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Tales of the Argonauts by Bret Harte - HTML preview

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How Old Man Plunkett Went Home

I think we all loved him. Even after he mismanaged the affairs of the Amity Ditch Company, we commiserated him, although most of us were stockholders, and lost heavily. I remember that the blacksmith went so far as to say that "them chaps as put that responsibility on the old man oughter be lynched." But the blacksmith was not a stockholder; and the expression was looked upon as the excusable extravagance of a large, sympathizing nature, that, when combined with a powerful frame, was unworthy of notice. At least, that was the way they put it. Yet I think there was a general feeling of regret that this misfortune would interfere with the old man's long-cherished plan of "going home."

Indeed, for the last ten years he had been "going home." He was going home after a six-months' sojourn at Monte Flat; he was going home after the first rains; he was going home when the rains were over; he was going home when he had cut the timber on Buckeye Hill, when there was pasture on Dow's Flat, when he struck pay-dirt on Eureka Hill, when the Amity Company paid its first dividend, when the election was over, when he had received an answer from his wife. And so the years rolled by, the spring rains came and went, the woods of Buckeye Hill were level with the ground, the pasture on Dow's Flat grew sear and dry, Eureka Hill yielded its pay-dirt and swamped its owner, the first dividends of the Amity Company were made from the assessments of stockholders, there were new county officers at Monte Flat, his wife's answer had changed into a persistent question, and still old man Plunkett remained.

It is only fair to say that he had made several distinct essays toward going. Five years before, he had bidden good-by to Monte Hill with much effusion and handshaking. But he never got any farther than the next town. Here he was induced to trade the sorrel colt he was riding for a bay mare,--a transaction that at once opened to his lively fancy a vista of vast and successful future speculation. A few days after, Abner Dean of Angel's received a letter from him, stating that he was going to Visalia to buy horses. "I am satisfied," wrote Plunkett, with that elevated rhetoric for which his correspondence was remarkable,--"I am satisfied that we are at last developing the real resources of California. The world will yet look to Dow's Flat as the great stock-raising centre. In view of the interests involved, I have deferred my departure for a month." It was two before he again returned to us--penniless. Six months later, he was again enabled to start for the Eastern States; and this time he got as far as San Francisco. I have before me a letter which I received a few days after his arrival, from which I venture to give an extract: "You know, my dear boy, that I have always believed that gambling, as it is absurdly called, is still in its infancy in California. I have always maintained that a perfect system might be invented, by which the game of poker may be made to yield a certain percentage to the intelligent player. I am not at liberty at present to disclose the system; but before leaving this city I intend to perfect it." He seems to have done so, and returned to Monte Flat with two dollars and thirty-seven cents, the absolute remainder of his capital after such perfection.

It was not until 1868 that he appeared to have finally succeeded in going home. He left us by the overland route,--a route which he declared would give great opportunity for the discovery of undeveloped resources. His last letter was dated Virginia City. He was absent three years. At the close of a very hot day in midsummer, he alighted from the Wingdam stage, with hair and beard powdered with dust and age. There was a certain shyness about his greeting, quite different from his usual frank volubility, that did not, however, impress us as any accession of character. For some days he was reserved regarding his recent visit, contenting himself with asserting, with more or less aggressiveness, that he had "always said he was going home, and now he had been there." Later he grew more communicative, and spoke freely and critically of the manners and customs of New York and Boston, commented on the social changes in the years of his absence, and, I remember, was very hard upon what he deemed the follies incidental to a high state of civilization. Still later he darkly alluded to the moral laxity of the higher planes of Eastern society; but it was not long before he completely tore away the veil, and revealed the naked wickedness of New York social life in a way I even now shudder to recall. Vinous intoxication, it appeared, was a common habit of the first ladies of the city. Immoralities which he scarcely dared name were daily practised by the refined of both sexes. Niggardliness and greed were the common vices of the rich. "I have always asserted," he continued, "that corruption must exist where luxury and riches are rampant, and capital is not used to develop the natural resources of the country. Thank you--I will take mine without sugar." It is possible that some of these painful details crept into the local journals. I remember an editorial in "The Monte Flat Monitor," entitled "The Effete East," in which the fatal decadence of New York and New England was elaborately stated, and California offered as a means of natural salvation. "Perhaps," said "The Monitor," "we might add that Calaveras County offers superior inducements to the Eastern visitor with capital."

