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Tales of Trail and Town By Bret Harte Characters: 19966

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Peter Atherly had been four months in England, but knew little of the country until one summer afternoon when his carriage rolled along the well-ordered road between Nonningsby Station and Ashley Grange.

In that four months he had consulted authorities, examined records, visited the Heralds' College, written letters, and made a few friends. A rich American, tracing his genealogical tree, was not a new thing-even in that day-in London; but there was something original and simple in his methods, and so much that was grave, reserved, and un-American in his personality, that it awakened interest. A recognition that he was a foreigner, but a puzzled doubt, however, of his exact nationality, which he found everywhere, at first pained him, but he became reconciled to it at about the same time that his English acquaintances abandoned their own reserve and caution before the greater reticence of this melancholy American, and actually became the questioners! In this way his quest became known only as a disclosure of his own courtesy, and offers of assistance were pressed eagerly upon him. That was why Sir Edward Atherly found himself gravely puzzled, as he sat with his family solicitor one morning in the library of Ashley Grange.

"Humph!" said Sir Edward. "And you say he has absolutely no other purpose in making these inquiries?"

"Positively none," returned the solicitor. "He is even willing to sign a renunciation of any claim which might arise out of this information. It is rather a singular case, but he seems to be a rich man and quite able to indulge his harmless caprices."

"And you are quite sure he is Philip's son?"

"Quite, from the papers he brings me. Of course I informed him that even if he should be able to establish a legal marriage he could expect nothing as next of kin, as you had children of your own. He seemed to know that already, and avowed that his only wish was to satisfy his own mind."

"I suppose he wants to claim kinship and all that sort of thing for society's sake?"

"I do not think so," said the solicitor dryly. "I suggested an interview with you, but he seemed to think it quite unnecessary, if I could give him the information he required."

"Ha!" said Sir Edward promptly, "we'll invite him here. Lady Atherly can bring in some people to see him. Is he-ahem-What is he like? The usual American, I suppose?"

"Not at all. Quite foreign-looking-dark, and rather like an Italian. There is no resemblance to Mr. Philip," he said, glancing at the painting of a flaxen-haired child fondling a greyhound under the elms of Ashley Park.

"Ah! Yes, yes! Perhaps the mother was one of those Southern creoles, or mulattoes," said Sir Edward with an Englishman's tolerant regard for the vagaries of people who were clearly not English; "they're rather attractive women, I hear."

"I think you do quite well to be civil to him," said the solicitor. "He seems to take an interest in the family, and being rich, and apparently only anxious to enhance the family prestige, you ought to know him. Now, in reference to those mortgages on Appleby Farm, if you could get"-

"Yes, yes!" said Sir Edward quickly; "we'll have him down here; and, I say! YOU'LL come too?"

The solicitor bowed. "And, by the way," continued Sir Edward, "there was a girl too,-wasn't there? He has a sister, I believe?"

"Yes, but he has left her in America."

"Ah, yes!-very good-yes!-of course. We'll have Lord Greyshott and Sir Roger and old Lady Everton,-she knows all about Sir Ashley and the family. And-er-is he young or old?"

"About thirty, I should say, Sir Edward."

"Ah, well! We'll have Lady Elfrida over from the Towers."

Had Peter known of these preparations he might have turned back to Nonningsby without even visiting the old church in Ashley Park, which he had been told held the ashes of his ancestors. For during these four months the conviction that he was a foreigner and that he had little or nothing in common with things here had been clearly forced upon him. He could recognize some kinship in the manners and customs of the people to those he had known in the West and on the Atlantic coast, but not to his own individuality, and he seemed even more a stranger here-where he had expected to feel the thrill of consanguinity-than in the West. He had accepted the invitation of the living Atherly for the sake of the Atherlys long dead and forgotten. As the great quadrangle of stone and ivy lifted itself out of the park, he looked longingly towards the little square tower which peeped from between the yews nearer the road. As the carriage drove up to the carved archway whence so many Atherlys had issued into the world, he could not believe that any of his blood had gone forth from it, or, except himself, had ever entered it before. Once in the great house he felt like a prisoner as he wandered through the long corridors to his room; even the noble trees beyond his mullioned windows seemed of another growth than those he had known.

