Miss Prinkwell contemplated an invasion of those rights, the colonel became more lenient and genial.) He fully recognized her high and noble office; he saw in her the worthy successor of those two famous instructresses of Athens—those Greek ladies— er—whose names had escaped his memory, but which—er—no doubt Miss Prinkwell would be glad to recall to her pupils, with some account of their lives. (Miss Prinkwell colored; she had never heard of them before, and even the delight of the class in the colonel's triumph was a little dampened by this prospect of hearing more about them.) But the colonel was only too content with seeing before him these bright and beautiful faces, destined, as he firmly believed, in after years to lend their charm and effulgence to the highest places as the happy helpmeets of the greatest in the land. He was—er— leaving a—er—slight testimonial of his regard in the form of some—er—innocent refreshments in the hands of his ward, who would—er—act as—er—his proxy in their distribution; and the colonel sat down to the flutter of handkerchiefs, an applause only half restrained, and the utter demoralization of Miss Prinkwell.
But the time of his departure had come by this time, and he was too experienced a public man to risk the possibility of an anticlimax by protracting his leave-taking. And in an ominous shining of Pansy's big eyes as the time approached he felt an embarrassment as perplexing as the odd presentiment of loneliness that was creeping over him. But with an elaborate caution as to the dangers of self-indulgence, and the private bestowal of a large gold piece slipped into her hand, a promise to come again soon, and an exaction that she would write to him often, the colonel received in return a wet kiss, a great deal of wet cheek pressed against his own, and a momentary tender clinging, like that which attends the pulling up of some small flower, as he passed out into the porch. In the hall, on the landing above him, there was a close packing of brief skirts against the railing, and a voice, apparently proceeding from a pair of very small mottled legs protruding through the balusters, said distinctly, "Free cheers for Ternel Tarbottle!" And to this benediction the colonel, hat in hand, passed out of this Eden into the world again.
The colonel's next visit to the seminary did not produce the same sensation as the first, although it was accompanied with equal disturbance to the fair principals. Had he been a less conceited man he might have noticed that their antagonism, although held in restraint by their wholesome fear of him, was in danger of becoming more a conviction than a mere suspicion. He was made aware of it through Pansy's resentment towards them, and her revelation of a certain inquisition that she had been subjected to in regard to his occupation, habits, and acquaintances. Naturally of these things Pansy knew very little, but this had not prevented her from saying a great deal. There had been enough in her questioners' manner to make her suspect that her guardian was being attacked, and to his defense she brought the mendacity and imagination of a clever child. What she had really said did not transpire except through her own comments to the colonel: "And of course you've killed people—for you're a kernel, you know?" (Here the colonel admitted, as a point of fact, that he had served in the Mexican war.) "And you kin PREACH, for they heard you do it when you was here before," she added confidently; "and of course you own niggers—for there's 'Jim.'" (The colonel here attempted to explain that Jim, being in a free State, was now a free man, but Pansy swept away such fine distinctions.) "And you're rich, you know, for you gave me that ten-dollar gold piece all for myself. So I jest gave 'em as good as they sent—the old spies and curiosity shops!" The colonel, more pleased at Pansy's devotion than concerned over the incident itself, accepted this interpretation of his character as a munificent, militant priest with a smiling protest. But a later incident caused him to remember it more seriously.
They had taken their usual stroll through the Alameda, and had made the round of the shops, where the colonel had exhibited his usual liberality of purchase and his exalted parental protection, and so had passed on to their usual refreshment at the confectioner's, the usual ices and cakes for Pansy, but this time—a concession also to the tyrant Pansy— a glass of lemon soda and a biscuit for the colonel. He was coughing over his unaccustomed beverage, and Pansy, her equanimity and volubility restored by sweets, was chirruping at his side; the large saloon was filling up with customers—mainly ladies and children, embarrassing to him as the only man present, when suddenly Pansy's attention was diverted by another arrival. It was a good-looking young woman, overdressed, striking, and self-conscious, who, with an air of one who was in the habit of challenging attention, affectedly seated herself with a male companion at an empty table, and began to pull off an overtight glove.
Colonel Starbottle looked up abstractedly, but at the first glance his face flushed redly, deepened to a purple, and then became gray and stern. He had recognized in the garish fair one Miss Flora Montague, the "Western Star of Terpsichore and Song," with whom he had supped a few days before at Sacramento. The lady was "on tour" with her "Combination troupe."The colonel leaned over and fixed his murky eyes on Pansy. "The room is filling up; the place is stifling; I must—er—request you to—er—hurry."
There was a change in the colonel's manner, which the quick-witted child heeded. But she had not associated it with the entrance of the strangers, and as she obediently gulped down her ice, she went on innocently,—"That fine lady's smilin' and lookin' over here. Seems to know you; so does the man with her." "I—er—must request you," said the colonel, with husky precision, "NOT to look that way, but finish your—er—repast." His tone was so decided that the child's lips pouted, but before she could speak a shadow leaned over their table. It was the companion of the "fine lady." "Don't seem to see us, Colonel," he said with coarse familiarity, laying his hand on the colonel's shoulder. "Florry wants to know what's up."
The colonel rose at the touch. "Tell her, sir," he said huskily, but with slow deliberation, "that I 'am up' and leaving this place with my ward, Miss Stannard. Good-morning." He lifted Pansy with infinite courtesy from her chair, took her hand, strolled to the counter, threw down a gold piece, and passing the table of the astonished fair one with an inflated breast, swept with Pansy out of the shop. In the street he paused, bidding the child go on; and then, finding he was not followed by the woman's escort, rejoined his little companion.
For a few moments they walked silently side by side. Then Pansy's curiosity, getting the better of her pout, demanded information. She had applied a child's swift logic to the scene. The colonel was angry, and had punished the woman for something. She drew closer to his side, and looking up with her big eyes, said confidentially."What had she been a-doing?"
The colonel was amazed, embarrassed, and speechless. He was totally unprepared for the question, and as unable to answer it. His abrupt departure from the shop had been to evade the very truth now demanded of him. Only a supreme effort of mendacity was left him. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief, coughed, and began deliberately:—
"The—er—lady in question is in the habit of using a scent called—er—patchouli, a— er—perfume exceedingly distressing to me. I detected it instantly on her entrance. I wished to avoid it—without further contact. It is—er—singular but accepted fact that some people are—er—peculiarly affected by odors. I had—er—old cherished friend who always—er—fainted at the odor of jasmine; and I was intimately acquainted with General Bludyer, who—er—dropped like a shot on the presentation of a simple violet. The—er— habit of using such perfumes excessively in public," continued the colonel, looking down upon the innocent Pansy, and speaking in tones of deadly deliberation, "cannot be too greatly condemned, as well as the habit of—er—frequenting places of public resort in extravagant costumes, with—er—individuals who—er—intrude upon domestic privacy. I trust you will eschew such perfumes, places, costumes, and—er—companions FOREVER and—ON ALL OCCASIONS!" The colonel had raised his voice to his forensic emphasis, and Pansy, somewhat alarmed, assented. Whether she entirely accepted the colonel's explanation was another matter.
