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Dick Spindler's Family Christmas

from Mr. Jack Hamlin's Mediation

by Bret Harte

1894

 

There was surprise and sometimes disappointment in Rough and Ready, when it was known that Dick Spindler intended to give a "family" Christmas party at his own house.  That he should take an early opportunity to celebrate his good fortune and show hospitality was only expected from the man who had just made a handsome "strike" on his claim; but that it should assume so conservative, old- fashioned, and respectable a form was quite unlooked-for by Rough and Ready, and was thought by some a trifle pretentious.  There were not half-a-dozen families in Rough and Ready; nobody ever knew before that Spindler had any relations, and this "ringing in" of strangers to the settlement seemed to indicate at least a lack of public spirit.  "He might," urged one of his critics, "hev given the boys,--that had worked alongside o' him in the ditches by day, and slung lies with him around the camp-fire by night,--he might hev given them a square 'blow out,' and kep' the leavin's for his old Spindler crew, just as other families do.  Why, when old man Scudder had his house-raisin' last year, his family lived for a week on what was left over, after the boys had waltzed through the house that night,--and the Scudders warn't strangers, either."  It was also evident that there was an uneasy feeling that Spindler's action indicated an unhallowed leaning towards the minority of respectability and exclusiveness, and a desertion--without the excuse of matrimony--of the convivial and independent bachelor majority of Rough and Ready.

"Ef he was stuck after some gal and was kinder looking ahead, I'd hev understood it," argued another critic.

"Don't ye be too sure he ain't," said Uncle Jim Starbuck gloomily. "Ye'll find that some blamed woman is at the bottom of this yer 'family' gathering.  That and trouble ez almost all they're made for!"

There happened to be some truth in this dark prophecy, but none of the kind that the misogynist supposed.  In fact, Spindler had called a few evenings before at the house of the Rev. Mr. Saltover, and Mrs. Saltover, having one of her "Saleratus headaches," had turned him over to her widow sister, Mrs. Huldy Price, who obediently bestowed upon him that practical and critical attention which she divided with the stocking she was darning.  She was a woman of thirty-five, of singular nerve and practical wisdom, who had once smuggled her wounded husband home from a border affray, calmly made coffee for his deceived pursuers while he lay hidden in the loft, walked four miles for that medical assistance which arrived too late to save him, buried him secretly in his own "quarter section," with only one other witness and mourner, and so saved her position and property in that wild community, who believed he had fled.  There was very little of this experience to be traced in her round, fresh-colored brunette cheek, her calm black eyes, set in a prickly hedge of stiff lashes, her plump figure, or her frank, courageous laugh.  The latter appeared as a smile when she welcomed Mr. Spindler.  "She hadn't seen him for a coon's age," but "reckoned he was busy fixin' up his new house."

"Well, yes," said Spindler, with a slight hesitation, "ye see, I'm reckonin' to hev a kinder Christmas gatherin' of my"--he was about to say "folks," but dismissed it for "relations," and finally settled upon "relatives" as being more correct in a preacher's house.

Mrs. Price thought it a very good idea.  Christmas was the natural season for the family to gather to "see who's here and who's there, who's gettin' on and who isn't, and who's dead and buried.  It was lucky for them who were so placed that they could do so and be joyful."  Her invincible philosophy probably carried her past any dangerous recollections of the lonely grave in Kansas, and holding up the stocking to the light, she glanced cheerfully along its level to Mr. Spindler's embarrassed face by the fire.

Well, I can't say much ez to that," responded Spindler, still awkwardly, "for you see I don't know much about it anyway."

"How long since you've seen 'em?" asked Mrs. Price, apparently addressing herself to the stocking.

Spindler gave a weak laugh.  "Well, you see, ef it comes to that, I've never seen 'em!"

Mrs. Price put the stocking in her lap and opened her direct eyes on Spindler.  "Never seen 'em?" she repeated.  "Then, they're not near relations?

