Prosper's "Old Mother"
"It's all very well," said Joe Wynbrook, "for us to be sittin' here, slingin' lies easy and comfortable, with the wind whistlin' in the pines outside, and the rain just liftin' the ditches to fill our sluice boxes with gold ez we're smokin' and waitin', but I tell you what, boys--it ain't home! No, sir, it ain't HOME!"
The speaker paused, glanced around the bright, comfortable barroom, the shining array of glasses beyond, and the circle of complacent faces fronting the stove, on which his own boots were cheerfully steaming, lifted a glass of whiskey from the floor under his chair, and in spite of his deprecating remark, took a long draught of the spirits with every symptom of satisfaction.
"If ye mean," returned Cyrus Brewster, "that it ain't the old farmhouse of our boyhood, 'way back in the woods, I'll agree with you; but ye'll just remember that there wasn't any gold placers lying round on the medder on that farm. Not much! Ef thar had been, we wouldn't have left it."
"I don't mean that," said Joe Wynbrook, settling himself comfortably back in his chair; "it's the family hearth I'm talkin' of. The soothin' influence, ye know--the tidiness of the women folks."
"Ez to the soothin' influence," remarked the barkeeper, leaning his elbows meditatively on his counter, 'afore I struck these diggin's I had a grocery and bar, 'way back in Mizzoori, where there was five old-fashioned farms jined. Blame my skin ef the men folks weren't a darned sight oftener over in my grocery, sittin' on barrils and histin' in their reg'lar corn-juice, than ever any of you be here--with all these modern improvements."
"Ye don't catch on, any of you," returned Wynbrook impatiently. "Ef it was a mere matter o' buildin' houses and becomin' family men, I reckon that this yer camp is about prosperous enough to do it, and able to get gals enough to marry us, but that would be only borryin' trouble and lettin' loose a lot of jabberin' women to gossip agin' each other and spile all our friendships. No, gentlemen! What we want here--each of us--is a good old mother! Nothin' new-fangled or fancy, but the reg'lar old-fashioned mother we was used to when we was boys!"
The speaker struck a well-worn chord--rather the worse for wear, and one that had jangled falsely ere now, but which still produced its effect. The men were silent. Thus encouraged, Wynbrook proceeded:--
"Think o' comin' home from the gulch a night like this and findin' yer old mother a-waitin' ye! No fumblin' around for the matches ye'd left in the gulch; no high old cussin' because the wood was wet or you forgot to bring it in; no bustlin' around for your dry things and findin' you forgot to dry 'em that mornin'--but everything waitin' for ye and ready. And then, mebbe, she brings ye in some doughnuts she's just cooked for ye--cooked ez only SHE kin cook 'em! Take Prossy Riggs--alongside of me here--for instance! HE'S made the biggest strike yet, and is puttin' up a high-toned house on the hill. Well! he'll hev it finished off and furnished slap-up style, you bet! with a Chinese cook, and a Biddy, and a Mexican vaquero to look after his horse--but he won't have no mother to housekeep! That is," he corrected himself perfunctorily, turning to his companion, "you've never spoke o' your mother, so I reckon you're about fixed up like us."
The young man thus addressed flushed slightly, and then nodded his head with a sheepish smile. He had, however, listened to the conversation with an interest almost childish, and a reverent admiration of his comrades--qualities which, combined with an intellect not particularly brilliant, made him alternately the butt and the favorite of the camp. Indeed, he was supposed to possess that proportion of stupidity and inexperience which, in mining superstition, gives "luck" to its possessor. And this had been singularly proven in the fact that he had made the biggest "strike" of the season.
Joe Wynbrook's sentimentalism, albeit only argumentative and half serious, had unwittingly touched a chord of simple history, and the flush which had risen to his cheek was not entirely bashfulness. The home and relationship of which they spoke so glibly, HE had never known; he was a foundling! As he lay awake that night he remembered the charitable institution which had protected his infancy, the master to whom he had later been apprenticed; that was all he knew of his childhood. In his simple way he had been greatly impressed by the strange value placed by his companions upon the family influence, and he had received their extravagance with perfect credulity. In his absolute ignorance and his lack of humor he had detected no false quality in their sentiment. And a vague sense of his responsibility, as one who had been the luckiest, and who was building the first "house" in the camp, troubled him. He lay staringly wide awake, hearing the mountain wind, and feeling warm puffs of it on his face through the crevices of the log cabin, as he thought of the new house on the hill that was to be lathed and plastered and clapboarded, and yet void and vacant of that mysterious "mother"! And then, out of the solitude and darkness, a tremendous idea struck him that made him sit up in his bunk!
