"The Ogre of Alewife Cove"
THE waters of the Sound wind their way into the idyllic land for more than a mile ; spreading here into a moist liquid meadow of such weeds and grasses as are nourished by saline food ; still further widening into a so-called “ salt lake " lying in placid silver ; finally narrowing deeply and silently to reflect tall marginal rocks, vertical, much fissured, “pointed" with columbine and vine, and crowned above with proud civic oak. This incursion of the ocean stream takes, in its course, a small island covered with wizened trees, — little old sorcerous and conjuring yew-trees, and knock-kneed, stunted oaks that mingle the attitudes of cringing and defiance. The elfin island has one brief midsummer lure,— its wild garden of scarlet lilies, poised on long and slender wands, whose flowerage seems the visible flame of the still heat of the dogdays. On one side of the stream, near the end of its quest, — for it is but a prying minion of the great sea, — a luxuriant thicket of young trees, with sweet, flowering azalea shrubs, all stitched together with stout greenbrier, rambles down to the water’s edge. The mirror which the idle water holds up to sylvan nature is so perfect that leaf, branch, and flower at last may learn in what form God created them to give pleasure to all gazing eyes. Verging upon this mirror of beauty grow the finest wild roses you may anywhere see; but you will not pluck them, any more than you would arrest the divine trance of Narcissus. As for myself, one such wild rose that I coveted, but did not pluck, blooms there, grateful and immortal, through all summers.
This smooth sunshine world of margin and water and motionless shadow therein spellbound is known as Alewife Cove. Idle water it may be to the idler; not such to those who know and prove the riches of its half-seen treasures; for the sea, “the fruitless sea,” as an ancient poet will have it, has underfreighted the slow stream with a floating garden of loose seaweed, of eelgrass, and other aquatic plants. Where these rise to the surface, the oar labors with their chance festoon and garland. At night, the water glitters, without the moon, wherever the oar stirs their phosphorescent masses. Part drifting, part rooted, the garden hides in its meshes large crabs, whose dark blue shells are beautifully freaked with red and orange. These lose their lives in two ways: either gluttonously resorting to the baited string of the holiday visitor, or gallantly fleeing in vain the net of the practiced boatman, who, standing in the bow of his boat, balances dexterously, at the same time propelling himself and the boat by the long staff of the crab-net, quickly reversed when the game appears.
Also, a light on the Cove at night tells the beholder that some thrifty native is spearing eels (and so justifying the name he has given to these rich waters). But more are they who wade in the halfopaque stream, with basket and clamrake, or who, with oyster knife, twist from its stronghold the rugged shell. When the tide is out, the rocks along the margin are seen to be scarred with white patches, the half-shells left behind by unskilled gatherers. The blind oyster here seems not entirely to keep to its own element, since even the roots of overhanging trees, fallen branches, and bits of floating drift bear these traces of its clinging inhabitation.
At the height of the fruitful season, Alewife Cove indeed presents a busy scene. Man, woman, and child flock to the unfailing harvest. In this cheerful picture of human industry, it would scarcely be thought that one figure more or less would count to the eye of the speculative or the artistic observer; and yet, among the many harvesters of sea-food during the summer I have in mind, one figure had especially attracted the attention of several persons, whom it had variously impressed.
“ No, I will not sit in the shade on that island while you go crabbing ! ”
“ Why not ? ”
“ Because there ’s the ogre’s boat.”
“ Well, what of that ? He is n’t there, poor harmless creature ! ”
“ It does n’t make any difference whether he is there or not. He has magnetized the whole place, and the effect is like voodoo for me. I won’t stay. I ’d rather sit in the boat, and take my chances with the crabs scuttling round my feet! ”
It was the same “ sensitive ” whose objection had provoked the above conversation who, at another time, as our little boat glided around a rocky point, with an indication of the head in a direction which the eyes were loath to take, observed, “ There ! If you wish to see the ogre, and experience his spells, you have the opportunity. But don’t look unless you covet bad dreams.”
A few yards away appeared “ the genius of the flood,” or rather “ the ogre of Alewife Cove,” by common consent of the coterie of summer idlers, who in winter remember not idly, whether with pen, pencil, or brush, that pleasant water and romantic margin. But, clad in a loose blouse of some heavy, duncolored stuff, the head covered with an old felt hat whose brim drooped about the face, a man appeared, wading in the weed-choked stream. A tattered basket was on his arm, a clam-rake in one hand. The day’s work was done, and he was returning to his floating habitation, which was moored by the island of lilies, and whose box of a cabin, kitchen and bedroom in one, had vouchsafed us chary glimpses of scrupulous order and immaculate neatness.
I have mentioned only what was definable and tangible in the general appearance of this sudden figure ; the rest lay in that margin where, with the least error of the describer, all quickly eludes and transcends verbal description. I hesitate, therefore, to try to characterize what I observed: a peculiar droop of the head upon the sunken chest; a slight lifting of the shoulders each side beneath the loose-hanging garment ; the weighted and weary movement through the dense water, — the movement as of one who makes, slowly and painfully, a compulsory progress towards some well-indicated and inevitable goal. Yet more do I hesitate to speak of the strange suggestion presented by the man’s figure alone, — the suggestion that thus might one have looked who, in the midst of his suffering, had been unexpectedly reprieved, but who yet bore upon his racked and dislocated body record of an ancient form of torture, the guise of one who had been taken down from the cross!
