"What cher s'pose yer could give fur this?" the new-comer asked with a relapse into unwary eagerness, and an irrepressible pride in this evidence of the household industry of his women folk.
"Dunno, I'm sure," said Marsden, slowly, shifting his quid of tobacco and spitting meditatively on the floor. "Shop-keepin' 's all a resk anyhow. I'll give yer seventy-five cents for it though, jest for a gamble; but nobody has much use for quilts in this weather, except to hide their heads under from the skeeters."
"Truth will out," whispered Flint. "Marsden always declares that mosquitoes are unknown at Nepaug."
The owner of the quilt shook his head dubiously.
"Couldn't you go a dollar on it?" he queried. "It took my wife a month to make it, sewin' evenin's."
"Yaas, 'n' it's made out of pieces of the children's clothes, and some on 'em 's dead—and associations ought to caount for somethin'."
"Will it last?" questioned the cautious Marsden, twitching it this way and that, and testing the material with his thumb-nail, which he kept long and sharp apparently for the purpose of detecting flaws in dry-goods.
"Wall," assumed the other, somewhat nettled by the purchaser's skepticism, "I reckon it'll last ez long ez a dollar will."
"Mebbe," said Marsden, quite impressed by the logic of this last statement. "Anyhaow I'll give you ninety cents, and that's my last figger."
The man glanced furtively over his shoulder at the female in the buggy, who sat twitching the reins impatiently, then he hitched up closer to Marsden and held out a dime.
"Take it," he whispered, "'n' give me the greenback. I promised I wouldn't let it go fur less'n a dollar, 'n' I dassent."
The two men winked at each other like brothers in the freemasonry of married life, and the knight of the duster disappeared in the gathering dusk. His departure emptied the little shop, and Flint and Brady entered and seated themselves on a couple of kegs on opposite sides of the door.
"Ef it's all the same, gentlemen," drawled Marsden. "I'd recommend you to take another seat with yore pipes, fur one of them kags is filled with ile, and the other with gun-paowder."
Brady jumped up in haste, and felt of his coat-tails as though they might even then be on fire.
Even Flint moved with greater alacrity than usual, quite concurring in the wisdom of seeking another seat, especially as the new one brought him opposite the low doorway, through which he could see the sky, and watch the night drawing in over bay and cove.
On the fence-rail opposite, a flock of turkeys had composed themselves to sleep. The crickets in the corn-field were tuning their wings for their habitual evening concert. The night-moth flapped heavily against the small, square window-pane.
It was a scene bare but tranquil; and Flint was possessed by its dreary charm. The dim quiet of the twilight suited him; and it struck him jarringly, like a false note in an orchestra, when there fell on his ear a high, shrill voice, exclaiming,—
"Pa, ma wants to know if the yeast-cakes have come."
Tilly Marsden gave a little start of surprise, as she came down the steps from the house-door, at the sight of Flint and Brady, who rose at her entrance, and removed their pipes from their mouths.
"Enter woman—exit comfort," thought Flint.
"I hope you're better, Mr. Flint," said Tilly, edging a little nearer him while her father searched among the blue boxes for the desired yeast-cakes.
"Wasn't the sun awful hot up to town?"
"But you didn't get sun-struck?"
"I'm awful glad. I says to ma this morning, 'I do hope,' says I, 'Mr. Flint has taken Pa's big white umbrella lined with green. You know his head is so weak.'"
Flint felt Brady's amused glance upon him. "Thank you," he answered stiffly, "my head is quite well again. Come, Brady," he added, turning to his friend, "if you are ready, we'll get our stroll before we turn in."
"Here, Tilly," said Marsden, at the same time, "here's the yeast-cake; but I don't see what ma wants with it, fur I gev her two this arfternoon."
Tilly blushed, and looked furtively toward the doorway where the young men stood. The girl had a kind of flimsy prettiness which suggested a cotillon favor. Her hair was fluffy, and coquettishly knotted at the back with blue ribbon. Her freshly ironed white dress set off her hourglass figure, and the fingers on which she was continually twisting the rings were white and slender. Her lips were set in a somewhat simpering smile, and her voice was soft with a view to effect. Brady watched her artless artfulness with some amusement. When they had gone out, he hinted something to Flint in regard to the conquest he appeared to have made; but found him so loftily unconscious that his jest fell flat, and he dropped the subject to take up a more serious theme as they strolled along the road, and at length seated themselves where the turkeys had made their roost, on the gray rail-fence in the moonlight.
"I wonder, Flint," said Brady, "if we shall be able to take up our old association where we dropped it."
"Of course not," Flint answered, "don't imagine it for a moment!"
"I don't see why we should not."
"No, I do not."
"Well, that fact alone is enough to show the gap between us. I can see it plainly enough. You have spent these last ten years in active, quick decisions, accumulating energy, push, drive—what you call hustling; while I have been trying to see into things a little, trying to find out what is worth hustling for—whether anything is. Now do you suppose that two people with such opposite training are going to fit together like a cup and ball, as they used to do when they were chums in college, and had had no training at all?"
"I don't know," said Brady, more dubiously. Then he went on, with the air of one who is not to be balked in speaking his mind, "I am not quite sure that I think your training has improved you."
"Very likely not," said Flint, imperturbably puffing away at his pipe.
"I suppose," continued Brady, "that it is very cultivating, and philosophical, and up-to-date to lie back like that, and let your soul expand, to wonder whether anything is worth while, and smile at the struggle of the dull people around you who are foolish enough to believe that something is worth while; but I'll be hanged if I like it. I would rather be the lowest of the warm-blooded animals than the highest of the cold-blooded. I beg your pardon," he added a little lamely, "I did not mean to put it quite so strong as that."
"You have made a very clear statement, my dear fellow. Don't weaken it by apologies. What you say of me is as true as gospel—truer perhaps. The only mistake you make is in ascribing to training what is really to be attributed to temperament. What is bred in the bone, you know— But never mind, I detest talking of myself. Now you have had experiences worth talking of; let us hear some of your doings out West, there!"
Long and late that night the two friends sat together. Now that the first strangeness had worn off, and with it the consciousness of the divergence of the roads which they had travelled since the old days, Flint began to find his liking springing up as strong as ever, only the liking was of a different kind. It was after midnight when he came into the house, and betook himself to his own room. As he was pulling off his coat, he suddenly remembered his unopened letter. He smiled grimly, as it recalled the scene at the post-office, the glowering official, and the grinning bystanders. He was still smiling as he took the candle from the mantel-shelf and set it on the bureau, to which he drew up his one rickety chair. He sat down and scrutinized the letter again, and more closely.
The envelope was a large, square one, with the editorial address of the "Transcontinental Magazine" in the left-hand corner. The writing was in the large, loose scrawl of Brooke, the junior editor. He wrote in haste as usual. All at the office was going well, new subscriptions were coming in fast, and if Flint would keep away long enough, the success of the "Transcontinental" would be secure. The letter which he enclosed had been opened by mistake, being apparently a business communication with no other address than "To the Editor;" but finding it personal in character, he forwarded it unread, and remained as always, Flint's faithful friend, C. Brooke.
