OLD Dave Plummet lived on the inner cove of Mackerel Harbor, close to the water. Twenty years before he had bought the little tract of land, just big enough for a house and a small garden. He had paid a hundred dollars for it. That was the time when you could fill a dory twice over in the day with cod from the mouth of the harbor ; it was the good old time when trawls and nets and seines were not invented to impoverish the Atlantic and the fishermen; it was the golden time when a crew did not have to be intoxicated into shipping to the Grand Banks, and when most skippers banished liquor and even cards from their vessels.
But now the days were new. The village had grown into a town, and the town into a city, and the city had closed in around Dave’s home. This made him no richer, for exorbitant taxes devoured the feeble satisfaction he felt in the increase of the value of his real estate.
Sell his home ? Ask younger men than he to barter away what might be called their birthright; for these fishermen’s huts, half in, half out of the water, become more like boats than houses to their aging owners. Dave Plummet was seventy-five years old. He was born in Mackerel Harbor, and clung to the cove he lived on and to the house he lived in as he did to Sukey, his wife, and to the other members of his household. You see, there were four in the family: Sukey, who was ten years younger than her husband ; Caddy, the cat, who was seventytwo years younger ; and the dory, which was fifty-five years younger. Of these three, Dave spent most of his time with the dory.
It was an October evening, and already the sun was setting behind the copper-paint factory on the opposite side of the cove. Dave had just finished his supper of corned pollock, and, with lighted pipe, leaned back against the open door, watching his dory disappearing in misty shadows. It was a large dory, eighteen feet long; almost as many feet long as it was years old. It was painted a dull green on the outside, and its bottom had a coat of tar and kerosene. It was covered fore and aft along the rail. It had a mast, a mainsail, a jib, a centre-board, and several large pigs of iron as ballast. It was a genuine fisherman’s dory, such as are used to go codfishing off the rocks.
“ Why don’t you get a sailing-boat ? ” For the last ten years neighbors and summer boarders had propounded this question. It was considered a poser. Sukey herself, after an unusually lucky season, had begged Dave to buy a sloop Down East. But the old man would always say, after a long pause : —
“ Ain’t I got what I want ? She’s a ship, she is. There ain’t nothin’ safer in the harbor ; an’ then, one man can manage her; ’sides, if ther’ ain’t no air, I kin row her out an’ in myself.”
Then, if you saw his dory beating into Mackerel Harbor from Killick Ledge three miles out, from Drunken Ledge four miles out, or from Saturday Nights six miles out; if you watched her, with five hundredweight of fish in, set against a stiff nor’easter, snugly reefed and not shipping a drop of water over her lee rail, you would conclude that Dave was right to brag of his dory and to stick to it. Hut that was ten or fifteen years before, when such skill was due more to the man than to the boat, when his hand was steady and his eyes were clear. Then he was considered the best doryfisherman off the coast. Nobody knew the marks of the feeding-grounds better than he. Nobody could predict more unerringly the day when the dogfish would strike, or divine more quickly the rock bottom which the “dogs” passed by. h or twenty years Dave Plummet had been “ high line ; ” but now he was seventy-five years old, as old for his kind as the dory was for its kind. His arms were beginning to find it hard work to gaff the largest pollock and cod, and to haul them in ; and his eyes were often unable to distinguish the lighthouse in the hollow and the rock opposite the barn, and other marks along the shore.
Give up his dory ? It meant to stagnate like rain water in the crevasses of the granite coast; it meant to be consumed by the desperation of longing for a life’s habit. At his age, it meant to die. What would old Dave do, if he had not his four-o’clock breakfast; if he could not get under way from the cove in company with his mates ; if he could not gossip morning after morning at the trap about the prospects of the weather or of the fishing, or dispute the speed credited to the latest “ flying - fisherman,”or tell how times were changed, while he waited for tinkers, or squid, or blueback, or herring for his day’s bait? It had never occurred to him that he could give it up. His wildest nightmare after a supper of griddle-cakes had never compassed such a thing.
But as he grew more unsteady about the hands and dimmer about the eyes, his old wife saw him off every morning with apprehension, and watched for him at noon with increasing anxiety. She did not mind it so much that for the last two summers he had not caught enough to pay for food and coal ; but oh, if he should never come back at all !
Cap’n Joe, his next-door neighbor, had often begged Dave to give up doryfishing, but Sukey had never asked him to do so. Fov, although he was a kind man, he was an obstinate husband, and detested female worry.
Now to-day the first real shock had come to her. Cap’n Joe had just come in and told her all about it. Dave had barely escaped being run down by a big schooner. He was sailing home with only fifty weight of fish in. He had not seen the great banker until it was right upon him. The steersman of the banker supposed that the dory would tack out of his way, and so kept straight on.
“ It were a narrer squeeze,”remarked Cap’n Joe. “ If the skipper had n’t yanked the hellum hard down, it ’u’d been all up with uncle Dave. I felt hot an’ cold up an’ down my column, until it sweat out my head. Ye’d better keep him ter home arter this. Dave is gett’n’ a leetle old fur fishin’ off the rocks. He kin go shares in my boat if he wants ter.”
When Dave got home that afternoon, a little later than ordinary, he did not say much, nor Sukey either. The one felt the humiliation of his first nautical carelessness, and was already morbid over it. The other was gathering courage for the demand that the wife felt it right at last to make.
“ I hope Dave ’ll be reasonable,” she kept saying to herself. “ We ain’t hed a failin’ out fur since I don’t remember when. I do hope he ’ll be reasonable.”
At last — it seemed a great while longer than usual — the early supper was over, and Sukey kept glancing furtively at her husband as he sat in the red sunlight, tipped back against the outside of the house.
