A Sappho of Green Springs

Author: Bret Harte

Chapter I

It had grown dark on Burnt Ridge. Seen from below, the whole serrated crest that had glittered in the sunset as if its interstices were eaten by consuming fires, now, closed up its ranks of blackened shafts and became again harsh and sombre chevaux de frise against the sky. A faint glow still lingered over the red valley road, as if it were its own reflection, rather than any light from beyond the darkened ridge. Night was already creeping up out of remote canyons and along the furrowed flanks of the mountain, or settling on the nearer woods with the sound of homecoming and innumerable wings. At a point where the road began to encroach upon the mountain-side in its slow winding ascent the darkness had become so real that a young girl cantering along the rising terrace found difficulty in guiding her horse, with eyes still dazzled by the sunset fires.

In spite of her precautions, the animal suddenly shied at some object in the obscured roadway, and nearly unseated her. The accident disclosed not only the fact that she was riding in a man’s saddle, but also a foot and ankle that her ordinary walking-dress was too short to hide. It was evident that her equestrian exercise was extempore, and that at that hour and on that road she had not expected to meet company. But she was apparently a good horsewoman, for the mischance which might have thrown a less practical or more timid rider seemed of little moment to her. With a strong hand and determined gesture she wheeled her frightened horse back into the track, and rode him directly at the object. But here she herself slightly recoiled, for it was the body of a man lying in the road.

As she leaned forward over her horse’s shoulder, she could see by the dim light that he was a miner, and that, though motionless, he was breathing stertorously. Drunk, no doubt!—an accident of the locality alarming only to her horse. But although she cantered impatiently forward, she had not proceeded a hundred yards before she stopped reflectively, and trotted back again. He had not moved. She could now see that his head and shoulders were covered with broken clods of earth and gravel, and smaller fragments lay at his side. A dozen feet above him on the hillside there was a foot trail which ran parallel with the bridle-road, and occasionally overhung it. It seemed possible that he might have fallen from the trail and been stunned.

Dismounting, she succeeded in dragging him to a safer position by the bank. The act discovered his face, which was young, and unknown to her. Wiping it with the silk handkerchief which was loosely slung around his neck after the fashion of his class, she gave a quick feminine glance around her and then approached her own and rather handsome face near his lips. There was no odor of alcohol in the thick and heavy respiration. Mounting again, she rode forward at an accelerated pace, and in twenty minutes had reached a higher tableland of the mountain, a cleared opening in the forest that showed signs of careful cultivation, and a large, rambling, yet picturesque-looking dwelling, whose unpainted redwood walls were hidden in roses and creepers. Pushing open a swinging gate, she entered the inclosure as a brown-faced man, dressed as a vaquero, came towards her as if to assist her to alight. But she had already leaped to the ground and thrown him the reins.

"Miguel," she said, with a mistress’s quiet authority in her boyish contralto voice, "put Glory in the covered wagon, and drive down the road as far as the valley turning. There’s a man lying near the right bank, drunk, or sick, may be, or perhaps crippled by a fall. Bring him up here, unless somebody has found him already, or you happen to know who he is and where to take him."

The vaquero raised his shoulders, half in disappointed expectation of some other command. "And your brother, senora, he has not himself arrived."

A light shadow of impatience crossed her face. "No," she said, bluntly. "Come, be quick."

She turned towards the house as the man moved away. Already a gaunt-looking old man had appeared in the porch, and was awaiting her with his hand shadowing his angry, suspicious eyes, and his lips moving querulously.

"Of course, you’ve got to stand out there and give orders and ’tend to your own business afore you think o’ speaking to your own flesh and blood," he said aggrievedly. "That’s all YOU care!"

"There was a sick man lying in the road, and I’ve sent Miguel to look after him," returned the girl, with a certain contemptuous resignation.

"Oh, yes!" struck in another voice, which seemed to belong to the female of the first speaker’s species, and to be its equal in age and temper, "and I reckon you saw a jay bird on a tree, or a squirrel on the fence, and either of ’em was more important to you than your own brother."

