Sea Captain's Return
PERSIS ILLOTT hurried along the River Road. Afternoon school was over and she did not intend to waste any more of this lovely warm spring day. She meant to dash into the house and be off again, but when she reached her own gate she saw that something had happened; the front door was now guarded by the two great Chinese porcelain elephants that always stood there in summer. It was the surest sign of spring when the elephants came out from winter quarters, and in her pleasure she could not help stopping to straddle one of them for a minute, although she knew that her mother would think that eleven was too old for such unladylike behavior.
It was not so much the spring itself that she had been longing for; her father was coming home from sea in the spring.
‘Mother, are you there?’ she called, before the front door had time to bang behind her. She was supposed to go around to the side entry and take off her India rubbers before she came into the house, but riding the elephant had held her up; she used the nearest door.
Exactly as Persis expected, her mother answered from the upstairs sitting room where she usually sat in the afternoon. ‘Here I am, my dear.’ Then, as her daughter came thumping up the stairs two at a time and was near enough for a conversational tone, she added, ‘Come where I am. Don’t calk’
Persis was so accustomed to this remark that she hardly heard it. ‘Here’s the mail,’ she said, and dropped it into
her mother’s lap. Then she put her arms around her mother’s neck and stooped to kiss the spot behind her ear that always made her shiver and laugh. ‘You have a letter from Aunt Marge’ — to show how well she knew the handwriting. Then she kissed her again, this time on the forehead. Her mother was so sweet, so grown-up and far away, and yet so dear. No one could ever know how Persis loved her.
Mrs. Illott had opened her letter now and Persis must wait to tell her plans for the afternoon. In the meantime she thrust a hand deep into the tall hawthorn rose jar, a habit of hers, stirring and sniffing vigorously and reminding herself that it would not be long now before her father came to sit in this room and shout at her, ‘Let that alone! You’ll give us all hay fever and you’ll break the jar.’ Not that he truly wanted her to stop playing with the spicy rose leaves; she always knew when he meant to be obeyed. He was only telling her to be careful of the blue jar, and of course she was, with or without his warning. Then, as her mother opened the Boston Traveler, Persis asked, ‘May I go upriver now? I shan’t catch cold, and Hall painted the boat last week, so it must be dry enough.’
Having forestalled probable objections, she turned to get her answer, and stopped short. Her mother’s face had lost its calm.
‘What is it?’ Glancing at the widespread sheet, she saw that it was open to the Shipping News. ‘Has Father’s ship come in? It has! I know it has!’
Mrs. Illott answered with lips that had gone dry. ‘Yes.’
Persis leaned over to read, screwing her eyes to see the fine print from that angle. She was excited and happy beyond words. She had known, from the elephants, but not that it would happen so soon.
T. H. Harrison.Savannah
‘Sea Flower is in! He’ll be here tonight!’
Persis was well acquainted with her father’s custom of arriving at the house unexpectedly. He never sent a telegram, as Kitty Lord’s father did the minute he came into port. Sometimes Persis thought that he acted as if he believed that she and her mother stayed precisely as he left them when he said good-bye, and spent all their time in waiting for him to bring them to life again when he came home. Of course that idea was silly, because he wanted them to be doing things, the more the better. When they told him that they had been in Salem or Boston he said that they were sensible people, that you rotted if you sat at home all the time. He often said that he was never really happy except when he was sailing out of a harbor and could feel the ship beginning to swing under his feet, on her way to the other side of the earth.
That might be partly true, but not altogether, because Persis knew very well how he loved it here in Underhill with them. When he said such things Persis could see that he hurt her mother, and it seemed foolish for anybody to be sensitive and literal about Father’s remarks. Persis could understand him, for she, too, had a bad habit of saying things more forcefully than she meant. Half the time there was no need of paying much attention to what she or her father said. Persis liked that way of talking. It made interest and excitement, but her mother thought that every word should stand for exactly what was intended.
