The Preble Piano


‘AH-H, ah-h,’ whispered the rising tide. In a sky of dusked violet the full moon was a shield of burnished gold, while great Jupiter flared like a beacon above the grim head of Schoodic Mountain and seemed to dartle strange beams of green and blue such as appear when iron is consumed in oxygen. Below, Sullivan Bay showed a shadowy lilac full of drowned stars. Once a seal barked in the moonlight far out in the harbor and a night heron croaked overhead.

As I walked out on Falls Point, which I had bought, sight unseen, from a dear lady who loves its birds as much as I do, I passed a deep dimple in the meadowland, the cellar hole of the house which old Josiah Simpson built from the money which he made privateering when he came back from the siege of Louisburg. Some nights in the year, so the story goes, he can be heard down there sawing wood. To-night, however, he was evidently otherwise engaged, for no sound came from its grassy depths as I passed by, following the trail which led to the pits into which the Indians used to drive moose long before any white man ever came to Maine.

At last I reached the Falls, the name given to the narrow inlet at the end of the Point where the waters of the bay are compressed and driven ten miles inland with every flood tide. Pale, remote stars showed among the towering plumes of the hemlocks and here and there silver birches were becalmed against the dark spruces. The fairy lanterns of the fireflies made points of green-gold flame in the darkness beneath the trees, and I caught the faint mignonette perfume of twinflowers growing beside my path, pale-pink double blossoms like stained silk with hearts of deepest rose.

Climbing down a crumbling bank, I seated myself on a boulder at the edge of the Falls and saw Sullivan Light far out in the bay winking at me every thirty seconds, like some towering Polyphemus with its single red eye. The moonlight, filtering through the ink-black pines, wrapped the trees in a mysterious, unearthly beauty. Suddenly the silvered silence was broken by the lovely minor strain of a whitethroat who thought that dawn had come.

‘Lone, lone, lonely, lonely,’ his cool, pure flute-notes blew across the distance, the very voice of the wilderness.

Before me the salt river lay like a sheet of molten silver, and, although the flood had set in, the water was so smooth that it seemed at first sight to be absolutely motionless. Only when I looked closely could I see that it was moving inland with a swift, dizzying motion. As I watched, the glassy surface dimpled and bubbled; a little blob of foam showed against the silver and a whisper came up from the depths before me, followed by a long fin of foam. The whisper became a murmur, then a hissing mutter of sound, which grew loud and louder as the water was pitted with deep eddies. Suddenly, with a hoarse bellow, the whole surface of that tormented strait broke into a mass of frothing rapids among which pointed rocks showed like black fangs all slavered with foam.

So loud and unexpected was the roar of the Falls that unconsciously I shrank back as if in the mid of the night some dread elemental had been suddenly loosed from the depths before me.

Then with a crash there opened at my feet the Cellar, as the first settlers of Sullivan named a great whirlpool where many a boat has been wrecked in times past. It differs in size and depth with the various tides, seasons, and years, and has been made far less formidable nowadays by government operations in deepening the channel.

To-night it was a foaming, whirling hollow which grew larger and larger and sank well below the surface of the river. Then, as I stared at it, I suddenly saw, out in the whirl of the rapids above me, a long body, black against the foam. For a moment I thought it the corpse of some drowned man who had been trapped by the treacherous water. Then, as it came nearer, I saw that the figure was alive and caught a glimpse of a bristling gray moustache and strange dark eyes turned toward me. I started up, but there was absolutely nothing that I could do. The strongest swimmer could not have crossed the circle of whirlpools which lay between me and the dark shape that was being hurried inland. Suddenly it disappeared, and it seemed to me that I had seen a man go to his death without doing anything to save him. My horror was somewhat alleviated a moment later when the same round head popped into sight with a fish in its jaws and I realized that my drowning man was only a harbor seal. Once before I had been similarly deceived in the twilight on Puget Sound when a seal thrust his head out of the water, like a merman, close to the boat which I was rowing and so startled me that I caught a crab and fell over backwards, to the huge delight of my companions. Another time in the Bay of Fundy I saw basking upon a sand bar a group of seven harbor seals showing black and brown and mottled white, but never have I seen one so uncannily human as that seal which stared at me at midnight out of the foam and smother of the Falls.

