MANY years ago, when we were schoolboys together in a small suburb of Boston, I looked up to James Atherton as an intrepid navigator sure to be classed with Cook and the best of them. It was well known among us admiring youngsters that Atherton had, in an amazing centreboard punt of his own construction, already compassed the stupendous six-mile stretch of open sea lying between Boston Harbor and Nahant Head. Furthermore, he boldly declared his intention, at no distant day, of letting her go down shore as far as Marblehead, come what might.
To be sure, James Atherton was less than three years older than myself; yet at our tender age, something of the same principle which renders the inch on a man’s nose of such consequence, naturally compelled among us younger lads the homage due a personage of so much more experience.
Then too, even at that early date, Atherton had already achieved great local renown through the supposed possession of wondrous mystic powers which the then universally popular contrivance known as planchette enabled him to display with most telling effect. I myself, though often undoubtedly awed by Atherton’s frequent weird sèances held in various darkened kitchens of the neighborhood, could do nothing whatever with planchette, and emboldened by broad daylight, at times even ventured to question the supernatural character of its performances.
But with the whole matter of boat-sailing, no one could possibly be more infatuated than I; and to this overruling passion for the water was no doubt due a certain condescending interest which James Atherton soon began to show in my affairs.
While ice still fringed the flooded claypit of a brickyard in the outskirts of our town, I had clandestinely launched a boat in the shape of a wooden sink recently discarded from a neighbor’s house. Fired with the ardent desire of ultimately rivaling James Atherton in his most thrilling single-handed voyage to Nahant, I spent a water-soaked, yet blissful, half-holiday paddling about in this new acquisition. On the next day, however, a high wind ruffled the turbid water into miniature billows, and when, figuratively speaking, in mid-ocean, my overloaded craft filled and miserably foundered under my feet, it became literally, and in double sense, a case of sink or swim. During the serious illness following this experience, Atherton frequently visited me, and from this period may be said to date the close friendship henceforth giving rise to boating trips on all possible occasions.
Some time after my recovery, there moved into our town, from a small seaport of Maine, the family of Captain Eliphalet Gibbs. Captain Gibbs was said to be in command of a large bark engaged in foreign trade, a fact which, in the estimation of Atherton and myself, was alone no slight recommendation; but when, in addition, we became acquainted with his two exceedingly pretty and winsome daughters, the newcomers were indeed in high favor.
Many most delightful evenings were passed with Inez and Izetta Gibbs in their attractive parlor, — a room even now as vividly before my eyes as though I had left it only yesterday. It was the typical “front-room” of a prosperous Yankee shipmaster, — an unmistakable maritime apartment, once common enough in towns along our seaboard, but nowadays very seldom to be found.
Yet interesting as the strangely carved furniture and the numberless curios from all parts of the world undoubtedly were, to my friend and myself by far the most fascinating object in its contents was an elaborately framed oil painting of the captain’s favorite vessel, which, carefully protected by mosquito netting, hung directly over the fantastic array on the marble mantelpiece. In oddly formed text this dashing and most cheerfully tinted work was prominently inscribed,—
“Barque Two Sisters,of Damariscotte, Eliphalet P. Gibbs, Master, Entering Havre, August 27, 1855.”
Captain Gibbs was once at some pains to explain that the substitution of a final ‘e ” for an “ a ” in the word Damariscotta was an unfortunate error of the eminent foreign artist, which provokingly enough remained unnoticed until too late for rectification. In our minds however, this trifling mistake only sufficed to give an additional over-sea charm to a masterpiece at which we gazed admiringly by the hour together. And despite the faulty orthography, the captain plainly took great pride in assuring us that each and every rope and spar was in its proper place, the standing-rigging faultlessly “set up ’ taut as fiddle-strings, and the running gear all perfectly in evidence, even to signal halyards the size of a codline. In fact, Captain Gibbs positively declared that no professional rigger could by any possibility have done a better job at painting.
During the too brief residence of the Gibbs family in the town, Atherton and I frequented the house with a devotion which I have since wondered if good Mrs. Gibbs herself wholly appreciated. Both the girls were musical to a marked degree and both possessed strong, sweet voices. Izetta, with whom Atherton early became especially enamored, also soon developed astonishing gifts in the manipulation of planchette, and rarely an evening passed without adding to the already long list of inexplicable wonders in this direction. After such mysterious exercises, it was customary to enjoy an hour of singing, with accompaniment upon the cabinet organ.
Among the girls’ songs was a favorite of romantic Izetta’s, called “The Pilot’s Bride,” which Atherton in particular also admired greatly, and soon invariably requested her to sing. The sisters possessed neither written notes nor words of this really fine old sentimental ditty, which we understood had been taught them in early childhood by some relative; but so enraptured did James Atherton at length become over the plaintive melody so often sung for his especial benefit by Izetta Gibbs, that she was induced to write the music for him upon a large sheet of beribboned paper.
