Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands
Bret Harte

Part 3 out of 3

natures. Mr. McCorkle basked in the popularity of his protege, and
became alternately supercilious or patronizing toward the dwellers
of Sierra Flat; while the poet, with hair carefully oiled and
curled, and bedecked with cheap jewelry and flaunting neck-
handkerchief, paraded himself before the single hotel. As may be
imagined, this new disclosure of weakness afforded intense
satisfaction to Sierra Flat, gave another lease of popularity to
the poet, and suggested another idea to the facetious "Boston."

At that time a young lady popularly and professionally known as the
"California Pet" was performing to enthusiastic audiences in the
interior. Her specialty lay in the personation of youthful
masculine character; as a gamin of the street she was irresistible,
as a negro-dancer she carried the honest miner's heart by storm. A
saucy, pretty brunette, she had preserved a wonderful moral
reputation even under the Jove-like advances of showers of gold
that greeted her appearance on the stage at Sierra Flat. A
prominent and delighted member of that audience was Milton
Chubbuck. He attended every night. Every day he lingered at the
door of the Union Hotel for a glimpse of the "California Pet." It
was not long before he received a note from her,--in "Boston's"
most popular and approved female hand,--acknowledging his
admiration. It was not long before "Boston" was called upon to
indite a suitable reply. At last, in furtherance of his facetious
design, it became necessary for "Boston" to call upon the young
actress herself and secure her personal participation. To her he
unfolded a plan, the successful carrying out of which he felt would
secure his fame to posterity as a practical humorist. The
"California Pet's" black eyes sparkled approvingly and mischievously.
She only stipulated that she should see the man first,--a concession
to her feminine weakness which years of dancing Juba and wearing
trousers and boots had not wholly eradicated from her wilful breast.
By all means, it should be done. And the interview was arranged for
the next week.

It must not be supposed that during this interval of popularity Mr.
Chubbuck had been unmindful of his poetic qualities. A certain
portion of each day he was absent from town,--"a communin' with
natur'," as Mr. McCorkle expressed it,--and actually wandering in
the mountain trails, or lying on his back under the trees, or
gathering fragrant herbs and the bright-colored berries of the
Marzanita. These and his company he generally brought to the
editor's office, late in the afternoon, often to that enterprising
journalist's infinite weariness. Quiet and uncommunicative, he
would sit there patiently watching him at his work until the hour
for closing the office arrived, when he would as quietly depart.
There was something so humble and unobtrusive in these visits, that
the editor could not find it in his heart to deny them, and
accepting them, like the woodpeckers, as a part of his sylvan
surroundings, often forgot even his presence. Once or twice, moved
by some beauty of expression in the moist, shy eyes, he felt like
seriously admonishing his visitor of his idle folly; but his glance
falling upon the oiled hair and the gorgeous necktie, he invariably
thought better of it. The case was evidently hopeless.

The interview between Mr. Chubbuck and the "California Pet" took
place in a private room of the Union Hotel; propriety being
respected by the presence of that arch-humorist, "Boston." To this
gentleman we are indebted for the only true account of the meeting.
However reticent Mr. Chubbuck might have been in the presence of
his own sex, toward the fairer portion of humanity he was, like
most poets, exceedingly voluble. Accustomed as the "California
Pet" had been to excessive compliment, she was fairly embarrassed
by the extravagant praises of her visitor. Her personation of boy
characters, her dancing of the "champion jig," were particularly
dwelt upon with fervid but unmistakable admiration. At last,
recovering her audacity and emboldened by the presence of "Boston,"
the "California Pet" electrified her hearers by demanding, half
jestingly, half viciously, if it were as a boy or a girl that she
was the subject of his flattering admiration.

"That knocked him out o' time," said the delighted "Boston," in his
subsequent account of the interview. "But do you believe the d----d
fool actually asked her to take him with her; wanted to engage in
the company."

The plan, as briefly unfolded by "Boston," was to prevail upon Mr.
Chubbuck to make his appearance in costume (already designed and
prepared by the inventor) before a Sierra Flat audience, and recite
an original poem at the Hall immediately on the conclusion of the
"California Pet's" performance. At a given signal the audience
were to rise and deliver a volley of unsavory articles (previously
provided by the originator of the scheme); then a select few were
to rush on the stage, seize the poet, and, after marching him in
triumphal procession through town, were to deposit him beyond its
uttermost limits, with strict injunctions never to enter it again.
To the first part of the plan the poet was committed, for the
latter portion it was easy enough to find participants.

