The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte



IT WAS an amiable weakness of Mrs. Morpher to imagine that, of all her classical progeny, Clytemnestra was particularly the model for M’liss. Following this fallacy she threw “Clytie” at the head of M’liss when she was “bad,” and set her up before the child for adoration in her penitential moments. It was not therefore surprising to the master to hear that Clytie was coming to school, obviously as a favor to the master and as an example for M’liss and others. For Clytie was quite a young lady. Inheriting her mother’s physical peculiarities, and in obedience to the climatic laws of the Red Mountain region, she was an early bloomer. The youth of Smith’s Pocket, to whom this kind of flower was rare, sighed for her in April and languished in May. Enamored swains haunted the schoolhouse at the hour of dismissal. A few were jealous of the master.

Perhaps it was this latter circumstance that opened the master’s eyes to another. He could not help noticing that Clytie was romantic; that in school she required a great deal of attention; that her pens were uniformly bad and wanted fixing; that she usually accompanied the request with a certain expectation in her eye that was somewhat disproportionate to the quality of service she verbally required; that she sometimes allowed the curves of a round plump white arm to rest on his when he was writing her copies; that she always blushed and flung back her blond curls when she did so. I don’t remember whether I have stated that the master was a young man—it’s of little consequence, however. He had been severely educated in the school in which Clytie was taking her first lesson, and on the whole withstood the flexible curves and facetious glance like the fine young Spartan that he was. Perhaps an insufficient quality of food may have tended to this asceticism. He generally avoided Clytie; but one evening when she returned to the schoolhouse after something she had forgotten,—and did not find it until the master walked home with her,—I hear that he endeavored to make himself particularly agreeable, partly from the fact, I imagine, that his conduct was adding gall and bitterness to the already overcharged hearts of Clytemnestra’s admirers.

The morning after this affecting episode, M’liss did not come to school. Noon came, but not M’liss. Questioning Clytie on the subject, it appeared that they had left for school together, but the willful M’liss had taken another road. The afternoon brought her not. In the evening he called on Mrs. Morpher, whose motherly heart was really alarmed. Mr. Morpher had spent all day in search of her, without discovering a trace that might lead to her discovery. Aristides was summoned as a probable accomplice, but that equitable infant succeeding in impressing the household with his innocence, Mrs. Morpher entertained a vivid impression that the child would yet be found drowned in a ditch, or—what was almost as terrible—mud-dyed and soiled beyond the redemption of soap and water. Sick at heart, the master returned to the schoolhouse. As he lit his lamp and seated himself at his desk, he found a note lying before him, addressed to himself in M’liss’s handwriting. It seemed to be written on a leaf torn from some old memorandum-book, and, to prevent sacrilegious trifling, had been sealed with six broken wafers. Opening it almost tenderly, the master read as follows:—

RESPECTED SIR: When you read this, I am run away. Never to come back. Never Never NEVER. You can give my beeds to Mary Jennings, and my Amerika’s Pride1 to Sally Flanders. But don’t you give anything to Clytie Morper. Don’t you dair to. Do you know what my opinnion is of her, it is this, she is perfekly disgustin. That is all and no more at present from MELISSA SMITH.

The master mused for some time over this characteristic epistle. As he was mechanically refolding it his eye caught a sentence written on the back in pencil, in another handwriting, somewhat blurred and indistinct from the heavy incisive strokes of M’liss’s pen on the other side. It seemed to be a memorandum belonging to the book from which the leaf was originally torn:—

July 17th. 5 hours in drift—dipping west—took out 20 oz.; cleaned up 40 oz. Mem.—saw M. S.

“July 17th,” said the master, opening his desk and taking out a file of the “Red Mountain Banner.” “July 17th,” he repeated, running over the pages till he came to a paragraph headed “DISTRESSING SUICIDE.” “July 17th—why, that’s the day Smith killed himself. That’s funny!”

