Frontier Stories

Flip: A California Romance

Chapter IV

Bret Harte

THE EVENTS of the day had produced a remarkable impression on the facial aspect of the charcoal-burning Fairley. Extraordinary processes of thought, indicated by repeated rubbing of his forehead, had produced a high light in the middle and a corresponding deepening of shadow at the sides, until it bore the appearance of a perfect sphere. It was this forehead that confronted Flip reproachfully as became a deceived comrade, menacingly as became an outraged parent in the presence of a third party and—a Postmaster.

“Fine doin’s this, yer receivin’ clandecent bundles and letters, eh?” he began. Flip sent one swift, withering look of contempt at the Postmaster, who at once becoming invertebrate and groveling, mumbled that he must “get on” to the Crossing, and rose to go. But the old man, who had counted on his presence for moral support, and was clearly beginning to hate him for precipitating this scene with his daughter, whom he feared, violently protested.

“Sit down, can’t ye? Don’t you see you’re a witness?” he screamed hysterically.

It was a fatal suggestion. “Witness,” repeated Flip, scornfully.

“Yes, a witness! He gave ye letters and bundles.”

“Weren’t they directed to me?” asked Flip.

“Yes,” said the Postmaster, hesitatingly; “in course, yes.”

“Do you lay claim to them?” she said, turning to her father.

“No,” responded the old man.

“Do you?” sharply, to the Postmaster.

“No,” he replied.

“Then,” said Flip, coolly, “if you’re not claimin’ ’em for yourself, and you hear father say they ain’t his, I reckon the less you have to say about ’em the better.”

“Thar’s suthin’ in that,” said the old man, shamelessly abandoning the Postmaster.

“Then why don’t she say who sent ’em, and what they are like,” said the Postmaster, “if there’s nothing in it?”

“Yes,” echoed Dad. “Flip, why don’t you?”

Without answering the direct question, Flip turned upon her father.

“Maybe you forget how you used to row and tear round here because tramps and such like came to the ranch for suthin’, and I gave it to ’em? Maybe you’ll quit tearin’ round and letting yourself be made a fool of now by that man, just because one of those tramps gets up and sends us some presents back in turn?”

“’Twasn’t me, Flip,” said the old man, deprecatingly, but glaring at the astonished Postmaster. “’Twasn’t my doin’. I allus said if you cast your bread on the waters it would come back to you by return mail. The fact is, the Gov’ment is getting too high-handed! Some o’ these bloated officials had better climb down before next leckshen.”

“Maybe,” continued Flip to her father, without looking at her discomfited visitor, “ye’d better find out whether one of those officials comes up to this yer ranch to steal away a gal about my own size, or to get points about diamond-making. I reckon he don’t travel round to find out who writes all the letters that go through the Post Office.”

The Postmaster had seemingly miscalculated the old man’s infirm temper, and the daughter’s skillful use of it. He was unprepared for Flip’s boldness and audacity, and when he saw that both barrels of the accusation had taken effect on the charcoal-burner, who was rising with epileptic rage, he fairly turned and fled. The old man would have followed him with objurgation beyond the door, but for the restraining hand of Flip.

Baffled and beaten, nevertheless Fate was not wholly unkind to the retreating suitor. Near the Gin and Ginger Woods he picked up a letter which had fallen from Flip’s packet. He recognized the writing, and did not scruple to read it. It was not a love epistle,—at least, not such a one as he would have written,—it did not give the address nor the name of the correspondent; but he read the following with greedy eyes:—

“Perhaps it’s just as well that you don’t rig yourself out for the benefit of those dead-beats at the Crossing, or any tramp that might hang round the ranch. Keep all your style for me when I come. I can’t tell you when, it’s mighty uncertain before the rainy season. But I’m coming soon. Don’t go back on your promise about lettin’ up on the tramps, and being a little more high-toned. And don’t you give ’em so much. It’s true I sent you hats twice. I clean forgot all about the first; but I wouldn’t have given a ten-dollar hat to a nigger woman who had a sick baby because I had an extra hat. I’d have let that baby slide. I forgot to ask whether the skirt is worn separately; I must see that dressmaker sharp about it; but I think you’ll want something on besides a jacket and skirt; at least, it looks like it up here. I don’t think you could manage a piano down there without the old man knowing it, and raisin’ the devil generally. I promised you I’d let up on him. Mind you keep all your promises to me. I’m glad you’re gettin’ on with the six-shooter; tin cans are good at fifteen yards, but try it on suthin’ that moves! I forgot to say that I am on the track of your big brother. It’s a three years’ old track, and he was in Arizona. The friend who told me didn’t expatiate much on what he did there, but I reckon they had a high old time. If he’s above the earth I’ll find him, you bet. The yerba buena and the southern wood came all right,—they smelt like you. Say, Flip, do you remember the last—the very last—thing that happened when you said ‘good-by’ on the trail? Don’t let me ever find out that you’ve let anybody else kiss”—

But here the virtuous indignation of the Postmaster found vent in an oath. He threw the letter away. He retained of it only two facts,—Flip had a brother who was missing; she had a lover present in the flesh.

