Colonel Starbottle's Client
Part 1 out of 4
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COLONEL STARBOTTLE'S CLIENT
by Bret Harte
COLONEL STARBOTTLE'S CLIENT
THE POSTMISTRESS OF LAUREL RUN
A NIGHT AT "HAYS"
JOHNSON'S "OLD WOMAN"
THE NEW ASSISTANT AT PINE CLEARING SCHOOL
IN A PIONEER RESTAURANT
A TREASURE OF THE GALLEON
OUT OF A PIONEER'S TRUNK
THE GHOSTS OF STUKELEY CASTLE
COLONEL STARBOTTLE'S CLIENT.
It may be remembered that it was the habit of that gallant "war-
horse" of the Calaveras democracy, Colonel Starbottle, at the close
of a political campaign, to return to his original profession of
the Law. Perhaps it could not be called a peaceful retirement.
The same fiery-tongued eloquence and full-breasted chivalry which
had in turns thrilled and overawed freemen at the polls were no
less fervid and embattled before a jury. Yet the Colonel was
counsel for two or three pastoral Ditch companies and certain
bucolic corporations, and although he managed to import into the
simplest question of contract more or less abuse of opposing
counsel, and occasionally mingled precedents of law with antecedents
of his adversary, his legal victories were seldom complicated by
bloodshed. He was only once shot at by a free-handed judge, and
twice assaulted by an over-sensitive litigant. Nevertheless, it was
thought merely prudent, while preparing the papers in the well known
case of "The Arcadian Shepherds' Association of Tuolumne versus the
Kedron Vine and Fig Tree Growers of Calaveras," that the Colonel
should seek with a shotgun the seclusion of his partner's law office
in the sylvan outskirts of Rough and Ready for that complete rest
and serious preoccupation which Marysville could not afford.
It was an exceptionally hot day. The painted shingles of the plain
wooden one-storied building in which the Colonel sat were warped
and blistering in the direct rays of the fierce, untempered sun.
The tin sign bearing the dazzling legend, "Starbottle and
Bungstarter, Attorneys and Counselors," glowed with an insufferable
light; the two pine-trees still left in the clearing around the
house, ineffective as shade, seemed only to have absorbed the day-
long heat through every scorched and crisp twig and fibre, to
radiate it again with the pungent smell of a slowly smouldering
fire; the air was motionless yet vibrating in the sunlight; on
distant shallows the half-dried river was flashing and intolerable.
Seated in a wooden armchair before a table covered with books and
papers, yet with that apparently haughty attitude towards it
affected by gentlemen of abdominal fullness, Colonel Starbottle
supported himself with one hand grasping the arm of his chair and
the other vigorously plying a huge palm-leaf fan. He was perspiring
freely. He had taken off his characteristic blue frock-coat,
waistcoat, cravat, and collar, and, stripped only to his ruffled
shirt and white drill trousers, presented the appearance from the
opposite side of the table of having hastily risen to work in his
nightgown. A glass with a thin sediment of sugar and lemon-peel
remaining in it stood near his elbow. Suddenly a black shadow fell
on the staring, uncarpeted hall. It was that of a stranger who had
just entered from the noiseless dust of the deserted road. The
Colonel cast a rapid glance at his sword-cane, which lay on the
But the stranger, although sallow and morose-looking, was evidently
of pacific intent. He paused on the threshold in a kind of surly
"I reckon this is Colonel Starbottle," he said at last, glancing
gloomily round him, as if the interview was not entirely of his own
seeking. "Well, I've seen you often enough, though you don't know
me. My name's Jo Corbin. I guess," he added, still discontentedly,
"I have to consult you about something."
"Corbin?" repeated the Colonel in his jauntiest manner. "Ah! Any
relation to old Maje Corbin of Nashville, sir?"
"No," said the stranger briefly. "I'm from Shelbyville."
"The Major," continued the Colonel, half closing his eyes as if to
follow the Major into the dreamy past, "the old Major, sir, a
matter of five or six years ago, was one of my most intimate
political friends,--in fact, sir, my most intimate friend. Take a
But the stranger had already taken one, and during the Colonel's
reminiscence had leaned forward, with his eyes on the ground,
discontentedly swinging his soft hat between his legs. "Did you
know Tom Frisbee, of Yolo?" he asked abruptly.
"Nor even heard anything about Frisbee, nor what happened to him?"
continued the man, with aggrieved melancholy.
In point of fact the Colonel did not think that he had.
"Nor anything about his being killed over at Fresno?" said the
stranger, with a desponding implication that the interview after
all was a failure.
"If--er--if you could--er--give me a hint or two," suggested the
"There wasn't much," said the stranger, "if you don't remember."
He paused, then rising, he gloomily dragged his chair slowly beside
the table, and taking up a paperweight examined it with heavy
dissatisfaction. "You see," he went on slowly, "I killed him--it
was a quo'll. He was my pardner, but I reckon he must have drove
me hard. Yes, sir," he added with aggrieved reflection, "I reckon
he drove me hard."
The Colonel smiled courteously, slightly expanding his chest under
the homicidal relation, as if, having taken it in and made it a
part of himself, he was ready, if necessary, to become personally
responsible for it. Then lifting his empty glass to the light, he
looked at it with half closed eyes, in polite imitation of his
companion's examination of the paper-weight, and set it down again.
A casual spectator from the window might have imagined that the two
were engaged in an amicable inventory of the furniture.
"And the--er--actual circumstances?" asked the Colonel.
"Oh, it was fair enough fight. THEY'LL tell you that. And so
would HE, I reckon--if he could. He was ugly and bedev'lin', but I
didn't care to quo'll, and give him the go-by all the time. He
kept on, followed me out of the shanty, drew, and fired twice.
I"--he stopped and regarded his hat a moment as if it was a
corroborating witness--"I--I closed with him--I had to--it was my
only chance, and that ended it--and with his own revolver. I never
"I see," said the Colonel, nodding, "clearly justifiable and
honorable as regards the code. And you wish me to defend you?"
The stranger's gloomy expression of astonishment now turned to
"I knew you didn't understand," he said, despairingly. "Why, all
THAT was TWO YEARS AGO. It's all settled and done and gone. The
jury found for me at the inquest. It ain't THAT I want to see you
about. It's something arising out of it."
"Ah," said the Colonel, affably, "a vendetta, perhaps. Some friend
or relation of his taken up the quarrel?"
The stranger looked abstractedly at Starbottle. "You think a
relation might; or would feel in that sort of way?"
"Why, blank it all, sir," said the Colonel, "nothing is more
common. Why, in '52 one of my oldest friends, Doctor Byrne, of St.
Jo, the seventh in a line from old General Byrne, of St. Louis, was
killed, sir, by Pinkey Riggs, seventh in a line from Senator Riggs,
of Kentucky. Original cause, sir, something about a d----d
roasting ear, or a blank persimmon in 1832; forty-seven men wiped
out in twenty years. Fact, sir."
"It ain't that," said the stranger, moving hesitatingly in his
chair. "If it was anything of that sort I wouldn't mind,--it might
bring matters to a wind-up, and I shouldn't have to come here and
have this cursed talk with you."
It was so evident that this frank and unaffected expression of some
obscure disgust with his own present position had no other
implication, that the Colonel did not except to it. Yet the man
did not go on. He stopped and seemed lost in sombre contemplation
of his hat.
The Colonel leaned back in his chair, fanned himself elegantly,
wiped his forehead with a large pongee handkerchief, and looking at
his companion, whose shadowed abstraction seemed to render him
impervious to the heat, said:--
"My dear Mr. Corbin, I perfectly understand you. Blank it all,
sir, the temperature in this infernal hole is quite enough to
render any confidential conversation between gentlemen upon
delicate matters utterly impossible. It's almost as near Hades,
sir, as they make it,--as I trust you and I, Mr. Corbin, will ever
experience. I propose," continued the Colonel, with airy
geniality, "some light change and refreshment. The bar-keeper of
the Magnolia is--er--I may say, sir, facile princeps in the
concoction of mint juleps, and there is a back room where I have
occasionally conferred with political leaders at election time. It
is but a step, sir--in fact, on Main Street--round the corner."
The stranger looked up and then rose mechanically as the Colonel
resumed his coat and waistcoat, but not his collar and cravat,
which lay limp and dejected among his papers. Then, sheltering
himself beneath a large-brimmed Panama hat, and hooking his cane on
his arm, he led the way, fan in hand, into the road, tiptoeing in
his tight, polished boots through the red, impalpable dust with his
usual jaunty manner, yet not without a profane suggestion of
burning ploughshares. The stranger strode in silence by his side
in the burning sun, impenetrable in his own morose shadow.
But the Magnolia was fragrant, like its namesake, with mint and
herbal odors, cool with sprinkled floors, and sparkling with broken
ice on its counters, like dewdrops on white, unfolded petals--and
slightly soporific with the subdued murmur of droning loungers, who
were heavy with its sweets. The gallant Colonel nodded with
confidential affability to the spotless-shirted bar-keeper, and
then taking Corbin by the arm fraternally conducted him into a
small apartment in the rear of the bar-room. It was evidently used
as the office of the proprietor, and contained a plain desk, table,
and chairs. At the rear window, Nature, not entirely evicted,
looked in with a few straggling buckeyes and a dusty myrtle, over
the body of a lately-felled pine-tree, that flaunted from an
upflung branch a still green spray as if it were a drooping banner
lifted by a dead but rigid arm. From the adjoining room the faint,
monotonous click of billiard balls, languidly played, came at
intervals like the dry notes of cicale in the bushes.
The bar-keeper brought two glasses crowned with mint and diademed
with broken ice. The Colonel took a long pull at his portion, and
leaned back in his chair with a bland gulp of satisfaction and
dreamily patient eyes. The stranger mechanically sipped the
contents of his glass, and then, without having altered his
reluctant expression, drew from his breast-pocket a number of old
letters. Holding them displayed in his fingers like a difficult
hand of cards, and with something of the air of a dispirited
player, he began:--
"You see, about six months after this yer trouble I got this
letter." He picked out a well worn, badly written missive, and put
it into Colonel Starbottle's hands, rising at the same time and
leaning over him as he read. "You see, she that writ it says as
how she hadn't heard from her son for a long time, but owing to his
having spoken once about ME, she was emboldened to write and ask me
if I knew what had gone of him." He was pointing his finger at
each line of the letter as he read it, or rather seemed to
translate it from memory with a sad familiarity. "Now," he
continued in parenthesis, "you see this kind o' got me. I knew he
had got relatives in Kentucky. I knew that all this trouble had
been put in the paper with his name and mine, but this here name of
Martha Jeffcourt at the bottom didn't seem to jibe with it. Then I
remembered that he had left a lot of letters in his trunk in the
shanty, and I looked 'em over. And I found that his name WAS Tom
Jeffcourt, and that he'd been passin' under the name of Frisbee all
"Perfectly natural and a frequent occurrence," interposed the
Colonel cheerfully. "Only last year I met an old friend whom we'll
call Stidger, of New Orleans, at the Union Club, 'Frisco. 'How are
you, Stidger?' I said; 'I haven't seen you since we used to meet--
driving over the Shell Road in '53.' 'Excuse me, sir,' said he,
'my name is not Stidger, it's Brown.' I looked him in the eye,
sir, and saw him quiver. 'Then I must apologize to Stidger,' I
said, 'for supposing him capable of changing his name.' He came to
me an hour after, all in a tremble. 'For God's sake, Star,' he
said,--always called me Star,--'don't go back on me, but you know
family affairs--another woman, beautiful creature,' etc., etc.,--
yes, sir, perfectly common, but a blank mistake. When a man once
funks his own name he'll turn tail on anything. Sorry for this
man, Friezecoat, or Turncoat, or whatever's his d----d name; but
The suggestion did not, however, seem to raise the stranger's
spirits or alter his manner. "His name was Jeffcourt, and this
here was his mother," he went on drearily; "and you see here she
says"--pointing to the letter again--"she's been expecting money
from him and it don't come, and she's mighty hard up. And that
gave me an idea. I don't know," he went on, regarding the Colonel
with gloomy doubt, "as you'll think it was much; I don't know as
you wouldn't call it a d----d fool idea, but I got it all the
same." He stopped, hesitated, and went on. "You see this man,
Frisbee or Jeffcourt, was my pardner. We were good friends up to
the killing, and then he drove me hard. I think I told you he
drove me hard,--didn't I? Well, he did. But the idea I got was
this. Considerin' I killed him after all, and so to speak
disappointed them, I reckoned I'd take upon myself the care of that
family and send 'em money every month."
