"But can't you and me put it out?"
"I don't dare resk it. No, sir! We've got to git help, and git it in a hurry, too!"
"Won't somebody from the station see the light and come over?"
"Not in this fog. You can't see a hundred foot. No, I've got to go right off. Good land! I never thought! Is the horse gone?"
"No; the horse is here. Abner took one of the store horses to go to Harniss with. But he did take the buggy, and there's no other carriage but the old carryall, and that's almost tumblin' to pieces."
"I was cal'latin' to go horseback."
"What! and leave me here alone with the house afire? No, indeed! If you go, I'm goin', too."
"Well, then, the carryll's got to do, whether or no. Git on a shawl or somethin', while I harness up."
It was a frantic harnessing, but it was done in a hurry, and the ramshackle old carryall, dusty and cobwebbed, was dragged out of the barn, and Horace Greeley, the horse, was backed into the shafts. As they drove out of the yard the flames were roaring through the roof of the henhouse, and the lath fence surrounding it was beginning to blaze.
"Everything's so wet from the fog and the melted snow," observed the Captain, "that it 'll take some time for the fire to git to the barn. If we can git a gang here we can save the house easy, and maybe more. By mighty!" he ejaculated, "I tell you what we'll do. I'll drive across the ford and git Luther and some of the station men to come right across. Then I'll go on to the village to fetch more. It was seven when I looked at the clock as we come in from washin' dishes, so the tide must be still goin' out, and the ford jest right. Git dap!"
"Hurry all you can, for goodness' sake! Is this as fast as we can go?"
"Fast as we can go with this everlastin' Noah's Ark. Heavens! how them wheels squeal!"
"The axles ain't been greased for I don't know when. Abner was going to have the old carriage chopped up for kindlin' wood."
"Lucky for him and us 'tain't chopped up now. Git dap, slow-poke! Better chop the horse up, too, while he's 'bout it."
The last remark the Captain made under his breath.
"My gracious, how dark it is! Think you can find the crossin'?"
"GOT to find it; that's all. 'Tis dark, that's a fact."
It was. They had gone but a few hundred yards; yet the fire was already merely a shapeless, red smudge on the foggy blackness behind them. Horace Greeley pounded along at a jog, and when the Captain slapped him with the end of the reins, broke into a jerky gallop that was slower than the trot.
"Stop your hoppin' up and down!" commanded Perez, whose temper was becoming somewhat frayed. "You make me think of the walkin' beam on a steamboat. If you'd stop tryin' to fly and go straight ahead we'd do better."
They progressed in this fashion for some distance. Then Miss Davis, from the curtained depths of the back seat, spoke again.
"Oh, dear me!" she exclaimed. "Are you sure you're on the right track? Seems 's if we MUST be abreast the station, and this road's awful rough."
Captain Perez had remarked the roughness of the road. The carryall was pitching from one hummock to another, and Horace Greeley stumbled once or twice.
"Whoa!" commanded the Captain. Then he got down, lit a match, and, shielding it with his hands, scrutinized the ground. "I'm kind of 'fraid," he said presently, "that we've got off the road somehow. But we must be 'bout opposite the crossin'. I'm goin' to drive down and see if I can find it."
He turned the horse's head at right angles from the way they were going, and they pitched onward for another hundred yards. Then they came out upon the hard, smooth sand, and heard the water lapping on the shore. Captain Perez got out once more and walked along the strand, bending forward as he walked. Soon Miss Patience heard him calling.
"I've found it, I guess," he said, coming back to the vehicle. "Anyhow, it looks like it. We'll be over in a few minutes now. Git dap, you!"
Horace Greeley shivered as the cold water splashed his legs, but waded bravely in. They moved further from the shore and the water seemed to grow no deeper.
"Guess this is the crossin' all right," said the Captain, who had cherished some secret doubts. "Here's the deep part comin'. We'll be across in a jiffy."
The water mounted to the hubs, then to the bottom of the carryall. Miss Davis' feet grew damp and she drew them up.
"Oh, Perez!" she faltered, "are you sure this is the ford?"
"Don't git scared, Pashy! I guess maybe we've got a little to one side of the track. I'll turn 'round and try again."
But Horace Greeley was of a different mind. From long experience he knew that the way to cross a ford was to go straight ahead. The bottom of the carryall was awash.
"Port your hellum, you lubber!" shouted the driver, pulling with all his might on one rein. "Heave to! Come 'bout! Gybe! consarn you! gybe!"
Then Horace Greeley tried to obey orders, but it was too late. He endeavored to touch bottom with his forelegs, but could not; tried to swim with his hind ones, but found that impossible; then wallowed wildly to one side and snapped a shaft and the rotten whiffletree short off. The carryall tipped alarmingly and Miss Patience screamed.
"Whoa!" yelled the agitated Perez. "'Vast heavin'! belay!"
The animal, as much frightened by his driver's shouts as by the water, shot ahead and tried to tear himself loose. The other sun-warped and rotten shaft broke. The carryall was now floating, with the water covering the floor.
"No use; I'll have to cut away the wreck, or we'll be on our beam ends!" shouted the Captain.
He took out his jackknife, and reaching over, severed the traces. Horace Greeley gave another wallow, and finding himself free, disappeared in the darkness amid a lather of foam. The carriage, now well out in the channel, drifted with the current.
"Don't cry, Pashy!" said the Captain, endeavoring to cheer his sobbing companion, "we ain't shark bait yit. As the song used to say:
"'We're afloat, we're afloat, And the rover is free.'
"I've shipped aboard of 'most every kind of craft," he added, "but blessed if I ever expected to be skipper of a carryall!"
But Miss Patience, shut up in the back part of the carriage like a water nymph in her cave, still wept hysterically. So Captain Perez continued his dismal attempt at facetiousness.
"The main thing," he said, "is to keep her on an even keel. If she teeters to one side, you teeter to t'other. Drat that fox!" he ejaculated. "I thought when Web's place burned we'd had fire enough to last for one spell, but it never rains but it pours."
"Oh, dear!" sobbed the lady. "Now everything 'll burn up, and they'll blame me for it. Well, I'll be drownded anyway, so I shan't be there to hear 'em. Oh, dear! dear!"
"Oh, don't talk that way. We're driftin' somewheres, but we're spinnin' 'round so I can't tell which way. Judas!" he exclaimed, more soberly, "I remember, now; it ain't but a little past seven o'clock, and the tide's goin' out."
"Of course it is," resignedly, "and we'll drift into the breakers in the bay, and that 'll be the end."
"No, no, I guess not. We ain't dead yit. If I had an oar or somethin' to steer this clipper with, maybe we could git into shoal water. As 'tis, we'll have to manage her the way Ote Wixon used to manage his wife, by lettin' her have her own way."
They floated in silence for a few moments. Then Miss Patience, who had bravely tried to stifle her sobs, said with chattering teeth, "Perez, I'm pretty nigh froze to death."
It will be remembered that the Captain had spoken of the weather as being almost as warm as summer. This was a slight exaggeration. It happened, fortunately for the castaways, that this particular night, coming as it did just at the end of the long thaw, was the mildest of the winter and there was no wind, but the air was chill, and the damp fog raw and biting.
"Well, now you mention it," said Captain Perez, "it IS cold, ain't it? I've a good mind to jump overboard, and try to swim ashore and tow the carryall."
"Don't you DO it! My land! if YOU should drown what would become of ME?"
It was the tone of this speech, as much as the words, that hit the Captain hard. He himself almost sobbed as he said:
"Pashy, I want you to try to git over on this front seat with me. Then I can put my coat 'round you, and you won't be so cold. Take hold of my hand."
Miss Patience at first protested that she never could do it in the world, the carriage would upset, and that would be the end. But her companion urged her to try, and at last she did so. It was a risky proceeding, but she reached the front seat somehow, and the carryall still remained right-side-up. Luckily, in the channel between the beaches there was not the slightest semblance of a wave.
Captain Perez pulled off his coat, and wrapped it about his protesting companion. He was obliged to hold it in place, and he found the task rather pleasing.
"Oh, you're SO good!" murmured Miss Patience. "What should I have done without you?"
"Hush! Guess you'd have been better off. You'd never gone after that fox if it hadn't been for me, and there wouldn't have been none of this fuss."
"Oh, don't say that! You've been so brave. Anyhow, we'll die together, that's a comfort."
"Pashy," said Captain Perez solemnly, "it's mighty good to hear you say that."
It is, perhaps, needless to explain that the "dying" portion of the lady's speech was not that referred to by the Captain; the word "together" was what appealed to him. Miss Patience apparently understood.
"Is it?" she said softly.
"Yes—yes, 'tis." The arm holding the coat about the lady's shoulder tightened just a little. The Captain had often dreamed of something like this, but never with quite these surroundings. However, he was rapidly becoming oblivious to such trivial details as surroundings.
"Pashy," he said huskily, "I've been thinkin' of you consider'ble lately. Fact is, I—I—well, I come down to-day a-purpose to ask you somethin'. I know it's a queer place to ask it, and—and I s'pose it's kind of sudden, but—will—will you—Breakers! by mighty!"
The carryall had suddenly begun to rock, and there were streaks of foam about it. Now, it gave a most alarming heave, grounded, swung clear, and tipped yet more.
"We're capsizin'," yelled Perez. "Hang on to me, Pashy!"
But Miss Patience didn't intend to let this, perhaps the final opportunity, slip. As she told her brother afterward, she would have made him say it then if they had been "two fathom under water."
"Will I what, Perez?" she demanded.
The carryall rose on two wheels and begun to turn over, but the Captain did not notice it. The arms of his heart's desire were about his neck, and he was looking into her eyes.
"Will you marry me?" he gasped.
"Yes," answered Miss Patience, and they went under together.
The Captain staggered to his feet, and dragged his chosen bride to hers. The ice-cold water reached their shoulders. And, like a flash, as they stood there, came a torrent of rain and a wind that drove the fog before it like smoke. Captain Perez saw the shore, with its silhouetted bushes, only a few yards away. Beyond that, in the blackness, was a light, a flickering blaze, that rose and fell and rose and fell again.
The Captain dragged Miss Patience to the beach.
"Run!" he chattered, "run, or we'll turn into icicles. Come on!"
