By Bret Harte
We were eight including the driver. We had not spoken during the passage of the last six miles, since the jolting of the heavy vehicle over the roughening road had spoiled the Judge’s last poetical quotation. The tall man beside the Judge was asleep, his arm passed through the swaying strap and his head resting upon it,—altogether a limp, helpless looking object, as if he had hanged himself and been cut down too late. The French lady on the back seat was asleep too, yet in a half-conscious propriety of attitude, shown even in the disposition of the handkerchief which she held to her forehead and which partially veiled her face. The lady from Virginia City, traveling with her husband, had long since lost all individuality in a wild confusion of ribbons, veils, furs, and shawls. There was no sound but the rattling of wheels and the dash of rain upon the roof. Suddenly the stage stopped and we became dimly aware of voices. The driver was evidently in the midst of an exciting colloquy with some one in the road,—a colloquy of which such fragments as “bridge gone,” “twenty feet of water,” “can’t pass,” were occasionally distinguishable above the storm. Then came a lull, and a mysterious voice from the road shouted the parting adjuration—
We caught a glimpse of our leaders as the vehicle slowly turned, of a horseman vanishing through the rain, and we were evidently on our way to Miggles’s.
Who and where was Miggles? The Judge, our authority, did not remember the name, and he knew the country thoroughly. The Washoe traveler thought Miggles must keep a hotel. We only knew that we were stopped by high water in front and rear, and that Miggles was our rock of refuge. A ten minutes’ splashing through a tangled byroad, scarcely wide enough for the stage, and we drew up before a barred and boarded gate in a wide stone wall or fence about eight feet high. Evidently Miggles’s, and evidently Miggles did not keep a hotel.
The driver got down and tried the gate. It was securely locked.
“Miggles! O Miggles!”
“Migg-ells! You Miggles!” continued the driver, with rising wrath.
“Migglesy!” joined in the expressman persuasively. “O Miggy! Mig!”
But no reply came from the apparently insensate Miggles. The Judge, who had finally got the window down, put his head out and propounded a series of questions, which if answered categorically would have undoubtedly elucidated the whole mystery, but which the driver evaded by replying that “if we didn’t want to sit in the coach all night we had better rise up and sing out for Miggles.”
So we rose up and called on Miggles in chorus, then separately. And when we had finished, a Hibernian fellow passenger from the roof called for “Maygells!” whereat we all laughed. While we were laughing the driver cried, “Shoo!”
We listened. To our infinite amazement the chorus of “Miggles” was repeated from the other side of the wall, even to the final and supplemental “Maygells.”
“Extraordinary echo!” said the Judge.
“Extraordinary d—d skunk!” roared the driver contemptuously. “Come out of that, Miggles, and show yourself! Be a man, Miggles! Don’t hide in the dark; I wouldn’t if I were you, Miggles,” continued Yuba Bill, now dancing about in an excess of fury.
“Miggles!” continued the voice, “O Miggles!”
“My good man! Mr. Myghail!” said the Judge, softening the asperities of the name as much as possible. “Consider the inhospitality of refusing shelter from the inclemency of the weather to helpless females. Really, my dear sir”—But a succession of “Miggles,” ending in a burst of laughter, drowned his voice.
Yuba Bill hesitated no longer. Taking a heavy stone from the road, he battered down the gate, and with the expressman entered the inclosure. We followed. Nobody was to be seen. In the gathering darkness all that we could distinguish was that we were in a garden—from the rose bushes that scattered over us a minute spray from their dripping leaves—and before a long, rambling wooden building.
“Do you know this Miggles?” asked the Judge of Yuba Bill.
“No, nor don’t want to,” said Bill shortly, who felt the Pioneer Stage Company insulted in his person by the contumacious Miggles.
“But, my dear sir,” expostulated the Judge, as he thought of the barred gate.
“Lookee here,” said Yuba Bill, with fine irony, “hadn’t you better go back and sit in the coach till yer introduced? I’m going in,” and he pushed open the door of the building.
