A Waif of the Plains

Chapter X

Bret Harte

THEN FOLLOWED to Clarence three uneventful years. During that interval he learnt that Jackson Brant, or Don Juan Robinson—for the tie of kinship was the least factor in their relations to each other, and after the departure of Flynn was tacitly ignored by both—was more Spanish than American. An early residence in Lower California, marriage with a rich Mexican widow, whose dying childless left him sole heir, and some strange restraining idiosyncrasy of temperament had quite denationalized him. A bookish recluse, somewhat superfastidious towards his own countrymen, the more Clarence knew him the more singular appeared his acquaintance with Flynn; but as he did not exhibit more communicativeness on this point than upon their own kinship, Clarence finally concluded that it was due to the dominant character of his former friend, and thought no more about it. He entered upon the new life at El Refugio with no disturbing past. Quickly adapting himself to the lazy freedom of this hacienda existence, he spent the mornings on horseback ranging the hills among his cousin’s cattle, and the afternoons and evenings busied among his cousin’s books with equally lawless and undisciplined independence. The easy-going Don Juan, it is true, attempted to make good his rash promise to teach the boy Spanish, and actually set him a few tasks; but in a few weeks the quick-witted Clarence acquired such a colloquial proficiency from his casual acquaintance with vaqueros and small traders that he was glad to leave the matter in his young kinsman’s hands. Again, by one of those illogical sequences which make a lifelong reputation depend upon a single trivial act, Clarence’s social status was settled forever at El Refugio Rancho by his picturesque diversion of Flynn’s parting gift. The grateful peon to whom the boy had scornfully tossed the coin repeated the act, gesture, and spirit of the scene to his companion, and Don Juan’s unknown and youthful relation was at once recognized as hijo de la familia, and undeniably a hidalgo born and bred. But in the more vivid imagination of feminine El Refugio the incident reached its highest poetic form. “It is true, Mother of God,” said Chucha of the Mill; “it was Domingo who himself relates it as it were the Creed. When the American escort had arrived with the young gentleman, this escort, look you, being not of the same quality, he is departing again without a word of permission. Comes to him at this moment my little hidalgo. ‘You have yourself forgotten to take from me your demission,’ he said. This escort, thinking to make his peace with a mere muchacho, gives to him a gold piece of twenty pesos. The little hidalgo has taken it so, and with the words, ‘Ah! you would make of me your almoner to my cousin’s people,’ has given it at the moment to Domingo, and with a grace and fire admirable.” But it is certain that Clarence’s singular simplicity and truthfulness, a faculty of being picturesquely indolent in a way that suggested a dreamy abstraction of mind rather than any vulgar tendency to bodily ease and comfort, and possibly the fact that he was a good horseman, made him a popular hero at El Refugio. At the end of three years Don Juan found that this inexperienced and apparently idle boy of fourteen knew more of the practical ruling of the rancho than he did himself; also that this unlettered young rustic had devoured nearly all the books in his library with boyish recklessness of digestion. He found, too, that in spite of his singular independence of action, Clarence was possessed of an invincible loyalty of principle, and that, asking no sentimental affection, and indeed yielding none, he was, without presuming on his relationship, devoted to his cousin’s interest. It seemed that from being a glancing ray of sunshine in the house, evasive but never obtrusive, he had become a daily necessity of comfort and security to his benefactor.

Clarence was, however, astonished, when, one morning, Don Juan, with the same embarrassed manner he had shown at their first meeting, suddenly asked him, “what business he expected to follow.” It seemed the more singular, as the speaker, like most abstracted men, had hitherto always studiously ignored the future, in their daily intercourse. Yet this might have been either the habit of security or the caution of doubt. Whatever it was, it was some sudden disturbance of Don Juan’s equanimity, as disconcerting to himself as it was to Clarence. So conscious was the boy of this that, without replying to his cousin’s question, but striving in vain to recall some delinquency of his own, he asked, with his usual boyish directness—

“Has anything happened? Have I done anything wrong?”

“No, no,” returned Don Juan hurriedly. “But, you see, it’s time that you should think of your future—or at least prepare for it. I mean you ought to have some more regular education. You will have to go to school. It’s too bad,” he added fretfully, with a certain impatient forgetfulness of Clarence’s presence, and as if following his own thought. “Just as you are becoming of service to me, and justifying your ridiculous position here—and all this d—d nonsense that’s gone before—I mean, of course, Clarence,” he interrupted himself, catching sight of the boy’s whitening cheek and darkening eye, “I mean, you know—this ridiculousness of my keeping you from school at your age, and trying to teach you myself—don’t you see.”

