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In short, little as we knew of the youngest Miss Piper, he was the
last man we should have suspected her to select as an admirer.
What we did know of their public relations, purely commercial ones,
implied the reverse of any cordial understanding. The provisioning
of the Piper household was entrusted to Del, with other practical
odds and ends of housekeeping, not ornamental, and the following is
said to be a truthful record of one of their overheard interviews
at the store:--

The youngest Miss Piper, entering, displacing a quantity of goods
in the centre to make a sideways seat for herself, and looking
around loftily as she took a memorandum-book and pencil from her
pocket.

"Ahem! If I ain't taking you away from your studies, Mr. Sparrell,
maybe you'll be good enough to look here a minit;--but" (in
affected politeness) "if I'm disturbing you I can come another
time."

Sparrell, placing the book he had been reading carefully under the
counter, and advancing to Miss Delaware with a complete ignoring of
her irony: "What can we do for you to-day, Miss Piper?"

Miss Delaware, with great suavity of manner, examining her
memorandum-book: "I suppose it wouldn't be shocking your delicate
feelings too much to inform you that the canned lobster and oysters
you sent us yesterday wasn't fit for hogs?"

Sparrell (blandly): "They weren't intended for them, Miss Piper.
If we had known you were having company over from Red Gulch to
dinner, we might have provided something more suitable for them.
We have a fair quality of oil-cake and corn-cobs in stock, at
reduced figures. But the canned provisions were for your own
family."

Miss Delaware (secretly pleased at this sarcastic allusion to her
sister's friends, but concealing her delight): "I admire to hear
you talk that way, Mr. Sparrell; it's better than minstrels or a
circus. I suppose you get it outer that book," indicating the
concealed volume. "What do you call it?"

Sparrell (politely): "The First Principles of Geology."

Miss Delaware, leaning sideways and curling her little fingers
around her pink ear: "Did you say the first principles of 'geology'
or 'politeness'? You know I am so deaf; but, of course, it
couldn't be that."

Sparrell (easily): "Oh no, you seem to have that in your hand"--
pointing to Miss Delaware's memorandum-book--"you were quoting from
it when you came in."

Miss Delaware, after an affected silence of deep resignation:
"Well! it's too bad folks can't just spend their lives listenin' to
such elegant talk; I'd admire to do nothing else! But there's my
family up at Cottonwood--and they must eat. They're that low that
they expect me to waste my time getting food for 'em here, instead
of drinking in the First Principles of the Grocery."

"Geology," suggested Sparrell blandly. "The history of rock
formation."

"Geology," accepted Miss Delaware apologetically; "the history of
rocks, which is so necessary for knowing just how much sand you can
put in the sugar. So I reckon I'll leave my list here, and you can
have the things toted to Cottonwood when you've got through with
your First Principles."

She tore out a list of her commissions from a page of her
memorandum-book, leaped lightly from the counter, threw her brown
braid from her left shoulder to its proper place down her back,
shook out her skirts deliberately, and saying, "Thank you for a
most improvin' afternoon, Mr. Sparrell," sailed demurely out of the
store.

A few auditors of this narrative thought it inconsistent that a
daughter of Judge Piper and a sister of the angelic host should put
up with a mere clerk's familiarity, but it was pointed out that
"she gave him as good as he sent," and the story was generally
credited. But certainly no one ever dreamed that it pointed to any
more precious confidences between them.

I think the secret burst upon the family, with other things, at the
big picnic at Reservoir Canyon. This festivity had been arranged
for weeks previously, and was undertaken chiefly by the "Red Gulch
Contingent," as we were called, as a slight return to the Piper
family for their frequent hospitality. The Piper sisters were
expected to bring nothing but their own personal graces and attend
to the ministration of such viands and delicacies as the boys had
profusely supplied.

The site selected was Reservoir Canyon, a beautiful, triangular
valley with very steep sides, one of which was crowned by the
immense reservoir of the Pioneer Ditch Company. The sheer flanks
of the canyon descended in furrowed lines of vines and clinging
bushes, like folds of falling skirts, until they broke again into
flounces of spangled shrubbery over a broad level carpet of
monkshood, mariposas, lupines, poppies, and daisies. Tempered and
secluded from the sun's rays by its lofty shadows, the delicious
obscurity of the canyon was in sharp contrast to the fiery mountain
trail that in the full glare of the noonday sky made its tortuous
way down the hillside, like a stream of lava, to plunge suddenly
into the valley and extinguish itself in its coolness as in a lake.
The heavy odors of wild honeysuckle, syringa, and ceanothus that
hung over it were lightened and freshened by the sharp spicing of
pine and bay. The mountain breeze which sometimes shook the
serrated tops of the large redwoods above with a chill from the
remote snow peaks even in the heart of summer, never reached the
little valley.

It seemed an ideal place for a picnic. Everybody was therefore
astonished to hear that an objection was suddenly raised to this
perfect site. They were still more astonished to know that the
objector was the youngest Miss Piper! Pressed to give her reasons,
she had replied that the locality was dangerous; that the reservoir
placed upon the mountain, notoriously old and worn out, had been
rendered more unsafe by false economy in unskillful and hasty
repairs to satisfy speculating stockbrokers, and that it had lately
shown signs of leakage and sapping of its outer walls; that, in the
event of an outbreak, the little triangular valley, from which
there was no outlet, would be instantly flooded. Asked still more
pressingly to give her authority for these details, she at first
hesitated, and then gave the name of Tom Sparrell.

The derision with which this statement was received by us all, as
the opinion of a sedentary clerk, was quite natural and obvious,
but not the anger which it excited in the breast of Judge Piper;
for it was not generally known that the judge was the holder of a
considerable number of shares in the Pioneer Ditch Company, and
that large dividends had been lately kept up by a false economy of
expenditure, to expedite a "sharp deal" in the stock, by which the
judge and others could sell out of a failing company. Rather, it
was believed, that the judge's anger was due only to the discovery
of Sparrell's influence over his daughter and his interference with
the social affairs of Cottonwood. It was said that there was a
sharp scene between the youngest Miss Piper and the combined forces
of the judge and the elder sisters, which ended in the former's
resolute refusal to attend the picnic at all if that site was
selected.

As Delaware was known to be fearless even to the point of
recklessness, and fond of gayety, her refusal only intensified the
belief that she was merely "stickin' up for Sparrell's judgment"
without any reference to her own personal safety or that of her
sisters. The warning was laughed away; the opinion of Sparrell
treated with ridicule as the dyspeptic and envious expression of an
impractical man. It was pointed out that the reservoir had lasted
a long time even in its alleged ruinous state; that only a miracle
of coincidence could make it break down that particular afternoon
of the picnic; that even if it did happen, there was no direct
proof that it would seriously flood the valley, or at best add more
than a spice of excitement to the affair. The "Red Gulch
Contingent," who WOULD be there, was quite as capable of taking
care of the ladies, in case of any accident, as any lame crank who
wouldn't, but could only croak a warning to them from a distance.
A few even wished something might happen that they might have an
opportunity of showing their superior devotion; indeed, the
prospect of carrying the half-submerged sisters, in a condition of
helpless loveliness, in their arms to a place of safety was a
fascinating possibility. The warning was conspicuously ineffective;
everybody looked eagerly forward to the day and the unchanged
locality; to the greatest hopefulness and anticipation was added the
stirring of defiance, and when at last the appointed hour had
arrived, the picnic party passed down the twisting mountain trail
through the heat and glare in a fever of enthusiasm.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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