WHICH HAS A GOOD MORAL TENDENCY
In his first estimate of the child’s character he could not conceive that she had ever possessed a doll. But the master, like many other professed readers of character, was safer in a posteriori than a priori reasoning, for M’liss had a doll. But then it was a peculiar doll,—a frightful perversion of wax and sawdust,—a doll fearfully and wonderfully made,—a smaller edition of M’liss. Its unhappy existence had been a secret discovered accidentally by Mrs. Morpher. It had been the oldtime companion of M’liss’s wanderings, and bore evident marks of suffering. Its original complexion was long since washed away by the weather, and anointed by the slime of ditches. It looked very much as M’liss had in days past. Its one gown of faded stuff was dirty and ragged as hers had been. M’liss had never been known to apply to it any childish term of endearment. She never exhibited it in the presence of other children. It was put severely to bed in a hollow tree near the schoolhouse, and only allowed exercise during M’liss’s rambles. Fulfilling a stern duty to her doll—as she would to herself—it knew no luxuries.
Now, Mrs. Morpher, obeying a commendable impulse, bought another doll and gave it to M’liss. The child received it gravely and curiously. The master, on looking at it one day, fancied he saw a slight resemblance in its round red cheeks and mild blue eyes to Clytemnestra. It became evident before long that M’liss had also noticed the same resemblance. Accordingly she hammered its waxen head on the rocks when she was alone, and sometimes dragged it with a string round its neck to and from school. At other times, setting it up on her desk, she made a pincushion of its patient and inoffensive body. Whether this was done in revenge of what she considered a second figurative obtrusion of Clytie’s excellencies upon her; or whether she had an intuitive appreciation of the rites of certain other heathens, and indulging in that “fetich” ceremony imagined that the original of her wax model would pine away and finally die, is a metaphysical question I shall not now consider.
In spite of these moral vagaries, the master could not help noticing in her different tasks the workings of a quick, restless, and vigorous perception. She knew neither the hesitancy nor the doubts of childhood. Her answers in class were always slightly dashed with audacity. Of course she was not infallible. But her courage and daring in venturing beyond her own depth and that of the floundering little swimmers around her, in their minds outweighed all errors of judgment. Children are no better than grown people in this respect, I fancy; and whenever the little red hand flashed above her desk, there was a wondering silence, and even the master was sometimes oppressed with a doubt of his own experience and judgment.
Nevertheless, certain attributes which at first amused and entertained his fancy began to affect him with grave doubts. He could not but see that M’liss was revengeful, irreverent, and willful. But there was one better quality which pertained to her semi-savage disposition—the faculty of physical fortitude and self-sacrifice, and another—though not always an attribute of the noble savage—truth. M’liss was both fearless and sincere—perhaps in such a character the adjectives were synonymous.
The master had been doing some hard thinking on this subject, and had arrived at that conclusion quite common to all who think sincerely, that he was generally the slave of his own prejudices, when he determined to call on the Rev. Mr. McSnagley for advice. This decision was somewhat humiliating to his pride, as he and McSnagley were not friends. But he thought of M’liss, and the evening of their first meeting; and perhaps with a pardonable superstition that it was not chance alone that had guided her willful feet to the schoolhouse, and perhaps with a complacent consciousness of the rare magnanimity of the act, he choked back his dislike and went to McSnagley.
The reverend gentleman was glad to see him. Moreover, he observed that the master was looking “peartish” and hoped he had got over the “neuralgy” and “rheumatiz.” He himself had been troubled with a dumb “ager” since last conference. But he had learned to “rastle and pray.”
Pausing a moment to enable the master to write this certain method of curing the dumb “ager” upon the book and volume of his brain, Mr. McSnagley proceeded to inquire after Sister Morpher. “She is an adornment to Christewanity, and has a likely, growin’ young family,” added Mr. McSnagley; “and there is that mannerly young gal—so well behaved—Miss Clytie.” In fact, Clytie’s perfections seemed to affect him to such an extent that he dwelt for several minutes upon them. The master was doubly embarrassed. In the first place, there was an enforced contrast with poor M’liss in all this praise of Clytie. Secondly, there was something unpleasantly confidential in his tone of speaking of Morpher’s earliest born. So that the master, after a few futile efforts to say something natural, found it convenient to recall another engagement and left without asking the information required, but in his after reflections somewhat unjustly giving the Rev. Mr. McSnagley the full benefit of having refused it.
But the master obtained the advice in another and unexpected direction.
The resident physician of Smith’s Pocket was a Dr. Duchesne, or as he was better known to the locality, “Dr. Doochesny.” Of a naturally refined nature and liberal education, he had steadily resisted the aggressions and temptations of Smith’s Pocket, and represented to the master a kind of connecting link between his present life and the past. So that an intimacy sprang up between the two men, involving prolonged interviews in the doctor’s little back shop, often to the exclusion of other suffering humanity and their physical ailments. It was in one of these interviews that the master mentioned the coincidence of the date of the memoranda on the back of M’liss’s letter and the day of Smith’s suicide.