After it had disappeared I sat for long staring at the welter of foaming waters before me over which swaying wreaths of mist shot through with rainbow colors floated in the moonlight. At times the sound of the harassed and fettered current seemed to rise to an almost human shout and could be heard for more than a mile inland. Then, as the night began to ebb, the tide reached high-water slack and immediately the whirlpools were smoothed out, the rapids disappeared, the roar of the river died away to a drone and then to utter silence, and there before me lay an expanse of water rocking and dimpling in the moonlight as smooth and harmless as a mill pond.


It was long after midnight when I reached the street skirting the bay which is the main thoroughfare of the tiny village of Sullivan. The houses overlooking the harbor were all dark and silent, nor did I see any sign of life until I came to Aunt Nebbie’s cottage. There on her porch she sat rocking in a big Boston rocker as unconcernedly as if she had forsworn sleep forever.

Aunt Nebbie is the oldest as well as one of the most valuable citizens of Sullivan. If anyone is getting married or buried or having a baby Aunt Nebbie is always in charge. In fact many of the elder generation of the town would hardly consider any of those ceremonies legal if she were not present. Although less than five feet high, a wiry wisp of a woman, straight as a tree, with the nose of a Roman emperor, deep blue eyes, and an adorable smile, she has a tongue with a tang to it and is no respecter of persons. She is apt to address the woman of the house where she may be presiding as ‘ Sis ’ and any of the men-folk who may dare to be there as ‘Bub.’ Moreover, in her moments of relaxation Aunt Nebbie smokes a short, black clay pipe, and her language on occasion can be as untrammeled as was that of the old sea captain her father, who died back in the seventies.

‘Come up an’ set a while,’ she called down to me.

I climbed the steep flight of steps that front all of the houses of Sullivan, which is built on a sidehill, and in another moment was rocking by her side.

‘Aunt Nebbie,’ I said severely, ‘don’t you ever go to bed? Suppose someone found me here calling on you at two o’clock in the morning. There’d be a scandal. Moreover, I’ve been hearing bad reports of you.’

The old lady laughed that gurgling laugh of hers which makes me think of a trout brook running over pebbles.

‘Son,’ she said, ‘when you get past ninety there’s no time for sleepin’. As the posy on my granther’s old sundial used to say, “it’s later than you think.” What’s this you been hearin’ about me?’

’I heard that you went to a dance last winter over in East Sullivan and danced them all down.’

‘Sure I did,’ chuckled Aunt Nebbie. ‘Pearl Atherton, the best fiddler in Blue Hill, were there with his band an’ I danced the Virginny reel with old George Machias who used to beau me sixty years ago. There were twenty couples, an’ he bruk down at the last an’ I had to finish it out alone.

Before us the triple peaks of Mount Desert, towered out of the sea, showing by day as filmy blue bubbles, but now black in the moonlight, and I told her about the seal and the way the Cellar had opened at my feet.

‘It’s always been a bad place,’ she agreed. ‘I mind me a Fourth of July in the forties when the buckwheat was just in blow that a lumberman named Red Simon from down Burnt Church way give out that he’d run the Falls on a saw log. Some said he were a Jingeroo, but I always thought him a pure-bred.’

‘What’s a Jingeroo, Aunt Nebbie?’

‘You outlanders call ’em Gypsies,’ she explained. ‘Folks came from miles around that day to see him, an’ Falls Point an’ Hancock Point were black with ’em. There weren’t no movin’ pitchers then an’ people turned out for most anything. I were only a youngster, but I knew the Falls, an’ I got there early an’ dim up high on the bank under a big pine tree just above the Cellar, for I figured that would be the place where there’d be most doin’.

‘By the time the crowd were all come the ebb had set in an’ the Falls began to roar like a battle an ’ the water were full of riffs an’ rapids an ’ whirly pools. Then the Cellar fell open like a trap all set to catch someone. Near me were a gal who were a-shakin’ an’ a-cryin’, an’ someone said that she were Red’s gal. All of a sudden there come a cheerin’ from the far side o’ the Point an’ across the channel from Hancock. It run like a wave along the shore, an’ Red come into sight around the rocks at the end of the Point. My, but he looked noble! His long red hair streamed in the wind an’ he wore a red flannel shirt an’ had a cork life belt strapped around him, an’ he was treadin’ a great saw log with his spiked boots an’ wavin’ his hand to the crowd all gay an’ gallus.

