A protegee of jack hamli.., p.1
A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's, and Other Stories, p.1
Produced by Donald Lainson
A PROTEGEE OF JACK HAMLIN'S
by Bret Harte
A PROTEGEE OF JACK HAMLIN'S
AN INGENUE OF THE SIERRAS
THE REFORMATION OF JAMES REDDY
THE HEIR OF THE McHULISHES
AN EPISODE OF WEST WOODLANDS
THE HOME-COMING OF JIM WILKES
A PROTEGEE OF JACK HAMLIN'S.
The steamer Silveropolis was sharply and steadily cleaving the broad,placid shallows of the Sacramento River. A large wave like an eagre,diverging from its bow, was extending to either bank, swamping the tulesand threatening to submerge the lower levees. The great boat itself--avast but delicate structure of airy stories, hanging galleries, fragilecolonnades, gilded cornices, and resplendent frescoes--was throbbingthroughout its whole perilous length with the pulse of high pressure andthe strong monotonous beat of a powerful piston. Floods of foam pouringfrom the high paddle-boxes on either side and reuniting in the wake ofthe boat left behind a track of dazzling whiteness, over which trailedtwo dense black banners flung from its lofty smokestacks.
Mr. Jack Hamlin had quietly emerged from his stateroom on deck and waslooking over the guards. His hands were resting lightly on his hips overthe delicate curves of his white waistcoat, and he was whistling softly,possibly some air to which he had made certain card-playing passengersdance the night before. He was in comfortable case, and his soft browneyes under their long lashes were veiled with gentle tolerance of allthings. He glanced lazily along the empty hurricane deck forward; heglanced lazily down to the saloon deck below him. Far out against theguards below him leaned a young girl. Mr. Hamlin knitted his browsslightly.
He remembered her at once. She had come on board that morning with oneNed Stratton, a brother gambler, but neither a favorite nor intimate ofJack's. From certain indications in the pair, Jack had inferred that shewas some foolish or reckless creature whom "Ed" had "got on a string,"and was spiriting away from her friends and family. With the abstractmorality of this situation Jack was not in the least concerned. Forhimself he did not indulge in that sort of game; the inexperience andvacillations of innocence were apt to be bothersome, and besides, acertain modest doubt of his own competency to make an original selectionhad always made him prefer to confine his gallantries to the wives ofmen of greater judgment than himself who had. But it suddenly occurredto him that he had seen Stratton quickly slip off the boat at the lastlanding stage. Ah! that was it; he had cast away and deserted her.It was an old story. Jack smiled. But he was not greatly amused withStratton.
She was very pale, and seemed to be clinging to the network railing,as if to support herself, although she was gazing fixedly at the yellowglancing current below, which seemed to be sucked down and swallowedin the paddle-box as the boat swept on. It certainly was a fascinatingsight--this sloping rapid, hurrying on to bury itself under the crushingwheels. For a brief moment Jack saw how they would seize anythingfloating on that ghastly incline, whirl it round in one awful revolutionof the beating paddles, and then bury it, broken and shattered out ofall recognition, deep in the muddy undercurrent of the stream behindthem.
She moved away presently with an odd, stiff step, chafing her glovedhands together as if they had become stiffened too in her rigid graspof the railing. Jack leisurely watched her as she moved along the narrowstrip of deck. She was not at all to his taste,--a rather plump girlwith a rustic manner and a great deal of brown hair under her strawhat. She might have looked better had she not been so haggard. When shereached the door of the saloon she paused, and then, turning suddenly,began to walk quickly back again. As she neared the spot where she hadbeen standing her pace slackened, and when she reached the railing sheseemed to relapse against it in her former helpless fashion. Jack becamelazily interested. Suddenly she lifted her head and cast a quick glancearound and above her. In that momentary lifting of her face Jack saw herexpression. Whatever it was, his own changed instantly; the next momentthere was a crash on the lower deck. It was Jack who had swung himselfover the rail and dropped ten feet, to her side. But not before she hadplaced one foot in the meshes of the netting and had gripped the railingfor a spring.
The noise of Jack's fall might have seemed to her bewildered fancy as apart of her frantic act, for she fell forward vacantly on the railing.But by this time Jack had grasped her arm as if to help himself to hisfeet.
"I might have killed myself by that foolin', mightn't I?" he saidcheerfully.
The sound of a voice so near her seemed to recall to her dazed sense theuncompleted action his fall had arrested. She made a convulsive boundtowards the railing, but Jack held her fast.
"Don't," he said in a low voice, "don't, it won't pay. It's the sickestgame that ever was played by man or woman. Come here!"
He drew her towards an empty stateroom whose door was swinging on itshinges a few feet from them. She was trembling violently; he half led,half pushed her into the room, closed the door and stood with his backagainst it as she dropped into a chair. She looked at him vacantly; theagitation she was undergoing inwardly had left her no sense of outwardperception.
"You know Stratton would be awfully riled," continued Jack easily. "He'sjust stepped out to see a friend and got left by the fool boat. He'll bealong by the next steamer, and you're bound to meet him in Sacramento."
Her staring eyes seemed suddenly to grasp his meaning. But to hissurprise she burst out with a certain hysterical desperation, "No! no!Never! NEVER again! Let me pass! I must go," and struggled to regainthe door. Jack, albeit singularly relieved to know that she sharedhis private sentiments regarding Stratton, nevertheless resisted her.Whereat she suddenly turned white, reeled back, and sank in a dead faintin the chair.
The gambler turned, drew the key from the inside of the door, passedout, locking it behind him, and walked leisurely into the main saloon."Mrs. Johnson," he said gravely, addressing the stewardess, a tallmulatto, with his usual winsome supremacy over dependents and children,"you'll oblige me if you'll corral a few smelling salts, vinaigrettes,hairpins, and violet powder, and unload them in deck stateroom No. 257.There's a lady"--
"A lady, Marse Hamlin?" interrupted the mulatto, with an archlysignificant flash of her white teeth.
"A lady," continued Jack with unabashed gravity, "in a sort ofconniption fit. A relative of mine; in fact a niece, my only sister'schild. Hadn't seen each other for ten years, and it was too much forher."
The woman glanced at him with a mingling of incredulous belief, butdelighted obedience, hurriedly gathered a few articles from her cabin,and followed him to No. 257. The young girl was still unconscious. Thestewardess applied a few restoratives with the skill of long experience,and the young girl opened her eyes. They turned vacantly from thestewardess to Jack with a look of half recognition and half frightenedinquiry. "Yes," said Jack, addressing the eyes, although ostentatiouslyspeaking to Mrs. Johnson, "she'd only just come by steamer to 'Friscoand wasn't expecting to see me, and we dropped right into each otherhere on the boat. And I haven't seen her since she was so high. SisterMary ought to have warned me by letter; but she was always a slouch atletter writing. There, that'll do, Mrs. Johnson. She's coming round; Ireckon I can manage the rest. But you go now and tell the purser I wantone of those inside staterooms for my niece,--MY NIECE, you hear,--sothat you can be near her and look after her."
