“Mliss” by Bret Harte
Just where the Sierra Nevada begins to subside in gentler undulations, and the rivers grow less rapid and yellow, on the side of a great red mountain, stands “Smith’s Pocket.” Seen from the red road at sunset, in the red light and the red dust, its white houses look like the outcroppings of quartz on the mountainside. The red stage topped with red-shirted passengers is lost to view half a dozen times in the tortuous descent, turning up unexpectedly in out-of-the-way places, and vanishing altogether within a hundred yards of the town. It is probably owing to this sudden twist in the road that the advent of a stranger at Smith’s Pocket is usually attended with a peculiar circumstance. Dismounting from the vehicle at the stage office, the too-confident traveler is apt to walk straight out of town under the impression that it lies in quite another direction. It is related that one of the tunnel men, two miles from town, met one of these self-reliant passengers with a carpetbag, umbrella, Harper’s Magazine, and other evidences of “Civilization and Refinement,” plodding along over the road he had just ridden, vainly endeavoring to find the settlement of Smith’s Pocket.
An observant traveler might have found some compensation for his disappointment in the weird aspect of that vicinity. There were huge fissures on the hillside, and displacements of the red soil, resembling more the chaos of some primary elemental upheaval than the work of man; while halfway down, a long flume straddled its narrow body and disproportionate legs over the chasm, like an enormous fossil of some forgotten antediluvian. At every step smaller ditches crossed the road, hiding in their sallow depths unlovely streams that crept away to a clandestine union with the great yellow torrent below, and here and there were the ruins of some cabin with the chimney alone left intact and the hearthstone open to the skies.
The settlement of Smith’s Pocket owed its origin to the finding of a “pocket” on its site by a veritable Smith. Five thousand dollars were taken out of it in one half-hour by Smith. Three thousand dollars were expended by Smith and others in erecting a flume and in tunneling. And then Smith’s Pocket was found to be only a pocket, and subject like other pockets to depletion. Although Smith pierced the bowels of the great red mountain, that five thousand dollars was the first and last return of his labor. The mountain grew reticent of its golden secrets, and the flume steadily ebbed away the remainder of Smith’s fortune. Then Smith went into quartz-mining; then into quartz-milling; then into hydraulics and ditching, and then by easy degrees into saloonkeeping. Presently it was whispered that Smith was drinking a great deal; then it was known that Smith was a habitual drunkard, and then people began to think, as they are apt to, that he had never been anything else. But the settlement of Smith’s Pocket, like that of most discoveries, was happily not dependent on the fortune of its pioneer, and other parties projected tunnels and found pockets. So Smith’s Pocket became a settlement, with its two fancy stores, its two hotels, its one express office, and its two first families. Occasionally its one long straggling street was overawed by the assumption of the latest San Francisco fashions, imported per express, exclusively to the first families; making outraged Nature, in the ragged outline of her furrowed surface, look still more homely, and putting personal insult on that greater portion of the population to whom the Sabbath, with a change of linen, brought merely the necessity of cleanliness without the luxury of adornment. Then there was a Methodist Church, and hard by a Monte Bank, and a little beyond, on the mountainside, a graveyard; and then a little schoolhouse.
“The Master,” as he was known to his little flock, sat alone one night in the schoolhouse, with some open copybooks before him, carefully making those bold and full characters which are supposed to combine the extremes of chirographical and moral excellence, and had got as far as “Riches are deceitful,” and was elaborating the noun with an insincerity of flourish that was quite in the spirit of his text, when he heard a gentle tapping. The woodpeckers had been busy about the roof during the day, and the noise did not disturb his work. But the opening of the door, and the tapping continuing from the inside, caused him to look up. He was slightly startled by the figure of a young girl, dirty and shabbily clad. Still, her great black eyes, her coarse, uncombed, lusterless black hair falling over her sunburned face, her red arms and feet streaked with the red soil, were all familiar to him. It was Melissa Smith—Smith’s motherless child.
“What can she want here?” thought the master. Everybody knew “Mliss,” as she was called, throughout the length and height of Red Mountain. Everybody knew her as an incorrigible girl. Her fierce, ungovernable disposition, her mad freaks and lawless character, were in their way as proverbial as the story of her father’s weaknesses, and as philosophically accepted by the townsfolk. She wrangled with and fought the schoolboys with keener invective and quite as powerful arm. She followed the trails with a woodman’s craft, and the master had met her before, miles away, shoeless, stockingless, and bareheaded on the mountain road. The miners’ camps along the stream supplied her with subsistence during these voluntary pilgrimages, in freely offered alms. Not but that a larger protection had been previously extended to Mliss. The Rev. Joshua McSnagley, “stated” preacher, had placed her in the hotel as servant, by way of preliminary refinement, and had introduced her to his scholars at Sunday school. But she threw plates occasionally at the landlord, and quickly retorted to the cheap witticisms of the guests, and created in the Sabbath school a sensation that was so inimical to the orthodox dullness and placidity of that institution that, with a decent regard for the starched frocks and unblemished morals of the two pink-and-white-faced children of the first families, the reverend gentleman had her ignominiously expelled. Such were the antecedents, and such the character of Mliss as she stood before the master. It was shown in the ragged dress, the unkempt hair, and bleeding feet, and asked his pity. It flashed from her black, fearless eyes, and commanded his respect.
“I come here tonight,” she said rapidly and boldly, keeping her hard glance on his,
“because I knew you was alone. I wouldn’t come here when them gals was here. I hate ’em and they hates me. That’s why. You keep school, don’t you? I want to be teached!”
