A Phyllis of the Sierras
AMID the beauty of the most uncultivated and untrodden wilderness there are certain localities where the meaner and mere common processes of Nature take upon themselves a degrading likeness to the slovenly, wasteful, and improvident processes of man. The unrecorded land-slip disintegrating a whole hillside will not only lay bare the delicate framework of strata and deposit to the vulgar eye, but hurl into the valley a debris so monstrous and unlovely as to shame even the hideous ruins left by dynamite, hydraulic, or pick and shovel; an overflown and forgotten woodland torrent will leave in some remote hollow a disturbed and ungraceful chaos of inextricable logs, branches, rock, and soil that will rival the unsavory details of some wrecked or abandoned settlement. Of lesser magnitude and importance, there are certain natural dust-heaps, sinks, and cesspools, where the elements have collected the cast-off, broken, and frayed disjecta of wood and field—the sweepings of the sylvan household. It was remarkable that Nature, so kindly considerate of mere human ruins, made no attempt to cover up or disguise these monuments of her own mortality: no grass grew over the unsightly landslides, no moss or ivy clothed the stripped and bleached skeletons of overthrown branch and tree; the dead leaves and withered husks rotted in their open grave uncrossed by vine and creeper. Even the animals, except the lower organizations, shunned those haunts of decay and ruin.
It was scarcely a hundred yards from one of those dreary receptacles that Mr. Bradley had taken leave of Miss Minty Sharpe. The cabin occupied by her father, herself, and a younger brother stood, in fact, on the very edge of the little hollow, which was partly filled with decayed wood, leaves, and displacements of the crumbling bank, with the coal dust and ashes which Mr. Sharpe had added from his forge, that stood a few paces distant at the corner of a cross-road. The occupants of the cabin had also contributed to the hollow the refuse of their household in broken boxes, earthenware, tin cans, and cast-off clothing; and it is not improbable that the site of the cabin was chosen with reference to this convenient disposal of useless and encumbering impedimenta. It was true that the locality offered little choice in the way of beauty. An outcrop of brown granite—a portent of higher altitudes—extended a quarter of a mile from the nearest fringe of dwarf laurel and “brush” in one direction; in the other an advanced file of Bradley’s woods had suffered from some long-forgotten fire, and still raised its blackened masts and broken stumps over the scorched and arid soil, swept of older underbrush and verdure. On the other side of the road a dark ravine, tangled with briers and haunted at night by owls and wild cats, struggled wearily on, until blundering at last upon the edge of the Great Canyon, it slipped and lost itself forever in a single furrow of those mighty flanks. When Bradley had once asked Sharpe why he had not built his house in the ravine, the blacksmith had replied: “That until the Lord had appointed his time, he reckoned to keep his head above ground and the foundations thereof.” Howbeit, the ravine, or the “run,” as it was locally known, was Minty’s only Saturday afternoon resort for recreation or berries. “It was,” she had explained, “pow’ful soothin’, and solitary.”
She entered the house—a rude, square building of unpainted boards—containing a sitting-room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. A glance at these rooms, which were plainly furnished, and whose canvas-colored walls were adorned with gorgeous agricultural implement circulars, patent medicine calendars, with polytinted chromos and cheaply-illuminated Scriptural texts, showed her that a certain neatness and order had been preserved during her absence; and, finding the house empty, she crossed the barren and blackened intervening space between the back door and her father’s forge, and entered the open shed. The light was fading from the sky; but the glow of the forge lit up the dusty road before it, and accented the blackness of the rocky ledge beyond. A small curly-headed boy, bearing a singular likeness to a smudged and blackened crayon drawing of Minty, was mechanically blowing the bellows and obviously intent upon something else; while her father—a powerfully built man, with a quaintly dissatisfied expression of countenance—was with equal want of interest mechanically hammering at a horseshoe. Without noticing Minty’s advent, he lazily broke into a querulous drawling chant of some vague religious character:
“O tur-ren, sinner; tur-ren.
The musical accent adapted itself to the monotonous fall of the sledge-hammer; and at every repetition of the word “turn” he suited the action to the word by turning the horseshoe with the iron in his left hand. A slight grunt at the end of every stroke, and the simultaneous repetition of “turn” seemed to offer him amusement and relief. Minty, without speaking, crossed the shop, and administered a sound box on her brother’s ear. “Take that, and let me ketch you agen layin’ low when my back’s turned, to put on your store pants.”
“The others had fetched away in the laig,” said the boy, opposing a knee and elbow at acute angle to further attack.
