A NARROW PATH.
WHEN Sanford rang her bell, Mrs. Leroy was seated on the veranda that overlooked the garden, — a wide and inviting veranda, always carpeted in summer with mats and rugs, and made comfortable with cane chairs and straw divans that were softened into luxurious delights by silk cushions. During the day the sunshine filtered its way between the thickly matted vines, lying in patterns on the floor, or was held in check by thin Venetian blinds. At night the light of a huge eight - sided lantern festooned with tassels shed its glow through screens of colored gauze.
Mrs. Leroy was dressed in a simple gown of white crêpe, which clung and wrinkled about her slight figure, leaving her neck and arms bare. On a low table beside her rested a silver tray with a slender-shaped coffee-pot and tiny eggshell cups and saucers.
She looked up at him, smiling, as he pushed aside the curtains. “Two lumps, Henry? ” she called, holding the sugartongs in her hand. Then, as the light of the lantern fell upon his face, she exclaimed, “Why, what ’s the matter? You are worried: is there fresh trouble at the Ledge ? ” and she rose from her chair to lead him to a seat beside her.
“ No ; only Carleton. He holds on to that certificate, and I can get no money until he gives it up; yet I have raised the concrete six inches to please him. I wired Captain Joe yesterday to see him at once and to get his answer, —yes or no. What do you suppose he replied? ‘Tell him he don’t own the earth. I ’ll sign it when I get to it.’ Not another word, nor would he give any reason for not signing it.”
“ Why don’t you appeal to the Board ? General Barton would not see you suffer an unjust delay. I ’ll write him myself. ”
Sanford smiled. Her rising anger soothed him as flattery might have done at another time. He felt in it a proof of how close to her heart she really held his interests and his happiness.
“ That would only prolong the agony, and might lose us the season’s work. The Board is always fair and honest, only it takes so long for it to move.” As he spoke he piled the cushions of the divan high behind Kate’s head, and drew a low chair opposite to her. “It’s torture to a contractor who is behind time,” he continued, flecking the ashes of his cigar into his saucer. “It means getting all tangled up in the red tape of a government bureau. I must give up my holiday and find Carleton; there is nothing else to be done now. I leave on the early train to - morrow. But what a rest this is! ” he exclaimed, breaking into the strained impetuosity of his own tone with a long-drawn sigh of relief, as he looked about the dimly lighted veranda. “Nothing like it anywhere. Another new gown, I see ? ”
His eyes wandered over her dainty figure, half reclining beside him, — the delicately modeled waist, the shapely wrists, and the tiny slippers peeping beneath the edge of her dress that fell in folds to the floor.
“ Never mind about my gown,” she said, her face alight with the pleasure of his tribute. “I want to hear more about this man Carleton, ” — she spoke as though she had hardly heard him. “What have you done to him to make him hate you ? ”
“ Nothing but try to keep him from ruining the work.”
“ And you told him he was ruining it ? ”
“ Certainly; there was nothing else to do. He ’s got the concrete now six inches out of level; you can see it plainly at low water.”
“ No wonder he takes his revenge,” she said, cutting straight into the heart of the matter with that marvelous power peculiar to some women. “What else has gone wrong ? ” She meant him to tell her everything, knowing that to let him completely unburden his mind would give him the only real rest that he needed. She liked, too, to feel her influence over him. That he always consulted her in such matters was to Kate one of the keenest pleasures that his friendship brought.
“ Everything, I sometimes think. We are very much behind. That concrete base should have been finished two weeks ago. The equinoctial gale is nearly due. If we can’t get the first two courses of masonry laid by the middle of November, I may have to wait until spring for another payment, and that about means bankruptcy.”
“ What does Captain Joe think? ”
“ He says we shall pull through if we have no more setbacks. Dear old Captain Joe! nothing upsets him. We certainly have had our share of them this season: first it was the explosion, and now it is Carleton’s spite.”
“ Suppose you do lose time, Henry, and do have to wait until spring to go on with the work. It will not be for the first time.” There was a sympathetic yet hopeful tone in her voice. “When you sunk the coffer-dam at Kingston, three years ago, and it lay all winter in the ice, did n’t you worry yourself half sick ? And yet it all came out right. Oh, you need n’t raise your eyebrows; I saw it myself. You know you are better equipped now, both in experience and in means, than you were then. Make some allowance for your own temperament, and please don’t forget the nights you have lain awake worrying over nothing. It will all come out right.” She laid her hand on his, as an elder sister might have done, and in a gayer tone added, “I’m going to Medford soon, myself, and I ’ll invite this dreadful Mr. Carleton to come over to luncheon, and you ’ll get your certificate next day. What does he look like ? ”
Sanford broke into a laugh. “You would n’t touch him with a pair of tongs, and I would n’t let you, — even with them.”
“ Then I ’ll do it, anyway, just to show you how clever I am, ” she retorted, with a pretty, bridling toss of her head. She had taken her hand away, while Sanford, smiling still, held his own extended.
Kate’s tact was having its effect. Under the magic of her sympathy his cares had folded their tents. Carleton was fast becoming a dim speck on the horizon, and his successive troubles were but a string of camels edging the blue distance of his thoughts.
It was always like this. She never failed to comfort and inspire him. Whenever his anxieties became unbearable it was to Kate that he turned, as he had done to-night. The very touch of her soft hand, so white and delicate, laid upon his arm, and the exquisite play of melody in her voice, soothed and strengthened him. Things were never half so bad as they seemed, when he could see her look at him mischievously from under her lowered eyelids as she said, “Mercy, Henry! is that all? I thought the whole lighthouse had been washed away. ” And he never missed the inspiration of the change that followed, — the sudden quiet of her face, the very tensity of her figure, as she added in earnest tones, instinct with courage and sympathy, some word of hopeful interest that she of all women best knew how to give.
With the anxieties dispelled which had brought him hurrying to-night to Gramercy Park, they both relapsed into silence,— a silence such as was common to their friendship, one which was born neither of ennui nor of discontent, the boredom of friends nor the poverty of meagre minds, but that restful silence which comes only to two minds and hearts in entire accord, without a single spoken word to lead their thoughts; a close, noiseless fitting together of two temperaments, with all the rough surfaces of their natures worn smooth by long association each with the other. In such accord is found the strongest proof of true and perfect friendship. It is only when this estate no longer satisfies, and one or both crave the human touch, that the danger-line is crossed. When stealthy fingers set the currents of both hearts free, and the touch becomes electric, discredited friendship escapes by the window, and triumphant Love enters by the door.
The lantern shed its rays over Kate’s white draperies, warming them with a pink glow. The smoke of Sanford’s cigar curled upward in the still air and drifted out into the garden, or was lost in the vines of the jessamine trailing about the porch. Now and then the stillness was broken by some irrelevant remark suggested by the perfume of the flowers, the quiet of the night, the memory of Jack’s and Helen’s happiness; but silence always fell again, except for an occasional light tattoo of Kate’s dainty slipper on the floor. A restful lassitude, the reaction from the constant hourly strain of his work, came over Sanford ; the world of perplexity seemed shut away, and he was happier than he had been in weeks. Suddenly and without preliminary question, Mrs. Leroy asked sharply, with a strange, quivering break in her voice, “ What about that poor girl Betty ? Has she patched it up yet with Caleb ? She told me, the night she stayed with me, that she loved him dearly. Poor girl! she has nothing but misery ahead of her if she does n’t.” She spoke with a certain tone in her voice that showed but too plainly the new mood that had taken possession of her.
“ Pity she didn’t find it out before she left him! ” exclaimed Sanford.
“ Pity he did n’t do something to show his appreciation of her, you mean ! ” she interrupted, with a quick toss of her head.
“ You are all wrong, Kate. Caleb is the gentlest and kindest of men. You don’t know that old diver, or you would n’t judge him harshly.”
“ Oh, he did n’t beat her, I suppose. He only left her to get along by herself. I wish such men would take it out in beating. Some women could stand that better. It’s the cold indifference that kills.” She had risen from her seat, and was pacing the floor of the veranda.
“ Well, that was not his fault, Kate. While the working season lasts he must be on the Ledge. He could n’t come in every night.”
“ That’s what they all say!” she cried restlessly. “If it’s not one excuse, it’s another. I ’m tired to death of hearing about men who would rather make money than make homes. Now that he has driven her out of her wits by his brutality, he closes his door against her, even when she crawls back on her knees. But don’t you despise her.” She stood before him, looking down into his face for a moment. “Be just as sweet and gentle to her as you can, ” she said earnestly. “If she ever goes wrong again, it will be the world’s fault or her husband’s, —not her own. Tell her from me that I trust her and believe in her, and that I send her my love.”
Sanford listened to her with ill-concealed admiration. It was when she was defending or helping some one that she appealed to him most. At those times he recognized that her own wrongs had not imbittered her, but had only made her the more considerate.