With his arm about her waist Perez guided his dripping companion, as fast as they could run, toward the light. And as they came nearer to it they saw that it flickered about the blackened ruins of a hen-house and a lath fence.
It was Mrs. Mayo's henhouse, and Mrs. Mayo's fence. Their adventurous journey had ended where it began.
"You see, Eri," said Captain Perez, as he told his friend the story that night, "that clock in the dining room that I looked at hadn't been goin' for a week; the mainspring was broke. 'Twa'n't seven o'clock, 'twas nearer nine when the fire started, and the tide wa'n't goin' out, 'twas comin' in. I drove into the water too soon, missed the crossin', and we jest drifted back home ag'in. The horse had more sense than I did. We found him in the barn waiting for us."
Abner Mayo had piled against the back of his barn a great heap of damp seaweed that he intended using in the spring as a fertilizer. The fire had burned until it reached this seaweed and then had gone no further. The rain extinguished the last spark.
"Well, by mighty!" exclaimed Captain Perez for at least the tenth time, as he sat in the kitchen, wrapped in an old ulster of Mr. Mayo's, and toasting his feet in the oven, "if I don't feel like a fool. All that scare and wet for nothin'."
"Oh, not for nothin', Perez," said Miss Patience, looking tenderly down into his face.
"Well, no, not for nothin' by a good deal! I've got you by it, and that's everything. But say, Pashy!" and the Captain looked awed by the coincidence, "I went through fire and water to git you!"
THE SINS OF CAPTAIN JERRY
Captain Perez made a clean breast of it to Captain Eri when he reached home that night. It was after twelve o'clock, but he routed his friend out of bed to tell him the news and the story. Captain Eri was not as surprised to hear of the engagement as he pretended to be, for he had long ago made up his mind that Perez meant business this time. But the tale of the fire and the voyage in the carryall tickled him immensely, and he rolled back and forth in the rocker and laughed until his side ached.
"I s'pose it does sound kind of ridic'lous," said the accepted suitor in a rather aggrieved tone, "but it wa'n't ha'f so funny when 'twas goin' on. Fust I thought I'd roast to death, then I thought I'd freeze, and then I thought I'd drown."
"Perez," said the panting Eri, "you're a wonder. I'm goin' to tell Sol Bangs 'bout you next time I see him. He'll want you to enter in the races next Fourth of July. We've had tub races and the like of that, but a carryall sailin' match 'll be somethin' new. I'll back you against the town, though. You can count on me."
"Now, look here, Eri Hedge, if you tell a livin' soul 'bout it, I'll—"
"All right, shipmate, all right; but it's too good to keep. You ought to write a book, one of them kind like Josiah used to read. Call it 'The Carryall Pirate, or The Terror of the Channel,' hey? Gee! you'd be famous! But, say, old man," he added more seriously, "I'll shake hands with you. I b'lieve you've got a good woman, one that 'll make it smooth sailin' for you the rest of your life. I wish you both luck."
Captain Perez shook hands very gravely. He was still a little suspicious of his chum's propensity to tease. It did not tend to make him less uneasy when, a little later, Captain Eri opened the parlor door and whispered, "Say, Perez, I've jest thought of some-thin'. What are you goin' to say to M'lissy Busteed? Her heart 'll be broke."
"Aw, git out!" was the disgusted answer.
"Well, I only mentioned it. Folks have had to pay heavy for breach of promise 'fore now. Good-night."
Perez manfully told of his engagement at the breakfast table next morning, although he said nothing concerning the rest of his adventures. He was rather taken aback to find that no one seemed greatly surprised. Everyone congratulated him, of course, and it was gratifying to discern the high opinion of the future Mrs. Ryder held by Mrs. Snow and the rest. Captain Jerry solemnly shook hands with him after the meal was over and said, "Perez, you done the right thing. There's nothin' like married life, after all."
"Then why don't you try it yourself?" was the unexpected question. "Seems to me we'll have to settle that matter of yours pretty soon. I meant to speak to Eri 'bout it 'fore this, but I've had so much on my mind. I will to-night when he comes back from fishin'."
Captain Jerry made no further remarks, but walked thoughtfully away.
So that evening, when they were together in Captain Jerry's room after supper, Perez, true to his promise, said:
"Eri, it seems to me we've got to do somethin' 'bout Mrs. Snow. She was hired to be housekeeper while John was sick. Now he's dead, and she'll think it's queer if we don't settle that marryin' bus'ness. Ain't that so?"
"Humph!" grunted Captain Jerry. "Perez is in a mighty sweat to git other folks married jest 'cause he's goin' to be. I don't see why she can't keep on bein' housekeeper jest the same as she's always been."
"Well, I do, and so do you, and you know it. We agreed to the housekeepin' bus'ness jest as a sort of put off. Now we can't put off no longer. Mrs. Snow come down here 'cause we advertised for a wife, and she's been so everlastin' good that I feel 'most ashamed every time I think of it. No use, you've got to ask her to marry you. He has, hasn't he, Eri?"
"Yes," answered Captain Eri laconically.
The sacrifice squirmed. "I hate to ask," he said. "Why don't we wait a spell, and let her say somethin' fust?"
"That WOULD be nice, wouldn't it? She's that kind of a woman, ain't she?" sputtered Perez. "No, you bet she ain't! What she'd say would be to give her opinion of us and our manners, and walk out of the house bag and baggage, and I wouldn't blame her for doin' it."
"P'raps she wouldn't have me. She never said she would."
"Never said she would! Have you ever asked her? She's had all this time to l'arn to know you in, and I cal'late if she was willin' to think 'bout it 'fore she ever see you, she'd be more willin' now. Ain't that so, Eri?"
And again Captain Eri said shortly, "Yes."
"I wish you'd mind your own consarns, and give me time," protested Captain Jerry.
"Time! How much time do you want? Land of Goshen! I should think you'd had time enough. Why—"
"Oh, let up!" snorted the persecuted. "Why don't you git married yourself, and bring Pashy over to keep house? What we started to git in the fust place was jest a wife for one of us that would keep things shipshape, and now—"
The withering look of scorn that Perez bent upon him caused him to hesitate and stop. Captain Perez haughtily marched to the door.
"Eri," he said, "I ain't goin' to waste my time talkin' to a—a dogfish like him. He ain't wuth it."
"Hold on, now, Perez!" pleaded the discomfited sacrifice, alarmed at his comrade's threatened desertion. "I was only foolin'. Can't you take a joke? I haven't said I wouldn't do it. I think a heap of Mrs. Snow; it's only that I ain't got the spunk to ask her, that's all."
"Humph! it don't take much spunk," replied the successful wooer, forgetful of his own past trepidation.
"Well," Captain Jerry wriggled and twisted, but saw no loophole. "Well, give me a month to git up my courage in and—"
"A month! A month's ridic'lous; ain't it, Eri"
"Well, three weeks, then."
This offer, too, was rejected. Then Captain Jerry held out for a fortnight—for ten days. Finally, it was settled that within one week from that very night he was to offer his heart and hand to the lady from Nantucket. He pledged his solemn word to do it.
"There!" exclaimed the gratified Captain Perez. "That's a good job done. He won't never be sorry for it, will he, Eri?"
And Captain Eri made his fourth contribution to the conversation.
"No," he said.
Josiah went up to the post-office late in the afternoon of the next day. The "able seaman" was behaving himself remarkably well. He had become a real help to Captain Eri, and the latter said that sailing alone would be doubly hard when his foremast hand went back to school again, which he was to do very shortly, for Josiah meant to accept the Captain's offer, and to try for the Annapolis appointment when the time came.
The boy came back with the mail and an item of news. The mail, a paper only, he handed to Mrs. Snow, and the news he announced at the supper table as follows:
"Mr. Hazeltine's goin' to leave the cable station," he said.
"Goin' to leave!" repeated the housekeeper, "what for?"
"I don't know, ma'am. All I know is what I heard Mr. Wingate say. He said Mr. Hazeltine was goin' to get through over at the station pretty soon. He said one of the operators told him so."
"Well, for the land's sake! Did you know anything 'bout it, Eri?"
"Why, yes, a little. I met Hazeltine yesterday, and he told me that some folks out West had made him a pretty good offer, and he didn't know whether to take it or not. Said the salary was good, and the whole thing looked sort of temptin'. He hadn't decided what to do yit. That's all there is to it."
There was little else talked about during the meal. Captain Perez, Captain Jerry, and Mrs. Snow argued, surmised, and questioned Captain Eri, who said little. Elsie said almost nothing, and went to her room shortly after the dishes were washed.
"Humph!" exclaimed Captain Perez, when they were alone, "I guess your match-makin' scheme's up spout, Jerry."
And, for a wonder, Captain Jerry did not contradict him.
The weather changed that night, and it grew cold rapidly. In the morning the pump was frozen, and Captain Jerry and Mrs. Snow spent some time and much energy in thawing it out. It was later than usual when the former set out for the schoolhouse. As he was putting on his cap, Elsie suggested that he wait for her, as she had some lessons to prepare, and wanted an hour or so to herself at her desk. So they walked on together under a cloudy sky. The mud in the road was frozen into all sorts of fantastic shapes, and the little puddles had turned to ice.
"That thaw was a weather-breeder, sure enough," observed Captain Jerry. "We'll git a storm out of this, 'fore we're done."
"It seems to me," said Elsie, "that the winter has been a very mild one. From what I had heard I supposed you must have some dreadful gales here, but there has been none so far."
"We'll git 'em yit. February's jist the time. Git a good no'theaster goin', and you'll think the whole house is comin' down. Nothin' to what they used to have, though, 'cordin' to tell. Cap'n Jonadab Wixon used to swear that his grandfather told him 'bout a gale that blew the hair all off a dog, and then the wind changed of a sudden, and blew it all on again."
Elsie laughed. "That must have been a blow," she said.
"Yes. Cap'n Jonadab's somethin' of a blow himself, so he ought to be a good jedge. The outer beach is the place that catches it when there's a gale on. Oh, say! that reminds me. I s'pose you was glad to hear the news last night?"
"Why, that 'bout Mr. Hazeltine's goin' away. You're glad he's goin', of course."
Miss Preston did not answer immediately. Instead, she turned and looked wonderingly at her companion.
"Why should I be glad, pray?" she asked.