"There are three cousins," said Spindler, checking them off on his fingers, "a half-uncle, a kind of brother-in-law,--that is, the brother of my sister-in-law's second husband,--and a niece.  That's six."

"But if you've not seen them, I suppose they've corresponded with you?" said Mrs. Price.

"They've nearly all of 'em written to me for money, seeing my name in the paper ez hevin' made a strike," returned Spindler simply; "and hevin' sent it, I jest know their addresses."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Price, returning to the stocking.

Something in the tone of her ejaculation increased Spindler's embarrassment, but it also made him desperate.  "You see, Mrs. Price," he blurted out, "I oughter tell ye that I reckon they are the folks that 'hevn't got on,' don't you see, and so it seemed only the square thing for me, ez had 'got on,' to give them a sort o' Christmas festival.  Suthin', don't ye know, like what your brother-in-law was sayin' last Sunday in the pulpit about this yer peace and goodwill 'twixt man and man."

Mrs. Price looked again at the man before her.  His sallow, perplexed face exhibited some doubt, yet a certain determination, regarding the prospect the quotation had opened to him.  "A very good idea, Mr. Spindler, and one that does you great credit," she said gravely.

"I'm mighty glad to hear you say so, Mrs. Price," he said, with an accent of great relief, "for I reckoned to ask you a great favor! You see," he fell into his former hesitation, "that is--the fact is--that this sort o' thing is rather suddent to me,--a little outer my line, don't you see, and I was goin' to ask ye ef you'd mind takin' the hull thing in hand and runnin it for me."

"Running it for you," said Mrs. Price, with a quick eye-shot from under the edge of her lashes.  "Man alive!  What are you thinking of?"

"Bossin' the whole job for me," hurried on Spindler, with nervous desperation.  "Gettin' together all the things and makin' ready for 'em,--orderin' in everythin' that's wanted, and fixin' up the rooms,--I kin step out while you're doin' it,--and then helpin' me receivin' 'em, and sittin' at the head o' the table, you know,-- like ez ef you was the mistress."

"But," said Mrs. Price, with her frank laugh, "that's the duty of one of your relations,--your niece, for instance,--or cousin, if one of them is a woman."

"But," persisted Spindler, "you see, they're strangers to me; I don't know 'em, and I do you.  You'd make it easy for 'em,--and for me,--don't you see?  Kinder introduce 'em,--don't you know?  A woman of your gin'ral experience would smooth down all them little difficulties," continued Spindler, with a vague recollection of the Kansas story, "and put everybody on velvet.  Don't say 'No,' Mrs. Price!  I'm just kalkilatin' on you"

Sincerity and persistency in a man goes a great way with even the best of women.  Mrs. Price, who had at first received Spindler's request as an amusing originality, now began to incline secretly towards it.  And, of course, began to suggest objections.

"I'm afraid it won't do," she said thoughtfully, awakening to the fact that it would do and could be done.  "You see, I've promised to spend Christmas at Sacramento with my nieces from Baltimore.  And then there's Mrs. Saltover and my sister to consult."

But here Spindler's simple face showed such signs of distress that the widow declared she would "think it over,"--a process which the sanguine Spindler seemed to consider so nearly akin to talking it over that Mrs. Price began to believe it herself, as he hopefully departed.