"Steve didn’t come by the stage, and didn’t send any message," continued the young girl, with the same coldly resigned manner. "No one had any news of him, and, as I told you before, I didn’t expect any."

"Why don’t you say right out you didn’t WANT any?" said the old man, sneeringly. "Much you inquired! No; I orter hev gone myself, and I would if I was master here, instead of me and your mother bein’ the dust of the yearth beneath your feet."

The young girl entered the house, followed by the old man, passing an old woman seated by the window, who seemed to be nursing her resentment and a large Bible which she held clasped against her shawled bosom at the same moment. Going to the wall, she hung up her large hat and slightly shook the red dust from her skirts as she continued her explanation, in the same deep voice, with a certain monotony of logic and possibly of purpose and practice also.

"You and mother know as well as I do, father, that Stephen is no more to be depended upon than the wind that blows. It’s three years since he has been promising to come, and even getting money to come, and yet he has never showed his face, though he has been a dozen times within five miles of this house. He doesn’t come because he doesn’t want to come. As to YOUR going over to the stage-office, I went there myself at the last moment to save you the mortification of asking questions of strangers that they know have been a dozen times answered already."

There was such a ring of absolute truthfulness, albeit worn by repetition, in the young girl’s deep honest voice that for one instant her two more emotional relatives quailed before it; but only for a moment.

"That’s right!" shrilled the old woman. "Go on and abuse your own brother. It’s only the fear you have that he’ll make his fortune yet and shame you before the father and mother you despise."

The young girl remained standing by the window, motionless and apparently passive, as if receiving an accepted and usual punishment. But here the elder woman gave way to sobs and some incoherent snuffling, at which the younger went away. Whether she recognized in her mother’s tears the ordinary deliquescence of emotion, or whether, as a woman herself, she knew that this mere feminine conventionality could not possibly be directed at her, and that the actual conflict between them had ceased, she passed slowly on to an inner hall, leaving the male victim, her unfortunate father, to succumb, as he always did sooner or later, to their influence. Crossing the hall, which was decorated with a few elk horns, Indian trophies, and mountain pelts, she entered another room, and closed the door behind her with a gesture of relief.

The room, which looked upon a porch, presented a singular combination of masculine business occupations and feminine taste and adornment. A desk covered with papers, a shelf displaying a ledger and account-books, another containing works of reference, a table with a vase of flowers and a lady’s riding-whip upon it, a map of California flanked on either side by an embroidered silken workbag and an oval mirror decked with grasses, a calendar and interest-table hanging below two school-girl crayons of classic heads with the legend, "Josephine Forsyth fecit,"—were part of its incongruous accessories. The young girl went to her desk, but presently moved and turned towards the window thoughtfully. The last gleam had died from the steel-blue sky; a few lights like star points began to prick out the lower valley. The expression of monotonous restraint and endurance had not yet faded from her face.

Yet she had been accustomed to scenes like the one she had just passed though since her girlhood. Five years ago, Alexander Forsyth, her uncle, had brought her to this spot—then a mere log cabin on the hillside—as a refuge from the impoverished and shiftless home of his elder brother Thomas and his ill-tempered wife. Here Alexander Forsyth, by reason of his more dominant character and business capacity, had prospered until he became a rich and influential ranch owner. Notwithstanding her father’s jealousy of Alexander’s fortune, and the open rupture that followed between the brothers, Josephine retained her position in the heart and home of her uncle without espousing the cause of either; and her father was too prudent not to recognize the near and prospective advantages of such a mediator. Accustomed to her parents’ extravagant denunciations, and her uncle’s more repressed but practical contempt of them, the unfortunate girl early developed a cynical disbelief in the virtues of kinship in the abstract, and a philosophical resignation to its effects upon her personally. Believing that her father and uncle fairly represented the fraternal principle, she was quite prepared for the early defection and distrust of her vagabond and dissipated brother Stephen, and accepted it calmly. True to an odd standard of justice, which she had erected from the crumbling ruins of her own domestic life, she was tolerant of everything but human perfection. This quality, however fatal to her higher growth, had given her a peculiar capacity for business which endeared her to her uncle. Familiar with the strong passions and prejudices of men, she had none of those feminine meannesses, a wholesome distrust of which had kept her uncle a bachelor. It was not strange, therefore, that when he died two years ago it was found that he had left her his entire property, real and personal, limited only by a single condition. She was to undertake the vocation of a "sole trader," and carry on the business under the name of "J. Forsyth." If she married, the estate and property was to be held distinct from her husband’s, inalienable under the "Married Woman’s Property Act," and subject during her life only to her own control and personal responsibilities as a trader.

