by Bret Harte
We were eight, including the driver. We had not spoken during the
passage of the last six miles, since the jolting of the heavy vehicle
over the roughening road had spoiled the Judge's last poetical
quotation. The tall man beside the Judge was asleep, his arm passed
through the swaying strap and his head resting upon it--altogether a
limp, helpless-looking object, as if he had hanged himself and been cut
down too late. The French lady on the back seat was asleep, too, yet in
a half-conscious propriety of attitude, shown even in the disposition
of the handkerchief which she held to her forehead and which partially
veiled her face. The lady from Virginia City, traveling with her
husband, had long since lost all individuality in a wild confusion of
ribbons, veils, furs, and shawls. There was no sound but the rattling
of wheels and the dash of rain upon the roof. Suddenly the stage stopped
and we became dimly aware of voices. The driver was evidently in the
midst of an exciting colloquy with someone in the road--a colloquy of
which such fragments as "bridge gone," "twenty feet of water," "can't
pass," were occasionally distinguishable above the storm. Then came
a lull, and a mysterious voice from the road shouted the parting
We caught a glimpse of our leaders as the vehicle slowly turned, of a
horseman vanishing through the rain, and we were evidently on our way to
Who and where was Miggles? The Judge, our authority, did not remember
the name, and he knew the country thoroughly. The Washoe traveler
thought Miggles must keep a hotel. We only knew that we were stopped by
high water in front and rear, and that Miggles was our rock of refuge.
A ten minutes splashing through a tangled by-road, scarcely wide enough
for the stage, and we drew up before a barred and boarded gate in a
wide stone wall or fence about eight feet high. Evidently Miggles's, and
evidently Miggles did not keep a hotel.
The driver got down and tried the gate. It was securely locked. "Miggles!
"Migg-ells! You Miggles!" continued the driver, with rising wrath.
"Migglesy!" joined the expressman, persuasively. "O Miggy! Mig!"
But no reply came from the apparently insensate Miggles. The Judge,
who had finally got the window down, put his head out and propounded
a series of questions, which if answered categorically would have
undoubtedly elucidated the whole mystery, but which the driver evaded by
replying that "if we didn't want to sit in the coach all night, we had
better rise up and sing out for Miggles."
So we rose up and called on Miggles in chorus; then separately. And when
we had finished, a Hibernian fellow-passenger from the roof called for
"Maygells!" whereat we all laughed. While we were laughing, the driver
We listened. To our infinite amazement the chorus of "Miggles" was
repeated from the other side of the wall, even to the final and
"Extraordinary echo," said the Judge.
"Extraordinary damned skunk!" roared the driver, contemptuously. "Come
out of that, Miggles, and show yourself! Be a man, Miggles! Don't hide
in the dark; I wouldn't if I were you, Miggles," continued Yuba Bill,
now dancing about in an excess of fury.
"Miggles!" continued the voice. "O Miggles!"
"My good man! Mr. Myghail!" said the Judge, softening the asperities of
the name as much as possible. "Consider the inhospitality of refusing
shelter from the inclemency of the weather to helpless females. Really,
my dear sir--" But a succession of "Miggles," ending in a burst of
laughter, drowned his voice.
Yuba Bill hesitated no longer. Taking a heavy stone from the road, he
battered down the gate, and with the expressman entered the enclosure.
We followed. Nobody was to be seen. In the gathering darkness all that
we could distinguish was that we were in a garden--from the rosebushes
that scattered over us a minute spray from their dripping leaves--and
before a long, rambling wooden building.
"Do you know this Miggles?" asked the Judge of Yuba Bill.
"No, nor, don't want to," said Bill, shortly, who felt the Pioneer Stage
Company insulted in his person by the contumacious Miggles.
"But, my dear sir," expostulated the Judge as he thought of the barred
"Lookee here," said Yuba Bill, with fine irony, "hadn't you better go
back and sit in the coach till yer introduced? I'm going in," and he
pushed open the door of the building.
A long room lighted only by the embers of a fire that was dying on the
large hearth at its farther extremity; the walls curiously papered, and
the flickering firelight bringing out its grotesque pattern; somebody
sitting in a large armchair by the fireplace. All this we saw as we
crowded together into the room, after the driver and expressman.