If to the shabbiness of her apparel and uncomeliness of her tangled hair and dirty face she had added the humility of tears, the master would have extended to her the usual moiety of pity, and nothing more. But with the natural, though illogical, instincts of his species, her boldness awakened in him something of that respect which all original natures pay unconsciously to one another in any grade. And he gazed at her the more fixedly as she went on still rapidly, her hand on that door latch and her eyes on his:
“My name’s Mliss—Mliss Smith! You can bet your life on that. My father’s Old Smith—Old
Bummer Smith—that’s what’s the matter with him. Mliss Smith—and I’m coming to school!”
“Well?” said the master.
Accustomed to be thwarted and opposed, often wantonly and cruelly, for no other purpose than to excite the violent impulses of her nature, the master’s phlegm evidently took her by surprise. She stopped; she began to twist a lock of her hair between her fingers; and the rigid line of upper lip, drawn over the wicked little teeth, relaxed and quivered slightly. Then her eyes dropped, and something like a blush struggled up to her cheek and tried to assert itself through the splashes of redder soil, and the sunburn of years. Suddenly she threw herself forward, calling on God to strike her dead, and fell quite weak and helpless, with her face on the master’s desk, crying and sobbing as if her heart would break.
The master lifted her gently and waited for the paroxysm to pass. When, with face still averted, she was repeating between her sobs the MEA CULPA of childish penitence—that “she’d be good, she didn’t mean to,” etc., it came to him to ask her why she had left Sabbath school.
Why had she left the Sabbath school?—why? Oh, yes. What did he (McSnagley) want to tell her she was wicked for? What did he tell her that God hated her for? If God hated her, what did she want to go to Sabbath school for? SHE didn’t want to be “beholden” to anybody who hated her.
Had she told McSnagley this?
Yes, she had.
The master laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and echoed so oddly in the little schoolhouse, and seemed so inconsistent and discordant with the sighing of the pines without, that he shortly corrected himself with a sigh. The sigh was quite as sincere in its way, however, and after a moment of serious silence he asked about her father.
Her father? What father? Whose father? What had he ever done for her? Why did the girls hate her? Come now! what made the folks say, “Old Bummer Smith’s Mliss!” when she passed? Yes; oh yes. She wished he was dead—she was dead—everybody was dead; and her sobs broke forth anew.
The master then, leaning over her, told her as well as he could what you or I might have said after hearing such unnatural theories from childish lips; only bearing in mind perhaps better than you or I the unnatural facts of her ragged dress, her bleeding feet, and the omnipresent shadow of her drunken father. Then, raising her to her feet, he wrapped his shawl around her, and, bidding her come early in the morning, he walked with her down the road. There he bade her “good night.” The moon shone brightly on the narrow path before them. He stood and watched the bent little figure as it staggered down the road, and waited until it had passed the little graveyard and reached the curve of the hill, where it turned and stood for a moment, a mere atom of suffering outlined against the far-off patient stars. Then he went back to his work. But the lines of the copybook thereafter faded into long parallels of never-ending road, over which childish figures seemed to pass sobbing and crying into the night. Then, the little schoolhouse seeming lonelier than before, he shut the door and went home.
The next morning Mliss came to school. Her face had been washed, and her coarse black hair bore evidence of recent struggles with the comb, in which both had evidently suffered. The old defiant look shone occasionally in her eyes, but her manner was tamer and more subdued. Then began a series of little trials and self-sacrifices, in which master and pupil bore an equal part, and which increased the confidence and sympathy between them. Although obedient under the master’s eye, at times during recess, if thwarted or stung by a fancied slight, Mliss would rage in ungovernable fury, and many a palpitating young savage, finding himself matched with his own weapons of torment, would seek the master with torn jacket and scratched face and complaints of the dreadful Mliss. There was a serious division among the townspeople on the subject, some threatening to withdraw their children from such evil companionship, and others as warmly upholding the course of the master in his work of reclamation. Meanwhile, with a steady persistence that seemed quite astonishing to him on looking back afterward, the master drew Mliss gradually out of the shadow of her past life, as though it were but her natural progress down the narrow path on which he had set her feet the moonlit night of their first meeting. Remembering the experience of the evangelical McSnagley, he carefully avoided that Rock of Ages on which that unskillful pilot had shipwrecked her young faith. But if, in the course of her reading, she chanced to stumble upon those few words which have lifted such as she above the level of the older, the wiser, and the more prudent—if she learned something of a faith that is symbolized by suffering, and the old light softened in her eyes, it did not take the shape of a lesson. A few of the plainer people had made up a little sum by which the ragged Mliss was enabled to assume the garments of respect and civilization; and often a rough shake of the hand, and words of homely commendation from a red-shirted and burly figure, sent a glow to the cheek of the young master, and set him to thinking if it was altogether deserved.
Three months had passed from the time of their first meeting, and the master was sitting late one evening over the moral and sententious copies, when there came a tap at the door and again Mliss stood before him. She was neatly clad and clean-faced, and there was nothing perhaps but the long black hair and bright black eyes to remind him of his former apparition. “Are you busy?” she asked. “Can you come with me?”—and on his signifying his readiness, in her old willful way she said, “Come, then, quick!”
They passed out of the door together and into the dark road. As they entered the town the master asked her whither she was going. She replied, “To see my father.”