‘The log come a-buckin’ an’ a-pitchin’ through the rapids, but Red he kept his balance — an’ how we did cheer! Then a side current caught the log an’ shot it through the foam toward the Cellar, which were boilin’ like a pot. When he saw what were a-comin’ Red’s face went white as ashes, but law, there were n’t nothin’ he could do but keep his balance. Right through the rapids he come not thirty feet from where his gal were settin’. Then the front end of the log went down into the Cellar an’ it upended an’ went out o’ sight, carryin’ Red with it.’

Aunt Nebbie stopped for a moment and wiped her face with her checked gingham apron.

‘It were better than eighty years ago,’she went on at last, ’but I mind me how a moan went up from the crowd on both sides of the river, like the wind in the trees. Red’s gal give a screech an’ pitched over in a faint. Then there were n’t a sound for a minute or so, as if we were all holdin’ our breath. All of a sudden a red head pops up out of the smother of the rapids clear beyond the Cellar an’ was whirled away into the harbor. It was the life belt that had saved him. The log went clear down an’ come up a long time later all splintered an’ bristled by what it found at the bottom of the Cellar, but the cork had kept Red up until some eddy whirled him into the rapids beyond.

‘Some o’ the men rowed into the harbor an’ fished him out an’ hoisted him to his gal.’

Aunt Nebbie suddenly broke off and laughed.

‘Go on,’ I urged her.

‘She’d fainted when she thought he was drowned,’ she resumed at last, ‘ but when she come to an ’ see him standin’ in front of her all drippin’ an’ grinnin’ sheepish-like, she up an’ give him a slap in the face.

‘“Silly fool,” she says, “showin’ off an’ scarin’ people to death. I don’t never want to see you again.” But she did, she sure did,’ finished Aunt Nebbie, ‘an’ she give him nine red-headed children.’


‘Tell me some more about the Point,’ I urged her as she stopped talking. For a time only the creaking of the rocker answered me, for Aunt Nebbie would not be hurried.

‘Old Gee Hodgkins owned it when I was a gal,’ she finally began. ‘ We used to call him Master Gee, an’ he always slicked his hair down with bear’s grease. His father was Uncle Dudley Hodgkins, a great joker if there ever were one.’ And once again her voice trailed off’ into silence.

‘What were some of his jokes?’ I entreated.

‘Well, there was his will for one,’ she began again. ‘It ran, “Half my property I leave to Dud, half to Zack, and all the rest to Gee.” Some way he took a conceit that Gee, who was serious-minded, did n’t take well to his joshin’. Yet it was Master Gee who became the richest of ’em all. He owned Falls Point an’ the only yoke of oxen in Sullivan. Everybody used to borrow ’em from him. He was the one who set up the whale’s rib which stands for a hitchin’ post down by the stone store.

‘Once Dave Blaise come over to borrow the oxen, but Master Gee he were usin’ ’em himself. “ I got to have ’em to-day,” said Dave. “I just got to.” But Master Gee he stuck it out that he were entitled to use his own oxen. Dave he went off in a temper. “I’ll buy me a yoke of oxen myself an’ have ’em whenever I want,” he threatened. Then he got to thinkin’ it over an’ how much oxen cost, an’ he comes back. “I’ll buy me a wheelbarrer anyway,” he says, an’ off he goes again.

‘Mis’ Blaise, Dave’s wife, she were a pious, soft-spoken woman. Once when I were sick in bed with the epizootic, she come to me an’ she says, “Be you prepared to die, Aunt Nebbie?” It certain made me mad. “Die all you want,” I tells her, “but I’m damned if I do. I got too much work on hand.” An’ I got straight out of bed an’ have n’t been sick since, an’ that were more’n thirty year ago.’

‘Tell me some more,’ I urged as she came again to a full stop.

‘I mind me of the first temperance rally ever held in these parts,’ she continued at last. ‘It were over at the schoolhouse at Marlboro. They called on Elder Gray to speak. He came from East Franklin, which has only got about a hundred people in it, but it supports two churches side by side, the Hardshell Baptist an’ the Reformed Baptist, an’ Elder Gray he were elder of the Hardshell church. He got up an’ said, “Brethren, when I were a young man I were a fisherman an’ went to the Great Banks. I drunk a sight of rum in them days. When I were cold I drunk it to het me; when I were warm I drunk it to cool me; when I had a cold I took a pint to cure me, an’ when my cold were bad, bless God, I took a gallon.”

