A Ward of the Golden Gate by Bret Harte
In an instant the whole situation and his relations to it flashed upon Paul with a terrible, but almost grotesque, completeness. Here he was, at the outset of his career, responsible for the wasted fortune of the daughter of a social outcast, and saddled with her support! He now knew why Colonel Pendleton had wished to see him; for one shameful moment he believed he also knew why he had been content to take his proxy! The questionable character of the whole transaction, his own carelessness, which sprang from that very confidence and trust that Pendleton had lately extolled--what would, what could not be made of it! He already heard himself abused by his opponents--perhaps, more terrible still, faintly excused by his friends. All this was visible in his pale face and flashing eyes as he turned them on the helpless invalid.
Colonel Pendleton received his look with the same critical, half- curious scrutiny that had accompanied his speech. At last his face changed slightly, a faint look of disappointment crossed his eyes, and a sardonic smile deepened the lines of his mouth.
"There, sir," he said hurriedly, as if dismissing an unpleasant revelation; "don't alarm yourself! Take a drink of that whiskey. You look pale. Well; turn your eyes on those walls. You don't see any of that money laid out here--do you? Look at me. I don't look like a man enriched with other people's money--do I? Well, let that content you. Every dollar of that Trust fund, Hathaway, with all the interests and profits that have accrued to it, is safe! Every cent of it is locked up in government bonds with Rothschild's agent. There are the receipts, dated a week before the bank suspended. But enough of that--that isn't what I asked you to come and see me for."
The blood had rushed back to Paul's cheeks uncomfortably. He saw now, as impulsively as he had previously suspected his co-trustee, that the man had probably ruined himself to save the Trust. He stammered that he had not questioned the management of the fund nor asked to withdraw his proxy.
"No matter, sir," said the colonel, impatiently; "you had the right, and I suppose," he added with half-concealed scorn, "it was your duty. But let that pass. The money is safe enough; but, Mr. Hathaway,--and this is the point I want to discuss with you,--it begins to look as if the secret was safe no longer!" He had raised himself with some pain and difficulty to draw nearer to Paul, and had again fixed his eyes eagerly upon him. But Paul's responsive glance was so vague that he added quickly, "You understand, sir; I believe that there are hounds--I say hounds!--who would be able to blurt out at any moment that that girl at Santa Clara is Kate Howard's daughter."
At any other moment Paul might have questioned the gravity of any such contingency, but the terrible earnestness of the speaker, his dominant tone, and a certain respect which had lately sprung up in his breast for him, checked him, and he only asked with as much concern as he could master for the moment:--
"What makes you think so?"
"That's what I want to tell you, Hathaway, and how I, and I alone, am responsible for it. When the bank was in difficulty and I made up my mind to guard the Trust with my own personal and private capital, I knew that there might be some comment on my action. It was a delicate matter to show any preference or exclusion at such a moment, and I took two or three of my brother directors whom I thought I could trust into my confidence. I told them the whole story, and how the Trust was sacred. I made a mistake, sir," continued Pendleton sardonically, "a grave mistake. I did not take into account that even in three years civilization and religion had gained ground here. There was a hound there--a blank Judas in the Trust. Well; he didn't see it. I think he talked Scripture and morality. He said something about the wages of sin being infamous, and only worthy of confiscation. He talked about the sins of the father being visited upon the children, and justly. I stopped him. Well! Do you know what's the matter with my ankle? Look!" He stopped and, with some difficulty and invincible gravity, throwing aside his dressing-gown, turned down his stocking, and exposed to Paul's gaze the healed cicatrix of an old bullet-wound. "Troubled me damnably near a year. Where I hit him--hasn't troubled him at all since!
"I think," continued the colonel, falling back upon the pillow with an air of relief, "that he told others--of his own kidney, sir,-- though it was a secret among gentlemen. But they have preferred to be silent now--than afterwards. They know that I'm ready. But I can't keep this up long; some time, you know, they're bound to improve in practice and hit higher up! As far as I'm concerned," he added, with a grim glance around the faded walls and threadbare furniture, "it don't mind; but mine isn't the mouth to be stopped." He paused, and then abruptly, yet with a sudden and pathetic dropping of his dominant note, said: "Hathaway, you're young, and Hammersley liked you--what's to be done? I thought of passing over my tools to you. You can shoot, and I hear you have. But the h--l of it is that if you dropped a man or two people would ask why, and want to know what it was about; while, when I do, nobody here thinks it anything but my way! I don't mean that it would hurt you with the crowd to wipe out one or two of these hounds during the canvass, but the trouble is that they belong to your party, and," he added grimly, "that wouldn't help your career."
