Mr. Ela's Story

by Frances Fuller Victor

Three or four years ago, my husband and I were making a winter voyage up the Oregon coast. The weather was not peculiarly bad: it was the ordinary winter weather, with a quartering wind, giving the ship an awkward motion over an obliquely-rolling sea. Cold, sick, thoroughly uncomfortable, with no refuge but the narrow and dimly-lighted state-room, I was reduced in the first twenty-four hours to a condition of ignominious helplessness, hardly willing to live, and not yet fully wishing or intending to die.

In this unhappy frame of mind the close of the second weary day found me, when my husband opened our state-room door to say that Mr. Ela, of ——, Oregon, was on board, and proposed to come and talk to me, in the hope of amusing me and making me forget my wretchedness. Submitting rather than agreeing to the proposal, chairs were brought and placed just inside the door-way, where the light of the saloon lamps shown athwart the countenance of my self-constituted physician. He was a young man, and looked younger than his years; slightly built, though possessing a supple, well-knit frame, with hands of an elegant shape, fine texture, and great expression. You saw at a glance that he had a poet's head, and a poet's sensitiveness of face; but it was only after observation that you saw how much the face was capable of which it did not convey, for faces are apt to indicate not so much individual culture as the culture of those with whom we are habitually associated. Mr. Ela's face clearly indicated to me the intellectual poverty, the want of æsthetic cultivation in his accustomed circle of society, at the same time that it suggested possible phases of great beauty, should it ever become possible for certain emotions to be habitually called to the surface by sympathy. Evidently a vein of drollery in his nature had been better appreciated, and oftener exhibited to admiring audiences, than any of the finer qualities of thought or sentiment of which you instinctively knew him to be capable; and yet the face protested against it, too, by a gentle irony with a hint of self-scorn in it, as if its owner, in his own estimation, wrote himself a buffoon for his condescension. Altogether it was a good face; but one to make you wish it were better, since by not being so, it was untrue to itself. I remember thinking all this, looking out with sluggish interest from my berth, while the two gentlemen did a little preliminary talking.

Mr. Ela's voice, I observed, like his face, was susceptible of great change and infinite modulations. Deep chest tones were followed by finely attenuated sounds; droning nasal tones, by quick and clear ones. The quality of the voice was soft and musical; the enunciation slow, often emphatic. His manner was illustrative, egotistic, and keenly watchful of effects.

"You never heard the story of my adventure in the mountains?" Ela began, turning to me with the air of a man who had made up his mind to tell his story.

"No; please tell it."

"Well"—running his tapering fingers through his hair and pulling it over his forehead—"I started out in life with a theory, and it was this: that no young man should ask a woman to marry him until he had prepared a home for her. Correct, wasn't it? I was about nineteen years old when I took up some land down in the Rogue River Valley, and worked away at it with this object."

"Had you really a wife selected at that age?"

"No; but it was the fashion in early times in that country to marry early, and I was getting ready, according to my theory; don't you see? I was pretty successful, too; had considerable stock, built me a house, made a flower garden for my wife, even put up the pegs or nails she was to hang her dresses on. I intended that fall to get on my horse, ride through the Wallamet Valley, and find me my girl."

At the notion of courting in that off-hand, general style, both my husband and I laughed doubtingly. Ela laughed, too, but as if the recollection pleased him.

"You think that is strange, do you? 'Twasn't so very strange in those days, because girls were scarce, don't you see? There was not a girl within forty miles of me; and just the thought of one now, as I was fixing those nails to hang her garments on; why, it ran just through me like a shock of electricity!

"Well, as I said, I had about two hundred and fifty head of cattle, a house with a garden, a young orchard, and vegetables growing; everything in readiness for the wife I had counted on getting to help me take care of it. And what do you think happened? There came such a plague of grasshoppers upon the valley that they destroyed every green thing: crops, orchard, flowers, grass, everything! My stock died, the greater portion of them, and I was ruined." (Deep bass.) "I considered myself disappointed in love, too, because, though I hadn't yet found my girl, I knew she was somewhere in the valley waiting for me; and I felt somehow, when the grasshoppers ate up every thing, as if I had been jilted. Actually, it pierces me with a pang now to think of those useless pegs on which so often my imagination hung a pink calico dress and a girl's sun-bonnet."