From information subsequently furnished me by his younger sister, it would seem that through persistent and illtimed tooting of “The Pilot’s Bride” upon the flageolet, James Atherton soon became for a period actually an object of derision in his family.
But in something over two years after Captain Gibbs moved into the place, he was lost with his vessel in a West Indian hurricane; and greatly to the regret of many friends, the family felt obliged to give up their large house, and to locate some distance inland, where the daughters hoped to be successful in poultry breeding.
Atherton and I were inconsolable over their departure. A fervid correspondence at once ensued, and continued with much regularity on the part of my friend and Izetta Gibbs at least, until her untimely death a few years later. For various reasons, letters between Inez and me gradually grew less frequent, and finally ceased altogether. Not long after this I learned in a roundabout way that she was married, and with her mother had moved to parts unknown.
It seemed indeed a cruel fate which, half a dozen years subsequently, left so thorough-bred a web-foot as James Atherton hopelessly stranded in a large city of the far West. More favored by fortune in this respect at least, I had found occupation on our northeastern seaboard, where, happy in the ownership of a small sloop yacht, I was frequently able to gratify a craving for salt water which the course of years by no means lessened. During the decade following, Atherton and I regularly exchanged letters, while, having no family of his own, it became a habit with him to flee east nearly every summer from the scorching plains which he declared the Almighty never intended for human habitation, and cruise with me for a month upon the Northern coast, with all the zest of our earlier years.
My wife, who, by the way, was none other than Atherton’s sister, held fast to a pet theory that her brother’s bachelorhood was wholly attributable to his early deep affection for Izetta Gibbs; but while then not so well assured of this fact myself, I had long been aware that he was in those days much harder hit than I or any of his friends realized at the time. From talks during his most enjoyable visits, though to a greater extent through letters, I was also aware that Atherton had systematically continued a line of investigation no doubt originally suggested by the now obsolete planchette. I knew that he had become greatly interested in psychological studies of one sort and another, and though perhaps not belonging strictly to the rank and file of socalled spiritualists, fully believed himself endowed with what those of this tenet would probably term “unusual mediumistic powers.” In long letters, on several occasions, he urged upon me the importance of various undoubted communications he had received from departed friends, as affording most solacing proof positive of life to come.
However, this whole matter of communications was one in which I felt little interest. Certainly my own innate belief in the absolute surety of a future existence was not in the least to be strengthened by physical manifestations of any sort, — in fact, it seemed to me but a form of materialism which asked for such proof. Always incredulous as to the possibility of these much-talked-of messages, I considered time during my old friend’s visits much too precious for their useless discussion.
But to proceed towards the main object of this narrative. Some dozen years since, there came a period of business troubles which through several seasons prevented Atherton from making the usual pilgrimage to his native region of fogs and salt sea breezes. After three years of bitter disappointment to us both, however, he at length wrote in the spring, expressing hope of starting east; yet the summer passed, and business ties still held him fast. September and October came and went, with the season continuing uncommonly mild, and encouraged by Atherton’s frequent letters, I still kept the Gulnare at her moorings in our sheltered harbor, though knowing well that we now escaped fierce gales and winter weather through grace alone.
At this time Atherton seemed wellnigh desperate. He was starving, actually and literally starving, he said, for the smell of the sea, for the heavenly sound of its swash along the Gulnare’s glistening bilges in a fresh breeze, and for the whistle of wind in the rigging. By the salt blood of all our Viking forbears, he adjured me almost daily not to haul the yacht up for the winter, but to hold off, and still hold off a bit longer!
At length, on the 20th of November, a telegram came, saying that he was really on the point of starting; and almost immediately upon his arrival, final preparations were begun for our long deferred cruise to the eastward.
Though still comparatively mild, there was no mistaking the season on the particularly breezy morning of our start. Rain had fallen during the night, but the wind had worked into the northwest, and the weather was fast turning cold. Before launching the yacht’s tender to go on board, we were obliged to rid her of ice, into which was frozen a thick matting of dead leaves, — always a portentous mixture, which, in my case, to look upon is enough to induce the thickest flannels. By comparison, a genuine midwinter snowbank befits the “tropical scenes ” embellishing the geographies of our grammar-school days.
Heavy masses of semi-stratified leaden clouds only now and then allowed slants of feeble sunshine to light the gray waters into long stretches of unwonted yellow-green, amidst which the racing whitecaps gleamed under the cold northwester in a manner most suggestive of close reefs.
