Story type: Literature
On the northerly shore of San Francisco Bay a line of bluffs terminates in a promontory, at whose base, formed by the crumbling debris of the cliff above, there is a narrow stretch of beach, salt meadow, and scrub oak. The abrupt wall of rock behind it seems to isolate it as completely from the mainland as the sea before it separates it from the opposite shore. In spite of its contiguity to San Francisco,–opposite also, but hidden by the sharp re-entering curve of coast,–the locality was wild, uncultivated, and unfrequented. A solitary fisherman’s cabin half hidden in the rocks was the only trace of habitation. White drifts of sea-gulls and pelican across the face of the cliff, gray clouds of sandpipers rising from the beach, the dripping flight of ducks over the salt meadows, and the occasional splash of a seal from the rocks, were the only signs of life that could be seen from the decks of passing ships. And yet the fisherman’s cabin was occupied by Zephas Bunker and his young wife, and he had succeeded in wresting from the hard soil pasturage for a cow and goats, while his lateen-sailed fishing-boat occasionally rode quietly in the sheltered cove below.
Three years ago Zephas Bunker, an ex-whaler, had found himself stranded on a San Francisco wharf and had “hired out” to a small Petaluma farmer. At the end of a year he had acquired little taste for the farmer’s business, but considerable for the farmer’s youthful daughter, who, equally weary of small agriculture, had consented to elope with him in order to escape it. They were married at Oakland; he put his scant earnings into a fishing-boat, discovered the site for his cabin, and brought his bride thither. The novelty of the change pleased her, although perhaps it was but little advance on her previous humble position. Yet she preferred her present freedom to the bare restricted home life of her past; the perpetual presence of the restless sea was a relief to the old monotony of the wheat field and its isolated drudgery. For Mary’s youthful fancy, thinly sustained in childhood by the lightest literary food, had neither been stimulated nor disillusioned by her marriage. That practical experience which is usually the end of girlish romance had left her still a child in sentiment. The long absences of her husband in his fishing-boat kept her from wearying of or even knowing his older and unequal companionship; it gave her a freedom her girlhood had never known, yet added a protection that suited her still childish dependency, while it tickled her pride with its equality. When not engaged in her easy household duties in her three-roomed cottage, or the care of her rocky garden patch, she found time enough to indulge her fancy over the mysterious haze that wrapped the invisible city so near and yet unknown to her; in the sails that slipped in and out of the Golden Gate, but of whose destination she knew nothing; and in the long smoke trail of the mail steamer which had yet brought her no message. Like all dwellers by the sea, her face and her thoughts were more frequently turned towards it; and as with them, it also seemed to her that whatever change was coming into her life would come across that vast unknown expanse. But it was here that Mrs. Bunker was mistaken.
It had been a sparkling summer morning. The waves were running before the dry northwest trade winds with crystalline but colorless brilliancy. Sheltered by the high, northerly bluff, the house and its garden were exposed to the untempered heat of the cloudless sun refracted from the rocky wall behind it. Some tarpaulin and ropes lying among the rocks were sticky and odorous; the scrub oaks and manzanita bushes gave out the aroma of baking wood; occasionally a faint pot-pourri fragrance from the hot wild roses and beach grass was blown along the shore; even the lingering odors of Bunker’s vocation, and of Mrs. Bunker’s cooking, were idealized and refined by the saline breath of the sea at the doors and windows. Mrs. Bunker, in the dazzling sun, bending over her peas and lettuces with a small hoe, felt the comfort of her brown holland sunbonnet. Secure in her isolation, she unbuttoned the neck of her gown for air, and did not put up the strand of black hair that had escaped over her shoulder. It was very hot in the lee of the bluff, and very quiet in that still air. So quiet that she heard two distinct reports, following each other quickly, but very faint and far. She glanced mechanically towards the sea. Two merchant-men in midstream were shaking out their wings for a long flight, a pilot boat and coasting schooner were rounding the point, but there was no smoke from their decks. She bent over her work again, and in another moment had forgotten it. But the heat, with the dazzling reflection from the cliff, forced her to suspend her gardening, and stroll along the beach to the extreme limit of her domain. Here she looked after the cow that had also strayed away through the tangled bush for coolness. The goats, impervious to temperature, were basking in inaccessible fastnesses on the cliff itself that made her eyes ache to climb. Over an hour passed, she was returning, and had neared her house, when she was suddenly startled to see the figure of a man between her and the cliff. He was engaged in brushing his dusty clothes with a handkerchief, and although he saw her coming, and even moved slowly towards her, continued his occupation with a half-impatient, half-abstracted air. Her feminine perception was struck with the circumstance that he was in deep black, with scarcely a gleam of white showing even at his throat, and that he wore a tall black hat. Without knowing anything of social customs, it seemed to her that his dress was inconsistent with his appearance there.
“Good-morning,” he said, lifting his hat with a preoccupied air. “Do you live here?”
“Yes,” she said wonderingly.
“I mean any other people? Are there any other houses?” he said with a slight impatience.
He looked at her and then towards the sea. “I expect some friends who are coming for me in a boat. I suppose they can land easily here?”
“Didn’t you yourself land here just now?” she said quickly.
He half hesitated, and then, as if scorning an equivocation, made a hasty gesture over her shoulder and said bluntly, “No, I came over the cliff.”
“Down the cliff?” she repeated incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, glancing at his clothes; “it was a rough scramble, but the goats showed me the way.”
“And you were up on the bluff all the time?” she went on curiously.
“Yes. You see–I”–he stopped suddenly at what seemed to be the beginning of a prearranged and plausible explanation, as if impatient of its weakness or hypocrisy, and said briefly, “Yes, I was there.”
Like most women, more observant of his face and figure, she did not miss this lack of explanation. He was a very good-looking man of middle age, with a thin, proud, high-bred face, which in a country of bearded men had the further distinction of being smoothly shaven. She had never seen any one like him before. She thought he looked like an illustration of some novel she had read, but also somewhat melancholy, worn, and tired.
“Won’t you come in and rest yourself?” she said, motioning to the cabin.
“Thank you,” he said, still half absently. “Perhaps I’d better. It may be some time yet before they come.”
She led the way to the cabin, entered the living room–a plainly furnished little apartment between the bedroom and the kitchen–pointed to a large bamboo armchair, and placed a bottle of whiskey and some water on the table before him. He thanked her again very gently, poured out some spirits in his glass, and mixed it with water. But when she glanced towards him again he had apparently risen without tasting it, and going to the door was standing there with his hand in the breast of his buttoned frock coat, gazing silently towards the sea. There was something vaguely historical in his attitude–or what she thought might be historical–as of somebody of great importance who had halted on the eve of some great event at the door of her humble cabin.
His apparent unconsciousness of her and of his surroundings, his preoccupation with something far beyond her ken, far from piquing her, only excited her interest the more. And then there was such an odd sadness in his eyes.
“Are you anxious for your folks’ coming?” she said at last, following his outlook.
“I–oh no!” he returned, quickly recalling himself, “they’ll be sure to come–sooner or later. No fear of that,” he added, half smilingly, half wearily.
Mrs. Bunker passed into the kitchen, where, while apparently attending to her household duties, she could still observe her singular guest. Left alone, he seated himself mechanically in the chair, and gazed fixedly at the fireplace. He remained a long time so quiet and unmoved, in spite of the marked ostentatious clatter Mrs. Bunker found it necessary to make with her dishes, that an odd fancy that he was scarcely a human visitant began to take possession of her. Yet she was not frightened. She remembered distinctly afterwards that, far from having any concern for herself, she was only moved by a strange and vague admiration of him.
But her prolonged scrutiny was not without effect. Suddenly he raised his dark eyes, and she felt them pierce the obscurity of her kitchen with a quick, suspicious, impatient penetration, which as they met hers gave way, however, to a look that she thought was gently reproachful. Then he rose, stretched himself to his full height, and approaching the kitchen door leaned listlessly against the door-post.
“I don’t suppose you are ever lonely here?”
“Of course not. You have yourself and husband. Nobody interferes with you. You are contented and happy together.”
