THE RED ROCK
“Mrs. Smith—Mr. Gray,” said the lawyer briskly. “Mr. Gray is the gentleman who, since the decease of your husband, has taken such a benevolent interest in our playful Narcissa—Melissa, I should say. He is the preceptor of our district school, and beside his relation as teacher to your daughter has, I may say in our legal fashion, stood in loco parentis—in other words, has been a parent, a—a—father to her.”
At the conclusion of this speech Mrs. Smith darted a quick glance at Mr. Gray, which was unintelligible to any but a woman. As there were none of her own keen-witted sex present to make an ungracious interpretation of it, it passed unnoticed, except the slight embarrassment and confusion it caused the young man from its apparent gratuity.
“We have met before, I believe,” said Mrs. Smith, with her bright eyes half hid and her white teeth half disclosed. “I can easily imagine Mr. Gray’s devotion to a friend from his courtesy to a stranger. Let me thank you again for both my daughter and myself.”
In the desperate hope of saying something natural, Mr. Gray asked if she had seen Melissa yet.
“Oh, dear, no! Think how provoking! Judge Plunkett says it is absolutely impossible till some tiresome formalities are over. There are so many stupid forms to go through with first. But how is she? You have seen her, have you not? you will see her again to-night, perhaps? How I long to embrace her again! She was a mere baby when she left me. Tell her how I long to fly to her.”
Her impassioned utterance and the dramatic gestures that accompanied these words afforded a singular contrast to the cool way with which she rearranged the folds of her dress when she had finished, folding her hands over her lap and settling herself unmistakably back again on the sofa. Perhaps it was this that made Mr. Gray think she had, at some time, been an actress. But the next moment he caught her eye again and felt pleased,—and again vexed with himself for being so,—and in this mental condition began to speak in favor of his old pupil. His embarrassment passed away as he warmed with his subject, dwelling at length on M’liss’s better qualities, and did not return until in a breathless pause he became aware that this woman’s bright eyes were bent upon him. The color rose in his cheek, and with a half-muttered apology for his prolixity he offered his excuses to retire.
“Stay a moment, Mr. Gray,” said the lawyer. “You are going to town, and will not think it a trouble to see Mrs. Smith safely back to her hotel. You can talk these things over with our fair friend on the way. To-morrow, at ten, I trust to see you both again.”
“Perhaps I am taxing Mr. Gray’s gallantry too much,” interposed the lady with a very vivid disclosure of eyes and teeth.
“Mr. Gray would be only too happy.” After he had uttered this civility, there was a slight consciousness of truth about it that embarrassed him again. But Mrs. Smith took his proffered arm, and they bade the lawyer good-night and passed out in the starlit night together.
Four weeks have elapsed since the advent of Mrs. Smith to the settlement,—four weeks that might have been years in any other but a California mining camp, for the wonderful change that has been wrought in its physical aspect. Each stage has brought its load of fresh adventurers; another hotel, which sprang up on the site of the National, has its new landlord, and a new set of faces about its hospitable board, where the conventional bean appears daily as a modest vegetable or in the insincerer form of coffee. The sawmills have been hard at work for the last month, and huge gaps appear in the circling files of redwood where the fallen trees are transmuted to a new style of existence in the damp sappy tenements that have risen over the burnt district. The “great strike” at Smith’s Pocket has been heralded abroad, and above and below, and on either side of the crumbling tunnel that bears that name, as other tunnels are piercing the bowels of the mountain, shafts are being sunk, and claims are taken up even to the crest of Red Mountain, in the hope of striking the great Smith lead. Already an animated discussion has sprung up in the columns of the “Red Mountain Banner” in regard to the direction of the famous lead,—a discussion assisted by correspondents who have assumed all the letters of the alphabet in their anonymous arguments, and have formed the opposing “angle” and “dip” factions of Smith’s Pocket. But whatever be the direction of the lead, the progress of the settlement has been steadily onward, with an impetus gained by the late disaster. That classical but much abused bird, the Phoenix, has been invoked from its ashes in several editorials in the “Banner,” to sit as a type of resuscitated Smith’s Pocket, while in the homelier phrase of an honest miner “it seemed as if the fire kem to kinder clean out things for a fresh start.”
