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The next morning he had recourse to his Indian retainer, "Jim."
With infinite difficulty, protraction, and not a little
embarrassment, he finally made him understand that he had seen a
"white squaw" near the "sweat-house," and that he wanted to know
more about her. With equal difficulty Jim finally recognized the
fact of the existence of such a person, but immediately afterwards
shook his head in an emphatic negation. With greater difficulty
and greater mortification Pomfrey presently ascertained that Jim's
negative referred to a supposed abduction of the woman which he
understood that his employer seriously contemplated. But he also
learned that she was a real Indian, and that there were three or
four others like her, male and female, in that vicinity; that from
a "skeena mowitch" (little baby) they were all like that, and that
their parents were of the same color, but never a white or "waugee"
man or woman among them; that they were looked upon as a distinct
and superior caste of Indians, and enjoyed certain privileges with
the tribe; that they superstitiously avoided white men, of whom
they had the greatest fear, and that they were protected in this by
the other Indians; that it was marvelous and almost beyond belief
that Pomfrey had been able to see one, for no other white man had,
or was even aware of their existence.

How much of this he actually understood, how much of it was lying
and due to Jim's belief that he wished to abduct the fair stranger,
Pomfrey was unable to determine. There was enough, however, to
excite his curiosity strongly and occupy his mind to the exclusion
of his books--save one. Among his smaller volumes he had found a
travel book of the "Chinook Jargon," with a lexicon of many of the
words commonly used by the Northern Pacific tribes. An hour or
two's trial with the astonished Jim gave him an increased
vocabulary and a new occupation. Each day the incongruous pair
took a lesson from the lexicon. In a week Pomfrey felt he would be
able to accost the mysterious stranger. But he did not again
surprise her in any of his rambles, or even in a later visit to the
sweat-house. He had learned from Jim that the house was only used
by the "bucks," or males, and that her appearance there had been
accidental. He recalled that he had had the impression that she
had been stealthily following him, and the recollection gave him a
pleasure he could not account for. But an incident presently
occurred which gave him a new idea of her relations towards him.

The difficulty of making Jim understand had hitherto prevented
Pomfrey from intrusting him with the care of the lantern; but with
the aid of the lexicon he had been able to make him comprehend its
working, and under Pomfrey's personal guidance the Indian had once
or twice lit the lamp and set its machinery in motion. It remained
for him only to test Jim's unaided capacity, in case of his own
absence or illness. It happened to be a warm, beautiful sunset,
when the afternoon fog had for once delayed its invasion of the
shore-line, that he left the lighthouse to Jim's undivided care,
and reclining on a sand-dune still warm from the sun, lazily
watched the result of Jim's first essay. As the twilight deepened,
and the first flash of the lantern strove with the dying glories of
the sun, Pomfrey presently became aware that he was not the only
watcher. A little gray figure creeping on all fours suddenly
glided out of the shadow of another sand-dune and then halted,
falling back on its knees, gazing fixedly at the growing light. It
was the woman he had seen. She was not a dozen yards away, and in
her eagerness and utter absorption in the light had evidently
overlooked him. He could see her face distinctly, her lips parted
half in wonder, half with the breathless absorption of a devotee.
A faint sense of disappointment came over him. It was not HIM she
was watching, but the light! As it swelled out over the darkening
gray sand she turned as if to watch its effect around her, and
caught sight of Pomfrey. With a little startled cry--the first she
had uttered--she darted away. He did not follow. A moment before,
when he first saw her, an Indian salutation which he had learned
from Jim had risen to his lips, but in the odd feeling which her
fascination of the light had caused him he had not spoken. He
watched her bent figure scuttling away like some frightened animal,
with a critical consciousness that she was really scarce human, and
went back to the lighthouse. He would not run after her again!
Yet that evening he continued to think of her, and recalled her
voice, which struck him now as having been at once melodious and
childlike, and wished he had at least spoken, and perhaps elicited
a reply.

He did not, however, haunt the sweat-house near the river again.
Yet he still continued his lessons with Jim, and in this way,
perhaps, although quite unpremeditatedly, enlisted a humble ally.
A week passed in which he had not alluded to her, when one morning,
as he was returning from a row, Jim met him mysteriously on the
beach.

"S'pose him come slow, slow," said Jim gravely, airing his newly
acquired English; "make no noise--plenty catchee Indian maiden."
The last epithet was the polite lexicon equivalent of squaw.

Pomfrey, not entirely satisfied in his mind, nevertheless softly
followed the noiselessly gliding Jim to the lighthouse. Here Jim
cautiously opened the door, motioning Pomfrey to enter.

The base of the tower was composed of two living rooms, a storeroom
and oil-tank. As Pomfrey entered, Jim closed the door softly
behind him. The abrupt transition from the glare of the sands and
sun to the semi-darkness of the storeroom at first prevented him
from seeing anything, but he was instantly distracted by a
scurrying flutter and wild beating of the walls, as of a caged
bird. In another moment he could make out the fair stranger,
quivering with excitement, passionately dashing at the barred
window, the walls, the locked door, and circling around the room in
her desperate attempt to find an egress, like a captured seagull.
Amazed, mystified, indignant with Jim, himself, and even his
unfortunate captive, Pomfrey called to her in Chinook to stop, and
going to the door, flung it wide open. She darted by him, raising
her soft blue eyes for an instant in a swift, sidelong glance of
half appeal, half-frightened admiration, and rushed out into the
open. But here, to his surprise, she did not run away. On the
contrary, she drew herself up with a dignity that seemed to
increase her height, and walked majestically towards Jim, who at
her unexpected exit had suddenly thrown himself upon the sand, in
utterly abject terror and supplication. She approached him slowly,
with one small hand uplifted in a menacing gesture. The man
writhed and squirmed before her. Then she turned, caught sight of
Pomfrey standing in the doorway, and walked quietly away. Amazed,
yet gratified with this new assertion of herself, Pomfrey
respectfully, but alas! incautiously, called after her. In an
instant, at the sound of his voice, she dropped again into her
slouching Indian trot and glided away over the sandhills.

Pomfrey did not add any reproof of his own to the discomfiture of
his Indian retainer. Neither did he attempt to inquire the secret
of this savage girl's power over him. It was evident he had spoken
truly when he told his master that she was of a superior caste.
Pomfrey recalled her erect and indignant figure standing over the
prostrate Jim, and was again perplexed and disappointed at her
sudden lapse into the timid savage at the sound of his voice.
Would not this well-meant but miserable trick of Jim's have the
effect of increasing her unreasoning animal-like distrust of him?
A few days later brought an unexpected answer to his question.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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