In a Mutton-Ham Boat
THE sailboat Jessie lay alongside the wooden pier, with ballast stowed amidships and her mutton-ham unclewed.
The Jessie was a trig, span little boat, painted a clover green outside and a pale straw color within. She had been freshly swabbed that day, and her mutton-ham fluttered as white as new cotton around her single mast. I more than once sought to learn why Albemarle and Pamlico fishing smacks call their huge sails “ mutton-ham,”and was invariably assured, in slow Southern gutturals, that “they was jes’ named that-a-way, an’ reckon tha’ wa’n’t no reason fo’ it.”
Though nominally a fisher, in summer the Jessie carried on a brisk trade as private yacht to predatory tourists who annually invade the beautiful south tidewater regions, armed with rod, reel, and trolling line, and upon this particular occasion was under promise to ferry a lifesaving station house keeper and his little family across the sound to their station on Kitty Hawk ocean side. I was merely an uninvited guest, having managed to establish a sort of freemasonry with the captain, — a wiry, tanned mariner, with a keen blue eye and a ginger-colored mustache, — by means of which I voyaged wherever the Jessie voyaged; and where the Jessie anchored, there I hung up my sailcloth cap, and ate my cakes and drank my bottled ale.
The passengers had been comfortably settled, and the painter hauled in ; the captain, tiller in hand, was shouting alternately to his sail boy to “ give ’er head,” and to “ shove ’way ” and “ look what yo’ ’bout, an’ ease ’er off,” when a series of loud halloos on shore arrested action. Then we saw a cart whirl around the corner by what is politely termed on the island “ th’ Co’te House,” and come tearing down the sandy lane toward the wharf. The cart was drawn by a brisk little island horse. A young man and a girl sat perilously on the single seat, jigging up and down as the vehicle bounded along. The young man was lashing the horse and shouting ; the girl held her sunbonnet on with one hand, and her short skirts down with the other ; for although, as the captain had remarked several times that morning, “ tha’ wa’n’t no win’ to speak uv,” the rapidity of the pony’s gait had evidently raised a breeze.
“ Wha-at —yo’ — want ? ” shouted the captain in his sea voice, so hoarse that it started the herons from the marsh, half a mile off.
“ Wa-ait! ” hallooed the young man in the cart, and he frantically lashed the pony. “ We — want — to go — ’long ! ”
The brisk little horse pattered to the wharf side. The young man leaped out, and tenderly helped the girl to descend. He also took out a satchel and a square pasteboard box, which articles of luggage he deposited carefully on the sand, and then deliberately, albeit nervously, proceeded to fasten the pony to a convenient stake at the water side.
“ Look hyuh,” said the captain in his land voice, “ this ain’ no fe’eyboat.”
The young man did not answer at once. He finished fastening the pony’s reins, tucked the girl’s hand within his arm, gathered up satchel and box, then came quickly upon the wharf, and looked the captain in the eyes. He was a very young man ; the apple bloom of his cheek was girlishly fresh, and his lip was guiltless of even gosling down.
“ I did not suppose it was a ferryboat,” he answered, with Bostonian precision, “ but I thought that doubtless you would not object to taking two more passengers.”
His boyish face, in spite of an obvious effort to appear unconcerned, betrayed lively anxiety.
“ No, suh,” returned the captain severely. “ I ’d like mighty well to accom’date yo’, but I’ve hi’ud my boat to this hyuh gentleman ” —indicating the lifesaving station keeper — “ fo’ th’ day ; it consequently b’longs to him, an’ I can’t take nobody else in.”
At these heartless words, delivered in Captain Jo West’s most nautical manner, a manner which could be grim upon occasion, the boy looked crestfallen, and the girl burst into tears.
The tears drew our interested attention. She was a mere child, hardly more than fourteen at the most, and she wept very much as a child weeps, — in unstifled sobs, smearing the tears away with the tips of her fingers. Her flaxen hair hung in two braids, one on either shoulder ; she wore a short blue calico skirt, and her round little ankles and feet were bare. Her face was framed in a blue gingham sunbonnet, and beneath the twinkling tears it was the face of a wood nymph, as wood nymphs are pictured by French Impressionists. The mouth was especially charming ; the tender chin curved softly to a round little throat: the brow was low and broad; and the eyes were adorable.
