The Bell Ringer of Angel’s

Contents:
Author: Bret Harte

Chapter II.

A week later Madison Wayne was seated alone in his cabin. His supper table had just been cleared by his Chinese coolie, as it was getting late, and the setting sun, which for half an hour had been persistently making a vivid beacon of his windows for the benefit of wayfarers along the river bank, had at last sunk behind the cottonwoods. His head was resting on his hand; the book he had been reading when the light faded was lying open on the table before him. In this attitude he became aware of a hesitating step on the gravel outside his open door. He had been so absorbed that the approach of any figure along the only highway—the river bank— had escaped his observation. Looking up, he discovered that Mr. Alexander McGee was standing in the doorway, his hand resting lightly on the jamb. A sudden color suffused Wayne’s cheek; his hand reached for his book, which he drew towards him hurriedly, yet half automatically, as he might have grasped some defensive weapon.

The Bell-ringer of Angel’s noticed the act, but not the blush, and nodded approvingly. "Don’t let me disturb ye. I was only meanderin’ by and reckoned I’d say ’How do?’ in passin’." He leaned gently back against the door-post, to do which comfortably he was first obliged to shift the revolver on his hip. The sight of the weapon brought a slight contraction to the brows of Wayne, but he gravely said: "Won’t you come in?"

"It ain’t your prayin’ time?" said McGee politely.

"No."

"Nor you ain’t gettin’ up lessons outer the Book?" he continued thoughtfully.

"No."

"Cos it don’t seem, so to speak, you see, the square thing to be botherin’ a man when he might be doin’ suthin’ else, don’t you see? You understand what I mean?"

It was his known peculiarity that he always seemed to be suffering from an inability to lucid expression, and the fear of being misunderstood in regard to the most patent or equally the most unimportant details of his speech. All of which, however, was in very remarkable contrast to his perfectly clear and penetrating eyes.

Wayne gravely assured him that he was not interrupting him in any way.

"I often thought—that is, I had an idea, you understand what I mean—of stoppin’ in passing. You and me, you see, are sorter alike; we don’t seem to jibe in with the gin’ral gait o’ the camp. You understand what I mean? We ain’t in the game, eh? You see what I’m after?"

Madison Wayne glanced half mechanically at McGee’s revolver. McGee’s clear eyes at once took in the glance.

"That’s it! You understand? You with them books of yours, and me with my shootin’ iron—we’re sort o’ different from the rest, and ought to be kinder like partners. You understand what I mean? We keep this camp in check. We hold a full hand, and don’t stand no bluffing."

"If you mean there is some effect in Christian example and the life of a God-fearing man"—began Madison gravely.

"That’s it! God-fearin’ or revolver-fearin’, it amounts to the same when you come down to the hard pan and bed-rock," interrupted McGee. "I ain’t expectin’ you to think much of my style, but I go a heap on yours, even if I can’t play your game. And I sez to my wife, ’Safie’—her that trots around with me sometimes—I sez, ’Safie, I oughter know that man, and shall. And I WANT YOU to know him.’ Hol’ on," he added quickly, as Madison rose with a flushed face and a perturbed gesture. "Ye don’t understand! I see wot’s in your mind—don’t you see? When I married my wife and brought her down here, knowin’ this yer camp, I sez: ’No flirtin’, no foolin’, no philanderin’ here, my dear! You’re young and don’t know the ways o’ men. The first man I see you talking with, I shoot. You needn’t fear, my dear, for accidents. I kin shoot all round you, under your arm, across your shoulders, over your head and between your fingers, my dear, and never start skin or fringe or ruffle. But I don’t miss HIM. You sorter understand what I mean,’ sez I,’so don’t!’ Ye noticed how my wife is respected, Mr. Wayne? Queen Victoria sittin’ on her throne ain’t in it with my Safie. But when I see YOU not herdin’ with that cattle, never liftin’ your eyes to me or Safie as we pass, never hangin’ round the saloons and jokin’, nor winkin’, nor slingin’ muddy stories about women, but prayin’ and readin’ Scripter stories, here along with your brother, I sez to myself, I sez, ’Sandy, ye kin take off your revolver and hang up your shot gun when HE’S around. For ’twixt HIM and your wife ain’t no revolver, but the fear of God and hell and damnation and the world to come!’ You understand what I mean, don’t ye? Ye sorter follow my lead, eh? Ye can see what I’m shootin’ round, don’t ye? So I want you to come up neighborly like, and drop in to see my wife."

