Sally Dows and Other Stories

The Conspiracy of Mrs. Bunker

Part III

Bret Harte

HER first wild impulse was to run to the cove, for the little dingey always moored there, and to desperately attempt to overtake him. But the swift consciousness of its impossibility was followed by a dull, bewildering torpor, that kept her motionless, helplessly following the vessel with straining eyes, as if they could evoke some response from its decks. She was so lost in this occupation that she did not see that a pilot-boat nearly abreast of the cove had put out a two-oared gig, which was pulling quickly for the rocks. When she saw it, she trembled with the instinct that it brought her intelligence. She was right; it was a brief note from her husband, informing her that he had been hurriedly dispatched on a short sea cruise; that in order to catch the tide he had not time to go ashore at the bluff, but he would explain everything on his return. Her relief was only partial; she was already experienced enough in his vocation to know that the excuse was a feeble one. He could easily have “fetched” the bluff in tacking out of the Gate and have signaled to her to board him in her own boat. The next day she locked up her house, rowed round the Point to the Embarcadero, where the Bay steamboats occasionally touched and took up passengers to San Francisco. Captain Simmons had not seen her husband this last trip; indeed, did not know that he had gone out of the Bay. Mrs. Bunker was seized with a desperate idea. She called upon the Secretary of the Fishing Trust. That gentle man was business-like, but neither expansive nor communicative. Her husband had not been ordered out to sea by them; she ought to know that Captain Bunker was now his own master, choosing his own fishing grounds, and his own times and seasons. He was not aware of any secret service for the Company in which Captain Bunker was engaged. He hoped Mrs. Bunker would distinctly remember that the little matter of the duel to which she referred was an old bygone affair, and never anything but a personal matter, in which the Fishery had no concern whatever, and in which he certainly should not again engage. He would advise Mrs. Bunker, if she valued her own good, and especially her husband’s, to speedily forget all about it. These were ugly times, as it was. If Mrs. Bunker’s services had not been properly rewarded or considered it was certainly a great shame, but really he could not be expected to make it good. Certain parties had cost him trouble enough already. Besides, really, she must see that his position between her husband, whom he respected, and a certain other party was a delicate one. But Mrs. Bunker heard no more. She turned and ran down the staircase, carrying with her a burning cheek and blazing eye that somewhat startled the complacent official.

She did not remember how she got home again. She had a vague recollection of passing through the crowded streets, wondering if the people knew that she was an outcast, deserted by her husband, deceived by her ideal hero, repudiated by her friends! Men had gathered in knots before the newspaper offices, excited and gesticulating over the bulletin boards that had such strange legends as “The Crisis,” “Details of an Alleged Conspiracy to Overthrow the Government,” “The Assassin of Henderson to the Fore Again,” “Rumored Arrests on the Mexican Frontier.” Sometimes she thought she understood the drift of them; even fancied they were the outcome of her visit—as if her very presence carried treachery and suspicion with it—but generally they only struck her benumbed sense as a dull, meaningless echo of something that had happened long ago. When she reached her house, late that night, the familiar solitude of shore and sea gave her a momentary relief, but with it came the terrible conviction that she had forfeited her right to it, that when her husband came back it would be hers no longer, and that with their meeting she would know it no more. For through all her childish vacillation and imaginings she managed to cling to one steadfast resolution. She would tell him everything, and know the worst. Perhaps he would never come; perhaps she should not be alive to meet him.

And so the days and nights slowly passed. The solitude which her previous empty deceit had enabled her to fill with such charming visions now in her awakened remorse seemed only to protract her misery. Had she been a more experienced, though even a more guilty, woman she would have suffered less. Without sympathy or counsel, without even the faintest knowledge of the world or its standards of morality to guide her, she accepted her isolation and friendlessness as a necessary part of her wrongdoing. Her only criterion was her enemy—Mrs. Fairfax—and she could seek her relief by joining her lover; but Mrs. Bunker knew now that she herself had never had one—and was alone! Mrs. Fairfax had broken openly with her husband; but she had deceived hers, and the experience and reckoning were still to come. In her miserable confession it was not strange that this half child, half woman, sometimes looked towards that gray sea, eternally waiting for her,—that sea which had taken everything from her and given her nothing in return,—for an obliterating and perhaps exonerating death!