A day or two later "Prossy" Riggs stood on a sand-blown, wind-swept suburb of San Francisco, before a large building whom forbidding exterior proclaimed that it was an institution of formal charity. It was, in fact, a refuge for the various waifs and strays of ill- advised or hopeless immigration. As Prosper paused before the door, certain told recollections of a similar refuge were creeping over him, and, oddly enough, he felt as embarrassed as if he had been seeking relief for himself. The perspiration stood out on his forehead as he entered the room of the manager.
It chanced, however, that this official, besides being a man of shrewd experience of human weakness, was also kindly hearted, and having, after his first official scrutiny of his visitor and his resplendent watch chain, assured himself that he was not seeking personal relief, courteously assisted him in his stammering request.
"If I understand you, you want some one to act as your housekeeper?"
"That's it! Somebody to kinder look arter things--and me-- ginrally," returned Prosper, greatly relieved.
"Of what age?" continued the manager, with a cautious glance at the robust youth and good-looking, simple face of Prosper.
"I ain't nowise partickler--ez long ez she's old--ye know. Ye follow me? Old--ez of--betwixt you an' me, she might be my own mother."
The manager smiled inwardly. A certain degree of discretion was noticeable in this rustic youth! "You are quite right," he answered gravely, "as yours is a mining camp where there are no other women, Still, you don't want any one TOO old or decrepit. There is an elderly maiden lady"-- But a change was transparently visible on Prosper's simple face, and the manager paused.
"She oughter be kinder married, you know--ter be like a mother," stammered Prosper.
"Oh, ay. I see," returned the manager, again illuminated by Prosper's unexpected wisdom.
He mused for a moment. "There is," he began tentatively, "a lady in reduced circumstances--not an inmate of this house, but who has received some relief from us. She was the wife of a whaling captain who died some years ago, and broke up her home. She was not brought up to work, and this, with her delicate health, has prevented her from seeking active employment. As you don't seem to require that of her, but rather want an overseer, and as your purpose, I gather, is somewhat philanthropical, you might induce her to accept a 'home' with you. Having seen better days, she is rather particular," he added, with a shrewd smile.
Simple Prosper's face was radiant. "She'll have a Chinaman and a Biddy to help her," he said quickly. Then recollecting the tastes of his comrades, he added, half apologetically, half cautiously, "Ef she could, now and then, throw herself into a lemming pie or a pot of doughnuts, jest in a motherly kind o' way, it would please the boys."
"Perhaps you can arrange that, too," returned the manager, "but I shall have to broach the whole subject to her, and you had better call again to-morrow, when I will give you her answer."
"Ye kin say," said Prosper, lightly fingering his massive gold chain and somewhat vaguely recalling the language of advertisement, "that she kin have the comforts of a home and no questions asked, and fifty dollars a month."
Rejoiced at the easy progress of his plan, and half inclined to believe himself a miracle of cautious diplomacy, Prosper, two days later, accompanied the manager to the cottage on Telegraph Hill where the relict of the late Captain Pottinger lamented the loss of her spouse, in full view of the sea he had so often tempted. On their way thither the manager imparted to Prosper how, according to hearsay, that lamented seaman had carried into the domestic circle those severe habits of discipline which had earned for him the prefix of "Bully" and "Belaying-pin" Pottinger during his strenuous life. "They say that though she is very quiet and resigned, she once or twice stood up to the captain; but that's not a bad quality to have, in a rough community, as I presume yours is, and would insure her respect."
Ushered at last into a small tank-like sitting room, whose chief decorations consisted of large abelone shells, dried marine algae, coral, and a swordfish's broken weapon, Prosper's disturbed fancy discovered the widow, sitting, apparently, as if among her husband's remains at the bottom of the sea. She had a dejected yet somewhat ruddy face; her hair was streaked with white, but primly disposed over her ears like lappets, and her garb was cleanly but sombre. There was no doubt but that she was a lugubrious figure, even to Prosper's optimistic and inexperienced mind. He could not imagine her as beaming on his hearth! It was with some alarm that, after the introduction had been completed, he beheld the manager take his leave. As the door closed, the bashful Prosper felt the murky eyes of the widow fixed upon him. A gentle cough, accompanied with the resigned laying of a black mittened hand upon her chest, suggested a genteel prelude to conversation, with possible pulmonary complications.
