Their Uncle From California by Bret Harte

Story type: Literature


It was bitterly cold. When night fell over Lakeville, Wisconsin, the sunset, which had flickered rather than glowed in the western sky, took upon itself a still more boreal tremulousness, until at last it seemed to fade away in cold blue shivers to the zenith. Nothing else stirred; in the crisp still air the evening smoke of chimneys rose threadlike and vanished. The stars were early, pale, and pitiless; when the later moonlight fell, it appeared only to whiten the stiffened earth like snow, except where it made a dull, pewter-like film over the three frozen lakes which encompassed the town.

The site of the town itself was rarely beautiful, and its pioneers and founders had carried out the suggestions they had found there with loving taste and intelligence.

Themselves old voyageurs, trappers, and traders, they still loved Nature too well to exclude her from the restful homes they had achieved after years of toiling face to face with her. So a strip of primeval forest on the one side, and rolling level prairie on the other, still came up to the base of the hill, whereon they had built certain solid houses, which a second generation had beautified and improved with modern taste, but which still retained their old honesty of foundation and wholesome rustic space. These yet stood among the old trees, military squares, and broad sloping avenues of the town. Seen from the railway by day, the regularity of streets and blocks was hidden by environing trees; there remained only a picturesque lifting of rustic gardens, brown roofs, gables, spires, and cupolas above the mirroring lake: seen from the railway this bitter night, the invisible terraces and streets were now pricked out by symmetrical lines and curves of sparkling lights, which glittered through the leafless boughs and seemed to encircle the hill like a diadem.

Central in the chiefest square, and yet preserving its old lordly isolation in a wooded garden, the homestead of Enoch Lane stood with all its modern additions and improvements. Already these included not only the latest phases of decoration, but various treasures brought by the second generation from Europe, which they were wont to visit, but from which they always contentedly returned to their little provincial town. Whether there was some instinctive yearning, like the stirred sap of great forests, in their wholesome pioneer blood, or whether there was some occult fascination in the pretty town-crested hill itself, it was still certain that the richest inhabitants always preferred to live in Lakeville. Even the young, who left it to seek their fortune elsewhere, came back to enjoy their success under the sylvan vaults of this vast ancestral roof. And that was why, this 22d of December, 1870, the whole household of Gabriel Lane was awaiting the arrival from California of his brother, Sylvester Lane, at the old homestead which he had left twenty years ago.

“And you don’t know how he looks?” said Kitty Lane to her father.

“I do, perfectly; rather chubby, with blue eyes, curly hair, fair skin, and blushes when you speak to him.”


“Eh?–Oh, well, he USED to. You see that was twenty-five years ago, when he left here for boarding-school. He ran away from there, as I told you; went to sea, and finally brought up at San Francisco.”

“And you haven’t had any picture, or photograph of him, since?”

“No–that is–I say!–you haven’t, any of you, got a picture of Sylvester, have you?” he turned in a vague parenthetical appeal to the company of relatives and friends collected in the drawing-room after dinner.

“Cousin Jane has; she knows all about him!”

But it appeared that Cousin Jane had only heard Susan Marckland say that Edward Bingham had told her that he was in California when “Uncle Sylvester” had been nearly hanged by a Vigilance Committee for protecting a horse thief or a gambler, or some such person. This was felt to be ineffective as a personal description.

“He’s sure to wear a big beard; they all do when they first come back,” said Amos Gunn, with metropolitan oraculousness.

“He has a big curling mustache, long silken hair, and broad shoulders,” said Marie du Page.

There was such piquant conviction in the manner of the speaker, who was also a very pretty girl, that they all turned towards her, and Kitty quickly said,–

“But YOU’VE never seen him?”

“No–but–” She stopped, and, lifting one shoulder, threw her spirited head sideways, in a pretty deprecatory way, with elevated eyebrows and an expression intended to show the otherwise untranslatable character of her impression. But it showed quite as pleasantly the other fact, that she was the daughter of a foreigner, an old French military explorer, and that she had retained even in Anglo-Saxon Lakeville some of the Gallic animation.

“Well, how many of you girls are going with me to meet him at the station?” said Gabriel, dismissing with masculine promptness the lesser question. “It’s time to be off.”

“I’d like to go,” said Kitty, “and so would Cousin Jane; but really, papa, you see if YOU don’t know him, and WE don’t either, and you’ve got to satisfy yourself that it’s the right man, and then introduce YOURSELF and then us–and all this on the platform before everybody–it makes it rather embarrassing for us. And then, as he’s your younger brother and we’re supposed to be his affectionate nieces, you know, it would make HIM feel SO ridiculous!”

“And if he were to KISS you,” said Marie tragically, “and then turn out not to be him!”

“So,” continued Kitty, “you’d better take Cousin John, who was more in Uncle Sylvester’s time, to represent the Past of the family, and perhaps Mr. Gunn”–

“To represent the future, I suppose?” interrupted Gabriel in a wicked whisper.

“To represent a name that most men of the world in New York and San Francisco know,” went on Kitty, without a blush. “It would make recognition and introduction easier. And take an extra fur with you, dear–not for HIM but for yourself. I suppose he’s lived so much in the open air as to laugh at our coddling.”

“I don’t know about that,” said her father thoughtfully; “the last telegram I have from him, en route, says he’s half frozen, and wants a close carriage sent to the station.”

“Of course,” said Marie impatiently, “you forget the poor creature comes from burning canyons and hot golden sands and perpetual sunshine.”

“Very well; but come along, Marie, and see how I’ve prepared his room,” and as her father left the drawing-room Kitty carried off her old schoolfellow upstairs.