The incident, although not again alluded to, seemed to shadow the rest of their brief afternoon holiday, and the colonel's manner was unmistakably graver. But it seemed to the child more affectionate and thoughtful. He had previously at parting submitted to be kissed by Pansy with stately tolerance and an immediate resumption of his loftiest manner. On this present leave-taking he laid his straight closely shaven lips on the crown of her dark head, and as her small arms clipped his neck, drew her closely to his side. The child uttered a slight cry; the colonel hurriedly put his hand to his breast. Her round cheek had come in contact with his derringer—a small weapon of beauty and precision—which invariably nestled also at his side, in his waistcoat pocket. The child laughed; so did the colonel, but his cheek flushed mightily.
It was four months later, and a turbulent night. The early rains, driven by a strong southwester against the upper windows of the Magnolia Restaurant, sometimes blurred the radiance of the bright lights within, and the roar of the encompassing pines at times drowned the sounds of song and laughter that rose from a private supper room. Even the clattering arrival and departure of the Sacramento stage coach, which disturbed the depths below, did not affect these upper revelers. For Colonel Starbottle, Jack Hamlin, Judge Beeswinger, and Jo Wynyard, assisted by Mesdames Montague, Montmorency, Bellefield, and "Tinky" Clifford, of the "Western Star Combination Troupe," then performing "on tour," were holding "high jinks" in the supper room. The colonel had been of late moody, irritable, and easily upset. In the words of a friend and admirer, "he was kam only at twelve paces."
In a lull in the general tumult a Chinese waiter was seen at the door vainly endeavoring to attract the attention of the colonel by signs and interjections. Mr. Hamlin's quick eye first caught sight of the intruder. "Come in, Confucius," said Jack pleasantly; "you're a trifle late for a regular turn, but any little thing in the way of knife swallowing"—"Lill missee to see connle! Waitee waitee, bottom side housee," interrupted the Chinaman, dividing his speech between Jack and the colonel. "What! ANOTHER lady? This is no place for me!" said Jack, rising with finely simulated decorum. "Ask her up," chirped "Tinky" Clifford.
But at this moment the door opened against the Chinaman, and a small figure in a cloak and hat, dripping with raindrops, glided swiftly in. After a moment's half-frightened, halfadmiring glance at the party, she darted forward with a little cry and threw her wet arms round the colonel. The rest of the company, arrested in their festivity, gasped with vague and smiling wonder; the colonel became purple and gasped. But only for a moment. The next instant he was on his legs, holding the child with one hand, while with the other he described a stately sweep of the table."My ward—Miss Pansy Stannard," he said with husky brevity. But drawing the child aside, he whispered quickly, "What has happened? Why are you here?"
But Pansy, child-like, already diverted by the lights, the table piled with delicacies, the gayly dressed women, and the air of festivity, answered half abstractedly, and as much, perhaps, to the curious eyes about her as to the colonel's voice,—"I runned away!" "Hush!" whispered the colonel, aghast.
But Pansy, responding again to the company rather than her guardian's counsel, and as if appealing to them, went on half poutingly: "Yes! I runned away because they teased me! Because they didn't like you and said horrid things. Because they told awful, dreadful lies! Because they said I wasn't no orphan!—that my name wasn't Stannard, and that you'd made it all up. Because they said I was a liar—and YOU WAS MY FATHER!" A sudden outbreak of laughter here shook the room, and even drowned the storm outside; again and again it rose, as the colonel staggered gaspingly to his feet. For an instant it seemed as if his struggles to restrain himself would end in an apoplectic fit. Perhaps it was for this reason that Jack Hamlin checked his own light laugh and became alert and grave. Yet the next moment Colonel Starbottle went as suddenly dead white, as leaning over the table he said huskily, but deliberately, "I must request the ladies present to withdraw.""Don't mind US, Colonel," said Judge Beeswinger, "it's all in the family here, you know! And now I look at the girl—hang it all! she DOES favor you, old man. Ha! ha!" "And as for the ladies," said Wynyard with a weak, vinous laugh, "unless any of 'em is inclined to take the matter as PERSONAL—eh?" "Stop!" roared the colonel.
There was no mistaking his voice nor his intent now. The two men, insulted and instantly sobered, were silent. Mr. Hamlin rose, playfully but determinedly tapped his fair companions on the shoulders, saying, "Run away and play, girls," actually bundled them, giggling and protesting, from the room, closed the door, and stood with his back against it. Then it was seen that the colonel, still very white, was holding the child by the hand, as she shrank back wonderingly and a little frightened against him.
"I thank YOU, Mr. Hamlin," said the colonel in a lower voice—yet with a slight touch of his habitual stateliness in it, "for being here to bear witness, in the presence of this child, to my unqualified statement that a more foul, vile, and iniquitous falsehood never was uttered than that which has been poured into her innocent ears!" He paused, walked to the door, still holding her hand, and, as Mr. Hamlin stepped aside, opened it, told her to await him in the public parlor, closed the door again, and once more faced the two men. "And," he continued more deliberately, "for the infamous jests that you, Judge Beeswinger, and you, Mr. Wynyard, have dared to pass in her presence and mine, I shall expect from each of you the fullest satisfaction—personal satisfaction. My seconds will wait on you in the morning!"The two men stood up sobered—yet belligerent. "As you like, sir," said Beeswinger, flashing. "The sooner the better for me," added Wynyard curtly. They passed the unruffled Jack Hamlin with a smile and a vaguely significant air, as if calling him as a witness to the colonel's madness, and strode out of the room. As the door closed behind them, Mr. Hamlin lightly settled his white waistcoat, and, with his hands on his hips, lounged towards the colonel. "And THEN?" he said quietly. "Eh?" said the colonel. "After you've shot one or both of these men, or one of 'em has knocked you out, what's to become of that child?" "If—I am—er—spared, sir," said the colonel huskily, "I shall continue to defend her— against calumny and sneers"—
"In this style, eh? After her life has been made a hell by her association with a man of your reputation, you propose to whitewash it by a quarrel with a couple of drunken scallawags like Beeswinger and Wynyard, in the presence of three painted trollops and a d——d scamp like myself! Do you suppose this won't be blown all over California before she can be sent back to school? Do you suppose those cackling hussies in the next room won't give the whole story away to the next man who stands treat?" (A fine contempt for the sex in general was one of Mr. Hamlin's most subtle attractions for them.)"Nevertheless, sir," stammered the colonel, "the prompt punishment of the man who has dared"— "Punishment!" interrupted Hamlin, "who's to punish the man who has dared most? The one man who is responsible for the whole thing? Who's to punish YOU?" "Mr. Hamlin—sir!" gasped the colonel, falling back, as his hand involuntarily rose to the level of his waistcoat pocket and his derringer. But Mr. Hamlin only put down the wine glass he had lifted from the table and was delicately twirling between his fingers, and looked fixedly at the colonel.
"Look here," he said slowly. "When the boys said that you accepted the guardianship of that child NOT on account of Dick Stannard, but only as a bluff against the joke they'd set up at you, I didn't believe them! When these men and women to-night tumbled to that story of the child being YOURS, I didn't believe that! When it was said by others that you were serious about making her your ward, and giving her your property, because you doted on her like a father, I didn't believe that.""And—why not THAT?" said the colonel quickly, yet with an odd tremor in his voice.