She "thought it over" sufficiently to go to Sacramento and excuse herself to her nieces.  But here she permitted herself to "talk it over," to the infinite delight of those Baltimore girls, who thought this extravaganza of Spindler's "so Californian and eccentric!"  So that it was not strange that presently the news came back to Rough and Ready, and his old associates learned for the first time that he had never seen his relatives, and that they would be doubly strangers.  This did not increase his popularity; neither, I grieve to say, did the intelligence that his relatives were probably poor, and that the Reverend Mr. Saltover had approved of his course, and had likened it to the rich man's feast, to which the halt and blind were invited.  Indeed, the allusion was supposed to add hypocrisy and a bid for popularity to Spindler's defection, for it was argued that he might have feasted "Wall-eyed Joe" or "Tangle-foot Billy,"--who had once been "chawed" by a bear while prospecting,--if he had been sincere.  Howbeit, Spindler's faith was oblivious to these criticisms, in his joy at Mr. Saltover's adhesion to his plans and the loan of Mrs. Price as a hostess.  In fact, he proposed to her that the invitation should also convey that information in the expression, "by the kind permission of the Rev. Mr. Saltover," as a guarantee of good faith, but the widow would have none of it.  The invitations were duly written and dispatched.

"Suppose," suggested Spindler, with a sudden lugubrious apprehension,--"suppose they shouldn't come?"

"Have no fear of that," said Mrs. Price, with a frank laugh.

"Or ef they was dead," continued Spindler.

"They couldn't all be dead," said the widow cheerfully.

"I've written to another cousin by marriage," said Spindler dubiously, "in case of accident; I didn't think of him before, because he was rich."

"And have you ever seen him either, Mr. Spindler?" asked the widow, with a slight mischievousness.

"Lordy!  No!" he responded, with unaffected concern.

Only one mistake was made by Mrs. Price in her arrangements for the party.  She had noticed what the simple-minded Spindler could never have conceived,--the feeling towards him held by his old associates, and had tactfully suggested that a general invitation should be extended to them in the evening.

"You can have refreshments, you know, too, after the dinner, and games and music."

"But," said the unsophisticated host, "won't the boys think I'm playing it rather low down on them, so to speak, givin' 'em a kind o' second table, as ef it was the tailings after a strike?"

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Price, with decision.  "It's quite fashionable in San Francisco, and just the thing to do."

To this decision Spindler, in his blind faith in the widow's management, weakly yielded.  An announcement in the "Weekly Banner" that, "On Christmas evening Richard Spindler, Esq., proposed to entertain his friends and fellow citizens at an 'at home,' in his own residence," not only widened the breach between him and the "boys," but awakened an active resentment that only waited for an outlet.  It was understood that they were all coming; but that they should have "some fun out of it" which might not coincide with Spindler's nor his relatives' sense of humor seemed a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, too, subsequent events lent themselves to this irony of the situation.

He was so obviously sincere in his intent, and, above all, seemed to place such a pathetic reliance on her judgment, that she hesitated to let him know the shock his revelation had given her. And what might his other relations prove to be?  Good Lord!  Yet, oddly enough, she was so prepossessed by him, and so fascinated by his very Quixotism, that it was perhaps for these complex reasons that she said a little stiffly:--

"One of these cousins, I see, is a lady, and then there is your niece.  Do you know anything about them, Mr. Spindler?"

His face grew serious.  "No more than I know of the others," he said apologetically.  After a moment's hesitation he went on: "Now you speak of it, it seems to me I've heard that my niece was di-vorced.  But," he added, brightening up, "I've heard that she was popular."

Mrs. Price gave a short laugh, and was silent for a few minutes. Then this sublime little woman looked up at him.  What he might have seen in her eyes was more than he expected, or, I fear, deserved.  "Cheer up, Mr. Spindler," she said manfully.  "I'll see you through this thing, don't you mind!  But don't you say anything about--about--this Vigilance Committee business to anybody.  Nor about your niece--it was your niece, wasn't it?--being divorced. Charley (the late Mr. Price) had a queer sort of sister, who--but that's neither here nor there!  And your niece mayn't come, you
know; or if she does, you ain't bound to bring her out to the general company."

At parting, Spindler, in sheer gratefulness, pressed her hand, and lingered so long over it that a little color sprang into the widow's brown cheek.  Perhaps a fresh courage sprang into her heart, too, for she went to Sacramento the next day, previously enjoining Spindler on no account to show any answers he might receive.  At Sacramento her nieces flew to her with confidences.

