A North-West Wind

THE house was in a hollow of the moors, out of sight of the sea. Out of the sound of it on the Island one cannot be, but the chirping of new-hatched chickens sounded louder in Mrs. Henderson’s ears than the roar of the distant surf. She was a henwife by profession and predilection.

“ And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in — ”

she said. At least that was what she might have said. What she did say was, “ Land! I’m gettin’ just like one of my own hens.”

She had been flying about distractedly all day, down the slope to her duck-pond, up again to her hencoops, back to the kitchen and out again, before her daughter-in-law, Susan, had time to get her tongue in commission, and say what she had come out from town to say that morning. She had been rocking and knitting and sighing in the kitchen for hours, and she was tired of it.

“ Do set down, Mother Henderson, an’ visit. Loren wants me — ”

“ What ails them ducks ? ”

“ Nothin’. Look out of the door, an’ you can see ’em. They’re all right.”

The ducks were swimming about in a little round pond at the foot of the slope. It was a “pot-hole” pond; the Great Glacier had made it unimaginable centuries before, under a vast and lonely sky, to the crashing of ice and the roaring of water. It did nicely for Mrs. Henderson’s ducks. Around its borders was a belt of rushes and reeds, moor-plants, marsh-plants, water-plants, gold and purple and red in the late September sunlight. Now and then a duckling lost himself in their stems, and a terrific quacking ensued, and Mrs. Henderson flew to the rescue, to find him free by his own unassisted efforts, and all the ducks and geese talking about it interminably.

“ I never did hold with geese,” said Mother Henderson irrelevantly.

“ There ain’t nothin’ the matter with the geese. Loren wants I should ask you — ”

“ What’s he doin’ ? ”

“ He’s been workin’ on his engine. It ain’t exactly runnin’ right, an’ scallopin’ begins a Monday.”

“ He’s pleased to have a power-boat, ain’t he ? ”

“ Well, I guess.”

“ Good season, wa’n’t it? ”

“ Elegant. I never knowed no better August. Mother Henderson, Loren told me — ”

“ George Raynes hove out a bundle of papers yesterday. They get a good many to the Station. I was readin’ a piece about them incubators; it don’t seem to me I could relish a chicken that was raised that way. Seems’s if they’d taste of the machine, someway.”

“ Mother Henderson, Loren says he don’t want you should stay out here this winter. He says a farm out here on the Commons ain’t no place for a lone woman. He wants you should come in an’ live with us winters. He says you ’ll get sick.”

“ I wun’t get sick.”

“ He says you’ll get sick, and I think you’ll get sick. We both of us think you’ll get sick,” said Susan, with damnable iteration. “You see if you don’t get sick! ”

“ I wun’t get sick,” said Mrs. Henderson quite quietly, now that the contest was upon her. “ I can’t leave the farm. I got to keep the house open for Marian, in case she comes home to stay. I’m lookin’ for her some this winter.”

Susan looked at her dumbly. There were things she would have liked to say, but her husband, who had foreseen this complication, had forbidden her to say them. He did not believe, any more than Susan did, that Marian would ever come home again to live, but he refused to tell his mother so, or to allow Susan to tell her. He had given her careful instructions as to what she might and might not say to his mother, and he was sure to require from her a full account as to the manner in which she had fulfilled this duty; all the more that he had declined to undertake it himself. No one is so insistent on faithful work as a shirker.

“ She’d have to come by the Boat, an’ Loren meets it most every day. He’d tell her you wa’n’t here.”

“ S’pose he did n’t meet it!

“ I’d send the children every living day.”

“ Children ’s heedless. They might get to playin’, an’ miss her, an’ if she come clear out here, an’ did n’t find me a-waitin’ for her —’t would be enough to make her leave the Island next mornin’.”

Tears welled up in Susan’s eyes and rolled down her pasty cheeks. “What’ll I tell Loren? He’ll be real mad. He’ll think’t is my fault. He’ll think I wa’n’t convincin’.”

