"The kernel seems a little off color to-day," said the barkeeper as he replaced the whiskey decanter, and gazed reflectively after the departing figure of Colonel Starbottle.
"I didn't notice anything," said a bystander; "he passed the time o' day civil enough to me."
"Oh, he's allus polite enough to strangers and wimmin folk even when he is that way; it's only his old chums, or them ez like to be thought so, that he's peppery with. Why, ez to that, after he'd had that quo'll with his old partner, Judge Pratt, in one o' them spells, I saw him the next minit go half a block out of his way to direct an entire stranger; and ez for wimmin!--well, I reckon if he'd just got a head drawn on a man, and a woman spoke to him, he'd drop his battery and take off his hat to her. No--ye can't judge by that!"
And perhaps in his larger experience the barkeeper was right. He might have added, too, that the colonel, in his general outward bearing and jauntiness, gave no indication of his internal irritation. Yet he was undoubtedly in one of his "spells," suffering from a moody cynicism which made him as susceptible of affront as he was dangerous in resentment.
Luckily, on this particular morning he reached his office and entered his private room without any serious rencontre. Here he opened his desk, and arranging his papers, he at once set to work with grim persistency. He had not been occupied for many minutes before the door opened to Mr. Pyecroft--one of a firm of attorneys who undertook the colonel's office work.
"I see you are early to work, Colonel," said Mr. Pyecroft cheerfully.
"You see, sir," said the colonel, correcting him with a slow deliberation that boded no good--"you see a Southern gentleman--blank it!--who has stood at the head of his profession for thirty-five years, obliged to work like a blank nigger, sir, in the dirty squabbles of psalm-singing Yankee traders, instead of--er--attending to the affairs of--er--legislation!"
"But you manage to get pretty good fees out of it--Colonel?" continued Pyecroft, with a laugh.
"Fees, sir! Filthy shekels! and barely enough to satisfy a debt of honor with one hand, and wipe out a tavern score for the entertainment of--er--a few lady friends with the other!"
This allusion to his losses at poker, as well as an oyster supper given to the two principal actresses of the "North Star Troupe," then performing in the town, convinced Mr. Pyecroft that the colonel was in one of his "moods," and he changed the subject.
"That reminds me of a little joke that happened in Sacramento last week. You remember Dick Stannard, who died a year ago--one of your friends?"
"I have yet to learn," interrupted the colonel, with the same deadly deliberation, "what right HE--or ANYBODY--had to intimate that he held such a relationship with me. Am I to understand, sir, that he--er--publicly boasted of it?"
"Don't know!" resumed Pyecroft hastily; "but it don't matter, for if he wasn't a friend it only makes the joke bigger. Well, his widow didn't survive him long, but died in the States t'other day, leavin' the property in Sacramento--worth about three thousand dollars--to her little girl, who is at school at Santa Clara. The question of guardianship came up, and it appears that the widow--who only knew you through her husband--had, some time before her death, mentioned YOUR name in that connection! He! he!"
"What!" said Colonel Starbottle, starting up.
"Hold on!" said Pyecroft hilariously. "That isn't all! Neither the executors nor the probate judge knew you from Adam, and the Sacramento bar, scenting a good joke, lay low and said nothing. Then the old fool judge said that 'as you appeared to be a lawyer, a man of mature years, and a friend of the family, you were an eminently fit person, and ought to be communicated with'--you know his hifalutin' style. Nobody says anything. So that the next thing you'll know you'll get a letter from that executor asking you to look after that kid. Ha! ha! The boys said they could fancy they saw you trotting around with a ten year old girl holding on to your hand, and the Senorita Dolores or Miss Bellamont looking on! Or your being called away from a poker deal some night by the infant, singing, 'Gardy, dear gardy, come home with me now, the clock in the steeple strikes one!' And think of that old fool judge not knowing you! Ha! ha!"
A study of Colonel Starbottle's face during this speech would have puzzled a better physiognomist than Mr. Pyecroft. His first look of astonishment gave way to an empurpled confusion, from which a single short Silenus-like chuckle escaped, but this quickly changed again into a dull coppery indignation, and, as Pyecroft's laugh continued, faded out into a sallow rigidity in which his murky eyes alone seemed to keep what was left of his previous high color. But what was more singular, in spite of his enforced calm, something of his habitual old-fashioned loftiness and oratorical exaltation appeared to be returning to him as he placed his hand on his inflated breast and faced Pyceroft.
"The ignorance of the executor of Mrs. Stannard and the--er--probate judge," he began slowly, "may be pardonable, Mr. Pyecroft, since his Honor would imply that, although unknown to HIM personally, I am at least amicus curiae in this question of--er--guardianship. But I am grieved--indeed I may say shocked--Mr. Pyecroft, that the--er--last sacred trust of a dying widow--perhaps the holiest trust that can be conceived by man--the care and welfare of her helpless orphaned girl--should be made the subject of mirth, sir, by yourself and the members of the Sacramento bar! I shall not allude, sir, to my own feelings in regard to Dick Stannard, one of my most cherished friends," continued the colonel, in a voice charged with emotion, "but I can conceive of no nobler trust laid upon the altar of friendship than the care and guidance of his orphaned girl! And if, as you tell me, the utterly inadequate sum of three thousand dollars is all that is left for her maintenance through life, the selection of a guardian sufficiently devoted to the family to be willing to augment that pittance out of his own means from time to time would seem to be most important."
Before the astounded Pyecroft could recover himself, Colonel Starbottle leaned back in his chair, half closing his eyes, and abandoned himself, quite after his old manner, to one of his dreamy reminiscences.
"Poor Dick Stannard! I have a vivid recollection, sir, of driving out with him on the Shell Road at New Orleans in '54, and of his saying, 'Star'--the only man, sir, who ever abbreviated my name--'Star, if anything happens to me or her, look after our child! It was during that very drive, sir, that, through his incautious neglect to fortify himself against the swampy malaria by a glass of straight Bourbon with a pinch of bark in it, he caught that fever which undermined his constitution. Thank you, Mr. Pyecroft, for--er--recalling the circumstance. I shall," continued the colonel, suddenly abandoning reminiscence, sitting up, and arranging his papers, "look forward with great interest to--er--letter from the executor."
