THE group in the Hanns’ kitchen stared eagerly at Aunt Rachel. With exasperating slowness she uncoiled from her head the dripping shawl; she even stopped to sand the floor. The signs were ominous.
“Dyin’ ? ” gasped old Isaac.
All Lone Island knew whom she meant. It had been a hard year; fish had struck in late and the winter that followed was terrible even for Labrador. Many a komatic load had the dogs drawn to the “dead house” on the hill, there to wait till spring permitted burial in the shallow graves of the mainland. But while death was grimly familiar to Lone Island, special interest lay in the case of Billy Gosse.
“ ’T is not so won’erful,” sighed Mary Hann. “He was aye white an’ fraillike.”
“He was mortal fond o’ the sea,” added old Isaac. “When I could n’t get a seventh man for the Break o’ Day the b’y come down to me wi’ his crutch. ‘Ye’s wantin’ an extra hand?’ ses he. ‘I’d not be much at the traps, but, zur, I’s powerful good on watch ! ’ ”
From his nets Eli Hann looked up soberly. “He was aye a queer little lad,” he said. “Many’s the time I’ve passed him sittin’ alone, just watchin’ the tide an’ the skiffs going out to the traps. One day I seed the tears roll down his cheeks.
“‘What’s the matter, sonny?’ ses I.
“‘ ’T is nothin’,’ ses he. ‘I was but thinkin’ where the tides go, an’ the stars i’ the dawn, — an’ most where the lost ships go. There’s a powerful many o’ they, I’m thinkin’.’
“‘Powerful many, lad,’ ses I.
“‘There’s hundreds, I’m thinkin’,’ ses he. ‘Hundreds o’ ships an’ hundreds o’ men, like the fishin’ fleet beatin’ north in June. An’ ’t is somewhere they go, for they never comes back. O zur, hev ye ever heard where it is — the harbor o’ lost ships ?’
‘“No, b’y,’ ses I. ‘ ’T is a far sail to that port.’
“‘Aye,’ses he. '’T is far. ’T will be a grand place, wi’ grass an’ trees, so beautiful they canna leave. ’T will be to the south, beyond the ice. O zur, will ye take me there some time ?’
“‘The Lord forbid!’ ses I.”
There was silence. Into the darkness the red-hot stove sent out a sinister glow.
“Strange, now, that his sister willna let him know he’s dyin’,” Aunt Rachel remarked at last.
Her hearers started. “She willna tell him ? ”
“No. ‘ ’T is but right ye should send for Parson Torbin,’ ses I. ‘The lad’s never been converted.'
“But she only looked at me strangelike. ‘He’ll see no parson,’ ses she, ‘ ’T would kill him! ’ ”
“And right she is!” As she spoke the firelight shone full on Mary Hann’s strong young face and on the baby nestled in her bosom. “And right she is! Ye mind the time old Parson Graff o’ Roarin’ Cove preached on hell torment ? ’T was a wild night outside! Billy Gosse sat there by his sister just starin’ into the pit o’ dark behind the pulpit — an’ the look o’ the lad’s eyes! — What’s a child like Billy to do wi’ hell ?”
“ ’T is her duty to prepare him!” said the elder woman. “ ’T is for the sake o’ his soul!”
“Aye, lass!” Isaac Hann frowned sternly at his daughter-in-law; his fist came down with hard emphasis. “An’ if she willna let the lad see the parson, ’t is the parson’s duty to see the lad whether she will or no. If he or any other Christian man lets the child die unprepared, I say the sin lies on his head !”
Through the silence that followed sounded passing footsteps. Mary Hann crossed to the window.
“Ye needna be worryin’,”she said grimly. “Yon that passed was the parson!”
But it was with no feeling of triumph that Parson Torbin, of Hunt Harbor, cowering before the gale and trying to wrap his coat closer across his narrow chest, toiled painfully up the hill. The struggle against waves and ice had been fierce; each blast of the sea-wind set him coughing and gasping. Yet all this was nothing beside dread of his mission.
He was in one of the coughing spells when Moira Gosse opened the door. She was a tall lass, strong-limbed, deepbosomed, full of a dignity more matronly than girlish. “ ’T is a fine mother she’ll make some day,” Aunt Rachel had once said.
By the flickering light she saw the pallor of his face, the exhausted droop of his shoulders. With firm but not unkindly grasp she seized the young man’s arm.
“Come in,” said she. “Go to the stove an’ change yer coat. Ye’ll find father’s jersey on the nail i’ the corner.”
