Frontier Stories

A Blue-Grass Penelope


Bret Harte

SHE WAS barely twenty-three years old. It is probable that up to that age, and the beginning of this episode, her life had been uneventful. Born to the easy mediocrity of such compensating extremes as a small farmhouse and large lands, a good position and no society, in that vast grazing district of Kentucky known as the “Blue Grass” region, all the possibilities of a Western American girl’s existence lay before her. A piano in the bare-walled house, the latest patented mower in the limitless meadows, and a silk dress sweeping the rough floor of the unpainted “meeting-house,” were already the promise of those possibilities. Beautiful she was, but the power of that beauty was limited by being equally shared with her few neighbors. There were small, narrow, arched feet besides her own that trod the uncarpeted floors of outlying log cabins with equal grace and dignity; bright, clearly opened eyes that were equally capable of looking unabashed upon princes and potentates, as a few later did, and the heiress of the county judge read her own beauty without envy in the frank glances and unlowered crest of the blacksmith’s daughter. Eventually she had married the male of her species, a young stranger, who, as schoolmaster in the nearest town, had utilized to some local extent a scant capital of education. In obedience to the unwritten law of the West, after the marriage was celebrated the doors of the ancestral home cheerfully opened, and bride and bridegroom issued forth, without regret and without sentiment, to seek the further possibilities of a life beyond these already too familiar voices. With their departure for California as Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Tucker, the parental nest in the Blue Grass meadows knew them no more.

They submitted with equal cheerfulness to the privations and excesses of their new conditions. Within three years the schoolmaster developed into a lawyer and capitalist, the Blue Grass bride supplying a grace and ease to these transitions that were all her own. She softened the abruptness of sudden wealth, mitigated the austerities of newly acquired power, and made the most glaring incongruity picturesque. Only one thing seemed to limit their progress in the region of these possibilities. They were childless. It was as if they had exhausted the future in their own youth, leaving little or nothing for another generation to do.

.     .     .     .     .

A southwesterly storm was beating against the dressing-room windows of their new house in one of the hilly suburbs of San Francisco, and threatening the unseasonable frivolity of the stucco ornamentation of cornice and balcony. Mrs. Tucker had been called from the contemplation of the dreary prospect without by the arrival of a visitor. On entering the drawing-room she found him engaged in a half admiring, half resentful examination of its new furniture and hangings. Mrs. Tucker at once recognized Mr. Calhoun Weaver, a former Blue Grass neighbor; with swift feminine intuition she also felt that his slight antagonism was likely to be transferred from her furniture to herself. Waiving it with the lazy amiability of Southern indifference, she welcomed him by the familiarity of a Christian name.

“I reckoned that mebbee you opined old Blue Grass friends wouldn’t naturally hitch on to them fancy doins,” he said, glancing around the apartment to avoid her clear eyes, as if resolutely setting himself against the old charm of her manner as he had against the more recent glory of her surroundings, “but I thought I’d just drop in for the sake of old times.”

“Why shouldn’t you, Cal?” said Mrs. Tucker with a frank smile.

“Especially as I’m going up to Sacramento to-night with some influential friends,” he continued, with an ostentation calculated to resist the assumption of her charms and her furniture. “Senator Dyce of Kentucky, and his cousin Judge Briggs; perhaps you know ’em, or maybe Spencer—I mean Mr. Tucker—does.”

“I reckon,” said Mrs. Tucker smiling; “but tell me something about the boys and girls at Vineville, and about yourself. You’re looking well, and right smart too.” She paused to give due emphasis to this latter recognition of a huge gold chain with which her visitor was somewhat ostentatiously trifling.

“I didn’t know as you cared to hear anything about Blue Grass,” he returned, a little abashed. “I’ve been away from there some time myself,” he added, his uneasy vanity taking fresh alarm at the faint suspicion of patronage on the part of his hostess. “They’re doin’ well though; perhaps as well as some others.”

“And you’re not married yet,” continued Mrs. Tucker, oblivious of the innuendo. “Ah Cal,” she added archly, “I am afraid you are as fickle as ever. What poor girl in Vineville have you left pining?”

The simple face of the man before her flushed with foolish gratification at this old-fashioned, ambiguous flattery. “Now look yer, Belle,” he said, chuckling, “if you’re talking of old times and you think I bear malice agin Spencer, why”—

But Mrs. Tucker interrupted what might have been an inopportune sentimental retrospect with a finger of arch but languid warning. “That will do! I’m dying to know all about it, and you must stay to dinner and tell me. It’s right mean you can’t see Spencer too; but he isn’t back from Sacramento yet.”

