Roger Catron's Friend
ROGER CATRON'S FRIEND
By Bret Harte
I think that, from the beginning, we all knew how it would end. He had always been so quiet and conventional, although by nature an impulsive man; always so temperate and abstemious, although a man with a quick appreciation of pleasure; always so cautious and practical, although an imaginative man—that when, at last, one by one he loosed these bands, and gave himself up to a life, perhaps not worse than other lives which the world has accepted as the natural expression of their various owners, we at once decided that the case was a hopeless one. And when one night we picked him up out of the Union Ditch, a begrimed and weather-worn drunkard, a hopeless debtor, a self-confessed spendthrift, and a half-conscious, maudlin imbecile, we knew that the end had come. The wife he had abandoned had in turn deserted him; the woman he had misled had already realized her folly, and left him with her reproaches; the associates of his reckless life, who had used and abused him, had found him no longer of service, or even amusement, and clearly there was nothing left to do but to hand him over to the state, and we took him to the nearest penitential asylum.
Conscious of the Samaritan deed, we went back to our respective wives, and told his story. It is only just to say that these sympathetic creatures were more interested in the philanthropy of their respective husbands than in its miserable object. "It was good and kind in you, dear," said loving Mrs. Maston to her spouse, as returning home that night he flung his coat on a chair with an air of fatigued righteousness; "it was like your kind heart to care for that beast; but after he left that good wife of his—that perfect saint—to take up with that awful woman, I think I'd have left him to die in the ditch. Only to think of it, dear, a woman that you wouldn't speak to!" Here Mr. Maston coughed slightly, colored a little, mumbled something about "women not understanding some things," "that men were men," etc., and then went comfortably to sleep, leaving the outcast, happily oblivious of all things, and especially this criticism, locked up in Hangtown Jail.
For the next twelve hours he lay there, apathetic and half-conscious. Recovering from this after a while, he became furious, vengeful, and unmanageable, filling the cell and corridor with maledictions of friend and enemy; and again sullen, morose, and watchful. Then he refused food, and did not sleep, pacing his limits with the incessant, feverish tread of a caged tiger. Two physicians, diagnosing his case from the scant facts, pronounced him insane, and he was accordingly transported to Sacramento. But on the way thither he managed to elude the vigilance of his guards, and escaped. The alarm was given, a hue and cry followed him, the best detectives of San Francisco were on his track, and finally recovered his dead body—emaciated and wasted by exhaustion and fever—in the Stanislaus Marshes, identified it, and, receiving the reward of $1,000 offered by his surviving relatives and family, assisted in legally establishing the end we had predicted.
Unfortunately for the moral, the facts were somewhat inconsistent with the theory. A day or two after the remains were discovered and identified, the real body of "Roger Catron, aged 52 years, slight, iron-gray hair, and shabby in apparel," as the advertisement read, dragged itself, travel-worn, trembling, and disheveled, up the steep slope of Deadwood Hill. How he should do it, he had long since determined,—ever since he had hidden his Derringer, a mere baby pistol, from the vigilance of his keepers. Where he should do it, he had settled within his mind only within the last few moments. Deadwood Hill was seldom frequented; his body might lie there for months before it was discovered. He had once thought of the river, but he remembered it had an ugly way of exposing its secrets on sand-bar and shallow, and that the body of Whisky Jim, bloated and disfigured almost beyond recognition, had been once delivered to the eyes of Sandy Bar, before breakfast, on the left bank of the Stanislaus. He toiled up through the chemisal that clothed the southern slope of the hill until he reached the bald, storm-scarred cap of the mountain, ironically decked with the picked, featherless plumes of a few dying pines. One, stripped of all but two lateral branches, brought a boyish recollection to his fevered brain. Against a background of dull sunset fire, it extended two gaunt arms—black, rigid, and pathetic. Calvary!