“Oh, now, don’t, don’t!” said the passenger, with unfeigned compassion.
“ Tha’ ’ll be some othuh boat, little gyurl,” added the captain, letting all his grimness go, and a fresh deluge poured from the child’s gentian eyes. The boy put his arms around her.
“ Yo’ ain’ in any gre’t hu’ey, airyo’ ? ” asked the captain.
“ Yes,” replied the boy mournfully; “ we ’re boun’ to get ’cross befo’ — that is, soon ’s we can.” He forgot to be precise. “ It will be awful hawd on us if we don’t.”
The passenger looked at the captain ; the captain looked at the passenger, and the station keeper’s wife, with her baby at her breast, nudged her husband with her elbow. The station keeper cleared his throat.
“ Wha’h do yo’ want to go ? ” he asked, with polite ceremony.
“ Across,” answered the boy vaguely, with eyes straining over the silver-blue bay.
“Oh, to Nag’s Head, prob’ly?”
“ We want — to get the firs’ steamer for — Newbern, I reck’n.” There was a queer hesitancy in the boy’s speech.
“Tha’ ain’ any steamuh fo’Newb’n tell day aftuh to-moh’aw.” The three men spoke at once. Boy and girl looked aghast.
“ Anyhow, we’d like awf’l well to get across — somewha’,” said the boy earnestly.
“ I don’ see as tha’ ’d be any objection to lettin’ ’um go ’cross with us,” remarked the station keeper.
“If yo’ have n’t got no objection, I haven’t,” replied the captain sententiously. He seized an oar. “ Pile in, will yo’! Tha’ ain’ no win’ to speak uv, nohow, an’ ” —
Boy and girl were already in the boat, and further words would have been superfluous.
“ Let go ! ” The captain, standing in the stern with a huge oar, slowly shoved off ; the mutton-ham filled ; we cleared the spit of sand at the harbor mouth and stood out to sea, the Jessie’s nose pointed nor’east and her jib sniffing the breeze.
It proved, as Captain Jo had predicted at the start, a hot day and a light wind, — “no win’ to speak uv,” — and we were presently afloat on water as burnished, as vivid, as liquid turquoise, and under a turquoise concave of sky wherein the sun orb stood brassy yellow. There was as yet no tacking to be done, and the captain, lazily holding the tiller, easily fell to relating fish yarns,—a form of fiction no longer new to me, and not at any time nor in any circumstances comparable in interest with romance narratives and the love stories of real life. I made overtures to the boy and girl, who sat amidships, looking happy and half scorched. I invited them into the bow, where the mutton-ham threw a cool shadow and spray dashed into one’s face.
The pair settled side by side with me in the bow. They preserved a dignified silence and an attitude of uncompromising correctness ; still there was a latent something in their timidly exchanged glances which aroused all the interest of a romance seeker. The girl wore a frightened look, too ; her eyes were always turning back to the shores we had left, while the boy looked fearlessly forward to the shores we neared.
The longer I studied them, the more I felt my compassion warming toward this unknown callow pair, cast like wreckage upon the summer sea, and I sought for a conventional entering wedge of conversation ; for even superficial observation assured me that the boy respected the conventions, and believed in wearing stiff linen collars in the hottest weather. I could think of nothing better than the awkward and seemingly spy-out question, “ You are a public school teacher, are you not ? ”
“Yes.” His eyes sought the girl’s. “ I taught a six-month term last winter, and a summer session afterward, on the West Side.”
“ And do you return for the fall term ? ”
“ No.” Again his eyes sought the girl’s. “ I think not.”
The girl blushed.
At this moment we came within hail of Nag’s Head Hotel, and the captain interrupted the propitious beginnings of friendship with the mysterious weanlings. I could not help feeling that he was too rudely realistic and uncompromisingly practical.
“ Yo’ an’ yo’w sistuh want t’ go asho’ hyuh ? ” he called from the stern.
“ Do you land anyhow ? ” asked the boy, peeping round the corner of the mutton-ham.
