A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s and Other Stories

An Episode of West Woodlands

Part I.

Bret Harte

THE RAIN was dripping monotonously from the scant eaves of the little church of the Sidon Brethren at West Woodlands. Hewn out of the very heart of a thicket of buckeye spruce and alder, unsunned and unblown upon by any wind, it was so green and unseasoned in its solitude that it seemed a part of the arboreal growth, and on damp Sundays to have taken root again and sprouted. There were moss and shining spots on the underside of the unplaned rafters, little green pools of infusoria stood on the ledge of the windows whose panes were at times suddenly clouded by mysterious unknown breaths from without or within. It was oppressed with an extravagance of leaves at all seasons, whether in summer, when green and limp they crowded the porch, doorways, and shutters, or when penetrating knot-holes and interstices of shingle and clapboard, on some creeping vine, they unexpectedly burst and bourgeoned on the walls like banners; or later, when they rotted in brown heaps in corners, outlined the edges of the floor with a thin yellow border, or invaded the ranks of the high-backed benches which served as pews.

There had been a continuous rustling at the porch and the shaking out of waterproofs and closing of umbrellas until the half-filled church was already redolent of damp dyes and the sulphur of India rubber. The eyes of the congregation were turned to the door with something more than the usual curiosity and expectation. For the new revivalist preacher from Horse Shoe Bay was coming that morning. Already voices of authority were heard approaching, and keeping up their conversation to the very door of the sacred edifice in marked contrast with the awed and bashful whisperings in the porch of the ordinary congregation. The worshipers recognized the voices of Deacons Shadwell and Bradley; in the reverential hush of the building they seemed charged with undue importance.

“It was set back in the road for quiet in the Lord’s work,” said Bradley.

“Yes, but it oughtn’t be hidden! Let your light so shine before men, you know, Brother Bradley,” returned a deep voice, unrecognized and unfamiliar—presumably that of the newcomer.

“It wouldn’t take much to move it—on skids and rollers—nearer to the road,” suggested Shadwell tentatively.

“No, but if you left it stranded there in the wind and sun, green and sappy as it is now, ye’d have every seam and crack startin’ till the ribs shone through, and no amount of calkin’ would make it watertight agin. No; my idea is—clear out the brush and shadder around it! Let the light shine in upon it! Make the waste places glad around it, but keep it there! And that’s my idea o’ gen’ral missionary work; that’s how the gospel orter be rooted.”

Here the bell, which from the plain open four-posted belfry above had been clanging with a metallic sharpness that had an odd impatient worldliness about it, suddenly ceased.

“That bell,” said Bradley’s voice, with the same suggestion of conveying important truths to the listening congregation within, “was took from the wreck of the Tamalpais. Brother Horley bought it at auction at Horse Shoe Bay and presented it. You know the Tamalpais ran ashore on Skinner’s Reef, jest off here.”

“Yes, with plenty of sea room, not half a gale o’ wind blowing, and her real course fifty miles to westward! The whole watch must have drunk or sunk in slothful idleness,” returned the deep voice again. A momentary pause followed, and then the two deacons entered the church with the stranger.

He appeared to be a powerfully-built man, with a square, beardless chin; a face that carried one or two scars of smallpox and a deeper one of a less peaceful suggestion, set in a complexion weather-beaten to the color of Spanish leather. Two small, moist gray eyes, that glistened with every emotion, seemed to contradict the hard expression of the other features. He was dressed in cheap black, like the two deacons, with the exception of a loose, black alpaca coat and the usual black silk neckerchief tied in a large bow under a turndown collar,—the general sign and symbol of a minister of his sect. He walked directly to the raised platform at the end of the chapel, where stood a table on which was a pitcher of water, a glass and hymnbook, and a tall upright desk holding a Bible. Glancing over these details, he suddenly paused, carefully lifted some hitherto undetected object from the desk beside the Bible, and, stooping gently, placed it upon the floor. As it hopped away the congregation saw that it was a small green frog. The intrusion was by no means an unusual one, but some odd contrast between this powerful man and the little animal affected them profoundly. No one—even the youngest—smiled; every one—even the youngest—became suddenly attentive. Turning over the leaves of the hymnbook, he then gave out the first two lines of a hymn. The choir accordion in the front side bench awoke like an infant into wailing life, and Cissy Appleby, soprano, took up a little more musically the lugubrious chant. At the close of the verse the preacher joined in, after a sailor fashion, with a breezy bass that seemed to fill the little building with the trouble of the sea. Then followed prayer from Deacon Shadwell, broken by “Amens” from the preacher, with a nautical suggestion of “Ay, ay,” about them, and he began his sermon.