The Colonel slightly straitened his clean-shaven mouth. "A kind of
expiation or amercement by fine, known to the Mosaic, Roman, and
old English law. Gad, sir, the Jews might have made you MARRY his
widow or sister. An old custom, and I think superseded--sir,
properly superseded--by the alternative of ordeal by battle in the
mediaeval times. I don't myself fancy these pecuniary fashions of
settling wrongs,--but go on."
"I wrote her," continued Corbin, "that her son was dead, but that
he and me had some interests together in a claim, and that I was
very glad to know where to send her what would be his share every
month. I thought it no use to tell her I killed him,--may be she
might refuse to take it. I sent her a hundred dollars every month
since. Sometimes it's been pretty hard sleddin' to do it, for I
ain't rich; sometimes I've had to borrow the money, but I reckoned
that I was only paying for my share in this here business of his
bein' dead, and I did it."
"And I understand you that this Jeffcourt really had no interest in
Corbin looked at him in dull astonishment. "Not a cent, of course;
I thought I told you that. But that weren't his fault, for he
never had anything, and owed me money. In fact," he added
gloomily, "it was because I hadn't any more to give him--havin'
sold my watch for grub--that he quo'lled with me that day, and up
and called me a 'sneakin' Yankee hound.' I told you he drove me
The Colonel coughed slightly and resumed his jaunty manner. "And
the--er--mother was, of course, grateful and satisfied?"
"Well, no,--not exactly." He stopped again and took up his letters
once more, sorted and arranged them as if to play out his
unfinished but hopeless hand, and drawing out another, laid it
before the Colonel. "You see, this Mrs. Jeffcourt, after a time,
reckoned she ought to have MORE money than I sent her, and wrote
saying that she had always understood from her son (he that never
wrote but once a year, remember) that this claim of ours (that she
never knew of, you know) was paying much more than I sent her--and
she wanted a return of accounts and papers, or she'd write to some
lawyer, mighty quick. Well, I reckoned that all this was naturally
in the line of my trouble, and I DID manage to scrape together
fifty dollars more for two months and sent it. But that didn't
seem to satisfy her--as you see." He dealt Colonel Starbottle
another letter from his baleful hand with an unchanged face. "When
I got that,--well, I just up and told her the whole thing. I sent
her the account of the fight from the newspapers, and told her as
how her son was the Frisbee that was my pardner, and how he never
had a cent in the world--but how I'd got that idea to help her, and
was willing to carry it out as long as I could."
"Did you keep a copy of that letter?" asked the Colonel,
straitening his mask-like mouth.
"No," said Corbin moodily. "What was the good? I know'd she'd got
the letter,--and she did,--for that is what she wrote back." He
laid another letter before the Colonel, who hastily read a few
lines and then brought his fat white hand violently on the desk.
"Why, d--n it all, sir, this is BLACKMAIL! As infamous a case of
threatening and chantage as I ever heard of."
"Well," said Corbin, dejectedly, "I don't know. You see she allows
that I murdered Frisbee to get hold of his claim, and that I'm
trying to buy her off, and that if I don't come down with twenty
thousand dollars on the nail, and notes for the rest, she'll
prosecute me. Well, mebbe the thing looks to her like that--mebbe
you know I've got to shoulder that too. Perhaps it's all in the
Colonel Starbottle for a moment regarded Corbin critically. In
spite of his chivalrous attitude towards the homicidal faculty,
the Colonel was not optimistic in regard to the baser pecuniary
interests of his fellow-man. It was quite on the cards that his
companion might have murdered his partner to get possession of the
claim. It was true that Corbin had voluntarily assumed an
unrecorded and hitherto unknown responsibility that had never been
even suspected, and was virtually self-imposed. But that might
have been the usual one unerring blunder of criminal sagacity and
forethought. It was equally true that he did not look or act like
a mean murderer; but that was nothing. However, there was no
evidence of these reflections in the Colonel's face. Rather he
suddenly beamed with an excess of politeness. "Would you--er--
mind, Mr. Corbin, whilst I am going over those letters again, to--
er--step across to my office--and--er--bring me the copy of 'Wood's
Digest' that lies on my table? It will save some time."
The stranger rose, as if the service was part of his self-imposed
trouble, and as equally hopeless with the rest, and taking his hat
departed to execute the commission. As soon as he had left the
building Colonel Starbottle opened the door and mysteriously
beckoned the bar-keeper within.
"Do you remember anything of the killing of a man named Frisbee
over in Fresno three years ago?"
The bar-keeper whistled meditatively. "Three years ago--Frisbee?--
Fresno?--no? Yes--but that was only one of his names. He was Jack
Walker over here. Yes--and by Jove! that feller that was here with
you killed him. Darn my skin, but I thought I recognized him."
"Yes, yes, I know all that," said the Colonel, impatiently. "But
did Frisbee have any PROPERTY? Did he have any means of his own?"
"Property?" echoed the bar-keeper with scornful incredulity.
"Property? Means? The only property and means he ever had was the
free lunches or drinks he took in at somebody else's expense. Why,
the only chance he ever had of earning a square meal was when that
fellow that was with you just now took him up and made him his
partner. And the only way HE could get rid of him was to kill him!
And I didn't think he had it in him. Rather a queer kind o' chap,--
good deal of hayseed about him. Showed up at the inquest so glum
and orkerd that if the boys hadn't made up their minds this yer
Frisbee ORTER BEEN killed--it might have gone hard with him."
"Mr. Corbin," said Colonel Starbottle, with a pained but
unmistakable hauteur and a singular elevation of his shirt frill,
as if it had become of its own accord erectile, "Mr. Corbin--er--
er--is the distant relative of old Major Corbin, of Nashville--er--
one of my oldest political friends. When Mr. Corbin--er--returns,
you can conduct him to me. And, if you please, replenish the
When the bar-keeper respectfully showed Mr. Corbin and "Wood's
Digest" into the room again, the Colonel was still beaming and
"A thousand thanks, sir, but except to SHOW you the law if you
require it--hardly necessary. I have--er--glanced over the woman's
letters again; it would be better, perhaps, if you had kept copies
of your own--but still these tell the whole story and YOUR OWN.
The claim is preposterous! You have simply to drop the whole
thing. Stop your remittances, stop your correspondence,--pay no
heed to any further letters and wait results. You need fear
nothing further, sir; I stake my professional reputation on it."
The gloom of the stranger seemed only to increase as the Colonel
reached his triumphant conclusion.
"I reckoned you'd say that," he said slowly, "but it won't do. I
shall go on paying as far as I can. It's my trouble and I'll see
"But, my dear sir, consider," gasped the Colonel. "You are in the
hands of an infamous harpy, who is using her son's blood to extract
money from you. You have already paid a dozen times more than the
life of that d----d sneak was worth; and more than that--the longer
you keep on paying you are helping to give color to their claim and
estopping your own defense. And Gad, sir, you're making a
precedent for this sort of thing! you are offering a premium to
widows and orphans. A gentleman won't be able to exchange shots
with another without making himself liable for damages. I am
willing to admit that your feelings--though, in my opinion--er--
exaggerated--do you credit; but I am satisfied that they are
"Not by all of them," said Corbin darkly.
"Eh?" returned the Colonel quickly.
"There was another letter here which I didn't particularly point
out to you," said Corbin, taking up the letters again, "for I
reckoned it wasn't evidence, so to speak, being from HIS COUSIN, a
girl,--and calculated you'd read it when I was out."
The Colonel coughed hastily. "I was in fact--er--just about to
glance over it when you came in."
"It was written," continued Corbin, selecting a letter more
bethumbed than the others, "after the old woman had threatened me.
This here young woman allows that she is sorry that her aunt has to
take money of me on account of her cousin being killed, and she is
still sorrier that she is so bitter against me. She says she
hadn't seen her cousin since he was a boy, and used to play with
her, and that she finds it hard to believe that he should ever grow
up to change his name and act so as to provoke anybody to lift a
hand against him. She says she supposed it must be something in
that dreadful California that alters people and makes everybody so
reckless. I reckon her head's level there, ain't it?"
There was such a sudden and unexpected lightening of the man's face
as he said it, such a momentary relief to his persistent gloom,
that the Colonel, albeit inwardly dissenting from both letter and
comment, smiled condescendingly.
"She's no slouch of a scribe neither," continued Corbin animatedly.
He handed his companion the letter, pointing to a passage with his
finger. The Colonel took it with, I fear, a somewhat lowered
opinion of his client, and a new theory of the case. It was
evident that this weak submission to the aunt's conspiracy was only
the result of a greater weakness for the niece. Colonel Starbottle
had a wholesome distrust of the sex as a business or political
factor. He began to look over the letter, but was evidently
slurring it with superficial politeness, when Corbin said:--
"Read it out loud."
The Colonel slightly lifted his shoulders, fortified himself with
another sip of the julep, and, leaning back, oratorically began to
read,--the stranger leaning over him and following line by line
with shining eyes.
"'When I say I am sorry for you, it is because I think it must be
dreadful for you to be going round with the blood of a fellow-
creature on your hands. It must be awful for you in the stillness
of the night season to hear the voice of the Lord saying, "Cain,
where is thy brother?" and you saying, "Lord, I have slayed him
dead." It must be awful for you when the pride of your wrath was
surfitted, and his dum senseless corps was before you, not to know
that it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," saith the
Lord. . . . It was no use for you to say, "I never heard that
before," remembering your teacher and parents. Yet verily I say
unto you, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be washed
whiter than snow," saith the Lord--Isaiah i. 18; and "Heart hath no
sorrow that Heaven cannot heal."--My hymn book, 1st Presbyterian
Church, page 79. Mr. Corbin, I pity your feelins at the grave of
my pore dear cousin, knowing he is before his Maker, and you can't
bring him back.' Umph!--er--er--very good--very good indeed," said
the Colonel, hastily refolding the letter. "Very well meaning and--
"Go on," said Corbin over his shoulder, "you haven't read all."
