The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte



IF I remember rightly, in one of the admirable tragedies of Tsien Tsiang at a certain culminating point of interest an innocent person is about to be sacrificed. The knife is raised and the victim meekly awaits the stroke. At this moment the author of the play appears on the stage, and, delivering an excellent philosophical dissertation on the merits of the “situation,” shows that by the purest principles of art the sacrifice is necessary, but at the same time offers to the audience the privilege of changing the denouement. Such, however, is the nice aesthetic sense of a Chinese auditory, and so universal the desire of bloodshed in the heathen breast, that invariably at each representation of this remarkable tragedy the cause of humanity gives way to the principles of art.

I offer this precedent as an excuse for digressing at a moment when I have burned down a small settlement, dispatched a fellow being, and left my heroine alone in the company of an escaped convict who has just developed insanity as a new social quality. My object in thus digressing is to confer with the reader in regard to the evolution of this story,—a familiarity not without precedent, as I might prove from most of the old Greek comedies, whose parabasis permits the poet to mingle freely with the dramatis personae, to address the audience and descant at length in regard to himself, his play, and his own merits.

The fact is that, during the progress of this story, I have received many suggestions from intimate friends in regard to its incidents and construction. I have also been in the receipt of correspondence from distant readers, one letter of which I recall signed by an “Honest Miner,” who advises me to “do the right thing by M’liss,” or intimates somewhat obscurely that he will “bust my crust for me,” which, though complimentary in its abstract expression of interest, and implying a taste for euphonism, evinces an innate coarseness which I fear may blunt his perceptions of delicate shades and Greek outlines.

Again, the practical nature of Californians and their familiarity with scenes and incidents which would be novel to other people have occasioned me great uneasiness. In the course of the last three chapters of M’liss I have received some twenty or thirty communications from different parts of the State corroborating incidents of my story, which I solemnly assure the reader is purely fictitious. Some one has lately sent me a copy of an interior paper containing an old obituary of Smith of Smith’s Pocket. Another correspondent writes to me that he was acquainted with the schoolmaster in the fall of ’49, and that they “grubbed together.” The editors of the serial in which this story appears assure me that they have received an advertisement from the landlord of the “National Hotel” contingent upon an editorial notice of its having been at one time the abode of M’liss; while an aunt of the heroine, alluding in excellent terms to the reformed character of her niece M’liss, clenches her sincerity by requesting the loan of twenty dollars to buy clothes for the desolate orphan.

Under these circumstances I have hesitated to go on. What were the bodiless creatures of my fancy—the pale phantoms of thought, evoked in the solitude of my chamber, and sometimes even midst the hum of busy streets—have suddenly grown into flesh and blood, living people, protected by the laws of society, and having their legal right to actions for slander in any court. Worse than that, I have sometimes thought with terror of the new responsibility which might attach to my development of their characters. What if I were obliged to support and protect these Frankenstein monsters? What if the original of the principal villain of my story should feel impelled through aesthetic principles of art to work out in real life the supposititious denouement I have sketched for him?

I have therefore concluded to lay aside my pen for this week, leaving the catastrophe impending, and await the suggestion of my correspondents. I do so the more cheerfully as it enables the editors of this weekly to publish twenty-seven more columns of Miss Braddon’s “Outcasts of Society” and the remainder of the “Duke’s Motto,”—two works which in the quiet simplicity of their home-like pictures and household incidents are attended with none of the difficulties which beset my unhappy story.

M’liss - Chapter IX

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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