The captain said he did not; he was sailing to Kitty Hawk with as much speed as “ no win’ to speak uv ” would allow, and Nag’s Head would not be of record in his logbook that day.
“ Very well; if you don’t mind, we ’ll go on with you to Kitty Hawk.”
The captain silently turned the Jessie’s nose two points west’ard, and we lazed along, hardly seeming to move at all, yet steadily gaining upon a break in the shoreward wall of giant pines, which was the mouth of the creek we were presently to explore on our course to Kitty Hawk Bay.
A big shape, as black as a rock and as shiny as ebony, suddenly hove out of the placid sea, creaming the bright level with foam. The creature blew, with a noise like the escape of steam from an engine, and fell back into the deep. Bubbles, spray, and small waterspouts glittered for half a mile about our fragile bark ; similar black shapes were wallowing everywhere.
“ Porpoise,” said the captain briefly.
Tlie boat’s attention was centred in the monsters.
“ Now is my time,” I thought, and I drew Miss close to me in the shadow of the sail. I assumed a grandmotherly stateliness and rigidity of manner.
“ What is your name, dear ?
The face under the edge of the blue sunbonnet was so like a flower that I half expected to hear the child lisp, in reply to my question, “ Rose ” or “ Pink.” Shyly, like a baby, she inserted her small brown forefinger into her lovely arch mouth, and, with a downward glance, just murmured no louder than a wood dove’s coo, “ Cynthie.”
It was not a poetic name !
I stroked the little sunburned hand, and smiled reassuringly. “You and your brother are off for home to enjoy the summer holidays, I dare say?”
She looked startled. “ My brother ? ” She tried to withdraw her hand from mine.
“ He is your brother, of course ? ”
The boy had forgotten reserve so far as to go astern and enter into animated — animated for the climate — conversation with Captain Jo and the life-saving station keeper concerning porpoises. Cynthie winced and reddened piteously. Of course he wasn’t! I had known it all the time. But how truly delicious to have my suspicions confirmed ! Nevertheless, I assumed a great sternness of manner.
“ Who is he, then ? ”
Cynthie did not reflect that she was not in duty bound to submit to my crossexamination. Two distressful large tears arose and hung in her babyish eyes without dropping from the golden lashes, and her lips widened with grief; her plump little fingers played nervously with the blue bonnet strings.
“ He is ” — and there she hesitated, overcome with bashfulness.
“ Who, Cynthie ? ”
I broke into a laugh, finding myself so naïvely headed off, and the laugh was the overthrow of that awe with which I had contrived to inspire the girl. She laughed with me, and the bright drops hanging by the lashes in either eye dripped unhindered down her ruddy cheeks. Our mirth drew the boy’s attention from the porpoise.
“ Cynthiana ! ” he uttered, in the tenderest of love calls,
I shook my head at him, and held Miss close at my side. “ Cynthiana,” I said, glad to make use of a name more musically befitting this beautiful shy young sylvan creature than its rustic diminutive, “ quick, tell me all about it. Is Dickie your sweetheart ? ”
Cynthiana stole me a swift glance and nodded slowly ; she inserted her brown forefinger into her mouth, and a blush swept her face, fading quickly, like the fitful flush of an ember in the gloom of twilight.
“ You are a pair of runaways. Oh, Cynthie! ”
Cynthiana was wide-eyed at my discernment of occult mysteries. She nodded again, timidly, with some return of awe.
“ But why do you run away ? Don’t your papa and mamma approve of your marrying Dickie ? ”
“I have n’t any papa,” said Cynthiana, “nor any mamma.” Her tender tones were touched with melancholy.
Poor Cynthiana ! I smoothed a curling flaxen tress from her fine white brow; my heart, melted with pity.
“Haven’t you any friends, Cynthiana ? ” I asked.
“ T-tha’ ’s uncle Jeems Dannil and aunt Ginnie Lou. But they ’re not my reel folks, — just foster.”
“ And they did n’t want you to marry Dickie? ”
“No’m ! ”
“ Why not ? ”
Cynthiana gazed reflectively over the glowing meadow of blue water. “ I don’t know. They jes’ did n’t, I reckon.”
