The Californian's Tale by Mark Twain
Thirty-five years ago I was out prospecting on the Stanislaus, tramping
all day long with pick and pan and horn, and washing a hatful of dirt here
and there, always expecting to make a rich strike, and never doing it. It
was a lovely region, woodsy, balmy, delicious, and had once been populous,
long years before, but now the people had vanished and the charming
paradise was a solitude. They went away when the surface diggings gave
out. In one place, where a busy little city with banks and newspapers and
fire companies and a mayor and aldermen had been, was nothing but a wide
expanse of emerald turf, with not even the faintest sign that human life
had ever been present there. This was down toward Tuttletown. In the
country neighborhood thereabouts, along the dusty roads, one found at
intervals the prettiest little cottage homes, snug and cozy, and so
cobwebbed with vines snowed thick with roses that the doors and windows
were wholly hidden from sight—sign that these were deserted homes,
forsaken years ago by defeated and disappointed families who could neither
sell them nor give them away. Now and then, half an hour apart, one came
across solitary log cabins of the earliest mining days, built by the first
gold-miners, the predecessors of the cottage-builders. In some few cases
these cabins were still occupied; and when this was so, you could depend
upon it that the occupant was the very pioneer who had built the cabin;
and you could depend on another thing, too—that he was there because
he had once had his opportunity to go home to the States rich, and had not
done it; had rather lost his wealth, and had then in his humiliation
resolved to sever all communication with his home relatives and friends,
and be to them thenceforth as one dead. Round about California in that day
were scattered a host of these living dead men—pride-smitten poor
fellows, grizzled and old at forty, whose secret thoughts were made all of
regrets and longings—regrets for their wasted lives, and longings to
be out of the struggle and done with it all.
It was a lonesome land! Not a sound in all those peaceful expanses of
grass and woods but the drowsy hum of insects; no glimpse of man or beast;
nothing to keep up your spirits and make you glad to be alive. And so, at
last, in the early part of the afternoon, when I caught sight of a human
creature, I felt a most grateful uplift. This person was a man about
forty-five years old, and he was standing at the gate of one of those cozy
little rose-clad cottages of the sort already referred to. However, this
one hadn't a deserted look; it had the look of being lived in and petted
and cared for and looked after; and so had its front yard, which was a
garden of flowers, abundant, gay, and flourishing. I was invited in, of
course, and required to make myself at home—it was the custom of the
It was delightful to be in such a place, after long weeks of daily and
nightly familiarity with miners' cabins—with all which this implies
of dirt floor, never-made beds, tin plates and cups, bacon and beans and
black coffee, and nothing of ornament but war pictures from the Eastern
illustrated papers tacked to the log walls. That was all hard, cheerless,
materialistic desolation, but here was a nest which had aspects to rest
the tired eye and refresh that something in one's nature which, after long
fasting, recognizes, when confronted by the belongings of art, howsoever
cheap and modest they may be, that it has unconsciously been famishing and
now has found nourishment. I could not have believed that a rag carpet
could feast me so, and so content me; or that there could be such solace
to the soul in wall-paper and framed lithographs, and bright-colored
tidies and lamp-mats, and Windsor chairs, and varnished what-nots, with
sea-shells and books and china vases on them, and the score of little
unclassifiable tricks and touches that a woman's hand distributes about a
home, which one sees without knowing he sees them, yet would miss in a
moment if they were taken away. The delight that was in my heart showed in
my face, and the man saw it and was pleased; saw it so plainly that he
answered it as if it had been spoken.
"All her work," he said, caressingly; "she did it all herself—every
bit," and he took the room in with a glance which was full of affectionate
worship. One of those soft Japanese fabrics with which women drape with
careful negligence the upper part of a picture-frame was out of
adjustment. He noticed it, and rearranged it with cautious pains, stepping
back several times to gauge the effect before he got it to suit him. Then
he gave it a light finishing pat or two with his hand, and said: "She
always does that. You can't tell just what it lacks, but it does lack
something until you've done that—you can see it yourself after it's
done, but that is all you know; you can't find out the law of it. It's
like the finishing pats a mother gives the child's hair after she's got it
combed and brushed, I reckon. I've seen her fix all these things so much
that I can do them all just her way, though I don't know the law of any of
them. But she knows the law. She knows the why and the how both; but I
don't know the why; I only know the how."