“ There ’s never a day you don’t teach me something, ” he answered quietly, his eyes fixed on her moving figure. “ Perhaps I have been a little hard on Betty, but it ’s because I ’ve seen how Caleb suffers. ”
She stopped again in her walk and leaned over the rail of the veranda, her chin on her hand. Sanford watched her, following the bend of her exquisite head and the marvelous slope of her shoulders. He saw that something unusual had stirred her, but he could not decide whether it was caused by the thought of Betty’s misery or by some fresh sorrow of her own. He threw away his cigar, rose from his chair, and joined her at the railing. He could be unhappy himself and stand up under it, but he could not bear to see a shade of sorrow cross her face.
“ You are not happy to-night,” he said.
She did not answer.
Sanford waited, looking down over the garden. He could see the shadowy outlines of the narrow walks and the white faces of the roses drooping over the gravel. When he spoke again there were hesitating, halting tones in his voice, as if he were half afraid to follow the course he had dared to venture on.
“ Is Morgan coming home, Kate? ”
“ I don’t know,” she replied dreamily, after a pause.
“ Did n’t he say in his last letter? ”
“ Oh yes ; answered as he always does, — when he gets through. ”
“ Where is he now? ”
“ Paris, I believe.”
She had not moved nor lifted her chin from her hand. The click of the old clock in the hall could be distinctly heard. Her curt, almost unwilling replies checked for an instant the words of sympathy that were on his tongue. He had asked the question hoping to probe the secret of her mood. If it were some new phase of the old sorrow, his sympathies, he knew, could not reach her; with that it must always be as though she had gone into a room with her grief and locked the door between them. He could hear her sobs inside, but could not get within to help her. If it were anything else, he stood ready to give her all his strength.
To-night, however, there was an added pathos, a hopeless weariness, in her tones, that vibrated through him. He looked at her intently; she had never seemed to him so beautiful, so pathetic. A great rush of feeling surged over him. He stepped closer to her, lifting his hand to lay on her head. Then, with an abrupt gesture, he turned and began pacing the veranda, his head bowed, his hands clasped behind his back. Strange, unutterable thoughts whirled through his brain; unbidden, unspeakable words crowded in his throat. All the restraint of years seemed slipping from him. With an effort he stopped once more, and this time laid his hand upon her shoulder. He felt in his heart that it was the same old sorrow which now racked her, but an uncontrollable impulse swept him on.
“ Kate, what is it? You break my heart. Is there something else to worry you, — something you have n’t told me ? ”
She shivered slightly as she felt the hand tighten on her shoulder. Then a sudden, tingling thrill ran through her.
“ I have never any right to be unhappy when I have you, Henry. You are all the world to me, — all I have.”
It was not the answer he had expected. For an instant the blood left his face, his heart stood still.
Kate raised her head, and their eyes met.
There are narrow paths in life where one fatal step sends a man headlong. There are eyes in women’s heads as deep as the abyss below. Hers were wide open, with the fearless confidence of an affection she was big enough to give. He saw down into their depths, and read there — as they flashed toward him in intermittent waves over the barrier of the reserve she sometimes held — love, truth, and courage. To disturb these, even by the sympathy she longed for and that he loved to give, might, he knew, endanger the ideal of loyalty in her that he venerated most. To go behind it and break down the wall of that self-control of hers which held in check the unknown, untouched springs of her heart might loosen a flood that would wreck the only bark which could keep them both afloat on the troubled waters of life,— their friendship.
Sanford bent his head, raised her hand to his lips, kissed it reverently, and without a word walked slowly toward his chair.
As he regained his seat the butler pushed aside the light curtains of the veranda, and in his regulation monotone announced, “Miss Shirley, Major Slocomb, and Mr. Hardy. ”
“ My dear madam,” broke out the major in his breeziest manner, before Mrs. Leroy could turn to greet him, “what would life be in this bake-oven of a city but for the joy of yo’r presence? And Henry! You here, too? Do you know that that rascal Jack has kept me waiting for two hours while he took Helen for a five minutes’ walk round the square, or I would have been here long ago. Where are you, you young dog? ” he called to Jack, who had lingered in the darkened hall with Helen.
“ What’s the matter now, major? ” inquired Jack. He shook hands with Mrs. Leroy, and turned again toward the major. “I asked your permission. What would you have me do? Let Helen see nothing of New York, because you ” —
“ Do hush up, cousin Tom, ” said Helen, pursing her lips at the major. “We stayed out because we wanted to, did n’t we, Jack? Don’t you think he is a perfect ogre, Mrs. Leroy? ”
“ He forgets his own younger days, my dear Miss Shirley,” she answered. “He shan’t scold you. Henry, make him join you in a cigar, while I give Miss Helen a cup of coffee.”
“ They are both forgiven, my dear madam, when so lovely an advocate pleads their cause, ” said the major grandiloquently, bowing low, his hand on his chest. “Thank you; I will join you.” He leaned over Sanford as he spoke, and lighted a cigar in the blue flame of the tiny silver lamp.
It was delightful to note how the coming alliance of the Hardy and Slocomb families had developed the paternal, not to say patriarchal attitude of the major toward his once boon companion. He already regarded Jack as his own son, — somebody to lean upon in his declining years, a prop and a staff for his old age. He had even sketched out in his mind a certain stately mansion on the avenue, to say nothing of a series of country-seats, — one on Crab Island in the Chesapeake, — all with porticoes and an especial suite of rooms on the ground floor; and he could hear Jack say, as he pointed them out to his visitors, “These are for my dear old friend Major Slocomb of Pocomoke,— member of my wife’s family.” He could see his old enemy, Jefferson, Jack’s servant, cowed into respectful obedience by the new turn in his master’s affairs, in which the Pocomokian had lent so helpful a hand.
“ She is the child of my old age, so to speak, suh, and I, of co’se, gave my consent after great hesitation, ” he would frequently say, fully persuading himself that Helen had really sought his approbation, and never for one moment dreaming that, grateful as she was to him for his chaperonage of her while in New York, he was the last person in the world she would have consulted in any matter so vital to her happiness.
Jack accepted the change in the major’s manner with the same good humor that seasoned everything that came to him in life. He had known the Pocomokian too many years to misunderstand him now, and this new departure, with its patronizing airs and fatherly oversight, only amused him.
Mrs. Leroy had drawn the young girl toward the divan, and was already discussing her plans for the summer.
“ Of course you are both to come to me this fall, when the beautiful Indian summer weather sets in. The Pines is never so lovely as then. You shall sail to your heart’s content, for the yacht is in order; and we will then see what this great engineer has been doing all summer, ” she added, glancing timidly from under her dark eyelashes at Sanford. “Mr. Leroy’s last instructions were to keep the yacht in commission until he came home. I am determined you shall have one more good time, Miss Helen, before this young man ties you hand and foot. You will come, major ? ”
“ I cannot promise, madam. It will depend entirely on my arrangin’ some very important matters of business. I hope to be able to come for perhaps a day or so.”
Jack looked at Sanford and smiled. Evidently Mrs. Leroy did not know the length of the major’s “day or so.” It generally depended upon the date of the next invitation. He was still staying with Jack, and had been there since the spring.
Buckles, the butler, had been bending over the major as that gentleman delivered himself of this announcement of his hopes. When he had filled to the brim the tiny liqueur glass, the major — perhaps in a moment of forgetfulness— said, “Thank you, suh,” at which Buckles’s face hardened. Such slips were not infrequent. The major was, in fact, always a little uncomfortable in Buckles’s presence. Jack, who had often noticed his attitude, thought that these conciliatory remarks were intended as palliatives to the noiseless English flunky with the immovable face and impenetrable manner. He never extended such deference to Sam, Sanford’s own servant, or even to Jefferson. “Here, Sam, you black scoundrel, bring me my hat, ” he would say whenever he was leaving Sanford’s apartments, at which Sam’s face would relax quite as much as Buckles’s had hardened. But then the major knew Sam’s kind, and Sam knew the major, and, strange to say, believed in him.
When Buckles had retired, Sanford started the Pocomokian on a discussion in which all the talking would fall to the latter’s share. Mrs. Leroy turned to Helen and Jack again. There was no trace, in voice or face, of the emotion that had so stirred her. All that side of her nature had been shut away the moment her guests entered.
“ Don’t mind a word Jack says to you, my dear, about hurrying up the wedding-day, ” she laughed, in a halfearnest and altogether charming way, — not cynical, but with a certain undercurrent of genuine anxiety in her voice, all the more keenly felt by Sanford, who waited on every word that fell from her lips. “Put it off as long as possible. So many troubles and disappointments come afterwards, and it is so hard to keep everything as it should be. There is no happier time in life than that just before marriage. Oh, you need n’t scowl at me, you young Bluebeard; I know all about it, and you don’t know one little bit.”