Persis found a book and sat down on a footstool close to her mother’s chair. She didn’t want to go upriver now because there was something important going on at home, and besides, she knew that her mother would like to have her stay with her. She wanted to turn over in her mind the glorious thought of her father’s coming; and with it the disturbing fact that her mother was often afraid of Father.
Persis could not understand why anyone was afraid of him, but she knew that a great many people were. Perhaps not exactly afraid, but they were particular about the way they treated him. He had a way of being emphatic that bothered people who did not know and admire him. To her it seemed natural for a man to bang his fist on the table until the silver leaped; it didn’t mean anything but that he wanted something quickly, and the maid was a goose to weep just because the noise startled her. Persis must not act as her father did because she was going to be a woman.
But she loved her mother too dearly not to sympathize with her, and now as she sat on the footstool, pretending to read, she held fast to the toe of the nearer bronze slipper, in silent affection. Things were so perfect, when they two were alone, she and her precious mother. Why should everything be changed when Father came home from sea? He was a good deal like a blustering October gale, but surely Mother had known him long enough to understand him.
There were French windows in Mrs. Illott’s sitting room and from her low seat Persis could look under the rail of the balcony outside and see the river’s mouth and the breakwater, and out to sea. How she wished that the clipper ships came into this harbor nowadays and sailed up the river, as they did before the Rebellion, before she was born. Then the ships that belonged in Underhill came straight home; they had a landmark famous all along the coast — the three hills that gave the town its name. If only at the end of some voyage Persis could watch Sea Flower coming, first like a white petal against the sky, a petal growing larger, like a magic plant in India, until there were many petals, billowed into roundness by the wind and growing larger, larger, until there was no illusion, only the sight of a wonderful ship. Persis had gone to Boston and watched Sea Flower go out, last April, but Father was going away then. When she was coming back the ship would be glorious and splendid, with no regrets to spoil her beauty.
Her father did not like to have her hanging round the station on the chance of his coming, so there was no question of going to meet a train; but after the five o’clock from Boston, Persis was not surprised to see him striding ahead of the straggling line of people who had been spending the day in the city. The station was on the other side of the river and she could watch for several minutes while he walked up to the bridge on Main Street and then turned to come towards their house.
Whenever he came home she saw and loved things about him that she had not noticed when he went away. She was beginning to know why she was so proud of him. He was tall and his keen eyes looked down on most men. She could see that people on the way spoke to him, but he did not stop to talk to anyone; swinging the heavy stick that he carried on his walks ashore, as though to help him keep his balance on solid earth, he outdistanced everybody else, and the folds of his long blue cape opened and swayed backwards as he came.
When he reached the beginning of their land she ran to unlatch the gate for him.
‘Well, my daughter, how goes the world with you?’ Hooking her arm with the crook of his stick, he drew her close. He was as glad to see her as she was to have him at home again.
Arm in arm they mounted the path to the door, where Mrs. Illott was standing. Then Persis knew that she was forgotten. Her turn to greet him had come first, and for the moment it was completely over, but she did not care because of what she saw in her mother’s face. Mother was happy! Everything was as it should be! And Mother was beautiful to-night. Persis knew that she saw in her some of the things that Father was seeing; she loved her gray-blue eyes and her velvet voice and her slimness and the way that part of her always seemed to be at a distance, so that she could come back to them and be all the more precious because they had all of her so seldom. No one could help adoring her, and of course if annoyed Father when she was afraid of him. She ought to know better.
They went back to the upstairs sitting room and Persis watched her father as he looked around the room, enjoying being at home again. It was good for him to be in a lady’s room for a change. It was good for him and he liked it. Rather different from His cooped-up cabin where he sat at his table and was able to touch his berth on one side and his bookshelves on the other. Not but what the cabin was so cozy that Persis often dreamed that she was living in it.
This room was not small, and it seemed twice as big as it was because there were two long mirrors. Just now everything within its walls seemed to be made of silk, a thing that always happened just as the sun made ready to drop behind the pines across the river. The light made the peacocks and flowers on the chintz the same faint pink as the wood of the tables and chairs and gave everything the same silken texture. Persis had plenty of time to notice this, for she was a wise child about knowing when to talk and when to keep still; her father often told her so.