“You jest get and change ’em,” said Minty.
The sudden collapse of the bellows broke in upon the soothing refrain of Mr. Sharpe, and caused him to turn also.
“It’s Minty,” he said, replacing the horseshoe on the coals, and setting his powerful arms and the sledge on the anvil with an exaggerated expression of weariness.
“Yes; it’s me,” said Minty, “and Creation knows it’s time I did come, to keep that boy from ruinin’ us with his airs and conceits.”
“Did ye bring over any o’ that fever mixter?”
“No. Bradley sez you’re loading yerself up with so much o’ that bitter bark—kuinine they call it over there—that you’ll lift the ruff off your head next. He allows ye ain’t got no ague; it’s jest wind and dyspepsy. He sez yer’s strong ez a hoss.”
“Bradley,” said Sharpe, laying aside his sledge with an aggrieved manner which was, however, as complacent as his fatigue and discontent, “ez one of them nat’ral born finikin skunks ez I despise. I reckon he began to give p’ints to his parents when he was about knee-high to Richelieu there. He’s on them confidential terms with hisself and the Almighty that he reckons he ken run a saw-mill and a man’s insides at the same time with one hand tied behind him. And this finikin is up to his conceit: he wanted to tell me that that yer handy brush dump outside our shanty was unhealthy. Give a man with frills like that his own way and he’d be a sprinkling odor cologne and peppermint all over the country.”
“He set your shoulder as well as any doctor,” said Minty.
“That’s bone-settin’, and a nat’ral gift,” returned Sharpe, as triumphantly as his habitual depression would admit; “it ain’t conceit and finikin got out o’ books! Well,” he added, after a pause, “wot’s happened?”
Minty’s face slightly changed. “Nothin’; I kem back to get some things,” she said shortly, moving away.
“And ye saw him?”
“Ye-e-s,” drawled Minty, carelessly, still retreating.
“Bixby was along here about noon. He says the stranger was suthin’ high and mighty in his own country, and them ’Frisco millionaires are quite sweet on him. Where are ye goin’?”
“In the house.”
“Well, look yer, Minty. Now that you’re here, ye might get up a batch o’ hot biscuit for supper. Dinner was that promiscous and experimental to-day, along o’ Richelieu’s nat’ral foolin’, that I think I could git outside of a little suthin’ now, if only to prop up a kind of innard sinkin’ that takes me. Ye ken tell me the news at supper.”
Later, however, when Mr. Sharpe had quitted his forge for the night and, seated at his domestic board, was, with a dismal presentiment of future indigestion, voraciously absorbing his favorite meal of hot saleratus biscuits swimming in butter, he had apparently forgotten his curiosity concerning Mainwaring and settled himself to a complaining chronicle of the day’s mishaps. “Nat’rally, havin’ an extra lot o’ work on hand and no time for foolin’, what does that ornery Richelieu get up and do this mornin’? Ye know them ridiklus specimens that he’s been chippin’ outer that ledge that the yearth slipped from down the run, and litterin’ up the whole shanty with ’em. Well, darn my skin! if he didn’t run a heap of ’em, mixed up with coal, unbeknowned to me, in the forge, to make what he called a ‘fire essay’ of ’em. Nat’rally, I couldn’t get a blessed iron hot, and didn’t know what had gone of the fire, or the coal either, for two hours, till I stopped work and raked out the coal. That comes from his hangin’ round that saw-mill in the woods, and listenin’ to Bradley’s high-falutin’ talk about rocks and strata and sich.”
“But Bradley don’t go a cent on minin’, Pop,” said Minty. “He sez the woods is good enough for him; and there’s millions to be made when the railroad comes along, and timber’s wanted.”
“But until then he’s got to keep hisself, to pay wages, and keep the mill runnin’. Onless it’s, ez Bixby says, that he hopes to get that Englishman to rope in some o’ them ’Frisco friends of his to take a hand. Ye didn’t have any o’ that kind o’ talk, did ye?”
“No; not that kind o’ talk,” said Minty.
“Not that kind o’ talk!” repeated her father with aggrieved curiosity, “Wot kind, then?”
“Well,” said Minty, lifting her black eyes to her father’s; “I ain’t no account, and you ain’t no account either. You ain’t got no college education, ain’t got no friends in ’Frisco, and ain’t got no high-toned style; I can’t play the pianner, jabber French, nor get French dresses. We ain’t got no fancy ‘Shallet,’ as they call it, with a first-class view of nothing; but only a shanty on dry rock. But, afore I’d take advantage of a lazy, gawky boy—for it ain’t anything else, though he’s good meanin’ enough—that happened to fall sick in my house, and coax and cosset him, and wrap him in white cotton, and mother him, and sister him, and Aunt Sukey him, and almost dry-nuss him gin’rally, jist to get him sweet on me and on mine, and take the inside track of others—I’d be an Injin! And if you’d allow it, Pop, you’d be wuss nor a nigger!”