It was the first time he had heard her call him by that filial title, or indeed anything more than “Old Smith” or the “Old Man.” It was the first time in three months that she had spoken of him at all, and the master knew she had kept resolutely aloof from him since her great change. Satisfied from her manner that it was fruitless to question her purpose, he passively followed. In out-of-the-way places, low groggeries, restaurants, and saloons; in gambling hells and dance houses, the master, preceded by Mliss, came and went. In the reeking smoke and blasphemous outcries of low dens, the child, holding the master’s hand, stood and anxiously gazed, seemingly unconscious of all in the one absorbing nature of her pursuit. Some of the revelers, recognizing Mliss, called to the child to sing and dance for them, and would have forced liquor upon her but for the interference of the master. Others, recognizing him mutely, made way for them to pass. So an hour slipped by. Then the child whispered in his ear that there was a cabin on the other side of the creek crossed by the long flume, where she thought he still might be. Thither they crossed—a toilsome half-hour’s walk—but in vain. They were returning by the ditch at the abutment of the flume, gazing at the lights of the town on the opposite bank, when, suddenly, sharply, a quick report rang out on the clear night air. The echoes caught it, and carried it round and round Red Mountain, and set the dogs to barking all along the streams. Lights seemed to dance and move quickly on the outskirts of the town for a few moments, the stream rippled quite audibly beside them, a few stones loosened themselves from the hillside and splashed into the stream, a heavy wind seemed to surge the branches of the funereal pines, and then the silence seemed to fall thicker, heavier, and deadlier. The master turned toward Mliss with an unconscious gesture of protection, but the child had gone. Oppressed by a strange fear, he ran quickly down the trail to the river’s bed, and, jumping from boulder to boulder, reached the base of Red Mountain and the outskirts of the village. Midway of the crossing he looked up and held his breath in awe. For high above him on the narrow flume he saw the fluttering little figure of his late companion crossing swiftly in the darkness.
He climbed the bank, and, guided by a few lights moving about a central point on the mountain, soon found himself breathless among a crowd of awe-stricken and sorrowful men. Out from among them the child appeared, and, taking the master’s hand, led him silently before what seemed a ragged hole in the mountain. Her face was quite white, but her excited manner gone, and her look that of one to whom some long-expected event had at last happened—an expression that to the master in his bewilderment seemed almost like relief. The walls of the cavern were partly propped by decaying timbers. The child pointed to what appeared to be some ragged, castoff clothes left in the hole by the late occupant. The master approached nearer with his flaming dip, and bent over them. It was Smith, already cold, with a pistol in his hand and a bullet in his heart, lying beside his empty pocket.
The opinion which McSnagley expressed in reference to a “change of heart” supposed to be experienced by Mliss was more forcibly described in the gulches and tunnels. It was thought there that Mliss had “struck a good lead.” So when there was a new grave added to the little enclosure, and at the expense of the master a little board and inscription put above it, the RED MOUNTAIN BANNER came out quite handsomely, and did the fair thing to the memory of one of “our oldest Pioneers,” alluding gracefully to that “bane of noble intellects,” and otherwise genteelly shelving our dear brother with the past. “He leaves an only child to mourn his loss,” says the BANNER, “who is now an exemplary scholar, thanks to the efforts of the Rev. Mr. McSnagley.” The Rev. McSnagley, in fact, made a strong point of Mliss’s conversion, and, indirectly attributing to the unfortunate child the suicide of her father, made affecting allusions in Sunday school to the beneficial effects of the “silent tomb,” and in this cheerful contemplation drove most of the children into speechless horror, and caused the pink-and-white scions of the first families to howl dismally and refuse to be comforted.
The long dry summer came. As each fierce day burned itself out in little whiffs of pearl-gray smoke on the mountain summits, and the upspringing breeze scattered its red embers over the landscape, the green wave which in early spring upheaved above Smith’s grave grew sere and dry and hard. In those days the master, strolling in the little churchyard of a Sabbath afternoon, was sometimes surprised to find a few wild flowers plucked from the damp pine forests scattered there, and oftener rude wreaths hung upon the little pine cross. Most of these wreaths were formed of a sweet-scented grass, which the children loved to keep in their desks, intertwined with the plumes of the buckeye, the syringa, and the wood anemone, and here and there the master noticed the dark-blue cowl of the monkshood, or deadly aconite. There was something in the odd association of this noxious plant with these memorials which occasioned a painful sensation to the master deeper than his esthetic sense. One day, during a long walk, in crossing a wooded ridge he came upon Mliss in the heart of the forest, perched upon a prostrate pine on a fantastic throne formed by the hanging plumes of lifeless branches, her lap full of grasses and pine burrs, and crooning to herself one of the Negro melodies of her younger life. Recognizing him at a distance, she made room for him on her elevated throne, and with a grave assumption of hospitality and patronage that would have been ridiculous had it not been so terribly earnest, she fed him with pine nuts and crab apples. The master took that opportunity to point out to her the noxious and deadly qualities of the monkshood, whose dark blossoms he saw in her lap, and extorted from her a promise not to meddle with it as long as she remained his pupil. This done—as the master had tested her integrity before—he rested satisfied, and the strange feeling which had overcome him on seeing them died away.
Of the homes that were offered Mliss when her conversion became known, the master preferred that of Mrs. Morpher, a womanly and kindhearted specimen of Southwestern efflorescence, known in her maidenhood as the “Per-rairie Rose.” Being one of those who contend resolutely against their own natures, Mrs. Morpher, by a long series of self-sacrifices and struggles, had at last subjugated her naturally careless disposition to principles of “order,” which she considered, in common with Mr. Pope, as “Heaven’s first law.” But she could not entirely govern the orbits of her satellites, however regular her own movements, and even her own “Jeemes” sometimes collided with her. Again her old nature asserted itself in her children. Lycurgus dipped into the cupboard “between meals,” and Aristides came home from school without shoes, leaving those important articles on the threshold, for the delight of a barefooted walk down the ditches. Octavia and Cassandra were “keerless” of their clothes. So with but one exception, however much the “Prairie Rose” might have trimmed and pruned and trained her own matured luxuriance, the little shoots came up defiantly wild and straggling. That one exception was Clytemnestra Morpher, aged fifteen. She was the realization of her mother’s immaculate conception—neat, orderly, and dull.
