"I must say," he declared, "that I don't see any reason for waitin'. If folks ain't here, that's their own fault. Mr. Moderator, I demand that the nominatin' go ahead."
Tad was on his feet instantly.
"I'm goin' to appeal," he cried, "to the decency and gratitude of the citizens of the town of Bayport. One of the persons I'm—that is, we're waitin' for has done more for our beautiful village than all the rest of us put together. There ain't no need for me to name him. A right up-to-date town pump, a lovely memorial window, a—"
"How about that harbor appropriation?" cried a voice from the settees.
Mr. Simpson was taken aback. His face flushed and he angrily turned toward the interrupter.
"That's you, Joe Dimick!" he shouted, pointing an agitated forefinger. "You needn't scooch down. I know your tongue. The idea of you findin' fault because a big man like Congressman Atkins don't jump when you holler 'Git up!' What do YOU know about doin's at Washington? That harbor appropriation 'll go through if anybody on earth can get it through. There's other places besides Bayport to be provided for and—"
"And their congressmen provide for 'em," called another voice. Tad whirled to face his new tormentor.
"Huh!" he grunted with sarcasm. "That's Lem Myrick, I know. Lem, the great painter, who votes where he paints and gets paid accordin'."
"Order!" cried several.
"Oh, all right, Mr. Moderator! I'll keep order all right. But I say to you, Lem, and you, Joe Dimick, that I know who put these smart notions into your heads. We all know, unless we're born fools. Who is it that's been sayin' the Honorable Heman Atkins was shirkin' that appropriation? Who was it said if HE was representative the thing would have gone through afore this? Who's been makin' his brags that he could get it through if he had the chance? You know who! So do I! I wish he was here. I only wish he was here! I'd say it to his face."
"Well, he is. Heave ahead and say it."
Everyone turned toward the door. Captain Cy had entered the hall. He was standing in the aisle, and with him was Bailey Bangs. The captain looked very tired, almost worn out, but he nodded coolly to Mr. Simpson, who had retired to his seat with surprising quickness and apparent discomfiture.
"Here I am, Tad," continued the captain. "Say your piece."
But Tad, it appeared, was not anxious to "say his piece." He was whispering earnestly with a group of his followers. Captain Cy held up his hand.
"Mr. Moderator," he asked, "can I have the floor a minute? All I want to say is that I cal'late I'm the feller the last speaker had reference to. I HAVE said that I didn't see why that appropriation was so hard to get. I say it again. Other appropriations are got, and why not ours? I DID say if I was a congressman I'd get it. Yes, and I'll say more," he added, raising his voice, "I'll say that if I was sent to Washin'ton by this town, congressman or not, I'd move heaven and earth, and all creation from the President down till I did get it. That's all. So would any live man, I should think."
He sat down. There was some applause. Before it had subsided Abel Leonard, one of the quickest-witted of Mr. Simpson's workers, was on his feet, gesticulating for attention.
"Mr. Moderator," he shouted, "I want to make a motion. We've all heard the big talk that's been made. All right, then! I move you, sir, that Captain Cyrus Whittaker be appointed a committee of one to GO to Washin'ton, if he wants to, or anywheres else, and see that we get the appropriation. And if we don't get it the blame's his! There, now!"
There was a roar of laughter. This was exactly the sort of "tit-for-tat" humor that appeals to a Yankee crowd. The motion was seconded half a dozen times. Moderator Knowles grinned and shook his head.
"A joke's a joke," he said, "and we all like a good one. However, this meetin' is supposed to be for business, not fun, so—"
"Question! Question! It's been seconded! We've got to vote on it!" shouted a chorus.
"Don't you think—seems to me that ain't in order," began the moderator, but Captain Cy rose to his feet. The grim smile had returned to his face and he looked at the joyous assemblage with almost his old expression of appreciative alertness.
"Never mind the vote," he said. "I realize that Brother Leonard has rather got one on me, so to speak. All right, I won't dodge. I'll BE a committee of one on the harbor grab, and if nothin' comes of it I'll take my share of kicks. Gentlemen, I appreciate your trustfulness in my ability."
This brief speech was a huge success. If, for a moment, the pendulum of public favor had swung toward Simpson, this trumping of the latter's leading card pushed it back again. The moderator had some difficulty in restoring order to the hilarious meeting.
Then Mr. Myrick was accorded the privilege of the floor, in spite of Tad's protests, and proceeded to nominate Cyrus Whittaker for the school committee. Lem had devoted hours of toil and wearisome mental struggle to the preparation of his address, and it was lengthy and florid. Captain Cy was described as possessing all the virtues. Bailey, listening with a hand behind his ear, was moved to applause at frequent intervals, and even Asaph forgot the dignity of his exalted position on the platform and pounded the official desk in ecstasy. The only person to appear uninterested was the nominee himself. He sat listlessly in his seat, his eyes cast down, and his thoughts apparently far away.
Josiah Dimick seconded the captain's nomination. Then Mr. Simpson stepped to the front and, after a wistful glance at the door, began to speak.
"Feller citizens," he said, "it is my privilege to put in nomination for school committee a man whose name stands for all that's good and clean and progressive in this township. But afore I do it I'm goin' to ask you to let me say a word or two concernin' somethin' that bears right on this matter, and which, I believe, everyone of you ought to know. It's somethin' that most of you don't know, and it'll be a surprise, a big surprise. I'll be as quick as I can, and I cal'late you'll thank me when I'm done."
He paused. The meeting looked at each other in astonishment. There was whispering along the settees. Moderator Knowles was plainly puzzled. He looked inquiringly at the town clerk, but Asaph was evidently quite as much in the dark as he concerning the threatened disclosure.
"Feller Bayporters," went on Tad, "there's one thing we've all agreed on, no matter who we've meant to vote for. That is, that a member of our school committee should be an upright, honest man, one fit morally to look out for our dear children. Ain't that so? Well, then, I ask you this: Would you consider a man fit for that job who deliberately came between a father and his child, who pizened the mind of that child against his own parent, and when that parent come to claim that child, first tried to buy him off and then turned him out of the house? Yes, and offered violence to him. And done it—mark what I say—for reasons which—which—well, we can only guess 'em, but the guess may not be so awful bad. Is THAT the kind of man we want to honor or to look out for our own children's schoolin'?"
Mr. Simpson undoubtedly meant to cause a sensation by his opening remarks. He certainly did so. The stir and whispering redoubled. Asaph, his mouth open, stared wildly down at Captain Cy. The captain rose to his feet, then sank back again. His listlessness was gone and, paying no attention to those about him, he gazed fixedly at Tad.
"Gentlemen," continued the speaker, "last night I had an experience that I shan't forget as long as I live. I met a poor man, a poor, lame man who'd been away out West and got hurt bad. Folks thought he was dead. His wife thought so and died grievin' for him. She left a little baby girl, only seven or eight year old. When this man come back, well again but poor, to look up his family, he found his wife had passed away and the child had been sent off, just to get rid of her, to a stranger in another town. That stranger fully meant to send her off, too; he said so dozens of times. A good many of you folks right here heard him say it. But he never sent her—he kept her. Why? Well, that's the question. I shan't answer it. I ain't accusin' nobody. All I say is, what's easy enough for any of you to prove, and that is that it come to light the child had property belongin' to her. Property! land, wuth money!"
He paused once more and drew his sleeve across his forehead. Most of his hearers were silent now, on tiptoe of expectation. Dimick looked searchingly at Captain Cy. Then he sprang to his feet.
"Order!" he shouted. "What's all this got to do with nominatin' for school committee? Ain't he out of order, Alvin?"
The moderator hesitated. His habitual indecision was now complicated by the fact that he was as curious as the majority of those before him. There were shouts of, "Go ahead, Tad!" "Tell us the rest!" "Let him go on, Mr. Moderator!"
Cy Whittaker slowly rose.
"Alvin," he said earnestly, "don't stop him yet. As a favor to me, let him spin his yarn."
Simpson was ready and evidently eager to spin it.
"This man," he proclaimed, "this father, mournin' for his dead wife and longin' for his child, comes to the town where he was to find and take her. And when he meets the man that's got her, when he comes, poor and down on his luck, what does this man—this rich man—do? Why; fust of all, he's sweeter'n sirup to him, takes him in, keeps him overnight, and the next day he says to him: 'You just be quiet and say nothin' to nobody that she's your little girl. I'll make it wuth your while. Keep quiet till I'm ready for you to say it.' And he gives the father money—not much, but some. All right so fur, maybe; but wait! Then it turns out that the father knows about this land—this property. And THEN the kind, charitable man—this rich man with lots of money of his own—turns the poor father out, tellin' him to get the girl and the land if he can, knowin'—KNOWIN', mind you—that the father ain't got a cent to hire lawyers nor even to pay for his next meal. And when the father says he won't go, but wants his dear one that belongs to him, the rich feller abuses him, knocks him down with his fist! Knocks down a poor, weak, lame invalid, just off a sick bed! Is THAT the kind of a man we want on our school committee?"
He asked the question with both hands outspread and the perspiration running down his cheeks. The meeting was in an uproar.
