Author: Bret Harte

Chapter XI.

When Uncle Ben, or "Benjamin Daubigny, Esq.," as he was already known in the columns of the "Star," accompanied Miss Cressy McKinstry on her way home after the first display of attention and hospitality since his accession to wealth and position, he remained for some moments in a state of bewildered and smiling idiocy. It was true that their meeting was chance and accidental; it was true that Cressy had accepted his attention with lazy amusement; it was true that she had suddenly and audaciously left him on the borders of the McKinstry woods in a way that might have seemed rude and abrupt to any escort less invincibly good-humored than Uncle Ben, but none of these things marred his fatuous felicity. It is even probable that in his gratuitous belief that his timid attentions had been too marked and impulsive, he attributed Cressy’s flight to a maidenly coyness that pleasurably increased his admiration for her and his confidence in himself. In his abstraction of enjoyment and in the gathering darkness he ran against a fir-tree very much as he had done while walking with her, and he confusedly apologized to it as he had to her, and by her own appellation. In this way he eventually overran his trail and found himself unexpectedly and apologetically in the clearing before the school-house.

"Ef this ain’t the singlerest thing, miss," he said, and then stopped suddenly. A faint noise in the school-house like the sound of splintered wood attracted his attention. The master was evidently there. If he was alone he would speak to him.

He went to the window, looked in, and in an instant his amiable abstraction left him. He crept softly to the door, tried it, and then putting his powerful shoulder against the panel, forced the lock from its fastenings. He entered the room as Seth Davis, frightened but furious, lifted himself from before the master’s desk which he had just broken open. He had barely time to conceal something in his pocket and close the lid again before Uncle Ben approached him.

"What mouut ye be doin’ here, Seth Davis?" he asked with the slow deliberation which in that locality meant mischief.

"And what mouut YOU be doin’ here, Mister Ben Dabney?" said Seth, resuming his effrontery.

"Well," returned Uncle Ben, planting himself in the aisle before his opponent, "I ain’t doin’ no sheriff’s posse business jest now, but I reckon to keep my hand in far enuff to purtect other folks’ property," he added, with a significant glance at the broken lock of the desk.

"Ben Dabney," said Seth in snarling expostulation, "I hain’t got no quar’ll with ye!"

"Then hand me over whatever you took just now from teacher’s desk and we’ll talk about that afterwards," said Uncle Ben advancing.

"I tell ye I hain’t got no quar’ll with ye, Uncle Ben," continued Seth, retreating with a malignant sneer; "and when you talk of protectin’ other folks’ property, mebbe ye’d better protect YOUR OWN—or what ye’d like to call so—instead of quar’llin’ with the man that’s helpin’ ye. I’ve got yer the proofs that that sneakin’ hound of a Yankee school-master that Cress McKinstry’s hell bent on, and that the old man and old woman are just chuckin’ into her arms, is a lyin’, black-hearted, hypocritical seducer"—

"Stop!" said Uncle Ben in a voice that made the crazy casement rattle.

He strode towards Seth Davis, no longer with his habitual careful, hesitating step, but with a tread that seemed to shake the whole school-room. A single dominant clutch of his powerful right hand on the young man’s breast forced him backwards into the vacant chair of the master. His usually florid face had grown as gray as the twilight; his menacing form in a moment filled the little room and darkened the windows. Then in some inexplicable reaction his figure slightly drooped, he laid one heavy hand tremblingly on the desk, and with the other affected to wipe his mouth after his old embarrassed fashion.

"What’s that you were sayin’ o’ Cressy?" he said huskily.

"Wot everybody says," said the frightened Seth, gaining a cowardly confidence under his adversary’s emotion. "Wot every cub that sets yer under his cantin’ teachin’, and sees ’em together, knows. It’s wot you’d hev knowed ef he and Roop Filgee hadn’t played ye fer a softy all the time. And while you’ve bin hangin’ round yer fer a flicker of Cressy’s gownd as she prances out o’ school, he’s bin lyin’ low and laffin’ at ye, and while he’s turned Roop over to keep you here, pretendin’ to give ye lessons, he’s bin gallivantin’ round with her and huggin’ and kissin’ her in barns and in the brush—and now YOU want to quar’ll with me."