But it is not my intention to inflict in detail a log of our unseasonable cruise, eventful though it proved. Enough to say that, having gone east as far as Machiasport without serious discomfort, thanks to a good fire and plenty of clothing, we had begun to work our little craft homeward again, when, in preparing kindling with a hatchet, I was clumsy enough to cut my left hand quite deeply. The doctor who dressed the wound forbade use of the hand for many days to come, and in this predicament we felt obliged to ship an extra man. After several unsuccessful attempts in other directions, the choice fell upon Captain Daniel Murdock, of Moosabec Reach, a wellseasoned mariner who assured us that he had been master of a coaster “ever since he was the bigness of a draw-bucket.”
“Cap’n Dan’l” was a nervous, rather vaeuous-faced l ittle man, with watery blue eyes, scanty hair, and straggling chin whiskers which utterly failed to disguise the fact that he had no chin worth mentioning, while an immense flaringcrowned blue yachting cap, apparently several sizes too large, gave him a painfully top-heavy appearance. Before the first week was out, it became evident that, in Cap’n Dan’l’s cheerful view, each cloudy day was to be classed as “stormy,” while all pleasant days were simply “ weather-breeders ” of most ominous import. Doubtless this peculiar habit of mind accounted for the fact that in his case an intense desire to enter every good harbor reached was only equaled by an inborn, deep-rooted aversion to leaving it.
As it happened, there was little need to call upon the captain for assistance in handling the craft. He helped get under way, of course, but I chose to manage the cooking, and Atherton could seldom be induced to relinquish the pleasure of steering for any length of time. As a rule, reefs were kept permanently tied in, so that, for the most part, our hired crew was able to divide his time between dismal weather predications and lugubrious recitals illustrating the madness of running by harbors at this season of the year.
Fair and cold — though often somewhat too boisterous — weather attended us to the westward as far as the Fox Island Thoroughfare. Here anchor was dropped one evening, shortly after a genuine Turnerian sunset, which in its frenzied arrangement of strangely gorgeous colors, Cap’n Dan’l eagerly seized upon at once as presaging an immediate gale of wind “fit to yank all hell out by the roots.”
But the next morning seemed to offer a fairly good chance for proceeding across the Western Bay, at least, though Captain Murdock continued his disquieting forecasts with intense earnestness. Entirely apart from the late threatening sunset, he called attention to the startling fact that this was the fateful third morning of heavy white frost on deck; that last night the water was remarkably phosphorescent, or, to use his common expression, it “fired for an easterly;” from outside came an ominous boom of the rote ; the moon, too, was waning; but most alarming of all was the frightful continuation of fine weather lately experienced,— in the unhappy captain’s estimation simply an appalling succession of “weather-breeders” soon to be most dearly reckoned for. In short, though on general principles opposed to leaving harbor at all, on this particular hazy autumnal morning the good man considered such a move as flying in the face of Providence, and begged so to go on record.
We started with a gentle northerly breeze which, light as it was, still carried the chill of the snow already lying deep in the spruce woods but a few miles back from the coast; and dimmed by gradually thickening haze overhead, at noonday the half-hearted rays of the sun had scarcely begun to affect the thick coating of frost underfoot.
Far up Penobscot Bay, abreast the faint outline of the towering Camden Hills, three or four lumber-loaded schooners, wing-and-wing, were slowly drifting down with the ebb tide. In explanation of such apparent temerity, Cap’n Dan’l stated that these vessels were doubtless the last ones of the season to load in the Penobscot River, and that, fearful of being frozen in for the winter, their masters were forced to take advantage of favoring wind and tide in order to reach the commodious harbor of Rockland. At this time of year, and with a gale of wind unmistakably brewing, not a man of them, the cap’n solemnly declared, would pass through the Mussel-Ridges; much less shape a course out clear of Monhegan that day.
“ Them fellers,” he said significantly, “has learnt a thing or two afore now!”
All day the weather continued to thicken steadily; but though an increasing ground swell white-fringed the shore with tumbling surf, the wind held moderate from the northward, — so moderate indeed, that reaching our favorite anchorage of Townsend was early seen to be improbable. However, there were several intermediate opportunities for finding shelter in a small craft such as ours; and though now convinced that a comfortable haven would no doubt soon be desirable, we still fanned along prettily, Atherton’s allotted vacation time was nearly expired, and if we were to lie storm-bound for perhaps several days, so much the more reason for improving the present favorable slant of wind.
Leaving the Mussel-Ridge Channel, Seal Harbor was voted too lonesome; Tennant’s Harbor lay wholly open to the northeast, and even Cap’n Dan’l had no hankering for it under present conditions. Herring G ut seemed most likely to bring us up; but when off its entrance, the wind showed signs of taking a fresh hold, and to the utter consternation of Captain Murdock, we decided to keep on through Fisherman’s Gap, and make at least a bid for Townsend, even if obliged to compromise with some little nook on dim Pemaquid.
