Sally Dows and Other Stories

The Conspiracy of Mrs. Bunker

Part II

Bret Harte

DURING that evening and the next Mrs. Bunker, without betraying her secret, or exciting the least suspicion on the part of her husband, managed to extract from him not only a rough description of Marion which tallied with her own impressions, but a short history of his career. He was a famous politician who had held high office in the South; he was an accomplished lawyer; he had served in the army; he was a fiery speaker; he had a singular command of men. He was unmarried, but there were queer stories of his relations with some of the wives of prominent officials, and there was no doubt that he used them in some of his political intrigues. He, Zephas, would bet something that it was a woman who had helped him off! Did she speak?

Yes, she had spoken. It made her sick to sit there and hear such stories! Because a man did not agree with some people in politics it was perfectly awful to think how they would abuse him and take away his character! Men were so awfully jealous, too; if another man happened to be superior and fine-looking there wasn’t anything bad enough for them to say about him! No! she wasn’t a slavery sympathizer either, and hadn’t anything to do with man politics, although she was a Southern woman, and the MacEwans had come from Kentucky and owned slaves. Of course, he, Zephas, whose ancestors were Cape Cod Quakers and had always been sailors, couldn’t understand. She did not know what he meant by saying “what a long tail our cat’s got,” but if he meant to call her a cat, and was going to use such language to her, he had better have stayed in San Francisco with his Vigilance friends. And perhaps it would have been better if he had stayed there before he took her away from her parents at Martinez. Then she wouldn’t have been left on a desert rock without any chance of seeing the world, or ever making any friends or acquaintances!

It was their first quarrel. Discreetly made up by Mrs. Bunker in some alarm at betraying herself; honestly forgiven by Zephas in a rude, remorseful consciousness of her limited life. One or two nights later, when he returned, it was with a mingled air of mystery and satisfaction. “Well, Mollie,” he said cheerfully, “it looks as if your pets were not as bad as I thought them.”

“My pets!” repeated Mrs. Bunker, with a faint rising of color.

“Well, I call these Southern Chivs your pets, Mollie, because you stuck up for them so the other night. But never mind that now. What do you suppose has happened? Jim Rider, you know, the Southern banker and speculator, who’s a regular big Injin among the ‘Chivs,’ he sent Cap Simmons down to the wharf while I was unloadin’ to come up and see him. Well, I went, and what do y’u think? He told me he was gettin’ up an American Fishin’ Company, and wanted me to take charge of a first-class schooner on shares. Said he heard of me afore, and knew I was an American and a white man, and just the chap ez could knock them Eytalians outer the market.”

“Yes,” interrupted Mrs. Bunker quickly, but emphatically, “the fishing interest ought to be American and protected by the State, with regular charters and treaties.”

“I say, Mollie,” said her astonished but admiring husband, “you’ve been readin’ the papers or listenin’ to stump speakin’ sure.”

“Go on,” returned Mrs. Bunker impatiently, “and say what happened next.”

“Well,” returned Zephas, “I first thought, you see, that it had suthin’ to do with that Marion business, particklerly ez folks allowed he was hidin’ somewhere yet, and they wanted me to run him off. So I thought Rider might as well know that I wasn’t to be bribed, so I ups and tells him how I’d been lyin’ off Saucelito the other day workin’ for the other side agin him. With that he laughs, says he didn’t want any better friends than me, but that I must be livin’ in the backwoods not to know that Wynyard Marion had escaped, and was then at sea on his way to Mexico or Central America. Then we agreed to terms, and the long and short of it is, Mollie, that I’m to have the schooner with a hundred and fifty dollars a month, and ten per cent. shares after a year! Looks like biz, eh, Mollie, old girl? but you don’t seem pleased.”

She had put aside the arm with which he was drawing her to him, and had turned her white face away to the window. So he had gone—this stranger—this one friend of her life—she would never see him again, and all that would ever come of it was this pecuniary benefit to her husband, who had done nothing. He would not even offer her money, but he had managed to pay his debt to her in this way that their vulgar poverty would appreciate. And this was the end of her dream!

“You don’t seem to take it in, Mollie,” continued the surprised Zephas. “It means a house in ’Frisco and a little cabin for you on the schooner when you like.”