"We so wanted to see you, Aunt Huldy, for we've heard something so delightful about your funny Christmas Party!"  Mrs. Price's heart sank, but her eyes snapped.  "Only think of it!  One of Mr. Spindler's long-lost relatives--a Mr. Wragg--lives in this hotel, and papa knows him.  He's a sort of half-uncle, I believe, and he's just furious that Spindler should have invited him.  He showed papa the letter; said it was the greatest piece of insolence in the world; that Spindler was an ostentatious fool, who had made a little money and wanted to use him to get into society; and the fun of the whole thing was that this half-uncle and whole brute is himself a parvenu,--a vulgar, ostentatious creature, who was only a"--

"Never mind what he was, Kate," interrupted Mrs. Price hastily.  "I call his conduct a shame."

"So do we," said both girls eagerly.  After a pause Kate clasped her knees with her locked fingers, and rocking backwards and forwards, said, "Milly and I have got an idea, and don't you say 'No' to it.  We've had it ever since that brute talked in that way. Now, through him, we know more about this Mr. Spindler's family connections than you do; and we know all the trouble you and he'll have in getting up this party.  You understand?  Now, we first want to know what Spindler's like.  Is he a savage, bearded creature, like the miners we saw on the boat?"

Mrs. Price said that, on the contrary, he was very gentle, soft-spoken, and rather good-looking.

"Young or old?"

"Young,--in fact, a mere boy, as you may judge from his actions," returned Mrs. Price, with a suggestive matronly air.

Kate here put up a long-handled eyeglass to her fine gray eyes, fitted it ostentatiously over her aquiline nose, and then said, in a voice of simulated horror, "Aunt Huldy,--this revelation is shocking!"

Mrs. Price laughed her usual frank laugh, albeit her brown cheek took upon it a faint tint of Indian red.  "If that's the wonderful idea you girls have got, I don't see how it's going to help matters," she said dryly.

"No, that's not it?  We really have an idea.  Now look here."

Mrs. Price "looked here."  This process seemed to the superficial observer to be merely submitting her waist and shoulders to the arms of her nieces, and her ears to their confidential and coaxing voices.

Twice she said "it couldn't be thought of," and "it was impossible;" once addressed Kate as "You limb!" and finally said that she "wouldn't promise, but might write!"

        .        .        .        .        .        .

It was two days before Christmas.  There was nothing in the air, sky, or landscape of that Sierran slope to suggest the season to the Eastern stranger.  A soft rain had been dropping for a week on laurel, pine, and buckeye, and the blades of springing grasses and shyly opening flowers.  Sedate and silent hillsides that had grown dumb and parched towards the end of the dry season became gently articulate again; there were murmurs in hushed and forgotten canyons, the leap and laugh of water among the dry bones of dusty creeks, and the full song of the larger forks and rivers. Southwest winds brought the warm odor of the pine sap swelling in the forest, or the faint, far-off spice of wild mustard springing in the lower valleys.  But, as if by some irony of Nature, this gentle invasion of spring in the wild wood brought only disturbance and discomfort to the haunts and works of man.  The ditches were overflowed, the fords of the Fork impassable, the sluicing adrift, and the trails and wagon roads to Rough and Ready knee-deep in mud. The stage-coach from Sacramento, entering the settlement by the mountain highway, its wheels and panels clogged and crusted with an unctuous pigment like mud and blood, passed out of it through the overflowed and dangerous ford, and emerged in spotless purity, leaving its stains behind with Rough and Ready.  A week of enforced idleness on the river "Bar" had driven the miners to the more comfortable recreation of the saloon bar, its mirrors, its florid paintings, its armchairs, and its stove.  The steam of their wet boots and the smoke of their pipes hung over the latter like the sacrificial incense from an altar.  But the attitude of the men was more critical and censorious than contented, and showed little of the gentleness of the weather or season.