He had a hard, suspicious look about the eyes that evening, as if he felt he deserved what was coming, and were ready to fight it. His neck, ravined with intersecting wrinkles, shone bronze in the setting light. His matted beard, long since tanned out of its original color, and now faded into a sickly yellowish-gray, hid the hand that rested under the chin. For the first time the old man felt a sullen resentment against his seventy-five years. The prospect of being limited in any way unmanned him. He had been as free — why, as free as a fish all his life. No unnetted cod had more liberty. He struggled as if he were seined. She could not understand: she was a woman.
“ Dave! I want to speak to ye.” Sukey was trembling as she advanced toward him. She was a gaunt woman, gray and tall.
He turned his head uneasily toward the dory beyond the wall, and without an answer got up and walked to his hauling-line. This was made fast upon the handles of two broken oars which stuck out of the ground at that edge of the garden that stopped at the sea wall.
His wife followed him out. They both walked slowly : he, because of the thoughts that pounded within his brain ; she, because of the inflammatory rheumatism which had laid her up the winter before.
“ Dave ! ” she repeated. " Let the dory stand this ev’n’n’, fur I want to talk with ye.” She laid her bony hand, that had cooked for him, mended for him, washed for him, worked out for him, and been true to him for forty-seven years, upon his shirt-sleeve.
Dave had never been rough to his wife. He loved her after his own fashion — next to the dory; but this evening he shook her off rudely.
“But, Dave ! ”
“ What d’ ye want ? ” came back in gruff sea tones.
He was about to unhitch the haulingline and draw in his dory hand over hand, when he felt something pulling at his left knee. It was accompanied by a familiar sensation. Caddy, the third member of the family, the great black cat, who always followed her master’s motions of evenings, had now raised herself, with a superb arch, upon her hindpaws, and, with what she thought was an irresistible caress, clawed the rough cloth playfully. Caddy never presumed to remonstrate with Dave in the morning, when he took his dory ; but to have the family apart after supper was too serious a matter to go unquestioned. The black cat knew as well as Sukey did what it meant to have Dave untie his hauling-line. The man bent to stroke the cat, who dared to be bolder than his wife. As he did so, a pleasant expression came slowly across his face. Perhaps the cat recalled to him his tenderest memory, his most poignant grief.
Three years before, the dread of Dave Plummet’s unimaginative life came to pass. His only son, who had a good position in the counting-room of a fishfirm, became a drunkard. The natural sequence followed : the young man lost his character and his situation ; and the familiar curse, whose misery Dave had watched among his neighbors all his life, struck home now to his own heart.
In those days, momentous in the history of two obscure families, Dave became a grandfather. His son reeled home one night to find a live baby and a dead wife, and a few days after shipped somewhere, in a drunk, and had not been heard of since.
Of course Sukey took the child, and of course she and the old fisherman began to love it. When the baby was six months old, that they might purify it from paternal taint, the grandparents called in the clergyman of the fishermen’s Bethel and had the child solemnly christened. They gave it the name of Caddy. But love, its mother’s name, persistent care, and piety could not withstand the vicious inheritance. Caddy died, and in a poor corner of the stormswept cemetery, upon the bleak hill, there is a little mound beside a larger one. Two dead wreaths still cling upon it. A granite slab bears this economical inscription : —
Call it coincidence or call it Providence, as you please, but the night the baby was buried a stray cat came to the house. She was a handsome, affectionate cat, and immediately appropriated a warm spot behind the kitchen stove, and another in Sukey’s heart. How the old people came to pass on the name of the child to the cat no one could tell, they themselves least of all : but they did. It was one of those freaks of the rare imagination which visits simple homes like theirs, and which is more persistent because of its unfamiliarity. The neighbors were scandalized. Cap’n Joe and his wife, Mary Sarah, took the ground that it was heretical ; there were not wanting original minds in the cove who called it heathenish. But Caddy the cat was called, and Caddy she remained. The neighbors in time grew used to Caddy, and forgot their theologi cal criticism ; and Caddy walked to and fro, unnialigned and unmolested.
Now, as the old man stroked the cat. he thought, “Caddy don’t call me old, nor pester me about the dory, nor tell me to stop fishin’, as them women do,”and his heart softened toward Caddy, the cat, and hardened toward Sukey, his wife.
Sukey, seeing his features lighten, mistook her opportunity, and laying her hand again, very gently, upon his arm, she said: “ Come inter the house, Dave, an’ sit down an’ smoke by the fire. We hain’t hed a talk fur an age.”
“ Let me ’lone ! I’m goin’ to bail out my dory,” he growled ; but he redoubled his attentions to the cat.
“ ’T ain’t rained, Dave,” pleaded his wife eagerly. She felt afraid of this morose mood; but it had come to the pass that she must speak now, or die of anxiety. “Don’t go to the dory again, Dave. Ye ain’t fit. Ye ain’t as strong as ye used to be.” She paused, trembling at her new-found audacity. She wondered how she had dared to say as much as she did. If he had been any other kind of a man, it would have been easy ; but to ask him, who, in the coast phrase, “never knew his own strength,” who had never seen his own will obstructed, and who did not understand that he had become an old man. — to ask Dave to tear himself from the habits of twenty years, and tell him why, was the most serious and heroic act in her marital experience of nearly half a century. Why, she had put this moment off for five summers, and only a sick woman knows the physical exhaustion that such an interview exacts.
She waited a few moments for an answer, but none came.
Her husband stared stolidly at the dory as it rapidly became obliterated in the black-tinted cove. But she had breached the wall, and there was no retreat.
“ Dave, I want you to promise me to give up the dory an’ fishin’, an’ stay to home. A wife orter have some rights after a-livin’ with one man forty-seven year. Yer gettin’ old, Dave, an’ ye ain’t what ye was when we fust kept company, me an’ you.”
Sukey stopped and panted. It had grown so dark that, under the apple-tree where they stood, she could not see his face, but she could hear him mutter.