"Why, I don't know. I jest took it for granted you would be. You didn't want him to come and see you, and if he was gone he couldn't come, so—"
"Just a minute, please. What makes you think I didn't want Mr. Hazeltine to call?"
And now it was the Captain's turn to stare and hesitate.
"What makes me think—" he gasped. "Why—you told me so, yourself."
"I told you so? I'm certain that I never told you anything of the kind."
Captain Jerry stood stock-still, and if ever a face expressed complete amazement, it was his.
"Elsie Preston!" he ejaculated, "are you losin' your mem'ry or what? Didn't you pitch into me hot-foot for lettin' him be alone with you? Didn't you give me 'hark from the tomb' for gittin' up and goin' away? Didn't you say his calls was perfect torture to you, and that you had to be decent to him jest out of common politeness? Now, didn't you?"
"Oh, that was it! No, of course I didn't say any such thing."
"You DIDN'T! Why, I heard you! Land of love! my ears smarted for a week afterward. I ain't had sech a goin' over sence mother used to git at me for goin' in swimmin' on Sunday. And now you say you didn't say it."
"I didn't. You misunderstood me. I did object to your leaving the room every time he called, and making me appear so ridiculous; and I did say that his visits might be a torture for all that you knew to the contrary, but I certainly didn't say that they WERE."
"SUFFERIN'! And you ain't glad he stopped comin'?"
The air of complete indifference assumed by the young lady was a triumph.
"Why, of course," she said, "Mr. Hazeltine is a free agent, and I don't know of any reason why he should be compelled to go where he doesn't wish to go. I enjoyed his society, and I'm sure Captain Eri and Mrs. Snow enjoyed it, too; but it is quite evident that he did not enjoy ours, so I don't see that there need be any more said on the subject."
Captain Jerry was completely crushed. If the gale described by the redoubtable grandsire of Jonadab Wixon had struck him, he could not have been more upset.
"My! my! my!" he murmured. "And after my beggin' his pardon and all!"
"Begging his pardon? For what?"
"Why, for leavin' you two alone. Of course, after you pitched into me so I see how foolish I'd been actin', and I—honest, I didn't sleep scursely a bit that night thinkin' 'bout it. Thinks I, 'If Elsie feels that way, why, there ain't no doubt that Mr. Hazeltine feels the same.' There wa'n't but one thing to be done. When a man makes a mistake, if he is any kind of a man, he owns up, and does his best to straighten things out. 'Twa'n't easy to do, but duty's duty, and the next time I see Mr. Hazeltine I told him the whole thing, and—"
"Sartin I did."
"What did you tell him?"
They had stopped on the sidewalk nearly opposite the post-office. Each was too much engrossed in the conversation to pay any heed to anything else. If the few passersby thought it strange that the schoolmistress should care to loiter out of doors on that cold and disagreeable morning, they said nothing about it. One young man in particular, who, standing just inside the post-office door, was buttoning his overcoat and putting on his gloves, looked earnestly at the pair, but he, too, said nothing.
"Why, I told him," said Captain Jerry, in reply to the question, "how you didn't like to have me go out of the room when he was there. Course, I told him I didn't mean to do nothin' out of the way. Then he asked me some more questions, and I answered 'em best I could, and—well, I guess that's 'bout all."
"Did you tell him that I said his visits were a torture?"
"Why—" the Captain shuffled his feet uneasily—"seems to me I said somethin' 'bout it—not jest that, you know, but somethin'. Fact is, I was so muddle-headed and upset that I don't know exactly what I did say. Anyhow, he said 'twas all right, so there ain't nothin' to worry 'bout."
"Captain Jeremiah Burgess!" exclaimed Elsie. Then she added, "What MUST he think of me?"
"Oh, I'll fix that!" exclaimed the Captain. "I'll see him some time to-day, and I'll tell him you didn't mean it. Why, I declare! Yes, 'tis! There he is, now! Hi! Mr. Hazeltine! Come here a minute."
A mischievous imp was certainly directing Captain Jerry's movements. Ralph had, almost for the first time since he came to Orham, paid an early morning visit to the office in order to send an important letter in the first mail. The slamming of the door had attracted the Captain's attention and, in response to the hail, Mr. Hazeltine crossed the road.
And then Captain Jerry felt his arm clutched with a grip that meant business, as Miss Preston whispered, "Don't you dare say one word to him about it. Don't you DARE!"
If Ralph had been surprised by the request to join the couple, he was more surprised by the reception he received. Elsie's face was crimson, and as for the Captain, he looked like a man who had suddenly been left standing alone in the middle of a pond covered with very thin ice.
The electrician bowed and shook hands gravely. As no remark seemed to be forthcoming from those who had summoned him, he observed that it was an unpleasant morning. This commonplace reminded him of one somewhat similar that he had made to a supposed Miss "Gusty" Black, and he, too, colored.
"Did you want to speak with me, Captain?" he asked, to cover his confusion.
"Why—why, I did," stammered poor Captain Jerry, "but—but I don't know's I do now." Then he realized that this was not exactly complimentary, and added, "That is, I don't know—I don't know's I—Elsie, what was it I was goin' to say to Mr. Hazeltine?"
At another time it is likely that the young lady's quick wit would have helped her out of the difficulty, but now she was too much disturbed.
"I'm sure I don't know," she said coldly.
"You don't know! Why, yes you do? 'Twas—'twas—" The Captain was frantically grasping at straws. "Why, we was wonderin' why you didn't come to see us nowadays."
If the Captain had seen the look that Elsie shot at him, as he delivered this brilliant observation, he might have been more, instead of less, uncomfortable. As it was, he felt rather proud of having discovered a way out of the difficulty. But Ralph's embarrassment increased. He hurriedly said something about having been very busy.
"Well," went on the Captain, intent on making the explanation as plausible as possible, "we've missed you consider'ble. We was sayin' we hoped you wouldn't give us up altogether. Ain't that so, Elsie?"
Miss Preston's foot tapped the sidewalk several times, but she answered, though not effusively:
"Mr. Hazeltine is always welcome, of course." Then, she added, turning away, "Really, Captain Jerry, I must hurry to school. I have a great deal of work to do before nine o'clock. Good-morning, Mr. Hazeltine."
The Captain paused long enough to say, "We'll expect you now, so come," and then hurried after her. He was feeling very well satisfied with himself.
"By mighty! Elsie," he chuckled, "I got out of that nice, didn't I?"
He received no answer, even when he repeated the remark, and, although he endeavored, as he swept out the schoolroom, to engage the teacher in conversation, her replies were as cold as they were short. The Captain went home in the last stages of dismalness.
That afternoon, when Captain Eri returned from the fishing grounds, he found Captain Jerry waiting for him at the shanty. The humiliated matchmaker sent Josiah up to the grocery store on an errand, and then dragged his friend inside and shut the door.
Captain Eri looked at the woe-begone face with some concern.
"What ails you, Jerry?" he demanded. "Have you—have you spoken to Mrs. Snow 'bout that—that marriage?"
"No, I ain't, Eri, but I'm in a turrible mess, and I don't know why, neither. Seems to me the more I try to do for other folks the wuss off I am; and, instead of gittin' thanks, all I git is blame."
"Why, what's the matter?"
"Well, now I know you'll think I'm a fool, and 'll jest pester the life out of me. See here, Eri Hedge! If I tell you what I want to, will you promise not to pitch into me, and not to nag and poke fun? If you don't promise I won't tell one single word, no matter what happens."
So Captain Eri promised, and then Captain Jerry, stammering and hesitating, unburdened his mind of the whole affair, telling of his first reproof by Elsie, his "explanation" to Ralph, and the subsequent developments. Long before he finished, Captain Eri rose and, walking over to the door, stood looking out through the dim pane at the top, while his shoulders shook as if there was a smothered earthquake inside.
"There!" exclaimed the injured matrimonial agent, in conclusion. "There's the whole fool thing, and I 'most wish I'd never seen either of 'em. I thought I did fust-rate this mornin' when I was tryin' to think up somethin' to show why I hailed Hazeltine, but no, Elsie won't hardly speak to me. I wish to goodness you'd tell me what to do."
Captain Eri turned away from the door. His eyes were watery, and his face was red, but he managed to say:
"Oh, Jerry, Jerry! Your heart's big as a bucket, but fishin' 's more in your line than gittin' folks married to order is, I'm 'fraid. You stay here, and unload them fish in the dory. There ain't many of 'em, and Josiah 'll help when he gits back. I'm goin' out for a few minutes."
He went down to the beach, climbed into a dory belonging to a neighbor, and Captain Jerry saw him row away in the direction of the cable station.
That evening, after the dishes were washed and the table cleared, there came a knock at the door. Mrs. Snow opened it.
"Why, for goodness sake! Mr. Hazeltine!" she exclaimed. "Come right in. What a stranger you are!"
Ralph entered, shook the snow, which had just begun to fall, from his hat and coat, took off these articles, in response to the hearty invitation of Captain Eri, and shook hands with all present. Elsie's face was an interesting study. Captain Jerry looked scared.
After a few minutes' talk, Captain Eri rose.
"Mrs. Snow," he said, "come upstairs a little while. I want to talk to you 'bout somethin'. You come, too, Jerry."
Captain Jerry looked from Elsie to the speaker, and then to Elsie again. But Captain Eri's hand was on his arm, and he rose and went.
Elsie watched this wholesale desertion with amazement. Then the door opened again, and Captain Eri put in his head.
"Elsie," he said, "I jest want to tell you that this is my doin's, not Jerry's. That's all." And the door shut.
Elsie faced the caller with astonishment written on her face.
"Mr. Hazeltine," she said icily, "you may know what this means, but I don't."
Ralph looked at her and answered solemnly, but with a twinkle in his eye:
"I'm afraid I can guess, Miss Preston. You see Captain Jerry paid Captain Eri a call this afternoon and, as a result, Captain Eri called upon me. Then, as a result of THAT, I—well, I came here."
The young lady blushed furiously. "What did Captain Eri tell you?" she demanded.
"Just what Captain Jerry told him."
"And that was?"
"What you told Captain Jerry this morning concerning something that you told him before, I believe."
There was no answer to this. Miss Preston looked as if she had a mind to run out of the room, then as if she might cry, and finally as if she wanted to laugh.
"I humbly apologize," said the electrician contritely.
"YOU apologize? For what?"