It was an amiable weakness of Mrs. Morpher to imagine that “Clytie” was a consolation and model for Mliss. Following this fallacy, Mrs. Morpher threw Clytie at the head of Mliss when she was “bad,” and set her up before the child for adoration in her penitential moments. It was not, therefore, surprising to the master to hear that Clytie was coming to school, obviously as a favor to the master and as an example for Mliss and others. For “Clytie” was quite a young lady. Inheriting her mother’s physical peculiarities, and in obedience to the climatic laws of the Red Mountain region, she was an early bloomer. The youth of Smith’s Pocket, to whom this kind of flower was rare, sighed for her in April and languished in May. Enamored swains haunted the schoolhouse at the hour of dismissal. A few were jealous of the master.
Perhaps it was this latter circumstance that opened the master’s eyes to another. He could not help noticing that Clytie was romantic; that in school she required a great deal of attention; that her pens were uniformly bad and wanted fixing; that she usually accompanied the request with a certain expectation in her eye that was somewhat disproportionate to the quality of service she verbally required; that she sometimes allowed the curves of a round, plump white arm to rest on his when he was writing her copies; that she always blushed and flung back her blond curls when she did so. I don’t remember whether I have stated that the master was a young man—it’s of little consequence, however; he had been severely educated in the school in which Clytie was taking her first lesson, and, on the whole, withstood the flexible curves and factitious glance like the fine young Spartan that he was. Perhaps an insufficient quality of food may have tended to this asceticism. He generally avoided Clytie; but one evening, when she returned to the schoolhouse after something she had forgotten, and did not find it until the master walked home with her, I hear that he endeavored to make himself particularly agreeable—partly from the fact, I imagine, that his conduct was adding gall and bitterness to the already overcharged hearts of Clytemnestra’s admirers.
The morning after this affecting episode Mliss did not come to school. Noon came, but not Mliss. Questioning Clytie on the subject, it appeared that they had left the school together, but the willful Mliss had taken another road. The afternoon brought her not. In the evening he called on Mrs. Morpher, whose motherly heart was really alarmed. Mr. Morpher had spent all day in search of her, without discovering a trace that might lead to her discovery. Aristides was summoned as a probable accomplice, but that equitable infant succeeded in impressing the household with his innocence. Mrs. Morpher entertained a vivid impression that the child would yet be found drowned in a ditch, or, what was almost as terrible, muddied and soiled beyond the redemption of soap and water. Sick at heart, the master returned to the schoolhouse. As he lit his lamp and seated himself at his desk, he found a note lying before him addressed to himself, in Mliss’s handwriting. It seemed to be written on a leaf torn from some old memorandum book, and, to prevent sacrilegious trifling, had been sealed with six broken wafers. Opening it almost tenderly, the master read as follows:
RESPECTED SIR—When you read this, I am run away. Never to come back. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. You can give my beeds to Mary Jennings, and my Amerika’s Pride [a highly colored lithograph from a tobacco-box] to Sally Flanders. But don’t you give anything to Clytie Morpher. Don’t you dare to. Do you know what my opinion is of her, it is this, she is perfekly disgustin. That is all and no more at present from
The master sat pondering on this strange epistle till the moon lifted its bright face above the distant hills, and illuminated the trail that led to the schoolhouse, beaten quite hard with the coming and going of little feet. Then, more satisfied in mind, he tore the missive into fragments and scattered them along the road.
At sunrise the next morning he was picking his way through the palmlike fern and thick underbrush of the pine forest, starting the hare from its form, and awakening a querulous protest from a few dissipated crows, who had evidently been making a night of it, and so came to the wooded ridge where he had once found Mliss. There he found the prostrate pine and tasseled branches, but the throne was vacant. As he drew nearer, what might have been some frightened animal started through the crackling limbs. It ran up the tossed arms of the fallen monarch and sheltered itself in some friendly foliage. The master, reaching the old seat, found the nest still warm; looking up in the intertwining branches, he met the black eyes of the errant Mliss. They gazed at each other without speaking. She was first to break the silence.
“What do you want?” she asked curtly.
The master had decided on a course of action. “I want some crab apples,” he said humbly.
“Sha’n’t have ’em! go away. Why don’t you get ’em of Clytemnerestera?” (It seemed to be a relief to Mliss to express her contempt in additional syllables to that classical young woman’s already long-drawn title.) “O you wicked thing!”
“I am hungry, Lissy. I have eaten nothing since dinner yesterday. I am famished!” and the young man in a state of remarkable exhaustion leaned against the tree.
Melissa’s heart was touched. In the bitter days of her gypsy life she had known the sensation he so artfully simulated. Overcome by his heartbroken tone, but not entirely divested of suspicion, she said:
“Dig under the tree near the roots, and you’ll find lots; but mind you don’t tell,” for Mliss had HER hoards as well as the rats and squirrels.
But the master, of course, was unable to find them; the effects of hunger probably blinding his senses. Mliss grew uneasy. At length she peered at him through the leaves in an elfish way, and questioned:
“If I come down and give you some, you’ll promise you won’t touch me?”
The master promised.
“Hope you’ll die if you do!”
The master accepted instant dissolution as a forfeit. Mliss slid down the tree. For a few moments nothing transpired but the munching of the pine nuts. “Do you feel better?” she asked, with some solicitude. The master confessed to a recuperated feeling, and then, gravely thanking her, proceeded to retrace his steps. As he expected, he had not gone far before she called him. He turned. She was standing there quite white, with tears in her widely opened orbs. The master felt that the right moment had come. Going up to her, he took both her hands, and looking in her tearful eyes, said, gravely, “Lissy, do you remember the first evening you came to see me?”
“You asked me if you might come to school, for you wanted to learn something and be better, and I said—”
“Come,” responded the child, promptly.
“What would YOU say if the master now came to you and said that he was lonely without his little scholar, and that he wanted her to come and teach him to be better?”
The child hung her head for a few moments in silence. The master waited patiently. Tempted by the quiet, a hare ran close to the couple, and raising her bright eyes and velvet forepaws, sat and gazed at them. A squirrel ran halfway down the furrowed bark of the fallen tree, and there stopped.