A long room, lighted only by the embers of a fire that was dying on the large hearth at its farther extremity; the walls curiously papered, and the flickering firelight bringing out its grotesque pattern; someone sitting in a large armchair by the fireplace. All this we saw as we crowded together into the room after the driver and expressman. “Hello! be you Miggles?” said Yuba Bill to the solitary occupant.
The figure neither spoke nor stirred. Yuba Bill walked wrathfully toward it and turned the eye of his coach-lantern upon its face. It was a man’s face, prematurely old and wrinkled, with very large eyes, in which there was that expression of perfectly gratuitous solemnity which I had sometimes seen in an owl’s. The large eyes wandered from Bill’s face to the lantern, and finally fixed their gaze on that luminous object without further recognition.
Bill restrained himself with an effort.
“Miggles! be you deaf? You ain’t dumb anyhow, you know,” and Yuba Bill shook the insensate figure by the shoulder.
To our great dismay, as Bill removed his hand, the venerable stranger apparently collapsed, sinking into half his size and an undistinguishable heap of clothing.
“Well, dern my skin,” said Bill, looking appealingly at us, and hopelessly retiring from the contest.
The Judge now stepped forward, and we lifted the mysterious invertebrate back into his original position. Bill was dismissed with the lantern to reconnoitre outside, for it was evident that, from the helplessness of this solitary man? there must be attendants near at hand, and we all drew around the fire. The Judge, who had regained his authority, and had never lost his conversational amiability,—standing before us with his back to the hearth,—charged us, as an imaginary jury, as follows:—
“It is evident that either our distinguished friend here has reached that condition described by Shakespeare as ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ or has suffered some premature abatement of his mental and physical faculties. Whether he is really the Miggles”—
Here he was interrupted by “Miggles! O Miggles! Migglesy! Mig!” and, in fact, the whole chorus of Miggles in very much the same key as it had once before been delivered unto us.
We gazed at each other for a moment in some alarm. The Judge, in particular, vacated his position quickly, as the voice seemed to come directly over his shoulder. The cause, however, was soon discovered in a large magpie who was perched upon a shelf over the fireplace, and who immediately relapsed into a sepulchral silence, which contrasted singularly with his previous volubility. It was, undoubtedly, his voice which we had heard in the road, and our friend in the chair was not responsible for the discourtesy. Yuba Bill, who reentered the room after an unsuccessful search, was both to accept the explanation, and still eyed the helpless sitter with suspicion. He had found a shed in which he had put up his horses, but he came back dripping and skeptical. “Thar ain’t nobody but him within ten mile of the shanty, and that ar d—d old skeesicks knows it.”
But the faith of the majority proved to be securely based. Bill had scarcely ceased growling before we heard a quick step upon the porch, the trailing of a wet skirt, the door was flung open, and with a flash of white teeth, a sparkle of dark eyes, and an utter absence of ceremony or diffidence, a young woman entered, shut the door, and, panting, leaned back against it.
“Oh, if you please, I’m Miggles!”
And this was Miggles! this bright-eyed, full-throated young woman, whose wet gown of coarse blue stuff could not hide the beauty of the feminine curves to which it clung; from the chestnut crown of whose head, topped by a man’s oil-skin sou’wester, to the little feet and ankles, hidden somewhere in the recesses of her boy’s brogans, all was grace,—this was Miggles, laughing at us, too, in the most airy, frank, off-hand manner imaginable.
“You see, boys,” said she, quite out of breath, and holding one little hand against her side, quite unheeding the speechless discomfiture of our party or the complete demoralization of Yuba Bill, whose features had relaxed into an expression of gratuitous and imbecile cheerfulness,—”you see, boys, I was mor’n two miles away when you passed down the road. I thought you might pull up here, and so I ran the whole way, knowing nobody was home but Jim,—and—and—I’m out of breath—and—that lets me out.” And here Miggles caught her dripping oilskin hat from her head, with a mischievous swirl that scattered a shower of raindrops over us; attempted to put back her hair; dropped two hairpins in the attempt; laughed, and sat down beside Yuba Bill, with her hands crossed lightly on her lap.
The Judge recovered himself first and essayed an extravagant compliment.
