ON the northerly shore of San Francisco Bay a line of bluffs terminates in a promontory, at whose base, formed by the crumbling debris of the cliff above, there is a narrow stretch of beach, salt meadow, and scrub oak. The abrupt wall of rock behind it seems to isolate it as completely from the mainland as the sea before it separates it from the opposite shore. In spite of its contiguity to San Francisco,—opposite also, but hidden by the sharp re-entering curve of coast,—the locality was wild, uncultivated, and unfrequented. A solitary fisherman’s cabin half hidden in the rocks was the only trace of habitation. White drifts of sea-gulls and pelican across the face of the cliff, gray clouds of sandpipers rising from the beach, the dripping flight of ducks over the salt meadows, and the occasional splash of a seal from the rocks, were the only signs of life that could be seen from the decks of passing ships. And yet the fisherman’s cabin was occupied by Zephas Bunker and his young wife, and he had succeeded in wresting from the hard soil pasturage for a cow and goats, while his lateen-sailed fishing-boat occasionally rode quietly in the sheltered cove below.
Three years ago Zephas Bunker, an ex-whaler, had found himself stranded on a San Francisco wharf and had “hired out” to a small Petaluma farmer. At the end of a year he had acquired little taste for the farmer’s business, but considerable for the farmer’s youthful daughter, who, equally weary of small agriculture, had consented to elope with him in order to escape it. They were married at Oakland; he put his scant earnings into a fishing-boat, discovered the site for his cabin, and brought his bride thither. The novelty of the change pleased her, although perhaps it was but little advance on her previous humble position. Yet she preferred her present freedom to the bare restricted home life of her past; the perpetual presence of the restless sea was a relief to the old monotony of the wheat field and its isolated drudgery. For Mary’s youthful fancy, thinly sustained in childhood by the lightest literary food, had neither been stimulated nor disillusioned by her marriage. That practical experience which is usually the end of girlish romance had left her still a child in sentiment. The long absences of her husband in his fishing-boat kept her from wearying of or even knowing his older and unequal companionship; it gave her a freedom her girlhood had never known, yet added a protection that suited her still childish dependency, while it tickled her pride with its equality. When not engaged in her easy household duties in her three-roomed cottage, or the care of her rocky garden patch, she found time enough to indulge her fancy over the mysterious haze that wrapped the invisible city so near and yet unknown to her; in the sails that slipped in and out of the Golden Gate, but of whose destination she knew nothing; and in the long smoke trail of the mail steamer which had yet brought her no message. Like all dwellers by the sea, her face and her thoughts were more frequently turned towards it; and as with them, it also seemed to her that whatever change was coming into her life would come across that vast unknown expanse. But it was here that Mrs. Bunker was mistaken.
It had been a sparkling summer morning. The waves were running before the dry northwest trade winds with crystalline but colorless brilliancy. Sheltered by the high, northerly bluff, the house and its garden were exposed to the untempered heat of the cloudless sun refracted from the rocky wall behind it. Some tarpaulin and ropes lying among the rocks were sticky and odorous; the scrub oaks and manzanita bushes gave out the aroma of baking wood; occasionally a faint pot-pourri fragrance from the hot wild roses and beach grass was blown along the shore; even the lingering odors of Bunker’s vocation, and of Mrs. Bunker’s cooking, were idealized and refined by the saline breath of the sea at the doors and windows. Mrs. Bunker, in the dazzling sun, bending over her peas and lettuces with a small hoe, felt the comfort of her brown holland sunbonnet. Secure in her isolation, she unbuttoned the neck of her gown for air, and did not put up the strand of black hair that had escaped over her shoulder. It was very hot in the lee of the bluff, and very quiet in that still air. So quiet that she heard two distinct reports, following each other quickly, but very faint and far. She glanced mechanically towards the sea. Two merchant-men in midstream were shaking out their wings for a long flight, a pilot boat and coasting schooner were rounding the point, but there was no smoke from their decks. She bent over her work again, and in another moment had forgotten it. But the heat, with the dazzling reflection from the cliff, forced her to suspend her gardening, and stroll along the beach to the extreme limit of her domain. Here she looked after the cow that had also strayed away through the tangled bush for coolness. The goats, impervious to temperature, were basking in inaccessible fastnesses on the cliff itself that made her eyes ache to climb. Over an hour passed, she was returning, and had neared her house, when she was suddenly startled to see the figure of a man between her and the cliff. He was engaged in brushing his dusty clothes with a handkerchief, and although he saw her coming, and even moved slowly towards her, continued his occupation with a half-impatient, half-abstracted air. Her feminine perception was struck with the circumstance that he was in deep black, with scarcely a gleam of white showing even at his throat, and that he wore a tall black hat. Without knowing anything of social customs, it seemed to her that his dress was inconsistent with his appearance there.