"Ah, true. I perceive I overlooked something. Um--um. 'May God
forgive you, Mr. Corbin, as I do, and make aunty think better of
you, for it was good what you tried to do for her and the fammely,
and I've always said it when she was raging round and wanting money
of you. I don't believe you meant to do it anyway, owin' to your
kindness of heart to the ophanless and the widow since you did it.
Anser this letter, and don't mind what aunty says. So no more at
present from--Yours very respectfully, SALLY DOWS.
"'P. S.--There's been some troubel in our township, and some
fitin'. May the Lord change ther hearts and make them as a little
child, for if you are still young you may grow up different. I
have writ a short prayer for you to say every night. You can coppy
it out and put it at the head of your bed. It is this: O Lord make
me sorry for having killed Sarah Dows' cousin. Give me, O Lord,
that peace that the world cannot give, and which fadeth not away;
for my yoke is heavy, and my burden is harder than I can bear.'"
The Colonel's deliberate voice stopped. There was a silence in the
room, and the air seemed stifling. The click of the billiard balls
came distinctly through the partition from the other room. Then
there was another click, a stamp on the floor, and a voice crying
coarsely: "Curse it all--missed again!"
To the stranger's astonishment, the Colonel was on his feet in an
instant, gasping with inarticulate rage. Flinging the door open,
he confronted the startled bar-keeper empurpled and stertorous.
"Blank it all, sir, do you call this a saloon for gentlemen, or a
corral for swearing cattle? Or do you mean to say that the
conversation of two gentlemen upon delicate professional--and--er--
domestic affairs--is to be broken upon by the blank profanity of
low-bred hounds over their picayune gambling! Take them my kyard,
sir," choked the Colonel, who was always Southern and dialectic in
his excited as in his softest moments, "and tell them that Colonel
Starbottle will nevah dyarken these doahs again."
Before the astonished bar-keeper could reply, the Colonel had
dashed back into the room, clapped his hat on his head, and seized
his book, letters, and cane. "Mr. Corbin," he said with gasping
dignity, "I will take these papahs, and consult them again in my
own office--where, if you will do me the honor, sir, to call at ten
o'clock to-morrow, I will give you my opinion." He strode out of
the saloon beside the half awe-stricken, half-amused, yet all
discreetly silent loungers, followed by his wondering but gloomy
client. At the door they parted,--the Colonel tiptoeing towards
his office as if dancing with rage, the stranger darkly plodding
through the stifling dust in the opposite direction, with what
might have been a faint suggestion to his counselor, that the paths
of the homicide did not lie beside the still cool waters.
The house of Captain Masterton Dows, at Pineville, Kentucky, was a
fine specimen of Southern classical architecture, being an exact
copy of Major Fauquier's house in Virginia, which was in turn only
a slight variation from a well-known statesman's historical villa
in Alabama, that everybody knew was designed from a famous Greek
temple on the Piraeus. Not but that it shared this resemblance
with the County Court House and the Odd Fellows' Hall, but the
addition of training jessamine and Cherokee rose to the columns of
the portico, and over the colonnade leading to its offices, showed
a certain domestic distinction. And the sky line of its
incongruously high roof was pleasantly broken against adjacent
green pines, butternut, and darker cypress.
A nearer approach showed the stuccoed gateposts--whose red brick
core was revealed through the dropping plaster--opening in a wall
of half-rough stone, half-wooden palisade, equally covered with
shining moss and parasitical vines, which hid a tangled garden left
to its own unkempt luxuriance. Yet there was a reminiscence of
past formality and even pretentiousness in a wide box-bordered
terrace and one or two stuccoed vases prematurely worn and time-
stained; while several rare exotics had, however, thriven so
unwisely and well in that stimulating soil as to lose their
exclusive refinement and acquire a certain temporary vulgarity. A
few, with the not uncommon enthusiasm of aliens, had adopted
certain native peculiarities with a zeal that far exceeded any
indigenous performance. But dominant through all was the continual
suggestion of precocious fruition and premature decay that lingered
like a sad perfume in the garden, but made itself persistent if
less poetical in the house.
Here the fluted wooden columns of the portico and colonnade seemed
to have taken upon themselves a sodden and unwholesome age unknown
to stone and mortar. Moss and creeper clung to paint that time had
neither dried nor mellowed, but left still glairy in its white
consistency. There were rusty red blotches around inflamed nail-
holes in the swollen wood, as of punctures in living flesh; along
the entablature and cornices and in the dank gutters decay had
taken the form of a mild deliquescence; and the pillars were
spotted as if Nature had dropped over the too early ruin a few
unclean tears. The house itself was lifted upon a broad wooden
foundation painted to imitate marble with such hopeless mendacity
that the architect at the last moment had added a green border, and
the owner permitted a fallen board to remain off so as to allow a
few privileged fowls to openly explore the interior. When Miss
Sally Dows played the piano in the drawing-room she was at times
accompanied by the uplifted voice of the sympathetic hounds who
sought its quiet retreat in ill-health or low spirits, and from
whom she was separated only by an imperfectly carpeted floor of
yawning seams. The infant progeny of "Mammy Judy," an old nurse,
made this a hiding-place from domestic justice, where they were
eventually betrayed by subterranean giggling that had once or twice
brought bashful confusion to the hearts of Miss Sally's admirers,
and mischievous security to that finished coquette herself.
It was a pleasant September afternoon, on possibly one of these
occasions, that Miss Sally, sitting before the piano, alternately
striking a few notes with three pink fingers and glancing at her
reflection in the polished rosewood surface of the lifted keyboard
case, was heard to utter this languid protest:--
"Quit that kind of talk, Chet, unless you just admire to have every
word of it repeated all over the county. Those little niggers of
Mammy Judy's are lying round somewhere and are mighty 'cute, and
sassy, I tell you. It's nothin' to ME, sure, but Miss Hilda
mightn't like to hear of it. So soon after your particular
attention to her at last night's pawty too."
Here a fresh-looking young fellow of six-and-twenty, leaning
uneasily over the piano from the opposite side, was heard to murmur
that he didn't care what Miss Hilda heard, nor the whole world, for
the matter of that. "But," he added, with a faint smile, "folks
allow that you know how to PLAY UP sometimes, and put on the loud
pedal, when you don't want Mammy's niggers to hear."
"Indeed," said the young lady demurely. "Like this?"
She put out a distracting little foot, clothed in the white
stocking and cool black prunella slipper then de rigueur in the
State, and, pressing it on the pedal, began to drum vigorously on
the keys. In vain the amorous Chet protested in a voice which the
instrument drowned. Perceiving which the artful young lady opened
her blue eyes mildly and said:--
"I reckon it IS so; it DOES kind of prevent you hearing what you
don't want to hear."
"You know well enough what I mean," said the youth gloomily. "And
that ain't all that folks say. They allow that you're doin' a heap
too much correspondence with that Californian rough that killed Tom
Jeffcourt over there."
"Do they?" said the young lady, with a slight curl of her pretty
lip. "Then perhaps they allow that if it wasn't for me he wouldn't
be sending a hundred dollars a month to Aunt Martha?"
"Yes," said the fatuous youth; "but they allow he killed Tom for
his money. And they do say it's mighty queer doin's in yo' writin'
religious letters to him, and Tom your own cousin."
"Oh, they tell those lies HERE, do they? But do they say anything
about how, when the same lies were told over in California, the
lawyer they've got over there, called Colonel Starbottle,--a
Southern man too,--got up and just wrote to Aunt Martha that she'd
better quit that afore she got prosecuted? They didn't tell you
that, did they, Mister Chester Brooks?"
But here the unfortunate Brooks, after the fashion of all jealous
lovers, deserted his allies for his fair enemy. "I don't cotton to
what THEY say, Sally, but you DO write to him, and I don't see what
you've got to write about--you and him. Jule Jeffcourt says that
when you got religion at Louisville during the revival, you felt
you had a call to write and save sinners, and you did that as your
trial and probation, but that since you backslided and are worldly
again, and go to parties, you just keep it up for foolin' and
flirtin'! SHE ain't goin' to weaken on the man that shot her
brother, just because he's got a gold mine and--a mustache!"
"She takes his MONEY all the same," said Miss Sally.
"SHE don't,--her mother does. SHE says if she was a man she'd have
blood for blood!"
"My!" said Miss Sally, in affected consternation. "It's a wonder
she don't apply to you to act for her."
"If it was MY brother he killed, I'd challenge him quick enough,"
said Chet, flushing through his thin pink skin and light hair.
"Marry her, then, and that'll make you one of the family. I reckon
Miss Hilda can bear it," rejoined the young lady pertly.
"Look here, Miss Sally," said the young fellow with a boyish
despair that was not without a certain pathos in its implied
inferiority, "I ain't gifted like you--I ain't on yo' level no how;
I can't pass yo' on the road, and so I reckon I must take yo' dust
as yo' make it. But there is one thing, Miss Sally, I want to tell
you. You know what's going on in this country, you've heard your
father say what the opinion of the best men is, and what's likely
to happen if the Yanks force that nigger worshiper, Lincoln, on the
South. You know that we're drawing the line closer every day, and
spottin' the men that ain't sound. Take care, Miss Sally, you
ain't sellin' us cheap to some Northern Abolitionist who'd like to
set Marm Judy's little niggers to something worse than eavesdropping
down there, and mebbe teach 'em to kindle a fire underneath yo'
He had become quite dialectic in his appeal, as if youthfully
reverting to some accent of the nursery, or as if he were exhorting
her in some recognized shibboleth of a section. Miss Sally rose
and shut down the piano. Then leaning over it on her elbows, her
rounded little chin slightly elevated with languid impertinence,
and one saucy foot kicked backwards beyond the hem of her white
cotton frock, she said: "And let me tell you, Mister Chester
Brooks, that it's just such God-forsaken, infant phenomenons as you
who want to run the whole country that make all this fuss, when you
ain't no more fit to be trusted with matches than Judy's children.
What do YOU know of Mr. Jo Corbin, when you don't even know that
he's from Shelbyville, and as good a Suth'ner as you, and if he
hasn't got niggers it's because they don't use them in his parts?
Yo'r for all the world like one o' Mrs. Johnson's fancy bantams
that ain't quit of the shell afore they square off at their own
mother. My goodness! Sho! Sho-o-o!" And suiting the action to
the word the young lady, still indolently, even in her simulation,
swirled around, caught her skirts at the side with each hand, and
lazily shaking them before her in the accepted feminine method of
frightening chickens as she retreated backwards, dropped them
suddenly in a profound curtsey and swept out of the parlor.
Nevertheless, as she entered the sitting-room she paused to listen,
then, going to the window, peeped through the slits of the Venetian
blind and saw her youthful admirer, more dejected in the
consciousness of his wasted efforts and useless attire, mount his
showy young horse, as aimlessly spirited as himself, and ride away.
