A Secret of Telegraph Hill

Author: Bret Harte


The sun was going down on the Dedlow Marshes. The tide was following it fast as if to meet the reddening lines of sky and water in the west, leaving the foreground to grow blacker and blacker every moment, and to bring out in startling contrast the few half-filled and half-lit pools left behind and forgotten. The strong breath of the Pacific fanning their surfaces at times kindled them into a dull glow like dying embers. A cloud of sandpipers rose white from one of the nearer lagoons, swept in a long eddying ring against the sunset, and became a black and dropping rain to seaward. The long sinuous line of channel, fading with the light and ebbing with the tide, began to give off here and there light puffs of gray-winged birds like sudden exhalations. High in the darkening sky the long arrow-headed lines of geese and ’brant’ pointed towards the upland. As the light grew more uncertain the air at times was filled with the rush of viewless and melancholy wings, or became plaintive with far-off cries and lamentations. As the Marshes grew blacker the far-scattered tussocks and accretions on its level surface began to loom in exaggerated outline, and two human figures, suddenly emerging erect on the bank of the hidden channel, assumed the proportion of giants.

When they had moored their unseen boat, they still appeared for some moments to be moving vaguely and aimlessly round the spot where they had disembarked. But as the eye became familiar with the darkness it was seen that they were really advancing inland, yet with a slowness of progression and deviousness of course that appeared inexplicable to the distant spectator. Presently it was evident that this seemingly even, vast, black expanse was traversed and intersected by inky creeks and small channels, which made human progression difficult and dangerous. As they appeared nearer and their figures took more natural proportions, it could be seen that each carried a gun; that one was a young girl, although dressed so like her companion in shaggy pea-jacket and sou’wester as to be scarcely distinguished from him above the short skirt that came halfway down her high india-rubber fishing-boots. By the time they had reached firmer ground, and turned to look back at the sunset, it could be also seen that the likeness between their faces was remarkable. Both, had crisp, black, tightly curling hair; both had dark eyes and heavy eyebrows; both had quick vivid complexions, slightly heightened by the sea and wind. But more striking than their similarity of coloring was the likeness of expression and bearing. Both wore the same air of picturesque energy; both bore themselves with a like graceful effrontery and self-possession.

The young man continued his way. The young girl lingered for a moment looking seaward, with her small brown hand lifted to shade her eyes,—a precaution which her heavy eyebrows and long lashes seemed to render utterly gratuitous.

"Come along, Mag. What are ye waitin’ for?" said the young man impatiently.

"Nothin’. Lookin’ at that boat from the Fort." Her clear eyes were watching a small skiff, invisible to less keen-sighted observers, aground upon a flat near the mouth of the channel. "Them chaps will have a high ole time gunnin’ thar, stuck in the mud, and the tide goin’ out like sixty!"

"Never you mind the sodgers," returned her companion, aggressively, "they kin take care o’ their own precious skins, or Uncle Sam will do it for ’em, I reckon. Anyhow the people—that’s you and me, Mag—is expected to pay for their foolishness. That’s what they’re sent yer for. Ye oughter to be satisfied with that," he added with deep sarcasm.

"I reckon they ain’t expected to do much off o’ dry land, and they can’t help bein’ queer on the water," returned the young girl with a reflecting sense of justice.

"Then they ain’t no call to go gunnin’, and wastin’ Guv’nment powder on ducks instead o’ Injins."

"Thet’s so," said the girl thoughtfully. "Wonder ef Guv’nment pays for them frocks the Kernel’s girls went cavortin’ round Logport in last Sunday—they looked like a cirkis."

"Like ez not the old Kernel gets it outer contracts—one way or another. WE pay for it all the same," he added gloomily.

"Jest the same ez if they were MY clothes," said the girl, with a quick, fiery, little laugh, "ain’t it? Wonder how they’d like my sayin’ that to ’em when they was prancin’ round, eh, Jim?"

But her companion was evidently unprepared for this sweeping feminine deduction, and stopped it with masculine promptitude.

"Look yer—instead o’ botherin’ your head about what the Fort girls wear, you’d better trot along a little more lively. It’s late enough now."

"But these darned boots hurt like pizen," said the girl, limping. "They swallowed a lot o’ water over the tops while I was wadin’ down there, and my feet go swashin’ around like in a churn every step."