The room selected for the coming Sylvester had been one of the elaborate guest-chambers, but was now stripped of its more luxurious furniture and arranged with picturesque yet rural extravagance. A few rare buffalo, bear, and panther skins were disposed over the bare floor, and even displayed gracefully over some elaborately rustic chairs. The handsome French bedstead had been displaced for a small wrought-iron ascetic-looking couch covered with a gorgeously striped Mexican blanket. The fireplace had been dismantled of its steel grate, and the hearth extended so as to allow a pile of symmetrically heaped moss-covered hickory logs to take its place. The walls were covered with trophies of the chase, buck-horns and deer-heads, and a number of Indian arrows stood in a sheaf in the corners beside a few modern guns and rifles.

“Perfectly lovely,” said Marie, “but”–with a slight shiver of her expressive shoulders–“a little cold and outdoorish, eh?”

“Nonsense,” returned Kitty dictatorially, “and if he IS cold, he can easily light those logs. They always build their open fires under a tree. Why, even Mr. Gunn used to do that when he was camping out in the Adirondacks last summer. I call it perfectly comfortable and SO natural.” Nevertheless, they had both tucked their chilly hands under the fleecy shawls they had snatched from the hall for this hyperborean expedition.

“You have taken much pains for him, Kaitee,” said Marie, with her faintest foreign intonation. “You will like this strange uncle–you?”

“He is a wonderful man, Marie; he’s been everywhere, seen everything, and done everything out there. He’s fought duels, been captured by Indians and tied to a stake to be tortured. He’s been leader of a Vigilance Committee, and they say that he has often shot and killed men himself. I’m afraid he’s been rather wicked, you know. He’s lived alone in the woods like a hermit without seeing a soul, and then, again, he’s been a chief among the Indians, with Heaven knows how many Indian wives! They called him ‘The Pale-faced Thunderbolt,’ my dear, and ‘The Young Man who Swallows the Lightning,’ or something like that.”

“And what can he want here?” asked Marie.

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“To see us, my dear,” said Kitty loftily; “and then, too, he has to settle something about HIS share of the property; for you know grandpa left a share of it to him. Not that he’s ever bothered himself about it, for he’s rich,–a kind of Monte Cristo, you know,–with a gold mine and an island off the coast, to say nothing of a whole county that he owns, that is called after him, and millions of wild cattle that he rides among and lassos! It’s dreadfully hard to do. You know you take a long rope with a slipknot, and you throw it around your head so, and”–

“Hark!” said Marie, with a dramatic start, and her finger on her small mouth, “he comes!”

There was the clear roll of wheels along the smooth, frozen carriage sweep towards the house, the sharp crisp click of hoofs on stone, the opening of heavy doors, the sudden sparkling invasion of frigid air, the uplifting of voices in greeting,–but all familiar! There were Gabriel Lane’s cheery, hopeful tones, the soprano of Cousin Jane and Cousin Emma, the baritone of Mr. Gunn, and the grave measured oratorical utterance of Parson Dexter, who had joined the party at the station; but certainly the accents of no STRANGER. Had he come? Yes, for his name was just then called, and the quick ear of Marie had detected a light, lounging, alien footstep cross the cold strip of marble vestibule. The two girls exchanged a rapid glance; each looked into the mirror, and then interrogatively at the other, nodded their heads affirmatively, and descended to the drawing-room. A group had already drawn round the fire, and a small central figure, who, with its back turned towards them, was still enwrapped in an enormous overcoat of rich fur, was engaged in presenting an alternate small varnished leather boot to the warmth of the grate. As they entered the room the heavy fur was yielded up with apparent reluctance, and revealed to the astonished girls a man of ordinary stature with a slight and elegant figure set off by a traveling suit of irreproachable cut. His light reddish-yellow hair, mustache, and sunburned cheek, which seemed all of one color and outline, made it impossible to detect the gray of the one or the hollowness of the other, and gave no indication of his age. Yet there was clearly no mistake. Here was Gabriel Lane seizing their nervously cold fingers and presenting them to their “Uncle Sylvester.”

Far from attempting to kiss Kitty, the stranger for an instant seemed oblivious of the little hand she offered him in the half-preoccupied bow he gave her. But Marie was not so easily passed over, and, with her audacious face challenging his, he abstractedly imparted to the shake of her hand something of the fervor that he should have shown his relative. And, then, still warming his feet on the fender, he seemed to have forgotten them both.

“Accustomed as you have been, sir,” said the Reverend Mr. Dexter, seizing upon an awkward silence, and accenting it laboriously, “perhaps I should say INURED as you have been to the exciting and stirring incidents of a lawless and adventurous community, you doubtless find in a pastoral, yet cultivated and refined, seclusion like Lakeville a degree of”–

“Oh, several degrees,” said Uncle Sylvester, blandly flicking bits of buffalo hair from his well-fitting trousers; “it’s colder, you know–much colder.”

“I was referring to a less material contrast,” continued Mr. Dexter, with a resigned smile; “yet, as to the mere question of cold, I am told, sir, that in California there are certain severe regions of altitude–although the mean temperature”–

“I suppose out in California you fellows would say our temperature was a darned sight MEANER, eh?” broke in Amos Gunn, with a confidential glance at the others, as if offering a humorous diversion suited to the Californian taste. Uncle Sylvester did not, however, smile. Gazing critically at Gunn, he said thoughtfully: “I think not; I’ve even known men killed for saying less than that,” and turned to the clergyman. “You are quite right; some of the higher passes are very cold. I was lost in one of them in ’56 with a small party. We were seventy miles from any settlement, we had had nothing to eat for thirty-six hours; our campfire, melting the snow, sank twelve feet below the surface.” The circle closed eagerly around him, Marie, Kitty, and Cousin Jane pressing forward with excited faces; even the clergyman assumed an expression of profound interest. “A man by the name of Thompson, I think,” continued Uncle Sylvester, thoughtfully gazing at the fire, “was frozen a few yards away. Towards morning, having been fifty-eight hours without food, our last drop of whiskey exhausted, and the fire extinguished, we found”–

“Yes, yes!” said half a dozen voices.