Later he spoke of his family. The daughter he had left a child had grown into beautiful womanhood. The son was already taller and larger than his father; and, in a playful trial of strength, "the young rascal," added Plunkett, with a voice broken with paternal pride and humorous objurgation, had twice thrown his doting parent to the ground. But it was of his daughter he chiefly spoke. Perhaps emboldened by the evident interest which masculine Monte Flat held in feminine beauty, he expatiated at some length on her various charms and accomplishments, and finally produced her photograph,--that of a very pretty girl,--to their infinite peril. But his account of his first meeting with her was so peculiar, that I must fain give it after his own methods, which were, perhaps, some shades less precise and elegant than his written style.
"You see, boys, it's always been my opinion that a man oughter be able to tell his own flesh and blood by instinct. It's ten years since I'd seen my Melindy; and she was then only seven, and about so high. So, when I went to New York, what did I do? Did I go straight to my house, and ask for my wife and daughter, like other folks? No, sir! I rigged myself up as a peddler, as a peddler, sir; and I rung the bell. When the servant came to the door, I wanted--don't you see?--to show the ladies some trinkets. Then there was a voice over the banister says, 'Don't want any thing: send him away.'--'Some nice laces, ma'am, smuggled,' I says, looking up. 'Get out, you wretch!' says she. I knew the voice, boys: it was my wife, sure as a gun. Thar wasn't any instinct thar. 'Maybe the young ladies want somethin',' I said. 'Did you hear me?' says she; and with that she jumps forward, and I left. It's ten years, boys, since I've seen the old woman; but somehow, when she fetched that leap, I naterally left."

He had been standing beside the bar--his usual attitude--when he made this speech; but at this point he half faced his auditors with a look that was very effective. Indeed, a few who had exhibited some signs of scepticism and lack of interest, at once assumed an appearance of intense gratification and curiosity as he went on,--

"Well, by hangin round there for a day or two, I found out at last it was to be Melindy's birthday next week, and that she was goin' to have a big party. I tell ye what, boys, it weren't no slouch of a reception. The whole house was bloomin' with flowers, and blazin' with lights; and there was no end of servants and plate and refreshments and fixin's"--

"Uncle Joe."

 

"Well?"

 

"Where did they get the money?"

Plunkett faced his interlocutor with a severe glance. "I always said," he replied slowly, "that, when I went home, I'd send on ahead of me a draft for ten thousand dollars. I always said that, didn't I? Eh? And I said I was goin' home--and I've been home, haven't I? Well?"

Either there was something irresistibly conclusive in this logic, or else the desire to hear the remainder of Plunkett's story was stronger; but there was no more interruption. His ready good-humor quickly returned, and, with a slight chuckle, he went on,--

"I went to the biggest jewelry shop in town, and I bought a pair of diamond earrings, and put them in my pocket, and went to the house. 'What name?' says the chap who opened the door; and he looked like a cross 'twixt a restaurant waiter and a parson. 'Skeesicks,' said I. He takes me in; and pretty soon my wife comes sailin' into the parlor, and says, 'Excuse me; but I don't think I recognize the name.' She was mighty polite; for I had on a red wig and side-whiskers. 'A friend of your husband's from California, ma'am, with a present for your daughter, Miss
-,' and I made as I had forgot the name. But all of a sudden a voice said, 'That's too thin;' and in walked Melindy. 'It's playin' it rather low down, father, to pretend you don't know your daughter's name; ain't it, now? How are you, old man?' And with that she tears off my wig and whiskers, and throws her arms around my neck--instinct, sir, pure instinct!"

Emboldened by the laughter which followed his description of the filial utterances of Melinda, he again repeated her speech, with more or less elaboration, joining in with, and indeed often leading, the hilarity that accompanied it, and returning to it, with more or less incoherency, several times during the evening.

