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A First Family of Tasajara by Bret Harte

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"Why didn't you say that before?"

"I did tell you," he said gloomily, "but you didn't listen. But
what difference does it make to you now?"

"None whatever," said Mrs. Ashwood calmly as she walked out of the

Nevertheless the afternoon passed wearily, and her usual ride into
the upland canyon did not reanimate her. For reasons known best to
herself she did not take her after-dinner stroll along the shore to
watch the outlying fog. At a comparatively early hour, while there
was still a roseate glow in the western sky, she appeared with grim
deliberation, and the blue lamp-shade in her hand, and placed it
over the lamp which she lit and stood on her table beside the
window. This done she sat down and began to write with bright-eyed
but vicious complacency.

"But you don't want that light AND the window, Constance," said
Jack wonderingly.

Mrs. Ashwood could not stand the dreadful twilight.

"But take away your lamp and you'll have light enough from the
sunset," responded Jack.

That was just what she didn't want! The light from the window was
that horrid vulgar red glow which she hated. It might be very
romantic and suit lovers like Jack, but as SHE had some work to do,
she wanted the blue shade of the lamp to correct that dreadful


John Milton had rowed back without lifting his eyes to Mrs.
Ashwood's receding figure. He believed that he was right in
declining her invitation, although he had a miserable feeling that
it entailed seeing her for the last time. With all that he
believed was his previous experience of the affections, he was
still so untutored as to be confused as to his reasons for
declining, or his right to have been shocked and disappointed at
her manner. It seemed to him sufficiently plain that he had
offended the most perfect woman he had ever known without knowing
more. The feeling he had for her was none the less powerful
because, in his great simplicity, it was vague and unformulated.
And it was a part of this strange simplicity that in his miserable
loneliness his thoughts turned unconsciously to his dead wife for
sympathy and consolation. Loo would have understood him!

Mr. Fletcher, who had received him on his arrival with singular
effusiveness and cordiality, had put off their final arrangements
until after dinner, on account of pressing business. It was
therefore with some surprise that an hour before the time he was
summoned to Fletcher's room. He was still more surprised to find
him sitting at his desk, from which a number of business papers and
letters had been hurriedly thrust aside to make way for a manuscript.
A single glance at it was enough to show the unhappy John Milton
that it was the one he had sent to Mrs. Ashwood. The color flashed
to his cheek and he felt a mist before his eyes. His employer's
face, on the contrary, was quite pale, and his eyes were fixed on
Harcourt with a singular intensity. His voice too, although under
great control, was hard and strange.

"Read that," he said, handing the young man a letter.

The color again streamed into John Milton's face as he recognized
the hand of Mrs. Ashwood, and remained there while he read it.
When he put it down, however, he raised his frank eyes to
Fletcher's, and said with a certain dignity and manliness: "What
she says is the truth, sir. But it is I alone who am at fault.
This manuscript is merely MY stupid idea of a very simple story she
was once kind enough to tell me when we were talking of strange
occurrences in real life, which she thought I might some time make
use of in my work. I tried to embellish it, and failed. That's
all. I will take it back,--it was written only for her."

There was such an irresistible truthfulness and sincerity in his
voice and manner, that any idea of complicity with the sender was
dismissed from Fletcher's mind. As Harcourt, however, extended his
hand for the manuscript Fletcher interfered.

"You forget that you gave it to her, and she has sent it to me. If
I don't keep it, it can be returned to her only. Now may I ask who
is this lady who takes such an interest in your literary career?
Have you known her long? Is she a friend of your family?"

The slight sneer that accompanied his question restored the natural
color to the young man's face, but kindled his eye ominously.

"No," he said briefly. "I met her accidentally about two months
ago and as accidentally found out that she had taken an interest in
one of the first things I ever wrote for your paper. She neither
knew you nor me. It was then that she told me this story; she did
not even then know who I was, though she had met some of my family.
She was very good and has generously tried to help me."

Fletcher's eyes remained fixed upon him.

"But this tells me only WHAT she is, not WHO she is."

"I am afraid you must inquire of her brother, Mr. Shipley," said
Harcourt curtly.


"Yes; he is traveling with her for his health, and they are going
south when the rains come. They are wealthy Philadelphians, I
believe, and--and she is a widow."

Fletcher picked up her note and glanced again at the signature,
"Constance Ashwood." There was a moment of silence, when he
resumed in quite a different voice: "It's odd I never met them nor
they me."

As he seemed to be waiting for a response, John Milton said simply:
"I suppose it's because they have not been here long, and are
somewhat reserved."

Mr. Fletcher laid aside the manuscript and letter, and took up his
apparently suspended work.

"When you see this Mrs.--Mrs. Ashwood again, you might say"--

"I shall not see her again," interrupted John Milton hastily.