“Good-morning,” he said, lifting his hat with a preoccupied air. “Do you live here?”
“Yes,” she said wonderingly.
“I mean any other people? Are there any other houses?” he said with a slight impatience.
He looked at her and then towards the sea. “I expect some friends who are coming for me in a boat. I suppose they can land easily here?”
“Didn’t you yourself land here just now?” she said quickly.
He half hesitated, and then, as if scorning an equivocation, made a hasty gesture over her shoulder and said bluntly, “No, I came over the cliff.”
“Down the cliff?” she repeated incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, glancing at his clothes; “it was a rough scramble, but the goats showed me the way.”
“And you were up on the bluff all the time?” she went on curiously.
“Yes. You see—I”—he stopped suddenly at what seemed to be the beginning of a prearranged and plausible explanation, as if impatient of its weakness or hypocrisy, and said briefly, “Yes, I was there.”
Like most women, more observant of his face and figure, she did not miss this lack of explanation. He was a very good-looking man of middle age, with a thin, proud, high-bred face, which in a country of bearded men had the further distinction of being smoothly shaven. She had never seen any one like him before. She thought he looked like an illustration of some novel she had read, but also somewhat melancholy, worn, and tired.
“Won’t you come in and rest yourself?” she said, motioning to the cabin.
“Thank you,” he said, still half absently. “Perhaps I’d better. It may be some time yet before they come.”
She led the way to the cabin, entered the living room—a plainly furnished little apartment between the bedroom and the kitchen—pointed to a large bamboo armchair, and placed a bottle of whiskey and some water on the table before him. He thanked her again very gently, poured out some spirits in his glass, and mixed it with water. But when she glanced towards him again he had apparently risen without tasting it, and going to the door was standing there with his hand in the breast of his buttoned frock coat, gazing silently towards the sea. There was something vaguely historical in his attitude—or what she thought might be historical—as of somebody of great importance who had halted on the eve of some great event at the door of her humble cabin.
His apparent unconsciousness of her and of his surroundings, his preoccupation with something far beyond her ken, far from piquing her, only excited her interest the more. And then there was such an odd sadness in his eyes.
“Are you anxious for your folks’ coming?” she said at last, following his outlook.
“I—oh no!” he returned, quickly recalling himself, “they’ll be sure to come—sooner or later. No fear of that,” he added, half smilingly, half wearily.
Mrs. Bunker passed into the kitchen, where, while apparently attending to her household duties, she could still observe her singular guest. Left alone, he seated himself mechanically in the chair, and gazed fixedly at the fireplace. He remained a long time so quiet and unmoved, in spite of the marked ostentatious clatter Mrs. Bunker found it necessary to make with her dishes, that an odd fancy that he was scarcely a human visitant began to take possession of her. Yet she was not frightened. She remembered distinctly afterwards that, far from having any concern for herself, she was only moved by a strange and vague admiration of him.
But her prolonged scrutiny was not without effect. Suddenly he raised his dark eyes, and she felt them pierce the obscurity of her kitchen with a quick, suspicious, impatient penetration, which as they met hers gave way, however, to a look that she thought was gently reproachful. Then he rose, stretched himself to his full height, and approaching the kitchen door leaned listlessly against the door-post.
“I don’t suppose you are ever lonely here?”
“Of course not. You have yourself and husband. Nobody interferes with you. You are contented and happy together.”
Mrs. Bunker did not say, what was the fact, that she had never before connected the sole companionship of her husband with her happiness. Perhaps it had never occurred to her until that moment how little it had to do with it. She only smiled gratefully at the change in her guest’s abstraction.
“Do you often go to San Francisco?” he continued.
“I have never been there at all. Some day I expect we will go there to live.”
“I wouldn’t advise you to,” he said, looking at her gravely. “I don’t think it will pay you. You’ll never be happy there as here. You’ll never have the independence and freedom you have here. You’ll never be your own mistress again. But how does it happen you never were in San Francisco?” he said suddenly.