“ ’T ain’t much to ask,” she continued gently.
He stood stolidly and permitted her touch of entreaty.
“ They said ye hed a narrer escape to-day. Yer a little slow of seein’,— thet’s what’s the matter.”
“ Who toll ye ? ” he asked, with surly suspicion.
She did not answer.
“ Who toll ye, I say ? Tell me his name! He hain’t no friend o’ mine.” He took the hand upon his arm and squeezed it roughly.
“Ye hurt me, Dave. Ye wouldn’t hurt yer wife, would ye? ”
“No,” he growled, flinging her hand away, “ ’case yer a woman. I would n’t hurt no woman. I ain’t done so yet. But ye must shet up on the fishin’ talk, fur I won’t take nobody’s lip about my fishin’.”
“ But I must, Dave. I’m your wife. Hain’t I got a right?" Her voice took on a tone of dignity. “ Don’t I cook for ye, an’ get up every mornin’ afore daylight, rain or shine, to get ye yer breakfast, when I ’d ’nough rather sleep, an’ need it, for I’m gett’n’ old, too ? ”
“ I 'll make me own coffee arter this,” he mumbled.
“ ’T ain’t that, Dave. Ye know’t ain’t, that. Ye ain’t fit to go dory-fishin’. Yer old wife wants ye to stay ashore the rest of yer life with her. ’T ain’t much to ask at our time of life, Dave.”
The pathetic entreaty made in her low, broken, frightened voice ought to have been enough to disarm any man. But this hoary fisherman, who was as firmly set in his daily life as the black fault of trap is in its granite matrix, listened to her with increasing anger. Why should she presume to keep an able-bodied man from his work ? What else could he do but fish ? At fifteen he had served his apprenticeship on a Grand-Banker ; and from that time he had fished every day, except when he landed a trip, or Sundays, or Fourth of July, or when a storm kept him at home. When he became blind or disabled he would quit, but not before. Such thoughts worked within him and mastered him. Was not his unimpeached manhood wronged by his wife, and should he not be exasperated by it?
“ Ain’t I bin a-goin’ fur sixty year, an" ain’t I bin dory-fishin’ fur twentyfive year, an’ ain’t bin lost yet ? What ’u’d I do if I did n’t go ? By gorry! neither you nor nobody else kin stop me. D’ ye hear thet ? Now shet up. I tell ye, so help me God. I ’ll go till I die ! ” He spoke passionately, raising his hand with a final oath; then he sharply turned and went into the kitchen, and slammed the door after him.
Slowly, sick at heart, but not wholly exhausted of courage, Sukey followed him. She found him in his old seat beside the stove, surlily filling his pipe, with the cat purring happily in his lap. He did not look up when she entered, but his brow grew darker at the sound of her approach. She noticed this, and then for the first time she began to lose her temper. She was a Methodist, and devout. Her voice had gradually acquired a sing-song tone, such as is common with uncultured exhorters. It was in such a voice of rising and falling quavers, of deep notes and falsetto intervals, that she had been pleading with him until now.
Beyond the frown, Dave took no notice of her as she entered. The baffled woman, feeling that she must gain her point, yet not knowing how to begin again, busied herself in tidying up the kitchen. Although her feet ached so that it seemed to her it would be a relief to have them cut off, she did not sit down. She thought that such a sign of weakness would be interpreted as a concession. As she put away her dishes she thought of her hard life, of her lonely home, of that eroding anxiety from which a fisherman’s wife is never free. Any night she might look in vain for the dingy sail. Any morning’s ” Good-by, Dave,” might be the last word. She never parted with him, if she could help it, with an untender word. "’T ain’t much to do,” she often said to herself, “ to hev a pleasant rek’lectshun of our last meet’n, if he don’t come back.” It occurred to her, as she bent over her pretended work at cleaning the sink, that it was about time to have relief after nearly half a century of watching the boats and the weather. Now, too, when the Lord had smitten him with a solemn warning.
She began to feel that she could stand the silence no longer. With a voice made uniform by deep feeling, and the braveness of a woman sure of the rights of her case, she approached her husband and stood before his chair.
” Eddy George has got eighty thousand jest come in from the Banks this mornin’. Tom’s got the fever, an’ they wants a new hand on the wharf fur weighin’. Eddy asked me if ye’d come to-morrer at six. I told him I thought ye would, seein’ it’s twenty-five cents an hour, an’ easy work.”Her voice grew firmer as she finished and waited for his answer.
He cast up at her a quick look thatexpressed more fully than words the contempt which the catcher of live fish feels for the handler of dead ones. The one leads an untrammeled life of danger, of excitement, of change, and of hope; the other, the slimy existence of a snail upon an unsavory wharf. The one is poetry, the other prose. The one always expects to support his family for months by a single lucky stroke ; the other does it by persistent days’ labor, with no luck in the balance.
“I ain t hed to work on the wharves yet, an’ I ain’t goin’ to start in now. Eddy George kin go to — ”
The old man brought his fist down on his knee as he spoke; the round of the chair under his foot gave way with a crash, and his two feet came down with a startling stamp. The cat, frightened at being thrown to the floor, scurried under the stove. There are some natures so controlled that it is impossible for another to provoke them to an explosion ; but let some sudden maladroitness of their own occur, in an unguarded moment, allowing their rage open spite against themselves, it bursts all barriers like a great inundation. This unforeseen accident to his favorite chair first inflamed Dave’s wrath against himself, and then against his wife. He trembled in every muscle, yet she did not retreat. She too had the temper and the courage of her hot-blooded ancestry. Now that it had inevitably come to the battle, she felt that right and love were on her side, and her poor old limbs and her quavering voice took strength from the moral consciousness.