Grateful as a tête-à-tête with his old neighbor in her more prosperous surroundings would have been, if only for the sake of later gossiping about it, he felt it would be inconsistent with his pride and his assumption of present business. More than that, he was uneasily conscious that in Mrs. Tucker’s simple and unaffected manner there was a greater superiority than he had ever noticed during their previous acquaintance. He would have felt kinder to her had she shown any “airs and graces,” which he could have commented upon and forgiven. He stammered some vague excuse of preoccupation, yet lingered in the hope of saying something which, if not aggressively unpleasant, might at least transfer to her indolent serenity some of his own irritation. “I reckon,” he said, as he moved hesitatingly toward the door, “that Spencer has made himself easy and secure in them business risks he’s taking. That ’ere Alameda ditch affair they’re talking so much about is a mighty big thing, rather too big if it ever got to falling back on him. But I suppose he’s accustomed to take risks?”

“Of course he is,” said Mrs. Tucker gayly. “He married me.”

The visitor smiled feebly, but was not equal to the opportunity offered for gallant repudiation. “But suppose you ain’t accustomed to risks?”

“Why not? I married him,” said Mrs. Tucker.

Mr. Calhoun Weaver was human, and succumbed to this last charming audacity. He broke into a noisy but genuine laugh, shook Mrs. Tucker’s hand with effusion, said, “Now that’s regular Blue Grass and no mistake!” and retreated under cover of his hilarity. In the hall he made a rallying stand to repeat confidentially to the servant who had overheard them, “Blue Grass all over, you bet your life,” and, opening the door, was apparently swallowed up in the tempest.

Mrs. Tucker’s smile kept her lips until she had returned to her room, and even then languidly shone in her eyes for some minutes after, as she gazed abstractedly from her window on the storm-tossed bay in the distance. Perhaps some girlish vision of the peaceful Blue Grass plain momentarily usurped the prospect; but it is to be doubted if there was much romance in that retrospect, or that it was more interesting to her than the positive and sharply cut outlines of the practical life she now led. Howbeit she soon forgot this fancy in lazily watching a boat that, in the teeth of the gale, was beating round Alcatraz Island. Although at times a mere blank speck on the gray waste of foam, a closer scrutiny showed it to be one of those lateen-rigged Italian fishing-boats that so often flecked the distant bay. Lost in the sudden darkening of rain, or reappearing beneath the lifted curtain of the squall, she watched it weather the island, and then turn its laboring but persistent course toward the open channel. A rent in the Indian-inky sky, that showed the narrowing portals of the Golden Gate beyond, revealed, as unexpectedly, the destination of the little craft, a tall ship that hitherto lay hidden in the mist of the Saucelito shore. As the distance lessened between boat and ship, they were again lost in the downward swoop of another squall. When it lifted, the ship was creeping under the headland towards the open sea, but the boat was gone. Mrs. Tucker in vain rubbed the pane with her handkerchief, it had vanished. Meanwhile the ship, as she neared the Gate, drew out from the protecting headland, stood outlined for a moment with spars and canvas hearsed in black against the lurid rent in the horizon, and then seemed to sink slowly into the heaving obscurity beyond. A sudden onset of rain against the windows obliterated the remaining prospect; the entrance of a servant completed the diversion.

“Captain Poindexter, ma’am!”

Mrs. Tucker lifted her pretty eyebrows interrogatively. Captain Poindexter was a legal friend of her husband, and had dined there frequently; nevertheless she asked, “Did you tell him Mr. Tucker was not at home?”

“Yes, ’m.”

“Did he ask for me?”

“Yes, ’m.”

“Tell him I’ll be down directly.”

Mrs. Tucker’s quiet face did not betray the fact that this second visitor was even less interesting than the first. In her heart she did not like Captain Poindexter. With a clever woman’s instinct, she had early detected the fact that he had a superior, stronger nature than her husband; as a loyal wife, she secretly resented the occasional unconscious exhibition of this fact on the part of his intimate friend in their familiar intercourse. Added to this slight jealousy there was a certain moral antagonism between herself and the captain which none but themselves knew. They were both philosophers, but Mrs. Tucker’s serene and languid optimism would not tolerate the compassionate and kind-hearted pessimisms of the lawyer. “Knowing what Jack Poindexter does of human nature,” her husband had once said, “it’s mighty fine in him to be so kind and forgiving. You ought to like him better, Belle.” “And qualify myself to be forgiven,” said the lady pertly. “I don’t see what you’re driving at, Belle; I give it up,” had responded the puzzled husband. Mrs. Tucker kissed his high but foolish forehead tenderly, and said, “I’m glad you don’t, dear.”