Mrs. Henderson repressed a desire to send a fiery message to her absent son. “ Tell him you done your best — and I wun’t come. Put it on me. I ain’t scared of him. I got to wait for Marian, Susan. Think if’t was one of your own little girls! ”

Marian Henderson, her mother’s only daughter and best loved child, had left the Island some years before, to seek her fortune and see the world, and the Island predicted such disaster as befalls pretty, penniless girls who take their own way. So far it had prophesied wrongly; Marian, on her infrequent visits to her mother, was too shabby, and too obviously ill-fed to be anything but “good.” Sin prospers off-Island, and virtue goes to the wall; therefore this thin and threadbare girl who confronted them was no sinner — a failure, very likely, but a virtuous one.

“ I guess I’ll be goin’, Mother Henderson,” said Susan, glad to have her task accomplished.

“ Good-by, Susan. Come again!”

“ Goin’ to Loren’s fur the winter, I s’pose, Mis’ Henderson,” said George Raynes, Life-Saver and pessimist, one gray November day. He had to make a long reach to east’ard to fetch the lonely farm-house when he drove in town on his “ liberty day,” but he never failed to stop.

“ No, George, I don’t know as I be.”

“ Loren was tellin’ me,” said George with solicitude. “ Lonesome fur ye out here, Mis’ Henderson, ain’t it?”

Mrs. Henderson clucked impatiently. Her friends wasted too much pity on her lonely state. “ Land! George, I like it. Sittin’ ’round with folks all day, an’ hearin’ ’em talk ’s what makes me feel lonesome. ’Tain’t livin’ alone — it’s folks — some folks! Dash here’s more company than most of ’em.”

“ He’s a good dog, Dash.”

“ An’ the light’s company, too. I lay in bed nights an’ watch it shine out across the Commons, an’ die out, an’ come bright again. ’T is like a friend.”

“ It’s a good light. I like a flash. Some say give ’em revolvin’ lights, an’ there was a Cape man to the Station last week spoke up for fixed, but I’d always choose a flash.”

“ I’m lookin’ fur Marian this winter. ’T will be nice for me,” said Mrs. Henderson, giving him a sharp look. “ I look for her tc stay this time.”

“ ’T will so be nice,” said George gloomily. “ Not much wind stirrin’. Looks like a week of fog — or two. More likely two. No more liberty days for us long’s that lasts.”

“ Mebbe’t won’t come, George,”

“ I guess it will. Good-by, Mis’ Henderson.”

“Good-by, George. Come again.”

George drove away with a shadow on his weather-beaten countenance. “ She won’t never come home to live no more. She don’t care for the Island — no more than nothin’,” he said bitterly.

He was a man with a sorrow; he had a good record in his profession, and had been concerned in rescues and the saving of lives, but his own happiness seemed to have struck on some hidden rock, and gone down.

He did not return to the highway, but kept to the moors, turning from one “ rut ” to another, choosing the right one unerringly out of a wilderness of such, keeping his direction as truly as if there had been a compass in the wagon and half a dozen landmarks outside. The moors are seamed with these wheeltracks, which appear unaccountably out of a hollow, or vanish over the brow of a hill, as if they had come out of the Infinite and would presently return there They enhance, in some unexplainable way, the sense of space and solitude and sorrow that marks these treeless plains; by following them it seems one may find some priceless joy or limitless sorrow, or come suddenly upon some great adventure.

George Raynes, driving heavily along, had no such fancies; his eyes were holden against the color and the mystery that surrounded him; he thought bitter thoughts, contemplated broken dreams of a little house by the Station, that was not his but that might have been; of a headstrong girl who was not his, either, but who should have been, for he loved her. Suddenly the steeples of the town came in sight, its shattered wharves and its little harbor; a dusty road loomed up in front of him with teams on it — three, or maybe more; the drivers shouted to him; the world was upon him once more, and he set his face to meet it.

When wind is out, fog is in; if that has not been said, it should be. Mrs. Henderson, sitting at her kitchen window one windless Saturday afternoon, looked out on white mist and heard the reiterated warning of the distant light-ship, the answering hoots of the vessels in the Sound, and nearer, the clamorous whistle on the Boat, as Islanders call the little steamboat that links them with the mainland, feeling her way cautiously into the harbor.

“’T is dangerous weather for all at sea,” she said. She was always anxious in a fog; it was in her blood, an inheritance from generations of wives and mothers gone before.

“I’m glad I keep my hearin’. I’d miss ’em if I could n’t hear ’em. They’re kind o’ company.”