He stopped, panting for breath, and stared malignantly in the gray face of his hearer. But Uncle Ben only lifted his heavy hand mildly with an awkward gesture of warning, stepped softly in his old cautious hesitating manner to the open door, closed it, and returned gently:—

"I reckon ye got in through the winder, didn’t ye, Seth?" he said, with a labored affectation of unemotional ease, "a kind o’ one leg over, and one, two, and then you’re in, eh?"

"Never you mind HOW I got in, Ben Dabney," returned Seth, his hostility and insolence increasing with his opponent’s evident weakness, "ez long ez I got yer and got, by G-d! what I kem here fer! For whiles all this was goin’ on, and whiles the old fool man and old fool woman was swallowin’ what they did see and blinkin’ at what they didn’t, and huggin’ themselves that they’d got high-toned kempany fer their darter, that high-toned kempany was playin’ THEM too, by G-d! Yes, Sir! that high-toned, cantin’ school-teacher was keepin’ a married woman in ’Frisco, all the while he was here honey-foglin’ with Cressy, and I’ve got the papers yer to prove it." He tapped his breast-pocket with a coarse laugh and thrust his face forward into the gray shadow of his adversary’s.

"An’ you sorter spotted their bein’ in this yer desk and bursted it?" said Uncle Ben, gravely examining the broken lock in the darkness as if it were the most important feature of the incident.

Seth nodded. "You bet your life. I saw him through the winder only this afternoon lookin over ’em alone, and I reckoned to lay my hands on ’em if I had to bust him or his desk. And I did!" he added with a triumphant chuckle.

"And you did—sure pop!" said Uncle Ben with slow deliberate admiration, passing his heavy hand along the splintered lid. "And you reckon, Seth, that this yer showin’ of him up will break off enythin’ betwixt him and this yer—this yer Miss—Miss McKinstry?" he continued with labored formality.

"I reckon ef the old fool McKinstry don’t shoot him in his tracks thar’ll be white men enough in Injin Springs to ride this hightoned, pizenous hypocrit on a rail outer the settlement!"

"That’s so!" said Uncle Ben musingly, after a thoughtful pause, in which he still seemed to be more occupied with the broken desk than his companion’s remark. Then he went on cautiously: "And ez this thing orter be worked mighty fine, Seth, p’r’aps, on the hull, you’d better let me have them papers."

"What! YOU?" snarled Seth, drawing back with a glance of angry suspicion; "not if I know it!"

"Seth," said Uncle Ben, resting his elbows on the desk confidentially, and speaking with painful and heavy deliberation, "when you first interdoosed this yer subject you elluded to my hevin’, so to speak, rights o’ preemption and interference with this young lady, and that in your opinion, I wasn’t purtectin’ them rights. It ’pears to me that, allowin’ that to be gospel truth, them ther papers orter be in MY possession—you hevin’ so to speak no rights to purtect, bein’ off the board with this yer young lady, and bein’ moved gin’rally by free and independent cussedness. And ez I sed afore, this sort o’ thing havin’ to be worked mighty fine, and them papers manniperlated with judgment, I reckon, Seth, if you don’t objeck, I’ll hev—hev—to trouble you."

Seth started to his feet with a rapid glance at the door, but Uncle Ben had risen again with the same alarming expression of completely filling the darkened school-room, and of shaking the floor beneath him at the slightest movement. Already he fancied he saw Uncle Ben’s powerful arm hovering above him ready to descend. It suddenly occurred to him that if he left the execution of his scheme of exposure and vengeance to Uncle Ben, the onus of stealing the letters would fall equally upon their possessor. This advantage seemed more probable than the danger of Uncle Ben’s weakly yielding them up to the master. In the latter case he, Seth, could still circulate the report of having seen the letters which Uncle Ben had himself stolen in a fit of jealousy—a hypothesis the more readily accepted from the latter’s familiar knowledge of the schoolhouse and his presumed ambitious jealousy of Cressy in his present attitude as a man of position. With affected reluctance and hesitation he put his hand to his breast-pocket.

"Of course," he said, "if you’re kalkilatin’ to take up the quar’ll on YOUR rights, and ez Cressy ain’t anythin’ more to me, YOU orter hev the proofs. Only don’t trust them into that hound’s hands. Once he gets ’em again he’ll secure a warrant agin you for stealin’. That’ll be his game. I’d show ’em to HER first—don’t ye see?—and I reckon ef she’s old Ma’am McKinstry’s darter, she’ll make it lively for him."

