Home  »  The Oxford Book of American Essays  »  XXIII Cut-off Copples’s

Matthews, Brander, ed. (1852–1929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.

Clarence King (1842–1901)

XXIII Cut-off Copples’s

ONE October day, as Kaweah and I traveled by ourselves over a lonely foothill trail, I came to consider myself the friend of woodpeckers. With rather more reserve as regards the bluejay, let me admit great interest in his worldly wisdom. As an instance of co-operative living the partnership of these two birds is rather more hopeful than most mundane experiments. For many autumn and winter months such food as their dainty taste chooses is so rare throughout the Sierras that in default of any climatic temptation to migrate the birds get in harvests with annual regularity and surprising labor. Oak and pine mingle in one growth. Acorns from the one are their grain; the soft pine bark is granary; and this the process:

Armies of woodpeckers drill small, round holes in the bark of standing pine-trees, sometimes perforating it thickly up to twenty or thirty and even forty feet above the ground; then about equal numbers of woodpeckers and jays gather acorns, rejecting always the little cup, and insert the gland tightly in the pine bark with its tender base outward and exposed to the air.

A woodpecker, having drilled a hole, has its exact measure in mind, and after examining a number of acorns makes his selection, and never fails of a perfect fit. Not so the jolly, careless jay, who picks up any sound acorn he finds, and, if it is too large for a hole, drops it in the most offhand way as if it were an affair of no consequence; utters one of his dry, chuckling squawks, and either tries another or loafs about, lazily watching the hard-working woodpeckers.

Thus they live, amicably harvesting, and with this sequel: those acorns in which grubs form become the sole property of woodpeckers, while all sound ones fall to the jays. Ordinarily chances are in favor of woodpeckers, and when there are absolutely no sound nuts the jays sell short, so to speak, and go over to Nevada and speculate in juniper-berries.

The monotony of hill and glade failing to interest me, and in default of other diversion, I all day long watched the birds, recalling how many gay and successful jays I knew who lived, as these, on the wit and industry of less ostentatious woodpeckers; thinking, too, what naïvely dogmatic and richly worded political economy Mr. Ruskin would phrase from my feathered friends. Thus I came to Ruskin, wishing I might see the work of his idol, and after that longing for some equal artist who should arise and choose to paint our Sierras as they are with all their color-glory, power of innumerable pine and countless pinnacle, gloom of tempest, or splendor, where rushing light shatters itself upon granite crag, or burns in dying rose upon far fields of snow.

Had I rubbed Aladdin’s lamp? A turn in the trail brought suddenly into view a man who sat under shadow of oaks, painting upon a large canvas.

As I approached, the artist turned half round upon his stool, rested palette and brushes upon one knee, and in familiar tone said, “Dern’d if you ain’t just naturally ketched me at it! Get off and set down. You ain’t going for no doctor, I know.”

My artist was of short, good-natured, butcher-boy make-up, dressed in what had formerly been black broadcloth, with an enlivening show of red flannel shirt about the throat, wrists, and a considerable display of the same where his waistcoat might once have overlapped a strained but as yet coherent waistband. The cut of these garments, by length of coat-tail and voluminous leg, proudly asserted a “Bay” origin. His small feet were squeezed into tight, short boots, with high, raking heels.

A round face, with small, full mouth, non-committal nose, and black, protruding eyes, showed no more sign of the ideal temperament than did the broad daub upon his square yard of canvas.

“Going to Copples’s?” inquired my friend.

That was my destination, and I answered, “Yes.”

“That’s me,” he ejaculated. “Right over there, down below those two oaks! Ever there?”


“My studio ’s there now;” giving impressive accent to the word.

All the while these few words were passing he scrutinized me with unconcealed curiosity, puzzled, as well he might be, by my dress and equipment. Finally, after I had tied Kaweah to a tree and seated myself by the easel, and after he had absently rubbed some raw sienna into his little store of white, he softly ventured: “Was you looking out a ditch?”

“No,” I replied.

