Produced by Don Lainson
EREMA; OR, MY FATHER’S SIN
R. D. BLACKMORE
A LOST LANDMARK
“The sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
These are the words that have followed me always. This is the curse which has fallen on my life.
If I had not known my father, if I had not loved him, if I had not closed his eyes in desert silence deeper than the silence of the grave, even if I could have buried and bewailed him duly, the common business of this world and the universal carelessness might have led me down the general track that leads to nothing.
Until my father fell and died I never dreamed that he could die. I knew that his mind was quite made up to see me safe in my new home, and then himself to start again for still remoter solitudes. And when his mind was thus made up, who had ever known him fail of it?
If ever a resolute man there was, that very man was my father. And he showed it now, in this the last and fatal act of his fatal life. “Captain, here I leave you all,” he shouted to the leader of our wagon train, at a place where a dark, narrow gorge departed from the moilsome mountain track. “My reasons are my own; let no man trouble himself about them. All my baggage I leave with you. I have paid my share of the venture, and shall claim it at Sacramento. My little girl and I will take this short-cut through the mountains.”
“General!” answered the leader of our train, standing up on his board in amazement. “Forgive and forget, Sir; forgive and forget. What is a hot word spoken hotly? If not for your own sake, at least come back for the sake of your young daughter.”
“A fair haven to you!” replied my father. He offered me his hand, and we were out of sight of all that wearisome, drearisome, uncompanionable company with whom, for eight long weeks at least, we had been dragging our rough way. I had known in a moment that it must be so, for my father never argued. Argument, to his mind, was a very nice amusement for the weak. My spirits rose as he swung his bear-skin bag upon his shoulder, and the last sound of the laboring caravan groaned in the distance, and the fresh air and the freedom of the mountains moved around us. It was the 29th of May–Oak-apple Day in England–and to my silly youth this vast extent of snowy mountains was a nice place for a cool excursion.
Moreover, from day to day I had been in most wretched anxiety, so long as we remained with people who could not allow for us. My father, by his calm reserve and dignity and largeness, had always, among European people, kept himself secluded; but now in this rough life, so pent in trackless tracts, and pressed together by perpetual peril, every body’s manners had been growing free and easy. Every man had been compelled to tell, as truly as he could, the story of his life thus far, to amuse his fellow-creatures– every man, I mean, of course, except my own poor father. Some told their stories every evening, until we were quite tired–although they were never the same twice over; but my father could never be coaxed to say a syllable more than, “I was born, and I shall die.”
This made him very unpopular with the men, though all the women admired it; and if any rough fellow could have seen a sign of fear, the speaker would have been insulted. But his manner and the power of his look were such that, even after ardent spirits, no man saw fit to be rude to him. Nevertheless, there had always been the risk of some sad outrage.
“Erema,” my father said to me, when the dust from the rear of the caravan was lost behind a cloud of rocks, and we two stood in the wilderness alone–“do you know, my own Erema, why I bring you from them?”
“Father dear, how should I know? You have done it, and it must be right.”
“It is not for their paltry insults. Child, you know what I think all that. It is for you, my only child, that I am doing what now I do.”
I looked up into his large, sad eyes without a word, in such a way that he lifted me up in his arms and kissed me, as if I were a little child instead of a maiden just fifteen. This he had never done before, and it made me a little frightened. He saw it, and spoke on the spur of the thought, though still with one arm round me.
“Perhaps you will live to be thankful, my dear, that you had a stern, cold father. So will you meet the world all the better; and, little one, you have a rough world to meet.”
For a moment I was quite at a loss to account for my father’s manner; but now, in looking back, it is so easy to see into things. At the time I must have been surprised, and full of puzzled eagerness.
Not half so well can I recall the weakness, anguish, and exhaustion of body and spirit afterward. It may have been three days of wandering, or it may have been a week, or even more than that, for all that I can say for certain. Whether the time were long or short, it seemed as if it would never end. My father believed that he knew the way to the house of an old settler, at the western foot of the mountains, who had treated him kindly some years before, and with whom he meant to leave me until he had made arrangements elsewhere. If we had only gone straightway thither, night-fall would have found us safe beneath that hospitable roof.
My father was vexed, as I well remember, at coming, as he thought, in sight of some great landmark, and finding not a trace of it. Although his will was so very strong, his temper was good about little things, and he never began to abuse all the world because he had made a mistake himself.
“Erema,” he said, “at this corner where we stand there ought to be a very large pine-tree in sight, or rather a great redwood-tree, at least twice as high as any tree that grows in Europe, or Africa even. From the plains it can be seen for a hundred miles or more. It stands higher up the mountainside than any other tree of even half its size, and that makes it so conspicuous. My eyes must be failing me, from all this glare; but it must be in sight. Can you see it now?”
“I see no tree of any kind whatever, but scrubby bushes and yellow tufts; and oh, father, I am so thirsty!”
“Naturally. But now look again. It stands on a ridge, the last ridge that bars the view of all the lowland. It is a very straight tree, and regular, like a mighty column, except that on the northern side the wind from the mountains has torn a gap in it. Are you sure that you can not see it–a long way off, but conspicuous?”
“Father, I am sure that I can not see any tree half as large as a broomstick. Far or near, I see no tree.”
“Then my eyes are better than my memory. We must cast back for a mile or two; but it can not make much difference.”
“Through the dust and the sand?” I began to say; but a glance from him stopped my murmuring. And the next thing I can call to mind must have happened a long time afterward.
Beyond all doubt, in this desolation, my father gave his life for mine. I did not know it at the time, nor had the faintest dream of it, being so young and weary-worn, and obeying him by instinct. It is a fearful thing to think of–now that I can think of it–but to save my own little worthless life I must have drained every drop of water from his flat half-gallon jar. The water was hot and the cork-hole sandy, and I grumbled even while drinking it; and what must my father (who was dying all the while for a drop, but never took one)–what must he have thought of me?
But he never said a word, so far as I remember; and that makes it all the worse for me. We had strayed away into a dry, volcanic district of the mountains, where all the snow-rivers run out quite early; and of natural springs there was none forth-coming. All we had to guide us was a little traveler’s compass (whose needle stuck fast on the pivot with sand) and the glaring sun, when he came to sight behind the hot, dry, driving clouds. The clouds were very low, and flying almost in our faces, like vultures sweeping down on us. To me they seemed to shriek over our heads at the others rushing after them. But my father said that they could make no sound, and I never contradicted him.
A PACIFIC SUNSET
At last we came to a place from which the great spread of the earth was visible. For a time–I can not tell how long–we had wholly lost ourselves, going up and down, and turning corners, without getting further. But my father said that we must come right, if we made up our minds to go long enough. We had been in among all shapes, and want of shapes, of dreariness, through and in and out of every thrup and thrum of weariness, scarcely hoping ever more to find our way out and discover memory of men for us, when all of a sudden we saw a grand sight. The day had been dreadfully hot and baffling, with sudden swirls of red dust arising, and driving the great drought into us. To walk had been worse than to drag one’s way through a stubbly bed of sting-nettles. But now the quick sting of the sun was gone, and his power descending in the balance toward the flat places of the land and sea. And suddenly we looked forth upon an immeasurable spread of these.
We stood at the gate of the sandy range, which here, like a vast brown patch, disfigures the beauty of the sierra. On either side, in purple distance, sprang sky-piercing obelisks and vapor-mantled glaciers, spangled with bright snow, and shodden with eternal forest. Before us lay the broad, luxuriant plains of California, checkered with more tints than any other piece of earth can show, sleeping in alluvial ease, and veined with soft blue waters. And through a gap in the brown coast range, at twenty leagues of distance, a light (so faint as to seem a shadow) hovered above the Pacific.
But none of all this grandeur touched our hearts except the water gleam. Parched with thirst, I caught my father’s arm and tried to urge him on toward the blue enchantment of ecstatic living water. But, to my surprise, he staggered back, and his face grew as white as the distant snow. I managed to get him to a sandy ledge, with the help of his own endeavors, and there let him rest and try to speak, while my frightened heart throbbed over his.
“My little child,” he said at last, as if we were fallen back ten years, “put your hand where I can feel it.”
My hand all the while had been in his, and to let him know where it was, it moved. But cold fear stopped my talking.
“My child, I have not been kind to you,” my father slowly spoke again, “but it has not been from want of love. Some day you will see all this, and some day you will pardon me.”
He laid one heavy arm around me, and forgetting thirst and pain, with the last intensity of eyesight watched the sun departing. To me, I know not how, great awe was every where, and sadness. The conical point of the furious sun, which like a barb had pierced us, was broadening into a hazy disk, inefficient, but benevolent. Underneath him depth of night was waiting to come upward (after letting him fall through) and stain his track with redness. Already the arms of darkness grew in readiness to receive him: his upper arc was pure and keen, but the lower was flaked with atmosphere; a glow of hazy light soon would follow, and one bright glimmer (addressed more to the sky than to the earth), and after that a broad, soft gleam; and after that how many a man should never see the sun again, and among them would be my father.
He, for the moment, resting there, with heavy light upon him, and the dark jaws of the mountain desert yawning wide behind him, and all the beautiful expanse of liberal earth before him–even so he seemed to me, of all the things in sight, the one that first would draw attention. His face was full of quiet grandeur and impressive calm, and the sad tranquillity which comes to those who know what human life is through continual human death. Although, in the matter of bodily strength, he was little past the prime of life, his long and abundant hair was white, and his broad and upright forehead marked with the meshes of the net of care. But drought and famine and long fatigue had failed even now to change or weaken the fine expression of his large, sad eyes. Those eyes alone would have made the face remarkable among ten thousand, so deep with settled gloom they were, and dark with fatal sorrow. Such eyes might fitly have told the grief of Adrastus, son of Gordias, who, having slain his own brother unwitting, unwitting slew the only son of his generous host and savior.
The pale globe of the sun hung trembling in the haze himself had made. My father rose to see the last, and reared his tall form upright against the deepening background. He gazed as if the course of life lay vanishing below him, while level land and waters drew the breadth of shadow over them. Then the last gleam flowed and fled upon the face of ocean, and my father put his dry lips to my forehead, saying nothing.