He handed the letters to the looming figure before him. It seemed to become again a yielding mortal, and said in a hesitating voice, "P’r’aps you’d better make tracks outer this, Seth, and leave me yer to put things to rights and fix up that door and the desk agin to-morrow mornin’. He’d better not know it to onct, and so start a row about bein’ broken into."

The proposition seemed to please Seth; he even extended his hand in the darkness. But he met only an irresponsive void. With a slight shrug of his shoulders and a grunting farewell, he felt his way to the door and disappeared. For a few moments it seemed as if Uncle Ben had also deserted the schoolhouse, so profound and quiet was the hush that fell upon it. But as the eye became accustomed to the shadow a grayish bulk appeared to grow out of it over the master’s desk and shaped itself into the broad figure of Uncle Ben. Later, when the moon rose and looked in at the window, it saw him as the master had seen him on the first day he had begun his lessons in the school-house, with his face bent forward over the desk and the same look of child-like perplexity and struggle that he had worn at his allotted task. Unheroic, ridiculous, and no doubt blundering and idiotic as then, but still vaguely persistent in his thought, he remained for some moments in this attitude. Then rising and taking advantage of the moonlight that flooded the desk, he set himself to mend the broken lock with a large mechanical clasp-knife he produced from his pocket, and the aid of his workmanlike thumb and finger. Presently he began to whistle softly, at first a little artificially and with relapses of reflective silence. The lock of the desk restored, he secured into position again that part of the door-lock which he had burst off in his entrance. This done, he closed the door gently and once more stepped out into the moonlit clearing. In replacing his knife in his pocket he took out the letters which he had not touched since they were handed to him in the darkness. His first glance at the handwriting caused him to stop. Then still staring at it, he began to move slowly and automatically backwards to the porch. When he reached it he sat down, unfolded the letter, and without attempting to read it, turned its pages over and over with the unfamiliarity of an illiterate man in search of the signature. This when found apparently plunged him again into motionless abstraction. Only once he changed his position to pull up the legs of his trousers, open his knees, and extend the distance between his feet, and then with the unfolded pages carefully laid in the moonlit space thus opened before him, regarded them with dubious speculation. At the end of ten minutes he rose with a sigh of physical and mental relaxation, refolded the letter, put it in his pocket, and made his way to the town.

When he reached the hotel he turned into the bar-room, and observing that it happened to be comparatively deserted, asked for a glass of whiskey. In response to the barkeeper’s glance of curiosity—as Uncle Ben seldom drank, and then only as a social function with others—he explained:—

"I reckon straight whiskey is about ez good ez the next thing for blind chills."

The bar-keeper here interposed that in his larger medical experience he had found the exhibition of ginger in combination with gin attended with effect, although it was evident that in his business capacity he regarded Uncle Ben, as a drinker, with distrust.

"Ye ain’t seen Mr. Ford hanging round yer lately?" continued Uncle Ben with laborious ease.

The bar-keeper, with his eye still scornfully fixed on his customer, but his hands which were engaged in washing his glasses under the counter giving him the air of humorously communicating with a hidden confederate, had not seen the school-master that afternoon.

Uncle Ben turned away and slowly mounted the staircase to the master’s room. After a moment’s pause on the landing, which must have been painfully obvious to any one who heard his heavy ascent, he gave two timid raps on the door which were equally ridiculous in contrast with his powerful tread. The door was opened promptly by the master.

"Oh, it’s you, is it?" he said shortly. "Come in."

Uncle Ben entered without noticing the somewhat ungracious form of invitation. "It war me," he said, "dropped in, not finding ye downstairs. Let’s have a drink."

The master gazed at Uncle Ben, who, owing to his abstraction, had not yet wiped his mouth of the liquor he had imperfectly swallowed, and was in consequence more redolent of whiskey than a confirmed toper. He rang the bell for the desired refreshment with a slightly cynical smile. He was satisfied that his visitor, like many others of humble position, was succumbing to his good fortune.

"I wanted to see ye, Mr. Ford," he began, taking an unproffered chair and depositing his hat after some hesitation outside the door, "in regard to what I onct told ye about my wife in Mizzouri. P’r’aps you disremember?"

"I remember," returned the master resignedly.

