A Phyllis of the Sierras

Author: Bret Harte


The steamer Silveropolis was sharply and steadily cleaving the broad, placid shallows of the Sacramento River. A large wave like an eagre, diverging from its bow, was extending to either bank, swamping the tules and threatening to submerge the lower levees. The great boat itself—a vast but delicate structure of airy stories, hanging galleries, fragile colonnades, gilded cornices, and resplendent frescoes—was throbbing throughout its whole perilous length with the pulse of high pressure and the strong monotonous beat of a powerful piston. Floods of foam pouring from the high paddle-boxes on either side and reuniting in the wake of the boat left behind a track of dazzling whiteness, over which trailed two dense black banners flung from its lofty smokestacks.

Mr. Jack Hamlin had quietly emerged from his stateroom on deck and was looking over the guards. His hands were resting lightly on his hips over the delicate curves of his white waistcoat, and he was whistling softly, possibly some air to which he had made certain card-playing passengers dance the night before. He was in comfortable case, and his soft brown eyes under their long lashes were veiled with gentle tolerance of all things. He glanced lazily along the empty hurricane deck forward; he glanced lazily down to the saloon deck below him. Far out against the guards below him leaned a young girl. Mr. Hamlin knitted his brows slightly.

He remembered her at once. She had come on board that morning with one Ned Stratton, a brother gambler, but neither a favorite nor intimate of Jack’s. From certain indications in the pair, Jack had inferred that she was some foolish or reckless creature whom "Ed" had "got on a string," and was spiriting away from her friends and family. With the abstract morality of this situation Jack was not in the least concerned. For himself he did not indulge in that sort of game; the inexperience and vacillations of innocence were apt to be bothersome, and besides, a certain modest doubt of his own competency to make an original selection had always made him prefer to confine his gallantries to the wives of men of greater judgment than himself who had. But it suddenly occurred to him that he had seen Stratton quickly slip off the boat at the last landing stage. Ah! that was it; he had cast away and deserted her. It was an old story. Jack smiled. But he was not greatly amused with Stratton.

She was very pale, and seemed to be clinging to the network railing, as if to support herself, although she was gazing fixedly at the yellow glancing current below, which seemed to be sucked down and swallowed in the paddle-box as the boat swept on. It certainly was a fascinating sight—this sloping rapid, hurrying on to bury itself under the crushing wheels. For a brief moment Jack saw how they would seize anything floating on that ghastly incline, whirl it round in one awful revolution of the beating paddles, and then bury it, broken and shattered out of all recognition, deep in the muddy undercurrent of the stream behind them.

She moved away presently with an odd, stiff step, chafing her gloved hands together as if they had become stiffened too in her rigid grasp of the railing. Jack leisurely watched her as she moved along the narrow strip of deck. She was not at all to his taste,—a rather plump girl with a rustic manner and a great deal of brown hair under her straw hat. She might have looked better had she not been so haggard. When she reached the door of the saloon she paused, and then, turning suddenly, began to walk quickly back again. As she neared the spot where she had been standing her pace slackened, and when she reached the railing she seemed to relapse against it in her former helpless fashion. Jack became lazily interested. Suddenly she lifted her head and cast a quick glance around and above her. In that momentary lifting of her face Jack saw her expression. Whatever it was, his own changed instantly; the next moment there was a crash on the lower deck. It was Jack who had swung himself over the rail and dropped ten feet, to her side. But not before she had placed one foot in the meshes of the netting and had gripped the railing for a spring.

The noise of Jack’s fall might have seemed to her bewildered fancy as a part of her frantic act, for she fell forward vacantly on the railing. But by this time Jack had grasped her arm as if to help himself to his feet.

"I might have killed myself by that foolin’, mightn’t I?" he said cheerfully.

The sound of a voice so near her seemed to recall to her dazed sense the uncompleted action his fall had arrested. She made a convulsive bound towards the railing, but Jack held her fast.

"Don’t," he said in a low voice, "don’t, it won’t pay. It’s the sickest game that ever was played by man or woman. Come here!"