At last he was ready to include her. ‘What do you think I’ve brought you, young lady?’ he asked when his bags had come from the station.
‘Tell me!’ He always knew what would please her tremendously.
From its wrapping of soft leather he took a silver bowl, a little bowl hardly larger than a child’s porringer, and gave it to Persis. ‘How do you like it?’
She held the treasure on the tips of her fingers, turning it slowly around to see all sides, for there was no repetition of the pattern. It was engraved with deer and fawns and trees no higher than the animals, with precious stones for fruit, some of it on the trees and some fallen on the ground. She was too interested to speak.
‘I got the thing from an Englishman stranded in Lisbon. He thought that an interest in a tea plantation in Ceylon would be of more use to him than an empty bowl.'
‘Isn’t it lovely!’ Mrs. Illott took it from Persis to look at it more closely. ‘How could ho sell it?’
‘Oh, it wasn’t a family thing; he picked it up in India somewhere. And he didn’t sell it, actually. That is, we didn’t say so, although we both knew he wasn’t likely to see it again. I told him that I’d bring the bowl home to Persis and he could let us know when he made his fortune. He was in love with that piece of silver and it was all he saved out of a typhoon. He lost everything, even an arm after the surgeon got hold of him.’
‘You helped him!’ Persis said. ‘I know! You were good to him.’
‘Well, what’s a one-armed man going to do? He was sick and he hadn’t a penny.’
He leaned towards her mother as he spoke, to take the bowl, and as his hand touched hers Persis saw that again they had forgotten her. ‘I’ll go and feed the Hobby Horse while you are talking.’ She knew they did not hear her. Her pony made a good excuse, but she hadn’t needed any.
Persis had grown older in the last year and now she understood some of the reasons why supper seemed so different to-night. Mother cared about the way supper was served, while Father was interested in how the food was cooked. Yet that was hardly the important, difference to Persis. Mother was so sweet and gentle that she made emphatic persons seem more self-assertive than they were. Father forgot, too, that he was not at sea where he ruled nothing but men. It might be harmless to swear at cabin boys, but it made Nellie Price very nervous. Mother did not like to have him do it, though she didn’t say that right out; she withdrew into silent disapproval. That was no way to get Father to stop whatever he was doing. Why hadn’t Mother learned that he enjoyed being commanded by her, that it made him angry to see her suffer uncomplainingly? Why couldn’t Mother learn that to Father silence seemed the worst kind of complaining?
And what was Father saying, really? Things that were said on purpose to annoy Mother, Persis could see that, although why they had that effect Persis did not know. Perhaps they were not as mild as they sounded. She knew most of the words, but by the time Nellie Brice brought the crackers and cheese the child realized that she did not understand anything that he was saying. Nellie Price’s face was scarlet, and although Father was pretending to pay no attention to her, he was enjoying her blushes. Mother did not blush. Her face was white. Persis wished that she knew what it. was all about, but pride and a dreadful suspicion prevented her asking questions or calling attention to herself in any way.
Her father ignored her presence. But it seemed that he was thinking along one of the lines that her mind had traveled, for at last he leaned back in his chair, looking at her mother critically. ‘The girls in Lisbon aren’t much like you. They’d show you how to treat me — a slap for every word they don’t like, a slap and a dozen kisses. It’s color a man wants when he’s ashore, color and laughter and a little “come hither.”’
Persis was watching her mother closely. In the beginning, supper had been gay, and Father had brought some special wine that Mother appreciated; while they talked about it everything was smooth and pleasant. Mother had laughed at Father at first, and then she had begun to hide her eyes, and then she had grown pale, and now she made no pretense of eating. Father was going too far, there was no doubt about that.
The silence infuriated him. He blurted out the thing that always, while Persis was there at least, had been unspoken. ‘Why don’t you tell me to behave? What are you afraid of, you little fool?’
It was then that Persis knew on which side she must stand. She turned on her father with a voice as imperious as his own. ‘Don’t you dare to speak to my mother like that!’
