An Old Roman of Mariposa

by Florence Finch Kelly

"I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul."
                --WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY.


Mariposa, in the days when I first knew it, was still a wreck of the gold fever. The merest skeleton of its former self, it lay there in the gulch between the chaparral-covered foothills and hugged its memories of the days when it was young and lusty and had a murder every morning for breakfast. All around it the gashed and seamed and scarred and furrowed earth bore testimony to the labors of those stirring times, when men dug a fortune out of the ground in a day—and spent it in the town at night.

It was my first visit to the town, but I soon found that the people still lived in the past. The first man with whom I talked made vivid for my eyes the placer mines down the bed of the creek, in his young days as thronged as a city street, but now deserted and blistering in the sun; made me hear the sounds of bar-room frolicking and fighting, and the rolling chorus of "Forty-nine"; made me see, as he had seen, the piles of gold-dust and nuggets upon the gaming tables, and the hundreds of gold-weighted miners trooping into town on Saturday night. And every man and woman with whom I talked did the same thing for me, with new incidents and characters, until the hours became a fast-moving panorama of the "days of gold," and I began to feel as if I myself were living through their excitements and had drawn their delirium into my veins.

My hostess, herself an old-timer, began the entertainment anew as we sat on her porch in the early forenoon of the next day, breathing deep draughts of the honey-scented air blowing down the hills from thousands of pink-flowered manzanita bushes. She told me how she and her sister had alighted from the stage in Mariposa one evening, so many years before, when they were both "just slips of girls." They were the very first white women there, and the men, hundreds of them, who had not seen the form of woman, save Indian squaws, for many months, came to their shanty, called their father outside and begged to be allowed just to look at them. So the two came shyly out, hand in hand, and the men crowded around them with looks of respectful adoration, and then passed on to make way for others. One fell on his knees and kissed the hem of her dress. And presently a voice rose out of the throng, and the whole great crowd quickly joined in the hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."

As we talked, one or another old-timer stopped to greet us and to add for my entertainment still more recollections of the days when they and hope and Mariposa were young. My pulses beat fast with the excitement of that dead life which their stories called into being again and I forgot that they and the century too had grown old since the times of which they spoke—until the Newspaper Man came along, and the sight of him brought me back to the present with a sudden jerk. I had seen him last in San Francisco, only a week previous, but he had been in out-of-the-way, ghost-of-the-past Mariposa, he told me, for several days, reporting a murder trial for his paper.

"Better come to this afternoon's session of the case," he said. "The prisoner is n't much, but his father 's the most interesting old chap I 've run across since I 've been on the Coast. I 'll tell you about him as we walk over."

So we sauntered up the hot, dusty street to the court-house, between the rows of straggling, forlorn little houses, each one with its own thrilling memory of the "days of Forty-nine"; and the Newspaper Man's tale, like everything else in Mariposa, took its being and its beginning from that same boisterous time.

"It's a brutal, ghastly case," he said, "and to my mind the only mystery about it is the prisoner's father. He is a fine-looking man, with the manner and the head of an old Roman. He has the reputation of being the straightest and squarest man in the county; and how he ever came to be the father of such a good-for-nothing scum-of-the-earth as the prisoner I can explain only on the supposition that he is n't.

"The old man is one of the pioneers in Mariposa, and they tell me that he was one of the nerviest men that ever drew a gun in this town. He killed his man in those days, just as lots of other good men did, but it was in self-defence; and everybody was glad that the town was rid of the man he dropped, and so nothing was said about it. There was a coroner's jury, which gave a verdict of suicide, and explained their finding on the ground that it was suicidal for any man to draw on Dan Hopkins and then give Dan the chance to shoot first.

"Along in the latter years of the gold excitement a woman came to the town, who seems to have been part Portuguese, part Mexican, and all bad. She followed some man here from San Francisco, and lived as hard a life as the times and place made possible. And after a while she went to Dan Hopkins and told him that he must marry her. At first he would n't consider seriously either her story or her proposition. But she kept at him, swore by all the saints in the calendar that the child was his, and then swore them all over again that if he did not marry her she would kill the child and herself too as soon as it was born, and their blood would be on his head. And finally he did marry her, and made a home for her.