Mr. Fletcher shrugged his shoulders. "Very well," he said with a
peculiar smile, "I will write to her. Now, Mr. Harcourt," he
continued with a sudden business brevity, "if you please, we'll
drop this affair and attend to the matter for which I just summoned
you. Since yesterday an important contract for which I have been
waiting is concluded, and its performance will take me East at
once. I have made arrangements that you will be left in the
literary charge of the 'Clarion.' It is only a fitting recompense
that the paper owes to you and your father,--to whom I hope to see
you presently reconciled. But we won't discuss that now! As my
affairs take me back to Los Gatos within half an hour, I am sorry I
cannot dispense my hospitality in person,--but you will dine and
sleep here to-night. Good-by. As you go out will you please send
up Mr. Jackson to me." He nodded briefly, seemed to plunge
instantly into his papers again, and John Milton was glad to

The shock he had felt at Mrs. Ashwood's frigid disposition of his
wishes and his manuscript had benumbed him to any enjoyment or
appreciation of the change in his fortune. He wandered out of the
house and descended to the beach in a dazed, bewildered way, seeing
only the words of her letter to Fletcher before him, and striving
to grasp some other meaning from them than their coldly practical
purport. Perhaps this was her cruel revenge for his telling her
not to write to him. Could she not have divined it was only his
fear of what she might say! And now it was all over! She had
washed her hands of him with the sending of that manuscript and
letter, and he would pass out of her memory as a foolish, conceited
ingrate,--perhaps a figure as wearily irritating and stupid to her
as the cousin she had known. He mechanically lifted his eyes to
the distant hotel; the glow was still in the western sky, but the
blue lamp was already shining in the window. His cheek flushed
quickly, and he turned away as if she could have seen his face.
Yes--she despised him, and THAT was his answer!

When he returned, Mr. Fletcher had gone. He dragged through a
dinner with Mr. Jackson, Fletcher's secretary, and tried to realize
his good fortune in listening to the subordinate's congratulations.
"But I thought," said Jackson, "you had slipped up on your luck to-
day, when the old man sent for you. He was quite white, and ready
to rip out about something that had just come in. I suppose it was
one of those anonymous things against your father,--the old man's
dead set against 'em now." But John Milton heard him vaguely, and
presently excused himself for a row on the moonlit bay.

The active exertion, with intervals of placid drifting along the
land-locked shore, somewhat soothed him. The heaving Pacific
beyond was partly hidden in a low creeping fog, but the curving bay
was softly radiant. The rocks whereon she sat that morning, the
hotel where she was now quietly reading, were outlined in black and
silver. In this dangerous contiguity it seemed to him that her
presence returned,--not the woman who had met him so coldly; who
had penned those lines; the woman from whom he was now parting
forever, but the blameless ideal he had worshiped from the first,
and which he now felt could never pass out of his life again! He
recalled their long talks, their rarer rides and walks in the city;
her quick appreciation and ready sympathy; her pretty curiosity and
half-maternal consideration of his foolish youthful past; even the
playful way that she sometimes seemed to make herself younger as if
to better understand him. Lingering at times in the shadow of the
headland, he fancied he saw the delicate nervous outlines of her
face near his own again; the faint shading of her brown lashes, the
soft intelligence of her gray eyes. Drifting idly in the placid
moonlight, pulling feverishly across the swell of the channel, or
lying on his oars in the shallows of the rocks, but always following
the curves of the bay, like a bird circling around a lighthouse, it
was far in the night before he at last dragged his boat upon the
sand. Then he turned to look once more at her distant window. He
would be away in the morning and he should never see it again! It
was very late, but the blue light seemed to be still burning
unalterably and inflexibly.

But even as he gazed, a change came over it. A shadow seemed to
pass before the blind; the blue shade was lifted; for an instant he
could see the colorless star-like point of the light itself show
clearly. It was over now; she was putting out the lamp. Suddenly
he held his breath! A roseate glow gradually suffused the window
like a burning blush; the curtain was drawn aside, and the red
lamp-shade gleamed out surely and steadily into the darkness.

Transfigured and breathless in the moonlight, John Milton gazed on
it. It seemed to him the dawn of Love!


The winter rains had come. But so plenteously and persistently,
and with such fateful preparation of circumstance, that the long
looked for blessing presently became a wonder, an anxiety, and at
last a slowly widening terror. Before a month had passed every
mountain, stream, and watercourse, surcharged with the melted snows
of the Sierras, had become a great tributary; every tributary a
great river, until, pouring their great volume into the engorged
channels of the American and Sacramento rivers, they overleaped
their banks and became as one vast inland sea. Even to a country
already familiar with broad and striking catastrophe, the flood was
a phenomenal one. For days the sullen overflow lay in the valley
of the Sacramento, enormous, silent, currentless--except where the
surplus waters rolled through Carquinez Straits, San Francisco Bay,
and the Golden Gate, and reappeared as the vanished Sacramento
River, in an outflowing stream of fresh and turbid water fifty
miles at sea.

