LIKE the parted fingers of a hand, the long headlands of Cherry Neck stretch seaward towards the faroff Narragansett coast. In their rugged wilderness of rocks, gray, brown, and lichen-stained, are many quiet places of shelter, where, secure from any wind that may blow, as well as from watchful man or maid, he who would be alone may lie at ease.
Here, as had often chanced before, I found myself upon a clear, brisk September morning, full of such early autumnal freshness as makes the bright days of a Newport autumn the best of any weather. A great storm had scourged the weary waters from the far southeast these three long days, under darkened skies, until of a sudden the wind came bounding out of the northwest and swept down upon the broad black ranks of hurrying billows. Then all the air brightened, the leaden sky was rent asunder, and the blue came out in rich patches of color, which so quickly grew that, before long, only a few torn bits of gray cloud were left flying in ragged haste across the heavens. Below, upon the ocean, there was a sight to see which is only to be seen in the sudden changes which sometimes at Newport end a southeaster. As the waves charged sturdily in the face of the crisp northwesterly gale, it tore the gray foam from their crests and cast it back in long white ribbons across the shining black hollows which parted each from each. Grand to see in the keen, clear, yellow sunlight, they bowed and stumbled and fell in many-toned thunder among the rocks, and then rang their lessening strength away in the solt crush and breaking of a million foam-bells, — as it were Samson’s riddle anew, sweetness coming forth out of strength. The air was cool and fresh, and blew as though there were plenty of it at home among the free New England hills whence it came. There was in it a rude vigor of freedom, and a keenness that made very grateful the generous bounty of the morning sun.
By slow degrees I began to feel, as I lay thinking on a broad shelf of rock, how rarely pure and healthy was the mood of nature which reigned in cold wind and swaying water, in blue sky, gray rock, and yellow sunshine ; and, musing, I made search for a word that should fitly sum it up in briefest speech. Lazily groping about, as it were, for what I wanted, my vain search was checked of a sudden by a voice I knew full well, and which seemed to me of no distant kinship with the cool, frank north-wind.
“ What an honest morning ! ”
“ Thank you,” said I, rising to my feet; “you have found what I wanted, Miss Helen. I was trying to find in my dull brain something to say of this wholesome day which should be the right word and no more.”
“ And I have said it,” replied the lady. “ I felt as if I had raised a ghost when you jumped up so suddenly at my feet. However, no one need expect to be quite secure of loneliness anywhere about Newport.”
“ Thank you.”
“ I hardly feel as though I ought to apologize, unless,” she added, “ I have spoken to a man who himself never cares to be alone.”
“ He does not now.”
“ That is scarcely an answer.”
“ No; but it is a reply.”
At this there was a little silence, when again she said, “ We seem to have come to an end of our talk.”
“ One may have too little to say, or too much, Miss Helen. Why must people talk always ? ”
“ I was about to say that I did not know you well enough not to talk to you. Perhaps if I did I should ask you to sit down over yonder, like a good boy, and leave me alone a little to enjoy what I came in quest of,—a bit of thinking to be between myself and this safe old father confessor, the sea.”
“To hear is to obey,” I said, laughing, and retreating to a rock some ten feet off, where I calmly made myself comfortable, giving my eyes by turns to my book and to the fair figure on the rock I had left.
Again a little while and she said, smiling, “ You are very good : now I think I really like you a little. You begin to show some character.”
“That was always my strong point.”
“ Hush, you are not to speak until spoken to.” Upon which, much amused, I held my peace for a time.
“ Miss Helen.”
“ A man in this book says, ‘ There is no time when truth is out of season.’ ”
“ He must be a fool. If he lived at Newport he would know better. I don’t understand what he meant by its being in season ; but I do know if you want to be uncomfortable yourself and disagreeable to everybody else, you may do it by merely speaking the honest truth for one day.”
“ I am not quite sure I agree with you. If everybody had to speak the truth, it would lead to some delightful results, which, for a shy fellow like myself, would be ever so nice.”