His lips might well be dry, for he had not swallowed water for three days; but it frightened me to feel how cold they were, and even tremulous. “Let us run, let us run, my dear father!” I cried. “Delicious water! The dark falls quickly; but we can get there before dark. It is all down hill. Oh, do let us run at once!”
“Erema,” he answered, with a quiet smile, “there is no cause now for hurrying, except that I must hurry to show you what you have to do, my child. For once, at the end of my life, I am lucky. We have escaped from that starving desert at a spot–at a spot where we can see–“
For a little while he could say no more, but sank upon the stony seat, and the hand with which he tried to point some distant landmark fell away. His face, which had been so pale before, became of a deadly whiteness, and he breathed with gasps of agony. I knelt before him and took his hands, and tried to rub the palms, and did whatever I could think of.
“Oh, father, father, you have starved yourself, and given every thing to me! What a brute I was to let you do it! But I did not know; I never knew! Please God to take me also!”
He could not manage to answer this, even if he understood it; but he firmly lifted his arm again, and tried to make me follow it.
“What does it matter? Oh, never mind, never mind such, a wretch as I am! Father, only try to tell me what I ought to do for you.”
“My child! my child!” were his only words; and he kept on saying, “My child! my child!” as if he liked the sound of it.
At what time of the night my father died I knew not then or afterward. It may have been before the moon came over the snowy mountains, or it may not have been till the worn-out stars in vain repelled the daybreak. All I know is that I ever strove to keep more near to him through the night, to cherish his failing warmth, and quicken the slow, laborious, harassed breath. From time to time he tried to pray to God for me and for himself; but every time his mind began to wander and to slip away, as if through want of practice. For the chills of many wretched years had deadened and benumbed his faith. He knew me, now and then, betwixt the conflict and the stupor; for more than once he muttered feebly, and as if from out a dream,
“Time for Erema to go on her way. Go on your way, and save your life; save your life, Erema.”
There was no way for me to go, except on my knees before him. I took his hands, and made them lissome with a soft, light rubbing. I whispered into his ear my name, that he might speak once more to me; and when he could not speak, I tried to say what he would say to me.
At last, with a blow that stunned all words, it smote my stupid, wandering mind that all I had to speak and smile to, all I cared to please and serve, the only one left to admire and love, lay here in my weak arms quite dead. And in the anguish of my sobbing, little things came home to me, a thousand little things that showed how quietly he had prepared for this, and provided for me only. Cold despair and self-reproach and strong rebellion dazed me, until I lay at my father’s side, and slept with his dead hand in mine. There in the desert of desolation pious awe embraced me, and small phantasms of individual fear could not come nigh me.
By-and-by long shadows of morning crept toward me dismally, and the pallid light of the hills was stretched in weary streaks away from me. How I arose, or what I did, or what I thought, is nothing now. Such times are not for talking of. How many hearts of anguish lie forlorn, with none to comfort them, with all the joy of life died out, and all the fear of having yet to live, in front arising!
Young and weak, and wrong of sex for doing any valiance, long I lay by my father’s body, wringing out my wretchedness. Thirst and famine now had flown into the opposite extreme; I seemed to loathe the thought of water, and the smell of food would have made me sick. I opened my father’s knapsack, and a pang of new misery seized me. There lay nearly all his rations, which he had made pretense to eat as he gave me mine from time to time. He had starved himself; since he failed of his mark, and learned our risk of famishing, all his own food he had kept for me, as well as his store of water. And I had done nothing but grumble and groan, even while consuming every thing. Compared with me, the hovering vultures might be considered angels.
When I found all this, I was a great deal too worn out to cry or sob. Simply to break down may be the purest mercy that can fall on truly hopeless misery. Screams of ravenous maws and flaps of fetid wings came close to me, and, fainting into the arms of death, I tried to save my father’s body by throwing my own over it.
A STURDY COLONIST
For the contrast betwixt that dreadful scene and the one on which my dim eyes slowly opened, three days afterward, first I thank the Lord in heaven, whose gracious care was over me, and after Him some very simple members of humanity.
A bronze-colored woman, with soft, sad eyes, was looking at me steadfastly. She had seen that, under tender care, I was just beginning to revive, and being acquainted with many troubles, she had learned to succor all of them. This I knew not then, but felt that kindness was around me.
“Arauna, arauna, my shild,” she said, in a strange but sweet and soothing voice, “you are with the good man in the safe, good house. Let old Suan give you the good food, my shild.”
“Where is my father? Oh, show me my father?” I whispered faintly, as she raised me in the bed and held a large spoon to my lips.
“You shall–you shall; it is too very much Inglese; me tell you when have long Sunday time to think. My shild, take the good food from poor old Suan.”
She looked at me with such beseeching eyes that, even if food had been loathsome to me, I could not have resisted her; whereas I was now in the quick-reviving agony of starvation. The Indian woman fed me with far greater care than I was worth, and hushed me, with some soothing process, into another abyss of sleep.
More than a week passed by me thus, in the struggle between life and death, before I was able to get clear knowledge of any body or any thing. No one, in my wakeful hours, came into my little bedroom except this careful Indian nurse, who hushed me off to sleep whenever I wanted to ask questions. Suan Isco, as she was called, possessed a more than mesmeric power of soothing a weary frame to rest; and this was seconded, where I lay, by the soft, incessant cadence and abundant roar of water. Thus every day I recovered strength and natural impatience.
“The master is coming to see you, shild,” Suan said to me one day, when I had sat up and done my hair, and longed to be down by the water-fall; “if, if–too much Inglese–old Suan say no more can now.”
“If I am ready and able and willing! Oh, Suan, run and tell him not to lose one moment.”
“No sure; Suan no sure at all,” she answered, looking at me calmly, as if there were centuries yet to spare. “Suan no hurry; shild no hurry; master no hurry: come last of all.”
“I tell you, Suan, I want to see him. And I am not accustomed to be kept waiting. My dear father insisted always–But oh, Suan, Suan, he is dead–I am almost sure of it.”
“Him old man quite dead enough, and big hole dug in the land for him. Very good; more good than could be. Suan no more Inglese.”
Well as I had known it long, a catching of the breath and hollow, helpless pain came through me, to meet in dry words thus the dread which might have been but a hovering dream. I turned my face to the wall, and begged her not to send the master in.
But presently a large, firm hand was laid on my shoulder softly, and turning sharply round, I beheld an elderly man looking down at me. His face was plain and square and solid, with short white curls on a rugged forehead, and fresh red cheeks, and a triple chin–fit base for remarkably massive jaws. His frame was in keeping with his face, being very large and powerful, though not of my father’s commanding height. His dress and appearance were those of a working–and a really hard-working–man, sober, steadfast, and self-respecting; but what engaged my attention most was the frank yet shrewd gaze of deep-set eyes. I speak of things as I observed them later, for I could not pay much heed just then.
“‘Tis a poor little missy,” he said, with a gentle tone. “What things she hath been through! Will you take an old man’s hand, my dear? Your father hath often taken it, though different from his rank of life. Sampson Gundry is my name, missy. Have you ever heard your father tell of it?”
“Many and many a time,” I said, as I placed my hot little hand in his. “He never found more than one man true on earth, and it was you, Sir.”
“Come, now,” he replied, with his eyes for a moment sparkling at my warmth of words; “you must not have that in your young head, missy. It leads to a miserable life. Your father hath always been unlucky–the most unlucky that ever I did know. And luck cometh out in nothing clearer than in the kind of folk we meet. But the Lord in heaven ordereth all. I speak like a poor heathen.”
“Oh, never mind that!” I cried: “only tell me, were you in time to save–to save–” I could not bear to say what I wanted.
“In plenty of time, my dear; thanks to you. You must have fought when you could not fight: the real stuff, I call it. Your poor father lies where none can harm him. Come, missy, missy, you must not take on so. It is the best thing that could befall a man so bound up with calamity. It is what he hath prayed for for many a year–if only it were not for you. And now you are safe, and for sure he knows it, if the angels heed their business.”
With these words he withdrew, and kindly sent Suan back to me, knowing that her soothing ways would help me more than argument. To my mind all things lay in deep confusion and abasement. Overcome with bodily weakness and with bitter self-reproach, I even feared that to ask any questions might show want of gratitude. But a thing of that sort could not always last, and before very long I was quite at home with the history of Mr. Gundry.
Solomon Gundry, of Mevagissey, in the county of Cornwall, in England, betook himself to the United States in the last year of the last century. He had always been a most upright man, as well as a first-rate fisherman; and his family had made a rule–as most respectable families at that time did–to run a nice cargo of contraband goods not more than twice in one season. A highly querulous old lieutenant of the British navy (who had served under Nelson and lost both, arms, yet kept “the rheumatics” in either stump) was appointed, in an evil hour, to the Cornish coast-guard; and he never rested until he had caught all the best county families smuggling. Through this he lost his situation, and had to go to the workhouse; nevertheless, such a stir had been roused that (to satisfy public opinion) they made a large sacrifice of inferior people, and among them this Solomon Gundry. Now the Gundries had long been a thickset race, and had furnished some champion wrestlers; and Solomon kept to the family stamp in the matter of obstinacy. He made a bold mark at the foot of a bond for 150 pounds; and with no other sign than that, his partner in their stanch herring-smack (the Good Hope, of Mevagissey) allowed him to make sail across the Atlantic with all he cared for.
This Cornish partner deserved to get all his money back; and so he did, together with good interest. Solomon Gundry throve among a thrifty race at Boston; he married a sweet New England lass, and his eldest son was Sampson. Sampson, in the prime of life, and at its headstrong period, sought the far West, overland, through not much less of distance, and through even more of danger, than his English father had gone through. His name was known on the western side of the mighty chain of mountains before Colonel Fremont was heard of there, and before there was any gleam of gold on the lonely sunset frontage.
Here Sampson Gundry lived by tillage of the nobly fertile soil ere Sacramento or San Francisco had any name to speak of. And though he did not show regard for any kind of society, he managed to have a wife and son, and keep them free from danger. But (as it appears to me the more, the more I think of every thing) no one must assume to be aside the reach of Fortune because he has gathered himself so small that she should not care to strike at him. At any rate, good or evil powers smote Sampson Gundry heavily.