As the stewardess turned obediently away the young girl attempted torise, but Jack checked her. "No," he said, almost brusquely; "you andI have some talking to do before she gets back, and we've no time forfoolin'. You heard what I told her just now! Well, it's got to be as Isaid, you sabe. As long as you're on this boat you're my niece, and mysister Mary's child. As I haven't got any sister Mary, you don't run anyrisk of falling foul of her, and you ain't taking any one's place. Thatsettles that. Now, do you or do you not want to see that man again? Sayyes, and if he's anywhere above ground I'll yank him over to you as soonas we touch shore." He had no idea of interfering with his colleague'samours, but he had determined to make Stratton pay for the bother theirslovenly sequence had caused him. Yet he was relieved and astonishedby her frantic gesture of indignation and abhorrence. "No?" he repeatedgrimly. "Well, that settles that. Now, look here; quick, before shecomes--do you want to go back home to your friends?"
But here occurred what he had dreaded most and probably thought he hadescaped. She had stared at him, at the stewardess, at the walls, withabstracted, vacant, and bewildered, but always undimmed and unmoistenedeyes. A sudden convulsion shook her whole frame, her blank expressionbroke like a shattered mirror, she threw her hands over her eyes andfell forward with her face to the back of her chair in an outburst oftears.
Alas for Jack! with the breaking up of those sealed fountains came herspeech also, at first disconnected and incoherent, and then despairingand passionate. No! she had no longer friends or home! She had lost anddisgraced them! She had disgraced HERSELF! There was no home for herbut the grave. Why had Jack snatched her from it? Then, bit by bit,she yielded up her story,--a story decidedly commonplace to Jack,uninteresting, and even irritating to his fastidiousness. She was aschoolgirl (not even a convent girl, but the inmate of a Presbyterianfemale academy at Napa. Jack shuddered as he remembered to have onceseen certain of the pupils walking with a teacher), and she lived withher married sister. She had seen Stratton while going to and fro onthe San Francisco boat; she had exchanged notes with him, had met himsecretly, and finally consented to elope with him to Sacramento, onlyto discover when the boat had left the wharf the real nature of hisintentions. Jack listened with infinite weariness and inward chafing. Hehad read all this before in cheap novelettes, in the police reports, inthe Sunday papers; he had heard a street preacher declaim againstit, and warn young women of the serpent-like wiles of tempters of theStratton variety. But even now Jack failed to recognize Stratton as aserpent, or indeed anything but a blundering cheat and clown, who hadleft his dirty 'prentice work on his (Jack's) hands. But the girl washelpless and, it seemed, homeless, all through a certain desperationof feeling which, in spite of her tears, he could not but respect. Thatmomentary shadow of death had exalted her. He stroked his mustache,pulled down his white waistcoat and her cry, without saying anything.He did not know that this most objectionable phase of her misery was hersalvation and his own.
But the stewardess would return in a moment. "You'd better tell me whatto call you," he said quietly. "I ought to know my niece's first name."
The girl caught her breath, and, between two sobs, said, "Sophonisba."
Jack winced. It seemed only to need this last sentimental touch tocomplete the idiotic situation. "I'll call you Sophy," he said hurriedlyand with an effort.
"And now look here! You are going in that cabin with Mrs. Johnson whereshe can look after you, but I can't. So I'll have to take your word, forI'm not going to give you away before Mrs. Johnson, that you won't trythat foolishness--you know what I mean--before I see you again. Can Itrust you?"
With her head still bowed over the chair back, she murmured slowlysomewhere from under her disheveled hair:--
"Honest Injin?" adjured Jack gravely.
The shuffling step of the stewardess was heard slowly approaching."Yes," continued Jack abruptly, lightly lifting his voice as Mrs.Johnson opened the door,--"yes, if you'd only had some of thosespearmint drops of your aunt Rachel's that she always gave you whenthese fits came on you'd have been all right inside of five minutes.Aunty was no slouch of a doctor, was she? Dear me, it only seemsyesterday since I saw her. You were just playing round her knee likea kitten on the back porch. How time does fly! But here's Mrs. Johnsoncoming to take you in. Now rouse up, Sophy, and just hook yourself on toMrs. Johnson on that side, and we'll toddle along."
The young girl put back her heavy hair, and with her face still avertedsubmitted to be helped to her feet by the kindly stewardess. Perhapssomething homely sympathetic and nurse-like in the touch of the mulattogave her assurance and confidence, for her head lapsed quite naturallyagainst the woman's shoulder, and her face was partly hidden as shemoved slowly along the deck. Jack accompanied them to the saloon and theinner stateroom door. A few passengers gathered curiously near, as muchattracted by the unusual presence of Jack Hamlin in such a processionas by the girl herself. "You'll look after her specially, Mrs. Johnson,"said Jack, in unusually deliberate terms. "She's been a good deal pettedat home, and my sister perhaps has rather spoilt her. She's pretty muchof a child still, and you'll have to humor her. Sophy," he continued,with ostentatious playfulness, directing his voice into the dim recessesof the stateroom, "you'll just think Mrs. Johnson's your old nurse,won't you? Think it's old Katy, hey?"
To his great consternation the girl approached tremblingly from theinner shadow. The faintest and saddest of smiles for a moment playedaround the corners of her drawn mouth and tear-dimmed eyes as she heldout her hand and said:--
"God bless you for being so kind."
Jack shuddered and glanced quickly round. But luckily no one heard thiscrushing sentimentalism, and the next moment the door closed upon herand Mrs. Johnson.
It was past midnight, and the moon was riding high over the narrowingyellow river, when Jack again stepped out on deck. He had just left thecaptain's cabin, and a small social game with the officers, whichhad served to some extent to vaguely relieve his irritation andtheir pockets. He had presumably quite forgotten the incident of theafternoon, as he looked about him, and complacently took in the quietbeauty of the night.
The low banks on either side offered no break to the uninterrupted levelof the landscape, through which the river seemed to wind only as a racetrack for the rushing boat. Every fibre of her vast but fragile bulkquivered under the goad of her powerful engines. There was no othermovement but hers, no other sound but this monstrous beat and panting;the whole tranquil landscape seemed to breathe and pulsate with her;dwellers in the tules, miles away, heard and felt her as she passed, andit seemed to Jack, leaning over the railing, as if the whole river sweptlike a sluice through her paddle-boxes.