A moment later she returned, carrying a bowl of hot tea.
“Drink it,” she commanded.
When he had finished, she stood before him, her face stern.
“Why did ye come?”
“T’ see Billy.”
“Ye know ye’ll not see him. Ever since he heard Parson Graff talk o’ hell he’s been won’erful feared o’ dyin’. An’ now — ’t would kill him, zure! ”
“But him dyin’ unprepared!”
“I know,” she answered shortly. “An’ I mind what mother said to me: ‘Take care o’ Billy. He’s not like the rest. Take care o’ him — an’ donna let them frighten him! ’ — As fer the other — the Lord ’ll never hurt Billy. He couldna! ” The young parson looked pleadingly into her eyes. “Think o’ yerself, lass!” he entreated. “Think o’ yer guilt if he dies unprepared, — the guilt an’ the sin on yer head! Lass, ’t was fer that I came. ’T was fer that I crossed Crooked Tickle on the breakin’ ice this night. I couldna rest wi’ that over ye — I love ye too well ! ”
A spasm of coughing interrupted him. She put her hand on his shoulder to steady him; all the mother-love of her being spoke in the pitying look and gesture. He read her face, misunderstood the glance as one of yielding. From the next room came a weak boyish call. He started toward it.
In an instant she was before him, her body against the door. Though he struggled, her strength was greater.
“Let be!” she gasped. “Have I na said ye shallna see him ? ”
Baffled and wordless, he stepped back. A wave of pity again swept over her; her eyes filled with tears.
“Lad, I canna. If ’t were anything else —”
The young man took her in his arms. “Lass, ye love me!” he murmured passionately. “ Ye know ye love me — ye mind our words on the hill in June when the bake-apples were white. Ye love me — ’t is by our love I ask. For the sake of our love, let me see the child!”
“Never!” — She raised her head— “Listen,” said she. “’T is not of my will that ye ’ll ever see him. And if ye see him against my will, ’t is the end of our love forever. Now go. — And, lad, take heed o’ the ice crossin’ the tickle!”
On the threshold he turned, while the sea-wind swept in from the darkness and old Isaac, passing, listened curiously.
“If ye need me,” he cried, “if ye are needin’ me at the last, ye’ll hang a red handkerchief from the pole on the hill. Ye know I’ll come to ye, living or dead. Lass, oh lass — ”
When he had gone she went to her brother. The child was sitting up in bed, his white little face turned toward the window. “Do ye na hear it?” he whispered.
'’T is something lost i’ the night!”
Her own face paled. “ ’T is but the ice.”
The boy caught her arm. “Tell me, is it dyin’ I am ?”
“ ’T is no such thing!” cried his sister wildly. “Who’s been tellin’ ye that? ’T is gettin’ well ye are, gettin’ well fast, I say.”
With both hands he clung to her. The sweat stood on his forehead.
“Ye’s zure? Zure?” he entreated. “Last night I dreamed I were dead an’ buried, in the Buryin’ Cove on the mainland. An’ ’t was black an’ chill an’ I couldna breathe — ’t was the beginnin’ o’ hell. — Ye’s zure? I’s mortal feared o’ dyin’ ! ”
His moan of terror in her ears, his little cold body clinging to hers, the girl took refuge in the dreamworld they both loved.
“ Zure, lad, I’s courageous zure! — Look now, ’t is all tired ye are. Lie still a bit an’ I ’ll tell ye about St. Johns where all the schooners come from. ’T is a grand place, wi’ hundreds o’ people an’ great high flakes by the shore. On the hill the governor sits to see the ships pass by. And beyond are moors full o’ the loveliest flowers —star o’ Bethlehem an’ vetch an’ the rest. Up on the high moors ’t is warm an’ still; ye can lie in the grass an’ look up at the blue; ’t is warm an’ soft an’ quiet there, far above the weary sea — ”
His hand slipped from hers. He was asleep.
In the gray dawn she went to the window. The fog hung low; the doorstones glistened in the wet. Beyond heaved interminable ice-sheets, veined with black water.
She turned back. Her brother had not awakened. But even to her eyes the night had brought a change. The features were sharp; over the face, thin, transparent, a darker shade was creeping.
“ ’T is the death-shadow!” murmured she in awe. At the Hanns’ door she met old Isaac.
“The lad’s dyin’! ”
“Ye didna let the parson see him?”
“No. But he’s dyin’, man, dyin’! Is there naught un can do ?”