“ But such as —”
“ Well, you see, about women. Some one, some time or other, would just say, ‘ Did you never notice how much I love you ? ’ ”
“ What ! without being asked ? ”
“ Of course ; that is just the point of it. Don’t you see how much bother this would save fellows like me, who can ride, and shoot, and fish, and dance, and can’t talk ? It’s an awful business, is life. There’s such lots of talking to it. That old war was a good time for fellows like me.”
“ I trust your good times are over, then. As to downright truths and so on, they may do for men.”
“ That is, you think if a man loves a woman he should say so and take his fate.”
“It were better very often that he held his tongue.”
“But having done so these many years, and — ”
“ There is nothing men are such fools about. I don’t conceive that there is anything on earth so stupid and brutal as to make a woman just say no, point-blank, so that she will have to soothe and comfort the wretch afterwards by making believe to be his friend and so on. Why, it is — I mean, it must be — dreadful.”
“Should think so. Gives a fellow a chill to think of it.”
“ I was thinking of the woman.”
“And I — well, you see, Miss Helen, it may be unpleasant taking the fish off the hook, but it’s harder on the fish.”
“ Why could n’t he let it alone, till he was sure he was the fish that was wanted ? ”
“ Please, how can he tell ? ”
“ Tell ! How do I know ? But suppose that, with women of sense, a man could easily enough ask without saying, ‘Won’t you marry me ? ’ or some such downright horrible thing as that. They say queens have a nice plan ; because if a queen gives a young man a rose, that means, of course, he may make love to her and saves embarrassment.”
“Think I would like that; but I should want to choose my queen.”
“Absurd; but, of course, I meant that the man should give the rose, and then, if she took it, well, it would be all right ; and if she did not take it, then they would stay friends, and there would be no harm done.”
“ But do you not think the queen who, perhaps, would not be willing to take the rose, would — ”
“ Well ? ”
“ Perhaps I had better retreat. I am getting into trouble.”
“ But I insist.”
“ Well, I was only going to say that women are not all alike, and that, if my queen were only just to hesitate the least little bit over my rose, it would be wise to take for granted she was about to say yes, and — ”
“ But you might be mistaken.”
“ Ah ! that I dare say, but faint heart, you know ; and on your plan a fellow would have to write a little note and say, Please, Miss Susan, I am coming a courting this P. M. Be good enough to let me know beforehand how you like the subject approached.”
“Well, there are ways and ways, and sometimes none are best.”
“ Or wise ? ”
“ Yes, or wise.”
“ You think sometimes none are wise. That was what you said.”
After this there was silence awhile, and I heard with new distinctness the roar and crush of tumbling waters and the wind’s blithe song among the rocks. After this little while of quiet, Miss Helen gathered up her long skirts in a lazy way, and said, “ Let us see it closer.” That was the sea she meant, I believe, because, quickly stepping by me, and not taking great note of the hand which seems to be very much needed on these rough ways by most young women, she gained the top of the outer range of rock. I stayed my own steps a moment to note the ease and grace with which she stood facing the sea, the long folds of her riding-habit cast over one arm, and the right hand deftly busy in the half-fallen folds of her loosened hair. There is something pretty, I think, in the way the quick white fingers go in and out and play at hide-and-seek among the tangled thickets, bringing back order again, and netting men’s souls the while.”
“ Miss Helen ? ”
“ What is it ? ”
“ I’ve been thinking of what you said a little while ago. Suppose you were a man, Miss Helen, and suppose you were in love, and the woman you loved was, — well, charming : how would you ask her to marry you ? ”
“O, but I couldn't. I should just simply go away.”
“ And — and — leave her ? You would n’t; you would want to be near her all the time; to hear her, to see her, to— Why, Miss Helen, it might be, you know, that she was just ever so little in love with you, and then, you see, to leave her would be cruel: I don’t think you could be cruel.”
“ How do you know that ? ”
“ I am not quite sure of it.”
“No; well then, it is a good belief to have about me.”
“ You are jesting.”
“No; you must not think it. I was not.”
Here a silence full of thought fell upon us. Gayly as if at a play of acted charades we had tossed to and fro the slight words on which hung the fate and happiness of a lifetime. I had taken her hint and ventured my love on a few foolish phrases. I had been lightly but clearly answered.