Miss Sally did not regret this; neither had she been entirely
sincere in her defense of her mysterious correspondent. But, like
many of her sex, she was trying to keep up by the active stimulus
of opposition an interest that she had begun to think if left to
itself might wane. She was conscious that her cousin Julia,
although impertinent and illogical, was right in considering her
first epistolary advances to Corbin as a youthful convert's
religious zeal. But now that her girlish enthusiasm was spent, and
the revival itself had proved as fleeting an excitement as the old
"Tournament of Love and Beauty," which it had supplanted, she
preferred to believe that she enjoyed the fascinating impropriety
because it was the actual result of her religious freedom. Perhaps
she had a vague idea that Corbin's conversion would expiate her
present preference for dress and dancing. She had certainly never
flirted with him; they had never exchanged photographs; there was
not a passage in his letters that might not have been perused by
her parents,--which, I fear, was probably one reason why she had
never shown her correspondence; and beyond the fact that this
letter-writing gave her a certain importance in her own eyes and
those of her companions, it might really be stopped. She even
thought of writing at once to him that her parents objected to its
further continuance, but remembering that his usual monthly letter
was now nearly due, she concluded to wait until it came.
It is to be feared that Miss Sally had little help in the way of
family advice, and that the moral administration of the Dows
household was as prematurely developed and as precociously
exhausted as the estate and mansion themselves. Captain Dows'
marriage with Josephine Jeffcourt, the daughter of a "poor white,"
had been considered a mesalliance by his family, and his own
sister, Miranda Dows, had abandoned her brother's roof and refused
to associate with the Jeffcourts, only returning to the house and
an armed neutrality at the death of Mrs. Dows a few years later.
She had taken charge of Miss Sally, sending her to school at
Nashville until she was recalled by her father two years ago. It
may be imagined that Miss Sally's correspondence with Jeffcourt's
murderer had afforded her a mixed satisfaction; it was at first
asserted that Miss Sally's forgiveness was really prompted by "Miss
Mirandy," as a subtle sarcasm upon the family. When, however, that
forgiveness seemed to become a source of revenue to the impoverished
Jeffcourts, her Christian interference had declined.
For this reason, possibly, the young girl did not seek her aunt in
the bedroom, the dining-room, or the business-room, where Miss
Miranda frequently assisted Captain Dows in the fatuous and
prejudiced mismanagement of the house and property, nor in any of
the vacant guest-rooms, which, in their early wreck of latter-day
mahogany and rosewood, seemed to have been unoccupied for ages, but
went directly to her own room. This was in the "L," a lately added
wing that had escaped the gloomy architectural tyranny of the main
building, and gave Miss Sally light, ventilation, the freshness and
spice of new pine boards and clean paper, and a separate entrance
and windows on a cool veranda all to herself. Intended as a
concession to the young lady's traveled taste, it was really a
reversion to the finer simplicity of the pioneer.
New as the apartment appeared to be, it was old enough to contain
the brief little records of her maidenhood: the childish samplers
and pictures; the sporting epoch with its fox-heads, opossum and
wild-cat skins, riding-whip, and the goshawk in a cage, which Miss
Sally believed could be trained as a falcon; the religious interval
of illustrated texts, "Rock of Ages," cardboard crosses, and the
certificate of her membership with "The Daughters of Sion" at the
head of her little bed, down to the last decadence of frivolity
shown in the be-ribboned guitar in the corner, and the dance cards,
favors, and rosettes, military buttons, dried bouquets, and other
love gages on the mantelpiece.
The young girl opened a drawer of her table and took out a small
packet of letters tied up with a green ribbon. As she did so she
heard the sound of hoofs in the rear courtyard. This was presently
followed by a step on the veranda, and she opened the door to her
father with the letters still in her hand. There was neither the
least embarrassment nor self-consciousness in her manner.
Captain Dows, superficially remarkable only for a certain odd
combination of high military stock and turned-over planter's
collar, was slightly exalted by a sympathetic mingling of politics
and mint julep at Pineville Court House. "I was passing by the
post-office at the Cross Roads last week, dear," he began,
cheerfully, "and I thought of you, and reckoned it was about time
that my Pussy got one of her letters from her rich Californian
friend--and sure enough there was one. I clean forgot to give it
to you then, and only remembered it passing there to-day. I didn't
get to see if there was any gold-dust in it," he continued, with
great archness, and a fatherly pinch of her cheek; "though I
suspect that isn't the kind of currency he sends to you."
"It IS from Mr. Corbin," said Miss Sally, taking it with a languid
kind of doubt; "and only now, paw, I was just thinking that I'd
sort of drop writing any more; it makes a good deal of buzzing
amongst the neighbors, and I don't see much honey nor comb in it."
"Eh," said the Captain, apparently more astonished than delighted
at his daughter's prudence. "Well, child, suit yourself! It's
mighty mean, though, for I was just thinking of telling you that
Judge Read is an old friend of this Colonel Starbottle, who is your
friend's friend and lawyer, and he says that Colonel Starbottle is
WITH US, and working for the cause out there, and has got a list of
all the So'thern men in California that are sound and solid for the
South. Read says he shouldn't wonder if he'd make California wheel
into line too."
"I don't see what that's got to do with Mr. Corbin," said the young
girl, impatiently, flicking the still unopened letter against the
packet in her hand.
"Well," said the Captain, with cheerful vagueness, "I thought it
might interest you,--that's all," and lounged judicially away.
"Paw thinks," said Miss Sally, still standing in the doorway,
ostentatiously addressing her pet goshawk, but with one eye
following her retreating parent, "Paw thinks that everybody is as
keen bent on politics as he is. There's where paw slips up, Jim."
Re-entering the room, scratching her little nose thoughtfully with
the edge of Mr. Corbin's letter, she went to the mantelpiece and
picked up a small ivory-handled dagger, the gift of Joyce
Masterton, aged eighteen, presented with certain verses addressed
to a "Daughter of the South," and cut open the envelope. The first
glance was at her own name, and then at the signature. There was
no change in the formality; it was "Dear Miss Sarah," and "Yours
respectfully, Jo Corbin," as usual. She was still secure. But her
pretty brows contracted slightly as she read as follows:--
"I've always allowed I should feel easier in my mind if I could
ever get to see Mrs. Jeffcourt, and that may be she might feel
easier in hers if I stood before her, face to face. Even if she
didn't forgive me at once, it might do her good to get off what she
had on her mind against me. But as there wasn't any chance of her
coming to me, and it was out of the question my coming to her and
still keeping up enough work in the mines to send her the regular
money, it couldn't be done. But at last I've got a partner to run
the machine when I'm away. I shall be at Shelbyville by the time
this reaches you, where I shall stay a day or two to give you time
to break the news to Mrs. Jeffcourt, and then come on. You will do
this for me in your Christian kindness, Miss Dows--won't you? and
if you could soften her mind so as to make it less hard for me I
shall be grateful.
"P. S.--I forgot to say I have had HIM exhumed--you know who I
mean--and am bringing him with me in a patent metallic burial
casket,--the best that could be got in 'Frisco, and will see that
he is properly buried in your own graveyard. It seemed to me that
it would be the best thing I could do, and might work upon her
feelings--as it has on mine. Don't you?
Miss Sally felt the tendrils of her fair hair stir with
consternation. The letter had arrived a week ago; perhaps he was
in Pineville at that very moment! She must go at once to the
Jeffcourts,--it was only a mile distant. Perhaps she might be
still in time; but even then it was a terribly short notice for
such a meeting. Yet she stopped to select her newest hat from the
closet, and to tie it with the largest of bows under her pretty
chin; and then skipped from the veranda into a green lane that ran
beside the garden boundary. There, hidden by a hedge, she dropped
into a long, swinging trot, that even in her haste still kept the
languid deliberation characteristic of her people, until she had
reached the road. Two or three hounds in the garden started
joyously to follow her, but she drove them back with a portentous
frown, and an ill-aimed stone, and a suppressed voice. Yet in that
backward glance she could see that her little Eumenides--Mammy
Judy's children--were peering at her from below the wooden floor of
the portico, which they were grasping with outstretched arms and
bowed shoulders, as if they were black caryatides supporting--as
indeed their race had done for many a year--the pre-doomed and
decaying mansion of their master.
Happily Miss Sally thought more of her present mission than of the
past errors of her people. The faster she walked the more vividly
she pictured the possible complications of this meeting. She knew
the dull, mean nature of her aunt, and the utter hopelessness of
all appeal to anything but her selfish cupidity, and saw in this
fatuous essay of Corbin only an aggravation of her worst instincts.
Even the dead body of her son would not only whet her appetite for
pecuniary vengeance, but give it plausibility in the eyes of their
emotional but ignorant neighbors. She had still less to hope from
Julia Jeffcourt's more honest and human indignation but equally
bigoted and prejudiced intelligence. It is true they were only
women, and she ought to have no fear of that physical revenge which
Julia had spoken of, but she reflected that Miss Jeffcourt's
unmistakable beauty, and what was believed to be a "truly Southern
spirit," had gained her many admirers who might easily take her
wrongs upon their shoulders. If her father had only given her that
letter before, she might have stopped Corbin's coming at all; she
might even have met him in time to hurry him and her cousin's
provocative remains out of the country. In the midst of these
reflections she had to pass the little hillside cemetery. It was a
spot of great natural beauty, cypress-shadowed and luxuriant. It
was justly celebrated in Pineville, and, but for its pretentious
tombstones, might have been peaceful and suggestive. Here she
recognized a figure just turning from its gate. It was Julia
Her first instinct--that she was too late and that her cousin had
come to the cemetery to make some arrangements for the impending
burial--was, however, quickly dissipated by the young girl's
"Well, Sally Dows, YOU here! who'd have thought of seeing you to-
day? Why, Chet Brooks allowed that you danced every set last night
and didn't get home till daylight. And you--you that are going to
show up at another party to-night too! Well, I reckon I haven't
got that much ambition these times. And out with your new bonnet
There was a slight curl of her handsome lip as she looked at her
cousin. She was certainly a more beautiful girl than Miss Sally;
very tall, dark and luminous of eye, with a brunette pallor of
complexion, suggesting, it was said, that remote mixture of blood
which was one of the unproven counts of Miss Miranda's indictment
against her family. Miss Sally smiled sweetly behind her big bow.
"If you reckon to tie to everything that Chet Brooks says, you'll
want lots of string, and you won't be safe then. You ought to have
heard him run on about this one, and that one, and that other one,
not an hour ago in our parlor. I had to pack him off, saying he
was even making Judy's niggers tired." She stopped and added with
polite languor, "I suppose there's no news up at yo' house either?
Everything's going on as usual--and--you get yo' California draft
A good deal of the white of Julia's beautiful eyes showed as she
turned indignantly on the speaker. "I wish, cousin Sally, you'd
just let up talking to me about that money. You know as well as I
do that I allowed to maw I wouldn't take a cent of it from the
first! I might have had all the gowns and bonnets"--with a look at
Miss Sally's bows--"I wanted from her; she even offered to take me
to St. Louis for a rig-out--if I'd been willing to take blood
money. But I'd rather stick to this old sleazy mou'nin' for Tom"--
she gave a dramatic pluck at her faded black skirt--"than flaunt
round in white muslins and China silks at ten dollars a yard, paid
for by his murderer."