The intense disgust and discomfiture of her parents, who had expected to more actively participate in their brother’s fortune, may be imagined. But it was not equal to their fury when Josephine, instead of providing for them a separate maintenance out of her abundance, simply offered to transfer them and her brother to her own house on a domestic but not a business equality. There being no alternative but their former precarious shiftless life in their "played-out" claim in the valley, they wisely consented, reserving the sacred right of daily protest and objurgation. In the economy of Burnt Ridge Ranch they alone took it upon themselves to represent the shattered domestic altar and its outraged Lares and Penates. And so conscientiously did they perform their task as even occasionally to impede the business visitor to the ranch, and to cause some of the more practical neighbors seriously to doubt the young girl’s commercial wisdom. But she was firm. Whether she thought her parents a necessity of respectable domesticity, or whether she regarded their presence in the light of a penitential atonement for some previous disregard of them, no one knew. Public opinion inclined to the latter.

The black line of ridge faded out with her abstraction, and she turned from the window and lit the lamp on her desk. The yellow light illuminated her face and figure. In their womanly graces there was no trace of what some people believed to be a masculine character, except a singularly frank look of critical inquiry and patient attention in her dark eyes. Her long brown hair was somewhat rigidly twisted into a knot on the top of her head, as if more for security than ornament. Brown was also the prevailing tint of her eyebrows, thickly-set eyelashes, and eyes, and was even suggested in the slight sallowness of her complexion. But her lips were well-cut and fresh-colored and her hands and feet small and finely formed. She would have passed for a pretty girl, had she not suggested something more.

She sat down, and began to examine a pile of papers before her with that concentration and attention to detail which was characteristic of her eyes, pausing at times with prettily knit brows, and her penholder between her lips, in the semblance of a pout that was pleasant enough to see. Suddenly the rattle of hoofs and wheels struck her with the sense of something forgotten, and she put down her work quickly and stood up listening. The sound of rough voices and her father’s querulous accents was broken upon by a cultivated and more familiar utterance: "All right; I’ll speak to her at once. Wait there," and the door opened to the well-known physician of Burnt Ridge, Dr. Duchesne.

"Look here," he said, with an abruptness that was only saved from being brusque by a softer intonation and a reassuring smile, "I met Miguel helping an accident into your buggy. Your orders, eh?"

"Oh, yes," said Josephine, quietly. "A man I saw on the road."

"Well, it’s a bad case, and wants prompt attention. And as your house is the nearest I came with him here."

Certainly," she said gravely. "Take him to the second room beyond— Steve’s room—it’s ready," she explained to two dusky shadows in the hall behind the doctor.

"And look here," said the doctor, partly closing the door behind him and regarding her with critical eyes, "you always said you’d like to see some of my queer cases. Well, this is one—a serious one, too; in fact, it’s just touch and go with him. There’s a piece of the bone pressing on the brain no bigger than that, but as much as if all Burnt Ridge was atop of him! I’m going to lift it. I want somebody here to stand by, some one who can lend a hand with a sponge, eh?—some one who isn’t going to faint or scream, or even shake a hair’s-breadth, eh?"

The color rose quickly to the girl’s cheek, and her eyes kindled. "I’ll come," she said thoughtfully. "Who is he?"