"Because," said Hamlin, becoming suddenly as grave as the colonel, "I could not believe that any one who cared a picayune for the child could undertake a trust that might bring her into contact with a life and company as rotten as ours. I could not believe that even the most God-forsaken, conceited fool would, for the sake of a little sentimental parade and splurge among people outside his regular walk, allow the prospects of that child to be blasted. I couldn't believe it, even if he thought he was acting like a father. I didn't believe it—but I'm beginning to believe it now!"
There was little to choose between the attitudes and expressions of the two set stern faces now regarding each other, silently, a foot apart. But the colonel was the first to speak:—
"Mr. Hamlin—sir! You said a moment ago that I was—er—ahem—responsible for this evening's affair—but you expressed a doubt as to who could—er—punish me for it. I accept the responsibility you have indicated, sir, and offer you that chance. But as this matter between us must have precedence over—my engagements with that canaille, I shall expect you with your seconds at sunrise on Burnt Ridge. Good-evening, sir."
With head erect the colonel left the room. Mr. Hamlin slightly shrugged his shoulders, turned to the door of the room whither he had just banished the ladies, and in a few minutes his voice was heard melodiously among the gayest.
For all that he managed to get them away early. When he had bundled them into a large carryall, and watched them drive away through the storm, he returned for a minute to the waiting room for his overcoat. He was surprised to hear the sound of the child's voice in the supper room, and the door being ajar, he could see quite distinctly that she was seated at the table, with a plate full of sweets before her, while Colonel Starbottle, with his back to the door, was sitting opposite to her, his shoulders slightly bowed as he eagerly watched her. It seemed to Mr. Hamlin that it was the close of an emotional interview, for Pansy's voice was broken, partly by sobs, and partly, I grieve to say, by the hurried swallowing of the delicacies before her. Yet, above the beating of the storm outside, he could hear her saying,—
"Yes! I promise to be good—(sob)—and to go with Mrs. Pyecroft—(sob)—and to try to like another guardian—(sob)—and not to cry any more—(sob)—and—oh, please, DON'T YOU DO IT EITHER!"
But here Mr. Hamlin slipped out of the room and out of the house, with a rather grave face. An hour later, when the colonel drove up to the Pyecrofts' door with Pansy, he found that Mr. Pyecroft was slightly embarrassed, and a figure, which, in the darkness, seemed to resemble Mr. Hamlin's, had just emerged from the door as he entered.
Yet the sun was not up on Burnt Ridge earlier than Mr. Hamlin. The storm of the night before had blown itself out; a few shreds of mist hung in the valleys from the Ridge, that lay above coldly reddening. Then a breeze swept over it, and out of the dissipating mist fringe Mr. Hamlin saw two black figures, closely buttoned up like himself, emerge, which he recognized as Beeswinger and Wynyard, followed by their seconds. But the colonel came not, Hamlin joined the others in an animated confidential conversation, attended by a watchful outlook for the missing adversary. Five, ten minutes elapsed, and yet the usually prompt colonel was not there. Mr. Hamlin looked grave; Wynyard and Beeswinger exchanged interrogatory glances. Then a buggy was seen driving furiously up the grade, and from it leaped Colonel Starbottle, accompanied by Dick MacKinstry, his second, carrying his pistol case. And then—strangely enough for men who were waiting the coming of an antagonist who was a dead shot—they drew a breath of relief! MacKinstry slightly preceded his principal, and the others could see that Starbottle, though erect, was walking slowly. They were surprised also to observe that he was haggard and hollow eyed, and seemed, in the few hours that had elapsed since they last saw him, to have aged ten years. MacKinstry, a tall Kentuckian, saluted, and was the first one to speak.
"Colonel Starbottle," he said formally, "desires to express his regrets at this delay, which was unavoidable, as he was obliged to attend his ward, who was leaving by the down coach for Sacramento with Mrs. Pyecroft, this morning." Hamlin, Wynyard, and Beeswinger exchanged glances. "Colonel Starbottle," continued MacKinstry, turning to his principal, "desires to say a word to Mr. Hamlin."
As Mr. Hamlin would have advanced from the group, Colonel Starbottle lifted his hand deprecatingly. "What I have to say must be said before these gentlemen," he began slowly. "Mr. Hamlin—sir! when I solicited the honor of this meeting I was under a grievous misapprehension of the intent and purpose of your comments on my action last evening. I think," he added, slightly inflating his buttoned-up figure, "that the reputation I have always borne in—er—meetings of this kind will prevent any—er— misunderstanding of my present action—which is to—er—ask permission to withdraw my challenge—and to humbly beg your pardon."
The astonishment produced by this unexpected apology, and Mr. Hamlin's prompt grasp of the colonel's hand, had scarcely passed before the colonel drew himself up again, and turning to his second said, "And now I am at the service of Judge Beeswinger and Mr. Wynyard—whichever may elect to honor me first."
But the two men thus addressed looked for a moment strangely foolish and embarrassed. Yet the awkwardness was at last broken by Judge Beeswinger frankly advancing towards the colonel with an outstretched hand. "We came here only to apologize, Colonel Starbottle. Without possessing your reputation and experience in these matters, we still think we can claim, as you have, an equal exemption from any misunderstanding when we say that we deeply regret our foolish and discourteous conduct last evening."A quick flush mounted to the colonel's haggard cheek as he drew back with a suspicious glance at Hamlin. "Mr. Hamlin!—gentlemen!—if this is—er—!"
But before he could finish his sentence Hamlin had clapped his hand on the colonel's shoulder. "You'll take my word, colonel, that these gentlemen honestly intended to apologize, and came here for that purpose;—and—SO DID I—only you anticipated me!"
In the laughter that followed Mr. Hamlin's frankness the colonel's features relaxed grimly, and he shook the hands of his late possible antagonists.
"And now," said Mr. Hamlin gayly, "you'll all adjourn to breakfast with me—and try to make up for the supper we left unfinished last night."
It was the only allusion to that interruption and its consequences, for during the breakfast the colonel said nothing in regard to his ward, and the other guests were discreetly reticent. But Mr. Hamlin was not satisfied. He managed to get the colonel's servant, Jim, aside, and extracted from the negro that Colonel Starbottle had taken the child that night to Pyecroft's; that he had had a long interview with Pyecroft; had written letters and "walked de flo'" all night; that he (Jim) was glad the child was gone!"Why?" asked Hamlin, with affected carelessness.
"She was just makin' de kernel like any o' de low-down No'th'n folks—keerful, and stingy, and mighty 'fraid o' de opinions o' de biggety people. And fo' what? Jess to strut round wid dat child like he was her 'spectable go to meeting fader!""And was the child sorry to leave him?" asked Hamlin.
"Wull—no, sah. De mighty curos thing, Marse Jack, about the gals—big and little—is dey just USE de kernel—dat's all! Dey just use de ole man like a pole to bring down deir persimmons—see?"But Mr. Hamlin did not smile.
