Captain Eri gazed at this astounding spectacle for a full thirty seconds. Then he woke up.
"Godfrey domino!" he ejaculated. "BLACK! BLACK! Run! Run for your lives, 'fore she sees us!"
This order was superfluous. Captain Jerry was already half-way to the fence, and going at a rate which bid fair to establish a record for his age. The others fell into his wake, and the procession moved across country like a steeplechase.
They climbed over stone walls and splashed into meadows. They took every short cut between the station and their home. As they came in sight of the latter, Captain Perez' breath gave out almost entirely.
"Heave to!" he gasped. "Heave to, or I'll founder. I wouldn't run another step for all the darkies in the West Indies."
Captain Eri paused, but it was only after a struggle that Captain Jerry was persuaded to halt.
"I shan't do it, Eri!" he vowed wildly. "I shan't do it! There ain't no use askin' me; I won't marry that black woman! I won't, by thunder!"
"There! there! Jerry!" said Captain Eri soothingly. "Nobody wants you to. There ain't no danger now. She didn't see us."
"Ain't no danger! There you go again, Eri Hedge! She'll ask where I live and come right down in the depot wagon. Oh! Lordy! Lordy!"
The frantic sacrifice was about to bound away again, when Captain Eri caught him by the arm.
"I'll tell you what," he said, "we'll scoot for Eldredge's shanty and hide there till she gits tired and goes away. P'raps she won't come, anyhow."
The deserted fish shanty, property of the heirs of the late Nathaniel Eldredge, was situated in a hollow close to the house. In a few moments the three were inside, with a sawhorse against the door. Then Captain Eri pantingly sat down on an overturned bucket and laughed until the tears came into his eyes.
"That's it, laff!" almost sobbed Captain Jerry. "Set there and tee-hee like a Bedlamite. It's what you might expect. Wait till the rest of the town finds out about this; they'll do the laffin' then, and you won't feel so funny. We'll never hear the last of it in this world. If that darky comes down here, I'll—I'll drown her; I will—"
"I don't blame Jerry," said Perez indignantly. "I don't see much to laff at. Oh, my soul and body there she comes now."
They heard the rattle of a heavy carriage, and, crowding together at the cobwebbed window, saw the black shape of the "depot wagon" rock past. They waited, breathless, until they saw it go back again up the road.
"Did you lock the dining-room door, Perez?" asked Captain Eri.
"Course I didn't. Why should I?"
It was a rather senseless question. Nobody locks doors in Orham except at bedtime.
"Humph!" grunted Captain Eri. "She'll see the light in the dining room, and go inside and wait, more 'n likely. Well, there's nothin' for us to do but to stay here for a while, and then, if she ain't gone, one of us 'll have to go up and tell her she won't suit and pay her fare home, that's all. I think Jerry ought to be the one," he added mischievously. "He bein' the bridegroom, as you might say."
"Me!" almost shouted the frantic Captain Jerry. "You go to grass! You fellers got me into this scrape, and now let's see you git me out of it. I don't stir one step."
They sat there in darkness, the silence unbroken, save for an occasional chuckle from the provoking Eri. Perez, however, was meditating, and observed, after a while:
"Snow! That's a queer name for a darky, ain't it?"
"That colored man up at Barry's place was named White," said Captain Jerry, "and he was black as your hat. Names don't count."
"They say colored folks make good cooks, Jerry," slyly remarked Eri. "Maybe you'd better think it over."
The unlucky victim of chance did not deign an answer, and the minutes crept slowly by. After a long while they heard someone whistling. Perez went to the window to take an observation.
"It's a man," he said disappointedly. "He's been to our house, too. My land! I hope he didn't go in. It's that feller Hazeltine; that's who 'tis."
"Is it?" exclaimed Eri eagerly. "That's so! so 'tis. Let's give him a hail."
Before he could be stopped he had pulled the saw-horse from the door, had opened the latter a little way, and, with his face at the opening, was whistling shrilly.
The electrician looked up and down the dark road in a puzzled sort of way, but evidently could not make up his mind from what quarter the whistles came.
"Mr. Hazeltine!" hailed the Captain, in what might be called a whispered yell or a shouted whisper. "Mr. Hazeltine! Here, on your lee bow. In the shanty."
The word "shanty" was the only part of the speech that brought light to Ralph's mind, but that was sufficient; he came down the hill, left the road, and plunged through the blackberry vines to the door.
"Who is it?" he asked. "Why, hello, Captain! What on earth—"
Captain Eri signaled him to silence, and then, catching his arm, pulled him into the shanty and shut the door. Captain Jerry hastened to set the saw-horse in place again.
"Mr. Hazeltine," said Captain Eri, "let me make you acquainted with Cap'n Perez and Cap'n Jerry, shipmates of mine. You've heard me speak of 'em."
Ralph, in the darkness, shook two big hands and heard whispered voices express themselves as glad to know him.
"You see," continued Eri in a somewhat embarrassed fashion, "we're sort of layin' to, as yer might say, waitin' to git our bearin's. We ain't out of our heads; I tell you that, 'cause I know that's what it looks like."
The bewildered Hazeltine laughed and said he was glad to hear it. To tell the truth, he had begun to think that something or other had suddenly driven his nearest neighbors crazy.
"I—I—I don't know how to explain it to you," the Captain stumbled on. "Fact is, I guess I won't jest yit, if you don't mind. It does sound so pesky ridic'lous, although it ain't, when you understand it. What we want to know is, have you been to our house and is there anybody there?"
"Why, yes, I've been there. I rowed over and dropped in for a minute, as you suggested the other day. The housekeeper—I suppose it was the housekeeper—that opened the door, said you were out, and I—"
He was interrupted by a hopeless groan.
"I knew it!" wailed Captain Jerry. "I knew it! And you said there wa'n't no danger, Eri!"
"Hush up, Jerry, a minute, for the love of goodness! What was she doin', Mr. Hazeltine, this woman you thought was the housekeeper? Did she look as if she was gettin' ready to go out? Did she have her bunnit on?"
"No. She seemed to be very much at home. That's why I thought—"
But again Captain Jerry broke in, "Well, by mighty!" he ejaculated. "That's nice, now, ain't it! SHE goin' away! You bet she ain't! She's goin' to stay there and wait, if it's forever. She's got too good a thing. Jest as like 's not, M'lissy Busteed, or some other gab machine like her, 'll be the next one to call, and if they see that great black critter! Oh! my soul!"
"Black!" said Ralph amazedly. "Why, the woman at your house isn't black. She's as white as I am, and not bad-looking for a woman of her age."
"WHAT?" This was the trio in chorus. Then Captain Eri said:
"Mr. Hazeltine, now, honest and true, is that a fact?"
"Of course it's a fact."
The Captain wiped his forehead. "Mr. Hazeltine," he said, "if anybody had told me a fortn't ago that I was one of the three biggest fools in Orham, I'd have prob'ly rared up some. As 'tis now, I cal'late I'd thank him for lettin' me off so easy. You'll have to excuse us to-night, I'm afraid. We're in a ridic'lous scrape that we've got to git out of all alone. I'll tell you 'bout it some day. Jest now wish you'd keep this kind of quiet to oblige me."
Hazeltine saw that this was meant as a gentle hint for his immediate departure, and although he had a fair share of curiosity, felt there was nothing else to do. He promised secrecy, promised faithfully to call again later in the week, and then, the sawhorse having been removed by Captain Perez,—Captain Jerry was apparently suffering from a sort of dazed paralysis,—he went away. As soon as he had gone, Captain Eri began to lay down the law.
"Now then," he said, "there's been some sort of a mistake; that's plain enough. More 'n likely, the darky took the wrong satchel when she got up to come out of the car. That woman at the house is the real Marthy Snow all right, and we've got to go right up there and see her. Come on!"
But Captain Jerry mutinied outright. He declared that the sight of that darky had sickened him of marrying forever, and that he would not see the candidate from Nantucket, nor any other candidate. No persuasion could budge him. He simply would not stir from that shanty until the house had been cleared of female visitors.
"Go and see her yourself, if you're so set on it," he declared. "I shan't!"
"All right," said Captain Eri calmly. "I will. I'll tell her you're bashful, but jest dyin' to be married, and that she can have you if she only waits long enough."
With this he turned on his heel and walked out.
"Hold on, Eri!" shouted the frantic Jerry. "Don't you do it! Don't you tell her that! Land of love, Perez, do you s'pose he will?"
"I don't know," was the answer in a disgusted tone. "You hadn't ought to have been so pig-headed, Jerry."
Captain Eri, with set teeth and determination written on his face, walked straight to the dining-room door. Drawing a long breath, he opened it and stepped inside. A woman, who had been sitting in Captain Perez' rocker, rose as he entered.
The woman looked at the Captain and the Captain looked at her. She was of middle age, inclined to stoutness, with a pair of keen eyes behind brass-rimmed spectacles, and was dressed in a black "alpaca" gown that was faded a little in places and had been neatly mended in others. She spoke first.
"You're not Cap'n Burgess?" she said.
"No, ma'am," said the Captain uneasily. "My name is Hedge. I'm a sort of messmate of his. You're Miss Snow?"
"Mrs. Snow. I'm a widow."
They shook hands. Mrs. Snow calmly expectant; the Captain very nervous and not knowing how to begin.