“We found,” continued Uncle Sylvester, rubbing his hands cheerfully, “we found it–exceedingly cold. Yes–EXCEEDINGLY cold!”

There was a dead silence.

“But you escaped!” said Kitty breathlessly.

“I think so. I think we all escaped–that is, except Thompson, if his name WAS Thompson; it might have been Parker,” continued Uncle Sylvester, gazing with a certain languid astonishment on the eager faces around him.

“But HOW did you escape?”

“Oh, somehow! I don’t remember exactly. I don’t think,” he went on reflectively, “that we had to eat Thompson–if it was HIM–at least not then. No”–with a faint effort of recollection–“that would have been another affair. Yes,” assuringly to the eager, frightened eyes of Cousin Jane, “you are quite right, that was something altogether different. Dear me; one quite mixes up these things. Eh?”

A servant had entered, and after a hurried colloquy with Gabriel, the latter turned to Uncle Sylvester–

“Excuse me, but I think there must be some mistake! We brought up your luggage with you–two trunks–in the station wagon. A man has just arrived with three more, which he says are yours.”

“There should be five in all, I think,” said Uncle Sylvester thoughtfully.

“Maybe there are, sir, I didn’t count exactly,” said the servant.

“All right,” said Uncle Sylvester cheerfully, turning to his brother. “You can put them in my room or on the landing, except two marked ‘L’ in a triangle. They contain some things I picked up for you and the girls. We’ll look them over in the morning. And, if you don’t mind, I’ll excuse myself now and go to bed.”

“But it’s only half past ten,” said Gabriel remonstratingly. “You don’t, surely, go to bed at half past ten?”

“I do when I travel. Travel is SO exhausting. Good-night! Don’t let anybody disturb themselves to come with me.”

He bowed languidly to the company, and disappeared with a yawn gracefully disguised into a parting smile.

“Well!” said Cousin Jane, drawing a long breath.

“I don’t believe it’s your Uncle Sylvester at all!” said Marie vivaciously. “It’s some trick that Gabriel is playing upon us. And he’s not even a good actor–he forgets his part.”

“And, then, five trunks for one single man! Heavens! what can he have in them” said Cousin Emma.

“Perhaps his confederates, to spring out upon us at night, after everybody’s asleep.”

“Are you sure you remembered him, papa?” said Kitty sotto voce.

“Certainly. And, my dear child, he knows all the family history as well as you do; and”–continued her father with a slight laugh that did not, however, conceal a certain seriousness that was new to him–“I only wish I understood as much about the property as he does. By the way, Amos,” he broke off suddenly, turning to the young man, “he seemed to know your people.”

“Most men in the financial world do,” said Gunn a little superciliously.

“Yes; but he asked me if you hadn’t a relative of some kind in Southern California or Mexico.”

A slight flush–so slight that only the keen, vivaciously observant eyes of Marie noticed it–passed over the young man’s face.

“I believe it is a known fact that our branch of the family never emigrated from their native town,” he said emphatically. “The Gunns were rather peculiar and particular in that respect.”

“Then there were no offshoots from the old STOCK,” said Gabriel.

Nevertheless, this pet joke of Gabriel’s did not dissipate the constraint and disappointment left upon the company by Uncle Sylvester’s unsatisfying performance and early withdrawal, and they separated soon after, Kitty and Marie being glad to escape upstairs together. On the landing they met two of the Irish housemaids in a state of agitated exhaustion. It appeared that the “sthrange gintleman” had requested that his bed be remade from bedclothes and bedding ALWAYS CARRIED WITH HIM IN HIS TRUNKS! From their apologetic tone it was evident that he had liberally rewarded them. “Shure, Miss,” protested Norah, in deprecation of Kitty’s flashing eye, “there’s thim that’s lived among shnakes and poysin riptiles and faverous disayses that’s particklar av the beds and sheets they lie on. Hisht! Howly Mother! it’s something else he’s wanting now!”

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The door of Uncle Sylvester’s room had slowly opened, and a blue pyjama’d sleeve appeared, carefully depositing the sheaf of bows and arrows outside the door. “I say, Norah, or Bridget there, some of you take those infernal things away. And look out, will you, for the arrowheads are deadly poison. The fool who got ’em didn’t know they were African, and not Indian at all! And hold on!” The hand vanished, and presently reappeared holding two rifles. “And take these away, too! They’re loaded, capped, and NOT on the half-cock! A jar, a fall, the slightest shock is enough to send them off!”

“I’m dreadfully sorry that you should find it so uncomfortable in our house, Uncle Sylvester,” said Kitty, with a flushed cheek and vibrating voice.

“Oh, it’s you–is it?” said Uncle Sylvester’s voice cheerfully. “I thought it was Bridget out there. No, I don’t intend to find it uncomfortable. That’s why I’m putting these things outside. But, for Heaven’s sake, don’t YOU touch them. Leave that to the ineffable ass who put them there. Good-night!”