The next day it was universally understood that Colonel Starbottle had been appointed guardian of Pansy Stannard by the probate judge of Sacramento.
* * * * * * *
There are of record two distinct accounts of Colonel Starbottle's first meeting with his ward after his appointment as her guardian. One, given by himself, varying slightly at times, but always bearing unvarying compliment to the grace, beauty, and singular accomplishments of this apparently gifted child, was nevertheless characterized more by vague, dreamy reminiscences of the departed parents than by any personal experience of the daughter.
"I found the young lady, sir," he remarked to Mr. Pyecroft, "recalling my cherished friend Stannard in--er--form and features, and--although--er--personally unacquainted with her deceased mother--who belonged, sir, to one of the first families of Virginia--I am told that she is--er--remarkably like her. Miss Stannard is at present a pupil in one of the best educational establishments in Santa Clara, where she is receiving tuition in--er--the English classics, foreign belles lettres, embroidery, the harp, and--er--the use of the--er--globes, and--er--blackboard--under the most fastidious care, and my own personal supervision. The principal of the school, Miss Eudoxia Tish--associated with--er--er--Miss Prinkwell--is--er--remarkably gifted woman; and as I was present at one of the school exercises, I had the opportunity of testifying to her excellence in--er--short address I made to the young ladies." From such glittering but unsatisfying generalities as these I prefer to turn to the real interview, gathered from contemporary witnesses.
It was the usual cloudless, dazzling, Californian summer day, tempered with the asperity of the northwest trades that Miss Tish, looking through her window towards the rose-embowered gateway of the seminary, saw an extraordinary figure advancing up the avenue. It was that of a man slightly past middle age, yet erect and jaunty, whose costume recalled the early water-color portraits of her own youthful days. His tightly buttoned blue frock coat with gilt buttons was opened far enough across the chest to allow the expanding of a frilled shirt, black stock, and nankeen waistcoat, and his immaculate white trousers were smartly strapped over his smart varnished boots. A white bell-crowned hat, carried in his hand to permit the wiping of his forehead with a silk handkerchief, and a gold-headed walking stick hooked over his arm, completed this singular equipment. He was followed, a few paces in the rear, by a negro carrying an enormous bouquet, and a number of small boxes and parcels tied up with ribbons. As the figure paused before the door, Miss Tish gasped, and cast a quick restraining glance around the classroom. But it was too late; a dozen pairs of blue, black, round, inquiring, or mischievous eyes were already dancing and gloating over the bizarre stranger through the window.
"A cirkiss--or nigger minstrels--sure as you're born!" said Mary Frost, aged nine, in a fierce whisper.
"No!--a agent from 'The Emporium,' with samples," returned Miss Briggs, aged fourteen.
"Young ladies, attend to your studies," said Miss Tish, as the servant brought in a card. Miss Tish glanced at it with some nervousness, and read to herself, "Colonel Culpeper Starbottle," engraved in script, and below it in pencil, "To see Miss Pansy Stannard, under favor of Miss Tish." Rising with some perturbation, Miss Tish hurriedly intrusted the class to an assistant, and descended to the reception room. She had never seen Pansy's guardian before (the executor had brought the child); and this extraordinary creature, whose visit she could not deny, might be ruinous to school discipline. It was therefore with an extra degree of frigidity of demeanor that she threw open the door of the reception room, and entered majestically. But to her utter astonishment, the colonel met her with a bow so stately, so ceremonious, and so commanding that she stopped, disarmed and speechless.
"I need not ask if I am addressing Miss Tish," said the colonel loftily, "for without having the pleasure of--er--previous acquaintance, I can at once recognize the--er--Lady Superior and--er--chatelaine of this--er--establishment." Miss Tish here gave way to a slight cough and an embarrassed curtsy, as the colonel, with a wave of his white hand towards the burden carried by his follower, resumed more lightly: "I have brought--er--few trifles and gewgaws for my ward--subject, of course, to your rules and discretion. They include some--er--dainties, free from any deleterious substance, as I am informed--a sash--a ribbon or two for the hair, gloves, mittens, and a nosegay--from which, I trust, it will be HER pleasure, as it is my own, to invite you to cull such blossoms as may suit your taste. Boy, you may set them down and retire!"
"At the present moment," stammered Miss Tish, "Miss Stannard is engaged on her lessons. But"--She stopped again, hopelessly.
"I see," said the colonel, with an air of playful, poetical reminiscence--"her lessons! Certainly!
'We will--er--go to our places, With smiles on our faces, And say all our lessons distinctly and slow.'
Certainly! Not for worlds would I interrupt them; until they are done, we will--er--walk through the classrooms and inspect"--
"No! no!" interrupted the horrified, principal, with a dreadful presentiment of the appalling effect of the colonel's entry upon the class. "No!--that is--I mean--our rules exclude--except on days of public examination"--
"Say no more, my dear madam," said the colonel politely. "Until she is free I will stroll outside, through--er--the groves of the Academus"--
But Miss Tish, equally alarmed at the diversion this would create at the classroom windows, recalled herself with an effort. "Please wait here a moment," she said hurriedly; "I will bring her down;" and before the colonel could politely open the door for her, she had fled.
Happily unconscious of the sensation he had caused, Colonel Starbottle seated himself on the sofa, his white hands resting easily on the gold-headed cane. Once or twice the door behind him opened and closed quietly, scarcely disturbing him; or again opened more ostentatiously to the words, "Oh, excuse, please," and the brief glimpse of a flaxen braid, or a black curly head--to all of which the colonel nodded politely--even rising later to the apparition of a taller, demure young lady--and her more affected "Really, I beg your pardon!" The only result of this evident curiosity was slightly to change the colonel's attitude, so as to enable him to put his other hand in his breast in his favorite pose. But presently he was conscious of a more active movement in the hall, of the sounds of scuffling, of a high youthful voice saying "I won't" and "I shan't!" of the door opening to a momentary apparition of Miss Tish dragging a small hand and half of a small black-ribboned arm into the room, and her rapid disappearance again, apparently pulled back by the little hand and arm; of another and longer pause, of a whispered conference outside, and then the reappearance of Miss Tish majestically, reinforced and supported by the grim presence of her partner, Miss Prinkwell.