There was no doubt that he created a sensation at Ashley Grange, not only from his singular kinship, but from his striking individuality. The Atherlys and their guests were fascinated and freely admiring. His very originality, which prevented them from comparing him with any English or American standard of excellence, gave them a comfortable assurance of safety in their admiration. His reserve, his seriousness, his simplicity, very unlike their own, and yet near enough to suggest a delicate flattery, was in his favor. So was his naive frankness in regard to his status in the family, shown in the few words of greeting with Sir Ashley, and in his later simple yet free admissions regarding his obscure youth, his former poverty, and his present wealth. He boasted of neither; he was disturbed by neither. Standing alone, a stranger, for the first time in an assemblage of distinguished and titled men and women, he betrayed no consciousness; surrounded for the first time by objects which he knew his wealth could not buy, he showed the most unmistakable indifference,-the indifference of temperament. The ladies vied with each other to attack this unimpressible nature,-this profound isolation from external attraction. They followed him about, they looked into his dark, melancholy eyes; it was impossible, they thought, that he could continue this superb acting forever. A glance, a smile, a burst of ingenuous confidence, a covert appeal to his chivalry would yet catch him tripping. But the melancholy eyes that had gazed at the treasures of Ashley Grange and the opulent ease of its guests without kindling, opened to their first emotion,-wonder! At which Lady Elfrida, who had ingenuously admired him, hated him a little, as the first step towards a kindlier feeling.

The next day, having declared his intention of visiting Ashley Church, and, as frankly, his intention of going there alone, he slipped out in the afternoon and made his way quietly through the park to the square ivied tower he had first seen. In this tranquil level length of the wood there was the one spot, the churchyard, where, oddly enough, the green earth heaved into little billows as if to show the turbulence of that life which those who lay below them had lately quitted. It was a relief to the somewhat studied and formal monotony of the well-ordered woodland,-every rood, of which had been paced by visitors, keepers, or poachers,-to find those decrepit and bending tombstones, lurching at every angle, or deeply sinking into the green sea of forgetfulness around them. All this, and the trodden paths of the villagers towards that common place of meeting, struck him as being more human than anything he had left behind him at the Grange.

He entered the ivy-grown porch and stared for a moment at the half-legal official parochial notices posted on the oaken door,-his first obtrusive intimation of the combination of church and state,-and hesitated. He was not prepared to find that this last resting-place of his people had something to do with taxes and tithes, and that a certain material respectability and security attended his votive sigh. God and the reigning sovereign of the realm preserved a decorous alliance in the royal arms that appeared above the official notices. Presently he pushed open the door gently and entered the nave. For a moment it seemed to him as if the arched gloom of the woods he had left behind was repeated in the dim aisle and vaulted roof; there was an earthy odor, as if the church itself, springing from the fertilizing dust below, had taken root in the soil; the chequers of light from the faded stained-glass windows fell like the flicker of leaves on the pavement. He paused before the cold altar, and started, for beside him lay the recumbent figure of a warrior pillowed on his helmet with the paraphernalia of his trade around him. A sudden childish memory of the great Western plains, and the biers of the Indian "braves" raised on upright poles against the staring sky and above the sunbaked prairie, rushed upon him. There, too, had lain the weapons of the departed chieftain; there, too, lay the Indian's "faithful hound," here simulated by the cross-legged crusader's canine effigy. And now, strangest of all, he found that this unlooked-for recollection and remembrance thrilled him more at that moment than the dead before him. Here they rested,-the Atherlys of centuries; recumbent in armor or priestly robes, upright in busts that were periwigged or hidden in long curls, above the marble record of their deeds and virtues. Some of these records were in Latin,-an unknown tongue to Peter,-some in a quaint English almost as unintelligible; but none as foreign to him as the dead themselves. Their banners waved above his head; their voices filled the silent church, but fell upon his vacant eye and duller ear. He was none of them.