"No need for me to tell you who I mean," shouted Tad, waving his arms. "You know who, as well as I do. You've just heard him praised as bein' all that's good and great. But I say—"
"You've said enough! Now let me say a word!"
It was Captain Cy who interrupted. He had pushed his way through the crowd, down the aisle, and now stood before the gesticulating Mr. Simpson, who shrank back as if he feared that the treatment accorded the "poor weak invalid" might be continued with him.
"Knowles," said Captain Cy, turning to the moderator, "let me speak, will you? I won't be but a minute. Friends," he continued, facing the excited gathering—"for some of you are my friends, or I've come to think you are—a part of what this man says is so. The girl at my house is Emily Thomas; her mother was Mary Thomas, who some of you know, and her father's name is Henry Thomas. She came to me unexpected, bein' sent by a Mrs. Oliver up to Concord, because 'twas either me or an orphan asylum. I took her in meanin' to keep her a little while, and then send her away. But as time went on I kept puttin' off and puttin' off, and at last I realized I couldn't do it; I'd come to think too much of her.
"Fellers," he went on, slowly, "I—I hardly know how to tell you what that little girl's come to be to me. When I first struck Bayport, after forty years away from it, all I thought of was makin' over the old place and livin' in it. I cal'lated it would be a sort of Paradise, and HOW I was goin' to live or whether or not I'd be lonesome with everyone of my folks dead and gone, never crossed my mind. But the longer I lived there alone the less like Paradise it got to be; I realized more and more that it ain't furniture and fixin's that make a home; it's them you love that's in it. And just as I'd about reached the conclusion that 'twas a failure, the whole business, why, then, Bos'n—Emily, that is—dropped in, and inside of a week I knew I'd got what was missin' in my life.
"I never married and children never meant much to me till I got her. She's the best little—little . . . There! I mustn't talk this way. I bluffed a lot about not keepin' her permanent, bein' kind of ashamed, I guess, but down inside me I'd made up my mind to bring her up like a daughter. She and me was to live together till she grew up and got married and I . . . Well, what's the use? A few days ago come a letter from the Oliver woman in Concord sayin' that this Henry Thomas, Bos'n's father, wan't dead at all, but had turned up there, havin' learned somehow or 'nother that his wife was gone and that his child had been willed a little bit of land which belonged to her mother. He had found out that Emmie was with me, and the letter said he would likely come after her—and the land.
"That letter was like a flash of lightnin' to me. I was dismasted and on my beam ends. I didn't know what to do. I'd learned enough about this Henry Thomas to know that he was no use, a drunken, good-for-nothin' scamp who had cruelized his wife and then run off and left her and the baby. But when he come, the very night I got the letter, I gave him a chance. I took him in; I was willin' to give him a job on the place; I was willin' to pay for his keep, and more. I DID ask him to keep his mouth shut and even to use another name. 'Twas weak of me, maybe, but you want to remember this had come on me sudden. And last night—the very second night, mind you—he went out somewhere, perhaps we can guess where, bought liquor with the money I gave him, got drunk, and then insulted one of the best women in this town. Yes, sir! I say it right here, one of the best, pluckiest little women anywhere, although she and I ain't always agreed on certain matters. I DID tell him to clear out, and I DID knock him down. Yes, and by the big dipper, I'd do it again under the same circumstances!
"As for the property," he added fiercely, "why, darn the property, I say! It ain't wuth much, anyhow, and, if 'twas anybody's else, he should have it and welcome. But it's Bos'n's, and, bein' what he is, he SHAN'T have it. And he shan't have HER to cruelize, neither! By the Almighty! he shan't, so long as I've got a dollar to fight him with. I say that to you, Tad Simpson, and to the man—to whoever put you up to this. There! I've said my say. Now, gentlemen, you can choose your side."
He strode back to his seat. There was silence for a moment. Then Josiah Dimick sprang up and waved his hat.
"That's the way to talk!" he shouted. "That's a MAN! Three cheers for Cap'n Whittaker! Come on, everybody!"
But everybody did not "come on." The cheers were feeble. It was evident that the majority of those present did not know how to meet this unexpected contingency. It had taken them by surprise and they were undecided. The uproar of argument and question began again, louder than ever. The bewildered moderator thumped his desk and shouted feebly for order. Tad Simpson took the floor and, in a few words and at the top of his lungs, nominated Alonzo Snow. Abel Leonard seconded the nomination. There were yells of "Question! Question!" and "Vote! Vote!"
Eben Salters was recognized by the chair. Captain Salters made few speeches, and when he did make one it was because he had something to say.
"Mr. Moderator," he said, "I, for one, hate to vote just now. It isn't that the school committee is so important of itself. But I do think that the rights of a father with his child IS pretty important, and our vote for Cap'n Whittaker—and most of you know I intended votin' for him and have been workin' for him—might seem like an indorsement of his position. This whole thing is a big surprise to me. I don't feel yet that we know enough of the inside facts to give such an indorsement. I'd like to see this Thomas man before I decide to give it—or not to give it, either. It's a queer thing to come up at town meetin', but it's up. Hadn't we better adjourn until next week?"
He sat down. The meeting was demoralized. Some were shouting for adjournment, others to "Vote it out." A straw would turn the scale and the straw was forthcoming. While Captain Cy was speaking the door had silently opened and two men entered the hall and sought seclusion in a corner. Now one of these men came forward—the Honorable Heman Atkins.
Mr. Atkins walked solemnly to the front, amidst a burst of recognition. Many of the voters rose to receive him. It was customary, when the great man condescended to attend such gatherings, to offer him a seat on the platform. This the obsequious Knowles proceeded to do. Asaph was too overcome by the disclosure of "John Smith's" identity and by Mr. Simpson's attack on his friend to remember even his manners. He did not rise, but sat stonily staring.
The moderator's gavel descended "Order!" he roared. "Order, I say! Congressman Atkins is goin' to talk to us."
The Honorable Heman faced the excited crowd. One hand was in the breast of his frock coat; the other was clenched upon his hip. He stood calm, benignant, dignified—the incarnation of wisdom and righteous worth. The attitude had its effect; the applause began and grew to an ovation. Men who had intended voting against his favored candidate forgot their intention, in the magnetism of his presence, and cheered. He bowed and bowed again.
"Fellow townsmen," he began, "far be it from me to influence your choice in the matter of the school committee. Still further be it from me to influence you against an old boyhood friend, a neighbor, one whom I believe—er—had believed to be all that was sincere and true. But, fellow townsmen, my esteemed friend, Captain Salters, has expressed a wish to see Mr. Thomas, the father whose story you have heard to-day. I happen to be in a position to gratify that wish. Mr. Thomas, will you kindly come forward?"
Then from the rear of the hall Mr. Thomas came. But the drunken rowdy of the night before had been transformed. Gone was the scrubby beard and the shabby suit. Shorn was the unkempt mop of hair and vanished the impudent swagger. He was dressed in clean linen and respectable black, and his manner was modest and subdued. Only a discoloration of one eye showed where Captain Cy's blow had left its mark.
He stepped upon the platform beside the congressman. The latter laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"Gentlemen and friends," said Heman, "my name has been brought into this controversy, by Mr. Simpson directly, and in insinuation by—er—another. Therefore it is my right to make my position clear. Mr. Thomas came to me last evening in distress, both of mind and body. He told me his story—substantially the story which has just been told to you by Mr. Simpson—and, gentlemen, I believe it. But if I did not believe it, if I believed him to have been in the past all that his opponent has said; even if I believed that, only last evening, spurned, driven from his child, penniless and hopeless, he had yielded to the weakness which has been his curse all his life—even if I believed that, still I should demand that Henry Thomas, repentant and earnest as you see him now, should be given his rightful opportunity to become a man again. He is poor, but he is not—shall not be—friendless. No! a thousand times, no! You may say, some of you, that the affair is not my business. I affirm that it IS my business. It is my business as a Christian, and that business should come before all others. I have not allowed sympathy to influence me. If that were the case, my regard for my neighbor and friend of former days would have held me firm. But, gentlemen, I have a child of my own. I know what a father's love is, as only a father can know it. And, after a sleepless night, I stand here before you to-day determined that this man shall have his own, if my money—which you will, I'm sure, forgive my mentioning—and my unflinching support can give it to him. That is my position, and I state it regardless of consequences." He paused, and with raised right hand, like the picture of Jove in the old academy mythology, launched his final thunderbolt. "Whom God hath joined," he proclaimed, "let no one put asunder!"
That settled it. The cheers shook the walls. Amidst the tumult Dimick and Bailey Bangs seized Captain Cy by the shoulders and endeavored to lift him from his seat.
"For the love of goodness, Whit!" groaned Josiah, desperately, "stand up and answer him. If you don't, we'll founder sure."
The captain smiled grimly and shook his head. He had not taken his eyes from the face of the great Atkins since the latter began speaking.
"What?" he replied. "After that 'put asunder' sockdolager? Man alive! do you want me to add Sabbath breakin' to my other crimes?"
The vote, by ballot, followed almost immediately. It was pitiful to see the erstwhile Whittaker majority melt away. Alonzo Snow was triumphantly elected. But a handful voted against him.