"You know black's yo' color always,--taking in your height and
complexion, Jule," said Miss Sally demurely, yet not without a
feminine consciousness that it really did set off her cousin's
graceful figure to perfection. "But you can't keep up this gait
always. You know some day you might come upon this Mr. Corbin."
"He'd better not cross my path," she said passionately.
"I've heard girls talk like that about a man and then get just
green and yellow after him," said Miss Sally critically. "But
goodness me! speaking of meeting people reminds me I clean forgot
to stop at the stage office and see about bringing over the new
overseer. Lucky I met you, Jule! Good-by, dear. Come in to-
night, and we'll all go to the party together." And with a little
nod she ran off before her indignant cousin could frame a suitably
crushing reply to her Parthian insinuation.
But at the stage office Miss Sally only wrote a few lines on a
card, put it in an envelope, which she addressed to Mr. Joseph
Corbin, and then seating herself with easy carelessness on a long
packing-box, languidly summoned the proprietor.
"You're always on hand yourself at Kirby station when the kyars
come in to bring passengers to Pineville, Mr. Sledge?"
"Yo' haven't brought any strangers over lately?"
"Well, last week Squire Farnham of Green Ridge--if he kin be called
a stranger--as used to live in the very house yo father"--
"Yes, I know," said Miss Sally, impatiently, "but if an ENTIRE
stranger comes to take a seat for Pineville, you ask him if that's
his name," handing the letter, "and give it to him if it is. And--
Mr. Sledge--it's nobody's business but--yours and mine."
"I understand, Miss Sally," with a slow, paternal, tolerating wink.
"He'll get it, and nobody else, sure."
"Thank you; I hope Mrs. Sledge is getting round again."
"Pow'fully, Miss Sally."
Having thus, as she hoped, stopped the arrival of the unhappy
Corbin, Miss Sally returned home to consider the best means of
finally disposing of him. She had insisted upon his stopping at
Kirby and holding no communication with the Jeffcourts until he
heard from her, and had strongly pointed out the hopeless
infelicity of his plan. She dare not tell her Aunt Miranda,
knowing that she would be too happy to precipitate an interview
that would terminate disastrously to both the Jeffcourts and
Corbin. She might have to take her father into her confidence,--
a dreadful contingency.
She was dressed for the evening party, which was provincially
early; indeed, it was scarcely past nine o'clock when she had
finished her toilet, when there came a rap at her door. It was one
of Mammy Judy's children.
"Dey is a gemplum, Miss Sally."
"Yes, yes," said Miss Sally, impatiently, thinking only of her
escort. "I'll be there in a minute. Run away. He can wait."
"And he said I was to guv yo' dis yer," continued the little negro
with portentous gravity, presenting a card.
Miss Sally took it with a smile. It was a plain card on which was
written with a pencil in a hand she hurriedly recognized, "Joseph
Miss Sally's smile became hysterically rigid, and pushing the boy
aside with a little cry, she darted along the veranda and entered
the parlor from a side door and vestibule. To her momentary relief
she saw that her friends had not yet arrived: a single figure--a
stranger's--rose as she entered.
Even in her consternation she had time to feel the added shock of
disappointment. She had always present in her mind an ideal
picture of this man whom she had never seen or even heard
described. Joseph Corbin had been tall, dark, with flowing hair
and long mustache. He had flashing fiery eyes which were capable
of being subdued by a single glance of gentleness--her own. He was
tempestuous, quick, and passionate, but in quarrel would be led by
a smile. He was a combination of an Italian brigand and a poker
player whom she had once met on a Mississippi steamboat. He would
wear a broad-brimmed soft hat, a red shirt, showing his massive
throat and neck--and high boots! Alas! the man before her was of
medium height, with light close-cut hair, hollow cheeks that seemed
to have been lately scraped with a razor, and light gray troubled
eyes. A suit of cheap black, ill fitting, hastily acquired, and
provincial even for Pineville, painfully set off these imperfections,
to which a white cravat in a hopelessly tied bow was superadded. A
terrible idea that this combination of a country undertaker and an
ill-paid circuit preacher on probation was his best holiday tribute
to her, and not a funeral offering to Mr. Jeffcourt, took possession
of her. And when, with feminine quickness, she saw his eyes wander
over her own fine clothes and festal figure, and sink again upon the
floor in a kind of hopeless disappointment equal to her own, she
felt ready to cry. But the more terrible sound of laughter
approaching the house from the garden recalled her. Her friends
"For Heaven's sake," she broke out desperately, "didn't you get my
note at the station telling you not to come?"
His face grew darker, and then took up its look of hopeless
resignation, as if this last misfortune was only an accepted part
of his greater trouble, as he sat down again, and to Miss Sally's
horror, listlessly swung his hat to and fro under his chair.
"No," he said, gloomily, "I didn't go to no station. I walked here
all the way from Shelbyville. I thought it might seem more like
the square thing to her for me to do. I sent HIM by express ahead
in the box. It's been at the stage office all day."
With a sickening conviction that she had been sitting on her
cousin's body while she wrote that ill-fated card, the young girl
managed to gasp out impatiently: "But you must go--yes--go now, at
once! Don't talk now, but go."
"I didn't come here," he said, rising with a kind of slow dignity,
"to interfere with things I didn't kalkilate to see," glancing
again at her dress, as the voices came nearer, "and that I ain't in
touch with,--but to know if you think I'd better bring him--or"--
He did not finish the sentence, for the door had opened suddenly,
and a half-dozen laughing girls and their escorts burst into the
room. But among them, a little haughty and still irritated from
her last interview, was her cousin Julia Jeffcourt, erect and
beautiful in a sombre silk.
"Go," repeated Miss Sally, in an agonized whisper. "You must not
be known here."
But the attention of Julia had been arrested by her cousin's
agitation, and her eye fell on Corbin, where it was fixed with some
fatal fascination that seemed in turn to enthrall and possess him
also. To Miss Sally's infinite dismay the others fell back and
allowed these two black figures to stand out, then to move towards
each other with the same terrible magnetism. They were so near she
could not repeat her warning to him without the others hearing it.
And all hope died when Corbin, turning deliberately towards her
with a grave gesture in the direction of Julia, said quietly:--
Miss Sally hesitated, and then gasped hastily, "Miss Jeffcourt."
"Yer don't say MY name. Tell her I'm Joseph Corbin of 'Frisco,
California, who killed her brother." He stopped and turned towards
her. "I came here to try and fix things again--and I've brought
In the wondering silence that ensued the others smiled vacantly,
breathlessly, and expectantly, until Corbin advanced and held out
his hand, when Julia Jeffcourt, drawing hers back to her bosom with
the palms outward, uttered an inarticulate cry and--and spat in his
With that act she found tongue--reviling him, the house that
harbored him, the insolence that presented him, the insult that had
been put upon her! "Are you men!" she added passionately, "who
stand here with the man before you that killed my brother, and see
him offer me his filthy villainous hand--and dare not strike him
And they dared not. Violently, blindly, stupidly moved though all
their instincts, though they gathered hysterically around him,
there was something in his dull self-containment that was
unassailable and awful. For he wiped his face and breast with his
handkerchief without a tremor, and turned to them with even a
suggestion of relief.
"She's right, gentlemen," he said gravely. "She's right. It might
have been otherwise. I might have allowed that it might be
otherwise,--but she's right. I'm a Soth'n man myself, gentlemen,
and I reckon to understand what she has done. I killed the only
man that had a right to stand up for her, and she has now to stand
up for herself. But if she wants--and you see she allows she
wants--to pass that on to some of you, or all of you, I'm willing.
As many as you like, and in what way you like--I waive any chyce of
weapon--I'm ready, gentlemen. I came here--with HIM--for that
Perhaps it may have been his fateful resignation; perhaps it may
have been his exceeding readiness,--but there was no response. He
sat down again, and again swung his hat slowly and gloomily to and
fro under his chair.
"I've got him in a box at the stage office," he went on, apparently
to the carpet. "I had him dug up that I might bring him here, and
mebbe bury some of the trouble and difference along with his
friends. It might be," he added, with a slightly glowering upward
glance, as to an overruling, but occasionally misdirecting
Providence,--"it might be from the way things are piling up on me
that some one might have rung in another corpse instead o' HIM, but
so far as I can judge, allowin' for the space of time and nat'ral
wear and tear--it's HIM!"
He rose slowly and moved towards the door in a silence that was as
much the result of some conviction that any violent demonstration
against him would be as grotesque and monstrous as the situation,
as of anything he had said. Even the flashing indignation of Julia
Jeffcourt seemed to become suddenly as unnatural and incongruous as
her brother's chief mourner himself, and although she shrank from
his passing figure she uttered no word. Chester Brooks's youthful
emotions, following the expression of Miss Sally's face, lost
themselves in a vague hysteric smile, and the other gentlemen
looked sheepish. Joseph Corbin halted at the door.
"Whatever," he said, turning to the company, "ye make up your mind
to do about me, I reckon ye'd better do it AFTER the funeral. I'M
always ready. But HE, what with being in a box and changing
climate, had better go FIRST." He paused, and with a suggestion of
delicacy in the momentary dropping of his eyelids, added,--"for
He passed out through the door, on to the portico and thence into
the garden. It was noticed at the time that the half-dozen hounds
lingering there rushed after him with their usual noisy
demonstrations, but that they as suddenly stopped, retreated
violently to the security of the basement, and there gave relief
to their feelings in a succession of prolonged howls.
It must not be supposed that Miss Sally did not feel some
contrition over the ineffective part she had played in this last
episode. But Joseph Corbin had committed the unpardonable sin to a
woman of destroying her own illogical ideas of him, which was worse
than if he had affronted the preconceived ideas of others, in which
case she might still defend him. Then, too, she was no longer
religious, and had no "call" to act as peacemaker. Nevertheless
she resented Julia Jeffcourt's insinuations bitterly, and the
cousins quarreled--not the first time in their intercourse--and it
was reserved for the latter to break the news of Corbin's arrival
with the body to Mrs. Jeffcourt.
How this was done and what occurred at that interview has not been
recorded. But it was known the next day that, while Mrs. Jeffcourt
accepted the body at Corbin's hands,--and it is presumed the
funeral expenses also,--he was positively forbidden to appear
either at the services at the house or at the church. There had
been some wild talk among the younger and many of the lower members
of the community, notably the "poor" non-slave-holding whites, of
tarring and feathering Joseph Corbin, and riding him on a rail out
of the town on the day of the funeral, as a propitiatory sacrifice
to the manes of Thomas Jeffcourt; but it being pointed out by the
undertaker that it might involve some uncertainty in the settlement
of his bill, together with some reasonable doubt of the thorough
resignation of Corbin, whose previous momentary aberration in that
respect they were celebrating, the project was postponed until
AFTER THE FUNERAL. And here an unlooked-for incident occurred.