As we were actually opposite the wading pedestrian, the drooped head was partially lifted, disclosing a face of singularly pure pallor, further characterized by softness that could not have resided in its angular contour. Eyes deep-set, contemplative, but wholly incurious, were met by ours; by ours, I say, for his eyes seemed not to regard us, but rather to traverse, and pass beyond, the plane of vision which ours crossed with objective and questioning interest. With the slight uplifting of the head, a shock of hair, dark brown and silky, fell across the cheek, half revealing the temple it had previously concealed, — half revealing, — but whether deep scar, or shadowy birthmark, or merely some hollow shading of the thin face, this momentary glimpse failed to divulge. The ogre passed on, and was out of reach of any voice impatient to comment, “ Did you see ? ”
Now, it is remarkable how we resent any observation savoring of the secular or curious regarding that which the imagination has suddenly resolved to look upon as an object of tender and sacred consideration.
“ Did you see — it ? ”
“ I don’t know what you mean. I saw only a man who has been hard at work all day with a clam-rake, and is going home, or what he calls home, tired out.”
Nevertheless, after this episode the ogre’s apologist entertained no thoughts regarding him in which the latter figured as the ordinary tiller of those brackish acres ; and all casual testimony as to the peculiar solitariness of this individual found hospitable lodgment. But such testimony was of the slightest nature, and is quickly summed up.
“ The ogre, after all, is a good-natured creature,” volunteered a young girl who was fond of pulling an oar sometimes, even if quite by herself; “ for the other day, when I had been gathering those lilies on the island, and the tide was dead low, and I ran aground, he appeared all of a sudden and gave the boat a push, and I was off before I could thank him. But for that matter, almost before I knew what he had done, he had turned his back, and was going on with that clam-raking.” Continuing, “ I wonder what manner of foreigner he is ; for the next day, when we passed his boat, and he was resting and looking at the sky or the water, I wanted very much to say something civil; so I observed that it was a ' fine evening.’ He kept on looking at the sky or the water, and made no reply. And another time when I said something, he looked at me with those vague eyes of his, and slowly shook his head.”
“ He don’ never tell his name, he don’ never speak ; reckon he don’ never hear folks speak to him. Looks like he deaf and dumb,” deposed an irregularly industrious gentleman of color, who also possessed a boat, and who, hard by, was proving his floating fortunes; his loneliness being beguiled by the presence of a solemn yellow dog of great reputed sagacity, and exceedingly “ dangersome,” if his master’s statement were to be credited.
When the imagination is sympathetically aroused, very little is required to keep it operative ; so I may record that, fed by such slight incident and comment, the interest first excited in the ogre steadily increased from day to day. Fortunately, it had been observed that “ if there were any enterprise among us, some one would get some of those fine clams from the Cove.” Fortunately, indeed, for the desire thus expressed suggested a way of fulfillment which might also discharge the growing burden of speculative curiosity: an arrangement might possibly be made with the silent toiler of the salt inlet to furnish us with clams through the rest of the season. A visit in negotiation was planned and executed, one evening, soon after this resolution had been taken.
Remembering the deposition of the dusky neighbor, it appeared that any demonstration to gain the ogre’s attention through the sense of hearing would be useless; I therefore descended from my boat into his, and approached the door of the miniature cabin. It was standing open, but the occupant was not within. Scrutiny quickly devoured the little interior. All was scrupulously neat, as we had before seen in passing. There were the red lilies which some one had observed him gathering that very day ; now held in a broken pitcher set upon the box that served for table or for seat, beside the cot bed. But it was not the tasteful evidence of love for the lilies of the field (perhaps those of parable) that the eye dwelt on in this brief instant of stolen inspection ; all interest concentred, emotionally, upon a print that was pinned to the rude ceiling above the cot. It was a reproduction of Christ succumbing under the cross.
Again the impression first gained of this silent and solitary person was in full sway, and the heart beating against the side warned me of the presence of something like sacred fear. Here dwelt some man of sorrows. Had he all through life been conscious of the similitude felt by at least one observer ? Was the symbol of suffering in some mysterious and transcendent way of deeper import to him than it could be to any fellow-creature ? Grotesquely, sacrilege, pathos, were strangely blended in this idea. Involuntarily, I set the basket of fruit (brought in friendly overture) down by the door, and hastily dropped into my own boat. Not one word of explanation or of apology would come to the rescue, when, in this hurried departure, a familiar wading figure met me face to face. But neither countenance nor expression was other than I remembered of our first encounter. Neither curiosity nor the least shadow of displeasure crossed the far-centred, inscrutable, sad tranquillity of his face and eyes. He passed by me, following up the wake which my clandestine boat had left on the evening-smooth water. Heartily ashamed of my enterprise, I yet was reminded that I had left the basket of fruit, and I hoped that in the offering he would recognize touches of a remotely related humanity, so distanced by him in his treading out of spiritual destinies unknown to me !
The next morning, simultaneously with waking, recurred the idea of the ogre. There might yet be a way of finding out the heart of his mystery without rude probing. I would try once more. I took the path to the Cove, resolved upon a solitary row in the enchantment of the half-veiled seaside morning. Nearing the island of lilies, it was scarce to be credited that the trim boat, so long moored there, was gone. But a second look did not restore the familiar object. Far down the windings of the inlet, just where the sunlit mist prepared to hide all that approached, I saw the catboat swinging out to sea. The mist was receding slowly seaward ; but the boat made forward and away, faster than did the mist. The wind in the sail seemed more than the slight breeze of the fair morning, — rather a wind of the spirit speeding one who willed not to stay,
And day and night held on indignantly
O’er the blue midland waters with the gale.”
No trace left behind. But yes ! the basket which had held the fruit, now filled with lilies, was lying on the margin sand of the little island. The lilies were fresh, and the mist of the morning was in them for dew.
Edith M. Thomas.