"I am induced to accept your proposal temporarily," she said, in a voice of querulous precision, "on account of pressing pecuniary circumstances which would not have happened had my claim against the shipowners for my dear husband's loss been properly raised. I hope you fully understand that I am unfitted both by ill health and early education from doing any menial or manual work in your household. I shall simply oversee and direct. I shall expect that the stipend you offer shall be paid monthly in advance. And as my medical man prescribes a certain amount of stimulation for my system, I shall expect to be furnished with such viands--or even"-- she coughed slightly--"such beverages as may be necessary. I am far from strong--yet my wants are few."
"Ez far ez I am ketchin' on and followin' ye, ma'am," returned Prosper timidly, "ye'll hev everything ye want--jest like it was yer own home. In fact," he went on, suddenly growing desperate as the difficulties of adjusting this unexpectedly fastidious and superior woman to his plan seemed to increase, "ye'll jest consider me ez yer"-- But here her murky eyes were fixed on his and he faltered. Yet he had gone too far to retreat. "Ye see," he stammered, with a hysterical grimness that was intended to be playful--"ye see, this is jest a little secret betwixt and between you and me; there'll be only you and me in the house, and it would kinder seem to the boys more homelike--ef--ef--you and me had--you bein' a widder, you know--a kind of--of"--here his smile became ghastly--"close relationship."
The widow of Captain Pottinger here sat up so suddenly that she seemed to slip through her sombre and precise enwrappings with an exposure of the real Mrs. Pottinger that was almost improper. Her high color deepened; the pupils of her black eyes contracted in the light the innocent Prosper had poured into them. Leaning forward, with her fingers clasped on her bosom, she said: "Did you tell this to the manager?"
"Of course not," said Prosper; "ye see, it's only a matter 'twixt you and me."
Mrs. Pottinger looked at Prosper, drew a deep breath, and then gazed at the abelone shells for moral support. A smile, half querulous, half superior, crossed her face as she said: "This is very abrupt and unusual. There is, of course, a disparity in our ages! You have never seen me before--at least to my knowledge-- although you may have heard of me. The Spraggs of Marblehead are well known--perhaps better than the Pottingers. And yet, Mr. Griggs"--
"Riggs," suggested Prosper hurriedly.
"Riggs. Excuse me! I was thinking of young Lieutenant Griggs of the Navy, whom I knew in the days now past. Mr. Riggs, I should say. Then you want me to"--
"To be my old mother, ma'am," said Prosper tremblingly. "That is, to pretend and look ez ef you was! You see, I haven't any, but I thought it would he nice for the boys, and make it more like home in my new house, ef I allowed that my old mother would be comin' to live with me. They don't know I never had a mother to speak of. They'll never find it out! Say ye will, Mrs. Pottinger! Do!"
And here the unexpected occurred. Against all conventional rules and all accepted traditions of fiction, I am obliged to state that Mrs. Pottinger did NOT rise up and order the trembling Prosper to leave the house! She only gripped the arm of her chair a little tighter, leaned forward, and disdaining her usual precision and refinement of speech, said quietly: "It's a bargain. If THAT'S what you're wanting, my son, you can count upon me as becoming your old mother, Cecilia Jane Pottinger Riggs, every time!"
A few days later the sentimentalist Joe Wynbrook walked into the Wild Cat saloon, where his comrades were drinking, and laid a letter down on the bar with every expression of astonishment and disgust. "Look," he said, "if that don't beat all! Ye wouldn't believe it, but here's Prossy Riggs writin' that he came across his mother--his MOTHER, gentlemen--in 'Frisco; she hevin', unbeknownst to him, joined a party visiting the coast! And what does this blamed fool do? Why, he's goin' to bring her--that old woman-- HERE! Here--gentlemen--to take charge of that new house--and spoil our fun. And the God-forsaken idiot thinks that we'll LIKE it!"
It was one of those rare mornings in the rainy season when there was a suspicion of spring in the air, and after a night of rainfall the sun broke through fleecy clouds with little islets of blue sky-- when Prosper Riggs and his mother drove into Wild Cat camp. An expression of cheerfulness was on the faces of his old comrades. For it had been recognized that, after all, "Prossy" had a perfect right to bring his old mother there--his well-known youth and inexperience preventing this baleful performance from being established as a precedent. For these reasons hats were cheerfully doffed, and some jackets put on, as the buggy swept up the hill to the pretty new cottage, with its green blinds and white veranda, on the crest.