The door closed; the whispering voices of the girls faded from the corridor; the lights were lowered in the central hall, only the red Cyclopean eye of an enormous columnar stove, like a lighthouse, gleamed through the darkness. Outside, the silent night sparkled, glistened, and finally paled. Towards morning, having invested the sturdy wooden outer walls of the house and filmed with delicate tracery every available inch of window pane, it seemed stealthily to invade the house itself, stilling and chilling it as it drew closer around its central heart of warmth and life. Only once the frigid stillness was broken by the opening of a door and steps along the corridor. This was preceded by an acrid smell of burning bark.

It was subtle enough to permeate the upper floor and the bedroom of Marie du Page, who was that night a light and nervous sleeper. Peering from her door, she could see, on the lower corridor, the extraordinary spectacle of Uncle Sylvester, robed in a gorgeous Japanese dressing-gown of quilted satin trimmed with the fur of the blue fox, candle in hand, leisurely examining the wall of the passage. Presently, drawing out a footrule from his pocket, he actually began to measure it! Miss Du Page saw no more. Hurriedly closing her door, she locked and bolted it, firmly convinced that Gabriel Lane was harboring in the guise of Uncle Sylvester a somnambulist, a maniac, or an impostor.


“It doesn’t seem as if Uncle Sylvester was any the more comfortable for having his own private bedding with him,” said Kitty Lane, entering Marie’s room early the next morning. “Bridget found him curled up in his furs like a cat asleep on the drawing-room sofa this morning.”

Marie started; she remembered her last night’s vision. But some instinct–she knew not what–kept her from revealing it at this moment. She only said a little ironically:–

“Perhaps he missed the wild freedom of his barbaric life in a small bedroom.”

“No. Bridget says he said something about being smoked out of his room by a ridiculous wood fire. The idea! As if a man brought up in the woods couldn’t stand a little smoke. No–that’s his excuse! Marie!–do you know what I firmly believe?”

“No,” said Marie quickly.

“I firmly believe that poor man is ashamed of his past rough life, and does everything he can to forget it. That’s why he affects those ultra-civilized and effeminate ways, and goes to the other extreme, as people always do.”

“Then you think he’s really reformed, and isn’t likely to take an impulse to rob and murder anybody again?”

“Why, Marie, what nonsense!”

Nevertheless, Uncle Sylvester appeared quite fresh and cheerful at breakfast. It seemed that he had lit the fire before undressing, but the green logs were piled so far into the room that the smoke nearly suffocated him. Fearful of alarming the house by letting the smoke escape through the door, he opened the window, and when it had partly dispersed, sought refuge himself from the arctic air of his bedroom in the drawing-room. So far the act did not seem inconsistent with his sanity, or even intelligence and consideration for others. But Marie fixed upon him a pair of black, audacious eyes.

“Did you ever walk in your sleep, Mr. Lane?”

“No; but”–thoughtfully breaking an egg–“I have ridden, I think.”

“In your sleep? Oh, do tell us all about it!” said Cousins Jane and Emma in chorus.

Uncle Sylvester cast a resigned glance out of the window. “Oh, yes–certainly; it isn’t much. You see at one time I was in the habit of making long monotonous journeys, and they were often exhausting, and,” he added, becoming wearied as if at the recollection, “always dreadfully tiresome. As the trail was sometimes very uncertain and dangerous, I rode a very surefooted mule that could go anywhere where there was space big enough to set her small hoofs upon. One night I was coming down the slope of a mountain towards a narrow valley and river that were crossed by an old, abandoned flume, of which nothing was now left but the upright trestle-work and long horizontal string-piece. As the trail was very difficult and the mule’s pace was slow, I found myself dozing at times, and at last I must have fallen asleep. I think I must have been awakened by a singular regularity in the movement of the mule–or else it was the monotony of step that had put me to sleep and the cessation of it awakened me. You see, at first I was not certain that I wasn’t really dreaming. For the trail seemed to have disappeared; the wall of rock on one side had vanished also, and there appeared to be nothing ahead of me but the opposite hillside.”

Uncle Sylvester stopped to look out of the window at a passing carriage. Then he went on. “The moon came out, and I saw what had happened. The mule, either of her own free will, or obeying some movement I had given the reins in my sleep, had swerved from the trail, got on top of the flume, and was actually walking across the valley on the narrow string-piece, a foot wide, half a mile long, and sixty feet from the ground. I knew,” he continued, examining his napkin thoughtfully, “that she was perfectly surefooted, and that if I kept quiet she could make the passage, but I suddenly remembered that midway there was a break and gap of twenty feet in the continuous line, and that the string-piece was too narrow to allow her to turn round and retrace her steps.”

“Good heavens!” said Cousin Jane.

“I beg your pardon?” said Uncle Sylvester politely.

“I only said, ‘Good heavens!’ Well?” she added impatiently.

“Well?” repeated Uncle Sylvester vaguely. “Oh, that’s all. I only wanted to explain what I meant by saying I had ridden in my sleep.”

“But,” said Cousin Jane, leaning across the table with grim deliberation and emphasizing each word with the handle of her knife, “how–did–you–and–that–mule get down?”

“Oh, with slings and ropes, you know–so,” demonstrating by placing his napkin-ring in a sling made of his napkin.

“And I suppose you carried the slings and ropes with you in your five trunks!” gasped Cousin Jane.

“No. Fellows on the river brought ’em in the morning. Mighty spry chaps, those river miners.”

“Very!” said Cousin Jane.

Breakfast over, they were not surprised that their sybaritic guest excused himself from an inspection of the town in the frigid morning air, and declined joining a skating party to the lake on the ground that he could keep warmer indoors with half the exertion. An hour later found him standing before the fire in Gabriel Lane’s study, looking languidly down on his elder brother.

