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- A First Family of Tasajara - 10/33 -
"If I was YOUR boy, I'd be playin' hookey instead of goin' to school, jest as your boy is doin' now," interrupted John Milton, with a literal recollection of his quarrel and pursuit of the youth in question that morning.
An undignified silence on the part of the adults followed, the usual sequel to those passages; Sidon generally declining to expose itself to the youthful Harkutt's terrible accuracy of statement.
The men resumed their previous lazy gossip about Elijah Curtis's disappearance, with occasional mysterious allusions in a lower tone, which the boy instinctively knew referred to his father, but which either from indolence or caution, the two great conservators of Sidon, were never formulated distinctly enough for his relentless interference. The morning sunshine was slowly thickening again in an indolent mist that seemed to rise from the saturated plain. A stray lounger shuffled over from the blacksmith's shop to the store to take the place of another idler who had joined an equally lethargic circle around the slumbering forge. A dull intermittent sound of hammering came occasionally from the wheelwright's shed--at sufficiently protracted intervals to indicate the enfeebled progress of Sidon's vehicular repair. A yellow dog left his patch of sunlight on the opposite side of the way and walked deliberately over to what appeared to be more luxurious quarters on the veranda; was manifestly disappointed but not equal to the exertion of returning, and sank down with blinking eyes and a regretful sigh without going further. A procession of six ducks got well into a line for a laborious "march past" the store, but fell out at the first mud puddle and gave it up. A highly nervous but respectable hen, who had ventured upon the veranda evidently against her better instincts, walked painfully on tiptoe to the door, apparently was met by language which no mother of a family could listen to, and retired in strong hysterics. A little later the sun became again obscured, the wind arose, rain fell, and the opportunity for going indoors and doing nothing was once more availed of by all Sidon.
It was afternoon when Mr. Harkutt returned. He did not go into the store, but entered the dwelling from the little picket-gate and steep path. There he called a family council in the sitting-room as being the most reserved and secure. Mrs. Harkutt, sympathizing and cheerfully ready for any affliction, still holding a dust-cloth in her hand, took her seat by the window, with Phemie breathless and sparkling at one side of her, while Clementina, all faultless profile and repose, sat on the other. To Mrs. Harkutt's motherly concern at John Milton's absence, it was pointed out that he was wanted at the store,--was a mere boy anyhow, and could not be trusted. Mr. Harkutt, a little ruddier from weather, excitement, and the unusual fortification of a glass of liquor, a little more rugged in the lines of his face, and with an odd ring of defiant self-assertion in his voice, stood before them in the centre of the room.
He wanted them to listen to him carefully, to remember what he said, for it was important; it might be a matter of "lawing" hereafter,--and he couldn't be always repeating it to them,--he would have enough to do. There was a heap of it that, as women- folks, they couldn't understand, and weren't expected to. But he'd got it all clear now, and what he was saying was gospel. He'd always known to himself that the only good that could ever come to Sidon would come by railroad. When those fools talked wagon road he had said nothing, but he had his own ideas; he had worked for that idea without saying anything to anybody; that idea was to get possession of all the land along the embarcadero, which nobody cared for, and 'Lige Curtis was ready to sell for a song. Well, now, considering what had happened, he didn't mind telling them that he had been gradually getting possession of it, little by little, paying 'Lige Curtis in advances and installments, until it was his own! They had heard what those surveyors said; how that it was the only fit terminus for the railroad. Well, that land, and that water-front, and the terminus were HIS! And all from his own foresight and prudence.
It is needless to say that this was not the truth. But it is necessary to point out that this fabrication was the result of his last night's cogitations and his morning's experience. He had resolved upon a bold course. He had reflected that his neighbors would be more ready to believe in and to respect a hard, mercenary, and speculative foresight in his taking advantage of 'Lige's necessities than if he had--as was the case--merely benefited by them through an accident of circumstance and good humor. In the latter case he would be envied and hated; in the former he would be envied and feared. By logic of circumstance the greater wrong seemed to be less obviously offensive than the minor fault. It was true that it involved the doing of something he had not contemplated, and the certainty of exposure if 'Lige ever returned, but he was nevertheless resolved. The step from passive to active wrong-doing is not only easy, it is often a relief; it is that return to sincerity which we all require. Howbeit, it gave that ring of assertion to Daniel Harkutt's voice already noted, which most women like, and only men are prone to suspect or challenge. The incompleteness of his statement was, for the same reason, overlooked by his feminine auditors.