Captain Cy, still grimly smiling, rose and left the hall. As he closed the door, he heard the shrill voice of Uncle Bedny demanding justice for the Bassett's Hollow road.
It had, indeed, been a "memoriable" town meeting.
When Deacon Zeb Clark—the same Deacon Zeb who fell into the cistern, as narrated by Captain Cy—made his first visit to the city, years and years ago, he stayed but two days. As he had proudly boasted that he should remain in the metropolis at least a week, our people were much surprised at his premature return. To the driver of the butcher cart who found him sitting contentedly before his dwelling, amidst his desolate acres, the nearest neighbor a half mile away, did Deacon Zeb disclose his reason for leaving the crowded thoroughfares. "There was so many folks there," he said, "that I felt lonesome."
And Captain Cy, returning from the town meeting to the Whittaker place, felt lonesome likewise. Not for the Deacon's reason—he met no one on the main road, save a group of school children and Miss Phinney, and, sighting the latter in the offing, he dodged behind the trees by the schoolhouse pond and waited until she passed. But the captain, his trouble now heavy upon him, did feel the need of sympathy and congenial companionship. He knew he might count upon Dimick and Asaph, and, whenever Keturah's supervision could be evaded, upon Mr. Bangs. But they were not the advisers and comforters for this hour of need. All the rest of Bayport, he felt sure, would be against him. Had not King Heman the Great from the steps of the throne, banned him with the royal displeasure! "If Heman ever SHOULD come right out and say—" began Asaph's warning. Well, strange as it might seem, Heman had "come right out."
As to why he had come out there was no question in the mind of the captain. The latter had left Mr. Thomas, the prodigal father, prostrate and blasphemous in the road the previous evening. His next view of him was when, transformed and sanctified, he had been summoned to the platform by Mr. Atkins. No doubt he had returned to the barber shop and, in his rage and under Mr. Simpson's cross examination, had revealed something of the truth. Tad, the politician, recognizing opportunity when it knocked at his door, had hurried him to the congressman's residence. The rest was plain enough, so Captain Cy thought.
However, war was already declared, and the reasons for it mattered little. The first skirmish might occur at any moment. The situation was desperate. The captain squared his shoulders, thrust forward his chin, and walked briskly up the path to the door of the dining room. It was nearly one o'clock, but Bos'n had not yet gone. She was waiting, to the very last minute, for her "Uncle Cyrus."
"Hello, shipmate," he hailed. "Not headed for school yet? Good! I cal'late you needn't go this afternoon. I'm thinkin' of hirin' a team and drivin' to Ostable, and I didn't know but you'd like to go with me. Think you could, without that teacher woman havin' you brought up aft for mutiny?"
Bos'n thought it over.
"Yes, sir," she said; "I guess so, if you wrote me an excuse. I don't like to be absent, 'cause I haven't been before, but there's only my reading lesson this afternoon and I know that ever so well. I'd love to go, Uncle Cy."
The captain removed his coat and hat and pulled a chair forward to the table.
"Hello!" he exclaimed. "What's this—the mail?"
Bos'n smiled delightedly.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "I knew you was at the meeting and so I brought it from the office. Ain't you glad?"
"Sure! Yes, indeed! Much obliged. Tryin' to keep house without you would be like steerin' without a rudder."
Even as he said it there came to him the realization that he might have to steer without that rudder in the near future. His smile vanished. He smothered a groan and picked up the mail.
"Hum!" he mused, "the Breeze, a circular, and one letter. Hello! it isn't possible that—Well! well!"
The letter was in a long envelope. He hastily tore it open. At the inclosure he glanced in evident excitement. Then his smile returned.
"Bos'n," he said, after a moment's reflection, "I guess you and me won't have to go to Ostable after all." Noticing the child's look of disappointment, he added: "But you needn't go to school. Maybe you'd better not. You and me'll take a tramp alongshore. What do you say?"
"Oh, yes, Uncle Cy! Let's—shall we?"
"Why, I don't see why not. We'll cruise in company as long as we can, hey, little girl? The squall's likely to strike afore night," he muttered half aloud. "We'll enjoy the fine weather till it's time to shorten sail."
They walked all that afternoon. Captain Cy was even more kind and gentle with his small companion than usual. He told her stories which made her laugh, pointed out spots in the pines where he had played Indian when a boy, carried her "pig back" when she grew tired, and kissed her tenderly when, at the back door of the Whittaker place, he set her on her feet again.
"Had a good time, dearie?" he asked.
"Oh, splendid! I think it's the best walk we ever had, don't you, Uncle Cy?"
"I shouldn't wonder. You won't forget our cruises together when you are a big girl and off somewheres else, will you?"
"I'll NEVER forget 'em. And I'm never going anywhere without you."
It was after five as they entered the kitchen.
"Anybody been here while I was out?" asked the captain of Georgianna. The housekeeper's eyes were red and swollen, and she hugged Bos'n as she helped her off with her jacket and hood.
"Yes, there has," was the decided answer. "First Ase Tidditt, and then Bailey Bangs, and then that—that Angie Phinney."
"Humph!" mused Captain Cy slowly. "So Angie was here, was she? Where the carcass is the vultures are on deck, or words similar. Humph! Did our Angelic friend have much to say?"
"DID she? And I had somethin' to say, too! I never in my life!"
"Humph!" Her employer eyed her sharply. "So? And so soon? Talk about the telegraph spreadin' news! I'd back most any half dozen tongues in Bayport to spread more news, and add more trimmin' to it, in a day than the telegraph could do in a week. Especially if all the telegraph operators was like the one up at the depot. Well, Georgianna, when you goin' to leave?"
"Leave? Leave where? What are you talkin' about?"
"Leave here. Of course you realize that this ship of ours," indicating the house by a comprehensive wave of his hand around the room, "is goin' to be a mighty unpopular craft from now on. We may be on a lee shore any minute. You've got your own well-bein' to think of."
"My own well-bein'! What do you s'pose I care for my well-bein' when there's—Cap'n Whittaker, you tell me now! Is it so?"
"Some of it is—yes. He's come back and he's who he says he is. You've seen him. He was here all day yesterday."
"So Angie said, but I couldn't scarcely believe it. That toughy! Cap'n Whittaker, do you intend to hand over that poor little innocent thing to—to such a man as THAT?"
"No. There'll be no handin' over about it. But the odds are against us, and there's no reason why you should be in the rumpus, Georgianna. You may not understand what we're facin'."
The housekeeper drew herself up. Her face was very red and her small eyes snapped.
"Cy Whittaker," she began, manners and deference to employer alike forgotten, "don't you say no more of that wicked foolishness to me. I'll leave the minute you're mean-spirited enough to let that child go and not afore. And when THAT happens I'll be GLAD to leave. Land sakes! there's somebody at the door; and I expect I'm a perfect sight."
She rubbed her face with her apron, thereby making it redder than ever, and hurried into the dining room.
"Bos'n," said Captain Cy quickly, "you stay here in the kitchen."
Emmie looked at him in surprised bewilderment, but she suppressed her curiosity concerning the identity of the person who had knocked, and obeyed. The captain pulled the kitchen door almost shut and listened at the crack.
The first spoken words by the visitor appeared to relieve Captain Cy's anxiety; but they seemed to astonish him greatly.
"Why!" he exclaimed in a whisper. "Ain't that—It sounds like—"
"It's teacher," whispered Bos'n, who also had been listening. "She's come to find out why I wasn't at school. You tell her, Uncle Cy."
Georgianna returned to announce:
"It's Miss Dawes. She says she wants to see you, Cap'n. She's in the settin' room."
The captain drew a long breath. Then, repeating his command to Emmie to stay where she was, he left the room, closing the door behind him. The latter procedure roused Bos'n's indignation.
"What made him do that?" she demanded. "I haven't been bad. He NEVER shut me up before!"
The schoolmistress was standing by the center table in the sitting room when Captain Cy entered.
"Good evenin'," he said politely. "Won't you sit down?"
But Miss Dawes paid no attention to trivialities. She seemed much agitated.
"Cap'n Whittaker," she began, "I just heard something that—"
The captain interrupted her.
"Excuse me," he said, "but I think we'll pull down the curtains and have a little light on the subject. It gets dark early now, especially of a gray day like this one."
He drew the shades at the windows and lit the lamp on the table. The red glow behind the panes of the stove door faded into insignificance as the yellow radiance brightened. The ugly portraits and the stiff old engravings on the wall retired into a becoming dusk. The old-fashioned room became more homelike.
"Now won't you sit down?" repeated Captain Cy. "Take that rocker; it's the most comf'table one aboard—so Bos'n says, anyhow."
Miss Phoebe took the rocker, under protest. Her host remained standing.
"It's been a nice afternoon," he said. "Bos'n—Emmie, of course—and I have been for a walk. 'Twan't her fault, 'twas mine. I kept her out of school. I was—well, kind of lonesome."
The teacher's gray eyes flashed in the lamplight.
"Cap'n Whittaker," she cried, "please don't waste time. I didn't come here to talk about the weather nor Emily's reason for not attending school. I don't care why she was absent. But I have just heard of what happened at that meeting. Is it true that—" She hesitated.