"I feel as if I knew you, Cap'n Hedge," said the widow, as the Captain slid into his own rocker. "The boy on the depot wagon told me a lot about you and Cap'n Ryder and Cap'n Burgess."
"Did, hey?" The Captain inwardly vowed vengeance on his chum's grandnephew. "Hope he gave us a clean bill."
"Well, he didn't say nothin' against you, if that's what you mean. If he had, I don't think it would have made much diff'rence. I've lived long enough to want to find out things for myself, and not take folks' say-so."
The lady seeming to expect some sort of answer to this statement, Captain Eri expressed his opinion that the plan of finding out things for one's self was a good "idee." Then, after another fidgety silence, he observed that it was a fine evening. There being no dispute on this point, he endeavored to think of something else to say. Mrs. Snow, however, saved him the trouble.
"Cap'n Hedge," she said, "as I'm here on what you might call a bus'ness errand, and as I've been waitin' pretty nigh two hours already, p'raps we'd better talk about somethin' besides fine evenin's. I've got to be lookin' up a hotel or boardin' house or somewheres to stay to-night, and I can't wait much longer. I jedge you got my letter and was expectin' me. Now, if it ain't askin' too much, I'd like to know where Cap'n Burgess is, and why he wa'n't at the depot to meet me."
This was a leading question, and the Captain was more embarrassed than ever. However, he felt that something had to be done and that it was wisest to get it over with as soon as possible.
"Well, ma'am," he said, "we—we got your letter all right, and, to tell you the truth, we was at the depot—Perez and me and Jerry."
"You WAS! Well, then, for the land of goodness, why didn't you let me know it? Such a time as I had tryin' to find out where you lived and all!"
The Captain saw but one plausible explanation, and that was the plain truth. Slowly he told the story of the colored woman and the extension case. The widow laughed until her spectacles fell off.
"Well, there!" she exclaimed. "If that don't beat all! I don't blame Cap'n Burgess a mite. Poor thing! I guess I'd have run, too, if I'd have seen that darky. She was settin' right in the next seat to me, and she had a shut-over bag consid'rable like mine, and when she got up to git out, she took mine by mistake. I was a good deal put out about it, and I expect I talked to her like a Dutch uncle when I caught up with her. Dear! dear! Where is Cap'n Burgess?"
"He's shut up in a fish shanty down the road, and he's so upsot that I dunno's he'll stir from there tonight. Jerry ain't prejudiced, but that darky was too much for him."
And then they both laughed, the widow because of the ludicrous nature of the affair and the Captain because of the relief that the lady's acceptance of it afforded his mind.
Mrs. Snow was the first to become grave. "Cap'n Hedge," she said, "there's one or two things I must say right here. In the first place, I ain't in the habit of answerin' advertisements from folks that wants to git married; I ain't so hard up for a man as all that comes to. Next thing, I didn't come down here with my mind made up to marry Cap'n Burgess, not by no means. I wanted to see him and talk with him, and tell him jest all about how things was with me and find out about him and then—why, if everything was shipshape, I might, p'raps, think about—"
"Jest so, ma'am, jest so," broke in her companion. "That's about the way we felt. You see, there's prob'ly a long story on both sides, and if you'll excuse me I'll go down to the shanty and see if I can't git Jerry up here. It'll be a job, I'm 'fraid, but—"
"No, you shan't either. I'll tell you what we'll do. It's awful late now and I must be gittin' up to the tavern. S'pose, if 'tain't too much trouble, you walk up there with me and I'll stay there to-night and to-morrer I'll come down here, and we'll all have a common-sense talk. P'raps by that time your friend 'll have the darky woman some off his mind, too."
Needless to say Captain Eri agreed to this plan with alacrity. The widow carefully tied on a black, old-fashioned bonnet, picked up a fat, wooden-handled umbrella and the extension case, and said that she was ready.
They walked up the road together, the Captain carrying the extension case. They talked, but not of matrimonial prospects. Mrs. Snow knew almost as much about the sea and the goings and comings thereon as did her escort, and the conversation was salty in the extreme. It developed that the Nantucket lady had a distant relative who was in the life-saving service at Cuttyhunk station, and as the Captain knew every station man for twenty miles up and down the coast, wrecks and maritime disasters of all kinds were discussed in detail.
At the Traveler's Rest Mrs. Snow was introduced by the unblushing Eri as a cousin from Provincetown, and, after some controversy concerning the price of board and lodging, she was shown up to her room. Captain Eri walked home, absorbed in meditation. Whatever his thoughts were they were not disagreeable, for he smiled and shook his head more than once, as if with satisfaction. As he passed John Baxter's house he noticed that the light in the upper window was still burning.
Captain Perez was half asleep when Eri opened the door of the shanty. Captain Jerry, however, was very much awake and demanded to be told things right away. His friend briefly explained the situation.
"I don't care if she stays here till doomsday," emphatically declared the disgruntled one, "I shan't marry her. What's she like, anyhow?"
He was surprised at the enthusiasm of Captain Eri's answer.
"She's a mighty good woman; that's what I think she is, and she'd make a fust-class wife for any man. I hope you'll say so, too, when you see her. There ain't nothin' hity-tity about her, but she's got more common-sense than any woman I ever saw. But there! I shan't talk another bit about her to-night. Come on home and turn in."
And go home and turn in they did, but not without protestation from the pair who had yet to meet the woman from Nantucket.
THE SCHOOLHOUSE BELL RINGS
"All hands on deck! Turn out there! Turnout!"
Captain Eri grunted and rolled over in his bed; for a moment or two he fancied himself back in the fo'castle of the Sea Mist, the bark in which he had made his first voyage. Then, as he grew wider awake, he heard, somewhere in the distance, a bell ringing furiously.
"Turn out, all hands! Turn out!"
Captain Eri sat up. That voice was no part of a dream. It belonged to Captain Jerry, and the tone of it meant business. The bell continued to ring.
"Aye, aye, Jerry! What's the matter?" he shouted.
"Fire! There's a big fire up in the village. Look out of the window, and you can see. They're ringing the schoolhouse bell; don't you hear it?"
The Captain, wide awake enough by this time, jumped out of bed, carrying the blankets with him, and ran to the window. Opening it, he thrust out his head. The wind had changed to the eastward, and a thick fog had come in with it. The house was surrounded by a wet, black wall, but off to the west a red glow shone through it, now brighter and now fainter. The schoolhouse bell was turning somersaults in its excitement.
Only once, since Captain Jerry had been janitor, had the schoolhouse bell been rung except in the performance of its regular duties. That once was on a night before the Fourth of July, when some mischievous youngsters climbed in at a window and proclaimed to sleeping Orham that Young America was celebrating the anniversary of its birth. Since then, on nights before the Fourth, Captain Jerry had slept in the schoolhouse, armed with a horsewhip and an ancient navy revolver. The revolver was strictly for show, and the horsewhip for use, but neither was called into service, for even if some dare-devil spirits did venture near the building, the Captain's snores, as he slumbered by the front door, were danger signals that could not be disregarded.
But there was no flavor of the Fourth in the bell's note this night. Whoever the ringer might be, he was ringing as though it was his only hope for life, and the bell swung back and forth without a pause. The red glow in the fog brightened again as the Captain gazed at it.
Captain Jerry came tumbling up the stairs, breathless and half dressed.
"Where do you make it out to be?" he panted.
"Somewhere's nigh the post-office. Looks 's if it might be Weeks's store. Where's Perez?"
Captain Eri had lighted a lamp and was pulling on his boots, as he spoke.
"Here I be!" shouted the missing member of the trio from the dining room below. "I'm all ready. Hurry up, Eri!"
Captain Eri jumped into his trousers, slipped into a faded pea-jacket and clattered downstairs, followed by the wildly excited Jerry.
"Good land, Perez!" he cried, as he came into the dining room, "I thought you said you was all ready!"
Captain Perez paused in the vain attempt to make Captain Jerry's hat cover his own cranium and replied indignantly, "Well, I am, ain't I?"
"Seems to me I'd put somethin' on my feet besides them socks, if I was you. You might catch cold."
Perez glanced down at his blue-yarn extremities in blank astonishment. "Well, now," he exclaimed, "if I hain't forgot my boots!"
"Well, git 'em on, and be quick. There's your hat. Give Jerry his."
The excited Perez vanished through the door of his chamber, and Captain Eri glanced at the chronometer; the time was a quarter after two.
They hurried out of the door and through the yard. The wind, as has been said, was from the east, but there was little of it and, except for the clanging of the bell, the night was very still. The fog was heavy and wet, and the trees and bushes dripped as if from a shower. There was the salt smell of the marshes in the air, and the hissing and splashing of the surf on the outer beach were plainly to be heard. Also there was the clicking sound of oars in row-locks.
"Somebody is comin' over from the station," gasped Captain Jerry. "Don't run so, Eri. It's too dark. I've pretty nigh broke my neck already."
They passed the lily pond, where the frogs had long since adjourned their concert and gone to bed, dodged through the yard of the tightly shuttered summer hotel, and came out at the corner of the road, having saved some distance by the "short-cut."
"That ain't Weeks's store," declared Captain Perez, who was in the lead. "It's Web Saunders's place; that's what it is."
Captain Eri paused and looked over to the left in the direction of the Baxter homestead. The light in the window was still burning.
They turned into the "main road" at a dog trot and became part of a crowd of oddly dressed people, all running in the same direction.
