Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter VI

A Britisher

The beautiful Blue River came from the jagged depths of the mountains, full of light and liveliness. It had scarcely run six miles from its source before it touched our mill-wheel; but in that space and time it had gathered strong and copious volume. The lovely blue of the water (like the inner tint of a glacier) was partly due to its origin, perhaps, and partly to the rich, soft tone of the granite sand spread under it. Whatever the cause may have been, the river well deserved its title.

It was so bright and pure a blue, so limpid and pellucid, that it even seemed to out-vie the tint of the sky which it reflected, and the myriad sparks of sunshine on it twinkled like a crystal rain. Plodding through the parched and scorching dust of the mountain-foot, through the stifling vapor and the blinding, ochreous glare, the traveler suddenly came upon this cool and calm delight. It was not to be descried afar, for it lay below the level, and the oaks and other trees of shelter scarcely topped the narrow comb. There was no canyon, such as are — and some of them known over all the world — both to the north and south of it. The Blue River did not owe its birth to any fierce convulsion, but sparkled on its cheerful way without impending horrors. Standing here as a child, and thinking, from the manner of my father, that strong men never wept nor owned the conquest of emotion, I felt sometimes a fool’s contempt for the gushing transport of brave men. For instance, I have seen a miner, or a tamer of horses, or a rough fur-hunter, or (perhaps the bravest of all) a man of science and topography, jaded, worn, and nearly dead with drought and dearth and choking, suddenly, and beyond all hope, strike on this buried Eden. And then he dropped on his knees and spread his starved hands upward, if he could, and thanked the God who made him, till his head went round, and who knows what remembrance of loved ones came to him? And then, if he had any moisture left, he fell to a passion of weeping.

In childish ignorance I thought that this man weakly degraded himself, and should have been born a woman. But since that time I have truly learned that the bravest of men are those who feel their Maker’s Land most softly, and are not ashamed to pay the tribute of their weakness to Him.

Living, as we did, in a lonely place, and yet not far from a track along the crest of the great Californian plain from Sacramento southward, there was scarcely a week which did not bring us some traveler needing comfort. Mr. Gundry used to be told that if he would set up a rough hotel, or house of call for cattle-drovers, miners, loafers, and so on, he might turn twice the money he could ever make by his thriving saw-mill. But he only used to laugh, and say that nature had made him too honest for that; and he never thought of charging any thing for his hospitality, though if a rich man left a gold piece, or even a nugget, upon a shelf, as happened very often, Sawyer Gundry did not disdain to set it aside for a rainy day. And one of his richest or most lavish guests arrived on my account, perhaps.

It happened when daylight was growing shorter, and the red heat of the earth was gone, and the snow-line of distant granite peaks had crept already lower, and the chattering birds that spent their summer in our band of oak-trees were beginning to find their food get short, and to prime swift wings for the lowland; and I, having never felt bitter cold, was trembling at what I heard of it. For now it was clear that I had no choice but to stay where I was for the present, and be truly thankful to God and man for having the chance of doing so. For the little relics of my affairs — so far as I had any — had taken much time in arrangement, perhaps because it was so hard to find them. I knew nothing, except about my own little common wardrobe, and could give no information about the contents of my father’s packages. But these, by dint of perseverance on the part of Ephraim (who was very keen about all rights), had mainly been recovered, and Mr. Gundry had done the best that could be done concerning them. Whatever seemed of a private nature, or likely to prove important, had been brought home to Blue River Mills; the rest had been sold, and had fetched large prices, unless Mr. Gundry enlarged them.

He more than enlarged, he multiplied them, as I found out long afterward, to make me think myself rich and grand, while a beggar upon his bounty. I had never been accustomed to think of money, and felt some little contempt for it — not, indeed, a lofty hatred, but a careless wonder why it seemed to be always thought of. It was one of the last things I ever thought of; and those who were waiting for it were — until I got used to them — obliged in self-duty to remind me.

This, however, was not my fault. I never dreamed of wronging them. But I had earned no practical knowledge of the great world any where, much though I had wandered about, according to vague recollections. The duty of paying had never been mine; that important part had been done for me. And my father had such a horror always of any growth of avarice that he never gave me sixpence.