Knitting his brows, and sighing as he shifted his position, Ela once more pulled the hair over his forehead, in his peculiar fashion, and went on:

"I became misanthropic; felt myself badly used. Packing up my books and a few other traps, I started for the mountains with what stock I had left, built myself a fort, and played hermit."

"A regular fort?"

"A stockade eighteen feet high, with an embankment four feet high around it, a strong gate, a tent in the middle of the inclosure, all my property, such as books, feed, arms, etc., inside."

"On account of Indians?"

"Indians and White Men. Yes, I've seen a good many Indians through the bead of my rifle. They learned to keep away from my fort. There were mining camps down in the valley, and you know the hangers-on of those camps? I sold beef to the miners; had plenty of money by me sometimes. It was necessary to be strongly forted."

"What a strange life for a boy! What did you do? How spend your time?"

"I herded my cattle, drove them to market, cooked, studied, wrote, and indulged in misanthropy, with a little rifle practice. By the time I had been one summer in the mountains, I had got my hand in, and knew how to make money buying up cattle to sell again in the mines."

"So there was method in your madness—misanthropy, I mean?"

"Well, a man cannot resign life before he is twenty-one. I was doing well, and beginning to think again of visiting the Wallamet to hunt up my girl. One Sunday afternoon, I knew it was Sunday, because I kept a journal; I was sitting outside of my fort writing, when a shadow fell across the paper, and, looking up, lo! a skeleton figure stood before me." (Sepulchral tones, and a pause.) "Used as I was to lonely encounters with strange men, my hair stood on end as I gazed on the spectre before me. He was the merest boy in years; pretty and delicate by nature, and then reduced by starvation to a shadow. His story was soon told. He had left Boston on a vessel coming out to the northwest coast, had been wrecked at the mouth of the Umpqua, and been wandering about in the mountains ever since, subsisting as best he could on roots and berries. But you are becoming tired?"

"No, I assure you; on the contrary, growing deeply interested."

"The boy was not a young woman in disguise, or anything like that, you know"—with an amused look at me. "I thought you'd think so; but as he comes into the story as a collateral, I just mention his introduction to myself. I fed him and nursed him until he was able to go to work, and then I got Sam Chong Lung to let him take up a claim alongside a Chinese camp, promising to favor the Chinaman in a beef contract if he was good to the boy. His claim proved a good one, and he was making money, when two Chinamen stole a lot of horses from Sam Chong Lung, and he offered four hundred dollars to Edwards if he would go after them and bring them back. Edwards asked my advice, and I encouraged him to go, telling him how to take and bring back his prisoners." (Reflective pause.) "You can't imagine me living alone, now, can you? Such an egotistical fellow as I am, and fond of ladies' society. You can't believe it, can you?"

"Hermits and solitaires are always egotists, I believe. As to the ladies, your loneliness was the result of circumstances, as you have explained."

"Well, I should have missed Edwards a good deal, if it had not been for some singular incidents which happened during his absence." Ela always accented the last syllable of any word ending in e-n-t, like "incident" or "commencement," giving it besides a peculiar nasal sound, which was sure to secure the attention. The word incident, as he pronounced it, produced quite a different effect from the same word, spoken in the usual style.

"A man came to my fort one day who was naked and starving. He was a bad-looking fellow; but a man naturally does look bad when his clothes are in rags, and his bones protruding through his skin. I clothed him, fed him, cared for him kindly, until he was able to travel, and then he went away. The next Sunday, I was sitting outside the stockade, as customary, reading some translations of the Greek poets, when, on raising my eyes from the book to glance over the approach to my fort—I was always on the alert—I beheld a vision. Remember, I had not seen a woman for a year and half! She was slowly advancing, riding with superb grace a horse of great beauty and value, richly caparisoned. She came slowly up the trail, as if to give me time for thought, and I needed it. That picture is still indelibly impressed upon my mind; the very flicker of the sunlight and shadow across the road, and the glitter of her horse's trappings, as he champed his bit and arched his neck with impatience at her restraining hand——. Are you very tired?" asked Ela, suddenly.