The distant fog-horns were still roaring in the Sound, but the Boat was silent, which told an instructed ear that she was safe at her wharf, and that her passengers had disembarked. Mrs. Henderson drew her chair closer to the window. Her house was not on the main road, but one of the ruts passed her kitchen door, and by it all her visitors came. She sighed to see the fog and darkness blot it out; that meant that another day was done.

Her old dog rose stiffly to his feet, and thrust his nose against her hand, as if he felt that she needed him.

“ She wun’t come to-day, Dash.”

Dash licked her hand, and whimpered.

A step sounded on the door-stone, and the latch lifted and fell again, but the door did not open.

“ ’T will be Forbes’s,” said Mrs. Henderson cheerily. “ Good, kind neighbors they be.”

She threw the door open; through it came a rush of fog, the salt wind, the sound of a gathering sea.

“ Come in, folks! ”

A girl came in quickly, and slammed the door behind her. “ Well, mother! ”

“ Marian! ’T is n’t you! ”

The girl kissed her vehemently. “ It’s me sure enough. Come to spend Sunday with you. I’m cold and wet and hungry, mother. What are you going to do about it ? ”

“ Set right up to the stove, dear. Put your feet up, so’s they’ll dry. I’ll take your coat and hang it up for ye.”

It was a shabby coat, worn white at the seams. Mrs. Henderson looked at it fondly; she did not distrust her daughter, but she feared the wickedness of an unknown world.

“Same old coat! I’m getting about ready to have some pretty clothes, the way other girls do.”

“ ’T is a han’some coat, dear. ’T will do you nice for a long time yet.”

Mrs. Henderson flew about her kitchen with noiseless steps; her hands were busy preparing food for her darling, her eyes sought her darling’s face every moment.

“ Your hair’s all curled up with the fog! ” she said, with an attempt at blame that her loving glance belied. “ ’T ain’t real smooth. Did you see your brother to the Boat, Marian ? ”

“I slipped by him in the fog. Then I met Mr. Forbes on the Main Street, just starting, and he brought me as far as the Gray Barn, and I walked the rest of the way.”

“ Meet any one ? ”

“ Only gulls. There’s no one else to meet out here.”

“ There’s some Off-Islanders to town, shootin’ round the ponds. You might of met some o’ them; there’s no tellin’ what they’re a-goin’ to do. One of ’em shot one o’ my ducks last week — but he paid me for it. ’T was a mistake, he said.”

“ The gulls were crying and going on like everything. Lots of them.”

“ They come inland in a fog. Folks says they ’re lost, but it don’t seem likely to me. Wild things like them don’t get lost. Seems to me they get scared in a fog, same’s we do, an’ like to come in where they can see the lights. My chickens an’ ducks sense things that way. That old drake’s been up to the kitchen door a dozen times to-day, ’s if he wanted to see if there was any one here. I guess he knowed you was comin’ — an’ I did n’t! Here’s your supper ready, dear. Set where you be, an’ I’ll bring it to ye. Taste good ? ”

“ Better than anything I ’ve eaten since I was here last.”

“ That’s a good hearin’. Now don’t give it all to Dash. I ’ll have a good duck dinner to-morrow, an’ on Monday — ”

“ I’m going back Monday.”

Mrs. Henderson looked at her keenly. There was an indescribable look of lassitude and weariness about the girl’s face; a sentinel who has been on guard too long and will presently fall asleep at his post and betray his trust might have such a look.

“ I won’t say a word to keep ye, dearie, if — if’t is what you pictured it to be offIsland. But if’t is a disappointment — ”

“ It’s no disappointment,” said the girl sullenly. “ I like it. I’m going to bed now, mother. We’ll talk to-morrow.”

“ I’ll just run out, an’ see to my creatures, an’ then I’ll go too. Come, Dash! ”

Dash followed slowly. He preferred the stove, but the night is full of evil, and the post of danger is the place for a faithful dog. The fog had lifted, and the stars overhead looked very bright and near; the Island had a curious feeling of isolation and detachment, as if it had slipped its earth-anchor, and was drifting out to sea, far and away from a dangerous coast.