And now, when I heard upon every side continual talk of money, from Suan Isco upward, I thought at first that the New World must be different from the Old one, and that the gold mines in the neighborhood must have made them full of it; and once or twice I asked Uncle Sam; but he only nodded his head, and said that it was the practice every where. And before very long I began to perceive that he did not exaggerate.

Nothing could prove this point more clearly than the circumstance above referred to — the arrival of a stranger, for the purpose of bribing even Uncle Sam himself. This happened in the month of November, when the passes were beginning to be blocked with snow, and those of the higher mountain tracts had long been overwhelmed with it. On this particular day the air was laden with gray, oppressive clouds, threatening a heavy downfall, and instead of faring forth, as usual, to my beloved river, I was kept indoors, and even up stairs, by a violent snow-headache. This is a crushing weight of pain, which all new-comers, or almost all, are obliged to endure, sometimes for as much as eight-and-forty hours, when the first great snow of the winter is breeding, as they express it, overhead. But I was more lucky than most people are; for after about twelve hours of almost intolerable throbbing, during which the sweetest sound was odious, and the idea of food quite loathsome, the agony left me, and a great desire for something to eat succeeded. Suan Isco, the kindest of the kind, was gone down stairs at last, for which I felt ungrateful gratitude — because she had been doing her best to charm away my pain by low, monotonous Indian ditties, which made it ten times worse; and yet I could not find heart to tell her so.

Now it must have been past six o’clock in the evening of the November day when the avalanche slid off my head, and I was able to lift it. The light of the west had been faint, and was dead; though often it used to prolong our day by the backward glance of the ocean. With pangs of youthful hunger, but a head still weak and dazy, I groped my way in the dark through the passage and down the stairs of redwood.

At the bottom, where a railed landing was, and the door opened into the house-room, I was surprised to find that, instead of the usual cheerful company enjoying themselves by the fire-light, there were only two people present. The Sawyer sat stiffly in his chair of state, delaying even the indulgence of his pipe, and having his face set sternly, as I had never before beheld it. In the visitor’s corner, as we called it, where people sat to dry themselves, there was a man, and only one.

Something told me that I had better keep back and not disturb them. The room was not in its usual state of comfort and hospitality. Some kind of meal had been made at the table, as always must be in these parts; but not of the genial, reckless sort which random travelers carried on without any check from the Sawyer. For he of all men ever born in a civilized age was the finest host, and a guest beneath his roof was sacred as a lady to a knight. Hence it happened that I was much surprised. Proper conduct almost compelled me to withdraw; but curiosity made me take just one more little peep, perhaps. Looking back at these things now, I can not be sure of every thing; and indeed if I could, I must have an almost supernatural memory. But I remember many things; and the headache may have cleared my mind.

The stranger who had brought Mr. Gundry’s humor into such stiff condition was sitting in the corner, a nook where light and shadow made an eddy. He seemed to be perfectly unconcerned about all the tricks of the hearth flame, presenting as he did a most solid face for any light to play upon. To me it seemed to be a weather-beaten face of a bluff and resolute man, the like of which we attribute to John Bull. At any rate, he was like John Bull in one respect: he was sturdy and square, and fit to hold his own with any man.

Strangers of this sort had come (as Englishmen rove every where), and been kindly welcomed by Uncle Sam, who, being of recent English blood, had a kind of hankering after it, and would almost rather have such at his board than even a true-born American; and infinitely more welcome were they than Frenchman, Spaniard, or German, or any man not to be distinguished, as was the case with some of them. Even now it was clear that the Sawyer had not grudged any tokens of honor, for the tall, square, brazen candlesticks, of Boston make, were on the table, and very little light they gave. The fire, however, was grandly roaring of stub-oak and pine antlers, and the black grill of the chimney bricks was fringed with lifting filaments. It was a rich, ripe light, affording breadth and play for shadow; and the faces of the two men glistened, and darkened in their creases.