"Never less so in my life; pray go on."

"You see I had been alone so long, and I am very susceptible. That vision coming upon me suddenly as it did, in my solitude, gave me the strangest sensations I ever had. I was spell-bound. Not so she. Reining in her horse beside me, she squared around in her saddle, as if asking assistance to dismount. Struggling with my embarrassment, I helped her down, and she accepted my invitation into the fort, signifying, at the same time, that she wished me to attend to stripping and feeding her horse. This gave us mutually an opportunity to prepare for the coming interview.

"When I returned to my guest, she had laid aside her riding-habit and close sun-bonnet, and stood revealed a young, beautiful, elegantly-dressed woman. To my unaccustomed eyes, she looked a goddess. Her figure was noble; her eyes large, black, and melting; her hair long and curling; her manner easy and attractive. She was hungry, she said; would I give her something to eat? And, while I was on hospitable cares intent, she read to me some of my Greek poems, especially an ode of one of the votaries of Diana, with comments by herself. She was a splendid reader. Well," said Ela, slowly, with a furtive glance at me, and in his peculiar nasal tones, "you can guess whether a young man, used to the mountains, as I was, and who had been disappointed and jilted as I had been, enjoyed this sort of thing or not. It wasn't in my line, you see, this entertaining goddesses; though, doubtless, in this way, before now, men have entertained angels unawares. You shall judge whether I did.

"What with reading, eating together, singing—she sang 'Kate Kearney' for me, and her voice was glorious—our acquaintance ripened very fast. Finally, I conquered my embarrassment so far as to ask her some questions about herself, and she told me that she was of a good New England family, raised in affluence, well educated, accomplished, but by a freak of fortune, reduced to poverty: that she had come to California resolved to get money, and had got it. She went from camp to camp of the miners with stationery, and other trifling articles needed by them; sold them these things, wrote letters for them, sang to them, nursed them when sick, or carried letters express to San Francisco, to be mailed. For all these services, she received high prices, and had also had a good deal of gold given to her in specimens. I asked her if she liked that kind of a life, so contrary to her early training. She answered me: 'It's not what we choose that we select to do in this world, but what chooses us to do it. I have made a competency, and gained a rich and varied experience. If life is not what I once dreamed it was, I am content.' But she sighed as she said it, and I couldn't believe in her content."

"You have not told us yet what motives brought her to you," I remarked, in an interval of silence.

"No; she hadn't told me herself, then. By and by, I asked her, in my green kind of way, what brought her to see me. I never shall forget the smile with which she turned to answer me. We were sitting quite close: it never was in my nature, when once acquainted with a woman, to keep away from her. Her garments brushed my knees; occasionally, in the enthusiasm of talk, I leaned near her cheek. You know how it was. I was thinking of the useless pegs in my house down in the valley: 'You will be disappointed,' she said, 'when you learn that I came to do you a real service.' And then she went on to relate that, having occasion to pass the night at a certain place not many miles away, she had overheard through the thin partitions of the house, the description of my fort, an account of my wealth, real or supposed, and a plan for my murder and robbery. The would-be murderer was so described as to make it quite certain that it was he whom I had fed, clothed, and sent away rejoicing, only a few days previous. I was inclined to treat the matter as a jest; but she awed me into belief and humility at once by the majesty with which she reproved my unbelief: 'A woman does not trifle with subjects like this; nor go out of her way to tell travelers tales. I warn you. Good bye.'

"After this she would not stay, though I awkwardly expressed my regret at her going. By her command I saddled her horse, and helped her mount him. Once in the saddle, her humor turned, and she reminded me that I had not invited her to return. She said she 'could fancy that a week of reading, talking, riding, trout-fishing, and romancing generally, up there in those splendid woods, might be very charming. Was I going to ask her to come?'

"I didn't ask her. A young man with a reputation to sustain up there in the mountains, couldn't invite a young lady to come and stop a week with him, could he? I must have refused to invite her, now, mustn't I?"