“You think it is—ridiculous,” repeated Clarence, with dogged persistency.

“I mean I am ridiculous,” said Don Juan hastily. “There! there! let’s say no more about it. To-morrow we’ll ride over to San Jose and see the Father Secretary at the Jesuits’ College about your entering at once. It’s a good school, and you’ll always be near the rancho!” And so the interview ended.

I am afraid that Clarence’s first idea was to run away. There are few experiences more crushing to an ingenuous nature than the sudden revelation of the aspect in which it is regarded by others. The unfortunate Clarence, conscious only of his loyalty to his cousin’s interest and what he believed were the duties of his position, awoke to find that position “ridiculous.” In an afternoon’s gloomy ride through the lonely hills, and later in the sleepless solitude of his room at night, he concluded that his cousin was right. He would go to school; he would study hard—so hard that in a little, a very little while, he could make a living for himself. He awoke contented. It was the blessing of youth that this resolve and execution seemed as one and the same thing.

The next day found him installed as a pupil and boarder in the college. Don Juan’s position and Spanish predilections naturally made his relation acceptable to the faculty; but Clarence could not help perceiving that Father Sobriente, the Principal, regarded him at times with a thoughtful curiosity that made him suspect that his cousin had especially bespoken that attention, and that he occasionally questioned him on his antecedents in a way that made him dread a renewal of the old questioning about his progenitor. For the rest, he was a polished, cultivated man; yet, in the characteristic, material criticism of youth, I am afraid that Clarence chiefly identified him as a priest with large hands, whose soft palms seemed to be cushioned with kindness, and whose equally large feet, encased in extraordinary shapeless shoes of undyed leather, seemed to tread down noiselessly—rather than to ostentatiously crush—the obstacles that beset the path of the young student. In the cloistered galleries of the court-yard Clarence sometimes felt himself borne down by the protecting weight of this paternal hand; in the midnight silence of the dormitory he fancied he was often conscious of the soft browsing tread and snuffly muffled breathing of his elephantine-footed mentor.

His relations with his school-fellows were at first far from pleasant. Whether they suspected favoritism; whether they resented that old and unsympathetic manner which sprang from his habits of association with his elders; or whether they rested their objections on the broader grounds of his being a stranger, I do not know, but they presently passed from cruel sneers to physical opposition. It was then found that this gentle and reserved youth had retained certain objectionable, rude, direct, rustic qualities of fist and foot, and that, violating all rules and disdaining the pomp and circumstance of school-boy warfare, of which he knew nothing, he simply thrashed a few of his equals out of hand, with or without ceremony, as the occasion or the insult happened. In this emergency one of the seniors was selected to teach this youthful savage his proper position. A challenge was given, and accepted by Clarence with a feverish alacrity that surprised himself as much as his adversary. This was a youth of eighteen, his superior in size and skill.

The first blow bathed Clarence’s face in his own blood. But the sanguinary chrism, to the alarm of the spectators, effected an instantaneous and unhallowed change in the boy. Instantly closing with his adversary, he sprang at his throat like an animal, and locking his arm around his neck began to strangle him. Blind to the blows that rained upon him, he eventually bore his staggering enemy by sheer onset and surprise to the earth. Amidst the general alarm, the strength of half a dozen hastily summoned teachers was necessary to unlock his hold. Even then he struggled to renew the conflict. But his adversary had disappeared, and from that day forward Clarence was never again molested.

Seated before Father Sobriente in the infirmary, with swollen and bandaged face, and eyes that still seemed to see everything in the murky light of his own blood, Clarence felt the soft weight of the father’s hand upon his knee.

“My son,” said the priest gently, “you are not of our religion, or I should claim as a right to ask a question of your own heart at this moment. But as to a good friend, Claro, a good friend,” he continued, patting the boy’s knee, “you will tell me, old Father Sobriente, frankly and truthfully, as is your habit, one little thing. Were you not afraid?”

“No,” said Clarence doggedly. “I’ll lick him again to-morrow.”

“Softly, my son! It was not of him I speak, but of something more terrible and awful. Were you not afraid of—of—” he paused, and suddenly darting his clear eyes into the very depths of Clarence’s soul, added—“of yourself ?