Yet I am afraid that Prosper was not perfectly happy, even in the triumphant consummation of his plans. Mrs. Pottinger's sudden and business-like acquiescence in it, and her singular lapse from her genteel precision, were gratifying but startling to his ingenuousness. And although from the moment she accepted the situation she was fertile in resources and full of precaution against any possibility of detection, he saw, with some uneasiness, that its control had passed out of his hands.
"You say your comrades know nothing of your family history?" she had said to him on the journey thither. "What are you going to tell them?"
"Nothin', 'cept your bein' my old mother," said Prosper hopelessly.
"That's not enough, my son." (Another embarrassment to Prosper was her easy grasp of the maternal epithets.) "Now listen! You were born just six months after your father, Captain Riggs (formerly Pottinger) sailed on his first voyage. You remember very little of him, of course, as he was away so much."
"Hadn't I better know suthin about his looks?" said Prosper submissively.
"A tall dark man, that's enough," responded Mrs. Pottinger sharply.
"Hadn't he better favor me?" said Prosper, with his small cunning recognizing the fact that he himself was a decided blond.
"Ain't at all necessary," said the widow firmly. "You were always wild and ungovernable," she continued," and ran away from school to join some Western emigration. That accounts for the difference of our styles."
"But," continued Prosper, "I oughter remember suthin about our old times--runnin' arrants for you, and bringin' in the wood o' frosty mornin's, and you givin' me hot doughnuts," suggested Prosper dubiously.
"Nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Pottinger promptly. "We lived in the city, with plenty of servants. Just remember, Prosper dear, your mother wasn't THAT low-down country style."
Glad to be relieved from further invention, Prosper was, nevertheless, somewhat concerned at this shattering of the ideal mother in the very camp that had sung her praises. But he could only trust to her recognizing the situation with her usual sagacity, of which he stood in respectful awe.
Joe Wynbrook and Cyrus Brewster had, as older members of the camp, purposely lingered near the new house to offer any assistance to "Prossy and his mother," and had received a brief and passing introduction to the latter. So deep and unexpected was the impression she made upon them that these two oracles of the camp retired down the hill in awkward silence for some time, neither daring to risk his reputation by comment or oversurprise.
But when they approached the curious crowd below awaiting them, Cyrus Brewster ventured to say, "Struck me ez ef that old gal was rather high-toned for Prossy's mother."
Joe Wynbrook instantly seized the fatal admission to show the advantage of superior insight:--
"Struck YOU! Why, it was no more than I expected all along! What did we know of Prossy? Nothin'! What did he ever tell us'? Nothin'! And why'? 'Cos it was his secret. Lord! a blind mule could see that. All this foolishness and simplicity o' his come o' his bein' cuddled and pampered as a baby. Then, like ez not, he was either kidnapped or led away by some feller--and nearly broke his mother's heart. I'll bet my bottom dollar he has been advertised for afore this--only we didn't see the paper. Like as not they had agents out seekin' him, and he jest ran into their hands in 'Frisco! I had a kind o' presentiment o' this when he left, though I never let on anything."
"I reckon, too, that she's kinder afraid he'll bolt agin. Did ye notice how she kept watchin' him all the time, and how she did the bossin' o' everything? And there's ONE thing sure! He's changed-- yes! He don't look as keerless and free and foolish ez he uster."
Here there was an unmistakable chorus of assent from the crowd that had joined them. Every one--even those who had not been introduced to the mother--had noticed his strange restraint and reticence. In the impulsive logic of the camp, conduct such as this, in the face of that superior woman--his mother--could only imply that her presence was distasteful to him; that he was either ashamed of their noticing his inferiority to her, or ashamed of THEM! Wild and hasty as was their deduction, it was, nevertheless, voiced by Joe Wynbrook in a tone of impartial and even reluctant conviction. "Well, gentlemen, some of ye may remember that when I heard that Prossy was bringin' his mother here I kicked--kicked because it only stood to reason that, being HIS mother, she'd be that foolish she'd upset the camp. There wasn't room enough for two such chuckle-heads--and one of 'em being a woman, she couldn't be shut up or sat upon ez we did to HIM. But now, gentlemen, ez we see she ain't that kind, but high-toned and level-headed, and that she's got the grip on Prossy--whether he likes it or not--we ain't goin' to let him go back on her! No, sir! we ain't goin' to let him break her heart the second time! He may think we ain't good enough for her, but ez long ez she's civil to us, we'll stand by her."