Later it was known that Colonel Starbottle had resigned his guardianship with the consent of the court. Whether he ever again saw his late ward was not known, nor if he remained loyal to his memories of her.
Readers of these chronicles may, however, remember that years after, when the colonel married the widow of a certain Mr. Tretherick, both in his courtship and his short married life he was singularly indifferent to the childish graces of Carrie Tretherick, her beloved little daughter, and that his obtuseness in that respect provoked the widow's ire.
Prosper's "Old Mother"
"It's all very well," said Joe Wynbrook, "for us to be sittin' here, slingin' lies easy and comfortable, with the wind whistlin' in the pines outside, and the rain just liftin' the ditches to fill our sluice boxes with gold ez we're smokin' and waitin', but I tell you what, boys—it ain't home! No, sir, it ain't HOME!"
The speaker paused, glanced around the bright, comfortable barroom, the shining array of glasses beyond, and the circle of complacent faces fronting the stove, on which his own boots were cheerfully steaming, lifted a glass of whiskey from the floor under his chair, and in spite of his deprecating remark, took a long draught of the spirits with every symptom of satisfaction.
"If ye mean," returned Cyrus Brewster, "that it ain't the old farmhouse of our boyhood, 'way back in the woods, I'll agree with you; but ye'll just remember that there wasn't any gold placers lying round on the medder on that farm. Not much! Ef thar had been, we wouldn't have left it."
"I don't mean that," said Joe Wynbrook, settling himself comfortably back in his chair; "it's the family hearth I'm talkin' of. The soothin' influence, ye know—the tidiness of the women folks."
"Ez to the soothin' influence," remarked the barkeeper, leaning his elbows meditatively on his counter, "afore I struck these diggin's I had a grocery and bar, 'way back in Mizzoori, where there was five old-fashioned farms jined. Blame my skin ef the men folks weren't a darned sight oftener over in my grocery, sittin' on barrils and histin' in their reg'lar corn-juice, than ever any of you be here—with all these modern improvements."
"Ye don't catch on, any of you," returned Wynbrook impatiently. "Ef it was a mere matter o' buildin' houses and becomin' family men, I reckon that this yer camp is about prosperous enough to do it, and able to get gals enough to marry us, but that would be only borryin' trouble and lettin' loose a lot of jabberin' women to gossip agin' each other and spile all our friendships. No, gentlemen! What we want here—each of us—is a good old mother! Nothin' new-fangled or fancy, but the reg'lar old-fashioned mother we was used to when we was boys!"
The speaker struck a well-worn chord—rather the worse for wear, and one that had jangled falsely ere now, but which still produced its effect. The men were silent. Thus encouraged, Wynbrook proceeded:—
"Think o' comin' home from the gulch a night like this and findin' yer old mother awaitin' ye! No fumblin' around for the matches ye'd left in the gulch; no high old cussin' because the wood was wet or you forgot to bring it in; no bustlin' around for your dry things and findin' you forgot to dry 'em that mornin'—but everything waitin' for ye and ready. And then, mebbe, she brings ye in some doughnuts she's just cooked for ye— cooked ez only SHE kin cook 'em! Take Prossy Riggs—alongside of me here—for instance! HE'S made the biggest strike yet, and is puttin' up a high-toned house on the hill. Well! he'll hev it finished off and furnished slap-up style, you bet! with a Chinese cook, and a Biddy, and a Mexican vaquero to look after his horse—but he won't have no mother to housekeep! That is," he corrected himself perfunctorily, turning to his companion, "you've never spoke o' your mother, so I reckon you're about fixed up like us."
The young man thus addressed flushed slightly, and then nodded his head with a sheepish smile. He had, however, listened to the conversation with an interest almost childish, and a reverent admiration of his comrades—qualities which, combined with an intellect not particularly brilliant, made him alternately the butt and the favorite of the camp. Indeed, he was supposed to possess that proportion of stupidity and inexperience which, in mining superstition, gives "luck" to its possessor. And this had been singularly proven in the fact that he had made the biggest "strike" of the season.
Joe Wynbrook's sentimentalism, albeit only argumentative and half serious, had unwittingly touched a chord of simple history, and the flush which had risen to his cheek was not entirely bashfulness. The home and relationship of which they spoke so glibly, HE had never known; he was a foundling! As he lay awake that night he remembered the charitable institution which had protected his infancy, the master to whom he had later been apprenticed; that was all he knew of his childhood. In his simple way he had been greatly impressed by the strange value placed by his companions upon the family influence, and he had received their extravagance with perfect credulity. In his absolute ignorance and his lack of humor he had detected no false quality in their sentiment. And a vague sense of his responsibility, as one who had been the luckiest, and who was building the first "house" in the camp, troubled him. He lay staringly wide awake, hearing the mountain wind, and feeling warm puffs of it on his face through the crevices of the log cabin, as he thought of the new house on the hill that was to be lathed and plastered and clapboarded, and yet void and vacant of that mysterious "mother"! And then, out of the solitude and darkness, a tremendous idea struck him that made him sit up in his bunk!
A day or two later "Prossy" Riggs stood on a sand-blown, wind-swept suburb of San Francisco, before a large building whom forbidding exterior proclaimed that it was an institution of formal charity. It was, in fact, a refuge for the various waifs and strays of ill-advised or hopeless immigration. As Prosper paused before the door, certain told recollections of a similar refuge were creeping over him, and, oddly enough, he felt as embarrassed as if he had been seeking relief for himself. The perspiration stood out on his forehead as he entered the room of the manager.
It chanced, however, that this official, besides being a man of shrewd experience of human weakness, was also kindly hearted, and having, after his first official scrutiny of his visitor and his resplendent watch chain, assured himself that he was not seeking personal relief, courteously assisted him in his stammering request.
"If I understand you, you want some one to act as your housekeeper?"
The manager smiled inwardly. A certain degree of discretion was noticeable in this rustic youth! "You are quite right," he answered gravely, "as yours is a mining camp where there are no other women, Still, you don't want any one TOO old or decrepit. There is an elderly maiden lady"—But a change was transparently visible on Prosper's simple face, and the manager paused."She oughter be kinder married, you know—ter be like a mother," stammered Prosper. "Oh, ay. I see," returned the manager, again illuminated by Prosper's unexpected wisdom.
He mused for a moment. "There is," he began tentatively, "a lady in reduced circumstances—not an inmate of this house, but who has received some relief from us. She was the wife of a whaling captain who died some years ago, and broke up her home. She was not brought up to work, and this, with her delicate health, has prevented her from seeking active employment. As you don't seem to require that of her, but rather want an overseer, and as your purpose, I gather, is somewhat philanthropical, you might induce her to accept a 'home' with you. Having seen better days, she is rather particular," he added, with a shrewd smile.
Simple Prosper's face was radiant. "She'll have a Chinaman and a Biddy to help her," he said quickly. Then recollecting the tastes of his comrades, he added, half apologetically, half cautiously, "Ef she could, now and then, throw herself into a lemming pie or a pot of doughnuts, jest in a motherly kind o' way, it would please the boys."
"Perhaps you can arrange that, too," returned the manager, "but I shall have to broach the whole subject to her, and you had better call again to-morrow, when I will give you her answer."