Helen looked at Jack in some wonder. She was at a loss to know how much of the talk was pure badinage, and how much, perhaps, the result of some bitter worldly experience. She shuddered, yet without knowing what inspired the remark or what was behind it. She laughed, though, quite heartily, as she said, “It is all true, no doubt; only I intend to begin by being something of a tyrant myself, don’t I, Jack ? ”
Before Jack could reply, Smearly, who had hurried by Buckles, entered unannounced, and with a general smile of recognition, and two fingers to the major, settled himself noiselessly in an easy-chair, and reached over the silver tray for a cup. It was a house where such freedom was not commented on, and Smearly was one of those big Newfoundland - dog kind of visitors who avail themselves of all privileges.
“ What is the subject under discussion ? ” the painter asked, as he dropped a lump of sugar into his cup and turned to his hostess.
“ I have just been telling Miss Shirley how happy she will make us when she comes to The Pines this autumn.”
“ And you have consented, of course ? ” he inquired carelessly, lifting his bushy eyebrows.
“ Oh yes,” answered Helen, a faint shadow settling for a moment on her face. “It’s so kind of Mrs. Leroy to want me. You are coming, too, are you not, Mr. Sanford ? ” and she moved toward Henry’s end of the divan, where Jack followed her. She had never liked Smearly. She did not know why, but he always affected her strangely. “ He looks like a bear,” she once told Jack, “with his thick neck and his restless movements. ”
“ Certainly, Miss Helen, I am going, too,” replied Sanford. “I tolerate my work all summer in expectation of these few weeks in the autumn.”
The young girl raised her eyes quickly. Somehow it did not sound to her like Sanford’s voice. There was an unaccustomed sense of strain in it. She moved a little nearer to him, however, impelled by some subtle sympathy for the man who was not only Jack’s friend, but one she trusted as well.
“ Lovely to be so young and hopeful, is n’t it ? ” said Mrs. Leroy to Smearly, with a movement of her head toward Helen. “Look at those two. Nothing but rainbows for her and Jack.”
“ Rainbows come after the storm, my dear lady, not before, ” rejoined Smearly. “If they have any prismatics in theirs, they will appear in a year or two from now.” He had lowered his voice so that Helen should not hear.
“ You never believe in anything. You hate women, ” said Mrs. Leroy in an undertone and half angrily.
“ True, but with some exceptions; you, for instance. But why fool ourselves ? The first year is one of sugarplums, flowers, and canary-birds. They can’t keep their hands off us; they love us so they want to eat us up.”
“ Some of them wish they had, ” interrupted Mrs. Leroy, with a half-laugh, her head bent coquettishly on one side.
“ The second year both are pulling in opposite directions. Then comes a snap of the matrimonial cord, and over they go. Of course, neither of these two turtle-doves has the slightest idea of anything of the kind. They expect to go on and on and on, like the dear little babes in the wood; but they won’t, all the same. Some day an old crow of an attorney will come and cover them over with dried briefs, and that will be the last of it.”
Sanford took no part in the general talk. He was listless, absorbed. He felt an irresistible desire to be alone, and stayed on only because Helen’s many little confidences, told to him in her girlish way, as she sat beside him on the divan, required but an acquiescing nod now and then, or a random reply, which he could give without betraying himself.
He was first of all the guests to rise. In response to Mrs. Leroy’s anxious glance, as he bade her good-night between the veranda curtains, he explained, in tones loud enough to be heard by everybody, that it was necessary to make an early start in the morning for the Ledge, and that he had some important letters to write that night.
“ Don’t forget to telegraph me if you get the certificate,” was all she said.
Helen and Jack followed Sanford. They too wanted to be alone; that is, together, — in their case the same thing.
Once outside and under the trees of the park, Helen stopped in a secluded spot, the shadows of the electric light flecking the pavement, took the lapels of Jack’s coat in her hands, and said, “Jack, dear, I was n’t happy there tonight. She never could have loved anybody.”
“ Who, darling ? ”
“ Why, Mrs. Leroy. Did you hear what she said ? ”
“ Yes, but it was only Kate. That ’s her way, Helen. She never means half she says.”
“ Yes, but the way she said it. Jack. She does n’t know what love means. Loving is not being angry all the time. Loving is helping, — helping everywhere and in everything. Whatever either needs the other gives. I can’t say it just as I want to, but you know what I mean. And that Mr. Smearly; he did n’t think I heard, but I did. Why, it’s awful for men to talk so.”
“ Dear heart,” said Jack, smoothing her cheek with his hand, “don’t believe everything you hear. You are not accustomed to the ways of these people. Down in your own home in Maryland people mean what they say; here they don’t. Smearly is all right. He was ‘talking through his hat,’ as the boys say at the club, — that’s all. You’d think, to hear him go on, that he was a sour, crabbed old curmudgeon, now, would n’t you? Well, you never were more mistaken in your life. Every penny he can save he gives to an old sister of his, who has n’t seen a well day for years. That’s only his talk.”
“ But why does he speak that way, then? When people love as they ought to love, every time a disappointment in the other comes, it is just one more opportunity to help, — not a cause for ridicule. I love you that way, Jack; don’t you love me so ? ” and she looked up into his eyes.
“ I love you a million ways, you sweet girl, ” and, with a rapid glance about him to see that no one was near, he slipped his arm about her and held her close to his breast.
He felt himself lifted out of the atmosphere of romance in which he had lived for months. This gentle, shrinking Southern child whom he loved and petted and smothered with roses, this tender, clinging girl who trusted him so implicitly, was no longer his sweetheart, but his helpmate. She had suddenly become a woman, — strong, courageous, clear-minded, helpful.
A new feeling rose in his heart and spread itself through every fibre of his being,— a feeling without which love is a plaything. It was reverence.
When Sanford reached his apartments Sam was waiting for him, as usual. The candles were lighted instead of the lamp. The windows of the balcony were wide open.
“ You need not wait, Sam ; I ’ll close the blinds, ” he said, as he stepped out and sank into a chair.
Long after Sam had gone he sat there without moving, his head bent, his forehead resting on his hand. He was trying to pick up the threads of his life again, to find the old pattern which had once guided him in his course, and to clear it from the tangle of lines that had suddenly twisted and confused him.
For a long time he saw nothing but Kate’s eyes as they had met his own, with the possibilities which he had read in their depths. He tried to drive the picture from him; then baffled by its persistence he resolutely faced it; held it as it were in his hands, and, looking long and unflinchingly at it, summoned all his courage.
He had read Kate’s heart in her face. He knew that he had revealed his own. But he meant that the future should be unaffected by the revelations made. The world must never share her confidence nor his, as it would surely do at their first false step. It should not have the right to turn and look, and to wonder at the woman whom he was proud to love. That open fearlessness which all who knew her gloried in should still be hers. He knew the value of it to her, and what its loss would entail should a spoken word of his rob her of it, or any momentary weakness of theirs deprive her of the strength and comfort which his open companionship could give. No! God helping him, he would stand firm, and so should she.
An hour later he was still there, his unlighted cigar between his lips, his head on his hands.
UNDER THE WILLOWS.
The mile or more of shore skirting the curve of Keyport harbor from Keyport village to Captain Joe’s cottage was lighted by only four street lamps. Three of these were hung on widely scattered telegraph - poles ; the fourth was nailed fast to one end of old Captain Potts’s fish-house.
When the nights were moonless, these faithful sentinels, with eyes alert, scanned the winding road, or so much of it as their lances could protect, watching over deep culverts, and in one place guarding a treacherous bridge without a rail.
When the nights were cloudy and the lantern-panes were dimmed by the driving sleet, these beacons confined their efforts to pointing out for the stumbling wayfarer the deep puddles or the higher rows of soggy seaweed washed up by the last high tide into the highway itself. Only on thick nights, when the fog - drift stole in from the still sea and even Keyport Light burned dim, did their scouting rays retreat discomfited, illumining nothing but the poles on which the lanterns hung.
Yet in spite of this vigilance there were still long stretches of road between, which even on clear nights were dark as graveyards and as lonesome. Except for the ruddy gleam slanted across the path from some cabin window, or the glare of a belated villager’s swinging lantern flecking the pale, staring fences with seesawing lights and shadows, not a light was visible.
Betty knew every foot of this road. She had trundled her hoop on it, her hair flying in the wind, when she first came to Keyport to school. She had trodden it many a time with Caleb. She had idled along its curves with Lacey before the day when her life came to an end, and had plodded over it many a weary hour since, as she went to her work in the village or returned to Captain Joe’s. She knew every stone and tree and turn. She could have found her way in the pitch-dark to the captain’s or to Caleb’s, just as she had done again and again in the days before the street lights were set, and when Caleb would be standing on the porch, if she was late, shading his eyes and peering down the road, the kitchen lamp in his hand. “I was gittin’ worrited, little woman; what kep’ ye?” he would say. She had never been afraid in those days, no matter what the hour. Everybody knew her. “Oh, that’s you, Mis’ West, is it ? I kind o’ mistrusted it was, ” would come from some shadowy figure across the road.