There was to be a political meeting at Kirby on that day, when
certain distinguished Southern leaders had gathered from the
remoter Southern States. At the instigation of Captain Dows it was
adjourned at the hour of the funeral to enable members to attend,
and it was even rumored, to the great delight of Pineville, that a
distinguished speaker or two might come over to "improve the
occasion" with some slight allusion to the engrossing topic of
"Southern Rights." This combined appeal to the domestic and
political emotions of Pineville was irresistible. The Second
Baptist Church was crowded. After the religious service there was
a pause, and Judge Reed, stepping forward amid a breathless
silence, said that they were peculiarly honored by the unexpected
presence in their midst "of that famous son of the South, Colonel
Starbottle," who had lately returned to his native soil from his
adopted home in California. Every eye was fixed on the
distinguished stranger as he rose.
Jaunty and gallant as ever, femininely smooth-faced, yet polished
and high colored as a youthful mask; pectorally expansive, and
unfolding the white petals of his waistcoat through the swollen
lapels of his coat, like a bursting magnolia bud, Colonel
Starbottle began. The present associations were, he might say,
singularly hallowed to him; not only was Pineville--a Southern
centre--the recognized nursery of Southern chivalry, Southern
beauty (a stately inclination to the pew in which Miss Sally and
Julia Jeffcourt sat), Southern intelligence, and Southern
independence, but it was the home of the lamented dead who had
been, like himself and another he should refer to later, an adopted
citizen of the Golden State, a seeker of the Golden Fleece, a
companion of Jason. It was the home, fellow-citizens and friends,
of the sorrowing sister of the deceased, a young lady whom he, the
speaker, had as yet known only through the chivalrous blazon of her
virtues and graces by her attendant knights (a courteous wave
towards the gallery where Joyce Masterton, Chester Brooks, Calhoun
Bungstarter, and the embattled youth generally of Pineville became
empurpled and idiotic); it was the home of the afflicted widowed
mother, also personally unknown to him, but with whom he might say
he had had--er--er--professional correspondence. But it was not
this alone that hallowed the occasion, it was a sentiment that
should speak in trumpet-like tones throughout the South in this
uprising of an united section. It was the forgetfulness of petty
strife, of family feud, of personal wrongs in the claims of party!
It might not be known that he, the speaker, was professionally
cognizant of one of these regrettable--should he say accidents?--
arising from the chivalrous challenge and equally chivalrous
response of two fiery Southern spirits, to which they primarily owe
their coming here that day. And he should take it as his duty, his
solemn duty, in that sacred edifice to proclaim to the world that
in his knowledge as a professional man--as a man of honor, as a
Southerner, as a gentleman, that the--er--circumstances which three
years ago led to the early demise of our lamented friend and
brother, reflected only the highest credit equally on both of the
parties. He said this on his own responsibility--in or out of
this sacred edifice--and in or out of that sacred edifice he was
personally responsible, and prepared to give the fullest satisfaction
for it. He was also aware that it might not be known--or
understood--that since that boyish episode the survivor had taken
the place of the departed in the bereaved family and ministered to
their needs with counsel and--er--er--pecuniary aid, and had
followed the body afoot across the continent that it might rest with
its kindred dust. He was aware that an unchristian--he would say
but for that sacred edifice--a DASTARDLY attempt had been made to
impugn the survivor's motives--to suggest an unseemly discord
between him and the family, but he, the speaker, would never forget
the letter breathing with Christian forgiveness and replete with
angelic simplicity sent by a member of that family to his client,
which came under his professional eye (here the professional eye for
a moment lingered on the hysteric face of Miss Sally); he did not
envy the head or heart of a man who could peruse these lines--of
which the mere recollection--er--er--choked the utterance of even a
professional man like--er--himself--without emotion. "And what, my
friends and fellow-citizens," suddenly continued the Colonel,
replacing his white handkerchief in his coat-tail, "was the reason
why my client, Mr. Joseph Corbin--whose delicacy keeps him from
appearing among these mourners--comes here to bury all differences,
all animosities, all petty passions? Because he is a son of the
South; because as a son of the South, as the representative, and a
distant connection, I believe, of my old political friend, Major
Corbin, of Nashville, he wishes here and everywhere, at this
momentous crisis, to sink everything in the one all-pervading,
all-absorbing, one and indivisible UNITY of the South in its
resistance to the Northern Usurper! That, my friends, is the great,
the solemn, the Christian lesson of this most remarkable occasion in
my professional, political, and social experience."
Whatever might have been the calmer opinion, there was no doubt
that the gallant Colonel had changed the prevailing illogical
emotion of Pineville by the substitution of another equally
illogical, and Miss Sally was not surprised when her father,
touched by the Colonel's allusion to his daughter's epistolary
powers, insisted upon bringing Joseph Corbin home with him, and
offering him the hospitality of the Dows mansion. Although the
stranger seemed to yield rather from the fact that the Dows were
relations of the Jeffcourts than from any personal preference, when
he was fairly installed in one of the appropriately gloomy guest
chambers, Miss Sally set about the delayed work of reconciliation--
theoretically accepted by her father, and cynically tolerated by
her Aunt Miranda. But here a difficulty arose which she had not
foreseen. Although Corbin had evidently forgiven her defection on
that memorable evening, he had not apparently got over the
revelation of her giddy worldliness, and was resignedly apathetic
and distrustful of her endeavors. She was at first amused, and
then angry. And her patience was exhausted when she discovered
that he actually seemed more anxious to conciliate Julia Jeffcourt
than her mother.
"But she spat in your face," she said, indignantly.
"That's so," he replied, gloomily; "but I reckoned you said
something in one of your letters about turning the other cheek when
you were smitten. Of course, as you don't believe it now," he
added with his upward glance, "I suppose THAT'S been played on me,
But here Miss Sally's spirit lazily rebelled.
"Look here, Mr. Joseph JEREMIAH Corbin," she returned with languid
impertinence, "if instead of cavortin' round on yo' knees trying to
conciliate an old woman who never had a stroke of luck till you
killed her son, and a young girl who won't be above letting on
afore you think it that your conciliatin' her means SPARKIN' her;
if instead of that foolishness you'd turn your hand to trying to
conciliate the folks here and keep 'em from going into that fool's
act of breaking up these United States; if instead of digging up
second-hand corpses that's already been put out of sight once you'd
set to work to try and prevent the folks about here from digging up
their old cranks and their old whims, and their old women fancies,
you'd be doing something like a Christian and a man! What's yo'
blood-guiltiness--I'd like to know--alongside of the blood-
guiltiness of those fools who are just wild to rush into it, led by
such turkey-cocks as yo' friend Colonel Starbottle? And you've
been five years in California--a free State--and that's all yo' 've
toted out of it--a dead body! There now, don't sit there and swing
yo' hat under that chyar, but rouse out and come along with me to
the pawty if you can shake a foot, and show Miss Pinkney and the
gyrls yo' fit for something mo' than to skirmish round as a black
japanned spittoon for Julia Jeffcourt!" It is not recorded that
Corbin accepted this cheerful invitation, but for a few days
afterwards he was more darkly observant of, and respectful to, Miss
Sally. Strange indeed if he had not noticed--although always in
his resigned fashion--the dull green stagnation of the life around
him, or when not accepting it as part of his trouble he had not
chafed at the arrested youth and senile childishness of the people.
Stranger still if he had not at times been startled to hear the
outgrown superstitions and follies of his youth voiced again by
grown-up men, and perhaps strangest of all if he had not vaguely
accepted it all as the hereditary curse of that barbarism under
which he himself had survived and suffered.
The reconciliation between himself and Mrs. Jeffcourt was
superficially effected, so far as a daily visit by him to the house
indicated it to the community, but it was also known that Julia was
invariably absent on these occasions. What happened at those
interviews did not transpire, but it may be surmised that Mrs.
Jeffcourt, perhaps recognizing the fact that Corbin was really
giving her all that he had to give, or possibly having some lurking
fear of Colonel Starbottle, was so far placated as to exhibit only
the average ingratitude of her species towards a regular benefactor.
She consented to the erection of a small obelisk over her son's
grave, and permitted Corbin to plant a few flowering shrubs, which
he daily visited and took care of. It is said that on one of these
pilgrimages he encountered Miss Julia, apparently on the same
errand, who haughtily retired. It was further alleged, on the
authority of one of Mammy Judy's little niggers, that those two
black mourning figures had been seen at nightfall sitting opposite
to each other at the head and foot of the grave, and "glowerin'" at
one another "like two hants." But when it was asserted on the same
authority that their voices had been later overheard uplifted in
some vehement discussion over the grave of the impassive dead, great
curiosity was aroused. Being pressed by the eager Miss Sally to
repeat some words or any words he had heard them say, the little
witness glibly replied, "Marse Linkum" (Lincoln), and "The Souf,"
and so, for the time, shipwrecked his testimony. But it was
recalled six months afterwards. It was then that a pleasant spring
day brought madness and enthusiasm to a majority of Pineville, and
bated breath and awe to a few, and it was known with the tidings
that the South had appealed to arms, that among those who had first
responded to the call was Joseph Corbin, an alleged "Union man," who
had, however, volunteered to take that place in her ranks which
might HAVE BEEN FILLED BY THE MAN HE HAD KILLED. And then people
forgot all about him.
. . . . . .
A year passed. It was the same place; the old familiar outlines of
home and garden and landscape. But seen now, in the choking
breathlessness of haste, in the fitful changing flashes of life
and motion around it, in intervals of sharp suspense or dazed
bewilderment, it seemed to be recognized no longer. Men who had
known it all their lives, hurrying to the front in compact masses,
scurrying to the rear in straggling line, or opening their ranks to
let artillery gallop by, stared at it vaguely, and clattered or
scrambled on again. The smoke of a masked battery in the woods
struggled and writhed to free itself from the clinging treetops
behind it, and sank back into a gray encompassing cloud. The dust
thrown up by a column of passing horse poured over the wall in one
long wave, and whitened the garden with its ashes. Throughout the
dim empty house one no longer heard the sound of cannon, only a
dull intermittent concussion was felt, silently bringing flakes of
plaster from the walls, or sliding fragments of glass from the
shattered windows. A shell, lifted from the ominous distance, hung
uncertain in the air and then descended swiftly through the roof;
the whole house dilated with flame for an instant, smoke rolled
slowly from the windows, and even the desolate chimneys started
into a hideous mockery of life, and then all was still again. At
such awful intervals the sun shone out brightly, touched the green
of the still sleeping woods and the red and white of a flower in
the garden, and something in a gray uniform writhed out of the dust
of the road, staggered to the wall, and died.
A mile down this road, growing more and more obscure with those
rising and falling apparitions or the shapeless and rugged heaps
terrible in their helpless inertia by hedge and fence, arose the
cemetery hill. Taken and retaken thrice that afternoon, the dead
above it far outnumbered the dead below; and when at last the tide
of battle swept around its base into the dull, reverberating woods,
and it emerged from the smoke, silenced and abandoned, only a few
stragglers remained. One of them, leaning on his musket, was still
gloomily facing the woods.
"Joseph Corbin," said a low, hurried voice.
He started and glanced quickly at the tombs around him. Perhaps it
was because he had been thinking of the dead,--but the voice
sounded like HIS. Yet it was only the SISTER, who had glided, pale
and haggard, from the thicket.
