On the Water Front

THE sails of the scallop fleet across the harbor gleamed white against the Monomoy shore, honest dories bobbed at the moorings in place of the summer pleasureboats, and the old wharf stretched its gray length comfortably in the October sun, free at last from alien feet. Obed, a fisherman, was carrying salted cod out of his little fish-house, and spreading it in the sun to dry, and as he worked, he sang snatches of songs he had heard the summer people sing when he sailed them in his boat. There is always plenty of time on an island, and he worked slowly, spreading his cod with an absent hand. It had only one-third of his mind, though it should have had it all, being good cod, freshly caught, and well salted; of the remaining two-thirds one had to do with his newly painted dory, the other lingered on the eyes of a girl.

He was a handsome fellow, slim and strong in his blue sweater and high fisherman’s boots; the old men on a bench, who grow on the ends of old wharves, watched him at his work, and compared him with his remote ancestors, and summed up his probable chances in life for better or worse. The Island does not recognize development or change, and believes that no man can escape his grandfather’s weaknesses; soon or late he must succumb; there is plenty of time on an island to wait for hidden things to come to light, foibles, follies, and sins. Such things will sleep in a corner for years until their time arrives, while virtues have a way of going off in a huff, if they are kept waiting for a moment.

Obed had finished his cod; he stood looking at his dory, green and white, in broad longitudinal bands, as is the fashion for dories. He had painted her, himself, with leisurely care, thinking between strokes of the girl who had said she liked green-and-white bouts. Obed, lounging at the wheel, had looked at her the length of the boat away, and their eyes had met.

One of the scalloping boats had come in close by.

“ Did n’t get out to-day, Obed,” said one of the men.

“ I was so drove with them cod,” Obed explained.

“ That’s right,” said the other sympathetically. “ Don’t do to hurry cod — spiles ’em! ”

The old men on the bench looked out to sea; Obed was pulling out into the harbor, with short, quick strokes. In the stern of the dory sat a girl, a thread of a girl; all eyes she looked. Obed had wrapped his coat about her knees to shield her from the October wind.

“ Where’s she from ? ”

“ Som’ers on the continent.”

Sound carries far on the water. The girl smiled. “They’re talking about us, Obed. Suppose they say something bad, what would you do ? ”

“ Heave the hull bench of ’em overboard, if they say anythin’ bad about you.”

She bent a listening ear. “ They say they don’t think I’m much to look at, Obed! ”

Obed looked at his thread of a girl, looked in her clear eyes, brown with the sunlit brown of a hemlock brook, where the light strikes through the trees.

“ You’re pretty enough for me, Mary. Let ’em talk. They ’re past work; they’ve nothin’ to do but talk.”

“ Poor things! There is n’t much for them to do here, is there ? ”

“ What do old men do up — there?”

“ Do! Why there’s always something going on, people coming and going, and ever so many trains a day. Old men like to watch the trains come in. And the mountains — why, Obed, we’re right by the White Mountains. You’ll love them. You never saw such trees.”

“ There’s han’some trees on the Main Street, Mary, an’ you know when we went over to the South Shore,—you remember the pines we druv through, hundreds of ’em. Some wind-blown they be, but that’s natural on an island.”

The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “ Oh, you poor Obed! You hate to leave it all, don’t you ? Never mind. Once you get there, you’ll like it. You’ll do splendidly in the market, knowing everything about fish the way you do. I should n t wonder but father’d give up to you in a few years. He’s getting on, and I’m all he has. Once you get away from this island, you’ll be glad. I know you will! ”

“ Scallopin”s a good payin’ business,” said Obed doggedly. “ I could make enough to keep you comfortable, Mary. An’ there’s cod, an’ the Off-Islanders in summer. They all like the Kitty. She ain’t never in.”

“ Do you remember the first time I went out in her ? ”

“ I guess I do.”