Jack had quite unconsciously lounged before that part of the railingwhere the young girl had leaned a few hours ago. As he looked down uponthe streaming yellow mill-race below him, he noticed--what neither henor the girl had probably noticed before--that a space of the top bar ofthe railing was hinged, and could be lifted by withdrawing a smallbolt, thus giving easy access to the guards. He was still looking at it,whistling softly, when footsteps approached.
"Jack," said a lazy voice, "how's sister Mary?"
"It's a long time since you've seen her only child, Jack, ain't it?"said a second voice; "and yet it sort o' seems to me somehow that I'veseen her before."
Jack recognized the voice of two of his late companions at thecard-table. His whistling ceased; so also dropped every trace of colorand expression from his handsome face. But he did not turn, and remainedquietly gazing at the water.
"Aunt Rachel, too, must be getting on in years, Jack," continued thefirst speaker, halting behind Jack.
"And Mrs. Johnson does not look so much like Sophy's old nurse asshe used to," remarked the second, following his example. Still Jackremained unmoved.
"You don't seem to be interested, Jack," continued the first speaker."What are you looking at?"
Without turning his head the gambler replied, "Looking at the boat;she's booming along, just chawing up and spitting out the river, ain'tshe? Look at that sweep of water going under her paddle-wheels," hecontinued, unbolting the rail and lifting it to allow the two men topeer curiously over the guards as he pointed to the murderous inclinebeneath them; "a man wouldn't stand much show who got dropped into it.How these paddles would just snatch him bald-headed, pick him up andslosh him round and round, and then sling him out down there in such ashape that his own father wouldn't know him."
"Yes," said the first speaker, with an ostentatious little laugh, "butall that ain't telling us how sister Mary is."
"No," said the gambler slipping into the opening with a white and rigidface in which nothing seemed living but the eyes, "no, but it's tellingyou how two d----d fools who didn't know when to shut their mouths mightget them shut once and forever. It's telling you what might happen totwo men who tried to 'play' a man who didn't care to be 'played,'--a manwho didn't care much what he did, when he did it, or how he did it, butwould do what he'd set out to do--even if in doing it he went to hellwith the men he sent there."
He had stepped out on the guards, beside the two men, closing the railbehind him. He had placed his hands on their shoulders; they had bothgripped his arms; yet, viewed from the deck above, they seemed at thatmoment an amicable, even fraternal group, albeit the faces of the threewere dead white in the moonlight.
"I don't think I'm so very much interested in sister Mary," said thefirst speaker quietly, after a pause.
"And I don't seem to think so much of aunt Rachel as I did," said hiscompanion.
"I thought you wouldn't," said Jack, coolly reopening the rail andstepping back again. "It all depends upon the way you look at thosethings. Good-night."
The three men paused, shook each other's hands silently, and separated,Jack sauntering slowly back to his stateroom.
The educational establishment of Mrs. Mix and Madame Bance, situatedin the best quarter of Sacramento and patronized by the highest stateofficials and members of the clergy, was a pretty if not an imposingedifice. Although surrounded by a high white picket fence and enteredthrough a heavily boarded gate, its balconies festooned with jasmineand roses, and its spotlessly draped windows as often graced with fresh,flower-like faces, were still plainly and provokingly visible above theostentatious spikes of the pickets. Nevertheless, Mr. Jack Hamlin, whohad six months before placed his niece, Miss Sophonisba Brown, underits protecting care, felt a degree of uneasiness, even bordering ontimidity, which was new to that usually self-confident man. Rememberinghow his first appearance had fluttered this dovecote and awakened asevere suspicion in the minds of the two principals, he had discardedhis usual fashionable attire and elegantly fitting garments for a rough,homespun suit, supposed to represent a homely agriculturist, but whichhad the effect of transforming him into an adorable Strephon, infinitelymore dangerous in his rustic shepherd-like simplicity. He had alsoshaved off his silken mustache for the same prudential reasons, but hadonly succeeded in uncovering the delicate lines of his handsomemouth, and so absurdly reducing his apparent years that his avuncularpretensions seemed more preposterous than ever; and when he had rungthe bell and was admitted by a severe Irish waiting-maid, his momentaryhesitation and half humorous diffidence had such an unexpected effectupon her, that it seemed doubtful if he would be allowed to pass beyondthe vestibule. "Shure, miss," she said in a whisper to an under teacher,"there's wan at the dhure who calls himself, 'Mister' Hamlin, but av itis not a young lady maskeradin' in her brother's clothes Oim very muchmistaken; and av it's a boy, one of the pupil's brothers, shure ye mightput a dhress on him when you take the others out for a walk, and he'dpass for the beauty of the whole school."
Meantime, the unconscious subject of this criticism was pacing somewhatuneasily up and down the formal reception room into which he had beenfinally ushered. Its farther end was filled by an enormous parlor organ,a number of music books, and a cheerfully variegated globe. A largepresentation Bible, an equally massive illustrated volume on the HolyLand, a few landscapes in cold, bluish milk and water colors, and rigidheads in crayons--the work of pupils--were presumably ornamental. Animposing mahogany sofa and what seemed to be a disproportionate excessof chairs somewhat coldly furnished the room. Jack had reluctantlymade up his mind that, if Sophy was accompanied by any one, he would beobliged to kiss her to keep up his assumed relationship. As she enteredthe room with Miss Mix, Jack advanced and soberly saluted her on thecheek. But so positive and apparent was the gallantry of his presence,and perhaps so suggestive of some pastoral flirtation, that Miss Mix, toJack's surprise, winced perceptibly and became stony. But he was stillmore surprised that the young lady herself shrank half uneasily from hislips, and uttered a slight exclamation. It was a new experience to Mr.Hamlin.
But this somewhat mollified Miss Mix, and she slightly relaxed herausterity. She was glad to be able to give the best accounts of MissBrown, not only as regarded her studies, but as to her conduct anddeportment. Really, with the present freedom of manners and laxity ofhome discipline in California, it was gratifying to meet a young ladywho seemed to value the importance of a proper decorum and behavior,especially towards the opposite sex. Mr. Hamlin, although her guardian,was perhaps too young to understand and appreciate this. To thisinexperience she must also attribute the indiscretion of his callingduring school hours and without preliminary warning. She trusted,however, that this informality could be overlooked after consultationwith Madame Bance, but in the mean time, perhaps for half an hour, shemust withdraw Miss Brown and return with her to the class. Mr. Hamlincould wait in this public room, reserved especially for visitors, untilthey returned. Or, if he cared to accompany one of the teachers in aformal inspection of the school, she added, doubtfully, with a glanceat Jack's distracting attractions, she would submit this also to MadameBance.