The perfect ingenuousness with which Ela put these questions, and the plaintive appeal against the hard requirements of social laws in the mountains, which was expressed in his voice and accent, were so indescribably ludicrous that both my husband and myself laughed convulsively. "I never tell my wife that part of the story, for fear she might not believe in my regard for appearances, knowing how fond I am of ladies' society. And the struggle was great; I assure you, it was great.

"So she went away. As she rode slowly down the trail, she turned and kissed her hand to me, with a gesture of such grace and sweetness that I thrilled all over. I've never been able to quite forgive myself for what happened afterward. She came back, and I drove her away! Usually, when I tell that to women, they call me mean and ungrateful; but a young man living alone in the mountains has his reputation to look after—now, hasn't he? That's what I ought to have done—now, wasn't it—what I always say I did do. It was the right thing to do under the circumstances, wasn't it?"

While we had our laugh out, Ela shifted position, shook himself, and thridded his soft, light hair with his slender fingers. He was satisfied with his success in conveying an impression of the sort of care he took of his reputation. "Now, then, I was left alone again, in no pleasant frame of mind. I couldn't doubt what my beautiful visitant had told me, and the thought of my murder all planned out was depressing, to say the least of it. But, as sure as I am telling you, the departure of my unknown friend depressed me more than the thought of my possible murder. The gate barred for the night, I sat and looked into my fire for hours, thinking wild thoughts, and hugging to my lonely bosom an imaginary form. The solitude and the sense of loss were awful.

"This was Sunday night. Tuesday morning I received a visit from three or four mounted men, one of whom was my former naked and hungry protege. He did not now try to conceal his character from me, but said he was going down to clean out the Chinese camp, and proposed to me to join him, saying that when Edwards returned with the horses we would pay him the $400, as agreed by Sam Chong Lung. I was on my guard; but told him I would have nothing to do with robbing the Chinese; that they were my friends and customers, and he had better let them alone; after which answer he went off. That afternoon, Edwards came in with his prisoners and horses. He was very tired, on account of having traveled at night, to prevent the rescue of his prisoners by other vagabonds, and to avoid the Indians.

"You will understand how the presence of the horses increased my peril, as there was no doubt the scoundrels meant to take them. It wouldn't do either to let Edwards go on to the Chinese camp; so I persuaded him to wait another day. We brought the prisoners, bound, inside the fort, and took care of the horses. I said nothing to Edwards of my suspicions.

"About dusk, my expected visitor came. He appeared to have been drinking; and, after some mumbling talk, laid down inside the fort, near the gate. I made the gate fast, driving the big wooden pins home with an axe; built up a great fire, and sent Edwards to bed in the tent. The Chinese prisoners were already asleep on the ground. Then I sat down on the opposite side of the fire, facing the gate, placed my double-barreled rifle beside me, and mounted guard."

"Had you no arms but your rifle?" asked my husband, anxiously.

"I wanted none other, for we understood each other—my rifle and I."

"What were you looking for; what did you expect? A hand-to-hand encounter with these men?" was my next inquiry.

"It seemed most likely that he had planned an attack on the fort. If so, his associates would be waiting outside for a signal. He had intended, when he laid down close to the gate, to open it to them; but when I drove the pins in so tight, I caught a gleam from his eyes that was not a drunken one, and he knew that I suspected him. After that, it was a contest of skill and will between us. He was waiting his opportunity, and so was I.

"You think I've a quick ear, don't you? You see what my temperament is; all sense, all consciousness. My hearing was cultivated, too, by listening for Indians. Well, by and by, I detected a very stealthy movement outside the fort, and then a faint chirrup, such as a young squirrel might make. In an instant the drunken man sprang up; and I covered him with my rifle, cocked. He saw the movement and drew his pistol, but not before I had ordered him to throw down his arms, or die."

