Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XVIII

Out of the Golden Gate

Little things, or what we call little, always will come in among great ones, or at least among those which we call great. Before I passed the Golden Gate in the clipper ship Bridal Veil (so called from one of the Yosemite cascades) I found out what I had long wished to know — why Firm had a crooked nose. At least, it could hardly be called crooked if any body looked aright at it; but still it departed from the bold straight line which nature must have meant for it, every thing else about him being as straight as could be required. This subject had troubled me more than once, though of course it had nothing whatever to do with the point of view whence I regarded him.

Suan Isco could not tell me, neither could Martin of the mill; I certainly could not ask Firm himself, as the Sawyer told me to do when once I put the question, in despair, to him. But now, as we stood on the wharf exchanging farewells, perhaps forever, and tears of anguish were in my eyes, and my heart was both full and empty, ample and unexpected light was thrown on the curvature of Firm’s nose.

For a beautiful girl, of about my own age, and very nicely dressed, came up and spoke to the Sawyer (who stood at my side), and then, with a blush, took his grandson’s hand. Firm took off his hat to her very politely, but allowed her to see perhaps by his manner that he was particularly engaged just now; and the young lady, with a quick glance at me, walked off to rejoin her party. But a garrulous old negro servant, who seemed to be in attendance upon her, ran up and caught Firm by his coat, and peered up curiously at his face.

“How young massa’s poor nose dis long time? How him feel, spose now again?” he inquired, with a deferential grin. “Young massa ebber able take a pinch of good snuff? He! he! missy berry heavy den? Missy no learn to dance de nose polka den?”

“What on earth does he mean?” I could not help asking, in spite of our sorrowful farewell, as the negro went on with sundry other jokes and cackles at his own facetiousness. And then Uncle Sam, to divert my thoughts, while I waited for signal to say good-by, told me how Firm got a slight twist to his nose.

Ephraim Gundry had been well taught, in all the common things a man should learn, at a good quiet school at Frisco, which distinguished itself from all other schools by not calling itself a college. And when he was leaving to begin home life, with as much put into him as he could manage — for his nature was not bookish — when he was just seventeen years old, and tall and straight and upright, but not set into great bodily strength, which could not yet be expected, a terrible fire broke out in a great block of houses newly occupied, over against the school-house front. Without waiting for master’s leave or matron’s, the boys, in the Californian style, jumped over the fencing and went to help. And they found a great crowd collected, and flames flaring out of the top of the house. At the top of the house, according to a stupid and therefore general practice, was the nursery, made of more nurses than children, as often happens with rich people. The nurses had run away for their lives, taking two of the children with them; but the third, a fine little girl of ten, had been left behind, and now ran to the window with red hot flames behind her. The window was open, and barbs of fire, like serpents’ tongues, played over it.

“Jump, child, jump! for God’s sake, jump!” cried half a hundred people, while the poor scared creature quivered on the ledge, and shrank from the frightful depth below. At last, stung by a scorching volley, she gathered her night-gown tight, and leaped, trusting to the many faces and many arms raised toward her. But though many gallant men were there, only one stood fast just where she fell, and that one was the youth, Firm Gundry. Upon him she fell, like a stone from heaven, and though he held up his arms in the smoky glare, she came down badly: badly, at least, for him, but, as her father said, providentially; for one of her soles, or heels, alighted on the bridge of Ephraim’s young nose. He caught her on his chest, and forgetful of himself, he bore her to her friends triumphantly, unharmed, and almost smiling. But the symmetry of an important part of his face was spoiled forever.

When I heard of this noble affair, and thought of my own pusillanimous rendering — for verily I had been low enough, from rumors of Firm’s pugnacity, to attribute these little defects of line to some fisticuffs with some miner — I looked at Firm’s nose through the tears in my eyes, and had a great mind not to go away at all. For what is the noblest of all things in man — as I bitterly learned thereafter, and already had some guesses? Not the power of moving multitudes with eloquence or by orders; not the elevation of one tribe through the lowering of others, nor even the imaginary lift of all by sentiments as yet above them: there may be glory in all of these, but the greatness is not with them. It remains with those who behave like Firm, and get their noses broken.

However, I did not know those things at that time of life, though I thought it right for every man to be brave and good; and I could not help asking who the young lady was, as if that were part of the heroism. The Sawyer, who never was unready for a joke, of however ancient quality, gave a great wink at Firm (which I failed to understand), and asked him how much the young lady was worth. He expected that Firm would say, “Five hundred thousand dollars”— which was about her value, I believe — and Uncle Sam wanted me to hear it; not that he cared a single cent himself, but to let me know what Firm could do.

Firm, however, was not to be led into any trap of that sort. He knew me better than the old man did, and that nothing would stir me to jealousy, and he quite disappointed the Sawyer.

“I have never asked what she is worth,” he said, with a glance of contempt at money; “but she scarcely seems worth looking at, compared — compared with certain others.”

In the distance I saw the young lady again, attempting no attraction, but walking along quite harmlessly, with the talkative negro after her. It would have been below me to pursue the subject, and I waited for others to re-open it; but I heard no more about her until I had been for more than a week at sea, and was able again to feel interest. Then I heard that her name was Annie Banks, of the firm of Heniker, Banks, and Co., who owned the ship I sailed in.

But now it was nothing to me who she was, or how beautiful, or how wealthy, when I clung for the last time to Uncle Sam, and implored him not to forget me. Over and over again he promised to be full of thoughts of me, even when the new mill was started, which would be a most trying time. He bowed his tall white head into my sheveled hair, and blessed and kissed me, although I never deserved it, and a number of people were looking on. Then I laid my hand in Firm’s, and he did not lift it to his lips, or sigh, but pressed it long and softly, and looked into my eyes without a word. And I knew that there would be none to love like them, wherever I might go.