Mrs. Bunker did not say, what was the fact, that she had never before connected the sole companionship of her husband with her happiness. Perhaps it had never occurred to her until that moment how little it had to do with it. She only smiled gratefully at the change in her guest’s abstraction.
“Do you often go to San Francisco?” he continued.
“I have never been there at all. Some day I expect we will go there to live.”
“I wouldn’t advise you to,” he said, looking at her gravely. “I don’t think it will pay you. You’ll never be happy there as here. You’ll never have the independence and freedom you have here. You’ll never be your own mistress again. But how does it happen you never were in San Francisco?” he said suddenly.
If he would not talk of himself, here at least was a chance for Mrs. Bunker to say something. She related how her family had emigrated from Kansas across the plains and had taken up a “location” at Contra Costa. How she didn’t care for it, and how she came to marry the seafaring man who brought her here–all with great simplicity and frankness and as unreservedly as to a superior being–albeit his attention wandered at times, and a rare but melancholy smile that he had apparently evoked to meet her conversational advances became fixed occasionally. Even his dark eyes, which had obliged Mrs. Bunker to put up her hair and button her collar, rested upon her without seeing her.
“Then your husband’s name is Bunker?” he said when she paused at last. “That’s one of those Nantucket Quaker names–sailors and whalers for generations–and yours, you say, was MacEwan. Well, Mrs. Bunker, YOUR family came from Kentucky to Kansas only lately, though I suppose your father calls himself a Free-States man. You ought to know something of farming and cattle, for your ancestors were old Scotch Covenanters who emigrated a hundred years ago, and were great stock raisers.”
All this seemed only the natural omniscience of a superior being. And Mrs. Bunker perhaps was not pained to learn that her husband’s family was of a lower degree than her own. But the stranger’s knowledge did not end there. He talked of her husband’s business–he explained the vast fishing resources of the bay and coast. He showed her how the large colony of Italian fishermen were inimical to the interests of California and to her husband–particularly as a native American trader. He told her of the volcanic changes of the bay and coast line, of the formation of the rocky ledge on which she lived. He pointed out to her its value to the Government for defensive purposes, and how it naturally commanded the entrance of the Golden Gate far better than Fort Point, and that it ought to be in its hands. If the Federal Government did not buy it of her husband, certainly the State of California should. And here he fell into an abstraction as deep and as gloomy as before. He walked to the window, paced the floor with his hand in his breast, went to the door, and finally stepped out of the cabin, moving along the ledge of rocks to the shore, where he stood motionless.
Mrs. Bunker had listened to him with parted lips and eyes of eloquent admiration. She had never before heard anyone talk like THAT–she had not believed it possible that any one could have such knowledge. Perhaps she could not understand all he said, but she would try to remember it after he had gone. She could only think now how kind it was of him that in all this mystery of his coming, and in the singular sadness that was oppressing him, he should try to interest her. And thus looking at him, and wondering, an idea came to her.
She went into her bedroom and took down her husband’s heavy pilot overcoat and sou’wester, and handed them to her guest.
“You’d better put them on if you’re going to stand there,” she said.
“But I am not cold,” he said wonderingly.
“But you might be SEEN,” she said simply. It was the first suggestion that had passed between them that his presence there was a secret. He looked at her intently, then he smiled and said, “I think you’re right, for many reasons,” put the pilot coat over his frock coat, removed his hat with the gesture of a bow, handed it to her, and placed the sou’wester in its stead. Then for an instant he hesitated as if about to speak, but Mrs. Bunker, with a delicacy that she could not herself comprehend at the moment, hurried back to the cabin without giving him an opportunity.
Nor did she again intrude upon his meditations. Hidden in his disguise, which to her eyes did not, however, seem to conceal his characteristic figure, he wandered for nearly an hour under the bluff and along the shore, returning at last almost mechanically to the cabin, where, oblivious of his surroundings, he reseated himself in silence by the table with his cheek resting on his hand. Presently, her quick, experienced ear detected the sound of oars in their row-locks; she could plainly see from her kitchen window a small boat with two strangers seated at the stern being pulled to the shore. With the same strange instinct of delicacy, she determined not to go out lest her presence might embarrass her guest’s reception of his friends. But as she turned towards the living room she found he had already risen and was removing his hat and pilot coat. She was struck, however, by the circumstance that not only did he exhibit no feeling of relief at his deliverance, but that a half-cynical, half-savage expression had taken the place of his former melancholy. As he went to the door, the two gentlemen hastily clambered up the rocks to greet him.
“Jim reckoned it was you hangin’ round the rocks, but I couldn’t tell at that distance. Seemed you borrowed a hat and coat. Well–it’s all fixed, and we’ve no time to lose. There’s a coasting steamer just dropping down below the Heads, and it will take you aboard. But I can tell you you’ve kicked up a h-ll of a row over there.” He stopped, evidently at some sign from her guest. The rest of the man’s speech followed in a hurried whisper, which was stopped again by the voice she knew. “No. Certainly not.” The next moment his tall figure was darkening the door of the kitchen; his hand was outstretched. “Good-by, Mrs. Bunker, and many thanks for your hospitality. My friends here,” he turned grimly to the men behind him, “think I ought to ask you to keep this a secret even from your husband. I DON’T! They also think that I ought to offer you money for your kindness. I DON’T! But if you will honor me by keeping this ring in remembrance of it”–he took a heavy seal ring from his finger–“it’s the only bit of jewelry I have about me–I’ll be very glad. Good-by!” She felt for a moment the firm, soft pressure of his long, thin fingers around her own, and then–he was gone. The sound of retreating oars grew fainter and fainter and was lost. The same reserve of delicacy which now appeared to her as a duty kept her from going to the window to watch the destination of the boat. No, he should go as he came, without her supervision or knowledge.
Nor did she feel lonely afterwards. On the contrary, the silence and solitude of the isolated domain had a new charm. They kept the memory of her experience intact, and enabled her to refill it with his presence. She could see his tall figure again pausing before her cabin, without the incongruous association of another personality; she could hear his voice again, unmingled with one more familiar. For the first time, the regular absence of her husband seemed an essential good fortune instead of an accident of their life. For the experience belonged to HER, and not to him and her together. He could not understand it; he would have acted differently and spoiled it. She should not tell him anything of it, in spite of the stranger’s suggestion, which, of course, he had only made because he didn’t know Zephas as well as she did. For Mrs. Bunker was getting on rapidly; it was her first admission of the conjugal knowledge that one’s husband is inferior to the outside estimate of him. The next step–the belief that he was deceiving HER as he was THEM–would be comparatively easy.
Nor should she show him the ring. The stranger had certainly never said anything about that! It was a heavy ring, with a helmeted head carved on its red carnelian stone, and what looked like strange letters around it. It fitted her third finger perfectly; but HIS fingers were small, and he had taken it from his little finger. She should keep it herself. Of course, if it had been money, she would have given it to Zephas; but the stranger knew that she wouldn’t take money. How firmly he had said that “I don’t!” She felt the warm blood fly to her fresh young face at the thought of it. He had understood her. She might be living in a poor cabin, doing all the housework herself, and her husband only a fisherman, but he had treated her like a lady.
And so the afternoon passed. The outlying fog began to roll in at the Golden Gate, obliterating the headland and stretching a fleecy bar across the channel as if shutting out from vulgar eyes the way that he had gone. Night fell, but Zephas had not yet come. This was unusual, for he was generally as regular as the afternoon “trades” which blew him there. There was nothing to detain him in this weather and at this season. She began to be vaguely uneasy; then a little angry at this new development of his incompatibility. Then it occurred to her, for the first time in her wifehood, to think what she would do if he were lost. Yet, in spite of some pain, terror, and perplexity at the possibility, her dominant thought was that she would be a free woman to order her life as she liked.
It was after ten before his lateen sail flapped in the little cove. She was waiting to receive him on the shore. His good-humored hirsute face was slightly apologetic in expression, but flushed and disturbed with some new excitement to which an extra glass or two of spirits had apparently added intensity. The contrast between his evident indulgence and the previous abstemiousness of her late guest struck her unpleasantly. “Well–I declare,” she said indignantly, “so THAT’S what kept you!”
