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FIRM AND INFIRM
Strange as it may appear, our quiet little home was not yet disturbed by that great discovery of gold. The Sawyer went up to the summit of esteem in public opinion; but to himself and to us he was the same as ever. He worked with his own hard hands and busy head just as he used to do; for although the mill was still in ruins, there was plenty of the finer work to do, which always required hand-labor. And at night he would sit at the end of the table furthest from the fire-place, with his spectacles on, and his red cheeks glowing, while he designed the future mill, which was to be built in the spring, and transcend every mill ever heard, thought, or dreamed of.
We all looked forward to a quiet winter, snug with warmth and cheer in-doors, and bright outside with sparkling trees, brisk air, and frosty appetite, when a foolish idea arose which spoiled the comfort at least of two of us. Ephraim Gundry found out, or fancied, that he was entirely filled with love of a very young maid, who never dreamed of such things, and hated even to hear of them; and the maid, unluckily, was myself.
During the time of his ailment I had been with him continually, being only too glad to assuage his pain, or turn his thoughts away from it. I partly suspected that he had incurred his bitter wound for my sake; though I never imputed his zeal to more than a young man's natural wrath at an outrage. But now he left me no longer in doubt, and made me most uncomfortable. Perhaps I was hard upon him, and afterward I often thought so, for he was very kind and gentle; but I was an orphan child, and had no one to advise me in such matters. I believe that he should have considered this, and allowed me to grow a little older; but perhaps he himself was too young as yet and too bashful to know how to manage things. It was the very evening after his return from Sacramento, and the beauty of the weather still abode in the soft warm depth around us. In every tint of rock and tree and playful glass of river a quiet clearness seemed to lie, and a rich content of color. The grandeur of the world was such that one could only rest among it, seeking neither voice nor thought.
Therefore I was more surprised than pleased to hear my name ring loudly through the echoing hollows, and then to see the bushes shaken, and an eager form leap out. I did not answer a word, but sat with a wreath of white bouvardia and small adiantum round my head, which I had plaited anyhow.
"What a lovely dear you are!" cried Firm, and then he seemed frightened at his own words.
"I had no idea that you would have finished your dinner so soon as this, Mr. Firm."
"And you did not want me. You are vexed to see me. Tell the truth, Miss Rema."
"I always tell the truth," I answered; "and I did not want to be disturbed just now. I have so many things to think of."
"And not me among them. Oh no, of course you never think of me, Erema."
"It is very unkind of you to say that," I answered, looking clearly at him, as a child looks at a man. "And it is not true, I assure you, Firm. Whenever I have thought of dear Uncle Sam, I very often go on to think of you, because he is so fond of you."
"But not for my own sake, Erema; you never think of me for my own sake."
"But yes, I do, I assure you, Mr. Firm; I do greatly. There is scarcely a day that I do not remember how hungry you are, and I think of you."
"Tush!" replied Firm, with a lofty gaze. "Even for a moment that does not in any way express my meaning. My mind is very much above all eating when it dwells upon you, Erema. I have always been fond of you, Erema."
"You have always been good to me, Firm," I said, as I managed to get a great branch between us. "After your grandfather, and Suan Isco, and Jowler, I think that I like you best of almost any body left to me. And you know that I never forget your slippers."
"Erema, you drive me almost wild by never understanding me. Now will you just listen to a little common-sense? You know that I am not romantic."
"Yes, Firm; yes, I know that you never did any thing wrong in any way."
"You would like me better if I did. What an extraordinary thing it is! Oh, Erema, I beg your pardon."
He had seen in a moment, as men seem to do, when they study the much quicker face of a girl, that his words had keenly wounded me--that I had applied them to my father, of whom I was always thinking, though I scarcely ever spoke of him. But I knew that Firm had meant no harm, and I gave him my hand, though I could not speak.
"My darling," he said, "you are very dear to me--dearer than all the world besides. I will not worry you any more. Only say that you do not hate me."
"How could I? How could any body? Now let us go in and attend to Uncle Sam. He thinks of every body before himself."
"And I think of every body after myself. Is that what you mean, Erema?"
"To be sure! if you like. You may put any meaning on my words that you think proper. I am accustomed to things of that sort, and I pay no attention whatever, when I am perfectly certain that I am right."
"I see," replied Firm, applying one finger to the side of his nose in deep contemplation, which, of all his manners, annoyed me most. "I see how it is; Miss Rema is always perfectly certain that she is right, and the whole of the rest of the world quite wrong. Well, after all, there is nothing like holding a first-rate opinion of one's self."
"You are not what I thought of you," I cried, being vexed beyond bearance by such words, and feeling their gross injustice. "If you wish to say any thing more, please to leave it until you recover your temper. I am not quite accustomed to rudeness."
With these words, I drew away and walked off, partly in earnest and partly in joke, not wishing to hear another word; and when I looked back, being well out of sight, there he sat still, with his head on his hands, and my heart had a little ache for him.
However, I determined to say no more, and to be extremely careful. I could not in justice blame Ephraim Gundry for looking at me very often. But I took good care not to look at him again unless he said something that made me laugh, and then I could scarcely help it. He was sharp enough very soon to find out this; and then he did a thing which was most unfair, as I found out long afterward. He bought an American jest-book, full of ideas wholly new to me, and these he committed to heart, and brought them out as his own productions. If I had only known it, I must have been exceedingly sorry for him. But Uncle Sam used to laugh and rub his hands, perhaps for old acquaintance' sake; and when Uncle Sam laughed, there was nobody near who could help laughing with him. And so I began to think Firm the most witty and pleasant of men, though I tried to look away.