‘After that edify in’ speech someone spied Uncle Dudley a-settin’ in the back of the room, an’ everyone set up a holler for him, but he just scrooched down in his chair an’ did n’t say a word. Then Great Tanner on one side an’ Nat Peasley on tother picked him up an’ set him on his feet on top of a school desk. The old man were n’t flustered a mite. “Inasmuch as these kind friends have stud me on my feet, I s’pose it’s my bounden duty to speak, though I ain’t no public speaker, as you people’ll pretty soon larn,” he began. “I’ve traveled over a sight of country in my time, havin’ been down to Aurora an’ Otis an’ Walbridge by land an’ from Cape Rosier to Schoodic Point by water, an’ endurin’ my travels I’ve drunk all kinds of licker from fourth-proof brandy down. But for my favorite give me old New England rum. I’ve taken that three ways, — intarnally, extarnally, an’ etarnally, — every damn time I could get it.”

‘That speech closed the meetink’. The men an’ boys yelled so that it was a wonder the rafters did n’t fall.’


‘I passed the old Josiah Simpson cellar hole to-night,’ I ventured, as our conversation once more flagged. ‘Is it true that his ghost haunts the Point?’

‘They say so,’ returned Aunt Nebbie, evasively.

‘Did you ever see a ghost yourself? ’ I persisted.

‘Not exactly,’ she replied, ‘but I’ve heard one. In the old Uram house somethin’ that no one could see used to walk down the front stairs on certain nights of the year. I’ve heard it with my own ears at midnight just as plain as I hear you. The steps would start at the top of the staircase an’ come on an’ on down the long flight. At the thirteenth stair it’d always stop for a couple of breaths an’ then go on down to the bottom. The Urams were so used to it they thought nothin’ of it at all.’

‘Did anyone ever try standing on the stairs when it was coming down?’ I asked.

Aunt Nebbie looked at me severely.

‘It ain’t considered fortunate in Sullivan to interfere with dead people,’ she reproved me. ‘Did you never hear tell of Mis’ Preble an’ her piano?’

‘Never,’ I assured her.

‘You ought to know the story, because it happened in the house that you bought with the Point,’ she told me. ‘Mis’ Preble, she used to live there. She always wore a white nubia an’ a real lace kerchief, an’ her face were gentle an’ yet kind of proud. She had the first piano that was ever seen in Sullivan. It was a Gilbert, an’ I guess it was about next door to a spinet. Once a year she’d send it down to Portland on a schooner to be tuned, an’ she used to take a sight of pleasure in playin’ it. I mind me she’d play a lot of the old tunes on it, such as “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” an’ “Men of Harlech.” Another thing she used to play were “André’s Dirge.” Her granther was one of the guards that had charge of Major Andre in the Revolution times, an’ after he was hung they played a dirge which the Major made up himself, an’ her granther, he remembered the tune all his life an’ used to hum it, an’ taught all of his children to sing it or play it. Mis’ Preble she used to say that she wished she could write music, for she were the last person living who knew that tune an’ after she was gone it ’d be forgotten. She tried to make me learn it, but, law, I can’t hardly tell the difference ’tween “Yankee Doodle” an’ “Ol’ Hundredth.” All I can remember is that it was slow an’ sad like an’ used to make my backbone all cold when I heard it.

‘I never knew anyone so fond of her piano as Mis’ Preble was. Even after her hands got so crippled up with rheumatism that she could n’t strike the keys, she’d sit in front of it by the hour. Everybody liked her. Even Caroliny Bragdon, who did n’t like many people, liked Mis’ Preble. Caroliny were a great hand for gettin’ her words mixed. She said to me once when I’d been house-cleanin’ since four o’clock in the morning,“You certainly have had a stenorious day.” Another time somebody was sayin’ that old Josiah Simpson, who used to own your Falls Point, was no better than a pirate, an’ Caroliny spoke up. “Nobody can’t cast any astigmatism at my ancestors,” she says.

‘Caroliny took a prejudice once against Dave Lane’s boy because he were such a moderate worker, an’ would n’t have him on her place, an’ one day when he stopped out in the road in front an’ stared in, she run out an’ says, “Go along, you, don’t you dare even look at my house”; an’ the boy he went, too, for Caroliny was right masterful.