"Did you hear if the stage brought down any more relations of Spindler's?"

The barkeeper, to whom this question was addressed, shifted his lounging position against the bar and said, "I reckon not, ez far ez I know."

"And that old bloat of a second cousin--that crimson beak--what kem down yesterday,--he ain't bin hangin' round here today for his reg'lar pizon?"

"No," said the barkeeper thoughtfully, "I reckon Spindler's got him locked up, and is settin' on him to keep him sober till after Christmas, and prevent you boys gettin' at him."

"He'll have the jimjams before that," returned the first speaker; "and how about that dead beat of a half-nephew who borrowed twenty dollars of Yuba Bill on the way down, and then wanted to get off at Shootersvilie, but Bill wouldn't let him, and scooted him down to Spindler's and collected the money from Spindler himself afore he'd give him up?"

"He's up thar with the rest of the menagerie," said the barkeeper, "but I reckon that Mrs. Price hez bin feedin' him up.  And ye know the old woman--that fifty-fifth cousin by marriage--whom Joe Chandler swears he remembers ez an old cook for a Chinese restaurant in Stockton,--darn my skin ef that Mrs. Price hasn't rigged her out in some fancy duds of her own, and made her look quite decent."

A deep groan here broke from Uncle Jim Starbuck.

"Didn't I tell ye?" he said, turning appealingly to the others. "It's that darned widow that's at the bottom of it all!  She first put Spindler up to givin' the party, and now, darn my skin, ef she ain't goin to fix up these ragamuffins and drill 'em so we can't get any fun outer 'em after all!  And it's bein' a woman that's bossin' the job, and not Spindler, we've got to draw things mighty fine and not cut up too rough, or some of the boys will kick."

"You bet," said a surly but decided voice in the crowd.

"And," said another voice, "Mrs. Price didn't live in 'Bleeding Kansas' for nothing."

"Wot's the programme you've settled on, Uncle Jim?" said the barkeeper lightly, to check what seemed to promise a dangerous discussion.

"Well," said Starbuck, "we kalkilate to gather early Christmas night in Hooper's Hollow and rig ourselves up Injun fashion, and then start for Spindler's with pitch-pine torches, and have a 'torchlight dance' around the house; them who does the dancin' and yellin' outside takin' their turn at goin' in and hevin' refreshment. Jake Cooledge, of Boston, sez if anybody objects to it, we've only got to say we're 'Mummers of the Olden Times,' sabe?  Then, later, we'll have 'Them Sabbath Evening Bells' performed on prospectin' pans by the band.  Then, at the finish, Jake Cooledge is goin' to give one of his surkastic speeches,--kinder welcomin' Spindler's family to the Free Openin' o' Spindler's Almshouse and Reformatory." He paused, possibly for that approbation which, however, did not seem to come spontaneously.  "It ain't much," he added apologetically, "for we're hampered by women; but we'll add to the programme ez we see how things pan out.  Ye see, from what we can hear, all of Spindler's relations ain't on hand yet!  We've got to wait, like in elckshun times, for 'returns from the back counties.'  Hello!  What's that?"

It was the swish and splutter of hoofs on the road before the door. The Sacramento coach!  In an instant every man was expectant, and Starbuck darted outside on the platform.  Then there was the usual greeting and bustle, the hurried ingress of thirsty passengers into the saloon, and a pause.  Uncle Jim returned, excitedly and pantingly.  "Look yer, boys!  Ef this ain't the richest thing out! They say there's two more relations o' Spindler's on the coach, come down as express freight, consigned,--d'ye hear?--consigned to Spindler!"

"Stiffs, in coffins?" suggested an eager voice.

"I didn't get to hear more.  But here they are."