"That Emmie's dad is alive and here? Yes, it's true."
"But—but that man last night? Was he THAT man?"
The captain nodded.
"That's the man," he said briefly.
Miss Dawes shuddered.
"Cap'n Whittaker," she asked earnestly, "are you sure he is really her father? Absolutely sure?"
"Sure and sartin."
"Then she belongs to him, doesn't she? Legally, I mean?"
"Are—are you going to give her up to him?"
"Then what I heard was true. You did say at the meeting that you were going to do your best to keep him from getting her."
"Um—hum! What I said amounts to just about that."
Captain Cy was surprised and a little disappointed apparently.
"Why?" he repeated.
"Well, for reasons I've got."
"Do you mind telling me the reasons?"
"I cal'late you don't want to hear 'em. If you don't understand now, then I can't make it much plainer, I'm afraid."
The little lady sprang to her feet.
"Oh, you are provoking!" she cried indignantly. "Can't you see that I want to hear the reasons from you yourself? Cap'n Whittaker, I shook hands with you last night."
"You remember I told you you'd better wait."
"I didn't want to wait. I believed I knew something of human nature, and I believed I had learned to understand you. I made up my mind to pay no more attention to what people said against you. I thought they were envious and disliked you because you did things in your own way. I wouldn't believe the stories I heard this afternoon. I wanted to hear you speak in your own defense and you refuse to do it. Don't you know what people are saying? They say you are trying to keep Emily because—Oh, I'm ashamed to ask it, but you make me: HAS the child got valuable property of her own?"
Captain Cy had been, throughout this scene, standing quietly by the table. Now he took a step forward.
"Miss Dawes," he said sharply, "sit down."
"Sit down, please."
The schoolmistress didn't mean to obey the order, but for some reason she did. The captain went on speaking.
"It's pretty plain," he said, "that what you heard at the boardin' house—for I suppose that's where you did hear it—was what you might call a Phinneyized story of the doin's at the meetin'. Well, there's another yarn, and it's mine; I'm goin' to spin it and I want you to listen."
He went on to spin his yarn. It was practically a repetition of his reply to Tad Simpson that morning. Its conclusion was also much the same.
"The land ain't worth fifty dollars," he declared, "but if it was fifty million he shouldn't have it. Why? Because it belongs to that little girl. And he shan't have her until he and those back of him have hammered me through the courts till I'm down forty fathom under water. And when they do get her—and, to be honest, I cal'late they will in the end—I hope to God I won't be alive to see it! There! I've answered you."
He was walking up and down the room, with the old quarter-deck stride, his hands jammed deep in his pockets and his face working with emotion.
"It's pretty nigh a single-handed fight for me," he continued, "but I've fought single-handed before. The other side's got almost all the powder and the men. Heman and Tad and that Thomas have got seven eighths of Bayport behind 'em, not to mention the 'Providence' they're so sure of. My crowd is a mighty forlorn hope: Dimick and Ase Tidditt, and Bailey, as much as his wife 'll let him. Oh, yes!" and he smiled whimsically, "there's another one. A new recruit's just joined; Georgianna's enlisted. That's my army. Sort of rag-jacketed cadets, we are, small potatoes, and few in a hill."
The teacher rose and laid a hand on his arm. He turned toward her. The lamplight shone upon her face, and he saw, to his astonishment, that there were tears in her eyes.
"Cap'n Whittaker," she said, "will you take an other recruit? I should like to enlist, please."
"You? Oh, pshaw! I'm thick-headed to-night. I didn't see the joke of it at first."
"There isn't any joke. I want you to know that I admire you for the fight you're making. Law or no law, to let that dear little girl go away with that dreadful father of hers is a sin and a crime. I came here to tell you so. I did want to hear your story, and you made me ask that question; but I was certain of your answer before you made it. I don't suppose I can do anything to help, but I'm going to try. So, you see, your army is bigger than you thought it was—though the new soldier isn't good for much, I'm afraid," she added, with a little smile.
Captain Cy was greatly disturbed.
"Miss Phoebe," he said, "I—I won't say that it don't please me to have you talk so, for it does, more'n you can imagine. Sympathy means somethin' to the under dog, and it gives him spunk to keep on kickin'. But you mustn't take any part in the row; you simply mustn't. It won't do."
"Why not? Won't I be ANY help?"
"Help? You'd be more help than all the rest of us put together. You and me haven't seen a great deal of each other, and my part in the few talks we have had has been a mean one, but I knew the first time I met you that you had more brains and common sense than any woman in this county—though I was too pig-headed to own it. But that ain't it. I got you the job of teacher. It's no credit to me; 'twas just bull luck and for the fun of jarrin' Heman. But I did it. And, because I did it, the Atkins crowd—and that means most everybody now—haven't any love for you. My tryin' for school committee was really just to give you a fair chance in your position. I was licked, so the committee's two to one against you. Don't you see that you mustn't have anything to do with me? Don't you SEE it?"
She shook her head.
"I see that common gratitude alone should be reason enough for my trying to help you," she said. "But, beside that, I know you are right, and I SHALL help, no matter what you say. As for the teacher's position, let them discharge me. I—"
"Don't talk that way. The youngsters need you, and know it, no matter what their fool fathers and mothers say. And you mustn't wreck your chances. You're young—"
"Oh, no! I'm not," she said. "Young! Cap'n Whittaker, you shouldn't joke about a woman's age."
"I ain't jokin'. You ARE young." As she stood there before him he was realizing, with a curiously uncomfortable feeling, how much younger she was than he. He glanced up at the mirror, where his own gray hairs were reflected, and repeated his assertion. "You're young yet," he said, "and bein' discharged from a place might mean a whole lot to you. I'm glad you take such an interest in Bos'n, and your comin' here on her account—"
He paused. Miss Dawes colored slightly and said:
"Your comin' here on her account was mighty good of you. But you've got to keep out of this trouble. And you mustn't come here again. That's owner's orders. Why, I'm expectin' a boardin' party any minute," he added. "I thought when you knocked it was 'papa' comin' for his child. You'd better go."
But she stood still.
"I shan't go," she declared. "Or, at least, not until you promise to let me try to help you. If they come, so much the better. They'll learn where my sympathies are."
Captain Cy scratched his head.
"See here, Miss Phoebe," he said. "I ain't sure that you fully understand that Scripture and everything else is against us. Did Angie turn loose on you the 'Whom the Lord has joined' avalanche?"
The schoolmistress burst into a laugh. The captain laughed, too, but his gravity quickly returned. For steps sounded on the walk, there was a whispering outside, and some one knocked on the dining-room door.
The situation was similar to that of the evening when the Board of Strategy called and "John Smith" made his first appearance. But now, oddly enough, Captain Cy seemed much less troubled. He looked at Miss Dawes and there was a dancing twinkle in his eye.
"Is it—" began the lady, in an agitated whisper.
"The boardin' party? I presume likely."
"But what can you do?"
"Stand by the repel, I guess," was the calm reply. "I told you that they had most of the ammunition, but ours ain't all blank cartridges. You stay below and listen to the broadsides."
They heard Georgianna cross the dining room. There was a murmur of voices at the door. The captain nodded.
"It's them," he said. "Well, here goes. Now don't you show yourself."
"Do you think I am afraid? Indeed, I shan't stay 'below' as you call it! I shall let them see—"
Captain Cy held up his hand.
"I'm commodore of this fleet," he said; "and that bein' the case, I expect my crew to obey orders. There's nothin' you can do, and—Why, yes! there is, too. You can take care of Bos'n. Georgianna," to the housekeeper who, looking frightened and nervous, had appeared at the door, "send Bos'n in here quick."
"They're there," whispered Georgianna. "Mr. Atkins and Tad and that Thomas critter, and lots more. And they've come after her. What shall we do?"
"Jump when I speak to you, that's the first thing. Send Bos'n in here and you stay in your galley."
Emily came running. Miss Dawes put an arm about her. Captain Cy, the battle lanterns still twinkling under his brows, stepped forth to meet the "boarding party."
They were there, as Georgianna had said. Mr. Thomas on the top step, Heman and Simpson on the next lower, and behind them Abel Leonard and a group of interested volunteers, principally recruited from the back room of the barber shop.
"Evenin', gentlemen," said the captain, opening the door so briskly that Mr. Thomas started backward and came down heavily upon the toes of the devoted Tad. Mr. Simpson swore, Mr. Thomas clawed about him to gain equilibrium, and the dignity of the group was seriously impaired.
"Evenin'," repeated Captain Cy. "Quite a surprise party you're givin' me. Come in."
"Cyrus," began the Honorable Atkins, "we are here to claim—"
"Give me my daughter, you robber!" demanded Thomas, from his new position in the rear of the other two.
"Mr. Thomas," said Heman, "please remember that I am conducting this affair. I respect the natural indignation of an outraged father, but—ahem! Cyrus, we are here to claim—"
"Then do your claimin' inside. It's kind of chilly to-night, there's plenty of empty chairs, and we don't need to hold an overflow meetin'. Come ahead in."
The trio looked at each other in hesitation. Then Mr. Atkins majestically entered the dining room. Thomas and Simpson followed him.
