A Secret of Telegraph Hill

Author: Bret Harte


The fortnight slowly passed. She returned, but he did not see her. She was always out or engaged in her room with some female friend when Herbert was at home. This was singular, as she had never appeared to him as a young girl who was fond of visiting or had ever affected female friendships. In fact, there was little doubt now that, wittingly or unwittingly, she was avoiding him.

He was moodily sitting by the fire one evening, having returned early from dinner. In reply to his habitual but affectedly careless inquiry, Ellen had told him that Mrs. Brooks was confined to her room by a slight headache, and that Miss Brooks was out. He was trying to read, and listening to the wind that occasionally rattled the casement and caused the solitary gas-lamp that was visible in the side street to flicker and leap wildly. Suddenly he heard the same footfall upon his outer step and a light tap at the door. Determined this time to solve the mystery, he sprang to his feet and ran to the door; but to his anger and astonishment it was locked and the key was gone. Yet he was positive that HE had not taken it out.

The tap was timidly repeated. In desperation he called out, "Please don’t go away yet. The key is gone; but I’ll find it in a moment." Nevertheless he was at his wits’ end.

There was a hesitating pause and then the sound of a key cautiously thrust into the lock. It turned; the door opened, and a tall figure, whose face and form were completely hidden in a veil and long gray shawl, quickly glided into the room and closed the door behind it. Then it suddenly raised its arms, the shawl was parted, the veil fell aside, and Cherry stood before him!

Her face was quite pale. Her eyes, usually downcast, frightened, or coldly clear, were bright and beautiful with excitement. The dimples were faintly there, although the smile was sad and half hysterical. She remained standing, erect and tall, her arms dropped at her side, holding the veil and shawl that still depended from her shoulders.

"So—I’ve caught you!" she said, with a strange little laugh. "Oh yes. ’Please don’t go away yet. I’ll get the key in a moment,’" she continued, mimicking his recent utterance.

He could only stammer, "Miss Brooks—then it was YOU?"

"Yes; and you thought it was SHE, didn’t you? Well, and you’re caught! I didn’t believe it; I wouldn’t believe it when they said it. I determined to find it out myself. And I have; and it’s true."

Unable to determine whether she was serious or jesting, and conscious only of his delight at seeing her again, he advanced impulsively. But her expression instantly changed: she became at once stiff and school-girlishly formal, and stepped back towards the door.

"Don’t come near me, or I’ll go," she said quickly, with her hand upon the lock.

"But not before you tell me what you mean," he said half laughingly half earnestly. "Who is SHE? and what wouldn’t you have believed? For upon my honor, Miss Brooks, I don’t know what you are talking about."

His evident frankness and truthful manner appeared to puzzle her. "You mean to say you were expecting no one?" she said sharply.

"I assure you I was not."

"And—and no woman was ever here—at that door?"

He hesitated. "Not to-night—not for a long time; not since you returned from Oakland."

"Then there WAS one?"

"I believe so."

"You BELIEVE—you don’t KNOW?"

"I believed it was a woman from her voice; for the door was locked, and the key was downstairs. When I fetched it and opened the door, she—or whoever it was—was gone."

"And that’s why you said so imploringly, just now, ’Please don’t go away yet’? You see I’ve caught you. Ah! I don’t wonder you blush!"

If he had, his cheeks had caught fire from her brilliant eyes and the extravagantly affected sternness—as of a school-girl monitor— in her animated face. Certainly he had never seen such a transformation.

"Yes; but, you see, I wanted to know who the intruder was," he said, smiling at his own embarrassment.

"You did—well, perhaps THAT will tell you? It was found under your door before I went away." She suddenly produced from her pocket a folded paper and handed it to him. It was a misspelt scrawl, and ran as follows:—

"Why are you so cruel? Why do you keep me dansing on the stepps before them gurls at the windows? Was it that stuckup Saint, Miss Brooks, that you were afraid of, my deer? Oh, you faithless trater! Wait till I ketch you! I’ll tear your eyes out and hern!"

It did not require great penetration for Herbert to be instantly convinced that the writer of this vulgar epistle and the owner of the unknown voice were two very different individuals. The note was evidently a trick. A suspicion of its perpetrators flashed upon him.

"Whoever the woman was, it was not she who wrote the note," he said positively. "Somebody must have seen her at the door. I remember now that those girls—your neighbors—were watching me from their window when I came out. Depend upon it, that letter comes from them."

Cherry’s eyes opened widely with a sudden childlike perception, and then shyly dropped. "Yes," she said slowly; "they DID watch you. They know it, for it was they who made it the talk of the neighborhood, and that’s how it came to mother’s ears." She stopped, and, with a frightened look, stepped back towards the door again.

"Then THAT was why your mother"—

"Oh yes," interrupted Cherry quickly. "That was why I went over to Oakland, and why mother forbade my walking with you again, and why she had a talk with friends about your conduct, and why she came near telling Mr. Carstone all about it until I stopped her." She checked herself—he could hardly believe his eyes—the pale, nunlike girl was absolutely blushing.

"I thank you, Miss Brooks," he said gravely, "for your thoughtfulness, although I hope I could have still proven my innocence to Mr. Carstone, even if some unknown woman tried my door by mistake, and was seen doing it. But I am pained to think that YOU could have believed me capable of so wanton and absurd an impropriety—and such a gross disrespect to your mother’s house."

"But," said Cherry with childlike naivete, "you know YOU don’t think anything of such things, and that’s what I told mother."

"You told your mother THAT?"