“ Some young ladies at the boardinghouse got up a sailing party, and asked me if I’d be one. I ’d never been in a sailboat before, and I was so scared — until I saw you, — then I was n’t ever scared again.”

“ There you sat, all scrooged up, between two girls big enough to eat you, an’ I was beatin’ out to the buoy, an’ lookin’ under the sail at you, an’ sayin’, ' Heads!’ Your little head wan’t high enough to hit no boom!” cried Obed, swept by a wave of tenderness that carried his will away from him, and left him powerless.

“ ‘ High as your heart,’ dear.”

“You’ve got pretty talk, Mary.”

“ It is n’t my talk — it’s — never mind. I was n’t real strong when I was growing up, and I used to sit and read, — father used to say he guessed I thought more about what I read in books than I did about what I saw in the streets. A man would n’t have time to read that way. I don’t know as I ever knew a man to read any,” said Mary, anxious for her lover’s feelings.

They were not hurt; if she had sailed a boat better, or brought in more scallops, or read more skillfully the signs of the sky, — they might have been.

“ You look real rugged now,” be said, fondly. “ When are you goin’ to marry me, Mary? I’m about tired waitin’.”

Mary hesitated. In the sight of God, it is likely there is little difference between the man who catches fish and the man who sells it comfortably over a counter.

To Mary the gulf was both wide and deep. All the more had she determined that her love should make a bridge across it, by which her lover might come to her. But he must cross, not she; not for her own sake, for she was an unselfish soul, but for his. Mary was an idealist. The present Obed was hers, and she loved him, but the Obed of the future, still and indissolubly hers, was to be a New Obed, an Earnest Obed, and a Strong, with the salt-water stains all washed out of him.

“ When are you goin’ to marry me, Mary? I’ve waited a terrible time.”

“ Six weeks! ”

“ Seven — and a half. When ? How soon ? ”

Mary’s heart fluttered, but her will held fast.

“ When you give up here.”

“ I thought I mought go up an’ get married, an’ then you an’ me could come back here, an’ I could go scallopin’ until the harbor froze up, an’ then sell out an’ go”

“ No.”

“ You’re set, Mary.”

“ I’ve got to be.”

They were well up the harbor by this time; the distant town was thinly veiled in purple haze, no longer broken and old; it looked like an enchanted city, belonging to a fairy world.

“ Pretty, ain’t it ? ” said Obed, rowing slowly.

Mary turned and looked, and looked again.

“ Lovely — more than lovely. I don’t wonder you love it better than anything else. I don’t wonder!”

She looked very little and frail in the stern of the big dory. Obed swung the boat around, and pulled for home with vigorous strokes.

“ You don’t look so terrible rugged, Mary. Be you cold? We’ll soon be in. I’ll sell ’em both, the Kitty and the dory. What’s them to you! ”

Word ran on the Water Front that the big cat, Kitty, was for sale. High-booted, amphibious beings, who looked as if they might be a remove or so from a big codfish, turned the item over slowly, like a cud, and chewed it. There is not so much news on the Water Front that one receives it with indifference. There is news enough; nobody wants any more, — but there is no use in wasting it.

“Calculatin’ to get another craft?” said a bearded one, who looked like an unconverted apostle.

“ Some.”

“ Bigger ’n the Kitty ? ”

“ Some smaller,” admitted Obed.

“ Off-Island, I s’pose.”

“ Yes.”

“ Carry much sail ? ”

“ All I kin handle.”

“ Calculate to run her alone? ”

“ Sure.”

“ I guess you goin’ call her Mary,” said Obed’s mate.

“ That’s her name. Was you tkinkin’ about buyin’ the Kitty ? ” said Obed suddenly to the Apostle.

“ Some,” he admitted, and proceeded to take away the Kitty’s character with cautious civility, as is the custom on the Water Front, where no man willingly makes an enemy.