“I don’t want it! I won’t have it! I shall stay here,” she burst out with a half-passionate, half-childish cry, and ran into her bedroom, leaving the astonished Zephas helpless in his awkward consternation.

“By Gum! I must take her to ’Frisco right off, or she’ll be havin’ the high strikes here alone. I oughter knowed it would come to this!” But although he consulted “Cap” Simmons the next day, who informed him it was all woman’s ways when “struck,” and advised him to pay out all the line he could at such delicate moments, she had no recurrence of the outbreak. On the contrary, for days and weeks following she seemed calmer, older, and more “growed up;” although she resisted changing her seashore dwelling for San Francisco, she accompanied him on one or two of his “deep sea” trips down the coast, and seemed happier on their southern limits. She had taken to reading the political papers and speeches, and some cheap American histories. Captain Bunker’s crew, profoundly convinced that their skipper’s wife was a “woman’s rights” fanatic, with the baleful qualities of “sea lawyer” superadded, marveled at his bringing her.

It was on returning home from one of these trips that they touched briefly at San Francisco, where the Secretary of the Fishing Company came on board. Mrs. Bunker was startled to recognize in him one of the two gentlemen who had taken Mr. Marion off in the boat, but as he did not appear to recognize her even after an awkward introduction by her husband, she would have recovered her equanimity but for a singular incident. As her husband turned momentarily away, the Secretary, with a significant gesture, slipped a letter into her hand. She felt the blood rush to her face as, with a smile, he moved away to follow her husband. She came down to the little cabin and impatiently tore open the envelope, which bore no address. A small folded note contained the following lines:—

“I never intended to burden you with my confidence, but the discretion, tact, and courage you displayed on our first meeting, and what I know of your loyalty since, have prompted me to trust myself again to your kindness, even though you are now aware whom you have helped, and the risks you ran. My friends wish to communicate with me and to forward to me, from time to time, certain papers of importance, which, owing to the tyrannical espionage of the Government, would be discovered and stopped in passing through the express or post-office. These papers will be left at your house, but here I must trust entirely to your wit and judgment as to the way in which they should be delivered to my agent at the nearest Mexican port. To facilitate your action, your husband will receive directions to pursue his course as far south as Todos Santos, where a boat will be ready to take charge of them when he is sighted. I know I am asking a great favor, but I have such confidence in you that I do not even ask you to commit yourself to a reply to this. If it can be done I know that you will do it; if it cannot, I will understand and appreciate the reason why. I will only ask you that when you are ready to receive the papers you will fly a small red pennant from the little flagstaff among the rocks. Believe me, your friend and grateful debtor,

“W. M.”

Mrs. Bunker cast a hasty glance around her, and pressed the letter to her lips. It was a sudden consummation of her vaguest, half-formed wishes, the realization of her wildest dreams! To be the confidante of the gallant but melancholy hero in his lonely exile and persecution was to satisfy all the unformulated romantic fancies of her girlish reading; to be later, perhaps, the Flora Macdonald of a middle-aged Prince Charlie did not, however, evoke any ludicrous associations in her mind. Her feminine fancy exalted the escaped duelist and alleged assassin into a social martyr. His actual small political intrigues and ignoble aims of office seemed to her little different from those aspirations of royalty which she had read about—as perhaps they were. Indeed, it is to be feared that in foolish little Mrs. Bunker, Wynyard Marion had found the old feminine adoration of pretension and privilege which every rascal has taken advantage of since the flood.

