A Ward of the Golden Gate by Bret Harte
It was already autumn, and in the city of New York an early Sunday morning breeze was sweeping up the leaves that had fallen from the regularly planted ailantus trees before the brown-stone frontage of a row of monotonously alike five-storied houses on one of the principal avenues. The Pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church, that uplifted its double towers on the corner, stopped before one of these dwellings, ran up the dozen broad steps, and rang the bell. He was presently admittted to the sombre richness of a hall and drawing-room with high-backed furniture of dark carved woods, like cathedral stalls, and, hat in hand, somewhat impatiently awaited the arrival of his hostess and parishioner. The door opened to a tall, white-haired woman in lustreless black silk. She was regular and resolute in features, of fine but unbending presence, and, though somewhat past middle age, showed no signs of either the weakness or mellowness of years.
"I am sorry to disturb your Sabbath morning meditations, Sister Argalls, nor would I if it were not in the line of Christian duty; but Sister Robbins is unable today to make her usual Sabbath hospital visit, and I thought if you were excused from the Foreign Missionary class and Bible instruction at three you might undertake her functions. I know, my dear old friend," he continued, with bland deprecation of her hard-set eyes, "how distasteful this promiscuous mingling with the rough and ungodly has always been to you, and how reluctant you are to be placed in the position of being liable to hear coarse, vulgar, or irreverent speech. I think, too, in our long and pleasant pastoral relations, you have always found me mindful of it. I admit I have sometimes regretted that your late husband had not more generally familiarized you with the ways of the world. But so it is--we all have our weaknesses. If not one thing, another. And as Envy and Uncharitableness sometimes find their way in even Christian hearts, I should like you to undertake this office for the sake of example. There are some, dear Sister Argalls, who think that the rich widow who is most liberal in the endowment of the goods that Providence has intrusted to her hands claims therefore to be exempt from labor in the Christian vineyard. Let us teach them how unjust they are."
"I am willing," said the lady, with a dry, determined air. "I suppose these patients are not professedly bad characters?"
"By no means. A few, perhaps; but the majority are unfortunates-- dependent either upon public charity or some small provision made by their friends."
"And you understand that though they have the privilege of rejecting your Christian ministrations, dear Sister Argalls, you are free to judge when you may be patient or importunate with them?"
The Pastor was not an unkindly man, and, as he glanced at the uncompromising look in Mrs. Argalls's eyes, felt for a moment some inconsistency between his humane instincts and his Christian duty. "Some of them may require, and be benefited by, a stern monitress, and Sister Robbins, I fear, was weak," he said consolingly to himself, as he descended the steps again.
At three o'clock Mrs. Argalls, with a reticule and a few tracts, was at the door of St. John's Hospital. As she displayed her testimonials and announced that she had taken Mrs. Robbins's place, the officials received her respectfully, and gave some instructions to the attendants, which, however, did not stop some individual comments.
"I say, Jim, it doesn't seem the square thing to let that grim old girl loose among them poor convalescents."
"Well, I don't know: they say she's rich and gives a lot o' money away, but if she tackles that swearing old Kentuckian in No. 3, she'll have her hands full."
However, the criticism was scarcely fair, for Mrs. Argalls, although moving rigidly along from bed to bed of the ward, equipped with a certain formula of phrases, nevertheless dropped from time to time some practical common-sense questions that showed an almost masculine intuition of the patients' needs and requirements. Nor did she betray any of that over-sensitive shrinking from coarseness which the good Pastor had feared, albeit she was quick to correct its exhibition. The languid men listened to her with half- aggressive, half-amused interest, and some of the satisfaction of taking a bitter but wholesome tonic. It was not until she reached the bed at the farther end of the ward that she seemed to meet with any check.
It was occupied by a haggard man, with a long white moustache and features that seemed wasted by inward struggle and fever. At the first sound of her voice he turned quickly towards her, lifted himself on his elbow, and gazed fixedly in her face.
"Kate Howard--by the Eternal!" he said, in a low voice.
Despite her rigid self-possession the woman started, glanced hurriedly around, and drew nearer to him.
"Pendleton!" she said, in an equally suppressed voice, "What, in God's name, are you doing here?"
"Dying, I reckon--sooner or later," he said grimly, "that's what they do here."
"But--what," she went on hurriedly, still glancing over her shoulder as if she suspected some trick--"what has brought you to this?"
"You!" said the colonel, dropping back exhaustedly on his pillow. "You and your daughter."
"I don't understand you," she said quickly, yet regarding him with stern rigidity. "You know perfectly well I have no daughter. You know perfectly well that I've kept the word I gave you ten years ago, and that I have been dead to her as she has been to me."
"I know," said the colonel, "that within the last three months I have paid away my last cent to keep the mouth of an infernal scoundrel shut who knows that you are her mother, and threatens to expose her to her friends. I know that I'm dying here of an old wound that I got when I shut the mouth of another hound who was ready to bark at her two years after you disappeared. I know that between you and her I've let my old nigger die of a broken heart, because I couldn't keep him to suffer with me, and I know that I'm here a pauper on the State. I know that, Kate, and when I say it I don't regret it. I've kept my word to you, and, by the Eternal, your daughter's worth it! For if there ever was a fair and peerless creature--it's your child!"