“Then, as far as I can see,” he said quietly, “you have made ducks and drakes of your share of the property, and that virtually you are in the hands of this man Gunn and his father.”

“You’re putting it too strongly,” said Gabriel deprecatingly. “In the first place, my investments with Gunn’s firm are by no means failures, and they only hold as security a mortgage on the forest land below the hill. It’s scarcely worth the money. I would have sold it long ago, but it had been a fancy of father’s to keep it wild land for the sake of old times and the healthiness of the town.”

“There used to be a log cabin there, where the old man had a habit of camping out whenever he felt cramped by civilization up here, wasn’t there?” said Uncle Sylvester meditatively.

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“Yes,” said Gabriel impatiently; “it’s still there–but to return to Mr. Gunn. He has taken a fancy to Kitty, and even if I could not lift the mortgage, there’s some possibility that the land would still remain in the family.”

“I think I’ll drive over this afternoon and take a look at the old shanty if this infernal weather lets up.”

“Yes; but just now, my dear Sylvester, let us attend to business. I want to show you those investments.”

“Oh, certainly; trot ’em out,” said his brother, plucking up a simulation of interest as he took a seat at the table.

From a drawer of his desk Gabriel brought out a bundle of prospectuses and laid them before Uncle Sylvester.

A languid smile of recognition lit up the latter’s face. “Ah! yes,” he said, glancing at them. “The old lot: ‘Carmelita,’ ‘Santa Maria,’ and ‘Preciosa!’ Just as I imagined–and yet who’d have thought of seeing them HERE! A good deal rouged and powdered, Miss Carmelita, since I first knew you! Considerably bolstered up by miraculous testimony to your powers, my dear Santa Maria, since the day I found you out, to my cost! And you too, Preciosa!–a precious lot of money I dropped on you in the old days!”

“You are joking,” said Gabriel, with an uneasy smile. “You don’t mean to imply that this stock is old and worthless?”

“There isn’t a capital in America or Europe where for the last five years it hasn’t been floated with a new character each time. My dear Gabriel, that stock isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.”

“But it is impossible that an experienced financier like Gunn could be deceived!”

“I’m sorry to hear THAT.”

“Come, Sylvester! confess you’ve taken a prejudice against Gunn from your sudden dislike of his son! And what have you against him?”

“I couldn’t say exactly,” said Uncle Sylvester reflectively. “It may be his eyes, or only his cravat! But,” rising cheerfully and placing his hand lightly on his brother’s shoulder, “don’t YOU worry yourself about that stock, old man; I’LL see that somebody else has the worry and you the cash. And as to the land and–Kitty–well, you hold on to them both until you find out which the young man is really after.”

“And then?” said Gabriel, with a smile.

“Don’t give him either! But, I say, haven’t we had enough business this morning? Let’s talk of something else. Who’s the French girl?”

“Marie? She’s the daughter of Jules du Page–don’t you remember?–father’s friend. When Jules died, it was always thought that father, who had half adopted her as a child, would leave her some legacy. But you know that father died without making a will, and that–rich as he was–his actual assets were far less than we had reason to expect. Kitty, who felt the disappointment as keenly as her friend, I believe would have divided her own share with her. It’s odd, by the way, that father could have been so deceived in the amount of his capital, or how he got rid of his money in a way that we knew nothing of. Do you know, Sylvester, I’ve sometimes suspected”–

“What?” said Uncle Sylvester suddenly.

The bored languor of his face had abruptly vanished. Every muscle was alert; his gray eyes glittered.

“That he advanced money to Du Page, who lost it, or that they speculated together,” returned Gabriel, who, following Uncle Sylvester’s voice only, had not noticed the change of expression.

“That would seem to be a weakness of the Lane family,” said Uncle Sylvester grimly, with a return of his former carelessness. “But that is not YOUR own opinion–that’s a suggestion of some one else?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, with a laugh and a slight addition of color, “it WAS Gunn’s theory. As a man of the world and a practical financier, you know.”

“And you’ve talked with HIM about it?”

“Yes. It was a matter of general wonder years ago.”

“Very likely–but, just now, don’t you think we’ve had enough financial talk?” said Uncle Sylvester, with a bored contraction of his eyebrows. “Come,” looking around the room, “you’ve changed the interior of the old house.”

“Yes. Unfortunately, just after father’s death it was put in the hands of a local architect or builder, one of father’s old friends, but not a very skillful workman, who made changes while the family were away. That’s why your present bedroom, which was father’s old study, had a slice taken off it to make the corridor larger, and why the big chimney and hearthstone are still there, although the fireplace is modernized. That was Flint’s stupidity.”

“Whose stupidity?” asked Uncle Sylvester, trimming his nails.

“Flint’s–the old architect.”

“Why didn’t you make him change it back again?”

“He left Lakeville shortly after, and I brought an architect from St. Louis after I returned from Europe. But nothing could be done to your room without taking down the chimney, so it remained as Flint left it.”

“That reminds me, Gabriel, I’m afraid I spoke rather cavalierly to Kitty, last night, about the arrangements of the room. The fact is, I’ve taken a fancy to it, and should like to fit it up myself. Have I your permission?”

“Certainly, my dear Sylvester.”

“I’ve some knickknacks in my trunks, and I’ll do it at once.”

“As you like.”

“And you’ll see that I am not disturbed; and you’ll explain it to Kitty, with my apologies?”


“Then I’m off.”

Gabriel glanced at his brother with a perplexed smile. Here was the bored traveler, explorer, gold-seeker, soldier of fortune, actually as pleased as a girl over the prospect of arranging his room! He called after him, “Sylvester!”