"Thank you, thank you," returned Jack hurriedly, as a depressing visionof the fifty or sixty scholars rose before his eyes, "but I'd rathernot. I mean, you know, I'd just as lief stay here ALONE. I wouldn't havecalled anyway, don't you see, only I had a day off,--and--and--I wantedto talk with my niece on family matters." He did not say that he hadreceived a somewhat distressful letter from her asking him to come; anew instinct made him cautious.
Considerably relieved by Jack's unexpected abstention, which seemed tospare her pupils the distraction of his graces, Miss Mix smiled moreamicably and retired with her charge. In the single glance he hadexchanged with Sophy he saw that, although resigned and apparentlyself-controlled, she still appeared thoughtful and melancholy. She hadimproved in appearance and seemed more refined and less rustic in herschool dress, but he was conscious of the same distinct separation ofher personality (which was uninteresting to him) from the sentiment thathad impelled him to visit her. She was possibly still hankering afterthat fellow Stratton, in spite of her protestations to the contrary;perhaps she wanted to go back to her sister, although she had declaredshe would die first, and had always refused to disclose her real nameor give any clue by which he could have traced her relations. She wouldcry, of course; he almost hoped that she would not return alone; he halfregretted he had come. She still held him only by a single qualityof her nature,--the desperation she had shown on the boat; that wassomething he understood and respected.
He walked discontentedly to the window and looked out; he walkeddiscontentedly to the end of the room and stopped before the organ.It was a fine instrument; he could see that with an admiring andexperienced eye. He was alone in the room; in fact, quite alone in thatpart of the house which was separated from the class-rooms. He woulddisturb no one by trying it. And if he did, what then? He smiled alittle recklessly, slowly pulled off his gloves, and sat down before it.
He played cautiously at first, with the soft pedal down. The instrumenthad never known a strong masculine hand before, having been fumbled andfriveled over by softly incompetent, feminine fingers. But presently itbegan to thrill under the passionate hand of its lover, and carried awayby his one innocent weakness, Jack was launched upon a sea of musicalreminiscences. Scraps of church music, Puritan psalms of his boyhood;dying strains from sad, forgotten operas, fragments of oratorios andsymphonies, but chiefly phases from old masses heard at the missionsof San Pedro and Santa Isabel, swelled up from his loving and masterfulfingers. He had finished an Agnus Dei; the formal room was pulsatingwith divine aspiration; the rascal's hands were resting listlessly onthe keys, his brown lashes lifted, in an effort of memory, tenderlytowards the ceiling.
Suddenly, a subdued murmur of applause and a slight rustle behind himrecalled him to himself again. He wheeled his chair quickly round. Thetwo principals of the school and half a dozen teachers were standinggravely behind him, and at the open door a dozen curled and frizzledyouthful heads peered in eagerly, but half restrained by their teachers.The relaxed features and apologetic attitude of Madame Bance and MissMix showed that Mr. Hamlin had unconsciously achieved a triumph.
He might not have been as pleased to know that his extraordinaryperformance had solved a difficulty, effaced his other graces, andenabled them to place him on the moral pedestal of a mere musician, towhom these eccentricities were allowable and privileged. He shared theadmiration extended by the young ladies to their music teacher, whichwas always understood to be a sexless enthusiasm and a contagiousjuvenile disorder. It was also a fine advertisement for the organ.Madame Bance smiled blandly, improved the occasion by thanking Mr.Hamlin for having given the scholars a gratuitous lesson on thecapabilities of the instrument, and was glad to be able to give MissBrown a half-holiday to spend with her accomplished relative. Miss Brownwas even now upstairs, putting on her hat and mantle. Jack was relieved.Sophy would not attempt to cry on the street.
Nevertheless, when they reached it and the gate closed behind them, heagain became uneasy. The girl's clouded face and melancholy manner werenot promising. It also occurred to him that he might meet some one whoknew him and thus compromise her. This was to be avoided at all hazards.He began with forced gayety:--
"Well, now, where shall we go?"
She slightly raised her tear-dimmed eyes. "Where you please--I don'tcare."
"There isn't any show going on here, is there?" He had a vague idea of acircus or menagerie--himself behind her in the shadow of the box.
"I don't know of any."
"Or any restaurant--or cake shop?"
"There's a place where the girls go to get candy on Main Street. Some ofthem are there now."
Jack shuddered; this was not to be thought of. "But where do you walk?"
"Up and down Main Street."
"Where everybody can see you?" said Jack, scandalized.
The girl nodded.
They walked on in silence for a few moments. Then a bright idea struckMr. Hamlin. He suddenly remembered that in one of his many fitsof impulsive generosity and largesse he had given to an old negroretainer--whose wife had nursed him through a dangerous illness--a houseand lot on the river bank. He had been told that they had opened a smalllaundry or wash-house. It occurred to him that a stroll there and acall upon "Uncle Hannibal and Aunt Chloe" combined the propriety andrespectability due to the young person he was with, and the requisitesecrecy and absence of publicity due to himself. He at once suggestedit.
"You see she was a mighty good woman and you ought to know her, for shewas my old nurse"--
The girl glanced at him with a sudden impatience.
"Honest Injin," said Jack solemnly; "she did nurse me through my lastcough. I ain't playing old family gags on you now."
"Oh, dear," burst out the girl impulsively, "I do wish you wouldn't everplay them again. I wish you wouldn't pretend to be my uncle; I wish youwouldn't make me pass for your niece. It isn't right. It's all wrong.Oh, don't you know it's all wrong, and can't come right any way? It'sjust killing me. I can't stand it. I'd rather you'd say what I am andhow I came to you and how you pitied me."
They had luckily entered a narrow side street, and the sobs which shookthe young girl's frame were unnoticed. For a few moments Jack felt ahorrible conviction stealing over him, that in his present attitudetowards her he was not unlike that hound Stratton, and that, howeverinnocent his own intent, there was a sickening resemblance to thesituation on the boat in the base advantage he had taken of herfriendlessness. He had never told her that he was a gambler likeStratton, and that his peculiarly infelix reputation among women made itimpossible for him to assist her, except by a stealth or the deceptionhe had practiced, without compromising her. He who had for years facedthe sneers and half-frightened opposition of the world dared not tellthe truth to this girl, from whom he expected nothing and who did notinterest him. He felt he was almost slinking at her side. At last hesaid desperately:--
"But I snatched them bald-headed at the organ, Sophy, didn't I?"
"Oh yes," said the girl, "you played beautifully and grandly. It was sogood of you, too. For I think, somehow, Madame Bance had been a littlesuspicious of you, but that settled it. Everybody thought it was fine,and some thought it was your profession. Perhaps," she added timidly,"it is?"
"I play a good deal, I reckon," said Jack, with a grim humor which didnot, however, amuse him.