"For my stupidity in believing that Captain Jerry was to be accepted seriously."
"You were excusable, certainly. And now I must apologize; also for taking the Captain too seriously."
"Suppose we pair the apologies as they do the votes in the Senate. Then one will offset the other."
"I'm afraid that isn't fair, for the blunder was all on my part."
"Well, if we can't pair apologies, suppose we pair blunders. I don't accept your statement of guilt, mind, but since you are determined to shoulder it, we might put it on one side and on the other we'll put—"
And then they both laughed.
A little later Captain Eri knocked at the door.
"Is it safe for a feller to come in?" he asked.
"Well," said Elsie severely, "I don't know whether talebearers should be admitted or not, but if they do come they must beg pardon for interfering in other people's affairs."
"Ma'am," and the Captain made a profound bow, "I hope you'll be so 'kind and condescendin', and stoop so low, and be so bendin'' as to forgive me. And, while I'm 'bout it, I'll apologize for Jerry, too."
"No, sir," said the young lady decidedly. "Captain Jerry must apologize for himself. Captain Jeremiah Burgess," she called up the stairway, "come into court, and answer for your sins."
And Captain Jerry tremblingly came.
A "NO'THEASTER" BLOWS
It had begun to snow early in the evening, a light fall at first, but growing heavier every minute, and, as the flakes fell thicker and faster, the wind began to blow, and its force increased steadily. Ralph, hearing the gusts as they swooped about the corners of the house, and the "swish" of the snow as it was thrown against the window panes, several times rose to go, but Captain Eri in each instance urged him to stay a little longer. Finally, the electrician rebelled.
"I should like to stay, Captain," he said, "but how do you think I am going to get over to the station if this storm grows worse, as it seems to be doing?"
"I don't think," was the calm reply. "You're goin' to stay here."
"Well, I guess not."
"I guess yes. S'pose we're goin' to let you try to row over to the beach a night like this? It's darker 'n a nigger's pocket, and blowin' and snowin' great guns besides. Jest you look out here."
He rose, beckoned to Ralph, and then opened the outer door. He had to use considerable strength to do this, and a gust of wind and a small avalanche of snow roared in, and sent the lighter articles flying from the table. Elsie gave a little scream, and Mrs. Snow exclaimed, "For the land's sake, shut that door this minute! Everything 'll be soppin' wet."
The Captain pulled the door shut again, and dropped the hook into the staple.
"Nice night for a pull, ain't it?" he observed, smiling. "No, sir, I've heard it comin' on, and I made up my mind you'd have to stay on dry land for a spell, no matter if all creation wanted you on t'other side."
Ralph looked troubled. "I ought to be at the station," he said.
"Maybe so, but you ain't, and you'll have to put up at this boardin' house till mornin'. When it's daylight one of us 'll set you across. Mr. Langley ain't foolish. He won't expect you to-night."
"Now, Mr. Hazeltine," said the housekeeper, "you might jest as well give it up fust as last. You KNOW you can't go over to that station jest as well as I do."
So Ralph did give it up, although rather against his will. There was nothing of importance to be done, but he felt a little like a deserter, nevertheless.
"Perez won't git home neither," observed Captain Eri. "He's snowed in, too."
Captain Perez had that afternoon gone down to the Mayo homestead to take tea with Miss Davis.
"Git home! I should think not!" said Mrs. Snow decidedly. "Pashy's got too much sense to let him try it."
"Well, Elsie," commented Captain Jerry, "I told you we'd have a no'theaster 'fore the winter was over. I guess there'll be gale enough to satisfy you, now. No school to-morrer."
"Well, that's settled! Let's be comf'table. Ain't there some of that cider down cellar? Where's the pitcher?" And Captain Eri hurried off to find it.
When bedtime came there was some argument as to where the guest should sleep. Ralph insisted that the haircloth sofa in the parlor was just the thing, but Captain Eri wouldn't hear of it.
"Haircloth's all right to look at," he said, "but it's the slipperiest stuff that ever was, I cal'late. Every time I set on a haircloth chair I feel's if I was draggin' anchor."
The cot was declared ineligible, also, and the question was finally settled by Josiah and Captain Eri going upstairs to the room once occupied by John Baxter, while Ralph took that which they vacated.
It was some time before he fell asleep. The gale seemed to be tearing loose the eternal foundations. The house shook and the bed trembled as if a great hand was moving them, and the snow slapped against the windows till it seemed that they must break.
In the morning there was little change in the weather. The snow had turned to a sleet, half rain, that stuck to everything and coated it with ice. The wind was blowing as hard as ever. Captain Eri and Ralph, standing just outside the kitchen door, and in the lee of the barn, paused to watch the storm for a minute before they went down to the beach. At intervals they caught glimpses of the snow-covered roofs of the fish shanties, and the water of the inner bay, black and threatening and scarred with whitecaps; then another gust would come, and they could scarcely see the posts at the yard gate.
"Think you want to go over, do you?" asked the Captain.
"I certainly do, if I can get there."
"Oh, we can git there all right. I've rowed a dory a good many times when 'twas as bad as this. This ain't no picnic day, though, that's a fact," he added, as they crossed the yard, and caught the full force of the wind. "Lucky you put on them ileskins."
Ralph was arrayed in Captain Jerry's "dirty-weather rig," and although, as Captain Eri said, the garments fitted him "like a shirt on a handspike," they were very acceptable.
They found the dory covered with snow and half-full of slush, and it took some few minutes to get her into condition. When this was accomplished they hauled her down to the shore, and Captain Eri, standing knee-deep in water, steadied her while Ralph climbed in. Then the Captain tumbled in himself, picked up the oars, and settled down for the pull to the outer beach.
A dory, as everyone acquainted alongshore knows, is the safest of all small craft for use in heavy weather. It is unsinkable for one thing, and, being flat-bottomed, slips over the waves instead of plowing through them. But the high freeboard is a mark for the wind, and to keep a straight course on such a morning as this requires skill, and no small amount of muscle. Ralph, seated in the stern, found himself wondering how on earth his companion managed to row as he did, and steer at the same time. The strokes were short, but there was power in them, and the dory, although moving rather slowly, went doggedly on.
"Let me take her," shouted Ralph after a while, "you must be tired."
"Who, me?" Captain Eri laughed. "I could keep this up for a week. There ain't any sea in here. If we was outside now, 'twould be diff'rent, maybe."
They hit the beach almost exactly at the right spot, a feat which the passenger considered a miracle, but which the Captain seemed to take as a matter of course. They beached and anchored the dory, and, bending almost double as they faced the wind, plowed through the sand to the back door of the station. There was comparatively little snow here on the outer beach—the gale had swept it nearly all away.
Mr. Langley met them as they tramped into the hall. The old gentleman was glad to see his assistant, for he had begun to fear that the latter might have tried to row over during the evening, and met with disaster. As they sat round the stove in his room he said, "We don't need any wrecks inside the beach. We shall have enough outside, I'm afraid. I hear there is one schooner in trouble now."
"That so?" asked Captain Eri. "Where is she?"
"On the Hog's Back shoal, they think. One of the life-saving crew told McLaughlin that they saw her last night, when the gale first began, trying to make an offing, and that wreckage was coming ashore this morning. Captain Davis was going to try to reach her with the boat, I believe."
"I should like to be at the life-saving station when they land," said Ralph. "It would be a new experience for me. I've seen the crew drill often enough, but I have never seen them actually at work."
"What d'you say if we go down to the station?" asked the Captain. "That is, if Mr. Langley here can spare you."
"Oh, I can spare him," said the superintendent. "There is nothing of importance to be done here just now. But it will be a terrible walk down the beach this morning."
"Wind 'll be at our backs, and we're rigged for it, too. What d'you say, Mr. Hazeltine?"
Ralph was only too glad of the opportunity to see, at least, the finish of a rescuing expedition, and he said so. So they got into the oilskins again, pulled their "sou'westers" down over their ears, and started on the tramp to the life-saving station.
The electrician is not likely to forget that walk. The wind was, as the Captain said, at their backs, but it whistled in from the sea with terrific strength, and carried the sleet with it. It deluged them with water, and plastered them with flying seaweed and ice. The wet sand came in showers like hail, and beat against their shoulders until they felt the sting, even through their clothes. Toward the bay was nothing but gray mist, streaked with rain and sleet; toward the sea was the same mist, flying with the wind over such a huddle of tossing green and white as Ralph had never seen. The surf poured in in rollers that leaped over each other's humped backs in their savage energy to get at the shore, which trembled as they beat upon it. The ripples from one wave had not time to flow back before those of the next came threshing in. Great blobs of foam shot down the strand like wild birds, and the gurgle and splash and roar were terrific.
They walked as near the water line as they dared, because the sand was harder there. Captain Eri went ahead, hands in his pockets and head down. Ralph followed, sometimes watching his companion, but oftener gazing at the sea. At intervals there would be a lull, as if the storm giant had paused for breath, and they could see for half a mile over the crazy water; then the next gust would pull the curtain down again, and a whirl of rain and sleet would shut them in. Conversation meant only a series of shrieks and they gave it up.
At length the Captain turned, grinned pleasantly, while the rain drops splashed on his nose, and waved one arm. Ralph looked and saw ahead of them the clustered buildings of the life-saving station. And he was glad to see them.
"Whew!" puffed Captain Eri as they opened the door. "Nice mornin' for ducks. Hey, Luther!" he shouted, "wake up here; you've got callers."
They heard footsteps in the next room, the door opened, and in came—not Luther Davis, but Captain Perez.
"Why, Eri!" he exclaimed amazedly.
"For the land's sake, Perez! What are you doin' here?"
"What are YOU doin' here, I should say. How d'you do, Mr. Hazeltine?"
Captain Eri pushed back his "sou'wester," and strolled over to the stove. Ralph followed suit.
"Well, Perez," said the former, extending his hands over the fire, "it's easy enough to tell you why we're here. We heard there was a wreck."
"There is. She's a schooner, and she's off there on the Hog's Back. Luther and the crew put off to her more 'n two hours ago, and I'm gittin' worried."
Then Perez went on to explain that, because of the storm, he had been persuaded to stay at Mrs. Mayo's all night; that Captain Davis had been over for a moment that evening on an errand, and had said that the schooner had been sighted and that, as the northeaster was coming on, she was almost certain to get into trouble; that he, Perez, had rowed over the first thing in the morning to get the news, and had been just in time to see the launching of the lifeboat, as the crew put off to the schooner.