Their eyes met, blue, both pairs, and Persis knew that hers held the same cold glint of determination that shone in his.
Captain Illott looked at his daughter curiously for a minute. Then he burst into a roar of laughter.
His voice was all but soundless against the thud of her heart. Everything seemed unreal, as though her mind were lifted out of her head, to float in space above her chair, surveying its former body and the wreck of her happiness.
She dashed towards the door. She was going to cry, but not until she was safely out of sight and hearing.
‘Here, here! Where are you going? I want you.’
She pulled herself together. ‘I don’t want you! You are hateful!’ And then she slammed the heavy dining-room door.
A night’s sleep did not bring her peace. When she woke she was thinking about her father and mother. He exacted such strict obedience from other people, why couldn’t he please Mother by making himself more nearly what she wanted him to be during the short time that he was at home?
Persis had breakfast alone, instead of with her mother, and that helped to make the day seem more bleak. She felt utterly miserable. Where was Mother? She hadn’t seen her, hadn’t heard her voice. Persis could think of nothing to do, although it was Saturday, nothing better than sitting in the library window, reading, and hardly knowing what book she held. It was Andersen, and it was open at a page that said, ‘The eldest princess was now fifteen, and was allowed to rise up to the surface of the sea . . . mermaids have no tears and therefore suffer all the more.’
Her best friends, Bill and Foddy Guest, went by, shouting as they passed her gate. She knew where they were going — to fish off the Bell Rock, because their mother forgot to tell them not to go there when she went to visit her sister in Boston. Some persons thought that the Bell Rock wasn’t a safe place, but it really wasn’t dangerous if you watched the tide.
Yesterday Persis had intended to go with them, if she could get away without her mother’s asking where she was going; if Mother could be satisfied with the answer, ‘To the rocks’ and didn’t ask which rocks. She hoped to show that, a girl could bring in cod where boys caught cunners, but last night had spoiled everything, taken away every bit of interest in fishing or going upriver.
Passing by the library door, her mother saw her and came into the room. ‘I thought I heard the Guests calling you. Why aren’t you on your way down to the rocks? There must be splendid surf. Haven’t you heard it?’
‘I didn’t feel like going.’
Mrs. Illott dropped on her knees, pushed the book aside and put her arms around the girl as if she were a baby again. ‘Little Persis, do you love me?’
‘Oh, yes, yes!’
It was only then that the child knew that her mother understood anything of what she was feeling. Both of them were horribly lonely and disappointed. But neither was willing to break the reserve of silence that perhaps made their trouble easier to bear. Words were better unspoken, as long as they both knew.
‘Will you do something for me? Pick violets for the table? ‘
She looked at Persis and smiled. And Persis was gone in an instant, running through the kitchen garden to the grass at the edge of the brook between the house and the orchard, where the violets grew rank. It was cheering, to be doing something for Mother. She worked industriously, slowly getting a grip on herself. Sitting cross-legged in the grass, she gathered little piles of violets into one heavenly cabbage head of purple pricked with points of gold, and took it, a double handful, into the dining room. After she had put the flowers into a glass bowl and had sufficiently admired the thin delicacy of pale green stems shining in the water, she felt much better. For another thing, to make the day more comfortable, Captain Ward had come to call on Father. She could hear them talking in the library, and the growl of their deep voices sounded commonplace and natural.
Captain Ward stayed to dinner, and that was pleasant, too. Persis decided that the world was right again. After dinner she would go to find Bill and Foddy, or perhaps take the boat upriver. She would ask her fat her, not her mother. He was sure to say yes, because he thought the river was as safe as houses, and so it was. Mother never trusted anything that had to do with the water.
But after Captain Ward had gone home to take his afternoon nap she could not find her father alone. He had gone upstairs to the sitting room with her mother, and there he sat talking almost as steadily as if he were reading aloud. Finally Persis decided to go up and ask them both together. She would not mention the Bell Rock, for that would be useless with her mother there, but surely they would let her go upriver. She could handle that rowboat as well as any boy in Underhill, and what if there was a dam? It was away around the lower bend, and she could keep her promise not to go anywhere near it. She wanted to go up the river, not down.
