Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter VII

Discomfiture

The Englishman drew forth a double eyeglass from a red velvet waistcoat, and mounting it on his broad nose, came nearer to get the full light of the candles. I saw him as clearly as I could wish, and, indeed, a great deal too clearly; for the more I saw of the man, the more I shrank from the thought of being in his power. Not that he seemed to be brutal or fierce, but selfish, and resolute, and hard-hearted, and scornful of lofty feelings. Short dust-colored hair and frizzly whiskers framed his large, thick-featured face, and wearing no mustache, he showed the clumsy sneer of a wide, coarse mouth. I watched him with all my eyes, because of his tone of authority about myself. He might even be my guardian or my father’s nearest relation — though he seemed to be too ill-bred for that.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Colonel,” he went on, in a patronizing tone, such as he had assumed throughout. “Here it is. Now prick your ears up, and see if these candid remarks apply. I am reading from a printed form, you see:

“‘George Castlewood is forty-eight years old, but looks perhaps ten years older. His height is over six feet two, and he does not stoop or slouch at all. His hair is long and abundant, but white; his eyes are dark, piercing, and gloomy. His features are fine, and of Italian cast, but stern, morose, and forbidding, and he never uses razor. On the back of his left hand, near the wrist, there is a broad scar. He dresses in half-mourning always, and never wears any jewelry, but strictly shuns all society, and prefers uncivilized regions. He never stays long in any town, and follows no occupation, though his aspect and carriage are military, as he has been a cavalry officer. From time to time he has been heard of in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and is now believed to be in America.

“‘His only surviving child, a girl of about fifteen, has been seen with him. She is tall and slight and very straight, and speaks French better than English. Her hair is very nearly black, and her eyes of unusual size and lustre. She is shy, and appears to have been kept under, and she has a timid smile. Whether she knows of her father’s crime or not is quite uncertain; but she follows him like a dog almost.’

“There now, Colonel,” cried the Englishman, as he folded the paper triumphantly; “most of that came from my information, though I never set eyes upon the child. Does the cap fit or not, Brother Jonathan?”

Mr. Gundry was leaning back in his own corner, with a favorite pipe, carved by himself, reposing on his waistcoat. And being thus appealed to, he looked up and rubbed his eyes as if he had been dozing, though he never had been more wide awake, as I, who knew his attitudes, could tell. And my eyes filled with tears of love and shame, for I knew by the mere turn of his chin that he never would surrender me.

“Stranger,” he said, in a most provoking drawl, “a hard day’s work tells its tale on me, you bet. You do read so bootiful, you read me hard asleep. And the gutturals of that furrin English is always a little hard to catch. Mought I trouble you just to go through it again? You likes the sound of your own voice; and no blame to you, being such a swate un.”

The Englishman looked at him keenly, as if he had some suspicion of being chaffed; but the face of the Sawyer was so grave and the bend of his head so courteous that he could not refuse to do as he was asked. But he glanced first at the whiskey bottle standing between the candlesticks; and I knew it boded ill for his errand when Uncle Sam, the most hospitable of men, feigned pure incomprehension of that glance. The man should have no more under that roof.

With a sullen air and a muttered curse, at which Mr. Gundry blew a wreath of smoke, the stranger unfolded his paper again, and saying, “Now I beg you to attend this time,” read the whole of his description, with much emphasis, again, while the Sawyer turned away and beat time upon the hearth, with his white hair, broad shoulders, and red ears prominent. The Englishman looked very seriously vexed, but went through his business doggedly. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked when he had finished.

“Wal, now, Squire,” replied Uncle Sam, still keeping up his provoking drawl, but turning round and looking at the stranger very steadfastly, “some thin’s is so pooty and so ilegantly done, they seems a’most as good as well-slung flapjacks. A natteral honest stomick can’t nohow have enough of them. Mought I be so bold, in a silly, mountaneous sort of a way, as to ax for another heerin’ of it?”

“Do you mean to insult me, Sir?” shouted the visitor, leaping up with a flaming face, and throwing himself into an attitude of attack.