"And what is it worth, dad?" asked Phemie eagerly.
"Grant says I oughter get at least ten thousand dollars for the site of the terminus from the company, but of course I shall hold on to the rest of the land. The moment they get the terminus there, and the depot and wharf built, I can get my own price and buyers for the rest. Before the year is out Grant thinks it ought to go up ten per cent on the value of the terminus, and that a hundred thousand."
"Oh, dad!" gasped Phemie, frantically clasping her knees with both hands as if to perfectly assure herself of this good fortune.
Mrs. Harkutt audibly murmured "Poor dear Dan'l," and stood, as it were, sympathetically by, ready to commiserate the pains and anxieties of wealth as she had those of poverty. Clementina alone remained silent, clear-eyed, and unchanged.
"And to think it all came through THEM!" continued Phemie. "I always had an idea that Mr. Grant was smart, dad. And it was real kind of him to tell you."
"I reckon father could have found it out without them. I don't know why we should be beholden to them particularly. I hope he isn't expected to let them think that he is bound to consider them our intimate friends just because they happened to drop in here at a time when his plans have succeeded."
The voice was Clementina's, unexpected but quiet, unemotional and convincing. "It seemed," as Mrs. Harkutt afterwards said, "as if the child had already touched that hundred thousand." Phemie reddened with a sense of convicted youthful extravagance.
"You needn't fear for me," said Harkutt, responding to Clementina's voice as if it were an echo of his own, and instinctively recognizing an unexpected ally. "I've got my own ideas of this thing, and what's to come of it. I've got my own ideas of openin' up that property and showin' its resources. I'm goin' to run it my own way. I'm goin' to have a town along the embarcadero that'll lay over any town in Contra Costa. I'm goin' to have the court- house and county seat there, and a couple of hotels as good as any in the Bay. I'm goin' to build that wagon road through here that those lazy louts slipped up on, and carry it clear over to Five Mile Corner, and open up the whole Tasajara Plain!"
They had never seen him look so strong, so resolute, so intelligent and handsome. A dimly prophetic vision of him in a black broadcloth suit and gold watch-chain addressing a vague multitude, as she remembered to have seen the Hon. Stanley Riggs of Alasco at the "Great Barbecue," rose before Phemie's blue enraptured eyes. With the exception of Mrs. Harkutt,--equal to any possibilities on the part of her husband,--they had honestly never expected it of him. They were pleased with their father's attitude in prosperity, and felt that perhaps he was not unworthy of being proud of them hereafter.
"But we're goin' to leave Sidon," said Phemie, "ain't we, paw?"
"As soon as I can run up a new house at the embarcadero," said Harkutt peevishly, "and that's got to be done mighty quick if I want to make a show to the company and be in possession."
"And that's easier for you to do, dear, now that 'Lige's disappeared," said Mrs. Harkutt consolingly.
"What do ye mean by that? What the devil are ye talkin' about?" demanded Harkutt suddenly with unexpected exasperation.
"I mean that that drunken 'Lige would be mighty poor company for the girls if he was our only neighbor," returned Mrs. Harkutt submissively.
Harkutt, after a fixed survey of his wife, appeared mollified. The two girls, who were mindful of his previous outburst the evening before, exchanged glances which implied that his manners needed correction for prosperity.
"You'll want a heap o' money to build there, Dan'l," said Mrs. Harkutt in plaintive diffidence.
"Yes! Yes!" said Harkutt impatiently. "I've kalkilated all that, and I'm goin' to 'Frisco to-morrow to raise it and put this bill of sale on record." He half drew Elijah Curtis's paper from his pocket, but paused and put it back again.
"Then THAT WAS the paper, dad," said Phemie triumphantly.
"Yes," said her father, regarding her fixedly, "and you know now why I didn't want anything said about it last night--nor even now."
"And 'Lige had just given it to you! Wasn't it lucky?"
"He HADN'T just given it to me!" said her father with another unexpected outburst. "God Amighty! ain't I tellin' you all the time it was an old matter! But you jabber, jabber all the time and don't listen! Where's John Milton?" It had occurred to him that the boy might have read the paper--as his sister had--while it lay unheeded on the counter.
"In the store,--you know. You said he wasn't to hear anything of this, but I'll call him," said Mrs. Harkutt, rising eagerly.
"Never mind," returned her husband, stopping her reflectively, "best leave it as it is; if it's necessary I'll tell him. But don't any of you say anything, do you hear?"
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