He took me into a bedroom so that I might wash my hands; such a bedroom as
I had not seen for years: white counterpane, white pillows, carpeted
floor, papered walls, pictures, dressing-table, with mirror and
pin-cushion and dainty toilet things; and in the corner a wash-stand, with
real china-ware bowl and pitcher, and with soap in a china dish, and on a
rack more than a dozen towels—towels too clean and white for one out
of practice to use without some vague sense of profanation. So my face
spoke again, and he answered with gratified words:
"All her work; she did it all herself—every bit. Nothing here that
hasn't felt the touch of her hand. Now you would think—But I mustn't
talk so much."
By this time I was wiping my hands and glancing from detail to detail of
the room's belongings, as one is apt to do when he is in a new place,
where everything he sees is a comfort to his eye and his spirit; and I
became conscious, in one of those unaccountable ways, you know, that there
was something there somewhere that the man wanted me to discover for
myself. I knew it perfectly, and I knew he was trying to help me by
furtive indications with his eye, so I tried hard to get on the right
track, being eager to gratify him. I failed several times, as I could see
out of the corner of my eye without being told; but at last I knew I must
be looking straight at the thing—knew it from the pleasure issuing
in invisible waves from him. He broke into a happy laugh, and rubbed his
hands together, and cried out:
"That's it! You've found it. I knew you would. It's her picture."
I went to the little black-walnut bracket on the farther wall, and did
find there what I had not yet noticed—a daguerreotype-case. It
contained the sweetest girlish face, and the most beautiful, as it seemed
to me, that I had ever seen. The man drank the admiration from my face,
and was fully satisfied.
"Nineteen her last birthday," he said, as he put the picture back; "and
that was the day we were married. When you see her—ah, just wait
till you see her!"
"Where is she? When will she be in?"
"Oh, she's away now. She's gone to see her people. They live forty or
fifty miles from here. She's been gone two weeks today."
"When do you expect her back?"
"This is Wednesday. She'll be back Saturday, in the evening—about
nine o'clock, likely."
I felt a sharp sense of disappointment.
"I'm sorry, because I'll be gone then," I said, regretfully.
"Gone? No—why should you go? Don't go. She'll be disappointed."
She would be disappointed—that beautiful creature! If she had said
the words herself they could hardly have blessed me more. I was feeling a
deep, strong longing to see her—a longing so supplicating, so
insistent, that it made me afraid. I said to myself: "I will go straight
away from this place, for my peace of mind's sake."
"You see, she likes to have people come and stop with us—people who
know things, and can talk—people like you. She delights in it; for
she knows—oh, she knows nearly everything herself, and can talk, oh,
like a bird—and the books she reads, why, you would be astonished.
Don't go; it's only a little while, you know, and she'll be so
I heard the words, but hardly noticed them, I was so deep in my thinkings
and strugglings. He left me, but I didn't know. Presently he was back,
with the picture case in his hand, and he held it open before me and said:
"There, now, tell her to her face you could have stayed to see her, and
That second glimpse broke down my good resolution. I would stay and take
the risk. That night we smoked the tranquil pipe, and talked till late
about various things, but mainly about her; and certainly I had had no
such pleasant and restful time for many a day. The Thursday followed and
slipped comfortably away. Toward twilight a big miner from three miles
away came—one of the grizzled, stranded pioneers—and gave us
warm salutation, clothed in grave and sober speech. Then he said:
"I only just dropped over to ask about the little madam, and when is she
coming home. Any news from her?"
"Oh, yes, a letter. Would you like to hear it, Tom?"
"Well, I should think I would, if you don't mind, Henry!"
Henry got the letter out of his wallet, and said he would skip some of the
private phrases, if we were willing; then he went on and read the bulk of
it—a loving, sedate, and altogether charming and gracious piece of
handiwork, with a postscript full of affectionate regards and messages to
Tom, and Joe, and Charley, and other close friends and neighbors.
As the reader finished, he glanced at Tom, and cried out:
"Oho, you're at it again! Take your hands away, and let me see your eyes.
You always do that when I read a letter from her. I will write and tell
"Oh no, you mustn't, Henry. I'm getting old, you know, and any little
disappointment makes me want to cry. I thought she'd be here herself, and
now you've got only a letter."
"Well, now, what put that in your head? I thought everybody knew she
wasn't coming till Saturday."
"Saturday! Why, come to think, I did know it. I wonder what's the matter
with me lately? Certainly I knew it. Ain't we all getting ready for her?
Well, I must be going now. But I'll be on hand when she comes, old man!"
Late Friday afternoon another gray veteran tramped over from his cabin a
mile or so away, and said the boys wanted to have a little gaiety and a
good time Saturday night, if Henry thought she wouldn't be too tired after
her journey to be kept up.