“We are waiting, Lissy,” said the master, in a whisper, and the child smiled. Stirred by a passing breeze, the treetops rocked, and a long pencil of light stole through their interlaced boughs full on the doubting face and irresolute little figure. Suddenly she took the master’s hand in her quick way. What she said was scarcely audible, but the master, putting the black hair back from her forehead, kissed her; and so, hand in hand, they passed out of the damp aisles and forest odors into the open sunlit road.
Somewhat less spiteful in her intercourse with other scholars, Mliss still retained an offensive attitude in regard to Clytemnestra. Perhaps the jealous element was not entirely lulled in her passionate little breast. Perhaps it was only that the round curves and plump outline offered more extended pinching surface. But while such ebullitions were under the master’s control, her enmity occasionally took a new and irrepressible form.
The master in his first estimate of the child’s character could not conceive that she had ever possessed a doll. But the master, like many other professed readers of character, was safer in a posteriori than a priori reasoning. Mliss had a doll, but then it was emphatically Mliss’s doll—a smaller copy of herself. Its unhappy existence had been a secret discovered accidentally by Mrs. Morpher. It had been the old-time companion of Mliss’s wanderings, and bore evident marks of suffering. Its original complexion was long since washed away by the weather and anointed by the slime of ditches. It looked very much as Mliss had in days past. Its one gown of faded stuff was dirty and ragged, as hers had been. Mliss had never been known to apply to it any childish term of endearment. She never exhibited it in the presence of other children. It was put severely to bed in a hollow tree near the schoolhouse, and only allowed exercise during Mliss’s rambles. Fulfilling a stern duty to her doll, as she would to herself, it knew no luxuries.
Now Mrs. Morpher, obeying a commendable impulse, bought another doll and gave it to Mliss. The child received it gravely and curiously. The master on looking at it one day fancied he saw a slight resemblance in its round red cheeks and mild blue eyes to Clytemnestra. It became evident before long that Mliss had also noticed the same resemblance. Accordingly she hammered its waxen head on the rocks when she was alone, and sometimes dragged it with a string round its neck to and from school. At other times, setting it up on her desk, she made a pincushion of its patient and inoffensive body. Whether this was done in revenge of what she considered a second figurative obtrusion of Clytie’s excellences upon her, or whether she had an intuitive appreciation of the rites of certain other heathens, and, indulging in that “fetish” ceremony, imagined that the original of her wax model would pine away and finally die, is a metaphysical question I shall not now consider.
In spite of these moral vagaries, the master could not help noticing in her different tasks the working of a quick, restless, and vigorous perception. She knew neither the hesitancy nor the doubts of childhood. Her answers in class were always slightly dashed with audacity. Of course she was not infallible. But her courage and daring in passing beyond her own depth and that of the floundering little swimmers around her, in their minds outweighed all errors of judgment. Children are not better than grown people in this respect, I fancy; and whenever the little red hand flashed above her desk, there was a wondering silence, and even the master was sometimes oppressed with a doubt of his own experience and judgment.
Nevertheless, certain attributes which at first amused and entertained his fancy began to afflict him with grave doubts. He could not but see that Mliss was revengeful, irreverent, and willful. That there was but one better quality which pertained to her semisavage disposition—the faculty of physical fortitude and self-sacrifice, and another, though not always an attribute of the noble savage—Truth. Mliss was both fearless and sincere; perhaps in such a character the adjectives were synonymous.
The master had been doing some hard thinking on this subject, and had arrived at that conclusion quite common to all who think sincerely, that he was generally the slave of his own prejudices, when he determined to call on the Rev. McSnagley for advice. This decision was somewhat humiliating to his pride, as he and McSnagley were not friends. But he thought of Mliss, and the evening of their first meeting; and perhaps with a pardonable superstition that it was not chance alone that had guided her willful feet to the schoolhouse, and perhaps with a complacent consciousness of the rare magnanimity of the act, he choked back his dislike and went to McSnagley.
The reverend gentleman was glad to see him. Moreover, he observed that the master was looking “peartish,” and hoped he had got over the “neuralgy” and “rheumatiz.” He himself had been troubled with a dumb “ager” since last conference. But he had learned to “rastle and pray.”
Pausing a moment to enable the master to write his certain method of curing the dumb “ager” upon the book and volume of his brain, Mr. McSnagley proceeded to inquire after Sister Morpher. “She is an adornment to ChrisTEWanity, and has a likely growin’ young family,” added Mr. McSnagley; “and there’s that mannerly young gal—so well behaved—Miss Clytie.” In fact, Clytie’s perfections seemed to affect him to such an extent that he dwelt for several minutes upon them. The master was doubly embarrassed. In the first place, there was an enforced contrast with poor Mliss in all this praise of Clytie. Secondly, there was something unpleasantly confidential in his tone of speaking of Mrs. Morpher’s earliest born. So that the master, after a few futile efforts to say something natural, found it convenient to recall another engagement, and left without asking the information required, but in his after reflections somewhat unjustly giving the Rev. Mr. McSnagley the full benefit of having refused it.
Perhaps this rebuff placed the master and pupil once more in the close communion of old. The child seemed to notice the change in the master’s manner, which had of late been constrained, and in one of their long postprandial walks she stopped suddenly, and mounting a stump, looked full in his face with big, searching eyes. “You ain’t mad?” said she, with an interrogative shake of the black braids. “No.” “Nor bothered?” “No.” “Nor hungry?” (Hunger was to Mliss a sickness that might attack a person at any moment.) “No.” “Nor thinking of her?” “Of whom, Lissy?” “That white girl.” (This was the latest epithet invented by Mliss, who was a very dark brunette, to express Clytemnestra.) “No.” “Upon your word?” (A substitute for “Hope you’ll die!” proposed by the master.) “Yes.” “And sacred honor?” “Yes.” Then Mliss gave him a fierce little kiss, and, hopping down, fluttered off. For two or three days after that she condescended to appear more like other children, and be, as she expressed it, “good.”