Cynthiana’s confidences were uphill matters; yet she was not altogether averse to them ; she would probably have given me the whole story, with judicious leading, had not her bare toes unfortunately encountered my patent - leather shoes. The contrast between bare toes and polished leather was too much for the incipient woman in little Cynthiana’s breast. She did not see the wide slit along the instep of the left shoe, nor was she aware of the worn spot in the sole of the right one, or the contrast would certainly have been less oppressive. As it was, she tried to draw her short blue calico skirt entirely over her naked brown feet, and closed her lips in a silence that seemed to indicate the irrevocable.
I determined to try the effect of feminine wheedling on the boy. He was looking toward us now with wistful discontent, and it required no more than a nod and a smile to bring him quickly. I shall not attempt to rehearse my delicate manœuvres with him.
“ If you won’t give us away, I don’t mind telling you about it,” said Dickie, “ because,” and his tone assumed a protecting manliness, perfectly delicious to hear, “ I reck’n Cynthiana does need a kind of frien’ some older than she is. Cynthiana’s not fifteen yet.”
I promised with the utmost solemnity not to “ give them away even by the winking of an eye, and he thereupon related the loves of Richard and Cynthiana in due sequence of facts, while our clover-colored bark swayed to the blue and went loafing along the sparkling meadows of the sea.
“ I was teachin’ public school ovuh on th’ Wes’ Side,” said the boy, easily dropping into the vernacular as the more spontaneous and natural form of speech, “an’ I bo’ded at Mr. Jeems Dannil’s house. Cynthiana was raised in his fambly ; she calls them uncle and aunt. They were always right kin’, wa’n’t they, Cynthiana ? ”
Cynthiana murmured, “ Yes, right kin’.”
“ Exceptin’ this partic’lar : Mr. Jeems Dannil an’ Miss Ginnie Lou are awful hawd wo’kers ; an’ they wo’ked Cynthiana too hawd, fo’ a girl no bigguh th’n Cynthiana is. Mr. Jeems Dannil’s place — you might know it, on th’ Wes’ Side, atop th’ bluff, an’ close to th’ soun’ ? Yes, it’s a right lawge fawm; an’ th’ vineyawd’s th’ bigges’ on th’ island, they seh. Beside that, he owns sev’al oystuh beds, an’ a sloop, an’ th’ee ’r fo’ fishin’ boats. He takes a gre’t ’eal uv salm’n an’ ships no’th. Mr. Jeems Dannil’s a rich man. But I mus’ seh he does wo’k too hawd, — gettin’ up at th’ee a’clock summuhs, an’ five wintuhs! An’ th’ women folks have to keep right 'long up with th’ men. When I bo’ded tha’ Cynthiana stawted in to school; but she was always havin’ to stop fo’ this thing an’ that, — ’bout th’ee days out uv ev’y week; an’ I saw she was wo’kin’ too hawd, an’ not gettin’ th’ right kin’ uv education. Beside, it was boun’ to break her down. I thought to myse’f,” — here the boy grew bashful and blushed a good deal, — “I was lovin’ her right along, yo’ know, — an’ so I thought tha’ wa’n’t any use waitin’ ; I jes’ awsked Mr. Jeems Dannil an’ Miss Ginnie Lou squa’ out to let me maw’y Cynthiana, come close uv summuh term. Yo’ might n’t believe it, but they both got mad, an’ said they would n’t allow any such thing ! ”
“ What possible reason could they have for refusing ? ” I asked, feeling a glow of indignation at the heartlessness of Mr. Dannil and the equally culpable Miss Ginnie.
“ Th’ only reason Miss Ginnie Lou gave was that Cynthiana ’s too young. Mr. Jeems Dannil did n’t give any reason ’t all, — he is n’t a reasonin’ kin’ uv man, Mr. Jeems Dannil is n’t ; he jes’ refused, squa’ out ’n’ out; an’ he would n’t listen to a wo’d I wanted to seh. But,” added the boy, with cynicism worthy of a Schopenhauer, “ I b’lieve ’t, was jes’ ’cause Cynthiana was a cheap han’ on th’ plantation, an helpin’ with th’ fishin’, — cheapuh ’n he ’d likely fin’ anothuh good one, an’ bettuh th’n mos’ any othuh he could fin’. She ’s been at it since she was sev’n years old, have n’t yo’, Cynthiana ? ”
“ Yes. I c’n catch salm’n. clean an’ salt ’um down as well as uncle Jeems Dannil, an’ mos’ as fas’.” Her face brightened with the triumph of the thought.