For a few moments — they seemed to me hours — I stared at the sea-margin where the long, coarse sea-weed hung dismal for a moment, and then swayed in changeful curves on the rising wave, and was thick with fading pearls a little while, and then once more lay dreary, dark, and uncomely on the slimy black rock. All this I saw, and wondered that I should see it then at all. Suddenly I turned and knew that Miss Helen was aware of my grim face, which I can fancy must have looked cloudy enough. It was only a glance ; but I chanced to catch its flitting look of detected pity, passing on a sudden into one half shame and half anger that her thoughts should so parade themselves.
“ If you have had enough of the sea, I shall go.”
This she said rising, — having been seated before, — I lying the while half reclined on a rock which fell away from the place where she sat.
“You have said nothing about the sea before.”
“ Say ? what could I say ? Stupid to praise it. What could I say that has not been said ? ”
“But must Boston women never speak unless they have some new thing to say ? ”
“ Yes, of the sea ; for what good is it to one’s self? Will it make this great wave, that is just tottering over into white foam, any more glorious to call it what every one feels it is ? ”
“ But, Miss Helen, it is n’t very original to laugh ; yet somehow laughing does one good, and I think I have heard you laugh.”
“ That, sir, was a shrewd little sentence of yours. You shall call the sea as many names as you please, and I will listen. Go on.”
“ Roll on, thou deep and dark-blue ocean, roll ! ”
“ O, but that’s Byron.”
“ Well, and what objection is there to my getting another fellow to call the ocean names for me ? That is what is meant by being fond of poetry. You get another fellow to call names for you.”
“ Please don’t.”
She had risen and was facing the sea. The fierce northwest wind had torn away again her knotted hair, and half of it was hanging on her left shoulder, or streaming seaward to be restlessly and absently pushed back at times ; what with the old storm and the new wind there was battle and wild confusion in the waters, — cross-currents and still always the steady roll and stagger and crush of unending billows. She seemed to me to be beating time to the wild music of this gigantic orchestra ; marking the rhyme of the wave in an absent fashion with her rising and falling riding-whip. Also her face was in strange possession of the passing moods of nature,— having a look of elation as a wave rose greater and greater, and a certain pathetic grief in it as the dark monster reared itself out of being and was gone forever.
“ O, did you see that? In the last wave you were looking. You must have seen it. It was a face ! ”
“A — what —a face ? ”
“ Yes, a face. I saw in the last wave a face as clearly as I see yours. I could not be mistaken.”
“Most likely some drift-wood, or what not.”
“ No ; it was a live, a living face.”
“ O Miss Helen ! ”
“ Yes, it was.”
“ The sea-serpent.”
“ I saw a face in the water.”
“ A mermaid ? ”
“ I don’t know; why not ? It was a living face I saw. I am sure of that much. I know two men who look like fish. Why should not some fish look like men ? I mean to say I saw a mermaid.”
“ Do you know how they fished for mermaids in old days ? ”
“ How was it ? ”
“ First, you found a woman who was not in love.”
“ Easy to find, I should think.”
“ Then you got her to give you four of her hairs. These you tied together, and on the last you were to hang a gold ring, so as that when it was let down into the sea the mermaid would see the ring and would put it on her finger.”
“ If, then, the woman did really not love any one, the hair would hold and the mermaid be landed as safe as a bass; but if she knew not her own mind, or had fibbed a little, the ring would come up no more from under seas, but would go to gladden the hearts of the mer-folk.”
“ Your fishery is one that would thrive but slightly here at Newport, I think. I, for one— But excuse me, may I ask you what time it is. Twelve ? not really ! I am afraid I shall have to trouble you to walk across the Neck towards the lily-pond and ask Thomas to bring the horses up nearer to the rocks. I left him, thinking I would walk out on the rocks ; and, despite this clumsy dress, I wandered, as you see, so far away that I have not the courage to try the same walk again, without the sea in front to lure me on.”
“ Shall you wait here, Miss Helen?” “Yes.”