He drew her towards an empty stateroom whose door was swinging on its hinges a few feet from them. She was trembling violently; he half led, half pushed her into the room, closed the door and stood with his back against it as she dropped into a chair. She looked at him vacantly; the agitation she was undergoing inwardly had left her no sense of outward perception.

"You know Stratton would be awfully riled," continued Jack easily. "He’s just stepped out to see a friend and got left by the fool boat. He’ll be along by the next steamer, and you’re bound to meet him in Sacramento."

Her staring eyes seemed suddenly to grasp his meaning. But to his surprise she burst out with a certain hysterical desperation, "No! no! Never! NEVER again! Let me pass! I must go," and struggled to regain the door. Jack, albeit singularly relieved to know that she shared his private sentiments regarding Stratton, nevertheless resisted her. Whereat she suddenly turned white, reeled back, and sank in a dead faint in the chair.

The gambler turned, drew the key from the inside of the door, passed out, locking it behind him, and walked leisurely into the main saloon. "Mrs. Johnson," he said gravely, addressing the stewardess, a tall mulatto, with his usual winsome supremacy over dependents and children, "you’ll oblige me if you’ll corral a few smelling salts, vinaigrettes, hairpins, and violet powder, and unload them in deck stateroom No. 257. There’s a lady"—

"A lady, Marse Hamlin?" interrupted the mulatto, with an archly significant flash of her white teeth.

"A lady," continued Jack with unabashed gravity, "in a sort of conniption fit. A relative of mine; in fact a niece, my only sister’s child. Hadn’t seen each other for ten years, and it was too much for her."

The woman glanced at him with a mingling of incredulous belief, but delighted obedience, hurriedly gathered a few articles from her cabin, and followed him to No. 257. The young girl was still unconscious. The stewardess applied a few restoratives with the skill of long experience, and the young girl opened her eyes. They turned vacantly from the stewardess to Jack with a look of half recognition and half frightened inquiry. "Yes," said Jack, addressing the eyes, although ostentatiously speaking to Mrs. Johnson, "she’d only just come by steamer to ’Frisco and wasn’t expecting to see me, and we dropped right into each other here on the boat. And I haven’t seen her since she was so high. Sister Mary ought to have warned me by letter; but she was always a slouch at letter writing. There, that’ll do, Mrs. Johnson. She’s coming round; I reckon I can manage the rest. But you go now and tell the purser I want one of those inside staterooms for my niece,—MY NIECE, you hear,—so that you can be near her and look after her."

As the stewardess turned obediently away the young girl attempted to rise, but Jack checked her. "No," he said, almost brusquely; "you and I have some talking to do before she gets back, and we’ve no time for foolin’. You heard what I told her just now! Well, it’s got to be as I said, you sabe. As long as you’re on this boat you’re my niece, and my sister Mary’s child. As I haven’t got any sister Mary, you don’t run any risk of falling foul of her, and you ain’t taking any one’s place. That settles that. Now, do you or do you not want to see that man again? Say yes, and if he’s anywhere above ground I’ll yank him over to you as soon as we touch shore." He had no idea of interfering with his colleague’s amours, but he had determined to make Stratton pay for the bother their slovenly sequence had caused him. Yet he was relieved and astonished by her frantic gesture of indignation and abhorrence. "No?" he repeated grimly. "Well, that settles that. Now, look here; quick, before she comes—do you want to go back home to your friends?"

But here occurred what he had dreaded most and probably thought he had escaped. She had stared at him, at the stewardess, at the walls, with abstracted, vacant, and bewildered, but always undimmed and unmoistened eyes. A sudden convulsion shook her whole frame, her blank expression broke like a shattered mirror, she threw her hands over her eyes and fell forward with her face to the back of her chair in an outburst of tears.