"But," said Paul, ignoring the sarcasm, are you not magnifying the effect of a disclosure? The girl is an heiress, excellently brought up. Who will bother about the antecedents of the mother, who has disappeared, whom she never knew, and who is legally dead to her?"
"In my day, sir, no one who knew the circumstances," returned the colonel, quickly. "But we are living in a blessed era of Christian retribution and civilized propriety, and I believe there are a lot of men and women about who have no other way of showing their own virtue than by showing up another's vice. We're in a reaction of reform. It's the old drunkards who are always more clamorous for total abstinence than the moderately temperate. I tell you, Hathaway, there couldn't be an unluckier moment for our secret coming out."
"But she will be of age soon."
"In two months."
"And sure to marry."
"Marry!" repeated Pendleton, with grim irony. "Would you marry her?"
"That's another question," said the young man, promptly, "and one of individual taste; but it does not affect my general belief that she could easily find a husband as good and better."
"Suppose she found one before the secret is out. Ought he be told?"
"And that would imply telling her?"
"Yes," said Paul, but not so promptly. "And you consider that fulfilling the promise of the Trust--the pledges exchanged with that woman?" continued Pendleton, with glittering eyes and a return to his own dominant tone.
"My dear colonel," said Paul, somewhat less positively, but still smiling, "you have made a romantic, almost impossible compact with Mrs. Howard that, you yourself are now obliged to admit, circumstances may prevent your carrying out substantially. You forget, also, that you have just told me that you have already broken your pledge--under circumstances, it is true, that do you honor--and that now your desperate attempts to retrieve it have failed. Now, I really see nothing wrong in your telling to a presumptive well-wisher of the girl what you have told to her enemy."
There was a dead silence. The prostrate man uttered a slight groan, as if in pain, and drew up his leg to change his position. After a pause, he said, in a restrained voice, "I differ from you, Mr. Hathaway; but enough of this for the present. I have something else to say. It will be necessary for one of us to go at once to Santa Clara and see Miss Yerba Buena."
"Good heavens!" said Paul, quickly. "Do you call her that?"
"Certainly, sir. You gave her the name. Have you forgotten?"
"I only suggested it," returned Paul, hopelessly; "but no matter-- go on."
"I cannot go there, as you see," continued Pendleton, with a weary gesture towards his crippled ankle; "and I should particularly like you to see her before we make the joint disposition of her affairs with the Mayor, two months hence. I have some papers you can show her, and I have already written a letter introducing you to the Lady Superior at the convent, and to her. You have never seen her?"
"No," said Paul. "But of course you have?"
"Not for three years."
Paul's eyes evidently expressed some wonder, for a moment after the colonel added, "I believe, Hathaway, I am looked upon as a queer survival of a rather lawless and improper past. At least, I have thought it better not socially to compromise her by my presence. The Mayor goes there--at the examinations and exercises, I believe, sir; they make a sort of reception for him--with a--a--banquet-- lemonade and speeches."
"I had intended to leave for Sacramento to-morrow night," said Paul, glancing curiously at the helpless man; "but I will go there if you wish."
"Thank you. It will be better."
There were a few words of further explanation of the papers, and Pendleton placed the packet in his visitor's hands. Paul rose. Somehow, it appeared to him that the room looked more faded and forgotten than when he entered it, and the figure of the man before him more lonely, helpless, and abandoned. With one of his sympathetic impulses he said:--
"I don't like to leave you here alone. Are you sure you can help yourself without George? Can I do anything before I go?"
"I am quite accustomed to it," said Pendleton, quietly. "It happens once or twice a year, and when I go out--well--I miss more than I do here."