Meanwhile the quasi-legal administration of the estate of Smith is drawing near a termination that seems to credit the prophetic assertion of Judge Plunkett. One fact has been evolved in the process of examination, viz., that Smith had discovered the new lead before he was murdered. It was a fair hypothesis that the man who assumed the benefit of his discovery was the murderer, but as this did not immediately involve the settlement of the estate it excited little comment or opposition. The probable murderer had escaped. Judicial investigations even in the hands of the people had been attended with disastrous public results, and there was no desire on the part of justice to open the case and deal with an abstract principle when there was no opportunity of making an individual example. The circumstances were being speedily forgotten in the new excitement; even the presence of Mrs. Smith lost its novelty. The “Banner,” when alluding to her husband, spoke of him as the “late J. Smith, Esq.,” attributing the present activity of business as the result of his lifelong example of untiring energy, and generally laid the foundation of a belief, which thereafter obtained, that he died comfortably in the bosom of his family, surrounded by disconsolate friends. The history of all pioneer settlements has this legendary basis, and M’liss may live to see the day when her father’s connection with the origin of the settlement shall become apocryphal, and contested like that of Romulus and Remus and their wolfish wet-nurse.
It is to the everlasting credit and honor of Smith’s Pocket that the orphan and widow meet no opposition from the speculative community, and that the claim’s utmost boundaries are liberally rendered. How far this circumstance may be owing to the rare personal attractions of the charming widow or to M’liss’s personal popularity, I shall not pretend to say. It is enough that when the brief of Judge Plunkett’s case is ready there are clouds of willing witnesses to substantiate and corroborate doubtful points to an extent that is more creditable to their generosity than their veracity.
M’liss has seen her mother. Mr. Gray, with his knowledge of his pupil’s impulsiveness, has been surprised to notice that the new relationship seems to awaken none of those emotions in the child’s nature that he confidently looked for. On the occasion of their first meeting, to which Mr. Gray was admitted, M’liss maintained a guarded shyness totally different from her usual frank boldness,—a shyness that was the more remarkable from its contrast with the unrepressed and somewhat dramatic emotions of Mrs. Smith. Now, under her mother’s protection and care, he observes another radical change in M’liss’s appearance. She is dressed more tastefully and neatly—not entirely the result of a mother’s influence, but apparently the result of some natural instinct now for the first time indulged, and exhibited in a ribbon or a piece of jewelry, worn with a certain air of consciousness. There is a more strict attention to the conventionalities of life; her speech is more careful and guarded; her walk, literally, more womanly and graceful. Those things Mr. Gray naturally attributes to the influence of the new relation, though he cannot help recalling his meeting with M’liss in the woods, on the morning of the fire, and of dating many of these changes from thence.
It is a pleasant morning, and Mr. Gray is stirring early. He has been busied in preparation the night previous, for this is his last day in Smith’s Pocket. He lingers for some time about the schoolhouse, gathering up those little trifles which lie about his desk, which have each a separate history in his experience of Smith’s Pocket, and are a part of the incrustations of his life. Lastly, a file of the “Red Mountain Banner,” is taken from the same receptacle and packed away in his bag. He walks to the door and turns to look back. Has he forgotten anything? No, nothing. But still he lingers. He wonders who will take his place at the desk, and for the first time in his pedagogue experience, perhaps, feels something of an awful responsibility as he thinks of his past influence over the wretched little beings who used to tremble at his nod, and whose future, ill or good, he may have helped to fashion. At last he closes the door, almost tenderly, and walks thoughtfully down the road. He has to pass the cabin of an Irish miner, whose little boy is toddling in the ditch, with a pinafore, hands, and face in a chronic state of untidiness. Mr. Gray seizes him with an hilarious impulse, and after a number of rapid journeys to Banbury Cross, in search of an old woman who mounted a mythical white horse, he kisses the cleanest place on his broad expanse of cheek, presses some silver into his chubby fist, tells him to be a good boy, and deposits him in the ditch again. Having in this youthful way atoned for certain sins of omission a little further back, he proceeds, with a sense of perfect absolution, on his way to the settlement.
A few hours lie between him and his departure, to be employed in friendly visits to Mrs. Morpher, Dr. Duchesne, M’liss, and her mother. The Mountain Ranch is nearest, and thither Mr. Gray goes first. Mrs. Morpher, over a kneading-trough, with her bare arm whitened with flour, is genuinely grieved at parting with the master, and, in spite of Mr. Gray’s earnest remonstrances, insists upon conducting him into the chill parlor, leaving him there until she shall have attired herself in a manner becoming to “company.” “I don’t want you to go at all—no more I don’t,” says Mrs. Morpher, with all sincerity, as she seats herself finally on the shining horsehair sofa. “The children will miss you. I don’t believe that any one will do for Risty, Kerg, and Clytie what you have done. But I suppose you know best what’s best. Young men like to see the world, and it ain’t expected one so young as you should settle down yet. That’s what I was telling Clytie this morning. That was just the way with my John afore he was married. I suppose you’ll see M’liss and her before you go. They say that she is going to San Francisco soon. Is it so?”