"Hello, be you Miggles?" said Yuba Bill to the solitary occupant.
The figure neither spoke nor stirred. Yuba Bill walked wrathfully toward
it, and turned the eye of his coach lantern upon its face. It was a
man's face, prematurely old and wrinkled, with very large eyes, in which
there was that expression of perfectly gratuitous solemnity which I had
sometimes seen in an owl's. The large eyes wandered from Bill's face
to the lantern, and finally fixed their gaze on that luminous object,
without further recognition.
Bill restrained himself with an effort.
"Miggles! Be you deaf? You ain't dumb anyhow, you know"; and Yuba Bill
shook the insensate figure by the shoulder.
To our great dismay, as Bill removed his hand, the venerable
stranger apparently collapsed--sinking into half his size and an
undistinguishable heap of clothing.
"Well, dern my skin," said Bill, looking appealingly at us, and
hopelessly retiring from the contest.
The Judge now stepped forward, and we lifted the mysterious invertebrate
back into his original position. Bill was dismissed with the lantern to
reconnoiter outside, for it was evident that from the helplessness of
this solitary man there must be attendants near at hand, and we all
drew around the fire. The Judge, who had regained his authority, and had
never lost his conversational amiability--standing before us with his
back to the hearth--charged us, as an imaginary jury, as follows:
"It is evident that either our distinguished friend here has reached
that condition described by Shakespeare as 'the sere and yellow leaf,'
or has suffered some premature abatement of his mental and physical
faculties. Whether he is really the Miggles--"
Here he was interrupted by "Miggles! O Miggles! Migglesy! Mig!" and, in
fact, the whole chorus of Miggles in very much the same key as it had
once before been delivered unto us.
We gazed at each other for a moment in some alarm. The Judge, in
particular, vacated his position quickly, as the voice seemed to come
directly over his shoulder. The cause, however, was soon discovered in
a large magpie who was perched upon a shelf over the fireplace, and
who immediately relapsed into a sepulchral silence which contrasted
singularly with his previous volubility. It was, undoubtedly, his voice
which we had heard in the road, and our friend in the chair was not
responsible for the discourtesy. Yuba Bill, who re-entered the room
after an unsuccessful search, was loath to accept the explanation, and
still eyed the helpless sitter with suspicion. He had found a shed in
which he had put up his horses, but he came back dripping and skeptical.
"Thar ain't nobody but him within ten mile of the shanty, and that 'ar
damned old skeesicks knows it."
But the faith of the majority proved to be securely based. Bill had
scarcely ceased growling before we heard a quick step upon the porch,
the trailing of a wet skirt, the door was flung open, and with flash of
white teeth, a sparkle of dark eyes, and an utter absence of ceremony or
diffidence, a young woman entered, shut the door, and, panting, leaned
back against it.
"Oh, if you please, I'm Miggles!"
And this was Miggles! this bright-eyed, full-throated young woman, whose
wet gown of coarse blue stuff could not hide the beauty of the feminine
curves to which it clung; from the chestnut crown of whose head, topped
by a man's oilskin sou'wester, to the little feet and ankles, hidden
somewhere in the recesses of her boy's brogans, all was grace--this was
Miggles, laughing at us, too, in the most airy, frank, offhand manner
"You see, boys," said she, quite out of breath, and holding one little
hand against her side, quite unheeding the speechless discomfiture
of our party, or the complete demoralization of Yuba Bill, whose
features had relaxed into an expression of gratuitous and imbecile
cheerfulness--"you see, boys, I was mor'n two miles away when you passed
down the road. I thought you might pull up here, and so I ran the
whole way, knowing nobody was home but Jim,--and--and--I'm out of
breath--and--that lets me out."
And here Miggles caught her dripping oilskin hat from her head, with
a mischievous swirl that scattered a shower of raindrops over us;
attempted to put back her hair; dropped two hairpins in the attempt;
laughed and sat down beside Yuba Bill, with her hands crossed lightly
on her lap.