“I’ll trouble you for that ha’rpin,” said Miggles gravely. Half a dozen hands were eagerly stretched forward; the missing hairpin was restored to its fair owner; and Miggles, crossing the room, looked keenly in the face of the invalid. The solemn eyes looked back at hers with an expression we had never seen before. Life and intelligence seemed to struggle back into the rugged face. Miggles laughed again,—it was a singularly eloquent laugh,—and turned her black eyes and white teeth once more towards us.
“This afflicted person is”—hesitated the Judge.
“Jim!” said Miggles.
Miggles darted a quick, half-defiant glance at the two lady passengers, who I had noticed did not participate in the general masculine admiration of Miggles, and said gravely, “No; it’s Jim!” There was an awkward pause. The lady passengers moved closer to each other; the Washoe husband looked abstractedly at the fire, and the tall man apparently turned his eyes inward for self-support at this emergency. But Miggles’s laugh, which was very infectious, broke the silence.
“Come,” she said briskly, “you must be hungry. Who’ll bear a hand to help me get tea?”
She had no lack of volunteers. In a few moments Yuba Bill was engaged like Caliban in bearing logs for this Miranda; the expressman was grinding coffee on the veranda; to myself the arduous duty of slicing bacon was assigned; and the Judge lent each man his good-humored and voluble counsel. And when Miggles, assisted by the Judge and our Hibernian “deck-passenger,” set the table with all the available crockery, we had become quite joyous, in spite of the rain that beat against the windows, the wind that whirled down the chimney, the two ladies who whispered together in the corner, or the magpie, who uttered a satirical and croaking commentary on their conversation from his perch above. In the now bright, blazing fire we could see that the walls were papered with illustrated journals, arranged with feminine taste and discrimination. The furniture was extemporized and adapted from candle-boxes and packing-cases, and covered with gay calico or the skin of some animal. The armchair of the helpless Jim was an ingenious variation of a flour-barrel. There was neatness, and even a taste for the picturesque, to be seen in the few details of the long, low room.
The meal was a culinary success. But more, it was a social triumph,—chiefly, I think, owing to the rare tact of Miggles in guiding the conversation, asking all the questions herself, yet bearing throughout a frankness that rejected the idea of any concealment on her own part, so that we talked of ourselves, of our prospects, of the journey, of the weather, of each other,—of everything but our host and hostess. It must be confessed that Miggles’s conversation was never elegant, rarely grammatical, and that at times she employed expletives the use of which had generally been yielded to our sex. But they were delivered with such a lighting up of teeth and eyes, and were usually followed by a laugh—a laugh peculiar to Miggles—so frank and honest that it seemed to clear the moral atmosphere.
Once during the meal we heard a noise like the rubbing of a heavy body against the outer walls of the house. This was shortly followed by a scratching and sniffling at the door. “That’s Joaquin,” said Miggles, in reply to our questioning glances; “would you like to see him?” Before we could answer she had opened the door, and disclosed a half-grown grizzly, who instantly raised himself on his haunches, with his fore paws hanging down in the popular attitude of mendicancy, and looked admiringly at Miggles, with a very singular resemblance in his manner to Yuba Bill. “That’s my watch-dog,” said Miggles, in explanation. “Oh, he don’t bite,” she added, as the two lady passengers fluttered into a corner. “Does he, old Toppy?” (the latter remark being addressed directly to the sagacious Joaquin). “I tell you what, boys,” continued Miggles, after she had fed and closed the door on Ursa Minor, “you were in big luck that Joaquin wasn’t hanging round when you dropped in to-night.”
“Where was he?” asked the Judge.
“With me,” said Miggles. “Lord love you! he trots round with me nights like as if he was a man.”
We were silent for a few moments, and listened to the wind. Perhaps we all had the same picture before us,—of Miggles walking through the rainy woods with her savage guardian at her side. The Judge, I remember, said something about Una and her lion; but Miggles received it, as she did other compliments, with quiet gravity. Whether she was altogether unconscious of the admiration she excited,—she could hardly have been oblivious of Yuba Bill’s adoration,—I know not; but her very frankness suggested a perfect sexual equality that was cruelly humiliating to the younger members of our party.