"Web's place, ain't it?" asked Eri of Seth Wingate, who was lumbering along with a wooden bucket in one hand and the pitcher of his wife's best washstand set in the other.
"Yes," breathlessly answered Mr. Wingate, "and it's a goner, they tell me. Every man's got to do his part if they're going to save it. I allers said we ought to have a fire department in this town."
Considering that Seth had, for the past eight years, persistently opposed in town-meeting any attempt to purchase a hand engine, this was a rather surprising speech, but no one paid any attention to it then.
The fire was in the billiard saloon sure enough, and the back portion of the building was in a blaze when they reached it. Ladders were placed against the eaves, and a line of men with buckets were pouring water on the roof. The line extended to the town pump, where two energetic youths in their shirtsleeves were working the handle with might and main. The houses near at hand were brilliantly illuminated, and men and women were bringing water from them in buckets, tin pails, washboilers, and even coalscuttles.
Inside the saloon another hustling crowd was busily working to "save" Mr. Saunders' property. A dozen of the members had turned the biggest pool table over on its back and were unscrewing the legs, heedless of the fact that to attempt to get the table through the front door was an impossibility and that, as the back door was in the thickest of the fire, it, too, was out of the question. A man appeared at the open front window of the second story with his arms filled with bottles of various liquids, "original packages" and others. These, with feverish energy, he threw one by one into the street, endangering the lives of everyone in range and, of course, breaking every bottle thrown. Some one of the cooler heads calling his attention to these facts, he retired and carefully packed all the empty bottles, the only ones remaining, into a peach basket and tugged the latter downstairs and to a safe place on a neighboring piazza. Then he rested from his labors as one who had done all that might reasonably be expected.
Mr. Saunders himself, lightly attired in a nightshirt tucked into a pair of trousers, was rushing here and there, now loudly demanding more water, and then stopping to swear at the bottle-thrower or some other enthusiast. "Web's" smoothness was all gone, and the language he used was, as Abigail Mullett said afterward, "enough to bring down a jedgment on anybody."
Captain Eri caught him by the sleeve as he was running past and inquired, "How'd it start, Web?"
"How'd it START? I know mighty well HOW it started, and 'fore I git through I'll know WHO started it. Somebody 'll pay for this, now you hear me! Hurry up with the water, you—"
He tore frantically away to the pump and the three captains joined the crowd of volunteer firemen. Captain Eri, running round to the back of the building, took in the situation at once. Back of the main portion of the saloon was an ell, and it was in this ell that the fire had started. The ell, itself, was in a bright blaze, but the larger building in front was only just beginning to burn. The Captain climbed one of the ladders to the roof and called to the men at work there.
"That shed's gone, Ben," he said. "Chuck your water on the main part here. Maybe, if we had some ropes we might be able to pull the shed clear, and then we could save the rest."
"How'd you fasten the ropes?" was the panted reply. "She's all ablaze, and a rope would burn through in a minute if you tied it anywheres."
"Git some grapples and anchors out of Rogers' shop. He's got a whole lot of 'em. Keep on with the water bus'ness. I'll git the other stuff."
He descended the ladder and explained his idea to the crowd below. There was a great shout and twenty men and boys started on a run after ropes, while as many more stormed at the door of Nathaniel Rogers' blacksmith shop. Rogers was the local dealer in anchors and other marine ironwork. The door of the shop was locked and there was a yell for axes to burst it open.
Then arose an agonized shriek of "Don't chop! don't chop!" and Mr. Rogers himself came struggling to the defense of his property. In concert the instant need was explained to him, but he remained unconvinced.
"We can't stay here arguin' all night!" roared one of the leaders. "He's got to let us in. Go ahead and chop! I'll hold him."
"I give you fair warnin', Squealer Wixon! If you chop that door, I'll have the law onto you. I just had that door painted, and—STOP! I've got the key in my pocket!"
It was plain that the majority were still in favor of chopping, as affording a better outlet for surplus energy, but they waited while Mr. Rogers, still protesting, produced the key and unlocked the door. In another minute the greater portion of the ironwork in the establishment was on its way to the fire.
The rope-seekers were just returning, laden with everything from clothes-lines to cables. Half a dozen boat anchors and a grapnel were fastened to as many ropes, and the crowd pranced gayly about the burning ell, looking for a chance to make them fast. Captain Eri found a party with axes endeavoring to cut a hole through the side of the saloon in order to get out the pool table. After some endeavor he persuaded them to desist and they came around to the rear and, taking turns, ran in close to the shed and chopped at it until the fire drove them away. At last they made a hole close to where it joined the main building, large enough to attach the grapnel. Then, with a "Yo heave ho!" everyone took hold of the rope and pulled. Of course the grapnel pulled out with only a board or two, but they tried again, and, this time getting it around a beam, pulled a large portion of the shed to the ground.
Meanwhile, another ax party had attached an anchor to the opposite side, and were making good progress. In due time the shed yawned away from the saloon, tottered, and collapsed in a shower of sparks. A deluge of water soon extinguished these. Then everyone turned to the main building, and, as the fire had not yet taken a firm hold of this, they soon had it under control.
Captain Eri worked with the rest until he saw that the worst was over. Then he began the search that had been in his mind since he first saw the blaze. He found Captain Jerry and Captain Perez perspiringly passing buckets of water from hand to hand in the line, and, calling them to one side, asked anxiously:
"Have either of you fellers seen John Baxter tonight?"
Captain Perez looked surprised, and then some of the trouble discernible in Eri's face was apparent in his own.
"Why, no," he replied slowly, "I ain't seen him, now you speak of it. Everybody in town's here, too. Queer, ain't it?
"Haven't you seen him, either, Jerry?"
Captain Jerry answered with a shake of the head. "But then," he said, "Perez and me have been right here by the pump ever sence we come. He might be 'most anywheres else, and we wouldn't see him. Want me to ask some of the other fellers?"
"No!" exclaimed his friend, almost fiercely. "Don't you mention his name to a soul, nor let 'em know you've thought of him. If anybody should ask, tell 'em you guess he's right around somewheres. You two git to work ag'in. I'll let you know if I want you."
The pair took up their buckets, and the Captain walked on from group to group, looking carefully at each person. The Reverend Perley and some of his flock were standing by themselves on a neighboring stoop, and to them the searcher turned eagerly.
"Why, Cap'n Eri!" exclaimed Miss Busteed, the first to identify him, "how you've worked! You must be tired pretty nigh to death. Ain't it awful! But it's the Lord's doin's; I'm jest as sure of that as I can be, and I says so to Mr. Perley. Didn't I, Mr. Perley? I says—"
"Lookin' for anybody, Cap'n?" interrupted the reverend gentleman.
"No," lied the Captain calmly, "jest walkin' around to git cooled off a little. Good-night."
There was the most likely place, and John Baxter was not there. Certainly every citizen in Orham, who was able to crawl, would be out this night, and if the old puritan hermit of the big house was not present to exult over the downfall of the wicked, it would be because he was ill or because—The Captain didn't like to think of the other reason.
Mrs. "Web" Saunders, quietly weeping, was seated on a knoll near the pump. Three of the Saunders' hopefuls, also weeping, but not quietly, were seated beside her. Another, the youngest of the family, was being rocked soothingly in the arms of a stout female, who was singing to it as placidly as though fires were an every day, or night, occurrence. The Captain peered down, and the stout woman looked up.
"Why, Mrs. Snow!" exclaimed Captain Eri.
The lady from Nantucket made no immediate reply. She rose, however, shook down the black "alpaca" skirt, which had been folded up to keep it out of the dew, and, still humming softly to the child, walked off a little way, motioning with her head for the Captain to follow. When she had reached a spot sufficiently remote from Mrs. Saunders, she whispered:
"How d'ye do, Cap'n Hedge? I guess the wust is over now, isn't it? I saw you workin' with them ropes; you must be awful tired."
"How long have you been here?" asked the Captain somewhat astonished at her calmness.
"Oh, I come right down as soon as I heard the bell. I'm kind of used to fires. My husband's schooner got afire twice while I was with him. He used to run a coal vessel, you know. I got right up and packed my bag, 'cause I didn't know how the fire might spread. You never can tell in a town like this. Ssh'h, dearie," to the baby, "there, there, it's all right. Lay still."
"How'd you git acquainted with her?" nodding toward the wife of the proprietor of the scorched saloon.
"Oh, I see the poor thing settin' there with all them children and nobody paying much attention to her, so I went over and asked if I couldn't help out. I haven't got any children of my own, but I was number three in a fam'ly of fourteen, so I know how it's done. Oh! that husband of hers! He's a nice one, he is! Would you b'lieve it, he come along and she spoke to him, and he swore at her somethin' dreadful. That's why she's cryin'. Poor critter, I guess by the looks she's used to it. Well, I give HIM a piece of my mind. He went away with a flea in his ear. I do despise a profane man above all things. Yes, the baby's all right, Mrs. Saunders. I'm a-comin'. Good-night, Cap'n Hedge. I s'pose I shall see you all in the mornin'. You ought to be careful and not stand still much this damp night. It's bad when you're het up so."
She went back, still singing to the baby, to where Mrs. Saunders sat, and the Captain looked after her in a kind of amazed fashion.
"By mighty!" he muttered, and then repeated it. Then he resumed his search.