Alas for Jack! with the breaking up of those sealed fountains came her speech also, at first disconnected and incoherent, and then despairing and passionate. No! she had no longer friends or home! She had lost and disgraced them! She had disgraced HERSELF! There was no home for her but the grave. Why had Jack snatched her from it? Then, bit by bit, she yielded up her story,—a story decidedly commonplace to Jack, uninteresting, and even irritating to his fastidiousness. She was a schoolgirl (not even a convent girl, but the inmate of a Presbyterian female academy at Napa. Jack shuddered as he remembered to have once seen certain of the pupils walking with a teacher), and she lived with her married sister. She had seen Stratton while going to and fro on the San Francisco boat; she had exchanged notes with him, had met him secretly, and finally consented to elope with him to Sacramento, only to discover when the boat had left the wharf the real nature of his intentions. Jack listened with infinite weariness and inward chafing. He had read all this before in cheap novelettes, in the police reports, in the Sunday papers; he had heard a street preacher declaim against it, and warn young women of the serpent-like wiles of tempters of the Stratton variety. But even now Jack failed to recognize Stratton as a serpent, or indeed anything but a blundering cheat and clown, who had left his dirty ’prentice work on his (Jack’s) hands. But the girl was helpless and, it seemed, homeless, all through a certain desperation of feeling which, in spite of her tears, he could not but respect. That momentary shadow of death had exalted her. He stroked his mustache, pulled down his white waistcoat and her cry, without saying anything. He did not know that this most objectionable phase of her misery was her salvation and his own.

But the stewardess would return in a moment. "You’d better tell me what to call you," he said quietly. "I ought to know my niece’s first name."

The girl caught her breath, and, between two sobs, said, "Sophonisba."

Jack winced. It seemed only to need this last sentimental touch to complete the idiotic situation. "I’ll call you Sophy," he said hurriedly and with an effort.

"And now look here! You are going in that cabin with Mrs. Johnson where she can look after you, but I can’t. So I’ll have to take your word, for I’m not going to give you away before Mrs. Johnson, that you won’t try that foolishness—you know what I mean—before I see you again. Can I trust you?"

With her head still bowed over the chair back, she murmured slowly somewhere from under her disheveled hair:—


"Honest Injin?" adjured Jack gravely.


The shuffling step of the stewardess was heard slowly approaching. "Yes," continued Jack abruptly, lightly lifting his voice as Mrs. Johnson opened the door,—"yes, if you’d only had some of those spearmint drops of your aunt Rachel’s that she always gave you when these fits came on you’d have been all right inside of five minutes. Aunty was no slouch of a doctor, was she? Dear me, it only seems yesterday since I saw her. You were just playing round her knee like a kitten on the back porch. How time does fly! But here’s Mrs. Johnson coming to take you in. Now rouse up, Sophy, and just hook yourself on to Mrs. Johnson on that side, and we’ll toddle along."

The young girl put back her heavy hair, and with her face still averted submitted to be helped to her feet by the kindly stewardess. Perhaps something homely sympathetic and nurse-like in the touch of the mulatto gave her assurance and confidence, for her head lapsed quite naturally against the woman’s shoulder, and her face was partly hidden as she moved slowly along the deck. Jack accompanied them to the saloon and the inner stateroom door. A few passengers gathered curiously near, as much attracted by the unusual presence of Jack Hamlin in such a procession as by the girl herself. "You’ll look after her specially, Mrs. Johnson," said Jack, in unusually deliberate terms. "She’s been a good deal petted at home, and my sister perhaps has rather spoilt her. She’s pretty much of a child still, and you’ll have to humor her. Sophy," he continued, with ostentatious playfulness, directing his voice into the dim recesses of the stateroom, "you’ll just think Mrs. Johnson’s your old nurse, won’t you? Think it’s old Katy, hey?"

To his great consternation the girl approached tremblingly from the inner shadow. The faintest and saddest of smiles for a moment played around the corners of her drawn mouth and tear-dimmed eyes as she held out her hand and said:—

"God bless you for being so kind."

Jack shuddered and glanced quickly round. But luckily no one heard this crushing sentimentalism, and the next moment the door closed upon her and Mrs. Johnson.