In this conscientious way were the shackles of that unhallowed relationship slowly riveted on the unfortunate Prossy. In his intercourse with his comrades during the next two or three days their attitude was shown in frequent and ostentatious praise of his mother, and suggestive advice, such as: "I wouldn't stop at the saloon, Prossy; your old mother is wantin' ye;" or, "Chuck that 'ere tarpolin over your shoulders, Pross, and don't take your wet duds into the house that yer old mother's bin makin' tidy." Oddly enough, much of this advice was quite sincere, and represented--for at least twenty minutes--the honest sentiments of the speaker. Prosper was touched at what seemed a revival of the sentiment under which he had acted, forgot his uneasiness, and became quite himself again--a fact also noticed by his critics. "Ye've only to keep him up to his work and he'll be the widder's joy agin," said Cyrus Brewster. Certainly he was so far encouraged that he had a long conversation with Mrs. Pottinger that night, with the result that the next morning Joe Wynbrook, Cyrus Brewster, Hank Mann, and Kentucky Ike were invited to spend the evening at the new house. As the men, clean shirted and decently jacketed, filed into the neat sitting room with its bright carpet, its cheerful fire, its side table with a snowy cloth on which shining tea and coffee pots were standing, their hearts thrilled with satisfaction. In a large stuffed rocking chair, Prossy's old mother, wrapped up in a shawl and some mysterious ill health which seemed to forbid any exertion, received them with genteel languor and an extended black mitten.
"I cannot," said Mrs. Pottinger, with sad pensiveness, "offer you the hospitality of my own home, gentlemen--you remember, Prosper, dear, the large salon and our staff of servants at Lexington Avenue!--but since my son has persuaded me to take charge of his humble cot, I hope you will make all allowances for its deficiencies--even," she added, casting a look of mild reproach on the astonished Prosper--"even if HE cannot."
"I'm sure he oughter to be thankful to ye, ma'am," said Joe Wynbrook quickly, "for makin' a break to come here to live, jest ez we're thankful--speakin' for the rest of this camp--for yer lightin' us up ez you're doin'! I reckon I'm speakin' for the crowd," he added, looking round him.
Murmurs of "That's so" and "You bet" passed through the company, and one or two cast a half-indignant glance at Prosper.
"It's only natural," continued Mrs. Pottinger resignedly, "that having lived so long alone, my dear Prosper may at first be a little impatient of his old mother's control, and perhaps regret his invitation."
"Oh no, ma'am," said the embarrassed Prosper.
But here the mercurial Wynbrook interposed on behalf of amity and the camp's esprit de corps. "Why, Lord! ma'am, he's jest bin longin' for ye! Times and times agin he's talked about ye; sayin' how ef he could only get ye out of yer Fifth Avenue saloon to share his humble lot with him here, he'd die happy! YOU'VE heard him talk, Brewster?"
"Frequent," replied the accommodating Brewster.
"Part of the simple refreshment I have to offer you," continued Mrs. Pottinger, ignoring further comment, "is a viand the exact quality of which I am not familiar with, but which my son informs me is a great favorite with you. It has been prepared by Li Sing, under my direction. Prosper, dear, see that the--er--doughnuts-- are brought in with the coffee."
Satisfaction beamed on the faces of the company, with perhaps the sole exception of Prosper. As a dish containing a number of brown glistening spheres of baked dough was brought in, the men's eyes shone in sympathetic appreciation. Yet that epicurean light was for a moment dulled as each man grasped a sphere, and then sat motionless with it in his hand, as if it was a ball and they were waiting the signal for playing.
"I am told," said Mrs. Pottinger, with a glance of Christian tolerance at Prosper, "that lightness is considered desirable by some--perhaps you gentlemen may find them heavy."
"Thar is two kinds," said the diplomatic Joe cheerfully, as he began to nibble his, sideways, like a squirrel, "light and heavy; some likes 'em one way, and some another."
They were hard and heavy, but the men, assisted by the steaming coffee, finished them with heroic politeness. "And now, gentlemen," said Mrs. Pottinger, leaning back in her chair and calmly surveying the party, "you have my permission to light your pipes while you partake of some whiskey and water."
The guests looked up--gratified but astonished. "Are ye sure, ma'am, you don't mind it?" said Joe politely.
"Not at all," responded Mrs. Pottinger briefly. "In fact, as my physician advises the inhalation of tobacco smoke for my asthmatic difficulties, I will join you." After a moment's fumbling in a beaded bag that hung from her waist, she produced a small black clay pipe, filled it from the same receptacle, and lit it.