The enclosed letter to which Brooke alluded presented a curious contrast to his own. The handwriting was firm, but delicate—distinctively feminine.
"I want to thank you," so the letter began, "not only for accepting my verses on 'A Thimble,' but also for the words of encouragement with which you accompany the acceptance. You say that you are especially glad to print the verses because they suggest a return to the type of womanhood of an earlier day, for which you retain an old-fashioned admiration. Now, I scarcely know whether my verses are very deceitful, or whether it is the realest and truest side of my nature which finds expression when I take my pen in hand.
"I wonder if a bit of autobiography would bore you. I should feel that it would most men; but I think of you as a genial, elderly gentleman with a face like Thackeray's, and with a broad human interest in all phases of life."
Flint grinned. "So much," he said to himself, "for the intuitions of woman." Yet he felt a trifle vexed at being set down as elderly, and secretly elated at the allusion to Thackeray,—as if a wide mouth, a turned-up nose, and eye-glasses carried with them fee-simple to "Henry Esmond" and the "Newcomes."
"I am twenty-two years old!" the letter went on. "As a young girl I knew nothing of city life. My father owned a sheep ranch in the Northwest, and there I grew up, roaming about as freely as the sheep themselves. I learned to ride and to shoot. Until I was a woman grown, I never took a needle in my hand. Perhaps it may seem strange to you, but out of this aloofness from feminine pursuits there grew up within me a sort of reverence for the feminine ideal. I felt a vague awe, such as I imagine strikes a man at sight of a rose-lined parasol, or a thimble laid on a pile of stitchery. It is this sense of the poetry of women's occupation which must give what little value they possess to my verses; and perhaps you will not care for any more now that you know they are no part of the real me, but only an ideal."
The letter was signed "Amy Bell," and the only address given, a New York post-office box.
"A pretty name," said Flint to himself, as he studied it, "a very pretty name!" Then he fell to musing on how this girl must look; and he found himself making a likeness from the picture over the mantel, only he would have the face a trifle rounder, with a dimple in either cheek, and a hint more of tenderness in that firm under-lip, whose smile savored of delicate irony. His thoughts unconsciously reverted to the reflections of the morning, as he looked at the portrait.
"How shy we all are of self-revelation!" he murmured, as he folded the letter slowly, and slid it into his vest-pocket; "and then, when we have gone about for years hedging ourselves in with barriers of ice, suddenly some emotion thaws them, and out flow all the tides of feeling which we have been damming up so long." Flint's musings ended in a determination to answer this letter, and to answer it now while the genial mood was on him. The writer had taken pains to give little clue to her identity. Well, he would answer her from behind the same veil of impersonality. She need never know how widely she had missed her guess in her picture of him. She might keep her poor little illusions—yes, "elderly gentleman" and all. He would speak to her, as one soul might speak to another, unhampered by all the trammels of outward circumstance. It was his to offer help, sympathy, encouragement, and he dispensed it in no stinted measure.
As he drew pen and paper towards him, there swept over him a sense of the oneness of humanity, and a vision of what the world might be, if man were tenderer, and woman held the wider vision. Such a training as hers, he wrote to Amy Bell, might give her something of both, might grant her a standpoint from which she could see clearer than most women, just because she saw life in larger outlines, undimmed by detail,—a life as different from that of the average woman as the sweep of the garments of the Greek caryatides from the fussy, beruffled gowns of the nineteenth-century women. The question, the vital pressing question in her case, was how she would use this freedom. Should it slip into the hardness of the new woman, on the one hand, or, on the other, allow itself to be fettered to the dulness of every-day decorum, her opportunity would be lost; but if she could hold the delicate equilibrium where she stood,—self-poised, and yet swaying to the influences which must work on every soul for its highest development, plastic yet firm,—then he believed, firmly believed, that there might lie in her a power for which the world would be the better and the richer.
"There!" said he, as he blotted and sealed the letter. "That, I should say, is as prosy and didactic as a discourse of my venerated ancestor. I wonder if the tendency to sermonize runs in the blood. I dare say if I had the good fortune to have any religious convictions, I should dogmatize over them in the pulpit, and pound the cushions as vigorously as any itinerant evangelist. Well, well! heredity is a queer thing. We think we get away from it, but it is always cropping up in unexpected places. Our ancestors are like atra cura, and ride behind every man's saddle."
The clock struck three as he finished his musings. He pushed away his chair, and set back the lamp on the mantel. The light, flaring a little in the draught from the open window, lent a startling look of life to the portrait above it. Flint seemed almost to hear the voice of the dying sea-captain whispering: "God bless you, Ruth—I wish I had understood you better!"
Upon his exalted mood the morning voice of a barnyard cock broke mockingly.
"Pshaw!" he exclaimed, "what a fool I am!—and at my age, too. I am ashamed. And, by the way, we never took back Dr. Beetle's—no—Dr. Cricket's spectacles. Well-to-morrow will answer as well."
THE GLORIOUS FOURTH
Extract from the Journal of Miss Susan Standish. Nepaug, July 4, 189-.
A holiday, for some reason or other, is always longer than other days, even for people like me who live a life of ease and comparative idleness, and who can make every day a holiday by abstaining from unnecessary and self-imposed work. It certainly is curious that this morning we rose an hour later, by way of compliment to our ancestors, who doubtless rose several hours earlier than usual on the day we celebrate, and certainly did a hard day's work.
After breakfast Mr. Anstice read the Declaration of Independence aloud, signatures and all. Then Jimmy recited part of a highly patriotic address, beginning, "Give up the Union? Never!" He worked his arm in the gestures with all the grace and agility of a pump-handle. His voice, to be sure, came out very strong on the prepositions and conjunctions, and sank to a whisper on the explosive climaxes; but we all voted it a masterpiece of elocution, and his father really thought so. When these exercises were over, Dr. Cricket and I played a game of chess, in which he insisted that I should take the part of the British, while he represented the Americans.
In spite of a severe struggle with my patriotic emotions, I felt compelled to do justice to the side thus thrust upon me, and I conducted my campaign with such vigor, that it was Washington who was compelled to hand over his sword to Cornwallis, and I swept the last American pawn triumphantly off the board as the dinner-bell rang.
The afternoon rather dragged. I came to the conclusion that the secret of the length of a holiday lies in the severity of the effort to enjoy one's self. At our age the truest happiness lies in absorption in work,—a kind of active and bustling Nirvana. Having come to this conclusion, I pulled out the golf-stockings I am knitting for Ben, and fell to work, with the result that it was tea-time before I knew it.
Winifred made quite a diversion by coming down dressed as Columbia, in a white muslin with blue sashes and a big bunch of red roses. She had made a helmet of card-board and covered it with gold paper. In one hand she held a long lance of the same shiny stuff, and in the other a big flag. We all laughed and sang and shouted, and had a fine old-fashioned, emotional Fourth. It did me good.