"And she--a rich woman--unless she squandered the fortune I gave her--lets you lie here!" said the woman grimly.
"She don't know it."
"She should know it! Have you quarreled?" She was looking at him keenly.
"She distrusts me, because she half suspects the secret, and I hadn't the heart to tell her all."
"All? What does she know? What does this man know? What has been told her?" she said rapidly.
"She only knows that the name she has taken she has no right to."
"Right to? Why, it was written on the Trust--Yerba Buena."
"No, not that. She thought it was a mistake. She took the name of Arguello."
"What?" said Mrs. Argalls, suddenly grasping the invalid's wrist with both hands. "What name?" her eyes were startled from their rigid coldness, her lips were colorless.
"Arguello! It was some foolish schoolgirl fancy which that hound helped to foster in her. Why--what's the matter, Kate?"
The woman dropped the helpless man's wrist, then, with an effort, recovered herself sufficiently to rise, and, with an air of increased decorum, as if the spiritual character of their interview excluded worldly intrusion, adjusted the screen around his bed, so as partly to hide her own face and Pendleton's. Then, dropping into the chair beside him, she said, in her old voice, from which the burden of ten long years seemed to have been lifted,--
"Harry, what's that you're playing on me?"
"I don't understand you," said Pendleton amazedly.
"Do you mean to say you don't know it, and didn't tell her yourself?" she said curtly.
"What? Tell her what?" he repeated impatiently.
"That Arguello was her father!"
"Her father?" He tried to struggle to his elbow again, but she laid her hand masterfully upon his shoulder and forced him back. "Her father!" he repeated hurriedly. "Jose Arguello! Great God!-- are you sure?"
Quietly and yet mechanically gathering the scattered tracts from the coverlet, and putting them back, one by one in her reticule, she closed it and her lips with a snap as she uttered--"Yes."
Pendleton remained staring at her silently, "Yes," he muttered, "it may have been some instinct of the child's, or some diabolical fancy of Briones'. But," he said bitterly, "true or not, she has no right to his name."
"And I say she has."
She had risen to her feet, with her arms folded across her breast, in an attitude of such Puritan composure that the distant spectators might have thought she was delivering an exordium to the prostrate man.
"I met Jose Arguello, for the second time, in New Orleans," she said slowly, "eight years ago. He was still rich, but ruined in health by dissipation. I was tired of my way of life. He proposed that I should marry him to take care of him and legitimatize our child. I was forced to tell him what I had done with her, and that the Trust could not be disturbed until she was of age and her own mistress. He assented. We married, but he died within a year. He died, leaving with me his acknowledgment of her as his child, and the right to claim her if I chose."
"And?"--interrupted the colonel with sparkling eyes.
"I don't choose.
"Hear me!" she continued firmly. "With his name and my own mistress, and the girl, as I believed, properly provided for and ignorant of my existence, I saw no necessity for reopening the past. I resolved to lead a new life as his widow. I came north. In the little New England town where I first stopped, the country people contracted my name to Mrs. Argalls. I let it stand so. I came to New York and entered the service of the Lord and the bonds of the Church, Henry Pendleton, as Mrs. Argalls, and have remained so ever since."
"But you would not object to Yerba knowing that you lived, and rightly bore her father's name?" said Pendleton eagerly.
The woman looked at him with compressed lips. "I should. I have buried all my past, and all its consequences. Let me not seek to reopen it or recall them."
"But if you knew that she was as proud as yourself, and that this very uncertainty as to her name and parentage, although she has never known the whole truth, kept her from taking the name and becoming the wife of a man whom she loves?"
"Whom she loves!"
"Yes; one of her guardians---Hathaway--to whom you intrusted her when she was a child."
"Paul Hathaway--but he knew it."
"Yes. But she does not know he does. He has kept the secret faithfully, even when she refused him."
She was silent for a moment, and then said,--
"So be it. I consent."
"And you'll write to her?" said the colonel eagerly.
"No. But you may, and if you want them I will furnish you with such proofs as you may require."
"Thank you." He held out his hand with such a happy yet childish gratitude upon his worn face that her own trembled slightly as she took it. "Good-by!"
"I shall see you soon," she said.
"I shall be here," he said grimly.
"I think not," she returned, with the first relaxation of her smileless face, and moved away.
As she passed out she asked to see the house surgeon. How soon did he think the patient she had been conversing with could be removed from the hospital with safety? Did Mrs. Argalls mean "far?" Mrs. Argalls meant as far as that--tendering her card and eminently respectable address. Ah!--perhaps in a week. Not before? Perhaps before, unless complications ensued; the patient had been much run down physically, though, as Mrs. Argalls had probably noticed, he was singularly strong in nervous will force. Mrs. Argalls had noticed it, and considered it an extraordinary case of conviction-- worthy of the closest watching and care. When he was able to be moved she would send her own carriage and her own physician to superintend his transfer. In the mean time he was to want for nothing. Certainly, he had given very little trouble, and, in fact, wanted very little. Just now he had only asked for paper, pens, and ink.