First he lost his wife, which was a “great denial” to him. She fell from a cliff while she was pegging out the linen, and the substance of her frame prevented her from ever getting over it. And after that he lost his son, his only son–for all the Gundries were particular as to quality; and the way in which he lost his son made it still more sad for him.
A reputable and valued woman had disappeared in a hasty way from a cattle-place down the same side of the hills. The desire of the Indians was to enlarge her value and get it. There were very few white men as yet within any distance to do good; but Sampson Gundry vowed that, if the will of the Lord went with him, that woman should come back to her family without robbing them of sixpence. To this intent he started with a company of some twenty men–white or black or middle-colored (according to circumstances). He was their captain, and his son Elijah their lieutenant. Elijah had only been married for a fortnight, but was full of spirit, and eager to fight with enemies; and he seems to have carried this too far; for all that came back to his poor bride was a lock of his hair and his blessing. He was buried in a bed of lava on the western slope of Shasta, and his wife died in her confinement, and was buried by the Blue River.
It was said at the time and long afterward that Elijah Gundry–thus cut short–was the finest and noblest young man to be found from the mountains to the ocean. His father, in whose arms he died, led a sad and lonely life for years, and scarcely even cared (although of Cornish and New England race) to seize the glorious chance of wealth which lay at his feet beseeching him. By settlement he had possessed himself of a large and fertile district, sloping from the mountain-foot along the banks of the swift Blue River, a tributary of the San Joaquin. And this was not all; for he also claimed the ownership of the upper valley, the whole of the mountain gorge and spring head, whence that sparkling water flows. And when that fury of gold-digging in 1849 arose, very few men could have done what he did without even thinking twice of it.
For Sampson Gundry stood, like a bull, on the banks of his own river, and defied the worst and most desperate men of all nations to pollute it. He had scarcely any followers or steadfast friends to back him; but his fame for stern courage was clear and strong, and his bodily presence most manifest. Not a shovel was thrust nor a cradle rocked in the bed of the Blue River.
But when a year or two had passed, and all the towns and villages, and even hovels and way-side huts, began to clink with money, Mr. Gundry gradually recovered a wholesome desire to have some. For now his grandson Ephraim was growing into biped shape, and having lost his mother when he first came into the world, was sure to need the more natural and maternal nutriment of money.
Therefore Sampson Gundry, though he would not dig for gold, wrought out a plan which he had long thought of. Nature helped him with all her powers of mountain, forest, and headlong stream. He set up a saw-mill, and built it himself; and there was no other to be found for twelve degrees of latitude and perhaps a score of longitude.
THE “KING OF THE MOUNTAINS.”
If I think, and try to write forever with the strongest words, I can not express to any other mind a thousandth part of the gratitude which was and is, and ought to be forever, in my own poor mind toward those who were so good to me. From time to time it is said (whenever any man with power of speech or fancy gets some little grievances) that all mankind are simply selfish, miserly, and miserable. To contradict that saying needs experience even larger, perhaps, than that which has suggested it; and this I can not have, and therefore only know that I have not found men or women behave at all according to that view of them.
Whether Sampson Gundry owed any debt, either of gratitude or of loyalty, to my father, I did not ask; and he seemed to be (like every one else) reserved and silent as to my father’s history. But he always treated me as if I belonged to a rank of life quite different from and much above his own. For instance, it was long before he would allow me to have my meals at the table of the household.
But as soon as I began in earnest to recover from starvation, loss, and loneliness, my heart was drawn to this grand old man, who had seen so many troubles. He had been here and there in the world so much, and dealt with so many people, that the natural frankness of his mind was sharpened into caution. But any weak and helpless person still could get the best of him; and his shrewdness certainly did not spring from any form of bitterness. He was rough in his ways sometimes, and could not bear to be contradicted when he was sure that he was right, which generally happened to him. But above all things he had one very great peculiarity, to my mind highly vexatious, because it seemed so unaccountable. Sampson Gundry had a very low opinion of feminine intellect. He never showed this contempt in any unpleasant way, and indeed he never, perhaps, displayed it in any positive sayings. But as I grew older and began to argue, sure I was that it was there; and it always provoked me tenfold as much by seeming to need no assertion, but to stand as some great axiom.
The other members of the household were his grandson Ephraim (or “Firm” Gundry), the Indian woman Suan Isco, and a couple of helps, of race or nation almost unknown to themselves. Suan Isco belonged to a tribe of respectable Black Rock Indians, and had been the wife of a chief among them, and the mother of several children. But Klamath Indians, enemies of theirs (who carried off the lady of the cattle ranch, and afterward shot Elijah), had Suan Isco in their possession, having murdered her husband and children, and were using her as a mere beast of burden, when Sampson Gundry fell on them. He, with his followers, being enraged at the cold-blooded death of Elijah, fell on those miscreants to such purpose that women and children alone were left to hand down their bad propensities.
But the white men rescued and brought away the stolen wife of the stockman, and also the widow of the Black Rock chief. She was in such poor condition and so broken-hearted that none but the finest humanity would have considered her worth a quarter of the trouble of her carriage. But she proved to be worth it a thousandfold; and Sawyer Gundry (as now he was called) knew by this time all the value of uncultivated gratitude. And her virtues were so many that it took a long time to find them out, for she never put them forward, not knowing whether they were good or bad.
Until I knew these people, and the pure depth of their kindness, it was a continual grief to me to be a burden upon them. But when I came to understand them and their simple greatness, the only thing I was ashamed of was my own mistrust of them. Not that I expected ever that any harm would be done to me, only that I knew myself to have no claim on any one.
One day, when I was fit for nothing but to dwell on trouble, Sampson Gundry’s grandson “Firm”–as he was called for Ephraim–ran up the stairs to the little room where I was sitting by myself.
“Miss Rema, will you come with us?” he said, in his deep, slow style of speech. “We are going up the mountain, to haul down the great tree to the mill.”
“To be sure I will come,” I answered, gladly. “What great tree is it, Mr. Ephraim?”
“The largest tree any where near here–the one we cut down last winter. Ten days it took to cut it down. If I could have saved it, it should have stood. But grandfather did it to prove his rights. We shall have a rare job to lead it home, and I doubt if we can tackle it. I thought you might like to see us try.”
In less than a minute I was ready, for the warmth and softness of the air made cloak or shawl unbearable. But when I ran down to the yard of the mill, Mr. Gundry, who was giving orders, came up and gave me an order too.
“You must not go like this, my dear. We have three thousand feet to go upward. The air will be sharp up there, and I doubt if we shall be home by night-fall. Run, Suan, and fetch the young lady’s cloak, and a pair of thicker boots for change.”
Suan Isco never ran. That manner of motion was foreign to her, at least as we accomplish it. When speed was required, she attained it by increased length of stride and great vigor of heel. In this way she conquered distance steadily, and with very little noise.
The air, and the light, and the beauty of the mountains were a sudden joy to me. In front of us all strode Sampson Gundry, clearing all tangles with a short, sharp axe, and mounting steep places as if twoscore were struck off his threescore years and five. From time to time he turned round to laugh, or see that his men and trained bullocks were right; and then, as his bright eyes met my dark ones, he seemed to be sorry for the noise he made. On the other hand, I was ashamed of damping any one’s pleasure by being there.
But I need not have felt any fear about this. Like all other children, I wrapped myself up too much in my own importance, and behaved as if my state of mind was a thing to be considered. But the longer we rose through the freedom and the height, the lighter grew the heart of every one, until the thick forest of pines closed round us, and we walked in a silence that might be felt.
Hence we issued forth upon the rough bare rock, and after much trouble with the cattle, and some bruises, stood panting on a rugged cone, or crest, which had once been crowned with a Titan of a tree. The tree was still there, but not its glory; for, alas! the mighty trunk lay prostrate–a grander column than ever was or will be built by human hands. The tapering shaft stretched out of sight for something like a furlong, and the bulk of the butt rose over us so that we could not see the mountains. Having never seen any such tree before, I must have been amazed if I had been old enough to comprehend it.
Sampson Gundry, large as he was, and accustomed to almost every thing, collected his men and the whole of his team on the ground- floor or area of the stump before he would say any thing. Here we all looked so sadly small that several of the men began to laugh; the bullocks seemed nothing but raccoons or beavers to run on the branches or the fibres of the tree; and the chains and the shackles, and the blocks and cranes, and all the rest of the things they meant to use, seemed nothing whatever, or at all to be considered, except as a spider’s web upon this tree.
The sagacious bullocks, who knew quite well what they were expected to do, looked blank. Some rubbed their horns into one another’s sadly, and some cocked their tails because they felt that they could not be called upon to work. The light of the afternoon sun came glancing along the vast pillar, and lit its dying hues– cinnamon, purple, and glabrous red, and soft gray where the lichens grew.
Every body looked at Mr. Gundry, and he began to cough a little, having had lately some trouble with his throat. Then in his sturdy manner he spoke the truth, according to his nature. He set his great square shoulders against the butt of the tree, and delivered himself:
“Friends and neighbors, and hands of my own, I am taken in here, and I own to it. It serves me right for disbelieving what my grandson, Firm Gundry, said. I knew that the tree was a big one, of course, as every body else does; but till you see a tree laid upon earth you get no grip of his girth, no more than you do of a man till he lieth a corpse. At the time of felling I could not come anigh him, by reason of an accident; and I had some words with this boy about it, which kept me away ever since that time. Firm, you were right, and I was wrong. It was a real shame, now I see it, to throw down the ‘King of the Mountains.’ But, for all that, being down, we must use him. He shall be sawn into fifty-foot lengths. And I invite you all to come again, for six or seven good turns at him.”
At the hearing of this, a cheer arose, not only for the Sawyer’s manly truth, but also for his hospitality; because on each of these visits to the mountain he was the host, and his supplies were good. But before the descent with the empty teams began, young Ephraim did what appeared to me to be a gallant and straightforward thing. He stood on the chine of the fallen monster, forty feet above us, having gained the post of vantage by activity and strength, and he asked if he might say a word or two.