“ Ye did it! ” he snarled, standing up. “ Ye’d better go, an’ let me alone. Don’t ye speak. Hain’t I fed ye for fortyseven year, an’ ye shall" —
“ Ye hain’t. Ye hain’t made ’nough fur the last two year, Dave, to feed the cat. Thet’s the straight truth, — thet is. They say ye can’t see the marks, an’ of course ye can’t catch no fish when yer off the grounds ; only a cu uner, or a rock cod or two, or a sculpiu. Hain’t I taken in mendin’ fur the last three year, since baby died, ter pay the bills ? Hain’t I gone out washin’ on the sly, an’ hain’t told ye before, an’ye never know’d it ? Hain’t I set hungry here that ye might hev enough when ye came home tuckered out ? Don’t ye say no more to me about feedin’, Dave ! I can’t allow it,” Aggravated into this confession of the want which she had proudly concealed from him, she now cast it at him as if it were a stone.
Her husband fell back a step, as if he had been struck in a vital spot. His face assumed a frightful expression. The fact that he believed the assertion to he true only enraged him the more. What worse insult can a man receive from his wife than the taunt that he is incapable of supporting the family ?
“It’s a— lie,” he stammered. “Take it back, or, by gorry, I ’ll make ye ! ”
“ Thet’s it,” replied the undaunted woman, towering to his own height. “ Starve me, an’ then heat me. Ye ain’t no man of mine.”
He had taken her harshly by the arm. Was he about to strike his wife for the first time ? He did not know what he would do. His eyes grew bloodshot and dim. A vague longing for revenge overpowered him. His hands began to tremble violently.
“ That’s a — lie. Git out! I ’ll never speak to ye again, so help me God ! ” For the second time that evening he flung her arm away from him, but this time feebly.
Sukey did not notice any change in him. She almost wished that he had struck her. When morning came, the blow would have gained her point; but at what a cost!
“ Look ye here, Dave,” she said in a caustic tone. Ye have told me twice thet I lie. Ye know I spoke the truth. Ye orter be ashamed of yerself. An’ if ye don’t want ter speak to me agin, I kin stand it; an’ I won’t speak to ye neither until ye give up the dory, an’ stay to home where ye belong.”
Panting with indignation, astounded at her own bitterness and temerity, she waited for a reply. Instinctively she put up her hand to ward off the blow that was certain to fall. But neither word nor violence came. With a low groan Dave sank back into his chair. Caddy, the cat, jumped up on his lap contentedly. He closed his eyes, and the color faded from his face.
Sukey started to say “ Dave ! ” but stopped. Her anger had fallen as the wind before the rain. She looked at him a trifle apprehensively, but he quieted her fears by stroking the cat. She waited about for a few minutes nervously, not knowing what to do; then she left the room and went to bed, and wept convulsively, with tearless eyes, far into the dismal night.
Now it is a fact which the narrator is compelled to record that the threat of these two old people, made in hot blood, was kept in cool. For nearly three years, with a deliberation and a steadfastness worthy of better things, they kept the word which they had pledged in anger. He did not speak to her, nor she to him. One would have thought, that they were old enough to know better. But pride does not age. It never does know better: that is the trouble. They both belonged to that primal New England stock which is rapidly dying out, and which you can no more tear from its notions than you can tear the earshell from its grip upon the submerged rocks. When they had “ passed their word,” and began to carry it out, they stood to it as the boulder stands to its base upon the granite cliff.
The next morning Dave lit the kitchen fire and made his own coffee before daybreak, filled his stone jug with spring water, took half a loaf of bread, and disappeared with his dory before his wife was up. The feeling that he had been wronged did not leave him for a moment. It did not occur to Sukey, on the other hand, to entertain a thought of compromise, unless it should come, as the law phrase puts it, from " the party of the second part.”
When Dave returned to his home, just before sunset, long after supper time, Sukey received him mechanically. She set before him cold corned beef, cold pie, and hot tea, of which he partook in cold silence. So determined were they not to speak at this first interview that the effort not to talk was already the most natural thing in the world. It was not resentment, but crystallized tenacity, which at the end of the week turned the fixed idea into a settled fact, and habitual silence between this husband and his wife set in with ominous calm. To break this mute contract seemed to each an impossible dishonor. — worse than to steal berring from another man’s nets, or to stock a grog-shop for entrapping fishermen and shipping a returned crew.
But the iron mask of dumbness must not conceal all the features of the heart. Besides, neighbors had to be considered. If it were known in Mackerel Cove that Dave Plummet and his wife “ did not speak,”the sinners would be besieged by a mob of friends and relatives, and thousand-feathered rumor would work a quarrel into a scandal. Thus it came about that the woman, who had the hard time of it, sitting at home, sewing laboriously, saving penuriously, generally alone, — the woman fell into the way of talking to the cat.
“Go, Caddy, an’ see if yer master is comin’ home,”she would say, when the noon sun came. And Caddy would go to the kitchen door that commanded the inner cove and the fish wharves diagonally opposite, and arch her back, rubbing it against the side of the steps, purring vigorously.
What shall I give him fur dinner, Caddy?”
” Run an’ tell yer master to hurry up, or the vittles 'll get cold, Caddy.”
Then Dave, who was only a little more bull-necked than the rest of his class, would nod cheerfully in return and answer, “ Tell yer missus, Caddy, that as soon as I hang up my oilskins I 'll be there.”
“ Go, Caddy, an’ tell yer master ther’ ain’t no wood left.”
“Whach ye want, Caddy, this time ? ” The old man would lean over and stroke the lamp-black cat. “ Yer a nice critter, you be. Want wood, do ye ? Ye shall hev it. Run to yer missus an’ tell her I 'll split ’nough of this here driftwood to last till day alter to-morrer.”
And the cat, apparently understanding her new mission in life, would dutifully, and yet with a certain coquettish grace never absent from her kind, trot back, and arch herself, and stretch her claws, and beg the reward of a piece of fish.
