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I had at that period a small room at the top of a house owned by a
distant relation--a second or third cousin, I think. He was a man
of independent and original character, had a Ulyssean experience of
men and cities, and an old English name of which he was proud.
While in London he had procured from the Heralds' College his
family arms, whose crest was stamped upon a quantity of plate he
had brought with him to California. The plate, together with an
exceptionally good cook, which he had also brought, and his own
epicurean tastes, he utilized in the usual practical Californian
fashion by starting a rather expensive half-club, half-restaurant
in the lower part of the building--which he ruled somewhat
autocratically, as became his crest. The restaurant was too
expensive for me to patronize, but I saw many of its frequenters as
well as those who had rooms at the club. They were men of very
distinct personality; a few celebrated, and nearly all notorious.
They represented a Bohemianism--if such it could be called--less
innocent than my later experiences. I remember, however, one
handsome young fellow whom I used to meet occasionally on the
staircase, who captured my youthful fancy. I met him only at
midday, as he did not rise till late, and this fact, with a certain
scrupulous elegance and neatness in his dress, ought to have made
me suspect that he was a gambler. In my inexperience it only
invested him with a certain romantic mystery.

One morning as I was going out to my very early breakfast at a
cheap Italian cafe on Long Wharf, I was surprised to find him also
descending the staircase. He was scrupulously dressed even at that
early hour, but I was struck by the fact that he was all in black,
and his slight figure, buttoned to the throat in a tightly fitting
frock coat, gave, I fancied, a singular melancholy to his pale
Southern face. Nevertheless, he greeted me with more than his
usual serene cordiality, and I remembered that he looked up with a
half-puzzled, half-amused expression at the rosy morning sky as he
walked a few steps with me down the deserted street. I could not
help saying that I was astonished to see him up so early, and he
admitted that it was a break in his usual habits, but added with a
smiling significance I afterwards remembered that it was "an even
chance if he did it again." As we neared the street corner a man
in a buggy drove up impatiently. In spite of the driver's evident
haste, my handsome acquaintance got in leisurely, and, lifting his
glossy hat to me with a pleasant smile, was driven away. I have a
very lasting recollection of his face and figure as the buggy
disappeared down the empty street. I never saw him again. It was
not until a week later that I knew that an hour after he left me
that morning he was lying dead in a little hollow behind the
Mission Dolores--shot through the heart in a duel for which he had
risen so early.

I recall another incident of that period, equally characteristic,
but happily less tragic in sequel. I was in the restaurant one
morning talking to my cousin when a man entered hastily and said
something to him in a hurried whisper. My cousin contracted his
eyebrows and uttered a suppressed oath. Then with a gesture of
warning to the man he crossed the room quietly to a table where a
regular habitue of the restaurant was lazily finishing his
breakfast. A large silver coffee-pot with a stiff wooden handle
stood on the table before him. My cousin leaned over the guest
familiarly and apparently made some hospitable inquiry as to his
wants, with his hand resting lightly on the coffee-pot handle.
Then--possibly because, my curiosity having been excited, I was
watching him more intently than the others--I saw what probably no
one else saw--that he deliberately upset the coffee-pot and its
contents over the guest's shirt and waistcoat. As the victim
sprang up with an exclamation, my cousin overwhelmed him with
apologies for his carelessness, and, with protestations of sorrow
for the accident, actually insisted upon dragging the man upstairs
into his own private room, where he furnished him with a shirt and
waistcoat of his own. The side door had scarcely closed upon them,
and I was still lost in wonder at what I had seen, when a man
entered from the street. He was one of the desperate set I have
already spoken of, and thoroughly well known to those present. He
cast a glance around the room, nodded to one or two of the guests,
and then walked to a side table and took up a newspaper. I was
conscious at once that a singular constraint had come over the
other guests--a nervous awkwardness that at last seemed to make
itself known to the man himself, who, after an affected yawn or
two, laid down the paper and walked out.

"That was a mighty close call," said one of the guests with a sigh
of relief.

"You bet! And that coffee-pot spill was the luckiest kind of
accident for Peters," returned another.

"For both," added the first speaker, "for Peters was armed too, and
would have seen him come in!"

A word or two explained all. Peters and the last comer had
quarreled a day or two before, and had separated with the intention
to "shoot on sight," that is, wherever they met,--a form of duel
common to those days. The accidental meeting in the restaurant
would have been the occasion, with the usual sanguinary consequence,
but for the word of warning given to my cousin by a passer-by who
knew that Peters' antagonist was coming to the restaurant to look at
the papers. Had my cousin repeated the warning to Peters himself he
would only have prepared him for the conflict--which he would not
have shirked--and so precipitated the affray.

The ruse of upsetting the coffee-pot, which everybody but myself
thought an accident, was to get him out of the room before the
other entered. I was too young then to venture to intrude upon my
cousin's secrets, but two or three years afterwards I taxed him
with the trick and he admitted it regretfully. I believe that a
strict interpretation of the "code" would have condemned his act as
unsportsmanlike, if not UNFAIR!

I recall another incident connected with the building equally
characteristic of the period. The United States Branch Mint stood
very near it, and its tall, factory-like chimneys overshadowed my
cousin's roof. Some scandal had arisen from an alleged leakage of
gold in the manipulation of that metal during the various processes
of smelting and refining. One of the excuses offered was the
volatilization of the precious metal and its escape through the
draft of the tall chimneys. All San Francisco laughed at this
explanation until it learned that a corroboration of the theory had
been established by an assay of the dust and grime of the roofs in
the vicinity of the Mint. These had yielded distinct traces of
gold. San Francisco stopped laughing, and that portion of it which
had roofs in the neighborhood at once began prospecting. Claims
were staked out on these airy placers, and my cousin's roof, being
the very next one to the chimney, and presumably "in the lead," was
disposed of to a speculative company for a considerable sum. I
remember my cousin telling me the story--for the occurrence was
quite recent--and taking me with him to the roof to explain it, but
I am afraid I was more attracted by the mystery of the closely
guarded building, and the strangely tinted smoke which arose from
this temple where money was actually being "made," than by anything
else. Nor did I dream as I stood there--a very lanky, open-mouthed
youth--that only three or four years later I should be the
secretary of its superintendent. In my more adventurous ambition I
am afraid I would have accepted the suggestion half-heartedly.
Merely to have helped to stamp the gold which other people had
adventurously found was by no means a part of my youthful dreams.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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