"I wish I could, and make money by it," said the girl eagerly. Jackwinced, but she did not notice it as she went on hurriedly: "That's whatI wanted to talk to you about. I want to leave the school and make myown living. Anywhere where people won't know me and where I can be aloneand work. I shall die here among these girls--with all their talk oftheir friends and their--sisters,--and their questions about you."
"Tell 'em to dry up," said Jack indignantly. "Take 'em to the cake shopand load 'em up with candy and ice cream. That'll stop their mouths.You've got money, you got my last remittance, didn't you?" he repeatedquickly. "If you didn't, here's"--his hand was already in his pocketwhen she stopped him with a despairing gesture.
"Yes, yes, I got it all. I haven't touched it. I don't want it. For Ican't live on you. Don't you understand,--I want to work. Listen,--I candraw and paint. Madame Bance says I do it well; my drawing-master saysI might in time take portraits and get paid for it. And even now I canretouch photographs and make colored miniatures from them. And," shestopped and glanced at Jack half-timidly, "I've--done some already."
A glow of surprised relief suffused the gambler. Not so much at thisastonishing revelation as at the change it seemed to effect in her. Herpale blue eyes, made paler by tears, cleared and brightened undertheir swollen lids like wiped steel; the lines of her depressed mouthstraightened and became firm. Her voice had lost its hopeless monotone.
"There's a shop in the next street,--a photographer's,--where theyhave one of mine in their windows," she went on, reassured by Jack'sunaffected interest. "It's only round the corner, if you care to see."
Jack assented; a few paces farther brought them to the corner of anarrow street, where they presently turned into a broader thoroughfareand stopped before the window of a photographer. Sophy pointed to anoval frame, containing a portrait painted on porcelain. Mr. Hamlin wasstartled. Inexperienced as he was, a certain artistic inclinationtold him it was good, although it is to be feared he would have beenastonished even if it had been worse. The mere fact that this headstrongcountry girl, who had run away with a cur like Stratton, should be ableto do anything else took him by surprise.
"I got ten dollars for that," she said hesitatingly, "and I could havegot more for a larger one, but I had to do that in my room, duringrecreation hours. If I had more time and a place where I couldwork"--she stopped timidly and looked tentatively at Jack. But he wasalready indulging in a characteristically reckless idea of coming backafter he had left Sophy, buying the miniature at an extravagant price,and ordering half a dozen more at extraordinary figures. Here, however,two passers-by, stopping ostensibly to look in the window, but reallyattracted by the picturesque spectacle of the handsome young rustic andhis schoolgirl companion, gave Jack such a fright that he hurriedSophy away again into the side street. "There's nothing mean about thatpicture business," he said cheerfully; "it looks like a square kind ofgame," and relapsed into thoughtful silence.
At which, Sophy, the ice of restraint broken, again burst intopassionate appeal. If she could only go away somewhere--where she saw noone but the people who would buy her work, who knew nothing of her pastnor cared to know who were her relations! She would work hard; she knewshe could support herself in time. She would keep the name he had givenher,--it was not distinctive enough to challenge any inquiry,--butnothing more. She need not assume to be his niece; he would always beher kind friend, to whom she owed everything, even her miserable life.She trusted still to his honor never to seek to know her real name, norever to speak to her of that man if he ever met him. It would do no goodto her or to them; it might drive her, for she was not yet quite sure ofherself, to do that which she had promised him never to do again.
There was no threat, impatience, or acting in her voice, but herecognized the same dull desperation he had once heard in it, and hereyes, which a moment before were quick and mobile, had become fixed andset. He had no idea of trying to penetrate the foolish secret of hername and relations; he had never had the slightest curiosity, but itstruck him now that Stratton might at any time force it upon him. Theonly way that he could prevent it was to let it be known that, forunexpressed reasons, he would shoot Stratton "on sight." This wouldnaturally restrict any verbal communication between them. Jack's ideasof morality were vague, but his convictions on points of honor weresingularly direct and positive.
Meantime Hamlin and Sophy were passing the outskirts of the town; theopen lots and cleared spaces were giving way to grassy stretches, willowcopses, and groups of cottonwood and sycamore; and beyond the level ofyellowing tules appeared the fringed and raised banks of the river.Half tropical looking cottages with deep verandas--the homes of earlySouthern pioneers--took the place of incomplete blocks of modernhouses, monotonously alike. In these sylvan surroundings Mr. Hamlin'spicturesque rusticity looked less incongruous and more Arcadian; theyoung girl had lost some of her restraint with her confidences, andlounging together side by side, without the least consciousness of anysentiment in their words or actions, they nevertheless contrived toimpress the spectator with the idea that they were a charming pair ofpastoral lovers. So strong was this impression that, as they approachedAunt Chloe's laundry, a pretty rose-covered cottage with an enormouswhitewashed barn-like extension in the rear, the black proprietressherself, standing at the door, called her husband to come and look atthem, and flashed her white teeth in such unqualified commendationand patronage that Mr. Hamlin, withdrawing himself from Sophy's side,instantly charged down upon them.
"If you don't slide the lid back over that grinning box of dominoes ofyours and take it inside, I'll just carry Hannibal off with me," he saidin a quick whisper, with a half-wicked, half-mischievous glitter in hisbrown eyes. "That young lady's--A LADY--do you understand? No riffrafffriend of mine, but a regular NUN--a saint--do you hear? So you juststand back and let her take a good look round, and rest herself, untilshe wants you." "Two black idiots, Miss Brown," he continued cheerfullyin a higher voice of explanation, as Sophy approached, "who thinkbecause one of 'em used to shave me and the other saved my life they'vegot a right to stand at their humble cottage door and frighten horses!"
So great was Mr. Hamlin's ascendency over his former servants that eventhis ingenious pleasantry was received with every sign of affectionand appreciation of the humorist, and of the profound respect for hiscompanion. Aunt Chloe showed them effusively into her parlor, a smallbut scrupulously neat and sweet-smelling apartment, inordinatelyfurnished with a huge mahogany centre-table and chairs, and the mostfragile and meretricious china and glass ornaments on the mantel. Butthe three jasmine-edged lattice windows opened upon a homely garden ofold-fashioned herbs and flowers, and their fragrance filled the room.The cleanest and starchiest of curtains, the most dazzling and whitestof tidies and chair-covers, bespoke the adjacent laundry; indeed, thewhole cottage seemed to exhale the odors of lavender soap and freshlyironed linen. Yet the cottage was large for the couple and theirassistants. "Dar was two front rooms on de next flo' dat dey neverused," explained Aunt Chloe; "friends allowed dat dey could let 'em towhite folks, but dey had always been done kep' for Marse Hamlin, ef heever wanted to be wid his old niggers again." Jack looked up quicklywith a brightened face, made a sign to Hannibal, and the two left theroom together.