After tea, I had a surprise in a call from Cousin John's son. In fact, the call was a surprise on both sides. This is how it came about. The day before yesterday, Dr. Cricket, who is a good creature, though self-opinionated and always differing from me, was called to see a patient over at the inn; and yesterday, making his second call, he left his gold-bowed glasses, and spent the afternoon bewailing his loss, for he fancied they had slipped out of his pocket when he sat down on the beach to rest. The patient, who is a young man (of some pretensions to gentility, I understand, although a New Yorker), discovered them in the office (otherwise bar-room) of the inn, and walked over to bring them this evening. With him was Philip Brady, whom I have not seen these ten years; but I should have known him in a moment from his likeness to Cousin John. He is a fine young man, and does credit to the family. I think Winifred will like him.
Dr. Cricket was on the porch when they came; and when he saw the glasses, he was ready to fall upon the young men's necks while they were yet a long way off. He really was quite ridiculous with his "Bless my soul!" "Very kind upon my honor!" "Now Richard is himself again!" and I don't know what more, hopping about meanwhile like the cricket, who was no doubt his ancestor in pre-historic times, and pulling up chairs for men twenty years younger than himself. I have no patience with too much vivacity in middle-aged people; when we turn fifty, dignity is all we have left, and we'd better make the most of it.
When the Doctor had thanked his visitors five times over for what was really a small matter for two able-bodied young men, he insisted on their sitting down, and turned round to me,—I hate being dragged into a situation,—"Miss Standish," said he, "I want you to know Mr. um—ah—Flint, I believe? and his friend, Mr. um—ah—What is the name, may I ask?"
"I can tell you," said I, coming forward and really looking up for the first time (for I am trying to train myself not to stare and peer as some of my age do when their sight is failing)—"I can tell you and save your visitor the trouble. His name is Philip Brady, and his father is my cousin."
Dr. Cricket looked thoroughly taken aback. This I rather enjoyed, for he is always prying into affairs and saying, "I rather suspect so and so," with his nose held out as if he got at his intuitions by the sense of smell.
"You don't say so," was all he could get out this time; and meanwhile Philip called out, in his hearty voice, "Holloa, Cousin Susan!" and kissed me a little louder than I liked; but that is the difference between Bison and Boston. Perhaps I am hard to suit, for his companion's manner seemed to me as much too repressed as Philip's was too exuberant. He had the air of holding his mental hands behind him and warning off social intruders with a "Let us not enter upon too familiar a basis of mutual acquaintance," and yet he was not brought up on Beacon Street, and I was, which makes it all the worse. He is a handsome man,—that is, his features are regular, his teeth are fine, and the little tuft of white hair above the temple gives a marked air of distinction. Altogether, he has a peculiarly well-groomed effect; but his face is like a mask,—one does not get any inkling of what is going on behind it. The eye-glasses too seem to take all expression out of the eyes, and leave them mere inquisitors for discovering the sentiments revealed by those who don't wear similar shields. I notice the same thing about Dr. Cricket. I can always get the best of him in argument unless he has his spectacles on. Then I become confused, forget my point, and the Doctor comes off triumphant.
Of course, when the Doctor urged the young men to stay, they sat down, and Philip began at once to ask about the people in Oldburyport, whom he remembered very well, except their names. Everything was pleasant until Jimmy Anstice came along, as he always does when not especially wanted, and began to tease about having the fire-works set off. Nothing could be allowed to go on until they were brought out. If he had been my child, he should have been soundly punished and sent to bed for whining and pulling at his father's coat-tails; but Mr. Anstice is amiable to the verge of inanity where Jimmy is concerned, and after saying, "My dear!" and "Yes, in a minute," he allowed himself to be fairly pulled out of his chair and into the house, from which he shortly emerged with Jimmy, bearing between them an oblong pine box filled with packages of every shape and size, and smelling objectionably of gunpowder.
Of course this put an end to all rational conversation. Philip jumped up to inspect the crackers and pin-wheels. To my surprise, Mr. Flint showed no annoyance, but began to poke about among the Roman candles and rockets, as if he rather liked it. Jimmy has taken a great fancy to him, it seems. I must admit that it is in a man's favor to be liked by boys and dogs. So they drove stakes into the grass, and set up inclined planes for the rockets; and, when it grew dark enough, Jimmy set off his first pin-wheel, amid a chorus of shouts of that artificially enthusiastic sort common among older people at a junior entertainment.
The shouts brought Winifred out to the porch. She had taken off her helmet, for which I was sorry, as it was very becoming. I introduced Philip, who said, with a smile, that he thought they had met before; but Winifred did not seem to remember it. Now, if Winifred has a failing, it is thinking she knows just how everything ought to be done; and after fidgeting about in her chair for a minute or two, she called out: "Why don't you set the rocket against that stone?" and down she ran to arrange it herself.
The rocket did go better in her way, but she was not satisfied even then. She must show them how to hold the Roman candles, which was very imprudent with the loose sleeves of her muslin dress. Mr. Flint called out: "Hold it out away from you! Further away!" but instead of paying any heed, she held it straight up in the air. She had forgotten herself entirely; and we were all watching the little fountain of fire sending out its red, white, and blue colored balls when, all of a sudden, I saw a line of fire creeping up Winifred's sleeve. She threw away the candle, which lay sputtering on the ground; but that line of fire on her arm seemed to grow and grow, and I watched it in helpless agitation. I suppose the thing was over in two minutes, though they seemed hours to me. The instant Flint saw the accident, he stripped off his coat, and, rushing up to Winifred, bound it tightly about her. Dr. Cricket brought out his bandages and liniments, and the arm was bound up and in a sling before the girl really knew what had happened.
She was quite bewildered, and looked about like a little child, from one to the other. Then she turned to Mr. Flint, with a smile which seemed to me not so very far from tears, and said:—
"This time, it was your turn."
"This time, it was my fault."
"Yes; it was stupid, my letting you hold it so. I knew it was dangerous."
Winifred shook her head, in a wilful little way of hers which always reminds me of a Shetland pony.
"Pardon me, but I think I should have done it whether you had let me or not. I should have had to pay pretty dearly for my venture though, if you had not been so quick, and as for the poor coat—" Here she picked it up from the floor where it had fallen. "What a pity it should have a hole right in front!—but Miss Standish will make it as good as new, though. You never saw any one who can darn like Miss Standish" (which is quite true).
"Papa," she added, turning to her father, who had been utterly unnerved by the accident, and was now walking up and down with a vain pretence of calmness. "Papa, you can lend Mr. Flint a coat for to-night, can't you?"
"Oh, certainly, certainly! what will he have—a dressing-gown or a Tuxedo?"
"Thank you," said Flint, with gravity; "but, if the etiquette of Nepaug will not be violated by a shirt-sleeve costume, I can go as I am, though indeed I do not like giving Miss Standish so much trouble, and the coat is a veteran anyway, only promoted to the Nepaug station after long service elsewhere."