The eventful night came, and with it an audience that packed the
long narrow room with one dense mass of human beings. The
"California Pet" never had been so joyous, so reckless, so
fascinating and audacious before. But the applause was tame and
weak compared to the ironical outburst that greeted the second
rising of the curtain and the entrance of the born poet of Sierra
Flat. Then there was a hush of expectancy, and the poet stepped to
the foot-lights and stood with his manuscript in his hand.

His face was deadly pale. Either there was some suggestion of his
fate in the faces of his audience, or some mysterious instinct told
him of his danger. He attempted to speak, but faltered, tottered,
and staggered to the wings.

Fearful of losing his prey, "Boston" gave the signal and leaped
upon the stage. But at the same moment a light figure darted from
behind the scenes, and delivering a kick that sent the discomfited
humorist back among the musicians, cut a pigeon-wing, executed a
double-shuffle, and then advancing to the foot-lights with that
inimitable look, that audacious swagger and utter abandon which had
so thrilled and fascinated them a moment before, uttered the
characteristic speech: "Wot are you goin' to hit a man fur, when
he's down, s-a-a-y?"

The look, the drawl, the action, the readiness, and above all the
downright courage of the little woman, had its effect. A roar of
sympathetic applause followed the act. "Cut and run while you
can," she whispered hurriedly over her one shoulder, without
altering the other's attitude of pert and saucy defiance toward the
audience. But even as she spoke the poet tottered and sank
fainting upon the stage. Then she threw a despairing whisper
behind the scenes, "Ring down the curtain."

There was a slight movement of opposition in the audience, but
among them rose the burly shoulders of Yuba Bill, the tall, erect
figure of Henry York of Sandy Bar, and the colorless, determined
face of John Oakhurst. The curtain came down.

Behind it knelt the "California Pet" beside the prostrate poet.
"Bring me some water. Run for a doctor. Stop!! CLEAR OUT, ALL OF

She had unloosed the gaudy cravat and opened the shirt-collar of
the insensible figure before her. Then she burst into an
hysterical laugh.


Her tiring-woman, a Mexican half-breed, came toward her.

"Help me with him to my dressing-room, quick; then stand outside
and wait. If any one questions you, tell them he's gone. Do you
hear? HE's gone."

The old woman did as she was bade. In a few moments the audience
had departed. Before morning so also had the "California Pet,"
Manuela, and--the poet of Sierra Flat.

But, alas! with them also had departed the fair fame of the
"California Pet." Only a few, and these it is to be feared of not
the best moral character themselves, still had faith in the
stainless honor of their favorite actress. "It was a mighty
foolish thing to do, but it'll all come out right yet." On the
other hand, a majority gave her full credit and approbation for her
undoubted pluck and gallantry, but deplored that she should have
thrown it away upon a worthless object. To elect for a lover the
despised and ridiculed vagrant of Sierra Flat, who had not even the
manliness to stand up in his own defence, was not only evidence of
inherent moral depravity, but was an insult to the community.
Colonel Starbottle saw in it only another instance of the extreme
frailty of the sex; he had known similar cases; and remembered
distinctly, sir, how a well-known Philadelphia heiress, one of the
finest women that ever rode in her kerridge, that, gad, sir! had
thrown over a Southern member of Congress to consort with a d----d
nigger. The Colonel had also noticed a singular look in the dog's
eye which he did not entirely fancy. He would not say anything
against the lady, sir, but he had noticed-- And here haply the
Colonel became so mysterious and darkly confidential as to be
unintelligible and inaudible to the bystanders.

A few days after the disappearance of Mr. Chubbuck a singular
report reached Sierra Flat, and it was noticed that "Boston," who
since the failure of his elaborate joke had been even more
depressed in spirits than is habitual with great humorists,
suddenly found that his presence was required in San Francisco.
But as yet nothing but the vaguest surmises were afloat, and
nothing definite was known.

It was a pleasant afternoon when the editor of the "Sierra Flat
Record" looked up from his case and beheld the figure of Mr. Morgan
McCorkle standing in the doorway. There was a distressed look on
the face of that worthy gentleman that at once enlisted the
editor's sympathizing attention. He held an open letter in his
hand, as he advanced toward the middle of the room.