Two years had passed since the master’s advent at Smith’s Pocket, and as his salary was not large, and the prospects of Smith’s Pocket eventually becoming the capital of the State not entirely definite, he contemplated a change. He had informed the school trustees privately of his intentions, but educated young men of unblemished moral character being scarce at that time, he consented to continue his school term through the winter to early spring. None else knew of his intention except his one friend, a Dr. Duchesne, a young Creole physician known to the people of Wingdam as “Duchesny.” He never mentioned it to Mrs. Morpher, Clytie, or any of his scholars. His reticence was partly the result of a constitutional indisposition to fuss, partly a desire to be spared the questions and surmises of vulgar curiosity, and partly that he never really believed he was going to do anything before it was done.
He did not like to think of Mliss. It was a selfish instinct, perhaps, which made him try to fancy his feeling for the child was foolish, romantic, and unpractical. He even tried to imagine that she would do better under the control of an older and sterner teacher. Then she was nearly eleven, and in a few years, by the rules of Red Mountain, would be a woman. He had done his duty. After Smith’s death he addressed letters to Smith’s relatives, and received one answer from a sister of Melissa’s mother. Thanking the master, she stated her intention of leaving the Atlantic States for California with her husband in a few months. This was a slight superstructure for the airy castle which the master pictured for Mliss’s home, but it was easy to fancy that some loving, sympathetic woman, with the claims of kindred, might better guide her wayward nature. Yet, when the master had read the letter, Mliss listened to it carelessly, received it submissively, and afterward cut figures out of it with her scissors, supposed to represent Clytemnestra, labeled “the white girl,” to prevent mistakes, and impaled them upon the outer walls of the schoolhouse.
When the summer was about spent, and the last harvest had been gathered in the valleys, the master bethought him of gathering in a few ripened shoots of the young idea, and of having his Harvest Home, or Examination. So the savants and professionals of Smith’s Pocket were gathered to witness that time-honored custom of placing timid children in a constrained positions and bullying them as in a witness box. As usual in such cases, the most audacious and self-possessed were the lucky recipients of the honors. The reader will imagine that in the present instance Mliss and Clytie were preeminent, and divided public attention; Mliss with her clearness of material perception and self-reliance, Clytie with her placid self-esteem and saintlike correctness of deportment. The other little ones were timid and blundering. Mliss’s readiness and brilliancy, of course, captivated the greatest number and provoked the greatest applause. Mliss’s antecedents had unconsciously awakened the strongest sympathies of a class whose athletic forms were ranged against the walls, or whose handsome bearded faces looked in at the windows. But Mliss’s popularity was overthrown by an unexpected circumstance.
McSnagley had invited himself, and had been going through the pleasing entertainment of frightening the more timid pupils by the vaguest and most ambiguous questions delivered in an impressive funereal tone; and Mliss had soared into astronomy, and was tracking the course of our spotted ball through space, and keeping time with the music of the spheres, and defining the tethered orbits of the planets, when McSnagley impressively arose. “Meelissy! ye were speaking of the revolutions of this yere yearth and the move-MENTS of the sun, and I think ye said it had been a doing of it since the creashun, eh?” Mliss nodded a scornful affirmative. “Well, war that the truth?” said McSnagley, folding his arms. “Yes,” said Mliss, shutting up her little red lips tightly. The handsome outlines at the windows peered further in the schoolroom, and a saintly Raphael face, with blond beard and soft blue eyes, belonging to the biggest scamp in the diggings, turned toward the child and whispered, “Stick to it, Mliss!” The reverend gentleman heaved a deep sigh, and cast a compassionate glance at the master, then at the children, and then rested his look on Clytie. That young woman softly elevated her round, white arm. Its seductive curves were enhanced by a gorgeous and massive specimen bracelet, the gift of one of her humblest worshipers, worn in honor of the occasion. There was a momentary silence. Clytie’s round cheeks were very pink and soft. Clytie’s big eyes were very bright and blue. Clytie’s low-necked white book muslin rested softly on Clytie’s white, plump shoulders. Clytie looked at the master, and the master nodded. Then Clytie spoke softly:
“Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and it obeyed him!” There was a low hum of applause in the schoolroom, a triumphant expression on McSnagley’s face, a grave shadow on the master’s, and a comical look of disappointment reflected from the windows. Mliss skimmed rapidly over her astronomy, and then shut the book with a loud snap. A groan burst from McSnagley, an expression of astonishment from the schoolroom, a yell from the windows, as Mliss brought her red fist down on the desk, with the emphatic declaration:
“It’s a damn lie. I don’t believe it!”
The long wet season had drawn near its close. Signs of spring were visible in the swelling buds and rushing torrents. The pine forests exhaled the fresher spicery. The azaleas were already budding, the ceanothus getting ready its lilac livery for spring. On the green upland which climbed Red Mountain at its southern aspect the long spike of the monkshood shot up from its broad-leaved stool, and once more shook its dark-blue bells. Again the billow above Smith’s grave was soft and green, its crest just tossed with the foam of daisies and buttercups. The little graveyard had gathered a few new dwellers in the past year, and the mounds were placed two by two by the little paling until they reached Smith’s grave, and there there was but one. General superstition had shunned it, and the plot beside Smith was vacant.
There had been several placards posted about the town, intimating that, at a certain period, a celebrated dramatic company would perform, for a few days, a series of “side-splitting” and “screaming farces”; that, alternating pleasantly with this, there would be some melodrama and a grand divertisement which would include singing, dancing, etc. These announcements occasioned a great fluttering among the little folk, and were the theme of much excitement and great speculation among the master’s scholars. The master had promised Mliss, to whom this sort of thing was sacred and rare, that she should go, and on that momentous evening the master and Mliss “assisted.”