A thrill of surprise went round the company, and it was noticed that Prosper seemed equally confounded. Nevertheless, this awkwardness was quickly overcome by the privilege and example given them, and with, a glass of whiskey and water before them, the men were speedily at their ease. Nor did Mrs. Pottinger disdain to mingle in their desultory talk. Sitting there with her black pipe in her mouth, but still precise and superior, she told a thrilling whaling adventure of Prosper's father (drawn evidently from the experience of the lamented Pottinger), which not only deeply interested her hearers, but momentarily exalted Prosper in their minds as the son of that hero. "Now you speak o' that, ma'am," said the ingenuous Wynbrook, "there's a good deal o' Prossy in that yarn o' his father's; same kind o' keerless grit! You remember, boys, that day the dam broke and he stood thar, the water up to his neck, heavin' logs in the break till he stopped it." Briefly, the evening, in spite of its initial culinary failure and its surprises, was a decided social success, and even the bewildered and doubting Prosper went to bed relieved. It was followed by many and more informal gatherings at the house, and Mrs Pottinger so far unbent--if that term could be used of one who never altered her primness of manner--as to join in a game of poker--and even permitted herself to win.
But by the end of six weeks another change in their feelings towards Prosper seemed to creep insidiously over the camp. He had been received into his former fellowship, and even the presence of his mother had become familiar, but he began to be an object of secret commiseration. They still frequented the house, but among themselves afterwards they talked in whispers. There was no doubt to them that Prosper's old mother drank not only what her son had provided, but what she surreptitiously obtained from the saloon. There was the testimony of the barkeeper, himself concerned equally with the camp in the integrity of the Riggs household. And there was an even darker suspicion. But this must be given in Joe Wynbrook's own words:--
"I didn't mind the old woman winnin' and winnin' reg'lar--for poker's an unsartin game;--it ain't the money that we're losin'-- for it's all in the camp. But when she's developing a habit o' holdin' FOUR aces when somebody else hez TWO, who don't like to let on because it's Prosper's old mother--it's gettin' rough! And dangerous too, gentlemen, if there happened to be an outsider in, or one of the boys should kick. Why, I saw Bilson grind his teeth-- he holdin' a sequence flush--ace high--when the dear old critter laid down her reg'lar four aces and raked in the pile. We had to nearly kick his legs off under the table afore he'd understand--not havin' an old mother himself."
"Some un will hev to tackle her without Prossy knowin' it. For it would jest break his heart, arter all he's gone through to get her here!" said Brewster significantly.
"Onless he DID know it and it was that what made him so sorrowful when they first came. B'gosh! I never thought o' that," said Wynbrook, with one of his characteristic sudden illuminations.
"Well, gentlemen, whether he did or not," said the barkeeper stoutly, "he must never know that WE know it. No, not if the old gal cleans out my bar and takes the last scad in the camp."
And to this noble sentiment they responded as one man.
How far they would have been able to carry out that heroic resolve was never known, for an event occurred which eclipsed its importance. One morning at breakfast Mrs. Pottinger fixed a clouded eye upon Prosper.
"Prosper," she said, with fell deliberation "you ought to know you have a sister."
"Yes, ma'am," returned Prosper, with that meekness with which he usually received these family disclosures.
"A sister," continued the lady, "whom you haven't seen since you were a child; a sister who for family reasons has been living with other relatives; a girl of nineteen."
"Yea, ma'am," said Prosper humbly. "But ef you wouldn't mind writin' all that down on a bit o' paper--ye know my short memory! I would get it by heart to-day in the gulch. I'd have it all pat enough by night, ef," he added, with a short sigh, "ye was kalkilatin' to make any illusions to it when the boys are here."
"Your sister Augusta," continued Mrs. Pottinger, calmly ignoring these details, "will be here to-morrow to make me a visit."
But here the worm Prosper not only turned, but stood up, nearly upsetting the table. "It can't be did, ma'am it MUSTN'T be did!" he said wildly. "It's enough for me to have played this camp with YOU--but now to run in"--
"Can't be did!" repeated Mrs. Pottinger, rising in her turn and fixing upon the unfortunate Prosper a pair of murky piratical eyes that had once quelled the sea-roving Pottinger. "Do you, my adopted son, dare to tell me that I can't have my own flesh and blood beneath my roof?"
"Yes! I'd rather tell the whole story--I'd rather tell the boys I fooled them--than go on again!" burst out the excited Prosper.
But Mrs. Pottinger only set her lips implacably together. "Very well, tell them then," she said rigidly; "tell them how you lured me from my humble dependence in San Francisco with the prospect of a home with you; tell them how you compelled me to deceive their trusting hearts with your wicked falsehoods; tell them how you--a foundling--borrowed me for your mother, my poor dead husband for your father, and made me invent falsehood upon falsehood to tell them while you sat still and listened!"