There was the sudden irruption of a laughing, curious crowd into the bar-room, led by Yuba Bill, the driver.  Then the crowd parted, and out of their midst stepped two children, a boy and a girl, the oldest apparently of not more than six years, holding each other's hands.  They were coarsely yet cleanly dressed, and with a certain uniform precision that suggested formal charity.  But more remarkable than all, around the neck of each was a little steel chain, from which depended the regular check and label of the powerful Express Company, Wells; Fargo & Co., and the words: "To Richard Spindler."  "Fragile."  "With great care."  "Collect on delivery."  Occasionally their little hands went up automatically and touched their labels, as if to show them.  They surveyed the crowd, the floor, the gilded bar, and Yuba Bill without fear and without wonder.  There was a pathetic suggestion that they were accustomed to this observation.

"Now, Bobby," said Yuba Bill, leaning back against the bar, with an air half-paternal, half-managerial, "tell these gents how you came here."

"By Wellth, Fargoth Expreth," lisped Bobby.

"Whar from?"

"Wed Hill, Owegon."

"Red Hill, Oregon?  Why, it's a thousand miles from here," said a bystander.

"I reckon," said Yuba Bill coolly, "they kem by stage to Portland, by steamer to 'Frisco, steamer again to Stockton, and then by stage over the whole line.  Allers by Wells, Fargo & Co.'s Express, from agent to agent, and from messenger to messenger.  Fact!  They ain't bin tetched or handled by any one but the Kempany's agents; they ain't had a line or direction except them checks around their necks! And they've wanted for nothin' else.  Why, I've carried heaps o' treasure before, gentlemen, and once a hundred thousand dollars in greenbacks, but I never carried anythin' that was watched and guarded as them kids!  Why, the division inspector at Stockton wanted to go with 'em over the line; but Jim Bracy, the messenger, said he'd call it a reflection on himself and resign, ef they didn't give 'em to him with the other packages!  Ye had a pretty good time, Bobby, didn't ye?  Plenty to eat and drink, eh?"

The two children laughed a little weak laugh, turned each other bashfully around, and then looked up shyly at Yuba Bill and said, "Yeth."

"Do you know where you are goin'?" asked Starbuck, in a constrained voice.

It was the little girl who answered quickly and eagerly:--

"Yes, to Krissmass and Sandy Claus."

"To what?" asked Starbuck.

Here the boy interposed with a superior air:--

"Thee meanth Couthin Dick.  He'th got Krithmath."

"Where's your mother?"

"Dead."

"And your father?"

"In orthpittal."

There was a laugh somewhere on the outskirts of the crowd.  Every one faced angrily in that direction, but the laugher had disappeared. Yuba Bill, however, sent his voice after him.  "Yes, in hospital!  Funny, ain't it?--amoosin' place!  Try it.  Step over here, and in five minutes, by the living Hoky, I'll qualify you for admission, and not charge you a cent!"  He stopped, gave a sweeping glance of dissatisfaction around him, and then, leaning back against the bar, beckoned to some one near the door, and said in a disgusted tone, "You tell these galoots how it happened, Bracy.  They make me sick!"

Thus appealed to, Bracy, the express messenger, stepped forward in Yuba Bill's place.

"It's nothing particular, gentlemen," he said, with a laugh, "only it seems that some man called Spindler, who lives about here, sent an invitation to the father of these children to bring his family to a Christmas party.  It wasn't a bad sort of thing for Spindler to do, considering that they were his poor relations, though they didn't know him from Adam,--was it?"  He paused; several of the bystanders cleared their throats, but said nothing.  "At least," resumed Bracy, "that's what the boys up at Red Hill, Oregon, thought, when they heard of it.  Well, as the father was in hospital with a broken leg, and the mother only a few weeks dead, the boys thought it mighty rough on these poor kids if they were done out of their fun because they had no one to bring them.  The boys couldn't afford to go themselves, but they got a little money together, and then got the idea of sendin' 'em by express.  Our agent at Red Hill tumbled to the idea at once; but he wouldn't take any money in advance, and said he would send 'em 'C. O. D.' like any other package.  And he did, and here they are!  That's all! And now, gentlemen, as I've got to deliver them personally to this Spindler, and get his receipt and take off their checks, I reckon we must toddle.  Come, Bill, help take 'em up!"