"As a man as has allers borne a fair reputation," began Mr.
McCorkle slowly, "I should like, if so be as I could, Mister
Editor, to make a correction in the columns of your valooable

Mr. Editor begged him to proceed.

"Ye may not disremember that about a month ago I fetched here what
so be as we'll call a young man whose name might be as it were
Milton--Milton Chubbuck."

Mr. Editor remembered perfectly.

"Thet same party I'd knowed better nor fower year, two on 'em
campin' out together. Not that I'd known him all the time, fur he
war shy and strange at spells and had odd ways that I took war
nat'ral to a borned poet. Ye may remember that I said he was a
borned poet?"

The editor distinctly did.

"I picked this same party up in St. Jo., takin' a fancy to his
face, and kinder calklating he'd runn'd away from home,--for I'm a
married man, Mr. Editor, and hev children of my own,--and thinkin'
belike he was a borned poet."

"Well?" said the editor.

"And as I said before, I should like now to make a correction in
the columns of your valooable paper."

"What correction!" asked the editor.

"I said, ef you remember my words, as how he was a borned poet."


"From statements in this yer letter it seems as how I war wrong."


"She war a woman."



It was the Christmas season in California,--a season of falling
rain and springing grasses. There were intervals when, through
driving clouds and flying scud, the sun visited the haggard hills
with a miracle, and death and resurrection were as one, and out of
the very throes of decay a joyous life struggled outward and
upward. Even the storms that swept down the dead leaves nurtured
the tender buds that took their places. There were no episodes of
snowy silence; over the quickening fields the farmer's ploughshare
hard followed the furrows left by the latest rains. Perhaps it was
for this reason that the Christmas evergreens which decorated the
drawing-room took upon themselves a foreign aspect, and offered a
weird contrast to the roses, seen dimly through the windows, as the
southwest wind beat their soft faces against the panes.

"Now," said the Doctor, drawing his chair closer to the fire, and
looking mildly but firmly at the semicircle of flaxen heads around
him, "I want it distinctly understood before I begin my story, that
I am not to be interrupted by any ridiculous questions. At the
first one I shall stop. At the second, I shall feel it my duty to
administer a dose of castor-oil, all around. The boy that moves
his legs or arms will be understood to invite amputation. I have
brought my instruments with me, and never allow pleasure to
interfere with my business. Do you promise?"

"Yes, sir," said six small voices, simultaneously. The volley was,
however, followed by half a dozen dropping questions.

"Silence! Bob, put your feet down, and stop rattling that sword.
Flora shall sit by my side, like a little lady, and be an example
to the rest. Fung Tang shall stay, too, if he likes. Now, turn
down the gas a little; there, that will do,--just enough to make
the fire look brighter, and to show off the Christmas candles.
Silence, everybody! The boy who cracks an almond, or breathes too
loud over his raisins, will be put out of the room?"

There was a profound silence. Bob laid his sword tenderly aside,
and nursed his leg thoughtfully. Flora, after coquettishly
adjusting the pocket of her little apron, put her arm upon the
Doctor's shoulder, and permitted herself to be drawn beside him.
Fung Tang, the little heathen page, who was permitted, on this rare
occasion, to share the Christian revels in the drawing-room,
surveyed the group with a smile that was at once sweet and
philosophical. The light ticking of a French clock on the mantel,
supported by a young shepherdess of bronze complexion and great
symmetry of limb, was the only sound that disturbed the Christmas-
like peace of the apartment,--a peace which held the odors of
evergreens, new toys, cedar-boxes, glue, and varnish in an
harmonious combination that passed all understanding.

"About four years ago at this time," began the Doctor, "I attended
a course of lectures in a certain city. One of the professors, who
was a sociable, kindly man,--though somewhat practical and hard-
headed,--invited me to his house on Christmas night. I was very
glad to go, as I was anxious to see one of his sons, who, though
only twelve years old, was said to be very clever. I dare not tell
you how many Latin verses this little fellow could recite, or how
many English ones he had composed. In the first place, you'd want
me to repeat them; secondly, I'm not a judge of poetry, Latin or
English. But there were judges who said they were wonderful for a
boy, and everybody predicted a splendid future for him. Everybody
but his father. He shook his head doubtingly, whenever it was
mentioned, for, as I have told you, he was a practical, matter-of-
fact man.