He took Paul's proffered hand mechanically, with a slight return of the critical, doubting look he had cast upon him when he entered. his voice, too, had quite recovered its old dominance, as he said, with half-patronizing conventionality, "You'll have to find your way out alone. Let me know how you have sped at Santa Clara, will you? Good-by."
The staircase and passage seemed to have grown shabbier and meaner as Paul, slowly and hesitatingly, descended to the street. At the foot of the stairs he paused irresolutely, and loitered with a vague idea of turning back on some pretense, only that he might relieve himself of the sense of desertion. He had already determined upon making that inquiry into the colonel's personal and pecuniary affairs which he had not dared to offer personally, and had a half-formed plan of testing his own power and popularity in a certain line of relief that at once satisfied his sympathies and ambitions. Nevertheless, after reaching the street, he lingered a moment, when an odd idea of temporizing with his inclinations struck him. At the farther end of the hotel--one of the parasites living on its decayed fortunes--was a small barber's shop. By having his hair trimmed and his clothes brushed he could linger a little longer beneath the same roof with the helpless solitary, and perhaps come to some conclusion. He entered the clean but scantily furnished shop, and threw himself into one of the nearest chairs, hardly noting that there were no other customers, and that a single assistant, stropping a razor behind a glass door, was the only occupant. But there was a familiar note of exaggerated politeness about the voice of this man as he opened the door and came towards the back of the chair with the formula:--
"Mo'nin', sah! Shall we hab de pleshure of shavin' or hah-cuttin' dis mo'nin'?" Paul raised his eyes quickly to the mirror before him. It reflected the black face and grizzled hair of George.
More relieved at finding the old servant still near his master than caring to comprehend the reason, Hathaway said pleasantly, "Well, George, is this the way you look after your family?"
The old man started; for an instant his full red lips seemed to become dry and ashen, the whites of his eyes were suffused and staring, as he met Paul's smiling face in the glass. But almost as quickly he recovered himself, and, with a polite but deprecating bow, said,--"For God sake, sah! I admit de sarkumstances is agin me, but de simple fack is dat I'm temper'ly occupyin' de place of an ole frien', sah, who is called round de cornah."
"And I'm devilish glad of any fact, George, that gives me a chance of having my hair cut by Colonel Pendleton's right-hand man. So fire away!"
The gratified smile which now suddenly overspread the whole of the old man's face, and seemed to quickly stiffen the rugged and wrinkled fingers that had at first trembled in drawing a pair of shears from a ragged pocket, appeared to satisfy Paul's curiosity for the present. But after a few moments' silent snipping, during which he could detect in the mirror some traces of agitation still twitching the negro's face, he said with an air of conviction:--
"Look here, George--why don't you regularly use your leisure moments in this trade? You'd make your fortune by your taste and skill at it."
For the next half minute the old man's frame shook with silent childlike laughter behind Paul's chair. "Well, Marse Hathaway, yo's an ole frien' o' my massa, and a gemman yo'self, sah, and a senetah, and I do'an mind tellin' yo'--dat's jess what I bin gone done! It makes a little ready money for de ole woman and de chilleren. But de Kernel don' no'. Ah, sah! de Kernel kill me or hisself if he so much as 'spicioned me. De Kernel is high-toned, sah!--bein' a gemman yo'self, yo' understand. He wouldn't heah ob his niggah worken' for two massas--for all he's willen' to lemme go and help myse'f. But, Lord bless yo', sah, dat ain't in de category! De Kernel couldn't get along widout me."
"You collect his rents, don't you?" said Paul, quietly.
"Well, no, sah; not so much as fom'ly, sah! Yo' see, de Kernel's prop'ty lies in de ole parts ob de town, where de po' white folks lib, and dey ain't reg'lar. De Kernel dat sof' in his heart, he dare n' press 'em; some of 'em is ole fo'ty-niners, like hisself, sah; and some is Spanish, sah, and dey is sof' too, and ain't no more gumption dan chilleren, and tink it's ole time come ag'in, and dey's in de ole places like afo' de Mexican wah! and dey don' bin payin' noffin'. But we gets along, sah,--we gets along,--not in de prima facie style, sah! mebbe not in de modden way dut de Kernel don't like; but we keeps ourse'f, sah, and has wine fo' our friends. When yo' come again, sah, yo' 'll find de Widder Glencoe on de sideboard."