At four o’clock in the morning you might hear a voice, hoarse like the October wind upon the red shore, call from below, “Caddy ! Git up, Caddy ! It’s nigh daylight.”
And the answer would come in the sing-song quaver, in a voice pseudomorph after his own : “ Caddy ! Run an’ tell yer master I ’ll be down in a jiffy. Tell him to light the fire an’ put the water on to bile.”
Thus did love compromise with what they considered necessity. But neither spoke to the other. The cat was the sole interpreter.
So the time passed for three summers. Years fly as men slip past the grim keeper of the seventieth toll-gate ; but they are counted with groans, and not with smiles. Old Dave no longer fished for cod upon the rocks. Indeed, sometimes he tried to make up his mind to give up dory-fishing altogether; but his pride would not yield to his weakness. Then the dory began to show undeniable signs of dissolution : this touched him deeper than his own disability. When, in the spring, with the friendly aid of Cap’n Joe, he hauled the dory above high-water mark, and nailed and calked the garboard streak again, counted the other vital repairs that ought to be made in her, made some of them and tried to forget the rest, and then put on a “ light lick ” of coal tar and kerosene upon her bottom, he felt as if he should never do this again.
“Ye’d better look out, Dave, an’ not jump around thet dory of yourn too lively,”said Cap’n Joe warningly. “ Ye could put yer toe through anywheres, — yer dory is so wormy as thet.”
From that time Dave always wore rubber boots in his dory, and whenever he moved he did it as gingerly as if he were sailing on tissue paper.
Dave had gradually diminished the radius of his fishing operations. When he could no longer find the marks for Killick Ledge, or Saturday Nights, or Spot o’ Rocks, he contented himself by casting anchor a hundred yards outside the black buoy at the mouth of the harbor. But now he could not see more than a hundred yards off, and he had several times missed the red Life-Saving Station, the easiest mark of all. This summer he took to coasting along the shore, following the western side of the harbor until about two miles out. There he fished for dinners. He was not strong enough to haul lobster-pots. But cunners brought a cent apiece. Sometimes he made “ as high” as two dollars a day, selling them for the city market. But what a descent, from cod to cunners! He felt himself now on a level with the Irishmen who scoured the waters for the same game in their ungainly black sloops, which the fishermen contemptuously called “ kemoilyers.” However, Dave never deigned to catch cunners with a scoop-net. True, he might have trebled his receipts that way. But should he, the mighty fisherman of old, entrap a cunner but by a book? He would live and die a legitimate fisherman. Seines and trawls and nets were an abomination to him.
A marked change began to come over him as he reached the third summer of his resolution. Dave, in his seventyeighth year, made a discovery. He began — who could say how ? — to compute the value of home. He did n’t start off mornings much before six, — as late as that, — and even then he seemed to tear himself away; he was sure to return by noon. That constituted his day’s work. It was not that he loved his dory less, but his cottage more. Then he began to plant the garden, and to raise a few sunflowers and cauliflowers and potatoes. He took an old dory that had made its last voyage ten years before, filled it with earth, sowed it with garden seed, and covered it with a condemned herring net, to keep his neighbor’s chickens out. This he presented to Caddy, with the suggestion that she give it to her mistress.
“Thank ye, Caddy,” said Sukey. It’s a pretty garding. I’m much obliged to ye, tell yer master, Caddy.”
Sukey was almost happy in these days. She brought her knitting, or her apples to pare, or peas to shell, and sat under the shade of the apple-tree and worked and watched her husband in a contented dream.
Caddy, the cat, worked too. That member of the household was never allowed to be out of sight. Never since the days of the Pharaohs did a cat have kinder or more exacting owners. If she disappeared for half an hour, the machinery of the household became utterly out of gear. Then Dave ran as fast as he could in one direction, and Sukey hobbled as well as she could in another, and Caddy invariably turned up from somewhere else, with an amused glitter in her eyes, and sat demurely washing her face with alternate paws, guarding the empty premises until the anxious couple hurried back, almost beside themselves and out of breath. They dared not punish her for such innocent escapades, for fear she would run away forever. The old woman would scold her mildly : “ Oh, Caddy, ye sinner ye ! An’ I ’ve bin runnin’ round the square huntin’ creation for ye.”
“ Ye sha’n’t hev that herrin’ I fetched home fur ye,” Dave would say sternly. “ Now ask yer mistress if I had n’t better take the clothes-line down. It nigh tuk my head off. I forgit it every time I move.”
And Sukey would answer cheerfully : “Naughty Caddy ! Naughty cat! Ye skinned out! Ye ’ll have no supper fur that. Jest go an’ tell yer master he kin take it down when he’s a mind ter, an’ ask him ter step aroun’ to the store an’ git a pound of butter. We ’re all out. I declare, it’s time to set fur supper.”
In those latter days, supper was the most important meal of this household. They were too bitterly poor to have meat more than once a week ; but when they did have it it was fried for supper. Breakfast was only a hurried cup of coffee with condensed milk and a piece of bread. Dinner was a variable meal, and became princely when Dave caught a chance haddock, or somebody on the wharves gave him a slice of halibut: then they had a chowder or a luscious fry; otherwise, potatoes and flakes of dried cod formed the staple diet. But Sukey tried to have a variety for tea. This evening they had liver, partly for Caddy’s sake, but chiefly as a surprise for Dave.
“ Ye kin tell him ter wash up, an’ keep out of the kitchen till I call ye, Caddy.”
“ Here, Caddy ! She wants ter come it on us. Give her her own way, puss. We know what she ’s got, don’t we, Caddy? Ain’t we smellin’on it?” He went obediently to the pump, followed by the great black cat, who eyed him philosophically. Dave washed his furrowed face slowly, thinking with an old man’s tenderness about his wife, whom he was just beginning to understand after fifty years of companionship, and with whom he was not on speaking terms.