"Ye kin say," said Prosper, lightly fingering his massive gold chain and somewhat vaguely recalling the language of advertisement, "that she kin have the comforts of a home and no questions asked, and fifty dollars a month."
Rejoiced at the easy progress of his plan, and half inclined to believe himself a miracle of cautious diplomacy, Prosper, two days later, accompanied the manager to the cottage on Telegraph Hill where the relict of the late Captain Pottinger lamented the loss of her spouse, in full view of the sea he had so often tempted. On their way thither the manager imparted to Prosper how, according to hearsay, that lamented seaman had carried into the domestic circle those severe habits of discipline which had earned for him the prefix of "Bully" and "Belaying-pin" Pottinger during his strenuous life. "They say that though she is very quiet and resigned, she once or twice stood up to the captain; but that's not a bad quality to have, in a rough community, as I presume yours is, and would insure her respect."
Ushered at last into a small tank-like sitting room, whose chief decorations consisted of large abelone shells, dried marine algae, coral, and a swordfish's broken weapon, Prosper's disturbed fancy discovered the widow, sitting, apparently, as if among her husband's remains at the bottom of the sea. She had a dejected yet somewhat ruddy face; her hair was streaked with white, but primly disposed over her ears like lappets, and her garb was cleanly but sombre. There was no doubt but that she was a lugubrious figure, even to Prosper's optimistic and inexperienced mind. He could not imagine her as beaming on his hearth! It was with some alarm that, after the introduction had been completed, he beheld the manager take his leave. As the door closed, the bashful Prosper felt the murky eyes of the widow fixed upon him. A gentle cough, accompanied with the resigned laying of a black mittened hand upon her chest, suggested a genteel prelude to conversation, with possible pulmonary complications.
"I am induced to accept your proposal temporarily," she said, in a voice of querulous precision, "on account of pressing pecuniary circumstances which would not have happened had my claim against the shipowners for my dear husband's loss been properly raised. I hope you fully understand that I am unfitted both by ill health and early education from doing any menial or manual work in your household. I shall simply oversee and direct. I shall expect that the stipend you offer shall be paid monthly in advance. And as my medical man prescribes a certain amount of stimulation for my system, I shall expect to be furnished with such viands—or even"—she coughed slightly—"such beverages as may be necessary. I am far from strong—yet my wants are few."
"Ez far ez I am ketchin' on and followin' ye, ma'am," returned Prosper timidly, "ye'll hev everything ye want—jest like it was yer own home. In fact," he went on, suddenly growing desperate as the difficulties of adjusting this unexpectedly fastidious and superior woman to his plan seemed to increase, "ye'll jest consider me ez yer"—But here her murky eyes were fixed on his and he faltered. Yet he had gone too far to retreat. "Ye see," he stammered, with a hysterical grimness that was intended to be playful—"ye see, this is jest a little secret betwixt and between you and me; there'll be only you and me in the house, and it would kinder seem to the boys more homelike—ef—ef—you and me had—you bein' a widder, you know—a kind of—of"—here his smile became ghastly— "close relationship."
The widow of Captain Pottinger here sat up so suddenly that she seemed to slip through her sombre and precise enwrappings with an exposure of the real Mrs. Pottinger that was almost improper. Her high color deepened; the pupils of her black eyes contracted in the light the innocent Prosper had poured into them. Leaning forward, with her fingers clasped on her bosom, she said: "Did you tell this to the manager?""Of course not," said Prosper; "ye see, it's only a matter 'twixt you and me."
Mrs. Pottinger looked at Prosper, drew a deep breath, and then gazed at the abelone shells for moral support. A smile, half querulous, half superior, crossed her face as she said: "This is very abrupt and unusual. There is, of course, a disparity in our ages! You have never seen me before—at least to my knowledge—although you may have heard of me. The Spraggs of Marblehead are well known—perhaps better than the Pottingers. And yet, Mr. Griggs"—"Riggs," suggested Prosper hurriedly. "Riggs. Excuse me! I was thinking of young Lieutenant Griggs of the Navy, whom I knew in the days now past. Mr. Riggs, I should say. Then you want me to"—
"To be my old mother, ma'am," said Prosper tremblingly. "That is, to pretend and look ez ef you was! You see, I haven't any, but I thought it would be nice for the boys, and make it more like home in my new house, ef I allowed that my old mother would be comin' to live with me. They don't know I never had a mother to speak of. They'll never find it out! Say ye will, Mrs. Pottinger! Do!"
And here the unexpected occurred. Against all conventional rules and all accepted traditions of fiction, I am obliged to state that Mrs. Pottinger did NOT rise up and order the trembling Prosper to leave the house! She only gripped the arm of her chair a little tighter, leaned forward, and disdaining her usual precision and refinement of speech, said quietly: "It's a bargain. If THAT'S what you're wanting, my son, you can count upon me as becoming your old mother, Cecilia Jane Pottinger Riggs, every time!"
A few days later the sentimentalist Joe Wynbrook walked into the Wild Cat saloon, where his comrades were drinking, and laid a letter down on the bar with every expression of astonishment and disgust. "Look," he said, "if that don't beat all! Ye wouldn't believe it, but here's Prossy Riggs writin' that he came across his mother—his MOTHER, gentlemen—in 'Frisco; she hevin', unbeknownst to him, joined a party visiting the coast! And what does this blamed fool do? Why, he's goin' to bring her—that old woman—HERE! Here—gentlemen—to take charge of that new house—and spoil our fun. And the God-forsaken idiot thinks that we'll LIKE it!"
It was one of those rare mornings in the rainy season when there was a suspicion of spring in the air, and after a night of rainfall the sun broke through fleecy clouds with little islets of blue sky—when Prosper Riggs and his mother drove into Wild Cat camp. An expression of cheerfulness was on the faces of his old comrades. For it had been recognized that, after all, "Prossy" had a perfect right to bring his old mother there—his well-known youth and inexperience preventing this baleful performance from being established as a precedent. For these reasons hats were cheerfully doffed, and some jackets put on, as the buggy swept up the hill to the pretty new cottage, with its green blinds and white veranda, on the crest.
Yet I am afraid that Prosper was not perfectly happy, even in the triumphant consummation of his plans. Mrs. Pottinger's sudden and business-like acquiescence in it, and her singular lapse from her genteel precision, were gratifying but startling to his ingenuousness. And although from the moment she accepted the situation she was fertile in resources and full of precaution against any possibility of detection, he saw, with some uneasiness, that its control had passed out of his hands."You say your comrades know nothing of your family history?" she had said to him on the journey thither. "What are you going to tell them?" "Nothin', 'cept your bein' my old mother," said Prosper hopelessly.
"That's not enough, my son." (Another embarrassment to Prosper was her easy grasp of the maternal epithets.) "Now listen! You were born just six months after your father, Captain Riggs (formerly Pottinger) sailed on his first voyage. You remember very little of him, of course, as he was away so much.""Hadn't I better know suthin about his looks?" said Prosper submissively. "A tall dark man, that's enough," responded Mrs. Pottinger sharply. "Hadn't he better favor me?" said Prosper, with his small cunning recognizing the fact that he himself was a decided blond.
