Miggles

by Bret Harte

We were eight, including the driver.  We had not spoken during the
passage of the last six miles, since the jolting of the heavy
vehicle over the roughening road had spoiled the Judge’s last
poetical quotation.  The tall man beside the Judge was asleep, his
arm passed through the swaying strap and his head resting upon it–
altogether a limp, helpless-looking object, as if he had hanged
himself and been cut down too late.  The French lady on the back
seat was asleep, too, yet in a half-conscious propriety of
attitude, shown even in the disposition of the handkerchief which
she held to her forehead and which partially veiled her face.  The
lady from Virginia City, traveling with her husband, had long since
lost all individuality in a wild confusion of ribbons, veils, furs,
and shawls.  There was no sound but the rattling of wheels and the
dash of rain upon the roof.  Suddenly the stage stopped and we
became dimly aware of voices.  The driver was evidently in the
midst of an exciting colloquy with someone in the road–a colloquy
of which such fragments as “bridge gone,” “twenty feet of water,”
“can’t pass,” were occasionally distinguishable above the storm.
Then came a lull, and a mysterious voice from the road shouted the
parting adjuration:

“Try Miggles’s.”

We caught a glimpse of our leaders as the vehicle slowly turned, of
a horseman vanishing through the rain, and we were evidently on our
way to Miggles’s.

Who and where was Miggles?  The Judge, our authority, did not
remember the name, and he knew the country thoroughly.  The Washoe
traveler thought Miggles must keep a hotel.  We only knew that we
were stopped by high water in front and rear, and that Miggles was
our rock of refuge.  A ten minutes splashing through a tangled by-
road, scarcely wide enough for the stage, and we drew up before a
barred and boarded gate in a wide stone wall or fence about eight
feet high.  Evidently Miggles’s, and evidently Miggles did not keep
a hotel.

The driver got down and tried the gate.  It was securely locked.
Miggles!  O Miggles!”

No answer.

“Migg-ells!  You Miggles!” continued the driver, with rising wrath.

“Migglesy!” joined the expressman, persuasively.  “O Miggy!  Mig!”

But no reply came from the apparently insensate Miggles.  The
Judge, who had finally got the window down, put his head out and
propounded a series of questions, which if answered categorically
would have undoubtedly elucidated the whole mystery, but which the
driver evaded by replying that “if we didn’t want to sit in the
coach all night, we had better rise up and sing out for Miggles.”

So we rose up and called on Miggles in chorus; then separately.
And when we had finished, a Hibernian fellow-passenger from the
roof called for “Maygells!” whereat we all laughed.  While we were
laughing, the driver cried “Shoo!”

We listened.  To our infinite amazement the chorus of “Miggles” was
repeated from the other side of the wall, even to the final and
supplemental “Maygells.”

“Extraordinary echo,” said the Judge.

“Extraordinary damned skunk!” roared the driver, contemptuously.
“Come out of that, Miggles, and show yourself!  Be a man, Miggles!
Don’t hide in the dark; I wouldn’t if I were you, Miggles,”
continued Yuba Bill, now dancing about in an excess of fury.

“Miggles!” continued the voice.  “O Miggles!”

“My good man!  Mr. Myghail!” said the Judge, softening the
asperities of the name as much as possible.  “Consider the
inhospitality of refusing shelter from the inclemency of the
weather to helpless females.  Really, my dear sir–”  But a
succession of “Miggles,” ending in a burst of laughter, drowned his
voice.

Yuba Bill hesitated no longer.  Taking a heavy stone from the road,
he battered down the gate, and with the expressman entered the
enclosure.  We followed.  Nobody was to be seen.  In the gathering
darkness all that we could distinguish was that we were in a
garden–from the rosebushes that scattered over us a minute spray
from their dripping leaves–and before a long, rambling wooden
building.

“Do you know this Miggles?” asked the Judge of Yuba Bill.

“No, nor, don’t want to,” said Bill, shortly, who felt the Pioneer
Stage Company insulted in his person by the contumacious Miggles.

“But, my dear sir,” expostulated the Judge as he thought of the
barred gate.

“Lookee here,” said Yuba Bill, with fine irony, “hadn’t you better
go back and sit in the coach till yer introduced?  I’m going in,”
and he pushed open the door of the building.