All this was changed now. There were places along the highway that made her draw her shawl closer, often half hiding her face. She would shudder as she turned the corner of the church, the one where the captain and Aunty Bell had taken her the first Sunday after her coming back. The big, gloomy oil warehouse where she had nursed Lacey seemed to her haunted and uncanny, and at night more gloomy than ever without a ray of light in any one of its broken, staring windows. Even the fishing-smacks, anchored out of harm’s way for the night, looked gruesome and mysterious, with single lights aloft, and black hulls and masts reflected in the water. It was never until she reached the willows that her agitation disappeared. These grew just opposite Captain Potts’s fish - house. There were three of them, and their branches interlocked and spread across the road, the spaces between the trunks being black at night despite the one street lamp nailed to the fish - house across the way. When Betty gained these trees her breath always came freer. She could see along the whole road, away past Captain Joe’s, and up the hill as far as Caleb’s gate. She could see, too, Caleb’s cabin from this spot, and the lamp burning in the kitchen window. She knew who was sitting beside it. From these willows, also, she could run for Captain Joe’s swinging gate with its big ball and chain, getting safely inside before Caleb could pass and see her, if by any chance he should be on the road and coming to the village. Once she had met him this side of their dark shadows. It was on a Saturday, and he was walking into the village, his basket on his arm. He was going for his Sunday supplies, no doubt. The Ledge gang must have come in sooner than usual, for it was early twilight. She had seen him coming a long way off, and had looked about for some means of escape. There was no mistaking his figure; no change of hat or tarpaulin could conceal his identity. She would know him as far as she could see him, — that strong, broad figure, with the awkward, stiff walk peculiar to so many seafaring men, particularly lightship-keepers like Caleb, who have walked but little. She knew, too, the outline of the big, fluffy beard that the wind caught and blew over his ruddy face. No one could be like her Caleb but himself.
These chance meetings she dreaded with a fear she could not overcome. On this last occasion, finding no concealing shelter, she had kept on, her eyes on the ground. When Caleb had passed, his blue eyes staring straight ahead, his face drawn and white, the lips pressed close, she turned and looked after him, and he turned, too, and looked after her, —these two, man and wife, within reach of each other’s arms and lips, yet with only the longing hunger of a dead happiness in their eyes. She could have run toward him, and knelt down in the road, and begged him to forgive her and take her home again, had not Captain Joe’s words restrained her: “Caleb says he ain’t got nothin’ agin ye, child, but he won’t take ye back s’ long ’s he lives.”
Because, then, of the dread of these chance meetings, and because of the shy looks of many of the villagers, who, despite Captain Joe’s daily fight, still passed her with but a slight nod of recognition, she was less unhappy when she walked out and in at night than in the daylight. The chance of being recognized was less. Caleb might pass her in the dark and not see her, and then, too, there were fewer people along the road after dark.
On the Saturday night succeeding that on which she had met him, she determined to wait until it was quite dark. He would have come in then, and she could slip out from the shop where she worked and gain the shore road before he had finished making his purchases in the village.
Her heart had been very heavy all day. The night before she had left her own bed and tapped at Aunty Bell’s door, and had crept under the coverlid beside the little woman, the captain being at the Ledge, and had had one of her hearty cries, sobbing on the elder woman’s neck, her arms about her, her cheek to hers. She had gone over with her for the hundredth time all the misery of her loneliness, wondering what would become of her ; and how hard it was for Caleb to do all his work alone, — washing his clothes and cooking his meals just as he had done on board the lightship ; pouring out her heart until she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. All of her thoughts were centred in him and his troubles. She longed to go back to Caleb to take care of him. It was no longer to be taken care of, but to care for him.
As she hurried through the streets, after leaving the shop, and gained the corner leading to the shore road, she glanced up and down, fearing lest her eyes should fall upon the sturdy figure with the basket. But there was no one in sight whom she knew. At this discovery she slackened her steps and looked around more quickly. When she reached the bend in the road, a flash of light from an open door in a cabin near by gave her a momentary glimpse of a housewife bending over a stove and a man putting a dinner-pail on the kitchen table. Then all was dark again. It was but a momentary glimpse of a happiness the possibility of which in her own life she had wrecked. She stopped, steadying herself by the stone wall. She would soon be at the willows, within a hundred yards of Captain Joe’s gate, and all danger would be over. So far Caleb was nowhere in sight.
With these thoughts in her mind she passed into the black shadows of the overhanging willows. As she came to them a man stepped from behind a treetrunk.
“ Are n’t you rather late this evening?” he asked.
Betty stood still, the light of the street lamp full on her face. The abruptness of the sound, breaking into the quiet of her thoughts, startled her.
“ Oh, you need n’t be afraid; I’m not going to hurt you.”
The girl peered into the gloom. She thought the voice was familiar, though she was not sure. She could distinguish only a white shirt and collar, and a shadowy face with a mustache.
“ What makes you so skittish, anyhow ? ” the man asked again, — in a lower tone this time. “ You did n’t use to be so. I thought maybe you might like to drive over to Medford and see the show to-night.”
Betty made no answer, but she took a step nearer to him, trying to identify him. She was not afraid; only curious. All at once it occurred to her that it could be for no good purpose he had stopped her. None of the men had spoken to her in the street, even in the daytime, since her return home.
“ Please let me pass, ” she said quietly and firmly.
“ Oh, you need n’t be in a hurry. We ’ve got all night. Come along, now, won’t you ? You used to like me once, before you shook the old man.”
Betty knew him now!
The terror of her position overcame her; a deathly faintness seized her.
She saw it all; she knew why this man dared. She realized the loneliness and desolation of her position. Every cabin near her filled with warmth and cheer and comfort, and she friendless and alone. Not a woman she knew without some strong arm of husband or brother to help and defend. The very boats in the harbor, with their beaconlights aloft, protected and safe. Only she in danger; only she unguarded, waylaid, open to insult, even by a man like this.
She stood shivering, looking into his cowardly face. Then rousing herself to her peril, she sprang toward the road. In an instant the man had seized her wrist. She felt his hot breath on her face.
“ Oh, come now, none of that! Say, why ain’t I as good as Bill Lacey ? Give me a kiss.”
“ Let me go ! Let me go! How dare you! ” she cried, struggling in his grasp. When she found his strength gaining on her, she screamed.
Hardly had she made her outcry, when from behind the fish-house a tall man with a flowing beard darted into the shadows, flung himself on Betty’s assailant, and dragged him out under the glare of the street lamp. The girl fled up the road without looking behind.
“ That ’s what ye ’re up to, is it, Mr. Carleton?” said the tall man, holding the other with the grip of a steel vise. “I ’spected as much when I see ye passin’my place. Damn ye! If it wa’n’t that it would be worse for her, I’d kill ye! ”
Every muscle in the speaker’s body was tense with anger. Carleton’s head was bent back, his face livid from the pressure of the fingers twisted about his throat.
The diver slowly relaxed his hold. “Ain’t she got trouble ’nough without havin’ a skunk like you a-runnin’ foul o’ her ? ”
Carleton made a quick gesture as if to spring aside and run. The other saw the movement and edged closer.
“ Ain’t ye ashamed o’ yerself ? Ain’t it mean o’ ye to make up to a gal like Betty? ” His voice was low and measured, — a thin, bitter, cutting voice.
“ What ’s it your business, anyhow ? ” Carleton gasped between his breaths, shaking himself like a tousled dog. “What are you putting on frills about her for, anyhow? She’s nothing to you, if she is your wife. I guess I know what I’m doing.”
Caleb’s fingers grew hard and rigid as claws.
“ So do I know what ye ’re a-doin’. Ye’d drag that child down an’ stomp on her, if ye could. Ye’d make a thing of her, ” — the words came with a hiss,— “you — you — callin’ yerself a man! ”
“ Why don’t you take care of her, then ? ” snarled Carleton, with an assumed air of composure, as he adjusted his collar and cuffs.
“ That’s what I’m here for; that ’s why I follered ye; there ain’t a night since it begun to git dark I ain’t watched her home. She’s not yourn; she’s mine. Look at me, ” — Caleb stepped closer and raised his clinched fist. “If ever ye speak to her agin, so help me God, I will kill ye! ”
With one swing of his arm he threw the superintendent out of his way, and strode up the street,
Carleton staggered from the blow, and would have fallen but for the wall of the fish-house. For a moment he stood in the road looking after Caleb’s retreating figure. Then, with a forced bravado in his voice, he called out in the darkness, “ If you think so damn much of her, why don’t you take her home? ” and slunk away toward the village.
The old man did not turn. If he heard, he made no sign. He walked on, with his head down, his eyes on the road. As he passed Captain Joe’s he loitered at the gate until he saw the light flash up in Betty’s bedroom; then he kept on to his own cabin.
THE SONG OF THE FIRE.
The fire was nearly out when Caleb entered his kitchen door and sank into a chair. Carleton’s taunting words, “Why don’t you take her home? ” rang in his ears. Their sting hurt him. Everything else seemed to fall away from his mind. He knew why he did not take her home, he said to himself; every one else knew why, — every one up and down Keyport knew what Betty had done to ruin him. If she was friendless, tramping the road, within sight of her own house, whose fault was it ? Not his. He had never done anything but love her and take care of her.