The boy started, shuddered, and burst into tears.

“So, so,” said the priest gently, “we have found our real enemy. Good! Now, by the grace of God, my little warrior, we shall fight him and conquer.”

Whether Clarence profited by this lesson, or whether this brief exhibition of his quality prevented any repetition of the cause, the episode was soon forgotten. As his school-fellows had never been his associates or confidants, it mattered little to him whether they feared or respected him, or were hypocritically obsequious, after the fashion of the weaker. His studies, at all events, profited by this lack of distraction. Already his two years of desultory and omnivorous reading had given him a facile familiarity with many things, which left him utterly free of the timidity, awkwardness, or non-interest of a beginner. His usually reserved manner, which had been lack of expression rather than of conviction, had deceived his tutors. The audacity of a mind that had never been dominated by others, and owed no allegiance to precedent, made his merely superficial progress something marvelous.

At the end of the first year he was a phenomenal scholar, who seemed capable of anything. Nevertheless, Father Sobriente had an interview with Don Juan, and as a result Clarence was slightly kept back in his studies, a little more freedom from the rules was conceded to him, and he was even encouraged to take some diversion. Of such was the privilege to visit the neighboring town of Santa Clara unrestricted and unattended. He had always been liberally furnished with pocket-money, for which, in his companionless state and Spartan habits, he had a singular and unboyish contempt. Nevertheless, he always appeared dressed with scrupulous neatness, and was rather distinguished-looking in his older reserve and melancholy self-reliance.

Lounging one afternoon along the Alameda, a leafy avenue set out by the early Mission Fathers between the village of San Jose and the convent of Santa Clara, he saw a double file of young girls from the convent approaching, on their usual promenade. A view of this procession being the fondest ambition of the San Jose collegian, and especially interdicted and circumvented by the good Fathers attending the college excursions, Clarence felt for it the profound indifference of a boy who, in the intermediate temperate zone of fifteen years, thinks that he is no longer young and romantic! He was passing them with a careless glance, when a pair of deep violet eyes caught his own under the broad shade of a coquettishly beribboned hat, even as it had once looked at him from the depths of a calico sunbonnet. Susy! He started, and would have spoken; but with a quick little gesture of caution and a meaning glance at the two nuns who walked at the head and foot of the file, she indicated him to follow. He did so at a respectful distance, albeit wondering. A little further on Susy dropped her handkerchief, and was obliged to dart out and run back to the end of the file to recover it. But she gave another swift glance of her blue eyes as she snatched it up and demurely ran back to her place. The procession passed on, but when Clarence reached the spot where she had paused he saw a three-cornered bit of paper lying in the grass. He was too discreet to pick it up while the girls were still in sight, but continued on, returning to it later. It contained a few words in a schoolgirl’s hand, hastily scrawled in pencil: “Come to the south wall near the big pear-tree at six.”

Delighted as Clarence felt, he was at the same time embarrassed. He could not understand the necessity of this mysterious rendezvous. He knew that if she was a scholar she was under certain conventual restraints; but with the privileges of his position and friendship with his teachers, he believed that Father Sobriente would easily procure him an interview with this old play-fellow, of whom he had often spoken, and who was, with himself, the sole survivor of his tragical past. And trusted as he was by Sobriente, there was something in this clandestine though innocent rendezvous that went against his loyalty. Nevertheless, he kept the appointment, and at the stated time was at the south wall of the convent, over which the gnarled boughs of the distinguishing pear-tree hung. Hard by in the wall was a grated wicket door that seemed unused.

Would she appear among the boughs or on the edge of the wall? Either would be like the old Susy. But to his surprise he heard the sound of the key turning in the lock. The grated door suddenly swung on its hinges, and Susy slipped out. Grasping his hand, she said, “Let’s run, Clarence,” and before he could reply she started off with him at a rapid pace. Down the lane they flew—very much, as it seemed to Clarence’s fancy, as they had flown from the old emigrant wagon on the prairie, four years before. He glanced at the fluttering, fairy-like figure beside him. She had grown taller and more graceful; she was dressed in exquisite taste, with a minuteness of luxurious detail that bespoke the spoilt child; but there was the same prodigal outburst of rippling, golden hair down her back and shoulders, violet eyes, capricious little mouth, and the same delicate hands and feet he had remembered. He would have preferred a more deliberate survey, but with a shake of her head and an hysteric little laugh she only said, “Run, Clarence, run,” and again darted forward. Arriving at the cross-street, they turned the corner, and halted breathlessly.