It was, as those who knew his methods might have expected, a suggestion of the conversation they had already overheard. He likened the little chapel, choked with umbrage and rotting in its dampness, to the gospel seed sown in crowded places, famishing in the midst of plenty, and sterile from the absorptions of the more active life around it. He pointed out again the true work of the pioneer missionary; the careful pruning and elimination of those forces that grew up with the Christian’s life, which many people foolishly believed were a part of it. “The World must live and the Word must live,” said they, and there were easy-going brethren who thought they could live together. But he warned them that the World was always closing upon— “shaddering”—and strangling the Word, unless kept down, and that “fair seemin’ settlement,” or city, which appeared to be “bustin’ and bloomin’” with life and progress, was really “hustlin’ and jostlin’” the Word of God, even in the midst of these “fancy spires and steeples” it had erected to its glory. It was the work of the missionary pioneer to keep down or root out this carnal, worldly growth as much in the settlement as in the wilderness. Some were for getting over the difficulty by dragging the mere wasted “letter of the Word,” or the rotten and withered husks of it, into the highways and byways, where the “blazin’” scorn of the World would finish it. A low, penitential groan from Deacon Shadwell followed this accusing illustration. But the preacher would tell them that the only way was to boldly attack this rankly growing World around them; to clear out fresh paths for the Truth, and let the sunlight of Heaven stream among them.

There was little doubt that the congregation was moved. Whatever they might have thought of the application, the fact itself was patent. The rheumatic Beaseleys felt the truth of it in their aching bones; it came home to the fever and ague stricken Filgees in their damp seats against the sappy wall; it echoed plainly in the chronic cough of Sister Mary Strutt and Widow Doddridge; and Cissy Appleby, with her round brown eyes fixed upon the speaker, remembering how the starch had been taken out of her Sunday frocks, how her long ringlets had become uncurled, her frills limp, and even her ribbons lustreless, felt that indeed a prophet had arisen in Israel!

One or two, however, were disappointed that he had as yet given no indication of that powerful exhortatory emotion for which he was famed, and which had been said to excite certain corresponding corybantic symptoms among his sensitive female worshipers. When the service was over, and the congregation crowded around him, Sister Mary Strutt, on the outer fringe of the assembly, confided to Sister Evans that she had “hearn tell how that when he was over at Soquel he prayed that pow’ful that all the wimmen got fits and tremblin’ spells, and ole Mrs. Jackson had to be hauled off his legs that she was kneelin’ and claspin’ while wrestling with the Sperit.”

“I reckon we seemed kinder strange to him this morning, and he wanted to jest feel his way to our hearts first,” exclaimed Brother Jonas Steers politely. “He’ll be more at home at evenin’ service. It’s queer that some of the best exhortin’ work is done arter early candlelight. I reckon he’s goin’ to stop over with Deacon Bradley to dinner.”

But it appeared that the new preacher, now formally introduced as Brother Seabright, was intending to walk over to Hemlock Mills to dinner. He only asked to be directed the nearest way; he would not trouble Brother Shadwell or Deacon Bradley to come with him.

“But here’s Cissy Appleby lives within a mile o’ thar, and you could go along with her. She’d jest admire to show you the way,” interrupted Brother Shadwell. “Wouldn’t you, Cissy?”

Thus appealed to, the young chorister—a tall girl of sixteen or seventeen—timidly raised her eyes to Brother Seabright as he was about to repeat his former protestation, and he stopped.

“Ef the young lady is goin’ that way, it’s only fair to accept her kindness in a Christian sperit,” he said gently.

Cissy turned with a mingling of apology and bashfulness towards a young fellow who seemed to be acting as her escort, but who was hesitating in an equal bashfulness, when Seabright added: “And perhaps our young friend will come too?”

But the young friend drew back with a confused laugh, and Brother Seabright and Cissy passed out from the porch together. For a few moments they mingled with the stream and conversation of the departing congregation, but presently Cissy timidly indicated a diverging bypath, and they both turned into it.