“No,” he said quickly; “there’s been awful times over in ‘Frisco! Everybody just wild, and the Vigilance Committee in session. Jo Henderson’s killed! Shot by Wynyard Marion in a duel! He’ll be lynched, sure as a gun, if they ketch him.”
“But I thought men who fought duels always went free.”
“Yes, but this ain’t no common duel; they say the whole thing was planned beforehand by them Southern fire-eaters to get rid o’ Henderson because he’s a Northern man and anti-slavery, and that they picked out Colonel Marion to do it because he was a dead shot. They got him to insult Henderson, so he was bound to challenge Marion, and that giv’ Marion the chyce of weppings. It was a reg’lar put up job to kill him.”
“And what’s all this to do with you?” she asked, with irritation.
“Hold on, won’t you! and I’ll tell you. I was pickin’ up nets off Saucelito about noon, when I was hailed by one of them Vigilance tugs, and they set me to stand off and on the shore and watch that Marion didn’t get away, while they were scoutin’ inland. Ye see THE DUEL TOOK PLACE JUST OVER THE BLUFF THERE–BEHIND YE–and they allowed that Marion had struck away north for Mendocino to take ship there. For after overhaulin’ his second’s boat, they found out that they had come away from Saucelito ALONE. But they sent a tug around by sea to Mendocino to head him off there, while they’re closin’ in around him inland. They’re bound to catch him sooner or later. But you ain’t listenin’, Mollie?”
She was–in every fibre–but with her head turned towards the window, and the invisible Golden Gate through which the fugitive had escaped. For she saw it all now–that glorious vision–her high-bred, handsome guest and Wynyard Marion were one and the same person. And this rough, commonplace man before her–her own husband–had been basely set to capture him!
During that evening and the next Mrs. Bunker, without betraying her secret, or exciting the least suspicion on the part of her husband, managed to extract from him not only a rough description of Marion which tallied with her own impressions, but a short history of his career. He was a famous politician who had held high office in the South; he was an accomplished lawyer; he had served in the army; he was a fiery speaker; he had a singular command of men. He was unmarried, but there were queer stories of his relations with some of the wives of prominent officials, and there was no doubt that he used them in some of his political intrigues. He, Zephas, would bet something that it was a woman who had helped him off! Did she speak?
Yes, she had spoken. It made her sick to sit there and hear such stories! Because a man did not agree with some people in politics it was perfectly awful to think how they would abuse him and take away his character! Men were so awfully jealous, too; if another man happened to be superior and fine-looking there wasn’t anything bad enough for them to say about him! No! she wasn’t a slavery sympathizer either, and hadn’t anything to do with man politics, although she was a Southern woman, and the MacEwans had come from Kentucky and owned slaves. Of course, he, Zephas, whose ancestors were Cape Cod Quakers and had always been sailors, couldn’t understand. She did not know what he meant by saying “what a long tail our cat’s got,” but if he meant to call her a cat, and was going to use such language to her, he had better have stayed in San Francisco with his Vigilance friends. And perhaps it would have been better if he had stayed there before he took her away from her parents at Martinez. Then she wouldn’t have been left on a desert rock without any chance of seeing the world, or ever making any friends or acquaintances!
It was their first quarrel. Discreetly made up by Mrs. Bunker in some alarm at betraying herself; honestly forgiven by Zephas in a rude, remorseful consciousness of her limited life. One or two nights later, when he returned, it was with a mingled air of mystery and satisfaction. “Well, Mollie,” he said cheerfully, “it looks as if your pets were not as bad as I thought them.”
“My pets!” repeated Mrs. Bunker, with a faint rising of color.
“Well, I call these Southern Chivs your pets, Mollie, because you stuck up for them so the other night. But never mind that now. What do you suppose has happened? Jim Rider, you know, the Southern banker and speculator, who’s a regular big Injin among the ‘Chivs,’ he sent Cap Simmons down to the wharf while I was unloadin’ to come up and see him. Well, I went, and what do y’u think? He told me he was gettin’ up an American Fishin’ Company, and wanted me to take charge of a first-class schooner on shares. Said he heard of me afore, and knew I was an American and a white man, and just the chap ez could knock them Eytalians outer the market.”
“Yes,” interrupted Mrs. Bunker quickly, but emphatically, “the fishing interest ought to be American and protected by the State, with regular charters and treaties.”
“I say, Mollie,” said her astonished but admiring husband, “you’ve been readin’ the papers or listenin’ to stump speakin’ sure.”
“Go on,” returned Mrs. Bunker impatiently, “and say what happened next.”
“Well,” returned Zephas, “I first thought, you see, that it had suthin’ to do with that Marion business, particklerly ez folks allowed he was hidin’ somewhere yet, and they wanted me to run him off. So I thought Rider might as well know that I wasn’t to be bribed, so I ups and tells him how I’d been lyin’ off Saucelito the other day workin’ for the other side agin him. With that he laughs, says he didn’t want any better friends than me, but that I must be livin’ in the backwoods not to know that Wynyard Marion had escaped, and was then at sea on his way to Mexico or Central America. Then we agreed to terms, and the long and short of it is, Mollie, that I’m to have the schooner with a hundred and fifty dollars a month, and ten per cent. shares after a year! Looks like biz, eh, Mollie, old girl? but you don’t seem pleased.”
She had put aside the arm with which he was drawing her to him, and had turned her white face away to the window. So HE had gone–this stranger–this one friend of her life–she would never see him again, and all that would ever come of it was this pecuniary benefit to her husband, who had done nothing. He would not even offer her money, but he had managed to pay his debt to her in this way that their vulgar poverty would appreciate. And this was the end of her dream!
“You don’t seem to take it in, Mollie,” continued the surprised Zephas. “It means a house in ‘Frisco and a little cabin for you on the schooner when you like.”
“I don’t want it! I won’t have it! I shall stay here,” she burst out with a half-passionate, half-childish cry, and ran into her bedroom, leaving the astonished Zephas helpless in his awkward consternation.
“By Gum! I must take her to ‘Frisco right off, or she’ll be havin’ the high strikes here alone. I oughter knowed it would come to this!” But although he consulted “Cap” Simmons the next day, who informed him it was all woman’s ways when “struck,” and advised him to pay out all the line he could at such delicate moments, she had no recurrence of the outbreak. On the contrary, for days and weeks following she seemed calmer, older, and more “growed up;” although she resisted changing her seashore dwelling for San Francisco, she accompanied him on one or two of his “deep sea” trips down the coast, and seemed happier on their southern limits. She had taken to reading the political papers and speeches, and some cheap American histories. Captain Bunker’s crew, profoundly convinced that their skipper’s wife was a “woman’s rights” fanatic, with the baleful qualities of “sea lawyer” superadded, marveled at his bringing her.
It was on returning home from one of these trips that they touched briefly at San Francisco, where the Secretary of the Fishing Company came on board. Mrs. Bunker was startled to recognize in him one of the two gentlemen who had taken Mr. Marion off in the boat, but as he did not appear to recognize her even after an awkward introduction by her husband, she would have recovered her equanimity but for a singular incident. As her husband turned momentarily away, the Secretary, with a significant gesture, slipped a letter into her hand. She felt the blood rush to her face as, with a smile, he moved away to follow her husband. She came down to the little cabin and impatiently tore open the envelope, which bore no address. A small folded note contained the following lines:–
“I never intended to burden you with my confidence, but the discretion, tact, and courage you displayed on our first meeting, and what I know of your loyalty since, have prompted me to trust myself again to your kindness, even though you are now aware whom you have helped, and the risks you ran. My friends wish to communicate with me and to forward to me, from time to time, certain papers of importance, which, owing to the tyrannical espionage of the Government, would be discovered and stopped in passing through the express or post-office. These papers will be left at your house, but here I must trust entirely to your wit and judgment as to the way in which they should be delivered to my agent at the nearest Mexican port. To facilitate your action, your husband will receive directions to pursue his course as far south as Todos Santos, where a boat will be ready to take charge of them when he is sighted. I know I am asking a great favor, but I have such confidence in you that I do not even ask you to commit yourself to a reply to this. If it can be done I know that you will do it; if it cannot, I will understand and appreciate the reason why. I will only ask you that when you are ready to receive the papers you will fly a small red pennant from the little flagstaff among the rocks. Believe me, your friend and grateful debtor,
Mrs. Bunker cast a hasty glance around her, and pressed the letter to her lips. It was a sudden consummation of her vaguest, half-formed wishes, the realization of her wildest dreams! To be the confidante of the gallant but melancholy hero in his lonely exile and persecution was to satisfy all the unformulated romantic fancies of her girlish reading; to be later, perhaps, the Flora Macdonald of a middle-aged Prince Charlie did not, however, evoke any ludicrous associations in her mind. Her feminine fancy exalted the escaped duelist and alleged assassin into a social martyr. His actual small political intrigues and ignoble aims of office seemed to her little different from those aspirations of royalty which she had read about–as perhaps they were. Indeed, it is to be feared that in foolish little Mrs. Bunker, Wynyard Marion had found the old feminine adoration of pretension and privilege which every rascal has taken advantage of since the flood.