"Abe," observed Captain Cy to Leonard, who was advancing toward the steps, "I'm sorry not to be hospitable, but there's too many of you to invite at once, and 'tain't polite to show partiality. You and the rest are welcome to sit on the terrace or stroll 'round the deer park. Good night."
He closed the door in the face of the disappointed Abel and turned to the three in the room.
"Well," he said, "out with it. You've come to claim somethin', I understand."
"I come for my rights," shouted Mr. Thomas.
"Yes? Well, this ain't State's prison or I'd give 'em to you with pleasure. Heman, you'd better do the talkin'. We'll probably get ahead faster."
The Honorable cleared his throat and waved his hand.
"Cyrus," he began, "you are my boyhood friend and my fellow townsman and neighbor. Under such circumstances it gives me pain—"
"Then don't let us discuss painful subjects. Let's get down to business. You've come to rescue Bos'n—Emily, that is,—from the 'robber'—I'm quotin' Deacon Thomas here—that's got her, so's to turn her over to her sorrowin' father. Is that it? Yes. Well, you can't have her—not yet."
"Cyrus," said Mr. Atkins, "I'm sorry to see that you take it this way. You haven't the shadow of a right. We have the law with us, and your conduct will lead us to invoke it. The constable is outside. Shall I call him in?"
"Uncle Bedny" was the town constable and had been since before the war. The purely honorary office was given him each year as a joke. Captain Cy grinned broadly, and even Tad was obliged to smile.
"Don't be inhuman, Heman," urged the captain. "You wouldn't turn me over to be man-handled by Uncle Bedny, would you?"
"This is not a humorous affair—" began the congressman, with dignity. But the "bereaved father" had been prospecting on his own hook, and now he peeped into the sitting room.
"Here she is!" he shouted. "I see her. Come on, Emmie! Your dad's come for you. Let go of her, you woman! What do you mean by holdin' on to her?"
The situation which was "not humorous" immediately became much less so. The next minute was a lively one. It ended as Mr. Thomas was picked up by Tad from the floor, where he had fallen, having been pushed violently over a chair by Captain Cy. Bos'n, frightened and sobbing, was clinging wildly to Miss Dawes, who had clung just as firmly to her. The captain's voice rang through the room.
"That's enough," he said. "That's enough and some over. Atkins, take that feller out of this house and off my premises. As for the girl, that's for us to fight out in the courts. I'm her guardian, lawfully appointed, and you nor nobody else can touch her while that appointment's good. Here it is—right here. Now look at it and clear out."
He held, for the congressman's inspection, the document which, inclosed in the long envelope, had been received that morning. His visit to Ostable, made some weeks before, had been for the purpose of applying to the probate court for the appointment as Emily's guardian. He had applied before the news of her father's coming to life reached him. The appointment itself had arrived just in time.
Mr. Atkins studied the document with care. When he spoke it was with considerable agitation and without his usual diplomacy.
"Humph!" he grunted. "Humph! I see. Well, sir, I have some influence in this section and I shall see how long your—your TRICK will prevent the child's going where she belongs. I wish you to understand that I shall continue this fight to the very last. I—I am not one to be easily beaten. Simpson, you and Thomas come with me. This night's despicable chicanery is only the beginning. This is bad business for you, Cy Whittaker," he snarled, his self-control vanishing, "and"—with a vindictive glance at the schoolmistress—"for those who are with you in it. That appointment was obtained under false pretenses and I can prove it. Your tricks don't scare me. I've had experience with TRICKS before."
"Yup. So I've heard. Well, Heman, I ain't as well up in tricks as you claim to be, nor my stockin' isn't as well padded as yours, maybe. But while there's a ten-cent piece left in the toe of it I'll fight you and the skunk whose 'rights' you seem to have taken such a shine to. And, after that, while there's a lawyer that 'll trust me. And, meantime, that little girl stays right here, and you touch her if you dare, any of you! Anything more to say?"
But the Honorable's dignity had returned. Possibly he thought he had said too much already. A moment later the door banged behind the discomforted boarding party.
Captain Cy pulled his beard and laughed.
"Well, we repelled 'em, didn't we?" he observed. "But, as friend Heman says, the beginnin's only begun. I wish he hadn't seen you here, teacher."
Miss Dawes looked up from the task of stroking poor Bos'n's hair.
"I don't," she said, "I'm glad of it." Then she added, laughing nervously: "Cap'n Whittaker, how could you be so cool? It was like a play. I declare, you were just splendid!"
Josiah Dimick has a unique faculty of grasping a situation and summing it up in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
"I think," observed Josiah to the excited group at Simmons's, "that this town owes Cy Whittaker a vote of thanks."
"Thanks!" gasped Alpheus Smalley, so shocked and horrified that he put the one-pound weight on the scales instead of the half pound. "THANKS! After what we've found out? Well, I must say!"
"Ya-as," drawled Captain Josiah, "thanks was what I said. If it wan't for him this gang and the sewin' circle wouldn't have nothin' to talk about but their neighbors. Our reputations would be as full of holes as a skimmer by this time. Now all hands are so busy jumpin' on Whit, that the rest of us can feel fairly safe. Ain't that so, Gabe?"
Mr. Lumley, who had stopped in for a half pound of tea, grinned feebly, but said nothing. If he noticed the clerk's mistake in weights he didn't mention it, but took his package and hurried out. After his departure Mr. Smalley himself discovered the error and charged the Lumley account with "1 1/4 lbs. Mixed Green and Black." Meanwhile the assemblage about the stove had put Captain Cy on the anvil and was hammering him vigorously.
Bayport was boiling over with rumor and surmise. Heman had appealed to the courts asking that Captain Cy's appointment as Bos'n's guardian be rescinded. Cy had hired Lawyer Peabody, of Ostable, to look out for his interests. Mr. Atkins and the captain had all but come to blows over the child. Thomas, the poor father, had broken down and wept, and had threatened to commit suicide. Mrs. Salters had refused to speak to Captain Cy when she met the latter after meeting on Sunday. The land in Orham had been sold and the captain was using the money. Phoebe Dawes had threatened to resign if Bos'n came to school any longer. No, she had threatened to resign if she didn't come to school. She hadn't threatened to resign at all, but wanted higher wages because of the effect the scandal might have on her reputation as a teacher. These were a few of the reports, contradicted and added to from day to day.
To quote Josiah Dimick again: "Sortin' out the truth from the lies is like tryin' to find a quart of sardines in a schooner load of herrin'. And they dump in more herrin' every half hour."
Angeline Phinney was having the time of her life. The perfect boarding house hummed like a fly trap. Keturah and Mrs. Tripp had deserted to the enemy, and the minority, meaning Asaph and Bailey, had little opportunity to defend their friend's cause, even if they had dared. Heman Atkins, his Christian charity and high-mindedness, his devotion to duty, regardless of political consequences, and the magnificent speech at town meeting were lauded and exalted. The Bayport Breeze contained a full account of the meeting, and it was read aloud by Keturah, amidst hymns of praise from the elect.
"'Whom the Lord hath joined,'" read Mrs. Bangs, "'let no man put asunder.' Ain't that splendid? Ain't that FINE? The paper says: 'When Congressman Atkins delivered this noble sentiment a hush fell upon the excited throng.' I should think 'twould. I remember when I was married the minister said pretty nigh the same thing, and I COULDN'T speak. I couldn't have opened my mouth to save me. Don't you remember I couldn't, Bailey?"
Mr. Bangs nodded gloomily. It is possible that he wished the effect of the minister's declaration might have been more lasting. Asaph stirred in his chair.
"I don't care," he said. "This puttin' asunder business is all right, but there's always two sides to everything. I see this Thomas critter when he fust come, and he didn't look like no saint then—nor smell like one, neither, unless 'twas a specimen pickled in alcohol."
Here was irreverence almost atheistic. Keturah's face showed her shocked disapproval. Matilda Tripp voiced the general sentiment.
"Humph!" she sniffed. "Well, all I can say is that I've met Mr. Thomas two or three times, and I didn't notice anything but politeness and good manners. Maybe my nose ain't so fine for smellin' liquor as some folks's—p'raps it ain't had the experience—but all I saw was a poor lame man with a black eye. I pitied him, and I don't care who hears me say it."
"Yes," concurred Miss Phinney, "and if he was a drinkin' man, do you suppose Mr. Atkins would have anything to do with him? Cyrus Whittaker made a whole lot of talk about his insultin' some woman or other, but nobody knows who the woman was. 'Bout time for her to speak up, I should think. Teacher," turning to Miss Dawes, "you was at the Whittaker place when Mr. Atkins and Emily's father come for her, I understand. I wish I'd have been there. It must have been wuth seein'."
"It was," replied Miss Dawes. She had kept silent throughout the various discussions of the week following the town meeting, but now, thus appealed to, she answered promptly.
Angeline's news created a sensation. The schoolmistress immediately became the center of interest.
"Is that so? Was you there, teacher? Well, I declare!" The questions and exclamations flew round the table.
"Tell us, teacher," pleaded Keturah. "Wasn't Heman grand? I should so like to have heard him. Didn't Cap'n Whittaker look ashamed of himself?"