"There was a pleasant party at the Professor's that night. All the
children of the neighborhood were there, and among them the
Professor's clever son, Rupert, as they called him,--a thin little
chap, about as tall as Bobby there, and as fair and delicate as
Flora by my side. His health was feeble, his father said; he
seldom ran about and played with other boys, preferring to stay at
home and brood over his books, and compose what he called his

"Well, we had a Christmas-tree just like this, and we had been
laughing and talking, calling off the names of the children who had
presents on the tree, and everybody was very happy and joyous, when
one of the children suddenly uttered a cry of mingled surprise and
hilarity, and said, 'Here's something for Rupert; and what do you
think it is?'

"We all guessed. 'A desk'; 'A copy of Milton'; 'A gold pen'; 'A
rhyming dictionary? 'No? what then?'

"'A drum!'

"'A what?' asked everybody.

"'A drum! with Rupert's name on it?'

"Sure enough there it was. A good-sized, bright, new, brass-bound
drum, with a slip of paper on it, with the inscription, 'FOR

"Of course we all laughed, and thought it a good joke. 'You see
you're to make a noise in the world, Rupert!' said one. 'Here's
parchment for the poet,' said another. 'Rupert's last work in
sheepskin covers,' said a third. 'Give us a classical tune,
Rupert,' said a fourth; and so on. But Rupert seemed too mortified
to speak; he changed color, bit his lips, and finally burst into a
passionate fit of crying, and left the room. Then those who had
joked him felt ashamed, and everybody began to ask who had put the
drum there. But no one knew, or if they did, the unexpected
sympathy awakened for the sensitive boy kept them silent. Even the
servants were called up and questioned, but no one could give any
idea where it came from. And, what was still more singular,
everybody declared that up to the moment it was produced, no one
had seen it hanging on the tree. What do I think? Well, I have my
own opinion. But no questions! Enough for you to know that Rupert
did not come down stairs again that night, and the party soon after
broke up.

"I had almost forgotten those things, for the war of the Rebellion
broke out the next spring, and I was appointed surgeon in one of
the new regiments, and was on my way to the seat of war. But I had
to pass through the city where the Professor lived, and there I met
him. My first question was about Rupert. The Professor shook his
head sadly. 'He's not so well,' he said; 'he has been declining
since last Christmas, when you saw him. A very strange case,' he
added, giving it a long Latin name,--'a very singular case. But go
and see him yourself,' he urged; 'it may distract his mind and do
him good?'

"I went accordingly to the Professor's house, and found Rupert
lying on a sofa, propped up with pillows. Around him were
scattered his books, and, what seemed in singular contrast, that
drum I told you about was hanging on a nail, just above his head.
His face was thin and wasted; there was a red spot on either cheek,
and his eyes were very bright and widely opened. He was glad to
see me, and when I told him where I was going, he asked a thousand
questions about the war. I thought I had thoroughly diverted his
mind from its sick and languid fancies, when he suddenly grasped my
hand and drew me toward him.

"'Doctor,' said he, in a low whisper, 'you won't laugh at me if I
tell you something?'

"'No, certainly not,' I said.

"'You remember that drum?' he said, pointing to the glittering toy
that hung against the wall. 'You know, too, how it came to me. A
few weeks after Christmas, I was lying half asleep here, and the
drum was hanging on the wall, when suddenly I heard it beaten; at
first, low and slowly, then faster and louder, until its rolling
filled the house. In the middle of the night, I heard it again. I
did not dare to tell anybody about it, but I have heard it every
night ever since.'

"He paused and looked anxiously in my face. 'Sometimes,' he
continued, 'it is played softly, sometimes loudly, but always
quickening to a long-roll, so loud and alarming that I have looked
to see people coming into my room to ask what was the matter. But
I think, Doctor,--I think,' he repeated slowly, looking up with
painful interest into my face, 'that no one hears it but myself.'

"I thought so, too, but I asked him if he had heard it at any other

"'Once or twice in the daytime,' he replied, 'when I have been
reading or writing; then very loudly, as though it were angry, and
tried in that way to attract my attention away from my books.'