"Veterans always command my respect," I answered, "and deserve at least repairs at the hands of their country."
"All very fine," said Dr. Cricket; "but I advise you to wear your coat home to-night, even if you send it back to-morrow. It is easier to mend coats than constitutions."
"And cheaper," I suggested.
"I'll tell you," Winifred broke in, seeing Dr. Cricket glowering at me. "He shall neither risk a cold by going home in this night air without his coat, nor tear the sleeves out of papa's, which would surely be half-a-dozen sizes too small. He shall wear my golf cape. Go up to my closet and get it, Jimmy!—the blue one lined with red."
Jimmy, who having once been relieved of anxiety as to his sister's life, had spent his time in maligning her as the cause of stopping his fire-works exhibition, turned somewhat sulkily to obey her command; as he went he fired a parting shot: "This is what comes of girls meddling with things they don't understand."
When Mr. Anstice says "James," he is not to be trifled with; and his son ventured no further remarks, only emphasized his feelings by a vicious stamp on each separate stair as he ascended. While he was prosecuting his search for the cloak, his sister sat in the big chair by the fireside, her head thrown back a little against the angle formed by the back and the side, which curves out like a great ear. I saw Philip and Mr. Flint looking at her as the firelight climbed over her dress and touched her cheek, and I wondered what they thought of her.
To me, her face is one of the most interesting I have ever seen. It evades description, and yet I feel tempted to try to describe it again and again, and to analyze its charms for myself. It is full of distinction, though the only really beautiful feature in it is the brow, broad and low, from which her hair rolls back in that long, full sweep. About her lips, there is the fulness that Leonardo gave his Mona Lisa, and the lips have the same subtle curves, with a smile whose meaning is often of dubious interpretation, and tempts the eyes of her companion to return to them again and again to confirm his last impression.
As for her character, I do not yet feel sure of it, though I have known her for years. Dr. Cricket says he understands her perfectly. Pshaw!
Ben says he and she agree in everything. Poor boy! The fact is, that the girl has one of those curious natures, absolutely unmoved and unmovable at the centre, but on the surface reflecting every one and everything that comes in her way.
Many men have loved her. I don't think she has ever cared for any one. The Mona Lisa smile comes over her lips when I question her about this one or that.
"Tell me now," I said the other day, "did you never love any one?"
"Yes, and I do now."
"Excellent. At last we shall have confidences."
"And you like confidences?"
"I do—but no diversions—who is the youth?"
"I did not say it was a youth."
"Well, it is not a dotard, I trust; but who is the man?"
"I did not say it was a man."
"But you said—"
"I said I loved somebody, and that somebody is you, dear Miss Standish. Indeed I do, and I am ready to fight a duel, if necessary, with Dr. Cricket to prove that my affection is deeper and loftier, and generally better worth having, than his."
What can one do with a girl like that, who winds up with a little mocking laugh and goes off whistling?
I wish she would not whistle. It is one of those mannish tricks of hers which give a wrong impression. Her father ought to stop it; but he is so fond of the girl, and thinks her so altogether perfect and beyond cavil, that he lets everything go. She needs to have some one stronger than herself come into her life. I wonder if he ever will.
It took Jimmy Anstice a long while to find that cloak. When he returned with it, he was still sulky.
"I don't see why I should have to go on Fred's errands, when she spoiled my fire-works."
"Ah!" said Flint, "it was a pity about those fire-works. Suppose you bring them down to the inn to-morrow night, and we will set them off there."
Jimmy brightened up; but his sister rather resented the suggestion. "You need not be afraid to do it here," she said; "I promise not to interfere again."
Mr. Flint ought to have said something civil; but he only turned to Jimmy and proposed that they go out and gather up the rockets before the dampness spoiled the powder.
"Here, are you going without the cloak after all?"
"Oh, thank you!" answered Flint, with sufficient graciousness, as he took it from Professor Anstice's hand.
To reach the door, he passed near Winifred's chair. As he did so he bent over and spoke to her. I could not hear what he said; but I saw an angry color come into her cheeks, and she answered:—
"Yes, as you say, we seem fated to bring each other ill luck. Let us hope we shall not meet often."
I never heard Winifred make so rude a speech before. But, to my surprise, it seemed to develop an unsuspected amiability in Mr. Flint.
"That might be the worst luck of all," he answered, still in that provoking half-tone of his, and, waiting no answer, he followed Jimmy out of doors. It seemed to me that Philip Brady would have liked to take advantage of the general stir to get in a word with Winifred; but I saw that the girl was really suffering with the burn on her arm, so I told him, without ceremony, that it was time he went home.
Dr. Cricket, who seems to feel personally responsible for these young men, evidently thought my behavior ungracious and inhospitable. To make amends, he followed Philip to the door, and called out after him and Mr. Flint:—
"Oh, by the way, we're going up to Flying Point for a clam-bake some evening this week. Would you care to go too?"
"By all means, if you will be good enough to take us into the party," Philip answered heartily. If his friend said anything, it was lost in the fog which was rolling in thick from the ocean.
I never take prejudices; but I often have an instinct about people before I know them, and this instinct tells me that I am not going to like this Mr. Flint. He is so self-sufficient,—not conceited, but completely satisfied with his own judgments. When he asks any one's opinion, he does it as if it were a mere matter of curiosity how such a person might feel, not with any idea of being influenced. I can stand this from a person with strong convictions; but this young man seems to have none. He actually smiled when I quoted Dr. Channing.
"Perhaps you never heard of him," I said, a little irritated by that supercilious smile of his.
"Oh, yes," he answered; "but he was at such pains to set himself up in opposition to my ancestors, that family pride compels me to resent it, though my personal prejudices may be in his favor."
I cannot abide such trifling. It seems to make it ridiculous in any one to be in earnest.
P. S.—Dr. Cricket asked me to-day if I would marry him. I told him he was an old fool; but I could not make him believe it.
ON THE BEACH
"The curving land, with its cool white sand, Lies like a sickle beside the sea."
The next morning dawned cloudless. Nature, radiant in her bountiful splendor, seemed to give herself to man, who, in response, thrilled with something of the primal impulse which stirred his pulses in the golden days before he had separated himself from the beneficent currents of the Earth Mother's vitality to shut himself up within brick walls with artificial heat, artificial light, and artificial stimulants.
On such a day, it is good to be alive. Flint felt the sunshine in his blood as he stepped out into the fresh, open air. For a while he hesitated as to the use to which he should put the morning in order to secure the utmost of its bounty. Then he bethought him of his duty in returning the blue golf cape which he reproached himself as an idiot for having taken. Brady had gone crabbing with Marsden, so Flint could not delegate the duty to him, as he had intended. Accordingly, slinging the wrap over his shoulder, in the middle of the morning, he started on the path which ran along among the scrub-oak and blueberry patches, to lose itself on the curving stretch of beach which lay between the inn and Captain's Point, where stood the Whites' house known in the region of Nepaug as "The White-House."