Mrs. Henderson clasped her toil-worn hands together. “ If the Lord would send a tempest, so’t the Boat would n’t go a-Monday, an’ I’d have time to look about me! If He would! ”

She uttered her prayer, if prayer it could be called, without much hope. It did not seem likely to this woman, who was bent with labor and sorrow, that the Lord in heaven would stoop down and listen, and send his winds to do her bidding. Care was near, and sin was near, and poverty, and weariness, but help was as far away as the stars in the sky.

“ She looks — as if things was gettin’ too hard for her — an’ she wun’t stay with me! Come, Dash! Stop barkin’! You an’ me might as well go to bed.”

A little wind came out of the northwest that night, blowing softly. By daylight it had grown into a big wind; by noon it was blowing half a gale, rattling everything that would rattle about the house, shaking everything that would shake, howling across the moors, lashing the sea into fury, making the whole Island into a place of torment.

“ The Boat will never go to-morrow,” said Marian, looking from the window.

“ Think not? ”

“ I’m sure it won’t. Don’t you want me to stay over till Tuesday, mother?”

“ I guess mebbe I do. An’ I’ll cook you up a nice chicken.”

“ It won’t be any better than the duck was. Where are you going, mother? ”

“ Just steppin’ over to Forbes’s. I wun’t be gone long. You don’t need to come.”

“ Look out you don’t blow away. What are you going for ? ”

“ I got some little telephonin’ to do. I wun’t be long.”

An hour later she fought her way back through the wind with Dash at her heels. The pair had a look of great contentment, also an air of guilt, like two unrepentant sinners.

“ The wind’s going down, is n’t it? ”

“ ’T is pretty high still.”

“ How does the sea look ? ”

“ All white caps as fur as you kin see.”

“ I guess I won’t think about going tomorrow.”

“ Best not,” said Mrs. Henderson, without too much enthusiasm. “ An’ I’ll see about that chicken.”

George Raynes drove up to the kitchen door the next morning and shouted Mrs. Henderson’s name. She had telephoned him the afternoon before to be sure to stop on his way in town if the storm abated sufficiently for him to take his twenty-four hours off.

“ Run out, an’ see who ’t is, dear,” said that scheming woman within. “ My hands is in the water. Shut the door, so’s Dash won’t get out. Some horses’ll kick a dog.”

Instead of a fine, worn face, with no beauty save what lines of self-restraint and kindliness had graven upon it, George found himself confronted by a pretty young one, with no lines at all, but dimples, and a curly head that shone in the sun like gold. Being no physiognomist, but a mere man, he liked it better, and was weak enough to smile and call out, “ Hello, Marian. I did n’t know you was here.”

“ Would n’t have cared, if you bad known, I guess.”

“ Why, yes, I would,” said honest George. “ Yes, I would.”

She had come out to the wagon, and was standing by the wheel. He was glad of that; it was easier to talk to her that way, easier to explain how he really did feel toward her, as a friend and wellwisher, not as a lover, for it was a leading article in George’s creed that a man must never “ ask ” a girl twice, that being subversive of his dignity and unworthy of his proper place in the universe. He knew exactly what he wanted to say to her. He had rehearsed it often in lonely midnight patrols along the beach, with only the stars and the tides to bear him company. He had his speeches by heart. Here was his chance — and he was dumb!

“ What’s the matter, George?” she said softly. “ Why won’t you talk to me ?”

She did not look at him, but stood with downcast eyes, beating a tattoo on the wheel, first with one hand, then with the other. She had pretty hands, little and soft, with delicately tapering fingers.

“ You ’ll get them pretty fingers of yourn muddy,” some one said hoarsely. It could not have been George; perhaps it was his subliminal self that spoke.

The girl folded her hands submissively.

“ Ain’t it considered manners off-Island to look at folks when they talk to you ? ”

“ No one has been talking to me, George.”

She spoke so low that George had to lean down from the wagon to hear what she said. It did not occur to him to get out. Suddenly she raised her head and looked straight into his eyes.

“ What’s the matter, George ? ”

“What’s always the matter?” said George brokenly.

“ Well ? ”

“ You’re the only girl in the world, that’s all. You won’t never find any offIsland man to love you any better than I do. Would n’t you have me — this time ? ”

“ You did ask me before, did n’t you ? ”

“ Sure I did. Three years ago — just before you went away. You had n’t no time for me. All you wanted was to get away.”