He remembered that there had been a number of people on the side of the burning shed opposite that on which he had been employed, and he determined to have one look there before going to the Baxter homestead. Almost the first man he saw as he approached the dying fire was Ralph Hazeltine. The electrician's hands and face were blackened by soot, and the perspiration sparkled on his forehead.
"Hello, Captain!" he said, holding out his hand. "Lively for a while, wasn't it? They tell me you were the man who suggested pulling down the shed. It saved the day, all right enough."
"You look as if you'd been workin' some yourself. Was you one of the fellers that got that anchor in on this side?"
"He was THE one," broke in Mr. Wingate, who was standing at Hazeltine's elbow. "He waded in with an ax and stayed there till I thought he'd burn the hair off his head. Web ought to pay you and him salvage, Eri. The whole craft would have gone up if it hadn't been for you two."
"I wonder if they got that pool table out," laughed Ralph. "They did everything but saw it into chunks."
"I never saw Bluey Bacheldor work so afore," commented the Captain. "I wish somebody'd took a photograph of him. I'll bet you could sell 'em round town for curiosities. Well, I can't be standin' here."
"If you're going home I'll go along with you. I may as well be getting down toward the station. The excitement is about over."
"I ain't goin' right home, Mr. Hazeltine. I've got an errand to do. Prob'ly I'll be goin' pretty soon, though."
"Oh, all right! I'll wait here a while longer then. See you later perhaps."
The fog had lifted somewhat and as the Captain, running silently, turned into the "shore road," he saw that the light in the Baxter homestead had not been extinguished. The schoolhouse bell had ceased to ring, and the shouts of the crowd at the fire sounded faintly. There were no other sounds.
Up the driveway Captain Eri hurried. There were no lights in the lower part of the house and the dining-room door was locked. The kitchen door, however, was not fastened and the Captain opened it and entered. Shutting it carefully behind him, he groped along to the entrance of the next room.
"John!" he called softly. There was no answer, and the house was perfectly still save for the ticking of the big clock. Captain Eri scratched a match and by its light climbed the stairs. His friend's room was empty. The lamp was burning on the bureau and a Bible was open beside it. The bed had not been slept in.
Thoroughly alarmed now, the Captain, lamp in hand, went through one room after the other. John Baxter was not at home, and he was not with the crowd at the fire. Where was he? There was, of course, a chance that his friend had passed him on the way or that he had been at the fire, after all, but this did not seem possible. However, there was nothing to do but go back, and this time the Captain took the path across the fields.
The Baxter house was on the "shore road," and the billiard room and post-office were on the "main road." People in a hurry sometimes avoided the corner by climbing the fence opposite the Baxter gate, going through the Dawes' pasture and over the little hill back of the livery stable, and coming out in the rear of the post-office and close to the saloon.
Captain Eri, worried, afraid to think of the fire and its cause, and only anxious to ascertain where his friend was and what he had been doing that night, trotted through the pasture and over the hill. Just as he came to the bayberry bushes on the other side he stumbled and fell flat.
He knew what it was that he had stumbled over the moment that he fell across it, and his fingers trembled, so that he could scarcely scratch the match that he took from his pocket. But it was lighted at last and, as its tiny blaze grew brighter, the Captain saw John Baxter lying face downward in the path, his head pointed toward his home and his feet toward the billiard saloon.
CAPTAIN ERI FINDS A NURSE
For a second, only, Captain Eri stood there motionless, stooping over the body of his friend. Then he sprang into vigorous action. He dropped upon his knees and, seizing the shoulder of the prostrate figure, shook it gently, whispering, "John! John!" There was no answer and no responsive movement, and the Captain bent his head and listened. Breath was there and life; but, oh, so little of either! The next thought was, of course, to run for help and for a doctor, but he took but a few steps when a new idea struck him and he came back.
Lighting another match he examined the fallen man hurriedly. The old "Come-Outer" lay in the path with his arms outstretched, as if he had fallen while running. He was bare-headed, and there was no sign of a wound upon him. One coat-sleeve was badly scorched, and from a pocket in the coat protruded the neck of a bottle. The bottle was empty, but its odor was strong; it had contained kerosene. The evidence was clear, and the Captain knew that what he had feared was the truth.
For a moment he stood erect and pondered as to what was best to do. Whatever it was, it must be done quickly, but if the doctor and those that might come with him should find the burned coat and the tell-tale bottle, it were better for John Baxter that consciousness and life never were his again. There might, and probably would, be suspicion; but here was proof absolute that meant prison and disgrace for a man whom all the community had honored and respected.
Captain Eri weighed the chances, speculated on the result, and then did what seemed to him right. He threw the bottle as far away from the path as he could and then stripped off the coat, and, folding it into a small bundle, hid it in the bushes near by. Then he lifted the limp body, and turned it so that the gray head was toward the billiard saloon instead of from it.
Perez and Jerry were still busy with the water buckets when their friend came panting up the knoll to the pump.
"Hello, Eri!" said the former, wiping his forehead with his arm. "It's 'bout out, ain't it? Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothin'; nothin' to speak of. Put down them buckets, and you and Jerry come with me. I've got somethin' that I want you to do."
Nodding and exchanging congratulations with acquaintances in the crowd on the success of the fire-fighting, Captain Eri led his messmates to a dark corner under a clump of trees. Then he took each of them by the arm and whispered sharply:
"Dr. Palmer's somewheres in this crowd. I want each of you fellers to go diff'rent ways and look for him. Whichever one finds him fust can bring him up to the corner by the post-office. Whistle when you git there and the rest of us 'll come. Don't stop to ask questions. I ain't hurt, but John Baxter's had a stroke or somethin'. I can't tell you no more now. Hurry! And say, don't you mention to a soul what the matter is."
A sea-faring life has its advantages. It teaches prompt obedience, for one thing. The two mariners did not hesitate an instant, but bolted in opposite directions. Captain Eri watched them go, and then set off in another. He was stopped every few moments and all sorts of questions and comments concerning the fire and its cause were fired at him, but he put off some inquiries with a curt "Don't know" and others with nods or negatives, and threaded his way from one clump of townspeople to another. As he came close to the blackened and smoking billiard saloon, Ralph Hazeltine caught him by the arm.
"Hello!" said the electrician. "Haven't you gone home yet?"
"No, not yit. Say, I'll ask you, 'cause I cal'late you can keep your mouth shut if it's necessary: Have you seen the Doctor anywheres 'round lately? He was here, 'cause I saw him when I fust come."
"Who, Dr. Palmer? No; I haven't seen him. Is anyone hurt? Can I help?"
"I guess not. John Baxter's sick, but—oh, Lord! Here comes Wingate. He'll talk for a week."
Seth, panting and excited, was pushing his way toward them, shouting the Captain's name at the top of his voice.
"Hey, Eri!" he hailed. "I want to know if you'll sign a petition to git the town a fire ingyne? I've been talkin' to a couple of the s'lectmen and they—"
"Oh, Mr. Wingate," interrupted Ralph, "Mr. Mullett's been looking for you. He's over there by the pump, I think."
"Who, Lem Mullett? Is that so! He's jest the feller I want to see. See you later, Eri."
The Captain grinned appreciatively as the convert to the hand-engine proposal disappeared.
"That wasn't so bad," he said. "I'm much obliged. Hey! There's the whistle. Come on, Mr. Hazeltine, if you ain't in a special hurry. Maybe we WILL need you."
They reached the corner by the post-office to find Dr. Palmer, who had practiced medicine in Orham since he received his diploma, waiting for them. Captain Perez, who had discovered the physician on the Nickerson piazza, was standing close by with his fingers in his mouth, whistling with the regularity of a foghorn.
"Cut it short, Perez!" commanded Eri. "We're here now."
"Yes, but Jerry ain't." And the whistling began again.
"Dry up, for the land's sake! D'you want to fetch the whole tribe here? There's Jerry, now. Come on, Doctor."
John Baxter was lying just as the Captain had left him, and the others watched anxiously as the doctor listened at the parted lips, and thrust his hand inside the faded blue waistcoat.
"He's alive," he said after a moment, "but unconscious. We must get him home at once."
"He heard the bell and was runnin' to the fire when he was took," said Captain Jerry. "Run out in his shirt sleeves, and was took when he got as fur as here."
"That's the way I figger it," said Eri unblushingly. "Lift him carefully, you fellers. Now then!"
"I warned him against over-exertion or excitement months ago," said the Doctor, as they bore the senseless burden toward the big house, now as black as the grave that was so near its owner. "We must find someone to take care of him at once. I don't believe the old man has a relation within a hundred miles."
"Why don't we take him to our house?" suggested Captain Jerry. "'Twouldn't seem so plaguey lonesome, anyhow."
"By mighty!" ejaculated Captain Eri in astonishment. "Well, Jerry, I'll be switched if you ain't right down brilliant once in a while. Of course we will. He can have the spare room. Why didn't I think of that, I wonder?"
And so John Baxter, who had not paid a visit in his native village since his wife died, came at last to his friend's home to pay what seemed likely to be a final one. They carried him up the stairs to the spare room, as dismal and cheerless as spare rooms in the country generally are, undressed him as tenderly as their rough hands would allow, robed him in one of Captain Jerry's nightshirts—the buttons that fastened it had been sewed on by the Captain himself, and were all sizes and colors—and laid him in the big corded bedstead. The Doctor hastened away to procure his medicine case. Ralph Hazeltine, having been profusely thanked for his services and promising to call the next day, went back to the station, and the three captains sat down by the bedside to watch and wait.