Presently he was conscious of a footstep, so faint, so subtle, that it

might have come from a peregrinating ghost. He turned quickly and saw Lady Elfrida, half bold, yet half frightened, halting beside a pillar of the chancel. But there was nothing of the dead about her: she was radiating and pulsating with the uncompromising and material freshness of English girlhood. The wild rose in the hedgerow was not more tangible than her cheek, nor the summer sky more clearly cool and blue than her eyes. The vigor of health and unfettered freedom of limb was in her figure from her buckled walking-shoe to her brown hair topped by a sailor hat. The assurance and contentment of a well-ordered life, of secured position and freedom from vain anxieties or expectations, were visible in every line of her refined, delicate, and evenly quiescent features. And yet Lady Elfrida, for the first time in her girlhood, felt a little nervous.

Yet she was frank, too, with the frankness of those who have no thought of being misunderstood. She said she had come there out of curiosity to see how he would "get on" with his ancestors. She had been watching him from the chancel ever since he came,-and she was disappointed. As far as emotion went she thought he had the advantage of the stoniest and longest dead of them all. Perhaps he did not like them? But he must be careful what he SAID, for some of her own people were there,-manifestly this one. (She put the toe of her buckled shoe on the crusader Peter had just looked at.) And then there was another in the corner. So she had a right to come there as well as he,-and she could act as cicerone! This one was a De Brecy, one of King John's knights, who married an Atherly. (She swung herself into a half-sitting posture on the effigy of the dead knight, composed her straight short skirt over her trim ankles, and looked up in Peter's dark face.) That would make them some kind of relations,-wouldn't it? He must come over to Bentley Towers and see the rest of the De Brecys in the chapel there to-morrow. Perhaps there might be some he liked better, and who looked more like him. For there was no one here or at the Grange who resembled him in the least.

He assented to the truth of this with such grave, disarming courtesy, and yet with such undisguised wonder,-as she appeared to talk with greater freedom to a stranger than an American girl would,-that she at once popped off the crusader, and accompanied him somewhat more demurely around the church. Suddenly she stopped with a slight exclamation.

They had halted before a tablet to the memory of a later Atherly, an officer of his Majesty's 100th Foot, who was killed at Braddock's defeat. The tablet was supported on the one side by a weeping Fame, and on the other by a manacled North American Indian. She stammered and said: "You see there are other Atherlys who went to America even before your father," and then stopped with a sense of having made a slip.

A wild and inexplicable resentment against this complacent historical outrage suddenly took possession of Peter. He knew that his rage was inconsistent with his usual calm, but he could not help it! His swarthy cheek glowed, his dark eyes flashed, he almost trembled with excitement as he hurriedly pointed out to Lady Elfrida that the Indians were VICTORIOUS in that ill-fated expedition of the British forces, and that the captive savage was an allegorical lie. So swift and convincing was his emotion that the young girl, knowing nothing of the subject and caring less, shared his indignation, followed him with anxious eyes, and their hands for an instant touched in innocent and generous sympathy. And then-he knew not how or why-a still more wild and terrible idea sprang up in his fancy. He knew it was madness, yet for a moment he could only stand and grapple with it silently and breathlessly. It was to seize this young and innocent girl, this witness of his disappointment, this complacent and beautiful type of all they valued here, and bear her away-a prisoner, a hostage-he knew not why-on a galloping horse in the dust of the prairie-far beyond the seas! It was only when he saw her cheek flush and pale, when he saw her staring at him with helpless, frightened, but fascinated eyes,-the eyes of the fluttering bird under the spell of the rattlesnake,-that he drew his breath and turned bewildered away. "And do you know, dear," she said with naive simplicity to her sister that evening, "that although he was an American, and everybody says that they don't care at all for those poor Indians, he was so magnanimous in his indignation that I fancied he looked like one of Cooper's heroes himself rather than an Atherly. It was such a stupid thing for me to show him that tomb of Major Atherly, you know, who fought the Americans,-didn't he?-or was it later?-but I quite forgot he was an American." And with this belief in her mind, and in the high expiation of a noble nature, she forbore her characteristic raillery, and followed him meekly, manacled in spirit like the allegorical figure, to the church porch, where they separated, to meet on the morrow. But that morrow never came.