"No, he did not. If anyone looked ashamed it was Mr. Atkins and his friends. Perhaps I ought to tell you that my sympathies are entirely with Captain Whittaker in this affair. To give that little girl up to a drunken scoundrel like her father would, in my opinion, be a crime."
The boarders and the landlady gasped. Asaph grinned and nudged Bailey under the table. Keturah was the first to recover.
"Well!" she exclaimed. "Everybody's got a right to their opinion, of course. But I can't see the crime, myself. And as for the drunkenness, I'd like to know who's seen Mr. Thomas drunk. Cyrus Whittaker SAYS he has, but—"
She waved her hand scornfully. Phoebe rose from her chair.
"I have seen him in that condition," she said. "In fact, I am the person he insulted. I saw Captain Whittaker knock him down, and I honored the captain for it. I only wished I were a man and could have done it myself."
She left the room, and, a few moments later, the house. Mr. Tidditt chuckled aloud. Even Bailey dared to look pleased.
"There!" sneered the widow Tripp. "Ain't that—Perhaps you remember that Cap'n Whittaker got her the teacher's place?"
"Yes," put in Miss Phinney, "and nobody knows WHY he got it for her. That is, nobody has known up to now. Maybe we can begin to guess a little after this."
"She was at his house, was she?" observed Keturah. "Humph! I wonder why? Seems to me if I was a young—that is, a single woman like her, I'd be kind of careful about callin' on bachelors. Humph! it looks funny to me."
Asaph rose and pushed back his chair.
"I cal'late she called to see Emily," he said sharply. "The child was her scholar, and I presume likely, knowin' the kind of father that has turned up for the poor young one, she felt sorry for her. Of course, nobody's hintin' anything against Phoebe Dawes's character. If you want a certificate of that, you've only got to go to Wellmouth. Folks over there are pretty keen on that subject. I guess the town would go to law about it rather'n hear a word against her. Libel suits are kind of uncomf'table things for them that ain't sure of their facts. I'D hate to get mixed up in one, myself. Bailey, I'm going up street. Come on, when you can, won't you?"
As if frightened at his own display of spirit, he hurried out. There was silence for a time; then Miss Phinney spoke concerning the weather.
Up at the Cy Whittaker place the days were full ones. There, also, legal questions were discussed, with Georgianna, the Board of Strategy, Josiah Dimick occasionally, and, more infrequently still, Miss Dawes, as participants with Captain Cy in the discussions. Rumors were true in so far as they related to Mr. Atkins's appeal to the courts, and the captain's retaining Lawyer Peabody, of Ostable. Mr. Peabody's opinion of the case was not encouraging.
"You see, captain," he said, when his client visited him at his office, "the odds are very much against us. The court appointed you as guardian with the understanding that this man Thomas was dead. Now he is alive and claims his child. More than that, he has the most influential politician in this county back of him. We wouldn't stand a fighting chance except for one thing—Thomas himself. He left his wife and the baby; deserted them, so she said; went to get work, HE says. We can prove he was a drunken blackguard BEFORE he went, and that he has been drunk since he came back. But THEY'LL say—Atkins and his lawyer—that the man was desperate and despairing because of your refusal to give him his child. They'll hold him up as a repentant sinner, anxious to reform, and needing the little girl's influence to help keep him straight. That's their game, and they'll play it, be sure of that, It sounds reasonable enough, too, for sinners have repented before now. And the long-lost father coming back to his child is the one sure thing to win applause from the gallery, you know that."
Captain Cy nodded.
"Yup," he said, "I know it. The other night, when Miss Ph— when a friend of mine was at the house, she said this business was like a play. I didn't say so to her, but all the same I realize it ain't like a play at all. In a play dad comes home, havin' been snaked bodily out of the jaws of the tomb by his coat collar, and the young one sings out 'Papa! Papa!' and he sobs, 'Me child! Me child!' and it's all lovely, and you put on your hat feelin' that the old man is goin' to be rich and righteous for the rest of his days. But here it's different; dad's a rascal, and anybody who's seen anything of the world knows he's bound to stay so; and as for the poor little girl, why—why—"
He stopped, rose, and, striding over to the window, stood looking out. After an interval, during which the good-natured attorney read a dull business letter through for the second time, he spoke again.
"I hope you understand, Peabody," he said. "It ain't just selfishness that makes me steer the course I'm runnin'. Course, Bos'n's got to be the world and all to me, and if she's taken away I don't know's I care a tinker's darn what happens afterwards. But, all the same, if her dad was a real man, sorry for what he's done and tryin' to make up for it—why, then, I cal'late I'm decent enough to take off my hat, hand her over, and say: 'God bless you and good luck.' But to think of him carryin' her off the Lord knows where, to neglect her and cruelize her, and to let her grow up among fellers like him, I—I—by the big dipper, I can't do it! That's all; I can't!"
"How does she feel about it, herself?" asked Peabody.
"Her? Bos'n? Why, that's the hardest of all. Some of the children at school pester her about her father. I don't know's you can blame 'em; young ones are made that way, I guess—but she comes home to me cryin', and it's 'O Uncle Cy, he AIN'T my truly father, is he?' and 'You won't let him take me away from you, will you?' till it seems as if I should fly out of the window. The poor little thing! And that puffed-up humbug Atkins blowin' about his Christianity and all! D—n such Christianity as that, I say! I've seen heathen Injuns, who never heard of Christ, with more of His spirit inside 'em. There! I've shocked you, I guess. Sometimes I think this place is too narrer and cramped for me. I've been around, you know, and my New England bringin' up has wore thin in spots. Seem's if I must get somewheres and spread out, or I'll bust."
He threw himself into a chair. The lawyer clapped him on the shoulder.
"There, there, captain," he said. "Don't 'bust' yet awhile. Don't give up the ship. If we lose in one court, we can appeal to another, and so on up the line. And meantime we'll do a little investigating of friend Thomas's career since he left Concord. I've written to a legal acquaintance of mine in Butte, giving him the facts as we know them, and a description of Thomas. He will try to find out what the fellow did in his years out West. It's our best chance, as I told you. Keep your pluck up and wait and see."
The captain repeated this conversation to the Board of Strategy when he returned to Bayport. Miss Dawes had walked home from school with Bos'n, and had stopped at the house to hear the report. She listened, but it was evident that something else was on her mind.
"Captain Whittaker," she asked, "has it ever struck you as queer that Mr. Atkins should take such an interest in this matter? He is giving time and counsel and money to help this man Thomas, who is a perfect stranger to him. Why does he do it?"
Captain Cy smiled.
"Why?" he repeated. "Why, to down me, of course. I was gettin' too everlastin' prominent in politics to suit him. I'd got you in as teacher, and I had 'Lonzo Snow as good as licked for school committee. Goodness knows what I might have run for next, 'cordin' to Heman's reasonin', and I simply had to be smashed. It worked all right. I'm so unhealthy now in the sight of most folks in this town, that I cal'late they go home and sulphur-smoke their clothes after they meet me, so's not to catch my wickedness."
But the teacher shook her head.
"That doesn't seem reason enough to me," she declared. "Just see what Mr. Atkins has done. He never openly advocated anything in town meeting before; you said so yourself. Even when he must have realized that you had the votes for committeeman he kept still. He might have taken many of them from you by simply coming out and declaring for Mr. Snow; but he didn't. And then, all at once, he takes this astonishing stand. Captain Whittaker, Mr. Tidditt says that, the night of Emily's birthday party, you and he told who she was, by accident, and that Mr. Atkins seemed very much surprised and upset. Is that so?"
Captain Cy laughed.
"His lemonade was upset; that's all I noticed special. Oh! yes, and he lost his hat off, goin' home. But what of it? What are you drivin' at?"
"I was wondering if—if it could be that, for some reason, Mr. Atkins had a spite against Emily or her people. Or if he had any reason to fear her."
"Fear? Fear Bos'n? Oh, my, that's funny! You've been readin' novels, I'm 'fraid, teacher, 'though I didn't suspect it of you."
He laughed heartily. Miss Dawes smiled, too, but she still persisted.
"Well," she said, "I don't know. Perhaps it is because I'm a woman, and politics don't mean as much to me as to you men, but to me political reasons don't seem strong enough to account for such actions as those of Mr. Atkins. Emily's mother was a Thayer, wasn't she? and the Thayers once lived in Orham. I wish we could find out more about them while they lived there."
Asaph Tidditt pulled his beard thoughtfully.
"Well," he observed, "maybe we can, if we want to, though I don't think what we find out 'll amount to nothin'. I was kind of cal'latin' to go to Orham next week on a little visit. Seth Wingate over there—Barzilla Wingate's cousin, Whit—is a sort of relation of mine, and we visit back and forth every nine or ten year or so. The ten year's most up, and he's been pesterin' me to come over. Seth's been Orham town clerk about as long as I've been the Bayport one, and he's lived there all his life. What he don't know about Orham folks ain't wuth knowin'. If you say so, I'll pump him about the Thayers and the Richards. 'Twon't do no harm, and the old fool likes to talk, anyhow. I don't know's I ought to speak that way about my relations," he added doubtfully, "but Seth IS sort of stubborn and unlikely at odd times. We don't always agree as to which is the best town to live in, you understand."