The Point stretched along at the mouth of the little harbor, one side thrust boldly out cliffwise into the ocean, the other sliding by soft degrees to the margin of the salt-water lagoon. On the crest of the cliff, and commanding a fine view of both sea and shore, rose the White-House, originally owned and built by a sea-captain who could not live without the sea, even when he had ceased to live on it. For years the Captain took his daily walk on the little platform railed in from the slanting roof, and scanned the horizon with his glass, taking note of every sail, till at length he walked and gazed no more, and his grave was made in the little hollow that dips behind the house. The places which had known him knew him no more, and the house was let to strangers.
The Point, however, retained his name; and the white railing around the Captain's walk gleamed in the sunlight from the crest of the cliff as bright as when he leaned upon it to sweep the face of the waters with his glass.
Flint did the Captain the honor to bestow a passing thought on him this morning, to be vaguely sorry for him, and to reflect that it was really a fine thing to be above ground when the sun was shining like this. To be sure, life had its vexations; but they were so brief, and there was so much time in which to be dead!
Flint had not gone many paces along the beach before he saw Jimmy Anstice digging clams out on the oozy flats left bare by the receding tides, his knickerbockers rolled well up on his legs, and a great pail set on the mud beside him.
The boy's hat was pushed far back on his head, and the sun fell full on his face. Even at this distance, the resemblance to his sister was so marked as to be almost comical. The eyes were the same. The nose, with its unmistakable upward turn, a burlesque on the short, straight one which lent piquancy to Winifred's face. The soft, subtle curve of her cheek developed in Jimmy to a hardened rotundity inevitably suggesting the desire to pinch it, which one feels toward the tomato pin-cushions on exhibition at church fairs.
Nevertheless, despite freckles bestowed by nature, and grime artificially acquired, Jimmy Anstice was a well-looking lad, and added a distinct note of human interest to the barren flats, as he stood, spade in hand, staring at Flint.
"Come out here!" he called.
"No, thank you," answered Flint. "Not with my boots on. What are you about? Clamming, I suppose."
"Oh, no—fishing!" answered Jimmy, with fine sarcasm. "Come and help me pull in the mackerel, can't you?" Then he turned his back and began his digging once more. At the same moment Flint caught a glimpse of a red hat against a seaweed covered rock. Obeying an impulse which was rather a surprise to himself, he directed his course toward it. He found, as he surmised, that it belonged to Winifred Anstice, who sat reading, comfortably ensconced with her back against the low sandbank, and her feet stretched out in front of her. She looked up at Flint's approach, but made no change in her attitude as he came and stood over her. He found it a little harder than he had expected to make a conversational beginning. After a second's hesitation he asked:
"How is the wrist?"
"Better, thanks! but still in close confinement," Winifred answered, throwing back her shawl and revealing the bandaged arm.
"You had a narrow escape."
"I hope you have not felt the need of the cape you were kind enough to lend me. I was just on my way to carry it home."
"And, having found the owner, you need not pursue your journey any further."
Flint felt inwardly chagrined. This, then, was her interpretation of his stopping to speak to her,—that he might be rid of his trouble.
"Thank you," he said stiffly; "but unless you need it, I prefer to take it back to the house."
"Very well," said his companion, "as you please." Then, moved evidently by a prick of conscience, "Perhaps you will rest awhile before climbing the hill."
As she spoke, she moved a little that he might share the shadow of the bank.
"Don't move on my account," Flint said.
"Oh," answered Winifred, smiling, "I owe you a decent civility, since you saved my life last night."
"Don't mention it. Actions should be judged by what they cost, not what they come to; and mine cost nothing but the hole in my coat, which I don't doubt is already better than repaired under Miss Standish's skilful handiwork, so pray dismiss the subject from your thoughts. There are few, I fancy, who find it so hard as you to accept anything at the hand of another. It vexes you not to be the one always to give aid and comfort. If I knew you better, I might venture to hint that it smacks of spiritual pride."
"You generalize widely after an acquaintance of four days."
"One sees character more clearly sometimes by the flashlight of a first meeting, than when the perception is blurred by more frequent opportunities."
Again the smile, inscrutable and mocking; the eyes looked into his with a gay defiance.
"Perhaps you will be good enough to give me the benefit of these first impressions of my character. They are as comprehensive, no doubt, as those of the British traveller in America. Tell on, as the children say."
"Pardon me, I have said too much already, under the circumstances. Praise would be impertinence, and criticism insolence."
"You shall have absolution in advance. Begin then!" she added, with a little nod of command. "What is the most striking trait of my character on first acquaintance?"
"Well, if you will have it, I should say it was a restlessness which you probably call energy; but it is a different thing. Energy is absorbed in the object which it seeks to attain. Restlessness is absorbed in the attaining."
"Hm! what next?"
"Next? Next, comes a quality almost invariably allied to such restlessness as yours,—ambition. You may have all sorts of fine theories about equality and that kind of thing; but you want power—power over the lives with which you come in contact—power for good of course; but it must be yours and wielded by you. It is not enough that things should get along somehow. They must go right in your way."
"Ah! you say that because I wanted to show you how to set off a rocket last night."
"I should say you showed us quite satisfactorily how not to set off a rocket last night."
"Don't let us revert to that episode, about which we shall probably not agree. But go on. Let me hear more of your impressions. They are quite diverting."
"No more. I dare not presume further upon my advance absolution. Rather let me ask you to return candor for candor, and give me your impressions of me and my character, or lack of it."
"I have formed none."
"Is that quite true?"
"No," said Winifred, looking up, "it is not true at all. I formed impressions within the first ten minutes after I had seen you, only I called them, more modestly, prejudices."
"Prejudices? They were unfavorable then. Good! Let us have them!" and Flint settled himself more comfortably, bracing his head against his clasped hands; and, leaning back against the bank of sand, he sat watching the little tufts of coarse grass springing up close beside him. Still Winifred was silent. At last Flint began himself:—
"You thought me rude and churlish, I suppose?"
"I certainly did not think you were Bayard and Sidney rolled together; but I admit you had some provocation," she answered lightly, "at least in our first meeting. When I demolished your new fishing-rod, I think you might have accepted my apologies more gracefully; and I think you need not have been so particularly uncivil when Jimmy and I tried to come to your assistance on the pond. I have not yet recovered from the reproof conveyed on that occasion by your manner, which plainly indicated that, in your opinion, it would have been more tactful for us to sail by, and ignore your disaster, or treat it as an episode which did not call for explanation or remark. I should have felt duly humiliated, no doubt; but I have become hardened to rebuffs, since I have been at Nepaug, for I meet with many, as I go about like a beggar from door to door in South East."
"Distributing tracts?" Flint asked, with eyebrows raised a little.
"Collecting statistics, perhaps?"
"Not at all; my errand is neither philanthropic nor scientific."
"Private and personal, that is, and not to be farther pursued by impertinent inquiry?"