"Oh yes—I told her Tappington says it’s quite common with young men. Please don’t laugh—for it’s very dreadful. Tappington didn’t laugh when he told it to me as a warning. He was shocked."

"But, my dear Miss Brooks"—

"There—now you’re angry—and that’s as bad. Are you sure you didn’t know that woman?"


"Yet you seemed very anxious just now that she should wait till you opened the door."

"That was perfectly natural."

"I don’t think it was natural at all."

"But—according to Tappington"—

"Because my brother is very good you need not make fun of him."

"I assure you I have no such intention. But what more can I say? I give you my word that I don’t know who that unlucky woman was. No doubt she may have been some nearsighted neighbor who had mistaken the house, and I dare say was as thoroughly astonished at my voice as I was at hers. Can I say more? Is it necessary for me to swear that since I have been here no woman has ever entered that door—but"—

"But who?"


"I know what you mean," she said hurriedly, with her old frightened look, gliding to the outer door. "It’s shameful what I’ve done. But I only did it because—because I had faith in you, and didn’t believe what they said was true." She had already turned the lock. There were tears in her pretty eyes.

"Stop," said Herbert gently. He walked slowly towards her, and within reach of her frightened figure stopped with the timid respect of a mature and genuine passion. "You must not be seen going out of that door," he said gravely. "You must let me go first, and, when I am gone, lock the door again and go through the hall to your own room. No one must know that I was in the house when you came in at that door. Good-night."

Without offering his hand he lifted his eyes to her face. The dimples were all there—and something else. He bowed and passed out.

Ten minutes later he ostentatiously returned to the house by the front door, and proceeded up the stairs to his own room. As he cast a glance around he saw that the music-stool had been moved before the fire, evidently with the view of attracting his attention. Lying upon it, carefully folded, was the veil that she had worn. There could be no doubt that it was left there purposely. With a smile at this strange girl’s last characteristic act of timid but compromising recklessness, after all his precautions, he raised it tenderly to his lips, and then hastened to hide it from the reach of vulgar eyes. But had Cherry known that its temporary resting-place that night was under his pillow she might have doubted his superior caution.

When he returned from the bank the next afternoon, Cherry rapped ostentatiously at his door. "Mother wishes me to ask you," she began with a certain prim formality, which nevertheless did not preclude dimples, "if you would give us the pleasure of your company at our Church Festival to-night? There will be a concert and a collation. You could accompany us there if you cared. Our friends and Tappington’s would be so glad to see you, and Dr. Stout would be delighted to make your acquaintance."

"Certainly!" said Herbert, delighted and yet astounded. "Then," he added in a lower voice, "your mother no longer believes me so dreadfully culpable?"

"Oh no," said Cherry in a hurried whisper, glancing up and down the passage; "I’ve been talking to her about it, and she is satisfied that it is all a jealous trick and slander of these neighbors. Why, I told her that they had even said that I was that mysterious woman; that I came that way to you because she had forbidden my seeing you openly."

"What! You dared say that?"

"Yes don’t you see? Suppose they said they HAD seen me coming in last night—THAT answers it," she said triumphantly.

"Oh, it does?" he said vacantly.

"Perfectly. So you see she’s convinced that she ought to put you on the same footing as Tappington, before everybody; and then there won’t be any trouble. You’ll come, won’t you? It won’t be so VERY good. And then, I’ve told mother that as there have been so many street-fights, and so much talk about the Vigilance Committee lately, I ought to have somebody for an escort when I am coming home. And if you’re known, you see, as one of US, there’ll be no harm in your meeting me."

"Thank you," he said, extending his hand gratefully.

Her fingers rested a moment in his. "Where did you put it?" she said demurely.

"It? Oh! IT’S all safe," he said quickly, but somewhat vaguely.

"But I don’t call the upper drawer of your bureau safe," she returned poutingly, "where EVERYBODY can go. So you’ll find it NOW inside the harmonium, on the keyboard."

"Oh, thank you."

"It’s quite natural to have left it there ACCIDENTALLY—isn’t it?" she said imploringly, assisted by all her dimples. Alas! she had forgotten that he was still holding her hand. Consequently, she had not time to snatch it away and vanish, with a stifled little cry, before it had been pressed two or three times to his lips. A little ashamed of his own boldness, Herbert remained for a few moments in the doorway listening, and looking uneasily down the dark passage. Presently a slight sound came over the fanlight of Cherry’s room. Could he believe his ears? The saint-like Cherry— no doubt tutored, for example’s sake, by the perfect Tappington— was softly whistling.

In this simple fashion the first pages of this little idyl were quietly turned. The book might have been closed or laid aside even then. But it so chanced that Cherry was an unconscious prophet; and presently it actually became a prudential necessity for her to have a masculine escort when she walked out. For a growing state of lawlessness and crime culminated one day the deep tocsin of the Vigilance Committee, and at its stroke fifty thousand peaceful men, reverting to the first principles of social safety, sprang to arms, assembled at their quarters, or patrolled the streets. In another hour the city of San Francisco was in the hands of a mob—the most peaceful, orderly, well organized, and temperate the world had ever known, and yet in conception as lawless, autocratic, and imperious as the conditions it opposed.


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "III.," A Secret of Telegraph Hill, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Secret of Telegraph Hill (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed March 23, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D11FR8TRLYQKXDV.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "III." A Secret of Telegraph Hill, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Secret of Telegraph Hill, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 23 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D11FR8TRLYQKXDV.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'III.' in A Secret of Telegraph Hill, ed. . cited in 1920, A Secret of Telegraph Hill, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D11FR8TRLYQKXDV.