“But you’re not running away from school, Susy, are you?” said Clarence anxiously.

“Only a little bit. Just enough to get ahead of the other girls,” she said, rearranging her brown curls and tilted hat. “You see, Clarence,” she condescended to explain, with a sudden assumption of older superiority, “mother’s here at the hotel all this week, and I’m allowed to go home every night, like a day scholar. Only there’s three or four other girls that go out at the same time with me, and one of the Sisters, and to-day I got ahead of ’em just to see you.”

“But”— began Clarence.

“Oh, it’s all right; the other girls knew it, and helped me. They don’t start out for half an hour yet, and they’ll say I’ve just run ahead, and when they and the Sister get to the hotel I’ll be there already—don’t you see?”

“Yes,” said Clarence dubiously.

“And we’ll go to an ice-cream saloon now, shan’t we? There’s a nice one near the hotel. I’ve got some money,” she added quickly, as Clarence looked embarrassed.

“So have I,” said Clarence, with a faint accession of color. “Let’s go!” She had relinquished his hand to smooth out her frock, and they were walking side by side at a more moderate pace. “But,” he continued, clinging to his first idea with masculine persistence, and anxious to assure his companion of his power, of his position, “I’m in the college, and Father Sobriente, who knows your lady superior, is a good friend of mine and gives me privileges; and—and—when he knows that you and I used to play together—why, he’ll fix it that we may see each other whenever we want.”

“Oh, you silly!” said Susy. “What!—when you’re—”

“When I’m what?

The young girl shot a violet blue ray from under her broad hat. “Why—when we’re grown up now?” Then with a certain precision, “Why, they’re very particular about young gentlemen! Why, Clarence, if they suspected that you and I were—” Another violet ray from under the hat completed this unfinished sentence.

Pleased and yet confused, Clarence looked straight ahead with deepening color. “Why,” continued Susy, “Mary Rogers, that was walking with me, thought you were ever so old—and a distinguished Spaniard! And I,” she said abruptly—“haven’t I grown? Tell me, Clarence,” with her old appealing impatience, “haven’t I grown? Do tell me!”

“Very much,” said Clarence.

“And isn’t this frock pretty—it’s only my second best—but I’ve a prettier one with lace all down in front; but isn’t this one pretty, Clarence, tell me?”

Clarence thought the frock and its fair owner perfection, and said so. Whereat Susy, as if suddenly aware of the presence of passers-by, assumed an air of severe propriety, dropped her hands by her side, and with an affected conscientiousness walked on, a little further from Clarence’s side, until they reached the ice-cream saloon.

“Get a table near the back, Clarence,” she said, in a confidential whisper, “where they can’t see us—and strawberry, you know, for the lemon and vanilla here are just horrid!”

They took their seats in a kind of rustic arbor in the rear of the shop, which gave them the appearance of two youthful but somewhat over-dressed and over-conscious shepherds. There was an interval of slight awkwardness, which Susy endeavored to displace. “There has been,” she remarked, with easy conversational lightness, “quite an excitement about our French teacher being changed. The girls in our class think it most disgraceful.”

And this was all she could say after a separation of four years! Clarence was desperate, but as yet idealess and voiceless. At last, with an effort over his spoon, he gasped a floating recollection: “Do you still like flapjacks, Susy?”

“Oh, yes,” with a laugh, “but we don’t have them now.”

“And Mose” (a black pointer, who used to yelp when Susy sang), “does he still sing with you?”

“Oh, He’s been lost ever so long,” said Susy composedly; “but I’ve got a Newfoundland and a spaniel and a black pony;” and here, with a rapid inventory of her other personal effects, she drifted into some desultory details of the devotion of her adopted parents, whom she now readily spoke of as “papa” and “mamma,” with evidently no disturbing recollection of the dead. From which it appeared that the Peytons were very rich, and, in addition to their possessions in the lower country, owned a rancho in Santa Clara and a house in San Francisco. Like all children, her strongest impressions were the most recent. In the vain hope to lead her back to this material yesterday, he said—

“You remember Jim Hooker?”

“Oh, he ran away, when you left. But just think of it! The other day, when papa and I went into a big restaurant in San Francisco, who should be there waiting on the table—yes, Clarence, a real waiter—but Jim Hooker! Papa spoke to him; but of course,” with a slight elevation of her pretty chin, “I couldn’t, you know; fancy—a waiter!”