"Oh, I have no objection to telling you, since you are not a native. I am searching for my great-great-grandmother."
Flint looked at his companion uneasily. She smiled.
"No, I have not lost my senses. Such as they are, I have them all. I do not expect to find this ancestress of mine in the flesh, nor sitting in any one of the splint rockers behind the checkered window-panes of the old South East houses. It is only her portrait for which I am searching as for hid treasure."
"Yes, her portrait. I feel certain it is hidden away somewhere in South East."
"How very odd!"
"Odd? Not at all, as you will say when you come to hear the story of the original. But perhaps it would bore you to listen?"
"Go on; I am all attention."
"Well, to begin with, my great-great-grandmother was a very pretty girl."
"I can believe it."
Winifred looked quickly round, but her companion's eyes were fixed upon the horizon with an abstracted gaze which lent an air of impersonality to his words. So she began again:
"Yes, she was a young Quakeress, born, I believe, in Philadelphia; but her father and mother died, and she came to South East, to live with her uncle, when she was about eighteen. The story of her girlhood is rather vague; but somehow she fell in love with an English officer, and made a runaway match which turned out better than such affairs usually do; for his relatives received her favorably, and she made her home with them at Temple Court in Yorkshire—doesn't that sound like a book? Well, her uncle died, and she never came back to this country; but her grandson came in the early part of the century, and, following the traditions of his race, fell in love with an American girl. They were married and settled in Massachusetts. But once, when they were visiting at the old home, my grandmother saw a portrait of her husband's grandmother hanging in the great hall at Temple Court. She was fascinated by its beauty; and when she heard the story of the runaway bride, who was an American like herself, she determined to have a copy of the portrait, and talked of engaging one of the London artists to make it for her. An old servant told my grandfather that he remembered seeing another, painted at the same time and sent over to this uncle in America. The man was sure that the address of the uncle was South East. Many a time I have heard my grandmother tell the story, which so fired my youthful fancy that I dreamed of it for years, and at last I persuaded papa to come down here this summer, and let me hunt for the picture. But I am tiring you, I am afraid."
Flint pulled his hat lower over his eyes.
"Pray go on; I am immensely interested."
"Thank you. Well, the desire for the recovery of the portrait is no longer a sentiment with me,—it is a passion. My daily occupation now is driving about and asking for a drink of water, or inquiring about early vegetables, chickens, goslings,—anything which will afford a plausible excuse for penetrating into the dark halls or stuffy fore-rooms. Of course I rule out the modern houses. I have even tried the tavern here at the beach; but the only decorations of the walls were 'Wide Awake' and 'Fast Asleep,' and other chromos of the same pronounced and distressing variety."
Flint took off his eye-glasses, and began to wipe them tenderly with his delicate handkerchief.
"Perhaps," he began, when he was interrupted by a wild whoop just above. It was from Jimmy Anstice, who shared the delusion, common to his age and sex, that nothing is so amusing as a sudden and unexpected noise.
"Oh, Jimmy!" his sister exclaimed.
"Oh, Jimmy!" mocked the boy. "I am glad to find that you are alive. I've been watching you two these ten minutes, and you've sat as still as if Mrs. Jarley hadn't wound you up yet."
"She hasn't," said Winifred, somewhat inconsequently. "Have you finished digging your clams? What time is it?"
"I've dug all the clams I'm going to; don't intend to get all the food for the boarding-house," answered Jimmy, somewhat sulkily, leaving Flint to answer the last question.
"It is ten minutes after twelve," he said, looking at his watch.
"Dear me!" ejaculated Winifred, "I had no idea it was so late. I promised Dr. Cricket to play chess with him at twelve."
She rose as she spoke, and stretched out her hand for the golf cape; but Flint kept it quietly, and started on by her side.
"Are you going all the way to the house?" Jimmy asked.
"If your sister permits."
"Oh, then, you might as well take the other handle of this basket."
"Jimmy!" exclaimed Winifred, "I'm ashamed of you."
"Well, you needn't be. You'd better be ashamed of yourself, saying one thing to a fellow's face, and another behind his back. Sitting there for an hour talking with Mr. Flint, as if he were your best friend, when only last night you said—"
"Jim, how near the shore should you say that sloop lay?" Flint inquired in even tones.
"'T ain't a sloop at all; it's a schooner," returned Jim, contemptuously.
"Why, to be sure, so it is. How stupid in me! I suppose all my nautical learning went down in 'The Aquidneck.' By the way, Mr. Brady and I are talking of going up to the wreck soon to try what can be got out of her by diving. Wouldn't you like to go along?"
"Wouldn't I!" responded Jimmy, con brio. "Don't you forget it!"
His sister gave a dubious glance over the boy's head at Flint; but he only smiled in return. This smile so transformed his face that the girl beside him fell secretly to wondering whether her instinct of character-reading, upon which she prided herself, had not played her false in the case of this man, and whether she might not be called upon for a complete reversal of judgment,—so apt we are to mistake the momentary mood for the index of character.
They walked on in silence along the margin of the bank, Flint with the cape thrown over one arm, while he and Jimmy carried the basket, heavy with clams, between them. The blue water shoaled into emerald at their feet; a single white gull soared and swooped above their heads. The long sunburned grasses swayed in the summer wind, and the clouds floated tranquilly over all.
How tiny the three human figures seemed in the wide setting of earth, sea, and sky!
As they passed the bluff on the other side of the cove from Captain's Hill, Jimmy suddenly dropped his side of the basket of clams. "Hi!" he exclaimed. "Why can't we go up into the light-house, now Mr. Flint is with us?"
"Not to-day," answered his sister, repressively. "Mr. Flint may have other engagements, and then, you know, Dr. Cricket is waiting for his game of chess."
"As for me," said Flint, "I was never more at leisure; and as for your appointment with the Doctor, I advise you to adopt my motto: 'Better never than late.'"
"Oh, come on!" persisted her small brother. "Don't be a chump, Fred. You never used to be."
"Lead on," answered his sister; "rather than be considered anything so ignominious, I would scale more alarming heights than those of the light-house, though I confess its winding staircase is not without its perils."
The path to the light-house led through a patch of bayberry bushes. Winifred stooped, as she passed, and gathered a handful, which she crushed in both hands, taking in a deep breath of their spicy aroma.
"Are they so good?" Flint asked, smiling at her childish enjoyment.
"Try and see!" she answered, holding them out to him in the cup of her joined hands.
Flint bent his face over them for an instant. Then Winifred suddenly dropped her hands and shook the fragrant leaves to the four winds. Flint smiled again, for her gesture said as plainly as words: "Here I am being friendly with this man, to whom I intended to be as frigid as an iceberg."
Flint responded as if she had spoken.
"Do you never forgive?" he asked.
"No," answered Winifred, impetuously. "I never forgive; but I have a horrid facility for forgetting."
"Cherish it!" exclaimed her companion. "It is the foundation of many of the Christian graces."