With the very word upon his lips, he threw himself, face downwards, on the ground beneath it, and, with his fingers clutched in the soil, lay there for some moments, silent and still. In this attitude, albeit a skeptic and unorthodox man, he prayed. I cannot say—indeed I dare not say—that his prayer was heard, or that God visited him thus. Let us rather hope that all there was of God in him, in this crucial moment of agony and shame, strove outward and upward. Howbeit, when the moon rose he rose too—perhaps a trifle less steady than the planet, and began to descend the hill with feverish haste, yet with this marked difference between his present haste and his former recklessness, that it seemed to have a well-defined purpose. When he reached the road again, he struck into a well-worn trail, where, in the distance, a light faintly twinkled. Following this beacon, he kept on, and at last flung himself heavily against the door of the little cabin from whose window the light had shone. As he did so, it opened upon the figure of a square, thickset man, who, in the impetuosity of Catron's onset, received him, literally, in his arms.
"Captain Dick," said Roger Catron, hoarsely, "Captain Dick, save me! For God's sake, save me!"
Captain Dick, without a word, placed a large, protecting hand upon Catron's shoulder, allowed it to slip to his waist, and then drew his visitor quietly, but firmly, within the cabin. Yet, in the very movement, he had managed to gently and unobtrusively possess himself of Catron's pistol.
"Save ye! From which?" asked Captain Dick, as quietly and unobtrusively dropping the Derringer in a flour sack.
"From everything," gasped Catron, "from the men that are hounding me, from my family, from my friends, but most of all—from, from—myself!"
He had, in turn, grasped Captain Dick, and forced him frenziedly against the wall. The captain released himself, and, taking the hands of his excited visitor, said slowly:
"Ye wan some blue mass—suthin' to unload your liver. I'll get it up for ye."
"But, Captain Dick—I'm an outcast, shamed, disgraced——"
"Two o' them pills taken now, and two in the morning," continued the captain, gravely, rolling a bolus in his fingers, "will bring yer head to the wind ag'in. Yer fallin' to leeward all the time, and ye want to brace up."
"But, captain," continued the agonized man, again clutching the sinewy arms of his host, and forcing his livid face and fixed eyes within a few inches of Captain Dick's, "hear me! You must and shall hear me. I've been in jail—do you hear?—in jail—like a common felon. I've been sent to the asylum, like a demented pauper. I've——"
"Two now, and two in the morning," continued the captain, quietly releasing one hand only to place two enormous pills in the mouth of the excited Catron, "thar now—a drink o' whisky—thar, that'll do—just enough to take the taste out of yer mouth, wash it down, and belay it, so to speak. And how are the mills running, gin'rally, over at the Bar?"
"Captain Dick, hear me—if you are my friend, for God's sake hear me! An hour ago I should have been a dead man——"
"They say that Sam Bolin hez sold out of the Excelsior——"
"Captain Dick! Listen, for God's sake; I have suffered——"
But Captain Dick was engaged in critically examining his man. "I guess I'll ladle ye out some o' that soothin'-mixture I bought down at Simpson's 'tother day," he said, reflectively. "And I onderstand the boys up on the Bar think the rains will set in airly."
But here nature was omnipotent. Worn by exhaustion, excitement, and fever, and possibly a little affected by Captain Dick's later potion, Roger Catron turned white, and lapsed against the wall. In an instant Captain Dick had caught him, as a child, lifted him in his stalwart arms, wrapped a blanket around him, and deposited him in his bunk. Yet, even in his prostration, Catron made one more despairing appeal for mental sympathy from his host.
"I know I'm sick—dying, perhaps," he gasped, from under the blankets; "but promise me, whatever comes, tell my wife—say to——"
"It has been lookin' consid'ble like rain, lately, hereabouts," continued the captain, coolly, in a kind of amphibious slang, characteristic of the man, "but in these yer latitudes no man kin set up to be a weather sharp."
"Captain! will you hear me?"
"Yer goin' to sleep, now," said the captain, potentially.
"But, Captain, they are pursuing me! If they should track me here——"
"Thar is a rifle over thar, and yer's my navy revolver. When I've emptied them, and want you to bear a hand, I'll call ye. Just now your lay is to turn in. It's my watch."