A long room lighted only by the embers of a fire that was dying on
the large hearth at its farther extremity; the walls curiously
papered, and the flickering firelight bringing out its grotesque
pattern; somebody sitting in a large armchair by the fireplace.
All this we saw as we crowded together into the room, after the
driver and expressman.

“Hello, be you Miggles?” said Yuba Bill to the solitary occupant.

The figure neither spoke nor stirred.  Yuba Bill walked wrathfully
toward it, and turned the eye of his coach lantern upon its face.
It was a man’s face, prematurely old and wrinkled, with very large
eyes, in which there was that expression of perfectly gratuitous
solemnity which I had sometimes seen in an owl’s.  The large eyes
wandered from Bill’s face to the lantern, and finally fixed their
gaze on that luminous object, without further recognition.

Bill restrained himself with an effort.

“Miggles!  Be you deaf?  You ain’t dumb anyhow, you know”; and Yuba
Bill shook the insensate figure by the shoulder.

To our great dismay, as Bill removed his hand, the venerable
stranger apparently collapsed–sinking into half his size and an
undistinguishable heap of clothing.

“Well, dern my skin,” said Bill, looking appealingly at us, and
hopelessly retiring from the contest.

The Judge now stepped forward, and we lifted the mysterious
invertebrate back into his original position.  Bill was dismissed
with the lantern to reconnoiter outside, for it was evident that
from the helplessness of this solitary man there must be attendants
near at hand, and we all drew around the fire.  The Judge, who had
regained his authority, and had never lost his conversational
amiability–standing before us with his back to the hearth–charged
us, as an imaginary jury, as follows:

“It is evident that either our distinguished friend here has
reached that condition described by Shakespeare as ‘the sere and
yellow leaf,’ or has suffered some premature abatement of his
mental and physical faculties.  Whether he is really the Miggles–“

Here he was interrupted by “Miggles! O Miggles! Migglesy! Mig!”
and, in fact, the whole chorus of Miggles in very much the same key
as it had once before been delivered unto us.

We gazed at each other for a moment in some alarm.  The Judge, in
particular, vacated his position quickly, as the voice seemed to
come directly over his shoulder.  The cause, however, was soon
discovered in a large magpie who was perched upon a shelf over the
fireplace, and who immediately relapsed into a sepulchral silence
which contrasted singularly with his previous volubility.  It was,
undoubtedly, his voice which we had heard in the road, and our
friend in the chair was not responsible for the discourtesy.  Yuba
Bill, who re-entered the room after an unsuccessful search, was
loath to accept the explanation, and still eyed the helpless sitter
with suspicion.  He had found a shed in which he had put up his
horses, but he came back dripping and skeptical.  “Thar ain’t
nobody but him within ten mile of the shanty, and that ‘ar damned
old skeesicks knows it.

But the faith of the majority proved to be securely based.  Bill
had scarcely ceased growling before we heard a quick step upon the
porch, the trailing of a wet skirt, the door was flung open, and
with flash of white teeth, a sparkle of dark eyes, and an utter
absence of ceremony or diffidence, a young woman entered, shut the
door, and, panting, leaned back against it.

“Oh, if you please, I’m Miggles!”

And this was Miggles! this bright-eyed, full-throated young woman,
whose wet gown of coarse blue stuff could not hide the beauty of
the feminine curves to which it clung; from the chestnut crown of
whose head, topped by a man’s oilskin sou’wester, to the little
feet and ankles, hidden somewhere in the recesses of her boy’s
brogans, all was grace–this was Miggles, laughing at us, too, in
the most airy, frank, offhand manner imaginable.

“You see, boys,” said she, quite out of breath, and holding one
little hand against her side, quite unheeding the speechless
discomfiture of our party, or the complete demoralization of Yuba
Bill, whose features had relaxed into an expression of gratuitous
and imbecile cheerfulness–“you see, boys, I was mor’n two miles
away when you passed down the road.  I thought you might pull up
here, and so I ran the whole way, knowing nobody was home but Jim,–
and–and–I’m out of breath–and–that lets me out.”

And here Miggles caught her dripping oilskin hat from her head,
with a mischievous swirl that scattered a shower of raindrops over
us; attempted to put back her hair; dropped two hairpins in the
attempt; laughed and sat down beside Yuba Bill, with her hands
crossed lightly on her lap.

The Judge recovered himself first, and essayed an extravagant
compliment.