"Time and again during this trial I 've watched that man's fine, stern old face and wondered what his motives and his feelings were when he took that poor beast of a woman to be his wife—whether he really believed her and thought it was his duty; or whether he feared that if he did not, the blood of a woman and a child would haunt him all the rest of his life; or whether the underside of his nature, under her influence, rose up and dominated all that was best in him and made him love her and be willing to marry her.

"Whatever it was, the deed was done, and the woman of the town became Mrs. Hopkins, with Dan Hopkins's gun at her service, ready to take revenge upon anybody who might offer her the least insult or whisper a slighting word about the past.

"He did not try to crowd her down people's throats—they might let her alone if they wished, and they mostly did, I believe—but they were made to understand that they had to treat her and speak of her with respect.

"He bought a big ranch a little way out of town, and there they lived from that time on. As far as I can find out, the woman lived a straight, respectable kind of life for a dozen years or more, and then she died.

"But all her badness seems to have descended to the boy. It's one of the oddest studies in heredity I ever came across. The people here all tell me that until he was thirteen or fourteen years old he was a manly sort of a lad, and gave promise of being something like his father as he grew up. But about that time the evil in him began to show itself, and the older he grew the less moral principle he seemed to possess. He was courageous, they say, and that was the only good quality he had. It was a sort of dare-devil bravery, and along with it he was cruel, thieving, untruthful, and—well, about as near thoroughly bad as they make 'em. At least, that's the sum of the account of him the people here have given me.

"The old man was universally known to be so honest and square in all his dealings, and so upright and honorable in every way, that the son's depravity seemed all the blacker by contrast. He has stood by the young fellow from the first of his wickedness, so everybody says, and has always shown toward him not only steadfast affection, but just the same sort of spirit that he did toward the boy's mother.

"He has never intimated even to his best friend that the young man was anything but the best and most dutiful son that ever lived. He has kept him supplied with money, so that the fellow's only reason for the petty thievery he did was pure love of stealing. He has paid his fines when he has been arrested, and shielded him from public contempt, and done everything possible to make it easy for him to be honest and respectable.

"But the boy has steadily gone on, they say, from bad to worse; and now he has capped it all with this crime, which, in wilful and unprovoked brutality, was worthy of a criminal hardened by twice his years and experience.

"He and another young blade about as bad as he is (though this one seems to have been the one who planned it and led in its execution), went to the house of an old man, who lived alone a little farther up in the foothills toward the Yosemite Valley, and asked to be allowed to stay all night. The old man took them in, got supper for them, and made them as comfortable as he could. In the night they got up and murdered him, stole all his money—he had just sold some horses and cattle to the prisoner's father—and were preparing to skip the country and go to Australia, when they were arrested.

"The thing 's not been absolutely proved on young Hopkins yet, but the circumstantial evidence is so plain that, even if there is nothing else, I don't see how he 's going to escape the rope. I 've just heard a rumor, though, that there 's to be some new evidence this afternoon that will settle the matter without a doubt."

The room rapidly filled up, and as we waited for court to open, the Newspaper Man pointed out one and another hale old man whose clear eyes and fresh skin belied his years, and told tales of his daring forty years before, of the wealth he had dug from the earth, and of the reckless ways in which he had lost it. And at last came the prisoner and his father. The old man's figure was tall, erect, broad-chested, and muscular, and his bearing proud and reserved.

"I 'm always half expecting to see that old man get up," the Newspaper Man whispered to me, "fold his arms across that great chest of his, and say 'Romanus sum,' and then proudly lead his son away."

He must have been sixty-five years old or more, though he looked twenty years younger. His dark hair and beard were only sifted with gray, and he held himself so erect and with such dignity, and all the lines of his countenance expressed such force and nobleness of character, that the suggestion of his appearance was of the strength of middle age.

But the boy was a painful contrast. His eye was shifty, his expression weak and sensual, and the hard lines of his face and the indifference of his manner told the story of a man old in criminal thoughts if not in years and deeds. For he looked no more than twenty-five, and may have been even younger.

The father sat near him, and although they seldom spoke together he frequently by some small act or apparently unconscious movement showed a tenderness and affection for the wayward son that seemed all the greater by contrast with his own proud reserve and the boy's hardened indifference.