Captain Eri was too much perturbed to talk, but the other two, although sympathetically sorry for the sufferer, were bursting with excitement and curiosity.
"Well, if THIS ain't been a night!" exclaimed Captain Jerry. "Seem's if everything happened at once. Fust that darky and then the fire and then this. Don't it beat all?
"Eri," said Captain Perez anxiously, "was John layin' jest the same way when you found him as he was when we come?"
"Right in the same place," was the answer.
"I didn't say in the same place. I asked if he was layin' the same way."
"He hadn't moved a muscle. Laid jest as if he was dead."
It will be noticed that Captain Eri was adhering strictly to the truth. Luckily, Perez seemed to be satisfied, for he asked no further questions, but observed, "It's a good thing we've got a crowd to swear how we found him. There's a heap of folks in this town would be sayin' he set that fire if 'twa'n't for that."
"Some of 'em will be sayin' it anyhow," remarked Jerry.
"Some folks 'll say anything but their prayers," snapped Eri savagely. "They won't say it while I'm around. And look here! if you hear anybody sayin' it, you tell 'em it's a lie. If that don't keep 'em quiet, let me know."
"Oh, all right. WE know he didn't set it. I was jest sayin'—"
"Well, don't say it."
"My, you're techy! Guess fires and colored folks don't agree with you. What are we goin' to do now? If John don't die, and the Lord knows I hope he won't, he's likely to be sick here a long spell. Who are we goin' to git to take care of him? That's what I want to know. Somebody's got to do it and we ain't fit. If Jerry 'd only give in and git married now—"
But Captain Jerry's protest against matrimony was as obstinate as ever. Even Perez gave up urging after a while and conversation lagged again. In a few minutes the Doctor came back, and his examination of the patient and demands for glasses of water, teaspoons, and the like, kept Perez and Jerry busy. It was some time before they noticed that Captain Eri had disappeared. Even then they did not pay much attention to the circumstance, but watched the physician at work and questioned him concerning the nature of their guest's illness.
"D'you think he'll die, Doctor?" inquired Jerry in a hushed voice, as they came out of the sick room into the connecting chamber.
"Can't say. He has had a stroke of paralysis, and there seem to be other complications. If he regains consciousness I shall think he has a chance, but not a very good one. His pulse is a little stronger. I don't think he'll die to-night, but if he lives he will need a good nurse, and I don't know of one in town."
"Nor me neither," said Captain Perez.
"Well, A'nt Zuby might come," suggested Jerry, "but I should hate to have her nuss me, and as for bein' WELL in a house where she was—whew!"
"A'nt Zuby!" sneered his messmate. "If Lorenzo had a fit and they called A'nt Zuby he'd have another one and die. A'nt Zuby! I'd 'bout as soon have M'lissy and be done with it."
"Yes, I don't doubt YOU WOULD," was the anything but gentle retort.
What Perez would have said to this thrust must be surmised, for just then the dining-room door opened and closed again.
"There's Eri," said Captain Jerry. Then he added in an alarmed whisper, "Who on airth has he got with him?"
They heard their friend's voice warning someone to be careful of the top step, and then the chamber door opened and Captain Eri appeared. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and he was carrying a shabby canvas extension-case. Captain Jerry gazed at the extension-case with bulging eyes.
Captain Eri put down the extension-case and opened the door wide. A woman came in; a stout woman dressed in black "alpaca" and wearing brass-rimmed spectacles. Captain Jerry gasped audibly.
"Dr. Palmer," said Captain Eri, "let me make you acquainted with Mrs. Snow of Nantucket. Mrs. Snow, this is Dr. Palmer."
The Doctor and the lady from Nantucket shook hands, the former with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Perez," continued the Captain, "let me make you known to Mrs. Snow—Mrs. Marthy B. Snow,"—this with especial emphasis,—"of Nantucket. Mrs. Snow, this is Cap'n Perez Ryder."
They shook hands; Captain Perez managed to say that he was glad to meet Mrs. Snow. Captain Jerry said nothing, but he looked like a criminal awaiting the fall of the drop.
"Doctor," continued the Captain, paying no attention to the signals of distress displayed by his friend, "I heard you say a spell ago that John here needed somebody to take care of him. Well, Mrs. Snow—she's a—a—sort of relation of Jerry's"—just a suspicion of a smile accompanied this assertion—"and she's done consid'rable nussin' in her time. I've been talkin' the thing over with her and she's willin' to look out for John till he gits better."
The physician adjusted his eyeglasses and looked the volunteer nurse over keenly. The lady paid no attention to the scrutiny, but calmly removed her bonnet and placed it on the bureau. The room was Captain Eri's, and the general disarrangement of everything movable was only a little less marked than in those of his companions. Mrs. Snow glanced over the heap of odds and ends on the bureau and picked up a comb. There were some teeth in it, but they were distant neighbors.
"I don't use that comb very much," said Captain Eri rather apologetically. "I gin'rally use the one downstairs."
The new-found relative of Captain Jerry said nothing, but, laying down the ruin, marched over to the extension-case, opened it, and took out another comb—a whole one. With this she arranged the hair on her forehead. It, the hair, was parted in the middle and drawn back smoothly at the sides, and Captain Eri noticed that it was brown with a little gray in it. When the last stray wisp was in place, she turned calmly to the Doctor and said:
"Cap'n Baxter's in here, I s'pose. Shall I walk right in?"
The man of medicine seemed a little surprised at the lady's command of the situation, but he said:
"Why, yes, ma'am; I guess you may. You have nursed before, I think the Captain said."
"Five years with my husband. He had slow consumption. Before that with my mother, and most of my brothers and sisters at one time or another. I've seen consid'rable sickness all my life. More of that than anything else, I guess. Now, if you'll come in with me, so's to tell me about the medicine and so on."
With a short "Humph!" the physician followed her into the sick room, while the three mariners gazed wide-eyed in at the door. They watched, as Doctor Palmer explained medicines and gave directions. It did not need an expert to see that the new nurse understood her business.
When the Doctor came out his face shone with gratification.
"She'll do," he said emphatically. "If all your relatives are like that, Cap'n Burgess, I'd like to know 'em; 'twould help me in my business." Then he added in response to a question, "He seems to be a little better just now. I think there will be no change for a while; if there should be, send for me. I'll call in the morning. Gracious! it's almost daylight now."
They saw him to the door and then came back upstairs. Mrs. Snow was busy, arranging the pillows, setting the room in something like order, and caring for her patient's garments, that had been tossed helter-skelter on the floor in the hurry of undressing. She came to the door as they entered Captain Eri's chamber.
"Mrs. Snow," said the Captain, "you'd better sleep in my room here long's you stay. I'll bunk in with Perez downstairs. I'll git my dunnage out of here right off. I think likely you'll want to clean up some."
The lady from Nantucket glanced at the bureau top and seemed about to say something, but checked herself. What she did say was:
"P'raps you'd better introduce me to Cap'n Burgess. I don't think we've ever met, if we ARE relations."
Captain Eri actually blushed a little. "Why, of course," he said. "Excuse me, ma'am. Jerry, this is Mrs. Snow. I don't know what's got into me, bein' so careless."
The sacrifice shook the nurse's hand and said something, nobody knew exactly what. Mrs. Snow went on to say, "Now, I want you men to go right on to bed, for I know you're all tuckered out. We can talk to-morrow—I mean to-day, of course: I forgot 'twas next-door to daylight now. I shall set up with Cap'n Baxter, and if I need you I'll call you. I'll call you anyway when I think it's time. Good-night."
They protested, of course, but the lady would not listen. She calmly seated herself in the rocker by the bed and waved to them to go, which two of them reluctantly did after a while. The other one had gone already. It would be superfluous to mention his name.
Downstairs again and in Perez' room Captain Eri came in for a questioning that bade fair to keep up forever. He shut off all inquiries, however, with the announcement that he wouldn't tell them a word about it till he'd had some sleep. Then he would explain the whole thing, and they could decide whether he had done right or not. There were all sorts of things to be considered, he said, and they had better take a nap now while they could.
"Well, I'd jest like to ask you this, Eri Hedge," demanded Captain Jerry. "What in time did you tell the Doctor that she was a relation of mine for? That was a nice thing to do, wa'n't it? I'll have to answer more fool questions 'bout that than a little. What sort of a relation shall I tell folks she is? Jest tell me that, will you?"
"Oh, tell 'em she's a relation by marriage," was the answer, muffled by the bed clothes. "Maybe that 'll be true by the time they ask you."
"I'll BET it won't!" snorted the rebel.
Captain Perez fell asleep almost immediately. Captain Jerry, tired out, did the same, but Captain Eri's eyes did not close. The surf pounded and grumbled. A rooster, early astir, crowed somewhere in the distance. Daniel thumped the side of his stall and then subsided for another nap. The gray morning light brightened the window of the little house.
Then Captain Eri slid silently out of bed, dressed with elaborate precautions against noise, put on his cap, and tiptoed out of the house. He walked through the dripping grass, climbed the back fence and hurried to the hill where John Baxter had fallen. Once there, he looked carefully around to be sure that no one was watching. Orham, as a rule, is an early riser, but this morning most of the inhabitants, having been up for the greater part of the night, were making up lost sleep and the Captain was absolutely alone.
