Colonel Starbottle’s Client

A Treasure of the Galleon

Bret Harte

HER FATHER’S house was nearly a mile from the sea, but the breath of it was always strong at the windows and doors in the early morning, and when there were heavy “southwesters” blowing in the winter, the wind brought the sharp sting of sand to her cheek, and the rain an odd taste of salt to her lips. On this particular December afternoon, however, as she stood in the doorway, it seemed to be singularly calm; the southwest trades blew but faintly, and scarcely broke the crests of the long Pacific swell that lazily rose and fell on the beach, which only a slanting copse of scrub-oak and willow hid from the cottage. Nevertheless, she knew this league-long strip of shining sand much better, it is to be feared, than the scanty flower-garden, arid and stunted by its contiguity. It had been her playground when she first came there, a motherless girl of twelve, and she had helped her father gather its scattered driftwood—as the fortunes of the Millers were not above accepting these occasional offerings of their lordly neighbor.

“I wouldn’t go far to-day, Jenny,” said her father, as the girl stepped from the threshold. “I don’t trust the weather at this season; and besides you had better be looking over your wardrobe for the Christmas Eve party at Sol. Catlin’s.”

“Why, father, you don’t intend to go to that man’s?” said the girl, looking up with a troubled face.

“Lawyer Miller,” as he was called by his few neighbors, looked slightly embarrassed. “Why not?” he asked in a faintly irritated tone.

“Why not? Why, father, you know how vulgar and conceited he is,—how everybody here truckles to him!”

“Very likely; he’s a very superior man of his kind,—a kind they understand here, too,—a great trapper, hunter, and pioneer.”

“But I don’t believe in his trapping, hunting, and pioneering,” said the girl, petulantly. “I believe it’s all as hollow and boisterous as himself. It’s no more real, or what one thinks it should be, than he is. And he dares to patronize you—you, father, an educated man and a gentleman!”

“Say rather an unsuccessful lawyer who was fool enough to believe that buying a ranch could make him a farmer,” returned her father, but half jestingly. “I only wish I was as good at my trade as he is.”

“But you never liked him,—you always used to ignore him; you’ve changed, father”— She stopped suddenly, for her recollection of her father’s quiet superiority and easy independence when he first came there was in such marked contrast to his late careless and weak concession to the rude life around them, that she felt a pang of vague degradation, which she feared her voice might betray.

“Very well! Do as you like,” he replied, with affected carelessness; “only I thought, as we cannot afford to go elsewhere this Christmas, it might be well for us to take what we could find here.”

“Take what we could find here!” It was so unlike him—he who had always been so strong in preserving their little domestic refinements in their rude surroundings, that their poverty had never seemed mean, nor their seclusion ignoble. She turned away to conceal her indignant color. She could share the household work with a squaw and Chinaman, she could fetch wood and water. Catlin had patronizingly seen her doing it, but to dance to his vulgar piping—never!

She was not long in reaching the sands that now lay before her, warm, sweet-scented from short beach grass, stretching to a dim rocky promontory, and absolutely untrod by any foot but her own. It was this virginity of seclusion that had been charming to her girlhood; fenced in between the impenetrable hedge of scrub-oaks on the one side, and the lifting green walls of breakers tipped with chevaux de frise of white foam on the other, she had known a perfect security for her sports and fancies that had captivated her town-bred instincts and native fastidiousness. A few white-winged sea-birds, as proud, reserved, and maiden-like as herself, had been her only companions. And it was now the custodian of her secret,—a secret as innocent and childlike as her previous youthful fancies,—but still a secret known only to herself.

One day she had come upon the rotting ribs of a wreck on the beach. Its distance from the tide line, its position, and its deep imbedding of sand, showed that it was of ancient origin. An omnivorous reader of all that pertained to the history of California, Jenny had in fancy often sailed the seas in one of those mysterious treasure-ships that had skirted the coast in bygone days, and she at once settled in her mind that her discovery was none other than a castaway Philippine galleon. Partly from her reserve, and partly from a suddenly conceived plan, she determined to keep its existence unknown to her father, as careful inquiry on her part had found it was equally unknown to the neighbors. For this shy, imaginative young girl of eighteen had convinced herself that it might still contain a part of its old treasure. She would dig for it herself, without telling anybody. If she failed, no one would know it; if she were successful, she would surprise her father and perhaps retrieve their fortune by less vulgar means than their present toil. Thanks to the secluded locality and the fact that she was known to spend her leisure moments in wandering there, she could work without suspicion. Secretly conveying a shovel and a few tools to the spot the next day, she set about her prodigious task. As the upper works were gone, and the galleon not large, in three weeks, working an hour or two each day, she had made a deep excavation in the stern. She had found many curious things,—the flotsam and jetsam of previous storms,—but as yet, it is perhaps needless to say, not the treasure.

To-day she was filled with the vague hope of making her discovery before Christmas Day. To have been able to take her father something on that day—if only a few old coins—the fruit of her own unsuspected labor and intuition—not the result of vulgar barter or menial wage—would have been complete happiness. It was perhaps a somewhat visionary expectation for an educated girl of eighteen, but I am writing of a young Californian girl, who had lived in the fierce glamour of treasure-hunting, and in whose sensitive individuality some of its subtle poison had been instilled. Howbeit, to-day she found nothing. She was sadly hiding her pick and shovel, as was her custom, when she discovered the fresh track of an alien foot in the sand. Robinson Crusoe was not more astounded at the savage footprint than Jenny Miller at this damning proof of the invasion of her sacred territory. The footprints came from and returned to the copse of shrubs. Some one might have seen her at work!