Meanwhile her second visitor had, like the first, employed the interval in a critical survey of the glories of the new furniture, but with apparently more compassion than resentment in his manner. Once only had his expression changed. Over the fireplace hung a large photograph of Mr. Spencer Tucker. It was retouched, refined, and idealized in the highest style of that polite and diplomatic art. As Captain Poindexter looked upon the fringed hazel eyes, the drooping raven mustache, the clustering ringlets, and the Byronic full throat and turned-down collar of his friend, a smile of exhausted humorous tolerance and affectionate impatience curved his lips. “Well, you are a fool, aren’t you?” he apostrophized it half audibly.

He was standing before the picture as she entered. Even in the trying contiguity of that peerless work he would have been called a fine-looking man. As he advanced to greet her, it was evident that his military title was not one of the mere fanciful sobriquets of the locality. In his erect figure and the disciplined composure of limb and attitude there were still traces of the refined academic rigors of West Point. The pliant adaptability of Western civilization, which enabled him, three years before, to leave the army and transfer his executive ability to the more profitable profession of the law, had loosed sash and shoulder-strap, but had not entirely removed the restraint of the one, nor the bearing of the other.

“Spencer is in Sacramento,” began Mrs. Tucker in languid explanation, after the first greetings were over.

“I knew he was not here,” replied Captain Poindexter gently, as he drew the proffered chair towards her, “but this is business that concerns you both.” He stopped and glanced upwards at the picture. “I suppose you know nothing of his business? Of course not,” he added reassuringly, “nothing, absolutely nothing, certainly.” He said this so kindly, and yet so positively, as if to promptly dispose of that question before going further, that she assented mechanically. “Well, then, he’s taken some big risks in the way of business, and—well, things have gone bad with him, you know. Very bad! Really, they couldn’t be worse! Of course it was dreadfully rash and all that,” he went on, as if commenting upon the amusing waywardness of a child; “but the result is the usual smash-up of everything, money, credit, and all!” He laughed and added, “Yes, he’s got cut off—mules and baggage regularly routed and dispersed! I’m in earnest.” He raised his eyebrows and frowned slightly, as if to deprecate any corresponding hilarity on the part of Mrs. Tucker, or any attempt to make too light of the subject, and then rising, placed his hands behind his back, beamed half-humorously upon her from beneath her husband’s picture, and repeated, “That’s so.”

Mrs. Tucker instinctively knew that he spoke the truth, and that it was impossible for him to convey it in any other than his natural manner; but between the shock and the singular influence of that manner she could at first only say, “You don’t mean it!” fully conscious of the utter inanity of the remark, and that it seemed scarcely less cold-blooded than his own.

Poindexter, still smiling, nodded.

She arose with an effort. She had recovered from the first shock, and pride lent her a determined calmness that more than equaled Poindexter’s easy philosophy.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“At sea, and I hope by this time where he cannot be found or followed.”

Was her momentary glimpse of the outgoing ship a coincidence or only a vision? She was confused and giddy, but, mastering her weakness, she managed to continue in a lower voice:

“You have no message for me from him? He told you nothing to tell me?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” replied Poindexter. “It was as much as he could do, I reckon, to get fairly away before the crash came.”

“Then you did not see him go?”

“Well, no,” said Poindexter. “I’d hardly have managed things in this way.” He checked himself and added, with a forgiving smile, “but he was the best judge of what he needed, of course.”

“I suppose I will hear from him,” she said quietly, “as soon as he is safe. He must have had enough else to think about, poor fellow.”

She said this so naturally and quietly that Poindexter was deceived. He had no idea that the collected woman before him was thinking only of solitude and darkness, of her own room, and madly longing to be there. He said, “Yes, I dare say,” in quite another voice, and glanced at the picture. But as she remained standing, he continued more earnestly, “I didn’t come here to tell you what you might read in the newspapers to-morrow morning, and what everybody might tell you. Before that time I want you to do something to save a fragment of your property from the ruin; do you understand? I want you to make a rally, and bring off something in good order.”

“For him?” said Mrs. Tucker, with brightening eyes.

“Well, yes, of course—if you like—but as if for yourself. Do you know the Rancho de los Cuervos?”

“I do.”

“It’s almost the only bit of real property your husband hasn’t sold, mortgaged, or pledged. Why it was exempt, or whether only forgotten, I can’t say.”

“I’ll tell you why,” said Mrs. Tucker, with a slight return of color. “It was the first land we ever bought, and Spencer always said it should be mine and he would build a new house on it.”