"Lean on me, baby," he returned, passing his arm around her waist, and dropping her head smartly on his shoulder. "Thar!" The act was brotherly and slightly contemptuous, but it was sufficient to at once establish their kinship.

They continued on thus for some moments in silence, the girl, I fear, after the fashion of her sex, taking the fullest advantage of this slightly sentimental and caressing attitude. They were moving now along the edge of the Marsh, parallel with the line of rapidly fading horizon, following some trail only known to their keen youthful eyes. It was growing darker and darker. The cries of the sea-birds had ceased; even the call of a belated plover had died away inland; the hush of death lay over the black funereal pall of marsh at their side. The tide had run out with the day. Even the sea-breeze had lulled in this dead slack-water of all nature, as if waiting outside the bar with the ocean, the stars, and the night.

Suddenly the girl stopped and halted her companion. The faint far sound of a bugle broke the silence, if the idea of interruption could have been conveyed by the two or three exquisite vibrations that seemed born of that silence itself, and to fade and die in it without break or discord. Yet it was only the ’retreat’ call from the Fort two miles distant and invisible.

The young girl’s face had become irradiated, and her small mouth half opened as she listened. "Do you know, Jim," she said with a confidential sigh, "I allus put words to that when I hear it—it’s so pow’ful pretty. It allus goes to me like this: ’Goes the day, Far away, With the light, And the night Comes along—Comes along— Comes along—Like a-a so-o-ong.’" She here lifted her voice, a sweet, fresh, boyish contralto, in such an admirable imitation of the bugle that her brother, after the fashion of more select auditors, was for a moment quite convinced that the words meant something. Nevertheless, as a brother, it was his duty to crush this weakness. "Yes; and it says:’shut your head, Go to bed,’" he returned irascibly; "and YOU’D better come along, if we’re goin’ to hev any supper. There’s Yeller Bob hez got ahead of us over there with the game already."

The girl glanced towards a slouching burdened figure that now appeared to be preceding them, straightened herself suddenly, and then looked attentively towards the Marsh.

"Not the sodgers again?" said her brother impatiently.

"No," she said quickly; "but if that don’t beat anythin’! I’d hev sworn, Jim, that Yeller Bob was somewhere behind us. I saw him only jest now when ’Taps’ sounded, somewhere over thar." She pointed with a half-uneasy expression in quite another direction from that in which the slouching Yellow Bob had just loomed.

"Tell ye what, Mag, makin’ poetry outer bugle calls hez kinder muddled ye. THAT’S Yeller Bob ahead, and ye orter know Injins well enuff by this time to remember that they allus crop up jest when ye don’t expect them. And there’s the bresh jest afore us. Come!"

The ’bresh,’ or low bushes, was really a line of stunted willows and alders that seemed to have gradually sunk into the level of the plain, but increased in size farther inland, until they grew to the height and density of a wood. Seen from the channel it had the appearance of a green cape or promontory thrust upon the Marsh. Passing through its tangled recesses, with the aid of some unerring instinct, the two companions emerged upon another and much larger level that seemed as illimitable as the bay. The strong breath of the ocean lying just beyond the bar and estuary they were now facing came to them salt and humid as another tide. The nearer expanse of open water reflected the after-glow, and lightened the landscape. And between the two wayfarers and the horizon rose, bleak and startling, the strange outlines of their home.

At first it seemed a ruined colonnade of many pillars, whose base and pediment were buried in the earth, supporting a long parallelogram of entablature and cornices. But a second glance showed it to be a one-storied building, upheld above the Marsh by numberless piles placed at regular distances; some of them sunken or inclined from the perpendicular, increasing the first illusion. Between these pillars, which permitted a free circulation of air, and, at extraordinary tides, even the waters of the bay itself, the level waste of marsh, the bay, the surges of the bar, and finally the red horizon line, were distinctly visible. A railed gallery or platform, supported also on piles, and reached by steps from the Marsh, ran around the building, and gave access to the several rooms and offices.