It was past midnight, and the moon was riding high over the narrowing yellow river, when Jack again stepped out on deck. He had just left the captain’s cabin, and a small social game with the officers, which had served to some extent to vaguely relieve his irritation and their pockets. He had presumably quite forgotten the incident of the afternoon, as he looked about him, and complacently took in the quiet beauty of the night.

The low banks on either side offered no break to the uninterrupted level of the landscape, through which the river seemed to wind only as a race track for the rushing boat. Every fibre of her vast but fragile bulk quivered under the goad of her powerful engines. There was no other movement but hers, no other sound but this monstrous beat and panting; the whole tranquil landscape seemed to breathe and pulsate with her; dwellers in the tules, miles away, heard and felt her as she passed, and it seemed to Jack, leaning over the railing, as if the whole river swept like a sluice through her paddle-boxes.

Jack had quite unconsciously lounged before that part of the railing where the young girl had leaned a few hours ago. As he looked down upon the streaming yellow mill-race below him, he noticed—what neither he nor the girl had probably noticed before— that a space of the top bar of the railing was hinged, and could be lifted by withdrawing a small bolt, thus giving easy access to the guards. He was still looking at it, whistling softly, when footsteps approached.

"Jack," said a lazy voice, "how’s sister Mary?"

"It’s a long time since you’ve seen her only child, Jack, ain’t it?" said a second voice; "and yet it sort o’ seems to me somehow that I’ve seen her before."

Jack recognized the voice of two of his late companions at the card-table. His whistling ceased; so also dropped every trace of color and expression from his handsome face. But he did not turn, and remained quietly gazing at the water.

"Aunt Rachel, too, must be getting on in years, Jack," continued the first speaker, halting behind Jack.

"And Mrs. Johnson does not look so much like Sophy’s old nurse as she used to," remarked the second, following his example. Still Jack remained unmoved.

"You don’t seem to be interested, Jack," continued the first speaker. "What are you looking at?"

Without turning his head the gambler replied, "Looking at the boat; she’s booming along, just chawing up and spitting out the river, ain’t she? Look at that sweep of water going under her paddlewheels," he continued, unbolting the rail and lifting it to allow the two men to peer curiously over the guards as he pointed to the murderous incline beneath them; "a man wouldn’t stand much show who got dropped into it. How these paddles would just snatch him baldheaded, pick him up and slosh him round and round, and then sling him out down there in such a shape that his own father wouldn’t know him."

"Yes," said the first speaker, with an ostentatious little laugh, "but all that ain’t telling us how sister Mary is."

"No," said the gambler slipping into the opening with a white and rigid face in which nothing seemed living but the eyes, "no, but it’s telling you how two d----d fools who didn’t know when to shut their mouths might get them shut once and forever. It’s telling you what might happen to two men who tried to ’play’ a man who didn’t care to be ’played,’—a man who didn’t care much what he did, when he did it, or how he did it, but would do what he’d set out to do—even if in doing it he went to hell with the men he sent there."

He had stepped out on the guards, beside the two men, closing the rail behind him. He had placed his hands on their shoulders; they had both gripped his arms; yet, viewed from the deck above, they seemed at that moment an amicable, even fraternal group, albeit the faces of the three were dead white in the moonlight.

"I don’t think I’m so very much interested in sister Mary," said the first speaker quietly, after a pause.

"And I don’t seem to think so much of aunt Rachel as I did," said his companion.

"I thought you wouldn’t," said Jack, coolly reopening the rail and stepping back again. "It all depends upon the way you look at those things. Good-night."


The three men paused, shook each other’s hands silently, and separated, Jack sauntering slowly back to his stateroom.


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "I.," A Phyllis of the Sierras, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Phyllis of the Sierras (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed March 2, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9R355V9ZEWBEE5L.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "I." A Phyllis of the Sierras, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Phyllis of the Sierras, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 2 Mar. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9R355V9ZEWBEE5L.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'I.' in A Phyllis of the Sierras, ed. . cited in 1920, A Phyllis of the Sierras, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 March 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9R355V9ZEWBEE5L.