"Hold on!" said a dozen voices.  A dozen hands were thrust into a dozen pockets; I grieve to say some were regretfully withdrawn empty, for it was a hard season in Rough and Ready.  But the expressman stepped before them, with warning, uplifted hand.

"Not a cent, boys,--not a cent!  Wells, Fargo's Express Company don't undertake to carry bullion with those kids, at least on the same contract!"  He laughed, and then looking around him, saidconfidentially in a lower voice, which, however, was quite audible to the children, "There's as much as three bags of silver in quarter and half dollars in my treasure box in the coach that has been poured, yes, just showered upon them, ever since they started, and have been passed over from agent to agent and messenger to messenger,--enough to pay their passage from here to China!  It's
time to say quits now.  But bet your life, they are not going to that Christmas party poor!"

He caught up the boy, as Yuba Bill lifted the little girl to his shoulder, and both passed out.  Then one by one the loungers in the bar-room silently and awkwardly followed, and when the barkeeper turned back from putting away his decanters and glasses, to his astonishment the room was empty.

    .        .        .        .        .        .
Spindler's house, or "Spindler's Splurge," as Rough and Ready chose to call it, stood above the settlement, on a deforested hillside, which, however, revenged itself by producing not enough vegetation to cover even the few stumps that were ineradicable.  A large wooden structure in the pseudo-classic style affected by Westerners, with an incongruous cupola, it was oddly enough relieved by a still more incongruous veranda extending around its four sides, upheld by wooden Doric columns, which were already picturesquely covered with flowering vines and sun-loving roses.  Mr. Spindler had trusted the furnishing of its interior to the same contractor who had upholstered the gilded bar-room of the Eureka Saloon, and who had apparently bestowed the same design and material, impartially, on each.  There were gilded mirrors all over the house and chilly marble-topped tables, gilt plaster Cupids in the corners, and stuccoed lions "in the way" everywhere.  The tactful hands of Mrs. Price had screened some of these with seasonable laurels, fir boughs, and berries, and had imparted a slight Christmas flavor to the house.  But the greater part of her time had been employed in trying to subdue the eccentricities of Spindler's amazing relations; in tranquilizing Mrs. "Aunt" Martha Spindler,--the elderly cook before alluded to,--who was inclined to regard the gilded splendors of the house as indicative of dangerous immorality; in restraining "Cousin" Morley Hewlett from considering the dining-room buffet as a bar for "intermittent refreshment;" and in keeping the weak-minded nephew, Phinney Spindler, from shooting at bottles from the veranda, wearing his uncle's clothes, or running up an account in his uncle's name for various articles at the general stores.  Yet the unlooked-for arrival of the two children had been the one great compensation and diversion for her.  She wrote at once to her nieces a brief account of her miraculous deliverance.  "I think these poor children dropped from the skies here to make our Christmas party possible, to say nothing of the sympathy they have created in Rough and Ready for Spindler.  He is going to keep them as long as he can, and is writing to the father.  Think of the poor little tots traveling a thousand miles to 'Krissmass,' as they call it!--thoughthey were so well cared for by the messengers that their little bodies were positively stuffed like quails.  So, you see, dear, we will be able to get along without airing your famous idea.  I'm sorry, for I know you're just dying to see it all."

Whatever Kate's "idea" might have been, there certainly seemed now no need of any extraneous aid to Mrs. Price's management. Christmas came at last, and the dinner passed off without serious disaster.  But the ordeal of the reception of Rough and Ready was still to come.  For Mrs. Price well knew that although "the boys" were more subdued, and, indeed, inclined to sympathize with their host's uncouth endeavor, there was still much in the aspect of Spindler's relations to excite their sense of the ludicrous.