Howbeit, the next morning after she had returned and Zephas had sailed away, she flew a red bandana handkerchief on the little flagstaff before the house. A few hours later, a boat appeared mysteriously from around the Point. Its only occupant–a common sailor–asked her name, and handed her a sealed package. Mrs. Bunker’s invention had already been at work. She had created an aunt in Mexico, for whom she had, with some ostentation, made some small purchases while in San Francisco. When her husband spoke of going as far south as Todos Santos, she begged him to deliver the parcel to her aunt’s messenger, and even addressed it boldly to her. Inside the outer wrapper she wrote a note to Marion, which, with a new and amazing diffidence, she composed and altered a dozen times, at last addressing the following in a large, school-girl hand: “Sir, I obey your commands to the last. Whatever your oppressors or enemies may do, you can always rely and trust upon She who in deepest sympathy signs herself ever, Mollie Rosalie MacEwan.” The substitution of her maiden name in full seemed in her simplicity to be a delicate exclusion of her husband from the affair, and a certain disguise of herself to alien eyes. The superscription, “To Mrs. Marion MacEwan from Mollie Bunker, to be called for by hand at Todos Santos,” also struck her as a marvel of ingenuity. The package was safely and punctually delivered by Zephas, who brought back a small packet directed to her, which on private examination proved to contain a letter addressed to “J. E. Kirby, to be called for,” with the hurried line: “A thousand thanks, W. M.” Mrs. Bunker drew a long, quick breath. He might have written more; he might have–but the wish remained still unformulated. The next day she ran up a signal; the same boat and solitary rower appeared around the Point, and took the package. A week later, when her husband was ready for sea, she again hoisted her signal. It brought a return package for Mexico, which she inclosed and readdressed, and gave to her husband. The recurrence of this incident apparently struck a bright idea from the simple Zephas.
“Look here, Mollie, why don’t you come YOURSELF and see your aunt. I can’t go into port without a license, and them port charges cost a heap o’ red tape, for they’ve got a Filibuster scare on down there just now, but you can go ashore in the boat and I’ll get permission from the Secretary to stand off and wait for you there for twenty-four hours.” Mrs. Bunker flushed and paled at the thought. She could see him! The letter would be sufficient excuse, the distrust suggested by her husband would give color to her delivering it in person. There was perhaps a brief twinge of conscience in taking this advantage of Zephas’ kindness, but the next moment, with that peculiar logic known only to the sex, she made the unfortunate man’s suggestion a condonation of her deceit. SHE hadn’t asked to go; HE had offered to take her. He had only himself to thank.
Meantime the political excitement in which she had become a partisan without understanding or even conviction, presently culminated with the Presidential campaign and the election of Abraham Lincoln. The intrigues of Southern statesmen were revealed in open expression, and echoed in California by those citizens of Southern birth and extraction who had long, held place, power, and opinion there. There were rumors of secession, of California joining the South, or of her founding an independent Pacific Empire. A note from “J. E. Kirby” informed Mrs. Bunker that she was to carefully retain any correspondence that might be in her hands until further orders, almost at the same time that Zephas as regretfully told her that his projected Southern trip had been suspended. Mrs. Bunker was disappointed, and yet, in some singular conditions of her feelings, felt relieved that her meeting with Marion was postponed. It is to be feared that some dim conviction, unworthy a partisan, that in the magnitude of political events her own petty personality might be overlooked by her hero tended somewhat to her resignation.
Meanwhile the seasons had changed. The winter rains had set in; the trade winds had shifted to the southeast, and the cottage, although strengthened, enlarged, and made more comfortable through the good fortunes of the Bunkers, was no longer sheltered by the cliff, but was exposed to the full strength of the Pacific gales. There were long nights when she could hear the rain fall monotonously on the shingles, or startle her with a short, sharp reveille en the windows; there were brief days of flying clouds and drifting sunshine, and intervals of dull gray shadow, when the heaving white breakers beyond the Gate slowly lifted themselves and sank before her like wraiths of warning. At such times, in her accepted solitude, Mrs. Bunker gave herself up to strange moods and singular visions; the more audacious and more striking it seemed to her from their very remoteness, and the difficulty she was beginning to have in materializing them. The actual personality of Wynyard Marion, as she knew it in her one interview, had become very shadowy and faint in the months that passed, yet when the days were heavy she sometimes saw herself standing by his side in some vague tropical surroundings, and hailed by the multitude as the faithful wife and consort of the great Leader, President, Emperor–she knew not what! Exactly how this was to be managed, and the manner of Zephas’ effacement from the scene, never troubled her childish fancy, and, it is but fair to say, her woman’s conscience. In the logic before alluded to, it seemed to her that all ethical responsibility for her actions rested with the husband who had unduly married her. Nor were those visions always roseate. In the wild declamation of that exciting epoch which filled the newspapers there was talk of short shrift with traitors. So there were days when the sudden onset of a squall of hail against her window caused her to start as if she had heard the sharp fusillade of that file of muskets of which she had sometimes read in history.
One day she had a singular fright. She had heard the sound of oars falling with a precision and regularity unknown to her. She was startled to see the approach of a large eight-oared barge rowed by men in uniform, with two officers wrapped in cloaks in the stern sheets, and before them the glitter of musket barrels. The two officers appeared to be conversing earnestly, and occasionally pointing to the shore and the bluff above. For an instant she trembled, and then an instinct of revolt and resistance followed. She hurriedly removed the ring, which she usually wore when alone, from her finger, slipped it with the packet under the mattress of her bed, and prepared with blazing eyes to face the intruders. But when the boat was beached, the two officers, with scarcely a glance towards the cottage, proceeded leisurely along the shore. Relieved, yet it must be confessed a little piqued at their indifference, she snatched up her hat and sallied forth to confront them.
“I suppose you don’t know that this is private property?” she said sharply.
The group halted and turned towards her. The orderly, who was following, turned his face aside and smiled. The younger officer demurely lifted his cap. The elder, gray, handsome, in a general’s uniform, after a moment’s half-astounded, half-amused scrutiny of the little figure, gravely raised his gauntleted fingers in a military salute.
“I beg your pardon, madam, but I am afraid we never even thought of that. We are making a preliminary survey for the Government with a possible view of fortifying the bluff. It is very doubtful if you will be disturbed in any rights you may have, but if you are, the Government will not fail to make it good to you.” He turned carelessly to the aide beside him. “I suppose the bluff is quite inaccessible from here?”
“I don’t know about that, general. They say that Marion, after he killed Henderson, escaped down this way,” said the young man.
“Indeed, what good was that? How did he get away from here?”
“They say that Mrs. Fairfax was hanging round in a boat, waiting for him. The story of the escape is all out now.”
They moved away with a slight perfunctory bow to Mrs. Bunker, only the younger officer noting that the pert, pretty little Western woman wasn’t as sharp and snappy to his superior as she had at first promised to be.