"There ain't nothin' to worry 'bout," observed Captain Eri. "It's no slouch of a pull off to the Hog's Back this weather, and besides, I'd trust Lute Davis anywhere on salt water."
"Yes, I know," replied the unconvinced Captain Perez, "but he ought to have been back afore this. There was a kind of let-up in the storm jest afore I got here, and they see her fast on the shoal with the crew in the riggin'. Luther took the small boat 'cause he thought he could handle her better, and that's what's worryin' me; I'm 'fraid she's overloaded. I was jest thinkin' of goin' out on the p'int to see if I could see anything of 'em when you folks come."
"Well, go ahead. We'll go with you, if Mr. Hazeltine's got any of the chill out of him."
Ralph was feeling warm by this time and, after Perez had put on his coat and hat, they went out once more into the gale. The point of which Perez had spoken was a wedge-shaped sand ridge that, thrown up by the waves and tide, thrust itself out from the beach some few hundred yards below the station. They reached its tip, and stood there in the very midst of the storm, waiting for the lulls, now more frequent, and scanning the tumbling water for the returning lifeboat.
"Schooner's layin' right over there," shouted Captain Perez in Ralph's ear, pointing off into the mist. "'Bout a mile off shore, I cal'late. Wicked place, the Hog's Back is, too."
"Wind's lettin' up a little mite," bellowed Captain Eri. "We've had the wust of it, I guess. There ain't so much—"
He did not finish the sentence. The curtain of sleet parted, leaving a quarter-mile-long lane, through which they could see the frothing ridges racing one after the other, endlessly. And across this lane, silent and swift, like a moving picture on a screen, drifted a white turtleback with black dots clinging to it. It was in sight not more than a half minute, then the lane closed again, as the rain lashed their faces.
Captain Perez gasped, and clutched the electrician by the arm.
"Godfrey mighty!" he exclaimed.
"What was it?" shouted Ralph. "What was it, Captain Eri?"
But Captain Eri did not answer. He had turned, and was running at full speed back to the beach. When they came up they found him straining at the side of the dory that Luther Davis used in tending his lobster pots. The boat, turned bottom up, lay high above tide mark in the little cove behind the point.
"Quick, now!" shouted the Captain, in a tone Ralph had never heard him use before. "Over with her! Lively!"
They obeyed him without question. As the dory settled right side up two heavy oars, that had been secured by being thrust under the seats, fell back with a clatter.
"What was it, Captain?" shouted Ralph.
"The lifeboat upset. How many did you make out hangin' onto her, Perez? Five, seemed to me."
"Four, I thought. Eri, you ain't goin' to try to reach her with this dory? You couldn't do it. You'll only be drownded yourself. My Lord!" he moaned, wringing his hands, "what 'll Pashy do?"
"Catch a-holt now," commanded Captain Eri. "Down to the shore with her! Now!"
They dragged the dory to the water's edge with one rush. Then Eri hurriedly thrust in the tholepins. Perez protested again.
"Eri," he said, "it ain't no use. She won't live to git through the breakers."
His friend answered without looking up. "Do you s'pose," he said, "that I'm goin' to let Lute Davis and them other fellers drown without makin' a try for 'em? Push off when I tell you to."
"Then you let me go instead of you."
"Don't talk foolish. You've got Pashy to look after. Ready now!"
But Ralph Hazeltine intervened.
"I'm going myself," he said firmly, putting one foot over the gunwale. "I'm a younger man than either of you, and I'm used to a boat. I mean it. I'm, going."
Captain Eri looked at the electrician's face; he saw nothing but determination there.
"We'll all go," he said suddenly. "Mr. Hazeltine, run as fast as the Lord 'll let you back to the station and git another set of oars. Hurry!"
Without answering, the young man sprang up the beach and ran toward the buildings. The moment that he was inside Captain Eri leaped into the dory.
"Push off, Perez!" he commanded. "That young feller's got a life to live."
"You don't go without me," asserted Perez stoutly.
"All right! Push off, and then jump in."
Captain Perez attempted to obey. He waded into the water and gave the dory a push, but, just as he was about to scramble in, he received a shove that sent him backwards.
"Your job's takin' care of Pashy!" roared Captain Eri.
Perez scrambled to his feet, but the dory was already half-way across the little patch of comparatively smooth water in the cove. As he looked he saw it enter the first line of breakers, rise amid a shower of foam, poise on the crest, and slip over. The second line of roaring waves came surging on, higher and more threatening than the first. Captain Eri glanced over his shoulder, turned the dory's bow toward them and waited. They broke, and, as they did so, the boat shot forward into the whirlpool of froth. Then the sleet came pouring down and shut everything from sight.
When Ralph came hurrying to the beach, bearing the oars, he found Captain Perez alone.
ERI GOES BACK ON A FRIEND
Captain Eri knew that the hardest and most dangerous portion of his perilous trip was just at its beginning. If the dory got through the surf without capsizing, it was an even bet that she would stay right-side-up for a while longer, at any rate. So he pulled out of the little cove, and pointed the boat's bow toward the thundering smother of white, his shoulders squared, his hands tightened on the oar handles, and his under-jaw pushed out beyond the upper. Old foremast hands, those who had sailed with the Captain on his coasting voyages, would, had they seen these signs, have prophesied trouble for someone. They were Captain Eri's battle-flags, and just now his opponent was the gray Atlantic. If the latter won, it would only be after a fight.
The first wave tripped over the bar and whirled beneath him, sending the dory high into the air and splashing its occupant with spray. The Captain held the boat stationary, waiting for the second to break, and then, half rising, put all his weight and strength on the oars. The struggle had begun.
They used to say on board the Hannah M. that the skipper never got rattled. The same cool head and steady nerve that Josiah had admired when the catboat threaded the breakers at the entrance of the bay, now served the same purpose in this more tangled and infinitely more wicked maze. The dory climbed and ducked, rolled and slid, but gained, inch by inch, foot by foot. The advancing waves struck savage blows at the bow, the wind did its best to swing her broadside on, but there was one hundred and eighty pounds of clear grit and muscle tugging at the oars, and, though the muscles were not as young as they had been, there were years of experience to make every pound count. At last the preliminary round was over. The boat sprang clear of the breakers and crept out farther and farther, with six inches of water slopping in her bottom, but afloat and seaworthy.
It was not until she was far into deep water that the Captain turned her bow down the shore. When this was done, it was on the instant, and, although a little more water came inboard, there was not enough to be dangerous. Then, with the gale astern and the tide to help, Captain Eri made the dory go as she, or any other on that coast, had never gone before.
The Captain knew that the wind and the tide that were now aiding him were also sweeping the overturned lifeboat along at a rapid rate. He must come up with it before it reached the next shoal. He must reach it before the waves, and, worse than all, the cold had caused the poor fellows clinging to it for life to loose their grip.
The dory jumped from crest to crest like a hurdler. The sleet now beat directly into the Captain's face and froze on his eyebrows and lashes, but he dared not draw in an oar to free a hand. The wind caught up the spindrift and poured it over him in icy baths, but he was too warm from the furious exercise to mind.
In the lulls he turned his head and gazed over the sea, looking for the boat. Once he saw it, before the storm shut down again, and he groaned aloud to count but two black dots on its white surface. He pulled harder than ever, and grunted with every stroke, while the perspiration poured down his forehead and froze when it reached the ice dams over his eyes.
At last it was in plain sight, and the two dots, now clearly human beings, were still there. He pointed the bow straight at it and rowed on. When he looked again there was but one, a figure sprawled along the keel, clinging to the centerboard.
The flying dory bore down upon the lifeboat, and the Captain risked what little breath he had in a hail. The clinging figure raised its head, and Captain Eri felt an almost selfish sense of relief to see that it was Luther Davis. If it had to be but one, he would rather it was that one.
The bottom of the lifeboat rose like a dome from the sea that beat and roared over and around it. The centerboard had floated up and projected at the top, and it was about this that Captain Davis' arms were clasped. Captain Eri shot the dory alongside, pulled in one oar, and the two boats fitted closely together. Then Eri reached out, and, seizing his friend by the belt round his waist, pulled him from his hold. Davis fell into the bottom of the dory, only half conscious and entirely helpless.
Captain Eri lifted him so that his head and shoulders rested on a thwart, and then, setting his oar against the lifeboat's side, pushed the dory clear. Then he began rowing again.
So far he had been more successful than he had reason to expect, but the task that he must now accomplish was not less difficult. He must reach the shore safely, and with another life beside his own to guard.
It was out of the question to attempt to get back to the cove; the landing must be made on the open beach, and, although Captain Eri had more than once brought a dory safely through a high surf, he had never attempted it when his boat had nearly a foot of water in her and carried a helpless passenger.
Little by little, still running before the wind, the Captain edged in toward the shore. Luther Davis moved once or twice, but said nothing. His oilskins were frozen stiff and his beard was a lump of ice. Captain Eri began to fear that he might die from cold and exhaustion before the attempt at landing was made. The Captain resolved to wait no longer, but to take the risk of running directly for the beach.
He was near enough now to see the leaping spray of the breakers, and their bellow sounded louder than the howl of the wind or the noises of the sea about him. He bent forward and shouted in the ear of the prostrate life-saver.
"Luther!" he yelled, "Lute!"
Captain Davis' head rolled back, his eyes opened, and, in a dazed way, he looked at the figure swinging back and forth with the oars.
"Lute!" shouted Captain Eri, "listen to me! I'm goin' to try to land. D'you hear me?"
Davis' thoughts seemed to be gathering slowly. He was, ordinarily, a man of strong physique, courageous, and a fighter every inch of him, but his strength had been beaten out by the waves and chilled by the cold, and the sight of the men with whom he had lived and worked for years drowning one by one, had broken his nerve. He looked at his friend, and then at the waves.
"What's the use?" he said feebly. "They're all gone. I might as well go, too."
Captain Eri's eyes snapped. "Lute Davis," he exclaimed, "I never thought I'd see you playin' crybaby. Brace up! What are you, anyway?"
The half-frozen man made a plucky effort.
"All right, Eri," he said. "I'm with you, but I ain't much good."