And so, at various times and at various places, but chiefly in bar- rooms, did this Ulysses of Monte Flat recount the story of his wanderings. There were several discrepancies in his statement; there was sometimes considerable prolixity of detail; there was occasional change of character and scenery; there was once or twice an absolute change in the denoument: but always the fact of his having visited his wife and children remained. Of course, in a sceptical community like that of Monte Flat,--a community accustomed to great expectation and small realization,--a community wherein, to use the local dialect, "they got the color, and struck hardpan," more frequently than any other mining-camp,--in such a community, the fullest credence was not given to old man Plunkett's facts. There was only one exception to the general unbelief,-- Henry York of Sandy Bar. It was he who was always an attentive listener; it was his scant purse that had often furnished Plunkett with means to pursue his unprofitable speculations; it was to him that the charms of Melinda were more frequently rehearsed; it was he that had borrowed her photograph; and it was he that, sitting alone in his little cabin one night, kissed that photograph, until his honest, handsome face glowed again in the firelight.

It was dusty in Monte Flat. The ruins of the long dry season were crumbling everywhere: everywhere the dying summer had strewn its red ashes a foot deep, or exhaled its last breath in a red cloud above the troubled highways. The alders and cottonwoods, that marked the line of the water-courses, were grimy with dust, and looked as if they might have taken root in the open air. The gleaming stones of the parched water-courses themselves were as dry bones in the valley of death. The dusty sunset at times painted the flanks of the distant hills a dull, coppery hue: on other days, there was an odd, indefinable earthquake halo on the volcanic cones of the farther coast-spurs. Again an acrid, resinous smoke from the burning wood on Heavytree Hill smarted the eyes, and choked the free breath of Monte Flat; or a fierce wind, driving every thing, including the shrivelled summer, like a curled leaf before it, swept down the flanks of the Sierras, and chased the inhabitants to the doors of their cabins, and shook its red fist in at their windows. And on such a night as this, the dust having in some way choked the wheels of material progress in Monte Flat, most of the inhabitants were gathered listlessly in the gilded bar-room of the Moquelumne Hotel, spitting silently at the red-hot stove that tempered the mountain winds to the shorn lambs of Monte Flat, and waiting for the rain.

Every method known to the Flat of beguiling the time until the advent of this longlooked-for phenomenon had been tried. It is true, the methods were not many, being limited chiefly to that form of popular facetiae known as practical joking; and even this had assumed the seriousness of a business-pursuit. Tommy Roy, who had spent two hours in digging a ditch in front of his own door, into which a few friends casually dropped during the evening, looked ennuye and dissatisfied. The four prominent citizens, who, disguised as foot-pads, had stopped the county treasurer on the Wingdam road, were jaded from their playful efforts next morning. The principal physician and lawyer of Monte Flat, who had entered into an unhallowed conspiracy to compel the sheriff of Calaveras and his posse to serve a writ of ejectment on a grizzly bear, feebly disguised under the name of one "Major Ursus," who haunted the groves of Heavytree Hill, wore an expression of resigned weariness. Even the editor of "The Monte Flat Monitor," who had that morning written a glowing account of a battle with the Wipneck Indians, for the benefit of Eastern readers,--even HE looked grave and worn. When, at last, Abner Dean of Angel's, who had been on a visit to San Francisco, walked into the room, he was, of course, victimized in the usual way by one or two apparently honest questions, which ended in his answering them, and then falling into the trap of asking another, to his utter and complete shame and mortification; but that was all. Nobody laughed; and Abner, although a victim, did not lose his good-humor. He turned quietly on his tormentors, and said,--

"I've got something better than that--you know old man Plunkett?"

 

Everybody simultaneously spat at the stove, and nodded his head.

 

"You know he went home three years ago?" Two or three changed the position of their legs from the backs of different chairs; and one man said, "Yes."

 

"Had a good time, home?"

Everybody looked cautiously at the man who had said, "Yes;" and he, accepting the responsibility with a faint-hearted smile, said, "Yes," again, and breathed hard. "Saw his wife and child--purty gal?" said Abner cautiously. "Yes," answered the man doggedly. "Saw her photograph, perhaps?" continued Abner Dean quietly.

The man looked hopelessly around for support. Two or three, who had been sitting near him, and evidently encouraging him with a look of interest, now shamelessly abandoned him and looked another way. Henry York flushed a little, and veiled his gray eyes. The man hesitated, and then with a sickly smile, that was intended to convey the fact that he was perfectly aware of the object of this questioning, and was only humoring it from abstract good feeling, returned, "Yes," again.

"Sent home--let's see--ten thousand dollars, wasn't it?" Abner Dean went on. "Yes," reiterated the man with the same smile.