The third day of her waiting isolation was broken upon by another intrusion. The morning had been threatening, with an opaque, motionless, livid arch above, which had taken the place of the usual flying scud and shaded cloud masses of the rainy season. The whole outlying ocean, too, beyond the bar, appeared nearer, and even seemed to be lifted higher than the Bay itself, and was lit every now and then with wonderful clearness by long flashes of breaking foam like summer lightning. She knew that this meant a southwester, and began, with a certain mechanical deliberation, to set her little domain in order against the coming gale. She drove the cows to the rude shed among the scrub oaks, she collected the goats and young kids in the corral, and replenished the stock of fuel from the woodpile. She was quite hidden in the shrubbery when she saw a boat making slow headway against the wind towards the little cove where but a moment before she had drawn up the dingey beyond the reach of breaking seas. It was a whaleboat from Saucelito containing a few men. As they neared the landing she recognized in the man who seemed to be directing the boat the second friend of Colonel Marion—the man who had come with the Secretary to take him off, but whom she had never seen again. In her present horror of that memory she remained hidden, determined at all hazards to avoid a meeting. When they had landed, one of the men halted accidentally before the shrubbery where she was concealed as he caught his first view of the cottage, which had been invisible from the point they had rounded.

“Look here, Bragg,” he said, turning to Marion’s friend, in a voice which was distinctly audible to Mrs. Bunker. “What are we to say to these people?”

“There’s only one,” returned the other. “The man’s at sea. His wife’s here. She’s all right.”

“You said she was one of us?”

“After a fashion. She’s the woman who helped Marion when he was here. I reckon he made it square with her from the beginning, for she forwarded letters from him since. But you can tell her as much or as little as you find necessary when you see her.”

“Yes, but we must settle that now,” said Bragg sharply, “and I propose to tell her nothing. I’m against having any more petticoats mixed up with our affairs. I propose to make an examination of the place without bothering our heads about her.”

“But we must give some reason for coming here, and we must ask her to keep dark, or we’ll have her blabbing to the first person she meets,” urged the other.

“She’s not likely to see anybody before night, when the brig will be in and the men and guns landed. Move on, and let Jim take soundings off the cove, while I look along the shore. It’s just as well that there’s a house here, and a little cover like this”—pointing to the shrubbery—“to keep the men from making too much of a show until after the earthworks are up. There are sharp eyes over at the Fort.”

“There don’t seem to be any one in the house now,” returned the other after a moment’s scrutiny of the cottage, “or the woman would surely come out at the barking of the dog, even if she hadn’t seen us. Likely she’s gone to Saucelito.”

“So much the better. Just as well that she should know nothing until it happens. Afterwards we’ll settle with the husband for the price of possession; he has only a squatter’s rights. Come along; we’ll have bad weather before we get back round the Point again, but so much the better, for it will keep off any inquisitive longshore cruisers.”

They moved away. But Mrs. Bunker, stung through her benumbed and brooding consciousness, and made desperate by this repeated revelation of her former weakness, had heard enough to make her feverish to hear more. She knew the intricacies of the shrubbery thoroughly. She knew every foot of shade and cover of the clearing, and creeping like a cat from bush to bush she managed, without being discovered, to keep the party in sight and hearing all the time. It required no great discernment, even for an inexperienced woman like herself, at the end of an hour, to gather their real purpose. It was to prepare for the secret landing of an armed force, disguised as laborers, who, under the outward show of quarrying in the bluff, were to throw up breastworks, and fortify the craggy shelf. The landing was fixed for that night, and was to be effected by a vessel now cruising outside the Heads.

She understood it all now. She remembered Marion’s speech about the importance of the bluff for military purposes; she remembered the visit of the officers from the Fort opposite. The strangers were stealing a march upon the Government, and by night would be in possession. It was perhaps an evidence of her newly awakened and larger comprehension that she took no thought of her loss of home and property,—perhaps there was little to draw her to it now,—but was conscious only of a more terrible catastrophe—a catastrophe to which she was partly accessory, of which any other woman would have warned her husband—or at least those officers of the Fort whose business it was to—Ah, yes! the officers of the Fort—only just opposite to her! She trembled, and yet flushed with an inspiration. It was not too late yet—why not warn them now?

But how? A message sent by Saucelito and the steamboat to San Francisco—the usual way—would not reach them tonight. To go herself, rowing directly across in the dingey, would be the only security of success. If she could do it? It was a long pull—the sea was getting up—but she would try.