As they drew nearer the light-house, they felt the salt sea-wind strong in their faces. The bluff was so gale-swept that the trees, few, small, and scrubby, had caught a slant to westward, and the scanty vegetation clung timidly to the ground, like some tiny state whose existence depends upon its humility. From the edge of the bluff rose the light-house,—a round stone building, dazzling in its coat of whitewash. Far up in the air its plate-glass windows gleamed in the morning sun.
The keeper was standing in the open door, and cheerfully consented to show the visitors over the premises. Loneliness is a great promoter of hospitality.
As they peeped into the tiny kitchen, with its shining brasses and its white deal floor, Winifred exclaimed at the exquisite neatness of the housekeeping.
"It is a man's, you see," Flint commented with pride. "No doubt we shall drive you from the domestic field yet."
"I should think the position of light-house-keeper would suit you excellently," Winifred replied, oblivious of the slant at her sex. "Your desire for solitude would surely find its full satisfaction here."
"There might be much worse occupations certainly," Flint began; but he saw that Winifred's attention had been diverted by the keeper, who had already begun to mount the stairs, talking, as he moved, with a fluency which denoted a long restrained flow of sociability. Winifred was glad to be saved the trouble of replying, for the unceasing climbing put her out of breath, and she felt that she might have been dizzy, but for the railing under her left hand.
At last they arrived in the little room with its giant reflectors of silvered copper, and its great lamp set on a circular table. Outside, ran a narrow balcony with iron railing. Winifred stepped out onto the ledge, clinging nervously to Jimmy, who professed a great desire to sit on the railing. The wind here was so strong that it gave one a feeling that the building was swaying, though it stood firm as a cliff of granite.
Flint leaned over the railing. "See!" he said, "there is a great white gull which has beaten itself to death against the light, and fallen there, close to that fringy line of mottled seaweed on the beach."
"Don't!" exclaimed Winifred, turning pale, and leaning further back against the light-house wall.
Flint saw in an instant that she was feeling dizzy, but thought it best for her to ignore the fact.
"Come," he said, "we must be going down now, unless Dr. Cricket is to lose his game entirely. You go first, Jim! I will come next."
Jimmy started down, whooping as he went, for the pleasure of hearing his voice echo and re-echo from the bare walls.
Flint glanced somewhat anxiously at Winifred. He saw her put her foot upon the first stair and then draw back. At the same instant he caught the cause of her terror. Her bandaged wrist prevented her grasping the balustrade, or getting any better support than the smooth wall to which to cling.
"Put your hand on my shoulder, and count the steps aloud as you go." He spoke like one who does not question obedience; and, somewhat to her own surprise, Winifred found herself meekly doing as she was bid.
The last part of his advice was even better than the first, for it occupied her mind, and also gave her the encouragement of feeling that at each step she had lessened the distance between her and terra firma by one.
Flint felt the hand upon his shoulder tremble like a leaf; but he never turned his head, only moved steadily onward and downward, with a regularity and solidity which soon told upon Winifred's nervous dizziness.
When she reached the ground, and stood once more in the sunlight of the open doorway, she looked at him with a little tremulous smile. "A hundred and seventeen!" she exclaimed. "I am sure I shall never forget how many steps there are leading to the Bug Light."
"What a fool you are, Fred!" Jimmy remarked, with family frankness.
"I am," admitted Winifred. "No one knows it better than I, except, perhaps, Mr. Flint."
"I know nothing of the kind," her companion answered with unwonted cordiality. "Any one may be subject to a fit of dizziness, and to be minus an arm under such circumstances makes the situation really uncomfortable. We must try it again some day, to give you an opportunity to prove to yourself that it was only an affair of the moment."
"Dear me!" thought Winifred to herself, "why can't he always be nice like that! He seems to be a queer kind of stratified rock; you never know what you are going to strike next."
Aloud, she said, "I fancy, Jim, it must be past the White-House dinner hour, and papa has grown worried and sent out scouts to look for you and me. See, here is Ben Bradford!"
Looking down the road, Flint saw approaching them a tall, long-legged youth whom he dimly remembered among the group on the porch of the White-House the night before. His hair was parted in the middle, and thickly pomaded to restrain its natural inclination towards curling. His ears were large, and set on at right angles to his face. His nose was Roman, and its prominence had rendered it peculiarly sensitive to sunburn. His manners were too frank to be polished. As he joined them now, he succeeded in making it evident at once that Flint's further presence was entirely superfluous. This juvenile candor would have had no effect, had not Winifred supplemented it by saying:—
"Mr. Bradford will take charge of me and my cape, Mr. Flint; I really cannot consent to trouble you further."
Her manner was equivalent to a dismissal. Flint handed over the cape, as she bade him, to young Bradford's eager grasp, bowed, and turned his steps homeward. As he strolled along, he felt a curiously sudden change of mood, from the elation of the morning to a depression half physical, half mental.
"I wonder," he said to himself, "if this is not another phase of my inheritance from Dr. Jonathan. I remember the old gentleman used to complain that his constitution was an unhappy one from birth, attended with 'flaccid solids, sizy and scarce fluids, and a low tide of spirits.' The description amused me in my youth; but I begin to have an uncomfortably sympathetic sense of his state of mind and body. I wonder, by the way, what he would have done about that portrait. I never heard that he or any other Puritan gave away his property to any extent; and this portrait I regard as virtually mine. To be sure, I have not paid for it; but I had fully determined to purchase it, and—Yes, to all intents and purposes, it belongs to me. Now, to be expected to give it up, just because I happen to hear of some one else who wants it too, is asking a little too much. If I had avoided the girl, as I intended, I should never have heard of her search for her beloved great-grandmother. No, my mind is made up; I shall keep that picture—of course I shall. I am glad I put it into the closet before Brady came."
THE MARY ANN
"Our deeds are like children that are born to us: they live and act apart from one's own will."
The weather of the morning, with its golden clearness, was too beautiful to last. By noon the gold had paled. The high wind which had prevailed earlier in the day subsided; but the swelling waves, which broke with thud after thud upon the shelving beach, gave evidence of a gale still whirling somewhere off the coast. The clear-cut lines of the distant cliffs faded to dim, quiet masses. Far out on the horizon rose a line of phantom hills,—a line which, as night drew in, moved slowly shoreward, rising as it came, shutting out sail after sail, point after point, till at last it met the land and shut out the sea itself. There is something weird and uncanny about the approach of a fog, stealing thus unperceived out of the heart of sunshine and blue weather. It has in it a hint of death.
Flint felt the weight of it. His mind was shut in upon its own resources, and did not find them altogether satisfactory. Brady added little to the gayety of nations. He came in from his day on the water sunburned, tired, and as nearly cross as it lay in his genial disposition to be. He swallowed his supper, and made haste to stow himself away in bed, leaving Flint to choose between a conversation with Marsden and the self-communion which was his least congenial occupation.