When he came through the passage a few moments later, there was a soundof laughter in the parlor. He recognized the full, round lazy chuckle ofAunt Chloe, but there was a higher girlish ripple that he did not know.He had never heard Sophy laugh before. Nor, when he entered, had heever seen her so animated. She was helping Chloe set the table, to thatlady's intense delight at "Missy's" girlish housewifery. She was pickingthe berries fresh from the garden, buttering the Sally Lunn, making thetea, and arranging the details of the repast with apparently no traceof her former discontent and unhappiness in either face or manner. Hedropped quietly into a chair by the window, and, with the homely scentsof the garden mixing with the honest odors of Aunt Chloe's cookery,watched her with an amusement that was as pleasant and grateful as itwas strange and unprecedented.
"Now den," said Aunt Chloe to her husband, as she put the finishingtouch to the repast in a plate of doughnuts as exquisitely brown andshining as Jack's eyes were at that moment, "Hannibal, you just comeaway, and let dem two white quality chillens have dey tea. Dey's donestarved, shuah." And with an approving nod to Jack, she bundled herhusband from the room.
The door closed; the young girl began to pour out the tea, but Jackremained in his seat by the window. It was a singular sensation whichhe did not care to disturb. It was no new thing for Mr. Hamlin to findhimself at a tete-a-tete repast with the admiring and complaisant fair;there was a 'cabinet particulier' in a certain San Francisco restaurantwhich had listened to their various vanities and professions of undyingfaith; he might have recalled certain festal rendezvous with a widowwhose piety and impeccable reputation made it a moral duty for her tocome to him only in disguise; it was but a few days ago that he hadbeen let privately into the palatial mansion of a high official for amidnight supper with a foolish wife. It was not strange, therefore, thathe should be alone here, secretly, with a member of that indiscreet,loving sex. But that he should be sitting there in a cheap negro laundrywith absolutely no sentiment of any kind towards the heavy-haired,freckle-faced country schoolgirl opposite him, from whom he soughtand expected nothing, and ENJOYING it without scorn of himself or hiscompanion, to use his own expression, "got him." Presently he rose andsauntered to the table with shining eyes.
"Well, what do you think of Aunt Chloe's shebang?" he asked smilingly.
"Oh, it's so sweet and clean and homelike," said the girl quickly. Atany other time he would have winced at the last adjective. It struck himnow as exactly the word.
"Would you like to live here, if you could?"
Her face brightened. She put the teapot down and gazed fixedly at Jack.
"Because you can. Look here. I spoke to Hannibal about it. You can havethe two front rooms if you want to. One of 'em is big enough and lightenough for a studio to do your work in. You tell that nigger what youwant to put in 'em, and he's got my orders to do it. I told him aboutyour painting; said you were the daughter of an old friend, you know.Hold on, Sophy; d--n it all, I've got to do a little gilt-edged lying;but I let you out of the niece business this time. Yes, from this momentI'm no longer your uncle. I renounce the relationship. It's hard,"continued the rascal, "after all these years and considering sisterMary's feelings; but, as you seem to wish it, it must be done."
Sophy's steel-blue eyes softened. She slid her long brown hand acrossthe table and grasped Jack's. He returned the pressure quickly andfraternally, even to that half-shamed, half-hurried evasion of emotionpeculiar to all brothers. This was also a new sensation; but he likedit.
"You are too--too good, Mr. Hamlin," she said quietly.
"Yes," said Jack cheerfully, "that's what's the matter with me. It isn'tnatural, and if I keep it up too long it brings on my cough."
Nevertheless, they were happy in a boy and girl fashion, eatingheartily, and, I fear, not always decorously; scrambling somewhat forthe strawberries, and smacking their lips over the Sally Lunn. Meantime,it was arranged that Mr. Hamlin should inform Miss Mix that Sophy wouldleave school at the end of the term, only a few days hence, and thentransfer herself to lodgings with some old family servants, where shecould more easily pursue her studies in her own profession. She need notmake her place of abode a secret, neither need she court publicity. Shewould write to Jack regularly, informing him of her progress, and hewould visit her whenever he could. Jack assented gravely to the furtherproposition that he was to keep a strict account of all the moneys headvanced her, and that she was to repay him out of the proceeds of herfirst pictures. He had promised also, with a slight mental reservation,not to buy them all himself, but to trust to her success with thepublic. They were never to talk of what had happened before; she was tobegin life anew. Of such were their confidences, spoken often togetherat the same moment, and with their mouths full. Only one thing troubledJack; he had not yet told her frankly who he was and what was hisreputation; he had hitherto carelessly supposed she would learn it,and in truth had cared little if she did; but it was evident from herconversation that day that by some miracle she was still in ignorance.Unable now to tell her himself, he had charged Hannibal to break it toher casually after he was gone. "You can let me down easy if you like,but you'd better make a square deal of it while you're about it. And,"Jack had added cheerfully, "if she thinks after that she'd better dropme entirely, you just say that if she wishes to STAY, you'll see thatI don't ever come here again. And you keep your word about it too, youblack nigger, or I'll be the first to thrash you."
Nevertheless, when Hannibal and Aunt Chloe returned to clear away therepast, they were a harmonious party; albeit, Mr. Hamlin seemed morecontent to watch them silently from his chair by the window, a cigarbetween his lips, and the pleasant distraction of the homely scents andsounds of the garden in his senses. Allusion having been made again tothe morning performance of the organ, he was implored by Hannibal todiversify his talent by exercising it on an old guitar which had passedinto that retainer's possession with certain clothes of his master'swhen they separated. Mr. Hamlin accepted it dubiously; it had twangedunder his volatile fingers in more pretentious but less innocent halls.But presently he raised his tenor voice and soft brown lashes to thehumble ceiling and sang.
"Way down upon the Swanee River,"
Discoursed Jack plaintively,--
"Far, far away, Thar's whar my heart is turning ever, Thar's whar the old folks stay."
The two dusky scions of an emotional race, that had been wont to sweetenits toil and condone its wrongs with music, sat wrapt and silent,swaying with Jack's voice until they could burst in upon the chorus.The jasmine vines trilled softly with the afternoon breeze; a slenderyellow-hammer, perhaps emulous of Jack, swung himself from an outerspray and peered curiously into the room; and a few neighbors, gatheringat their doors and windows, remarked that "after all, when it came toreal singing, no one could beat those d----d niggers."
The sun was slowly sinking in the rolling gold of the river when Jackand Sophy started leisurely back through the broken shafts of light, andacross the far-stretching shadows of the cottonwoods. In the midst ofa lazy silence they were presently conscious of a distant monotonousthrob, the booming of the up boat on the river. The sound camenearer--passed them, the boat itself hidden by the trees; but a trailingcloud of smoke above cast a momentary shadow upon their path. The girllooked up at Jack with a troubled face. Mr. Hamlin smiled reassuringly;but in that instant he had made up his mind that it was his moral dutyto kill Mr. Edward Stratton.