"This--er--unexpected visit," began Miss Tish--"not previously arranged by letter"--
"Which is an invariable rule of our establishment," supplemented Miss Prinkwell--
"And the fact that you are personally unknown to us," continued Miss Tish--
"An ignorance shared by the child, who exhibits a distaste for an interview," interpolated Miss Prinkwell, in a kind of antiphonal response--
"For which we have had no time to prepare her," continued Miss Tish--
"Compels us most reluctantly"--But here she stopped short. Colonel Starbottle, who had risen with a deep bow at their entrance and remained standing, here walked quietly towards them. His usually high color had faded except from his eyes, but his exalted manner was still more pronounced, with a dreadful deliberation superadded.
"I believe--er--I had--the honah--to send up my kyard!" (In his supreme moments the colonel's Southern accent was always in evidence.) "I may--er--be mistaken--but--er--that is my impression." The colonel paused, and placed his right hand statuesquely on his heart.
The two women trembled--Miss Tish fancied the very shirt frill of the colonel was majestically erecting itself--as they stammered in one voice,--
"That kyard contained my full name--with a request to see my ward--Miss Stannard," continued the colonel slowly. "I believe that is the fact."
"Certainly! certainly!" gasped the women feebly.
"Then may I--er--point out to you that I AM--er--WAITING?"
Although nothing could exceed the laborious simplicity and husky sweetness of the colonel's utterance, it appeared to demoralize utterly his two hearers--Miss Prinkwell seemed to fade into the pattern of the wall paper, Miss Tish to droop submissively forward like a pink wax candle in the rays of the burning sun.
"We will bring her instantly. A thousand pardons, sir," they uttered in the same breath, backing towards the door.
But here the unexpected intervened. Unnoticed by the three during the colloquy, a little figure in a black dress had peeped through the door, and then glided into the room. It was a girl of about ten, who, in all candor, could scarcely be called pretty, although the awkward change of adolescence had not destroyed the delicate proportions of her hands and feet nor the beauty of her brown eyes. These were, just then, round and wondering, and fixed alternately on the colonel and the two women. But like many other round and wondering eyes, they had taken in the full meaning of the situation, with a quickness the adult mind is not apt to give them credit for. They saw the complete and utter subjugation of the two supreme autocrats of the school, and, I grieve to say, they were filled with a secret and "fearful joy." But the casual spectator saw none of this; the round and wondering eyes, still rimmed with recent and recalcitrant tears, only looked big and innocently shining.
The relief of the two women was sudden and unaffected.
"Oh, here you are, dearest, at last!" said Miss Tish eagerly. "This is your guardian, Colonel Starbottle. Come to him, dear!"
She took the hand of the child, who hung back with an odd mingling of shamefacedness and resentment of the interference, when the voice of Colonel Starbottle, in the same deadly calm deliberation, said,--
"I--er--will speak with her--alone."
The round eyes again saw the complete collapse of authority, as the two women shrank back from the voice, and said hurriedly,--
"Certainly, Colonel Starbottle; perhaps it would be better," and ingloriously quitted the room.
But the colonel's triumph left him helpless. He was alone with a simple child, an unprecedented, unheard-of situation, which left him embarrassed and--speechless. Even his vanity was conscious that his oratorical periods, his methods, his very attitude, were powerless here. The perspiration stood out on his forehead; he looked at her vaguely, and essayed a feeble smile. The child saw his embarrassment, even as she had seen and understood his triumph, and the small woman within her exulted. She put her little hands on her waist, and with the fingers turned downwards and outwards pressed them down her hips to her bended knees until they had forced her skirts into an egregious fullness before and behind, as if she were making a curtsy, and then jumped up and laughed.
"You did it! Hooray!"
"Did what?" said the colonel, pleased yet mystified.
"Frightened 'em!--the two old cats! Frightened 'em outen their slippers! Oh, jiminy! Never, never, NEVER before was they so skeert! Never since school kept did they have to crawl like that! They was skeert enough FIRST when you come, but just now!--Lordy! They wasn't a-goin' to let you see me--but they had to! had to! HAD TO!" and she emphasized each repetition with a skip.
"I believe--er," said the colonel blandly, "that I--er--intimated with some firmness"--
"That's it--just it!" interrupted the child delightedly. "You--you--overdid 'em"
"OVERDID 'EM! Don't you know? They're always so high and mighty! Kinder 'Don't tech me. My mother's an angel; my father's a king'--all that sort of thing. They did THIS"--she drew herself up in a presumable imitation of the two women's majestic entrance--"and then," she continued, "you--YOU jest did this"--here she lifted her chin, and puffing out her small chest, strode towards the colonel in evident simulation of his grandest manner.
A short, deep chuckle escaped him--although the next moment his face became serious again. But Pansy in the mean time had taken possession of his coat sleeve and was rubbing her cheek against it like a young colt. At which the colonel succumbed feebly and sat down on the sofa, the child standing beside him, leaning over and transferring her little hands to the lapels of his frock coat, which she essayed to button over his chest as she looked into his murky eyes.
"The other girls said," she began, tugging at the button, "that you was a 'cirkiss'"--another tug--"'a nigger minstrel'"--and a third tug--"'a agent with samples'--but that showed all they knew!"
"Ah," said the colonel with exaggerated blandness, "and--er--what did YOU--er--say?"
The child smiled. "I said you was a Stuffed Donkey--but that was BEFORE I knew you. I was a little skeert too; but NOW"--she succeeded in buttoning the coat and making the colonel quite apoplectic,--"NOW I ain't frightened one bit--no, not one TINY bit! But," she added, after a pause, unbuttoning the coat again and smoothing down the lapels between her fingers, "you're to keep on frightening the old cats--mind! Never mind about the GIRLS. I'll tell them."