There was something so positive, strong, assuring, and a little awesome in the captain's manner, that the trembling, nervously prostrated man beneath the blankets forbore to question further. In a few moments his breathing, albeit hurried and irregular, announced that he slept. The captain then arose, for a moment critically examined the sleeping man, holding his head a little on one side, whistling softly, and stepping backwards to get a good perspective, but always with contemplative good humor, as if Catron were a work of art, which he (the captain) had created, yet one that he was not yet entirely satisfied with. Then he put a large pea-jacket over his flannel blouse, dragged a Mexican serape from the corner, and putting it over his shoulders, opened the cabin door, sat down on the doorstep, and leaning back against the door-post, composed himself to meditation.
The moon lifted herself slowly over the crest of Deadwood Hill, and looked down, not unkindly, on his broad, white, shaven face, round and smooth as her own disc, encircled with a thin fringe of white hair and whiskers. Indeed, he looked so like the prevailing caricatures in a comic almanac of planets, with dimly outlined features, that the moon would have been quite justified in flirting with him, as she clearly did, insinuating a twinkle into his keen, gray eyes, making the shadow of a dimple on his broad, fat chin, and otherwise idealizing him after the fashion of her hero-worshiping sex.
Touched by these benign influences, Captain Dick presently broke forth in melody. His song was various, but chiefly, I think, confined to the recital of the exploits of one "Lorenzo," who, as related by himself,—
"Shipped on board of a Liner,
'Renzo, boys, 'Renzo,"
a fact that seemed to have deprived him at once of all metre, grammar, or even the power of coherent narration. At times a groan or a half-articulate cry would come from the bunk whereon Roger Catron lay, a circumstance that always seemed to excite Captain Dick to greater effort and more rapid vocalization. Toward morning, in the midst of a prolonged howl from the captain, who was finishing the "Starboard Watch, ahoy!" in three different keys, Roger Catron's voice broke suddenly and sharply from his enwrappings:—
"Dry up, you d—d old fool, will you?"
Captain Dick stopped instantly. Rising to his feet, and looking over the landscape, he took all nature into his confidence in one inconceivably arch and crafty wink. "He's coming up to the wind," he said softly, rubbing his hands. "The pills is fetchin' him. Steady now, boys, steady. Steady as she goes on her course." And with another wink of ineffable wisdom, he entered the cabin and locked the door.
Meanwhile, the best society of Sandy Bar was kind to the newly made widow. Without being definitely expressed, it was generally felt that sympathy with her was now safe, and carried no moral responsibility with it. Even practical and pecuniary aid, which before had been withheld, lest it should be diverted from its proper intent, and, perhaps through the weakness of the wife, made to minister to the wickedness of the husband—even that was now openly suggested. Everybody felt that somebody should do something for the widow. A few did it. Her own sex rallied to her side, generally with large sympathy, but, unfortunately, small pecuniary or practical result. At last, when the feasibility of her taking a boarding-house in San Francisco, and identifying herself with that large class of American gentlewomen who have seen better days, but clearly are on the road never to see them again, was suggested, a few of her own and her husband's rich relatives came to the front to rehabilitate her. It was easier to take her into their homes as an equal than to refuse to call upon her as the mistress of a lodging-house in the adjoining street. And upon inspection it was found that she was still quite an eligible partie, prepossessing, and withal, in her widow's weeds, a kind of poetical and sentimental presence, as necessary in a wealthy and fashionable American family as a work of art. "Yes, poor Caroline has had a sad, sad history," the languid Mrs. Walker Catron would say, "and we all sympathize with her deeply; she is my husband's favorite sister." What this dark history was never came out, but its very mystery always thrilled the visitor, and seemed to indicate plainly the respectability of the hostess. Nor was it altogether unnatural that presently Mrs. Roger Catron lent herself to this sentimental deception, and began to think that she really was a more exquisitely aggrieved woman than she had imagined. Indeed, one or two impulsive gentlemen openly regretted that the deceased had not been hanged, to which Mrs. Walker Catron responded that, "Thank Heaven, they were spared at least that disgrace," and so sent conviction into the minds of her hearers.