Madison Wayne’s face became set and hard again, but he advanced towards McGee with the book against his breast, and his finger between the leaves. "I already know your wife, Mr. McGee! I saw her before YOU ever met her. I was engaged to her; I loved her, and—as far as man may love the wife of another and keep the commands of this book—I love her still!"

To his surprise, McGee, whose calm eyes had never dimmed or blenched, after regarding him curiously, took the volume from him, laid it on the table, opened it, turned its leaves critically, said earnestly, "That’s the law here, is it?" and then held out his hand.

"Shake!"

Madison Wayne hesitated—and then grasped his hand.

"Ef I had known this," continued McGee, "I reckon I wouldn’t have been so hard on Safie and so partikler. She’s better than I took her for—havin’ had you for a beau! You understand what I mean. You follow me—don’t ye? I allus kinder wondered why she took me, but sens you’ve told me that YOU used to spark her, in your Godfearin’ way, I reckon it kinder prepared her for ME. You understand? Now you come up, won’t ye?"

"I will call some evening with my brother," said Wayne embarrassedly.

"With which?" demanded McGee.

"My brother Arthur. We usually spend the evenings together."

McGee paused, leaned against the doorpost, and, fixing his clear eyes on Wayne, said: "Ef it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you did not bring him. You understand what I mean? You follow me; no other man but you and me. I ain’t sayin’ anything agin’ your brother, but you see how it is, don’t you? Just me and you."

"Very well, I will come," said Wayne gloomily. But as McGee backed out of the door, he followed him, hesitatingly. Then, with an effort he seemed to recover himself, and said almost harshly: "I ought to tell you another thing—that I have seen and spoken to Mrs. McGee since she came to the Bar. She fell into the water last week, and I swam out and dragged her ashore. We talked and spoke of the past."

"She fell in," echoed McGee.

Wayne hesitated; then a murky blush came into his face as he slowly repeated, "She FELL in."

McGee’s eyes only brightened. "I have been too hard on her. She might have drowned ef you hadn’t took risks. You see? You understand what I mean? And she never let out anything about it— and never boasted o’ YOU helpin’ her out. All right—you’ll come along and see her agin’." He turned and walked cheerfully away.

Wayne re-entered the cabin. He sat for a long time by the window until the stars came out above the river, and another star, with which he had been long familiar, took its place apparently in the heart of the wooded crest of the little promontory. Then the fringing woods on the opposite shore became a dark level line across the landscape, and the color seemed to fade out of the moist shining gravel before his cabin. Presently the silhouette of his dark face disappeared from the window, and Mr. McGee might have been gratified to know that he had slipped to his knees before the chair whereon he had been sitting, and that his head was bowed before it on his clasped hands. In a little while he rose again, and, dragging a battened old portmanteau from the corner, took out a number of letters tied up in a package, with which, from time to time, he slowly fed the flame that flickered on his hearth. In this way the windows of the cabin at times sprang into light, making a somewhat confusing beacon for the somewhat confused Arthur Wayne, who was returning from a visit to Angel’s, and who had fallen into that slightly morose and irritated state which follows excessive hilarity, and is also apt to indicate moral misgivings.

But the last letter was burnt and the cabin quite dark when he entered. His brother was sitting by the slowly dying fire, and he trusted that in that uncertain light any observation of his expression or manner—of which he himself was uneasily conscious— would pass unheeded.

"You are late," said Madison gravely.

At which his brother rashly assumed the aggressive. He was no later than the others, and if the Rogers boys were good enough to walk with him for company he couldn’t run ahead of them just because his brother was waiting! He didn’t want any supper, he had something at the Cross Roads with the others. Yes! WHISKEY, if he wanted to know. People couldn’t keep coffee and temperance drinks just to please him and his brother, and he wasn’t goin’ to insult the others by standing aloof. Anyhow, he had never taken the pledge, and as long as he hadn’t he couldn’t see why he should refuse a single glass. As it was, everybody said he was a milksop, and a tender-foot, and he was just sick of it.