Howbeit, the next morning after she had returned and Zephas had sailed away, she flew a red bandana handkerchief on the little flagstaff before the house. A few hours later, a boat appeared mysteriously from around the Point. Its only occupant—a common sailor—asked her name, and handed her a sealed package. Mrs. Bunker’s invention had already been at work. She had created an aunt in Mexico, for whom she had, with some ostentation, made some small purchases while in San Francisco. When her husband spoke of going as far south as Todos Santos, she begged him to deliver the parcel to her aunt’s messenger, and even addressed it boldly to her. Inside the outer wrapper she wrote a note to Marion, which, with a new and amazing diffidence, she composed and altered a dozen times, at last addressing the following in a large, school-girl hand: “Sir, I obey your commands to the last. Whatever your oppressors or enemies may do, you can always rely and trust upon She who in deepest sympathy signs herself ever, Mollie Rosalie MacEwan.” The substitution of her maiden name in full seemed in her simplicity to be a delicate exclusion of her husband from the affair, and a certain disguise of herself to alien eyes. The superscription, “To Mrs. Marion MacEwan from Mollie Bunker, to be called for by hand at Todos Santos,” also struck her as a marvel of ingenuity. The package was safely and punctually delivered by Zephas, who brought back a small packet directed to her, which on private examination proved to contain a letter addressed to “J. E. Kirby, to be called for,” with the hurried line: “A thousand thanks, W. M.” Mrs. Bunker drew a long, quick breath. He might have written more; he might have—but the wish remained still unformulated. The next day she ran up a signal; the same boat and solitary rower appeared around the Point, and took the package. A week later, when her husband was ready for sea, she again hoisted her signal. It brought a return package for Mexico, which she inclosed and readdressed, and gave to her husband. The recurrence of this incident apparently struck a bright idea from the simple Zephas.

“Look here, Mollie, why don’t you come yourself and see your aunt. I can’t go into port without a license, and them port charges cost a heap o’ red tape, for they’ve got a Filibuster scare on down there just now, but you can go ashore in the boat and I’ll get permission from the Secretary to stand off and wait for you there for twenty-four hours.” Mrs. Bunker flushed and paled at the thought. She could see him! The letter would be sufficient excuse, the distrust suggested by her husband would give color to her delivering it in person. There was perhaps a brief twinge of conscience in taking this advantage of Zephas’ kindness, but the next moment, with that peculiar logic known only to the sex, she made the unfortunate man’s suggestion a condonation of her deceit. She hadn’t asked to go; He had offered to take her. He had only himself to thank.

Meantime the political excitement in which she had become a partisan without understanding or even conviction, presently culminated with the Presidential campaign and the election of Abraham Lincoln. The intrigues of Southern statesmen were revealed in open expression, and echoed in California by those citizens of Southern birth and extraction who had long, held place, power, and opinion there. There were rumors of secession, of California joining the South, or of her founding an independent Pacific Empire. A note from “J. E. Kirby” informed Mrs. Bunker that she was to carefully retain any correspondence that might be in her hands until further orders, almost at the same time that Zephas as regretfully told her that his projected Southern trip had been suspended. Mrs. Bunker was disappointed, and yet, in some singular conditions of her feelings, felt relieved that her meeting with Marion was postponed. It is to be feared that some dim conviction, unworthy a partisan, that in the magnitude of political events her own petty personality might be overlooked by her hero tended somewhat to her resignation.

Meanwhile the seasons had changed. The winter rains had set in; the trade winds had shifted to the southeast, and the cottage, although strengthened, enlarged, and made more comfortable through the good fortunes of the Bunkers, was no longer sheltered by the cliff, but was exposed to the full strength of the Pacific gales. There were long nights when she could hear the rain fall monotonously on the shingles, or startle her with a short, sharp reveille en the windows; there were brief days of flying clouds and drifting sunshine, and intervals of dull gray shadow, when the heaving white breakers beyond the Gate slowly lifted themselves and sank before her like wraiths of warning. At such times, in her accepted solitude, Mrs. Bunker gave herself up to strange moods and singular visions; the more audacious and more striking it seemed to her from their very remoteness, and the difficulty she was beginning to have in materializing them. The actual personality of Wynyard Marion, as she knew it in her one interview, had become very shadowy and faint in the months that passed, yet when the days were heavy she sometimes saw herself standing by his side in some vague tropical surroundings, and hailed by the multitude as the faithful wife and consort of the great Leader, President, Emperor—she knew not what! Exactly how this was to be managed, and the manner of Zephas’ effacement from the scene, never troubled her childish fancy, and, it is but fair to say, her woman’s conscience. In the logic before alluded to, it seemed to her that all ethical responsibility for her actions rested with the husband who had unduly married her. Nor were those visions always roseate. In the wild declamation of that exciting epoch which filled the newspapers there was talk of short shrift with traitors. So there were days when the sudden onset of a squall of hail against her window caused her to start as if she had heard the sharp fusillade of that file of muskets of which she had sometimes read in history.