She waited until the last man had stepped into the boat, in nervous dread of some one remaining. Then, when the boat had vanished round the Point again, she ran back to the cottage, arrayed herself in her husband’s pilot coat, hat, and boots, and launched the dingey. It was a heavy, slow, but luckily a stanch and seaworthy boat. It was not until she was well off shore that she began to feel the full fury of the wind and waves, and knew the difficulty and danger of her undertaking. She had decided that her shortest and most direct course was within a few points of the wind, but the quartering of the waves on the broad bluff bows of the boat tended to throw it to leeward, a movement that, while it retarded her forward progress, no doubt saved the little craft from swamping. Again, the feebleness and shortness of her stroke, which never impelled her through a rising wave, but rather lifted her half way up its face, prevented the boat from taking much water, while her steadfast gaze, fixed only on the slowly retreating shore, kept her steering free from any fatal nervous vacillation, which the sight of the threatening seas on her bow might have produced. Preserved through her very weakness, ignorance, and simplicity of purpose, the dingey had all the security of a drifting boat, yet retained a certain gentle but persistent guidance. In this feminine fashion she made enough headway to carry her abreast of the Point, where she met the reflux current sweeping round it that carried her well along into the channel, now sluggish with the turn of the tide. After half an hour’s pulling, she was delighted to find herself again in a reverse current, abreast of her cottage, but steadily increasing her distance from it. She was, in fact, on the extreme outer edge of a vast whirlpool formed by the force of the gale on a curving lee shore, and was being carried to her destination in a semicircle around that bay which she never could have crossed. She was moving now in a line with the shore and the Fort, whose flagstaff, above its green, square, and white quarters, she could see distinctly, and whose lower water battery and landing seemed to stretch out from the rocks scarcely a mile ahead. Protected by the shore from the fury of the wind, and even of the sea, her progress was also steadily accelerated by the velocity of the current, mingling with the ebbing tide. A sudden fear seized her. She turned the boat’s head towards the shore, but it was swept quickly round again; she redoubled her exertions, tugging frantically at her helpless oars. She only succeeded in getting the boat into the trough of the sea, where, after a lurch that threatened to capsize it, it providentially swung around on its short keel and began to drift stern on. She was almost abreast of the battery now; she could hear the fitful notes of a bugle that seemed blown and scattered above her head; she even thought she could see some men in blue uniforms moving along the little pier. She was passing it; another fruitless effort to regain her ground, but she was swept along steadily towards the Gate, the whitening bar, and the open sea.

She knew now what it all meant. This was what she had come for; this was the end! Beyond, only a little beyond, just a few moments longer to wait, and then, out there among the breakers was the rest that she had longed for but had not dared to seek. It was not her fault; they could not blame her. He would come back and never know what had happened—nor even know how she had tried to atone for her deceit. And he would find his house in possession of—of—those devils! No! No! she must not die yet, at least not until she had warned the Fort. She seized the oars again with frenzied strength; the boat had stopped under the unwonted strain, staggered, tried to rise in an uplifted sea, took part of it over her bow, struck down Mrs. Bunker under half a ton of blue water that wrested the oars from her paralyzed hands like playthings, swept them over the gunwale, and left her lying senseless in the bottom of the boat.

.     .     .     .     .

“Hold har-rd—or you’ll run her down.”

“Now then, Riley,—look alive,—is it slapin’ ye are!”

“Hold yer jaw, Flanigan, and stand ready with the boat-hook. Now then, hold har-rd!”

The sudden jarring and tilting of the water-logged boat, a sound of rasping timbers, the swarming of men in shirtsleeves and blue trousers around her, seemed to rouse her momentarily, but she again fainted away.

When she struggled back to consciousness once more she was wrapped in a soldier’s jacket, her head pillowed on the shirt-sleeve of an artillery corporal in the stern sheets of that eight-oared government barge she had remembered. But the only officer was a bareheaded, boyish lieutenant, and the rowers were an athletic but unseamanlike crew of mingled artillerymen and infantry.

“And where did ye drift from, darlint?”

Mrs. Bunker bridled feebly at the epithet.

“I didn’t drift. I was going to the Fort.”

“The Fort, is it?”

“Yes. I want to see the general.”

“Wadn’t the liftenant do ye? Or shure there’s the adjutant; he’s a foine man.”

“Silence, Flanigan,” said the young officer sharply. Then turning to Mrs. Bunker he said, “Don’t mind him, but let his wife take you to the canteen, when we get in, and get you some dry clothes.”

But Mrs. Bunker, spurred to convalescence at the indignity, protested stiffly, and demanded on her arrival to be led at once to the general’s quarters. A few officers, who had been attracted to the pier by the rescue, acceded to her demand.