"Has the colonel many friends here?"
"Mos' de ole ones bin done gone, sah, and de Kernel don' cotton to de new. He don' mix much in sassiety till de bank settlements bin gone done. Skuse me, sah!--but you don' happen to know when dat is? It would be a pow'ful heap off de Kernel's mind if it was done. Bein' a high and mighty man in committees up dah in Sacramento, sah, I didn't know but what yo' might know as it might come befo' yo'."
"I'll see about it," said Paul, with an odd, abstracted smile.
"Shampoo dis mornen', sah?"
"Nothing more in this line," said Paul, rising from his chair, "but something more, perhaps, in the line of your other duties. You're a good barber for the public, George, and I don't take back what I said about your future; but just now I think the colonel wants all your service. He's not at all well. Take this," he said, putting a twenty-dollar gold piece in the astonished servant's hand, "and for the next three or four days drop the shop, and under some pretext or another arrange to be with him. That money will cover what you lose here, and as soon as the colonel's all right again you can come back to work. But are you not afraid of being recognized by some one?"
"No, sah, dat's just it. On'y strangers dat don't know no better come yere."
"But suppose your master should drop in? It's quite convenient to his rooms."
"Marse Harry in a barber-shop!" said the old man with a silent laugh. "Skuse me, sah," he added, with an apologetic mixture of respect and dignity, "but fo' twenty years no man hez touched de Kernel's chin but myself. When Marse Harry hez to go to a barber's shop, it won't make no matter who's dar."
"Let's hope he will not," said Paul gayly; then, anxious to evade the gratitude which, since his munificence, he had seen beaming in the old negro's eye and evidently trying to find polysyllabic and elevated expression on his lips, he said hurriedly, "I shall expect to find you with the colonel when I call again in a day or two," and smilingly departed.
At the end of two hours George's barber-employer returned to relieve his assistant, and, on receiving from him an account and a certain percentage of the afternoon's fees (minus the gift from Paul), was informed by George that he should pretermit his attendance for a few days. "Udder private and personal affairs," explained the old negro, who made no social distinction in his vocabulary, "peroccupyin' dis niggah's time." The head barber, unwilling to lose a really good assistant, endeavored to dissuade him by the offer of increased emolument, but George was firm.
As he entered the sitting-room the colonel detected his step, and called him in.
"Another time, George, never allow a guest of mine to send away wine. If he don't care for it, put it on the sideboard."
"Yes, sah; but as yo' didn't like it yo'self, Marse Harry, and de wine was de most 'xpensive quality ob Glencoe"--
"D--n the expense!" He paused, and gazed searchingly at his old retainer.
"George," he said suddenly, yet in a gentle voice, "don't lie to me, or"--in a still kinder voice--"I'll flog the black skin off you! Listen to me. Have you got any money left?"
"'Deed, sah, dere is," said the negro earnestly. "I'll jist fetch it wid de accounts."
"Hold on! I've been thinking, lying here, that if the Widow Molloy can't pay because she sold out, and that tobacconist is ruined, and we've had to pay the water tax for old Bill Soames, the rent last week don't amount to much, while there's the month's bill for the restaurant and that blank druggist's account for lotions and medicines to come out of it. It strikes me we're pretty near touching bottom. I've everything I want here, but, by God, sir, if I find you skimping yourself or lying to me or borrowing money"--
"Yes, Marse Harry, but the Widder Molloy done gone and paid up dis afernoon. I'll bring de books and money to prove it;" and he hurriedly reentered the sitting-room.
Then with trembling hands he emptied his pockets on the table, including Paul's gift and the fees he had just received, and opening a desk-drawer took from it a striped cotton handkerchief, such as negro women wear on their heads, containing a small quantity of silver tied up in a hard knot, and a boy's purse. This he emptied on the table with his own money.
They were the only rents of Colonel Henry Pendleton! They were contributed by "George Washington Thomson;" his wife, otherwise known as "Aunt Dinah," washerwoman; and "Scipio Thomson," their son, aged fourteen, bootblack. It did not amount to much. But in that happy moisture that dimmed the old man's eyes, God knows it looked large enough.