The colonel would have given worlds to be able to struggle up into an upright position with suitable oral expression. Not that his vanity was at all wounded by these irresponsible epithets, which only excited an amused wonder, but he was conscious of an embarrassed pleasure in the child's caressing familiarity, and her perfect trustfulness in him touched his extravagant chivalry. He ought to protect her, and yet correct her. In the consciousness of these duties he laid his white hand upon her head. Alas! she lifted her arm and instantly transferred his hand and part of his arm around her neck and shoulders, and comfortably snuggled against him. The colonel gasped. Nevertheless, something must be said, and he began, albeit somewhat crippled in delivery:--
"The--er--use of elegant and precise language by--er--young ladies cannot be too sedulously cultivated"--
But here the child laughed, and snuggling still closer, gurgled: "That's right! Give it to her when she comes down! That's the style!" and the colonel stopped, discomfited. Nevertheless, there was a certain wholesome glow in the contact of this nestling little figure.
Presently he resumed tentativery: "I have--er--brought you a few dainties."
"Yes," said Pansy, "I see; but they're from the wrong shop, you dear old silly! They're from Tomkins's, and we girls just abominate his things. You oughter have gone to Emmons's. Never mind. I'll show you when we go out. We're going out, aren't we?" she said suddenly, lifting her head anxiously. "You know it's allowed, and it's RIGHTS 'to parents and guardians'!"
"Certainly, certainly," said the colonel. He knew he would feel a little less constrained in the open air.
"Then we'll go now," said Pansy, jumping up. "I'll just run upstairs and put on my things. I'll say it's 'orders' from you. And I'll wear my new frock--it's longer." (The colonel was slightly relieved at this; it had seemed to him, as a guardian, that there was perhaps an abnormal display of Pansy's black stockings.) "You wait; I won't be long."
She darted to the door, but reaching it, suddenly stopped, returned to the sofa, where the colonel still sat, imprinted a swift kiss on his mottled cheek, and fled, leaving him invested with a mingled flavor of freshly ironed muslin, wintergreen lozenges, and recent bread and butter. He sat still for some time, staring out of the window. It was very quiet in the room; a bumblebee blundered from the jasmine outside into the open window, and snored loudly at the panes. But the colonel heeded it not, and remained abstracted and silent until the door opened to Miss Tish and Pansy--in her best frock and sash, at which the colonel started and became erect again and courtly.
"I am about to take my ward out," he said deliberately, "to--er--taste the air in the Alameda, and--er--view the shops. We may--er--also--indulge in--er--slight suitable refreshment;--er--seed cake--or--bread and butter--and--a dish of tea."
Miss Tish, now thoroughly subdued, was delighted to grant Miss Stannard the half holiday permitted on such occasions. She begged the colonel to suit his own pleasure, and intrusted "the dear child" to her guardian "with the greatest confidence."
The colonel made a low bow, and Pansy, demurely slipping her hand into his, passed with him into the hall; there was a slight rustle of vanishing skirts, and Pansy pressed his hand significantly. When they were well outside, she said, in a lower voice:--
"Don't look up until we're under the gymnasium windows." The colonel, mystified but obedient, strutted on. "Now!" said Pansy. He looked up, beheld the windows aglow with bright young faces, and bewildering with many handkerchiefs and clapping hands, stopped, and then taking off his hat, acknowledged the salute with a sweeping bow. Pansy was delighted. "I knew they'd be there; I'd already fixed 'em. They're just dyin' to know you."
The colonel felt a certain glow of pleasure, "I--er--had already intimated a--er--willingness to--er--inspect the classes; but--I--er--understood that the rules"--
"They're sick old rules," interrupted the child. "Tish and Prinkwell are the rules! You say just right out that you WILL! Just overdo her!"
The colonel had a vague sense that he ought to correct both the spirit and language of this insurrectionary speech, but Pansy pulled him along, and then swept him quite away with a torrent of prattle of the school, of her friends, of the teachers, of her life and its infinitely small miseries and pleasures. Pansy was voluble; never before had the colonel found himself relegated to the place of a passive listener. Nevertheless, he liked it, and as they passed on, under the shade of the Alameda, with Pansy alternately swinging from his hand and skipping beside him, there was a vague smile of satisfaction on his face. Passers-by turned to look after the strangely assorted pair, or smiled, accepting them, as the colonel fancied, as father and daughter. An odd feeling, half of pain and half of pleasure, gripped at the heart of the empty and childless man.
And now, as they approached the more crowded thoroughfares, the instinct of chivalrous protection was keen in his breast. He piloted her skillfully; he jauntily suited his own to her skipping step; he lifted her with scrupulous politeness over obstacles; strutting beside her on crowded pavements, he made way for her with his swinging stick. All the while, too, he had taken note of the easy carriage of her head and shoulders, and most of all of her small, slim feet and hands, that, to his fastidious taste, betokened her race. "Ged, sir," he muttered to himself, "she's 'Blue Grass' stock, all through." To admiration succeeded pride, with a slight touch of ownership. When they went into a shop, which, thanks to the ingenuous Pansy, they did pretty often, he would introduce her with a wave of the hand and the remark, "I am--er--seeking nothing to-day, but if you will kindly--er--serve my WARD--Miss Stannard!" Later, when they went into the confectioner's for refreshment, and Pansy frankly declared for "ice cream and cream cakes," instead of the "dish of tea and bread and butter" he had ordered in pursuance of his promise, he heroically took it himself--to satisfy his honor. Indeed, I know of no more sublime figure than Colonel Starbottle--rising superior to a long-withstood craving for a "cocktail," morbidly conscious also of the ridiculousness of his appearance to any of his old associates who might see him--drinking luke-warm tea and pecking feebly at his bread and butter at a small table, beside his little tyrant.
And this domination of the helpless continued on their way home. Although Miss Pansy no longer talked of herself, she was equally voluble in inquiry as to the colonel's habits, ways of life, friends and acquaintances, happily restricting her interrogations, in regard to those of her own sex, to "any LITTLE girls that he knew." Saved by this exonerating adjective, the colonel saw here a chance to indulge his postponed monitorial duty, as well as his vivid imagination. He accordingly drew elaborate pictures of impossible children he had known--creatures precise in language and dress, abstinent of play and confectionery, devoted to lessons and duties, and otherwise, in Pansy's own words, "loathsome to the last degree!" As "daughters of oldest and most cherished friends," they might perhaps have excited Pansy's childish jealousy but for the singular fact that they had all long ago been rewarded by marriage with senators, judges, and generals--also associates of the colonel. This remoteness of presence somewhat marred their effect as an example, and the colonel was mortified, though not entirely displeased, to observe that their surprising virtues did not destroy Pansy's voracity for sweets, the recklessness of her skipping, nor the freedom of her language. The colonel was remorseful--but happy.