"Can you stand up?"
"I don't know. I'll try."
Little by little he raised himself to his knees.
"'Bout as fur's I can go, Eri," he said, between his teeth. "You look out for yourself. I'll do my durndest."
The dory was caught by the first of the great waves, and, on its crest, went flying toward the beach. Captain Eri steered it with the oars as well as he could. The wave broke, and the half-filled boat paused, was caught up by the succeeding breaker, and thrown forward again. The Captain, still trying to steer with one oar, let go of the other, and seizing his companion by the belt, pulled him to his feet.
"Now then," he shouted, "stand by!"
The boat poised on the curling wave, went down like a hammer, struck the sand, and was buried in water. Just as it struck, Captain Eri jumped as far shoreward as he could. Davis sprang with him, but it was really the Captain's strength that carried them clear of the rail.
They kept their feet for an instant, but, in that instant, Captain Eri dragged his friend a yard or so up the shelving beach. Then they were knocked flat by the next wave. The Captain dug his toes into the sand and braced himself as the undertow sucked back. Once more he rose and they staggered on again, only to go down when the next rush of water came. Three times this performance was repeated, and, as they rose for the fourth time, the Captain roared, "Now!"
Another plunge, a splashing run, and they were on the hard sand of the beach. Then they both tumbled on their faces and breathed in great gasps.
But the Captain realized that this would not do, for, in their soaked condition, freezing to death was a matter of but a short time. He seized Davis by the shoulder and shook him again and again.
"Come on, Lute! Come on!" he insisted. "Git up! You've GOT to git up!"
And, after a while, the life-saver did get up, although he could scarcely stand. Then, with the Captain's arm around his waist, they started slowly up the beach toward the station.
They had gone but a little way when they were met by Ralph Hazeltine and Captain Perez.
Mrs. Snow had been, for her, rather nervous all that forenoon. She performed her household duties as thoroughly as usual, but Elsie, to whom the storm had brought a holiday, noticed that she looked out of the window and at the clock frequently. Once she even went so far as to tell the young lady that she felt "kind of queer; jest as if somethin' was goin' to happen." As the housekeeper was not the kind to be troubled with presentiments, Elsie was surprised.
Dinner was on the table at twelve o'clock, but Captain Eri was not there to help eat it, and they sat down without him. And here again Mrs. Snow departed from her regular habit, for she ate little and was very quiet. She was the first to hear an unusual sound outside, and, jumping up, ran to the window.
"Somebody's drivin' into the yard," she said. "Who on airth would be comin' here such a day as this?"
Captain Jerry joined her at the window.
"It's Abner Mayo's horse," he said. "Maybe it's Perez comin' home."
It was not Captain Perez, but Mr. Mayo himself, as they saw when the rubber blanket fastened across the front of the buggy was dropped and the driver sprang out. Mrs. Snow opened the door for him.
"Hello, Abner!" exclaimed Captain Jerry, as the newcomer stopped to knock the snow from his boots before coming in, "what have you done to Perez? Goin' to keep him for a steady boarder?"
But Mr. Mayo had important news to communicate, and he did not intend to lose the effect of his sensation by springing it without due preparation. He took off his hat and mittens and solemnly declined a proffered chair.
"Cap'n Burgess," he said, "I've got somethin' to tell you—somethin' awful. The whole life-savin' crew but one is drownded, and Cap'n Eri Hedge—"
An exclamation from Mrs. Snow interrupted him. The housekeeper clasped her hands together tightly and sank into a chair. She was very white. Elsie ran to her.
"What is it, Mrs. Snow?" she asked.
"Nothin', nothin'! Go on, Mr. Mayo. Go on!"
The bearer of ill-tidings, gratified at the result of his first attempt, proceeded deliberately:
"And Cap'n Hedge and Luther Davis are over at the station pretty nigh dead. If it wa'n't for the Cap'n, Luther'd have gone, too. Eri took a dory and went off and picked him up. Perez come over to my house and told us about it, and Pashy's gone back with him to see to her brother. I didn't go down to the store this mornin', 'twas stormin' so, but as soon as I heard I harnessed up to come and tell you."
Then, in answer to the hurried questions of Captain Jerry and Elsie, Mr. Mayo told the whole story as far as he knew it. Mrs. Snow said nothing, but sat with her hands still clasped in her lap.
"Luther is ha'f drownded and froze," concluded Abner, "and the Cap'n got a bang with an oar when they jumped out of the dory that, Perez is afraid, broke his arm. I'm goin' right back to git Dr. Palmer. They tried to telephone him, but the wire's down."
"Dear! dear! dear!" exclaimed Captain Jerry, completely demoralized by the news. "That's dreadful! I must go right down there, mustn't I? The poor fellers!"
Mrs. Snow rose to her feet quietly, but with a determined air.
"Are you goin' right back soon's you've got the Doctor, Mr. Mayo?" she asked.
"Why, no, I wa'n't. I ain't been to my store this mornin', and I'm 'fraid I ought to be there."
To be frank, Abner was too great a sensation lover to forfeit the opportunity of springing his startling news on the community.
"Then, Josiah, you'll have to harness Dan'l and take me down. I mustn't wait another minute."
"Why, Mrs. Snow!" expostulated Captain Jerry, "you mustn't go down there. The Doctor's goin', and I'll go, and Pashy's there already."
But the housekeeper merely waved him aside.
"I want you to stay here with Elsie," she said. "There's no tellin' how long I may be gone. Josiah 'll drive me down, won't you, Josiah?"
There was no lack of enthusiasm in the "able seaman's" answer. The boy was only too glad of the chance.
"But it ain't fit weather for you to be out in. You'll git soakin' wet."
"I guess if Pashy Davis can stand it, I can. Elsie, will you come and help me git ready, while Josiah's harnessin'?"
As they entered the chamber above, Elsie was thunderstruck to see her companion seat herself in the rocker and cover her face with her hands. If it had been anyone else it would not have been so astonishing, but the cool, self-possessed housekeeper—she could scarcely believe it.
"Why, Mrs. Snow!" she exclaimed, "what IS it?"
The lady from Nantucket hastily rose and wiped her eyes with her apron.
"Oh, nothin'," she answered, with an attempt at a smile. "I'm kind of fidgety this mornin', and the way that man started off to tell his yarn upset me; that's all. I mustn't be such a fool."
She set about getting ready with a vim and attention to detail that proved that her "fidgets" had not affected her common-sense. She was pale and her hands trembled a little, but she took a covered basket and packed in it cloth for bandages, a hot-water bottle, mustard, a bottle of liniment, and numerous other things likely to be of use. Last of all, she added a bottle of whisky that had been prescribed as a stimulant for John Baxter.
"I s'pose some folks would think 'twas terrible carryin' this with me," she observed. "A woman pitched into me once for givin' it to her husband when he was sick. I told her I didn't favor RHUBARB as a steady drink, but I hoped I knew enough to give it when 'twas necessary."
Ralph and Captain Perez were surprised men when the housekeeper, dripping, but cheerful, appeared on the scene. She and Josiah had had a stormy passage on the way down, for the easy-going Daniel had objected to being asked to trot through drifts, and Mrs. Snow had insisted that he should be made to do it. The ford was out of the question, so they stalled the old horse in the Mayo barn and borrowed Abner's dory to make the crossing.
Mrs. Snow took charge at once of the tired men, and the overtaxed Miss Patience was glad enough to have her do it. Luther Davis was in bed, and Captain Eri, after an hour's sojourn in the same snug harbor, had utterly refused to stay there longer, and now, dressed in a suit belonging to the commandant, was stretched upon a sofa in the front room.
The Captain was the most surprised of all when Mrs. Snow appeared. He fairly gasped when she first entered the room, and seemed to be struck speechless, for he said scarcely a word while she dosed him with hot drinks, rubbed his shoulder—the bone was not broken, but there was a bruise there as big as a saucer—with the liniment, and made him generally comfortable. He watched her every movement with a sort of worshipful wonder, and seemed to be thinking hard.
Captain Davis, although feeling a little better, was still very weak, and his sister and Captain Perez were with him. Josiah soon returned to the Mayo homestead to act as ferryman for Dr. Palmer when the latter should arrive, and Ralph, finding that there was nothing more that he could do, went back to the cable station. The storm had abated somewhat and the wind had gone down. Captain Eri and Mrs. Snow were alone in the front room, and, for the first time since she entered the house, the lady from Nantucket sat down to rest. Then the Captain spoke.
"Mrs. Snow," he said gravely, "I don't believe you've changed your clothes sence you got here. You must have been soaked through, too. I wish you wouldn't take such risks. You hadn't ought to have come over here a day like this, anyway. Not but what the Lord knows it's good to have you here," he added hastily.
The housekeeper seemed surprised.
"Cap'n Eri," she said, "I b'lieve if you was dyin' you'd worry for fear somebody else wouldn't be comf'table while you was doing it. 'Twould be pretty hard for me to change my clothes," she added, with a laugh, "seein' that there probably ain't anything but men's clothes in the place." Then, with a sigh, "Poor fellers, they won't need 'em any more."
"That's so. And they were all alive and hearty this mornin'. It's an awful thing for Luther. Has he told anything yit 'bout how it come to happen?"
"Yes, a little. The schooner was from Maine, bound to New York. Besides her own crew she had some Italians aboard, coal-handlers, they was, goin' over on a job for the owner. Cap'n Davis says he saw right away that the lifeboat would be overloaded, but he had to take 'em all, there wa'n't time for a second trip. He made the schooner's crew and the others lay down in the boat where they wouldn't hinder the men at the oars, but when they got jest at the tail of the shoal, where the sea was heaviest, them Italians lost their heads and commenced to stand up and yell, and fust thing you know, she swung broadside on and capsized. Pashy says Luther don't say much more, but she jedges, from what he does say, that some of the men hung on with him for a while, but was washed off and drownded."
"That's right; there was four or five there when we saw her fust. 'Twas Lute's grip on the centerboard that saved him. It's an awful thing—awful!"
"Yes, and he would have gone, too, if it hadn't been for you. And you talk about MY takin' risks!"
"Well, Jerry hadn't ought to have let you come."
"LET me come! I should like to have seen him try to stop me. The idea! Where would I be if 'twa'n't helpin' you, after all you've done for me?"
"I'VE done? I haven't done anything!"