She recognized the gray-haired, handsome man who had come ashore at her house. With a touch of indignation at her treatment, she briefly told her story. But the general listened coldly and gravely with his eyes fixed upon her face.

“You say you recognized in the leader of the party a man you had seen before. Under what circumstances?”

Mrs. Bunker hesitated with burning cheeks. “He came to take Colonel Marion from our place.”

“When you were hiding him,—yes, we’ve heard the story. Now, Mrs. Bunker, may I ask you what you, as a Southern sympathizer, expect to gain by telling me this story?”

But here Mrs. Bunker burst out. “I am not a Southern sympathizer! Never! Never! Never! I’m a Union woman,—wife of a Northern man. I helped that man before I knew who he was. Any Christian, Northerner or Southerner, would have done the same!”

Her sincerity and passion were equally unmistakable. The general rose, opened the door of the adjoining room, said a few words to an orderly on duty, and returned. “What you are asking of me, Mrs. Bunker, is almost as extravagant and unprecedented as your story. You must understand, as well as your husband, that if I land a force on your property it will be to take possession of it in the name of the Government, for Government purposes.”

“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Bunker eagerly; “I know that. I am willing; Zephas will be willing.”

“And,” continued the general, fixing his eyes on her face, “you will also understand that I may be compelled to detain you here as a hostage for the safety of my men.”

“Oh no! no! please!” said Mrs. Bunker, springing up with an imploring feminine gesture; “I am expecting my husband. He may be coming back at any moment; I must be there to see him first! Please let me go back, sir, with your men; put me anywhere ashore between them and those men that are coming. Lock me up; keep me a prisoner in my own home; do anything else if you think I am deceiving you; but don’t keep me here to miss him when he comes!”

“But you can see him later,” said the general.

“But I must see him first,” said Mrs. Bunker desperately. “I must see him first, for—for—he knows nothing of this. He knows nothing of my helping Colonel Marion; he knows nothing of—how foolish I have been, and—he must not know it from others! There!” It was out at last. She was sobbing now, but her pride was gone. She felt relieved, and did not even notice the presence of two or three other officers, who had entered the room, exchanged a few hurried words with their superior, and were gazing at her in astonishment.

The general’s brow relaxed, and he smiled. “Very well, Mrs. Bunker; it shall be as you like, then. You shall go and meet your husband with Captain Jennings here,”—indicating one of the officers,—“who will take charge of you and the party.”

“And,” said Mrs. Bunker, looking imploringly through her wet but pretty lashes at the officer, “he won’t say anything to Zephas, either?”

“Not a syllable,” said Captain Jennings gravely. “But while the tug is getting ready, general, hadn’t Mrs. Bunker better go to Mrs. Flanigan?”

“I think not,” said the general, with a significant look at the officer as he gallantly offered his arm to the astonished Mrs. Bunker, “if she will allow me the pleasure of taking her to my wife.”

There was an equally marked respect in the manner of the men and officers as Mrs. Bunker finally stepped on board the steam tug that was to convey the party across the turbulent bay. But she heeded it not, neither did she take any concern of the still furious gale, the difficult landing, the preternatural activity of the band of sappers, who seemed to work magic with their picks and shovels, the shelter tents that arose swiftly around her, the sheds and bush inclosures that were evoked from the very ground beneath her feet; the wonderful skill, order, and discipline that in a few hours converted her straggling dominion into a formal camp, even to the sentinel, who was already calmly pacing the rocks by the landing as if he had being doing it for years! Only one thing thrilled her—the sudden outburst, fluttering and snapping of the national flag from her little flagstaff. He would see it—and perhaps be pleased!

And indeed it seemed as if the men had caught the infection of her anxiety, for when her strained eyes could no longer pierce the murky twilight settling over the Gate, one came running to her to say that the lookout had just discovered through his glass a close-reefed schooner running in before the wind. It was her husband, and scarcely an hour after night had shut in the schooner had rounded to off the Point, dropped her boat, and sped away to anchorage. And then Mrs. Bunker, running bareheaded down the rocks, breaking in upon the hurried explanation of the officer of the guard, threw herself upon her husband’s breast, and sobbed and laughed as if her heart would break!

Nor did she scarcely hear his hurried comment to the officer and unconscious corroboration of her story: how a brig had raced them from the Gate, was heading for the bar, but suddenly sheered off and put away to sea again, as if from some signal from the headland. “Yes—the bluff,” interrupted Captain Jennings bitterly, “I thought of that, but the old man said it was more diplomatic just now to prevent an attempt than even to successfully resist it.”