The incident of the bear did not add anything in Miggles’s favor to the opinions of those of her own sex who were present. In fact, the repast over, a chillness radiated from the two lady passengers that no pine boughs brought in by Yuba Bill and cast as a sacrifice upon the hearth could wholly overcome. Miggles felt it; and suddenly declaring that it was time to “turn in,” offered to show the ladies to their bed in an adjoining room. “You, boys, will have to camp out here by the fire as well as you can,” she added, “for thar ain’t but the one room.”
Our sex—by which, my dear sir, I allude of course to the stronger portion of humanity—has been generally relieved from the imputation of curiosity or a fondness for gossip. Yet I am constrained to say, that hardly had the door closed on Miggles than we crowded together, whispering, snickering, smiling, and exchanging suspicions, surmises, and a thousand speculations in regard to our pretty hostess and her singular companion. I fear that we even hustled that imbecile paralytic, who sat like a voiceless Memnon in our midst, gazing with the serene indifference of the Past in his passionless eyes upon our wordy counsels. In the midst of an exciting discussion the door opened again and Miggles reentered.
But not, apparently, the same Miggles who a few hours before had flashed upon us. Her eyes were downcast, and as she hesitated for a moment on the threshold, with a blanket on her arm, she seemed to have left behind her the frank fearlessness which had charmed us a moment before. Coming into the room, she drew a low stool beside the paralytic’s chair, sat down, drew the blanket over her shoulders, and saying, “If it’s all the same to you, boys, as we’re rather crowded, I’ll stop here to-night,” took the invalid’s withered hand in her own, and turned her eyes upon the dying fire. An instinctive feeling that this was only premonitory to more confidential relations, and perhaps some shame at our previous curiosity, kept us silent. The rain still heat upon the roof, wandering gusts of wind stirred the embers into momentary brightness, until, in a lull of the elements, Miggles suddenly lifted up her head, and, throwing her hair over her shoulder, turned her face upon the group and asked,—
“Is there any of you that knows me?”
There was no reply.
“Think again! I lived at Marysville in ’53. Everybody knew me there, and everybody had the right to know me. I kept the Polka Saloon until I came to live with Jim. That’s six years ago. Perhaps I’ve changed some.”
The absence of recognition may have disconcerted her. She turned her head to the fire again, and it was some seconds before she again spoke, and then more rapidly—
“Well, you see I thought some of you must have known me. There’s no great harm done anyway. What I was going to say was this: Jim here”—she took his hand in both of hers as she spoke—”used to know me, if you didn’t, and spent a heap of money upon me. I reckon he spent all he had. And one day—it’s six years ago this winter—Jim came into my back room, sat down on my sofy, like as you see him in that chair, and never moved again without help. He was struck all of a heap, and never seemed to know what ailed him. The doctors came and said as how it was caused all along of his way of life,—for Jim was mighty free and wild-like,—and that he would never get better, and couldn’t last long anyway. They advised me to send him to Frisco to the hospital, for he was no good to any one and would be a baby all his life. Perhaps it was something in Jim’s eye, perhaps it was that I never had a baby, but I said ‘No.’ I was rich then, for I was popular with everybody,—gentlemen like yourself, sir, came to see me,—and I sold out my business and bought this yer place, because it was sort of out of the way of travel, you see, and I brought my baby here.”
With a woman’s intuitive tact and poetry, she had, as she spoke, slowly shifted her position so as to bring the mute figure of the ruined man between her and her audience, hiding in the shadow behind it, as if she offered it as a tacit apology for her actions. Silent and expressionless, it yet spoke for her; helpless, crushed, and smitten with the Divine thunderbolt, it still stretched an invisible arm around her.