He neatly rubbed up the white and sienna with his “blender,” unconsciously adding a dash of Veronese green, gazed at my leggings, then at the barometer, and again meeting my eye with a look as if he feared I might be a disguised duke, said in slow tone, with hyphens of silence between each two syllables, giving to his language all the dignity of an unabridged Webster, “I would take pleasure in stating that my name is Hank G. Smith, artist;” and, seeing me smile, he relaxed a little, and, giving the blender another vigorous twist, added, “I would request yours.”

Mr. Smith having learned my name, occupation, and that my home was on the Hudson, near New York, quickly assumed a familiar me-and-you-old-fel’ tone, and rattled on merrily about his winter in New York spent in “going through the Academy,”—a period of deep moment to one who before that painted only wagons for his livelihood.

Storing away canvas, stool, and easel in a deserted cabin close by, he rejoined me, and, leading Kaweah by his lariat, I walked beside Smith down the trail toward Copples’s.

He talked freely, and as if composing his own biography, beginning:

“California-born and mountain-raised, his nature soon drove him into a painter’s career.” Then he reverted fondly to New York and his experience there.

“Oh, no!” he mused in pleasant irony, “he never spread his napkin over his legs and partook French victuals up to old Delmonico’s. ’Twasn’t H. G. which took her to the theater.”

In a sort of stage-aside to me, he added, “She was a model! Stood for them sculptors, you know; perfectly virtuous, and built from the ground up.” Then, as if words failed him, made an expressive gesture with both hands over his shirt-bosom to indicate the topography of her figure, and, sliding them down sharply against his waistband, he added, “Anatomical torso!”

Mr. Smith found relief in meeting one so near himself, as he conceived me to be, in habit and experience. The long-pent-up emotions and ambitions of his life found ready utterance, and a willing listener.

I learned that his aim was to become a characteristically California painter, with special designs for making himself famous as the delineator of mule-trains and ox-wagons; to be, as he expressed it, “the Pacific Slope Bonheur.”

“There,” he said, “is old Eastman Johnson; he’s made the riffle on barns, and that everlasting girl with the ears of corn; but it ain’s life, it ain’t got the real git-up.

“If you want to see the thing, just look at a Gérôme; his Arab folks and Egyptain dancing-girls, they ain’t assuming a pleasant expression and looking at spots while their likenesses is took.

“H. G. will discount Eastman yet.”

He avowed his great admiration of Church, which, with a little leaning toward Mr. Gifford, seemed his only hearty approval.

“It’s all Bierstadt, and Bierstadt, and Bierstadt nowadays! What has he done but twist and skew and distort and discolor and belittle and be-pretty this whole dog-gonned country? Why, his mountains are too high and too slim; they’d blow over in one of our fall winds.

“I’ve herded colts two summers in Yosemite, and honest now, when I stood right up in front of his picture, I didn’t know it.

“He hasn’t what old Ruskin calls for.

By this time the station buildings were in sight, and far down the cañon, winding in even grade round spur after spur, outlined by a low, clinging cloud of red dust, we could see the great Sierra mule-train,—that industrial gulfstream flowing from California plains over into arid Nevada, carrying thither materials for life and luxury. In a vast, perpetual caravan of heavy wagons, drawn by teams of from eight to fourteen mules, all the supplies of many cities and villages were hauled across the Sierra at an immense cost, and with such skill of driving and generalship of mules as the world has never seen before.

Our trail descended toward the grade, quickly bringing us to a high bank immediately overlooking the trains a few rods below the group of station buildings.

I had by this time learned that Copples, the former station-proprietor, had suffered amputation of the leg three times, receiving from the road men, in consequence, the name of “Cut-off,” and that, while his doctors disagreed as to whether they had better try a fourth, the kindly hand of death has spared him that pain, and Mrs. Copples an added extortion in the bill.

The dying “Cut-off” had made his wife promise she would stay by and carry on the station until all his debts, which were many and heavy, should be paid, and then do as she chose.

The poor woman, a New Englander of some refinement, lingered, sadly fulfilling her task, though longing for liberty.

When Smith came to speak of Sarah Jane, her niece, a new light kindled in my friend’s eye.

“You never saw Sarah Jane?” he inquired.

I shook my head.