The performance was the prevalent style of heavy mediocrity; the melodrama was not bad enough to laugh at nor good enough to excite. But the master, turning wearily to the child, was astonished and felt something like self-accusation in noticing the peculiar effect upon her excitable nature. The red blood flushed in her cheeks at each stroke of her panting little heart. Her small passionate lips were slightly parted to give vent to her hurried breath. Her widely opened lids threw up and arched her black eyebrows. She did not laugh at the dismal comicalities of the funny man, for Mliss seldom laughed. Nor was she discreetly affected to the delicate extremes of the corner of a white handkerchief, as was the tender-hearted “Clytie,” who was talking with her “feller” and ogling the master at the same moment. But when the performance was over, and the green curtain fell on the little stage, Mliss drew a long deep breath, and turned to the master’s grave face with a half-apologetic smile and wearied gesture. Then she said, “Now take me home!” and dropped the lids of her black eyes, as if to dwell once more in fancy on the mimic stage.
On their way to Mrs. Morpher’s the master thought proper to ridicule the whole performance. Now he shouldn’t wonder if Mliss thought that the young lady who acted so beautifully was really in earnest, and in love with the gentleman who wore such fine clothes. Well, if she were in love with him it was a very unfortunate thing! “Why?” said Mliss, with an upward sweep of the drooping lid. “Oh! well, he couldn’t support his wife at his present salary, and pay so much a week for his fine clothes, and then they wouldn’t receive as much wages if they were married as if they were merely lovers—that is,” added the master, “if they are not already married to somebody else; but I think the husband of the pretty young countess takes the tickets at the door, or pulls up the curtain, or snuffs the candles, or does something equally refined and elegant. As to the young man with nice clothes, which are really nice now, and must cost at least two and a half or three dollars, not to speak of that mantle of red drugget which I happen to know the price of, for I bought some of it for my room once—as to this young man, Lissy, he is a pretty good fellow, and if he does drink occasionally, I don’t think people ought to take advantage of it and give him black eyes and throw him in the mud. Do you? I am sure he might owe me two dollars and a half a long time, before I would throw it up in his face, as the fellow did the other night at Wingdam.”
Mliss had taken his hand in both of hers and was trying to look in his eyes, which the young man kept as resolutely averted. Mliss had a faint idea of irony, indulging herself sometimes in a species of sardonic humor, which was equally visible in her actions and her speech. But the young man continued in this strain until they had reached Mrs. Morpher’s, and he had deposited Mliss in her maternal charge. Waiving the invitation of Mrs. Morpher to refreshment and rest, and shading his eyes with his hand to keep out the blue-eyed Clytemnestra’s siren glances, he excused himself, and went home.
For two or three days after the advent of the dramatic company, Mliss was late at school, and the master’s usual Friday afternoon ramble was for once omitted, owing to the absence of his trustworthy guide. As he was putting away his books and preparing to leave the schoolhouse, a small voice piped at his side, “Please, sir?” The master turned and there stood Aristides Morpher.
“Well, my little man,” said the master, impatiently, “what is it? quick!”
“Please, sir, me and ‘Kerg’ thinks that Mliss is going to run away agin.”
“What’s that, sir?” said the master, with that unjust testiness with which we always receive disagreeable news.
“Why, sir, she don’t stay home any more, and ‘Kerg’ and me see her talking with one of those actor fellers, and she’s with him now; and please, sir, yesterday she told ‘Kerg’ and me she could make a speech as well as Miss Cellerstina Montmoressy, and she spouted right off by heart,” and the little fellow paused in a collapsed condition.
“What actor?” asked the master.
“Him as wears the shiny hat. And hair. And gold pin. And gold chain,” said the just Aristides, putting periods for commas to eke out his breath.
The master put on his gloves and hat, feeling an unpleasant tightness in his chest and thorax, and walked out in the road. Aristides trotted along by his side, endeavoring to keep pace with his short legs to the master’s strides, when the master stopped suddenly, and Aristides bumped up against him. “Where were they talking?” asked the master, as if continuing the conversation.
“At the Arcade,” said Aristides.
When they reached the main street the master paused. “Run down home,” said he to the boy. “If Mliss is there, come to the Arcade and tell me. If she isn’t there, stay home; run!” And off trotted the short-legged Aristides.
The Arcade was just across the way—a long, rambling building containing a barroom, billiard room, and restaurant. As the young man crossed the plaza he noticed that two or three of the passers-by turned and looked after him. He looked at his clothes, took out his handkerchief, and wiped his face before he entered the barroom. It contained the usual number of loungers, who stared at him as he entered. One of them looked at him so fixedly and with such a strange expression that the master stopped and looked again, and then saw it was only his own reflection in a large mirror. This made the master think that perhaps he was a little excited, and so he took up a copy of the RED MOUNTAIN BANNER from one of the tables, and tried to recover his composure by reading the column of advertisements.
He then walked through the barroom, through the restaurant, and into the billiard room. The child was not there. In the latter apartment a person was standing by one of the tables with a broad-brimmed glazed hat on his head. The master recognized him as the agent of the dramatic company; he had taken a dislike to him at their first meeting, from the peculiar fashion of wearing his beard and hair. Satisfied that the object of his search was not there, he turned to the man with a glazed hat. He had noticed the master, but tried that common trick of unconsciousness in which vulgar natures always fail. Balancing a billiard cue in his hand, he pretended to play with a ball in the center of the table. The master stood opposite to him until he raised his eyes; when their glances met, the master walked up to him.
He had intended to avoid a scene or quarrel, but when he began to speak, something kept rising in his throat and retarded his utterance, and his own voice frightened him, it sounded so distant, low, and resonant. “I understand,” he began, “that Melissa Smith, an orphan, and one of my scholars, has talked with you about adopting your profession. Is that so?”