“Say away, lad,” cried his grandfather, supposing, perhaps, in his obstinate way (for truly he was very obstinate), that his grandson was going now to clear himself from art or part in the murder of that tree–an act which had roused indignation over a hundred leagues of lowland.
“Neighbors,” said Firm, in a clear young voice, which shook at first with diffidence, “we all have to thank you, more than I can tell, for coming to help us with this job. It was a job which required to be done for legal reasons which I do not understand, but no doubt they were good ones. For that we have my grandfather’s word; and no one, I think, will gainsay it. Now, having gone so far, we will not be beaten by it, or else we shall not be Americans.”
These simple words were received with great applause; and an orator, standing on the largest stump to be found even in America, delivered a speech which was very good to hear, but need not now be repeated. And Mr. Gundry’s eyes were moist with pleasure at his grandson’s conduct.
“Firm knoweth the right thing to do,” he said; “and like a man he doeth it. But whatever aileth you, Miss Rema, and what can ‘e see in the distance yonner? Never mind, my dear, then. Tell me by- and-by, when none of these folk is ‘longside of us.”
But I could not bear to tell him, till he forced it from me under pain of his displeasure. I had spied on the sky-line far above us, in the desert track of mountain, the very gap in which my father stood and bade me seek this landmark. His memory was true, and his eyesight also; but the great tree had been felled. The death of the “King of the Mountains” had led to the death of the king of mankind, so far as my little world contained one.
The influence of the place in which I lived began to grow on me. The warmth of the climate and the clouds of soft and fertile dust were broken by the refreshing rush of water and the clear soft green of leaves. We had fruit trees of almost every kind, from the peach to the amber cherry, and countless oaks by the side of the river–not large, but most fantastic. Here I used to sit and wonder, in a foolish, childish way, whether on earth there was any other child so strangely placed as I was. Of course there were thousands far worse off, more desolate and destitute, but was there any more thickly wrapped in mystery and loneliness?
A wanderer as I had been for years, together with my father, change of place had not supplied the knowledge which flows from lapse of time. Faith, and warmth, and trust in others had not been dashed out of me by any rude blows of the world, as happens with unlucky children huddled together in large cities. My father had never allowed me much acquaintance with other children; for six years he had left me with a community of lay sisters, in a little town of Languedoc, where I was the only pupil, and where I was to remain as I was born, a simple heretic. Those sisters were very good to me, and taught me as much as I could take of secular accomplishment. And it was a bitter day for me when I left them for America.
For during those six years I had seen my father at long intervals, and had almost forgotten the earlier days when I was always with him. I used to be the one little comfort of his perpetual wanderings, when I was a careless child, and said things to amuse him. Not that he ever played with me any more than he played with any thing; but I was the last of his seven children, and he liked to watch me grow. I never knew it, I never guessed it, until he gave his life for mine; but, poor little common thing as I was, I became his only tie to earth. Even to me he was never loving, in the way some fathers are. He never called me by pet names, nor dandled me on his knee, nor kissed me, nor stroked down my hair and smiled. Such things I never expected of him, and therefore never missed them; I did not even know that happy children always have them.
But one thing I knew, which is not always known to happier children: I had the pleasure of knowing my own name. My name was an English one–Castlewood–and by birth I was an English girl, though of England I knew nothing, and at one time spoke and thought most easily in French. But my longing had always been for England, and for the sound of English voices and the quietude of English ways. In the chatter and heat and drought of South France some faint remembrance of a greener, cooler, and more silent country seemed to touch me now and then. But where in England I had lived, or when I had left that country, or whether I had relations there, and why I was doomed to be a foreign girl–all these questions were but as curling wisps of cloud on memory’s sky.
Of such things (much as I longed to know a good deal more about them) I never had dared to ask my father; nor even could I, in a roundabout way, such as clever children have, get second-hand information. In the first place, I was not a clever child; for the next point, I never had underhand skill; and finally, there was no one near me who knew any thing about me. Like all other girls–and perhaps the very same tendency is to be found in boys–I had strong though hazy ideas of caste. The noble sense of equality, fraternity, and so on, seems to come later in life than childhood, which is an age of ambition. I did not know who in the world I was, but felt quite sure of being somebody.
One day, when the great tree had been sawn into lengths, and with the aid of many teams brought home, and the pits and the hoisting tackle were being prepared and strengthened to deal with it, Mr. Gundry, being full of the subject, declared that he would have his dinner in the mill yard. He was anxious to watch, without loss of time, the settlement of some heavy timbers newly sunk in the river’s bed, to defend the outworks of the mill. Having his good leave to bring him his pipe, I found him sitting upon a bench with a level fixed before him, and his empty plate and cup laid by, among a great litter of tools and things. He was looking along the level with one eye shut, and the other most sternly intent; but when I came near he rose and raised his broad pith hat, and made me think that I was not interrupting him.
“Here is your pipe, Uncle Sam,” I said; for, in spite of all his formal ways, I would not be afraid of him. I had known him now quite long enough to be sure he was good and kind. And I knew that the world around these parts was divided into two hemispheres, the better half being of those who loved, and the baser half made of those who hated, Sawyer Sampson Gundry.
“What a queer world it is!” said Mr. Gundry, accepting his pipe to consider that point. “Who ever would have dreamed, fifty years agone, that your father’s daughter would ever have come with a pipe to light for my father’s son?”
“Uncle Sam,” I replied, as he slowly began to make those puffs which seem to be of the highest essence of pleasure, and wisps of blue smoke flitted through his white eyebrows and among the snowy curls of hair–“dear Uncle Sam, I am sure that it would be an honor to a princess to light a pipe for a man like you.”
“Miss Rema, I should rather you would talk no nonsense,” he answered, very shortly, and he set his eye along his level, as if I had offended him. Not knowing how to assert myself and declare that I had spoken my honest thoughts, I merely sat down on the bench and waited for him to speak again to me. But he made believe to be very busy, and scarcely to know that I was there. I had a great mind to cry, but resolved not to do it.
“Why, how is this? What’s the matter?” he exclaimed at last, when I had been watching the water so long that I sighed to know where it was going to. “Why, missy, you look as if you had never a friend in all the wide world left.”
“Then I must look very ungrateful,” I said; “for at any rate I have one, and a good one.”
“And don’t you know of any one but me, my dear?”
“You and Suan Isco and Firm–those are all I have any knowledge of.”
“‘Tis a plenty–to my mind, almost too many. My plan is to be a good friend to all, but not let too many be friends with me. Rest you quite satisfied with three, Miss Rema. I have lived a good many years, and I never had more than three friends worth a puff of my pipe.”
“But one’s own relations, Uncle Sam–people quite nearly related to us: it is impossible for them to be unkind, you know.”
“Do I, my dear? Then I wish that I did. Except one’s own father and mother, there is not much to be hoped for out of them. My own brother took a twist against me because I tried to save him from ruin; and if any man ever wished me ill, he did. And I think that your father had the same tale to tell. But there! I know nothing whatever about that.”
“Now you do, Mr. Gundry; I am certain that you do, and beg you to tell me, or rather I demand it. I am old enough now, and I am certain my dear father would have wished me to know every thing. Whatever it was, I am sure that he was right; and until I know that, I shall always be the most miserable of the miserable.”
The Sawyer looked at me as if he could not enter into my meaning, and his broad, short nose and quiet eyes were beset with wrinkles of inquiry. He quite forgot his level and his great post in the river, and tilted back his ancient hat, and let his pipe rest on his big brown arm. “Lord bless me!” he said, “what a young gal you are! Or, at least, what a young Miss Rema. What good can you do, miss, by making of a rout? Here you be in as quiet a place as you could find, and all of us likes and pities you. Your father was a wise man to settle you here in this enlightened continent. Let the doggoned old folk t’other side of the world think out their own flustrations. A female young American you are now, and a very fine specimen you will grow. ‘Tis the finest thing to be on all God’s earth.”
“No, Mr. Gundry, I am an English girl, and I mean to be an Englishwoman. The Americans may be more kind and generous, and perhaps my father thought so, and brought me here for that reason. And I may be glad to come back to you again when I have done what I am bound to do. Remember that I am the last of seven children, and do not even know where the rest are buried.”
“Now look straight afore you, missy. What do you see yonner?” The Sawyer was getting a little tired, perhaps, of this long interruption.
“I see enormous logs, and a quantity of saws, and tools I don’t even know the names of. Also I see a bright, swift river.”
“But over here, missy, between them two oaks. What do you please to see there, Miss Rema?”
“What I see there, of course, is a great saw-mill.”
“But it wouldn’t have been ‘of course,’ and it wouldn’t have been at all, if I had spent all my days a-dwelling on the injuries of my family. Could I have put that there unekaled sample of water-power and human ingenuity together without laboring hard for whole months of a stretch, except upon the Sabbath, and laying awake night after night, and bending all my intellect over it? And could I have done that, think you now, if my heart was a-mooning upon family wrongs, and this, that, and the other?”
Here Sampson Gundry turned full upon me, and folded his arms, and spread his great chin upon his deer-skin apron, and nodded briskly with his deep gray eyes, surveying me in triumph. To his mind, that mill was the wonder of the world, and any argument based upon it, with or without coherence, was, like its circular saws, irresistible. And yet he thought that women can not reason! However, I did not say another word just then, but gave way to him, as behooved a child. And not only that, but I always found him too good to be argued with–too kind, I mean, and large of heart, and wedded to his own peculiar turns. There was nothing about him that one could dislike, or strike fire at, and be captious; and he always proceeded with such pity for those who were opposed to him that they always knew they must be wrong, though he was too polite to tell them so. And he had such a pleasant, paternal way of looking down into one’s little thoughts when he put on his spectacles, that to say any more was to hazard the risk of ungrateful inexperience.
The beautiful Blue River came from the jagged depths of the mountains, full of light and liveliness. It had scarcely run six miles from its source before it touched our mill-wheel; but in that space and time it had gathered strong and copious volume. The lovely blue of the water (like the inner tint of a glacier) was partly due to its origin, perhaps, and partly to the rich, soft tone of the granite sand spread under it. Whatever the cause may have been, the river well deserved its title.