He went on to tell me that he was living in hope of making her Mrs. H. G., but that the bar-keeper also indulged a hope, and as this important functionary was a man of ready cash, and of derringers and few words, it became a delicate matter to avow open rivalry; but it was evident my friend’s star was ascendant, and, learning that he considered himself to possess the “dead-wood,” and to have “gaited” the bar-keeper, I was more than amused, even comforted.

It was pleasure to sit there learning against a vigorous old oak while Smith opened his heart to me, in easy confidence, and, with quick eye watching the passing mules, penciled in a little sketch-book a leg, a head, or such portions of body and harness as seemed to him useful for future works.

“These are notes,” he said, “and I’ve pretty much made up my mind to paint my great picture on a gee-pull. I’ll scumble in a sunset effect, lighting up the dust, and striking across the backs of team and driver, and I’ll paint a come-up-there-d’n-you look on the old teamster’s face, and the mules will be just a-humping their little selves and laying down to work like they’d expire. And the wagon! Don’t you see what fine color-material there is in the heavy load and canvas-top with sunlight and shadow in the folds? And that’s what’s the matter with H. G. Smith.

“Orders, sir, orders; that’s what I’ll get then, and I’ll take my little old Sarah Jane and light out for New York, and you’ll see Smith on a studio doorplate, and folks ’ll say, ‘Fine feeling for nature, has Smith!’”

I let this singular man speak for himself in his own vernacular, pruning nothing of its idiom or slang, as you shall choose to call it. In this faithful transcript there are words I could have wished to expunge, but they are his, not mine, and illustrate his mental construction.

The breath of most Californians is as unconsciously charged with slang as an Italian’s of garlic, and the two, after all, have much the same function; you touch the bowl or your language, but should never let either be fairly recognized in salad or conversation. But Smith’s English was the well undefiled when compared with what I every moment heard from the current of teamsters which set constantly by us in the direction of Copples’s.

Close in front came a huge wagon piled high with cases of freight, and drawn along by a team of twelve mules, whose heavy breathing and drenched skins showed them hard-worked and well tired out. The driver looked anxiously ahead at a soft in the road, and on at the station, as if calculating whether his team had courage left to haul through.

He called kindly to them, cracked his black-snake whip, and all together they strained bravely on.

The great van rocked, settled a little on the near side, and stuck fast.

With a look of despair the driver got off and laid the lash freely among his team; they jumped and jerked, frantically tangled themselves up, and at last all sulked and became stubbornly immovable. Meanwhile, a mile of teams behind, unable to pass on the narrow grade, came to an unwilling halt.

About five wagons back I noticed a tall Pike, dressed in checked shirt, and pantaloons tucked into jack-boots. A soft felt hat, worn on the back of his head, displayed long locks of flaxen hair, which hung freely about a florid pink countenance, noticeable for its pair of violent little blue eyes, and facial angle rendered acute by a sharp, long nose.

This fellow watched the stoppage with impatience, and at last, when it was more than he could bear, walked up by the other teams with a look of wrath absolutely devilish. One would have expected him to blow up with rage; yet withal his gait and manner were cool and soft in the extreme. In a bland, almost tender voice, he said to the unfortunate driver, “My friend, perhaps I can help you;” and his gentled way of disentangling and patting the leaders as he headed them round in the right direction would have given him a high office under Mr. Bergh. He leisurely examined the embedded wheel, and cast an eye along the road ahead. He then began in rather excited manner to swear, pouring it out louder and more profane, till he utterly eclipsed the most horrid blasphemies I ever heard, piling them up thicker and more fiendish till it seemed as if the very earth must open and engulf him.

I noticed one mule after another give a little squat, bringing their breasts hard against the collars, and straining traces, till only one old mule, with ears back and dangling chain, still held out. The Pike walked up and yelled one gigantic oath; her ears sprang forward, she squatted in terror, and the iron links grated under her strain. He then stepped back and took the rein, every trembling mule looking out of the corner of its eye listening at qui vive.

With a peculiar air of deliberation and of childlike simplicity, he said in every-day tones, “Come up there, mules!”

One quick strain, a slight rumble, and the wagon rolled on to Copples’s.

Smith and I followed, and as we neared the house he punched me familiarly and said, as a brown petticoat disappeared in the station door, “There’s Sarah Jane! When I see that girl I feel like I’d reach out and gather her in;” then clasping her imaginary form as if she was about to dance with him, he executed a couple of waltz turns, softly intimating, “That’s what’s the matter with H. G.”