If he would not talk of himself, here at least was a chance for Mrs. Bunker to say something. She related how her family had emigrated from Kansas across the plains and had taken up a “location” at Contra Costa. How she didn’t care for it, and how she came to marry the seafaring man who brought her here—all with great simplicity and frankness and as unreservedly as to a superior being—albeit his attention wandered at times, and a rare but melancholy smile that he had apparently evoked to meet her conversational advances became fixed occasionally. Even his dark eyes, which had obliged Mrs. Bunker to put up her hair and button her collar, rested upon her without seeing her.
“Then your husband’s name is Bunker?” he said when she paused at last. “That’s one of those Nantucket Quaker names—sailors and whalers for generations—and yours, you say, was MacEwan. Well, Mrs. Bunker, your family came from Kentucky to Kansas only lately, though I suppose your father calls himself a Free-States man. You ought to know something of farming and cattle, for your ancestors were old Scotch Covenanters who emigrated a hundred years ago, and were great stock raisers.”
All this seemed only the natural omniscience of a superior being. And Mrs. Bunker perhaps was not pained to learn that her husband’s family was of a lower degree than her own. But the stranger’s knowledge did not end there. He talked of her husband’s business—he explained the vast fishing resources of the bay and coast. He showed her how the large colony of Italian fishermen were inimical to the interests of California and to her husband—particularly as a native American trader. He told her of the volcanic changes of the bay and coast line, of the formation of the rocky ledge on which she lived. He pointed out to her its value to the Government for defensive purposes, and how it naturally commanded the entrance of the Golden Gate far better than Fort Point, and that it ought to be in its hands. If the Federal Government did not buy it of her husband, certainly the State of California should. And here he fell into an abstraction as deep and as gloomy as before. He walked to the window, paced the floor with his hand in his breast, went to the door, and finally stepped out of the cabin, moving along the ledge of rocks to the shore, where he stood motionless.
Mrs. Bunker had listened to him with parted lips and eyes of eloquent admiration. She had never before heard anyone talk like that—she had not believed it possible that any one could have such knowledge. Perhaps she could not understand all he said, but she would try to remember it after he had gone. She could only think now how kind it was of him that in all this mystery of his coming, and in the singular sadness that was oppressing him, he should try to interest her. And thus looking at him, and wondering, an idea came to her.
She went into her bedroom and took down her husband’s heavy pilot overcoat and sou’wester, and handed them to her guest.
“You’d better put them on if you’re going to stand there,” she said.
“But I am not cold,” he said wonderingly.
“But you might be seen,” she said simply. It was the first suggestion that had passed between them that his presence there was a secret. He looked at her intently, then he smiled and said, “I think you’re right, for many reasons,” put the pilot coat over his frock coat, removed his hat with the gesture of a bow, handed it to her, and placed the sou’wester in its stead. Then for an instant he hesitated as if about to speak, but Mrs. Bunker, with a delicacy that she could not herself comprehend at the moment, hurried back to the cabin without giving him an opportunity.
Nor did she again intrude upon his meditations. Hidden in his disguise, which to her eyes did not, however, seem to conceal his characteristic figure, he wandered for nearly an hour under the bluff and along the shore, returning at last almost mechanically to the cabin, where, oblivious of his surroundings, he reseated himself in silence by the table with his cheek resting on his hand. Presently, her quick, experienced ear detected the sound of oars in their row-locks; she could plainly see from her kitchen window a small boat with two strangers seated at the stern being pulled to the shore. With the same strange instinct of delicacy, she determined not to go out lest her presence might embarrass her guest’s reception of his friends. But as she turned towards the living room she found he had already risen and was removing his hat and pilot coat. She was struck, however, by the circumstance that not only did he exhibit no feeling of relief at his deliverance, but that a half-cynical, half-savage expression had taken the place of his former melancholy. As he went to the door, the two gentlemen hastily clambered up the rocks to greet him.
“Jim reckoned it was you hangin’ round the rocks, but I couldn’t tell at that distance. Seemed you borrowed a hat and coat. Well—it’s all fixed, and we’ve no time to lose. There’s a coasting steamer just dropping down below the Heads, and it will take you aboard. But I can tell you you’ve kicked up a hell of a row over there.” He stopped, evidently at some sign from her guest. The rest of the man’s speech followed in a hurried whisper, which was stopped again by the voice she knew. “No. Certainly not.” The next moment his tall figure was darkening the door of the kitchen; his hand was outstretched. “Good-by, Mrs. Bunker, and many thanks for your hospitality. My friends here,” he turned grimly to the men behind him, “think I ought to ask you to keep this a secret even from your husband. I don’t! They also think that I ought to offer you money for your kindness. I don’t! But if you will honor me by keeping this ring in remembrance of it”—he took a heavy seal ring from his finger—“it’s the only bit of jewelry I have about me—I’ll be very glad. Good-by!” She felt for a moment the firm, soft pressure of his long, thin fingers around her own, and then—he was gone. The sound of retreating oars grew fainter and fainter and was lost. The same reserve of delicacy which now appeared to her as a duty kept her from going to the window to watch the destination of the boat. No, he should go as he came, without her supervision or knowledge.