It was so bright and pure a blue, so limpid and pellucid, that it even seemed to out-vie the tint of the sky which it reflected, and the myriad sparks of sunshine on it twinkled like a crystal rain. Plodding through the parched and scorching dust of the mountain- foot, through the stifling vapor and the blinding, ochreous glare, the traveler suddenly came upon this cool and calm delight. It was not to be descried afar, for it lay below the level, and the oaks and other trees of shelter scarcely topped the narrow comb. There was no canyon, such as are–and some of them known over all the world–both to the north and south of it. The Blue River did not owe its birth to any fierce convulsion, but sparkled on its cheerful way without impending horrors. Standing here as a child, and thinking, from the manner of my father, that strong men never wept nor owned the conquest of emotion, I felt sometimes a fool’s contempt for the gushing transport of brave men. For instance, I have seen a miner, or a tamer of horses, or a rough fur-hunter, or (perhaps the bravest of all) a man of science and topography, jaded, worn, and nearly dead with drought and dearth and choking, suddenly, and beyond all hope, strike on this buried Eden. And then he dropped on his knees and spread his starved hands upward, if he could, and thanked the God who made him, till his head went round, and who knows what remembrance of loved ones came to him? And then, if he had any moisture left, he fell to a passion of weeping.
In childish ignorance I thought that this man weakly degraded himself, and should have been born a woman. But since that time I have truly learned that the bravest of men are those who feel their Maker’s Land most softly, and are not ashamed to pay the tribute of their weakness to Him.
Living, as we did, in a lonely place, and yet not far from a track along the crest of the great Californian plain from Sacramento southward, there was scarcely a week which did not bring us some traveler needing comfort. Mr. Gundry used to be told that if he would set up a rough hotel, or house of call for cattle-drovers, miners, loafers, and so on, he might turn twice the money he could ever make by his thriving saw-mill. But he only used to laugh, and say that nature had made him too honest for that; and he never thought of charging any thing for his hospitality, though if a rich man left a gold piece, or even a nugget, upon a shelf, as happened very often, Sawyer Gundry did not disdain to set it aside for a rainy day. And one of his richest or most lavish guests arrived on my account, perhaps.
It happened when daylight was growing shorter, and the red heat of the earth was gone, and the snow-line of distant granite peaks had crept already lower, and the chattering birds that spent their summer in our band of oak-trees were beginning to find their food get short, and to prime swift wings for the lowland; and I, having never felt bitter cold, was trembling at what I heard of it. For now it was clear that I had no choice but to stay where I was for the present, and be truly thankful to God and man for having the chance of doing so. For the little relics of my affairs–so far as I had any–had taken much time in arrangement, perhaps because it was so hard to find them. I knew nothing, except about my own little common wardrobe, and could give no information about the contents of my father’s packages. But these, by dint of perseverance on the part of Ephraim (who was very keen about all rights), had mainly been recovered, and Mr. Gundry had done the best that could be done concerning them. Whatever seemed of a private nature, or likely to prove important, had been brought home to Blue River Mills; the rest had been sold, and had fetched large prices, unless Mr. Gundry enlarged them.
He more than enlarged, he multiplied them, as I found out long afterward, to make me think myself rich and grand, while a beggar upon his bounty. I had never been accustomed to think of money, and felt some little contempt for it–not, indeed, a lofty hatred, but a careless wonder why it seemed to be always thought of. It was one of the last things I ever thought of; and those who were waiting for it were–until I got used to them–obliged in self-duty to remind me.
This, however, was not my fault. I never dreamed of wronging them. But I had earned no practical knowledge of the great world any where, much though I had wandered about, according to vague recollections. The duty of paying had never been mine; that important part had been done for me. And my father had such a horror always of any growth of avarice that he never gave me sixpence.
And now, when I heard upon every side continual talk of money, from Suan Isco upward, I thought at first that the New World must be different from the Old one, and that the gold mines in the neighborhood must have made them full of it; and once or twice I asked Uncle Sam; but he only nodded his head, and said that it was the practice every where. And before very long I began to perceive that he did not exaggerate.
Nothing could prove this point more clearly than the circumstance above referred to–the arrival of a stranger, for the purpose of bribing even Uncle Sam himself. This happened in the month of November, when the passes were beginning to be blocked with snow, and those of the higher mountain tracts had long been overwhelmed with it. On this particular day the air was laden with gray, oppressive clouds, threatening a heavy downfall, and instead of faring forth, as usual, to my beloved river, I was kept in-doors, and even up stairs, by a violent snow-headache. This is a crushing weight of pain, which all new-comers, or almost all, are obliged to endure, sometimes for as much as eight-and-forty hours, when the first great snow of the winter is breeding, as they express it, overhead. But I was more lucky than most people are; for after about twelve hours of almost intolerable throbbing, during which the sweetest sound was odious, and the idea of food quite loathsome, the agony left me, and a great desire for something to eat succeeded. Suan Isco, the kindest of the kind, was gone down stairs at last, for which I felt ungrateful gratitude–because she had been doing her best to charm away my pain by low, monotonous Indian ditties, which made it ten times worse; and yet I could not find heart to tell her so.
Now it must have been past six o’clock in the evening of the November day when the avalanche slid off my head, and I was able to lift it. The light of the west had been faint, and was dead; though often it used to prolong our day by the backward glance of the ocean. With pangs of youthful hunger, but a head still weak and dazy, I groped my way in the dark through the passage and down the stairs of redwood.
At the bottom, where a railed landing was, and the door opened into the house-room, I was surprised to find that, instead of the usual cheerful company enjoying themselves by the fire-light, there were only two people present. The Sawyer sat stiffly in his chair of state, delaying even the indulgence of his pipe, and having his face set sternly, as I had never before beheld it. In the visitor’s corner, as we called it, where people sat to dry themselves, there was a man, and only one.
Something told me that I had better keep back and not disturb them. The room was not in its usual state of comfort and hospitality. Some kind of meal had been made at the table, as always must be in these parts; but not of the genial, reckless sort which random travelers carried on without any check from the Sawyer. For he of all men ever born in a civilized age was the finest host, and a guest beneath his roof was sacred as a lady to a knight. Hence it happened that I was much surprised. Proper conduct almost compelled me to withdraw; but curiosity made me take just one more little peep, perhaps. Looking back at these things now, I can not be sure of every thing; and indeed if I could, I must have an almost supernatural memory. But I remember many things; and the headache may have cleared my mind.
The stranger who had brought Mr. Gundry’s humor into such stiff condition was sitting in the corner, a nook where light and shadow made an eddy. He seemed to be perfectly unconcerned about all the tricks of the hearth flame, presenting as he did a most solid face for any light to play upon. To me it seemed to be a weather-beaten face of a bluff and resolute man, the like of which we attribute to John Bull. At any rate, he was like John Bull in one respect: he was sturdy and square, and fit to hold his own with any man.
Strangers of this sort had come (as Englishmen rove every where), and been kindly welcomed by Uncle Sam, who, being of recent English blood, had a kind of hankering after it, and would almost rather have such at his board than even a true-born American; and infinitely more welcome were they than Frenchman, Spaniard, or German, or any man not to be distinguished, as was the case with some of them. Even now it was clear that the Sawyer had not grudged any tokens of honor, for the tall, square, brazen candlesticks, of Boston make, were on the table, and very little light they gave. The fire, however, was grandly roaring of stub- oak and pine antlers, and the black grill of the chimney bricks was fringed with lifting filaments. It was a rich, ripe light, affording breadth and play for shadow; and the faces of the two men glistened, and darkened in their creases.
I was dressed in black, and could not be seen, though I could see them so clearly; and I doubted whether to pass through, upon my way to the larder, or return to my room and starve a little longer; for I did not wish to interrupt, and had no idea of listening. But suddenly I was compelled to stop; and to listen became an honest thing, when I knew what was spoken of–or, at any rate, I did it.
“Castlewood, Master Colonist; Castlewood is the name of the man that I have come to ask about. And you will find it worth your while to tell me all you know of him.” Thus spoke the Englishman sitting in the corner; and he seemed to be certain of producing his effect.
“Wal,” said Uncle Sam, assuming what all true Britons believe to be the universal Yankee tone, while I knew that he was laughing in his sleeve, “Squire, I guess that you may be right. Considerations of that ‘ere kind desarves to be considered of.”
“Just so. I knew that you must see it,” the stranger continued, bravely. “A stiff upper lip, as you call it here, is all very well to begin with. But all you enlightened members of the great republic know what is what. It will bring you more than ten years’ income of your saw-mill, and farm, and so on, to deal honestly with me for ten minutes. No more beating about the bush and fencing with me, as you have done. Now can you see your own interest?”
“I never were reckoned a fool at that. Squire, make tracks, and be done with it.”
“Then, Master Colonist, or Colonel–for I believe you are all colonels here–your task is very simple. We want clear proof, sworn properly and attested duly, of the death of a villain–George Castlewood, otherwise the Honorable George Castlewood, otherwise Lord Castlewood: a man who murdered his own father ten years ago this November: a man committed for trial for the crime, but who bribed his jailers and escaped, and wandered all over the Continent. What is that noise? Have you got rats?”
“Plenty of foreign rats, and native ‘coons, and skunks, and other varmint. Wal, Squire, go on with it.”
The voice of Uncle Sam was stern, and his face full of rising fury, as I, who had made that noise in my horror, tried to hush my heart with patience.
“The story is well known,” continued the stranger: “we need make no bones of it. George Castlewood went about under a curse–“
“Not quite so loud, Squire, if you please. My household is not altogether seasoned.”
“And perhaps you have got the young lady somewhere. I heard a report to that effect. But here you think nothing of a dozen murders. Now, Gundry, let us have no squeamishness. We only want justice, and we can pay for it. Ten thousand dollars I am authorized to offer for a mere act of duty on your part. We have an extradition treaty. If the man had been alive, we must have had him. But as he has cheated the hangman by dying, we can only see his grave and have evidence. And all well-disposed people must rejoice to have such a quiet end of it. For the family is so well known, you see.”
“I see,” Mr. Gundry answered, quietly, laying a finger on his lips. “Guess you want something more than that, though, Squire. Is there nothing more than the grave to oblige a noble Britisher with?”