“I say, if you could, you know, just try to interest these people to-night with some of your adventures–something told SERIOUSLY, you know, as if you really were in earnest–I’d be awfully obliged to you. The fact is,–you’ll excuse me,–but they think you don’t come up to your reputation.”

“They want a story?”

“Yes,–one of your experiences.”

“I’ll give them one. Ta-ta!”

For the rest of the day Uncle Sylvester was invisible, although his active presence in his room was betrayed by the sound of hammering and moving of furniture. As the remainder of the party were skating on the lake, this eccentricity was not remarked except by one,–Marie du Page,–who on pretense of a slight cold had stayed at home. But with her suspicions of the former night, she had determined to watch the singular relative of her friend. Added to a natural loyalty to the Lanes, she was moved by a certain curiosity and fascination towards this incomprehensible man.

The house was very quiet when she stole out of her room and passed softly along the corridor; she examined the wall carefully to discover anything that might have excited the visitor’s attention. There were a few large engravings hanging there; could he have designed to replace them by some others? Suddenly she was struck with the distinct conviction that the wall of the corridor did not coincide with the wall of his room as represented by the line of the door. There was certainly a space between the two walls unaccounted for. This was undoubtedly what had attracted HIS attention; but what BUSINESS was it of his?

She reflected that she had seen in the wall of the conservatory an old closed staircase, now used as shelves for dried herbs and seeds, which she had been told was the old-time communication between the garden and Grandfather Lane’s study,–the room now occupied by the stranger. Perhaps it led still farther, and thus accounted for the space. Determined to satisfy herself, she noiselessly descended to the conservatory. There, surely, was the staircase,–a narrow flight of wooden steps encumbered with packages of herbs,–losing itself in upper darkness. By the aid of a candle she managed to grope and pick her way up step by step. Then she paused. The staircase had abruptly ended on the level of the study, now cut off from it by the new partition. She was in a stifling inclosure, formed by the walls, scarcely eighteen inches wide. It was made narrower by a singular excrescence on the old wall, which seemed to have been a bricked closet, now half destroyed and in ruins. She turned to descend, when a strange sound from Uncle Sylvester’s room struck her ear. It was the sound of tapping on the floor close to the partition, within a foot of where she was standing. At the same moment there was a decided movement of the plank of the flooring beneath the partition: it began to slide slowly, and then was gradually withdrawn into the room. With prompt presence of mind, she instantly extinguished her candle and drew herself breathlessly against the partition.

When the plank was entirely withdrawn, a ray of light slipped through the opening, revealing the bare rafters of the floor, and a hand and arm inserted under the partition, groping as if towards the bricked closet. As the fingers of the exploring hand were widely extended, Marie had no difficulty in recognizing on one of them a peculiar signet ring which Uncle Sylvester wore. A swift impulse seized her. To the audacious Marie impulse and action were the same thing. Bending stealthily over the aperture, she suddenly snatched the ring from the extended finger. The hand was quickly withdrawn with a start and uncontrolled exclamation, and she availed herself of that instant to glide rapidly down the stairs.

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She regained her room stealthily, having the satisfaction a moment later of hearing Uncle Sylvester’s door open and the sound of his footsteps in the corridor. But he was evidently unable to discover any outer ingress to the inclosure, or believed the loss of his ring an accident, for he presently returned. Meantime, what was she to do?

Tell Kitty of her discovery, and show the ring? No–not yet! Oddly enough, now that she had the ring, taken from his wicked finger in the very act, she found it as difficult as ever to believe in his burglarious design. She must wait. The mischief–if there had been mischief–was done; the breaking in of the bricked closet was, from the appearance of the ruins, a bygone act. Could it have been some youthful escapade of Uncle Sylvester’s, the scene of which he was revisiting as criminals are compelled to do? And had there been anything taken from the closet–or was its destruction a part of the changes in the old house? How could she find out without asking Kitty? There was one way. She remembered that Mr. Gunn had once shown a great deal of interest to Kitty about the old homestead, and even of old Mr. Lane’s woodland cabin. She would ask HIM. It was a friendly act, for Kitty had not of late been very kind to him.

The opportunity presented itself at dusk, as Mr. Gunn, somewhat abstracted, stood apart at the drawing-room window. Marie hoped he had enjoyed himself while skating; her stupid cold had kept her indoors. She had amused herself rambling about the old homestead; it was such a queer place, so full of old nooks and corners and unaccountable spaces. Just the place, she would think, where old treasures might have been stored. Eh?

Mr. Gunn had not spoken–he had only coughed. But in the darkness his eyes were fixed angrily on her face. Without observing it, she went on. She knew he was interested in the old house; she had heard him talk to Kitty about it: had Kitty ever said anything about some old secret hoarding place?

No, certainly not! And she was mistaken, he never was interested in the house! He could not understand what had put that idea in her head! Unless it was this ridiculous, shady stranger in the guise of an uncle whom they had got there. It was like his affectation!

“Oh, dear, no,” said Marie, with unmistakable truthfulness, “HE did not say anything. But,” with sudden inconsistent aggression, “is THAT the way you speak to Kitty of her uncle?”

Really he didn’t know–he was joking only, and he was afraid he must just now ask her to excuse him. He had received letters that made it possible that he might be called suddenly to New York at any moment. Marie stared. It was evident that he had proposed to Kitty and been rejected! But she was no nearer her discovery.

Nor was there the least revelation in the calm, half-bored, yet good-humored presence of the wicked uncle at dinner. So indifferent did he seem, not only to his own villainy but even to the loss it had entailed, that she had a wild impulse to take the ring from her pocket and display it on her own finger before him then and there. But the conviction that he would in some way be equal to the occasion prevented her. The dinner passed off with some constraint, no doubt emanating from the conscious Kitty and Gunn. Nevertheless, when they had returned to the drawing-room, Gabriel rubbed his hands expectantly.