Assured of this, he turned to the bush underneath which he had hidden the burned coat, pushed aside the drenched boughs with their fading leaves and reached down for the tell-tale garment.
And then he made an unpleasant discovery. The coat was gone.
He spent an agitated quarter of an hour hunting through every clump of bushes in the immediate vicinity, but there was no doubt of it. Someone had been there before him and had taken the coat away.
HOUSEKEEPER AND BOOK AGENT
There was a knock on the door of Captain Perez's sleeping apartment.
"Cap'n Hedge," said Mrs. Snow, "Cap'n Hedge! I'm sorry to wake you up, but it's 'most ten o'clock and—"
"What? Ten o'clock! Godfrey scissors! Of all the lazy—I'll be out in a jiffy. Perez, turn out there! Turn out, I tell you!"
Captain Eri had fallen asleep in the rocker where he had seated himself upon his return from the fruitless search for the coat. He had had no intention of sleeping, but he was tired after his strenuous work at the fire, and had dropped off in the midst of his worry. He sprang to his feet, and tried to separate dreams from realities.
"Land of love, Perez!" he ejaculated. "Here you and me have been sleepin' ha'f the forenoon. We'd ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Let's git dressed quicker 'n chain lightnin'."
"Dressed?" queried Perez, sitting up in bed. "I should think you was dressed now, boots and all. What are you talkin' 'bout?"
The Captain glanced down at his clothes and seemed as much surprised as his friend. He managed to pull himself together, however, and stammered:
"Dressed? Oh, I'm dressed, of course. It's you I'm tryin' to git some life into."
"Well, why didn't you call a feller, 'stead of gittin' up and dressin' all by yourself. I never see such a critter. Where's my socks?"
To avoid further perplexing questions Captain Eri went into the dining room. The table was set, really set, with a clean cloth and dishes that shone. The knives and forks were arranged by the plates, not piled in a heap for each man to help himself. The Captain gasped.
"Well, I swan to man!" he said. "Has Jerry had a fit or what's struck him? I ain't seen him do anything like this for I don't know when."
"Oh, Cap'n Burgess didn't fix the table, if that's what you mean," said the new nurse. "Cap'n Baxter seemed to be sleepin' or in a stupor like, and the Doctor, when he come, said I might leave him long enough to run downstairs for a few minutes, so—"
"The Doctor? Has the Doctor been here this mornin'?"
"Yes, he come 'bout an hour ago. Now, if you wouldn't mind goin' up and stayin' with Cap'n Baxter for a few minutes while I finish gettin' breakfast. I've been up and down so many times in the last ha'f hour, I don't know's I'm sartin whether I'm on my head or my heels."
The Captain went upstairs in a dazed state. As he passed through what had been his room he vaguely noticed that the bureau top was clean, and that most of the rubbish that had ornamented it had disappeared.
The sick man lay just as he had left him, his white face as colorless as the clean pillow case against which it rested. Captain Eri remembered that the pillow cases in the spare room had looked a little yellow the night before, possibly owing to the fact that, as the room had not been occupied for months, they had not been changed. He reasoned that the improvement was another one of the reforms instituted by the lady from Nantucket.
He sat down in the rocker by the bed and thought, with a shiver, of the missing coat. There were nine chances out of ten that whoever found it would recognize it as belonging to the old "Come-Outer." The contents of the pocket would be almost certain to reveal the secret if the coat itself did not. It remained to be seen who the finder was and what he would do. Meanwhile there was no use worrying. Having come to this conclusion the Captain, with customary philosophy, resolved to think of something else.
Mrs. Snow entered and announced that breakfast was ready and that he must go down at once and eat it while it was hot. She, having breakfasted some time before, would stay with the patient until the meal was over. Captain Eri at first flatly declined to listen to any such arrangement, but the calm insistence of the Nantucket visitor prevailed as usual. The Captain realized that the capacity for "bossin' things," that he had discerned in the letter, was even more apparent in the lady herself. One thing he did insist upon, however, and this was that Mrs. Snow should "turn in" as soon as breakfast was over. One of the three would take the watch in the sick room while the other two washed the dishes. The nurse was inclined to balk on the dishwashing proposition, saying that she could do it herself after she had had a wink or two, but this the Captain wouldn't hear of. He went away, however, with an unsettled conviction that, although he and his partners might wash the dishes, Mrs. Snow would wash them again as soon as she had an opportunity. "She didn't say so, but she sort of looked it," he explained afterward.
He found his friends seated at the table and feasting on hot biscuits, eggs, and clear, appetizing coffee. They greeted him joyously.
"Hey, Eri!" hailed Captain Perez. "Ain't this gay? Look at them eggs; b'iled jest to a T. Ain't much like Jerry's h'af raw kind."
"Humph! You needn't say nothin', Perez," observed Captain Jerry, his mouth full of biscuit. "When you was cook, you allers b'iled 'em so hard they'd dent the barn if you'd fired 'em at it. How's John, Eri?"
Captain Eri gave his and the Doctor's opinion of his friend's condition and then said, "Now, we've got to have some kind of a settlement on this marryin' question. Last night, when I was up in the room there, it come acrost me all of a sudden that, from what I'd seen of this Nantucket woman, she'd be jest the sort of nurse that John needed. So I skipped out while you fellers was busy with the Doctor, found her at the hotel, explained things to her, and got her to come down. That's all there is to that. I ain't made no arrangement with her, and somethin's got to be done. What do you think of her, jedgin' by what you've seen?"
Captain Perez gave it as his opinion that she was "all right," and added, "If Jerry here wa'n't so pigheaded all at once, he'd marry her without waitin' another minute."
Eri nodded. "That's my idee," he said emphatically.
But Captain Jerry was as obstinate as ever. He simply would not consider immediate marriage. In vain his comrades reminded him of the original compact, and the fact that the vote was two to one against him; he announced that he had changed his mind, and that that was all there was about it.
At length Captain Eri lost patience.
"Jerry," he exclaimed, "you remind me of that old white hen we used to have. When we didn't want her to set she'd set on anything from a doorknob to a rock, couldn't keep her off; but when we give in finally and got a settin' of eggs for her, she wouldn't come nigher to 'em than the other end of the hen-yard. Now you might as well make up your mind that somethin's got to be done. This Mrs. Snow ain't nobody's fool. We put out a bait that anybody with sense would say couldn't catch nothin' but sculpin, and, by mighty, we hooked a halibut! If the woman was anything like what you'd think she'd be, answerin' an advertisement like that, I'd be the fust to say let her go, but she ain't; she's all right, and we need her to nuss John besides."
"Tell you what we might do," said Perez slowly; "we might explain to her that Jerry don't feel that 'twould be right to think of marryin' with Cap'n Baxter so sick in the house and that, if she's willin', we'll put it off till he dies or gets better. Meantime, we'll pay her so much to stay here and nuss. Seems to me that's about the only way out of it."
So they agreed to lay this proposal before the Nantucket lady, Captain Jerry reluctantly consenting. Then Captain Eri took up another subject.
John Baxter, as has been said, had one relative, a granddaughter, living somewhere near Boston. Captain Eri felt that this granddaughter should be notified of the old man's illness at once. The difficulty was that none of them knew the young lady's address.
"Her fust name's Elizabeth, same as her mothers was," said Eri, "and her dad's name was Preston. They called her Elsie. John used to write to her every once in a while. P'raps Sam would know where she lived."
"Jest' cause Sam's postmaster," observed Perez, "it don't foller that he reads the name on every letter that goes out and remembers 'em besides."
"Well, if he don't," said Captain Jerry decidedly, "Mary Emma does. She reads everything, postals and all."
Miss Mary Emma Cahoon was the assistant at the post-office, and was possessed of a well-developed curiosity concerning other people's correspondence.
"Humph!" exclaimed Captain Eri, "that's so. We'll write the letter, and I'll ask Mary Emma for the address when I go up to mail it."
So Captain Perez went upstairs to take Mrs Snow's place as nurse, while that lady "turned in." Captain Jerry went into the kitchen to wash the dishes, and Captain Eri sat down to write the note that should inform Elizabeth Preston of her grandfather's illness. It was a very short note, and merely stated the fact without further information. Having had some experience in that line, the Captain placed very little reliance upon the help to be expected from relatives.
Dr. Palmer had spread the news as he went upon his round of visits that morning, and callers began to drop in to inquire after the sick man. Miss Busteed was one of the first arrivals, and, as Captain Eri had seen her through the window, he went upstairs and took Perez' place as temporary nurse. To Perez, therefore, fell the delightful task of entertaining the voluble female for something like an hour, while she talked fire, paralysis, and general gossip at express speed.
Ralph Hazeltine came in a little later, and was introduced to Mrs. Snow, that lady's nap having been but a short one. Ralph was favorably impressed with the capable appearance of the new nurse, and so expressed himself to Captain Eri as they walked together toward the post-office.
"I like her," he said emphatically. "She's quiet and sensible and cheerful besides. She looks as if trouble didn't trouble her very much."
"I jedge she's seen enough of it in her time, too," observed the Captain reflectively. "Queer thing how trouble acts different on folks. Kind of like hot weather, sours milk, but sweetens apples. She's one of the sweetened kind. And yet, I cal'late she can be pretty sharp, too, if you try to tread on her toes. Sort of a sweet pickle, hey?" and he laughed.