“Sho!” said her father, kindling with that intense gratification with which the male receives any intimation of alien feminine weakness. “It ain’t that, Minty, I wanter know!”
“It’s jist that, Pop; and I ez good ez let ’em know I seed it. I ain’t a fool, if some folks do drop their eyes and pertend to wipe the laugh out of their noses with a handkerchief when I let out to speak. I mayn’t be good enough kempany—”
“Look yer, Minty,” interrupted the blacksmith, sternly, half rising from his seat with every trace of his former weakness vanished from his hardset face; “do you mean to say that they put on airs to ye—to my darter?”
“No,” said Minty quickly; “the men didn’t; and don’t you, a man, mix yourself up with women’s meannesses. I ken manage ’em, Pop, with one hand.”
Mr. Sharpe looked at his daughter’s flashing black eyes. Perhaps an uneasy recollection of the late Mrs. Sharpe’s remarkable capacity in that respect checked his further rage.
“No. Wot I was sayin’,” resumed Minty, “ez that I mayn’t be thought by others good enough to keep kempany with baronetts ez is to be—though baronetts mightn’t object—but I ain’t mean enough to try to steal away some ole woman’s darling boy in England, or snatch some likely young English girl’s big brother outer the family without sayin’ by your leave. How’d you like it if Richelieu was growed up, and went to sea,—and it would be like his peartness,—and he fell sick in some foreign land, and some princess or other skyulged him underhand away from us?”
Probably owing to the affair of the specimens, the elder Sharpe did not seem to regard the possible mesalliance of Richelieu with extraordinary disfavor. “That boy is conceited enough with hair ile and fine clothes for anything,” he said plaintively. “But didn’t that Louise Macy hev a feller already—that Captain Greyson? Wot’s gone o’ him?”
“That’s it,” said Minty: “he kin go out in the woods and whistle now. But all the same, she could hitch him in again at any time if the other stranger kicked over the traces. That’s the style over there at The Lookout. There ain’t ez much heart in them two women put together ez would make a green gal flush up playin’ forfeits. It’s all in their breed, Pop. Love ain’t going to spile their appetites and complexions, give ’em nose-bleed, nor put a drop o’ water into their eyes in all their natural born days. That’s wot makes me mad. Ef I thought that Loo cared a bit for that child I wouldn’t mind; I’d just advise her to make him get up and get—pack his duds out o’ camp, and go home and not come back until he had a written permit from his mother, or the other baronet in office.”
“Looks sorter ef some one orter interfere,” said the blacksmith, reflectively. “‘Tain’t exackly a case for a vigilance committee, tho’ it’s agin public morals, this sorter kidnappin’ o’ strangers. Looks ez if it might bring the country into discredit in England.”
“Well, don’t you go and interfere and havin’ folks say ez my nose was put out o’ jint over there,” said Minty, curtly. “There’s another Englishman comin’ up from ’Frisco to see him to-morrow. Ef he ain’t scooped up by Jenny Bradley he’ll guess there’s a nigger in the fence somewhere. But there, Pop, let it drop. It’s a bad aig, anyway,” she concluded, rising from the table, and passing her hands down her frock and her shapely hips, as if to wipe off further contamination of the subject. “Where’s Richelieu agin?”
“Said he didn’t want supper, and like ez not he’s gone over to see that fammerly at the Summit. There’s a little girl thar he’s sparkin’, about his own age.”
“His own age!” said Minty, indignantly. “Why, she’s double that, if she’s a day. Well—if he ain’t the triflinest, conceitednest little limb that ever grew! I’d like to know where he got it from—it wasn’t mar’s style.”
Mr. Sharpe smiled darkly. Richelieu’s precocious gallantry evidently was not considered as gratuitous as his experimental metallurgy. But as his eyes followed his daughter’s wholesome, Phyllis-like figure, a new idea took possession of him: needless to say, however, it was in the line of another personal aggrievement, albeit it took the form of religious reflection.
