When Mrs. Cliff left Edna and Ralph in San Francisco, and went home, nearly all the people in the little town who were worth considering gathered in and around her house to bid her welcome. They had heard of her shipwreck, but the details had been scanty and unsatisfactory, and the soul of the town throbbed with curiosity to know what had really happened to her. For the first few hours of her return Mrs. Cliff was in a state of heavenly ecstasy. Everything was so tidy, everything was so clean, every face beamed with such genial amity, her native air was so intoxicating, that she seemed to be in a sort of paradise. But when her friends and neighbors began to ask questions, she felt herself gradually descending into a region which, for all she knew, might resemble purgatory.
Of course, there was a great deal that was wonderful and startling to relate, and as Mrs. Cliff was a good story-teller, she thrilled the nerves of her hearers with her descriptions of the tornado at sea and the Rackbirds on land, and afterwards filled the eyes of many of the women with tears of relief as she told of their escapes, their quiet life at the caves, and their subsequent rescue by the Mary Bartlett. But it was the cross-examinations which caused the soul of the narrator to sink. Of course, she had been very careful to avoid all mention of the gold mound, but this omission in her narrative proved to be a defect which she had not anticipated. As she had told that she had lost everything except a few effects she had carried with her from the Castor, it was natural enough that people should want to know how she had been enabled to come home in such good fashion.
They had expected her to return in a shabby, or even needy, condition, and now they had stories of delightful weeks at a hotel in San Francisco, and beheld their poor shipwrecked neighbor dressed more handsomely than they had ever seen her, and with a new trunk standing in the lower hall which must contain something.
Mrs. Cliff began by telling the truth, and from this course she did not intend to depart. She said that the captain of the Castor was a just and generous man, and, as far as was in his power, he had reimbursed the unfortunate passengers for their losses. But as every one knows the richest steamship companies are seldom so generous to persons who may be cast away during transportation as to offer them long sojourns at hotels, with private parlors and private servants, and to send them home in drawing-room cars, with cloaks trimmed with real sealskin, the questions became more and more direct, and all Mrs. Cliff could do was to stand with her back against the captain’s generosity, as if it had been a rock, and rely upon it for defence.
But when the neighbors had all gone home, and the trunk had to be opened, so that it could be lightened before being carried up-stairs, the remarks of Willy and Betty cut clean to the soul of the unfortunate possessor of its contents. Of course, the captain had not actually given her this thing, and that thing, and the other, or the next one, but he had allowed her a sum of money, and she had expended it according to her own discretion. How much that sum of money might have been, Willy and Betty did not dare to ask,—for there were limits to Mrs. Cliff’s forbearance,—but when they went to bed, they consulted together.