“Surely they couldn’t be so heartless ! ” I said.
“ Mr. Jeems Dannil is right down close an’ hawtless,” Dickie affirmed, sticking to his cynicism. “ Not that I’d like to seh he an’ Miss Ginnie Lou wa’n’t fond uv Cynthiana, but they were too hawd on her. I could n’t stan’ it! An’ so, when they would n’t give in, I jes’ said : ‘ Cynthiana, school’s out Friday, an’ I ’m goin’ away Satuhday mawnin’. Will yo’ come ’long ? ’ An’ we came away.”
“ How did you manage it, though?”
“ Mr. Jeems Dannil went off fishin’ with the men at th’ee a’clock. It was easily managed. Cynthiana was up givin’ them a bite to eat befo’ they got off. It ’s usual, is n’t it, Cynthiana ? ”
“Yes,” said Cynthiana timidly, as though she feared Mr. Jeems Dannil might overhear.
“ Aftuh th’ boats hauled off, Cynthiana stepped outside to watch th’ sail an’ give wawn’n’. I was by that time slippin’ easy inside th’ stable lot an’ catchin’ th’ pony. We jes’ bowrrowed Mr. Jeems Dannil’s hawse an’ cya’t! Cynthiana helped me hitch up soon’s th’ boats got under sail good. Tha’ wa’n’t re’ly anybody to hinduh; Miss Ginnie Lou was in bed fo’ ha’f an hour yet, an’ she thought Cynthiana was gone to th’ pasture lot to drive up th’ cows. Uv co’se we di’n’t make any noise ; Miss Ginnie Lou could ’a’ heard ; but th’ stable bein’ on th’ othuh side, th’ little passel uv sugar-cawn groun’ made it easier. We were dreadfully afraid, though, drivin’ down th’ lane f’om th’ house yawd to th’ road. It’s a long lane ; an’ th’ moon was bright as day, wa’n’t it, Cynthiana ? ”
“ Yes. Old Briskie’s feet made such a awful noise pattin’ down th’ San’ ! An’ th’ gate sagged so, did n’t it, Dickie ? Seemed like uncle Jeems Dannil was boun’ to hear it draggin’ op’n, ’way off tha’ in th’ bay.” Cynthiana had forgotten all about her bare feet.
“ You don’ want to go back, do you, Cynthiana?” Dickie looked anxiously into her face.
“Oh no, Dickie! ” Cynthiana edged nearer to Dickie in a frightened way. Their hands came innocently together, quite regardless of me. I considerately glanced somewhere else.
“ We got a nice stawt uv ’um, anyhow,” said Dickie presently. “ Mr. Jeems Dannil’s boats won’ be back home much befo’ sunset; an’ Miss Ginnie Lou won’ prob’ly think but what Cynthiana’s gone along with ’um.”
I of’n do,” murmured Cynthiana.
“ An’ if we c’n only get ovuh to Kitty Hawk an’ get th’ ministuh to maw’y us, they cawn’t do anything to us ! ”
I asked him if he was certain there was a resident clergyman at Kitty Hawk.
“ No, I nevuh was ovuh tha’,” Dickie answered cheerfully, — “I’m rather strange in this pawt uv th’ country, —but tha’ are ministuhs almos’ everywha’.”
“If there isn’t one there,” I questioned, “ what then ? ”
Dickie looked thoughtful. “ Well,” he said finally, with hoary wisdom, “ I’ve always foun’ it th’ bes’ plan not to cross bridges till yo’ come to 'um. Th’ main thing now is to get somewha’, away f’om th’ islan’ an’ Mr. Jeems Dannil, because ” — Dickie’s tones grew stern and resolute — “ tha’ ’s no gettin’ roun’ it, Mr. Jeems Dannil was too hawd on Cynthiana. I could n’t stan’ it. I got to get her away.”