"You know it was that arternoon that fool Stacey sent the sheriff and the Harrisons over to McKinstry’s barn."

"Go on!" petulantly said the master, who had his own reasons for not caring to recall it.

"It was that arternoon, you know, that you hadn’t time to hark to me—hevin’ to go off on an engagement," continued Uncle Ben with protracted deliberation, "and"—

"Yes, yes, I remember," interrupted the master exasperatedly, "and really unless you get on faster, I’ll have to leave you again."

"It was that arternoon," said Uncle Ben without heeding him, "when I told you I hadn’t any idea what had become o’ my wife ez I left in Mizzouri."

"Yes," said the master sharply, "and I told you it was your bounden duty to look for her."

"That’s so," said Uncle Ben nodding comfortably, "them’s your very words; on’y a leetle more strong than that, ef I don’t disremember. Well, I reckon I’ve got an idee!" The master assumed a sudden expression of interest, but Uncle Ben did not vary his monotonous tone.

"I kem across that idee, so to speak, on the trail. I kem across it in some letters ez was lying wide open in the brush. I picked em up and I’ve got ’em here."

He slowly took the letters from his pocket with one hand, while he dragged the chair on which he was sitting beside the master. But with a quick flush of indignation Mr. Ford rose and extended his hand.

"These are MY letters, Dabney," he said sternly, "stolen from my desk. Who has dared to do this?"

But Uncle Ben had, as if accidentally, interposed his elbow between the master and Seth’s spoils.

"Then it’s all right?" he returned deliberately. "I brought ’em here because I thought they might give an idee where my wife was. For them letters is in her own handwrite. You remember ez I told ez how she was a scollard."

The master sat back in his chair white and dumb. Incredible, extraordinary, and utterly unlooked for as was this revelation, he felt instinctively that it was true.

"I couldn’t read it myself—ez you know. I didn’t keer to ax any one else to read it for me—you kin reckon why, too. And that’s why I’m troublin’ you to-night, Mr. Ford—ez a friend."

The master with a desperate effort recovered his voice. "It is impossible. The lady who wrote those letters does not bear your name. More than that," he added with hasty irrelevance, "she is so free that she is about to be married, as you might have read. You have made a mistake, the handwriting may be like, but it cannot be really your wife’s."

Uncle Ben shook his head slowly. "It’s her’n—there’s no mistake. When a man, Mr. Ford, hez studied that handwrite—havin’, so to speak, knowed it on’y from the OUTSIDE—from seein’ it passin’ like between friends—that man’s chances o’ bein’ mistook ain’t ez great ez the man’s who on’y takes in the sense of the words that might b’long to everybody. And her name not bein’ the same ez mine, don’t foller. Ef she got a divorce she’d take her old gal’s name— the name of her fammerly. And that would seem to allow she DID get a divorce. What mowt she hev called herself when she writ this?"

The master saw his opportunity and rose to it with a chivalrous indignation, that for the moment imposed even upon himself. "I decline to answer that question," he said angrily. "I refuse to allow the name of any woman who honors me with her confidence to be dragged into the infamous outrage that has been committed upon me and common decency. And I shall hold the thief and scoundrel— whoever he may be—answerable to myself in the absence of her natural protector."

Uncle Ben surveyed the hero of these glittering generalities with undisguised admiration. He extended his hand to him gravely.

"Shake! Ef another proof was wantin’, Mr. Ford, of that bein’ my wife’s letter," he said, "that high-toned style of yours would settle it. For, ef thar was one thing she DID like, it was that sort of po’try. And one reason why her and me didn’t get on, and why I skedaddled, was because it wasn’t in my line. Et’s all in trainin’! On’y a man ez had the Fourth Reader at his fingers’ ends could talk like that. Bein’ brought up on Dobell—ez is nowhere— it sorter lets me outer you, ez it did outer HER. But allowin’ it ain’t the square thing for YOU to mention her name, that wouldn’t be nothin’ agin’ MY doin’ it, and callin’ her, well—Lou Price in a keerless sort o’ way, eh?"

"I decline to answer further," replied the master quickly, although his color had changed at the name. "I decline to say another word on the matter until this mystery is cleared up—until I know who dared to break into my desk and steal my property, and the purpose of this unheard-of outrage. And I demand possession of those letters at once."