"They are coming through the woods," she said quickly. "Run, or
you'll be taken. Why do you linger?"
"You know why," he said gloomily.
"Yes, but you have done yo' duty. You have done his work. The
task is finished now, and yo' free."
He did not reply, but remained gazing at the woods.
"Joseph," she said more gently, laying her trembling hand on his
arm, "Joseph, fly--and--take me with you. For I was wrong, and I
want you to forgive me. I knew your heart was not in this, and I
ought not to have asked you. Joseph--listen! I never wanted to
avenge myself nor HIM when I spat on your face. I wanted to avenge
myself on HER. I hated her, because I thought she wanted to work
upon you and use you for herself."
"Your mother," he said, looking at her.
"No," she said, with widely opened eyes, "you know who I mean--Miss
He looked at her wonderingly for a moment, but quickly bent his
head again in the direction of the road. "They are coming," he
said, starting. "YOU must go. This is no place for you. Stop!
it's too late; you cannot go now until they have passed. Come
here--crouch down here--over this grave--so."
He almost forced her--kneeling down--upon the mound below the level
of the shrubs, and then ran quickly himself a few paces lower down
the hill to a more exposed position. She understood it. He wished
to attract attention to himself. He was successful--a few hurried
shots followed from the road, but struck above him.
He clambered back quickly to where she was still crouching.
"They were the vedettes," he said, "but they have fallen back on
the main skirmish line and will be here in force in a moment. Go--
while you can." She had not moved. He tried to raise her--her hat
fell off---he saw blood oozing from where the vedette's bullet that
had missed him had pierced her brain.
And yet he saw in that pale dead face only the other face which he
remembered now had been turned like this towards his own. It was
very strange. And this was the end, and this was his expiation!
He raised his own face humbly, blindly, despairingly to the
inscrutable sky; it looked back upon him from above as coldly as
the dead face had from below.
Yet out of this he struck a faint idea that he voiced aloud in
nearly the same words which he had used to Colonel Starbottle only
three years ago. "It was with his own pistol too," he said, and
took up his musket.
He walked deliberately down the hill, occasionally trying the stock
of his musket in the loose earth, and at last suddenly remained
motionless, in the attitude of leaning over it. At the same moment
there was a distant shout; two thin parallel streams of blue and
steel came issuing through the woods like a river, appeared to join
tumultuously in the open before the hill, and out of the tumult a
mounted officer called upon him to surrender.
He did not reply.
"Come down from there, Johnny Reb, I want to speak to you," called
a young corporal.
He did not move.
"It's time to go home, Johnny."
The officer, who had been holding down his men with an unsworded
but masterful hand, raised it suddenly. A dozen shots followed.
The men leaped forward, and dashing Corbin contemptuously aside
streamed up the hill past him.
But he had neither heard nor cared. For they found he had already
deliberately transfixed himself through the heart on his own
THE POSTMISTRESS OF LAUREL RUN.
The mail stage had just passed Laurel Run,--so rapidly that the
whirling cloud of dust dragged with it down the steep grade from
the summit hung over the level long after the stage had vanished,
and then, drifting away, slowly sifted a red precipitate over the
hot platform of the Laurel Run post-office.
Out of this cloud presently emerged the neat figure of the
postmistress with the mailbag which had been dexterously flung at
her feet from the top of the passing vehicle. A dozen loungers
eagerly stretched out their hands to assist her, but the warning:
"It's agin the rules, boys, for any but her to touch it," from a
bystander, and a coquettish shake of the head from the postmistress
herself--much more effective than any official interdict--withheld
them. The bag was not heavy,--Laurel Run was too recent a
settlement to have attracted much correspondence,--and the young
woman, having pounced upon her prey with a certain feline instinct,
dragged it, not without difficulty, behind the partitioned
inclosure in the office, and locked the door. Her pretty face,
momentarily visible through the window, was slightly flushed with
the exertion, and the loose ends of her fair hair, wet with
perspiration, curled themselves over her forehead into tantalizing
little rings. But the window shutter was quickly closed, and this
momentary but charming vision withdrawn from the waiting public.
"Guv'ment oughter have more sense than to make a woman pick mail-
bags outer the road," said Jo Simmons sympathetically. "'Tain't in
her day's work anyhow; Guv'mont oughter hand 'em over to her like a
lady; it's rich enough and ugly enough."
"'Tain't Guv'ment; it's that stage company's airs and graces,"
interrupted a newcomer. "They think it mighty fine to go beltin'
by, makin' everybody take their dust, just because STOPPIN' ain't
in their contract. Why, if that expressman who chucked down the
bag had any feelin's for a lady"--but he stopped here at the amused
faces of his auditors.
"Guess you don't know much o' that expressman's feelin's,
stranger," said Simmons grimly. "Why, you oughter see him just
nussin' that bag like a baby as he comes tearin' down the grade,
and then rise up and sorter heave it to Mrs. Baker ez if it was a
five-dollar bokay! His feelin's for her! Why, he's give himself
so dead away to her that we're looking for him to forget what he's
doin' next, and just come sailin' down hisself at her feet."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the partition, Mrs. Baker had
brushed the red dust from the padlocked bag, and removed what
seemed to be a supplementary package attached to it by a wire.
Opening it she found a handsome scent-bottle, evidently a
superadded gift from the devoted expressman. This she put aside
with a slight smile and the murmured word, "Foolishness." But when
she had unlocked the bag, even its sacred interior was also
profaned by a covert parcel from the adjacent postmaster at Burnt
Ridge, containing a gold "specimen" brooch and some circus tickets.
It was laid aside with the other. This also was vanity and--
presumably--vexation of spirit.
There were seventeen letters in all, of which five were for
herself--and yet the proportion was small that morning. Two of
them were marked "Official Business" and were promptly put by with
feminine discernment; but in another compartment than that holding
the presents. Then the shutter was opened, and the task of
It was accompanied with a social peculiarity that had in time
become a habit of Laurel Run. As the young woman delivered the
letters, in turn, to the men who were patiently drawn up in Indian
file, she made that simple act a medium of privileged but limited
conversation on special or general topics,--gay or serious as the
case might be, or the temperament of the man suggested. That it
was almost always of a complimentary character on their part may be
readily imagined; but it was invariably characterized by an element
of refined restraint, and, whether from some implied understanding
or individual sense of honour, it never passed the bounds of
conventionality or a certain delicacy of respect. The delivery was
consequently more or less protracted, but when each man had
exchanged his three or four minutes' conversation with the fair
postmistress,--a conversation at times impeded by bashfulness or
timidity, on his part solely, or restricted often to vague
smiling,--he resignedly made way for the next. It was a formal
levee, mitigated by the informality of rustic tact, great good-
humor, and infinite patience, and would have been amusing had it
not always been terribly in earnest and at times touching. For it
was peculiar to the place and the epoch, and indeed implied the
whole history of Mrs. Baker.
She was the wife of John Baker, foreman of "The Last Chance," now
for a year lying dead under half a mile of crushed and beaten-in
tunnel at Burnt Ridge. There had been a sudden outcry from the
depths at high hot noontide one day, and John had rushed from his
cabin--his young, foolish, flirting wife clinging to him--to answer
that despairing cry of his imprisoned men. There was one exit that
he alone knew which might be yet held open, among falling walls and
tottering timbers, long enough to set them free. For one moment
only the strong man hesitated between her entreating arms and his
brothers' despairing cry. But she rose suddenly with a pale face,
and said, "Go, John; I will wait for you here." He went, the men
were freed--but she had waited for him ever since!
Yet in the shock of the calamity and in the after struggles of that
poverty which had come to the ruined camp, she had scarcely
changed. But the men had. Although she was to all appearances the
same giddy, pretty Betsy Baker, who had been so disturbing to the
younger members, they seemed to be no longer disturbed by her. A
certain subdued awe and respect, as if the martyred spirit of John
Baker still held his arm around her, appeared to have come upon
them all. They held their breath as this pretty woman, whose brief
mourning had not seemed to affect her cheerfulness or even
playfulness of spirit, passed before them. But she stood by her
cabin and the camp--the only woman in a settlement of forty men--
during the darkest hours of their fortune. Helping them to wash
and cook, and ministering to their domestic needs, the sanctity of
her cabin was, however, always kept as inviolable as if it had been
HIS tomb. No one exactly knew why, for it was only a tacit
instinct; but even one or two who had not scrupled to pay court to
Betsy Baker during John Baker's life, shrank from even a suggestion
of familiarity towards the woman who had said that she would "wait
for him there."
When brighter days came and the settlement had increased by one or
two families, and laggard capital had been hurried up to relieve
the still beleaguered and locked-up wealth of Burnt Ridge, the
needs of the community and the claims of the widow of John Baker
were so well told in political quarters that the post-office of
Laurel Run was created expressly for her. Every man participated
in the building of the pretty yet substantial edifice--the only
public building of Laurel Run--that stood in the dust of the great
highway, half a mile from the settlement. There she was installed
for certain hours of the day, for she could not be prevailed upon
to abandon John's cabin, and here, with all the added respect due
to a public functionary, she was secure in her privacy.
But the blind devotion of Laurel Run to John Baker's relict did not
stop here. In its zeal to assure the Government authorities of the
necessity for a post-office, and to secure a permanent competency
to the postmistress, there was much embarrassing extravagance.
During the first week the sale of stamps at Laurel Run post-office
was unprecedented in the annals of the Department. Fancy prices
were given for the first issue; then they were bought wildly,
recklessly, unprofitably, and on all occasions. Complimentary
congratulation at the little window invariably ended with "and a
dollar's worth of stamps, Mrs. Baker." It was felt to be supremely
delicate to buy only the highest priced stamps, without reference
to their adequacy; then mere QUANTITY was sought; then outgoing
letters were all over-paid and stamped in outrageous proportion to
their weight and even size. The imbecility of this, and its
probable effect on the reputation of Laurel Run at the General
Post-office, being pointed out by Mrs. Baker, stamps were adopted
as local currency, and even for decorative purposes on mirrors and
the walls of cabins. Everybody wrote letters, with the result,
however, that those SENT were ludicrously and suspiciously in
excess of those received. To obviate this, select parties made
forced journeys to Hickory Hill, the next post-office, with letters
and circulars addressed to themselves at Laurel Run. How long the
extravagance would have continued is not known, but it was not
until it was rumored that, in consequence of this excessive flow of
business, the Department had concluded that a postMASTER would be
better fitted for the place that it abated, and a compromise was
effected with the General Office by a permanent salary to the
Such was the history of Mrs. Baker, who had just finished her
afternoon levee, nodded a smiling "good-by" to her last customer,
and closed her shutter again. Then she took up her own letters,
but, before reading them, glanced, with a pretty impatience, at the
two official envelopes addressed to herself, which she had shelved.
They were generally a "lot of new rules," or notifications, or
"absurd" questions which had nothing to do with Laurel Run and only
bothered her and "made her head ache," and she had usually referred
them to her admiring neighbor at Hickory Hill for explanation, who
had generally returned them to her with the brief indorsement,
"Purp stuff, don't bother," or, "Hog wash, let it slide." She
remembered now that he had not returned the last two. With knitted
brows and a slight pout she put aside her private correspondence
and tore open the first one. It referred with official curtness
to an unanswered communication of the previous week, and was
"compelled to remind her of rule 47." Again those horrid rules!