But the Kitty’s reputation was established, her worth was proved; what Obed had paid for her, what he had done to her, what he would ask for her, was all knowm, as well as if it had been written in letters of fire over his scallop shanty. The Apostle might have settled the matter in six words, had he been so minded, and Obed could have clinched the bargain with a nod, if he had chosen.

“Where is she?” said the Apostle, though he knew.

“ At her moorin’s.”

“ I’d like to look over her.”

“ Sure.”

Obed sculled him out in the green-andwhite dory, and the two went over the Kitty as slowly and as carefully as if she had been an ocean steamer. Yet the Apostle had sailed her all of one summer, and knew her as well as he knew the wife of his bosom, and understood her much better.

This done, they sculled back again to an expectant row of silent fishermen, waiting on the wharf.

“ I’d like to go over her again some day.”

“ Just as you say.”

“ I’d like to go codfiskin’ in her.”

“ Sure, Silas.”

“ To-morrow mornin’ ? Say three.”

“ Sure — no — I got to go driven’ tomorrow mornin’.”

“What fur?” said Silas suspiciously.

“ What the hell is that to you! ” Obed broke out so furiously that the Apostle backed into a heap of smelly scallopshells to get out of his way. “ If you don’t want the Kitty you can leave her, damn you! ”

“He’s some sore about sellin’ the Kitty,” commented the Water Front sagaciously. “ Wonder what he wants a smaller boat fur ? ”

And it looked askance at Joseph, the Portuguese mate.

But Joseph sat down on a pile of old boards, and looked at the green-and-white dory. He wanted a dory, and though he was not in Obed’s confidence, he worked with him all day and every day, and he guessed a good deal more than he was told.

He sighted Obed the next morning, steering a horse and runabout carefully along an empty street, and hailed him.

“ Wants to come about all the time,” complained Obed. “ I never see no such a horse.”

“ He wanta go back stable,” explained Joseph. “ I know him. He tired horse after summer. Say! You wanta sell dory. What you ask ? ”

“ Who said I wanted to sell the dory ? ”

“ I thought,” said Joseph sullenly. He was a steady, sulky, decent sort of lad, but with no strain of the gentle blood that betrayed itself in Obed now and then by some brief scruple, some unlooked-for fineness, that flashed, and flickered, and went out, like the flame of a dying fire. Joseph had no such weaknesses to thwart his purpose and undo his will; he was wholly of his world.

Some years ago the sea, for reasons of her own, and with no thought of man, broke open a short way to the fishing grounds, and swept it with her tides, to the great easement of the fishermen, who were thereby saved miles of rough water, and hours of valuable time. Quite recently she has closed it up again, with a few winter storms and a handful of sand, and the fishermen have returned to the road their fathers traveled, and the hours their fathers kept; as a matter of necessity and without more complaint than is the habit of men who are used to the caprices of the sea.

It was three o’clock of a starlit morning when the Kitty slipped out of the harbor, with three fishermen aboard her, Obed and Joseph and Silas. Joseph grumbled a little at the hour, according to the nature of the man and the race, but Silas chewed and spat in silence. Obed at the wheel smoked his pipe with an open mind, through which floated at intervals pleasing images of vast, submissive cod hauled into the boat, hand over hand, and taken home to an admiring Water Front, or visions of right little, tight little barrels, well packed with well “ plumped ” scallops, and sold to advantage to a generous dealer. They were the outcome of longtime habit of work and thought, and came unbidden, claiming his mind as their rightiul dwelling-place. Yet, with them, he thought of Mary, his little Mary, with her brown eyes and firm mouth, her curious hot and cold way of loving him, her Off-Island fancy for progress and change, and laughed softly to himself at the thought.

“ We not gettin’ what we ought to get.” It was Joseph and he spoke of the price of scallops, which is no more just than the judgment of man.

“ That’s so,” said Obed warmly.

Silas spat voluminously. “ Sailin’ close,” he said unwillingly. As a matter of business he did not wish to commend the Kitty; as a matter of civility, he did not choose to admit Obed’s skill in handling her.

