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- The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales - 50/79 -
"I don't know but that you have done well to keep this from me. At all events it has not--cannot, and should not alter my opinion toward M'liss. You will of course keep it a secret. In the mean time you must not blame me if I cling to my instincts in preference to your judgment. I still believe that you are mistaken in regard to her."
"Stay, one moment," said the doctor; "promise me you will not say anything of this, nor attempt to prosecute the matter further till you have consulted with me."
"I promise. Good-night."
"Good-night;" and so they parted.
True to that promise and his own instinctive promptings the master endeavored to atone for his momentary disloyalty by greater solicitude for M'liss. But the child had noticed some change in the master's thoughtful manner, and in one of their long post-prandial walks she stopped suddenly, and mounting a stump, looked full in his face with big searching eyes.
"You ain't mad?" said she, with an interrogative shake of the black braids.
"Nor hungry?" (Hunger was to M'liss a sickness that might attack a person at any moment.)
"Nor thinking of her?"
"Of whom, Lissy?"
"That white girl." (This was the latest epithet invented by M'liss, who was a very dark brunette, to express Clytemnestra.)
"Upon your word?" (A substitute for "Hope you 'll die!" proposed by the master.)
"And sacred honor?"
Then M'liss gave him a fierce little kiss, and hopping down, fluttered off. For two or three days after that she condescended to appear like other children and be, as she expressed it, "good."
When the summer was about spent, and the last harvest had been gathered in the valleys, the master bethought him of gathering in a few ripened shoots of the young idea, and of having his Harvest Home, or Examination. So the savans and professionals of Smith's Pocket were gathered to witness that time-honored custom of placing timid children in a constrained position, and bullying them as in a witness-box. As usual in such cases, the most audacious and self-possessed were the lucky recipients of the honors. The reader will imagine that in the present instance M'liss and Clytie were preeminent and divided public attention: M'liss with her clearness of material perception and self- reliance, and Clytie with her placid self-esteem and saintlike correctness of deportment. The other little ones were timid and blundering. M'liss's readiness and brilliancy, of course, captivated the greatest number, and provoked the greatest applause, and M'liss's antecedents had unconsciously awakened the strongest sympathies of the miners, whose athletic forms were ranged against the walls, or whose handsome bearded faces looked in at the window. But M'liss's popularity was overthrown by an unexpected circumstance.
McSnagley had invited himself, and had been going through the pleasing entertainment of frightening the more timid pupils by the vaguest and most ambiguous questions, delivered in an impressive, funereal tone; and M'liss had soared into astronomy, and was tracking the course of our "spotted ball" through space, and defining the "tethered orbits" of the planets, when McSnagley deliberately arose.
"Meelissy, ye were speaking of the revolutions of this yer yearth, and its movements with regard to the sun, and I think you said it had been a-doin' of it since the creation, eh?"
M'liss nodded a scornful affirmative.
"Well, was that the truth?" said McSnagley, folding his arms.
"Yes," said M'liss, shutting up her little red lips tightly.
The handsome outlines at the windows peered further into the schoolroom, and a saintly, Raphael-like face, with blond beard and soft blue eyes, belonging to the biggest scamp in the diggings, turned toward the child and whispered:--
"Stick to it, M'liss! It's only a big bluff of the parson."
The reverend gentleman heaved a deep sigh, and cast a compassionate glance at the master, then at the children, and then rested his eye on Clytemnestra. That young woman softly elevated her round, white arm. Its seductive curves were enhanced by a gorgeous and massive specimen bracelet, the gift of one of her humblest worshipers, worn in honor of the occasion. There was a momentary pause. Clytie's round cheeks were very pink and soft. Clytie's big eyes were very bright and blue. Clytie's low-necked white book-muslin rested softly on Clytie's white, plump shoulders. Clytie looked at the master, and the master nodded. Then Clytie spoke softly:
"Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and it obeyed him."
There was a low hum of applause in the schoolroom, a triumphant expression on McSnagley's face, a grave shadow on the master's, and a comical look of disappointment reflected from the windows. M'liss skimmed rapidly over her astronomy, and then shut the book with a loud snap. A groan burst from McSnagley, an expression of astonishment from the schoolroom, and a yell from the windows, as M'liss brought her red fist down on the desk, with the emphatic declaration:--
"It's a d--n lie. I don't believe it!"
The long wet season had drawn near its close. Signs of spring were visible in the swelling buds and rushing torrents. The pine forests exhaled a fresher spicery. The azaleas were already budding; the ceanothus getting ready its lilac livery for spring. On the green upland which climbed the Red Mountain at its southern aspect, the long spike of the monk's-hood shot up from its broad-leaved stool and once more shook its dark blue bells. Again the billow above Smith's grave was soft and green, its crest just tossed with the foam of daisies and buttercups. The little graveyard had gathered a few new dwellers in the past year, and the mounds were placed two by two by the little paling until they reached Smith's grave, and there, there was but one. General superstition had shunned the enforced companionship. The plot beside Smith was vacant.
It was the custom of the driver of the great Wingdam stage to whip up his horses at the foot of the hill, and soenter Smith's Pocket at that remarkable pace which the woodcuts in the hotel bar-room represented to credulous humanity as the usual rate of speed of that conveyance. At least, Aristides Morpher thought so as he stood one Sunday afternoon, uneasily conscious of his best jacket and collar, waiting its approach. Nor could anything shake his belief that regularly on that occasion the horses ran away with the driver, and that that individual from motives of deep policy pretended not to notice it until they were stopped.
"Anybody up from below, Bill?" said the landlord as the driver slowly descended from his perch.
"Nobody for you," responded Bill shortly. "Dusenberry kem up as usual, and got off at the old place. You can't make a livin' off him, I reckon."
"Have you found out what his name is yet?" continued the landlord, implying that "Dusenberry" was simply a playful epithet of the driver.
"He says his name is Waters," returned Bill. "Jake said he saw him at the North Fork in '50--called himself Moore then. Guess he ain't no good, nowhow. What's he doin' round here?"
"Says he's prospectin'," replied the landlord. "He has a claim somewhere in the woods. Gambles a little too, I reckon. He don't travel on his beauty anyhow."
"If you had seen him makin' up to a piece of calico inside, last trip, and she a-makin' up to him quite confidential-like, I guess you'd think he was a lady-killer. My eye, but wasn't she a stunner! Clytie Morpher wasn't nowhere to begin with her."
"Who was she, Bill?" asked half a dozen masculine voices.
"Don't know. We picked her up this side of 'Coyote.' Fancy? I tell you!--pretty little hat and pink ribbings--eyes that ud bore you through at a hundred yards--white teeth--brown gaiters, and such an ankle! She didn't want to show it,--oh, no!" added the sarcastic Bill with deep significance.
"Where did you leave her, Bill?" asked a gentle village swain who had been fired by the glowing picture of the fair unknown.
"That's what's the matter. You see after we picked her up, she said she was goin' through to Wingdam. Of course there wasn't anything in the stage or on the road too good to offer her. Old Major Spaffler wanted to treat her to lemonade at every station. Judge Plunkett kep' a-pullin' down the blinds and a-h'istin' of them up to keep out the sun and let in the air. Blest if old McSnagley didn't want to carry her travelin'-bag. There wasn't any attention, boys, she didn't get-- but it wasn't no use--bless you! She never so much as passed the time of day with them."
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