For late in the afternoon a cable message reached him from California asking him to return to accept a nomination to Congress from his own district. It determined his resolution, which for a moment at the church porch had wavered under the bright eyes of Lady Elfrida. He telegraphed his acceptance, hurriedly took leave of his honestly lamenting kinsman, followed his dispatch to London, and in a few days was on the Atlantic.

How he was received in California, how he found his sister married to the blond lawyer, how he recovered his popularity and won his election, are details that do not belong to this chronicle of his quest. And that quest seems to have terminated forever with his appearance at Washington to take his seat as Congressman.

It was the night of a levee at the White House. The East Room was crowded with smartly dressed men and women of the capital, quaintly simple legislators from remote States in bygone fashions, officers in uniform, and the diplomatic circle blazing with orders. The invoker of this brilliant assembly stood in simple evening dress near the door,-unattended and hedged by no formality. He shook the hand of the new Congressman heartily, congratulated him by name, and turned smilingly to the next comer. Presently there was a slight stir at one of the opposite doors, the crowd fell back, and five figures stalked majestically into the centre of the room. They were the leading chiefs of an Indian reservation coming to pay their respects to their "Great Father," the President. Their costumes were a mingling of the picturesque with the grotesque; of tawdriness with magnificence; of artificial tinsel and glitter with the regal spoils of the chase; of childlike vanity with barbaric pride. Yet before these the glittering orders and ribbons of the diplomats became dull and meaningless, the uniforms of the officers mere servile livery. Their painted, immobile faces and plumed heads towered with grave dignity above the meaner crowd; their inscrutable eyes returned no response to the timid glances directed towards them. They stood by themselves, alone and impassive,-yet their presence filled the room with the sense of kings. The unostentatious, simple republican court suddenly seemed to have become royal. Even the interpreter who stood between their remote dignity and the nearer civilized world acquired the status of a court chamberlain.

When their "Great Father," apparently the less important personage, had smilingly received them, a political colleague approached Peter and took his arm. "Gray Eagle would like to speak with you. Come on! Here's your chance! You may be put on the Committee on Indian Relations, and pick up a few facts. Remember we want a firm policy; no more palaver about the 'Great Father' and no more blankets and guns! You know what we used to say out West, 'The only "Good Indian" is a dead one.' So wade in, and hear what the old plug hat has to say."

Peter permitted himself to be led to the group. Even at that moment he remembered the figure of the Indian on the tomb at Ashley Grange, and felt a slight flash of satisfaction over the superior height and bearing of Gray Eagle.

"How!" said Gray Eagle. "How!" said the other four chiefs. "How!" repeated Peter instinctively. At a gesture from Gray Eagle the interpreter said: "Let your friend stand back; Gray Eagle has nothing to say to him. He wishes to speak only with you."

Peter's friend reluctantly withdrew, but threw a cautioning glance towards him. "Ugh!" said Gray Eagle. "Ugh!" said the other chiefs. A few guttural words followed to the interpreter, who turned, and facing Peter with the monotonous impassiveness which he had caught from the chiefs, said: "He says he knew your father. He was a great chief,-with many horses and many squaws. He is dead."

"My father was an Englishman,-Philip Atherly!" said Peter, with an odd nervousness creeping over him.

The interpreter repeated the words to Grey Eagle, who, after a guttural "Ugh!" answered in his own tongue.

"He says," continued the interpreter with a slight shrug, yet relapsing into his former impassiveness, "that your father was a great chief, and your mother a pale face, or white woman. She was captured with an Englishman, but she became the wife of the chief while in captivity. She was only released before the birth of her children, but a year or two afterwards she brought them as infants to see their father,-the Great Chief,-and to get the mark of their tribe. He says you and your sister are each marked on the left arm."

Then Gray Eagle opened his mouth and uttered his first English sentence. "His father, big Injin, take common white squaw! Papoose no good,-too much white squaw mother, not enough big Injin father! Look! He big man, but no can bear pain! Ugh!"

The interpreter turned in time to catch Peter. He had fainted.

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