Obed spun the wheel with a caressing hand; he and the Kitty understood each other; she seemed to say she would do so much for no other man; to comment on his dealings with her was like interfering between man and wife, but Silas was unacquainted with the finer feelings. What he thought he said.

“ Good boat, good cap’n,” said Joseph.

“ I wan’t sayin’ nothin’ about no boat, nur no captin.” said Silas. “ I said she was sailin’ close.”

Joseph laughed, and Silas said something to his beard about Portygees, and their ultimate dwelling-place.

The stars were setting, the northeast wind blew fresh and sweet, without chill, or hint of harm.

“ Lord! but this is goin’ to be a great day,” said Obed happily.

“ I’ll buy her, Obed,” said Silas, acting on impulse for the first time in his life, “ at your price.”

Obed’s hands stiffened on the wheel; his dreams vanished before a wind of rage.

“ It’s damned cold,” he said. “ Give me the boitle, Silas, s’posin’ you’ve left anything in it! ”

“ How about it ?” urged Silas.

“ I ain’t ready to part with her yit,” said Obed. “That’s all there is about it.”

“ Jest ez you say,” said Silas.

Never had the Kitty seemed so fair.

“ Trouble is the boats,” said Obed.

He and Mary were sitting side by side on the old men’s bench. It was a foggy Sunday afternoon, and its rightful occupants, being old and cold, were tucked away by kitchen stoves.

“ Can’t you sell them ? ”

“ I kin — but I hate to.”

“ I know it’s hard for you.”

“ I been thinkin’ I’d kind o’ taper off by sellin’ one, but I can’t make up my mind which.”

“ Tapering off’s a bad thing; breaking off’s the only way,” said Mary, out of the inexperience of youth.

“ That’s so, I s’pose,” assented Obed. “ I ain’t spoke about goin’ to no one yet. Joseph suspicions it, I kin tell by the way he talks, an’ he’d tell Isabella. But they won’t tell no one.”

“ Who’s Isabella? ”

“ She’s his sister. She’s a pretty girl for a Portygee, an’ a good girl, as fur as I know, an’ I’d know if she wan’t. She thinks a good deal of Joseph. Gen’ally comes down to meet him, when we’ve been out.”

“ Tell me more about her,” said Mary, with a troubled brow.

“ There ain’t no more. She’s a real good cook. If you’d have come here to live, an’ I’d have had money enough to keep a girl for you, I’d have tried to get Isabella,” said Obed, soaring suddenly on unaccustomed wing into the realms of fancy.

He put out a big brown hand, and gathered Mary’s into it. She made no demur.

“Why Mary!” said Obed, “you would n’t let me hold your hand last Sunday, scared of folks seeing you! When the fog comes in a little thicker, I’m goin’ to kiss you.”

“ I’m not afraid of your doing anything to make folks laugh at me. You would n’t, Obed! ”

“ There’s no tellin’ what I’d do. I mought.”

Mary’s eyes searched her lover’s face; clear eyes and kind they were, wise in the things of the spirit, ignorant of the things of the flesh.

“ Don’t be scared, Mary. I ain’t goin’ to shame you.”

“I’m not afraid. Oh, I know — I know it’s hard for you to leave the boats and the harbor, but I’ll make it up to you. You shan’t be sorry, once you come,” said Mary, with prescient vision of her fisherman’s heart.

“ Seems queer,” said Obed, “ there should be places with no harbors to ’em. Makes it unhandy gettin’ there.”

“ Why, there are trains! ”

“ I know,” said Obed, rather hurt at being told. “ I know. Sure. But a harbor ’s more convenient. I don’t never feel real easy on a train. Makes me feel’s if I’d beendrinkin’ the night before. Trains ain’t got beam enough, Mary, that’s what.”

“ I guess you don’t drink very much,” said Mary, meaning not at all.

“ Well, I don’t,” said Obed, meaning what he said.