"I looked into his face, and placed my hand upon his pulse. His
eyes were very bright, and his pulse a little flurried and quick.
I then tried to explain to him that he was very weak, and that his
senses were very acute, as most weak people's are; and how that
when he read, or grew interested and excited, or when he was tired
at night, the throbbing of a big artery made the beating sound he
heard. He listened to me with a sad smile of unbelief, but thanked
me, and in a little while I went away. But as I was going down
stairs, I met the Professor. I gave him my opinion of the case,--
well, no matter what it was.

"'He wants fresh air and exercise,' said the Professor, 'and some
practical experience of life, sir?' The Professor was not a bad
man, but he was a little worried and impatient, and thought--as
clever people are apt to think--that things which he didn't
understand were either silly or improper.

"I left the city that very day, and in the excitement of battle-
fields and hospitals, I forgot all about little Rupert, nor did I
hear of him again, until one day, meeting an old classmate in the
army, who had known the Professor, he told me that Rupert had
become quite insane, and that in one of his paroxysms he had
escaped from the house, and as he had never been found, it was
feared that he had fallen in the river and was drowned. I was
terribly shocked for the moment, as you may imagine; but, dear me,
I was living just then among scenes as terrible and shocking, and I
had little time to spare to mourn over poor Rupert.

"It was not long after receiving this intelligence that we had a
terrible battle, in which a portion of our army was surprised and
driven back with great slaughter. I was detached from my brigade
to ride over to the battle-field and assist the surgeons of the
beaten division, who had more on their hands than they could attend
to. When I reached the barn that served for a temporary hospital,
I went at once to work. Ah, Bob," said the Doctor, thoughtfully
taking the bright sword from the hands of the half-frightened Bob,
and holding it gravely before him, "these pretty playthings are
symbols of cruel, ugly realities.

"I turned to a tall, stout Vermonter," he continued very slowly,
tracing a pattern on the rug with the point of the scabbard, "who
was badly wounded in both thighs, but he held up his hands and
begged me to help others first who needed it more than he. I did
not at first heed his request, for this kind of unselfishness was
very common in the army; but he went on, 'For God's sake, Doctor,
leave me here; there is a drummer-boy of our regiment--a mere
child--dying, if he isn't dead now. Go, and see him first. He
lies over there. He saved more than one life. He was at his post
in the panic this morning, and saved the honor of the regiment.' I
was so much more impressed by the man's manner than by the
substance of his speech, which was, however, corroborated by the
other poor fellows stretched around me, that I passed over to where
the drummer lay, with his drum beside him. I gave one glance at
his face--and--yes, Bob--yes, my children--it WAS Rupert.

"Well! well! it needed not the chalked cross which my brother-
surgeons had left upon the rough board whereon he lay to show how
urgent was the relief he sought; it needed not the prophetic words
of the Vermonter, nor the damp that mingled with the brown curls
that clung to his pale forehead, to show how hopeless it was now.
I called him by name. He opened his eyes--larger, I thought, in
the new vision that was beginning to dawn upon him--and recognized
me. He whispered, 'I'm glad you are come, but I don't think you
can do me any good.'

"I could not tell him a lie. I could not say anything. I only
pressed his hand in mine, as he went on.

"'But you will see father, and ask him to forgive me. Nobody is to
blame but myself. It was a long time before I understood why the
drum came to me that Christmas night, and why it kept calling to me
every night, and what it said. I know it now. The work is done,
and I am content. Tell father it is better as it is. I should
have lived only to worry and perplex him, and something in me tells
me this is right.'

"He lay still for a moment, and then, grasping my hand, said,--


"I listened, but heard nothing but the suppressed moans of the
wounded men around me. 'The drum,' he said faintly; 'don't you
hear it? The drum is calling me.'

"He reached out his arm to where it lay, as though he would embrace

"'Listen,' he went on, 'it's the reveille. There are the ranks
drawn up in review. Don't you see the sunlight flash down the long
line of bayonets? Their faces are shining,--they present arms,--
there comes the General; but his face I cannot look at, for the
glory round his head. He sees me; he smiles, it is--' And with a
name upon his lips that he had learned long ago, he stretched
himself wearily upon the planks, and lay quite still.

"That's all. No questions now; never mind what became of the drum.
Who's that snivelling? Bless my soul, where's my pill-box?"


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