“Yes, Colonel; we want the girl as well. We know that she was with him in that caravan, or wagon train, or whatever you please to call it. We know that you have made oath of his death, produced his child, and obtained his trunks, and drawn his share in the insurance job. Your laws must be queer to let you do such things. In England it would have taken at least three years, and cost a deal more than the things were worth, even without a Chancery suit. However, of his papers I shall take possession; they can be of no earthly use to you.”
“To be sure. And possession of his darter too, without so much as a Chancery suit. But what is to satisfy me, Squire, agin goin’ wrong in this little transaction?”
“I can very soon satisfy you,” said the stranger, “as to their identity. Here is their full, particular, and correct description– names, weights, and colors of the parties.”
With a broad grin at his own exquisite wit, the bluff man drew forth his pocket-book, and took out a paper, which he began to smooth on his knee quite leisurely. Meanwhile, in my hiding-place, I was trembling with terror and indignation. The sense of eavesdropping was wholly lost, in that of my own jeopardy. I must know what was arranged about me; for I felt such a hatred and fear of that stranger that sooner than be surrendered to him I would rush back to my room and jump out of the window, and trust myself to the trackless forest and the snowy night. I was very nearly doing so, but just had sense enough to wait and hear what would be said of me. So I lurked in the darkness, behind the rails, while the stranger read slowly and pompously.
The Englishman drew forth a double eyeglass from a red velvet waistcoat, and mounting it on his broad nose, came nearer to get the full light of the candles. I saw him as clearly as I could wish, and, indeed, a great deal too clearly; for the more I saw of the man, the more I shrank from the thought of being in his power. Not that he seemed to be brutal or fierce, but selfish, and resolute, and hard-hearted, and scornful of lofty feelings. Short dust-colored hair and frizzly whiskers framed his large, thick- featured face, and wearing no mustache, he showed the clumsy sneer of a wide, coarse mouth. I watched him with all my eyes, because of his tone of authority about myself. He might even be my guardian or my father’s nearest relation–though he seemed to be too ill-bred for that.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Colonel,” he went on, in a patronizing tone, such as he had assumed throughout. “Here it is. Now prick your ears up, and see if these candid remarks apply. I am reading from a printed form, you see:
“‘George Castlewood is forty-eight years old, but looks perhaps ten years older. His height is over six feet two, and he does not stoop or slouch at all. His hair is long and abundant, but white; his eyes are dark, piercing, and gloomy. His features are fine, and of Italian cast, but stern, morose, and forbidding, and he never uses razor. On the back of his left hand, near the wrist, there is a broad scar. He dresses in half-mourning always, and never wears any jewelry, but strictly shuns all society, and prefers uncivilized regions. He never stays long in any town, and follows no occupation, though his aspect and carriage are military, as he has been a cavalry officer. From time to time he has been heard of in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and is now believed to be in America.
“‘His only surviving child, a girl of about fifteen, has been seen with him. She is tall and slight and very straight, and speaks French better than English. Her hair is very nearly black, and her eyes of unusual size and lustre. She is shy, and appears to have been kept under, and she has a timid smile. Whether she knows of her father’s crime or not is quite uncertain; but she follows him like a dog almost.’
“There now, Colonel,” cried the Englishman, as he folded the paper triumphantly; “most of that came from my information, though I never set eyes upon the child. Does the cap fit or not, Brother Jonathan?”
Mr. Gundry was leaning back in his own corner, with a favorite pipe, carved by himself, reposing on his waistcoat. And being thus appealed to, he looked up and rubbed his eyes as if he had been dozing, though he never had been more wide awake, as I, who knew his attitudes, could tell. And my eyes filled with tears of love and shame, for I knew by the mere turn of his chin that he never would surrender me.
“Stranger,” he said, in a most provoking drawl, “a hard day’s work tells its tale on me, you bet. You do read so bootiful, you read me hard asleep. And the gutturals of that furrin English is always a little hard to catch. Mought I trouble you just to go through it again? You likes the sound of your own voice; and no blame to you, being such a swate un.”
The Englishman looked at him keenly, as if he had some suspicion of being chaffed; but the face of the Sawyer was so grave and the bend of his head so courteous that he could not refuse to do as he was asked. But he glanced first at the whiskey bottle standing between the candlesticks; and I knew it boded ill for his errand when Uncle Sam, the most hospitable of men, feigned pure incomprehension of that glance. The man should have no more under that roof.
With a sullen air and a muttered curse, at which Mr. Gundry blew a wreath of smoke, the stranger unfolded his paper again, and saying, “Now I beg you to attend this time,” read the whole of his description, with much emphasis, again, while the Sawyer turned away and beat time upon the hearth, with his white hair, broad shoulders, and red ears prominent. The Englishman looked very seriously vexed, but went through his business doggedly. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked when he had finished.
“Wal, now, Squire,” replied Uncle Sam, still keeping up his provoking drawl, but turning round and looking at the stranger very steadfastly, “some thin’s is so pooty and so ilegantly done, they seems a’most as good as well-slung flapjacks. A natteral honest stomick can’t nohow have enough of them. Mought I be so bold, in a silly, mountaneous sort of a way, as to ax for another heerin’ of it?”
“Do you mean to insult me, Sir?” shouted the visitor, leaping up with a flaming face, and throwing himself into an attitude of attack.
“Stranger, I mought,” answered Mr. Gundry, standing squarely before him, and keeping his hands contemptuously behind his back–“I mought so do, barrin’ one little point. The cutest commissioner in all the West would have to report ‘Non compos’ if his orders was to diskiver somethin’ capable of bein’ insulted in a fellow of your natur’.”
With these words Uncle Sam sat down, and powerfully closed his mouth, signifying that now the matter was taken through every phase of discussion, and had been thoroughly exhausted. His visitor stared at him for a moment, as if at some strange phenomenon, and then fell back into self-command, without attempting bluster.
“Colonel, you are a ‘cure,’ as we call it on our side of the herring pond. What have I done to ‘riz your dander,’ as you elegantly express it here?”
“Britisher, nothing. You know no better. It takes more than that to put my back up. But forty years agone I do believe I must ‘a heaved you out o’ window.”
“Why, Colonel, why? Now be reasonable. Not a word have I said reflecting either upon you or your country; and a finer offer than I have made can not come to many of you, even in this land of gold. Ten thousand dollars I offer, and I will exceed my instructions and say fifteen, all paid on the nail by an order on Frisco, about which you may assure yourself. And what do I ask in return? Legal proof of the death of a man whom we know to be dead, and the custody of his child, for her own good.”
“Squire, I have no other answer to make. If you offered me all the gold dug in these mountains since they were discovered, I could only say what I have said before. You came from Sylvester’s ranch– there is time for you to get back ere the snow begins.”
“What a hospitable man you are! Upon my word, Gundry, you deserve to have a medal from our Humane Society. You propose to turn me out of doors to-night, with a great fall of snow impending?”
“Sir, the fault is entirely your own. What hospitality can you expect after coming to buy my guest? If you are afraid of the ten- mile ride, my man at the mill will bed you. But here you must not sleep, because I might harm you in the morning. I am apt to lose my temper sometimes, when I go on to think of things.”
“Colonel, I think I had better ride back. I fear no man, nor his temper, nor crotchets. But if I were snowed up at your mill, I never might cross the hill-foot for months; but from Sylvester’s I can always get to Minto. You refuse, then, to help me in any way?”
“More than that. I will do every thing in my power to confound you. If any one comes prowling after that young lady, he shall be shot.”
“That is most discouraging. However, you may think better of it. Write to this address if you do. You have the girl here, of course?”
“That is her concern and mine. Does your guide know the way right well! The snow is beginning. You do not know our snows, any more than you know us.”
“Never mind, Mr. Gundry. I shall do very well. You are rough in your ways, but you mean to do the right; and your indignation is virtuous. But mark my words upon one little point. If George Castlewood had been living, I have such credentials that I would have dragged him back with me in spite of all your bluster. But over his corpse I have no control, in the present condition of treaties. Neither can I meddle with his daughter, if it were worth while to do so. Keep her and make the best of her, my man. You have taken a snake in the grass to your bosom, if that is what you are up for. A very handsome girl she may be, but a bad lot, as her father was. If you wish the name of Gundry to have its due respect hereafter, let the heir of the sawmills have nothing to do with the Honorable Miss Castlewood.”
“Let alone, let alone,” Uncle Sam said, angrily. “It is well for you that the ‘heir of the saw-mills’ hath not heard your insolence. Firm is a steady lad; but he knoweth well which foot to kick with. No fear of losing the way to Sylvester’s ranch with Firm behind you. But, meddlesome as you be, and a bitter weed to my experience, it shall not be said that Sampson Gundry sent forth a fellow to be frozen. Drink a glass of hot whiskey before you get to saddle. Not in friendship, mind you, Sir, but in common human nature.”
That execrable man complied, for he began to be doubtful of the driving snow, now huddling against the window-frames. And so he went out; and when he was gone, I came forth into the fire-light, and threw my arms round the Sawyer’s neck and kissed him till he was ashamed of me.
“Miss Rema, my dear, my poor little soul, what makes you carry on so?”
“Because I have heard every word, Uncle Sam, and I was base enough to doubt you.”
A DOUBTFUL LOSS
When I tried to look out of my window in the morning, I was quite astonished at the state of things. To look out fairly was impossible; for not only was all the lower part of the frame hillocked up like a sandglass, and the sides filled in with dusky plaits, but even in the middle, where some outlook was, it led to very little. All the air seemed choked with snow, and the ground coming up in piles to meet it; all sounds were deadened in the thick gray hush, and nothing had its own proportion. Never having seen such a thing before, I was frightened, and longed to know more of it.
Mr. Gundry had a good laugh at me, in which even Suan Isco joined, when I proposed to sweep a path to the mill, and keep it open through the winter.
“It can be done–I am sure it can,” I exclaimed, with vigorous ignorance. “May I do it if I can? It only requires perseverance. If you keep on sweeping as fast as it falls, you must overcome it. Don’t you see, Uncle Sam?”