It was scarcely two months after this painful close of her matrimonial life that one rainy February morning the servant brought a card to Mrs. Roger Catron, bearing the following inscription:—
"Richard Graeme Macleod."
Women are more readily affected by names than we are, and there was a certain Highland respectability about this that, albeit, not knowing its possessor, impelled Mrs. Catron to send word that she "would be down in a few moments." At the end of this femininely indefinite period—a quarter of an hour by the French clock on the mantel-piece—Mrs. Roger Catron made her appearance in the reception-room. It was a dull, wet day, as I have said before, but on the Contra Costa hills the greens and a few flowers were already showing a promise of rejuvenescence and an early spring. There was something of this, I think, in Mrs. Catron's presence, shown perhaps in the coquettish bow of a ribbon, in a larger and more delicate ruche, in a tighter belting of her black cashmere gown; but still there was a suggestion of recent rain in the eyes, and threatening weather. As she entered the room, the sun came out, too, and revealed the prettiness and delicacy of her figure, and I regret to state, also, the somewhat obtrusive plainness of her visitor.
"I knew ye'd be sorter disapp'inted at first, not gettin' the regular bearings o' my name, but I'm 'Captain Dick.' Mebbe ye've heard your husband—that is, your husband ez waz, Roger Catron—speak o' me?"
Mrs. Catron, feeling herself outraged and deceived in belt, ruche, and ribbon, freezingly admitted that she had heard of him before.
"In course," said the captain; "why, Lord love ye, Mrs. Catron—ez waz, he used to be all the time talkin' of ye. And allers in a free, easy, confidential way. Why, one night—don't ye remember?—when he came home, carryin', mebbee, more canvas than was seamanlike, and you shet him out the house, and laid for him with a broomstick, or one o' them crokay mallets, I disremember which, and he kem over to me, ole Captain Dick, and I sez to him, sez I, 'Why, Roger, them's only love pats, and yer condishun is such ez to make any woman mad-like.' Why, Lord bless ye! there ain't enny of them mootool differences you and him hed ez I doesn't knows on, and didn't always stand by, and lend ye a hand, and heave in a word or two of advice when called on."
Mrs. Catron, ice everywhere but in her pink cheeks, was glad that Mr. Catron seemed to have always a friend to whom he confided everything, even the base falsehoods he had invented.
"Mebbe now they woz falsehoods," said the captain, thoughtfully. "But don't ye go to think," he added conscientiously, "that he kept on that tack all the time. Why, that day he made a raise, gambling, I think, over at Dutch Flat, and give ye them bracelets—regular solid gold—why, it would have done your heart good to have heard him talk about you—said you had the prettiest arm in Californy. Well," said the captain, looking around for a suitable climax, "well, you'd have thought that he was sorter proud of ye! Why, I woz with him in 'Frisco when he bought that A1 prize bonnet for ye for $75, and not hevin' over fifty dollars in his pocket, borryed the other twenty-five outer me. Mebbe it was a little fancy for a bonnet; but I allers thought he took it a little too much to heart when you swopped it off for that Dollar Varden dress, just because that Lawyer Maxwell said the Dollar Vardens was becomin' to ye. Ye know, I reckon, he was always sorter jealous of that thar shark——"
"May I venture to ask what your business is with me?" interrupted Mrs. Catron, sharply.
"In course," said the captain, rising. "Ye see," he said, apologetically, "we got to talking o' Roger and ole times, and I got a little out o' my course. It's a matter of——" he began to fumble in his pockets, and finally produced a small memorandum-book, which he glanced over—"it's a matter of two hundred and fifty dollars."
"I don't understand you," said Mrs. Catron, in indignant astonishment.
"On the 15th of July," said the captain, consulting his memorandum-book, "Roger sold his claim at Ny's Ford for $1,500. Now, le's see. Thar was nigh on $350 ez he admitted to me he lost at poker, and we'll add $50 to that for treating, suppers, and drinks gin'rally—put Roger down for $400. Then there was you. Now you spent $250 on your trip to 'Frisco thet summer; then $200 went for them presents you sent your Aunt Jane, and thar was $400 for house expenses. Well, thet foots up $1,250. Now, what's become of thet other $250?"
