A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s and Other Stories

A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s

Part III.

Bret Harte

MEANTIME Hamlin and Sophy were passing the outskirts of the town; the open lots and cleared spaces were giving way to grassy stretches, willow copses, and groups of cottonwood and sycamore; and beyond the level of yellowing tules appeared the fringed and raised banks of the river. Half tropical looking cottages with deep verandas—the homes of early Southern pioneers—took the place of incomplete blocks of modern houses, monotonously alike. In these sylvan surroundings Mr. Hamlin’s picturesque rusticity looked less incongruous and more Arcadian; the young girl had lost some of her restraint with her confidences, and lounging together side by side, without the least consciousness of any sentiment in their words or actions, they nevertheless contrived to impress the spectator with the idea that they were a charming pair of pastoral lovers. So strong was this impression that, as they approached Aunt Chloe’s laundry, a pretty rose-covered cottage with an enormous whitewashed barn-like extension in the rear, the black proprietress herself, standing at the door, called her husband to come and look at them, and flashed her white teeth in such unqualified commendation and patronage that Mr. Hamlin, withdrawing himself from Sophy’s side, instantly charged down upon them.

“If you don’t slide the lid back over that grinning box of dominoes of yours and take it inside, I’ll just carry Hannibal off with me,” he said in a quick whisper, with a half-wicked, half-mischievous glitter in his brown eyes. “That young lady’s—a lady—do you understand? No riffraff friend of mine, but a regular nun—a saint—do you hear? So you just stand back and let her take a good look round, and rest herself, until she wants you.” “Two black idiots, Miss Brown,” he continued cheerfully in a higher voice of explanation, as Sophy approached, “who think because one of ’em used to shave me and the other saved my life they’ve got a right to stand at their humble cottage door and frighten horses!”

So great was Mr. Hamlin’s ascendency over his former servants that even this ingenious pleasantry was received with every sign of affection and appreciation of the humorist, and of the profound respect for his companion. Aunt Chloe showed them effusively into her parlor, a small but scrupulously neat and sweet-smelling apartment, inordinately furnished with a huge mahogany centre-table and chairs, and the most fragile and meretricious china and glass ornaments on the mantel. But the three jasmine-edged lattice windows opened upon a homely garden of old-fashioned herbs and flowers, and their fragrance filled the room. The cleanest and starchiest of curtains, the most dazzling and whitest of tidies and chair-covers, bespoke the adjacent laundry; indeed, the whole cottage seemed to exhale the odors of lavender soap and freshly ironed linen. Yet the cottage was large for the couple and their assistants. “Dar was two front rooms on de next flo’ dat dey never used,” explained Aunt Chloe; “friends allowed dat dey could let ’em to white folks, but dey had always been done kep’ for Marse Hamlin, ef he ever wanted to be wid his old niggers again.” Jack looked up quickly with a brightened face, made a sign to Hannibal, and the two left the room together.

When he came through the passage a few moments later, there was a sound of laughter in the parlor. He recognized the full, round lazy chuckle of Aunt Chloe, but there was a higher girlish ripple that he did not know. He had never heard Sophy laugh before. Nor, when he entered, had he ever seen her so animated. She was helping Chloe set the table, to that lady’s intense delight at “Missy’s” girlish housewifery. She was picking the berries fresh from the garden, buttering the Sally Lunn, making the tea, and arranging the details of the repast with apparently no trace of her former discontent and unhappiness in either face or manner. He dropped quietly into a chair by the window, and, with the homely scents of the garden mixing with the honest odors of Aunt Chloe’s cookery, watched her with an amusement that was as pleasant and grateful as it was strange and unprecedented.

“Now den,” said Aunt Chloe to her husband, as she put the finishing touch to the repast in a plate of doughnuts as exquisitely brown and shining as Jack’s eyes were at that moment, “Hannibal, you just come away, and let dem two white quality chillens have dey tea. Dey’s done starved, shuah.” And with an approving nod to Jack, she bundled her husband from the room.


The door closed; the young girl began to pour out the tea, but Jack remained in his seat by the window. It was a singular sensation which he did not care to disturb. It was no new thing for Mr. Hamlin to find himself at a tête-à-tête repast with the admiring and complaisant fair; there was a cabinet particulier in a certain San Francisco restaurant which had listened to their various vanities and professions of undying faith; he might have recalled certain festal rendezvous with a widow whose piety and impeccable reputation made it a moral duty for her to come to him only in disguise; it was but a few days ago that he had been let privately into the palatial mansion of a high official for a midnight supper with a foolish wife. It was not strange, therefore, that he should be alone here, secretly, with a member of that indiscreet, loving sex. But that he should be sitting there in a cheap negro laundry with absolutely no sentiment of any kind towards the heavy-haired, freckle-faced country schoolgirl opposite him, from whom he sought and expected nothing, and enjoying it without scorn of himself or his companion, to use his own expression, “got him.” Presently he rose and sauntered to the table with shining eyes.