“To be sure I do, Miss Rema, as plain as any pikestaff. Suan, fetch a double bundle of new brooms from top loft, and don’t forget while you be up there to give special orders–no snow is to fall at night or when missy is at dinner.”
“You may laugh as much as you please, Uncle Sam, but I intend to try it. I must try to keep my path to–somewhere.”
“What a fool I am, to be sure!” said Mr. Gundry, softly. “There, now, I beg your pardon, my dear, for never giving a thought to it. Firm and I will do it for you, as long as the Lord allows of it. Why, the snow is two foot deep a’ready, and twenty foot in places. I wonder whether that rogue of a Goad got home to Sylvester’s ranch last night? No fault of mine if he never did, for go he would in spite of me.”
I had not been thinking of Mr. Goad, and indeed I did not know his name until it was told in this way. My mind was dwelling on my father’s grave, where I used to love to sit and think; and I could not bear the idea of the cold snow lying over it, with nobody coming to care for him. Kind hands had borne him down the mountains (while I lay between life and death) and buried him in the soft peach orchard, in the soothing sound of the mill-wheel. Here had been planted above his head a cross of white un-painted wood, bearing only his initials, and a small “Amen” below them.
With this I was quite content, believing that he would have wished no better, being a very independent man, and desirous of no kind of pomp. There was no “consecrated ground” within miles and miles of traveling; but I hoped that he might rest as well with simple tears to hallow it. For often and often, even now, I could not help giving way and sobbing, when I thought how sad it was that a strong, commanding, mighty man, of great will and large experience, should drop in a corner of the world and die, and finally be thought lucky–when he could think for himself no longer–to obtain a tranquil, unknown grave, and end with his initials, and have a water-wheel to sing to him. Many a time it set me crying, and made me long to lie down with him, until I thought of earth-worms.
All that could be done was done by Sampson and Firm Gundry, to let me have my clear path, and a clear bourne at the end of it. But even with a steam snow-shovel they could not have kept the way unstopped, such solid masses of the mountain clouds now descended over us. And never had I been so humored in my foolish wishes: I was quite ashamed to see the trouble great men took to please me.
“Well, I am sorry to hear it, Firm,” said the Sawyer, coming in one day, with clouts of snow in his snowy curls. “Not that I care a cent for the fellow–and an impudenter fellow never sucked a pipe. Still, he might have had time to mend, if his time had been as good as the room for it. However, no blame rests on us. I told him to bed down to saw-mill. They Englishmen never know when they are well off. But the horse got home, they tell me?”
“The horse got home all right, grandfather, and so did the other horse and man. But Sylvester thinks that a pile of dollars must have died out in the snow-drift. It is a queer story. We shall never know the rights.”
“How many times did I tell him,” the Sawyer replied, without much discontent, “that it were a risky thing to try the gulches, such a night as that? His own way he would have, however; and finer liars than he could ever stick up to be for a score of years have gone, time upon time, to the land of truth by means of that same view of things. They take every body else for a liar.”
“Oh, Uncle Sam, who is it?” I cried. “Is it that dreadful–that poor man who wanted to carry me away from you?”
“Now you go in, missy; you go to the fire-hearth,” Mr. Gundry answered, more roughly than usual. “Leave you all such points to the Lord. They are not for young ladies to talk about.”
“Grandfather, don’t you be too hard,” said Firm, as he saw me hurrying away. “Miss Rema has asked nothing unbecoming, but only concerning her own affairs. If we refuse to tell her, others will.”
“Very well, then, so be it,” the Sawyer replied; for he yielded more to his grandson than to the rest of the world put together. “Turn the log up, Firm, and put the pan on. You boys can go on without victuals all day, but an old man must feed regular. And, bad as he was, I thank God for sending him on his way home with his belly full. If ever he turneth up in the snow, that much can be proved to my account.”
Young as I was, and little practiced in the ways of settlers, I could not help perceiving that Uncle Sam was very much put out–not at the death of the man so sadly, as at the worry of his dying so in going from a hospitable house. Mr. Gundry cared little what any body said concerning his honor, or courage, or such like; but the thought of a whisper against his hospitality would rouse him.
“Find him, Firm, find him,” he said, in his deep sad voice, as he sat down on the antlered stump and gazed at the fire gloomily. “And when he is found, call a public postmortem, and prove that we gave him his bellyful.”
Ephraim, knowing the old man’s ways, and the manners, perhaps, of the neighborhood, beckoned to Suan to be quick with something hot, that he might hurry out again. Then he took his dinner standing, and without a word went forth to seek.
“Take the snow-harrow, and take Jowler,” the old man shouted after him, and the youth turned round at the gate and waved his cap to show that he heard him. The snow was again falling heavily, and the afternoon was waning; and the last thing we saw was the brush of the mighty tail of the great dog Jowler.
“Oh, uncle, Firm will be lost himself!” I cried, in dismay at the great white waste. “And the poor man, whoever he is, must be dead. Do call him back, or let me run.”
Mr. Gundry’s only answer was to lead me back to the fireside, where he made me sit down, and examined me, while Suan was frying the butter-beans.
“Who was it spied you on the mountains, missy, the whole of the way from the redwood-tree, although you lay senseless on the ground, and he was hard at work with the loppings?”
“Why, Ephraim, of course, Uncle Sam; every body says that nobody else could have noticed such a thing at such a distance.”
“Very well, my dear; and who was it carried you all the way to this house, without stopping, or even letting your head droop down, although it was a burning hot May morn?”
“Mr. Gundry, as if you did not know a great deal better than I do! It was weeks before I could thank him, even. But you must have seen him do it all.”
The Sawyer rubbed his chin, which was large enough for a great deal of rubbing; and when he did that, I was always sure that an argument went to his liking. He said nothing more for the present, but had his dinner, and enjoyed it.
“Supposing now that he did all that,” he resumed, about an hour afterward, “is Firm the sort of boy you would look to to lose his own self in a snow-drift? He has three men with him, and he is worth all three, let alone the big dog Jowler, who has dug out forty feet of snow ere now. If that rogue of an Englishman, Goad, has had the luck to cheat the hangman, and the honor to die in a Californy snow-drift, you may take my experience for it, missy, Firm and Jowler will find him, and clear Uncle Sam’s reputation.”
If Mr. Gundry was in one way right, he was equally wrong in the other. Firm came home quite safe and sound, though smothered with snow and most hungry; but he thought that he should have staid out all the night, because he had failed of his errand. Jowler also was full of discontent and trouble of conscience. He knew, when he kicked up his heels in the snow, that his duty was to find somebody, and being of Alpine pedigree, and trained to act up to his ancestry, he now dropped his tail with failure.
“It comes to the same thing,” said Sawyer Gundry; “it is foolish to be so particular. A thousand better men have sunk through being so pig-headed. We shall find the rogue toward the end of March, or in April, if the season suits. Firm, eat your supper and shake yourself.”
This was exactly the Sawyer’s way–to take things quietly when convinced that there was no chance to better them. He would always do his best about the smallest trifle; but after that, be the matter small or great, he had a smiling face for the end of it.
The winter, with all its weight of sameness and of dreariness, went at last, and the lovely spring from the soft Pacific found its gradual way to us. Accustomed as I was to gentler climates and more easy changes, I lost myself in admiration of this my first Californian spring. The flowers, the leagues and leagues of flowers, that burst into color and harmony–purple, yellow, and delicate lilac, woven with bright crimson threads, and fringed with emerald-green by the banks, and blue by the course of rivers, while deepened here and there by wooded shelter and cool places, with the silver-gray of the soft Pacific waning in far distance, and silken vapor drawing toward the carding forks of the mountain range; and over all the never-wearying azure of the limpid sky: child as I was, and full of little worldly troubles on my own account, these grand and noble sights enlarged me without any thinking.
The wheat and the maize were grown apace, and beans come into full blossom, and the peaches swinging in the western breeze were almost as large as walnuts, and all things in their prime of freshness, ere the yellow dust arrived, when a sudden melting of snow in some gully sent a strong flood down our Blue River. The saw-mill happened to be hard at work; and before the gear could be lifted, some damage was done to the floats by the heavy, impetuous rush of the torrent. Uncle Sam was away, and so was Firm; from which, perhaps, the mischief grew. However, the blame was all put on the river, and little more was said of it.
The following morning I went down before even Firm was out-of- doors, under some touch, perhaps, of natural desire to know things. The stream was as pure and bright as ever, hastening down its gravel-path of fine granite just as usual, except that it had more volume and a stronger sense of freshness. Only the bent of the grasses and the swath of the pendulous twigs down stream remained to show that there must have been some violence quite lately.
All Mr. Gundry’s strengthening piles and shores were as firm as need be, and the clear blue water played around them as if they were no constraint to it. And none but a practiced eye could see that the great wheel had been wounded, being undershot, and lifted now above the power of the current, according to the fine old plan of locking the door when the horse is gone.
When I was looking up and wondering where to find the mischief, Martin, the foreman, came out and crossed the plank, with his mouth full of breakfast.
“Show me,” I said, with an air, perhaps, of very young importance, “where and what the damage is. Is there any strain to the iron- work?”
“Lor’ a mercy, young missus!” he answered, gruffly, being by no means a polished man, “where did you ever hear of ironwork? Needles and pins is enough for you. Now don’t you go and make no mischief.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” I answered. “If you have been careless, that is no concern of mine.”
“Careless, indeed! And the way I works, when others is a-snorin’ in their beds! I might just as well do nort, every bit, and get more thanks and better wages. That’s the way of the world all over. Come Saturday week, I shall better myself.”
“But if it’s the way of the world all over, how will you better yourself, unless you go out of the world altogether!” I put this question to Martin with the earnest simplicity of the young, meaning no kind of sarcasm, but knowing that scarcely a week went by without his threatening to “better himself.” And they said that he had done so for seven years or more.
“Don’t you be too sharp,” he replied, with a grim smile, partly at himself, perhaps. “If half as I heard about you is true, you’ll want all your sharpness for yourself, Miss Remy. And the Britishers are worse than we be.”
“Well, Martin, I am sure you would help me,” I said, “if you saw any person injuring me. But what is it I am not to tell your master?”