He reached for a pair of tongs, stirred the coals, and threw on a single piece of driftwood. The fire blazed up brightly at once, its light flickering on the diver’s ruddy face, and as quickly died out.
“ Why don’t I take care of ’er, eh? Why did n’t she take care of herself? ” he said aloud, gazing into the smouldering embers. “She sees what it is now trampin’ the road nights, runnin’ up agin such curs as him. He’s a nice un, he is. I wish I ’d choked the life out’er him; such fellers ain’t no right to live, ” looking about him as if he expected to find Carleton behind the door, and as quickly recovering himself. “I wonder if he hurt ’er, ”— his voice had softened. “She screamed turrible. I ought, maybe, to ’a’ ketched up to her. Poor little gal, she ain’t used to this.” He was silent awhile, his head bent, his shoulders updrawn, his big frame stretched out in the chair.
“ She ain’t nothin’ but a child, anyhow, ” he broke out again, — “Cap’n Joe says so. He says I don’t think o’ this; maybe he’s right. He says I ’m bigger an’ twice as old’s she be, an’ ought’er know more; that it ain’t me she’s hurted, — it’s herself; that I married her to take care of ’er; and that the fust time she got in a hole I go back on ’er, ’cause she ’s dragged me in arter ’er. Well, ain’t I a-takin’ care of ’er? Ain’t I split squar’ in two every cent I’ve earned since she run away with that ” —
Caleb paused abruptly. Even to himself he never mentioned Lacey’s name. Bending forward he poked the fire vigorously, raking the coals around the single stick of driftwood. “It ’s all very well for th’ cap’n to talk; he ain’t gone through what I have.”
Pushing back his chair he paced the small room, talking to himself as he walked, pausing to address his sentences to the several articles of furniture, — the chairs, the big table, the kitchen sink, whatever came in his way. It was an old trick of his when alone. He had learned it aboard the lightship. “I ain’t a-goin’ to have ’er come home so late no more, ” he continued. His voice had sunk to a gentle whisper. “I’m goin’ to tell them folks she works for that they’ve got to let ’er out afore dark, or she shan’t stay.” He was looking now at an old rocker as if it were the shopkeeper himself. “She’ll be so scared arter this she won’t have a minute’s peace. She need n’t worrit herself, though, ’bout that skunk. She’s shut o’ him. But there ’ll be more of ’em. They all think that now I’ve thro wed ’er off they kin do as they’ve a mind to.” He stopped again and gazed down at the floor, seemingly absorbed in a hole in one of the planks. “Cap’n Joe sez I ain’t got no business to throw ’er off. He would n’t treat a dog so, —that’s what ye said, cap’n; I ain’t never goin’ to forgit it.” He spoke with as much earnestness as though the captain stood before him. “I ain’t throwed her off. She throwed me off, — let’ me here without a word; an’ ye know it, cap’n. Ye want me to take ’er back, do ye? S’pose I do, an’ she finds out arter all that her comin’ home was ’cause she was skeared of it all, and that she still loved ” —
He stopped and seated himself in his chair. He picked up another stick and threw it on the fire, snuggling the two together. The sticks, cheered by each other’s warmth, burst into a crackling flame.
“ Poor little Betty! ” he began again aloud. “I ’m sorry for ye. Everybody ’s agin ye, child, ’cept Cap’n Joe’s folks. I know it hurts ye turrible to have folks look away from ye. Ye always loved to have folks love ye. I ain’t got nothin’ agin ye, child, indeed I ain’t. It was my fault, not yourn. I told Cap’n Joe so; ask him, —he ’ll tell ye.” He turned toward the empty chair beside him, as if he saw her sad face there. “I know it ’s hard, child,” shaking his head. “Ain’t nobody feels it more ’n me, — ain’t nobody feels it more ’n me. I guess I must take care o’ ye; I guess there ain’t nobody else but me kin do it.”
The logs blazed cheerily; the whole room was alight. “I wish ye loved me like ye did onct, little woman, — I would n’t want no better happiness; jest me an’ you, like it use ter was. I wonder if ye do? No, I know ye don’t.” The last words came with a positive tone.
For a long time he remained still. Now he gazed at the blazing logs locked together, the flames dancing about them. Then he got up and roamed mechanically around the room, his thoughts away with Betty and her helpless condition, and her rightful dependence on him. In the same dreary way he opened the cupboard, took out a piece of cold meat and some slices of stale bread, laying them on the table, poured some tea into a cup and put it on the stove; it was easier making the tea that way than in a pot. He drew the table toward the fire, so that his supper would be within reach, stirring the brewing tea meanwhile with a fork he had in his hand, and began his frugal meal. Since Betty left he had never set the table. It seemed less lonely to eat this way.
Just as he had finished there came a knock at the front door. Caleb started, and put down his cup. Who could come at this hour? Craning his head toward the small open hall, he saw through the glass in the door the outlines of a woman’s figure approaching him through the hall. His face flushed, and his heart seemed to jump in his throat.
“ It’s me, Caleb,” said the woman. “It’s Aunty Bell. The door was open, so I did n’t wait. Cap’n sent me up all in a hurry. He’s jes’ come in from the Ledge, and hollered to me from the tug to send up and get ye. The pump ’s broke on the big h’ister. A new one’s got to be cast to-night and bored out to-morrer, if it is Sunday. Cap’n says everything’s stopped at the Ledge, and they can’t do another stroke till this pump ’s fixed. Were n’t nobody home but Betty, and so I come myself. Come right along; he wants ye at the machine shop jes’ ’s quick as ye kin git there.”
Caleb kept his seat and made no reply. Something about the shock of finding who the woman was had stunned him. He did not try to explain it to himself, and was conscious only of a vague yet stinging sense of disappointment. Automatically, like a trained soldier obeying a command, he bent forward in his chair, drew his thick boots from under the stove, slipped his feet into them, and silently followed Aunty Bell out of the house and down the road. When they reached Captain Joe’s gate he looked up at Betty’s window. There was no light.
“ Has Betty gone to bed? ” he said quietly.
“ Yes, more ’n an hour ago. She come home late, all tuckered out. I see ’er jes’ before I come out. She said she warn’t sick, but she would n’t eat nothin’.”
Caleb paused, looked at her as if he were about to speak again, hesitated, then, without a word, walked away.
“ Stubborn as a mule,” said Aunty Bell, looking after him. “I ain’t got no patience with such men.”
THE EQUINOCTIAL GALE.
When Sanford arrived at Keyport, a raw, southeast gale whirled through the deserted streets. About the wharves of the village itself idle stevedores lounged under dripping roofs, watching the cloud-rack and speculating on the chances of going to work. Out in the harbor the fishing-boats rocked uneasily, their long, red pennants flattened against the sky. Now and then a frightened sloop came hurrying in with closereefed jib, sousing her bow under at every plunge.
Away off in the open a dull gray mist, churned up by the tumbling waves, dimmed the horizon, blurring here and there a belated coaster laboring heavily under bare poles, while from Crotch Island way came the roar of the pounding surf thrown headlong on the beach. The long - expected equinoctial storm was at its height.
So fierce and so searching were the wind and rain that Sanford was thoroughly drenched when he reached Captain Joe’s cottage.
“ For the land’s sake, Mr. Sanford, come right in! Why, ye’re jest’s soakin’ as though ye’d fell off the dock. Cap’n said ye was a-comin’, but I hoped ye would n’t. I ain’t never see it blow so terrible, I don’t know when. Gimme that overcoat, ” slipping it from his shoulders and arms. “ Be yer feet wet ? ”
“ Pretty wet, Mrs. Bell. I ’ll go up to my room and get some dry socks ” —
“ Ye ain’t a-goin’ to move one step. Set right down an’ get them shoes off. I ’ll go for the socks myself. I overhauled ’em last week with the cap’n’s, and sot a new toe in one o’ them. I won’t be a minute! ” she cried, hurrying out of the room, and returning with heavy woolen socks and a white worsted sweater.
“ Guess ye’ll want these, too, sir,” she said, picking up a pair of slippers.
“ Where is Captain Joe ? ” asked Sanford, as he pulled off his wet shoes and stockings and moved closer to the fire. It was an every - day scene in Aunty Bell’s kitchen, where one half of her visitors were wet half the time, and the other half wet all the time.
“ I don’t jes’ know. He ain’t been home sence Saturday night but jes’ long ’nough to change his clothes an’ git a bite to eat. Come in from the Ledge Saturday night on the tug two hours after the Screamer brought in the men, an’ hollered to me to go git Caleb an’ come down to the machine shop. You heared they broke the pump on the h’istin’-engine, did n’t ye ? They both been a-workin’ on it pretty much ever sence.”
“ Not the big hoister? ” Sanford exclaimed, with a start, turning pale.