“I’ll trouble you for that thar harpin,” said Miggles, gravely.
Half a dozen hands were eagerly stretched forward; the missing
hairpin was restored to its fair owner; and Miggles, crossing the
room, looked keenly in the face of the invalid.  The solemn eyes
looked back at hers with an expression we had never seen before.
Life and intelligence seemed to struggle back into the rugged face.
Miggles laughed again–it was a singularly eloquent laugh–and
turned her black eyes and white teeth once more toward us.

“This afflicted person is–” hesitated the Judge.

“Jim,” said Miggles.

“Your father?”

“No.”

“Brother?”

“No.”

“Husband?”

Miggles darted a quick, half-defiant glance at the two lady
passengers who I had noticed did not participate in the general
masculine admiration of Miggles, and said gravely, “No; it’s Jim.”

There was an awkward pause.  The lady passengers moved closer to
each other; the Washoe husband looked abstractedly at the fire; and
the tall man apparently turned his eyes inward for self-support at
this emergency.  But Miggles’s laugh, which was very infectious,
broke the silence.  “Come,” she said briskly, “you must be hungry.
Who’ll bear a hand to help me get tea?”

She had no lack of volunteers.  In a few moments Yuba Bill was
engaged like Caliban in bearing logs for this Miranda; the
expressman was grinding coffee on the veranda; to myself the
arduous duty of slicing bacon was assigned; and the Judge lent each
man his good-humored and voluble counsel.  And when Miggles,
assisted by the Judge and our Hibernian “deck passenger,” set the
table with all the available crockery, we had become quite joyous,
in spite of the rain that beat against windows, the wind that
whirled down the chimney, the two ladies who whispered together in
the corner, or the magpie who uttered a satirical and croaking
commentary on their conversation from his perch above.  In the now
bright, blazing fire we could see that the walls were papered with
illustrated journals, arranged with feminine taste and
discrimination.  The furniture was extemporized, and adapted from
candle boxes and packing-cases, and covered with gay calico, or the
skin of some animal.  The armchair of the helpless Jim was an
ingenious variation of a flour barrel.  There was neatness, and
even a taste for the picturesque, to be seen in the few details of
the long low room.

The meal was a culinary success.  But more, it was a social
triumph–chiefly, I think, owing to the rare tact of Miggles in
guiding the conversation, asking all the questions herself, yet
bearing throughout a frankness that rejected the idea of any
concealment on her own part, so that we talked of ourselves, of our
prospects, of the journey, of the weather, of each other–of
everything but our host and hostess.  It must be confessed that
Miggles’s conversation was never elegant, rarely grammatical, and
that at times she employed expletives the use of which had
generally been yielded to our sex.  But they were delivered with
such a lighting-up of teeth and eyes, and were usually followed by
a laugh–a laugh peculiar to Miggles–so frank and honest that it
seemed to clear the moral atmosphere.

Once during the meal we heard a noise like the rubbing of a heavy
body against the outer walls of the house.  This was shortly
followed by a scratching and sniffling at the door.  “That’s
Joaquin,” said Miggles, in reply to our questioning glances; “would
you like to see him?”  Before we could answer she had opened the
door, and disclosed a half-grown grizzly, who instantly raised
himself on his haunches, with his forepaws hanging down in the
popular attitude of mendicancy, and looked admiringly at Miggles,
with a very singular resemblance in his manner to Yuba Bill.
“That’s my watch dog,” said Miggles, in explanation.  “Oh, he don’t
bite,” she added, as the two lady passengers fluttered into a
corner.  “Does he, old Toppy?” (the latter remark being addressed
directly to the sagacious Joaquin).  “I tell you what, boys,”
continued Miggles after she had fed and closed the door on URSA
MINOR, “you were in big luck that Joaquin wasn’t hanging round when
you dropped in tonight.”  “Where was he?” asked the Judge.  “With
me,” said Miggles.  “Lord love you; he trots round with me nights
like as if he was a man.”

We were silent for a few moments, and listened to the wind.
Perhaps we all had the same picture before us–of Miggles walking
through the rainy woods, with her savage guardian at her side.  The
Judge, I remember, said something about Una and her lion; but
Miggles received it as she did other compliments, with quiet
gravity.  Whether she was altogether unconscious of the admiration
she excited–she could hardly have been oblivious of Yuba Bill’s
adoration–I know not; but her very frankness suggested a perfect
sexual equality that was cruelly humiliating to the younger members
of our party.