One day she had a singular fright. She had heard the sound of oars falling with a precision and regularity unknown to her. She was startled to see the approach of a large eight-oared barge rowed by men in uniform, with two officers wrapped in cloaks in the stern sheets, and before them the glitter of musket barrels. The two officers appeared to be conversing earnestly, and occasionally pointing to the shore and the bluff above. For an instant she trembled, and then an instinct of revolt and resistance followed. She hurriedly removed the ring, which she usually wore when alone, from her finger, slipped it with the packet under the mattress of her bed, and prepared with blazing eyes to face the intruders. But when the boat was beached, the two officers, with scarcely a glance towards the cottage, proceeded leisurely along the shore. Relieved, yet it must be confessed a little piqued at their indifference, she snatched up her hat and sallied forth to confront them.

“I suppose you don’t know that this is private property?” she said sharply.

The group halted and turned towards her. The orderly, who was following, turned his face aside and smiled. The younger officer demurely lifted his cap. The elder, gray, handsome, in a general’s uniform, after a moment’s half-astounded, half-amused scrutiny of the little figure, gravely raised his gauntleted fingers in a military salute.

“I beg your pardon, madam, but I am afraid we never even thought of that. We are making a preliminary survey for the Government with a possible view of fortifying the bluff. It is very doubtful if you will be disturbed in any rights you may have, but if you are, the Government will not fail to make it good to you.” He turned carelessly to the aide beside him. “I suppose the bluff is quite inaccessible from here?”

“I don’t know about that, general. They say that Marion, after he killed Henderson, escaped down this way,” said the young man.

“Indeed, what good was that? How did he get away from here?”

“They say that Mrs. Fairfax was hanging round in a boat, waiting for him. The story of the escape is all out now.”

They moved away with a slight perfunctory bow to Mrs. Bunker, only the younger officer noting that the pert, pretty little Western woman wasn’t as sharp and snappy to his superior as she had at first promised to be.

She turned back to the cottage astounded, angry, and vaguely alarmed. Who was this Mrs. Fairfax who had usurped her fame and solitary devotion? There was no woman in the boat that took him off; it was equally well known that he went in the ship alone. If they had heard that some woman was with him here—why should they have supposed it was Mrs. Fairfax? Zephas might know something—but he was away. The thought haunted her that day and the next. On the third came a more startling incident.

She had been wandering along the edge of her domain in a state of restlessness which had driven her from the monotony of the house when she heard the barking of the big Newfoundland dog which Zephas had lately bought for protection and company. She looked up and saw the boat and its solitary rower at the landing. She ran quickly to the house to bring the packet. As she entered she started back in amazement. For the sitting-room was already in possession of a woman who was seated calmly by the table.

The stranger turned on Mrs. Bunker that frankly insolent glance and deliberate examination which only one woman can give another. In that glance Mrs. Bunker felt herself in the presence of a superior, even if her own eyes had not told her that in beauty, attire, and bearing the intruder was of a type and condition far beyond her own, or even that of any she had known. It was the more crushing that there also seemed to be in this haughty woman the same incongruousness and sharp contrast to the plain and homely surroundings of the cottage that she remembered in him.

“Yo’ aw Mrs. Bunker, I believe,” she said in languid Southern accents. “How de doh?”

“I am Mrs. Bunker,” said Mrs. Bunker shortly.

“And so this is where Cunnle Marion stopped when he waited fo’ the boat to take him off,” said the stranger, glancing lazily around, and delaying with smiling insolence the explanation she knew Mrs. Bunker was expecting. “The cunnle said it was a pooh enough place, but I don’t see it. I reckon, however, he was too worried to judge and glad enough to get off. Yo’ ought to have made him talk—he generally don’t want much prompting to talk to women, if they’re pooty.”

“He didn’t seem in a hurry to go,” said Mrs. Bunker indignantly. The next moment she saw her error, even before the cruel, handsome smile of her unbidden guest revealed it.