Isaac Hann’s face hardened. The heart of the man was struggling with his narrow creed. Under heavy browns he eyed her strangely, while through the silence the crash of the floe ascended like thunder.
“ ’T was yesterday the doctor were on Crooked Island,” muttered he.
“The doctor from Battle Harbor — the one that cured Jane Pilley?”
For a moment the girl stared, incredulous. Then she turned toward the fields of drifting ice.
“I’ll be going for the doctor,” she said.
“ ’T is the hand o’ the Lord! ”
Rachel Hann, gazing after the retreat ing figure, turned sharply at the old man’s tone.
“Listen,” he exulted. “ ’T is the Lord takin’ her — takin’ her to give the lad a chance before he passes ! Gie’s yer handkerchief, lass. ’T is the hand o’ the Lord!”
It was not till twilight that Moira Gosse returned. Alone in the dusk she made her way down the steep ledges of Crooked Island. In her eyes still sounded the words of an old fisherwoman: “The doctor’s not here, girl. ’T was but yesterday he went to the mainland. Did Isaac Hann na tell ye that?”
At the water’s edge she stared across to the hillside. In her window gleamed a light. Suddenly she started, sprang forward with a cry. From the pole she had seen floating a red handkerchef.
Springing from pan to pan of ice, she crossed the tickle. Again and again she fell. The spray broke over her; the sharp edges cut her fingers to the bone. The whole black world heaved and sank like the ice-cakes. But already Luke Jackman’s stage loomed close. From the stagehead some one was watching her. Without warning, the pan crumbled beneath her feet She jumped —slipped. Intolerably cold the Arctic waters gurgled in her ears, over her head, crushed out her breath. And then, after infinite ages, she felt the air — warm — the sharp, poignant bliss of breathing.
“Lie still lass.”
The girl struggled against the arms that held her.
“Let me go!” she cried.
“Listen,” continued Mary Hann’s pitying voice. “ ’T was na the parson’s fault; he thought ’t was ye signaled him. Half dead the lad was when he got here, half dead wi’ bleedin’ of the lungs Lass, donna be hard — ”
At the door Moira paused. From wall to wall the light shone on curious eager faces, — a death-bed conversion did not come every day to Lone Island. By her brother’s side sat Parson Torbin. The sea-water yet dripped from his worn black coat: the fever of disease moistened his forehead and traced livid lines down his hollow cheeks. But in his eyes burned the zeal of the fanatic.
“‘Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched,’” he was saying. “An’ t is forever an’ ever, wi’ never a moment’s rest. O lad. if ye’ll but repent an’ turn unto the Lord —
The boy sat erect. On his face was a look of uttermost mortal fear, infinitely keener than any known to the unimaginative fisherfolk of Lone Island.
“ ’T is to yon I’m goin’ ?” gasped he.
Parson Torbin’s face was white with agony. More merciful than his thought of God. gladly, gladly would he have given all hope of eternal life to take the child in his arms and comfort him. By supreme effort he forced himself to his duty. “To yon,” he said sternly. “To the torments o’ hell on sinners forever an’ ever! ”
“ ’T is a lie!”
White, passionate, merciless, Moira Gosse towered above him.
“ ’T is a lie!” she cried. “An’ now —go!”
Before her the women fled speechless; for the last lime the two stood face to face. In their eyes love and fear waged immortal duel for the child’s spirit.
“Lass, ’t is for your soul as well as the lad’s! ”
Vanquished, he passed out into the night.
She took the child in her arms
“ ’T is not true ?”
“ ’T is cruel lies. lad. ’T is cruel lies against the good God. Think ye the maker o’ mothers is cruel like that?”
“Where is’t I’m goin’?” he asked drowsily.
“ ’T is a long journey.”
“ Over the sea ?”
“ Aye, over the sea.”
The boy roused. “ ’T is the harbor o’ lost ships ? ”
“Aye, lad, ’t is the harbor o’ all lost things, o’ lost ships an’ the souls o’ men. ’T is beyond the stars, beyond the sea, beyond the edge o’ the world An’ ’t is there the mothers wait on the hill an’ watch till the ships beat home. An’ the Lord God comes down to meet them, to welcome them home from the sea, ‘ ’T is a brave beat t’ harbor ye’ve made ’ says He. ‘Ye’ll be weary; come now an’ rest ’ ”
There was silence. The girl flung her arms passionately about the little form. “Lad, lad, take me wi’ ye!” she cried.
But the ship had reached harbor.