To those unacquainted with this region, it may be said that Fisherman’s Gap is an extremely narrow and short passage through a chain of rocky, gullhaunted islands and ledges stretching seaward several miles from the mainland. By use of this contracted channel those familiar with its dangers may materially shorten the route east or west, though strangers and large craft commonly avoid it. Entering the Gap, on one side lies Mistake Island, a low mass of gray rocks supporting only the slightest growth of stunted spruces; opposite is the oddlooking islet known as “Night-Cap,” an absolutely bare ledge of deeply fissured granite rising to a height of perhaps twenty-five feet above high-water mark.
North and south range numerous other desolate islands, among which the endless rote of the churning sea is broken only by the gulls’ weird cries, or the dismal bleating of a few unfortunate sheep. Many detached shoals and sunken ledges extend in all directions, and of these only such are buoyed as obstruct the immediate entrance to the Gap.
Commonly cruising outside of these dangerous barriers to navigation, it had been several years since Atherton and I last passed through this opening, and on approaching, we were somewhat surprised to notice a tiny dwelling-house upon the extreme apex of the barren rock called “Night-Cap.” Captain Daniel Murdock, in profound disgust at having passed the snug harbor of Herring Gut, had, some time previous, turned into his berth below; and although both of us were anxious to learn if possible who had chosen so extraordinary a dwellingplace, it seemed on the whole best to postpone questioning the poor man until he might be in a happier frame of mind.
For some hours now, the sky had been completely overcast, and from its watery blank of sullen gray, wholly devoid of both form and motion, snow or rain seemed imminent. Atherton at this time was idling with the tiller in a fickle breeze which again threatened to fail us, while I, as steward, off and on dodged below to the cook-room, where a choice fishsmother was in preparation.
Suddenly Atherton called me. “Here’s an effect of light and shade for you!” he said. “Talk about sea-glins; you ’ll never get a better example than this now!”
As soon as possible, I hastened on deck. Away out over the blurry horizon line at sea, occurred a strange lifting of the sombre curtain extending overhead. Next the water glowed a nebulous streak of intensely luminous white, against which, as we slowly drifted past, every detail in the dark and rugged contour of the “Night-Cap” and its lonely little house rose in the immediate foreground with a vividness almost uncanny in its wonderful strength and distinctness.
We stood a few moments, intently watching this most striking effect, when a certain familiar odor admonished me that my smother was burning, and I hurried below once more.
“Great Caesar! Come up here quick! ” cried Atherton again, after the lapse of a few moments. “Come up quick, if you want to hear ‘The Pilot’s Bride ’ played on a fiddle!”
Again I hurried through the cabin, but before getting my head out of the companion-way, he exclaimed in a disappointed tone, “You’re too late, you’re too late; it’s all over! He’s gone in!”
Atherton seemed noticeably excited by this incident. I had scarcely gone below, he said, when an old fellow, bent and lame, appeared outside the little house on the rock with a violin, and, his every movement showing clear-cut in dark relief against the white glare of the seaglin, straightway played through the quaint old melody always so dear to vis both.
Atherton explained that he should have called me sooner, but that though instantly spell-bound by the glamour of an air at once recognized as intimately associated with the sweetest days of youth, yet strangely enough it was some moments before its name flashed upon him. I was at first disposed to joke him about the matter; but he vehemently insisted that there could be no mistake as to the identity of the tune. The light wind was favorable, and the distance at that point less than a stone’s throw, since,narrow as is the Gap at best, when nearly abreast the house a sunken ledge forces passing craft to keep the bold shore of “NightCap” close aboard. My friend reiterated that not only was every note perfectly distinguishable, but that owing to our proximity, and the astonishing manner in which all objects were then relieved against the dazzling glow in the east, a lameness and certain other characteristics of the performer were doubly accentuated.
It was agreed that under almost any other circumstances, we would certainly land and have a talk with the man who thus unwittingly called up such fond memories of our early years, Atherton even vowing that he would give fifty dollars down for the chance of hearing the air once more, and learning, if possible, something of its history. Unfortunately, the beautifully written music given him by Izetta Gibbs so many years before had been destroyed in a fire, and despite many attempts to hear it, since the memorable night when we took final leave of the sisters, the haunting strain had never gladdened our ears.
But the day was short, and though but little past three o’clock, there were already signs of approaching darkness. Since leaving Herring Gut, the uncertain wind had worked into the northeast, and even as we spoke, scattering flakes of snow fluttered slantingly by. There certainly was no time for visiting, if we had any hope of making harbor farther west, and we knew of no safe one in that direction nearer than Pemaquid Point. Attempting to beat back to Herring Gut against the strong flood tide seemed the alternative, and one very little to our liking.
At this juncture, Captain Dan’l Murdock’s anxious visage appeared from below. Quickly he raised a warning finger towards the still baleful gleaming astern.
“I s’pose likely you seen that there sea-glin to the east’ard, ain’t ye ?” he inquired, with forced calmness.