"Tell them," she went on deliberately, "that when I wanted to bring my helpless child to her only home--THEN, only then--you determined to break your word to me, either because you meanly begrudged her that share of your house, or to keep your misdeeds from her knowledge! Tell them that, Prossy, dear, and see what they'll say!"
Prosper sank back in his chair aghast. In his sudden instinct of revolt he had forgotten the camp! He knew, alas, too well what they would say! He knew that, added to their indignation at having been duped, their chivalry and absurd sentiment would rise in arms against the abandonment of two helpless women!
"P'r'aps ye're right, ma'am," he stammered. "I was only thinkin'," he added feebly, "how SHE'D take it."
"She'll take it as I wish her to take it," said Mrs. Pottinger firmly.
"Supposin', ez the camp don't know her, and I ain't bin talkin' o' havin' any SISTER, you ran her in here as my COUSIN? See? You bein' her aunt?"
Mrs. Pottinger regarded him with compressed lips for some time. Then she said, slowly and half meditatively: "Yes, it might be done! She will probably be willing to sacrifice her nearer relationship to save herself from passing as your sister. It would be less galling to her pride, and she wouldn't have to treat you so familiarly."
"Yes, ma'am," said Prosper, too relieved to notice the uncomplimentary nature of the suggestion. "And ye see I could call her 'Miss Pottinger,' which would come easier to me."
In its high resolve to bear with the weaknesses of Prosper's mother, the camp received the news of the advent of Prosper's cousin solely with reference to its possible effect upon the aunt's habits, and very little other curiosity. Prosper's own reticence, they felt, was probably due to the tender age at which he had separated from his relations. But when it was known that Prosper's mother had driven to the house with a very pretty girl of eighteen, there was a flutter of excitement in that impressionable community. Prosper, with his usual shyness, had evaded an early meeting with her, and was even loitering irresolutely on his way home from work, when, as he approached the house, to his discomfiture the door suddenly opened, the young lady appeared and advanced directly towards him.
She was slim, graceful, and prettily dressed, and at any other moment Prosper might have been impressed by her good looks. But her brows were knit, her dark eyes--in which there was an unmistakable reminiscence of Mrs. Pottinger--were glittering, and although she was apparently anticipating their meeting, it was evidently with no cousinly interest. When within a few feet of him she stopped. Prosper with a feeble smile offered his hand. She sprang back.
"Don't touch me! Don't come a step nearer or I'll scream!"
Prosper, still with smiling inanity, stammered that he was only "goin' to shake hands," and moved sideways towards the house.
"Stop!" she said, with a stamp of her slim foot. "Stay where you are! We must have our talk out HERE. I'm not going to waste words with you in there, before HER."
"What did you do this for?" she said angrily. "How dared you? How could you? Are you a man, or the fool she takes you for?"
"Wot did I do WOT for?" said Prosper sullenly.
"This! Making my mother pretend you were her son! Bringing her here among these men to live a lie!"
"She was willin'," said Prosper gloomily. "I told her what she had to do, and she seemed to like it."
"But couldn't you see she was old and weak, and wasn't responsible for her actions? Or were you only thinking of yourself?"
This last taunt stung him. He looked up. He was not facing a helpless, dependent old woman as he had been the day before, but a handsome, clever girl, in every way his superior--and in the right! In his vague sense of honor it seemed more creditable for him to fight it out with HER. He burst out: "I never thought of myself! I never had an old mother; I never knew what it was to want one-- but the men did! And as I couldn't get one for them, I got one for myself--to share and share alike--I thought they'd be happier ef there was one in the camp!"
There was the unmistakable accent of truth in his voice. There came a faint twitching of the young girl's lips and the dawning of a smile. But it only acted as a goad to the unfortunate Prosper. "Ye kin laugh, Miss Pottinger, but it's God's truth! But one thing I didn't do. No! When your mother wanted to bring you in here as my sister, I kicked! I did! And you kin thank me, for all your laughin', that you're standing in this camp in your own name--and ain't nothin' but my cousin."
"I suppose you thought your precious friends didn't want a SISTER too?" said the girl ironically.
"It don't make no matter wot they want now," he said gloomily. "For," he added, with sudden desperation, "it's come to an end! Yes! You and your mother will stay here a spell so that the boys don't suspicion nothin' of either of ye. Then I'll give it out that you're takin' your aunt away on a visit. Then I'll make over to her a thousand dollars for all the trouble I've given her, and you'll take her away. I've bin a fool, Miss Pottinger, mebbe I am one now, but what I'm doin' is on the square, and it's got to be done!"