 

"Well, I thought so," said Abner quietly. "But the fact is, you see, that he never went home at all--nary time."

 

Everybody stared at Abner in genuine surprise and interest, as, with provoking calmness and a half-lazy manner, he went on,--

"You see, thar was a man down in 'Frisco as knowed him, and saw him in Sonora during the whole of that three years. He was herding sheep, or tending cattle, or spekilating all that time, and hadn't a red cent. Well it 'mounts to this,-that 'ar Plunkett ain't been east of the Rocky Mountains since '49."

The laugh which Abner Dean had the right to confidently expect came; but it was bitter and sardonic. I think indignation was apparent in the minds of his hearers. It was felt, for the first time, that there was a limit to practical joking. A deception carried on for a year, compromising the sagacity of Monte Flat, was deserving the severest reprobation. Of course, nobody had believed Plunkett; but then the supposition that it might be believed in adjacent camps that they HAD believed him was gall and bitterness. The lawyer thought that an indictment for obtaining money under false pretences might be found. The physician had long suspected him of insanity, and was not certain but that he ought to be confined. The four prominent merchants thought that the business- interests of Monte Flat demanded that something should be done. In the midst of an excited and angry discussion, the door slowly opened, and old man Plunkett staggered into the room.

He had changed pitifully in the last six months. His hair was a dusty, yellowish gray, like the chemisal on the flanks of Heavytree Hill; his face was waxen white, and blue and puffy under the eyes; his clothes were soiled and shabby, streaked in front with the stains of hurriedly eaten luncheons, and fluffy behind with the wool and hair of hurriedly-extemporized couches. In obedience to that odd law, that, the more seedy and soiled a man's garments become, the less does he seem inclined to part with them, even during that portion of the twenty-four hours when they are deemed less essential, Plunkett's clothes had gradually taken on the appearance of a kind of a bark, or an outgrowth from within, for which their possessor was not entirely responsible. Howbeit, as he entered the room, he attempted to button his coat over a dirty shirt, and passed his fingers, after the manner of some animal, over his cracker-strewn beard, in recognition of a cleanly public sentiment. But, even as he did so, the weak smile faded from his lips; and his hand, after fumbling aimlessly around a button, dropped helplessly at his side. For as he leaned his back against the bar, and faced the group, he, for the first time, became aware that every eye but one was fixed upon him. His quick, nervous apprehension at once leaped to the truth. His miserable secret was out, and abroad in the very air about him. As a last resort, he glanced despairingly at Henry York; but his flushed face was turned toward the windows.

No word was spoken. As the bar-keeper silently swung a decanter and glass before him, he took a cracker from a dish, and mumbled it with affected unconcern. He lingered over his liquor until its potency stiffened his relaxed sinews, and dulled the nervous edge of his apprehension, and then he suddenly faced around. "It don't look as if we were goin' to hev any rain much afore Christmas," he said with defiant ease.

No one made any reply.

"Just like this in '52, and again in '60. It's always been my opinion that these dry seasons come reg'lar. I've said it afore. I say it again. It's jist as I said about going home, you know," he added with desperate recklessness.

"Thar's a man," said Abner Dean lazily, ez sez you never went home. Thar's a man ez sez you've been three years in Sonora. Thar's a man ez sez you hain't seen your wife and daughter since '49. Thar's a man ez sez you've been playin' this camp for six months."

There was a dead silence. Then a voice said quite as quietly,--

 

"That man lies."

It was not the old man's voice. Everybody turned as Henry York slowly rose, stretching out his six feet of length, and, brushing away the ashes that had fallen from his pipe upon his breast, deliberately placed himself beside Plunkett, and faced the others.

"That man ain't here," continued Abner Dean, with listless indifference of voice, and a gentle pre-occupation of manner, as he carelessly allowed his right hand to rest on his hip near his revolver. "That man ain't here; but, if I'm called upon to make good what he says, why, I'm on hand."

All rose as the two men--perhaps the least externally agitated of them all-approached each other. The lawyer stepped in between them.
"Perhaps there's some mistake here. York, do you KNOW that the old man has been home?"

"Yes."

 

"How do you know it?"

 

York turned his clear, honest, frank eyes on his questioner, and without a tremor told the only direct and unmitigated lie of his life. "Because I've seen him there."