“Well, what do you think of Aunt Chloe’s shebang?” he asked smilingly.

“Oh, it’s so sweet and clean and homelike,” said the girl quickly. At any other time he would have winced at the last adjective. It struck him now as exactly the word.

“Would you like to live here, if you could?”

Her face brightened. She put the teapot down and gazed fixedly at Jack.

“Because you can. Look here. I spoke to Hannibal about it. You can have the two front rooms if you want to. One of ’em is big enough and light enough for a studio to do your work in. You tell that nigger what you want to put in ’em, and he’s got my orders to do it. I told him about your painting; said you were the daughter of an old friend, you know. Hold on, Sophy; d—n it all, I’ve got to do a little gilt-edged lying; but I let you out of the niece business this time. Yes, from this moment I’m no longer your uncle. I renounce the relationship. It’s hard,” continued the rascal, “after all these years and considering sister Mary’s feelings; but, as you seem to wish it, it must be done.”

Sophy’s steel-blue eyes softened. She slid her long brown hand across the table and grasped Jack’s. He returned the pressure quickly and fraternally, even to that half-shamed, half-hurried evasion of emotion peculiar to all brothers. This was also a new sensation; but he liked it.

“You are too—too good, Mr. Hamlin,” she said quietly.

“Yes,” said Jack cheerfully, “that’s what’s the matter with me. It isn’t natural, and if I keep it up too long it brings on my cough.”

Nevertheless, they were happy in a boy and girl fashion, eating heartily, and, I fear, not always decorously; scrambling somewhat for the strawberries, and smacking their lips over the Sally Lunn. Meantime, it was arranged that Mr. Hamlin should inform Miss Mix that Sophy would leave school at the end of the term, only a few days hence, and then transfer herself to lodgings with some old family servants, where she could more easily pursue her studies in her own profession. She need not make her place of abode a secret, neither need she court publicity. She would write to Jack regularly, informing him of her progress, and he would visit her whenever he could. Jack assented gravely to the further proposition that he was to keep a strict account of all the moneys he advanced her, and that she was to repay him out of the proceeds of her first pictures. He had promised also, with a slight mental reservation, not to buy them all himself, but to trust to her success with the public. They were never to talk of what had happened before; she was to begin life anew. Of such were their confidences, spoken often together at the same moment, and with their mouths full. Only one thing troubled Jack; he had not yet told her frankly who he was and what was his reputation; he had hitherto carelessly supposed she would learn it, and in truth had cared little if she did; but it was evident from her conversation that day that by some miracle she was still in ignorance. Unable now to tell her himself, he had charged Hannibal to break it to her casually after he was gone. “You can let me down easy if you like, but you’d better make a square deal of it while you’re about it. And,” Jack had added cheerfully, “if she thinks after that she’d better drop me entirely, you just say that if she wishes to stay, you’ll see that I don’t ever come here again. And you keep your word about it too, you black nigger, or I’ll be the first to thrash you.”

Nevertheless, when Hannibal and Aunt Chloe returned to clear away the repast, they were a harmonious party; albeit, Mr. Hamlin seemed more content to watch them silently from his chair by the window, a cigar between his lips, and the pleasant distraction of the homely scents and sounds of the garden in his senses. Allusion having been made again to the morning performance of the organ, he was implored by Hannibal to diversify his talent by exercising it on an old guitar which had passed into that retainer’s possession with certain clothes of his master’s when they separated. Mr. Hamlin accepted it dubiously; it had twanged under his volatile fingers in more pretentious but less innocent halls. But presently he raised his tenor voice and soft brown lashes to the humble ceiling and sang. “Way down upon the Swanee River,” Discoursed Jack plaintively,— “Far, far away, Thar’s whar my heart is turning ever, Thar’s whar the old folks stay.”

The two dusky scions of an emotional race, that had been wont to sweeten its toil and condone its wrongs with music, sat wrapt and silent, swaying with Jack’s voice until they could burst in upon the chorus. The jasmine vines trilled softly with the afternoon breeze; a slender yellow-hammer, perhaps emulous of Jack, swung himself from an outer spray and peered curiously into the room; and a few neighbors, gathering at their doors and windows, remarked that “after all, when it came to real singing, no one could beat those d——d niggers.”

The sun was slowly sinking in the rolling gold of the river when Jack and Sophy started leisurely back through the broken shafts of light, and across the far-stretching shadows of the cottonwoods. In the midst of a lazy silence they were presently conscious of a distant monotonous throb, the booming of the up boat on the river. The sound came nearer—passed them, the boat itself hidden by the trees; but a trailing cloud of smoke above cast a momentary shadow upon their path. The girl looked up at Jack with a troubled face. Mr. Hamlin smiled reassuringly; but in that instant he had made up his mind that it was his moral duty to kill Mr. Edward Stratton.

A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s and Other Stories - Contents    |     A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s - Part IV.

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