Kaweah being stabled, we betook ourselves to the office, which was of course bar-room as well. As I entered, the unfortunated teamster was about paying his liquid compliment to the florid Pike. Their glasses were filled. “My respects,” said the little driver. The whiskey became lost to view, and went eroding its way through the dust these poor fellows has swallowed. He added, “Well, Billy, you can swear.”

“Swear?” repeated the Pike in a tone of incredulous questioning. “Me swear?” as if the compliment were greater than his modest desert. “No, I can’t blaspheme worth a cuss. You’d jest orter hear Pete Green. He can exhort the impenitent mule. I’ve known a ten-mule-team to renounce the flesh and haul thirty-one thousand through a foot of clay mud under one of his outpourings.”

As a hotel, Copples’s is on the Mongolian plan, which means that dining-room and kitchen are given over to the mercies—never very tender—of Chinamen; not such Chinamen as learned the art of pig-roasting that they might be served up by Elia, but the average John, and a sadly low average that John is. I grant him a certain general air of thrift, admitting, too, that his lack of sobriety never makes itself apparent in loud Celtic brawl. But he is, when all is said, and in spite of timid and fawning obedience, a very poor servant.

Now and then at one friend’s house it has happened to me that I dined upon artistic Chinese cookery, and all they who come home from living in China smack their lips over the relishing cuisine. I wish they had sat down that day at Copples’s. No; on second though I would spare them.

John may go peacefully to North Adams and make shoes for us, but I shall not solve the awful domestic problem by brining him into my kitchen; certainly so long as Howells’s “Mrs. Johnson” lives, nor even while I can get an Irish lady to torment me, and offer the hospitality of my home to her cousins.

After the warning bell, fifty or sixty teamsters inserted their dusty heads in buckets of water, turned their once white neck-handkerchiefs inside out, producing a sudden effect of clean linen, and made use of the two mournful wrecks of combs which hung on strings at either side the Copples’s mirror. Many went to the bar and partook of a “dust-cutter.” There was then such clearing of throats, and such loud and prolonged blowing of noses as may not often be heard upon this globe.

In the calm which ensued, conversation sprang up on “lead harness,” the “Stockton wagon that had went off the grade,” with here and there a sentiment called out by two framed lithographic belles, who in great richness of color and scantiness of raiment flanked the bar-mirror;—a dazzling reflector, chiefly destined to portray the barkeeper’s back hair, which work of art involved much affectionate labor.

A second bell and rolling away of doors revealed a long dining-room, with three parallel tables, cleanly set and watched over by Chinamen, whose fresh, white clothes and bright, olive-buff skin made a contrast of color which was always chief among my yearnings for the Nile.

While I loitered in the background every seat was taken, and I found myself with a few dilatory teamsters destined to await a second table.

The dinner-room communicated with a kitchen beyond by means of two square apertures cut in the partition wall. Through these portholes a glare of red light poured, except when the square framed a Chinese cook’s head, or discharged hundreds of little dishes.

The teamsters sat down in patience; a few of the more elegant sort cleaned their nails with the three-tine forks, others picked their teeth with them, and nearly all speared with this implement small specimens from the dishes before them, securing a pickle or a square inch of pie or even that luxury, a dried apple; a few, on tilted-back chairs, drummed upon the bottom of their plates the latest tune of the road.

When fairly under way the scene became active and animated beyond belief. Waiters, balancing upon their arms twenty or thirty plates, hurried along and shot them dexterously over the teamsters’ heads with crash and spatter.

Beans swimming in fat, meats slimed with pale, ropy gravy, and over everything a faint Mongol odor,—the flavor of moral degeneracy and of a disintegrating race.

Sharks and wolves may no longer be figured as types of prandial haste. My friends, the teamsters, stuffed and swallowed with a rapidity which was alarming but for the dexterity they showed, and which could only have come of long practice.

In fifteen minutes the room was empty, and those fellows who were not feeding grain to their mules lighted cigars and lingered round the bar.