‘Before she died Mis’ Preble used to visit with Aunt Dodd, who was a Simpson, an’ the best blood in Sullivan. They were descended from old General Sullivan, who fought in the Revolution an’ give his name to this town. Once the Britishers sent a sloop of war down the Maine coast an’ landed some soldiers at Sullivan. The Captain he tried to kiss the old General’s daughter, who was a pretty slip of a girl, but Mis’ Sullivan she give him a terrible slap in the face. He got so mad about it that he had his soldiers burn the Sullivan house down an’ turned Mis’ Sullivan an’ her daughter out into the snow.

‘Aunt Dodd she was high-spirited like that, too. Once a fish peddler thought she’d been dealin’ with someone else, an’ he would n’t serve her for nigh on to ten years. Then he come in one day an’ offered to trade with her again. “No, thank you,” says Aunt Dodd. “Your fish are n’t very fresh.”

‘When Aunt Dodd’s husband was livin’ they were out to supper once at her daughter’s house. Cap’n Dodd was a hearty eater an’ Aunt Dodd et very little. She loved coffee an’ he never drunk it. His daughter asked him if he’d have a second helpin’ of puddin’, an’ Aunt Dodd spoke up, “No, thank you, we won’t take any more.” The Captain he did n’t say anything, but a little later when her daughter asked Aunt Dodd if she’d have a cup of coffee he spoke up quick. “No, thank you,” he said, “we don’t never drink it.”’


Suddenly Aunt Nebbie stopped talking and rocking simultaneously and laughed embarrassedly.

‘Here I be runnin’ on an’ on about people you never heard of an’ keepin’ you out of your beauty sleep,’ she exclaimed. ‘Why don’t you go to bed an’ not set here encouragin’ an old woman to talk herself to death?’

‘Aunt Nebbie,’ I said firmly, ‘I don’t leave this porch until I hear about Mrs. Preble’s piano.’

‘Well, it were n’t much to tell,’ said Aunt Nebbie, ‘an’ I s’pose you’ll laugh at the story, but this was the way of it. After Mis’ Preble died it came out that she’d left the house and all her belongings to a cousin of hers down Saco way. This cousin she planned to come over to Sullivan an’ live there after she’d sold out her things in Saco, so the house an’ everything in it was left just as it was when Mis’ Preble was alive. Not even the curtains were pulled down. We youngsters used to run up on the porch an’ peek in an’ then run away, for it was kind o’ scary-like without Mis’ Preble bein’ there.

‘Well, about three months after she died a pack peddler comes to town, one of them Canucks from across the border with a lot of cheap jewelry an’ handkerchiefs an’ bright calicoes an’ neckties an’ little things like that which he could carry easy on his back wrapped up in a big oilskin pack. They don’t come no more nowadays, but when I was a gal there used to be quite a sight on ’em drift through the town one time or another. Well, this one he come up on the porch of the old Preble house right up to the front door bold as brass an’ rung the little screw bell that was set in the crossbar. Dave Blaise, who lived across the way, he heard it a-ringin’ an’ a-ringin’ an’ looked over an’ saw the peddler a-standin’ there. Then he see him go over to the side window on the porch an’ peer in an’ rap on the glass, an’ Dave hear him say, “Good-a mornin’,” two, three times, quite loud in that queer French way them Canucks have. Dave he’d have gone over an’ told the man there warn’t no one livin’ there, but he was busy settin’ out some bean poles.

‘Pretty soon the peddler come over to Dave’s place, wipin’ his face an’ lookin’ quite het up.

‘“That of lady, she be of a deafness extraordinaire,” he says.

‘Dave told me afterwards that it give him quite a turn to hear him.

‘“What old lady?” he says.

‘“Why, the one who live in ze house opposite,” goes on the Canuck. “She sit in front of ze piano, but she don’t play, nor do she hear, though I rap an’ rap on ze window an’ call out loud to her.”

‘“What did she look like?” goes on Dave, feelin’ kind o’ sick.

‘“She have ze white hair an’ wear ze white mantilla on her head, an’ she have a kin’ face, but ver’ sad,” says the peddler.

‘Dave, he bought a Barlow jackknife to get rid of the man, an’ after he’d gone on his way Dave goes over to the Preble house. It took all the grit he had to walk up on that porch an’ look in the window, even though it were broad daylight. He did n’t see nothin’ unusual, except one thing — the piano, which had been shut up ever since Mis’ Preble died, were wide open.’