We loitered through the creek, — a sinuous stream full of floating seaweed, the long brown tendrils of which resembled “a drowned maiden’s hair,” — and it was a lazy time, a time for summer dreams. Dickie and Cynthiana leaned over the side of the boat, and Cynthiana was so much the child that she allowed her hands to drag in the serene flood, laughing when seaweed caught her fingers. Never, perhaps, had the girl enjoyed so long a period of tranquil donothingness. The station keeper’s small son gravitated toward her, with the instincts of infancy, and the pair were presently playing together, fishing with a crooked pin and a bit of cotton twine. They babbled like amicable babes, while Dickie looked on in silence, his youthful eyes dreamy with a thought I could only surmise, — some fancy which glowed through and through his countenance like the radiance that fills a sanctuary.
In that strange sylvan region of yellow sand hills and blue lilies, our clovercolored boat with its cottony sail seemed the embodiment of a dream, drifting through a shadow river toward a visionary Island of the Blessed.
“ We ’ll soon be to Kitty Hawk,” said the captain ; and there was nothing dreamlike in his tones. The voyage had been no vision to him, tacking around a hundred bends and scraping seaweed off the keel.
Suddenly the canvas bulged, a strong spurt of salt air smacked us in the face, the boom of surf near at hand shook the sultry midafternoon silences with splendid orchestral thunders ; the creek widened, and between two round green myrtle - browed capes the mutton-ham emerged into Kitty Hawk Bay.
The boy drew a profound sigh. Just across the shining blue water the hamlet was plainly visible, — a white farmhouse, a fisher’s log cabin, and a lowroofed country shop set beneath the pines. But there was no church spire pointing heavenward, no awning of pleached oak boughs shading a group of rude benches. Kitty Hawk was pastorless !
We tied up at the shackling wooden wharf, where the post boat — Uncle Sam delivers the mail at Kitty Hawk in a romantic blue-hulled sloop with sail as white as a sea gull’s breast — was already anchored. We disembarked, and a solitary old man, with a sensible countenance and no collar, came out of the shop and bade us welcome. Dickie wistfully inquired of him whether there was a justice of the peace at Kitty Hawk. The old man looked surprised.
“ No,” he said in soft gutturals. “ We ain’ nevuh had occasion to make use uv any squire at Kitty Hawk. What’s wanted ? ”
“ Nothing, thanks,” replied Dickie, blushing, and resuming the Boston manner.
Fortunately, the company’s attention was diverted by the arrival of a pony cart driven by a barefoot boy, who stood upright on the shafts and held a quite useless rein. This was the coach sent to convey the station keeper’s family home, — the ocean beach is always “ on the other side” in this region. It was rather small for the load, but the station keeper’s good wife did not mind that a bit, nor did the babies ; they crowded in along with the luggage, and were trotted off, smiling and waving good-by in the pleasantest manner possible, the station keeper walking at the pony’s head in true patriarchal style.
Dickie was looking very grave. He had come to the bridge. He drew Miss apart, and they sat on the grassy slope among the myrtles in a ragged circumference of shade, and conferred earnestly together. The captain winked at me.
“ Reckon’t ain’t his sistuh, aftuh all,” he said; and he presently sauntered carelessly to the edge of the myrtle thicket.
“ Seems to me,” he said to Cynthiana in an offhand way, " I ought to kin’ o’ know yo’. Ain’t yo’ Mr. Jeems Dannil’s little gyurl ? ”
Cynthiana quailed ; she pulled the blue sunbonnet over her face and was silent.
“ Thought I ought to ’a’ knowed yo’,” continued the captain. “ Now jes’ le’ me ast yo’ one thing: ain’t yo’ two young ones runnin’ away ? ”
The boy looked reproachfully at me. I shook my head in denial. I had not given them away.
“ I guessed yo’ was,” went on Captain Jo. He selected a soft spot where iris thickly tufted the long grass, and seated himself between the boy and the girl. “ I got daughtuhs uv my own, — an’ sons too, fo’ that mattuh; an’ now I’m goin’ to reas’n with yo’ two, jes’ fatherly.”