But when they were alone again in their little cottage, and Zephas’ honest eyes—with no trace of evil knowledge or suspicion in their homely, neutral lightness—were looking into hers with his usual simple trustfulness, Mrs. Bunker trembled, whimpered, and—I grieve to say—basely funked her boasted confession. But here the Deity which protects feminine weakness intervened with the usual miracle. As he gazed at his wife’s troubled face, an apologetic cloud came over his rugged but open brow, and a smile of awkward deprecating embarrassment suffused his eyes. “I declare to goodness, Mollie, but I must tell you suthin, although I guess I didn’t kalkilate to say a word about it. But, darn it all, I can’t keep it in. No! Lookin’ inter that innercent face o’ yourn”—pressing her flushing cheeks between his cool brown hands—“and gazing inter them two truthful eyes”—they blinked at this moment with a divine modesty—“and thinkin’ of what you’ve just did for your kentry—like them revolutionary women o’ ’76—I feel like a darned swab of a traitor myself. Well! what I want ter tell you is this: Ye know, or ye’ve heard me tell o’ that Mrs. Fairfax, as left her husband for that fire-eatin’ Marion, and stuck to him through thick and thin, and stood watch and watch with him in this howlin’ Southern rumpus they’re kickin’ up all along the coast, as if she was a man herself. Well, jes as I hauled up at the wharf at ’Frisco, she comes aboard.

“‘You’re Cap Bunker?’ she says.

“‘That’s me, ma’am,’ I says.

“‘You’re a Northern man and you go with your kind,’ sez she; ‘but you’re a white man, and thar’s no cur blood in you.’ But you ain’t listenin’, Mollie; you’re dead tired, lass,”—with a commiserating look at her now whitening face,—“and I’ll haul in line and wait. Well, to cut it short, she wanted me to take her down the coast a bit to where she could join Marion. She said she’d been shook by his friends, followed by spies—and, blame my skin, Mollie, ef that proud woman didn’t break down and cry like a baby. Now, Mollie, what got me in all this, was that them Chivalry folks—ez was always jawin’ about their ‘Southern dames’ and their ‘Ladye fairs,’ and always runnin’ that kind of bilge water outer their scuppers whenever they careened over on a fair wind—was jes the kind to throw off on a woman when they didn’t want her, and I kinder thought I’d like her to see the difference betwixt the latitude o’ Charleston and Cape Cod. So I told her I didn’t want the jewelry and dimons she offered me, but if she would come down to the wharf, after dark, I’d smuggle her aboard, and I’d allow to the men that she was your auntie ez I was givin’ a free passage to! Lord! dear! think o’ me takin’ the name o’ Mollie Bunker’s aunt in vain for that sort o’ woman! Think o’ me,” continued Captain Bunker with a tentative chuckle, “sort o’ pretendin’ to hand yo’r auntie to Kernel Marion for—for his lady love! I don’t wonder ye’s half frighted and half laffin’,” he added, as his wife uttered a hysterical cry; “it was awful! But it worked, and I got her off, and wot’s more I got her shipped to Mazatlan, where she’ll join Marion, and the two are goin’ back to Virginy, where I guess they won’t trouble Californy again. Ye know now, deary,” he went on, speaking with difficulty through Mrs. Bunker’s clinging arms and fast dripping tears, “why I didn’t heave to to say ‘good-by.’ But it’s all over now—I’ve made a clean breast of it, Mollie—and don’t you cry!”

But it was not all over. For a moment later Captain Bunker began to fumble in his waistcoat pocket with the one hand that was not clasping his wife’s waist. “One thing more, Mollie; when I left her and refused to take any of her dimons, she put a queer sort o’ ring into my hand, and told me with a kind o’ mischievious, bedevilin’ smile, that I must keep it to remember her by. Here it is—why, Mollie lass! are you crazy?”

She had snatched it from his fingers and was running swiftly from the cottage out into the tempestuous night. He followed closely, until she reached the edge of the rocks. And only then, in the struggling, fast-flying moonlight, she raised a passionate hand, and threw it far into the sea!

As he led her back to the cottage she said she was jealous, and honest Captain Bunker, with his arm around her, felt himself the happiest man in the world!

.     .     .     .     .

From that day the flag flew regularly over the rocky shelf, and, in time, bugles and morning drumbeats were wafted from it to the decks of passing ships. For the Federal Government had adjudged the land for its own use, paid Captain Bunker a handsome sum for its possession, and had discreetly hidden the little cottage of Mrs. Bunker and its history forever behind bastion and casemate.

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