Mary gave him an adoring look of absolute assurance that he did not drink, absolute forgiveness if he ever had.

“ Father lived down east when he was a young man. The waves used to wake him up nights breaking on the rocks, when he first went there, he says. He’ll be pleased to tell you about it.”

“ That’s the way they do at the South Shore,” said Obed; though it is the unvarnished truth that there are no rocks at the South Shore, only soft sand. “ Some folks admires ’em. What I like ’s a harbor. You don’t have no trouble gettin’ your boat out, it don’t knock everythin’ to pieces winters, it don’t make no roarin’ noise, it— What’s the matter, Mary ? ”

Mary was staring out into the thickening fog as if she saw a ghost there.

“ What’s the matter, Mary? ”

“ I can’t see you anywhere but here! ”

“ Well, I ain’t anywheres but here.”

” No — no — no! I don’t mean that. You won’t come, Obed. You’ll never come. You can’t! You will come, won’t you ? Promise me you will.”

“ Sure. Soon’s I sell the boats I ’ll come. Don’t cry, Mary. Why, Mary!”

He slid an awkward arm around her waist. “ It’s pretty thick now. Folks can’t see us.”

“ I don’t care if they do.”

“ Why, Mary! ”

That women should cry and melt the hearts of men was a law of nature with which he was not unfamiliar, but he had never heard anything like this despairing sobbing. He had always been a little afraid of his Mary, looked up to her, yielded to her as a big, gentle dog defers to a fierce little one, whom be could crush with a paw, as far as physical strength goes. What he recognizes, and obeys, is not size but character.

“ I would n’t cry like that, Mary, if I was you. You’ve got no call to cry,” he said with surpassing gentleness.

Mary’s head, wet with the clinging fog, drooped against his shoulder; her carefully built plans were crumbling to pieces before her eyes, her hopes were but vanity; she was no longer confident, no longer strong, no longer wise. Now was the time for Obed to assert himself, and settle his way of life once for all, as a man should do, to exact obedience as his right. He knew; there was no lack of brain in his small, compact head, but some impulse, far away and faint, forbade him to take advantage of a moment’s weakness in the woman he loved; perhaps, too, his own irresolute heart withheld him; it is not so uncommon for a fault to shoulder a virtue over a difficult place.

He drew away roughly, and rose to his feet.

“ Quit cryin’, Mary. Quit it now,” he said. “ You’ve no call to cry like that! ”

Had he lost the battle, or had he won it ? Victory is in the eye of the beholder, a debatable thing; he had lost his sweetheart, though neither of them guessed it; but on the whole he had borne himself well, and been proved not unworthy of that valiant line of deep-sea sailors from which he had sprung.

Mary began to pull herself together, a prophetess no longer, and spoke, brokenly: “ I don’t know what — made me act so. Going away — so soon —and the fog — it came in so thick — all of a sudden, it scared me. I could n’t see anything. It — seemed as if everything was gone.”

“ Lost your reckonin’ — kind o’.”

“ Oh! you and your sea-talk,” said Mary. She was entirely herself again, with no lingering doubts as to the course and conclusion of things. " Let’s go up to the house and sit by the stove. It’s awful damp down here,”

“ Just as you say, Mary. Just as you say,” Obed said in Water-Front parlance.

She nodded approval of the phrase and the sentiment: if he would hold by that, she was sure she could carry their affairs to a happy conclusion. Yet it was not to be, and her heart’s desire was to be withheld from her in mercy, the depths of which she should not fathom until the breaking of a brighter day.

The tides come and go on the shores of that Island, and the old wharf shakes beneath the fury of the winter gales. Daily the fishermen put out to sea; their talk is of wind and storm, this one’s boat, and that one’s catch; of the outside world they take small heed. To the northward it lies; sometimes a trick of the air lifts it into sight, a gray shadow on a far horizon; then the sky changes, and it drops back again and vanishes, and is forgotten, as if it had not been.