Ep. 4: The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain

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The Californian's Tale
By Mark Twain

NARRATOR. 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 country.
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.

HENRY. All her work. She did it all herself– every bit.
NARRATOR. 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:

HENRY. 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.

NARRATOR. 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, and 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:

HENRY. 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.

NARRATOR. 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:

HENRY. That’s it! You’ve found it. I knew you would. It’s her

picture.

NARRATOR. 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.

HENRY. Twenty-five her last birthday- and that was the day we
were married. When you see her– ah, just wait till you
see her!

NARRATOR. Where is she? When will she be in?

HENRY. Oh, she’s away now. She’s gone to see her folks. They
live forty or fifty miles from here. She’s been gone two
weeks today.

NARRATOR. When do you expect her back?
HENRY. This is Wednesday. She’ll be back Saturday, in the

evening- about nine o’clock, likely.

NARRATOR. I felt a sharp sense of disappointment. “I’m sorry,
because I’ll be gone then,” I said, regretfully.

HENRY. Gone? No— why should you go? Don’t go. She’ll be

disappointed.

NARRATOR. 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.”
HENRY. 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
disappointed.

NARRATOR. 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:
HENRY. There, now, tell her to her face you could have stayed

to see her, and you wouldn’t.

NARRATOR. 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.

TOM. I only just dropped over to ask about the little madam,

and when is she coming home. Any news from her?
HENRY. Oh, yes, a letter. Would you like to hear it, Tom?
TOM. Well, I should think I would, if you don’t mind, Henry!
NARRATOR. 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 Henry finished, he
glanced at Tom, and cried out:

HENRY. 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 her.

TOM. 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.

HENRY. Well, now, what put that in your head? I thought

everybody knew she wasn’t coming till Saturday.

TOM. 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!

NARRATOR. Late Friday afternoon another gray veteran, Joe, 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.

HENRY. Tired! She tired? Oh, hear the man! Joe, YOU know she’d

sit up six weeks to please any one of you!

NARRATOR. 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.

JOE. Lord, we miss her so!

NARRATOR. Saturday afternoon I found I was taking out my watch
pretty often. Henry noticed it, and said, with a startled
look:

HENRY. You don’t think she ought to be here soon, do you?
NARRATOR. 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
expectancy. 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:
HENRY. I’m getting worried, I’m getting right down worried. I
know she’s not due until 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?
NARRATOR. 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 humbled 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 her
best to drive away her friend’s bodings and
apprehensions.

CHARLEY. 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.

NARRATOR. Pretty soon Tom and Joe arrived, and then all hands set
about adoring the house with flowers. Toward nine, three
more 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:

TOM. All hands stand by! One more drink, and she’s here!
NARRATOR. Tom brought the glasses on a waiter, and served the
party. I reached for one of the two remaining glasses,
but Tom growled under his breath:

TOM. Drop that! Take the other.
NARRATOR. 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:

HENRY. Boys, I’m sick with fear. Help me– I want to lie down!
NARRATOR. They helped him to the sofa. He began to nestle and
drowse, but presently spoke like one talking in his
sleep, and said:

HENRY. Did I hear horses’ feet? Have they come?
NARRATOR. Joe answered, close to his ear:
JOE. 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.

HENRY. Oh, I’m SO thankful nothing has happened!
NARRATOR. 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.
And 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 Tom said:
TOM. She? Poor thing, she’s been dead nineteen years!
NARRATOR. Dead?

CHARLEY. 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.

NARRATOR. And he lost his mind in consequence?

JOE. 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. That first Saturday there was
twenty-seven of us, without counting the girls; there’s
only six 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!

California, the 1860s: It’s the Wild West and the gold has dried up; only a few naive souls remain. A chance encounter between strangers leads to more than just friendly salutations.

Cast (in speaking order):

  • STEPHEN McKINLEY HENDERSON as The Narrator
  • JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY as Henry
  • SAM ROBARDS as Tom
  • JOSH JOHNSTON as Joe
  • KELLY FAIRBROTHER as Charley
  • with SAM TSOUTSOUVAS, the voice of RPR

 

Original music by THE DOWNHILL STRUGGLERS

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