He looked so simple and so good--so like an honest schoolboy confessing a fault and abiding by his punishment, for all his six feet of altitude and silky mustache--that Miss Pottinger lowered her eyes. But she recovered herself and said sharply:--
"It's all very well to talk of her going away! But she WON'T. You have made her like you--yes! like you better than me--than any of us! She says you're the only one who ever treated her like a mother--as a mother should be treated. She says she never knew what peace and comfort were until she came to you. There! Don't stare like that! Don't you understand? Don't you see? Must I tell you again that she is strange--that--that she was ALWAYS queer and strange--and queerer on account of her unfortunate habits-- surely you knew THEM, Mr. Riggs! She quarreled with us all. I went to live with my aunt, and she took herself off to San Francisco with a silly claim against my father's shipowners. Heaven only knows how she managed to live there; but she always impressed people with her manners, and some one always helped her! At last I begged my aunt to let me seek her, and I tracked her here. There! If you've confessed everything to me, you have made me confess everything to you, and about my own mother, too! Now, what is to be done?"
"Whatever is agreeable to you is the same to me, Miss Pottinger," he said formally.
"But you mustn't call me 'Miss Pottinger' so loud. Somebody might hear you," she returned mischievously.
"All right--'cousin,' then," he said, with a prodigious blush. "Supposin' we go in."
In spite of the camp's curiosity, for the next few days they delicately withheld their usual evening visits to Prossy's mother. "They'll be wantin' to talk o' old times, and we don't wanter be too previous," suggested Wynbrook. But their verdict, when they at last met the new cousin, was unanimous, and their praises extravagant. To their inexperienced eyes she seemed to possess all her aunt's gentility and precision of language, with a vivacity and playfulness all her own. In a few days the whole camp was in love with her. Yet she dispensed her favors with such tactful impartiality and with such innocent enjoyment--free from any suspicion of coquetry--that there were no heartburnings, and the unlucky man who nourished a fancied slight would have been laughed at by his fellows. She had a town-bred girl's curiosity and interest in camp life, which she declared was like a "perpetual picnic," and her slim, graceful figure halting beside a ditch where the men were working seemed to them as grateful as the new spring sunshine. The whole camp became tidier; a coat was considered de rigueur at "Prossy's mother" evenings; there was less horseplay in the trails, and less shouting. "It's all very well to talk about 'old mothers,'" said the cynical barkeeper, "but that gal, single handed, has done more in a week to make the camp decent than old Ma'am Riggs has in a month o' Sundays."
Since Prosper's brief conversation with Miss Pottinger before the house, the question "What is to be done?" had singularly lapsed, nor had it been referred to again by either. The young lady had apparently thrown herself into the diversions of the camp with the thoughtless gayety of a brief holiday maker, and it was not for him to remind her--even had he wished to--that her important question had never been answered. He had enjoyed her happiness with the relief of a secret shared by her. Three weeks had passed; the last of the winter's rains had gone. Spring was stirring in underbrush and wildwood, in the pulse of the waters, in the sap of the great pines, in the uplifting of flowers. Small wonder if Prosper's boyish heart had stirred a little too.
In fact, he had been possessed by another luminous idea--a wild idea that to him seemed almost as absurd as the one which had brought him all this trouble. It had come to him like that one-- out of a starlit night--and he had risen one morning with a feverish intent to put it into action! It brought him later to take an unprecedented walk alone with Miss Pottinger, to linger under green leaves in unfrequented woods, and at last seemed about to desert him as he stood in a little hollow with her hand in his-- their only listener an inquisitive squirrel. Yet this was all the disappointed animal heard him stammer,--
"So you see, dear, it would THEN be no lie--for--don't you see?-- she'd be really MY mother as well as YOURS."
The marriage of Prosper Riggs and Miss Pottinger was quietly celebrated at Sacramento, but Prossy's "old mother" did not return with the happy pair.
Of Mrs. Pottinger's later career some idea may be gathered from a letter which Prosper received a year after his marriage. "Circumstances," wrote Mrs. Pottinger, "which had induced me to accept the offer of a widower to take care of his motherless household, have since developed into a more enduring matrimonial position, so that I can always offer my dear Prosper a home with his mother, should he choose to visit this locality, and a second father in Hiram W. Watergates, Esq., her husband."