It is impossible to convey, by types, an idea of Ela's manner or tone as he pronounced these last words. They sounded from the bottom of his chest, and conveyed in the utterance a distinct notion that death was what was meant. Hearing him repeat the command, it was easy to believe that the miscreant dared not do more than hesitate in his obedience. After a moment's silence—which was the climax to his rendering of the scene—he continued:

"I haven't told you, yet, how the man looked. He was a tall, swarthy, black-bearded fellow, who might have been handsome once, but who had lost the look which distinguishes men in sympathy with their kind; so that then he resembled some cruel beast, in the shape of a man, yet whose disguise fitted him badly. His eyes burned like rubies, out of the gloomy caverns under his shaggy eyebrows. His lips were drawn apart, so that his teeth glistened. The man's whole expression, as he stood there, glaring at me, was Hate and Murder.

"My eye never winked, while he hesitated. He saw that, and it made him quail. With my finger on the trigger, I kept my rifle leveled, while he threw down his arms—pistols and knife—with a horrible oath. With the knife in his hand, he made a movement, as if he would rush on me; but changed his purpose in time to stop my fire. His cursing was awful; the foam flew from his mouth. He demanded to be let out of the fort; accused me of bad intentions toward him, and denounced me for a robber and murderer. To all his ravings I had but one answer: To be quiet, to obey me, and he might live; dare to disobey me, and he should die.

"I directed him to sit down on the opposite side of the fire—not to move from that one spot—not to make a doubtful motion. And then I told him I knew what he was, and what he had meant to do. When he became convinced of this, he broke down utterly, and wept like a child, declaring that now he knew my pluck, and I had been the first man ever to get the best of him, he loved me like a brother!

"There was a long night before us, and I had got to sit there, with my rifle across my knees, till morning. I could move a little, to stir up or add to the fire; but he could have no liberty whatever. The restraint was horrible to him. One moment he laughed uneasily—another cursed or cried. It was a strange scene, wasn't it? Finally, to pass the time, I asked him to relate the history of his life. He wanted first to shake hands, for the love he bore me. Touching my rifle, significantly, I pointed to a stick lying across the fire between us. 'That is our boundary line; don't go to reaching your hands over that.' Then he sank into a fit of gloom and sullenness.

"We must have remained thus silent until near midnight. Several times I observed him listening to slight sounds outside the fort. But his associates must have given up the game and gone off, for, as the morning hours approached, he ceased to listen, and everything remained quiet. His head was bent forward, his chin resting on his breast, the shaggy beard spreading over it like a mantle."

"How horrible it must have been to keep such company. Why not call on Edwards?"

"The boy was worn out, and there was no need. I was very much strung up, too; so that the exhaustion of sleeplessness, fatigue, or excitement was not felt or noticed. But he suffered. He was like a hyena caged, though he showed it only by involuntary movements and furtive glances. Finally, he could bear it no longer, and entreated me piteously, abjectly, to give him his freedom or blow out his brains. I told him he couldn't have his freedom just yet; but he knew how to get his brains blown out, if he desired it. Then followed more execration, ending in renewed protestations of regard for me. I reminded him that talking would relieve the irksomeness of his position, again inviting him to tell me his history. He replied that if he talked about himself, he would be sure to get excited and move about; but I promised to remind him.

"Once on the subject of himself, it seemed to have a fascination for him. What he told me was, in substance, this: He had been honestly raised, by good, affectionate parents, in the State of Missouri; loved a young girl in the town where he lived; and, wishing to marry her, had resolved to go to California, to make the necessary money, quickly. He was successful; returned full of joyful anticipations, and arrived at an old neighbor's, a few miles from his home, having hardly tasted food or taken any rest the previous twenty-four hours.

"While he hastily ate some breakfast and listened to the friendly gossip of his entertainers, one name, the name of her he loved, his promised wife, was mentioned. She was married. He staggered to his feet, asking the name of her husband; and when he heard it, he knew he had been betrayed by that man. He could recall a strange sensation in his brain, as if molten lead had been poured into it; that was the last of his recollections. Afterward, he learned that he had been weeks in a brain fever.