“You will let me see you safely mounted ? ”
“ Thanks, you are very kind.” And so saying she turned away toward the sea, while I went leisurely on my errand. By and by I came back. A quarter of an hour having gone. At first I missed her, but by and by, coming nearer, saw that she was lying on a black rock only just beyond the reach of the sea. I stopped a moment to watch her, with that pleasant little sense of mystery which comes of standing unnoted by one who thinks herself alone. She was too intent on her task, whatever it was, to note my coming ; so that before she did so I was standing above and behind her, and wondering with all my power of wonder at what I saw. One hand was hanging over the sea, and — surely — yes — there was a long, almost invisible thread of hair, and swinging at the end a gay gold ring, which now and again she cast lightly out on the darkness of the coming wave. This was all full of strange surprises to me. What did it mean, and of what odd birth was this childlike whim ? I stumbled at last over the thought that she was acting out the scene I had put in words, and was playing it, so to speak, to help herself to realize it, and, perchance, the woman’s feelings.
A shrewd instinct bade me fall quietly back a few steps before I spoke. Then, standing with my face away from the ocean, I said, “ Yonder come the horses, Miss Helen.”
As I turned she had started to her feet.
“ O, I am so sorry ! I have lost my ring. It—it — fell into the sea. I had it on my finger five minutes ago, and I was just playing with it — and — I lost it. Is it any use looking for it ? ” “ Not much, I should say. Was it of any value ? ”
“Was it of any value? It is of value : I want it. Why don’t some one get it for me ? ”
“Shall I take a header in search of it, Miss Helen ? ”
“ Don’t laugh at me ; I don’t like to be laughed at. If this were a few hundred years ago, I could really have found men who would have cast themselves into these wicked waves when I bade them.”
“ Do you bid me ? ”
“ No ; what use would it be ? Besides, we are nineteenth-century folk, and the world is beggared in the way of honor, and there is no woman so fair that one of you would die for her, and no man that is brave enough to — But I am in my fool’s mood to-day, and I believe in nothing. I wish I had my ring ! How awkward you are ! Give me the other arm.”
“ How can I, Miss Helen ?” And indeed I could not very well, having left the needed member on the bridge at Antietam.
“Do not go on,— wait a moment. I want to speak to you. I beg your pardon for what I said a little while ago. Remembering this,”—and she touched my vacant sleeve, — “I ought not to have been able to say such
things to you.”
“ Quite a needless amount of remorse.”
“ I am sorry — I am glad I said so; I am glad I said I was sorry.”
It seemed to me, looking at those farseeking eyes, that she somehow wanted to be softly spoken. Something there was like a look of yearning; but to comprehend it was like reading the weather in a strange land.
“ I ought to be glad, if it has brought that new look into your face. You keep it for rare times and people, and perhaps for me it may never come again. It is going now. Have I said too much ? Ah, Miss Helen ! No ? Well, do not hurry away then. I was only going to say how hard it is to know people thoroughly. I did not think there could come a look on your face that would be strange to me, and yet — ”
“ A poor study, I should say.”
“ Not so, because it taught, if I am not wrong, that in some far-away time — ”
“ Pardon me, you are on my skirt. No ; indeed, I thought you were. Please ask Thomas to tighten the girths a little. You, of course, are afoot. Thanks, that was nicely done. Good morning.”
I stayed a minute, half vexed, half amused, until the dust from her groom’s horse hid the form I had learned to love so well. Then I turned back for a long walk, around the Neck and past Bateman’s. Near this last place I met a friend, who carried me off to his home near by, where a pleasant little bachelor dinner and an afternoon sail whiled away the day.
It was close on to sunset as I started to walk home by the avenue. When I came near to the lily-pond the fancy took me to wander out on the rocks again where I had been in the morning ; very gray and weird they are as the twilight falls, full peopled with uncouth shadows which at times get them strange faces, and seem to slide from rock to rock as, moving by, you see them grow or lessen.
The spirit of the scene was soon upon me. I sat where I had sat in the morning: before me the moving hills of water, vast in the dimness,—black walled and rolling loose in their glossy cradles, the white moon’s scattered silver ; behind me were uncertain deeps of shadow, through which the gray rocks climbed into the moonshine; and then landward deeper darkness, dim outlines, a dark plume of trees here and there against the sky, and, distant far, the lights of the town.