In a strict etymological sense there was nothing so very ludicrous in this coincidence, nor did the master’s face betray any expression of the kind. Perhaps the epithet was chosen to conceal the vague uneasiness which it produced in his mind. We are all of us more affected by these coincidences than we care to confess to one another. If the most matter-of-fact reader of these pages were to find a hearse standing in front of his door for three consecutive mornings, although the circumstance might be satisfactorily explained,—shall I go further and say, because the circumstance might be satisfactorily explained,—he would vaguely wish it hadn’t happened. Philosophize as we may, the simple fact of two remote lines crossing each other always seems to us of tremendous significance, and quite overshadows the more important truth that the real parallels of life’s journey are the lines that never meet. It will do us good to remember these things, and look more kindly on our brothers of Borrioboola-Gha and their fetich superstitions, when we drop our silver in the missionary box next Sabbath.

“I wonder where that memorandum came from,” said the master, as he rose at last and buttoned up his coat. “Who is ‘M. S.’? M. S. stands for manuscript and Melissa Smith. Why don’t”—But checking an impulsive query as to why people don’t make their private memoranda generally intelligible, the master put the letter in his pocket and went home.

At sunrise the next morning he was picking his way through the palm-like fern and thick underbrush of the pine forest, starting the hare from its form, and awakening a querulous protest from a few dissipated crows, who had evidently been making a night of it, and so came to the wooded ridge where he had once found M’liss. There he found the prostrate pine and tessellated branches, but the throne was vacant. As he drew nearer, what might have been some frightened animal started through the crackling limbs. It ran up the tossed arms of the fallen monarch, and sheltered itself in some friendly foliage. The master, reaching the old seat, found the nest still warm; looking up in the intertwining branches, he met the black eyes of the errant M’liss. They gazed at each other without speaking. She was first to break the silence.

“What do you want?” she asked curtly.

The master had decided on a course of action. “I want some crab apples,” he said humbly.

“Shan’t have ’em! go away! Why don’t you get ’em of Clytemnerestera?” It seemed to be a relief to M’liss to express her contempt in additional syllables to that classical young woman’s already long-drawn title. “Oh, you wicked thing!”

“I am hungry, Lissy. I have eaten nothing since dinner yesterday. I am famished!” and the young man, in a state of remarkable exhaustion, leaned against the tree.

Melissa’s heart was touched. In the bitter days of her gypsy life she had known the sensation he so artfully simulated. Overcome by his heartbroken tone, but not entirely divested of suspicion, she said:—

“Dig under the tree near the roots, and you’ll find lots: but mind you don’t tell,” for M’liss had her hoards as well as the rats and squirrels.

But the master of course was unable to find them, the effects of hunger probably blinding his senses. M’liss grew uneasy. At length she peered at him through the leaves in an elfish way, and questioned:—

“If I come down and give you some, you’ll promise you won’t touch me?”

The master promised.

“Hope you’ll die if you do?”

The master accepted instant dissolution as a forfeit. M’liss slid down the tree. The duties of hospitality fulfilled, she seated herself at a little distance and eyed the master with extreme caution.

“Why didn’t you eat your breakfast, you bad man?”

“Because I’ve run away.”

“Where to?” said M’liss, her eyes twinkling.

“Anywhere—anywhere, away from here!” responded that deceitful wretch with tragic wildness of demeanor.

“What made you?—bad boy!” said M’liss, with a sudden respect of conventionalities, and a rare touch of tenderness in her tones. “You’d better go back where your vittals are.”

“What are victuals to a wounded spirit?” asked the young man dramatically. He had reached the side of M’liss during this dialogue, and had taken her unresisting hand. He was too wise to notice his victory, however; and drawing Melissa’s note from his pocket, opened it before her.

“Couldn’t you find any paper in the schoolhouse without tearing a leaf out of my memorandum book, Melissa?” he asked.

“It ain’t out of your memorandum book,” responded M’liss fiercely.