But the last of all to say “good-by” was my beloved Jowler. He jumped into the boat after me (for we were obliged to have a boat, the ship having laden further down), and he put his fore-paws on my shoulders, and whined and drooped his under-jaw. And when he looked at me as he used, to know whether I was in fun or earnest, with more expression in his bright brown eyes than any human being has, I fell back under his weight and sobbed, and could not look at any one.

We had beautiful weather, and the view was glorious, as we passed the Golden Gate, the entrance to what will one day be the capital of the world, perhaps. For, as our captain said, all power and human energy and strength are always going westward, and when they come here they must stop, or else they would be going eastward again, which they never yet have done. His argument may have been right or wrong — and, indeed, it must have been one or the other — but who could think of such things now, with a grander thing than human power — human love fading away behind? I could not even bear to see the glorious mountains sinking, but ran below and cried for hours, until all was dark and calm.

The reason for my sailing by this particular ship, and, indeed, rather suddenly, was that an old friend and Cornish cousin of Mr. Gundry, who had spent some years in California, was now returning to England by the Bridal Veil. This was Major Hockin, an officer of the British army, now on half-pay, and getting on in years. His wife was going home with him; for their children were married and settled in England, all but one, now in San Francisco. And that one being well placed in the firm of Heniker, Banks, and Co., had obtained for his father and mother passage upon favorable terms, which was, as we say, “an object to them.”

For the Major, though admirably connected (as his kinship to Colonel Gundry showed), and having a baronet not far off (if the twists of the world were set aside), also having served his country, and received a furrow on the top of his head, which made him brush his hair up, nevertheless, or all the more for that, was as poor as a British officer must be without official sesame. How he managed to feed and teach a large and not clever family, and train them all to fight their way in a battle worse than any of his own, and make gentlemen and ladies of them, whatever they did or wherever they went, he only knew, and his faithful wife, and the Lord who helps brave poverty. Of such things he never spoke, unless his temper was aroused by luxury and self-indulgence and laziness.

But now he was a little better off, through having his children off his hands, and by means of a little property left him by a distant relative. He was on his way home to see to this; and a better man never returned to England, after always standing up for her.

Being a child in the ways of the world, and accustomed to large people, I could not make out Major Hockin at first, and thought him no more than a little man with many peculiarities. For he was not so tall as myself, until he put his high-heeled boots on, and he made such a stir about trifles at which Uncle Sam would have only grunted, that I took him to be nothing more than a fidgety old campaigner. He wore a black-rimmed double eyeglass with blue side-lights at his temples, and his hat, from the shape of his forehead, hung back; he had narrow white wiry whiskers, and a Roman nose, and most prominent chin, and keen gray eyes with gingery brows, which contracted, like sharp little gables over them, whenever any thing displeased him. Rosy cheeks, tight-drawn, close-shaven, and gleaming with friction of yellow soap, added vigor to the general expression of his face, which was firm and quick and straightforward. The weather being warm, and the tropics close at hand, Major Hockin was dressed in a fine suit of Nankin, spruce and trim, and beautifully made, setting off his spare and active figure, which, though he was sixty-two years of age, seemed always to be ready for a game of leap-frog.

We were three days out of the Golden Gate, and the hills of the coast ridge were faint and small, and the spires of the lower Nevada could only be caught when the hot haze lifted; and every body lay about in our ship where it seemed to afford the least smell and heat, and nobody for a moment dreamed — for we really all were dreaming — of any body with energy enough to be disturbed about any thing, when Major Hockin burst in upon us all (who were trying not to be red-hot in the feeble shade of poop awnings), leading by the hand an ancient woman, scarcely dressed with decency, and howling in a tone very sad to hear.

“This lady has been robbed!” cried the Major; “robbed, not fifteen feet below us. Robbed, ladies and gentlemen, of the most cherished treasures of her life, the portrait of her only son, the savings of a life of honest toil, her poor dead husband’s tobacco-box, and a fine cut of Colorado cheese.”

“Ten pounds and a quarter, gospel true!” cried the poor woman, wringing her hands, and searching for any kind face among us.

“Go to the captain,” muttered one sleepy gentleman. “Go to the devil,” said another sleepy man: “what have we to do with it?”

“I will neither go to the captain,” replied the Major, very distinctly, “nor yet to the devil, as a fellow who is not a man has dared to suggest to me —”

“All tied in my own pocket-handkerchief!” the poor old woman began to scream; “the one with the three-cornered spots upon ’un. Only two have I ever owned in all my life, and this was the very best of ’em. Oh dear! oh dear! that ever I should come to this exposing of my things!”

“Madam, you shall have justice done, as sure as my name is Hockin. Gentlemen and ladies, if you are not all asleep, how would you like to be treated so? Because the weather is a trifle warm, there you lie like a parcel of Mexicans. If any body picked your pockets, would you have life enough to roll over?”

“I don’t think I should,” said a fat young Briton, with a very good-natured face; “but for a poor woman I can stand upright. Major Hockin, here is a guinea for her. Perhaps more of us will give a trifle.”

“Well done!” cried the Major; “but not so much as that. Let us first ascertain all the rights of the case. Perhaps half a crown apiece would reach it.”

Half a crown apiece would have gone beyond it, as we discovered afterward, for the old lady’s handkerchief was in her box, lost under some more of her property; and the tide of sleepy charity taking this direction under such vehement impulse, several other steerage passengers lost their goods, but found themselves too late in doing so. But the Major was satisfied, and the rude man who had told him to go amiss, begged his pardon, and thus we sailed on slowly and peaceably.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31