The man with the glazed hat leaned over the table and made an imaginary shot that sent the ball spinning round the cushions. Then, walking round the table, he recovered the ball and placed it upon the spot. This duty discharged, getting ready for another shot, he said:
“S’pose she has?”
The master choked up again, but, squeezing the cushion of the table in his gloved hand, he went on:
“If you are a gentleman, I have only to tell you that I am her guardian, and responsible for her career. You know as well as I do the kind of life you offer her. As you may learn of anyone here, I have already brought her out of an existence worse than death—out of the streets and the contamination of vice. I am trying to do so again. Let us talk like men. She has neither father, mother, sister, or brother. Are you seeking to give her an equivalent for these?”
The man with the glazed hat examined the point of his cue, and then looked around for somebody to enjoy the joke with him.
“I know that she is a strange, willful girl,” continued the master, “but she is better than she was. I believe that I have some influence over her still. I beg and hope, therefore, that you will take no further steps in this matter, but as a man, as a gentleman, leave her to me. I am willing—” But here something rose again in the master’s throat, and the sentence remained unfinished.
The man with the glazed hat, mistaking the master’s silence, raised his head with a coarse, brutal laugh, and said in a loud voice:
“Want her yourself, do you? That cock won’t fight here, young man!”
The insult was more in the tone than in the words, more in the glance than tone, and more in the man’s instinctive nature than all these. The best appreciable rhetoric to this kind of animal is a blow. The master felt this, and, with his pent-up, nervous energy finding expression in the one act, he struck the brute full in his grinning face. The blow sent the glazed hat one way and the cue another, and tore the glove and skin from the master’s hand from knuckle to joint. It opened up the corners of the fellow’s mouth, and spoilt the peculiar shape of his beard for some time to come.
There was a shout, an imprecation, a scuffle, and the trampling of many feet. Then the crowd parted right and left, and two sharp quick reports followed each other in rapid succession. Then they closed again about his opponent, and the master was standing alone. He remembered picking bits of burning wadding from his coat sleeve with his left hand. Someone was holding his other hand. Looking at it, he saw it was still bleeding from the blow, but his fingers were clenched around the handle of a glittering knife. He could not remember when or how he got it.
The man who was holding his hand was Mr. Morpher. He hurried the master to the door, but the master held back, and tried to tell him as well as he could with his parched throat about “Mliss.” “It’s all right, my boy,” said Mr. Morpher. “She’s home!” And they passed out into the street together. As they walked along Mr. Morpher said that Mliss had come running into the house a few moments before, and had dragged him out, saying that somebody was trying to kill the master at the Arcade. Wishing to be alone, the master promised Mr. Morpher that he would not seek the agent again that night, and parted from him, taking the road toward the schoolhouse. He was surprised in nearing it to find the door open—still more surprised to find Mliss sitting there.
The master’s nature, as I have hinted before, had, like most sensitive organizations, a selfish basis. The brutal taunt thrown out by his late adversary still rankled in his heart. It was possible, he thought, that such a construction might be put upon his affection for the child, which at best was foolish and Quixotic. Besides, had she not voluntarily abnegated his authority and affection? And what had everybody else said about her? Why should he alone combat the opinion of all, and be at last obliged tacitly to confess the truth of all they predicted? And he had been a participant in a low barroom fight with a common boor, and risked his life, to prove what? What had he proved? Nothing? What would the people say? What would his friends say? What would McSnagley say?
In his self-accusation the last person he should have wished to meet was Mliss. He entered the door, and going up to his desk, told the child, in a few cold words, that he was busy, and wished to be alone. As she rose he took her vacant seat, and, sitting down, buried his head in his hands. When he looked up again she was still standing there. She was looking at his face with an anxious expression.
“Did you kill him?” she asked.
“No!” said the master.
“That’s what I gave you the knife for!” said the child, quickly.
“Gave me the knife?” repeated the master, in bewilderment.
“Yes, gave you the knife. I was there under the bar. Saw you hit him. Saw you both fall. He dropped his old knife. I gave it to you. Why didn’t you stick him?” said Mliss rapidly, with an expressive twinkle of the black eyes and a gesture of the little red hand.
The master could only look his astonishment.
“Yes,” said Mliss. “If you’d asked me, I’d told you I was off with the play-actors. Why was I off with the play-actors? Because you wouldn’t tell me you was going away. I knew it. I heard you tell the Doctor so. I wasn’t a goin’ to stay here alone with those Morphers. I’d rather die first.”
With a dramatic gesture which was perfectly consistent with her character, she drew from her bosom a few limp green leaves, and, holding them out at arm’s length, said in her quick vivid way, and in the queer pronunciation of her old life, which she fell into when unduly excited:
“That’s the poison plant you said would kill me. I’ll go with the play-actors, or I’ll eat this and die here. I don’t care which. I won’t stay here, where they hate and despise me! Neither would you let me, if you didn’t hate and despise me too!”
The passionate little breast heaved, and two big tears peeped over the edge of Mliss’s eyelids, but she whisked them away with the corner of her apron as if they had been wasps.
“If you lock me up in jail,” said Mliss, fiercely, “to keep me from the play-actors, I’ll poison myself. Father killed himself—why shouldn’t I? You said a mouthful of that root would kill me, and I always carry it here,” and she struck her breast with her clenched fist.
The master thought of the vacant plot beside Smith’s grave, and of the passionate little figure before him. Seizing her hands in his and looking full into her truthful eyes, he said:
“Lissy, will you go with ME?”
The child put her arms around his neck, and said joyfully, “Yes.”
And, hand in hand, they passed into the road—the narrow road that had once brought her weary feet to the master’s door, and which it seemed she should not tread again alone. The stars glittered brightly above them. For good or ill the lesson had been learned, and behind them the school of Red Mountain closed upon them forever.
Romance inspired by the classics