Madison rose and lit a candle and held it up before his brother’s face. It was a handsome, youthful face that looked into his, flushed with the excitement of novel experiences and perhaps a more material stimulation. The little silken moustache was ostentatiously curled, the brown curls were redolent of bear’s grease. Yet there was a certain boyish timidity and nervousness in the defiance of his blue eyes that momentarily touched the elder brother.

"I’ve been too hand with him," he said to himself, half consciously recalling what McGee had said of Safie. He put the candle down, laid his hand gently on Arthur’s shoulder, and said, with a certain cautious tenderness, "Come, Arty, sit down and tell me all about it."

Whereupon the mercurial Arthur, not only relieved of his nervousness but of his previous ethical doubts and remorse, became gay and voluble. He had finished his purchases at Angel’s, and the storekeeper had introduced him to Colonel Starbottle, of Kentucky, as one of "the Waynes who had made Wayne’s Bar famous." Colonel Starbottle had said in his pompous fashion—yet he was not such a bad fellow, after all—that the Waynes ought to be represented in the Councils of the State, and that he, Starbottle, would be proud to nominate Madison for the next Legislature and run him, too. "And you know, really, Mad, if you mixed a little more with folks, and they weren’t—well, sorter AFRAID of you—you could do it. Why, I’ve made a heap o’ friends over there, just by goin’ round a little, and one of old Selvedge’s girls—the storekeeper, you know—said from what she’d heard of us, she always thought I was about fifty, and turned up the whites of my eyes instead of the ends of my moustache! She’s mighty smart! Then the Postmaster has got his wife and three daughters out from the States, and they’ve asked me to come over to their church festival next week. It isn’t our church, of course, but I suppose it’s all right."

This and much more with the volubility of relieved feelings. When he stopped, out of breath, Madison said, "I have had a visitor since you left—Mr. McGee."

"And his wife?" asked Arthur quickly. Madison flushed slightly. "No; but he asked me to go and see her."

"That’s HER doin’, then," returned Arthur, with a laugh. "She’s always lookin’ round the corners of her eyes at me when she passes. Why, John Rogers was joking me about her only yesterday, and said McGee would blow a hole through me some of these days if I didn’t look out! Of course," he added, affectedly curling his moustache, "that’s nonsense! But you know how they talk, and she’s too pretty for that fellow McGee."

"She has found a careful helpmeet in her husband," said Madison sternly, "and it’s neither seemly nor Christian in you, Arthur, to repeat the idle, profane gossip of the Bar. I knew her before her marriage, and if she was not a professing Christian, she was, and is, a pure, good woman! Let us have no more of this."

Whether impressed by the tone of his brother’s voice, or only affected by his own mercurial nature, Arthur changed the subject to further voluble reminiscences of his trip to Angel’s. Yet he did not seem embarrassed nor disconcerted when his brother, in the midst of his speech, placed the candle and the Bible on the table, with two chairs before it. He listened to Madison’s monotonous reading of the evening exercise with equally monotonous respect. Then they both arose, without looking at each other, but with equally set and stolid faces, and knelt down before their respective chairs, clasping the back with both hands, and occasionally drawing the hard, wooden frames against their breasts convulsively, as if it were a penitential act. It was the elder brother who that night prayed aloud. It was his voice that rose higher by degrees above the low roof and encompassing walls, the level river camp lights that trembled through the window, the dark belt of riverside trees, and the light on the promontory’s crest—up to the tranquil, passionless stars themselves.

With those confidences to his Maker this chronicle does not lie— obtrusive and ostentatious though they were in tone and attitude. Enough that they were a general arraignment of humanity, the Bar, himself, and his brother, and indeed much that the same Maker had created and permitted. That through this hopeless denunciation still lingered some human feeling and tenderness might have been shown by the fact that at its close his hands trembled and his face was bedewed by tears. And his brother was so deeply affected that he resolved hereafter to avoid all evening prayers.

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Chicago: Bret Harte, "Chapter II.," The Bell Ringer of Angel’s, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Bell Ringer of Angel’s (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8T48K7NTDJ6TXJ.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "Chapter II." The Bell Ringer of Angel’s, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Bell Ringer of Angel’s, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8T48K7NTDJ6TXJ.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'Chapter II.' in The Bell Ringer of Angel’s, ed. . cited in 1920, The Bell Ringer of Angel’s, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8T48K7NTDJ6TXJ.