For the next two months Mr. Hamlin was professionally engaged in SanFrancisco and Marysville, and the transfer of Sophy from the school toher new home was effected without his supervision. From letters receivedby him during that interval, it seemed that the young girl had enteredenergetically upon her new career, and that her artistic efforts werecrowned with success. There were a few Indian-ink sketches, studies madeat school and expanded in her own "studio," which were eagerly bought assoon as exhibited in the photographer's window,--notably by a floridand inartistic bookkeeper, an old negro woman, a slangy stable boy, agorgeously dressed and painted female, and the bearded second officer ofa river steamboat, without hesitation and without comment. This, as Mr.Hamlin intelligently pointed out in a letter to Sophy, showed a generaland diversified appreciation on the part of the public. Indeed, itemboldened her, in the retouching of photographs, to offer sittingsto the subjects, and to undertake even large crayon copies, which hadresulted in her getting so many orders that she was no longer obligedto sell her drawings, but restricted herself solely to profitableportraiture. The studio became known; even its quaint surroundings addedto the popular interest, and the originality and independence of theyoung painter helped her to a genuine success. All this she wrote toJack. Meantime Hannibal had assured him that he had carried out hisinstructions by informing "Missy" of his old master's real occupationand reputation, but that the young lady hadn't "took no notice."Certainly there was no allusion to it in her letters, nor any indicationin her manner. Mr. Hamlin was greatly, and it seemed to him properly,relieved. And he looked forward with considerable satisfaction to anearly visit to old Hannibal's laundry.
It must be confessed, also, that another matter, a simple affair ofgallantry, was giving him an equally unusual, unexpected, and absurdannoyance, which he had never before permitted to such trivialities.In a recent visit to a fashionable watering-place, he had attracted theattention of what appeared to be a respectable, matter of fact woman,the wife of a recently elected rural Senator. She was, however,singularly beautiful, and as singularly cold. It was perhaps thisquality, and her evident annoyance at some unreasoning prepossessionwhich Jack's fascinations exercised upon her, that heightened thatreckless desire for risk and excitement which really made up the greaterpart of his gallantry. Nevertheless, as was his habit, he had treatedher always with a charming unconsciousness of his own attentions, and afrankness that seemed inconsistent with any insidious approach. In fact,Mr. Hamlin seldom made love to anybody, but permitted it to be made tohim with good-humored deprecation and cheerful skepticism. He had once,quite accidentally, while riding, come upon her when she had strayedfrom her own riding party, and had behaved with such unexpectedcircumspection and propriety, not to mention a certain thoughtfulabstraction,--it was the day he had received Sophy's letter,--that shewas constrained to make the first advances. This led to a later innocentrendezvous, in which Mrs. Camperly was impelled to confide to Mr. Hamlinthe fact that her husband had really never understood her. Jack listenedwith an understanding and sympathy quickened by long experience of suchconfessions. If anything had ever kept him from marriage it was thisevident incompatibility of the conjugal relations with a just conceptionof the feminine soul and its aspirations.
And so eventually this yearning for sympathy dragged Mrs. Camperly'sclean skirts and rustic purity after Jack's heels into various placesand various situations not so clean, rural, or innocent; made hermiserably unhappy in his absence, and still more miserably happy in hispresence; impelled her to lie, cheat, and bear false witness; forced herto listen with mingled shame and admiration to narrow criticism of hisfaults, from natures so palpably inferior to his own that her moralsense was confused and shaken; gave her two distinct lives, but sounreal and feverish that, with a recklessness equal to his own, she wasat last ready to merge them both into his. For the first time in hislife Mr. Hamlin found himself bored at the beginning of an affair,actually hesitated, and suddenly disappeared from San Francisco.
He turned up a few days later at Aunt Chloe's door, with variouspackages of presents and quite the air of a returning father of afamily, to the intense delight of that lady and to Sophy's proudgratification. For he was lost in a profuse, boyish admiration of herpretty studio, and in wholesome reverence for her art and her astoundingprogress. They were also amused at his awe and evident alarm at theportraits of two ladies, her latest sitters, that were still onthe easels, and, in consideration of his half-assumed, half-realbashfulness, they turned their faces to the wall. Then his quick,observant eye detected a photograph of himself on the mantel.
"What's that?" he asked suddenly.
Sophy and Aunt Chloe exchanged meaning glances. Sophy had, as a surpriseto Jack, just completed a handsome crayon portrait of himself from anold photograph furnished by Hannibal, and the picture was at that momentin the window of her former patron,--the photographer.
"Oh, dat! Miss Sophy jus' put it dar fo' de lady sitters to look at togib 'em a pleasant 'spresshion," said Aunt Chloe, chuckling.
Mr. Hamlin did not laugh, but quietly slipped the photograph into hispocket. Yet, perhaps, it had not been recognized.
Then Sophy proposed to have luncheon in the studio; it was quite"Bohemian" and fashionable, and many artists did it. But to her greatsurprise Jack gravely objected, preferring the little parlor of AuntChloe, the vine-fringed windows, and the heavy respectable furniture.He thought it was profaning the studio, and then--anybody might come in.This unusual circumspection amused them, and was believed to be part ofthe boyish awe with which Jack regarded the models, the draperies, andthe studies on the walls. Certain it was that he was much more at hisease in the parlor, and when he and Sophy were once more alone at theirmeal, although he ate nothing, he had regained all his old naivete.Presently he leaned forward and placed his hand fraternally on her arm.Sophy looked up with an equally frank smile.
"You know I promised to let bygones be bygones, eh? Well, I intended it,and more,--I intended to make 'em so. I told you I'd never speak to youagain of that man who tried to run you off, and I intended that no oneelse should. Well, as he was the only one who could talk--that meanthim. But the cards are out of my hands; the game's been played withoutme. For he's dead!"
The girl started. Mr. Hamlin's hand passed caressingly twice or thricealong her sleeve with a peculiar gentleness that seemed to magnetizeher.
"Dead," he repeated slowly. "Shot in San Diego by another man, but notby me. I had him tracked as far as that, and had my eyes on him, but itwasn't my deal. But there," he added, giving her magnetized arm a gentleand final tap as if to awaken it, "he's dead, and so is the whole story.And now we'll drop it forever."
The girl's downcast eyes were fixed on the table. "But there's mysister," she murmured.
"Did she know you went with him?" asked Jack.
"No; but she knows I ran away."
"Well, you ran away from home to study how to be an artist, don'tyou see? Some day she'll find out you ARE ONE; that settles the wholething."