Ketch a wet skin !
and ’most gin’ally a breeze o’ wind hove in! That’s what they always told me, from the time I was the bigness of a dra wbucket. Maybe you ain’t took notice she’s all shuttin’ in thick-a-snow to loo’ard, there.” Here the captain’s righteous indignation burst all restraint. “Might I jest inquire of ye where in hell you fellers cal’late to fetch up to-night, anyways?” he shrieked.
To tell the exact truth, neither of us was at the moment prepared to answer this question. Cap’n Dan’l saw his advantage, and was quick to press it home.
“I been tellin’ of ye right along that this ’ere running clean past harbors so free, is ter’ble foolish works,” he said. “ ’T ain’t never been called no great trick of mine, not since I was the bigness of a draw-bucket. You never seen no such tormented sea-glin as that there, without there was somethin’ to pay consid’ble quick afterwards. Now if you know when you ’re anyways well off, you ’ll jest up hellum, and shove this little packet of yourn right in here to loo’ard of the islant, afore ever she shuts in so thick-a-snow you can’t see ary hole through a ladder!”
“ Yes,” said I incredulously, “ that would be a nice comfortable berth to ride out a gale of wind in. We might as well jump to it out on the back side of Monhegan!”
“I guess likely you’ll have to take and put up with what you can git for a harbor, after comin’ this fur, and some lucky to git her, too!” retorted the captain. “ I can take and run this bo’t chock up into an eel-rut betwixt them islants yonder, where if she doos drag ashore, we’ll stand some show to git out of her alive, anyways. The last year ever I went in the old M’ria Foss it shut in thick-a-fog on me one time out here abreast of Metinic, and I kep’ off and followed a fisherman clean up into this ’ere little guzzlehole; that’s all the way how I happen to know the least mite about it. It’s kind of narrow-contracted, like, so’s I never see no sight to git out with my vessel for goin’ on four weeks’ time, and it lays a grain open to the east’ard; but the bottom is nothin’ only blue clay, and I guess likely we can make out to hold her to anchor someways.”
But I still demurred. The chart certainly indicated no very inviting shelter among these exposed, forsaken-looking rocks, and as the wind now seemed settled with some force dead astern, I advocated taking the chances of running, rather than risk being caught indefinitely in a desolate spot where it was impossible to procure stores of any kind.
Atherton, on the contrary, was extremely desirous of stopping at all events, and hunting up the musical dweller on Night-Cap. For the sake of an interview with him, he declared himself ready to endure all manner of privations, and even to extend his vacation a week, if necessary. Finding him really so greatly in earnest upon this matter, I of course gave in, though again referring to the question of supplies,
Cap’n Dan’l, however, eagerly overrode all objections on that score.
“Fur’s ever that goes,” he said, “you hain’t need borry no trouble at all. You ’ll find there’s an old reynuck keeps store in there back of them far-trees, or done so the time I got ketched in the M’ria Foss, anyways. I ain’t noways liable to forgit that, neither, for he taxed me twelve cents a plug for tobacco jes’ same’s I can buy me any God’s quantity of anywheres on the main, for ten!”
As to the comparative safety of harbors, it seemed preposterous to argue with so eminent an authority as Captain Murdock. He took the helm at once, and in a short time the Gulnare was at anchor in a curious little slue between several rocky islets lying a small distance south of the Night-Cap. On the largest of these stood a low, weather-beaten building rudely labeled “Store,” Behind this rose the usual forlorn growth of stunted spruces, bent and broken, and bleached by fierce salt wands from the sea almost to the grayness of the ledges to which their bare roots clung.
Two or three ancient lapstreak boats of the variety here known as “peapods,” coal-tarred and patched to the last degree, were hauled up on the rough shore amidst a clutter of dilapidated lobstertraps. Close alongside our anchorage lay a worn-out dory full of water, attached to a huge lobster-car, from which the long brown kelp writhed and twisted in the strong tide with snaky sinuosity.
Aside from the solitary little dwelling just visible over the ledges on Night-Cap, no sign of possible customers was to be detected. At supper, however, Cap’n Dan’l relieved our minds as to what supported a store in this desolate locality by stating that, during the mackerel season, “draggers,” “netters,” and sometimes even large “seiners,” anchored off here through the frequent dense fog-mulls on this part of the coast. Moreover, from computations based upon close observation during his four weeks’ forced sojourn here in the schooner Maria Foss, the captain deemed it only natural that between lobstering, and supplying fishermen with ten-cent plugs of tobacco at twelve cents each, the insatiate storekeeper should have become so “independent rich” by this time as to own several of the islands. But concerning the fiddling resident of Night-Cap, Captain Murdock could furnish no information whatever. The little house had suddenly appeared there some years before, and that was all he knew of it.