“It’s curous, Minty, wot’s foreordained, and wot ain’t. Now, yer’s one of them high and mighty fellows, after the Lord, ez comes meanderin’ around here, and drops off—ez fur ez I kin hear—in a kind o’ faint at the first house he kems to, and is taken in and lodged and sumptuously fed; and, nat’rally, they gets their reward for it. Now wot’s to hev kept that young feller from coming here and droppin’ down in my forge, or in this very room, and you a tendin’ him, and jist layin’ over them folks at The Lookout?”
“Wot’s got hold o’ ye, Pop? Don’t I tell ye he had a letter to Jim Bradley?” said Minty, quickly, with an angry flash of color in her cheek.
“That ain’t it,” said Sharpe confidently; “it’s cos he walked. Nat’rally, you’d think he’d ride, being high and mighty, and that’s where, ez the parson will tell ye, wot’s merely fi-nite and human wisdom errs! Ef that feller had ridden, he’d have had to come by this yer road, and by this yer forge, and stop a spell like any other. But it was foreordained that he should walk, jest cos it wasn’t generally kalkilated and reckoned on. So, you had no show.”
For a moment, Minty seemed struck with her father’s original theory. But with a vigorous shake of her shoulders she threw it off. Her eyes darkened.
“I reckon you ain’t thinking, Pop—” she began.
“I was only sayin’ it was curous,” he rejoined quietly. Nevertheless, after a pause, he rose, coughed, and going up to the young girl, as she leaned over the dresser, bent his powerful arm around her, and, drawing her and the plate she was holding against his breast, laid his bearded cheek for an instant softly upon her rebellious head. “It’s all right, Minty,” he said; “ain’t it, pet?” Minty’s eyelids closed gently under the familiar pressure. “Wot’s that in your hair, Minty?” he said tactfully, breaking an embarrassing pause.
“Bar’s grease, father,” murmured Minty, in a child’s voice—the grown-up woman, under that magic touch, having lapsed again into her father’s motherless charge of ten years before.
“It’s pow’ful soothin’, and pretty,” said her father.
“I made it myself—do you want some?” asked Minty.
“Not now, girl!” For a moment they slightly rocked each other in that attitude—the man dexterously, the woman with infinite tenderness—and then they separated.
Late that night, after Richelieu had returned, and her father wrestled in his fitful sleep with the remorse of his guilty indulgence at supper, Minty remained alone in her room, hard at work, surrounded by the contents of one of her mother’s trunks and the fragments of certain ripped-up and newly-turned dresses. For Minty had conceived the bold idea of altering one of her mother’s gowns to the fashion of a certain fascinating frock worn by Louise Macy. It was late when her self-imposed task was completed. With a nervous trepidation that was novel to her, Minty began to disrobe herself preparatory to trying on her new creation. The light of a tallow candle and a large swinging lantern, borrowed from her father’s forge, fell shyly on her milky neck and shoulders, and shone in her sparkling eyes, as she stood before her largest mirror—the long glazed door of a kitchen clock which she had placed upon her chest of drawers. Had poor Minty been content with the full, free, and goddess-like outlines that it reflected, she would have been spared her impending disappointment. For, alas! the dress of her model had been framed upon a symmetrically attenuated French corset, and the unfortunate Minty’s fuller and ampler curves had under her simple country stays known no more restraining cincture than knew the Venus of Milo. The alteration was a hideous failure, it was neither Minty’s statuesque outline nor Louise Macy’s graceful contour. Minty was no fool, and the revelation of this slow education of the figure and training of outline—whether fair or false in art—struck her quick intelligence with all its full and hopeless significance. A bitter light sprang to her eyes; she tore the wretched sham from her shoulders, and then wrapping a shawl around her, threw herself heavily and sullenly on the bed. But inaction was not a characteristic of Minty’s emotion; she presently rose again, and, taking an old work-box from her trunk, began to rummage in its recesses. It was an old shell-incrusted affair, and the apparent receptacle of such cheap odds and ends of jewelry as she possessed; a hideous cameo ring, the property of the late Mrs. Sharpe, was missing. She again rapidly explored the contents of the box, and then an inspiration seized her, and she darted into her brother’s bedroom.
That precocious and gallant Lovelace of ten, despite all sentiment, had basely succumbed to the gross materialism of youthful slumber. On a cot in the corner, half hidden under the wreck of his own careless and hurried disrobing, with one arm hanging out of the coverlid, Richelieu lay supremely unconscious. On the forefinger of his small but dirty hand the missing cameo was still glittering guiltily. With a swift movement of indignation Minty rushed with uplifted palm towards the tempting expanse of youthful cheek that lay invitingly exposed upon the pillow. Then she stopped suddenly.