Uncle Ben without a word put them in the master’s hand, to his slight surprise, and it must be added to his faint discomfiture, nor was it decreased when Uncle Ben added, with grave naivete and a patronizing pressure of his hand on his shoulder,—"In course ez you’re taken’ it on to yourself, and ez Lou Price ain’t got no further call on ME, they orter be yours. Ez to who got ’em outer the desk, I reckon you ain’t got no suspicion of any one spyin’ round ye—hev ye?"

In an instant the recollection of Seth Davis’s face at the window and the corroboration of Rupert’s warning flashed across Ford’s mind. The hypothesis that Seth had imagined that they were Cressy’s letters, and had thrown them down without reading them when he had found out his mistake, seemed natural. For if he had read them he would undoubtedly have kept them to show to Cressy. The complex emotions that had disturbed the master on the discovery of Uncle Ben’s relationship to the writer of the letters were resolving themselves into a furious rage at Seth. But before he dared revenge himself he must be first assured that Seth was ignorant of their contents. He turned to Uncle Ben.

"I have a suspicion, but to make it certain I must ask you for the present to say nothing of this to any one."

Uncle Ben nodded. "And when you hev found out and you’re settled in your mind that you kin make my mind easy about this yer Lou Price, ez we’ll call her, bein’ divorced squarely, and bein’, so to speak, in the way o’ gettin’ married agin, ye might let me know ez a friend. I reckon I won’t trouble you any more to-night—onless you and me takes another sociable drink together in the bar. No? Well, then, good-night." He moved slowly towards the door. With his hand on the lock he added: "Ef yer writin’ to her agin, you might say ez how you found ME lookin’ well and comf’able, and hopin’ she’s enjyin’ the same blessin’. ’So long."

He disappeared, leaving the master in a hopeless collapse of conflicting, and, it is to be feared, not very heroic emotions. The situation, which had begun so dramatically, had become suddenly unromantically ludicrous, without, however, losing any of its embarrassing quality. He was conscious that he occupied the singular position of being more ridiculous than the husband—whose invincible and complacent simplicity stung him like the most exquisite irony. For an instant he was almost goaded into the fury of declaring that he had broken off from the writer of the letters forever, but its inconsistency with the chivalrous attitude he had just taken occurred to him in time to prevent him from becoming doubly absurd. His rage with Seth Davis seemed to him the only feeling left that was genuine and rational, and yet, now that Uncle Ben had gone, even that had a spurious ring. It was necessary for him to lash himself into a fury over the hypothesis that the letters MIGHT have been Cressy’s, and desecrated by that scoundrel’s touch. Perhaps he had read them and left them to be picked up by others. He looked over them carefully to see if their meaning would, to the ordinary reader, appear obvious and compromising. His eye fell on the first paragraph.

"I should not be quite fair with you, Jack, if I affected to disbelieve in your faith in your love for me and its endurance, but I should be still more unfair if I didn’t tell you what I honestly believe, that at your age you are apt to deceive yourself, and, without knowing it, to deceive others. You confess you have not yet decided upon your career, and you are always looking forward so hopefully, dear Jack, for a change in the future, but you are willing to believe that far more serious things than that will suffer no change in the mean time. If we continued as we were, I, who am older than you and have more experience, might learn the misery of seeing you change towards ME as I have changed towards another, and for the same reason. If I were sure I could keep pace with you in your dreams and your ambition, if I were sure that I always knew WHAT they were, we might still be happy—but I am not sure, and I dare not again risk my happiness on an uncertainty. In coming to my present resolution I do not look for happiness, but at least I know I shall not suffer disappointment, nor involve others in it. I confess I am growing too old not to feel the value to a woman—a necessity to her in this country—of security in her present and future position. Another can give me that. And although you may call this a selfish view of our relations, I believe that you will soon—if you do not, even as you read this now—feel the justice of it, and thank me for taking it."

With a smile of scorn he tore up the letter, in what he fondly believed was the bitterness of an outraged trustful nature, forgetting that for many weeks he had scarcely thought of its writer, and that he himself in his conduct had already anticipated its truths.


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "Chapter XI.," Cressy, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Cressy (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Harte, Bret. "Chapter XI." Cressy, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Cressy, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'Chapter XI.' in Cressy, ed. . cited in 1920, Cressy, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from