Our anchorage lay open to the eastward much more than was desirable, and directly after our meal, an additional large anchor was carried out ahead, and planted where it would do the most good in the expected northeaster. Having made things snug in this and various other ways, Atherton and I determined on rowing the short distance across to Night-Cap, hoping for at least a few words that evening with the unknown musician in whom we both felt such sudden and peculiar interest.
Landing on a short strip of rough beach between steeply sloping ledges close to the house, we quickly scrambled up and knocked at the door.
There was no response, nor did repeated brisk raps elicit any reply. In slight puffs of cutting wind dry wisps of the rock-weed “banking” about the house rustled faintly from time to time; the outer islands sent in a continuous rumble of the pounding sea, and among the ragged, kelp-grown ledges of NightCap itself, the purling undertow surged rhythmically to and fro. We tried the door, but found it locked. The hut, for it was scarcely more, contained but one room, funished with three small curtainless windows, though one of these was partially screened by a newspaper, which in spite of the growing darkness was at length identified as an old copy of the Damariscotta Weekly Beetle and Wedge. Through dint of close peering at the other windows we finally were satisfied that the house contained no occupant, and certainly there were no outbuildings in which the owner might be concealed from view. Just outside the door stood a shallow earthen dish, from the ice in which protruded the hard-frozen tail of a fish evidently intended for dog or cat. A rusty axe was fast embedded in a chopping-block made from the section of a large vessel’s mast, and scattered about underfoot near by lay a scant supply of firewood composed entirely of drift-stuff.
At the top of the steep beach, with other useless litter, was to be seen the flattened remains of a large dory; but of serviceable boat there was no sign, and we soon concluded that the dweller in this most forlorn of all little homes had left his bare islet for some purpose since we passed through the Gut on the farther side, over an hour before. As Atherton ironically suggested, possibly he might have rowed across to the store for his evening paper, and incidentally to gather the latest gossip of this pleasant little hamlet by the sea.
We were on the point of leaving, when suddenly from seaward came the muffled, fast augmenting roar of violent wind. In a moment a blinding whirl of stinging snow smote us in the face, and the northeaster struck with such fury that for an instant we both staggered helplessly before it. Guyed to the rock by wire rigging from some wreck, the building tremblingly withstood the shock, yet numbers of shingles torn from its roof and sides rattled sharply down over the jagged ledges into the sea. Hastily we reëmbarked, and sped back to our craft, driven by a howling blast which had already brought Cap’n Dan’l on deck with the fog-horn, in great anxiety for our safety.
He reported that the storekeeper had been out alongside with assurances that his entire stock of confectionery, tobacco, oil, and matches lay at our disposal. Moreover, the man left a cheerful message of minute instructions as to the safest spot for beaching our craft in case she struck adrift during the gale no doubt heralded by the late pronounced sea-glin.
We especially inquired whether the visitor had referred to the present whereabouts of his solitary neighbor, but the captain replied definitely in the negative. He then related with much satisfaction how completely he had balked his caller’s curiosity concerning the appearance of a yacht at this season, while allowing him to depart with some misgivings as to our purpose. Plainly, the matter of those twelve-cent plugs still rankled in the soul of Cap’n Dan’l Murdock.
Now when an individual, week in and week out, keeps up the standing, unwavering prediction of a storm, in the natural course of things sooner or later the time is bound to come when his croakings will be verified to some extent. The day of Cap’n Dan’l’s triumphant vindication as a weather prophet had undoubtedly arrived. There ensued by all odds the most furious gale ever encountered in all our long boating experience. It struck, too, with such unparalled suddenness, and in so blinding a squall of wind and snow, that, had we kept on, a bad hour of reefing must certainly have been met, and doubtless a desperately hard night of it afterward, if nothing worse. One luckless craft thus caught, and compelled to run hit or miss for the feeble light at Townsend, met with sad disaster through total inability to carry sail or to distinguish any landmarks whatever in so hopeless a combination of overpowering wind, darkness, and driving snow.
As it was, the old Gulnare escaped going ashore only through the excellence of the holding-ground, the unusual size of anchors and roads, and the unremiting attention given her throughout a memorable night of great anxiety and exposure. For nearly two days it was impossible to communicate with the island; but on the second afternoon Atherton and I ventured to attempt the comparatively short distance between us and the store.
The storekeeper, or Principal Inhabitant, as we had dubbed him, proved a ragged, hulking giant in “keg-boots,” and lobsterman’s “barvel,” with a stolid red face covered by many days’ grizzly stubble. On our landing, he abandoned the work of shoveling snow from the boats on shore, and after some few remarks upon the severity of the gale, led the way towards the house, while no less than nine of his progeny viewed our passing, open-mouthed.