Then came the summons which he began to love, in the voice that he had learned to depend upon : “ Caddy ! Call master to supper ! ”
“ God bless me home,” thought the gruff old fellow, as he sat down to his smoking meal. Somehow his rheumy eyes had to be wiped. His love had found its way to the surface too late. How he longed to tell her this ! But he could n’t. He did n’t know how. He was n’t in the habit of saying sweet things to his wife. Besides, he never would speak to her again — unless she spoke first. He began to talk to the cat about the liver.
“Caddy run away to-day, an’ can’t hev any,” returned Sukey, pushing the persistent creature over to her husband.
“ Tell yer missus I stocked eighty-two cents to-day, an’ sixty-three yesterday. They say mack’rel is as scerce ez rebels. The bluefish druv ’em all off the coast. There ain’t no cunners, Caddy, to speak on, neither.” The veteran wiped his mouth on his shirt-sleeve with a happy air, and proudly pulled out a leathern pouch, and as proudly counted out his two days’ gains upon the table, minus ten cents for a package of navy plug. He was as happy as a boy, when he made a dollar.
“That’s handsome on him, Caddy,” answered Sukey, bending over the cat. “ Tell him he hev done better ’n I expected. Fish is so intoler’ble scerce.”
“ It seems ter me, puss,” began Dave, hunting with his eyes under the table for the cat, in order that the delusion might be the more honest (they never looked each other in the face while they were in the act of addressing Caddy, —they looked at the cat; but when the sentence was well finished, then the eyes of each sought the other; they were above practicing deception upon their black companion), — “it seems ter me thet this is a toler’ble happy home. Ain’t you happy, Caddy ? Ask yer missus if she ain’t.”
Sukey flushed tenderly. “ Tell him, Caddy, we 're gett’n’ on too old to be mean-sperited. It orter to be easy fur old married folks like us to be straightspoken an’ good one to t’ other. Ain’t thet so, Caddy ? ”
They both bent to stroke their daily interpreter; as they did so their hands touched and clasped. Such emotion was rare with these old hearts which had existed so many years together, and were just beginning to live for each other. Through their bitterness and their three years of silence they had found their honeymoon, and did not know it.
They were much moved, and for a few moments neither had strength to address the eat. At last, the man, a little ashamed of his feelings, started for the door.
“ Run out, Caddy,” he called, “ an’ see if it ’ll be a southerly to-morrer. If the wind ’ll blow light southerly, I ’ll go out at four in the mornin’, an’ then lay her up fur a couple of days, perhaps fur more. Her bottom needs a good dryin’.” He added the last explanation to satisfy his own conscience; for this was the greatest concession which he had made since that dreadful evening. The clasp of his wife’s work-hardened hands had wrung a noble resolution from him. He would give up his dory. This was a decision nothing less than tremendous to the blear-eyed, tremulous fisherman. In stormy weather a man expected to stay at home. But to give up the dory, and the freedom that goes with it, in midsummer and with fair skies, — this was a cruel experiment. Yet he had got so far as this—for her sake ; but he felt that it would be a mortal wrench. Less changes than that have killed men grown white in their daily routine.
The aged wife followed him to the door, and watched him going to see if his dory-line were thoroughly made fast for the night.
“ It’s too good ter believe, Caddy,” she said softly. “I’ve bin wait’n’ so long. Run an’ ask him, Caddy, if he really means ter stay ter home.”
The next day, at noon, when he had brought his dory to its moorings, he was met by Sukey, who trembled in every limb. She looked at him like a dumb animal that has received a deadly hurt. Dave almost forgot himself. In his excitement he started to ask her what was the matter; then he remembered. He hauled his dory out on the line as fast as he could, and hurried up to the garden and looked about for his interpreter.
“ Caddy! ” he cried in a hoarse, quavering voice. Then he looked at his wife, and by the hopeless expression of her face knew that Caddy was not there. He did not call again. He felt that it was useless. He walked slowly toward the house.
Here was a catastrophe. Neither knew what to do, nor how to communicate with the other. They regarded each other dumbly. It never occurred to either to speak directly out. They did not understand that they could. The habit of silence had become a second nature. The old woman was the first to break the uncomfortable pause.
“ Caddy! ” she called in a trembling voice. “ Ain’t I hunted fur ye since six in the mornin’ every blessed minute, every wheres ? Come, Caddy, come home. Po-or Caddy! Oh me! Whatever is goin’ to become of ns without Caddy? ”
But the cat did not present herself, and the problem of the situation deepened.
Dave hunted far into the night. His neighbors offered various views of the case. Cap 'n Joe, not having an original mind, thought that the eat must have been killed by a dog. His wife, Mary Sarah, suggested kidnapping by an Italian salt-bark that went out at high tide at ten o’clock. Theories there were plenty, but cat there was none.
That night, for the first time, the two old people sat alone in the kitchen, and their oath was between them. Neither dared to look at the other. They sighed and sat apart, glanced wistfully every now and then at the open door, and sighed again. Even Dave’s pipe afforded him no consolation that dismal night. In a fit of desperation Sukey went feebly over to Mary Sarah to borrow her cat for the night. “ There are rats,” she explained. But the cat, who remembered too well Caddy’s jealous claws, would not be caught.
A catless and silent evening followed. Only the clock talked. She —one calls clocks by the feminine appellative in Mackerel Cove — she expostulated.
The next morning, adrift in this new sea of loneliness, the aged couple awoke at daylight, renewed the search for their interpreter until long past the breakfast hour, then ate, then called and searched again. By noon the conviction that Caddy would never come back, was probably dead, began to force itself upon them. It seemed as if they could not bear the bereavement. It was worse than if they had lost a relative. They felt that they had lost themselves. They were hardly able to sit down to their choking meal. They ate convulsively, furtively watching each other. Both had grown very old during the night. In spite of the self-imposed barrier between them, each felt nearer than usual to the other. It was as if they had been suddenly deserted by all the world.