She turned back to the cottage astounded, angry, and vaguely alarmed. Who was this Mrs. Fairfax who had usurped her fame and solitary devotion? There was no woman in the boat that took him off; it was equally well known that he went in the ship alone. If they had heard that some woman was with him here–why should they have supposed it was Mrs. Fairfax? Zephas might know something–but he was away. The thought haunted her that day and the next. On the third came a more startling incident.
She had been wandering along the edge of her domain in a state of restlessness which had driven her from the monotony of the house when she heard the barking of the big Newfoundland dog which Zephas had lately bought for protection and company. She looked up and saw the boat and its solitary rower at the landing. She ran quickly to the house to bring the packet. As she entered she started back in amazement. For the sitting-room was already in possession of a woman who was seated calmly by the table.
The stranger turned on Mrs. Bunker that frankly insolent glance and deliberate examination which only one woman can give another. In that glance Mrs. Bunker felt herself in the presence of a superior, even if her own eyes had not told her that in beauty, attire, and bearing the intruder was of a type and condition far beyond her own, or even that of any she had known. It was the more crushing that there also seemed to be in this haughty woman the same incongruousness and sharp contrast to the plain and homely surroundings of the cottage that she remembered in HIM.
“Yo’ aw Mrs. Bunker, I believe,” she said in languid Southern accents. “How de doh?”
“I am Mrs. Bunker,” said Mrs. Bunker shortly.
“And so this is where Cunnle Marion stopped when he waited fo’ the boat to take him off,” said the stranger, glancing lazily around, and delaying with smiling insolence the explanation she knew Mrs. Bunker was expecting. “The cunnle said it was a pooh enough place, but I don’t see it. I reckon, however, he was too worried to judge and glad enough to get off. Yo’ ought to have made him talk–he generally don’t want much prompting to talk to women, if they’re pooty.”
“He didn’t seem in a hurry to go,” said Mrs. Bunker indignantly. The next moment she saw her error, even before the cruel, handsome smile of her unbidden guest revealed it.
“I thought so,” she said lazily; “this IS the place and here’s where the cunnle stayed. Only yo’ oughtn’t have given him and yo’self away to the first stranger quite so easy. The cunnle might have taught yo’ THAT the two or three hours he was with yo’.”
“What do you want with me?” demanded Mrs. Bunker angrily.
“I want a letter yo’ have for me from Cunnle Marion.”
“I have nothing for you,” said Mrs. Bunker. “I don’t know who you are.”
“You ought to, considering you’ve been acting as messenger between the cunnle and me,” said the lady coolly.
“That’s not true,” said Mrs. Bunker hotly, to combat an inward sinking.
The lady rose with a lazy, languid grace, walked to the door and called still lazily, “O Pedro!”
The solitary rower clambered up the rocks and appeared on the cottage threshold.
“Is this the lady who gave you the letters for me and to whom you took mine?”
“They were addressed to a Mr. Kirby,” said Mrs. Bunker sullenly. “How was I to know they were for Mrs. Kirby?”
“Mr. Kirby, Mrs. Kirby, and myself are all the same. You don’t suppose the cunnle would give my real name and address? Did you address yo’r packet to HIS real name or to some one else. Did you let your husband know who they were for?”
Oddly, a sickening sense of the meanness of all these deceits and subterfuges suddenly came over Mrs. Bunker. Without replying she went to her bedroom and returned with Colonel Marion’s last letter, which she tossed into her visitor’s lap.
“Thank yo’, Mrs. Bunker. I’ll be sure to tell the cunnle how careful yo’ were not to give up his correspondence to everybody. It’ll please him mo’ than to hear yo’ are wearing his ring–which everybody knows–before people.”
“He gave it to me–he–he knew I wouldn’t take money,” said Mrs. Bunker indignantly.
“He didn’t have any to give,” said the lady slowly, as she removed the envelope from her letter and looked up with a dazzling but cruel smile. “A So’th’n gentleman don’t fill up his pockets when he goes out to fight. He don’t tuck his maw’s Bible in his breast-pocket, clap his dear auntie’s locket big as a cheese plate over his heart, nor let his sole leather cigyar case that his gyrl gave him lie round him in spots when he goes out to take another gentleman’s fire. He leaves that to Yanks!”
“Did you come here to insult my husband?” said Mrs. Bunker in the rage of desperation.
“To insult yo’ husband! Well–I came here to get a letter that his wife received from his political and natural enemy and–perhaps I DID!” With a side glance at Mrs. Bunker’s crimson cheek she added carelessly, “I have nothing against Captain Bunker; he’s a straightforward man and must go with his kind. He helped those hounds of Vigilantes because he believes in them. We couldn’t bribe him if we wanted to. And we don’t.”
If she only knew something of this woman’s relations to Marion–which she only instinctively suspected–and could retaliate upon her, Mrs. Bunker felt she would have given up her life at that moment.
“Colonel Marion seems to find plenty that he can bribe,” she said roughly, “and I’ve yet to know who YOU are to sit in judgment on them. You’ve got your letter, take it and go! When he wants to send you another through me, somebody else must come for it, not you. That’s all!”
She drew back as if to let the intruder pass, but the lady, without moving a muscle, finished the reading of her letter, then stood up quietly and began carefully to draw her handsome cloak over her shoulders. “Yo’ want to know who I am, Mrs. Bunker,” she said, arranging the velvet collar under her white oval chin. “Well, I’m a So’th’n woman from Figinya, and I’m Figinyan first, last, and all the time.” She shook out her sleeves and the folds of her cloak. “I believe in State rights and slavery–if you know what that means. I hate the North, I hate the East, I hate the West. I hate this nigger Government, I’d kill that man Lincoln quicker than lightning!” She began to draw down the fingers of her gloves, holding her shapely hands upright before her. “I’m hard and fast to the Cause. I gave up house and niggers for it.” She began to button her gloves at the wrist with some difficulty, tightly setting together her beautiful lips as she did so. “I gave up my husband for it, and I went to the man who loved it better and had risked more for it than ever he had. Cunnle Marion’s my friend. I’m Mrs. Fairfax, Josephine Hardee that was; HIS disciple and follower. Well, maybe those puritanical No’th’n folks might give it another name!”
She moved slowly towards the door, but on the threshold paused, as Colonel Marion had, and came back to Mrs. Bunker with an outstretched hand. “I don’t see that yo’ and me need quo’ll. I didn’t come here for that. I came here to see yo’r husband, and seeing YO’ I thought it was only right to talk squarely to yo’, as yo’ understand I WOULDN’T talk to yo’r husband. Mrs. Bunker, I want yo’r husband to take me away–I want him to take me to the cunnle. If I tried to go in any other way I’d be watched, spied upon and followed, and only lead those hounds on his track. I don’t expect yo’ to ASK yo’ husband for me, but only not to interfere when I do.”
There was a touch of unexpected weakness in her voice and a look of pain in her eyes which was not unlike what Mrs. Bunker had seen and pitied in Marion. But they were the eyes of a woman who had humbled her, and Mrs. Bunker would have been unworthy her sex if she had not felt a cruel enjoyment in it. Yet the dominance of the stranger was still so strong that she did not dare to refuse the proffered hand. She, however, slipped the ring from her finger and laid it in Mrs. Fairfax’s palm.
“You can take that with you,” she said, with a desperate attempt to imitate the other’s previous indifference. “I shouldn’t like to deprive you and YOUR FRIEND of the opportunity of making use of it again. As for MY husband, I shall say nothing of you to him as long as you say nothing to him of me–which I suppose is what you mean.”
The insolent look came back to Mrs. Fairfax’s face. “I reckon yo’ ‘re right,” she said quietly, putting the ring in her pocket as she fixed her dark eyes on Mrs. Bunker, “and the ring may be of use again. Good-by, Mrs. Bunker.”
She waved her hand carelessly, and turning away passed out of the house. A moment later the boat and its two occupants pushed from the shore, and disappeared round the Point.