But when she started upstairs she did not go all the way. The tones of her father’s voice rumbling overhead made the air heavy. It wasn’t just ordinary conversation that she could interrupt for a minute. On the landing she turned back and took the words she had heard out of doors to churn them over in her mind.
‘What makes you so squeamish?’ she had heard. ‘You’re nothing but an old maid, a prudish old maid. I’m not going to have Persis growing up like you, I can tell you. I should think that being married to me would have done something for you, but it hasn’t.’
He had stopped talking for a second and Persis had started up a higher step or two, and then he began again. He seemed to be following Mother into her room. Louder than ever he shouted, ‘Go out while you change your dress? My God, woman!’
lie had called Mother a woman, that horrid word that was used only in speaking of common people. That was dreadful of him. He shouldn’t have done it. Persis hadn’t minded his swearing, for that was no more than a quick expression of annoyance, but this was insulting.
She wandered up to her carpenter’s shop in the barn chamber. It was forbidden to go anywhere outside the yard without permission from a parent.
She was making a dovecote, to stand on a pole in the barnyard. But to-day nothing went well. She could not saw straight, and the best plane gouged instead of working smoothly. In disgust she put the tools away and went to look out of the window.
There was something to be seen out of the window. The painters were working on the ell of Mrs. Dodge’s house, next door. They were just below the caves.
It was a wonderful place to paint, broad and high and without windows on that side of the house. It was going to be white again, exactly as always. Where the false windows were, the blinds had been taken away and the places where they had been were dirty; rain must do a lot of good, washing. There ought to be a better view of the painters from Mother’s sitting room, and Persis regretted that her father was no longer a little boy whose attention would be drawn away from Mother by his interest in workmen. The house was too far from the barn for ordinary voices to carry, but she had no doubt that he was still talking.
All at once she heard him. It came like a note of thunder and turned her cold. She twisted stiffly towards the windows of the sitting room, and she saw him pull open the double doors of the French windows.
Something white and lovely gleamed in the dusk beyond the threshold, and with the force of an entering gust of wind Captain Illott went towards it. It was a statue, tall and straight and slim. Where did it come from? It moved, and Persis heard her mother cry out, ‘No!’
The painters had stopped work to look, staring with all their eyes. They and Persis were on almost the same level, a little below the balcony, and they seemed to be looking up at a stage in a theatre.
The painters were leaning back to see better, anchored on their horizontal ladder by their legs that dangled over the edge towards the Dodge house. Drops of white made a string of graduated beads that fell from one of the wide brushes.
‘I’ll give you something to blush for!’ That was her father, shouting. Persis could see his lips move, but it didn’t sound like his voice.
An instant later he stepped through the French window. Held fast by his brown-weathered hand around her arm, with him came a woman. The spring breeze blew against the folds of thin scarf that covered her; she was like a statue of a goddess high in a niche of a temple.
Mother? Mother! The world turned black; it. became a roaring confusion of shame and anger.
‘Here, men!’ — as though he were calling to dogs. ‘Look this way!’
The men were looking already, Persis knew that, but she turned her eyes towards them when she heard her father’s order. Her neck was strangely stiff, as if she were growing petrified, but the rest of her was trembling.
Deliberately the painters moved around on the ladder until their backs were squarely towards the balcony. They dipped brushes into paint pails and slapped, slapped, against the clapboards. They did not speak or look at each other.
‘Turn this way, I tell you!’
Slap, slap, the new white showed moist and even beneath the firm brush strokes.
Persis closed her eyes. Her father might shoot the men and kill them both, as he shot the two leaders of the mutiny that time in Calcutta.
In his rage he must have forgotten everything but the painters, for when Persis opened her eyes again he was alone on the balcony.
She hardly knew that she had moved, but at last she found that she was under the workbench, among the shavings, covered, head and all, with an old corduroy coat that she kept in the barn for cold days.
She slept and wakened. The Town Hall clock struck four. Now she knew what she intended to do. She would go away and take her mother with her, and never see her father again.