Miss Cahoon remembered the Preston girl's address. It was Cambridge, Kirkland Street, but the number, she did declare, had skipped her mind. The Captain said he would chance it without the number, so the letter was posted. Then, with the electrician, he strolled over to inspect the remains of the billiard saloon.
There was a small crowd gathered about the building, prominent among its members being the "train committee," who were evidently holding a special session on this momentous occasion. The busy "Squealer," a trifle enlivened by some of Mr. Saunders' wet goods that had escaped the efforts of the volunteer salvage corps, hailed the new arrivals as brother heroes.
"Well now, Cap'n Eri!" he exclaimed, shaking hands vigorously. "And Mr. Hazeltine, too! How're you feelin' after last night? I says to Web, I says, 'There's folks in this town besides me that kept you from losin' the whole thing and you ought to thank 'em,' I says. 'One of 'em 's Cap'n Eri and t'other one's Mr. Hazeltine. If we three didn't work, then I don't know,' I says."
"Web found out how the fire started yit?" inquired the Captain with apparent unconcern.
"No, he hain't for sure. There was a lot of us thought old Baxter might have set it, but they tell me it couldn't have been him, cause he was took down runnin' to the fire. Web, he's sort of changed his tune, and don't seem to think anybody set it; thinks it catched itself."
Mr. Saunders, his smooth self again, with all traces of mental disturbance gone from his face and all roughness from his tongue, came briskly up, smiling as if the burning of his place of business was but a trifling incident, a little annoying, of course, but not worth fretting about. He thanked the Captain and Hazeltine effusively for their service of the previous night, and piled the weight of his obligations upon them until, as Captain Eri said afterwards, "the syrup fairly dripped off his chin." The Captain broke in upon the sugary flow as soon as he could.
"How d'you think it started, Web?" he asked.
"Well," replied Mr. Saunders slowly, "I kind of cal'late she started herself. There was some of the boys in here most of the evenin', and, jest like's not, a cigar butt, or a match, or somethin' dropped somewheres and got to smolderin', and smoldered along till bime-by—puff!" An expressive wave of a fat hand finished the sentence.
"Humph!" grunted the Captain. "Changed your mind sence last night. Seems to me I heard you then swearin' you knew 'twas set and who set it."
"Well, ye-es. I was considerable shook up last night and maybe I said things I hadn't ought to. You see there's been a good deal of hard feelin's towards me in town and for a spell I thought some feller'd tried to burn me out. But I guess not; I guess not. More I think of it, more I think it catched itself. Seems to me I remember smellin' sort of a scorchin' smell when I was lockin' up. Oh, say! I was mighty sorry to hear 'bout Cap'n Baxter bein' took sick. The old man was dreadful down on liquor, but I laid that to his religion and never had no hard feelin's against him. How's he gittin' along?"
Captain Eri brusquely replied that his friend was "'bout the same," and asked if Mr. Saunders intended to rebuild. "Web" didn't know just yet. He was a poor man, didn't carry much insurance, and so on. Thought likely he should fix up again if it didn't cost too much. Did the Doctor say whether Captain Baxter would pull through or not?
Captain Eri gave an evasive answer and turned away. He was silent for some little time, and when Ralph commented on "Web's" overnight change of manner, his rejoinder was to the effect that "ile was bound to rise, but that didn't mean there wa'n't dirty water underneath." On the way home he asked Hazeltine concerning the trouble at the cable station, and how Mr. Langley had treated the matter.
Ralph replied that Mr. Langley had said nothing to him about it. It was his opinion that the old gentleman understood the affair pretty well, and was not disposed to blame him. As for the men, they had been as docile as lambs, and he thought the feeling toward himself was not as bitter as it had been. All of which his companion said he was glad to hear.
They separated at the gate, and the Captain entered the house to find Mrs. Snow wielding a broom and surrounded by a cloud of dust. Perez was upstairs with the patient, and Captain Jerry, whose habits had been considerably upset by the sweeping, was out in the barn.
That evening the situation was explained to Mrs. Snow by Captain Eri, in accordance with the talk at the breakfast table. The lady from Nantucket understood and respected Captain Jerry's unwillingness to discuss the marriage question while John Baxter's condition continued critical, and she agreed to act as nurse and housekeeper for a while, at least, for the sum of six dollars a week. This price was fixed only after considerable discussion by the three mariners, for Captain Eri was inclined to offer eight, and Captain Jerry but four.
When Ralph Hazeltine called late in the afternoon of the following day, the dining room was so transformed that he scarcely knew it. The dust had disappeared; the chronometer was polished till it shone; the table was covered with a cloth that was snow-white, and everything movable had the appearance of being in its place. Altogether, there was an evidence of order that was almost startling.
Captain Eri came to the door in response to his knock, and grinned appreciatively at his caller's look of wonder.
"I don't wonder you're s'prised," he said, with a chuckle. "I ain't begun to git over it yit, myself, and Lorenzo's so shook up he ain't been in the house sence breakfast time. He's out in the barn, keepin' Dan'l comp'ny and waitin' for the end of the world to strike, I cal'late."
Ralph laughed. "Mrs. Snow?" he inquired.
"Mrs. Snow," answered the Captain. "It beats all what a woman can do when she's that kind of a woman. She's done more swabbin' decks and overhaulin' runnin' riggin' than a new mate on a clipper. The place is so all-fired clean that I feel like brushin' myself every time I go to set down."
"How's Captain Baxter?" asked Hazeltine.
"Seems to be some better. He come to a little this mornin', and seemed to know some of us, but he ain't sensed where he is yit, nor I don't b'lieve he will fur a spell. Set down and keep me comp'ny. It's my watch jest now. Perez, he's over to Barry's; Jerry's up to the schoolhouse, and Mrs. Snow's run up to the post-office to mail a letter. John's asleep, so I can stay downstairs a little while, long's the door's open. What's the news uptown? Web changed his mind ag'in 'bout the fire?"
It appeared that Mr. Saunders had not changed his mind, at least so current gossip reported. And it may be remarked here that, curiously enough, the opinion that the fire "caught itself" came at last to be generally accepted in the village. For some weeks Captain Eri was troubled with thoughts concerning the missing coat, but, as time passed, and the accusing garment did not turn up, he came to believe that some boy must have found it and that it had, in all probability, been destroyed. There were, of course, some persons who still suspected John Baxter as the incendiary, but the old man's serious illness and respect for his former standing in the community kept these few silent. The Baxter house had been locked up and the Captain had the key.
Hazeltine and his host chatted for a few minutes on various topics. The gilt titles on the imposing "Lives of Great Naval Commanders," having received their share of the general dusting, now shone forth resplendent, and the Captain noticed Ralph's eye as it involuntarily turned toward them.
"Noticin' our library?" he chuckled. "Perez' property, that is. 'Gusty Black talked him into buyin' 'em. Never met 'Gusty, did you? No, I guess likely not. She lives over to the Neck, and don't git down to the village much. 'Gusty's what you call a business woman. She' always up to somethin' to make a dollar, and she's as slick a talker as ever was, I guess. She never give Perez no rest till he signed the deed for them books. Told him they'd give liter'ry tone to the shebang. Perez started to read 'em out loud when they fust come, but he had to stop so often to spell out the furrin names that me and Jerry used to go to sleep. That made him mad, and he said, liter'ry tone be durned; he wa'n't goin' to waste his breath readin' us to sleep; so they've been on the shelf ever sence."
Ralph laughed. "So you have book agents, too?" he said.
"Well, we've got 'Gusty," was the reply, "and she's enough to keep us goin'. Gits round reg'lar as clockwork once a month to collect the two dollars from Perez. It's her day now, and I told Perez that that was why he sneaked off to Barry's. You see, 'Gusty's after him to buy the history of Methuselah, or some old critter, and he don't like to see her. She's after me, too, but I'm 'fraid she don't git much encouragement."
After they had talked a little longer, the Captain seemed to remember something, for he glanced at his watch and said, "Mr. Hazeltine, I wonder if I could git you to do me a favor. I really ought to go down and see to my shanty. Ain't been there sence day afore yesterday, and there's so many boys 'round, I'm 'fraid to leave it unlocked much longer. I thought some of the folks would be back 'fore this, but if you could stay here long enough for me to run down there a minute or two, I'd be ever so much obliged. I'll step up and see how John is."
He went upstairs and returned to report that the patient was quiet and seemed to be asleep.
"If you hear him groan, or anything," he said, "jest come to the door and whistle. Whistle anyway, if you want me. Ain't nobody likely to come, 'less it's 'Gusty or the Reverend Perley come to ask 'bout John. If it's a middlin' good-lookin' young woman with a satchel, that's 'Gusty. Don't whistle; tell her I'm out. I'll be back in a jiffy, but you needn't tell either of them so unless your conscience hurts you TOO much."
After the Captain had gone Ralph took down a volume of the "Great Commanders" and sat down in a chair by the table to look it over. He was smiling over the gaudy illustrations and flamboyant descriptions of battles, when there was a step on the walk outside and knock at the door. "Which is it," he thought, "'Gusty or the Reverend?"
Obviously it was Miss Black. She stood on the mica slab that formed the step and looked up at him as he swung the door open. She had a small leather bag in her hand, just as the Captain had said she would have, but it flashed across Mr. Hazeltine's mind that the rest of the description was not a fair one; she was certainly much more than "middlin' good-lookin'!"