I sat a long while trying to go over the chat of the morning and to make it seem other than it was ; but the task was a vain task, and it was easier to make the talk what it ought to have been. So I busied myself, as many a man has done before, and as some will do again, building a day-dream. Very pleasant things she said to me now that I had it all in my own hands, nor could any woman be more charming or more gracious. Then my mood would change, and the vision fade, and the bitterness of the day come back to me once more. It became best at last to laugh, which I remember I did right heartily, until I was stopped by the loneliness of my mirth. “ So,” said I, “there is still one mistress worth the wooing ” ; and thereupon lit my pipe, and across its social little fireside watched the lights on the ships and in the distant lighthouse, or tried to make out the signal at Block Island.
The night was very warm, and by and by, lulled by the waters, I fell into a doze ; and from this into another, awaking out of which a little chilled, I struck my repeater and found I had spent most of the night on the rocks. The early daylight was already climbing the skies to my right, and, half vexed, half amused, I began to gather myself up to go, when, hearing a little noise, I turned, and saw that there was on the rocks a lady. Her presence at this hour of the morning quite startled me ; for not only was the time strange, but also the woman was quite alone. At any other hour I should have felt no wonder at her being here, and should only have turned and walked away. But at this time of day, I might say of night, our being there together was like people meeting in strange lands, who must needs speak, even if under other skies they might pass by and make no sign. As I turned to look at her more nearly, I saw that she was seated on a rock at the very water’s edge, and that the waves now breaking, but low, came up almost to her knees. “Pardon me,” said I, in some haste, and with a real feeling of alarm, “ madam, do you know you are in danger where you are sitting? Let me help you. Pray, take my arm.”
As I spoke she turned her head, and I saw that she had very long red hair, which hung down over her shoulders and even lay on the rock like some strange sea-weed. In the dim light I could see only that her eyes were so large as to be almost unnatural. In fact, they were immense. She answered me in a voice which was so soft and lazy and so drawling that the effect was to add oddness to the curious reply with which she met my offer. “ Don’t come near me : I have been watching you while you were asleep, and I like you,”
“ But — ” said I.
“Don’t do it. I might be tempted, —you see. If you had only both your fins, I think I surely should do it; but what would my family say if I brought home a young man with his near flapper gone ? ”
“ Goodness ! ” said I, “ why, you must
you must be a mermaid.”
“ And why not ? If the young woman who fished for me had only been heart-whole, I should have been by this time, I suppose, in some horrid museum.”
“ And the ring,” I cried, “ you have it?”
“Of course I have it: it’s a poor kind of affair. I ’ve got lots better at home, but then it was awful jolly,— don't mind my language. I got it listening to the girls on the rocks, — it was tremendously jolly to feel that funny little line go crack, and to know the goosey was in love and did n’t guess it, maybe. I tell you, she was cut up about that ring.”
“ Where is it ? ” said I.
“Want to see it? Just come here. I'm a little damp ; you won’t mind that, and— Well, I’m just as good-looking as she is, except she’s got toes and I have n’t ; but they ’re very much in the way in the water. They would n’t last no time going through a school of herring. You want the ring, do you ?”
“ Well, then, I ’ll put it on the rock ; but don’t come any closer. Either it’s that horrid fin of yours that’s gone, — was it bit off? — or else I’m a little land-sick. Good by. How nasty it must be to be dry all over ! ”
Here I heard a plunge, and the woman was lost in the water at my feet. “Good gracious !” said I,as I rubbed my eyes, “ what a ridiculous dream ! ” In fact, I had not passed the night, but had simply fallen asleep, for who can tell how many seconds ? My watch, however, showed me at once that at least an hour had past. The tide was well out, the uncovered rocks ugly and repulsive with their shabby, dank weeds, and the night about to fall. I found that in my droll dreaming I had very well kept in mind the main features of the rocks, and, as I walked out on the ledge where my mermaid had sat, saw that she could very well have been there. As I stepped back again I noticed a little gleam on the rock, and bending down, to my surprise found in a little hollow in the stone a ring which at once I knew to be Miss Helen’s. The ledge in question was a few feet from that on which she had sat in the morning ; and through the black wave which tore away the ring it had dropped into this secure cup in the lower rock. The ring was one of those old-time jewelries which were given in betrothals or as pledges of friendship. It was two rings which came together so as to make one, and was, as I could see, a relic of some past day, —of some elder love since in its grave, of some friendship no more of this earth.