As they sat silently moving their lips and looking at each other with longingeyes, the woman formed a great resolution.
“Ain’t he give up the dory?” she argued to herself between the gulps of coffee. “ Then ain’t it my duty to speak to him, even if I said I would n’t ? ’T ain’t like breakin’ yer word. ’T won’t hurt the Lord none.”
She became hot, then pale, at the mere thought of speaking to her own husband. The blood welled at her heart and almost suffocated her. Would he stare at her in dumb scorn, or would he answer? Before she knew what she was doing, the woman, frightened, choking, lifted up her voice and spoke.
What did she say ? What should she say ? Did she cry out to him, falling on his neck, pleading forgiveness or extending it, pleading for tenderness or offering it? Into what dramatic crisis did this domestic tragedy burst ? In what passionate language did she cover the story of their folly and regret and suffering? She said: “Dave, dear, ye hain’t got ’nough sugar in yer cup. Let me give ye some more.” That was all.
It was not much to say after years of silence, but, such as it was, it was half enough to kill her. She burst into a great sob. She got up and made as if she would move toward him, then stopped.
“ Don’t be mad, Dave. I had ter speak, we’re so lonely, an’ I couldn’t help it. Say something, Dave. Oh me! Oh me ! Ain’t ye my husband ? Speak to me, Dave ! ”
With this, for she could bear no more, she fell at his feet.
The old man looked down upon his wife with an expression of bewilderment, as if a cloud-burst had overwhelmed him. He did not understand at first. He wanted to speak, to comfort her, but he could not. His voice, obedient to long custom, still refused to come —for her. He lifted her and put her on a chair. He was greatly moved as he looked at her. Mechanically he stroked her head. A hoarse, animal sound came from his throat, but no word. He walked about the room helplessly, not knowing what to do. And now a great struggle boiled within the old fisherman’s soul. His masculine pride was at bay. Would it surrender to the woman or not ?
Through the door his eye caught sight of the hauling-line of his dory. This familiar object seemed to steady his intellect. He tottered out to it, and stood for a long time regarding his boat. But Sukey stayed within the house and washed the dishes. W hen she had put away the tumblers she began to pray.
Perhaps it was half an hour before he looked back through the open kitchen door. His dim eyes saw the bent shadow pass to and fro within. He started, and halted, and started again. The struggle that he had thought decided began once more as he approached the house. In his life he had never given in, and now that he was old should he begin ? The storm-chiseled lines upon his face grew hard. But it was his home, and it was his wife.
He stopped in the doorway, looked back at the dory and upon his life, and then looked in. She sat crouching before the stove, the tears dripping from her meagre cheeks. She did not look up. She was afraid to.
Dave walked slowly in. What was this new feeling that rose straight from his heart to his throat and throttled him ? He waited until that spasm was over, not daring to move, hardly to breathe. Was it death ? If so, he must hurry, before it smote again.
“Sukey,” he said, steadying himself by the back of her chair, and speaking as quietly as if it were of no consequence whether he spoke or not, “ I ’m goin’ to sell her fur what I kin get, an’ stay ashore with you arter this.” He pointed to the bank off which the dory lay. “I won’t go fishin’ no more. I guess I kin pick up a dollar or so about the wharves.”
“ Oh, Dave! ” cried the woman, on a high, hysteric key; but she recovered herself immediately. “I don’t ask ye to do that, Dave. Ye ’d better not sell her yet; ye might want her to go terthe harbor with.”
In this simple way they both made atonement. They did not beg each other’s pardon, but, as so frequently happens after a quarrel, each took the other’s point of view.
For three days they lived together. Dave did not even leave the garden. They had never lived in this way before. Now it seemed a necessity. They gave up looking for or awaiting the cat. They were surprised to find that they did not miss her as they had expected to. They forgot that they no longer needed an interpreter. During life’s rare honeymoons great losses are small affairs. It is then that friends are not a necessary luxury.
For three days Dave puttered about the house. The weather was divine. The first day he grumbled over an old song; the second day he whistled at it; and the third day Sukey found him, in the morning, sitting under the apple-tree regarding the dory restlessly. He tried hard not to show his uneasiness, fearing that it might make her unhappy ; but her quick eyes noticed how he threw eager looks at that other home of more than twenty years. How could it be otherwise ? It was his office, his business, his life, that he abandoned with a sudden wrench to please his wife, and the strain was more than the old man could bear. But he was not cross. He could never say a harsh word to his wife again.
This enforced retirement, together with the great excitement of the loss of his cat and the finding of his wife, enfeebled him rapidly. As he drew life from the water, so he perished away from it.
That night his wife performed the last heroic act of her life. It does not seem a great act to us. It was supreme for her. So might a Frenchman, singlehanded, storm Gibraltar.
“ I think ye had better go out again to-morrer, Dave,” said Sukey slowly. “Ye’ll be keerful, an’ I won’t mind it. Ye might make a dollar cunnerin’, an’ the money would come handy.”
“ No, Sukey. I give ye my word, an’ I never gone back on it yet — ’cept once,” he added, shaking his head and taking his after-supper pipe out of his mouth. Yet his hand twitched, and his moving eyes swept the little cove with a great longing.
“ I give ye back yer word, Dave. Go out to-morrer, to please me, an’ if ye want to make that the last day I won’t say no more.”
“ But ye ’ll be alone. Kin ye stand it ? ”
He had never said this to her before. He had never thought of the solitude of her who worked in the house without distraction and without company. In his late honeymoon he began to comprehend new things.
But Sukey said pleasantly: “ No, Dave, that’s nothin’. You’ll be happier. It ’ll be a fine day to-morrer. I’ve cleanin’ to do, an’ yer best out of it.”
“ If ye only had Caddy,” he remonstrated feebly.