“I prevailed on Sylvester this morning to promise to tell us some of his experiences–something COMPLETE and satisfactory this time. Eh?”

Uncle Sylvester, warming his cold blood before the fire, looked momentarily forgetful and–disappointing. Cousins Jane and Emma shrugged their shoulders.

“Eh,” said Uncle Sylvester absently, “er–er–oh yes! Well” (more cheerfully), “about what, eh?”

“Let it be,” said Marie pointedly, fixing her black magnetic eyes on the wicked stranger, “let it be something about the DISCOVERY of gold, or a buried TREASURE HOARD, or a robbery.”

To her intense disgust Uncle Sylvester, far from being discomfited or confused, actually looked pleased, and his gray eyes thawed slightly.

“Certainly,” he said. “Well, then! Down on the San Joaquin River there was an old chap–one of the earliest settlers–in fact, he’d come on from Oregon before the gold discovery. His name, dear me!”–continued Uncle Sylvester, with an effort of memory and apparently beginning already to lose his interest in the story–“was–er–Flint.”

As Uncle Sylvester paused here, Cousin Jane broke in impatiently. “Well, that’s not an uncommon name. There was an old carpenter here in your father’s time who was called Flint.”

“Yes,” said Uncle Sylvester languidly. “But there is, or was, something uncommon about it–and that’s the point of the story, for in the old time Flint and Gunn were of the same stock.”

“Is this a Californian joke?” said Gunn, with a forced smile on his flushed face. “If so, spare me, for it’s an old one.”

“It’s much older HISTORY, Mr. Gunn,” said Uncle Sylvester blandly, “which I remember from a boy. When the first Flint traded near Sault Sainte Marie, the Canadian voyageurs literally translated his name into Pierre a Fusil, and he went by that name always. But when the English superseded the French in numbers and language the name was literally translated back again into ‘Peter Gunn,’ which his descendants bear.”

“A labored form of the old joke,” said Gunn, turning contemptuously away.

“But the story,” said Cousins Jane and Emma. “The story of the gold discovery–never mind the names.”

“Excuse me,” said Uncle Sylvester, placing his hand in the breast of his coat with a delightful exaggeration of offended dignity. “But, doubts having been cast upon my preliminary statement, I fear I must decline proceeding further.” Nevertheless, he smiled unblushingly at Miss Du Page as he followed Gunn from the room.

The next morning those who had noticed the strained relations of Miss Kitty and Mr. Gunn were not surprised that the latter was recalled on pressing business to New York by the first train; but it was a matter of some astonishment to Gabriel Lane and Marie du Page that Uncle Sylvester should have been up early, and actually accompanied that gentleman as far as the station! Indeed, the languid explorer and gold-seeker exhibited remarkable activity, and, clad in a rough tourist suit, announced, over the breakfast-table, his intention of taking a long tramp through the woods, which he had not revisited since a boy. To this end he had even provided himself with a small knapsack, and for once realized Kitty’s ideal of his character.

“Don’t go too far,” said Gabriel, “for, although the cold has moderated, the barometer is falling fast, and there is every appearance of snow. Take care you are not caught in one of our blizzards.”

“But YOU are all going on the lake to skate!” protested Uncle Sylvester.

“Yes; for the very reason that it may be our last chance; but should it snow we shall be nearer home than you may be.”

Nevertheless, when it came on to snow, as Gabriel had predicted, the skating party was by no means so near home as he had imagined. A shrewd keenness and some stimulating electric condition of the atmosphere had tempted the young people far out on the lake, and they had ignored the first fall of fine grayish granulations that swept along the icy surface like little puffs of dust or smoke. Then the fall grew thicker, the gray sky contracted, the hurrying flakes, dashed against them by a fierce northwester, were larger, heavier, and seemed an almost palpable force that held them back. Their skates, already clogged with drift, were beginning to be useless. The bare wind-swept spaces were becoming rarer; they could only stumble on blindly towards the nearest shore. Nor when they reached it were they yet safe; they could scarcely stand against the still increasing storm that was fast obliterating the banks and stretch of meadow beyond. Their only hope of shelter was the range of woods that joined the hill. Holding hands in single file, the little party, consisting of Kitty, Marie, and Cousins Jane and Emma–stout-hearted Gabriel leading and Cousin John bringing up the rear–at last succeeded in reaching it, and were rejoiced to find themselves near old Lane’s half-ruined cabin. To their added joy and astonishment, whiffs of whirling smoke were issuing from the crumbling chimney. They ran to the crazy door, pushed aside its weak fastening, and found–Uncle Sylvester calmly enjoying a pipe before a blazing fire. A small pickaxe and crowbar were lying upon a mound of freshly turned earth beside the chimney, where the rotten flooring had been torn up.

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The tumultuous entrance of the skating party required no explanation; but when congratulations had been exchanged, the wet snow shaken off, and they had drawn round the fire, curious eyes were cast upon the solitary occupant and the pile of earth and debris before him.

“I believe,” said Gabriel laughingly, “that you have been so bored here that you have actually played at gold-hunting for amusement.”

Uncle Sylvester took the pipe from his mouth and nodded.

“It’s a common diversion of yours,” said Marie audaciously.

Uncle Sylvester smiled sweetly.

“And have you been successful THIS TIME?” asked Marie.

“I got the color.”


Uncle Sylvester rose and placed himself with his back to the fire, gently surveying the assembled group.