He proceeded to reason with them. I sat on a cypress knee, not far distant, and heard it all.
“ ’T ain’t exactly right,” said the captain. “ fo’ a little gyurl to be trapsin’ ovuh th’ country with a young man, all by tha’selves.”
The boy assented mournfully; the girl had nothing to say ; she was terrorized by the belief that she was forthwith to be torn from Dickie’s side, and returned to the iron-bound custody of Mr. Jeems Dannil and Miss Giunie Lou ; it numbed her into silence.
“ Reasoning like a father, I’d seh,” continued the captain relentlessly, “ Cynthie ought to go back home to her unc’ Jeems, an’ yo’ continny on to ’Liz’beth City aw Newbern, whichevuh place yo’w business call yo’ to.”
“ Do you want to go back home, Cynthiana?” asked Dickie, leaning across the captain in order to look into the girl’s woe-stricken face.
Cynthiana’s budlike lips could only frame a sobbing “Oh no, Dickie! ”
“ Then you shan’t! ” said Dickie, with a stoutness of protecting determination which increased my respect for him to the pitch of admiration. He sprang to his feet.
“ If we can’t be maw’ied at Kitty Hawk, we can somewha’ else,” he said resolutely. “ I’ve promised Cynthiana that I’d maw’y her an’ take ca’h uv her, an’ I ’m goin’ to do it.” He had let go of Brahminism once more. “ Come, Cynthiana.”
He took the girl’s hand in his, and side by side they walked up the slope toward the dingy store. I do not exactly know what he meant to do next, but I think he would have claimed the protection of the old storekeeper for the girl. At this moment, however, what some people would have called Providence intervened to change the course of events. The little horse and the two-wheeled pine box which had lately pattered over to the ocean side with the station keeper’s family now came pattering back around the corner of the store. In the box was seated a slender dark man, young in years and hoary in aspect, with a thin, smoothshaven face and a stoop in the shoulders. He was dressed in decent, even new long alpaca coat and trousers that bagged at the knees, a careless white cravat, and a black slouch hat. The gravity of his countenance was almost phenomenal, and his voice was sonorous with the sonorousness of the echo in a sepulchre.
“ Well, Brothuh Mayhew, do you meditate takin’ advantage uv th’ present opportunity to leave us all ? ” asked the storekeeper in an affable tone.
At the word “ brother ” my heart gave a queer sudden bound, and I looked at Cynthiana and the boy. The boy straightened his shoulders and drew a breath of relief and emotion. Cynthiana put her right forefinger into the corner of her mouth.
The slim, pale, old young man descended with deliberate dignity from the cart, set a sleek black leather traveling bag upon the doorsill, took off his bellcrown hat, and wiped his brow with a sheetlike handkerchief. Then he cleared his throat.
“ Yes,” said he in what must have been his pulpit voice, “ I have, with th’ Lawd’s help, done what I could ovuh hyuh lookin’ to th’ savin’ uv precious souls, an’ I believe my mission is at an end.”
It was with difficulty that I restrained my hands from taking hold of the long skirts of the straight alpaca coat, so oppressive was my anxiety lest this angelic being should take flight into the blue before his mission really was accomplished ; for I felt that he was no common mortal parson, but a miracle created especially for Cynthiana and the boy.
“ Yo’w meetin’s have edified us all gre’tly, Brothuh Mayhew,” said the storekeeper. “It ain’t of’n these hyuh lonely coasts enj’y th’ visit uv a mess’nger f’om heav’n, an’ we all feel — I know I do — that th’ finguh uv Gawd was in th’ stawm which tossed yo’ asho’ hyuh, as it wuh.”
“ Gawd is evuh wo’kin’ out his own plans an’ puhposes, Brothuh Cliffowd,” responded the parson.
I do not know how long this pious colloquy might have continued, had the boy not interrupted it by stepping boldly to the front and laying firm hold of the clerical arm.
“ May I speak a wo’d with you, suh ? ” asked Dickie earnestly, and without ado sidled Brother Mayhew off into the myrtle thicket before he had time to remonstrate.