"Ain't at all necessary," said the widow firmly. "You were always wild and ungovernable," she continued, "and ran away from school to join some Western emigration. That accounts for the difference of our styles."
"But," continued Prosper, "I oughter remember suthin about our old times—runnin' arrants for you, and bringin' in the wood o' frosty mornin's, and you givin' me hot doughnuts," suggested Prosper dubiously.
"Nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Pottinger promptly. "We lived in the city, with plenty of servants. Just remember, Prosper dear, your mother wasn't THAT low-down country style."
Glad to be relieved from further invention, Prosper was, nevertheless, somewhat concerned at this shattering of the ideal mother in the very camp that had sung her praises. But he could only trust to her recognizing the situation with her usual sagacity, of which he stood in respectful awe.
Joe Wynbrook and Cyrus Brewster had, as older members of the camp, purposely lingered near the new house to offer any assistance to "Prossy and his mother," and had received a brief and passing introduction to the latter. So deep and unexpected was the impression she made upon them that these two oracles of the camp retired down the hill in awkward silence for some time, neither daring to risk his reputation by comment or oversurprise.But when they approached the curious crowd below awaiting them, Cyrus Brewster ventured to say, "Struck me ez ef that old gal was rather high-toned for Prossy's mother." Joe Wynbrook instantly seized the fatal admission to show the advantage of superior insight:—
"Struck YOU! Why, it was no more than I expected all along! What did we know of Prossy? Nothin'! What did he ever tell us'? Nothin'! And why'? 'Cos it was his secret. Lord! a blind mule could see that. All this foolishness and simplicity o' his come o' his bein' cuddled and pampered as a baby. Then, like ez not, he was either kidnapped or led away by some feller—and nearly broke his mother's heart. I'll bet my bottom dollar he has been advertised for afore this—only we didn't see the paper. Like as not they had agents out seekin' him, and he jest ran into their hands in 'Frisco! I had a kind o' presentiment o' this when he left, though I never let on anything."
"I reckon, too, that she's kinder afraid he'll bolt agin. Did ye notice how she kept watchin' him all the time, and how she did the bossin' o' everything? And there's ONE thing sure! He's changed—yes! He don't look as keerless and free and foolish ez he uster."
Here there was an unmistakable chorus of assent from the crowd that had joined them. Every one—even those who had not been introduced to the mother—had noticed his strange restraint and reticence. In the impulsive logic of the camp, conduct such as this, in the face of that superior woman—his mother—could only imply that her presence was distasteful to him; that he was either ashamed of their noticing his inferiority to her, or ashamed of THEM! Wild and hasty as was their deduction, it was, nevertheless, voiced by Joe Wynbrook in a tone of impartial and even reluctant conviction. "Well, gentlemen, some of ye may remember that when I heard that Prossy was bringin' his mother here I kicked—kicked because it only stood to reason that, being HIS mother, she'd be that foolish she'd upset the camp. There wasn't room enough for two such chuckle-heads— and one of 'em being a woman, she couldn't be shut up or sat upon ez we did to HIM. But now, gentlemen, ez we see she ain't that kind, but high-toned and level-headed, and that she's got the grip on Prossy—whether he likes it or not—we ain't goin' to let him go back on her! No, sir! we ain't goin' to let him break her heart the second time! He may think we ain't good enough for her, but ez long ez she's civil to us, we'll stand by her."
In this conscientious way were the shackles of that unhallowed relationship slowly riveted on the unfortunate Prossy. In his intercourse with his comrades during the next two or three days their attitude was shown in frequent and ostentatious praise of his mother, and suggestive advice, such as: "I wouldn't stop at the saloon, Prossy; your old mother is wantin' ye;" or, "Chuck that 'ere tarpolin over your shoulders, Pross, and don't take your wet duds into the house that yer old mother's bin makin' tidy." Oddly enough, much of this advice was quite sincere, and represented—for at least twenty minutes—the honest sentiments of the speaker. Prosper was touched at what seemed a revival of the sentiment under which he had acted, forgot his uneasiness, and became quite himself again—a fact also noticed by his critics. "Ye've only to keep him up to his work and he'll be the widder's joy agin," said Cyrus Brewster. Certainly he was so far encouraged that he had a long conversation with Mrs. Pottinger that night, with the result that the next morning Joe Wynbrook, Cyrus Brewster, Hank Mann, and Kentucky Ike were invited to spend the evening at the new house. As the men, clean shirted and decently jacketed, filed into the neat sitting room with its bright carpet, its cheerful fire, its side table with a snowy cloth on which shining tea and coffee pots were standing, their hearts thrilled with satisfaction. In a large stuffed rocking chair, Prossy's old mother, wrapped up in a shawl and some mysterious ill health which seemed to forbid any exertion, received them with genteel languor and an extended black mitten.
"I cannot," said Mrs. Pottinger, with sad pensiveness, "offer you the hospitality of my own home, gentlemen—you remember, Prosper, dear, the large salon and our staff of servants at Lexington Avenue!—but since my son has persuaded me to take charge of his humble cot, I hope you will make all allowances for its deficiencies—even," she added, casting a look of mild reproach on the astonished Prosper—"even if HE cannot."
"I'm sure he oughter to be thankful to ye, ma'am," said Joe Wynbrook quickly, "for makin' a break to come here to live, jest ez we're thankful—speakin' for the rest of this camp—for yer lightin' us up ez you're doin'! I reckon I'm speakin' for the crowd," he added, looking round him.Murmurs of "That's so" and "You bet" passed through the company, and one or two cast a half-indignant glance at Prosper.
"It's only natural," continued Mrs. Pottinger resignedly, "that having lived so long alone, my dear Prosper may at first be a little impatient of his old mother's control, and perhaps regret his invitation.""Oh no, ma'am," said the embarrassed Prosper.
But here the mercurial Wynbrook interposed on behalf of amity and the camp's esprit de corps. "Why, Lord! ma'am, he's jest bin longin' for ye! Times and times agin he's talked about ye; sayin' how ef he could only get ye out of yer Fifth Avenue saloon to share his humble lot with him here, he'd die happy! YOU'VE heard him talk, Brewster?""Frequent," replied the accommodating Brewster.
"Part of the simple refreshment I have to offer you," continued Mrs. Pottinger, ignoring further comment, "is a viand the exact quality of which I am not familiar with, but which my son informs me is a great favorite with you. It has been prepared by Li Sing, under my direction. Prosper, dear, see that the—er—doughnuts—are brought in with the coffee."
Satisfaction beamed on the faces of the company, with perhaps the sole exception of Prosper. As a dish containing a number of brown glistening spheres of baked dough was brought in, the men's eyes shone in sympathetic appreciation. Yet that epicurean light was for a moment dulled as each man grasped a sphere, and then sat motionless with it in his hand, as if it was a ball and they were waiting the signal for playing.
"I am told," said Mrs. Pottinger, with a glance of Christian tolerance at Prosper, "that lightness is considered desirable by some—perhaps you gentlemen may find them heavy.""Thar is two kinds," said the diplomatic Joe cheerfully, as he began to nibble his, sideways, like a squirrel, "light and heavy; some likes 'em one way, and some another."