“I thought so,” she said lazily; “this is the place and here’s where the cunnle stayed. Only yo’ oughtn’t have given him and yo’self away to the first stranger quite so easy. The cunnle might have taught yo’ that the two or three hours he was with yo’.”

“What do you want with me?” demanded Mrs. Bunker angrily.

“I want a letter yo’ have for me from Cunnle Marion.”

“I have nothing for you,” said Mrs. Bunker. “I don’t know who you are.”

“You ought to, considering you’ve been acting as messenger between the cunnle and me,” said the lady coolly.

“That’s not true,” said Mrs. Bunker hotly, to combat an inward sinking.

The lady rose with a lazy, languid grace, walked to the door and called still lazily, “O Pedro!”

The solitary rower clambered up the rocks and appeared on the cottage threshold.

“Is this the lady who gave you the letters for me and to whom you took mine?”

“Si, senora.”

“They were addressed to a Mr. Kirby,” said Mrs. Bunker sullenly. “How was I to know they were for Mrs. Kirby?”

“Mr. Kirby, Mrs. Kirby, and myself are all the same. You don’t suppose the cunnle would give my real name and address? Did you address yo’r packet to his real name or to some one else. Did you let your husband know who they were for?”

Oddly, a sickening sense of the meanness of all these deceits and subterfuges suddenly came over Mrs. Bunker. Without replying she went to her bedroom and returned with Colonel Marion’s last letter, which she tossed into her visitor’s lap.

“Thank yo’, Mrs. Bunker. I’ll be sure to tell the cunnle how careful yo’ were not to give up his correspondence to everybody. It’ll please him mo’ than to hear yo’ are wearing his ring—which everybody knows—before people.”

“He gave it to me—he—he knew I wouldn’t take money,” said Mrs. Bunker indignantly.

“He didn’t have any to give,” said the lady slowly, as she removed the envelope from her letter and looked up with a dazzling but cruel smile. “A So’th’n gentleman don’t fill up his pockets when he goes out to fight. He don’t tuck his maw’s Bible in his breast-pocket, clap his dear auntie’s locket big as a cheese plate over his heart, nor let his sole leather cigyar case that his gyrl gave him lie round him in spots when he goes out to take another gentleman’s fire. He leaves that to Yanks!”

“Did you come here to insult my husband?” said Mrs. Bunker in the rage of desperation.

“To insult yo’ husband! Well—I came here to get a letter that his wife received from his political and natural enemy and—perhaps I did!” With a side glance at Mrs. Bunker’s crimson cheek she added carelessly, “I have nothing against Captain Bunker; he’s a straightforward man and must go with his kind. He helped those hounds of Vigilantes because he believes in them. We couldn’t bribe him if we wanted to. And we don’t.”

If she only knew something of this woman’s relations to Marion—which she only instinctively suspected—and could retaliate upon her, Mrs. Bunker felt she would have given up her life at that moment.

“Colonel Marion seems to find plenty that he can bribe,” she said roughly, “and I’ve yet to know who you are to sit in judgment on them. You’ve got your letter, take it and go! When he wants to send you another through me, somebody else must come for it, not you. That’s all!”

She drew back as if to let the intruder pass, but the lady, without moving a muscle, finished the reading of her letter, then stood up quietly and began carefully to draw her handsome cloak over her shoulders. “Yo’ want to know who I am, Mrs. Bunker,” she said, arranging the velvet collar under her white oval chin. “Well, I’m a So’th’n woman from Figinya, and I’m Figinyan first, last, and all the time.” She shook out her sleeves and the folds of her cloak. “I believe in State rights and slavery—if you know what that means. I hate the North, I hate the East, I hate the West. I hate this nigger Government, I’d kill that man Lincoln quicker than lightning!” She began to draw down the fingers of her gloves, holding her shapely hands upright before her. “I’m hard and fast to the Cause. I gave up house and niggers for it.” She began to button her gloves at the wrist with some difficulty, tightly setting together her beautiful lips as she did so. “I gave up my husband for it, and I went to the man who loved it better and had risked more for it than ever he had. Cunnle Marion’s my friend. I’m Mrs. Fairfax, Josephine Hardee that was; his disciple and follower. Well, maybe those puritanical No’th’n folks might give it another name!”