Across the vast inland expanse, brooded over by a leaden sky, leaden
rain fell, dimpling like shot the sluggish pools of the flood; a
cloudy chaos of fallen trees, drifting barns and outhouses, wagons
and agricultural implements moved over the surface of the waters, or
circled slowly around the outskirts of forests that stood ankle deep
in ooze and the current, which in serried phalanx they resisted
still. As night fell these forms became still more vague and
chaotic, and were interspersed with the scattered lanterns and
flaming torches of relief-boats, or occasionally the high terraced
gleaming windows of the great steamboats, feeling their way along
the lost channel. At times the opening of a furnace-door shot broad
bars of light across the sluggish stream and into the branches of
dripping and drift-encumbered trees; at times the looming
smoke-stacks sent out a pent-up breath of sparks that illuminated
the inky chaos for a moment, and then fell as black and dripping
rain. Or perhaps a hoarse shout from some faintly outlined hulk on
either side brought a quick response from the relief-boats, and the
detaching of a canoe with a blazing pine-knot in its bow into the
outer darkness.

It was late in the afternoon when Lawrence Grant, from the deck of
one of the larger tugs, sighted what had been once the estuary of
Sidon Creek. The leader of a party of scientific observation and
relief, he had kept a tireless watch of eighteen hours, keenly
noticing the work of devastation, the changes in the channel, the
prospects of abatement, and the danger that still threatened. He
had passed down the length of the submerged Sacramento valley,
through the Straits of Carquinez, and was now steaming along the
shores of the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay. Everywhere the
same scene of desolation,--vast stretches of tule land, once broken
up by cultivation and dotted with dwellings, now clearly erased on
that watery chart; long lines of symmetrical perspective, breaking
the monotonous level, showing orchards buried in the flood; Indian
mounds and natural eminences covered with cattle or hastily erected
camps; half submerged houses, whose solitary chimneys, however,
still gave signs of an undaunted life within; isolated groups of
trees, with their lower branches heavy with the unwholesome fruit
of the flood, in wisps of hay and straw, rakes and pitchforks, or
pathetically sheltering some shivering and forgotten household pet.
But everywhere the same dull, expressionless, placid tranquillity
of destruction,--a horrible leveling of all things in one bland
smiling equality of surface, beneath which agony, despair, and ruin
were deeply buried and forgotten; a catastrophe without convulsion,--
a devastation voiceless, passionless, and supine.

The boat had slowed up before what seemed to be a collection of
disarranged houses with the current flowing between lines that
indicated the existence of thoroughfares and streets. Many of the
lighter wooden buildings were huddled together on the street
corners with their gables to the flow; some appeared as if they had
fallen on their knees, and others lay complacently on their sides,
like the houses of a child's toy village. An elevator still lifted
itself above the other warehouses; from the centre of an enormous
square pond, once the plaza, still arose a "Liberty pole," or
flagstaff, which now supported a swinging lantern, and in the
distance appeared the glittering dome of some public building.
Grant recognized the scene at once. It was all that was left of
the invincible youth of Tasajara!

As this was an objective point of the scheme of survey and relief
for the district, the boat was made fast to the second story of one
of the warehouses. It was now used as a general store and depot,
and bore a singular resemblance in its interior to Harcourt's
grocery at Sidon. This suggestion was the more fatefully indicated
by the fact that half a dozen men were seated around a stove in the
centre, more or less given up to a kind of philosophical and lazy
enjoyment of their enforced idleness. And when to this was added
the more surprising coincidence that the party consisted of
Billings, Peters, and Wingate,--former residents of Sidon and first
citizens of Tasajara,--the resemblance was complete.

They were ruined,--but they accepted their common fate with a
certain Indian stoicism and Western sense of humor that for the
time lifted them above the vulgar complacency of their former
fortunes. There was a deep-seated, if coarse and irreverent
resignation in their philosophy. At the beginning of the calamity
it had been roughly formulated by Billings in the statement that
"it wasn't anybody's fault; there was nobody to kill, and what
couldn't be reached by a Vigilance Committee there was no use
resolootin' over." When the Reverend Doctor Pilsbury had suggested
an appeal to a Higher Power, Peters had replied, good humoredly,
that "a Creator who could fool around with them in that style was
above being interfered with by prayer." At first the calamity had
been a thing to fight against; then it became a practical joke, the
sting of which was lost in the victims' power of endurance and
assumed ignorance of its purport. There was something almost
pathetic in their attempts to understand its peculiar humor.

"How about that Europ-e-an trip o' yours, Peters?" said Billings,
meditatively, from the depths of his chair. "Looks as if those
Crowned Heads over there would have to wait till the water goes
down considerable afore you kin trot out your wife and darters
before 'em!"