The incident of the bear did not add anything in Miggles’s favor to
the opinions of those of her own sex who were present.  In fact,
the repast over, a chillness radiated from the two lady passengers
that no pine boughs brought in by Yuba Bill and cast as a sacrifice
upon the hearth could wholly overcome.  Miggles felt it; and,
suddenly declaring that it was time to “turn in,” offered to show
the ladies to their bed in an adjoining room.  “You boys will have
to camp out here by the fire as well as you can,” she added, “for
thar ain’t but the one room.”

Our sex–by which, my dear sir, I allude of course to the stronger
portion of humanity–has been generally relieved from the
imputation of curiosity, or a fondness for gossip.  Yet I am
constrained to say that hardly had the door closed on Miggles than
we crowded together, whispering, snickering, smiling, and
exchanging suspicions, surmises, and a thousand speculations in
regard to our pretty hostess and her singular companion.  I fear
that we even hustled that imbecile paralytic, who sat like a
voiceless Memnon in our midst, gazing with the serene indifference
of the Past in his passionate eyes upon our wordy counsels.  In the
midst of an exciting discussion the door opened again, and Miggles
re-entered.

But not, apparently, the same Miggles who a few hours before had
flashed upon us.  Her eyes were downcast, and as she hesitated for
a moment on the threshold, with a blanket on her arm, she seemed to
have left behind her the frank fearlessness which had charmed us a
moment before.  Coming into the room, she drew a low stool beside
the paralytic’s chair, sat down, drew the blanket over her
shoulders, and saying, “If it’s all the same to you, boys, as we’re
rather crowded, I’ll stop here tonight,” took the invalid’s
withered hand in her own, and turned her eyes upon the dying fire.
An instinctive feeling that this was only premonitory to more
confidential relations, and perhaps some shame at our previous
curiosity, kept us silent.  The rain still beat upon the roof,
wandering gusts of wind stirred the embers into momentary
brightness, until, in a lull of the elements, Miggles suddenly
lifted up her head, and, throwing her hair over her shoulder,
turned her face upon the group and asked:

“Is there any of you that knows me?”

There was no reply.

“Think again! I lived at Marysville in ’53.  Everybody knew me
there, and everybody had the right to know me.  I kept the Polka
saloon until I came to live with Jim.  That’s six years ago.
Perhaps I’ve changed some.”

The absence of recognition may have disconcerted her.  She turned
her head to the fire again, and it was some seconds before she
again spoke, and then more rapidly:

“Well, you see I thought some of you must have known me.  There’s
no great harm done, anyway.  What I was going to say was this: Jim
here”–she took his hand in both of hers as she spoke–“used to
know me, if you didn’t, and spent a heap of money upon me.  I
reckon he spent all he had.  And one day–it’s six years ago this
winter–Jim came into my back room, sat down on my sofy, like as
you see him in that chair, and never moved again without help.  He
was struck all of a heap, and never seemed to know what ailed him.
The doctors came and said as how it was caused all along of his way
of life–for Jim was mighty free and wild-like–and that he would
never get better, and couldn’t last long anyway.  They advised me
to send him to Frisco to the hospital, for he was no good to anyone
and would be a baby all his life.  Perhaps it was something in
Jim’s eye, perhaps it was that I never had a baby, but I said ‘No.’
I was rich then, for I was popular with everybody–gentlemen like
yourself, sir, came to see me–and I sold out my business and
bought this yer place, because it was sort of out of the way of
travel, you see, and I brought my baby here.”

With a woman’s intuitive tact and poetry, she had, as she spoke,
slowly shifted her position so as to bring the mute figure of the
ruined man between her and her audience, hiding in the shadow
behind it, as if she offered it as a tacit apology for her actions.
Silent and expressionless, it yet spoke for her; helpless, crushed,
and smitten with the Divine thunderbolt, it still stretched an
invisible arm around her.