So it was settled that Mr. Wingate should be subjected to the "pumping" process when Asaph visited him. He departed for this visit the following week, and remained away for ten days. Meanwhile several things happened in Bayport.
One of these things was the farewell of the Honorable Heman Atkins. Congress was to open at Washington, and the Honorable heeded the call of duty. Alicia and the housekeeper went with him, and the big house was closed for the winter. At the gate between the stone urns, and backed by the iron dogs, the great man bade a group of admiring constituents good-by. He thanked them for their trust in him, and promised that it should not be betrayed.
"I leave you, my fellow townsmen, er—ladies and friends," he said, "with regret, tempered by pride—a not inexcusable pride, I believe. In the trying experience which my self-respect and sympathy has so recently forced upon me, you have stood firm and cheered me on. The task I have undertaken, the task of restoring to a worthy man his own, shall be carried on to the bitterest extremity. I have put my hand to the plow, and it shall not be withdrawn. And, furthermore, I go to my work at Washington determined to secure for my native town the appropriation which it so sorely needs. I shall secure it if I can, even though—" and the sarcasm was hugely enjoyed by his listeners—"I am, as I seem likely to be, deprived of the help of the 'committee,' self-appointed at our recent town meeting. If I fail—and I do not conceal the fact that I may fail—I am certain you will not blame me. Now I should like to shake each one of you by the hand."
The hands were shaken, and the train bore the Atkins delegation away. And, on the day following, Mr. Thomas, the prodigal father, also left town. A position in Boston had been offered him, he said, and he felt that he must accept it. He would come back some of these days, with the warrant from the court, and get his little girl.
"Position offered him! Um—ya-as!" quoth Dimick the cynical, in conversation with Captain Cy. "Inspector of sidewalks, I shouldn't wonder. Well, please don't ask me if I think Heman sent him to Boston so's to have him out of the way, and 'cause he'd feel consider'ble safer than if he was loose down here. Don't ask me that, for, with my strict scruples against the truth I might say, No. As it is, I say nothin'—and wink my port eye."
The ten-day visit ended, Mr. Tidditt returned to Bayport. On the afternoon of his return he and Bailey called at the Whittaker place, and there they were joined by Miss Dawes, who had been summoned to the conclave by a note intrusted to Bos'n.
"Now, Ase," ordered Captain Cy, as the quartet gathered in the sitting room, "here we are, hangin' on your words, as the feller said. Don't keep us strung up too long. What did you find out?"
The town clerk cleared his throat. When he spoke, there was a trace of disappointment in his tone. To have been able to electrify his audience with the news of some startling discovery would have been pure joy for Asaph.
"Well," he began, "I don't know's I found out anything much. Yet I did find out somethin', too; but it don't really amount to nothin'. I hoped 'twould be somethin' more'n 'twas, but when nothin' come of it except the little somethin' it begun with, I—"
"For the land sakes!" snapped Bailey Bangs, who was a trifle envious of his friend's position in the center of the stage, "stop them 'nothin's' and 'somethin's,' won't you? You keep whirlin' 'em round and over and over till my head's FULL of 'nothin',' and—"
"That's what it's full of most of the time," interrupted Asaph tartly. Captain Cy hastened to act as peacemaker.
"Never mind, Bailey," he said; "you let Ase alone. Tell us what you did find out, Ase, and cut out the trimmin's."
"Well," continued Mr. Tidditt, with a glare at Bangs, "I asked Seth about the Thayers and the Richards folks the very fust night I struck Orham. He remembered 'em, of course; he can remember Adam, if you let him tell it. He told me a whole mess about old man Thayer and old man Richards and their granddads and grandmarms, and what houses they lived in, and how many hens they kept, and what their dog's name was, and how they come to name him that, and enough more to fill a hogshead. 'Twas ten o'clock afore he got out of Genesis, and down so fur as John and Emily. He remembered their bein' married, and their baby—Mary Thayer, Bos'n's ma—bein' born.
"Folks used to call John Thayer a smart young feller, so Seth said. They used to cal'late that he'd rise high in the seafarin' and ship-ownin' line. Maybe he would, only he died somewheres in Californy 'long in '54 or thereabouts. 'Twas the time of the gold craziness out there, and he left his ship and went gold huntin'. And the next thing they knew he was dead and buried."
"When was that?" inquired the schoolmistress.
"In '54, I tell you. So Seth says."
"What ship was he on?" asked Bailey.
"Wan't on any ship. Why don't you listen, instead of settin' there moonin'? He was gold diggin', I tell you."
"He'd BEEN on a ship, hadn't he? What was the name of her?"
"I didn't ask. What diff'rence does that make?"
"Wasn't Mr. Atkins at sea in those days?" put in the teacher. The captain answered her.
"Yes, he was," he said. "That is, I think he was. He was away from here when I skipped out, and he didn't get back till '61 or thereabouts."
"Well, anyhow," went on Asaph, "that's all I could find out. Seth and me went rummagin' through town records from way back to glory, him gassin' away and stringin' along about this old settler and that, till I 'most wished he'd choke himself with the dust he was raisin'. We found John's grandad's will, and Emily's dad's will, and John's own will, and that's all. John left everything he had and all he might become possessed of to his wife and baby and their heirs forever. He died poorer'n poverty. What's the use of a will when you ain't got nothin' to leave?"
"Why!" exclaimed Captain Cy. "The answer to that's easy. John was goin' to sea, and, more'n likely, intended to have a shy at the diggin's afore he got back. So, if he did make any money, he wanted his wife and baby to have it."
"Well, what they got wan't wuth havin'. Emily had to scrimp along and do dressmakin' till she died. She done fairly well at that, though, and saved somethin' and passed it over to Mary. And Mary married Henry Thomas, after she went with the Howes tribe to Concord, and he got rid of it for her in double quick time—all but the Orham land."
"So that was all you could find out, hey, Ase?" asked the captain. "Well, it's at least as much as I expected. You see, teacher, these story-book notions don't work out when it comes to real life."
Miss Dawes was plainly disappointed.
"I wish we knew more," she said. "Who was on this ship with Mr. Thayer? And who sent the news of his death home?"
"Oh, I can tell you that," said Asaph. "'Twas some one-hoss doctor out there, gold minin' himself, he was. John died of a quick fever. Got cold and went off in no time. Seth remembered that much, though he couldn't remember the doctor's name. He said, if I wanted to learn more about the Thayers, I might go see—Humph, well, never mind that. 'Twas just foolishness, anyhow."
But Phoebe persisted.
"To see whom?" she asked. "Some one you knew? A friend of yours?"
Asaph turned red.
"Friend of mine!" he snarled. "No, SIR! she ain't no friend of mine, I'm thankful to say. More a friend of Bailey's, here, if she's anybody's. One of his pets, she was, for a spell. A patient of his, you might say; anyhow, he prescribed for her. 'Twas that deef idiot, Debby Beasley, Cy; that's who 'twas. Her name was Briggs afore she married Beasley, and she was hired help for Emily Thayer, when Mary was born, and until John died."
Captain Cy burst into a roar of laughter. Bailey sprang out of his chair.
"De—Debby Beasley!" he stammered. "Debby Beasley!"
"She was that deef housekeeper Bailey hired for me, teacher," explained the captain. "I've told you about her. Ho! ho! so that's the end of the mystery huntin'. We go gunnin' for Heman Atkins, and we bring down Debby! Well, Ase, goin' to see the old lady?"
Mr. Tidditt's retort was emphatic.
"Goin' to SEE her?" he repeated. "I guess not! Godfrey scissors! I told Seth, says I, 'I've had all the Debby Beasley I want, and I cal'late Cy Whittaker feels the same way.' Go to see her! I wouldn't go to see her if she was up in Paradise a-hollerin' for me."
"Nobody up there's goin' to holler for YOU, Ase Tidditt," remarked Bailey, with sarcasm; "so don't let that worry you none."
"Are YOU going to see her, Captain Whittaker?" asked Phoebe.
The captain shook his head.
"Why, no, I guess not," he said. "I don't take much stock in what she'd be likely to know; besides, I'm a good deal like Ase—I've had about all the Debby Beasley I want."
DEBBY BEASLEY TO THE RESCUE
"Mrs. Bangs," said the schoolmistress, as if it was the most casual thing in the world, "I want to borrow your husband to-morrow."
It was Friday evening, and supper at the perfect boarding house had advanced as far as the stewed prunes and fruit-cake stage. Keturah, who was carefully dealing out the prunes, exactly four to each saucer, stopped short, spoon in air, and gazed at Miss Dawes.
"You—you want to WHAT?" she asked.
"I want to borrow your husband. I want him all day, too, because I'm thinking of driving over to Trumet, and I need a coachman. You'll go, won't you, Mr. Bangs?"
Bailey, who had been considering the advisability of asking for a second cup of tea, brightened up and looked pleased.
"Why, yes," he answered, "I'll go. I can go just as well as not. Fact is, I'd like to. Ain't been to Trumet I don't know when."