Hidden in the darkness, but still holding his hand, she went on:—
“It was a long time before I could get the hang of things about yer, for I was used to company and excitement. I couldn’t get any woman to help me, and a man I dursn’t trust; but what with the Indians hereabout, who’d do odd jobs for me, and having everything sent from the North Fork, Jim and I managed to worry through. The Doctor would run up from Sacramento once in a while. He’d ask to see ‘Miggles’s baby’ as he called Jim, and when he’d go away, he’d say, ‘Miggles, you’re a trump,—God bless you,’ and it didn’t seem so lonely after that. But the last time he was here he said, as he opened the door to go, ‘Do you know, Miggles, your baby will grow up to be a man yet and an honor to his mother; but not here, Miggles, not here!’ And I thought he went away sad,—and—and”—and here Miggles’s voice and head were somehow both lost completely in the shadow.
“The folks about here are very kind,” said Miggles, after a pause, coming a little into the light again. “The men from the Fork used to hang around here, until they found they wasn’t wanted, and the women are kind, and don’t call. I was pretty lonely until I picked up Joaquin in the woods yonder one day, when he wasn’t so high, and taught him to beg for his dinner; and then thar’s Polly—that’s the magpie—she knows no end of tricks, and makes it quite sociable of evenings with her talk, and so I don’t feel like as I was the only living being about the ranch. And Jim here,” said Miggles, with her old laugh again, and coming out quite into the firelight,—”Jim—Why, boys, you would admire to see how much he knows for a man like him. Sometimes I bring him flowers, and he looks at ’em just as natural as if he knew ’em; and times, when we’re sitting alone, I read him those things on the wall. Why, Lord!” said Miggles, with her frank laugh, “I’ve read him that whole side of the house this winter. There never was such a man for reading as Jim.”
“Why,” asked the Judge, “do you not marry this man to whom you have devoted your youthful life?”
“Well, you see,” said Miggles, “it would be playing it rather low down on Jim to take advantage of his being so helpless. And then, too, if we were man and wife, now, we’d both know that I was bound to do what I do now of my own accord.”
“But you are young yet and attractive”—
“It’s getting late,” said Miggles gravely, “and you’d better all turn in. Good-night, boys;” and throwing the blanket over her head, Miggles laid herself down beside Jim’s chair, her head pillowed on the low stool that held his feet, and spoke no more. The fire slowly faded from the hearth; we each sought our blankets in silence; and presently there was no sound in the long room but the pattering of the rain upon the roof and the heavy breathing of the sleepers.
It was nearly morning when I awoke from a troubled dream. The storm had passed, the stars were shining, and through the shutterless window the full moon, lifting itself over the solemn pines without, looked into the room. It touched the lonely figure in the chair with an infinite compassion, and seemed to baptize with a shining flood the lowly head of the woman whose hair, as in the sweet old story, bathed the feet of him she loved. It even lent a kindly poetry to the rugged outline of Yuba Bill, half reclining on his elbow between them and his passengers, with savagely patient eyes keeping watch and ward. And then I fell asleep and only woke at broad day, with Yuba Bill standing over me, and “All aboard” ringing in my ears.
Coffee was waiting for us on the table, but Miggles was gone. We wandered about the house and lingered long after the horses were harnessed, but she did not return. It was evident that she wished to avoid a formal leave-taking, and had so left us to depart as we had come. After we had helped the ladies into the coach, we returned to the house and solemnly shook hands with the paralytic Jim, as solemnly setting him back into position after each handshake. Then we looked for the last time around the long low room, at the stool where Miggles had sat, and slowly took our seats in the waiting coach. The whip cracked, and we were off!
But as we reached the highroad, Bill’s dexterous hand laid the six horses back on their haunches, and the stage stopped with a jerk. For there, on a little eminence beside the road, stood Miggles, her hair flying, her eyes sparkling, her white handkerchief waving, and her white teeth flashing a last “good-by.” We waved our hats in return. And then Yuba Bill, as if fearful of further fascination, madly lashed his horses forward, and we sank back in our seats.
We exchanged not a word until we reached the North Fork and the stage drew up at the Independence House. Then, the Judge leading, we walked into the bar-room and took our places gravely at the bar.
“Are your glasses charged, gentlemen?” said the Judge, solemnly taking off his white hat.
“Well, then, here’s to Miggles—GOD BLESS HER!”
Perhaps He had. Who knows?