Mrs. Catron's woman's impulse to retaliate sharply overcame her first natural indignation at her visitor's impudence. Therein she lost, woman-like, her ground of vantage.
"Perhaps the woman he fled with can tell you," she said savagely.
"Thet," said the captain, slowly, "is a good, a reasonable idee. But it ain't true; from all I can gather she lent him money. It didn't go thar."
"Roger Catron left me penniless," said Mrs. Catron, hotly.
"Thet's jist what gets me. You oughter have $250 somewhar lying round."
Mrs. Catron saw her error. "May I ask what right you have to question me? If you have any, I must refer you to my lawyer or my brother-in-law; if you have none, I hope you will not oblige me to call the servants to put you from the house."
"Thet sounds reasonable and square, too," said the captain, thoughtfully; "I've a power of attorney from Roger Catron to settle up his affairs and pay his debts, given a week afore them detectives handed ye over his dead body. But I thought that you and me might save lawyer's fees and all fuss and feathers, ef, in a sociable, sad-like way—lookin' back sorter on Roger ez you and me once knew him—we had a quiet talk together."
"Good-morning, sir," said Mrs. Catron, rising stiffly.
The captain hesitated a moment, a slight flush of color came in his face as he at last rose as the lady backed out of the room. "Good-morning, ma'am," said the captain, and departed.
Very little was known of this interview except the general impression in the family that Mrs. Catron had successfully resisted a vague attempt at blackmail from one of her husband's former dissolute companions. Yet it is only fair to say that Mrs. C. snapped up, quite savagely, two male sympathizers on this subject, and cried a good deal for two days afterward, and once, in the hearing of her sister-in-law, to that lady's great horror, "wished she was dead."
A week after this interview, as Lawyer Phillips sat in his office, he was visited by Macleod. Recognizing, possibly, some practical difference between the widow and the lawyer, Captain Dick this time first produced his credentials—a "power of attorney." "I need not tell you," said Phillips, "that the death of your principal renders this instrument invalid, and I suppose you know that, leaving no will, and no property, his estate has not been administered upon."
"Mebbe it is, and mebbe it isn't. But I hain't askin' for anythin' but information. There was a bit o' prop'ty and a mill onto it, over at Heavytree, ez sold for $10,000. I don't see," said the captain, consulting his memorandum-book, "ez he got anything out of it."
"It was mortgaged for $7,000," said the lawyer, quickly, "and the interest and fees amount to about $3,000 more."
"The mortgage was given as security for a note?"
"Yes, a gambling debt," said the lawyer, sharply.
"Thet's so, and my belief ez that it wasn't a square game. He shouldn't hev given no note. Why, don't ye mind, 'way back in '60, when you and me waz in Marysville, that night that you bucked ag'in' faro, and lost seving hundred dollars, and then refoosed to take up your checks, saying it was fraud and a gambling debt? And don't ye mind when that chap kicked ye, and I helped to drag him off ye—and——"
"I'm busy now, Mr. Macleod," said Phillips, hastily; "my clerk will give you all the information you require. Good-morning."
"It's mighty queer," said the captain, thoughtfully, as he descended the stairs, "but the moment the conversation gets limber and sociable-like, and I gets to runnin' free under easy sail, it's always 'Good-morning, Captain,' and we're becalmed."