Then Mrs. Bunker looked round the room, and down upon her empty finger, and knew that it was the end of her dream. It was all over now–indeed, with the picture of that proud, insolent woman before her she wondered if it had ever begun. This was the woman she had allowed herself to think SHE might be. This was the woman HE was thinking of when he sat there; this was the Mrs. Fairfax the officers had spoken of, and who had made her–Mrs. Bunker–the go-between for their love-making! All the work that she had done for him, the deceit she had practiced on her husband, was to bring him and this woman together! And they both knew it, and had no doubt laughed at her and her pretensions!
It was with a burning cheek that she thought how she had intended to go to Marion, and imagined herself arriving perhaps to find that shameless woman already there. In her vague unformulated longings she had never before realized the degradation into which her foolish romance might lead her. She saw it now; that humiliating moral lesson we are all apt to experience in the accidental display of our own particular vices in the person we hate, she had just felt in Mrs. Fairfax’s presence. With it came the paralyzing fear of her husband’s discovery of her secret. Secure as she had been in her dull belief that he had in some way wronged her by marrying her, she for the first time began to doubt if this condoned the deceit she had practiced on him. The tribute Mrs. Fairfax had paid him–this appreciation of his integrity and honesty by an enemy and a woman like herself–troubled her, frightened her, and filled her with her first jealousy! What if this woman should tell him all; what if she should make use of him as Marion had of her! Zephas was a strong Northern partisan, but was he proof against the guileful charms of such a devil? She had never thought before of questioning his fidelity to her; she suddenly remembered now some rough pleasantries of Captain Simmons in regard to the inconstancy of his calling. No! there was but one thing for her to do: she would make a clean breast to him; she would tell him everything she had done except the fatal fancy that compelled her to it! She began to look for his coming now with alternate hope and fear–with unabated impatience! The night that he should have arrived passed slowly; morning came, but not Zephas. When the mist had lifted she ran impatiently to the rocks and gazed anxiously towards the lower bay. There were a few gray sails scarce distinguishable above the grayer water–but they were not his. She glanced half mechanically seaward, and her eyes became suddenly fixed. There was no mistake! She knew the rig!–she could see the familiar white lap-streak as the vessel careened on the starboard tack–it was her husband’s schooner slowly creeping out of the Golden Gate!
Her first wild impulse was to run to the cove, for the little dingey always moored there, and to desperately attempt to overtake him. But the swift consciousness of its impossibility was followed by a dull, bewildering torpor, that kept her motionless, helplessly following the vessel with straining eyes, as if they could evoke some response from its decks. She was so lost in this occupation that she did not see that a pilot-boat nearly abreast of the cove had put out a two-oared gig, which was pulling quickly for the rocks. When she saw it, she trembled with the instinct that it brought her intelligence. She was right; it was a brief note from her husband, informing her that he had been hurriedly dispatched on a short sea cruise; that in order to catch the tide he had not time to go ashore at the bluff, but he would explain everything on his return. Her relief was only partial; she was already experienced enough in his vocation to know that the excuse was a feeble one. He could easily have “fetched” the bluff in tacking out of the Gate and have signaled to her to board him in her own boat. The next day she locked up her house, rowed round the Point to the Embarcadero, where the Bay steamboats occasionally touched and took up passengers to San Francisco. Captain Simmons had not seen her husband this last trip; indeed, did not know that he had gone out of the Bay. Mrs. Bunker was seized with a desperate idea. She called upon the Secretary of the Fishing Trust. That gentle man was business-like, but neither expansive nor communicative. Her husband had NOT been ordered out to sea by them; she ought to know that Captain Bunker was now his own master, choosing his own fishing grounds, and his own times and seasons. He was not aware of any secret service for the Company in which Captain Bunker was engaged. He hoped Mrs. Bunker would distinctly remember that the little matter of the duel to which she referred was an old bygone affair, and never anything but a personal matter, in which the Fishery had no concern whatever, and in which HE certainly should not again engage. He would advise Mrs. Bunker, if she valued her own good, and especially her husband’s, to speedily forget all about it. These were ugly times, as it was. If Mrs. Bunker’s services had not been properly rewarded or considered it was certainly a great shame, but really HE could not be expected to make it good. Certain parties had cost him trouble enough already. Besides, really, she must see that his position between her husband, whom he respected, and a certain other party was a delicate one. But Mrs. Bunker heard no more. She turned and ran down the staircase, carrying with her a burning cheek and blazing eye that somewhat startled the complacent official.
She did not remember how she got home again. She had a vague recollection of passing through the crowded streets, wondering if the people knew that she was an outcast, deserted by her husband, deceived by her ideal hero, repudiated by her friends! Men had gathered in knots before the newspaper offices, excited and gesticulating over the bulletin boards that had such strange legends as “The Crisis,” “Details of an Alleged Conspiracy to Overthrow the Government,” “The Assassin of Henderson to the Fore Again,” “Rumored Arrests on the Mexican Frontier.” Sometimes she thought she understood the drift of them; even fancied they were the outcome of her visit–as if her very presence carried treachery and suspicion with it–but generally they only struck her benumbed sense as a dull, meaningless echo of something that had happened long ago. When she reached her house, late that night, the familiar solitude of shore and sea gave her a momentary relief, but with it came the terrible conviction that she had forfeited her right to it, that when her husband came back it would be hers no longer, and that with their meeting she would know it no more. For through all her childish vacillation and imaginings she managed to cling to one steadfast resolution. She would tell him EVERYTHING, and know the worst. Perhaps he would never come; perhaps she should not be alive to meet him.
And so the days and nights slowly passed. The solitude which her previous empty deceit had enabled her to fill with such charming visions now in her awakened remorse seemed only to protract her misery. Had she been a more experienced, though even a more guilty, woman she would have suffered less. Without sympathy or counsel, without even the faintest knowledge of the world or its standards of morality to guide her, she accepted her isolation and friendlessness as a necessary part of her wrongdoing. Her only criterion was her enemy–Mrs. Fairfax–and SHE could seek her relief by joining her lover; but Mrs. Bunker knew now that she herself had never had one–and was alone! Mrs. Fairfax had broken openly with her husband; but SHE had DECEIVED hers, and the experience and reckoning were still to come. In her miserable confession it was not strange that this half child, half woman, sometimes looked towards that gray sea, eternally waiting for her,–that sea which had taken everything from her and given her nothing in return,–for an obliterating and perhaps exonerating death!
The third day of her waiting isolation was broken upon by another intrusion. The morning had been threatening, with an opaque, motionless, livid arch above, which had taken the place of the usual flying scud and shaded cloud masses of the rainy season. The whole outlying ocean, too, beyond the bar, appeared nearer, and even seemed to be lifted higher than the Bay itself, and was lit every now and then with wonderful clearness by long flashes of breaking foam like summer lightning. She knew that this meant a southwester, and began, with a certain mechanical deliberation, to set her little domain in order against the coming gale. She drove the cows to the rude shed among the scrub oaks, she collected the goats and young kids in the corral, and replenished the stock of fuel from the woodpile. She was quite hidden in the shrubbery when she saw a boat making slow headway against the wind towards the little cove where but a moment before she had drawn up the dingey beyond the reach of breaking seas. It was a whaleboat from Saucelito containing a few men. As they neared the landing she recognized in the man who seemed to be directing the boat the second friend of Colonel Marion–the man who had come with the Secretary to take him off, but whom she had never seen again. In her present horror of that memory she remained hidden, determined at all hazards to avoid a meeting. When they had landed, one of the men halted accidentally before the shrubbery where she was concealed as he caught his first view of the cottage, which had been invisible from the point they had rounded.
“Look here, Bragg,” he said, turning to Marion’s friend, in a voice which was distinctly audible to Mrs. Bunker. “What are we to say to these people?”
“There’s only one,” returned the other. “The man’s at sea. His wife’s here. She’s all right.”
“You said she was one of us?”
“After a fashion. She’s the woman who helped Marion when he was here. I reckon he made it square with her from the beginning, for she forwarded letters from him since. But you can tell her as much or as little as you find necessary when you see her.”
“Yes, but we must settle that NOW,” said Bragg sharply, “and I propose to tell her NOTHING. I’m against having any more petticoats mixed up with our affairs. I propose to make an examination of the place without bothering our heads about her.”