"You've made me happier 'n I've been for years. You've been so kind that—that—"
She stopped and looked out of the window.
"It's you that's been kind," said the Captain. "You've made a home for me; somethin' I ain't had afore sence I was a boy."
Mrs. Snow went on as if he had not spoken.
"And to think that you might have been drownded the same as the rest," she said. "I knew somethin' was happenin'. I jest felt it, somehow. I told Elsie I was sure of it. I couldn't think of anything but you all the forenoon."
The Captain sat up on the couch.
"Marthy," he said in an awed tone, "do you know what I was thinkin' of when I was pullin' through the wust of it this mornin'? I was thinkin' of you. I thought of Luther and the rest of them poor souls, of course, but I thought of you most of the time. It kept comin' back to me that if I went under I shouldn't see you ag'in. And you was thinkin' of me!"
"Yes, when that Mayo man said he had awful news, I felt sure 'twas you he was goin' to tell about. I never fainted away in my life that I know of, but I think I 'most fainted then."
"And you cared as much as that?"
Somehow both were speaking quietly, but as if it was useless longer to keep back anything. To speak the exact truth without reserve seemed the most natural thing in the world.
"Well, well, well!" said the Captain reverently, and still in the same low tone. "I said once afore that I b'lieved you was sent here, and now I'm sure of it. It seems almost as if you was sent to ME, don't it?"
The housekeeper still looked out of the window, but she answered simply, "I don't know."
"It does, it does so. Marthy, we've been happy together while you've been here. Do you b'lieve you could be happy with me always—if you married me, I mean?"
Mrs. Snow turned and looked at him. There were tears in her eyes, but she did not wipe them away.
"Yes," she said.
"Think now, Marthy. I ain't very young, and I ain't very rich."
"What am I?" with a little smile.
"And you really think you could be happy if you was the wife of an old codger like me?"
"Yes." The answer was short, but it was convincing.
Captain Eri rose to his feet.
"Gosh!" he said in a sort of unbelieving whisper. "Marthy, are you willin' to try?"
And again Mrs. Snow said "Yes."
When Dr. Palmer came he found Luther Davis still in bed, but Captain Eri was up and dressed, and there was such a quiet air of happiness about him that the man of medicine was amazed.
"Good Lord, man!" he exclaimed, "I expected to find you flat on your back, and you look better than I've seen you for years. Taking a salt-water bath in mid-winter must agree with you."
"It ain't so much that," replied the Captain serenely. "It's the pay I got for takin' it."
When the Doctor saw Perez alone, he asked the latter to keep a close watch on Captain Eri's behavior. He said he was afraid that the exertion and exposure might have affected the Captain's brain.
Perez, alarmed by this caution, did watch his friend very closely, but he saw nothing to frighten him until, as they were about to start for home, Captain Eri suddenly struck his thigh a resounding slap
"Jerry!" he groaned distressfully. "I clean forgot. I've gone back on Jerry!"
Elsie and Captain Jerry were kept busy that afternoon. Abner Mayo's news spread quickly, and people gathered at the post-office, the stores, and the billiard room to discuss it. Some of the men, notably "Cy" Warner and "Rufe" Smith, local representatives of the big Boston dailies, hurried off to the life-saving station to get the facts at first hand. Others came down to talk with Captain Jerry and Elsie. Melissa Busteed's shawl was on her shoulders and her "cloud" was tied about her head in less than two minutes after her next-door neighbor shouted the story across the back yards. She had just left the house, and Captain Jerry was delivering a sarcastic speech concerning "talkin' machines," when Daniel plodded through the gate, drawing the buggy containing Josiah, Mrs. Snow, and Captain Eri.
For a man who had been described as "half-dead," Captain Eri looked very well, indeed. Jerry ran to help him from the carriage, but he jumped out himself and then assisted the housekeeper to alight with an air of proud proprietorship. He was welcomed to the house like a returned prodigal, and Captain Jerry shook his well hand until the arm belonging to it seemed likely to become as stiff and sore as the other. While this handshaking was going on Captain Eri was embarrassed. He did not look his friend in the face, and most of his conversation was addressed to Elsie.
As soon as he had warmed his hands and told the story of the wreck and rescue, he said, "Jerry, come up to my room a minute, won't you? I've got somethin' I want to say."
Vaguely wondering what the private conversation might be, Jerry followed his friend upstairs. When they were in the room, Captain Eri closed the door and faced his companion. He was confused, and stammered a little, as he said, "Jerry, I've—I've got somethin' to say to you 'bout Mrs. Snow."
Then it was Captain Jerry's turn to be confused.
"Now, Eri," he protested, "'tain't fair to keep pesterin' me like this. I know I ain't said nothin' to her yit, but I'm goin' to. I had a week, anyhow, and it ain't ha'f over. Land sake!" he burst forth, "d'you s'pose I ain't been thinkin' 'bout it? I ain't thought of nothin' else, hardly. I bet you I've been over the whole thing every night sence we had that talk. I go over it and GO over it. I've thought of more 'n a million ways to ask her, but there ain't one of 'em that suits me. If I was goin' to be hung 'twouldn't be no worse, and now you've got to keep a-naggin'. Let me alone till my time is up, can't you?"
"I wa'n't naggin'. I was jest goin' to tell you that you won't have to ask. I've been talkin' to her myself, and—"
The sacrifice sprang out of his chair.
"Eri Hedge!" he exclaimed indignantly. "I thought you was a friend of mine! I give you my word I'd do it in a week, and the least you could have done, seems to me, would have been to wait and give me the chance. But no! all you think 'bout's yourself. So 'fraid she'd say no and you'd lose your old housekeeper, wa'n't you? The idea! She must think I'm a good one—can't do my own courtin', and have to git somebody to do it for me! What did she say?" he asked suddenly.
"She said yes to what I asked her," was the reply with a half smile.
Upon Captain Jerry's face settled the look of one who accepts the melancholy inevitable. He sat down again.
"I s'posed she would," he said with a sigh. "She's known me for quite a spell now, and she's had a chance to see what kind of a man I be. Well, what else did you do? Ain't settled the weddin' day, have you?" This with marked sarcasm.
"Not yit. Jerry, you've made a mistake. I didn't ask her for you."
"Didn't ask her—didn't—What are you talkin' 'bout, then?"
"I asked her for myself. She's goin' to marry me."
Captain Jerry was too much astonished even to get up. Instead, he simply sat still with open mouth while his friend continued.
"I've come to think a lot of Mrs. Snow sence she's been here," Captain Eri said slowly, "and I've found out that she's felt the same way 'bout me. I've kept still and said nothin' 'cause I thought you ought to have the fust chance and, besides, I didn't know how she felt. But to-day, while we was talkin', it all come out of itself, seems so, and—well, we're goin' to be married."
The sacrifice—a sacrifice no longer—still sat silent, but curious changes of expression were passing over his face. Surprise, amazement, relief, and now a sort of grieved resignation.
"I feel small enough 'bout the way I've treated you, Jerry," continued Captain Eri. "I didn't mean to—but there! it's done, and all I can do is say I'm sorry and that I meant to give you your chance. I shan't blame you if you git mad, not a bit; but I hope you won't."
Captain Jerry sighed. When he spoke it was in a tone of sublime forgiveness.
"Eri," he said, "I ain't mad. I won't say my feelin's ain't hurt, 'cause—'cause—well, never mind. If a wife and a home ain't for me, why I ought to be glad that you're goin' to have 'em. I wish you both luck and a good v'yage. Now, don't talk to me for a few minutes. Let me git sort of used to it."
So they shook hands and Captain Eri, with a troubled look at his friend, went out. After he had gone, Captain Jerry got up and danced three steps of an improvised jig, his face one broad grin. Then, with an effort, he sobered down, assumed an air of due solemnity, and tramped downstairs.
If the announcement of Captain Perez' engagement caused no surprise, that of Captain Eri's certainly did—surprise and congratulation on the part of those let into the secret, for it was decided to say nothing to outsiders as yet. Ralph came over that evening and they told him about it, and he was as pleased as the rest. As for the Captain, he was only too willing to shake hands with any and everybody, although he insisted that the housekeeper had nothing to be congratulated upon, and that she was "takin' big chances." The lady herself merely smiled at this, and quietly said that she was willing to take them.
The storm had wrecked every wire and stalled every train, and Orham was isolated for two days. Then communication was established once more, and the Boston dailies received the news of the loss of the life-savers and the crew of the schooner. And they made the most of it; sensational items were scarce just then, and the editors welcomed this one. The big black headlines spread halfway across the front pages. There were pictures of the wreck, "drawn by our artist from description," and there were "descriptions" of all kinds. Special reporters arrived in the village and interviewed everyone they could lay hands on. Abner Mayo felt that for once he was receiving the attention he deserved.
The life-saving station and the house by the shore were besieged by photographers and newspaper men. Captain Eri indignantly refused to pose for his photograph, so he was "snapped" as he went out to the barn, and had the pleasure of seeing a likeness of himself, somewhat out of focus, and with one leg stiffly elevated, in the Sunday Blanket. The reporters waylaid him at the post-office, or at his fish shanty, and begged for interviews. They got them, brief and pointedly personal, and, though these were not printed, columns describing him as "a bluff, big-hearted hero," were.
If ever a man was mad and disgusted, that man was the Captain. In the first place, as he said, what he had done was nothing more than any other man 'longshore would have done, and, secondly, it was nobody's business. Then again, he said, and with truth:
"This whole fuss makes me sick. Here's them fellers in the crew been goin' out, season after season, takin' folks off wrecks, and the fool papers never say nothin' 'bout it; but they go out this time, and don't save nobody and git drownded themselves, and they're heroes of a sudden. I hear they're raisin' money up to Boston to give to the widders and orphans. Well, that's all right, but they'd better keep on and git the Gov'ment to raise the sal'ries of them that's left in the service."
The climax came when a flashily dressed stranger called, and insisted upon seeing the Captain alone. The interview lasted just about three minutes. When Mrs. Snow, alarmed by the commotion, rushed into the room, she found Captain Eri in the act of throwing after the fleeing stranger the shiny silk hat that the latter had left behind.