They were hard and heavy, but the men, assisted by the steaming coffee, finished them with heroic politeness. "And now, gentlemen," said Mrs. Pottinger, leaning back in her chair and calmly surveying the party, "you have my permission to light your pipes while you partake of some whiskey and water."The guests looked up—gratified but astonished. "Are ye sure, ma'am, you don't mind it?" said Joe politely.
"Not at all," responded Mrs. Pottinger briefly. "In fact, as my physician advises the inhalation of tobacco smoke for my asthmatic difficulties, I will join you." After a moment's fumbling in a beaded bag that hung from her waist, she produced a small black clay pipe, filled it from the same receptacle, and lit it.
A thrill of surprise went round the company, and it was noticed that Prosper seemed equally confounded. Nevertheless, this awkwardness was quickly overcome by the privilege and example given them, and with, a glass of whiskey and water before them, the men were speedily at their ease. Nor did Mrs. Pottinger disdain to mingle in their desultory talk. Sitting there with her black pipe in her mouth, but still precise and superior, she told a thrilling whaling adventure of Prosper's father (drawn evidently from the experience of the lamented Pottinger), which not only deeply interested her hearers, but momentarily exalted Prosper in their minds as the son of that hero. "Now you speak o' that, ma'am," said the ingenuous Wynbrook, "there's a good deal o' Prossy in that yarn o' his father's; same kind o' keerless grit! You remember, boys, that day the dam broke and he stood thar, the water up to his neck, heavin' logs in the break till he stopped it." Briefly, the evening, in spite of its initial culinary failure and its surprises, was a decided social success, and even the bewildered and doubting Prosper went to bed relieved. It was followed by many and more informal gatherings at the house, and Mrs Pottinger so far unbent—if that term could be used of one who never altered her primness of manner—as to join in a game of poker—and even permitted herself to win.
But by the end of six weeks another change in their feelings towards Prosper seemed to creep insidiously over the camp. He had been received into his former fellowship, and even the presence of his mother had become familiar, but he began to be an object of secret commiseration. They still frequented the house, but among themselves afterwards they talked in whispers. There was no doubt to them that Prosper's old mother drank not only what her son had provided, but what she surreptitiously obtained from the saloon. There was the testimony of the barkeeper, himself concerned equally with the camp in the integrity of the Riggs household. And there was an even darker suspicion. But this must be given in Joe Wynbrook's own words:—
"I didn't mind the old woman winnin' and winnin' reg'lar—for poker's an unsartin game;—it ain't the money that we're losin'—for it's all in the camp. But when she's developing a habit o' holdin' FOUR aces when somebody else hez TWO, who don't like to let on because it's Prosper's old mother—it's gettin' rough! And dangerous too, gentlemen, if there happened to be an outsider in, or one of the boys should kick. Why, I saw Bilson grind his teeth—he holdin' a sequence flush—ace high—when the dear old critter laid down her reg'lar four aces and raked in the pile. We had to nearly kick his legs off under the table afore he'd understand—not havin' an old mother himself.""Some un will hev to tackle her without Prossy knowin' it. For it would jest break his heart, arter all he's gone through to get her here!" said Brewster significantly.
"Onless he DID know it and it was that what made him so sorrowful when they first came. B'gosh! I never thought o' that," said Wynbrook, with one of his characteristic sudden illuminations.
"Well, gentlemen, whether he did or not," said the barkeeper stoutly, "he must never know that WE know it. No, not if the old gal cleans out my bar and takes the last scad in the camp."And to this noble sentiment they responded as one man.
How far they would have been able to carry out that heroic resolve was never known, for an event occurred which eclipsed its importance. One morning at breakfast Mrs. Pottinger fixed a clouded eye upon Prosper."Prosper," she said, with fell deliberation "you ought to know you have a sister." "Yes, ma'am," returned Prosper, with that meekness with which he usually received these family disclosures. "A sister," continued the lady, "whom you haven't seen since you were a child; a sister who for family reasons has been living with other relatives; a girl of nineteen."
"Yea, ma'am," said Prosper humbly. "But ef you wouldn't mind writin' all that down on a bit o' paper—ye know my short memory! I would get it by heart to-day in the gulch. I'd have it all pat enough by night, ef," he added, with a short sigh, "ye was kalkilatin' to make any illusions to it when the boys are here."
"Your sister Augusta," continued Mrs. Pottinger, calmly ignoring these details, "will be here to-morrow to make me a visit."
But here the worm Prosper not only turned, but stood up, nearly upsetting the table. "It can't be did, ma'am it MUSTN'T be did!" he said wildly. "It's enough for me to have played this camp with YOU—but now to run in"—
"Can't be did!" repeated Mrs. Pottinger, rising in her turn and fixing upon the unfortunate Prosper a pair of murky piratical eyes that had once quelled the sea-roving Pottinger. "Do you, my adopted son, dare to tell me that I can't have my own flesh and blood beneath my roof?""Yes! I'd rather tell the whole story—I'd rather tell the boys I fooled them—than go on again!" burst out the excited Prosper.
But Mrs. Pottinger only set her lips implacably together. "Very well, tell them then," she said rigidly; "tell them how you lured me from my humble dependence in San Francisco with the prospect of a home with you; tell them how you compelled me to deceive their trusting hearts with your wicked falsehoods; tell them how you—a foundling—borrowed me for your mother, my poor dead husband for your father, and made me invent falsehood upon falsehood to tell them while you sat still and listened!"Prosper gasped.
"Tell them," she went on deliberately, "that when I wanted to bring my helpless child to her only home—THEN, only then—you determined to break your word to me, either because you meanly begrudged her that share of your house, or to keep your misdeeds from her knowledge! Tell them that, Prossy, dear, and see what they'll say!"
Prosper sank back in his chair aghast. In his sudden instinct of revolt he had forgotten the camp! He knew, alas, too well what they would say! He knew that, added to their indignation at having been duped, their chivalry and absurd sentiment would rise in arms against the abandonment of two helpless women!"P'r'aps ye're right, ma'am," he stammered. "I was only thinkin'," he added feebly, "how SHE'D take it." "She'll take it as I wish her to take it," said Mrs. Pottinger firmly. "Supposin', ez the camp don't know her, and I ain't bin talkin' o' havin' any SISTER, you ran her in here as my COUSIN? See? You bein' her aunt?"
Mrs. Pottinger regarded him with compressed lips for some time. Then she said, slowly and half meditatively: "Yes, it might be done! She will probably be willing to sacrifice her nearer relationship to save herself from passing as your sister. It would be less galling to her pride, and she wouldn't have to treat you so familiarly."
"Yes, ma'am," said Prosper, too relieved to notice the uncomplimentary nature of the suggestion. "And ye see I could call her 'Miss Pottinger,' which would come easier to me."