The answer was conclusive. It was known that York had been visiting the East during the old man's absence. The colloquy had diverted attention from Plunkett, who, pale and breathless, was staring at his unexpected deliverer. As he turned again toward his tormentors, there was something in the expression of his eye that caused those that were nearest to him to fall back, and sent a strange, indefinable thrill through the boldest and most reckless. As he made a step forward, the physician, almost unconsciously, raised his hand with a warning gesture; and old man Plunkett, with his eyes fixed upon the red-hot stove, and an odd smile playing about his mouth, began,--

"Yes--of course you did. Who says you didn't? It ain't no lie. I said I was goin' home--and I've been home. Haven't I? My God! I have. Who says I've been lyin'? Who says I'm dreamin'? Is it true--why don't you speak? It is true, after all. You say you saw me there: why don't you speak again? Say, say!--is it true? It's going now. O my God! it's going again. It's going now. Save me!" And with a fierce cry he fell forward in a fit upon the floor.

When the old man regained his senses, he found himself in York's cabin. A flickering fire of pine-boughs lit up the rude rafters, and fell upon a photograph tastefully framed with fir-cones, and hung above the brush whereon he lay. It was the portrait of a young girl. It was the first object to meet the old man's gaze; and it brought with it a flush of such painful consciousness, that he started, and glanced quickly around. But his eyes only encountered those of York,--clear, gray, critical, and patient,-- and they fell again.

"Tell me, old man," said York not unkindly, but with the same cold, clear tone in his voice that his eye betrayed a moment ago,--"tell me, is THAT a lie too?" and he pointed to the picture.

The old man closed his eyes, and did not reply. Two hours before, the question would have stung him into some evasion or bravado. But the revelation contained in the question, as well as the tone of York's voice, was to him now, in his pitiable condition, a relief. It was plain, even to his confused brain, that York had lied when he had indorsed his story in the bar-room; it was clear to him now that he had not been home, that he was not, as he had begun to fear, going mad. It was such a relief, that, with characteristic weakness, his former recklessness and extravagance returned. He began to chuckle, finally to laugh uproariously.

York, with his eyes still fixed on the old man, withdrew the hand with which he had taken his.

"Didn't we fool 'em nicely; eh, Yorky! He, he! The biggest thing yet ever played in this camp! I always said I'd play 'em all some day, and I have--played 'em for six months. Ain't it rich?--ain't it the richest thing you ever seed? Did you see Abner's face when he spoke 'bout that man as seed me in Sonora? Warn't it good as the minstrels? Oh, it's too much!" and, striking his leg with the palm of his hand, he almost threw himself from the bed in a paroxysm of laughter,--a paroxysm that, nevertheless, appeared to be half real and half affected.

"Is that photograph hers?" said York in a low voice, after a slight pause.

"Hers? No! It's one of the San Francisco actresses. He, he! Don't you see? I bought it for two bits in one of the bookstores. I never thought they'd swaller THAT too; but they did! Oh, but the old man played 'em this time didn't he--eh?" and he peered curiously in York's face.

"Yes, and he played ME too," said York, looking steadily in the old man's eye.

"Yes, of course," interposed Plunkett hastily; "but you know, Yorky, you got out of it well! You've sold 'em too. We've both got em on a string now--you and me--got to stick together now. You did it well, Yorky: you did it well. Why, when you said you'd seen me in York City, I'm d----d if I didn't"--

"Didn't what?" said York gently; for the old man had stopped with a pale face and wandering eye.

 

"Eh?"

 

"You say when I said I had seen you in New York you thought"--

"You lie!" said the old man fiercely. "I didn't say I thought any thing. What are you trying to go back on me for, eh?" His hands were trembling as he rose muttering from the bed, and made his way toward the hearth.

"Gimme some whiskey," he said presently "and dry up. You oughter treat anyway. Them fellows oughter treated last night. By hookey, I'd made 'em--only I fell sick."

York placed the liquor and a tin cup on the table beside him, and, going to the door, turned his back upon his guest, and looked out on the night. Although it was clear moonlight, the familiar prospect never to him seemed so dreary. The dead waste of the broad Wingdam highway never seemed so monotonous, so like the days that he had passed, and were to come to him, so like the old man in its suggestion of going sometime, and never getting there. He turned, and going up to Plunkett put his hand upon his shoulder, and said,--

"I want you to answer one question fairly and squarely."