“But we must give some reason for coming here, and we must ask her to keep dark, or we’ll have her blabbing to the first person she meets,” urged the other.
“She’s not likely to see anybody before night, when the brig will be in and the men and guns landed. Move on, and let Jim take soundings off the cove, while I look along the shore. It’s just as well that there’s a house here, and a little cover like this”–pointing to the shrubbery–“to keep the men from making too much of a show until after the earthworks are up. There are sharp eyes over at the Fort.”
“There don’t seem to be any one in the house now,” returned the other after a moment’s scrutiny of the cottage, “or the woman would surely come out at the barking of the dog, even if she hadn’t seen us. Likely she’s gone to Saucelito.”
“So much the better. Just as well that she should know nothing until it happens. Afterwards we’ll settle with the husband for the price of possession; he has only a squatter’s rights. Come along; we’ll have bad weather before we get back round the Point again, but so much the better, for it will keep off any inquisitive longshore cruisers.”
They moved away. But Mrs. Bunker, stung through her benumbed and brooding consciousness, and made desperate by this repeated revelation of her former weakness, had heard enough to make her feverish to hear more. She knew the intricacies of the shrubbery thoroughly. She knew every foot of shade and cover of the clearing, and creeping like a cat from bush to bush she managed, without being discovered, to keep the party in sight and hearing all the time. It required no great discernment, even for an inexperienced woman like herself, at the end of an hour, to gather their real purpose. It was to prepare for the secret landing of an armed force, disguised as laborers, who, under the outward show of quarrying in the bluff, were to throw up breastworks, and fortify the craggy shelf. The landing was fixed for that night, and was to be effected by a vessel now cruising outside the Heads.
She understood it all now. She remembered Marion’s speech about the importance of the bluff for military purposes; she remembered the visit of the officers from the Fort opposite. The strangers were stealing a march upon the Government, and by night would be in possession. It was perhaps an evidence of her newly awakened and larger comprehension that she took no thought of her loss of home and property,–perhaps there was little to draw her to it now,–but was conscious only of a more terrible catastrophe–a catastrophe to which she was partly accessory, of which any other woman would have warned her husband–or at least those officers of the Fort whose business it was to–Ah, yes! the officers of the Fort–only just opposite to her! She trembled, and yet flushed with an inspiration. It was not too late yet–why not warn them NOW?
But how? A message sent by Saucelito and the steamboat to San Francisco–the usual way–would not reach them tonight. To go herself, rowing directly across in the dingey, would be the only security of success. If she could do it? It was a long pull–the sea was getting up–but she would try.
She waited until the last man had stepped into the boat, in nervous dread of some one remaining. Then, when the boat had vanished round the Point again, she ran back to the cottage, arrayed herself in her husband’s pilot coat, hat, and boots, and launched the dingey. It was a heavy, slow, but luckily a stanch and seaworthy boat. It was not until she was well off shore that she began to feel the full fury of the wind and waves, and knew the difficulty and danger of her undertaking. She had decided that her shortest and most direct course was within a few points of the wind, but the quartering of the waves on the broad bluff bows of the boat tended to throw it to leeward, a movement that, while it retarded her forward progress, no doubt saved the little craft from swamping. Again, the feebleness and shortness of her stroke, which never impelled her through a rising wave, but rather lifted her half way up its face, prevented the boat from taking much water, while her steadfast gaze, fixed only on the slowly retreating shore, kept her steering free from any fatal nervous vacillation, which the sight of the threatening seas on her bow might have produced. Preserved through her very weakness, ignorance, and simplicity of purpose, the dingey had all the security of a drifting boat, yet retained a certain gentle but persistent guidance. In this feminine fashion she made enough headway to carry her abreast of the Point, where she met the reflux current sweeping round it that carried her well along into the channel, now sluggish with the turn of the tide. After half an hour’s pulling, she was delighted to find herself again in a reverse current, abreast of her cottage, but steadily increasing her distance from it. She was, in fact, on the extreme outer edge of a vast whirlpool formed by the force of the gale on a curving lee shore, and was being carried to her destination in a semicircle around that bay which she never could have crossed. She was moving now in a line with the shore and the Fort, whose flagstaff, above its green, square, and white quarters, she could see distinctly, and whose lower water battery and landing seemed to stretch out from the rocks scarcely a mile ahead. Protected by the shore from the fury of the wind, and even of the sea, her progress was also steadily accelerated by the velocity of the current, mingling with the ebbing tide. A sudden fear seized her. She turned the boat’s head towards the shore, but it was swept quickly round again; she redoubled her exertions, tugging frantically at her helpless oars. She only succeeded in getting the boat into the trough of the sea, where, after a lurch that threatened to capsize it, it providentially swung around on its short keel and began to drift stern on. She was almost abreast of the battery now; she could hear the fitful notes of a bugle that seemed blown and scattered above her head; she even thought she could see some men in blue uniforms moving along the little pier. She was passing it; another fruitless effort to regain her ground, but she was swept along steadily towards the Gate, the whitening bar, and the open sea.
She knew now what it all meant. This was what she had come for; this was the end! Beyond, only a little beyond, just a few moments longer to wait, and then, out there among the breakers was the rest that she had longed for but had not dared to seek. It was not her fault; they could not blame HER. He would come back and never know what had happened–nor even know how she had tried to atone for her deceit. And he would find his house in possession of–of–those devils! No! No! she must not die yet, at least not until she had warned the Fort. She seized the oars again with frenzied strength; the boat had stopped under the unwonted strain, staggered, tried to rise in an uplifted sea, took part of it over her bow, struck down Mrs. Bunker under half a ton of blue water that wrested the oars from her paralyzed hands like playthings, swept them over the gunwale, and left her lying senseless in the bottom of the boat.
“Hold har-rd–or you’ll run her down.”
“Now then, Riley,–look alive,–is it slapin’ ye are!”
“Hold yer jaw, Flanigan, and stand ready with the boat-hook. Now then, hold har-rd!”
The sudden jarring and tilting of the water-logged boat, a sound of rasping timbers, the swarming of men in shirtsleeves and blue trousers around her, seemed to rouse her momentarily, but she again fainted away.
When she struggled back to consciousness once more she was wrapped in a soldier’s jacket, her head pillowed on the shirt-sleeve of an artillery corporal in the stern sheets of that eight-oared government barge she had remembered. But the only officer was a bareheaded, boyish lieutenant, and the rowers were an athletic but unseamanlike crew of mingled artillerymen and infantry.
“And where did ye drift from, darlint?”
Mrs. Bunker bridled feebly at the epithet.
“I didn’t drift. I was going to the Fort.”
“The Fort, is it?”
“Yes. I want to see the general.”
“Wadn’t the liftenant do ye? Or shure there’s the adjutant; he’s a foine man.”
“Silence, Flanigan,” said the young officer sharply. Then turning to Mrs. Bunker he said, “Don’t mind HIM, but let his wife take you to the canteen, when we get in, and get you some dry clothes.”
But Mrs. Bunker, spurred to convalescence at the indignity, protested stiffly, and demanded on her arrival to be led at once to the general’s quarters. A few officers, who had been attracted to the pier by the rescue, acceded to her demand.
She recognized the gray-haired, handsome man who had come ashore at her house. With a touch of indignation at her treatment, she briefly told her story. But the general listened coldly and gravely with his eyes fixed upon her face.
“You say you recognized in the leader of the party a man you had seen before. Under what circumstances?”
Mrs. Bunker hesitated with burning cheeks. “He came to take Colonel Marion from our place.”
“When you were hiding him,–yes, we’ve heard the story. Now, Mrs. Bunker, may I ask you what you, as a Southern sympathizer, expect to gain by telling me this story?”
But here Mrs. Bunker burst out. “I am not a Southern sympathizer! Never! Never! Never! I’m a Union woman,–wife of a Northern man. I helped that man before I knew who he was. Any Christian, Northerner or Southerner, would have done the same!”