“ Well, that’s what the cap’n said, sir. He an’ Caleb worked all Saturday night an’ got a new castin’ made, an’ bored it out yesterday. I told him he would n’t have no luck, workin’ on Sunday, but he did n’t pay no more ’tention to me than th’ wind a-blowin’. It was to be done this mornin’. He was up at five, an’ I ain’t seen him sence. Said he was go in’ to git to the Ledge in Cap’n Potts’ cat-boat, if it mod’rated. ”
“ He won’t go,” said Sanford, with a sigh of relief now that he knew the break had been repaired without delay. “No cat-boat can live outside to-day.”
“ Well, all I know is, I heared him tell Lonny Bowles to ask Cap’n Potts for it ’fore they went out, ” she replied, as she hung Sanford’s socks on a string especially reserved for such emergencies. “ Said they had two big cut stone to set, an’ they could n’t get a pound o’ steam on the Ledge till he brought the pump back.”
Sanford instinctively looked out of the window. The rain still beat against the panes. The boom of the surf sounded like distant cannon.
“ Ye can’t do nothin’ with him when he gits one o’ his spells on, noways, ” continued Aunty Bell, as she raked out the coals. “Jes’ wait till I grind some fresh coffee, — won’t take a minute. Then I ’ll git breakfast for ye.”
Sanford stepped into the sittingroom, closed the door, took off his coat and vest, loosened his collar, pulled on the sweater, and came back into the kitchen, looking like a substitute in a game of football. He always kept a stock of such dry luxuries in his little room upstairs, Aunty Bell looking after them as she did after the captain’s, and these rapid changes of dress were not unusual.
“ How does Betty get on?” asked Sanford, drawing up a chair to the table. The bustling little woman was bringing relays of bread, butter, and other comforts, flitting between the pantry and the stove.
“ Pretty peaked, sir; ye would n’t know her, poor little girl; it’d break yer heart to see her,” she answered, as she placed a freshly baked pie on the table. “She ’s upstairs now. Cap’n would n’t let her git up an’ go to work this mornin’, it blowed so. That’s her now a-comin’ downstairs.”
Sanford rose and held out his hand. He had not seen Betty since the memorable night when she had stood in his hallway, and he had taken her to Mrs. Leroy’s. He had been but seldom at the captain’s of late, going straight to the Ledge from the train, and had always missed her.
Betty started back, and her color came and went when she saw who it was. She did n’t know anybody was downstairs, she said half apologetically, addressing her words to Aunty Bell, her eyes averted from Sanford’s face.
“ Why, Betty, I ’m glad to see you ! ” exclaimed Sanford in a cheery tone, his mind going back to Mrs. Leroy’s admonition.
Betty raised her eyes with a timid, furtive glance, her face flushed scarlet, but, reading Sanford’s entire sincerity in his face, she laid her hand in his, saying it was a bad day, and that she hoped he was not wet. Then she turned to help Mrs. Bell with the table.
Sanford watched her slight figure and careworn face as she moved about the room. When Aunty Bell had gone down into the cellar, he called Betty to him and said in a low voice, “I have a message for you.”
She turned quickly, as if anticipating some unwelcome revelation.
“ Mrs. Leroy told me to give you her love.”
Betty’s eyes filled. “Is that what she said, Mr. Sanford ? ”
“ Every word, Betty, and she means it all.”
The girl stood fingering the handles of the knives she had just laid upon the cloth. After a pause, Sanford’s eyes still upon her face, she answered slowly, with a pathos that went straight home to his heart: —
“ Tell her, please, sir, that I thank her so much, and that I never forget her. I am trying so hard — so hard — I promised her I would. You don’t know, Mr. Sanford, —nobody won’t never know how good she was to me. If I ’d been her sister she could n’t ’a’ done no more.”
It was but a slight glimpse of the girl’s better nature, but it settled for Sanford all the misgivings he had had. He was about to tell her of Mrs. Leroy’s expected arrival at Medford, and urge her to go over some Sunday, when Aunty Bell bustled in with a covered dish.
“ Come, child,” she said, “sit right down alongside o’ Mr. Sanford an’ git your breakfas’. You ain’t eat a morsel yet.”
There were no seats of honor and no second table in this house, except perhaps for those who came late.
Here a sharp, quick knock sounded on the outer door, and in stalked Captain Bob Brandt, six feet or more of wet oilskins, the rain dripping from his sou’wester, his rosy, good-natured face peering out from under the puckered brim.
“ Cap’n Joe sent me down to the station for ye, sir, in case ye come, but I missed ye, somehow. Mr. Carleton was on the platform, an’ said he see ye git off. Guess ye must ’a’ come crosslots. ”
“ Did Mr. Carleton mention anything about receiving a telegram from me, saying I wanted to see him ? ” inquired Sanford, as he shook the skipper’s hand.
“ Yes, sir; said he knew ye was comin’, but that he was goin’ over to Medford till the storm was over.”
Sanford’s brow knit. Carleton had evidently avoided him.
“ Did he leave any message or letter with Captain Joe ? ” Sanford asked, after a pause. He still hoped that the coveted certificate had finally been signed.
“ Guess not, sir. Don’t think he see ’im. I suppose ye know Cap’n Joe ’s gone to the Ledge with the new pump? ”
“ Not in this storm? ” cried Sanford, a look of alarm overspreading his face.
“ Yes, sir, half an hour ago, in Cap’n Potts’ Dolly. I watched ’em till they run under the P’int, then I come for you; guess that’s what got me late. She was under double reefs then, an’ a-smashin’ things for all she was worth. I tell ye, ’t ain’t no good place out there for nobody, not even Cap’n Joe.” As he spoke he took off his hat and thrashed the water from it against the jamb of the door. “No, thank ye, ma’am, ” with a wave of his hand in answer to Mrs. Bell’s gesture to sit down opposite Betty. “I had breakfast ’board the Screamer.”
“ Who’s with him? ” said Sanford, now really uneasy. Captain Joe’s personal safety was worth more to him than the completion of a dozen lighthouses.
“ Caleb and Lonny Bowles. They’d go anywheres cap’n told ’em. He was holdin’ tiller when I see him last; Caleb layin’ back on the sheet and Lonny bailin’. Cap’n said he would n’t ’a’ risked it, only we was behind an’ he did n’t want ye worried. I ’m kind’er sorry they started; it ain’t no picnic, I tell ye.”
Betty gave an anxious look at Aunty Bell.
“ Is it a very bad storm, Cap’n Brandt ? ” she asked, almost in a whisper.
“ Wust I ever see, Mis’ West, since I worked round here, ” nodding kindly to Betty as he spoke, his face lighting up. He had always believed in her because the captain had taken her home. “Everything comin’ in under double reefs, — them that is a-comin’ in. They say two o’ them Lackawanna coalbarges went adrift at daylight an’ come ashore at Crotch Island. Had two men drownded, I hear.”
“ Who told you that? ” said Sanford. The news only increased his anxiety.
“ The cap’n of the tow line, sir. He’s just telegraphed to New Haven for a big wreckin’-tug.”
Sanford told Captain Brandt to wait, ran upstairs two steps at a time, and reappeared in long rubber boots and mackintosh.
“ I ’ll walk up toward the lighthouse and find out how they are getting on, Mrs. Bell,” he said. “We can see them from the lantern deck. Come, Captain Brandt, I want you with me. ” A skilled seaman like the skipper might be needed before the day was over.
Betty and Aunty Bell looked after them until they had swung back the garden gate with its clanking ball and chain, and had turned to breast the gale in their walk of a mile or more up the shore road.
“ Oh, aunty,” said Betty, with a tremor in her voice, all the blood gone from her face, “do you think anything will happen? ”
“ Not’s long ’s Cap’n Joe ’s aboard, child. He ain’t a-takin’ no risks he don’t know all about. Ye need n’t worry a mite. Set down an’ finish yer breakfas’. I believe Mr. Sanford ain’t done more ’n swallow his coffee,” she said, with a pitying look, as she inspected his plate.
The fact that her husband was exposed in an open boat to the fury of a southeaster made no more impression upon her mind than if he had been reported asleep upstairs. She knew there was no storm the captain could not face.
FROM THE LANTERN DECK.
Tony Marvin, the keeper of Keyport Light, was in his little room next the fog-horn when Sanford and the skipper, wet and glistening as two seals, knocked at the outer door of his quarters.
“ Well, I want to know ! ” broke out Tony in his bluff, hearty way, as he opened the door. “Come in, — come in! Nice weather for ducks, ain’t it ? Sunthin’ ’s up, or you fellers would n’t be out to-day,” leading the way to his room. “Anybody drownded? ” with a half-laugh.
“ Not yet, Tony,” said Sanford in a serious tone. He had known the keeper for years,—had, in fact, helped him get his appointment at the Light. “ But I ’m worried about Captain Joe and Caleb. ” He opened his coat, and walked across the room to a bench set against the whitewashed wall, little puddles of water forming behind him as he moved. “Did you see them go by? They ’re in Captain Potts’s Dolly Varden.”