In its high resolve to bear with the weaknesses of Prosper's mother, the camp received the news of the advent of Prosper's cousin solely with reference to its possible effect upon the aunt's habits, and very little other curiosity. Prosper's own reticence, they felt, was probably due to the tender age at which he had separated from his relations. But when it was known that Prosper's mother had driven to the house with a very pretty girl of eighteen, there was a flutter of excitement in that impressionable community. Prosper, with his usual shyness, had evaded an early meeting with her, and was even loitering irresolutely on his way home from work, when, as he approached the house, to his discomfiture the door suddenly opened, the young lady appeared and advanced directly towards him.
She was slim, graceful, and prettily dressed, and at any other moment Prosper might have been impressed by her good looks. But her brows were knit, her dark eyes—in which there was an unmistakable reminiscence of Mrs. Pottinger—were glittering, and although she was apparently anticipating their meeting, it was evidently with no cousinly interest. When within a few feet of him she stopped. Prosper with a feeble smile offered his hand. She sprang back."Don't touch me! Don't come a step nearer or I'll scream!" Prosper, still with smiling inanity, stammered that he was only "goin' to shake hands," and moved sideways towards the house. "Stop!" she said, with a stamp of her slim foot. "Stay where you are! We must have our talk out HERE. I'm not going to waste words with you in there, before HER." Prosper stopped. "What did you do this for?" she said angrily. "How dared you? How could you? Are you a man, or the fool she takes you for?" "Wot did I do WOT for?" said Prosper sullenly. "This! Making my mother pretend you were her son! Bringing her here among these men to live a lie!" "She was willin'," said Prosper gloomily. "I told her what she had to do, and she seemed to like it."
"But couldn't you see she was old and weak, and wasn't responsible for her actions? Or were you only thinking of yourself?"
This last taunt stung him. He looked up. He was not facing a helpless, dependent old woman as he had been the day before, but a handsome, clever girl, in every way his superior—and in the right! In his vague sense of honor it seemed more creditable for him to fight it out with HER. He burst out: "I never thought of myself! I never had an old mother; I never knew what it was to want one—but the men did! And as I couldn't get one for them, I got one for myself—to share and share alike—I thought they'd be happier ef there was one in the camp!"
There was the unmistakable accent of truth in his voice. There came a faint twitching of the young girl's lips and the dawning of a smile. But it only acted as a goad to the unfortunate Prosper. "Ye kin laugh, Miss Pottinger, but it's God's truth! But one thing I didn't do. No! When your mother wanted to bring you in here as my sister, I kicked! I did! And you kin thank me, for all your laughin', that you're standing in this camp in your own name—and ain't nothin' but my cousin.""I suppose you thought your precious friends didn't want a SISTER too?" said the girl ironically.
"It don't make no matter wot they want now," he said gloomily. "For," he added, with sudden desperation, "it's come to an end! Yes! You and your mother will stay here a spell so that the boys don't suspicion nothin' of either of ye. Then I'll give it out that you're takin' your aunt away on a visit. Then I'll make over to her a thousand dollars for all the trouble I've given her, and you'll take her away. I've bin a fool, Miss Pottinger, mebbe I am one now, but what I'm doin' is on the square, and it's got to be done!"
He looked so simple and so good—so like an honest schoolboy confessing a fault and abiding by his punishment, for all his six feet of altitude and silky mustache—that Miss Pottinger lowered her eyes. But she recovered herself and said sharply:—
"It's all very well to talk of her going away! But she WON'T. You have made her like you—yes! like you better than me—than any of us! She says you're the only one who ever treated her like a mother—as a mother should be treated. She says she never knew what peace and comfort were until she came to you. There! Don't stare like that! Don't you understand? Don't you see? Must I tell you again that she is strange—that—that she was ALWAYS queer and strange—and queerer on account of her unfortunate habits— surely you knew THEM, Mr. Riggs! She quarreled with us all. I went to live with my aunt, and she took herself off to San Francisco with a silly claim against my father's shipowners. Heaven only knows how she managed to live there; but she always impressed people with her manners, and some one always helped her! At last I begged my aunt to let me seek her, and I tracked her here. There! If you've confessed everything to me, you have made me confess everything to you, and about my own mother, too! Now, what is to be done?"
"Whatever is agreeable to you is the same to me, Miss Pottinger," he said formally. "But you mustn't call me 'Miss Pottinger' so loud. Somebody might hear you," she returned mischievously."All right—'cousin,' then," he said, with a prodigious blush. "Supposin' we go in."
In spite of the camp's curiosity, for the next few days they delicately withheld their usual evening visits to Prossy's mother. "They'll be wantin' to talk o' old times, and we don't wanter be too previous," suggested Wynbrook. But their verdict, when they at last met the new cousin, was unanimous, and their praises extravagant. To their inexperienced eyes she seemed to possess all her aunt's gentility and precision of language, with a vivacity and playfulness all her own. In a few days the whole camp was in love with her. Yet she dispensed her favors with such tactful impartiality and with such innocent enjoyment—free from any suspicion of coquetry—that there were no heartburnings, and the unlucky man who nourished a fancied slight would have been laughed at by his fellows. She had a town-bred girl's curiosity and interest in camp life, which she declared was like a "perpetual picnic," and her slim, graceful figure halting beside a ditch where the men were working seemed to them as grateful as the new spring sunshine. The whole camp became tidier; a coat was considered de rigueur at "Prossy's mother" evenings; there was less horseplay in the trails, and less shouting. "It's all very well to talk about 'old mothers,'" said the cynical barkeeper, "but that gal, single handed, has done more in a week to make the camp decent than old Ma'am Riggs has in a month o' Sundays."
Since Prosper's brief conversation with Miss Pottinger before the house, the question "What is to be done?" had singularly lapsed, nor had it been referred to again by either. The young lady had apparently thrown herself into the diversions of the camp with the thoughtless gayety of a brief holiday maker, and it was not for him to remind her—even had he wished to—that her important question had never been answered. He had enjoyed her happiness with the relief of a secret shared by her. Three weeks had passed; the last of the winter's rains had gone. Spring was stirring in underbrush and wildwood, in the pulse of the waters, in the sap of the great pines, in the uplifting of flowers. Small wonder if Prosper's boyish heart had stirred a little too.
In fact, he had been possessed by another luminous idea—a wild idea that to him seemed almost as absurd as the one which had brought him all this trouble. It had come to him like that one—out of a starlit night—and he had risen one morning with a feverish intent to put it into action! It brought him later to take an unprecedented walk alone with Miss Pottinger, to linger under green leaves in unfrequented woods, and at last seemed about to desert him as he stood in a little hollow with her hand in his—their only listener an inquisitive squirrel. Yet this was all the disappointed animal heard him stammer,—"So you see, dear, it would THEN be no lie—for—don't you see?—she'd be really MY mother as well as YOURS."
The marriage of Prosper Riggs and Miss Pottinger was quietly celebrated at Sacramento, but Prossy's "old mother" did not return with the happy pair.
Of Mrs. Pottinger's later career some idea may be gathered from a letter which Prosper received a year after his marriage. "Circumstances," wrote Mrs. Pottinger, "which had induced me to accept the offer of a widower to take care of his motherless household, have since developed into a more enduring matrimonial position, so that I can always offer my dear Prosper a home with his mother, should he choose to visit this locality, and a second father in Hiram W. Watergates, Esq., her husband."