"Do you know what that—that swab wanted?" hotly demanded the indignant Captain. "He wanted me to rig up in ileskins and a sou'wester and show myself in dime museums. Said he'd buy that dory of Luther's that I went out in, and show that 'long with me. I told him that dory was spread up and down the beach from here to Setuckit, but he said that didn't make no diff'rence, he'd have a dory there and say 'twas the reel one. Offered me a hundred dollars a week, the skate! I'd give ten dollars right now to tell him the rest of what I had to say."
After this the Captain went fishing every day, and when at home refused to see anybody not known personally. But the agitation went on, for the papers fed the flames, and in Boston they were raising a purse to buy gold watches and medals for him and for Captain Davis.
Shortly after four o'clock one afternoon of the week following that of the wreck, Captain Eri ventured to walk up to the village, keeping a weather eye out for reporters and smoking his pipe. He made several stops, one of them being at the schoolhouse where Josiah, now back at his desk, was studying overtime to catch up with his class.
As the Captain was strolling along, someone touched him from behind, and he turned to face Ralph Hazeltine. The electrician had been a pretty regular caller at the house of late, but Captain Eri had seen but little of him, for reasons unnecessary to state.
"Hello, Captain!" said Ralph. "Taking a constitutional? You want to look out for Warner; I hear he's after you for another rescue 'special.'"
"He'll need somebody to rescue him if he comes pesterin' 'round me," was the reply. "You ain't seen my dime show friend nowheres, have you? I'd sort of like to meet HIM again; our other talk broke off kind of sudden."
Ralph laughed, and said he was afraid that the museum manager wouldn't come to Orham again very soon.
"I s'pose likely not," chuckled Captain Eri. "I ought to have kept his hat; then, maybe, he'd have come back after it. Oh, say!" he added, "I've been meanin' to ask you somethin'. Made up your mind 'bout that western job yit?"
Ralph shook his head. "Not yet," he said slowly. "I shall very soon, though, I think."
"Kind of puzzlin' you, is it? Not that it's really any of my affairs, you understand. There's only a few of us good folks left, as the feller said, and I'd hate to see you leave, that's all."
"I am not anxious to go, myself. My present position gives me a good deal of leisure time for experimental work—and—well, I'll tell you in confidence—there's a possibility of my becoming superintendent one of these days, if I wish to."
"Sho! you don't say! Mr. Langley goin' to quit?"
"He is thinking of it. The old gentleman has saved some money, and he has a sister in the West who is anxious to have him come out there and spend the remainder of his days with her. If he does, I can have his position, I guess. In fact, he has been good enough to say so."
"Well, that's pretty fine, ain't it? Langley ain't the man to chuck his good opinions round like clam shells. You ought to feel proud."
"I suppose I ought."
They walked on silently for a few steps, the Captain waiting for his companion to speak, and the latter seeming disinclined to do so. At length the older man asked another question.
"Is t'other job so much better?"
Silence again. Then Ralph said, "The other position, Captain, is very much like this one in some respects. It will place me in a country town, even smaller than Orham, where there are few young people, no amusements, and no society, in the fashionable sense of the word."
"Humph! I thought you didn't care much for them things."
To this enigmatical answer the Captain made no immediate reply. After a moment, however, he said, slowly and with apparent irrelevance, "Mr. Hazeltine, I can remember my father tellin' 'bout a feller that lived down on the South Harniss shore when he was a boy. Queer old chap he was, named Elihu Bassett; everybody called him Uncle Elihu. In them days all hands drunk more or less rum, and Uncle Elihu drunk more. He had a way of stayin' sober for a spell, and then startin' off on a regular jamboree all by himself. He had an old flat-bottomed boat that he used to sail 'round in, but she broke her moorin's one time and got smashed up, so he wanted to buy another. Shadrach Wingate, Seth's granddad 'twas, tried to fix up a dicker with him for a boat he had. They agreed on the price, and everything was all right 'cept that Uncle Elihu stuck out that he must try her 'fore he bought her.
"So Shad fin'lly give in, and Uncle Elihu sailed over to Wellmouth in the boat. He put in his time 'round the tavern there, and when he come down to the boat ag'in, he had a jugful of Medford in his hand, and pretty nigh as much of the same stuff under his hatches. He got afloat somehow, h'isted the sail, lashed the tiller after a fashion, took a nip out of the jug and tumbled over and went fast asleep. 'Twas a still night or 'twould have been the finish. As 'twas he run aground on a flat and stuck there till mornin'.
"Next day back he comes with the boat all scraped up, and says he, 'She won't do, Shad; she don't keep her course.'
"'Don't keep her course, you old fool!' bellers Shad. 'And you tight as a drumhead and sound asleep! Think she can find her way home herself?' he says.
"'Well,' says Uncle Elihu, 'if she can't she ain't the boat for me.'"
Ralph laughed. "I see," he said. "Perhaps Uncle Elihu was wise. Still, if he wanted the boat very much, he must have hated to put her to the test."
"That's so," assented the Captain, "but 'twas better to know it then than to be sorry for it afterwards."
Both seemed to be thinking, and neither spoke again until they came to the grocery store, where Hazeltine stopped, saying that he must do an errand for Mr. Langley. They said good-night, and the Captain turned away, but came quickly back and said:
"Mr. Hazeltine, if it ain't too much trouble, would you mind steppin' up to the schoolhouse when you've done your errand? I've left somethin' there with Josiah, and I'd like to have you git it. Will you?"
"Certainly," was the reply, and it was not until the Captain had gone that Ralph remembered he did not know what he was to get.
When he reached the school he climbed the stairs and opened the door, expecting to find Josiah alone. Instead, there was no one there but Elsie, who was sitting at the desk. She sprang up as he entered. Both were somewhat confused.
"Pardon me, Miss Preston," he said. "Captain Eri sent me here. He said he left something with Josiah, and wished me to call for it."
"Why, I'm sure I don't know what it can be," replied Elsie. "Josiah has been gone for some time, and he said nothing to me about it."
"Perhaps it is in his desk," suggested Ralph. "Suppose we look."
So they looked, but found nothing more than the usual assortment contained in the desk of a healthy schoolboy. The raised lid shut off the light from the window, and the desk's interior was rather dark. They had to grope in the corners, and occasionally their hands touched. Every time this happened Ralph thought of the decision that he must make so soon.
He thought of it still more when, after the search was abandoned, Elsie suggested that he help her with some problems that she was preparing for the next day's labors of the first class in arithmetic. In fact, as he sat beside her, pretending to figure, but really watching her dainty profile as it moved back and forth before his eyes, his own particular problem received far more attention than did those of the class. Suddenly he spoke:
"Teacher," he said, "please, may I ask a question?"
"You should hold up your hand if you wish permission to speak," was the stern reply.
"Please consider it held up."
"Is the question as important as 'How many bushels did C. sell?' which happens to be my particular trouble just now."
"It is to me, certainly." Ralph was serious enough now. "It is a question that I have been wrestling with for some time. It is, shall I take the position that has been offered me in the West, or shall I stay here and become superintendent of the station? The superintendent's place may be mine, I think, if I want it."
Elsie laid down her pencil and hesitated for a moment before she spoke. When she did reply her face was turned away from her companion.
"I should think that question might best be decided by comparing the salaries and prospects of the two positions," she said quietly.
"The two positions are much alike in one way. You know what the life at the station means the greater portion of the year—no companions of your own age and condition, no society, no amusements. The Western offer means all this and worse, for the situation is the same all the year. I say these things because I hope you may be willing to consider them, not from my point of view solely, but from yours."
"Yes. You see I am recklessly daring to hope that, whichever lot is chosen, you may be willing to share it with me—as my wife. Elsie, do you think you could consider the question from that viewpoint?"
And—well—Elsie thought she could.
The consideration—we suppose it was the consideration—took so long that it was nearly dark when Elsie announced that she simply MUST go. It was Ralph's duty as a gentleman to help her in putting on her coat, and this took an astonishingly long time. Finally it was done, however, and they came downstairs.
"Dearest," said Ralph, after the door was locked, "I forgot to have another hunt for whatever it was that Captain Eri wanted me to get."
Elsie smiled rather oddly.
"Are you sure you haven't got it?" she asked demurely.
"Got it! Why—why, by George, what a numbskull I am! The old rascal! I thought there was a twinkle in his eye."
"He said he should come back after me."
"Well, well! Bless his heart, it's sound and sweet all the way through. Yes, I HAVE got it, and, what's more, I shall tell him that I mean to keep it."
The gold watches from the people to the heroes of the Orham wreck having been duly bought and inscribed and the medals struck, there came up the question of presentation, and it was decided to perform the ceremony in the Orham town hall, and to make the occasion notable. The Congressman from the district agreed to make the necessary speech. The Harniss Cornet Band was to furnish music. All preparations were made, and it remained only to secure the consent of the parties most interested, namely, Captain Eri and Luther Davis.
And this was the hardest task of all. Both men at first flatly refused to be present. The Captain said he might as well go to the dime museum and be done with it; he was much obliged to the Boston folks, but his own watch was keeping good time, and he didn't need a new one badly enough to make a show of himself to get it. Captain Davis said very much the same.
But Miss Patience was proud of her brother's rise to fame, and didn't intend to let him forfeit the crowning glory. She enlisted Captain Perez as a supporter, and together they finally got Luther's unwilling consent to sit on the platform and be stared at for one evening. Meanwhile, Captain Jerry, Elsie, Ralph, and Mrs. Snow were doing their best to win Captain Eri over. When Luther surrendered, the forces joined, and the Captain threw up his hands.
"All right," he said. "Only I ought to beg that dime museum feller's pardon. 'Tain't right to be partial this way."
The hall was jammed to the doors. Captain Eri, seated on the platform at one end of the half-circle of selectmen, local politicians, and minor celebrities, looked from the Congressman in the middle to Luther on the other end, and then out over the crowded settees. He saw Mrs. Snow's pleasant, wholesome face beaming proudly beside Captain Jerry's red one. He saw Captain Perez and Miss Patience sitting together close to the front, and Ralph and Elsie a little further back. The Reverend Mr. Perley was there; so were the Smalls and Miss Abigail Mullett. Melissa Busteed was on the very front bench with the boys, of whom Josiah was one. The "train committee" was there—not a member missing—and at the rear of the hall, smiling and unctuous as ever, was "Web" Saunders. In spite of his stage fright the Captain grinned when he saw "Web."