But here Fortune again favored the house of Spindler with a dramatic surprise, even greater than the advent of the children had been.  In the change that had come over Rough and Ready, "the boys" had decided, out of deference to the women and children, to omit the first part of their programme, and had approached and entered the house as soberly and quietly as ordinary guests.  But before they had shaken hands with the host and hostess, and seen the relations, the clatter of wheels was heard before the open door, and its lights flashed upon a carriage and pair,--an actual private carriage,--the like of which had not been seen since the governor of the State had come down to open the new ditch!  Then there was a pause, the flash of the carriage lamps upon white silk, the light tread of a satin foot on the veranda and in the hall, and the entrance of a vision of loveliness!  Middle-aged men and old dwellers of cities remembered their youth; younger men bethought themselves of Cinderella and the Prince!  There was a thrill and a hush as this last guest--a beautiful girl, radiant with youth and adornment--put a dainty glass to her sparkling eye and advanced familiarly, with outstretched hand, to Dick Spindler.  Mrs. Price gave a single gasp, and drew back speechless.

"Uncle Dick," said a laughing contralto voice, which, indeed, somewhat recalled Mrs. Price's own, in its courageous frankness, "I am so delighted to come, even if a little late, and so sorry that Mr. M'Kenna could not come on account of business."

Everybody listened eagerly, but none more eagerly and surprisingly than the host himself. M'Kenna!  The rich cousin who had never answered the invitation!  And Uncle Dick!  This, then, was his divorced niece!  Yet even in his astonishment he remembered that of course no one but himself and Mrs. Price knew it,--and that lady had glanced discreetly away.

"Yes," continued the half-niece brightly.  "I came from Sacramento with some friends to Shootersville, and from thence I drove here; and though I must return to-night, I could not forego the pleasure of coming, if it was only for an hour or two, to answer the invitation of the uncle I have not seen for years."  She paused, and, raising her glasses, turned a politely questioning eye towards Mrs. Price.  "One of our relations?" she said smilingly to Spindler.

"No," said Spindler, with some embarrassment, "a--a friend!"

The half-niece extended her hand.  Mrs. Price took it.

But the fair stranger,--what she did and said were the only things remembered in Rough and Ready on that festive occasion; no one thought of the other relations; no one recalled them nor their eccentricities; Spindler himself was forgotten.  People only recollected how Spindler's lovely niece lavished her smiles and courtesies on every one, and brought to her feet particularly the misogynist Starbuck and the sarcastic Cooledge, oblivious of his previous speech; how she sat at the piano and sang like an angel, hushing the most hilarious and excited into sentimental and even maudlin silence; how, graceful as a nymph, she led with "Uncle Dick" a Virginia reel until the whole assembly joined, eager for a passing touch of her dainty hand in its changes; how, when two hours had passed,--all too swiftly for the guests,--they stood with bared heads and glistening eyes on the veranda to see the fairy coach whirl the fairy princess away!  How--but this incident was never known to Rough and Ready.

It happened in the sacred dressing-room, where Mrs. Price was cloaking with her own hands the departing half-niece of Mr.Spindler.  Taking that opportunity to seize the lovely relative by the shoulders and shake her violently, she said: "Oh, yes, and it's all very well for you, Kate, you limb!  For you're going away, and will never see Rough and Ready and poor Spindler again.  But what am I to do, miss?  How am I to face it out?  For you know I've got to tell him at least that you're no half-niece of his!"

"Have you?" said the young lady.

"Have I?" repeated the widow impatiently.  "Have I?  Of course I have!  What are you thinking of?"

"I was thinking, aunty," said the girl audaciously, "that from what I've seen and heard to-night, if I'm not his half-niece now, it's only a question of time!  So you'd better wait.  Good-night, dear."

And, really,--it turned out that she was right!

 

You can read some of Bret Harte's poetry here at the BAR-D.

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