Just then my artist rushed in, seized me by the arm, and said in my ear, “We’ll have our supper over to Mrs. Copples’s. O no, I guess not—Sarah Jane—arms peeled—cooking up stuff—old woman gone into the milk-room with a skimmer.” He then added that if I wanted to see what I had been spared, I might follow him.

We went round an angle of the building and came upon a high bank, where, through wide-open windows, I could look into the Chinese kitchen.

By this time the second table of teamsters were under way, and the waiters yelled their orders through to the three cooks.

This large, unpainted kitchen was lighted up by kerosene lamps. Through clouds of smoke and steam dodged and sprang the cooks, dripping with perspiration and grease, grabbing a steak in the hand and slapping it down on the gridiron, slipping and sliding around on the damp floor, dropping a card of biscuits and picking them up again in their fists, which were garnished by the whole bill of fare. The red papers with Chinese inscriptions, and little joss-sticks here and there pasted upon each wall, the spry devils themselves, and that faint, sickening odor of China which pervaded the room, combined to produce a sense of deep, sober gratitude that I had not risked their fare.

“Now,” demanded Smith, “you see that there little white building yonder?”

I did.

He struck a contemplative position, leaned against the house, extending one hand after the manner of the minstrel sentimentalist, and softly chanted:

  • “‘’Tis, O, ’tis the cottage of me love;’
  • “and there’s where they’re getting up as nice a little supper as can be found on this road or any other. Let’s go over!”

    So we strolled across an open space where were two giant pines towering somber against the twilight, a little mountain brooklet, and a few quiet cows.

    “Stop,” said Smith, leaning his back against a pine, and encircling my neck affectionately with an arm; “I told you, as regards Sarah Jane, how my feelings stand. Well, now, you just bet she’s on the reciprocate! When I told old woman Copples I’d like to invite you over,—Sarah Jane she passed me in the doorway,—and said she, ‘Glad to see your friends.’”

    Then sotto voce, for we were very near, he sang again:

  • “‘’Tis, O, ’tis the cottage of me love;’
  • “and C. K.,” he continued familiarly, “you’re a judge of wimmen,” chucking his knuckles into my ribs, whereat I jumped; when he added, “There, I knew you was. Well, Sarah Jane is a derned magnificent female; number three boot, just the height for me. Venus de Copples, I call her, and would make the most touching artist’s wife in this planet. If I design to paint a head, or a foot, or an arm, get my little old Sarah Jane to peel the particular charm, and just whack her in on the canvas.”

    We passed in through low doors, turned from a small, dark entry into the family sitting-room, and were alone there in presence of a cheery log fire, which good-naturedly bade us welcome, crackling freely and tossing its sparks out upon floor of pine and coyote-skin rug. A few old framed prints hung upon dark walls, their faces looking serenely down upon the scanty, old-fashioned furniture and windows full of flowering plants. A low-cushioned chair, not long since vacated, was drawn close by the centre-table, whereon were a lamp and a large, open Bible, with a pair of silver-bowed spectacles lying upon its lighted page.

    Smith made a gesture of silence toward the door, touched the Bible, and whispered, “Here’s where old woman Copples lives, and it is a good thing; I read it aloud to her evenings, and I can just feel the high, local lights of it. It’ll fetch H. G. yet!”

    At this juncture the door opened; a pale, thin, elderly woman entered, and with tired smile greeted me. While her hard, labor-stiffened, needle-roughened hand was in mine, I looked into her face and felt something (it may be, it must be, but little, yet something) of the sorrow of her life; that of a woman large in sympathy, deep in faith, eternal in constancy, thrown away on a rough, worthless fellow. All things she hoped for had failed her; the tenderness which never came, the hopes years ago in ashes, the whole world of her yearnings long buried, leaving only the duty of living and the hope of Heaven. As she sat down, took up her spectacles and knitting, and closed the Bible, she began pleasantly to talk to us of the warm, bright autumn nights, of Smith’s work, and then of my own profession, and of her niece, Sarah Jane. Her genuinely sweet spirit and natively gentle manner were very beautiful, and far overbalanced all traces of rustic birth and mountain life.