Her sincerity and passion were equally unmistakable. The general rose, opened the door of the adjoining room, said a few words to an orderly on duty, and returned. “What you are asking of me, Mrs. Bunker, is almost as extravagant and unprecedented as your story. You must understand, as well as your husband, that if I land a force on your property it will be to TAKE POSSESSION of it in the name of the Government, for Government purposes.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Bunker eagerly; “I know that. I am willing; Zephas will be willing.”
“And,” continued the general, fixing his eyes on her face, “you will also understand that I may be compelled to detain you here as a hostage for the safety of my men.”
“Oh no! no! please!” said Mrs. Bunker, springing up with an imploring feminine gesture; “I am expecting my husband. He may be coming back at any moment; I must be there to see him FIRST! Please let me go back, sir, with your men; put me anywhere ashore between them and those men that are coming. Lock me up; keep me a prisoner in my own home; do anything else if you think I am deceiving you; but don’t keep me here to miss him when he comes!”
“But you can see him later,” said the general.
“But I must see him FIRST,” said Mrs. Bunker desperately. “I must see him first, for–for–HE KNOWS NOTHING OF THIS. He knows nothing of my helping Colonel Marion; he knows nothing of–how foolish I have been, and–he must not know it from others! There!” It was out at last. She was sobbing now, but her pride was gone. She felt relieved, and did not even notice the presence of two or three other officers, who had entered the room, exchanged a few hurried words with their superior, and were gazing at her in astonishment.
The general’s brow relaxed, and he smiled. “Very well, Mrs. Bunker; it shall be as you like, then. You shall go and meet your husband with Captain Jennings here,”–indicating one of the officers,–“who will take charge of you and the party.”
“And,” said Mrs. Bunker, looking imploringly through her wet but pretty lashes at the officer, “he won’t say anything to Zephas, either?”
“Not a syllable,” said Captain Jennings gravely. “But while the tug is getting ready, general, hadn’t Mrs. Bunker better go to Mrs. Flanigan?”
“I think not,” said the general, with a significant look at the officer as he gallantly offered his arm to the astonished Mrs. Bunker, “if she will allow me the pleasure of taking her to my wife.”
There was an equally marked respect in the manner of the men and officers as Mrs. Bunker finally stepped on board the steam tug that was to convey the party across the turbulent bay. But she heeded it not, neither did she take any concern of the still furious gale, the difficult landing, the preternatural activity of the band of sappers, who seemed to work magic with their picks and shovels, the shelter tents that arose swiftly around her, the sheds and bush inclosures that were evoked from the very ground beneath her feet; the wonderful skill, order, and discipline that in a few hours converted her straggling dominion into a formal camp, even to the sentinel, who was already calmly pacing the rocks by the landing as if he had being doing it for years! Only one thing thrilled her–the sudden outburst, fluttering and snapping of the national flag from her little flagstaff. He would see it–and perhaps be pleased!
And indeed it seemed as if the men had caught the infection of her anxiety, for when her strained eyes could no longer pierce the murky twilight settling over the Gate, one came running to her to say that the lookout had just discovered through his glass a close-reefed schooner running in before the wind. It was her husband, and scarcely an hour after night had shut in the schooner had rounded to off the Point, dropped her boat, and sped away to anchorage. And then Mrs. Bunker, running bareheaded down the rocks, breaking in upon the hurried explanation of the officer of the guard, threw herself upon her husband’s breast, and sobbed and laughed as if her heart would break!
Nor did she scarcely hear his hurried comment to the officer and unconscious corroboration of her story: how a brig had raced them from the Gate, was heading for the bar, but suddenly sheered off and put away to sea again, as if from some signal from the headland. “Yes–the bluff,” interrupted Captain Jennings bitterly, “I thought of that, but the old man said it was more diplomatic just now to PREVENT an attempt than even to successfully resist it.”
But when they were alone again in their little cottage, and Zephas’ honest eyes–with no trace of evil knowledge or suspicion in their homely, neutral lightness–were looking into hers with his usual simple trustfulness, Mrs. Bunker trembled, whimpered, and–I grieve to say–basely funked her boasted confession. But here the Deity which protects feminine weakness intervened with the usual miracle. As he gazed at his wife’s troubled face, an apologetic cloud came over his rugged but open brow, and a smile of awkward deprecating embarrassment suffused his eyes. “I declare to goodness, Mollie, but I must tell you suthin, although I guess I didn’t kalkilate to say a word about it. But, darn it all, I can’t keep it in. No! Lookin’ inter that innercent face o’ yourn”–pressing her flushing cheeks between his cool brown hands–“and gazing inter them two truthful eyes”–they blinked at this moment with a divine modesty–“and thinkin’ of what you’ve just did for your kentry–like them revolutionary women o’ ’76–I feel like a darned swab of a traitor myself. Well! what I want ter tell you is this: Ye know, or ye’ve heard me tell o’ that Mrs. Fairfax, as left her husband for that fire-eatin’ Marion, and stuck to him through thick and thin, and stood watch and watch with him in this howlin’ Southern rumpus they’re kickin’ up all along the coast, as if she was a man herself. Well, jes as I hauled up at the wharf at ‘Frisco, she comes aboard.
“‘You’re Cap Bunker?’ she says.
“‘That’s me, ma’am,’ I says.
“‘You’re a Northern man and you go with your kind,’ sez she; ‘but you’re a white man, and thar’s no cur blood in you.’ But you ain’t listenin’, Mollie; you’re dead tired, lass,”–with a commiserating look at her now whitening face,–“and I’ll haul in line and wait. Well, to cut it short, she wanted me to take her down the coast a bit to where she could join Marion. She said she’d been shook by his friends, followed by spies–and, blame my skin, Mollie, ef that proud woman didn’t break down and CRY like a baby. Now, Mollie, what got ME in all this, was that them Chivalry folks–ez was always jawin’ about their ‘Southern dames’ and their ‘Ladye fairs,’ and always runnin’ that kind of bilge water outer their scuppers whenever they careened over on a fair wind–was jes the kind to throw off on a woman when they didn’t want her, and I kinder thought I’d like HER to see the difference betwixt the latitude o’ Charleston and Cape Cod. So I told her I didn’t want the jewelry and dimons she offered me, but if she would come down to the wharf, after dark, I’d smuggle her aboard, and I’d allow to the men that she was YOUR AUNTIE ez I was givin’ a free passage to! Lord! dear! think o’ me takin’ the name o’ Mollie Bunker’s aunt in vain for that sort o’ woman! Think o’ me,” continued Captain Bunker with a tentative chuckle, “sort o’ pretendin’ to hand yo’r auntie to Kernel Marion for–for his lady love! I don’t wonder ye’s half frighted and half laffin’,” he added, as his wife uttered a hysterical cry; “it WAS awful! But it worked, and I got her off, and wot’s more I got her shipped to Mazatlan, where she’ll join Marion, and the two are goin’ back to Virginy, where I guess they won’t trouble Californy again. Ye know now, deary,” he went on, speaking with difficulty through Mrs. Bunker’s clinging arms and fast dripping tears, “why I didn’t heave to to say ‘good-by.’ But it’s all over now–I’ve made a clean breast of it, Mollie–and don’t you cry!”
But it was NOT all over. For a moment later Captain Bunker began to fumble in his waistcoat pocket with the one hand that was not clasping his wife’s waist. “One thing more, Mollie; when I left her and refused to take any of her dimons, she put a queer sort o’ ring into my hand, and told me with a kind o’ mischievious, bedevilin’ smile, that I must keep it to remember her by. Here it is–why, Mollie lass! are you crazy?”
She had snatched it from his fingers and was running swiftly from the cottage out into the tempestuous night. He followed closely, until she reached the edge of the rocks. And only then, in the struggling, fast-flying moonlight, she raised a passionate hand, and threw it far into the sea!
As he led her back to the cottage she said she was jealous, and honest Captain Bunker, with his arm around her, felt himself the happiest man in the world!
From that day the flag flew regularly over the rocky shelf, and, in time, bugles and morning drumbeats were wafted from it to the decks of passing ships. For the Federal Government had adjudged the land for its own use, paid Captain Bunker a handsome sum for its possession, and had discreetly hidden the little cottage of Mrs. Bunker and its history forever behind bastion and casemate.