When they reached the seminary again, Pansy retired with her various purchases, but reappeared after an interval with Miss Tish.
"I remember," hesitated that lady, trembling under the fascination of the colonel's profound bow, "that you were anxious to look over the school, and although it was not possible then, I shall be glad to show you now through one of the classrooms."
The colonel, glancing at Pansy, was momentarily shocked by a distortion of one side of her face, which seemed, however, to end in a wink of her innocent brown eyes, but recovering himself, gallantly expressed his gratitude. The next moment he was ascending the stairs, side by side with Miss Tish, and had a distinct impression that he had been pinched in the calf by Pansy, who was following close behind.
It was recess, but the large classroom was quite filled with pupils, many of them older and prettier girls, inveigled there, as it afterwards appeared, by Pansy, in some precocious presentiment of her guardian's taste. The colonel's apologetic yet gallant bow on entering, and his erect, old-fashioned elegance, instantly took their delighted attention. Indeed, all would have gone well had not Miss Prinkwell, with the view of impressing the colonel as well as her pupils, majestically introduced him as "a distinguished jurist deeply interested in the cause of education, as well as guardian of their fellow pupil." That opportunity was not thrown away on Colonel Starbottle.
Stepping up to the desk of the astounded principal, he laid the points of his fingers delicately upon it, and, with a preparatory inclination of his head towards her, placed his other hand in his breast, and with an invocatory glance at the ceiling, began.
It was the colonel's habit at such moments to state at first, with great care and precision, the things that he "would not say," that he "NEED not say," and apparently that it was absolutely unnecessary even to allude to. It was therefore, not strange that the colonel informed them that he need not say that he counted his present privilege among the highest that had been granted him; for besides the privilege of beholding the galaxy of youthful talent and excellence before him, besides the privilege of being surrounded by a garland of the blossoms of the school in all their freshness and beauty, it was well understood that he had the greater privilege of--er--standing in loco parentis to one of these blossoms. It was not for him to allude to the high trust imposed upon him by--er--deceased and cherished friend, and daughter of one of the first families of Virginia, by the side of one who must feel that she was the recipient of trusts equally supreme (here the colonel paused, and statuesquely regarded the alarmed Miss Prinkwell as if he were in doubt of it), but he would say that it should be HIS devoted mission to champion the rights of the orphaned and innocent whenever and wherever the occasion arose, against all odds, and even in the face of misguided authority. (Having left the impression that Miss Prinkwell contemplated an invasion of those rights, the colonel became more lenient and genial.) He fully recognized her high and noble office; he saw in her the worthy successor of those two famous instructresses of Athens--those Greek ladies--er--whose names had escaped his memory, but which--er--no doubt Miss Prinkwell would be glad to recall to her pupils, with some account of their lives. (Miss Prinkwell colored; she had never heard of them before, and even the delight of the class in the colonel's triumph was a little dampened by this prospect of hearing more about them.) But the colonel was only too content with seeing before him these bright and beautiful faces, destined, as he firmly believed, in after years to lend their charm and effulgence to the highest places as the happy helpmeets of the greatest in the land. He was--er--leaving a--er--slight testimonial of his regard in the form of some--er--innocent refreshments in the hands of his ward, who would--er--act as--er--his proxy in their distribution; and the colonel sat down to the flutter of handkerchiefs, an applause only half restrained, and the utter demoralization of Miss Prinkwell.
But the time of his departure had come by this time, and he was too experienced a public man to risk the possibility of an anticlimax by protracting his leave-taking. And in an ominous shining of Pansy's big eyes as the time approached he felt an embarrassment as perplexing as the odd presentiment of loneliness that was creeping over him. But with an elaborate caution as to the dangers of self-indulgence, and the private bestowal of a large gold piece slipped into her hand, a promise to come again soon, and an exaction that she would write to him often, the colonel received in return a wet kiss, a great deal of wet cheek pressed against his own, and a momentary tender clinging, like that which attends the pulling up of some small flower, as he passed out into the porch. In the hall, on the landing above him, there was a close packing of brief skirts against the railing, and a voice, apparently proceeding from a pair of very small mottled legs protruding through the balusters, said distinctly, "Free cheers for Ternel Tarbottle!" And to this benediction the colonel, hat in hand, passed out of this Eden into the world again.
* * * * * * *
The colonel's next visit to the seminary did not produce the same sensation as the first, although it was accompanied with equal disturbance to the fair principals. Had he been a less conceited man he might have noticed that their antagonism, although held in restraint by their wholesome fear of him, was in danger of becoming more a conviction than a mere suspicion. He was made aware of it through Pansy's resentment towards them, and her revelation of a certain inquisition that she had been subjected to in regard to his occupation, habits, and acquaintances. Naturally of these things Pansy knew very little, but this had not prevented her from saying a great deal. There had been enough in her questioners' manner to make her suspect that her guardian was being attacked, and to his defense she brought the mendacity and imagination of a clever child. What she had really said did not transpire except through her own comments to the colonel: "And of course you've killed people--for you're a kernel, you know?" (Here the colonel admitted, as a point of fact, that he had served in the Mexican war.) "And you kin PREACH, for they heard you do it when you was here before," she added confidently; "and of course you own niggers--for there's 'Jim.'" (The colonel here attempted to explain that Jim, being in a free State, was now a free man, but Pansy swept away such fine distinctions.) "And you're rich, you know, for you gave me that ten-dollar gold piece all for myself. So I jest gave 'em as good as they sent--the old spies and curiosity shops!" The colonel, more pleased at Pansy's devotion than concerned over the incident itself, accepted this interpretation of his character as a munificent, militant priest with a smiling protest. But a later incident caused him to remember it more seriously.