“ Gosh hang, no! Ye ain’t never tellin’ me, be ye, that the cap’n ’s gone to the Ledge in all this smother ? And that fool Caleb with him, too ? ”
“ Yes, and Lonny Bowles,” interrupted the skipper. As he spoke he pulled off one of his water-logged boots and poured the contents into a firebucket standing against the wall.
“ How long since they started ? ” said the keeper anxiously, taking down his spyglass from a rack above the buckets.
“ Half an hour ago.”
“ Then they ’re this side of Crotch Island yit, if they ’re anywheres. Let’s go up to the lantern. Mebbe we can see ’em,” he said, unlatching the door of the tower. “Better leave them boots behind, Mr. Sanford, and shed yer coat. A feller’s knees git purty tired climbin’ these steps, when he ain’t used to ’t; there ’s a hundred and ten of ’em. Here, try these slippin’s of mine,” and he kicked a pair of slippers from under a chair. “Guess they’ll fit ye. Seems to me Caleb ’s been doin’ his best to git drownded since that high-flier of a gal left him. He come by here daylight, one mornin’ awhile ago, in a sharpie that you would n’t cross a creek in, and it blowin’ half a gale. I ain’t surprised o’ nothin’ in Caleb, but Cap’n Joe ought’er have more sense. What ’s he goin’ for, anyhow, to-day? ” he added, as he placed his foot on the first iron step of the spiral staircase.
“ He’s taken the new pump with him,” said Sanford, as he followed the keeper up the spiral stairway, the skipper close behind. “They broke the old pump on Saturday, and everything is stopped on the Ledge. Captain knows we ’re behind, and he does n’t want to lose an hour. But it was a foolish venture. He had no business to risk his life in a blow like this, Tony.” There was a serious tone in Sanford’s voice, which quickened the keeper’s step.
“ What good is the pump to him, if he does get it there? Men can’t work to-day,” Tony answered. He was now a dozen steps ahead, his voice sounding hollow in the reverberations of the round tower.
“ Oh, that ain’t a-goin’ to stop us! ” shouted the skipper from below, resting a moment to get his breath as he spoke. “We ’ve got the masonry clean out o’ water; we ’re all right if Cap’n Joe can git steam on the h’ister.”
The keeper, whose legs had become as supple as a squirrel’s in the five years he had climbed up and down these stairs, reached the lantern deck some minutes ahead of the others. He was wiping the sweat from the lantern glass with a clean white cloth, and drawing back the day curtains so that they could see better, when Sanford’s head appeared above the lens deck.
Once upon the iron floor of the deck, the roar of the wind and the dash of the rain, which had been deadened by the thick walls of the structure surrounding the staircase below, burst upon them seemingly with increased fury. A tremulous, swaying motion was plainly felt. A novice would have momentarily expected the structure to measure its length on the rocks below. Above the roar of the storm could be heard, at intervals, the thunder of the surf breaking on Crotch Island beach.
“ Gosh A’mighty! ” exclaimed the keeper, adjusting the glass, which he had carried up in his hand. “It’s a-humpin’ things, and no mistake. See them rollers break on Crotch Island,” and he swept his glass around. “I see ’em. There they are, —three o’ them. There’s Cap’n Joe, — ain’t no mistakin’ him. He’s got his cap on, same ’s he allers wears. And there’s Caleb; his beard’s a-flyin’ straight out. Who’s that in the red flannen shirt ? ”
“ Lonny Bowles, ” said the skipper.
“ Yes, that’s Bowles. He’s a-bailin’ for all he ’s worth. Cap’n Joe ’s got the tiller and Caleb’s a-hangin’ on the sheet. Here, Mr. Sanford,” and he held out the glass, “ye kin see ’em plain ’s day.”
Sanford waved the glass away. The keeper’s eyes, he said, were better accustomed to scanning a scene like this. He would rather take Marvin’s reports than rely on his own eyesight. He himself could see the Dolly, a mile or more this side of Crotch Island Point, and nearly two miles away from where the three watchers stood. She was hugging the inside shore-line, her sail closereefed. He could even make out the three figures, which were but so many black dots beaded along her gunwale. All about the staggering boat seethed the gray sea, mottled in wavy lines of foam. Over this circled white gulls, shrieking as they flew.
“ He’s gittin’ ready to go about,” continued the keeper, his eye still to the glass. “I see Caleb shiftin’ his seat. They know they can’t make the P int on that leg. Jimmy-whiz, but it’s soapy out there ! See ’er take that roller! Gosh ! ”
As he spoke the boat careened, the dots crowded together, and the Dolly bore away from the shore. It was evidently Captain Joe’s intention to give Crotch Island Point a wide berth and then lay a straight course for the Ledge, now barely visible through the haze, the derricks and masonry alone showing clear above the fringe of breaking surf tossed white against the dull gray sky.
All eyes were now fixed on the Dolly. Three times she laid a course toward the Ledge, and three times she was forced back behind the island.
“ They’ve got to give it up,” said the keeper, laying down his glass. “That tide cuts round that ’ere p’int like a mill-tail, to say nothin’ o’ them smashers that ’s rollin’ in. How she keeps afloat out there is what beats me. ”
“ She would n’t if Cap’n Joe was n’t at the tiller, ” said the skipper, with a laugh. “Ye can’t drown him no more ’n a water-rat.” He had an abiding faith in Captain Joe.
Sanford’s face brightened. An overwhelming anxiety for the safety of the endangered men had almost unnerved him. It was some comfort to feel Captain Brandt’s confidence in Captain Joe’s ability to meet the situation; for that little cockle-shell battling before him as if for its very life — one moment on top of a mountain of water, and the next buried out of sight — held between its frail sides not only two of the best men whom he knew, but really two of the master spirits of their class. One of them, Captain Joe, Sanford admired more than any other man, loving him, too, as he had loved but few.
With a smile to the skipper, he looked off again toward the sea. He saw the struggling boat make a fourth attempt to clear the Point, and in the movement lurch wildly; he saw, too, that her long boom was swaying from side to side. Through the driving spray he made out that two of the dots were trying to steady it. The third dot was standing in the stern.
Here some new movement caught his eye, and the color left his face. He strained his neck forward; then taking the glass from the skipper watched the little craft intently.
“ There’s something the matter,” he said nervously, after a moment’s pause. “That’s Captain Joe waving to one of those two smacks out there scudding in under close reefs. Look yourself; am I right, Tony?” and he passed the glass to the keeper again.
“ Looks like it, sir,” replied Tony in a low tone, the end of the glass fixed on the tossing boat. “The smack sees ’em now, sir. She ’s goin’ about.”
The fishing-smack careened, fluttered in the wind like a baffled pigeon, and bore across to the plunging boat.
“ The spray ’s a-flyin’ so ye can’t see clear, sir,” said the keeper, his eye still at the glass. “She ain’t actin’ right, somehow; that boom seems to bother ’em. Cap’n Joe ’s runnin’ for’ard. Gosh! that one went clean over ’er. Look out! Look out! ” in quick crescendo, as if the endangered crew could have heard him. “See ’er take ’em! There ’s another went clean across. My God, Mr. Sanford! she ’s over, — capsized ! ”
Sanford made a rush for the staircase, a rash, unreasonable impulse to help taking possession of him. The keeper caught him firmly by the arm.
“ Come back, sir ! You ’re only wastin’ yer breath. That smack ’ll get ’em. ”
Captain Brandt picked up the glass that the keeper had dropped. His hands shook so he could hardly adjust the lens.
“ The boom’s broke,” he said in a trembling voice; “that’s what ails ’em. She’s bottom side up. Lord, if she ain’t a-wallowin’ ! I never ’spected to see Cap’n Joe in a hole like that. They ’re all three in th’ water; ain’t a man livin’ can swim ashore in that sea! Why don’t that blamed smack go about ? They ’ll sink ’fore she can get to ’em.”
Sanford leaned against the brass rail of the great lens, his eyes on the fishingsmack swooping down to the rescue. The helplessness of his position, his absolute inability to help the drowning men, overwhelmed him: Captain Joe and Caleb perishing before his eyes, and he powerless to lift a hand.
“ Do you see the captain anywhere ? ” he said, with an effort at self-control. The words seemed to clog his throat.
“ Not yet, sir, but there’s Lonny, an’ there ’s Caleb. You look, Mr. Marvin, ” he said, turning to the keeper. He could not trust himself any longer. For the first time his faith in Captain Joe had failed him.
Marvin held the glass to his eye and covered the boat. He hardly dared breathe.
“ Can’t see but two, sir.” His voice was broken and husky. “Can’t make out the cap’n nowheres. Something must ’a’ struck him an’ stunned him. My — my—ain’t it a shame for him to cut up a caper like this! I allers told Cap’n Joe he’d get hurted in some foolish kick-up. Why in hell don’t them fellers do something ? If they don’t look out, the Dolly ’ll drift so far they ’ll lose him, — standin’ there like two dummies an’ lettin’ a man drown! Lord! Lord! ain’t it too bad! ” The keeper’s eyes filled. Everything was dim before him.