The new testimony was brought in. The sheriff had set a go-between at work with the two prisoners, and with his aid had secured copies of all the notes they had at once begun writing to each other. In these letters, which were all produced in court, they had freely discussed their crime and argued about the points wherein they had made mistakes. Young Hopkins had boasted to the other that they need not fear conviction, because his father would certainly get them clear; and they had planned what they would do after the trial was over, wallowing in anticipations of a course of crime and debauchery.

When the sheriff began to give this testimony the old man's hand was resting affectionately on his son's shoulder. As it went on, laying bare the depravity of the boy's soul, the muscles of his face quivered a little, and presently, with just the suggestion of a flinching shudder in face and figure, he took his hand away and shrank back a little from the young man. I wondered as I watched him whether he was admitting to himself for the first time that this was the evil child of an evil woman, for whom there was no hope, or whether it was a revelation to him of a depth of depravity in his son's heart of which he had not guessed.

Then the prosecution asked for a few minutes' recess, announcing that it had a new witness to bring forward. After much hurrying to and fro, and whispering and consulting among lawyers and court and prison officials, young Hopkins's accomplice appeared on the witness-stand and turned State's evidence. He had learned of the intercepted letters, and, frightened by their probable result for himself, told the whole story of the crime, from the time Hopkins had first broached it to him until they were arrested in San Francisco. And during the entire narration of the cold-blooded, brutal, and cowardly deed, old Dan Hopkins sat with his eyes on the witness, as steady and unflinching in color and nerve and muscle as if he had been listening to a lecture or a sermon.

I think he had decided, even then, what he would do, no matter what the finding of the jury might be.

At last it was all over; the jury listened to the judge's charge, and filed out. "It's hanging, sure," said the Newspaper Man. "After that evidence and that charge there's only one verdict they can bring in. It's a good thing as far as the boy's concerned, but I do feel sorry for his governor."

Every one felt so sure that the jury would soon return that none left their places, and a buzz of conversation soon filled the room. Old Dan Hopkins sat with his arms folded, his head erect, and his eyes, steady and clear, upon the empty witness chair. There were many sympathizing glances sent toward him, though no one approached or spoke to him; for it was evident from his compressed lips and frowning brow that he preferred to be left alone. He had moved a little away from his son, and sat scarcely ten feet distant on my left. When the jury returned, in less than half an hour, he bent upon them the same abstracted gaze and unmoved countenance.

The foreman stood up and glanced sadly toward the man who had been his friend and neighbor for many years. There were tears in his eyes, and his voice broke and trembled as he gave their verdict, "Guilty of murder in the first degree."

Not a sound broke the death-like stillness of the room as he sat down, and I noticed that every face within my view was turned away from the prisoner's chair and the old man who sat near it. The tense strain of the moment was broken by the prisoner's counsel, who arose and began a motion for a new trial.

But the click of a revolver sharply halted his first sentence, as Dan Hopkins jumped to his feet with a sudden, swift movement of his right arm. A dozen men leaped forward with outstretched arms crying, "Stop! Stop!"

But even before they could reach him the report rang through the room, and just as they seized the father's arms the son dropped to the floor, dead. He waved back the men who were pressing around him.

"Stop!" he cried. "Stand back a minute!" And they fell back instinctively.

He walked calmly to the judge's desk and laid down his smoking pistol. Then he folded his arms and faced about, with head thrown back, flashing eyes, and colorless face. He looked at the sheriff, who, with the sense of official duty strong upon him, had stepped out from the huddled crowd and was coming toward him.

"Wait one minute, let me speak," he said. "I believe you are all my friends, for I have lived most of my life here, among you, and I hope I have the respect and confidence and friendship of you all. But that," and his flashing eyes rested for a moment upon the sheriff, the lawyers, and then upon the judge, "must have no influence upon the penalty I shall pay for what I have just done. The knowledge has been bitter enough to me this afternoon that that poor boy there deserved death. For the first time I have been convinced that he was bad from the bottom of his heart, and that there was no hope for him. But with my own hand I have killed him, that he might be saved the last horror and disgrace. Let them, and the law's justice, be my portion, for I deserve them for having given him life in the first place. Mine was the first sin, and it is right that I should suffer the disgrace and the penalty."

He turned to the sheriff, holding out his arms for the handcuffs. "Now, I am ready. Arrest me."