She opened the other; the frown deepened on her brow, and became
It was a summary of certain valuable money letters that had
miscarried on the route, and of which they had given her previous
information. For a moment her cheeks blazed. How dare they; what
did they mean! Her waybills and register were always right; she
knew the names of every man, woman, and child in her district; no
such names as those borne by the missing letters had ever existed
at Laurel Run; no such addresses had ever been sent from Laurel Run
post-office. It was a mean insinuation! She would send in her
resignation at once! She would get "the boys" to write an
insulting letter to Senator Slocumb,--Mrs. Baker had the feminine
idea of Government as a purely personal institution,--and she would
find out who it was that had put them up to this prying, crawling
impudence! It was probably that wall-eyed old wife of the
postmaster at Heavy Tree Crossing, who was jealous of her. "Remind
her of their previous unanswered communication," indeed! Where was
that communication, anyway? She remembered she had sent it to her
admirer at Hickory Hill. Odd that he hadn't answered it. Of
course, he knew about this meanness--could he, too, have dared to
suspect her! The thought turned her crimson again. He, Stanton
Green, was an old "Laurel Runner," a friend of John's, a little
"triflin'" and "presoomin'," but still an old loyal pioneer of the
camp! "Why hadn't he spoke up?"
There was the soft, muffled fall of a horse's hoof in the thick
dust of the highway, the jingle of dismounting spurs, and a firm
tread on the platform. No doubt one of the boys returning for a
few supplemental remarks under the feeble pretense of forgotten
stamps. It had been done before, and she had resented it as
"cayotin' round;" but now she was eager to pour out her wrongs to
the first comer. She had her hand impulsively on the door of the
partition, when she stopped with a new sense of her impaired
dignity. Could she confess this to her worshipers? But here the
door opened in her very face, and a stranger entered.
He was a man of fifty, compactly and strongly built. A squarely-
cut goatee, slightly streaked with gray, fell straight from his
thin-lipped but handsome mouth; his eyes were dark, humorous, yet
searching. But the distinctive quality that struck Mrs Baker was
the blending of urban ease with frontier frankness. He was
evidently a man who had seen cities and knew countries as well.
And while he was dressed with the comfortable simplicity of a
Californian mounted traveler, her inexperienced but feminine eye
detected the keynote of his respectability in the carefully-tied
bow of his cravat. The Sierrean throat was apt to be open, free,
"Good-morning, Mrs. Baker," he said, pleasantly, with his hat
already in his hand, "I'm Harry Home, of San Francisco." As he
spoke his eye swept approvingly over the neat inclosure, the
primly-tied papers, and well-kept pigeon-holes; the pot of flowers
on her desk; her china-silk mantle, and killing little chip hat and
ribbons hanging against the wall; thence to her own pink, flushed
face, bright blue eyes, tendriled clinging hair, and then--fell
upon the leathern mailbag still lying across the table. Here it
became fixed on the unfortunate wire of the amorous expressman that
yet remained hanging from the brass wards of the lock, and he
reached his hand toward it.
But little Mrs. Baker was before him, and had seized it in her
arms. She had been too preoccupied and bewildered to resent his
first intrusion behind the partition, but this last familiarity
with her sacred official property--albeit empty--capped the climax
of her wrongs.
"How dare you touch it!" she said indignantly. "How dare you come
in here! Who are you, anyway? Go outside, at once!"
The stranger fell back with an amused, deprecatory gesture, and a
long silent laugh. "I'm afraid you don't know me, after all!" he
said pleasantly. "I'm Harry Home, the Department Agent from the
San Francisco office. My note of advice, No. 201, with my name on
the envelope, seems to have miscarried too."
Even in her fright and astonishment it flashed upon Mrs. Baker that
she had sent that notice, too, to Hickory Hill. But with it all
the feminine secretive instinct within her was now thoroughly
aroused, and she kept silent.
"I ought to have explained," he went on smilingly; "but you are
quite right, Mrs. Baker," he added, nodding towards the bag. "As
far as you knew, I had no business to go near it. Glad to see you
know how to defend Uncle Sam's property so well. I was only a bit
puzzled to know" (pointing to the wire) "if that thing was on the
bag when it was delivered to you?"
Mrs. Baker saw no reason to conceal the truth. After all, this
official was a man like the others, and it was just as well that
he should understand her power. "It's only the expressman's
foolishness," she said, with a slightly coquettish toss of her
head. "He thinks it smart to tie some nonsense on that bag with
the wire when he flings it down."
Mr. Home, with his eyes on her pretty face, seemed to think it a
not inhuman or unpardonable folly. "As long as he doesn't meddle
with the inside of the bag, I suppose you must put up with it," he
said laughingly. A dreadful recollection, that the Hickory Hill
postmaster had used the inside of the bag to convey HIS foolishness,
came across her. It would never do to confess it now. Her face
must have shown some agitation, for the official resumed with a
half-paternal, half-reassuring air: "But enough of this. Now, Mrs.
Baker, to come to my business here. Briefly, then, it doesn't
concern you in the least, except so far as it may relieve you and
some others, whom the Department knows equally well, from a certain
responsibility, and, perhaps, anxiety. We are pretty well posted
down there in all that concerns Laurel Run, and I think" (with a
slight bow) "we've known all about you and John Baker. My only
business here is to take your place to-night in receiving the
"Omnibus Way Bag," that you know arrives here at 9.30, doesn't it?"
"Yes, sir," said Mrs. Baker hurriedly; "but it never has anything
for us, except"--(she caught herself up quickly, with a stammer, as
she remembered the sighing Green's occasional offerings) "except a
notification from Hickory Hill post-office. It leaves there," she
went on with an affectation of precision, at half past eight
exactly, and it's about an hour's run--seven miles by road."
"Exactly," said Mr. Home. "Well, I will receive the bag, open it,
and dispatch it again. You can, if you choose, take a holiday."
"But," said Mrs. Baker, as she remembered that Laurel Run always
made a point of attending her evening levee on account of the
superior leisure it offered, "there are the people who come for
letters, you know."
"I thought you said there were no letters at that time," said Mr.
"No--but--but"--(with a slight hysterical stammer) "the boys come
all the same."
"Oh!" said Mr. Home dryly.
"And--O Lord!"-- But here the spectacle of the possible discomfiture
of Laurel Run at meeting the bearded face of Mr. Home, instead of
her own smooth cheeks, at the window, combined with her nervous
excitement, overcame her so that, throwing her little frilled apron
over her head, she gave way to a paroxym of hysterical laughter.
Mr. Home waited with amused toleration for it to stop, and, when she
had recovered, resumed. "Now, I should like to refer an instant to
my first communication to you. Have you got it handy?"
Mrs. Baker's face fell. "No; I sent it over to Mr. Green, of
Hickory Hill, for information."
Terrified at the sudden seriousness of the man's voice, she managed
to gasp out, however, that, after her usual habit, she had not
opened the official letters, but had sent them to her more
experienced colleague for advice and information; that she never
could understand them herself,--they made her head ache, and
interfered with her other duties,--but HE understood them, and sent
her word what to do. Remembering also his usual style of
indorsement, she grew red again.
"And what did he say?"
"Nothing; he didn't return them."
"Naturally," said Mr. Home, with a peculiar expression. After a
few moments' silent stroking of his beard, he suddenly faced the
"You oblige me, Mrs. Baker, to speak more frankly to you than I had
intended. You have--unwittingly, I believe--given information to a
man whom the Government suspects of peculation. You have, without
knowing it, warned the postmaster at Hickory Hill that he is
suspected; and, as you might have frustrated our plans for tracing
a series of embezzlements to their proper source, you will see that
you might have also done great wrong to yourself as his only
neighbor and the next responsible person. In plain words, we have
traced the disappearance of money letters to a point when it lies
between these two offices. Now, I have not the least hesitation in
telling you that we do not suspect Laurel Run, and never have
suspected it. Even the result of your thoughtless act, although
it warned him, confirms our suspicion of his guilt. As to the
warning, it has failed, or he has grown reckless, for another
letter has been missed since. To-night, however, will settle all
doubt in the matter. When I open that bag in this office to-night,
and do not find a certain decoy letter in it, which was last
checked at Heavy Tree Crossing, I shall know that it remains in
Green's possession at Hickory Hill."
She was sitting back in her chair, white and breathless. He
glanced at her kindly, and then took up his hat. "Come, Mrs.
Baker, don't let this worry you. As I told you at first, YOU have
nothing to fear. Even your thoughtlessness and ignorance of rules
have contributed to show your own innocence. Nobody will ever be
the wiser for this; we do not advertise our affairs in the
Department. Not a soul but yourself knows the real cause of my
visit here. I will leave you here alone for a while, so as to
divert any suspicion. You will come, as usual, this evening, and
be seen by your friends; I will only be here when the bag arrives,
to open it. Good-by, Mrs. Baker; it's a nasty bit of business, but
it's all in the day's work. I've seen worse, and, thank God,
you're out of it."
She heard his footsteps retreat into the outer office and die out
of the platform; the jingle of his spurs, and the hollow beat of
his horse's hoofs that seemed to find a dull echo in her own heart,
and she was alone.
The room was very hot and very quiet; she could hear the warping
and creaking of the shingles under the relaxing of the nearly level
sunbeams. The office clock struck seven. In the breathless
silence that followed, a woodpecker took up his interrupted work on
the roof, and seemed to beat out monotonously on her ear the last
words of the stranger: Stanton Green--a thief! Stanton Green, one
of the "boys" John had helped out of the falling tunnel! Stanton
Green, whose old mother in the States still wrote letters to him
at Laurel Run, in a few hours to be a disgraced and ruined man
forever! She remembered now, as a thoughtless woman remembers,
tales of his extravagance and fast living, of which she had taken
no heed, and, with a sense of shame, of presents sent her, that she
now clearly saw must have been far beyond his means. What would
the boys say? What would John have said? Ah! what would John have
She started suddenly to her feet, white and cold as on that day
that she had parted from John Baker before the tunnel. She put on
her hat and mantle, and going to that little iron safe that stood
in the corner, unlocked it and took out its entire contents of gold
and silver. She had reached the door when another idea seized her,
and opening her desk she collected her stamps to the last sheet,
and hurriedly rolled them up under her cape. Then with a glance at
the clock, and a rapid survey of the road from the platform, she
slipped from it, and seemed to be swallowed up in the waiting woods
Once within the friendly shadows of the long belt of pines, Mrs.
Baker kept them until she had left the limited settlement of Laurel
Run far to the right, and came upon an open slope of Burnt Ridge,
where she knew Jo Simmons' mustang, Blue Lightning, would be
quietly feeding. She had often ridden him before, and when she had
detached the fifty-foot reata from his head-stall, he permitted her
the further recognized familiarity of twining her fingers in his
bluish mane and climbing on his back. The tool-shed of Burnt Ridge
Tunnel, where Jo's saddle and bridle always hung, was but a canter
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