Sunday, June 11, 2023

A Lady from Redhorse

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Sunday Morning in the Mines, 1872, oil on canvas by German-born American artist Charles Christian Nahl (1818–1878). Wikimedia Commons.
Soldiers, ghosts, and fiends—the name Ambrose Bierce conjures for most readers the ill-fated characters in his stories of the Civil War and his tales of horror and suspense. Many readers are also familiar with his cynically humorous Devil’s Dictionary. So it comes as a surprise when one encounters the short story “A Lady from Redhorse,” first published as “An Heiress from Redhorse” in the San Francisco Examiner on March 15, 1891, and reprinted in all three editions of Bierce’s In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians).

Biographers and reviewers have not known what to make of this curious tale by the man who came to be known to his contemporaries as “Bitter Bierce.” The year the story first appeared, it was reprinted in, of all places, the New York magazine Romance, alongside such selections as “How He Won Her” and “How a Woman Loved”; in 1929, it was included in the anthology World’s Great Romances. The critic Robert A. Wiggins, who once described Bierce as a “misanthrope pessimistically at odds with all mankind,” admitted that the tale is “unusual for Bierce in that it employs an epistolary form and ends happily. It might easily have graced the pages of a women’s magazine. Its ominous tone, suggesting imminent terror, is Biercean enough, but not the surprise conclusion with a cheerful ending.”

In 1981, the scholar Lawrence I. Berkove, who has called the tale a “romantic comedy,” came across a forgotten magazine piece that might shed light on the story’s origin. The week before “An Heiress from Redhorse” appeared in the Examiner, W. C. Morrow, who (like Bierce) was well known for his horror fiction, published a short item in the San Francisco literary weekly Wave. He described a day he had recently spent with Bierce at the Cliff House, a popular establishment overlooking the ocean on the western side of the city. On the train to the resort, a woman and her mother were brazenly staring at and talking about the two men—and especially, it seemed, about Morrow—and they followed the authors to the veranda of the restaurant. After a while, Bierce left to return to the city, the mother departed from the veranda, and at last the beautiful daughter approached Morrow. “I read everything you publish,” she gushed. “Oh, the terrible stories you write, that keep me awake and make me afraid when I’m alone! What a master mind to do these things! I have worshiped you so long from a great distance.” When she began to describe some of her favorite characters, it dawned on Morrow that the young woman thought he was Ambrose Bierce. He was unable to get in a word before “the poor girl had thrown her arms around my neck, clasped me close to her breast and pressed her lips to mine.” Both Morrow’s yarn (almost certainly embellished) and Bierce’s short story are set in seaside resorts and, as Berkove notes, feature “impressionable young ladies who fall hopelessly in love with handsome and somewhat mysterious men with personalities that were awesome yet attractive.” In other words, Bierce’s story might have been a whimsical response to Morrow’s teasing anecdote.

A better-known inspiration for Bierce’s story is Bret Harte’s similarly titled “An Heiress of Red Dog” (1878), about a young woman who unexpectedly inherits three million dollars from a man who had squirreled away seemingly worthless shares in the Rising Sun Mining Company, “which a day or two after his demise . . . suddenly sprang into opulence and celebrity.” In Bierce’s story, the heiress also gets her million from gold; her father struck it rich after years of hardship in a destitute mining town. Donald T. Blume, in his critical study Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context (2004), points out that Bierce may have even taken his heiress’s name, Miss Dement, from Harte’s story. The testator during his final days had been “showing hints of his insanity [and] acts clearly attributable to dementia,” which, his estranged wife contends, explains why he left his supposedly moderate estate to “a freckle-faced maid-servant” at a local hotel. The will’s only stipulation is that the heiress cannot give a cent of it to any man with whom she falls in love.

Blume argues convincingly that Bierce’s story is “a lesson about human gullibility masquerading as a love story masquerading as a mystery”; a closer reading, certain textual evidence, and the historical context all suggest that, instead of a happy ending, the credulous heiress’s inevitable fate was—at best—ambiguous. (Readers may want to postpone reading the rest of this introduction until after they’ve read the selection.) The story isn’t only about a wealthy young woman falling madly in love with a mysterious stranger, who may or may not be after her money. Bierce also outlines her impoverished childhood in Redhorse, a California gold mining community, with her two friends, Jack Raynor (“Giggles”) and James Barts (“Dumps”), both of whom became miners themselves before moving on to other prospects. Raynor was hired by Wells, Fargo, & Company, and Miss Dement hints in passing that he had recently proposed and she had turned him down because he wasn’t her type. Barts, she believes, was killed while working as a stage driver, although Blume points out that Bierce may have modeled this character after real-life rogues, including the notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart (who was even the subject of one of Bierce’s poems).

In the end, the two storylines converge, the “mystery” is revealed, and Miss Dement believes she will live happily ever after. Yet Blume notes that in later editions Bierce, perhaps frustrated that readers had misunderstood the ending, changed the closing of the final letter from “they have played it upon / Your affectionate friend,” to “they have roped in your affectionate friend”—suggesting a trap rather than a prank. Blume concludes that “the revised statement seems to have been added by Bierce as a broad hint to readers that Miss Dement’s happy love story is not quite what she thought it to be.” There is still the matter of the money, after all, casting doubt on the motivations of the gold diggers who have successfully corralled her.

Notes: Coronado is an island near San Diego and was the site of a resort hotel for the wealthy. Helena Petrovska Blavatsky was a Russian mystic and founder of theosophy, who lived near Madras (in southeastern, not northern, India) from 1878 to 1885. The Sepoy Mutiny in 1857–58 was a large uprising of Indian soldiers (sepoys) serving in the British army. Thugs were members of the Thuggee cult, a group of Indian criminal gangs. They were suppressed by the British, who executed the last Thug in 1882. David Garrick was an eighteenth-century British actor and playwright; Bierce’s reference is to David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy, a famous painting by British artist Joshua Reynolds.

Chloriding the dumps was the process of using a corrosive chemical solution on mine tailings to extract any remaining traces of gold, silver, and other ores. In the story, Barts’s mother was “chlorided to her fathers,” suggesting that she was poisoned by the stuff—and, Blume posits, Barts might have played a role in the poisoning.

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I find myself more and more interested in him. It is not, I am sure, his—do you know any good noun corresponding to the adjective “handsome”? . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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