It was much warmer in the open than it had been in the chapel and thicket, and Cissy, by way of relieving a certain awkward tension of silence, took off the waterproof cloak and slung it on her arm. This disclosed her five long brown cable-like curls that hung down her shoulders, reaching below her waist in some forgotten fashion of girlhood. They were Cissy’s peculiar adornment, remarkable for their length, thickness, and the extraordinary youthfulness imparted to a figure otherwise precociously matured. In some wavering doubt of her actual years and privileges, Brother Seabright offered to carry her cloak for her, but she declined it with a rustic and youthful pertinacity that seemed to settle the question. In fact, Cissy was as much embarrassed as she was flattered by the company of this distinguished stranger. However, it would be known to all West Woodland that he had walked home with her, while nobody but herself would know that they had scarcely exchanged a word. She noticed how he lounged on with a heavy, rolling gait, sometimes a little before or behind her as the path narrowed. At such times when they accidentally came in contact in passing, she felt a half uneasy, physical consciousness of him, which she referred to his size, the scars on his face, or some latent hardness of expression, but was relieved to see that he had not observed it. Yet this was the man that made grown women cry; she thought of old Mrs. Jackson fervently grasping the plodding ankles before her, and a hysteric desire to laugh, with the fear that he might see it on her face, overcame her. Then she wondered if he was going to walk all the way home without speaking, yet she knew she would be more embarrassed if he began to talk to her.

Suddenly he stopped, and she bumped up against him.

“Oh, excuse me!” she stammered hurriedly.

“Eh?” He evidently had not noticed the collision. “Did you speak?”

“No!—that is—it wasn’t anything,” returned the girl, coloring.

But he had quite forgotten her, and was looking intently before him. They had come to a break in the fringe of woodland, and upon a sudden view of the ocean. At this point the low line of coast-range which sheltered the valley of West Woodlands was abruptly cloven by a gorge that crumbled and fell away seaward to the shore of Horse Shoe Bay. On its northern trend stretched the settlement of Horse Shoe to the promontory of Whale Mouth Point, with its outlying reef of rocks curved inwards like the vast submerged jaw of some marine monster, through whose blunt, tooth-like projections the ship-long swell of the Pacific streamed and fell. On the southern shore the light yellow sands of Punta de las Concepcion glittered like sunshine all the way to the olive-gardens and white domes of the Mission. The two shores seemed to typify the two different climates and civilizations separated by the bay.

The heavy, woodland atmosphere was quickened by the salt breath of the sea. The stranger inhaled it meditatively.

“That’s the reef where the Tamalpais struck,” he said, “and more’n fifty miles out of her course—yes, more’n fifty miles from where she should have bin! It don’t look nat’ral. No—it—don’t—look—nat’ral!”

As he seemed to be speaking to himself, the young girl, who had been gazing with far greater interest at the foreign-looking southern shore, felt confused and did not reply. Then, as if recalling her presence, Brother Seabright turned to her and said:—

“Yes, young lady; and when you hear the old bell of the Tamalpais, and think of how it came here, you may rejoice in the goodness of the Lord that made even those who strayed from the straight course and the true reckoning the means of testifying onto Him.”

But the young are quicker to detect attitudes and affectation than we are apt to imagine; and Cissy could distinguish a certain other straying in this afterthought or moral of the preacher called up by her presence, and knew that it was not the real interest which the view had evoked. She had heard that he had been a sailor, and, with the tact of her sex, answered with what she thought would entertain him:—

“I was a little girl when it happened, and I heard that some sailors got ashore down there, and climbed up this gully from the rocks below. And they camped that night—for there were no houses at West Woodlands then—just in the woods where our chapel now stands. It was funny, wasn’t it?—I mean,” she corrected herself bashfully, “it was strange they chanced to come just there?”

But she had evidently hit the point of interest.

“What became of them?” he said quickly. “They never came to Horse Shoe Settlement, where the others landed from the wreck. I never heard of that boat’s crew or of any landing here.”

“No. They kept on over the range south to the Mission. I reckon they didn’t know there was a way down on this side to Horse Shoe,” returned Cissy.

Brother Seabright moved on and continued his slow, plodding march. But he kept a little nearer Cissy, and she was conscious that he occasionally looked at her. Presently he said:—

“You have a heavenly gift, Miss Appleby.”

Cissy flushed, and her hand involuntarily went to one of her long, distinguishing curls. It might be that. The preacher continued:—

“Yes; a voice like yours is a heavenly gift. And you have properly devoted it to His service. Have you been singing long?”

“About two years. But I’ve got to study a heap yet.”

“The little birds don’t think it necessary to study to praise Him,” said the preacher sententiously.

It occurred to Cissy that this was very unfair argument. She said quickly:—

“But the little birds don’t have to follow words in the hymn-books. You don’t give out lines to larks and bobolinks,” and blushed.