The liquor seemed to have warmed the torpid blood in the old man's veins, and softened his acerbity; for the face he turned up to York was mellowed in its rugged outline, and more thoughtful in expression, as he said,--

"Go on, my boy."

 

"Have you a wife and--daughter?"

 

"Before God I have!"

 

The two men were silent for a moment, both gazing at the fire. Then Plunkett began rubbing his knees slowly.

"The wife, if it comes to that, ain't much," he began cautiously, "being a little on the shoulder, you know, and wantin', so to speak a liberal California education, which makes, you know, a bad combination. It's always been my opinion, that there ain't any worse. Why, she's as ready with her tongue as Abner Dean is with his revolver, only with the difference that she shoots from principle, as she calls it; and the consequence is, she's always layin' for you. It's the effete East, my boy, that's ruinin' her. It's them ideas she gets in New York and Boston that's made her and me what we are. I don't mind her havin' 'em, if she didn't shoot. But, havin' that propensity, them principles oughtn't to be lying round loose no more'n firearms."

"But your daughter?" said York.

The old man's hands went up to his eyes here, and then both hands and head dropped forward on the table. "Don't say any thing 'bout her, my boy, don't ask me now." With one hand concealing his eyes, he fumbled about with the other in his pockets for his handkerchief-- but vainly. Perhaps it was owing to this fact, that he repressed his tears; for, when he removed his hand from his eyes, they were quite dry. Then he found his voice.

"She's a beautiful girl, beautiful, though I say it; and you shall see her, my boy,-you shall see her sure. I've got things about fixed now. I shall have my plan for reducin' ores perfected a day or two; and I've got proposals from all the smeltin' works here" (here he hastily produced a bundle of papers that fell upon the floor), "and I'm goin' to send for 'em. I've got the papers here as will give me ten thousand dollars clear in the next month," he added, as he strove to collect the valuable documents again. "I'll have 'em here by Christmas, if I live; and you shall eat your Christmas dinner with me, York, my boy,--you shall sure."

With his tongue now fairly loosened by liquor and the suggestive vastness of his prospects, he rambled on more or less incoherently, elaborating and amplifying his plans, occasionally even speaking of them as already accomplished, until the moon rode high in the heavens, and York led him again to his couch. Here he lay for some time muttering to himself, until at last he sank into a heavy sleep. When York had satisfied himself of the fact, he gently took down the picture and frame, and, going to the hearth, tossed them on the dying embers, and sat down to see them burn.

The fir-cones leaped instantly into flame; then the features that had entranced San Francisco audiences nightly, flashed up and passed away (as such things are apt to pass); and even the cynical smile on York's lips faded too. And then there came a supplemental and unexpected flash as the embers fell together, and by its light York saw a paper upon the floor. It was one that had fallen from the old man's pocket. As he picked it up listlessly, a photograph slipped from its folds. It was the portrait of a young girl; and on its reverse was written in a scrawling hand, "Melinda to father."

It was at best a cheap picture, but, ah me! I fear even the deft graciousness of the highest art could not have softened the rigid angularities of that youthful figure, its self-complacent vulgarity, its cheap finery, its expressionless ill-favor. York did not look at it a second time. He turned to the letter for relief.

It was misspelled; it was unpunctuated; it was almost illegible; it was fretful in tone, and selfish in sentiment. It was not, I fear, even original in the story of its woes. It was the harsh recital of poverty, of suspicion, of mean makeshifts and compromises, of low pains and lower longings, of sorrows that were degrading, of a grief that was pitiable. Yet it was sincere in a certain kind of vague yearning for the presence of the degraded man to whom it was written,--an affection that was more like a confused instinct than a sentiment.

York folded it again carefully, and placed it beneath the old man's pillow. Then he returned to his seat by the fire. A smile that had been playing upon his face, deepening the curves behind his mustache, and gradually overrunning his clear gray eyes, presently faded away. It was last to go from his eyes; and it left there, oddly enough to those who did not know him, a tear.

He sat there for a long time, leaning forward, his head upon his hands. The wind that had been striving with the canvas roof all at once lifted its edges, and a moonbeam slipped suddenly in, and lay for a moment like a shining blade upon his shoulder; and, knighted by its touch, straightway plain Henry York arose, sustained, high- purposed and self-

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