They had taken their usual stroll through the Alameda, and had made the round of the shops, where the colonel had exhibited his usual liberality of purchase and his exalted parental protection, and so had passed on to their usual refreshment at the confectioner's, the usual ices and cakes for Pansy, but this time--a concession also to the tyrant Pansy--a glass of lemon soda and a biscuit for the colonel. He was coughing over his unaccustomed beverage, and Pansy, her equanimity and volubility restored by sweets, was chirruping at his side; the large saloon was filling up with customers--mainly ladies and children, embarrassing to him as the only man present, when suddenly Pansy's attention was diverted by another arrival. It was a good-looking young woman, overdressed, striking, and self-conscious, who, with an air of one who was in the habit of challenging attention, affectedly seated herself with a male companion at an empty table, and began to pull off an overtight glove.
"My!" said Pansy in admiring wonder, "ain't she fine?"
Colonel Starbottle looked up abstractedly, but at the first glance his face flushed redly, deepened to a purple, and then became gray and stern. He had recognized in the garish fair one Miss Flora Montague, the "Western Star of Terpsichore and Song," with whom he had supped a few days before at Sacramento. The lady was "on tour" with her "Combination troupe."
The colonel leaned over and fixed his murky eyes on Pansy. "The room is filling up; the place is stifling; I must--er--request you to--er--hurry."
There was a change in the colonel's manner, which the quick-witted child heeded. But she had not associated it with the entrance of the strangers, and as she obediently gulped down her ice, she went on innocently,--
"That fine lady's smilin' and lookin' over here. Seems to know you; so does the man with her."
"I--er--must request you," said the colonel, with husky precision, "NOT to look that way, but finish your--er--repast."
His tone was so decided that the child's lips pouted, but before she could speak a shadow leaned over their table. It was the companion of the "fine lady."
"Don't seem to see us, Colonel," he said with coarse familiarity, laying his hand on the colonel's shoulder. "Florry wants to know what's up."
The colonel rose at the touch. "Tell her, sir," he said huskily, but with slow deliberation, "that I 'am up' and leaving this place with my ward, Miss Stannard. Good-morning." He lifted Pansy with infinite courtesy from her chair, took her hand, strolled to the counter, threw down a gold piece, and passing the table of the astonished fair one with an inflated breast, swept with Pansy out of the shop. In the street he paused, bidding the child go on; and then, finding he was not followed by the woman's escort, rejoined his little companion.
For a few moments they walked silently side by side. Then Pansy's curiosity, getting the better of her pout, demanded information. She had applied a child's swift logic to the scene. The colonel was angry, and had punished the woman for something. She drew closer to his side, and looking up with her big eyes, said confidentially.
"What had she been a-doing?"
The colonel was amazed, embarrassed, and speechless. He was totally unprepared for the question, and as unable to answer it. His abrupt departure from the shop had been to evade the very truth now demanded of him. Only a supreme effort of mendacity was left him. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief, coughed, and began deliberately:--
"The--er--lady in question is in the habit of using a scent called--er--patchouli, a--er--perfume exceedingly distressing to me. I detected it instantly on her entrance. I wished to avoid it--without further contact. It is--er--singular but accepted fact that some people are--er--peculiarly affected by odors. I had--er--old cherished friend who always--er--fainted at the odor of jasmine; and I was intimately acquainted with General Bludyer, who--er--dropped like a shot on the presentation of a simple violet. The--er--habit of using such perfumes excessively in public," continued the colonel, looking down upon the innocent Pansy, and speaking in tones of deadly deliberation, "cannot be too greatly condemned, as well as the habit of--er--frequenting places of public resort in extravagant costumes, with--er--individuals who--er--intrude upon domestic privacy. I trust you will eschew such perfumes, places, costumes, and--er--companions FOREVER and--ON ALL OCCASIONS!" The colonel had raised his voice to his forensic emphasis, and Pansy, somewhat alarmed, assented. Whether she entirely accepted the colonel's explanation was another matter.
The incident, although not again alluded to, seemed to shadow the rest of their brief afternoon holiday, and the colonel's manner was unmistakably graver. But it seemed to the child more affectionate and thoughtful. He had previously at parting submitted to be kissed by Pansy with stately tolerance and an immediate resumption of his loftiest manner. On this present leave-taking he laid his straight closely shaven lips on the crown of her dark head, and as her small arms clipped his neck, drew her closely to his side. The child uttered a slight cry; the colonel hurriedly put his hand to his breast. Her round cheek had come in contact with his derringer--a small weapon of beauty and precision--which invariably nestled also at his side, in his waistcoat pocket. The child laughed; so did the colonel, but his cheek flushed mightily.
* * * * * * *
It was four months later, and a turbulent night. The early rains, driven by a strong southwester against the upper windows of the Magnolia Restaurant, sometimes blurred the radiance of the bright lights within, and the roar of the encompassing pines at times drowned the sounds of song and laughter that rose from a private supper room. Even the clattering arrival and departure of the Sacramento stage coach, which disturbed the depths below, did not affect these upper revelers. For Colonel Starbottle, Jack Hamlin, Judge Beeswinger, and Jo Wynyard, assisted by Mesdames Montague, Montmorency, Bellefield, and "Tinky" Clifford, of the "Western Star Combination Troupe," then performing "on tour," were holding "high jinks" in the supper room. The colonel had been of late moody, irritable, and easily upset. In the words of a friend and admirer, "he was kam only at twelve paces."
In a lull in the general tumult a Chinese waiter was seen at the door vainly endeavoring to attract the attention of the colonel by signs and interjections. Mr. Hamlin's quick eye first caught sight of the intruder. "Come in, Confucius," said Jack pleasantly; "you're a trifle late for a regular turn, but any little thing in the way of knife swallowing"--
"Lill missee to see connle! Waitee waitee, bottom side housee," interrupted the Chinaman, dividing his speech between Jack and the colonel.
"What! ANOTHER lady? This is no place for me!" said Jack, rising with finely simulated decorum.
"Ask her up," chirped "Tinky" Clifford.
But at this moment the door opened against the Chinaman, and a small figure in a cloak and hat, dripping with raindrops, glided swiftly in. After a moment's half-frightened, half-admiring glance at the party, she darted forward with a little cry and threw her wet arms round the colonel. The rest of the company, arrested in their festivity, gasped with vague and smiling wonder; the colonel became purple and gasped. But only for a moment. The next instant he was on his legs, holding the child with one hand, while with the other he described a stately sweep of the table.
