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A WIDOW OF THE SANTA ANA VALLEY


The Widow Wade was standing at her bedroom window staring out, in
that vague instinct which compels humanity in moments of doubt and
perplexity to seek this change of observation or superior
illumination. Not that Mrs. Wade's disturbance was of a serious
character. She had passed the acute stage of widowhood by at least
two years, and the slight redness of her soft eyelids as well as the
droop of her pretty mouth were merely the recognized outward and
visible signs of the grievously minded religious community in which
she lived. The mourning she still wore was also partly in
conformity with the sad-colored garments of her neighbors, and the
necessities of the rainy season. She was in comfortable
circumstances, the mistress of a large ranch in the valley, which
had lately become more valuable by the extension of a wagon road
through its centre. She was simply worrying whether she should go
to a "sociable" ending with "a dance"--a daring innovation of some
strangers--at the new hotel, or continue to eschew such follies,
that were, according to local belief, unsuited to "a vale of tears."

Indeed at this moment the prospect she gazed abstractedly upon
seemed to justify that lugubrious description. The Santa Ana
Valley--a long monotonous level--was dimly visible through moving
curtains of rain or veils of mist, to the black mourning edge of
the horizon, and had looked like that for months. The valley--in
some remote epoch an arm of the San Francisco Bay--every rainy
season seemed to be trying to revert to its original condition,
and, long after the early spring had laid on its liberal color in
strips, bands, and patches of blue and yellow, the blossoms of
mustard and lupine glistened like wet paint. Nevertheless on that
rich alluvial soil Nature's tears seemed only to fatten the widow's
acres and increase her crops. Her neighbors, too, were equally
prosperous. Yet for six months of the year the recognized
expression of Santa Ana was one of sadness, and for the other six
months--of resignation. Mrs. Wade had yielded early to this
influence, as she had to others, in the weakness of her gentle
nature, and partly as it was more becoming the singular tragedy
that had made her a widow.

The late Mr. Wade had been found dead with a bullet through his
head in a secluded part of the road over Heavy Tree Hill in Sonora
County. Near him lay two other bodies, one afterwards identified
as John Stubbs, a resident of the Hill, and probably a traveling
companion of Wade's, and the other a noted desperado and
highwayman, still masked, as at the moment of the attack. Wade and
his companion had probably sold their lives dearly, and against
odds, for another mask was found on the ground, indicating that the
attack was not single-handed, and as Wade's body had not yet been
rifled, it was evident that the remaining highwayman had fled in
haste. The hue and cry had been given by apparently the only one
of the travelers who escaped, but as he was hastening to take the
overland coach to the East at the time, his testimony could not be
submitted to the coroner's deliberation. The facts, however, were
sufficiently plain for a verdict of willful murder against the
highwayman, although it was believed that the absent witness had
basely deserted his companion and left him to his fate, or, as was
suggested by others, that he might even have been an accomplice.
It was this circumstance which protracted comment on the incident,
and the sufferings of the widow, far beyond that rapid obliteration
which usually overtook such affairs in the feverish haste of the
early days. It caused her to remove to Santa Ana, where her old
father had feebly ranched a "quarter section" in the valley. He
survived her husband only a few months, leaving her the property,
and once more in mourning. Perhaps this continuity of woe endeared
her to a neighborhood where distinctive ravages of diphtheria or
scarlet fever gave a kind of social preeminence to any household,
and she was so sympathetically assisted by her neighbors in the
management of the ranch that, from an unkempt and wasteful
wilderness, it became paying property. The slim, willowy figure,
soft red-lidded eyes, and deep crape of "Sister Wade" at church or
prayer-meeting was grateful to the soul of these gloomy worshipers,
and in time she herself found that the arm of these dyspeptics of
mind and body was nevertheless strong and sustaining. Small wonder
that she should hesitate to-night about plunging into inconsistent,
even though trifling, frivolities.

But apart from this superficial reason, there was another instinctive
one deep down in the recesses of Mrs. Wade's timid heart which she
had kept to herself, and indeed would have tearfully resented had it
been offered by another. The late Mr. Wade had been, in fact, a
singular example of this kind of frivolous existence carried to a
man-like excess. Besides being a patron of amusements, Mr. Wade
gambled, raced, and drank. He was often home late, and sometimes
not at all. Not that this conduct was exceptional in the "roaring
days" of Heavy Tree Hill, but it had given Mrs. Wade perhaps an
undue preference for a less certain, even if a more serious life.
His tragic death was, of course, a kind of martyrdom, which exalted
him in the feminine mind to a saintly memory; yet Mrs. Wade was not
without a certain relief in that. It was voiced, perhaps crudely,
by the widow of Abner Drake in a visit of condolence to the tearful
Mrs. Wade a few days after Wade's death. "It's a vale o' sorrow,
Mrs. Wade," said the sympathizer, "but it has its ups and downs, and
I recken ye'll be feelin' soon pretty much as I did about Abner when
HE was took. It was mighty soothin' and comfortin' to feel that
whatever might happen now, I always knew just whar Abner was passin'
his nights." Poor slim Mrs. Wade had no disquieting sense of humor
to interfere with her reception of this large truth, and she
accepted it with a burst of reminiscent tears.

A long volleying shower had just passed down the level landscape,
and was followed by a rolling mist from the warm saturated soil
like the smoke of the discharge. Through it she could see a faint
lightening of the hidden sun, again darkening through a sudden
onset of rain, and changing as with her conflicting doubts and
resolutions. Thus gazing, she was vaguely conscious of an addition
to the landscape in the shape of a man who was passing down the
road with a pack on his back like the tramping "prospectors" she
had often seen at Heavy Tree Hill. That memory apparently settled
her vacillating mind; she determined she would NOT go to the dance.
But as she was turning away from the window a second figure, a
horseman, appeared in another direction by a cross-road, a shorter
cut through her domain. This she had no difficulty in recognizing
as one of the strangers who were getting up the dance. She had
noticed him at church on the previous Sunday. As he passed the
house he appeared to be gazing at it so earnestly that she drew
back from the window lest she should be seen. And then, for no
reason whatever, she changed her mind once more, and resolved to go
to the dance. Gravely announcing this fact to the wife of her
superintendent who kept house with her in her loneliness, she
thought nothing more about it. She should go in her mourning, with
perhaps the addition of a white collar and frill.

It was evident, however, that Santa Ana thought a good deal more
than she did of this new idea, which seemed a part of the
innovation already begun by the building up of the new hotel. It
was argued by some that as the new church and new schoolhouse had
been opened by prayer, it was only natural that a lighter festivity
should inaugurate the opening of the hotel. "I reckon that dancin'
is about the next thing to travelin' for gettin' up an appetite for
refreshments, and that's what the landlord is kalkilatin' to
sarve," was the remark of a gloomy but practical citizen on the
veranda of "The Valley Emporium." "That's so," rejoined a
bystander; "and I notice on that last box o' pills I got for chills
the directions say that a little 'agreeable exercise'--not too
violent--is a great assistance to the working o' the pills."




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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