The skipper sank on the oil-chest and bowed his head. Sanford’s hands were over his face. If the end had come, he did not want to see it.
The small, close lantern became as silent as a death-chamber. The keeper, his back against the lens rail, folded his arms across his chest and stared out to sea. His face bore the look of one watching a dying man. Sanford did not move. His thoughts were on Aunty Bell. What should he say to her? Was there not something he could have done ? Should he not, after all, have hailed the first tug in the harbor and gone in search of them before it was too late ?
The seconds dragged. The silence in its intensity became unbearable. With a deep indrawn sigh, Captain Brandt turned toward Sanford and touched him. “Come away,” he said, with the tenderness of one strong man who suffers and is stirred with greater sorrow by another’s grief. “This ain’t no place for you, Mr. Sanford. Come away.”
Sanford raised his eyes and was about to speak, when the keeper threw up his arms with a joyous shout and seized the glass. “There he is! I see his cap! That’s Cap’n Joe! He’s holdin’ up his hands. Caleb’s crawlin’ along the bottom; he’s reachin’ down an’ haulin’ Cap’n Joe up. Now he’s on ’er keel.”
Sanford and Captain Brandt sprang to their feet, crowding close to the lantern glass, their eyes fastened on the Dolly. Sanford’s hands were trembling. Hot, quick tears rolled down his cheek and dropped from his chin. The joyful news had unnerved him more than the horror of the previous moments. There was no doubt of its truth; he could see, even with the naked eye, the captain lying flat on the boat’s keel. He thought he could follow every line of his body, never so precious to him as now.
“ He’s all right, ” he said in a dazed way — “all right — all right,” repeating it over and over to himself, as a child would do. Then, with a halfstagger, he turned and laid his hand on the keeper’s shoulder.
“ Thank God, Tony! Thank God!”
The keeper’s hand closed tight in Sanford’s. For a moment he did not speak.
“ Almighty close shave, sir,” he said slowly in a broken whisper, looking into Sanford’s eyes.
Captain Brandt’s face was radiant. “Might ’a’ knowed he ’d come up some’ers, sir. Did n’t I tell ye ye could n’t drown him ? But where in thunder has he been under water all this time ?” with a forced, half-natural laugh. The laugh not only expressed his joy at the great relief, but carried with it a reminder that he had never seriously doubted the captain’s ability to save himself.
All eyes were now fastened on the smack. As she swept past the capsized boat her crew leaned far over the side, reached down and caught two of the shipwrecked men, leaving one man still clinging to the keel, the sea breaking over him every moment. Sanford took the glass, and saw that this man was Lonny Bowles, and that Captain Joe, now safe aboard the smack, was waving his cap to the second smack, which hove to in answer. Presently the hailed smack rounded in, lowered her mainsail, and hauled Lonny aboard. She then took the overturned Dolly in tow, and made at once for the harbor. When this was done, the first smack, with Captain Joe and Caleb on board, shook a reef from its mainsail, turned about, and despite the storm laid a straight course back to the Ledge.
This daring and apparently hopeless attempt of Captain Joe to carry out his plan of going to the Ledge awoke a new anxiety in Sanford. There was no longer the question of personal danger to the captain or the men; the fishingsmack was a better sea boat than the Dolly, of course, but why make the trip at all when the pump had been lost from the overturned boat, and no one could land at the Ledge ? Even from where they all stood in the lantern they could see the big rollers flash white as they broke over the enrockment blocks, the spray drenching the tops of the derricks. No small boat could live in such a sea, — not even the life-boat at the Ledge.
As the incoming smack drew near, Sanford, followed by the keeper and Captain Brandt, hurried down the spiral staircase and into the keeper’s room below, where they drew on their oilskins and heavy boots, and made their way to the lighthouse dock.
When she came within hailing distance, Captain Brandt mounted a spile and shouted above the roar of the gale, “ Bowles, ahoy! Anybody hurt, Lonny? ”
A man in a red shirt detached himself from among the group of men huddled in the smack’s bow, stepped on the rail, and, putting his hands to his mouth, trumpeted back, “No! ”
“ What’s the cap’n gone to the Ledge for ? ”
“ Gone to set the pump! ”
“ Thought the pump was lost overboard! ” cried Sanford.
“ No, sir; Cap’n Joe dived under the Dolly an’ found it catched fast to the seat, jes’ ’s he ’spected, an’ Caleb hauled it aboard. Cap’n tol’ me to tell ye, sir, if ye came up, that he ’d hev it set all right to-day, blow or no blow. ”
“ Ain’t that jes’ like the cap’n?” said the keeper, with a loud laugh, slapping his thigh with his hand. “That ’s where he was when we thought he was drownded, — he was a-divin’ fer that pump. Land o’ Moses, ain’t he a good un ! ”
Captain Brandt said nothing, but a smile of happy pride overspread his face. Captain Joe was still his hero.
Sanford spent the afternoon between Aunty Bell’s kitchen and the paraphernalia dock, straining his eyes seaward in search of an incoming smack which would bring the captain. The wind had shifted to the northwest, sweeping out the fog and piling the low clouds in heaps. The rain had ceased, and a dash of pale lemon light shone above the blue-gray sea.
About sundown his quick eye detected a tiny sail creeping in behind Crotch Island. As it neared the harbor and he made out the lines of the fishingsmack of the morning, a warm glow tingled through him; it would not be long now before he had his hands on Captain Joe.
When the smack came bowling into the harbor under double reefs, her windblown jib a cup, her sail a saucer, and rounded in as graceful as a skater on the outer edge, Sanford’s hand was the first that touched the captain’s as he sprang from the smack’s deck to the dock.
“ Captain Joe,” he said. His voice broke as he spoke; all his love was in his eyes. “Don’t ever do that again. I saw it all from the lighthouse lantern. You have no right to risk your life this way.”
“ ’T ain’t nothin’, Mr. Sanford.” His great hand closed tight over that of the young engineer. “It ’s all right now, and the pump’s screwed fast. Caleb had steam up on the h’ister when I left him on the Ledge. Boom had n’t ’a’ broke short off, we’d ’a’ been there sooner.”
“ We thought you were gone, once, ” continued Sanford, his voice full of anxiety, still holding to the captain’s hand as they walked toward the house.
“ Not in the Dolly, sir,” in an apologetic tone, as if he wanted to atone for the suffering he had caused his friend. “She’s got wood enough in ’er to float anywheres. That ’s what I took ’er out for.”
Aunty Bell met them at the kitchen door.
“ I hearn ye was overboard,” she said quietly, no more stirred over the day’s experience than if some child had stepped into a puddle and had come in for a change of shoes. “Ye ’re wet, yet, be n’t ye? ” patting his big chest to make sure.
“ Yes, guess so,” he answered carelessly, feeling his own arms as if to confirm his wife’s inquiry. “Got a dry shirt ? ”
“ Yes; got everything hangin’ there on a chair ’fore the kitchen fire,” and she closed the door upon him and Sanford.
“ Beats all, Mr. Sanford, don’t it? ” the captain continued in short sentences, broken by breathless pauses, as he stripped off his wet clothes before the blazing fire, one jerk for the suspenders, another for the trousers, Sanford handing him the dry garments one after another. He was so jubilant over the captain’s safety that he was eager to do him any service.
“ Beats all, I say; don’t it, now? There’s that Cap’n Potts: been a seaman, man an’ boy, all his life,” — here the grizzled wet head was hidden for a moment as a clean white shirt was drawn over it, — “yet he ain’t got sense ’nough to keep a boom from rottin’ ’board a cat-boat, ” — the head was up now, and Sanford, fumbling under the chin whisker, helped the captain with the top button, — “an’ snappin’ square off in a little gale o’ wind like that. There, thank ye, guess that ’ll do.”
When he had seated himself in his chair, his sturdy legs — stout and tough as two dock-logs — stretched out before the fire, his rough hands spread to the blaze, warming the big, strong body that had been soaking wet for ten consecutivehours, Sanford took a seat beside him, and, laying his hand on the captain’s knee, said in a gentle voice, Why did you risk your life for that pump ? ”
“ ’ Cause she acted so durned ornery, ” he blurted out in an angry tone. “Jes’ see what she did : gin out night ’fore last jes’ ’s we was gittin’ ready to h’ist that big stretcher; kep’ me an’ Caleb up two nights a-castin’ an’ borin’ on ’er out ; then all of a sudden she thought she ’d upset an’ fool us. I tell ye, ye’ve got to take hold of a thing like that good an’ early, or it ’ll git away from ye.” He swung one hand high over his head as if it had been a sledge-hammer. “Now she ’ll stay put till I git through with her. I ain’t a-goin’ to let no damned pump beat me! ”
F. Hopkinson Smith.
(To be continued.)