"Yes," said Peters, "it rather pints that way; and ez far ez I kin
see, Mame Billings ain't goin' to no Saratoga, neither, this year."

"Reckon the boys won't hang about old Harcourt's Free Library to
see the girls home from lectures and singing-class much this year,"
said Wingate. "Wonder if Harcourt ever thought o' this the day he
opened it, and made that rattlin' speech o' his about the new
property? Clark says everything built on that made ground has got
to go after the water falls. Rough on Harcourt after all his other
losses, eh? He oughter have closed up with that scientific chap,
Grant, and married him to Clementina while the big boom was on"--

"Hush!" said Peters, indicating Grant, who had just entered

"Don't mind me, gentlemen," said Grant, stepping towards the group
with a grave but perfectly collected face; "on the contrary, I am
very anxious to hear all the news of Harcourt's family. I left for
New York before the rainy season, and have only just got back."

His speech and manner appeared to be so much in keeping with the
prevailing grim philosophy that Billings, after a glance at the
others, went on. "Ef you left afore the first rains," said he,
"you must have left only the steamer ahead of Fletcher, when he run
off with Clementina Harcourt, and you might have come across them
on their wedding trip in New York."

Not a muscle of Grant's face changed under their eager and cruel
scrutiny. "No, I didn't," he returned quietly. "But why did she
run away? Did the father object to Fletcher? If I remember
rightly he was rich and a good match."

"Yes, but I reckon the old man hadn't quite got over the 'Clarion'
abuse, for all its eating humble-pie and taking back its yarns of
him. And may be he might have thought the engagement rather
sudden. They say that she'd only met Fletcher the day afore the

"That be d----d," said Peters, knocking the ashes out of his pipe,
and startling the lazy resignation of his neighbors by taking his
feet from the stove and sitting upright. "I tell ye, gentlemen,
I'm sick o' this sort o' hog-wash that's been ladled round to us.
That gal Clementina Harcourt and that feller Fletcher had met not
only once, but MANY times afore--yes! they were old friends if it
comes to that, a matter of six years ago."

Grant's eyes were fixed eagerly on the speaker, although the others
scarcely turned their heads.

"You know, gentlemen," said Peters, "I never took stock in this yer
story of the drownin' of 'Lige Curtis. Why? Well, if you wanter
know--in my opinion--there never was any 'Lige Curtis!"

Billings lifted his head with difficulty; Wingate turned his face
to the speaker.

"There never was a scrap o' paper ever found in his cabin with the
name o' 'Lige Curtis on it; there never was any inquiry made for
'Lige Curtis; there never was any sorrowin' friends comin' after
'Lige Curtis. For why?--There never was any 'Lige Curtis. The man
who passed himself off in Sidon under that name--was that man
Fletcher. That's how he knew all about Harcourt's title; that's
how he got his best holt on Harcourt. And he did it all to get
Clementina Harcourt, whom the old man had refused to him in Sidon."

A grunt of incredulity passed around the circle. Such is the fate
of historical innovation! Only Grant listened attentively.

"Ye ought to tell that yarn to John Milton," said Wingate
ironically; "it's about in the style o' them stories he slings in
the 'Clarion.'"

"He's made a good thing outer that job. Wonder what he gets for
them?" said Peters.

It was Billings's time to rise, and, under the influence of some
strong cynical emotion, to even rise to his feet. "Gets for 'em!--
GETS for 'em! I'll tell you WHAT he gets for 'em! It beats this
story o' Peters's,--it beats the flood. It beats me! Ye know that
boy, gentlemen; ye know how he uster lie round his father's store,
reading flapdoodle stories and sich! Ye remember how I uster try
to give him good examples and knock some sense into him? Ye
remember how, after his father's good luck, he spiled all his own
chances, and ran off with his father's waiter gal--all on account
o' them flapdoodle books he read? Ye remember how he sashayed
round newspaper offices in 'Frisco until he could write a
flapdoodle story himself? Ye wanter know what he gets for 'em.
I'll tell you. He got an interduction to one of them high-toned,
highfalutin', 'don't-touch-me' rich widders from Philadelfy,--
that's what he gets for 'em! He got her dead set on him and his
stories, that's what he gets for 'em! He got her to put him up
with Fletcher in the 'Clarion,'--that's what he gets for 'em. And
darn my skin!--ef what they say is true, while we hard-working men
are sittin' here like drowned rats--that air John Milton, ez never
did a stitch o' live work like me yere; ez never did anythin' but
spin yarns about US ez did WORK, is now 'gittin' for 'em'--what?
Guess! Why, he's gittin' THE RICH WIDDER HERSELF and HALF A
MILLION DOLLARS WITH HER! Gentlemen! lib'ty is a good thing--but
thar's some things ye gets too much lib'ty of in this country--and
that's this yer LIB'TY OF THE PRESS!"

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