He knew, as soon as she mentioned the matter, that he should go. It was an old heart he carried in his breast, but it leaped with the freshness of youth at the sight and the touch of his precious dory and his beloved sea.
“ Air ye sure ye want me to go ? ” he asked slowly, as he undid his haulingline from the oar-stumps the next morning.
There was not a cloud, not a breath. Every vessel, the church spires, the distant hills, were dreamy in the soft haze, like one of Turner’s early landscapes. Man looked out of place among his own works. It seemed a sin to make a motion upon that limpid morning. Fishermen are not often touched by the beautiful. Fair weather and good fares of fish are all they care for. This rare, poetic quality of the atmosphere, the ecstasy of artists, is usually greeted with grunts of dissatisfaction by the nautical inhabitants. No doryman cares to row six miles to his fishing-grounds. Idle sails afford good pay to painters, and small joy to their owners. But this morning the aged couple looked upon their little cove as it lay idealized before them in the soft sunrise.
“ ’T ain’t an ugly home, nohow,” said Sukey, resting in a new way upon her husband’s arm.
“Thet’s so,” he answered, untying a double hitch. “ Air ye sure ye want me to go? I ’m yourn now, deary.”
His fiftieth wedding-day was coming soon, and he was getting along famously in the art of love-making.
“ No, Dave ; go. But come back when yer mine to, an’ take care. Law! Mary Sarah or Cap’ll Joe ’ll see.”
It was only a kiss her husband gave her, but if he had given her the Star of the South she would not have been more surprised and overcome. With a wave of her aged hand, such as she used to give him fifty years before, when she was young and plump, she watched him row with feeble strokes slowly around the bend of the cove. Then, with a face happier than it had been before since Sukey was a bride, the old woman went back to her home, and sang a courting-song that bubbled into her memory.
It was late in the afternoon. The six o’clock whistles from the rival copperpaint factories were not yet due, but the tide that had halted languidly now turned and flowed irresistibly in. The sun burned hot. Toward its setting not a cloud was to be seen, but in the high east wonderful white tufts of feathers shot curved streamers. One cloud there was in particular which looked like a gigantic medusa, with its tentacles waving far behind. Another had the appearance of a comet with a twin tail. Still a third was a scimiter that Death himself might have carried. Such skies are not to be seen except in Mackerel Cove. The southwest breeze that had arisen fitfully with the sun, and had been steady at noon, now prepared itself to perish with the setting of the day. It was a light air and high, and touched only the great salt mirror here and there in spots and streaks. Although this summer zephyr blew up the harbor toward the town, and carried with it the incoming tide and bits of wood and here and there a water-soaked log upon its surface, still the few belated fishingboats and a small yacht plied their oars lest they be late for supper. One great fishing-schooner, just in from the Grand Banks, hoping to make the market before it closed, had out six dories ahead, towing anxiously.
In the middle of the light and of the harbor, headed toward the wharves, a large-sized dory could be seen, with sails set, drifting home with the wind and tide. The occupant was evidently not in a hurry to land his day’s catch, for he neither steered into the streak of wind that ruffled the water at his left, nor did he row. He gave the impression of being busy counting fish, for he was bent over into the pen in the middle of the dory where the fish are kept, and nothing but his back could be seen.
Not far behind another dory approached vigorously. Its occupant had long since dropped his sail in the coming calm, and trusted to his robust arms. Swiftly it overtook its drifting mate, and passed it a few yards away.
“ Hullo! ” cried Cap’n Joe, as he rested on his oars for a moment. “ Hullo, Dave! How’d ye find ’em to-day?” He waited for an answer. “ How many yer got, Dave ? ” he asked again.
The figure in the boat still bent to its count, and did not deign a reply. This discourtesy did not disconcert his friend and neighbor. With a shrug he pulled on.
“ I allus thought,” he said to himself, with an anxious face, “ that Dave is ez deef ez he is blind. He ort not to go in thet dory no more. Neither of ’em ain’t fit. Thet’s my opinyun.” He rowed a few strokes, and looked back again. “ Dave’s really failin’,” he muttered. “I guess me and Mary Sarah had better run in arter supper.” Then he kept on, for he had three hundredweight of cod and haddock for the market, and was late that day.
Still drifting with the expiring wind and with the swelling tide, the dory, true to its course, floated into Mackerel Cove. The whistles had shrieked, and the observant sun was about to turn his face away and dip behind a notch in the hills. The wharves were nearly deserted. A few men were washing the great square boxes in which fish had been weighed the whole day. The dories were all home to supper but this one.
“Yer late, Dave.”
“ Any luck to-day ? ”
“ How many ? ”
“ He’s countin’ on ’em.”
“ Dave’s git’n’ old an’ queer an’ deef! ”
Such exclamations passed over the enameled water, but brought no answer. Dave did not even look up.
And now the calm came, and the dory, drifting with the tide alone, slowly, surely, found its way into the inner cove to its familiar moorings. She went like a creature that knew its way home. By this time the sun had set, and the always mysterious twilight fell upon all the world.
Dave’s old wife came down the garden to meet him. She walked with a brisk step. Her face was bright and playful. A little moving object, dark against the growing dusk, followed her. It was the truant cat. She had a disreputable air, but she purred loudly, and rubbed her lean body against Sukey’s calico skirts.
The dory bumped against its own rock gently.
“ Dave, Caddy’s come back. D’ ye see Caddy ? Ye’ve hed a nice long day. I hope ye’ve enjoyed yerself. How many yer got ? Hain’t ye got through countin’ on ’em ? Supper’s hot an’ waitin’. Caddy, go bring yer dear master ! ”
She hurried down a step or two, and put out her trembling hand to catch the painter, as she sometimes did. In the dusk she stooped and looked. Then the shore and the sea rang to the cry she uttered.
Herbert D. Ward.