"Is Captain Hedge in?" she asked.
Now, from his friend's hints, Ralph had expected to hear a rather sharp and unpleasant voice,—certain disagreeable remembrances of former encounters with female book agents had helped to form the impression perhaps,—but Miss Black's voice was mellow, quiet, and rather pleasing than otherwise.
"No," said Mr. Hazeltine, obeying orders with exactitude. "Captain Hedge is out just now."
"'Gusty"—somehow the name didn't seem to fit—was manifestly disappointed.
"Oh, dear!" she said, and then added, "Will he be back soon?"
Now this was a question unprovided for. Ralph stammered, and then miserably equivocated. He really couldn't say just when the Captain would return.
"Oh, dear!" said the young lady again. Then she seemed to be waiting for some further observation on the part of the gentleman at the door. None being forthcoming, she seemed to make up her mind to act on her own initiative.
"I think I will come in and wait," she said with decision. And come in she did, Mr. Hazeltine not knowing exactly what to do, under the circumstances.
Now this was much more in keeping with the electrician's preconceived ideas of a book agent's behavior; nevertheless, when he turned and found the young lady standing in the middle of the floor, he felt obliged to be at least decently polite.
"Won't you take a chair?" he asked.
"Thank you," said the caller, and took one.
The situation was extremely awkward, but Ralph felt that loyalty to Captain Eri forbade his doing anything that might urge the self-possessed Miss Black to prolong her visit, so for a time he said nothing. The young lady looked out of the window and Mr. Hazeltine looked at her. He was more than ever of the opinion that the "middlin'" term should be cut out of her description. He rather liked her appearance, so he decided. He liked the way she wore her hair; so simple an arrangement, but so effective. Also he liked her dress. It was the first tailor-made walking suit he had seen since his arrival in Orham. And worn by a country book agent, of all people.
Just then Miss Black turned and caught him intently gazing at her. She colored, apparently with displeasure, and looked out of the window again. Mr. Hazeltine colored also and fidgeted with the book on the table. The situation was confoundedly embarrassing. He felt that he must say something now, so he made the original observation that it had been a pleasant day.
To this the young lady agreed, but there was no enthusiasm in her tone. Then Ralph, nervously fishing for another topic, thought of the book in his hand.
"I was just reading this," he said. "I found it quite interesting."
The next moment he realized that he had said what, of all things, was the most impolitic. It was nothing less than a bid for a "canvass," and he fully expected to be confronted with the necessary order blanks without delay. But, strangely enough, the book lady made no such move. She looked at him, it is true, but with an expression of surprise and what seemed to be amusement on her face. He was certain that her lips twitched as she said calmly:
"Did you? I am glad to hear it."
This dispassionate remark was entirely unexpected, and the electrician, as Captain Eri would have said, "lost his bearings" completely.
"Yes—er, yes," he stammered. "Very interesting indeed. I—I suppose you must take a good many orders in the course of a week."
"A good many ORDERS?"
"Why, yes. Orders for the books, I mean. The books—the 'Great Naval Lives'—er—these books here."
"I beg your pardon, but who do you think I am?"
And it was then that the perception of some tremendous blunder began to seize upon Mr. Hazeltine. He had been red before; now, he felt the redness creeping over his scalp under his hair.
"Why, why, Miss Black, I suppose; that is, I—"
Just here the door opened and Captain Eri came in. He took off his cap and then, seeing the visitor, remained standing, apparently waiting for an introduction. But the young lady did not keep him waiting long.
"Are you Captain Eri Hedge?" she asked.
"Yes'm," answered the Captain.
"Oh, I'm SO glad. Your letter came this morning, and I hurried down on the first train. I'm Elizabeth Preston."
Perhaps, on the whole, it is not surprising that Captain Eri didn't grasp the situation. Neither his two partners nor himself had given much thought to the granddaughter of the sick man in the upper room. The Captain knew that there was a granddaughter, hence his letter; but he had heard John Baxter speak of her as being in school somewhere in Boston, and had all along conceived of her as a miss of sixteen or thereabouts. No wonder that at first he looked at the stylishly gowned young woman, who stood before him with one gloved hand extended, in a puzzled, uncomprehending way.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said slowly, mechanically swallowing up the proffered hand in his own mammoth fist, "but I don't know's I jest caught the name. Would you mind sayin' it ag'in?"
"Elizabeth Preston," repeated the visitor. "Captain Baxter's granddaughter. You wrote me that he was ill, you know, and I—"
"What!" roared the Captain, delighted amazement lighting up his face like a sunrise. "You don't mean to tell me you're 'Liz'beth Baxter's gal Elsie! Well! Well! I want to know! If this don't beat all! Set down! Take your things right off. I'm mighty glad to see you."
Captain Eri's hand, with Miss Preston's hidden in it, was moving up and down as if it worked by a clock-work arrangement. The young lady withdrew her fingers from the trap as soon as she conveniently could, but it might have been noticed that she glanced at them when she had done so, as if to make sure that the original shape remained.
"Thank you, Captain Hedge," she said. "And now, please tell me about grandfather. How is he? May I see him?"
The Captain's expression changed to one of concern.
"Why, now, Miss Preston," he said, "your grandpa is pretty sick. Oh, I don't mean he's goin' to die right off or anything like that," he added hastily. "I mean he's had a stroke of palsy, or somethin', and he ain't got so yit that he senses much of what goes on. Now I don't want to frighten you, you know, but really there's a chance—a leetle mite of a chance—that he won't know you. Don't feel bad if he don't, now will you?"
"I knew he must be very ill from your letter," said the girl simply. "I was afraid that he might not be living when I reached here. They told me at the station that he was at your house and so I came. He has been very good to me and I—"
Her voice broke a little and she hesitated. Captain Eri was a picture of nervous distress.
"Yes, yes, I know," he said hastily. "Don't you worry now. He's better; the Doctor said he was consid'rably better to-day; didn't he, Mr. Hazeltine? Why, what am I thinkin' of? Let me make you known to Mr. Hazeltine; next-door neighbor of ours; right acrost the road," and he waved toward the bay.
Ralph and Miss Preston shook hands. The electrician managed to utter some sort of formality, but he couldn't have told what it was. He was glad when the Captain announced that, if Mr. Hazeltine would excuse them, he guessed Miss Preston and he would step upstairs and see John. The young lady took off her hat and jacket, and Captain Eri lighted a lamp, for it was almost dark by this time. As its light shone upon the visitor's face and hair the crimson flush before mentioned circumnavigated the electrician's head once more, and his bump of self-esteem received a finishing blow. That any man supposed to possess two fairly good eyes and a workable brain could have mistaken her for an Orham Neck book agent by the name of "'Gusty—'Gusty Black!" Heavens!
"I'll be down in a few minutes, Mr. Hazeltine," said the Captain. "Set still, won't you?"
But Mr. Hazeltine wouldn't sit still. He announced that it was late and he must be going. And go he did, in spite of his host's protestations.
"Look out for the stairs," cautioned the Captain, leading the way with the lamp. "The feller that built 'em must have b'lieved that savin' distance lengthens out life. Come to think of it, I wouldn't wonder if them stairs was the reason why me and Jerry and Perez took this house. They reminded us so of the shrouds on a three-master."
Elsie Preston did her best to smile as her companion rattled on in this fashion, but both the smile and the Captain's cheerfulness were too plainly assumed to be convincing, and they passed down the hall in silence. At the open door of the sick room Captain Eri paused.
"He's asleep," he whispered, "and, remember, if he wakes up and doesn't know you, you needn't feel bad."
Elsie slipped by him and knelt by the bed, looking into the white, old face on the pillow. Somehow the harsh lines had faded out of it, and it looked only old and pitiful.
The Captain watched the tableau for a moment or two, and then tiptoed into the room and placed the lamp on the bureau.
"Now, I think likely," he said in a rather husky whisper, "that you'd like to stay with your grandpa for a little while, so I'll go downstairs and see about supper. No, no, no!" he added, holding up his hand as the girl spoke some words of protest, "you ain't goin' nowheres to supper. You're goin' to stay right here. If you want me, jest speak."
And he hurried downstairs and into the kitchen, clearing his throat with vigor and making a great to-do over the scratching of a match.
Mrs. Snow returned a few minutes later and to her the news of the arrival was told, as it was also to Perez and Jerry when they came. Mrs. Snow took charge of the supper arrangements. When the meal was ready, she said to Captain Eri:
"Now, I'll go upstairs and tell her to come down. I'll stay with Cap'n Baxter till you're through, and then p'raps, if one of you'll take my place, I'll eat my supper and wash the dishes. You needn't come up now. I'll introduce myself."
Some few minutes passed before Miss Preston came down. When she did so her eyes were wet, but her manner was cheerful, and the unaffected way in which she greeted Captain Perez and Captain Jerry, when these two rather bashful mariners were introduced by Eri, won them at once.
The supper was a great success. It was Saturday night, and a Saturday night supper to the average New Englander means baked beans. The captains had long ago given up this beloved dish, because, although each had tried his hand at preparing it, none had wholly succeeded, and the caustic criticisms of the other two had prevented further trials. But Mrs. Snow's baked beans were a triumph. So, also, was the brown bread.