“If it were Smith’s own handwriting, as the child says it is,” said the master, “it shows a queer state of mind that could contemplate suicide and indite private memoranda within the same twenty-four hours.”
Dr. Duchesne removed his cigar from his lips and looked attentively at his friend.
“The only hypothesis,” continued the master, “is that Smith was either drunk or crazy, and the fatal act was in a measure unpremeditated.”
“Every man who commits suicide,” returned the doctor gravely, “is in my opinion insane, or, what is nearly the same thing, becomes through suffering an irresponsible agent. In my professional experience I have seen most of the forms of mental and physical agony, and know what sacrifices men will make to preserve even an existence that to me seemed little better than death, so long as their intellect remained unclouded. When you come to reflect on the state of mind that chooses death as a preferable alternative, you generally find an exaltation and enthusiasm that differs very little from the ordinary diagnosis of delirium. Smith was not drunk,” added the doctor in his usual careless tone; “I saw his body.”
The master remained buried in reflection. Presently the doctor removed his cigar.
“Perhaps I might help you to explain the coincidence you speak of.”
“Very easily. But this is a professional secret, you understand.”
“Yes, I understand,” said the master hastily, with an ill-defined uneasiness creeping over him.
“Do you know anything of the phenomena of death by gunshot wounds?”
“Then you must take certain facts as granted. Smith, you remember, was killed instantly! The nature of his wound and the manner of his death were such as would have caused an instantaneous and complete relaxation of all the muscles. Rigidity and contraction would have supervened of course, but only after life was extinct and consciousness fled. Now Smith was found with his hand tightly grasping a pistol.”
“Well, my dear boy, he must have grasped it after he was dead, or have prevailed on some friend to stiffen his fingers round it.”
“Do you mean that he was murdered?”
Dr. Duchesne rose and closed the door. “We have different names for these things in Smith’s Pocket. I mean to say that he didn’t kill himself—that’s all.”
“But, doctor,” said the master earnestly; “do you think you have done right in concealing this fact? Do you think it just—do you think it consistent with your duty to his orphan child?”
“That’s why I have said nothing about it,” replied the doctor coolly,—“because of my consideration for his orphan child.”
The master breathed quickly, and stared at the doctor.
“Doctor! you don’t think that M’liss”—
“Hush!—don’t get excited, my young friend. Remember I am not a lawyer—only a doctor.”
“But M’liss was with me the very night he must have been killed. We were walking together when we heard the report—that is—a report—which must have been the one”—stammered the master.
“When was that?”
“At half past eleven. I remember looking at my watch.”
“Humph!—when did you meet her first?”
“At half past eight. Come, doctor, you have made a mistake here at least,” said the young man with an assumption of ease he was far from feeling. “Give M’liss the benefit of the doubt.”
Dr. Duchesne replied by opening a drawer of his desk. After rummaging among the powders and mysterious looking instruments with which it was stored, he finally brought forth a longitudinal slip of folded white paper. It was appropriately labeled “Poison.”
“Look here,” said the doctor, opening the paper. It contained two or three black coarse hairs. “Do you know them?”
“It looks something like Melissa’s hair,” said the master, with a fathomless sinking of the heart.
“When I was called to look at the body,” continued the doctor with the deliberate cautiousness of a professional diagnosis, “my suspicions were aroused by the circumstance I told you of. I managed to get possession of the pistol, and found these hairs twisted around the lock as though they had been accidentally caught and violently disentangled. I don’t think that any one else saw them. I removed them without observation, and—they are at your service.”
The master sank back in his seat and pressed his hand to his forehead. The image of M’liss rose before him with flashing eye and long black hair, and seemed to beat down and resist defiantly the suspicion that crept slowly over his heart.
“I forbore to tell you this, my friend,” continued the doctor slowly and gravely, “because when I learned that you had taken this strange child under your protection I did not wish to tell you that which—though I contend does not alter her claims to man’s sympathy and kindness—still might have prejudiced her in your eyes. Her improvement under your care has proven my position correct. I have, as you know, peculiar ideas of the extent to which humanity is responsible. I find in my heart—looking back over that child’s career—no sentiment but pity. I am mistaken in you if I thought this circumstance aroused any other feeling in yours.”
Still the figure of M’liss stood before the master as he bent before the doctor’s words, in the same defiant attitude, with something of scorn in the great dark eyes, that made the blood tingle in his cheeks, and seemed to make the reasoning of the speaker but meaningless and empty words. At length he rose. As he stood with his hand on the latch he turned to Dr. Duchesne, who was watching him with careful solicitude.
“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!”