    O, that unquenchable Christian fire, how pure the gold of its result! It needs no practiced elegance, no social greatness, for its success; only the warm human heart, and out of it shall come a sacred calm and gentleness, such as no power, no wealth, no culture may ever hope to win.

    No words of mine would outline the beauty of that plain, weary old woman, the sad, sweet patience of those gray eyes, nor the spirit of overflowing goodness which cheered and enlivened the half hour we spent there.

    H. G. might perhaps be pardoned for showing an alacrity when the door again opened and Sarah Jane rolled—I might almost say trundled—in, and was introduced to me.

    Sarah Jane was an essentially Californian product, as much so as one of those vast potatoes or massive pears; she had a suggestion of State-Fair in the fullness of her physique, yet withal was pretty and modest.

    If I could have rid myself of a fear that her buttons might sooner or later burst off and go singing by my ear, I think I might have felt as H. G. did, that she was a “magnificent female,” with her smooth, brilliant skin and drops of soft brown hair.

    H. G., in presence of the ladies, lost something of his original flavor, and rose into studied elegance, greatly to the comfort of Sarah, whose glow of pride as his talk ran on came without show of restraint.

    The supper was delicious.

    But Sarah was quiet, quiet to H. G. and to me, until after tea, when the old lady said, “You young folks will have to excuse me this evening,” and withdrew to her chamber.

    More logs were then piled on the sitting-room hearth, and we three gathered in a semi-circle.

    Presently H. G. took the poker and twisted it about among coals and ashes, prying up the oak sticks, as he announced, in a measured, studied way, “An artist’s wife, that is,” he explained, “an Academician’s wife orter, well she’d orter sabe the beautiful, and take her regular æsthetics; and then again,” he continued in explanatory tone, “she’d orter to know how to keep a hotel, derned if she hadn’t, for it’s rough like furst off, ’fore a feller gets his name up. But then when he does, tho’, she’s got a salubrious old time of it. It’s touch a little bell” (he pressed the andiron-top to show us how the thing was done), “and ‘Brooks, the morning paper!’ Open your regular Herald:

    “‘ART NOTES.—Another of H. G. Smith’s tender works, entitled, “Off the Grade,” so full of out-of-doors and subtle feeling of nature, is now on exhibition at Goupil’s.’

    “Look down a little further:

    “‘ITALIAN OPERA—Between the acts all eyes turned to the distingué Mrs. H. G. Smith, who looked,’”—then turning to me, and waving his hand at Sarah Jane, “I leave it to you if she don’t.”

    Sarah Jane assumed the pleasing color of the sugar-beet, without seeming inwardly unhappy.

    “It’s only a question of time with H. G.,” continued my friend. “Art is long, you know—derned long—and it may be a year before I paint my great picture, but after that Smith works in lead harness.”

    He used the poker freely, and more and more his flow of hopes turned a shade of sentiment to Sarah Jane, who smiled broader and broader, showing teeth of healthy whiteness.

    At last I withdrew and sought my room, which was H. G.’s also, and his studio. I had gone with a candle round the walls whereon were tacked studies and sketches, finding here and there a bit of real merit among the profusion of trash, when the door burst open and my friend entered, kicked off his boots and trousers, and walked up and down at a sort of quadrille step, singing:

  • “‘Yes, it’s the cottage of me love;
  • You bet, it’s the cottage of me love,’
  • “and, what’s more, H. G. has just had his genteel goodnight kiss; and when and where is the good old bar-keep?”

    I checked his exuberance as best I might, knowing full well that the quiet and elegant dispenser of neat and mixed beverages hearing this inquiry would put in an appearance in person and offer a few remarks designed to provoke ill-feeling. So I at last got Smith in bed and the lamp out. All was quiet for a few moments, and when I had almost gotten asleep I heard my room-mate in low tones say to himself,—

    “Married, by the Rev. Gospel, our talented California artist, Mr. H. G. Smith, to Miss Sarah Jane Copples. No cards.”

    A pause, and then with more gentle utterance, “and that’s what’s the matter with H. G.”

    Slowly from this atmosphere of art I passed away into the tranquil land of dreams.

    [From Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, by Clarence King. Copyright, 1871, by James R. Osgood & Co. Copyright, 1902, by Charles Scribner’s Sons.]