She moved slowly towards the door, but on the threshold paused, as Colonel Marion had, and came back to Mrs. Bunker with an outstretched hand. “I don’t see that yo’ and me need quo’ll. I didn’t come here for that. I came here to see yo’r husband, and seeing yo’ I thought it was only right to talk squarely to yo’, as yo’ understand I wouldn’t talk to yo’r husband. Mrs. Bunker, I want yo’r husband to take me away—I want him to take me to the cunnle. If I tried to go in any other way I’d be watched, spied upon and followed, and only lead those hounds on his track. I don’t expect yo’ to ask yo’ husband for me, but only not to interfere when I do.”

There was a touch of unexpected weakness in her voice and a look of pain in her eyes which was not unlike what Mrs. Bunker had seen and pitied in Marion. But they were the eyes of a woman who had humbled her, and Mrs. Bunker would have been unworthy her sex if she had not felt a cruel enjoyment in it. Yet the dominance of the stranger was still so strong that she did not dare to refuse the proffered hand. She, however, slipped the ring from her finger and laid it in Mrs. Fairfax’s palm.

“You can take that with you,” she said, with a desperate attempt to imitate the other’s previous indifference. “I shouldn’t like to deprive you and your friend of the opportunity of making use of it again. As for my husband, I shall say nothing of you to him as long as you say nothing to him of me—which I suppose is what you mean.”

The insolent look came back to Mrs. Fairfax’s face. “I reckon yo’ ’re right,” she said quietly, putting the ring in her pocket as she fixed her dark eyes on Mrs. Bunker, “and the ring may be of use again. Good-by, Mrs. Bunker.”

She waved her hand carelessly, and turning away passed out of the house. A moment later the boat and its two occupants pushed from the shore, and disappeared round the Point.

Then Mrs. Bunker looked round the room, and down upon her empty finger, and knew that it was the end of her dream. It was all over now—indeed, with the picture of that proud, insolent woman before her she wondered if it had ever begun. This was the woman she had allowed herself to think she might be. This was the woman he was thinking of when he sat there; this was the Mrs. Fairfax the officers had spoken of, and who had made her—Mrs. Bunker—the go-between for their love-making! All the work that she had done for him, the deceit she had practiced on her husband, was to bring him and this woman together! And they both knew it, and had no doubt laughed at her and her pretensions!

It was with a burning cheek that she thought how she had intended to go to Marion, and imagined herself arriving perhaps to find that shameless woman already there. In her vague unformulated longings she had never before realized the degradation into which her foolish romance might lead her. She saw it now; that humiliating moral lesson we are all apt to experience in the accidental display of our own particular vices in the person we hate, she had just felt in Mrs. Fairfax’s presence. With it came the paralyzing fear of her husband’s discovery of her secret. Secure as she had been in her dull belief that he had in some way wronged her by marrying her, she for the first time began to doubt if this condoned the deceit she had practiced on him. The tribute Mrs. Fairfax had paid him—this appreciation of his integrity and honesty by an enemy and a woman like herself—troubled her, frightened her, and filled her with her first jealousy! What if this woman should tell him all; what if she should make use of him as Marion had of her! Zephas was a strong Northern partisan, but was he proof against the guileful charms of such a devil? She had never thought before of questioning his fidelity to her; she suddenly remembered now some rough pleasantries of Captain Simmons in regard to the inconstancy of his calling. No! there was but one thing for her to do: she would make a clean breast to him; she would tell him everything she had done except the fatal fancy that compelled her to it! She began to look for his coming now with alternate hope and fear—with unabated impatience! The night that he should have arrived passed slowly; morning came, but not Zephas. When the mist had lifted she ran impatiently to the rocks and gazed anxiously towards the lower bay. There were a few gray sails scarce distinguishable above the grayer water—but they were not his. She glanced half mechanically seaward, and her eyes became suddenly fixed. There was no mistake! She knew the rig!—she could see the familiar white lap-streak as the vessel careened on the starboard tack—it was her husband’s schooner slowly creeping out of the Golden Gate!

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