The trover so strangely come by made me not a little thoughtful. Absently I slipped it on my finger, and, lighting my pipe, took counsel with myself. At last the night fell, and I wandered homeward along the dusty roadway, past the lily-pond, across the little bathing-beach, and then along the avenue among the gleaming lights of the houses and into the quaint old town.
“ Shall we walk a little through the grounds ? ” This I said to Miss Helen as we stepped out of the hot ball-room of that most charming house on the cliffs we all of us know so well.
“ Yes, I would like it, but I must not go beyond this walk by the veranda, because I promised Mr. Jones the next waltz ; and you know he does waltz so delightfully.”
The walk was pleasant, and the moonlight white and cheery ; the sound of the music oppressive under the windows, but delicious as we wandered away from the house and found ourselves — who shall say how? — on the rocks which here and there jut out from the smooth lawns of the cliffwalk.
“ Sit down and I will tell you a story.”
“O, I think that would be so very nice. But please to hurry. Mr. Jones — ”
“ Mr. Jones will be the better for being this much saved from temptation ; and my story is not very short. What! you must go ! you will go ! I think you said this morning that you wanted a certain ring which you lost.”
“ Have you it ? Is that possible ? ”
“ I don’t think I said so. My story—” “ No, my ring, I want to hear about my ring. If you have it, give it to me.”
“ One would think it had some strange value to you.”
“ And if it has, what are you concerned in it ? ”
“ Once upon a time — ”
“ You are really odious to-night. I do not see why you should find it agreeable to plague me so.”
“ Once upon a time — ”
“ Am I really to listen ? ”
“ Once upon a time —”
“Go on. I am your foe for life.”
“ Once upon a time, in the far-away days of fable, a woman went a fishing with a little gold ring and strands of her hair ; she went a fishing for mermaids. This is very nice fishing, if only you are heart-whole, but not otherwise ; and alas ! this woman must have had one little corner of her heart in quiet or unquiet keeping of somebody, because snap goes the line and off goes the ring on a mermaid’s finger. “ What nonsense ! ”
“ Well, it chanced, as the years went away, that a man, who had loved once and always and but one woman,was lying on the rocks where the mermaids were fished for, when one of these dames, seeing that his heart was pure, gave him her love ; and when he would none of it, she, being kindlier tempered than the dames of earth, said, “ Here is a ring which came to me from an unlucky fisherwoman whose heart was not love-clear quite, and — ”
“ What a nice story ! I do so want to hear it all ; but there goes the band again, and I shall miss my dance.”
“ Just one moment.”
“ O, it is that lovely Danube Waltz of Strauss!” Here she hummed it gayly.
“Will you have your ring? Here, I have it.”
“Yes, give it me. How did you get it? Quick, please, I am in such a burry.”
“On one condition.”
“ I never heard of anything so dishonest. What is it?”
“ I want you to tell me what you were thinking of when you were guilty of that absurd fishery.”
“ I decline to answer. O, yes ; I was thinking of Mr. Jones.”
“ Will you never be serious ? ”
“ Do you think your absurd stories are of a kind to make one so ? Please to give me my ring. I don’t believe you have it.”
“ Perhaps not. Helen, you must hear me this time. I am weary of this endless waiting. There, take your ring. I found it on the rocks. May I put it on your finger ? ”
“ O, here is Mr. Jones come for me. How nice ! Now I shall have my waltz.”
“ And I, one word.”
“It is our waltz, Miss Helen, I believe.”
“ Do not leave me so. One word. I love you, Helen! A word, a sign,— something.”
“ Was it a red rose I promised you ? Please to bring me my opera-cloak, Mr. Jones. It is on the rock yonder.”
“ A rose for me, and you ? ”
“ Yes ; but, indeed, I am not half good enough for you.”
“ How can I thank you ? ”
“ And now for that waltz, Mr. Jones.”