“I was interrupted in a story of gold-digging last evening,” he said blandly. “How far had I got?”

“You were down on the San Joaquin River in the spring of ’50, with a chap named Flint,” chorused Cousins Jane and Emma promptly.

“Ah! yes,” said Uncle Sylvester. “Well, in those days there was a scarcity of money in the diggings. Gold dust there was in plenty, but no COIN. You can fancy it was a bother to weigh out a pinch of dust every time you wanted a drink of whiskey or a pound of flour; but there was no other legal tender. Pretty soon, however, a lot of gold and silver pieces found their way into circulation in our camp and the camps around us. They were foreign–old French and English coins. Here’s one of them that I kept.” He took from his pocket a gold coin and handed it to Gabriel.

Lane rose to his feet with an exclamation:

“Why, this is like the louis-d’or that grandfather saved through the war and gave to father.”

Uncle Sylvester took the coin back, placed it in his left eye, like a monocle, and winked gravely at the company.

“It is the SAME!” he went on quietly. “I was interested, for I had a good memory, and I remembered that, as a boy, grandfather had shown me one of those coins and told me he was keeping them for old Jules du Page, who didn’t believe in banks and bank-notes. Well, I traced them to a trader called Flint, who was shipping gold dust from Stockton to Peter Gunn & Sons, in New York.”

“To whom?” asked Gabriel quickly.

“Old Gunn–the father of your friend!” said Uncle Sylvester blandly. “We talked the matter over on our way to the station this morning. Well, to return. Flint only said that he had got them from a man called Thompson, who had got them from somebody else in exchange for goods. A year or two afterwards this same Thompson happened to be frozen up with me in Starvation Camp. When he thought he was dying he confessed that he had been bribed by Flint to say what he had said, but that he believed the coins were stolen. Meantime, Flint had disappeared. Other things claimed my attention. I had quite forgotten him, until one night, five years afterwards, I blundered into a deserted mining-camp, by falling asleep on my mule, who carried me across a broken flume, but–I think I told you that story already.”

“You never finished it,” said Cousin Jane sharply.

“Let me do so now, then. I was really saved by some Indians, who took me for a spirit up aloft there in the moonlight and spread the alarm. The first white man they brought me was a wretched drunkard known to the boys as ‘Old Fusil,’ or ‘Fusel Oil,’ who went into delirium tremens at the sight of me. Well, who do you suppose he turned out to be? Flint! Flint played out and ruined! Cast off and discarded by his relations in New York–the foundation of whose fortunes he had laid by the villainy they had accepted and condoned. For Flint, as the carpenter of the old homestead, had discovered the existence of a bricked closet in the wall of father’s study, partitioned it off so that he could break into it without detection and rifle it at his leisure, and who had thus carried off that part of grandfather’s hoard which father had concealed there. He knew it could never be missed by the descendants. But, through haste or ignorance, he DID NOT TOUCH THE PAPERS and documents also hidden there. And THEY told of the existence of grandfather’s second cache, or hiding-place, beneath this hearth, and were left for me to discover.”

He coolly relit his pipe, fixed his eyes on Marie without apparently paying attention to the breathless scrutiny of the others, and went on: “Flint, alias Pierre a Fusil, alias Gunn, died a maniac. I resolved to test the truth of his story. I came here. I knew the old homestead, as a boy who had wandered over every part of it, far better than you, Gabriel, or any one. The elder Gunn had only heard of it through the criminal disclosure of his relative, and only wished to absorb it through his son in time, and thus obliterate all trace of Flint’s outrage. I recognized the room perfectly–thanks to our dear Kitty, who had taken up the carpet, which thus disclosed the loose plank before the closet that was hidden by the partition. Under pretext of rearranging the room–for which Kitty will forgive me–I spent the day behind a locked door, making my way through the partition. There I found the rifled closet, but the papers intact. They contained a full description of the sum taken by Flint, and also of a larger sum buried in a cask beside this chimney. I had just finished unearthing it a few moments before you came. I had at first hoped to offer it to the family as a Christmas gift to-morrow, but”–He stopped and sucked slowly at his pipe.

“We anticipated you,” said Gabriel laughing.

“No,” said Uncle Sylvester coolly. “But because it don’t happen to belong to YOU at all! According to the paper I have in my pocket, which is about as legal a document as I ever saw, it is father’s free gift to Miss Marie du Page.”

Kitty threw her arms around her white and breathless friend with a joyful cry, and honest Gabriel’s face shone with unselfish gratification.

“For yourself, my dear Gabriel, you must be satisfied with the fact that Messrs. Peter Gunn & Sons will take back your wildcat stock at the price you paid for it. It is the price they pay for their share in this little transaction, as I had the honor of pointing out to Mr. Gunn on our way to the station this morning.”

“Then you think that young Mr. Gunn knew that Flint was his relation, and that he had stolen father’s money,” said Kitty, “and that Mr. Gunn only wanted to”–She stopped, with flashing eyes.

“I think he would have liked to have made an arrangement, my dear, that would keep the secret and the property in the family,” said Uncle Sylvester. “But I don’t think he suspected the existence of the second treasure here.”

“And then, sir,” said Cousin Jane, “it appears that all these wretched, unsatisfactory scraps of stories you were telling us were nothing after all but”–

“My way of telling THIS one,” said Uncle Sylvester.

As the others were eagerly gathering around the unearthed treasure, Marie approached him timidly, all her audacity gone, tears in her eyes, and his ring held hesitatingly between her fingers. “How can I thank you–and how CAN you ever forgive me?”

“Well,” said Uncle Sylvester, gazing at her critically, “you might keep the ring to think over it.”

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