"When he had recovered, some of his old friends, thinking to do him honor, made an evening party for him. To this party came his love, and her husband; his betrayer. When she gave her hand to welcome him home, and looked in his eyes, he knew that she too had been betrayed. Again the molten lead seemed poured upon his brain. Turning to leave the room, fate placed in his path the man he now hated with a deadly hatred. With one blow of a knife, he laid him dead at his feet. A few hours later, in the desperation of trying to escape, he killed two other men. Then he eluded his pursuers, and got back to California. Since then he had reveled in murder, and every species of crime. Once he had seen, in the streets of Sacramento, the woman he loved. Up to that moment, it had never occurred to him that she was free. Following her to her home, he forced himself into her house, and reminded her of their former relations. She had denied all knowledge of him, finally calling upon her husband to satisfy him. The husband ordered him out of the house, and he shot him. Then the Vigilantes made it hazardous to remain in California. He fled to the mountains, where he was nearly starved out, when I took him in and fed and clothed him.

"Such was his story. My blood curdled in my veins, as I listened to the recitals of his atrocities. 'In God's name,' I said, 'who are you—what is your name?' 'I am Boone Helm.'"

"Who was Boone Helm?" I asked.

"One of the greatest desperadoes that ever was on this coast. He met his fate, afterward, up east of the mountains."

"What did you do with him? What could you do with him?"

"You ought to have shot him while you had him," my husband suggested.

"I didn't want to shoot him. He said, if I had been a coward, I would have killed him. To confess the truth, the wretch appealed to my sympathies. I don't think he had ever been sane since the time when he felt the 'molten lead poured into his brain.' I knew somebody was sure to kill him, before long; so, when morning came, I called Edwards to open the gate; and, when it was unbarred, escorted my visitor out, telling him that there was not room enough in that part of the country for both of us, and that the next time I pointed my rifle at him it would be to shoot. I never saw him again."

"Then he did not molest the Chinese camp?"

"No. Edwards got his four hundred dollars, and went home to Boston."

There fell a silence upon us, and, through my open door, I could see that the cabin was nearly deserted. Ela seemed wearied—sighed, and made a movement, as if to go.

"What about your Guardian Angel?" my husband asked. "You have not told us about her second coming."

"I always say that she didn't come; or else I say that she came, and I drove her away. That is proper; isn't it, now?" glancing at me.

"But I want to know if you have seen her—if you never met her anywhere in the world—since that time. I have a right to be curious—yes, or no?" I urged, laughingly.

"How do you feel, now?"—with a light laugh and peculiar change of expression.

"O, better; a great deal better. To be perfectly cured, I only need to hear the sequel."

"I may as well tell it, I suppose. It has been running in my head all day. Wouldn't want my wife to know it. Didn't think of meeting her when I came down to 'Frisco. You see, I've been in Oregon a long while—never traveled on a railroad in my life—wanted to see something of the great outside world—and so, ran down to the great city to see the sights. The first thing I did, I went up to Colfax, on the cars; and while I was up there, the engineer invited me to take a ride on the engine—a special one. Now, I knew that he meant to astonish me, because he thought I was green; and I didn't know, really, how fast the thing ought to run. But we came down the grade with a speed that was ter-rif-ic!—more than a mile a minute, the engineer said. When we got to Lincoln, the fellow asked me, with his superior sort of smile, 'How I liked that rate of travel?' I told him I liked that pretty well; 'but, I suppose, when you want to make time, you can travel at a considerably more accelerated rate of locomotion?'"

How we laughed at the natural drollery of the man, the deliberate utterance, the unsophisticated air. While we laughed, he prepared himself to finish his story.

"It was only day before yesterday," he said, "that I met her. I happened to be in the parlor of the hotel when she came in. At first, I wasn't certain of its being her; but, as I watched her, I became certain of it. And she recognized me; I felt certain of that, too. It was in the early part of the evening, and I had to wait until the people in the parlor would disperse. She saw what I was waiting for, and stayed, too; she told me with her eyes that she remembered. After a while she went to the piano, and played and sang 'Kate Kearney.' Then I was satisfied that she would not leave me before I had spoken to her. As soon as the opportunity came, we confessed ourselves."

"Was she married? was she happy?"

"She was married, yes. Happy? she told me, as she had once before, that she was 'content.' She said it with a sigh, as she did the first time; and I doubted her as I did then. But they are putting out the lights. There is always, in this world, somebody going around, putting out our lights. Good-night."

"Good-night."