By some occult influence, all the foregoing conversation, slightly exaggerated, and the whole interview of the captain with the widow with sundry additions, became the common property of Sandy Bar, to the great delight of the boys. There was scarcely a person who had ever had business or social relations with Roger Catron, whom "The Frozen Truth," as Sandy Bar delighted to designate the captain, had not "interviewed," as simply and directly. The natural result of this was a singular reaction in favor of the late Roger Catron in the public sentiment of Sandy Bar, so strong, indeed, as to induce the Rev. Mr. Joshua McSnagley, the next Sunday, to point out somewhat harshly the moral of Catron's life. After the service, he was approached in the vestibule, and in the hearing of some of his audience, by Captain Dick, with the following compliment: "In many pints ye hed jess got Roger Catron down to a hair. I knew ye'd do it: why, Lord love ye, you and him had pints in common; and when he giv' ye that hundred dollars arter the fire in Sacramento, to help ye rebuild the parsonage, he said to me—me not likin' ye on account o' my being on the committee that invited ye to resign from Marysville all along o' that affair with Deacon Pursell's darter; and a piece she was, parson! eh?—well, Roger, he ups and sez to me, 'Every man hez his faults,' sez he; and sez he, 'there's no reason why a parson ain't a human being like us, and that gal o' Pursell's is pizen, ez I know.' So ye see, I seed that ye was hittin' yourself over Catron's shoulder, like them early martyrs." But here, as Captain Dick was clearly blocking up all egress from the church, the sexton obliged him to move on, and again he was stopped in his conversational career.
But only for a time. Before long, it was whispered that Captain Dick had ordered a meeting of the creditors, debtors, and friends of Roger Catron at Robinson's Hall. It was suggested, with some show of reason, that this had been done at the instigation of various practical jokers of Sandy Bar, who had imposed on the simple directness of the captain, and the attendance that night certainly indicated something more than a mere business meeting. All of Sandy Bar crowded into Robinson's Hall, and long before Captain Dick made his appearance on the platform, with his inevitable memorandum-book, every inch of floor was crowded.
The captain began to read the expenditures of Roger Catron with relentless fidelity of detail. The several losses by poker, the whisky bills, and the record of a "jamboree" at Tooley's, the vague expenses whereof footed up $275, were received with enthusiastic cheers by the audience. A single milliner's bill for $125 was hailed with delight; $100 expended in treating the Vestal Virgin Combination Troupe almost canonized his memory; $50 for a simple buggy ride with Deacon Fisk brought down the house; $500 advanced, without security, and unpaid, for the electioneering expenses of Assemblyman Jones, who had recently introduced a bill to prevent gambling and the sale of lager beer on Sundays, was received with an ominous groan. One or two other items of money loaned occasioned the withdrawal of several gentlemen from the audience amidst the hisses or ironical cheers of the others.
At last Captain Dick stopped and advanced to the footlights.
"Gentlemen and friends," he said, slowly. "I foots up $25,000 as Roger Catron hez made, fair and square, in this yer county. I foots up $27,000 ez he has spent in this yer county. I puts it to you ez men—fa'r-minded men—ef this man was a pauper and debtor? I put it to you ez fa'r-minded men—ez free and easy men—ez political economists—ez this the kind of men to impoverish a county?"
An overwhelming and instantaneous "No!" almost drowned the last utterance of the speaker.
"Thar is only one item," said Captain Dick, slowly, "only one item, that ez men—ez fa'r-minded men—ez political economists—it seems to me we hez the right to question. It's this: Thar is an item, read to you by me, of $2,000 paid to certing San Francisco detectives, paid out o' the assets o' Roger Catron, for the finding of Roger Catron's body. Gentlemen of Sandy Bar and friends, I found that body, and yer it is!"
And Roger Catron, a little pale and nervous, but palpably in the flesh, stepped upon the platform.
Of course the newspapers were full of it the next day. Of course, in due time, it appeared as a garbled and romantic item in the San Francisco press. Of course Mrs. Catron, on reading it, fainted, and for two days said that this last cruel blow ended all relations between her husband and herself. On the third day she expressed her belief that, if he had had the slightest feeling for her, he would, long since, for the sake of mere decency, have communicated with her. On the fourth day she thought she had been, perhaps, badly advised, had an open quarrel with her relatives, and intimated that a wife had certain obligations, etc. On the sixth day, still not hearing from him, she quoted Scripture, spoke of a seventy-times-seven forgiveness, and went generally into mild hysterics. On the seventh, she left in the morning train for Sandy Bar.
And really I don't know as I have anything more to tell. I dined with them recently, and, upon my word, a more decorous, correct, conventional, and dull dinner I never ate in my life.