The doctor stared slightly at the unessential query. "Don’t know,— one of the river miners, I reckon. It’s an urgent case. I’ll go and get everything ready. You’d better," he added, with an ominous glance at her gray frock, "put something over your dress." The suggestion made her grave, but did not alter her color.

A moment later she entered the room. It was the one that had always been set apart for her brother: the very bed on which the unconscious man lay had been arranged that morning with her own hands. Something of this passed through her mind as she saw that the doctor had wheeled it beneath the strong light in the centre of the room, stripped its outer coverings with professional thoughtfulness, and rearranged the mattresses. But it did not seem like the same room. There was a pungent odor in the air from some freshly-opened phial; an almost feminine neatness and luxury in an open morocco case like a jewel box on the table, shining with spotless steel. At the head of the bed one of her own servants, the powerful mill foreman, was assisting with the mingled curiosity and blase experience of one accustomed to smashed and lacerated digits. At first she did not look at the central unconscious figure on the bed, whose sufferings seemed to her to have been vicariously transferred to the concerned, eager, and drawn faces that looked down upon its immunity. Then she femininely recoiled before the bared white neck and shoulders displayed above the quilt, until, forcing herself to look upon the face half-concealed by bandages and the head from which the dark tangles of hair had been ruthlessly sheared, she began to share the doctor’s unconcern in his personality. What mattered who or what HE was? It was—a case!

The operation began. With the same earnest intelligence that she had previously shown, she quickly and noiselessly obeyed the doctor’s whispered orders, and even half anticipated them. She was conscious of a singular curiosity that, far from being mean or ignoble, seemed to lift her not only above the ordinary weaknesses of her own sex, but made her superior to the men around her. Almost before she knew it, the operation was over, and she regarded with equal curiosity the ostentatious solicitude with which the doctor seemed to be wiping his fateful instrument that bore an odd resemblance to a silver-handled centre-bit. The stertorous breathing below the bandages had given way to a fainter but more natural respiration. There was a moment of suspense. The doctor’s hand left the pulse and lifted the closed eyelid of the sufferer. A slight movement passed over the figure. The sluggish face had cleared; life seemed to struggle back into it before even the dull eyes participated in the glow. Dr. Duchesne with a sudden gesture waved aside his companions, but not before Josephine had bent her head eagerly forward.

"He is coming to," she said.

At the sound of that deep clear voice—the first to break the hush of the room—the dull eyes leaped up, and the head turned in its direction. The lips moved and uttered a single rapid sentence. The girl recoiled.

"You’re all right now," said the doctor, cheerfully, intent only upon the form before him.

The lips moved again, but this time feebly and vacantly; the eyes were staring vaguely around.

"What’s matter? What’s all about?" said the man, thickly.

"You’ve had a fall. Think a moment. Where do you live?"

Again the lips moved, but this time only to emit a confused, incoherent murmur. Dr. Duchesne looked grave, but recovered himself quickly.

"That will do. Leave him alone now," he said brusquely to the others.

But Josephine lingered.

"He spoke well enough just now," she said eagerly. "Did you hear what he said?"

"Not exactly," said the doctor, abstractedly, gazing at the man.

"He said, ’You’ll have to kill me first,’" said Josephine, slowly.

"Humph;" said the doctor, passing his hand backwards and forwards before the man’s eyes to note any change in the staring pupils.

"Yes," continued Josephine, gravely. "I suppose," she added, cautiously, "he was thinking of the operation—of what you had just done to him?"

"What I had done to him? Oh, yes!"


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "Chapter I," A Sappho of Green Springs, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Sappho of Green Springs (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=E8XP5KUVRJ9EJQX.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "Chapter I." A Sappho of Green Springs, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Sappho of Green Springs, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=E8XP5KUVRJ9EJQX.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'Chapter I' in A Sappho of Green Springs, ed. . cited in 1920, A Sappho of Green Springs, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=E8XP5KUVRJ9EJQX.