Nor did she feel lonely afterwards. On the contrary, the silence and solitude of the isolated domain had a new charm. They kept the memory of her experience intact, and enabled her to refill it with his presence. She could see his tall figure again pausing before her cabin, without the incongruous association of another personality; she could hear his voice again, unmingled with one more familiar. For the first time, the regular absence of her husband seemed an essential good fortune instead of an accident of their life. For the experience belonged to her, and not to him and her together. He could not understand it; he would have acted differently and spoiled it. She should not tell him anything of it, in spite of the stranger’s suggestion, which, of course, he had only made because he didn’t know Zephas as well as she did. For Mrs. Bunker was getting on rapidly; it was her first admission of the conjugal knowledge that one’s husband is inferior to the outside estimate of him. The next step—the belief that he was deceiving her as he was them—would be comparatively easy.
Nor should she show him the ring. The stranger had certainly never said anything about that! It was a heavy ring, with a helmeted head carved on its red carnelian stone, and what looked like strange letters around it. It fitted her third finger perfectly; but his fingers were small, and he had taken it from his little finger. She should keep it herself. Of course, if it had been money, she would have given it to Zephas; but the stranger knew that she wouldn’t take money. How firmly he had said that “I don’t!” She felt the warm blood fly to her fresh young face at the thought of it. He had understood her. She might be living in a poor cabin, doing all the housework herself, and her husband only a fisherman, but he had treated her like a lady.
And so the afternoon passed. The outlying fog began to roll in at the Golden Gate, obliterating the headland and stretching a fleecy bar across the channel as if shutting out from vulgar eyes the way that he had gone. Night fell, but Zephas had not yet come. This was unusual, for he was generally as regular as the afternoon “trades” which blew him there. There was nothing to detain him in this weather and at this season. She began to be vaguely uneasy; then a little angry at this new development of his incompatibility. Then it occurred to her, for the first time in her wifehood, to think what she would do if he were lost. Yet, in spite of some pain, terror, and perplexity at the possibility, her dominant thought was that she would be a free woman to order her life as she liked.
It was after ten before his lateen sail flapped in the little cove. She was waiting to receive him on the shore. His good-humored hirsute face was slightly apologetic in expression, but flushed and disturbed with some new excitement to which an extra glass or two of spirits had apparently added intensity. The contrast between his evident indulgence and the previous abstemiousness of her late guest struck her unpleasantly. “Well—I declare,” she said indignantly, “so that’s what kept you!”
“No,” he said quickly; “there’s been awful times over in ’Frisco! Everybody just wild, and the Vigilance Committee in session. Jo Henderson’s killed! Shot by Wynyard Marion in a duel! He’ll be lynched, sure as a gun, if they ketch him.”
“But I thought men who fought duels always went free.”
“Yes, but this ain’t no common duel; they say the whole thing was planned beforehand by them Southern fire-eaters to get rid o’ Henderson because he’s a Northern man and anti-slavery, and that they picked out Colonel Marion to do it because he was a dead shot. They got him to insult Henderson, so he was bound to challenge Marion, and that giv’ Marion the chyce of weppings. It was a reg’lar put up job to kill him.”
“And what’s all this to do with you?” she asked, with irritation.
“Hold on, won’t you! and I’ll tell you. I was pickin’ up nets off Saucelito about noon, when I was hailed by one of them Vigilance tugs, and they set me to stand off and on the shore and watch that Marion didn’t get away, while they were scoutin’ inland. Ye see the duel took place just over the bluff there—behind ye—and they allowed that Marion had struck away north for Mendocino to take ship there. For after overhaulin’ his second’s boat, they found out that they had come away from Saucelito alone. But they sent a tug around by sea to Mendocino to head him off there, while they’re closin’ in around him inland. They’re bound to catch him sooner or later. But you ain’t listenin’, Mollie?”
She was—in every fibre—but with her head turned towards the window, and the invisible Golden Gate through which the fugitive had escaped. For she saw it all now—that glorious vision—her high-bred, handsome guest and Wynyard Marion were one and the same person. And this rough, commonplace man before her—her own husband—had been basely set to capture him!