Thickly plastered with sticky snow, the wretched nakedness of this one dwelling and its surroundings was somewhat less striking than upon the day of our arrival; yet it unavoidably occurred to us that however “independent rich” the Principal Inhabitant might have waxed in this God-forsaken spot, there was small part of his wealth invested either in the homestead itself, or in the unique “store ” which occupied one small room. Into this apartment the proprietor at once conducted us, through the kitchen, where a dejected-looking woman with babe in arms turned a listless eye upon us from the hot cook-stove.
Entering the store, we seated ourselves upon a board between two boxes, opposite the board upon two barrels which constituted the counter, and after acquiring several of the famous twelve-cent plugs as an offering to Cap’n Dan’l, began questioning the man concerning his nearest neighbor.
But upon this subject, or indeed upon any other, he was for some time indisposed to talk, apparently harboring, as Cap’n Dan’l had surmised, a suspicion that we were wily fish-wardens on the hunt for “short” lobsters. Further conversation, however, and a few more judicious purchases, followed up by the liberal use of a certain lubricating fluid from a wicker-covered flask, at length served to limber the tongue of the Principal Inhabitant to a marked degree.
“Old Uncle Sylvane over acrosst here on Night-Cap,” he finally began, “accordin’ to folks’s tell, was always jes’ so odd and cur’us acting, like. Seems ’s though up in home there on the main where he come from, he’d went to work and got hisself so ter’ble down on them summer rusticator folks, that one time he up and swore he’d go some place where he’d never once set eye on another one of the breed so long’s ever he drawed breath! ”
“Why, what under the sun did the man have against the summer visitors ? ” Atherton asked in surprise. “I thought they were what you people down this way counted on, nowadays.”
“Oh, wall, I guess likely some doos so, but old Sylvane he was always kind of cranky like, you see, — always and forever cal’lated to be on the off side, someways. One thing, he claimed them rusticators had went to work and h’isted up taxes till nobody else could n’t live along of ’em in the same town, — and maybe he wa’n’t so fur out of the way there, neither. Anyways, four year ago this last spring, he come in here one day with his old carry-way bo’t, — one he picked up over to Townsend there, the time the pogy-factories busted up, you rec’lect,— he come in here and ast me did ever I run afoul of ary rusticator out here vit ?
“‘By Jim Hill, no!’ ’s I, ‘and ain’t noways liable to neither, I guess. What for God’s sakes do you cal’late is goin’ to fetch them kind chock out here ? ’
“ Wall, he did n’t know as he could say about that; all is, he allowed there wa’n’t no livin’ man could say for sure jes’ where them rusticators would n’t strike to, yit. He says there wa’n’t ary place left on the main at this day o’ the world where some of ’em had n’t lit, and sp’ilt everything for poor folks, chock to the handle, and if I never had none of ’em out here so fur, this was jest the very place he’d love to take and settle right down for the restpart of his stoppin’ ’round. He wanted I should take and give him a quit-claim on Night-Cap right away off, but I wa’n’t noways anxious to sell her, so finally he come under writin’s to pay me three dollar a year for the use of her.
“Inside of a week’s time after that, we had a couple days’ fresh nor’wester, blowin’ like a man right direct offn the main, you know, and along about four o’clock in the afternoon the secont day, I see this ’ere bo’t headin’ in dead afore it, with every mite of wind she could stiver under, and still, she never appeared to git ahead no great sight, neither, that is, not same’s you’d nachally think she’d ought to went. Pretty quick I twigged this ’ere great big cur’us lookin’ thing a-follerin’ in her wake, much as two hunnerd yard astern.
“ ‘By Jim Hill,’ thinks I, ‘what’s broke loose now ? ’ I took and run chock out on them high laidges to the nor’rard, where I could see good and plain, and come to find out, if ’t wa’n’t old Uncle Sylvane in his old carry-way bo’t, big as life, with his house in tow of him.”
“In a scow, or on a raft, of course you mean,” I said.
“Not a mite of it,” the man replied. “She was one of them little old smokehouses he’d got holt of in there to Gibbs’s Cove, and seems’s though he’d went to work and dumped her ker-plunk overboard at high-water slack early that morning’, — took this ’ere fresh nor’wester right plumb in the stern, with the full strength of the ebb to boot, and come out here nice as a pin. We turned to and hauled her in onto the beach there to Night-Cap fur’s ever she’d float at high-water that night, and she laid there made fast to them laidges for goin’ on a month’s time. Sylvane he stopped aboard his bo’t right here, till one time there was a big seiner dropped in to lay out a fogmull, and then Sylvane he jest takes and goes right out aboard and raises a crowd to come ashore along of him and twitch that house of hisn clean up atop of them rocks in no time, and plant her jest where she sets to-day.”
“Well, well, that’s one way to move, sure enough,” said Atherton. “You say though, that he came from Gibbs’ Cove. Just where is that?”