The Judge recovered himself first, and essayed an extravagant
"I'll trouble you for that thar harpin," said Miggles, gravely. Half
a dozen hands were eagerly stretched forward; the missing hairpin was
restored to its fair owner; and Miggles, crossing the room, looked
keenly in the face of the invalid. The solemn eyes looked back at hers
with an expression we had never seen before. Life and intelligence
seemed to struggle back into the rugged face. Miggles laughed again--it
was a singularly eloquent laugh--and turned her black eyes and white
teeth once more toward us.
"This afflicted person is--" hesitated the Judge.
"Jim," said Miggles.
Miggles darted a quick, half-defiant glance at the two lady passengers
who I had noticed did not participate in the general masculine
admiration of Miggles, and said gravely, "No; it's Jim."
There was an awkward pause. The lady passengers moved closer to each
other; the Washoe husband looked abstractedly at the fire; and the
tall man apparently turned his eyes inward for self-support at this
emergency. But Miggles's laugh, which was very infectious, broke the
silence. "Come," she said briskly, "you must be hungry. Who'll bear a
hand to help me get tea?"
She had no lack of volunteers. In a few moments Yuba Bill was engaged
like Caliban in bearing logs for this Miranda; the expressman was
grinding coffee on the veranda; to myself the arduous duty of slicing
bacon was assigned; and the Judge lent each man his good-humored
and voluble counsel. And when Miggles, assisted by the Judge and
our Hibernian "deck passenger," set the table with all the available
crockery, we had become quite joyous, in spite of the rain that beat
against windows, the wind that whirled down the chimney, the two ladies
who whispered together in the corner, or the magpie who uttered a
satirical and croaking commentary on their conversation from his perch
above. In the now bright, blazing fire we could see that the walls were
papered with illustrated journals, arranged with feminine taste and
discrimination. The furniture was extemporized, and adapted from candle
boxes and packing-cases, and covered with gay calico, or the skin of
some animal. The armchair of the helpless Jim was an ingenious variation
of a flour barrel. There was neatness, and even a taste for the
picturesque, to be seen in the few details of the long low room.
The meal was a culinary success. But more, it was a social
triumph--chiefly, I think, owing to the rare tact of Miggles in
guiding the conversation, asking all the questions herself, yet bearing
throughout a frankness that rejected the idea of any concealment on
her own part, so that we talked of ourselves, of our prospects, of the
journey, of the weather, of each other--of everything but our host and
hostess. It must be confessed that Miggles's conversation was never
elegant, rarely grammatical, and that at times she employed expletives
the use of which had generally been yielded to our sex. But they were
delivered with such a lighting-up of teeth and eyes, and were usually
followed by a laugh--a laugh peculiar to Miggles--so frank and honest
that it seemed to clear the moral atmosphere.
Once during the meal we heard a noise like the rubbing of a heavy body
against the outer walls of the house. This was shortly followed by a
scratching and sniffling at the door. "That's Joaquin," said Miggles, in
reply to our questioning glances; "would you like to see him?" Before
we could answer she had opened the door, and disclosed a half-grown
grizzly, who instantly raised himself on his haunches, with his
forepaws hanging down in the popular attitude of mendicancy, and looked
admiringly at Miggles, with a very singular resemblance in his manner to
Yuba Bill. "That's my watch dog," said Miggles, in explanation. "Oh,
he don't bite," she added, as the two lady passengers fluttered into
a corner. "Does he, old Toppy?" (the latter remark being addressed
directly to the sagacious Joaquin). "I tell you what, boys," continued
Miggles after she had fed and closed the door on URSA MINOR, "you
were in big luck that Joaquin wasn't hanging round when you dropped
in tonight." "Where was he?" asked the Judge. "With me," said Miggles.
"Lord love you; he trots round with me nights like as if he was a man."
We were silent for a few moments, and listened to the wind. Perhaps we
all had the same picture before us--of Miggles walking through the rainy
woods, with her savage guardian at her side. The Judge, I remember, said
something about Una and her lion; but Miggles received it as she did
other compliments, with quiet gravity. Whether she was altogether
unconscious of the admiration she excited--she could hardly have been
oblivious of Yuba Bill's adoration--I know not; but her very frankness
suggested a perfect sexual equality that was cruelly humiliating to the
younger members of our party.