A step sounded on the loose boards downstairs; it was her father, she knew without seeing him. She had been cramped and chilly and lonely, but her father’s nearness sent burning hot anger to make her alert and furiously alive again.
He was coming upstairs. Persis drew herself into an inconspicuous ball and put her fingers in her ears. She would not speak to him and she prayed never to hear his voice. To-night, when it was dark, she and her mother would go away, and if her mother wouldn’t go, Persis was going alone.
Her attempt at hiding was a failure, for he saw her at once, and she could hear him distinctly. ‘What in the name of common sense are you doing here? If you want to lie down, why don’t you go to bed? Your mother thought that you had gone upriver.’
He pulled the coat away and she turned her back on him.
‘Won’t speak, eh? So I’m a bad man? I suppose you think you’re going to stay out here until I go to sea again!’ He stamped his foot as he laughed, and Persis saw a ray of sunshine fill with cloudy dust.
She wished that he would go and leave her alone, but instead he stopped to look out of the window.
It was very still. Down in his stall the Hobby Horse moved about. Probably he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t put him out in the paddock if she wasn’t going to use him this afternoon. To-day was hard on everybody.
It was so still that Persis heard steps running along Main Street, heard them coming down the River Road, heard the front gate click. The church bells began to ring. What could that mean? Not a fire, because the bell on the Town Hall rang for a fire.
A man’s voice called, ‘Cap’n Illott! Cap’n Illott!’ Whoever it was hadn’t waited to ring the doorbell; he was standing outside and shouting.
‘What is it, man?’ Her father had shoved up the window.
‘Them Guest boys is drowning, off the Bell Rock!’ Persis thought she recognized the voice of one of the sailors on Sea Flower.
She scrambled from under the workbench, but her father was gone already.
‘Wait for me!’ she called, but while she was on the stairway she saw him snatch a coil of rope from below the hayloft, saw him ride out of the barn on Soldier without stopping to saddle him.
A stream of running men and boys and girls and women was pouring down the River Road towards the rocks. People scattered to left and right as Soldier came out of the driveway.
Persis scuttled across the lawn to the house, wishing she could be invisible. She did not want to see her mother, but it would be best to get that over at once.
But she was hardly indoors before Mrs. Guest’s Maggie came, bursting into the house without knocking. She ran down the hall, calling, ‘Mrs. Illott!’
‘Yes, Maggie.’ And Persis saw her mother coming down the stairs. She looked just as usual.
The tears were streaming down Maggie’s cheeks and her mouth was working frightfully. ‘Mrs. Illott! You’ll come, won’t you? You’ll tell them what to do when they brings them . . . My boys! Whatever will their mother do?’
‘Yes, Maggie, I’ll come. Persis, go and harness Hobby.’
And so Persis and her mother and Maggie went racing down the Sea Road behind the Hobby Horse. Maggie’s hands covered her face. ‘Have mercy on us,’ she prayed, saying the same words over and over again with mumblings in between that Persis could not quite hear.
Louder and louder came the thunder of a heavy surf, the booming of avalanches of water; then, as they came nearer to the shore, Persis could hear the sharp rattle of retreating waves on the pebble beaches. The fountain of white from the Blowing Cave lifted itself above the horizon and sank and showed again.
Everybody was down on the flat reach of rock below the level of grass and bayberry. All were drenched with spray.
Beyond was the Bell Rock, its smooth sides streaming white. It looked as it milk were being poured over it. And around it were whirlpools where the rising tide fought the backwash of thousands of tons of water flung back from the face of the cliff.
Across the top of the Bell ran the curious flat narrow slab of granite, the rafter from which the Bell hung, and clinging to this crossbar were the two boys. They looked very small. Persis could hardly believe they were so little. She had supposed that she and Foddy were the same size; they had measured themselves. But she couldn’t be as small as either of those two little children. Now they swung like boats at anchor, as the water rose beneath them, now they slapped against the Bell as the ebbing wave sucked them down.