But a singular change in the weather, overlooked in her excitement, here forced itself upon her. A light film over sea and sky, lifted only by fitful gusts of wind, seemed to have suddenly thickened until it became an opaque vault, narrowing in circumference as the wind increased. The promontory behind her disappeared, as if swallowed up, the distance before her seemed to contract; the ocean at her side, the color of dull pewter, vanished in a sheet of slanting rain, and by the time she reached the house, half running, half carried along by the quartering force of the wind, a full gale was blowing.

It blew all the evening, reaching a climax and fury at past midnight that was remembered for many years along that coast. In the midst of it they heard the booming of cannon, and then the voices of neighbors in the road. “There was,” said the voices, “a big steamer ashore just afore the house.” They dressed quickly and ran out.

Hugging the edge of the copse to breathe and evade the fury of the wind, they struggled to the sands. At first, looking out to sea, the girl saw nothing but foam. But, following the direction of a neighbor’s arm, for in that wild tumult man alone seemed speechless, she saw directly before her, so close upon her that she could have thrown a pebble on board, the high bows of a ship. Indeed, its very nearness gave her the feeling that it was already saved, and its occasional heavy roll to leeward, drunken, helpless, ludicrous, but never awful, brought a hysteric laugh to her lips. But when a livid blue light, lit in the swinging top, showed a number of black objects clinging to bulwarks and rigging, and the sea, with languid, heavy cruelty, pushing rather than beating them away, one by one, she knew that Death was there.

The neighbors, her father with the others, had been running hopelessly to and fro, or cowering in groups against the copse, when suddenly they uttered a cry—their first—of joyful welcome. And with that shout, the man she most despised and hated, Sol. Catlin, mounted on a “calico” mustang, as outrageous and bizarre as himself, dashed among them.

In another moment, what had been fear, bewilderment, and hesitation was changed to courage, confidence, and action. The men pressed eagerly around him, and as eagerly dispersed under his quick command. Galloping at his heels was a team with the whale-boat, brought from the river, miles away. He was here, there, and everywhere; catching the line thrown by the rocket from the ship, marshaling the men to haul it in, answering the hail from those on board above the tempest, pervading everything and everybody with the fury of the storm; loud, imperious, domineering, self-asserting, all-sufficient, and successful! And when the boat was launched, the last mighty impulse came from his shoulder. He rode at the helm into the first hanging wall of foam, erect and triumphant! Dazzled, bewildered, crying and laughing, she hated him more than ever.

The boat made three trips, bringing off, with the aid of the hawser, all but the sailors she had seen perish before her own eyes. The passengers,—they were few,—the captain and officers, found refuge in her father’s house, and were loud in their praises of Sol. Catlin. But in that grateful chorus a single gloomy voice arose, the voice of a wealthy and troubled passenger. “I will give,” he said, “five thousand dollars to the man who brings me a box of securities I left in my stateroom.” Every eye turned instinctively to Sol.; he answered only those of Jenny’s. “Say ten thousand, and if the dod-blasted hulk holds together two hours longer I’ll do it, d—n me! You hear me! My name’s Sol. Catlin, and when I say a thing, by G-d, I do it.” Jenny’s disgust here reached its climax. The hero of a night of undoubted energy and courage had blotted it out in a single moment of native vanity and vulgar avarice.

He was gone; not only two hours, but daylight had come and they were eagerly seeking him, when he returned among them, dripping and—empty-handed. He had reached the ship, he said, with another; found the box, and trusted himself alone with it to the sea. But in the surf he had to abandon it to save himself. It had perhaps drifted ashore, and might be found; for himself, he abandoned his claim to the reward. Had he looked abashed or mortified, Jenny felt that she might have relented, but the braggart was as all-satisfied, as confident and boastful as ever. Nevertheless, as his eye seemed to seek hers, she was constrained, in mere politeness, to add her own to her father’s condolences. “I suppose,” she hesitated, in passing him, “that this is a mere nothing to you after all that you did last night that was really great and unselfish.”

“Were you never disappointed, Miss?” he said, with exasperating abruptness.

A quick consciousness of her own thankless labor on the galleon, and a terrible idea that he might have some suspicion of, and perhaps the least suggestion that she might have been disappointed in him, brought a faint color to her cheek. But she replied with dignity:—

“I really couldn’t say. But certainly,” she added, with a new-found pertness, “you don’t look it.”

“Nor do you, Miss,” was his idiotic answer.

A few hours later, alarmed at what she had heard of the inroads of the sea, which had risen higher than ever known to the oldest settler, and perhaps mindful of yesterday’s footprints, she sought her old secluded haunt. The wreck was still there, but the sea had reached it. The excavation between its gaunt ribs was filled with drift and the seaweed carried there by the surges and entrapped in its meshes. And there, too, caught as in a net, lay the wooden box of securities Sol. Catlin had abandoned to the sea.

This is the story as it was told to me. The singularity of coincidences has challenged some speculation. Jenny insisted at the time upon sharing the full reward with Catlin, but local critics have pointed out that from subsequent events this proved nothing. For she had married him!

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