But if the appearance of this lacustrine and amphibious dwelling was striking, and not without a certain rude and massive grandeur, its grounds and possessions, through which the brother and sister were still picking their way, were even more grotesque and remarkable. Over a space of half a dozen acres the flotsam and jetsam of years of tidal offerings were collected, and even guarded with a certain care. The blackened hulks of huge uprooted trees, scarcely distinguishable from the fragments of genuine wrecks beside them, were securely fastened by chains to stakes and piles driven in the marsh, while heaps of broken and disjointed bamboo orange crates, held together by ropes of fibre, glistened like ligamented bones heaped in the dead valley. Masts, spars, fragments of shell-encrusted boats, binnacles, round-houses and galleys, and part of the after-deck of a coasting schooner, had ceased their wanderings and found rest in this vast cemetery of the sea. The legend on a wheel-house, the lettering on a stern or bow, served for mortuary inscription. Wailed over by the trade winds, mourned by lamenting sea-birds, once every year the tide visited its lost dead and left them wet with its tears.

To such a spot and its surroundings the atmosphere of tradition and mystery was not wanting. Six years ago Boone Culpepper had built the house, and brought to it his wife—variously believed to be a gypsy, a Mexican, a bright mulatto, a Digger Indian, a South Sea princess from Tahiti, somebody else’s wife—but in reality a little Creole woman from New Orleans, with whom he had contracted a marriage, with other gambling debts, during a winter’s vacation from his home in Virginia. At the end of two years she had died, succumbing, as differently stated, from perpetual wet feet, or the misanthropic idiosyncrasies of her husband, and leaving behind her a girl of twelve and a boy of sixteen to console him. How futile was this bequest may be guessed from a brief summary of Mr. Culpepper’s peculiarities. They were the development of a singular form of aggrandizement and misanthropy. On his arrival at Logport he had bought a part of the apparently valueless Dedlow Marsh from the Government at less than a dollar an acre, continuing his singular investment year by year until he was the owner of three leagues of amphibious domain. It was then discovered that this property carried with it the WATER FRONT of divers valuable and convenient sites for manufactures and the commercial ports of a noble bay, as well as the natural embarcaderos of some ’lumbering’ inland settlements. Boone Culpepper would not sell. Boone Culpepper would not rent or lease. Boone Culpepper held an invincible blockade of his neighbors, and the progress and improvement he despised—granting only, after a royal fashion, occasional license, revocable at pleasure, in the shape of tolls, which amply supported him, with the game he shot in his kingfisher’s eyrie on the Marsh. Even the Government that had made him powerful was obliged to ’condemn’ a part of his property at an equitable price for the purposes of Fort Redwood, in which the adjacent town of Logport shared. And Boone Culpepper, unable to resist the act, refused to receive the compensation or quit-claim the town. In his scant intercourse with his neighbors he always alluded to it as his own, showed it to his children as part of their strange inheritance, and exhibited the starry flag that floated from the Fort as a flaunting insult to their youthful eyes. Hated, feared, and superstitiously shunned by some, regarded as a madman by others, familiarly known as ’The Kingfisher of Dedlow,’ Boone Culpepper was one day found floating dead in his skiff, with a charge of shot through his head and shoulders. The shot-gun lying at his feet at the bottom of the boat indicated the ’accident’ as recorded in the verdict of the coroner’s jury—but not by the people. A thousand rumors of murder or suicide prevailed, but always with the universal rider, ’Served him right.’ So invincible was this feeling that but few attended his last rites, which took place at high water. The delay of the officiating clergyman lost the tide; the homely catafalque—his own boat—was left aground on the Marsh, and deserted by all mourners except the two children. Whatever he had instilled into them by precept and example, whatever took place that night in their lonely watch by his bier on the black marshes, it was certain that those who confidently looked for any change in the administration of the Dedlow Marsh were cruelly mistaken. The old Kingfisher was dead, but he had left in the nest two young birds, more beautiful and graceful, it was true, yet as fierce and tenacious of beak and talon.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: A Secret of Telegraph Hill

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: A Secret of Telegraph Hill

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Bret Harte, "I.," 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 April 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5TTFBEHFKTB2V67.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "I." 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. 24 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5TTFBEHFKTB2V67.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'I.' in A Secret of Telegraph Hill, ed. . cited in 1920, A Secret of Telegraph Hill, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5TTFBEHFKTB2V67.