The storekeeper, the captain, the small boy upon the shafts of the cart, and the postman, who had suddenly appeared on the ground, coming out of the unknown, all stared fixedly at the retreating figures. I took the girl by the hand. She was trembling.
“ Do yo’ think uncle Jeems Dannil c’d make me come home, aftuh all ?" she whispered.
“ No, not if you are careful to keep hidden,” I replied; for, alas, Cynthiana was not of age, and her guardians might legally claim and restrain her if desirous of doing so. Besides, Brother Mayhew might have conscientious scruples. He looked as if he would. As it proved, he did. He presently returned, agitatedly, to the group gathered around the store doorstep. Dickie followed slowly and mournfully in his wake.
“ M-m-m,” said the parson, clearing his throat and nervously wiping his hands on the sheet, “ I have just been the recipient uv a mos’ singuluh an’ unhappy confession. Th’ Lawd assuredly directed my steps hither fo’ th’ salvation uv these two misguided young puhsons.”
The boy paled with agitation, but there was no diminution of his courage. He took Cynthiana by the hand.
“ If you won’t maw’y us,” he said firmly, “ tha’ ’s only one thing to do. I 'll take Cynthiana to ’Liz’beth City ; if th’ ministuhs tha’ won’t maw’y us, we ’ll be maw’ied by th’ justice uv th’ peace.”
The parson was dumfounded for the space of several seconds, and could only gasp and stare. And if I did not step up and pat the boy on the shoulder, it was only because I too deeply appreciated the dramatic beauty of the situation to stir a finger, for fear the fine effect should be marred.
There was an impressive pause, during which everybody looked fixedly at the chief actors ; and the shallow waves could be heard beating rhythmically on the sands.
The old storekeeper was evidently a man of keen perceptions and quick sympathies.
“ I b’lieve it takes a license,” he said reflectively, looking far across the bay.
“ It does,” the postman corroborated, cocking his white cap on the back of his head.
“An’ pawties mus’ be uv age.”
“ An’ pawties mus’ be uv age,” repeated the postman, like an echo.
“ But if ’t was my little gyurl, I ’d ruthuh let her be maw’ied right hyuh on th’ spot, quietly, an’ a license got aftuh’uds, th’n let her run th’ resk uv bein’ tawked about.”
“ Mayby yo’ right,” said the captain, in the manner of one who had received new guidings. “A gyurl is like a boat in some ways : once give ’er a bad name, nobody ’ll b’lieve in ’er aftuh’uds, howevuh stanch she sail.”
“ It’s jes’ like that, e’zac’ly, Cap’n Jo Wes’! ” exclaimed all the men together.
“ An’ so as Mr. Jeems Dannil’s frien’,” the captain continued, “ I don’ know but whut I ought to urge it on Brothuh May hew to jine th’ pah hyuh an’ now.”
The consensus of opinion supported the captain. In this solitary and unfrequented region, irregular, even common law marriages are not ill regarded; and dispensing with the legal formality of a license, provided an accredited clergyman administers the marriage vows, does not act at all as a social bar. Respectable people, though, like the captain and the storekeeper, must have the clergyman.
Brother Mayhew was himself young, and possibly he felt a sympathetic melting of the heart toward trembling Cynthiana and her faithful lover. At all events, after taking counsel of the Lord, with bowed head and hands shading his eyes, he lifted his face and said in a loud official voice, “ Let th’ contractin’ pawties stan’ befo’ me.”
Dickie grasped Cynthiana’s hand more firmly.
“ Don’t be scared, Cynthiana!” I heard him whisper reassuringly to the frightened girl; and he led her into the clear space under a big rock pine.
The parson mounted the doorstep, and the bride and groom knelt before him. Pine-tree shadows flickered and swayed over their bowed heads, the blue bay scintillated and murmured beyond, and sweet odors of myrtle and wild flowers breathed through the green spaces to their young vows and the solemn syllables of prayer.
That marriage without benefit of license was the prettiest sacrament I ever saw. And I believe the sternest moralist in the world could find no fault with the parson for stepping over the forms of law to shield a young girl’s name and make two faithful hearts happy.