Hidden in the darkness, but still holding his hand, she went on:

“It was a long time before I could get the hang of things about
yer, for I was used to company and excitement.  I couldn’t get any
woman to help me, and a man I dursen’t trust; but what with the
Indians hereabout, who’d do odd jobs for me, and having everything
sent from the North Fork, Jim and I managed to worry through.  The
Doctor would run up from Sacramento once in a while.  He’d ask to
see ‘Miggles’s baby,’ as he called Jim, and when he’d go away, he’d
say, ‘Miggles; you’re a trump–God bless you’; and it didn’t seem
so lonely after that.  But the last time he was here he said, as he
opened the door to go, ‘Do you know, Miggles, your baby will grow
up to be a man yet and an honor to his mother; but not here,
Miggles, not here!’  And I thought he went away sad–and–and–“
and here Miggles’s voice and head were somehow both lost completely
in the shadow.

“The folks about here are very kind,” said Miggles, after a pause,
coming a little into the light again.  “The men from the fork used
to hang around here, until they found they wasn’t wanted, and the
women are kind–and don’t call.  I was pretty lonely until I picked
up Joaquin in the woods yonder one day, when he wasn’t so high, and
taught him to beg for his dinner; and then thar’s Polly–that’s the
magpie–she knows no end of tricks, and makes it quite sociable of
evenings with her talk, and so I don’t feel like as I was the only
living being about the ranch.  And Jim here,” said Miggles, with
her old laugh again, and coming out quite into the firelight, “Jim-
-why, boys, you would admire to see how much he knows for a man
like him.  Sometimes I bring him flowers, and he looks at ’em just
as natural as if he knew ’em; and times, when we’re sitting alone,
I read him those things on the wall.  Why, Lord!” said Miggles,
with her frank laugh, “I’ve read him that whole side of the house
this winter.  There never was such a man for reading as Jim.”

“Why,” asked the Judge, “do you not marry this man to whom you have
devoted your youthful life?”

“Well, you see,” said Miggles, “it would be playing it rather low
down on Jim, to take advantage of his being so helpless.  And then,
too, if we were man and wife, now, we’d both know that I was bound
to do what I do now of my own accord.”

“But you are young yet and attractive–“

“It’s getting late,” said Miggles, gravely, “and you’d better all
turn in.  Good night, boys”; and, throwing the blanket over her
head, Miggles laid herself down beside Jim’s chair, her head
pillowed on the low stool that held his feet, and spoke no more.
The fire slowly faded from the hearth; we each sought our blankets
in silence; and presently there was no sound in the long room but
the pattering of the rain upon the roof and the heavy breathing of
the sleepers.

It was nearly morning when I awoke from a troubled dream.  The
storm had passed, the stars were shining, and through the
shutterless window the full moon, lifting itself over the solemn
pines without, looked into the room.  It touched the lonely figure
in the chair with an infinite compassion, and seemed to baptize
with a shining flood the lowly head of the woman whose hair, as in
the sweet old story, bathed the feet of him she loved.  It even
lent a kindly poetry to the rugged outline of Yuba Bill, half-
reclining on his elbow between them and his passengers, with
savagely patient eyes keeping watch and ward.  And then I fell
asleep and only woke at broad day, with Yuba Bill standing over me,
and “All aboard” ringing in my ears.

Coffee was waiting for us on the table, but Miggles was gone.  We
wandered about the house and lingered long after the horses were
harnessed, but she did not return.  It was evident that she wished
to avoid a formal leave-taking, and had so left us to depart as we
had come.  After we had helped the ladies into the coach, we
returned to the house and solemnly shook hands with the paralytic
Jim, as solemnly settling him back into position after each
handshake.  Then we looked for the last time around the long low
room, at the stool where Miggles had sat, and slowly took our seats
in the waiting coach.  The whip cracked, and we were off!

But as we reached the highroad, Bill’s dexterous hand laid the six
horses back on their haunches, and the stage stopped with a jerk.
For there, on a little eminence beside the road, stood Miggles, her
hair flying, her eyes sparkling, her white handkerchief waving, and
her white teeth flashing a last “good-by.”  We waved our hats in
return.  And then Yuba Bill, as if fearful of further fascination,
madly lashed his horses forward, and we sank back in our seats.  We
exchanged not a word until we reached the North Fork, and the stage
drew up at the Independence House.  Then, the Judge leading, we
walked into the barroom and took our places gravely at the bar.

“Are your glasses charged, gentlemen?” said the Judge, solemnly
taking off his white hat.

They were.

“Well, then, here’s to MIGGLES.  GOD BLESS HER!”

Perhaps He had.  Who knows?


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