The preacher smiled. It was a very engaging smile, Cissy thought, that lightened his hard mouth. It enabled her to take heart of grace, and presently to chatter like the very birds she had disparaged. Oh yes; she knew she had to learn a great deal more. She had studied “some” already. She was taking lessons over at Point Concepcion, where her aunt had friends, and she went three times a week. The gentleman who taught her was not a Catholic, and, of course, he knew she was a Protestant. She would have preferred to live there, but her mother and father were both dead, and had left her with her aunt. She liked it better because it was sunnier and brighter there. She loved the sun and warmth. She had listened to what he had said about the dampness and gloom of the chapel. It was true. The dampness was that dreadful sometimes it just ruined her clothes, and even made her hoarse. Did he think they would really take his advice and clear out the woods round the chapel?

“Would you like it?” he asked pleasantly.


“And you think you wouldn’t pine so much for the sunshine and warmth of the Mission?

“I’m not pining,” said Cissy with a toss of her curls, “for anything or anybody; but I think the woods ought to be cleared out. It’s just as it was when the runaways hid there.”

“When the runaways hid there!” said Brother Seabright quickly. “What runaways?”

“Why, the boat’s crew,” said Cissy.

“Why do you call them runaways?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t you?” said Cissy simply. “Didn’t you say they never came back to Horse Shoe Bay. Perhaps I had it from aunty. But I know it’s damp and creepy; and when I was littler I used to be frightened to be alone there practicing.”

“Why?” said the preacher quickly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” hurried on Cissy, with a vague impression that she had said too much. “Only my fancy, I guess.”

“Well,” said Brother Seabright after a pause; “we’ll see what can be done to make a clearing there. Birds sing best in the sunshine, and you ought to have some say about it.”

Cissy’s dimples and blushes came together this time. “That’s our house,” she said suddenly, with a slight accent of relief, pointing to a weather-beaten farmhouse on the edge of the gorge. “I turn off here, but you keep straight on for the Mills; they’re back in the woods a piece. But,” she stammered with a sudden sense of shame of forgotten hospitality, “won’t you come in and see aunty?”

“No, thank you, not now.” He stopped, turning his gaze from the house to her. “How old is your house? Was it there at the time of the wreck?”

“Yes,” said Cissy.

“It’s odd that the crew did not come there for help, eh?”

“Maybe they overlooked it in the darkness and the storm,” said Cissy simply. “Good-by, sir.”

The preacher held her hand for an instant in his powerful, but gently graduated grasp. “Good-by until evening service.”

“Yes, sir,” said Cissy.

The young girl tripped on towards her house a little agitated and conscious, and yet a little proud as she saw the faces of her aunt, her uncle, her two cousins, and even her discarded escort, Jo Adams, at the windows, watching her.

“So,” said her aunt, as she entered breathlessly, “ye walked home with the preacher! It was a speshal providence and manifestation for ye, Cissy. I hope ye was mannerly and humble—and profited by the words of grace.”

“I don’t know,” said Cissy, putting aside her hat and cloak listlessly. “He didn’t talk much of anything—but the old wreck of the Tamalpais.”

“What?” said her aunt quickly.

“The wreck of the Tamalpais, and the boat’s crew that came up the gorge,” repeated the young girl.

“And what did he know about the boat’s crew?” said her aunt hurriedly, fixing her black eyes on Cissy.

“Nothing except what I told him.”

“What you told him!” echoed her aunt, with an ominous color filling the sallow hollows of her cheek.

“Yes! He has been a sailor, you know—and I thought it would interest him; and it did! He thought it strange.”

“Cecilia Jane Appleby,” said her aunt shrilly, “do you mean to say that you threw away your chances of salvation and saving grace just to tell gossiping tales that you knew was lies, and evil report, and false witnesses!”

“I only talked of what I’d heard, aunt Vashti,” said Cecilia indignantly. “And he afterwards talked of—of—my voice, and said I had a heavenly gift,” she added, with a slight quiver of her lip.

Aunt Vashti regarded the girl sharply.

“And you may thank the Lord for that heavenly gift,” she said, in a slightly lowered voice; “for ef ye hadn’t to use it tonight, I’d shut ye up in your room, to make it pay for yer foolish gaddin’ tongue! And I reckon I’ll escort ye to chapel tonight myself, miss, and get shut o’ some of this foolishness.”

A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s and Other Stories - Contents    |     An Episode of West Woodlands - Part II.

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