The girl was silent. It was true; all she had wanted was to get away, to “ seek her fortune,” and “see the world ”—fine phrases, that had soon resolved themselves into a bare livelihood and the terrified perception of a relentless force that frightened and fascinated her, held and repelled in turn. When the terror grew too great, she took a hasty flight homeward, only to be drawn back again by the very charm of the danger — for she was but clay!

“I remember, George. I’m sorry I was so disagreeable to you.”

The ease with which her little victory had been won took away from the pleasure of it. She drew back a little. She had half a mind to go into the house again. The turn of a hand would have decided her.

The curtain at Mrs. Henderson’s kitchen window, a much washed, much darned rag of convention, moved a little, and an anxious old face peered out. Then the curtain dropped again, and hung in seemly folds.

George cleared his throat. “ I’ve got some arrants to town,” he said. “I guess I’ll drive on.”

“ All right, I would.”

George flushed a dark red. Was that the way she talked ? He would go when he chose, and not before.

“You might tell your ma I’ll stop by next week and see her. She’ll be alone by then, I calculate.”

“ I’ll tell her.”

George cast an indignant glance at the curly head. When he was ready he would go — not one moment sooner.

“ Wind dropped sudden, did n’t it? ”

“ Yes, it did.”

“ That’s the way with a nor’wes’ wind,” continued George, enchanted with his own fluency; “blows almighty hard, and then drops just as quick — as quick.”

“You ought to know.”

“ What do you mean by that? ” cried George, stung by something in her tone.

Marian flashed an indignant look at him. “ You’re nothing but a nor’west wind yourself,” she broke out. Then she turned, and ran into the house.

George swore softly. Then he looked hard at the house, but the rag blocked his view.

“ Damn them curtains! She was most cryin’. Mebbe she was mad, mebbe she — wa’n’t.”

He got down from the wagon slowly and took out of the back of it a weight to which a long strap was attached. This he hooked into the ring of the bridle. It took him an unconscionable time to do it and to find a suitable place on the ground for the weight. Then he collected stones and built a small retaining wall behind each wheel. It was unnecessary, but it took time, and time was what George wanted. Then he straightened himself to his full height, and turned towards the house. He had made up his mind.

“ ’T will make three times, but if ’t was six — I’d do it,” he said, and with his head well up, strode manfully into the house.

Susan came out two or three hours later. She had been given a lift as far as the Gray Barn, so she arrived full of breath, and words.

“ Loren wanted I should come out an’ see if there was anythin’ doin’.”

“ Marian’s here.”

“ They was sayin’ so to town, Saturday. Some seen her when she come.”

“ There’s goin’ to be a weddin’ in the family ’fore the year’s out—guess who! ” said Mrs. Henderson jubilantly.

“ They’re tellin’ to town that George an’ Marian’s made it up,” said Susan stolidly.

“ Why, Susan Henderson! They have n’t knowed it themselves more’n a couple of hours.”

“ Mis’ Forbes’s garret window looks out this way — an’ her sister’s got a telephone,” suggested Susan, “ but I don’t know. Loren wanted I should come out.”

“ Mebbe Loren’ll come to the weddin’,” said Mrs. Henderson, with deep sarcasm.

“ I should n’t wonder but he would. I ‘m calculatin’ on George’s drivin’ me in town.”

“ I guess he will.”

“ Where is he now? ”

“ They’re off drivin’ somewheres.”

Susan sighed. “They’re happy.”

“ Yes, they be. I tell you, Susan, I believe in the Lord.”

“ Why, Mother Henderson! I’ve always believed in the Lord.”

“ You believed He knew about — the — winds — same’s a seafarin’ man would ? ” said little Mrs. Henderson humbly.

“ Why, yes.”

“ You’re a believin’ woman, Susan, an’ I — guess I wa’n’t, but I be now. I — I be now! ”

“ You’ve got a realizin’ sense of His mercy,” explained Susan glibly. “ Ain’t that what you mean? I’ve always had it.”

“ That’s just what I mean,” said Mrs. Henderson reverently. “ Them’s the words I would have said, if I’d knowed them. An’ now, Susan, if you’ll just sit quiet here in the best rocker, I guess I’ll slip out an’ look at the hens. Come, Dash! ”