The incident of the bear did not add anything in Miggles's favor to the
opinions of those of her own sex who were present. In fact, the repast
over, a chillness radiated from the two lady passengers that no pine
boughs brought in by Yuba Bill and cast as a sacrifice upon the hearth
could wholly overcome. Miggles felt it; and, suddenly declaring that
it was time to "turn in," offered to show the ladies to their bed in an
adjoining room. "You boys will have to camp out here by the fire as well
as you can," she added, "for thar ain't but the one room."
Our sex--by which, my dear sir, I allude of course to the stronger
portion of humanity--has been generally relieved from the imputation
of curiosity, or a fondness for gossip. Yet I am constrained to say
that hardly had the door closed on Miggles than we crowded together,
whispering, snickering, smiling, and exchanging suspicions, surmises,
and a thousand speculations in regard to our pretty hostess and her
singular companion. I fear that we even hustled that imbecile paralytic,
who sat like a voiceless Memnon in our midst, gazing with the serene
indifference of the Past in his passionate eyes upon our wordy counsels.
In the midst of an exciting discussion the door opened again, and
But not, apparently, the same Miggles who a few hours before had flashed
upon us. Her eyes were downcast, and as she hesitated for a moment on
the threshold, with a blanket on her arm, she seemed to have left behind
her the frank fearlessness which had charmed us a moment before. Coming
into the room, she drew a low stool beside the paralytic's chair, sat
down, drew the blanket over her shoulders, and saying, "If it's all the
same to you, boys, as we're rather crowded, I'll stop here tonight,"
took the invalid's withered hand in her own, and turned her eyes upon
the dying fire. An instinctive feeling that this was only premonitory
to more confidential relations, and perhaps some shame at our previous
curiosity, kept us silent. The rain still beat upon the roof, wandering
gusts of wind stirred the embers into momentary brightness, until, in a
lull of the elements, Miggles suddenly lifted up her head, and, throwing
her hair over her shoulder, turned her face upon the group and asked:
"Is there any of you that knows me?"
There was no reply.
"Think again! I lived at Marysville in '53. Everybody knew me there, and
everybody had the right to know me. I kept the Polka saloon until I came
to live with Jim. That's six years ago. Perhaps I've changed some."
The absence of recognition may have disconcerted her. She turned her
head to the fire again, and it was some seconds before she again spoke,
and then more rapidly:
"Well, you see I thought some of you must have known me. There's
no great harm done, anyway. What I was going to say was this: Jim
here"--she took his hand in both of hers as she spoke--"used to know me,
if you didn't, and spent a heap of money upon me. I reckon he spent all
he had. And one day--it's six years ago this winter--Jim came into my
back room, sat down on my sofy, like as you see him in that chair, and
never moved again without help. He was struck all of a heap, and never
seemed to know what ailed him. The doctors came and said as how it
was caused all along of his way of life--for Jim was mighty free and
wild-like--and that he would never get better, and couldn't last long
anyway. They advised me to send him to Frisco to the hospital, for he
was no good to anyone and would be a baby all his life. Perhaps it was
something in Jim's eye, perhaps it was that I never had a baby, but I
said 'No.' I was rich then, for I was popular with everybody--gentlemen
like yourself, sir, came to see me--and I sold out my business and
bought this yer place, because it was sort of out of the way of travel,
you see, and I brought my baby here."
With a woman's intuitive tact and poetry, she had, as she spoke,
slowly shifted her position so as to bring the mute figure of the
ruined man between her and her audience, hiding in the shadow behind
it, as if she offered it as a tacit apology for her actions. Silent
and expressionless, it yet spoke for her; helpless, crushed, and
smitten with the Divine thunderbolt, it still stretched an invisible
arm around her.