They were both quite cheerful again when Aunt Chloe returned toclear the table, especially Jack, who was in the best spirits, withpreternaturally bright eyes and a somewhat rare color on his cheeks.Aunt Chloe, who had noticed that his breathing was hurried at times,watched him narrowly, and when later he slipped from the room, followedhim into the passage. He was leaning against the wall. In an instant thenegress was at his side.
"De Lawdy Gawd, Marse Jack, not AGIN?"
He took his handkerchief, slightly streaked with blood, from his lipsand said faintly, "Yes, it came on--on the boat; but I thought thed----d thing was over. Get me out of this, quick, to some hotel, beforeshe knows it. You can tell her I was called away. Say that"--but hisbreath failed him, and when Aunt Chloe caught him like a child in herstrong arms he could make no resistance.
In another hour he was unconscious, with two doctors at his bedside, inthe little room that had been occupied by Sophy. It was a sharp attack,but prompt attendance and skillful nursing availed; he rallied the nextday, but it would be weeks, the doctors said, before he could be removedin safety. Sophy was transferred to the parlor, but spent most of hertime at Jack's bedside with Aunt Chloe, or in the studio with the dooropen between it and the bedroom. In spite of his enforced idleness andweakness, it was again a singularly pleasant experience to Jack; itamused him to sometimes see Sophy at her work through the open door, andwhen sitters came,--for he had insisted on her continuing her duties asbefore, keeping his invalid presence in the house a secret,--he had allthe satisfaction of a mischievous boy in rehearsing to Sophy such ofthe conversation as could be overheard through the closed door, andspeculating on the possible wonder and chagrin of the sitters had theydiscovered him. Even when he was convalescent and strong enough to behelped into the parlor and garden, he preferred to remain propped up inSophy's little bedroom. It was evident, however, that this predilectionwas connected with no suggestion nor reminiscence of Sophy herself. Itwas true that he had once asked her if it didn't make her "feel likehome." The decided negative from Sophy seemed to mildly surprise him."That's odd," he said; "now all these fixings and things," pointingto the flowers in a vase, the little hanging shelf of books, theknickknacks on the mantel-shelf, and the few feminine ornaments thatstill remained, "look rather like home to me."
So the days slipped by, and although Mr. Hamlin was soon able to walkshort distances, leaning on Sophy's arm, in the evening twilight, alongthe river bank, he was still missed from the haunts of dissipated men. Agood many people wondered, and others, chiefly of the more irrepressiblesex, were singularly concerned. Apparently one of these, one sultryafternoon, stopped before the shadowed window of a photographer's; shewas a handsome, well-dressed woman, yet bearing a certain countrylikesimplicity that was unlike the restless smartness of the more urbanpromenaders who passed her. Nevertheless she had halted before Mr.Hamlin's picture, which Sophy had not yet dared to bring home andpresent to him, and was gazing at it with rapt and breathless attention.Suddenly she shook down her veil and entered the shop. Could theproprietor kindly tell her if that portrait was the work of a localartist?
The proprietor was both proud and pleased to say that IT WAS! It was thework of a Miss Brown, a young girl student; in fact, a mere schoolgirlone might say. He could show her others of her pictures.
Thanks. But could he tell her if this portrait was from life?
No doubt; the young lady had a studio, and he himself had sent hersitters.
And perhaps this was the portrait of one that he had sent her?
No; but she was very popular and becoming quite the fashion. Veryprobably this gentleman, who, he understood, was quite a publiccharacter, had heard of her, and selected her on that account.
The lady's face flushed slightly. The photographer continued. Thepicture was not for sale; it was only there on exhibition; in fact itwas to be returned to-morrow.
To the sitter?
He couldn't say. It was to go back to the studio. Perhaps the sitterwould be there.
And this studio? Could she have its address?
The man wrote a few lines on his card. Perhaps the lady would be kindenough to say that he had sent her. The lady, thanking him, partlylifted her veil to show a charming smile, and gracefully withdrew. Thephotographer was pleased. Miss Brown had evidently got another sitter,and, from that momentary glimpse of her face, it would be a picture asbeautiful and attractive as the man's. But what was the odd idea thatstruck him? She certainly reminded him of some one! There was the sameheavy hair, only this lady's was golden, and she was older and moremature. And he remained for a moment with knitted brows musing over hiscounter.
Meantime the fair stranger was making her way towards the river suburb.When she reached Aunt Chloe's cottage, she paused, with the unfamiliarcuriosity of a newcomer, over its quaint and incongruous exterior. Shehesitated a moment also when Aunt Chloe appeared in the doorway, and,with a puzzled survey of her features, went upstairs to announce avisitor. There was the sound of hurried shutting of doors, of the movingof furniture, quick footsteps across the floor, and then a girlish laughthat startled her. She ascended the stairs breathlessly to Aunt Chloe'ssummons, found the negress on the landing, and knocked at a door whichbore a card marked "Studio." The door opened; she entered; there weretwo sudden outcries that might have come from one voice.
The woman had seized Sophy by the wrist and dragged her to the window.There was a haggard look of desperation in her face akin to that whichHamlin had once seen in her sister's eyes on the boat, as she saidhuskily: "I did not know YOU were here. I came to see the woman who hadpainted Mr. Hamlin's portrait. I did not know it was YOU. Listen! Quick!answer me one question. Tell me--I implore you--for the sake of themother who bore us both!--tell me--is this the man for whom you lefthome?"
"No! No! A hundred times no!"
Then there was a silence. Mr. Hamlin from the bedroom heard no more.
An hour later, when the two women opened the studio door, pale butcomposed, they were met by the anxious and tearful face of Aunt Chloe.
"Lawdy Gawd, Missy,--but dey done gone!--bofe of 'em!"
"Who is gone?" demanded Sophy, as the woman beside her trembled and grewpaler still.
"Marse Jack and dat fool nigger, Hannibal."
"Mr. Hamlin gone?" repeated Sophy incredulously. "When? Where?"
"Jess now--on de down boat. Sudden business. Didn't like to disturb yo'and yo' friend. Said he'd write."
"But he was ill--almost helpless," gasped Sophy.
"Dat's why he took dat old nigger. Lawdy, Missy, bress yo' heart. Deyboth knows aich udder, shuah! It's all right. Dar now, dar dey are;listen."
She held up her hand. A slow pulsation, that might have been the dull,labored beating of their own hearts, was making itself felt throughoutthe little cottage. It came nearer,--a deep regular inspiration thatseemed slowly to fill and possess the whole tranquil summer twilight. Itwas nearer still--was abreast of the house--passed--grew fainter and atlast died away like a deep-drawn sigh. It was the down boat, that wasnow separating Mr. Hamlin and his protegee, even as it had once broughtthem together.
A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's, and Other Stories by Bret Harte / Western have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on15 votes