“Why, Gibbs’s Cove lays right in here on the main, anigh abreast of us. B’longs to the town of Dam’riscotty, by good rights; anyways that’s where all them Covers goes to heave votes town-meetin’ day. She makes up in back of Pemaquid a consid’ble piece, the Cove doos. Sylvane he was one of them Cove Gibbses hisself, you know. By Jim Hill! but you come to git chock up in there that fur, and you ’ll find ’most everything that goes on two legs is one of them Gibbses. Lord, there’s Gibbs’s Corner, and Gibbs’s Crick, and Gibbs’s Mounting, and I don’t dasst to say what ain’t Gibbs. They’re thicker ’n spatters, and I guess likely always has been that way since the time Columbus landed to Plymouth.”
“Well, but about this old man Gibbs out here,” Atherton continued, with fastincreasing interest. “I’m anxious to learn all I can of him just now. He must have some little property, or people to help him. An old man such as he never could earn a living out here, could he ?”
“Wall no, I dunno as he could, wintertimes; not take it all crippled-up so bad. You ain’t cal’latin’ to git holt of the building, be you though ? ” the man asked with sudden suspicion.
“No, no! nothing of the sort!” Atherton protested. “ I merely want to find out about the old chap. I’m not sure but that I knew some of his people years ago, you see.”
“ Oho,that’s it ? ” said the storekeeper. “Wall, there’s folks enough of hisn scattered round in there to the Cove. I used to hear say that Sylvane had a little something put by, and I would n’t wonder if he had n’t. He never raised no family, and I’m knowing to it for a fact that he went fust mate of the old bark Two Sisters, along of his brother, Cap’n ’Life Gibbs, fourteen year to a stretch. After they was all cast away, the time Cap’n ’Life was drownded, Sylvane he come back home here for a spell, and bimeby bought him a little freighter that he run to Portland for years and years. I guess likely he must had a dollar or two in his stockin’, fast enough. Anyways, he seldom ever lifted a hand out here, without it was to cut him up a stick of wood, but the heft of the time he’d ’most always jest set there and fiddle to hisself all soul alone, by the hour to a lick. Jim Hill! but he was a master old feller to take and make a fiddle talk right out, now I tell ye what. For that matter though, every one of them Gibbses always was chock-ablock full of music, but seems’s if Sylvane in pertik’ler had the fiddle right down fine. He’d pick him up consid’ble loose change every once in a little while a-fiddlin’ to them big ‘times ’ they have in the Temp’rance Hall there to the Cove, and quite a few folks has even come clean out here coaxin’ of him to go in home and fiddle for ’em same’s he used to.
“But you see he’d growed to feel kind of streaked, like, this last year or two. I seen myself that last winter took it out of him scand’lous, and come to take it this fall, seems’s though he’d aged up ter’ble quick, all to once, like. I know along about the fust of the month somewheres, he says to me one day he guessed likely he’d have to go back in there to the Cove again, and put up along of some folks. He says to me that time like this, ’s he, ‘I’m gittin’ so’s I ain’t the fust speck of good,’ ’s he; ‘I’m all crippledup and disenabled jes’ same’s a plaguey old main-sheet block with the sheave all broke down inside of her. I think’s some likely,’ ’s he, ‘that prob’ly I could make out to live till springtime again, someways or ’nother, but there, you!’ ’s he, ‘here ’t is the fall o’ the year, and comin’ on cold weather pretty quick now, — I ain’t got the currage, — I guess I full better go back in home there and git all through while she holds good and mod’rate, like.’ “ Seems’s though the poor old soul wa’n’t so very fur out in his cal’lations, neither. I had a few lobsters to run in there to the Cove not but a short spell afterwards, and so I give him and his cat passage in aboard of me, with the old carry-way bo’t and the heft of his dunnage in tow. Now take it that day you folks come in here to anchor, I seen plain could be we was in for an extry heavy breeze o’ wind. I had me a gang of bran’new traps sot off here a piece to the s’uth’ard, and thinks I, in room of leaving them traps be, to chaw to bits soon’s ever the sea commences to run anyways deep, best git a move onto me, and fetch ’em Them oak boughten traps stand me nigh a dollar apiece, ye see, with my time hove in. Wall sir, coming back along, about noontime, Enos Gibbs run acrosst my bow, right handy-to, in his spreet-s’l jigger. Enos he’d come out of the Cove early in the morning to try the polluck here, and was givin’ it to her in home again, — ’t was all hermed up thick for snow down to loo’ard then, you rec’lect.
“‘Joe Tom!’ he hollers (that’s me), ‘did you hear tell yit about Uncle Sylvane ?’ ’s he.
“‘No,’ ’s I. ‘What’s up?’
“‘Wall,’ ’s he, ‘he’s got through there to father’s, and we give him his funeral a week ago this very day!’ ”