The story of how Jim Hooker had personated him stopped short upon Clarence’s lips. He could not bring himself now to add that revelation to the contempt of his small companion, which, in spite of its naïveté, somewhat grated on his sensibilities.

“Clarence,” she said, suddenly turning towards him mysteriously, and indicating the shopman and his assistants, “I really believe these people suspect us.”

“Of what?” said the practical Clarence.

“Don’t be silly! Don’t you see how they are staring?”

Clarence was really unable to detect the least curiosity on the part of the shopman, or that any one exhibited the slightest concern in him or his companion. But he felt a return of the embarrassed pleasure he was conscious of a moment before.

“Then you’re living with your father?” said Susy, changing the subject.

“You mean my cousin,” said Clarence, smiling. “You know my father died long before I ever knew you.”

“Yes; that’s what you used to say, Clarence, but papa says it isn’t so.” But seeing the boy’s wondering eyes fixed on her with a troubled expression, she added quickly, “Oh, then, he is your cousin!”

“Well, I think I ought to know,” said Clarence, with a smile, that was, however, far from comfortable, and a quick return of his old unpleasant recollections of the Peytons. “Why, I was brought to him by one of his friends.” And Clarence gave a rapid boyish summary of his journey from Sacramento, and Flynn’s discovery of the letter addressed to Silsbee. But before he had concluded he was conscious that Susy was by no means interested in these details, nor in the least affected by the passing allusion to her dead father and his relation to Clarence’s misadventures. With her rounded chin in her hand, she was slowly examining his face, with a certain mischievous yet demure abstraction. “I tell you what, Clarence,” she said, when he had finished, “you ought to make your cousin get you one of those sombreros, and a nice gold-braided serape. They’d just suit you. And then—then you could ride up and down the Alameda when we are going by.”

“But I’m coming to see you at—at your house, and at the convent,” he said eagerly. “Father Sobriente and my cousin will fix it all right.”

But Susy shook her head, with superior wisdom. “No; they must never know our secret!—neither papa nor mamma, especially mamma. And they mustn’t know that we’ve met again—after these years!” It is impossible to describe the deep significance which Susy’s blue eyes gave to this expression. After a pause she went on—

“No! We must never meet again, Clarence, unless Mary Rogers helps. She is my best, my onliest friend, and older than I; having had trouble herself, and being expressly forbidden to see him again. You can speak to her about Suzette—that’s my name now; I was rechristened Suzette Alexandra Peyton by mamma. And now, Clarence,” dropping her voice and glancing shyly around the saloon, “you may kiss me just once under my hat, for good-by.” She adroitly slanted her broad-brimmed hat towards the front of the shop, and in its shadow advanced her fresh young cheek to Clarence.

Coloring and laughing, the boy pressed his lips to it twice. Then Susy arose, with the faintest affectation of a sigh, shook out her skirt, drew on her gloves with the greatest gravity, and saying, “Don’t follow me further than the door—they’re coming now,” walked with supercilious dignity past the preoccupied proprietor and waiters to the entrance. Here she said, with marked civility, “Good-afternoon, Mr. Brant,” and tripped away towards the hotel. Clarence lingered for a moment to look after the lithe and elegant little figure, with its shining undulations of hair that fell over the back and shoulders of her white frock like a golden mantle, and then turned away in the opposite direction.

He walked home in a state, as it seemed to him, of absurd perplexity. There were many reasons why his encounter with Susy should have been of unmixed pleasure. She had remembered him of her own free will, and, in spite of the change in her fortune, had made the first advances. Her doubts about her future interviews had affected him but little; still less, I fear, did he think of the other changes in her character and disposition, for he was of that age when they added only a piquancy and fascination to her—as of one who, in spite of her weakness of nature, was still devoted to him! But he was painfully conscious that this meeting had revived in him all the fears, vague uneasiness, and sense of wrong that had haunted his first boyhood, and which he thought he had buried at El Refugio four years ago. Susy’s allusion to his father and the reiteration of Peyton’s skepticism awoke in his older intellect the first feeling of suspicion that was compatible with his open nature. Was this recurring reticence and mystery due to any act of his father’s? But, looking back upon it in after-years, he concluded that the incident of that day was a premonition rather than a recollection.

A Waif of the Plains - Contents    |     Chapter XI

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