Hidden in the darkness, but still holding his hand, she went on:
"It was a long time before I could get the hang of things about yer, for
I was used to company and excitement. I couldn't get any woman to help
me, and a man I dursen't trust; but what with the Indians hereabout,
who'd do odd jobs for me, and having everything sent from the North
Fork, Jim and I managed to worry through. The Doctor would run up from
Sacramento once in a while. He'd ask to see 'Miggles's baby,' as
he called Jim, and when he'd go away, he'd say, 'Miggles; you're a
trump--God bless you'; and it didn't seem so lonely after that. But
the last time he was here he said, as he opened the door to go, 'Do you
know, Miggles, your baby will grow up to be a man yet and an honor to
his mother; but not here, Miggles, not here!' And I thought he went away
sad--and--and--" and here Miggles's voice and head were somehow both
lost completely in the shadow.
"The folks about here are very kind," said Miggles, after a pause,
coming a little into the light again. "The men from the fork used to
hang around here, until they found they wasn't wanted, and the women are
kind--and don't call. I was pretty lonely until I picked up Joaquin in
the woods yonder one day, when he wasn't so high, and taught him to beg
for his dinner; and then thar's Polly--that's the magpie--she knows no
end of tricks, and makes it quite sociable of evenings with her talk,
and so I don't feel like as I was the only living being about the ranch.
And Jim here," said Miggles, with her old laugh again, and coming out
quite into the firelight, "Jim--why, boys, you would admire to see how
much he knows for a man like him. Sometimes I bring him flowers, and he
looks at 'em just as natural as if he knew 'em; and times, when we're
sitting alone, I read him those things on the wall. Why, Lord!" said
Miggles, with her frank laugh, "I've read him that whole side of the
house this winter. There never was such a man for reading as Jim."
"Why," asked the Judge, "do you not marry this man to whom you have
devoted your youthful life?"
"Well, you see," said Miggles, "it would be playing it rather low down
on Jim, to take advantage of his being so helpless. And then, too, if we
were man and wife, now, we'd both know that I was bound to do what I do
now of my own accord."
"But you are young yet and attractive--"
"It's getting late," said Miggles, gravely, "and you'd better all turn
in. Good night, boys"; and, throwing the blanket over her head, Miggles
laid herself down beside Jim's chair, her head pillowed on the low stool
that held his feet, and spoke no more. The fire slowly faded from the
hearth; we each sought our blankets in silence; and presently there was
no sound in the long room but the pattering of the rain upon the roof
and the heavy breathing of the sleepers.
It was nearly morning when I awoke from a troubled dream. The storm had
passed, the stars were shining, and through the shutterless window the
full moon, lifting itself over the solemn pines without, looked into
the room. It touched the lonely figure in the chair with an infinite
compassion, and seemed to baptize with a shining flood the lowly head of
the woman whose hair, as in the sweet old story, bathed the feet of him
she loved. It even lent a kindly poetry to the rugged outline of Yuba
Bill, half-reclining on his elbow between them and his passengers, with
savagely patient eyes keeping watch and ward. And then I fell asleep
and only woke at broad day, with Yuba Bill standing over me, and "All
aboard" ringing in my ears.
Coffee was waiting for us on the table, but Miggles was gone. We
wandered about the house and lingered long after the horses were
harnessed, but she did not return. It was evident that she wished to
avoid a formal leave-taking, and had so left us to depart as we had
come. After we had helped the ladies into the coach, we returned to
the house and solemnly shook hands with the paralytic Jim, as solemnly
settling him back into position after each handshake. Then we looked for
the last time around the long low room, at the stool where Miggles had
sat, and slowly took our seats in the waiting coach. The whip cracked,
and we were off!
But as we reached the highroad, Bill's dexterous hand laid the six
horses back on their haunches, and the stage stopped with a jerk. For
there, on a little eminence beside the road, stood Miggles, her hair
flying, her eyes sparkling, her white handkerchief waving, and her white
teeth flashing a last "good-by." We waved our hats in return. And then
Yuba Bill, as if fearful of further fascination, madly lashed his horses
forward, and we sank back in our seats. We exchanged not a word until we
reached the North Fork, and the stage drew up at the Independence House.
Then, the Judge leading, we walked into the barroom and took our places
gravely at the bar.
"Are your glasses charged, gentlemen?" said the Judge, solemnly taking
off his white hat.
"Well, then, here's to MIGGLES. GOD BLESS HER!"
Perhaps He had. Who knows?
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~