“My master, indeed! Well, you need not tell old Gundry any thing about what you have seen. It might lead to hard words; and hard words are not the style of thing I put up with. If any man tries hard words with me, I knocks him down, up sticks, and makes tracks.”
I could not help smiling at the poor man’s talk. Sawyer Gundry could have taken him with one hand and tossed him over the undershot wheel.
“You forget that I have not seen any thing,” I said, “and understand nothing but ‘needles and pins.’ But, for fear of doing any harm, I will not even say that I have been down here, unless I am asked about it.”
“Miss Remy, you are a good girl, and you shall have the mill some day. Lord, don’t your little great eyes see the job they are a- doin’ of? The finest stroke in all Californy, when the stubborn old chap takes to quartz-crushing.”
All this was beyond me, and I told him so, and we parted good friends, while he shook his long head and went home to feed many pappooses. For the strangest thing of all things was, though I never at that time thought of it, that there was not any one about this place whom any one could help liking. Martin took as long as any body to be liked, until one understood him; but after that he was one of the best, in many ways that can not be described. Also there was a pair of negroes, simply and sweetly delightful. They worked all day and they sang all night, though I had not the pleasure of hearing them; and the more Suan Isco despised them– because they were black, and she was only brown–the more they made up to her, not at all because she governed the supply of victuals. It was childish to have such ideas, though Suan herself could never get rid of them. The truth, as I came to know afterward, was that a large, free-hearted, and determined man was at the head of every thing. Martin was the only one who ever grumbled, and he had established a long right to do so by never himself being grumbled at.
“I’ll be bound that poor fellow is in a sad way,” Mr. Gundry said at breakfast-time. “He knows how much he is to blame, and I fear that he won’t eat a bit for the day. Martin is a most conscientious man. He will offer to give up his berth, although it would be his simple ruin.”
I was wise enough not to say a word, though Firm looked at me keenly. He knew that I had been down at the mill, and expected me to say something.
“We all must have our little mistakes,” continued Sawyer Gundry; “but I never like to push a man when he feels it. I shall not say a syllable to Martin; and, Ephraim, you will do the like. When a fellow sticks well to his work like Martin, never blame him for a mere accident.”
Firm, according to his habit, made no answer when he did not quite agree. In talking with his own age he might have argued, but he did not argue with his grandfather.
“I shall just go down and put it right myself. Martin is a poor hand at repairing. Firm, you go up the gulch, and see if the fresh has hurt the hurdles. Missy, you may come with me, if you please, and sketch me at work in the mill-wheel. You have drawn that wheel such a sight of times, you must know every feather of it better than the man who made it.”
“Uncle Sam, you are too bad,” I said. “I have never got it right, and I never shall.”
I did not dare as yet to think what really proved to be true in the end–that I could not draw the wheel correctly because itself was incorrect. In spite of all Mr. Gundry’s skill and labor and ingenuity, the wheel was no true circle. The error began in the hub itself, and increased, of course, with the distance; but still it worked very well, like many other things that are not perfect.
Having no idea of this as yet, and doubting nothing except my own perception of “perspective,” I sat down once more in my favorite spot, and waited for the master to appear as an active figure in the midst of it. The air was particularly bright and clear, even for that pure climate, and I could even see the blue-winged flies darting in and out of the oozy floats. But half-way up the mountains a white cloud was hanging, a cloud that kept on changing shape. I only observed it as a thing to put in for my background, because I was fond of trying to tone and touch up my sketches with French chalks.
Presently I heard a harsh metallic sound and creaking of machinery. The bites, or clamps, or whatever they are called, were being put on, to keep the wheel from revolving with the Sawyer’s weight. Martin, the foreman, was grumbling and growling, according to his habit, and peering through the slot, or channel of stone, in which the axle worked, and the cheery voice of Mr. Gundry was putting down his objections. Being much too large to pass through the slot, Mr. Gundry came round the corner of the building, with a heavy leathern bag of tools strapped round his neck, and his canvas breeches girt above his knees. But the foreman staid inside to hand him the needful material into the wheel.
The Sawyer waded merrily down the shallow blue water, for he was always like a boy when he was at work, and he waved his little skull-cap to me, and swung himself up into the wheel, as if he were nearer seventeen than seventy. And presently I could only see his legs and arms as he fell to work. Therefore I also fell to work, with my best attempts at penciling, having been carefully taught enough of drawing to know that I could not draw. And perhaps I caught from the old man’s presence and the sound of his activity that strong desire to do my best which he seemed to impart to every one.
At any rate, I was so engrossed that I scarcely observed the changing light, except as a hindrance to my work and a trouble to my distance, till suddenly some great drops fell upon my paper and upon my hat, and a rush of dark wind almost swept me from the log upon which I sat. Then again all was a perfect calm, and the young leaves over the stream hung heavily on their tender foot-stalks, and the points of the breeze-swept grass turned back, and the ruffle of all things smoothed itself. But there seemed to be a sense of fear in the waiting silence of earth and air.
This deep, unnatural stillness scared me, and I made up my mind to run away. But the hammer of the Sawyer sounded as I had never heard it sound. He was much too hard at work to pay any heed to sky or stream, and the fall of his strokes was dead and hollow, as if the place resented them.
“Come away, come away,” I cried, as I ran and stood on the opposite bank to him; “there is something quite wrong in the weather, I am sure. I entreat you to come away at once, Uncle Sam. Every thing is so strange and odd.”
“Why, what’s to do now?” asked the Sawyer, coming to my side of the wheel and looking at me, with his spectacles tilted up, and his apron wedged in a piece of timber, and his solid figure resting in the impossibility of hurry. “Missy, don’t you make a noise out there. You can’t have your own way always.”
“Oh, Uncle Sam, don’t talk like that. I am in such a fright about you. Do come out and look at the mountains.”
“I have seen the mountains often enough, and I am up to every trick of them. There may be a corn or two of rain; no more. My sea-weed was like tinder. There can’t be no heavy storm when it is like that. Don’t you make pretense, missy, to know what is beyond you.”
Uncle Sam was so seldom cross that I always felt that he had a right to be so. And he gave me one of his noble smiles to make up for the sharpness of his words, and then back he went to his work again. So I hoped that I was altogether wrong, till a bolt of lightning, like a blue dagger, fell at my very feet, and a crash of thunder shook the earth and stunned me. These opened the sluice of the heavens, and before I could call out I was drenched with rain. Clinging to a bush, I saw the valley lashed with cloudy blasts, and a whirling mass of spiral darkness rushing like a giant toward me. And the hissing and tossing and roaring mixed whatever was in sight together.
Such terror fell upon me at first that I could not look, and could scarcely think, but cowered beneath the blaze of lightning as a singed moth drops and shivers. And a storm of wind struck me from my hold, so that I fell upon the wet earth. Every moment I expected to be killed, for I never could be brave in a thunder- storm, and had not been told much in France of God’s protection around me. And the darts of lightning hissed and crossed like a blue and red web over me. So I laid hold of a little bent of weed, and twisted it round my dabbled wrist, and tried to pray to the Virgin, although I had often been told it was vanity.
Then suddenly wiping my eyes, I beheld a thing which entirely changed me. A vast, broad wall of brown water, nearly as high as the mill itself, rushed down with a crest of foam from the mountains. It seemed to fill up all the valley and to swallow up all the trees; a whole host of animals fled before it, and birds, like a volley of bullets, flew by. I lost not a moment in running away, and climbing a rock and hiding. It was base, ungrateful, and a nasty thing to do; but I did it almost without thinking. And if I had staid to cry out, what good could I have done–only to be swept away?
Now, as far as I can remember any thing out of so much horror, I must have peeped over the summit of my rock when the head of the deluge struck the mill. But whether I saw it, or whether I knew it by any more summary process, such as outruns the eyes sometimes, is more than I dare presume to say. Whichever way I learned it, it was thus:
A solid mass of water, much bigger than the mill itself, burst on it, dashed it to atoms, leaped off with it, and spun away the great wheel anyhow, like the hoop of a child sent trundling. I heard no scream or shriek; and, indeed, the bellow of a lion would have been a mere whisper in the wild roar of the elements. Only, where the mill had been, there was nothing except a black streak and a boil in the deluge. Then scores of torn-up trees swept over, as a bush- harrow jumps on the clods of the field; and the unrelenting flood cast its wrath, and shone quietly in the lightning.
“Oh, Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!” I cried. But there was not a sign to be seen of him; and I thought of his gentle, good, obstinate ways, and my heart was almost broken. “What a brute–what a wretch I am!” I kept saying, as if I could have helped it; and my fear of the lightning was gone, and I stood and raved with scorn and amazement.
In this misery of confusion it was impossible to think, and instinct alone could have driven my despair to a desperate venture. With my soaked clothes sticking between my legs, I ran as hard as they would go, by a short-cut over a field of corn, to a spot where the very last bluff or headland jutted into the river. This was a good mile below the mill according to the bends of channel, but only a furlong or so from the rock upon which I had taken refuge. However, the flood was there before me, and the wall of water dashed on to the plains, with a brindled comb behind it.
Behind it also came all the ruin of the mill that had any floatage, and bodies of bears and great hogs and cattle, some of them alive, but the most part dead. A grand black bull tossed back his horns, and looked at me beseechingly: he had frightened me often in quiet days, but now I was truly grieved for him. And then on a wattle of brush-wood I saw the form of a man–the Sawyer.
His white hair draggled in the wild brown flood, and the hollow of his arms was heaped with froth, and his knotted legs hung helpless. Senseless he lay on his back, and sometimes the wash of the waves went over him. His face was livid, but his brave eyes open, and a heavy weight hung round his neck. I had no time to think, and deserve no praise, for I knew not what I did. But just as an eddy swept him near me, I made a desperate leap at him, and clutched at something that tore my hands, and then I went under the water. My senses, however, were not yet gone, and my weight on the wattle stopped it, and I came up gurgling, and flung one arm round a fat, woolly sheep going by me. The sheep was water-logged, and could scarcely keep his own poor head from drowning, and he turned his mild eyes and looked at me, but I could not spare him. He struck for the shore in forlorn hope, and he towed us in some little.
It is no good for me to pretend to say how things were managed for us, for of course I could do nothing. But the sheep must have