"My ward--Miss Pansy Stannard," he said with husky brevity. But drawing the child aside, he whispered quickly, "What has happened? Why are you here?"
But Pansy, child-like, already diverted by the lights, the table piled with delicacies, the gayly dressed women, and the air of festivity, answered half abstractedly, and as much, perhaps, to the curious eyes about her as to the colonel's voice,--
"I runned away!"
"Hush!" whispered the colonel, aghast.
But Pansy, responding again to the company rather than her guardian's counsel, and as if appealing to them, went on half poutingly: "Yes! I runned away because they teased me! Because they didn't like you and said horrid things. Because they told awful, dreadful lies! Because they said I wasn't no orphan!--that my name wasn't Stannard, and that you'd made it all up. Because they said I was a liar--and YOU WAS MY FATHER!"
A sudden outbreak of laughter here shook the room, and even drowned the storm outside; again and again it rose, as the colonel staggered gaspingly to his feet. For an instant it seemed as if his struggles to restrain himself would end in an apoplectic fit. Perhaps it was for this reason that Jack Hamlin checked his own light laugh and became alert and grave. Yet the next moment Colonel Starbottle went as suddenly dead white, as leaning over the table he said huskily, but deliberately, "I must request the ladies present to withdraw."
"Don't mind US, Colonel," said Judge Beeswinger, "it's all in the family here, you know! And now I look at the girl--hang it all! she DOES favor you, old man. Ha! ha!"
"And as for the ladies," said Wynyard with a weak, vinous laugh, "unless any of 'em is inclined to take the matter as PERSONAL--eh?"
"Stop!" roared the colonel.
There was no mistaking his voice nor his intent now. The two men, insulted and instantly sobered, were silent. Mr. Hamlin rose, playfully but determinedly tapped his fair companions on the shoulders, saying, "Run away and play, girls," actually bundled them, giggling and protesting, from the room, closed the door, and stood with his back against it. Then it was seen that the colonel, still very white, was holding the child by the hand, as she shrank back wonderingly and a little frightened against him.
"I thank YOU, Mr. Hamlin," said the colonel in a lower voice--yet with a slight touch of his habitual stateliness in it, "for being here to bear witness, in the presence of this child, to my unqualified statement that a more foul, vile, and iniquitous falsehood never was uttered than that which has been poured into her innocent ears!" He paused, walked to the door, still holding her hand, and, as Mr. Hamlin stepped aside, opened it, told her to await him in the public parlor, closed the door again, and once more faced the two men. "And," he continued more deliberately, "for the infamous jests that you, Judge Beeswinger, and you, Mr. Wynyard, have dared to pass in her presence and mine, I shall expect from each of you the fullest satisfaction--personal satisfaction. My seconds will wait on you in the morning!"
The two men stood up sobered--yet belligerent.
"As you like, sir," said Beeswinger, flashing.
"The sooner the better for me," added Wynyard curtly.
They passed the unruffled Jack Hamlin with a smile and a vaguely significant air, as if calling him as a witness to the colonel's madness, and strode out of the room.
As the door closed behind them, Mr. Hamlin lightly settled his white waistcoat, and, with his hands on his hips, lounged towards the colonel. "And THEN?" he said quietly.
"Eh?" said the colonel.
"After you've shot one or both of these men, or one of 'em has knocked you out, what's to become of that child?"
"If--I am--er--spared, sir," said the colonel huskily, "I shall continue to defend her--against calumny and sneers"--
"In this style, eh? After her life has been made a hell by her association with a man of your reputation, you propose to whitewash it by a quarrel with a couple of drunken scallawags like Beeswinger and Wynyard, in the presence of three painted trollops and a d----d scamp like myself! Do you suppose this won't be blown all over California before she can be sent back to school? Do you suppose those cackling hussies in the next room won't give the whole story away to the next man who stands treat?" (A fine contempt for the sex in general was one of Mr. Hamlin's most subtle attractions for them.)
"Nevertheless, sir," stammered the colonel, "the prompt punishment of the man who has dared"--
"Punishment!" interrupted Hamlin, "who's to punish the man who has dared most? The one man who is responsible for the whole thing? Who's to punish YOU?"
"Mr. Hamlin--sir!" gasped the colonel, falling back, as his hand involuntarily rose to the level of his waistcoat pocket and his derringer.
But Mr. Hamlin only put down the wine glass he had lifted from the table and was delicately twirling between his fingers, and looked fixedly at the colonel.
"Look here," he said slowly. "When the boys said that you accepted the guardianship of that child NOT on account of Dick Stannard, but only as a bluff against the joke they'd set up at you, I didn't believe them! When these men and women to-night tumbled to that story of the child being YOURS, I didn't believe that! When it was said by others that you were serious about making her your ward, and giving her your property, because you doted on her like a father, I didn't believe that."
"And--why not THAT?" said the colonel quickly, yet with an odd tremor in his voice.
"Because," said Hamlin, becoming suddenly as grave as the colonel, "I could not believe that any one who cared a picayune for the child could undertake a trust that might bring her into contact with a life and company as rotten as ours. I could not believe that even the most God-forsaken, conceited fool would, for the sake of a little sentimental parade and splurge among people outside his regular walk, allow the prospects of that child to be blasted. I couldn't believe it, even if he thought he was acting like a father. I didn't believe it--but I'm beginning to believe it now!"
There was little to choose between the attitudes and expressions of the two set stern faces now regarding each other, silently, a foot apart. But the colonel was the first to speak:--
"Mr. Hamlin--sir! You said a moment ago that I was--er--ahem--responsible for this evening's affair--but you expressed a doubt as to who could--er--punish me for it. I accept the responsibility you have indicated, sir, and offer you that chance. But as this matter between us must have precedence over--my engagements with that canaille, I shall expect you with your seconds at sunrise on Burnt Ridge. Good-evening, sir."
With head erect the colonel left the room. Mr. Hamlin slightly shrugged his shoulders, turned to the door of the room whither he had just banished the ladies, and in a few minutes his voice was heard melodiously among the gayest.