“Stranger, I mought,” answered Mr. Gundry, standing squarely before him, and keeping his hands contemptuously behind his back —“I mought so do, barrin’ one little point. The cutest commissioner in all the West would have to report ‘Non compos’ if his orders was to diskiver somethin’ capable of bein’ insulted in a fellow of your natur’.”

With these words Uncle Sam sat down, and powerfully closed his mouth, signifying that now the matter was taken through every phase of discussion, and had been thoroughly exhausted. His visitor stared at him for a moment, as if at some strange phenomenon, and then fell back into self-command, without attempting bluster.

“Colonel, you are a ‘cure,’ as we call it on our side of the herring pond. What have I done to ‘riz your dander,’ as you elegantly express it here?”

“Britisher, nothing. You know no better. It takes more than that to put my back up. But forty years agone I do believe I must ‘a heaved you out o’ window.”

“Why, Colonel, why? Now be reasonable. Not a word have I said reflecting either upon you or your country; and a finer offer than I have made can not come to many of you, even in this land of gold. Ten thousand dollars I offer, and I will exceed my instructions and say fifteen, all paid on the nail by an order on Frisco, about which you may assure yourself. And what do I ask in return? Legal proof of the death of a man whom we know to be dead, and the custody of his child, for her own good.”

“Squire, I have no other answer to make. If you offered me all the gold dug in these mountains since they were discovered, I could only say what I have said before. You came from Sylvester’s ranch — there is time for you to get back ere the snow begins.”

“What a hospitable man you are! Upon my word, Gundry, you deserve to have a medal from our Humane Society. You propose to turn me out of doors to-night, with a great fall of snow impending?”

“Sir, the fault is entirely your own. What hospitality can you expect after coming to buy my guest? If you are afraid of the ten-mile ride, my man at the mill will bed you. But here you must not sleep, because I might harm you in the morning. I am apt to lose my temper sometimes, when I go on to think of things.”

“Colonel, I think I had better ride back. I fear no man, nor his temper, nor crotchets. But if I were snowed up at your mill, I never might cross the hill-foot for months; but from Sylvester’s I can always get to Minto. You refuse, then, to help me in any way?”

“More than that. I will do every thing in my power to confound you. If any one comes prowling after that young lady, he shall be shot.”

“That is most discouraging. However, you may think better of it. Write to this address if you do. You have the girl here, of course?”

“That is her concern and mine. Does your guide know the way right well! The snow is beginning. You do not know our snows, any more than you know us.”

“Never mind, Mr. Gundry. I shall do very well. You are rough in your ways, but you mean to do the right; and your indignation is virtuous. But mark my words upon one little point. If George Castlewood had been living, I have such credentials that I would have dragged him back with me in spite of all your bluster. But over his corpse I have no control, in the present condition of treaties. Neither can I meddle with his daughter, if it were worth while to do so. Keep her and make the best of her, my man. You have taken a snake in the grass to your bosom, if that is what you are up for. A very handsome girl she may be, but a bad lot, as her father was. If you wish the name of Gundry to have its due respect hereafter, let the heir of the sawmills have nothing to do with the Honorable Miss Castlewood.”

“Let alone, let alone,” Uncle Sam said, angrily. “It is well for you that the ‘heir of the saw-mills’ hath not heard your insolence. Firm is a steady lad; but he knoweth well which foot to kick with. No fear of losing the way to Sylvester’s ranch with Firm behind you. But, meddlesome as you be, and a bitter weed to my experience, it shall not be said that Sampson Gundry sent forth a fellow to be frozen. Drink a glass of hot whiskey before you get to saddle. Not in friendship, mind you, Sir, but in common human nature.”

That execrable man complied, for he began to be doubtful of the driving snow, now huddling against the window-frames. And so he went out; and when he was gone, I came forth into the fire-light, and threw my arms round the Sawyer’s neck and kissed him till he was ashamed of me.

“Miss Rema, my dear, my poor little soul, what makes you carry on so?”

“Because I have heard every word, Uncle Sam, and I was base enough to doubt you.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/blackmore/rd/erema/chapter7.html

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