Miss Phinney and the widow Tripp looked at each other. Then they both looked at Keturah. That lady's mouth closed tightly, and she resumed her prune distribution.
"I'm sorry," she said crisply, "but I'm 'fraid he can't go. It's Saturday, and I'll need him round the house. Do you care for cake to-night, Elviry? I'm 'fraid it's pretty dry; I ain't had time to do much bakin' this week."
"Of course," continued the smiling Phoebe, "I shouldn't think of asking him to go for nothing. I didn't mean borrow him in just that way. I was thinking of hiring your horse and buggy, and, as I'm not used to driving, I thought perhaps I might engage Mr. Bangs to drive for me. I expected to pay for the privilege. But, as you need him, I suppose I must get my rig and driver somewhere else. I'm so sorry."
The landlady's expression changed. This was the dull season, and opportunities to "let" the family steed and buggy—"horse and team," we call it in Bayport—were few.
"Well," she observed, "I don't want to be unlikely and disobligin'. Far's he's concerned, he'd rather be traipsin' round the country than stay to home, any day; though it's been so long sence he took ME to ride that I don't know's I'd know how to act."
"Why, Ketury!" protested her husband. "How you talk! Didn't I drive you down to the graveyard only last Sunday—or the Sunday afore?"
"Graveyard! Yes, I notice our rides always fetch up at the graveyard. You're always willin' to take me THERE. Seems sometimes as if you enjoyed doin' it."
"Now, Keturah! you know yourself that 'twas you proposed goin' there. You said you wanted to look at our lot, 'cause you was afraid 'twan't big enough, and you didn't know but we'd ought to add on another piece. You said that it kept you awake nights worryin' for fear when I passed away you wouldn't have room in that lot for me. Land sakes! don't I remember? Didn't you give me the blue creeps talkin' about it?"
Mrs. Bangs ignored this outburst. Turning to the school teacher, she said with a sigh:
"Well, I guess he can go. I'll get along somehow. I hope he'll be careful of the buggy; we had it painted only last January."
Mrs. Tripp ventured a hinted question concerning the teacher's errand at Trumet. The reply being noncommittal, the widow cheerfully prophesied that she guessed 'twas going to rain or snow next day. "It's about time for the line storm," she added.
But it did not storm, although a brisk, cold gale was blowing when, after breakfast next morning, the "horse and team," with Bailey in his Sunday suit and overcoat, and Miss Dawes on the buggy seat beside him, turned out of the boarding-house yard and started on the twelve-mile journey to Trumet.
It was a bleak ride. Denboro, the village adjoining Bayport on the bay side, is a pretty place, with old elms and silverleafs shading the main street in summer, and with substantial houses set each in its trim yard. But beyond Denboro the Trumet road winds out over rolling, bare hills, with cranberry bogs, now flooded and skimmed with ice, in the hollows between them, clumps of bayberry and beach-plum bushes scattered over their rounded slopes, and white scars in their sides showing where the cranberry growers have cut away the thin layer of coarse grass and moss to reach the sand beneath, sand which they use in preparing their bogs for the new vines.
And the wind! There is always a breeze along the Trumet road, even in summer—when the mosquitoes lie in wait to leeward like buccaneers until, sighting the luckless wayfarer in the offing, they drive down before the wind in clouds, literally to eat him alive. They are skilled navigators, those Trumet road mosquitoes, and they know the advantage of snug harbors under hat brims and behind spreading ears. And each individual smashed by a frantic palm leaves a thousand blood relatives to attend his funeral and exact revenge after the Corsican fashion.
Now, in December, there were, of course, no mosquitoes, but the wind tore across those bare hilltops in gusts that rocked the buggy on its springs. The bayberry bushes huddled and crouched before it. The sky was covered with tumbling, flying clouds, which changed shape continually, and ripped into long, fleecy ravelings, that broke loose and pelted on until merged into the next billowy mass. The bay was gray and white, and in the spots where an occasional sunbeam broke through and struck it, flashed like a turned knife blade.
Bailey drove with one hand and held his hat on his head with the other. The road had been deeply rutted during the November rains, and now the ruts were frozen. The buggy wheels twisted and scraped as they turned in the furrows.
"What's the matter?" asked the schoolmistress, shouting so as to be heard above the flapping of the buggy curtains. "Why do you watch that wheel?"
"'Fraid of the axle," whooped Mr. Bangs in reply. "Nut's kind of loose, for one thing, and the way the wheel wobbles I'm scart she'll come off. Call this a road!" he snorted indignantly. "More like a plowed field a consider'ble sight. Jerushy, how she blows! No wonder they raise so many deef and dumb folks in Trumet. I'd talk sign language myself if I lived here. What's the use of wastin' strength pumpin' up words when they're blowed back down your throat fast enough to choke you? Git dap, Henry! Don't you see the meetin' house steeple? We're most there, thank the goodness."
In Trumet Center, which is not much of a center, Miss Dawes alighted from the buggy and entered a building bearing a sign with the words "Metropolitan Variety Store, Joshua Atwood, Prop'r, Groceries, Coal, Dry Goods, Insurance, Boots and Shoes, Garden Seeds, etc." A smaller sign beneath this was lettered "Justice of the Peace," and one below that read "Post Office."
She emerged a moment later, followed by an elderly person in a red cardigan jacket and overalls.
"Take the fust turnin' to the left, marm," he said pointing. "It's pretty nigh to East Trumet townhall. Fust house this side of the blacksmith shop. About two mile, I'd say. Windy day for drivin', ain't it? That horse of yours belongs in Bayport, I cal'late. Looks to me like—Hello, Bailey!"
"Hello, Josh!" grunted Mr. Bangs, adding an explanatory aside to the effect that he knew Josh Atwood, the latter having once lived in Bayport.
"But say," he asked as they moved on once more, "have we got to go to EAST Trumet? Jerushy! that's the place where the wind COMES from. They raise it over there; anyhow, they don't raise much else. Whose house you goin' to?"
He had asked the same question at least ten times since leaving home, and each time Miss Dawes had evaded it. She did so now, saying that she was sure she should know the house when they got to it.
The two miles to East Trumet were worse than the twelve which they had come. The wind fairly shrieked here, for the road paralleled the edge of high sand bluffs close by the shore, and the ruts and "thank-you-marms" were trying to the temper. Bailey's was completely wrecked.
"Teacher," he snapped as they reached the crest of a long hill, and a quick grab at his hat alone prevented its starting on a balloon ascension, "get out a spell, will you? I've got to swear or bust, and 'long's you're aboard I can't swear. What you standin' still for, you?" he bellowed at poor Henry, the horse, who had stopped to rest. "I cal'late the critter thinks that last cyclone must have blowed me sky high, and he's waitin' to see where I light. Git dap!"
"I guess I shall get out very soon now," panted Phoebe. "There's the blacksmith shop over there near the next hill, and this house in the hollow must be the one I'm looking for."
They pulled up beside the house in the hollow. A little, story-and-a-half house it was, and, judging by the neglected appearance of the weeds and bushes in the yard, it had been unoccupied for some time. However, the blinds were now open, and a few fowls about the back door seemed to promise that some one was living there. The wooden letter box by the gate had a name stenciled upon it. Miss Dawes sprang from the buggy and looked at the box.
"Yes," she said. "This is the place. Will you come in, Mr. Bangs? You can put your horse in that barn, I'm sure, if you want to."
But Bailey declined to come in. He declared he was going on to the blacksmith's shop to have that wheel fixed. He would not feel safe to start for home with it as it was. He drove off, and Miss Dawes, knowing from lifelong experience that front doors are merely for show, passed around the main body of the house and rapped on the door in the ell. The rap was not answered, though she could hear some one moving about within, and a shrill voice singing "The Sweet By and By." So she rapped again and again, but still no one came to the door. At last she ventured to open it.
A thin woman, with her head tied up in a colored cotton handkerchief, was in the room, vigorously wielding a broom. She was singing in a high cracked voice. The opening of the door let in a gust of cold wind which struck the singer in the back of the neck, and caused her to turn around hastily.
"Hey?" she exclaimed. "Land sakes! you scare a body to death! Shut that door quick! I ain't hankering for influenzy. Who are you? What do you want? Why didn't you knock? Where's my specs?"
She took a pair of spectacles from the mantel shelf, rubbed them with her apron, and set them on the bridge of her thin nose. Then she inspected the schoolmistress from head to foot.
"I beg pardon for coming in," shouted Phoebe. "I knocked, but you didn't hear. You are Mrs. Beasley, aren't you?"
"I don't want none," replied Debby, with emphasis. "So there's no use your wastin' your breath."
"Don't want—" repeated the astonished teacher. "Don't want what?"
"Hey? I say I don't want none."
"Don't want WHAT?"
"Whatever 'tis you're peddlin'. Books or soap or tea, or whatever 'tis. I don't want nothin'."
After some strenuous minutes, the visitor managed to make it clear to Mrs. Beasley's mind that she was not a peddler. She tried to add a word of further explanation, but it was effort wasted.
"'Tain't no use," snapped Debby, "I can't hear you, you speak so faint. Wait till I get my horn; it's in the settin' room."