Nobody could reach them. No boat could live a minute so near the rocks, and no man could swim; he would be like a lost marker from a lobster pot, tossed and swirling. And yet each wave came higher; before the turn of the tide the water would be four feet deep over the Bell.
It was impossible to hear the boys’ voices through the roar of the sea. Someone must have seen them and run with the alarm.
Persis saw her father step to the edge of the shelf of rock. The rope was around his waist. He was going to try to get out there! Three would be drowned, not two. But she never questioned the need of his going. Clutching the dashboard, she leaned forward to watch.
Two men followed him, one of them the sailor, and they let the rope play out until its curve hung far down in the water. They all were in the surf; the waves covered them, whenever a wave came past. And then a great comber rolled in, a ninth wave, and while the abyss was still whirling green and silver Captain Illott jumped, down to the ridge of rock that began to show its backbone as his feet struck it. During the instant that the rock was bare he ran its length, out to the Bell.
Another wave was coming and he dropped flat to hold fast. Another wave towered higher and higher, gathering the water from the bottom; its white crest feathered and tumbled forward upon him.
When it had passed, he sprang for the Bell’s rafter. He lashed the rope to the Bell, untied it from around his waist.
‘Don’t do that!’ shouted Persis. Now, if the waves washed him off the rocks, he would be gone forever. ‘Don’t!’ But no one heard her.
Clinging to the rope with one hand, he was coming back with Bill. Foddy, older and stronger, was helping himself, hand over hand. It was no harder to hang on to the rope than on to the Bell.
First Bill was carried up to safety. The sailor took the boy from Captain Illott and threw him high, and someone caught him out of the water and brought him up to dry land. Then they helped Foddy. And, last, Persis saw her father scrambling out of the way of a great wave that reared against the cliff.
No one else dared, no one else could have done it. Her father, the bravest man, the man who could do anything! To be like him, to know what had to be done, always! If only she could be halfway like him! Then, heavy and suffocating as one of the giant waves, the early afternoon swept down upon her triumphant gloating.
It changed her into someone she never had been until to-day, someone shamefaced, who wanted to keep out of sight. It was only then that Persis became aware that she was alone in the cart. She knew that Maggie had gone, but after that she had been intent on what was happening. Where was Mother? Where? They two must stay together. Her mother needed her.
It took real searching before the girl’s eyes found what they were looking for; it didn’t seem possible that Mother could be down there in the crowd, standing with people as if this had been an ordinary afternoon. Practically every inhabitant of Underhill was as near the cliff edge as it was possible to be, and it took a while for Persis to push her way through, even though each person made way for her as soon as he saw who was trying to get past him.
’Mother, darling,’ she said, and took her hand, and was surprised to see that her mother hardly knew she had come.
The men were climbing up from the rocks. Maggie already had taken Bill in her arms and carried him back to where warm blankets were ready by a fire of driftwood. The sailor boosted Foddy up the last steep step, and then he and the other sea-soaked men followed to the fire. The crowd went with them.
The last one to come was Captain Illott. As though it were a ship that he was leaving, he waited until his men were safe, and when he reached the top he stayed where he stood. The water, running from his soaked hair, dripped from his heavy eyebrows. He blinked it away and looked into his wife’s eyes. ‘Ready to come home?’ he asked her.
Persis watched the color come into her mother’s face, saw her hold out her hands. Captain Illott pulled her close to him and she held him tight, as Persis would have done. The salt waiter in his wet sleeves was marking the green of Mother’s best afternoon taffeta with widening streaks of black as his arms pressed against her shoulders.
Mother had forgiven him? What had she felt, as he went down under the waves? And if Mother could take him back, could Persis? Father was so brave; he was a hero, as great as the men she loved to read about in stories of knights. And he was so kind, really. Didn’t that make him more unforgivable when he was — awful? But Persis loved him so! She couldn’t live without him.
Her father and mother did not see her, although she was standing with them at the edge of the cliff. They did not say good-bye or look at her when they went away. She watched them go across the turf, on their way to the cart, saw them drive towards the road, jouncing over the short grass. But she was glad to be alone.