"Tired? She tired! Oh, hear the man! Joe, YOU know she'd sit up six weeks
to please any one of you!"
When Joe heard that there was a letter, he asked to have it read, and the
loving messages in it for him broke the old fellow all up; but he said he
was such an old wreck that THAT would happen to him if she only just
mentioned his name. "Lord, we miss her so!" he said.
Saturday afternoon I found I was taking out my watch pretty often. Henry
noticed it, and said, with a startled look:
"You don't think she ought to be here soon, do you?"
I felt caught, and a little embarrassed; but I laughed, and said it was a
habit of mine when I was in a state of expenctancy. But he didn't seem
quite satisfied; and from that time on he began to show uneasiness. Four
times he walked me up the road to a point whence we could see a long
distance; and there he would stand, shading his eyes with his hand, and
looking. Several times he said:
"I'm getting worried, I'm getting right down worried. I know she's not due
till about nine o'clock, and yet something seems to be trying to warn me
that something's happened. You don't think anything has happened, do you?"
I began to get pretty thoroughly ashamed of him for his childishness; and
at last, when he repeated that imploring question still another time, I
lost my patience for the moment, and spoke pretty brutally to him. It
seemed to shrivel him up and cow him; and he looked so wounded and so
humble after that, that I detested myself for having done the cruel and
unnecessary thing. And so I was glad when Charley, another veteran,
arrived toward the edge of the evening, and nestled up to Henry to hear
the letter read, and talked over the preparations for the welcome. Charley
fetched out one hearty speech after another, and did his best to drive
away his friend's bodings and apprehensions.
"Anything HAPPENED to her? Henry, that's pure nonsense. There isn't
anything going to happen to her; just make your mind easy as to that. What
did the letter say? Said she was well, didn't it? And said she'd be here
by nine o'clock, didn't it? Did you ever know her to fail of her word?
Why, you know you never did. Well, then, don't you fret; she'll BE here,
and that's absolutely certain, and as sure as you are born. Come, now,
let's get to decorating—not much time left."
Pretty soon Tom and Joe arrived, and then all hands set about adoring the
house with flowers. Toward nine the three miners said that as they had
brought their instruments they might as well tune up, for the boys and
girls would soon be arriving now, and hungry for a good, old-fashioned
break-down. A fiddle, a banjo, and a clarinet—these were the
instruments. The trio took their places side by side, and began to play
some rattling dance-music, and beat time with their big boots.
It was getting very close to nine. Henry was standing in the door with his
eyes directed up the road, his body swaying to the torture of his mental
distress. He had been made to drink his wife's health and safety several
times, and now Tom shouted:
"All hands stand by! One more drink, and she's here!"
Joe brought the glasses on a waiter, and served the party. I reached for
one of the two remaining glasses, but Joe growled under his breath:
"Drop that! Take the other."
Which I did. Henry was served last. He had hardly swallowed his drink when
the clock began to strike. He listened till it finished, his face growing
pale and paler; then he said:
"Boys, I'm sick with fear. Help me—I want to lie down!"
They helped him to the sofa. He began to nestle and drowse, but presently
spoke like one talking in his sleep, and said: "Did I hear horses' feet?
Have they come?"
One of the veterans answered, close to his ear: "It was Jimmy Parish come
to say the party got delayed, but they're right up the road a piece, and
coming along. Her horse is lame, but she'll be here in half an hour."
"Oh, I'm SO thankful nothing has happened!"
He was asleep almost before the words were out of his mouth. In a moment
those handy men had his clothes off, and had tucked him into his bed in
the chamber where I had washed my hands. They closed the door and came
back. Then they seemed preparing to leave; but I said: "Please don't go,
gentlemen. She won't know me; I am a stranger."
They glanced at each other. Then Joe said:
"She? Poor thing, she's been dead nineteen years!"
"That or worse. She went to see her folks half a year after she was
married, and on her way back, on a Saturday evening, the Indians captured
her within five miles of this place, and she's never been heard of since."
"And he lost his mind in consequence?"
"Never has been sane an hour since. But he only gets bad when that time of
year comes round. Then we begin to drop in here, three days before she's
due, to encourage him up, and ask if he's heard from her, and Saturday we
all come and fix up the house with flowers, and get everything ready for a
dance. We've done it every year for nineteen years. The first Saturday
there was twenty-seven of us, without counting the girls; there's only
three of us now, and the girls are gone. We drug him to sleep, or he would
go wild; then he's all right for another year—thinks she's with him
till the last three or four days come round; then he begins to look for
her, and gets out his poor old letter, and we come and ask him to read it
to us. Lord, she was a darling!"