For all that he managed to get them away early. When he had bundled them into a large carryall, and watched them drive away through the storm, he returned for a minute to the waiting room for his overcoat. He was surprised to hear the sound of the child's voice in the supper room, and the door being ajar, he could see quite distinctly that she was seated at the table, with a plate full of sweets before her, while Colonel Starbottle, with his back to the door, was sitting opposite to her, his shoulders slightly bowed as he eagerly watched her. It seemed to Mr. Hamlin that it was the close of an emotional interview, for Pansy's voice was broken, partly by sobs, and partly, I grieve to say, by the hurried swallowing of the delicacies before her. Yet, above the beating of the storm outside, he could hear her saying,--
"Yes! I promise to be good--(sob)--and to go with Mrs. Pyecroft--(sob)--and to try to like another guardian--(sob)--and not to cry any more--(sob)--and--oh, please, DON'T YOU DO IT EITHER!"
But here Mr. Hamlin slipped out of the room and out of the house, with a rather grave face. An hour later, when the colonel drove up to the Pyecrofts' door with Pansy, he found that Mr. Pyecroft was slightly embarrassed, and a figure, which, in the darkness, seemed to resemble Mr. Hamlin's, had just emerged from the door as he entered.
Yet the sun was not up on Burnt Ridge earlier than Mr. Hamlin. The storm of the night before had blown itself out; a few shreds of mist hung in the valleys from the Ridge, that lay above coldly reddening. Then a breeze swept over it, and out of the dissipating mist fringe Mr. Hamlin saw two black figures, closely buttoned up like himself, emerge, which he recognized as Beeswinger and Wynyard, followed by their seconds. But the colonel came not, Hamlin joined the others in an animated confidential conversation, attended by a watchful outlook for the missing adversary. Five, ten minutes elapsed, and yet the usually prompt colonel was not there. Mr. Hamlin looked grave; Wynyard and Beeswinger exchanged interrogatory glances. Then a buggy was seen driving furiously up the grade, and from it leaped Colonel Starbottle, accompanied by Dick MacKinstry, his second, carrying his pistol case. And then--strangely enough for men who were waiting the coming of an antagonist who was a dead shot--they drew a breath of relief!
MacKinstry slightly preceded his principal, and the others could see that Starbottle, though erect, was walking slowly. They were surprised also to observe that he was haggard and hollow eyed, and seemed, in the few hours that had elapsed since they last saw him, to have aged ten years. MacKinstry, a tall Kentuckian, saluted, and was the first one to speak.
"Colonel Starbottle," he said formally, "desires to express his regrets at this delay, which was unavoidable, as he was obliged to attend his ward, who was leaving by the down coach for Sacramento with Mrs. Pyecroft, this morning." Hamlin, Wynyard, and Beeswinger exchanged glances. "Colonel Starbottle," continued MacKinstry, turning to his principal, "desires to say a word to Mr. Hamlin."
As Mr. Hamlin would have advanced from the group, Colonel Starbottle lifted his hand deprecatingly. "What I have to say must be said before these gentlemen," he began slowly. "Mr. Hamlin--sir! when I solicited the honor of this meeting I was under a grievous misapprehension of the intent and purpose of your comments on my action last evening. I think," he added, slightly inflating his buttoned-up figure, "that the reputation I have always borne in--er--meetings of this kind will prevent any--er--misunderstanding of my present action--which is to--er--ask permission to withdraw my challenge--and to humbly beg your pardon."
The astonishment produced by this unexpected apology, and Mr. Hamlin's prompt grasp of the colonel's hand, had scarcely passed before the colonel drew himself up again, and turning to his second said, "And now I am at the service of Judge Beeswinger and Mr. Wynyard--whichever may elect to honor me first."
But the two men thus addressed looked for a moment strangely foolish and embarrassed. Yet the awkwardness was at last broken by Judge Beeswinger frankly advancing towards the colonel with an outstretched hand. "We came here only to apologize, Colonel Starbottle. Without possessing your reputation and experience in these matters, we still think we can claim, as you have, an equal exemption from any misunderstanding when we say that we deeply regret our foolish and discourteous conduct last evening."
A quick flush mounted to the colonel's haggard cheek as he drew back with a suspicious glance at Hamlin.
"Mr. Hamlin!--gentlemen!--if this is--er--!"
But before he could finish his sentence Hamlin had clapped his hand on the colonel's shoulder. "You'll take my word, colonel, that these gentlemen honestly intended to apologize, and came here for that purpose;--and--SO DID I--only you anticipated me!"
In the laughter that followed Mr. Hamlin's frankness the colonel's features relaxed grimly, and he shook the hands of his late possible antagonists.
"And now," said Mr. Hamlin gayly, "you'll all adjourn to breakfast with me--and try to make up for the supper we left unfinished last night."
It was the only allusion to that interruption and its consequences, for during the breakfast the colonel said nothing in regard to his ward, and the other guests were discreetly reticent. But Mr. Hamlin was not satisfied. He managed to get the colonel's servant, Jim, aside, and extracted from the negro that Colonel Starbottle had taken the child that night to Pyecroft's; that he had had a long interview with Pyecroft; had written letters and "walked de flo'" all night; that he (Jim) was glad the child was gone!
"Why?" asked Hamlin, with affected carelessness.
"She was just makin' de kernel like any o' de low-down No'th'n folks--keerful, and stingy, and mighty 'fraid o' de opinions o' de biggety people. And fo' what? Jess to strut round wid dat child like he was her 'spectable go to meeting fader!"
"And was the child sorry to leave him?" asked Hamlin.
"Wull--no, sah. De mighty curos thing, Marse Jack, about the gals--big and little--is dey just USE de kernel--dat's all! Dey just use de ole man like a pole to bring down deir persimmons--see?"
But Mr. Hamlin did not smile.
Later it was known that Colonel Starbottle had resigned his guardianship with the consent of the court. Whether he ever again saw his late ward was not known, nor if he remained loyal to his memories of her.
Readers of these chronicles may, however, remember that years after, when the colonel married the widow of a certain Mr. Tretherick, both in his courtship and his short married life he was singularly indifferent to the childish graces of Carrie Tretherick, her beloved little daughter, and that his obtuseness in that respect provoked the widow's ire.
* * * * * * * * * * * *