Let not the reader judge him too hastily. In the best regulated mind, thankfulness for deliverance from danger is apt to be mingled with some doubts as to the necessity of the trial.
In this frame of mind the last person he would have cared to meet was Clytie. That young woman’s evil genius, however, led her to pass the burnt district that morning. Perhaps she had anticipated the meeting. At all events, he had proceeded but a few steps before he was confronted by the identical round hat and cherry colored ribbons. But in his present humor the cheerful color somehow reminded him of the fire and of a ruddy stain over McSnagley’s heart, and invested the innocent Clytie with a figurative significance. Now Clytie’s reveries at that moment were pleasant, if the brightness of her eyes and the freshened color on her cheeks were any sign, and, as she had not seen the master since then, she naturally expected to take up the thread of romance where it had been dropped. But it required all her feminine tact to conceal her embarrassment at his formal greeting and constrained manner.
“He is bashful,” reasoned Clytie to herself.
“This girl is a tremendous fool,” growled the master inwardly.
An awkward pause ensued. Finally, Clytie loquitur:—
“M’liss has been missing since the fire!”
“Missing?” echoed the master in his natural tone.
Clytie bit her lip with vexation. “Yes, she’s always running away. She’ll be back again. But you look interested. Do you know,” she continued with exceeding archness, “I sometimes think, Mr. Gray, if M’liss were a little older”—
“Well, putting this and that together, you know!”
“People will talk, you know,” continued Clytie, with that excessive fondness weak people exhibit in enveloping in mystery the commonest affairs of life.
“People are d—d fools!” roared the master.
The correct Clytie was a little shocked. Perhaps underneath it was a secret admiration of the transgressor. Force even of this cheap quality goes a good way with some natures.
“That is,” continued the master, with an increase of dignity in inverse proportion to the lapse he had made, “people are apt to be mistaken, Miss Morpher, and without meaning it, to do infinite injustice to their fellow mortals. But I see I am detaining you. I will try and find Melissa. I wish you good-morning.” And Don Whiskerandos stalked solemnly away.
Clytie turned red and white by turns, and her eyes filled with tears. This denouement to her dreams was utterly unexpected. While a girl of stronger character and active intelligence would have employed the time in digesting plans of future retaliation and revenge, Clytie’s dull brain and placid nature were utterly perplexed and shaken.
“Dear me!” said Clytie to herself, as she started home, “if he don’t love me, why don’t he say so?”
The master, or Mr. Gray, as we may now call him as he draws near the close of his professional career, took the old trail through the forest, which led to M’liss’s former hiding-place. He walked on briskly, revolving in his mind the feasibility of leaving Smith’s Pocket. The late disaster, which would affect the prosperity of the settlement for some time to come, offered an excuse to him to give up his situation. On searching his pockets he found his present capital to amount to ten dollars. This increased by forty dollars, due him from the trustees, would make fifty dollars; deduct thirty dollars for liabilities, and he would have twenty dollars left to begin the world anew. Youth and hope added an indefinite number of ciphers to the right hand of these figures, and in this sanguine mood our young Alnaschar walked on until he had reached the old pine throne in the bank of the forest. M’liss was not there. He sat down on the trunk of the tree, and for a few moments gave himself up to the associations it suggested. What would become of M’liss after he was gone? But he quickly dropped the subject as one too visionary and sentimental for his then fiercely practical consideration, and, to prevent the recurrence of such distracting fancies, began to retrace his steps toward the settlement. At the edge of the woods, at a point where the trail forked toward the old site of Smith’s Pocket, he saw M’liss coming toward him. Her ordinary pace on such occasions was a kind of Indian trot; to his surprise she was walking slowly, with her apron thrown over her head,—an indication of meditation with M’liss and the usual way in which she excluded the outer world in studying her lessons. When she was within a few feet of him he called her by name. She started as she recognized him. There was a shade of seriousness in her dark eyes, and the hand that took his was listless and totally unlike her old frank, energetic grasp.
“You look worried, M’liss,” said Mr. Gray soothingly, as the old sentimental feeling crept over his heart. “What’s the matter now?”
M’liss replied by seating herself on the bank beside the road, and pointed to a place by her side. Mr. Gray took the proffered seat. M’liss then, fixing her eyes on some distant part of the view, remained for some moments in silence. Then, without turning her head or moving her eyes, she asked:—
“What’s that they call a girl that has money left her?”
“An heiress, M’liss?”
“Yes, an heiress.”
“Well?” said Mr. Gray.
“Well,” said M’liss, without moving her eyes, “I’m one,—I’m a heiress!”
“What’s that, M’liss?” said Mr. Gray laughingly.
M’liss was silent again. Suddenly turning her eyes full upon him, she said:—
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gray, beginning to be impressed by the child’s manner.