“Indeed,” said the master, turning to the lines in pencil; “I thought it was my handwriting.”

M’liss, who had been looking over his shoulder, suddenly seized the paper and snatched it out of his hand.

“It’s father’s writing!” she said, after a pause, in a softer tone.

“Where did you get it, M’liss?”

“Aristides gave it to me.”

“Where did he get it?”

“Don’t know. He had the book in his pocket when I told him I was going to write to you, and he tore the leaf out. There now—don’t bother me any more.” M’liss had turned her face away, and the black hair had hid her downcast eyes.

Something in her gesture and expression reminded him of her father. Something, and more that was characteristic to her at such moments, made him fancy another resemblance, and caused him to ask impulsively, and less cautiously than was his wont:—

“Do you remember your mother, M’liss?”


“Did you never see her?”

“No—didn’t I tell you not to bother, and you’re a-goin’ and doin’ it,” said M’liss savagely.

The master was silent a moment. “Did you ever think you would like to have a mother, M’liss?” he asked again,


The master rose; M’liss looked up.

“Does Aristides come to school to-day?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going back? You’d better,” she said.

“Well!—perhaps I may. Good-by!”

He had proceeded a few steps when, as he expected, she called him back. He turned. She was standing by the tree, with tears glistening in her eyes. The master felt the right moment had come. Going up to her, he took both her hands in his, and looking in her tearful eyes, said gravely:—

“M’liss, do you remember the first evening you came to see me?”

M’liss remembered.

“You asked me if you might come to school, and I said—”

“Come!” responded the child softly.

“If I told you I was lonely without my little scholar, and that I wanted her to come, what would you say?”

The child hung her head in silence. The master waited patiently. Tempted by the quiet, a hare ran close to the couple, and raising her bright eyes and velvet fore paws, gazed at them fearlessly. A squirrel ran halfway down the furrowed bark of the fallen tree, and there stopped.

“We are waiting, Lissy,” said the master in a whisper, and the child smiled. Stirred by a passing breeze, the treetops rocked, and a slanting sunbeam stole through their interlaced boughs and fell on the doubting face and irresolute little figure. But a step in the dry branches and a rustling in the underbrush broke the spell.

A man dressed as a miner, carrying a long-handled shovel, came slowly through the woods. A red handkerchief tied around his head under his hat, with the loose ends hanging from beneath, did not add much favor to his unprepossessing face. He did not perceive the master and M’liss until he was close upon them. When he did, he stopped suddenly and gazed at them with an expression of lowering distrust. M’liss drew nearer to the master.

“Good-mornin’—picknickin’, eh?” he asked, with an attempt at geniality that was more repulsive than his natural manner.

“How are you—prospecting, eh?” said the master quietly, after the established colloquial formula of Red Mountain.

“Yes—a little in that way.”

The stranger still hesitated, apparently waiting for them to go first, a matter which M’liss decided by suddenly taking the master’s hand in her quick way. What she said was scarcely audible, but the master, parting her hair over her forehead, kissed her, and so, hand in hand, they passed out of the damp aisles and forest odors into the open sunlit road. But M’liss, looking back, saw that her old seat was occupied by the hopeful prospector, and fancied that in the shadows of her former throne something of a gratified leer overspread his face. “He’ll have to dig deep to find the crab apples,” said the child to the master, as they came to the Red Mountain road.

When Aristides came to school that day he was confronted by M’liss. But neither threats nor entreaties could extract from that reticent youth the whereabout of the memorandum book nor where he got it. Two or three days afterward, during recess, he approached M’liss, and beckoned her one side.

“Well,” said M’liss impatiently.

“Did you ever read the story of ‘Ali Baba’?”


“Do you believe it?”


“Well,” said that sage infant, wheeling around on his stout legs, “it’s true!”

1. a, highly colored lithograph from a tobacco box    [back]

M’liss - Chapter IV

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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