But perhaps the most careful and delicate of things was to see how Uncle Sam went on. I could not understand him at all just then, and thought him quite changed from my old Uncle Sam; but afterward, when I came to know, his behavior was as clear and shallow as the water of his own river. He had very strange ideas about what he generally called "the female kind." According to his ideas (and perhaps they were not so unusual among mankind, especially settlers), all "females" were of a good but weak and consistently inconsistent sort. The surest way to make them do whatever their betters wanted, was to make them think that it was not wanted, but was hedged with obstacles beyond their power to overcome, and so to provoke and tantalize them to set their hearts upon doing it. In accordance with this idea (than which there can be none more mistaken), he took the greatest pains to keep me from having a word to say to Firm; and even went so far as to hint, with winks and nods of pleasantry, that his grandson's heart was set upon the pretty Miss Sylvester, the daughter of a man who owned a herd of pigs, much too near our saw-mills, and herself a young woman of outrageous dress, and in a larger light contemptible. But when Mr. Gundry, without any words, conveyed this piece of news to me, I immediately felt quite a liking for gaudy but harmless Pennsylvania--for so her parents had named her when she was too young to help it; and I heartily hoped that she might suit Firm, which she seemed all the more likely to do as his conduct could not be called noble. Upon that point, however, I said not a word, leaving him purely to judge for himself, and feeling it a great relief that now he could not say any thing more to me. I was glad that his taste was so easily pleased, and I told Suan Isco how glad I was.
This I had better have left unsaid, for it led to a great explosion, and drove me away from the place altogether before the new mill was finished, and before I should otherwise have gone from friends who were so good to me; not that I could have staid there much longer, even if this had never come to pass; for week by week and month by month I was growing more uneasy: uneasy not at my obligations or dependence upon mere friends (for they managed that so kindly that I seemed to confer the favor), but from my own sense of lagging far behind my duty.
For now the bright air, and the wholesome food, and the pleasure of goodness around me, were making me grow, without knowledge or notice, into a tall and not altogether to be overlooked young woman. I was exceedingly shy about this, and blushed if any one spoke of it; but yet in my heart I felt it was so; and how could I help it? And when people said, as rough people will, and even Uncle Sam sometimes, "Handsome is as handsome does," or "Beauty is only skin-deep," and so on, I made it my duty not to be put out, but to bear it in mind and be thankful. And though I had no idea of any such influence at the moment, I hope that the grandeur of nature around and the lofty style of every thing may have saved me from dwelling too much on myself, as Pennsylvania Sylvester did.
Now the more I felt my grown-up age and health and buoyant vigor, the surer I knew that the time was come for me to do some good with them; not to benefit the world in general, in a large and scattery way (as many young people set out to do, and never get any further), but to right the wrong of my own house, and bring home justice to my own heart. This may be thought a partial and paltry object to set out with; and it is not for me to say otherwise. At the time, it occurred to me in no other light except as my due business, and I never took any large view at all. But even now I do believe (though not yet in pickle of wisdom) that if every body, in its own little space and among its own little movements, will only do and take nothing without pure taste of the salt of justice, no reeking atrocity of national crimes could ever taint the heaven.
Such questions, however, become me not. I have only to deal with very little things, sometimes too slim to handle well, and too hazy to be woven; and if they seem below my sense and dignity to treat of, I can only say that they seemed very big at the time when I had to encounter them.
For instance, what could be more important, in a little world of life, than for Uncle Sam to be put out, and dare even to think ill of me? Yet this he did; and it shows how shallow are all those theories of the other sex which men are so pleased to indulge in. Scarcely any thing could be more ridiculous from first to last, when calmly and truly considered, than the firm belief which no power of reason could for the time root out of him.
Uncle Sam, the dearest of all mankind to me, and the very kindest, was positively low-enough to believe, in his sad opinion of the female race, that my young head was turned because of the wealth to which I had no claim, except through his own justice. He had insisted at first that the whole of that great nugget belonged to me by right of sole discovery. I asked him whether, if any stranger had found it, it would have been considered his, and whether he would have allowed a "greaser," upon finding, to make off with it. At the thought of this, Mr. Gundry gave a little grunt, and could not go so far as to maintain that view of it. But he said that my reasoning did not fit; that I was not a greaser, but a settled inhabitant of the place, and entitled to all a settler's rights; that the bed of the river would have been his grave but for the risk of my life, and therefore whatever I found in the bed of the river belonged to me, and me only.
In argument he was so much stronger than I could ever attempt to be that I gave it up, and could only say that if he argued forever it could never make any difference. He did not argue forever, but only grew obstinate and unpleasant, so that I yielded at last to own the half share of the bullion.
Very well. Every body would have thought, who has not studied the nature of men or been dragged through it heavily, that now there could be no more trouble between two people entirely trusting each other, and only anxious that the other should have the best of it. Yet, instead of that being the case, the mischief, the myriad mischief, of money set in, until I heartily wished sometimes that my miserable self was down in the hole which the pelf had left behind it.
For what did Uncle Sam take into his head (which was full of generosity and large ideas, so loosely packed that little ones grew between them, especially about womankind)--what else did he really seem to think, with the downright stubbornness of all his thoughts, but that I, his poor debtor and pensioner and penniless dependent, was so set up and elated by this sudden access of fortune that henceforth none of the sawing race was high enough for me to think of? It took me a long time to believe that so fair and just a man ever could set such interpretation upon me. And when it became too plain that he did so, truly I know not whether grief or anger was uppermost in my troubled heart.
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