In short quick sentences, M’liss began. How Aristides had several times hinted of the concealed riches of Smith’s Pocket. How he had last night repeated the story to her of a strange discovery he had made. How she remembered to have heard her father often swear that there was money “in that hole,” if he only had means to work it. How, partly impressed by this statement and partly from curiosity and pity for the prisoner, she had visited him in confinement. An account of her interview, the origin of the fire, her flight with Waters. (Questions by Mr. Gray: What was your object in assisting this man to escape? Ans. They were going to kill him. Ques. Hadn’t he killed McSnagley. Ans. Yes, but McSnagley ought to have been killed long ago.) How she had taken leave of him that morning. How he had come back again “silly.” How she had dragged him on toward the Wingdam road, and how he had told her that all the hidden wealth of Smith’s Pocket had belonged to her father. How she had found out, from some questions, that he had known her father. But how all his other answers were “silly.”
“And where is he now?” asked Mr. Gray.
“Gone,” said M’liss. “I left him at the edge of the wood to go back and get some provisions, and when I returned he was gone. If he had any senses left, he’s miles away by this time. When he was off I went back to Smith’s Pocket. I found the hidden opening and saw the gold.”
Mr. Gray looked at her curiously. He had, in his more intimate knowledge of her character, noticed the unconcern with which she spoke of the circumstances of her father’s death and the total lack of any sentiment of filial regard. The idea that this man whom she had aided in escaping had ever done her injury had not apparently entered her mind, nor did Mr. Gray think it necessary to hint the deeper suspicion he had gathered from Dr. Duchesne that Waters had murdered her father. If the story of the concealed treasures of Smith’s Pocket were exaggerated he could easily satisfy himself on that point. M’liss met his suggestion to return to the Pocket with alacrity, and the two started away in that direction.
It was late in the afternoon when Mr. Gray returned. His heightened color and eager inquiry for Dr. Duchesne provoked the usual hope from the people that he met “that it was nothing serious.” No, nothing was the matter, the master answered with a slight laugh, but would they send the doctor to his schoolhouse when he returned? “That young chap’s worse than he thinks,” was one sympathizing suggestion; “this kind of life’s too rough for his sort.”
To while away the interim, Mr. Gray stopped on his way to the schoolhouse at the stage office as the Wingdam stage drew up and disgorged its passengers. He was listlessly watching the passengers as they descended when a soft voice from the window addressed him, “May I trouble you for your arm as I get down?” Mr. Gray looked up. It was a singular request, as the driver was at that moment standing by the door, apparently for that purpose. But the request came from a handsome woman, and with a bow the young man stepped to the door. The lady laid her hand lightly on his arm, sprang from the stage with a dexterity that showed the service to have been merely ceremonious, thanked him with an elaboration of acknowledgment which seemed equally gratuitous, and disappeared in the office.
“That’s what I call a dead set,” said the driver, drawing a long breath, as he turned to Mr. Gray, who stood in some embarrassment. “Do you know her?”
“No,” said Mr. Gray laughingly, “do you?”
“Nary time! But take care of yourself, young man; she’s after you, sure!”
But Mr. Gray was continuing his walk to the schoolhouse, unmindful of the caution. For the momentary glimpse he had caught of this woman’s face, she appeared to be about thirty. Her dress, though tasteful and elegant, in the present condition of California society afforded no criterion of her social status. But the figure of Dr. Duchesne waiting for him at the schoolhouse door just then usurped the place of all others, and she dropped out of his mind.
“Now then,” said the doctor, as the young man grasped his hand, “you want me to tell you why your eyes are bloodshot, why your cheeks burn, and your hand is dry and hot?”
“Not exactly! Perhaps you’ll understand the symptoms better when you’ve heard my story. Sit down here and listen.”
The doctor took the proffered seat on top of a desk, and Mr. Gray, after assuring himself that they were entirely alone, related the circumstances he had gathered from M’liss that morning.
“You see, doctor, how unjust were your surmises in regard to this girl,” continued Mr. Gray. “But let that pass now. At the conclusion of her story, I offered to go with her to this Ali Baba cave. It was no easy job finding the concealed entrance, but I found it at last, and ample corroboration of every item of this wild story. The pocket is rich with the most valuable ore. It has evidently been worked for some time since the discovery was made, but there is still a fortune in its walls, and several thousand dollars of ore sacked up in its galleries. Look at that!” continued Mr. Gray, as he drew an oblong mass of quartz and metal from his pocket. “Think of a secret of this kind having been intrusted for three weeks to a penniless orphan girl of twelve and an eccentric schoolboy of ten, and undivulged except when a proper occasion offered.”
Dr. Duchesne smiled. “And Waters is really clear?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gray.
“And M’liss assisted him to escape?”
“Well, you are an innocent one! And you see nothing in this but an act of thoughtless generosity? No assisting of an old accomplice to escape?”
“I see nothing but truth in her statement,” returned Mr. Gray stoutly. “If there has been any wrong committed, I believe her to be innocent of its knowledge.”
“Well, I’m glad at least the money goes to her and not to him. But how are you to establish her right to this property?”