I was dressed in black, and could not be seen, though I could see them so clearly; and I doubted whether to pass through, upon my way to the larder, or return to my room and starve a little longer; for I did not wish to interrupt, and had no idea of listening. But suddenly I was compelled to stop; and to listen became an honest thing, when I knew what was spoken of — or, at any rate, I did it.

“Castlewood, Master Colonist; Castlewood is the name of the man that I have come to ask about. And you will find it worth your while to tell me all you know of him.” Thus spoke the Englishman sitting in the corner; and he seemed to be certain of producing his effect.

“Wal,” said Uncle Sam, assuming what all true Britons believe to be the universal Yankee tone, while I knew that he was laughing in his sleeve, “Squire, I guess that you may be right. Considerations of that ’ere kind desarves to be considered of.”

“Just so. I knew that you must see it,” the stranger continued, bravely. “A stiff upper lip, as you call it here, is all very well to begin with. But all you enlightened members of the great republic know what is what. It will bring you more than ten years’ income of your saw-mill, and farm, and so on, to deal honestly with me for ten minutes. No more beating about the bush and fencing with me, as you have done. Now can you see your own interest?”

“I never were reckoned a fool at that. Squire, make tracks, and be done with it.”

“Then, Master Colonist, or Colonel — for I believe you are all colonels here — your task is very simple. We want clear proof, sworn properly and attested duly, of the death of a villain — George Castlewood, otherwise the Honorable George Castlewood, otherwise Lord Castlewood: a man who murdered his own father ten years ago this November: a man committed for trial for the crime, but who bribed his jailers and escaped, and wandered all over the Continent. What is that noise? Have you got rats?”

“Plenty of foreign rats, and native ‘coons, and skunks, and other varmint. Wal, Squire, go on with it.”

The voice of Uncle Sam was stern, and his face full of rising fury, as I, who had made that noise in my horror, tried to hush my heart with patience.

“The story is well known,” continued the stranger: “we need make no bones of it. George Castlewood went about under a curse —”

“Not quite so loud, Squire, if you please. My household is not altogether seasoned.”

“And perhaps you have got the young lady somewhere. I heard a report to that effect. But here you think nothing of a dozen murders. Now, Gundry, let us have no squeamishness. We only want justice, and we can pay for it. Ten thousand dollars I am authorized to offer for a mere act of duty on your part. We have an extradition treaty. If the man had been alive, we must have had him. But as he has cheated the hangman by dying, we can only see his grave and have evidence. And all well-disposed people must rejoice to have such a quiet end of it. For the family is so well known, you see.”

“I see,” Mr. Gundry answered, quietly, laying a finger on his lips. “Guess you want something more than that, though, Squire. Is there nothing more than the grave to oblige a noble Britisher with?”

“Yes, Colonel; we want the girl as well. We know that she was with him in that caravan, or wagon train, or whatever you please to call it. We know that you have made oath of his death, produced his child, and obtained his trunks, and drawn his share in the insurance job. Your laws must be queer to let you do such things. In England it would have taken at least three years, and cost a deal more than the things were worth, even without a Chancery suit. However, of his papers I shall take possession; they can be of no earthly use to you.”

“To be sure. And possession of his darter too, without so much as a Chancery suit. But what is to satisfy me, Squire, agin goin’ wrong in this little transaction?”

“I can very soon satisfy you,” said the stranger, “as to their identity. Here is their full, particular, and correct description — names, weights, and colors of the parties.”

With a broad grin at his own exquisite wit, the bluff man drew forth his pocket-book, and took out a paper, which he began to smooth on his knee quite leisurely. Meanwhile, in my hiding-place, I was trembling with terror and indignation. The sense of eavesdropping was wholly lost, in that of my own jeopardy. I must know what was arranged about me; for I felt such a hatred and fear of that stranger that sooner than be surrendered to him I would rush back to my room and jump out of the window, and trust myself to the trackless forest and the snowy night. I was very nearly doing so, but just had sense enough to wait and hear what would be said of me. So I lurked in the darkness, behind the rails, while the stranger read slowly and pompously.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50