Captain Poindexter smiled and nodded at the picture. “Oh, he did say that, did he? Well, that’s evidence. But you see he never gave you the deed, and by sunrise tomorrow his creditors will attach it—unless—

“Unless”—repeated Mrs. Tucker, with kindling eyes.

“Unless,” continued Captain Poindexter, “they happen to find you in possession.”

“I’ll go,” said Mrs. Tucker.

“Of course you will,” returned Poindexter, pleasantly. “Only, as it’s a big contract to take, suppose we see how you can fill it. It’s forty miles to Los Cuervos, and you can’t trust yourself to steamboat or stage-coach. The steamboat left an hour ago.”

“If I had only known this then!” ejaculated Mrs. Tucker.

I knew it, but you had company then,” said Poindexter, with ironical gallantry, “and I wouldn’t disturb you.” Without saying how he knew it, he continued, “In the stage-coach you might be recognized. You must go in a private conveyance and alone; even I cannot go with you, for I must go on before and meet you there. Can you drive forty miles?”

Mrs. Tucker lifted up her abstracted pretty lids. “I once drove fifty—at home,” she returned simply.

“Good! And I dare say you did it then for fun. Do it now for something real and personal, as we lawyers say. You will have relays and a plan of the road. It’s rough weather for a pasear, but all the better for that. You’ll have less company on the road.”

“How soon can I go?” she asked.

“The sooner the better. I’ve arranged everything for you already,” he continued with a laugh. “Come now, that’s a compliment to you, isn’t it?” He smiled a moment in her steadfast, earnest face, and then said, more gravely, “You’ll do. Now listen.”

He then carefully detailed his plan. There was so little of excitement or mystery in their manner that the servant, who returned to light the gas, never knew that the ruin and bankruptcy of the house was being told before her, or that its mistress was planning her secret flight.

“Good afternoon. I will see you to-morrow then,” said Poindexter, raising his eyes to hers as the servant opened the door for him.

“Good afternoon,” repeated Mrs. Tucker, quietly answering his look. “You need not light the gas in my room, Mary,” she continued in the same tone of voice as the door closed upon him; “I shall lie down for a few moments, and then I may run over to the Robinsons for the evening.”

She regained her room composedly. The longing desire to bury her head in her pillow and “think out” her position had gone. She did not apostrophize her fate, she did not weep; few real women do in the access of calamity, or when there is anything else to be done. She felt that she knew it all; she believed she had sounded the profoundest depths of the disaster, and seemed already so old in her experience that she almost fancied she had been prepared for it. Perhaps she did not fully appreciate it. To a life like hers it was only an incident, the mere turning of a page of the illimitable book of youth; the breaking up of what she now felt had become a monotony. In fact, she was not quite sure she had ever been satisfied with their present success. Had it brought her all she expected? She wanted to say this to her husband, not only to comfort him, poor fellow, but that they might come to a better understanding of life in the future. She was not perhaps different from other loving women, who, believing in this unattainable goal of matrimony, have sought it in the various episodes of fortune or reverses, in the bearing of children, or the loss of friends. In her childless experience there was no other life that had taken root in her circumstances and might suffer transplantation; only she and her husband could lose or profit by the change. The “perfect” understanding would come under other conditions than these.

She would have gone superstitiously to the window to gaze in the direction of the vanished ship, but another instinct restrained her. She would put aside all yearning for him until she had done something to help him, and earned the confidence he seemed to have withheld. Perhaps it was pride—perhaps she never really believed his exodus was distant or complete.

With a full knowledge that to-morrow the various ornaments and pretty trifles around her would be in the hands of the law, she gathered only a few necessaries for her flight and some familiar personal trinkets. I am constrained to say that this self-abnegation was more fastidious than moral. She had no more idea of the ethics of bankruptcy than any other charming woman; she simply did not like to take with her any contagious memory of the chapter of the life just closing. She glanced around the home she was leaving without a lingering regret; there was no sentiment of tradition or custom that might be destroyed; her roots lay too near the surface to suffer dislocation; the happiness of her childless union had depended upon no domestic center, nor was its flame sacred to any local hearthstone. It was without a sigh that, when night had fully fallen, she slipped unnoticed down the staircase. At the door of the drawing-room she paused, and then entered with the first guilty feeling of shame she had known that evening. Looking stealthily around, she mounted a chair before her husband’s picture, kissed the irreproachable mustache hurriedly, said, “You foolish darling, you!” and slipped out again. With this touching indorsement of the views of a rival philosopher, she closed the door softly and left her home forever.

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