“That was my object in conferring with you. At present the claim is abandoned. I have taken up the ground in my own name (for her), and this afternoon I posted up the usual notice.”
“Go on. You are not so much of a fool, after all.”
“Thank you! This will hold until a better claim is established. Now, if Smith had discovered this lead, and was, as the lawyers say, ‘seized and possessed’ of it at the time of his death, M’liss, of course, as next of kin, inherits it.”
“But how can this be proved? It is the general belief that Smith committed suicide through extreme poverty and destitution.”
Mr. Gray drew a letter from his pocket.
“You remember the memorandum I showed you, which came into my possession. Here it is; it is dated the day of his death.”
Dr. Duchesne took it and read:—
“July 17th. Five hours in drift—dipping west. Took out 20 oz.—cleaned up 40 oz.—Mem. Saw M. S.”
“This evidently refers to actual labor in the mine at the time,” said Dr. Duchesne. “But is it legally sufficient to support a claim of this magnitude? That is the only question now. You say this paper was the leaf of an old memorandum, torn off and used for a letter by M’liss; do you know where the orignal book can be found?”
“Aristides has it, or knows where it is,” answered Mr. Gray.
“Find it by all means. And get legal advice before you do anything. Go this very evening to Judge Plunkett and state your case to him. The promise of a handsome contingent fee won’t hurt M’liss’s prospects any. Remember, our ideas of abstract justice and the letter of the law in this case may be entirely different. Take Judge Plunkett your proofs; that is,” said the Doctor, stopping and eyeing his friend keenly, “if you have no fears for M’liss if this matter should be thoroughly ventilated.”
Mr. Gray did not falter.
“I go at once,” said he gayly, “if only to prove the child’s claim to a good name if we fail in getting her property.”
The two men left the schoolhouse together. As they reached the main street, the doctor paused:—
“You are still determined?”
“I am,” responded the young man.
“Good-night, and God speed you, then,” and the doctor left him.
The fire had been particularly severe on the legal fraternity in the settlement, and Judge Plunkett’s office, together with those of his learned brethren, had been consumed with the courthouse on the previous night. The judge’s house was on the outskirts of the village, and thither Mr. Gray proceeded. The judge was at home, but engaged at that moment. Mr. Gray would wait, and was ushered into a small room evidently used as a kitchen, but just then littered with law books, bundles of papers, and blanks that had been hastily rescued from the burning building. The sideboard groaned with the weight of several volumes of New York Reports, that seemed to impart a dusty flavor to the adjoining victual. Mr. Gray picked up a volume of supreme court decisions from the coal-scuttle, and was deep in an interesting case, when the door of the adjoining room opened and Judge Plunkett appeared.
He was an oily man of about fifty, with spectacles. He was glad to see the schoolmaster. He hoped he was not suffering from the excitement of the previous evening. For his part, the spectacle of sober citizens rising in a body to vindicate the insulted majesty of the laws of society, and of man, had always something sublime in it. And the murderer had really got away after all. And it was a narrow escape the schoolmaster had, too, at Smith’s Pocket.
Mr. Gray took advantage of the digression to state his business. He briefly recounted the circumstances of the discovery of the hidden wealth of Smith’s Pocket, and exhibited the memorandum he had shown the doctor. When he had concluded, Judge Plunkett looked at him over his spectacles, and rubbed his hands with satisfaction.
“You apprehend,” said the judge eagerly, “that you will have no difficulty in procuring this book from which the leaf was originally torn?”
“None,” replied Mr. Gray.
“Then, sir, I should give as my professional opinion that the case was already won.”
Mr. Gray shook the hand of the little man with great fervor, and thanked him for his belief. “And so this property will go entirely to M’liss?” he asked again.
“Well—ah—no—not exactly,” said Judge Plunkett, with some caution. “She will benefit by it undoubtedly—undoubtedly,” and he rubbed his hands again.
“Why not M’liss alone? There are no other claimants!” said Mr. Gray.
“I beg your pardon—you mistake,” said Judge Plunkett, with a smile. “You surely would not leave out the widow and mother?”
“Why, M’liss is an orphan,” said Mr. Gray in utter bewilderment.
“A sad mistake, sir,—a painful though natural mistake. Mr. Smith, though separated from his wife, was never divorced. A very affecting history—the old story, you know—an injured and loving woman deserted by her natural protector, but disdaining to avail herself of our legal aid. By a singular coincidence that I should have told you, I am anticipating you in this very case. Your services, however, I feel will be invaluable. Your concern for her amiable and interesting daughter Narcissa—ah, no, Melissa—will, of course, make you with us. You have never seen Mrs. Smith? A fine-looking, noble woman, sir,—though still disconsolate,—still thinking of the departed one. By another singular coincidence that I should have told you, she is here now. You shall see her, sir. Pray, let me introduce you;” and still rubbing his hands, Judge Plunkett led the way to the adjoining room.
Mr. Gray followed him mechanically. A handsome woman rose from the sofa as they entered. It was the woman he assisted to alight from the Wingdam stage.