She had seen him lying thus a hundred times before. On the pillow near him an indistinguishable mass of golden fur—the helpless bulk of a squirrel chained to the leg of his cot; at his feet a wall-eyed cat, who had followed his tyrannous caprices with the long-suffering devotion of her sex; on the shelf above him a loathsome collection of flies and tarantulas in dull green bottles: a slab of ginger-bread for light nocturnal refection, and her own pot of bear’s grease. Perhaps it was the piteous defencelessness of youthful sleep, perhaps it was some lingering memory of her father’s caress; but as she gazed at him with troubled eyes, the juvenile reprobate slipped back into the baby-boy that she had carried in her own childish arms such a short time ago, when the maternal responsibility had descended with the dead mother’s ill-fitting dresses upon her lank girlish figure and scant virgin breast—and her hand fell listlessly at her side.
The sleeper stirred slightly and awoke. At the same moment, by some mysterious sympathy, a pair of beady bright eyes appeared in the bulk of fur near his curls, the cat stretched herself, and even a vague agitation was heard in the bottles on the shelf. Richelieu’s blinking eyes wandered from the candle to his sister, and then the guilty hand was suddenly withdrawn under the bedclothes.
“No matter, dear,” said Minty; “it’s mar’s, and you kin wear it when you like, if you’ll only ask for it.”
Richelieu wondered if he was dreaming! This unexpected mildness—this inexplicable tremor in his sister’s voice: it must be some occult influence of the night season on the sisterly mind, possibly akin to a fear of ghosts! He made a mental note of it in view of future favors, yet for the moment he felt embarrassedly gratified. “Ye ain’t wantin’ anything, Minty,” he said affectionately; “a pail o’ cold water from the far spring—no nothin’?” He made an ostentatious movement as if to rise, yet sufficiently protracted to prevent any hasty acceptance of his prodigal offer.
“No, dear,” she said, still gazing at him with an absorbed look in her dark eyes.
Richelieu felt a slight creepy sensation under that lonely far-off gaze. “Your eyes look awful big at night, Minty,” he said. He would have added “and pretty,” but she was his sister, and he had the lofty fraternal conviction of his duty in repressing the inordinate vanity of the sex. “Ye’re sure ye ain’t wantin’ nothin’?”
“Not now, dear.” She paused a moment, and then said deliberately: “But you wouldn’t mind turnin’ out after sun-up and runnin’ an errand for me over to The Lookout?”
Richelieu’s eyes sparkled so suddenly that even in her absorption Minty noticed the change. “But ye’re not goin’ to tarry over there, ner gossip—you hear? Yer to take this yer message. Yer to say ‘that it will be onpossible for me to come back there, on account—on account of—’”
“Important business,” suggested Richelieu; “that’s the perlite style.”
“Ef you like.” She leaned over the bed and put her lips to his forehead, still damp with the dews of sleep, and then to his long-lashed lids. “Mind Nip!”—the squirrel—he practically suggested. For an instant their blond curls mingled on the pillow. “Now go to sleep,” she said curtly.
But Richelieu had taken her white neck in the short strangulatory hug of the small boy, and held her fast. “Ye’ll let me put on my best pants?”
“And wear that ring?”
“Yes”—a little sadly.
“Then yer kin count me in, Minty; and see here”—his voice sank to a confidential whisper— “mebbee some day ye’ll be beholden to me for a lot o’ real jewelry.”
She returned slowly to her room, and, opening the window, looked out upon the night. The same moon that had lent such supererogatory grace to the natural beauty of The Lookout, here seemed to have failed; as Minty had, in disguising the relentless limitations of Nature or the cruel bonds of custom. The black plain of granite, under its rays, appeared only to extend its poverty to some remoter barrier; the blackened stumps of the burnt forest stood bleaker against the sky, like broken and twisted pillars of iron. The cavity of the broken ledge where Richelieu had prospected was a hideous chasm of bluish blackness, over which a purple vapor seemed to hover; the “brush dump” beside the house showed a cavern of writhing and distorted objects stiffened into dark rigidity. She had often looked upon the prospect: it had never seemed so hard and changeless; yet she accepted it, as she had accepted it before.
She turned away, undressed herself mechanically, and went to bed. She had an idea that she had been very foolish; that her escape from being still more foolish was something miraculous, and in some measure connected with Providence, her father, her little brother, and her dead mother, whose dress she had recklessly spoiled. But that she had even so slightly touched the bitterness and glory of renunciation—as written of heroines and fine ladies by novelists and poets—never entered the foolish head of Minty Sharpe, the blacksmith’s daughter.