How much of the substance of this and previous letters Flip had confided to her father I cannot say. If she suppressed anything it was probably that which affected Lance’s secret alone, and it was doubtful how much of that she herself knew. In her own affairs she was frank without being communicative, and never lost her shy obstinacy even with her father. Governing the old man as completely as she did, she appeared most embarrassed when she was most dominant; she had her own way without lifting her voice or her eyes; she seemed oppressed by mauvaise honte when she was most triumphant; she would end a discussion with a shy murmur addressed to herself, or a single gesture of self-consciousness.

The disclosure of her strange relations with an unknown man, and the exchange of presents and confidences, seemed to suddenly awake Fairley to a vague, uneasy sense of some unfulfilled duties as a parent. The first effect of this on his weak nature was a peevish antagonism to the cause of it. He had long, fretful monologues on the vanity of diamond-making, if accompanied with “pestering” by “interlopers;” on the wickedness of concealment and conspiracy, and their effects on charcoal-burning; on the nurturing of spies and “adders” in the family circle, and on the seditiousness of dark and mysterious councils in which a gray-haired father was left out. It was true that a word or look from Flip generally brought these monologues to an inglorious and abrupt termination, but they were none the less lugubrious as long as they lasted. In time they were succeeded by an affectation of contrite apology and self-depreciation. “Don’t go out o’ the way to ask the old man,” he would say, referring to the quantity of bacon to be ordered; “it’s nat’ral a young gal should have her own advisers.” The state of the flour-barrel would also produce a like self-abasement. “Unless ye’re already in correspondence about more flour, ye might take the opinion o’ the first tramp ye meet ez to whether Santa Cruz Mills is a good brand, but don’t ask the old man.” If Flip was in conversation with the butcher, Fairley would obtrusively retire with the hope “he wasn’t intrudin’ on their secrets.”

These phases of her father’s weakness were not frequent enough to excite her alarm, but she could not help noticing they were accompanied with a seriousness unusual to him. He began to be tremulously watchful of her, returning often from work at an earlier hour, and lingering by the cabin in the morning. He brought absurd and useless presents for her, and presented them with a nervous anxiety, poorly concealed by an assumption of careless, paternal generosity. “Suthin’ I picked up at the Crossin’ for ye to-day,” he would say, airily, and retire to watch the effect of a pair of shoes two sizes too large, or a fur cap in September. He would have hired a cheap parlor organ for her, but for the apparently unexpected revelation that she couldn’t play. He had received the news of a clue to his long-lost son without emotion, but lately he seemed to look upon it as a foregone conclusion, and one that necessarily solved the question of companionship for Flip. “In course, when you’ve got your own flesh and blood with ye, ye can’t go foolin’ around with strangers.” These autumnal blossoms of affection, I fear, came too late for any effect upon Flip, precociously matured by her father’s indifference and selfishness. But she was good-humored, and, seeing him seriously concerned, gave him more of her time, even visited him in the sacred seclusion of the “diamond pit,” and listened with far-off eyes to his fitful indictment of all things outside his grimy laboratory. Much of this patient indifference came with a capricious change in her own habits; she no longer indulged in the rehearsal of dress, she packed away her most treasured garments, and her leafy boudoir knew her no more. She sometimes walked on the hillside, and often followed the trail she had taken with Lance when she led him to the ranch. She once or twice extended her walk to the spot where she had parted from him, and as often came shyly away, her eyes downcast and her face warm with color. Perhaps because these experiences and some mysterious instinct of maturing womanhood had left a story in her eyes, which her two adorers, the Postmaster and the butcher, read with passion, she became famous without knowing it. Extravagant stories of her fascinations brought strangers into the valley. The effect upon her father may be imagined. Lance could not have desired a more effective guardian than he proved to be in this emergency. Those who had been told of this hidden pearl were surprised to find it so jealously protected.

Frontier Stories - Contents    |     Flip - Chapter V

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