Mr. Gray understands the personal pronoun to refer to Mrs. Smith, a title Mrs. Morpher has never granted M’liss’s mother, for whom she entertains an instinctive dislike. He answers in the affirmative, however, with the consciousness of uneasiness under the inquiry; and as the answer does not seem to please Mrs. Morpher, he is constrained to commend M’liss’s manifest improvement under her mother’s care.
“Well” says Mrs. Morpher, with a significant sigh, “I hope it’s so; but bless us, where’s Clytie? You mustn’t go without saying ‘good-by’ to her” and Mrs. Morpher starts away in search of her daughter.
The dining-room door scarcely closes before the bedroom door opens, and Clytie crosses the parlor softly with something in her hands. “You are going now?” she says hurriedly.
“Will you take this?” putting a sealed package into his hand, “and keep it without opening it until”—
“Until when, Clytie?”
“Until you are married.”
Mr. Gray laughs.
“Promise me,” repeats Clytie.
“But I may expire in the mean time, through sheer curiosity.”
“Promise!” says Clytie gravely.
“I promise, then.”
Mr. Gray receives the package. “Good-by,” says Clytie softly.
Clytie’s rosy cheek is very near Mr. Gray. There is nobody by. He is going away. It is the last time. He kisses her just before the door opens again to Mrs. Morpher.
Another shake of hands all around, and Mr. Gray passes out of the Mountain Ranch forever.
Dr. Duchesne’s office is near at hand; but for some reason, that Mr. Gray cannot entirely explain to himself, he prefers to go to Mrs. Smith’s first. The little cottage which they have taken temporarily is soon reached, and as the young man stands at the door he re-knots the bow of his cravat, and passes his fingers through his curls,—trifles that to Dr. Duchesne or any other critical, middle-aged person might look bad.
M’liss and Mrs. Smith are both at home. They have been waiting for him so long. Was it that pretty daughter of Mrs. Morpher—the fair young lady with blond curls,—who caused the detention? Is not Mr. Gray a sly young fellow for all his seeming frankness? So he must go to-day? He cannot possibly wait a few days, and go with them? Thus Mrs. Smith, between her red lips and white teeth, and under her half-closed eyes; for M’liss stands quietly apart without speaking. Her reserve during the interview contrasts with the vivacity of her mother as though they had changed respective places in relationship. Mr. Gray is troubled by this, and as he rises to go, he takes M’liss’s hand in his.
“Have you nothing to say to me before I go?” he asks.
“Good-by,” answers M’liss.
“That’s enough,” rejoins the child simply.
Mr. Gray bites his lips. “I may never see you again, you know, Melissa,” he continues.
“You will see us again,” says M’liss quietly, raising her great dark eyes to his.
The blood mounted to his cheek and crimsoned his forehead. He was conscious, too, that the mother’s face had taken fire at his own, as she walked away toward the window.
“Good-by, then,” said Mr. Gray pettishly, as he stooped to kiss her.
M’liss accepted the salute stoically. Mr. Gray took Mrs. Smith’s hand; her face had resumed its colorless, satin-like sheen.
“M’liss knows the strength of your good will, and makes her calculations accordingly. I hope she may not be mistaken,” she said, with a languid tenderness of voice and eye. The young man bent over her outstretched hand, and withdrew as the Wingdam stage noisily rattled up before the National Hotel.
There was but little time left to spend with Dr. Duchesne, so the physician walked with him to the stage office. There were a few of the old settlers lounging by the stage, who had discerned, just as the master was going away, how much they liked him. Mr. Gray had gone through the customary bibulous formula of leave-taking; with a hearty shake of the doctor’s hand, and a promise to write, he climbed to the box of the stage. “All aboard!” cried the driver, and with a preliminary bound, the stage rolled down Main Street.
Mr. Gray remained buried in thought as they rolled through the town, each object in passing recalling some incident of his past experience. The stage had reached the outskirts of the settlement when he detected a well-known little figure running down a by-trail to intersect the road before the stage had passed. He called the driver’s attention to it, and as they drew up at the crossing Aristides’s short legs and well-known features were plainly discernible through the dust. He was holding in his hand a letter.
“Well, my little man, what is it?” said the driver impatiently.
“A letter for the master,” gasped the exhausted child.
“Give it here!—Any answer?”
“Wait a moment,” said Mr. Gray.
“Look sharp, then, and get your billet duxis before you go next time.”
Mr. Gray hurriedly broke the seal and read these words:
Judge Plunkett has just returned from the county seat. Our case is won. We leave here next week. J.S.
P.S. Have you got my address in San Francisco?
“Any answer?” said the driver.
And the stage rolled away from Smith’s Pocket, leaving the just Aristides standing in the dust of its triumphal wheels.