For an hour or so, he loitered in the little shop, listening idly to the yarns which Marsden rolled as sweet morsels under his tongue: of the whale which the fishermen had caught off the beach, a sea-monster of untold length, breadth, and thickness, which had been sold for a thousand dollars; of the marvellous experiences of his father, as captain of a trading-vessel in the "East Injies;" and finally of the fire-ship which he himself had seen hanging between sea and sky, out yonder between the island and the mainland.
"You say you saw it yourself?" Flint asked, partly from listless curiosity, and partly with an eye to the society of psychical research.
"True as yo' 're a settin' thar. 'Twas one night nigh onto fifteen years ago,—good deal such a night as this heer. The old cow wuz sick that night, and as I wuz out to the barn, puttin' hot cloths on her till past midnight. Ez I wuz comin' into the house, I looked out, and there, jest where the mist was breakin' away, hung a ship, lookin' like a light under a cloud."
"Did you call any one?" queried Flint.
"Call any one? Lord! I was too scared to move hand or foot; I jest stood gapin' at her till she faded clean out o' sight."
"Mirage, I suppose," Flint murmured to himself, "unless the old fellow is lying out and out, which is not likely." Then, aloud, as he rose, stretching himself lazily, "If you ever see the fire-ship again, while I am here, let me know. I have always wanted to see a wreck, and a phantom wreck is better than none."
"Don't go to talkin' too much about it," said Marsden, mysteriously. "They say it brings bad luck."
"Apparently it brings bad luck for anybody but you to do the talking. Well, I think I will leave you before I am tempted to a loquaciousness which might bring down a curse on the house of Marsden."
Smiling to himself over the old man's superstition, Flint climbed the stairs to his own room, as softly as possible, lest Brady's wrath at being waked descend upon him. Having closed his door cautiously, he sat down by the open window, enjoying the soothing dampness of the fog as it came rolling in laden with the pungent fragrance of the salt marshes.
He sat a long while in the darkness. Even the Bug Light, which shone on ordinary nights from the tip end of Bluff Point, this evening formed only a paler shade in the universal grayness.
His thoughts turned to the scene of the morning. He remembered the wide-stretching purple of the sea, the yellow shell-strewn sand, the patch of coarse grass on the bank against which Winifred Anstice leaned. He remembered to have noted how perfectly her dun-colored dress had harmonized with the environment, so much so, that, but for the patch of red in her hat, he might have passed her as a part of the inanimate nature of the beach. He remembered, too, the touch of her hand on his shoulder there in the light-house, and the sound of her voice as she counted the steps, "One—two—three—four." Then he fell to thinking more closely than he had yet done of the girl herself,—that curious blending of subtlety and simplicity, of reserve and frankness; he had never seen anything quite like it. What a queer coincidence that she should be a descendant of this Ruth, in the room behind him! Now she spoke of it, there was a suggestion of resemblance, faint, but haunting. This must have been the secret of his desire to study her face again, and yet again, that day on the pond, to determine the source of the sense of familiarity which even their first meeting had given him.
How charming her frankness about the portrait had been! Ah, there the recollection ceased to be altogether agreeable! He twisted a little in his chair, and screwed the end of his moustache into his mouth, as he recalled his own lack of response when the portrait was mentioned. Had he been deceitful? No, certainly not that, for he had conveyed no false impression by word or gesture. Disingenuous? Perhaps, but after all he was in nowise pledged to equal frankness, because his companion chose to be confidential. Suppose, though, Winifred Anstice should come to the inn; should hear from old Marsden of the portrait; should learn that it was hanging in his room, and he had made no sign!
The train of thought was perplexing, and not altogether pleasing. Flint was not sorry to have it interrupted by a call upon his attention in the appearance of two figures below, looming dim and ghostlike in the fog. Just beneath his window, they paused in their walk, and their voices came up to him first indistinctly, then with more and more clearness. The tones Flint recognized at once as belonging to Tilly Marsden and to Leonard Davitt, the young fisherman whose scarlet shirt was often to be seen on the clamming grounds, and whose rich baritone voice came ringing over the pond as he sat in his boat hauling in his nets.
To-night, it was subdued, and at first scarcely rose above a murmur; at length Flint caught the words:—
"I shall never ask you again."
"I hope to goodness you won't!" answered the shriller tones of the innkeeper's daughter.
"That isn't a very nice way to speak, Tilly."
"Well, it's my way, and my name isn't 'Tilly;' it is Matilda Marsden, and very polite folks call me 'Miss.'"
"Some day you'll find out that it isn't the politest folks that's the trustiest, or sticks to you the faithfullest. Don't you remember two years ago, Tilly, when I was going to the Banks, how you kissed me good-bye, and how you promised—"
"Never mind what I promised. I was only a child anyway."
"Well, you didn't think so then, and neither did I. Mebbe, the time will come when you'll think you acted wiser then, than you're a-doin' now."
"Oh, you needn't take the trouble to warn me, Mr. Leonard, about my being foolish to give you up. You're not the only man in the world."
"Oh, yes," responded Leonard, nettled at last, "I knew very well that was the trouble; and I know who the other man is; and all I can say is—"
"Hush," cried Tilly, with a little turning of her head, and quickly laying her hand on Leonard's arm. "Don't you say another word, Leonard Davitt, if you ever want me to speak to you again."
At this, Flint's conscience got the better of him, and he rose and closed the window noisily enough to startle the speakers below, as he perceived with some amusement.
"What a little minx that girl is!" he said to himself as he turned to light the lamps. "I have half a mind to devote myself to convincing Leonard that she would make his life miserable if she married him, and that he is worth ten of her; but I don't suppose he could be made to believe either. Men are such fools when they are in love! By Jove! that portrait is like Miss Anstice!"
This last ejaculation escaped him as he held the lamp above the mantel where all his books were piled in heterogeneous confusion. One by one he scanned their covers, with the half intention of the idler who reads for pure diversion, and at length he drew out a volume of Dumas. He set his lamp—a large one with double burners—on the table by the window; and tilting his chair on the back legs, resting his shoulders against the wall, he plunged into the mysteries of "The Forty-Five."
In a few minutes he was absorbed, as only Dumas has power to absorb his readers. The man of action in that great romancer exercised a sort of hypnotic power over Flint. The robust virility passed into the sinew of his soul. The romance possessed him utterly, and left him without even the power to criticise. It was he himself who stood in Queen Catherine's box, and watched the spouting of Salcide's blood, as he was drawn by the horses in the arena beneath. He sat secreted beside Chicot in the great arm-chair in the King's bed-room. He took part in the serenade beneath the balcony of the mysterious lady in the Rue des Augustines. He joined the hunting of the wolf in Navarre; and finally he had plunged into the fight between the French and Flemings, with such intensity of reality that it scarcely surprised him to hear the booming of a gun.
"It is those rascally Flemings!" he thought for a moment. "Up and at them, Joyeuse!" Then suddenly he rubbed his head like one striving to recall wandering wits. His chair came down with a crash. He took out his watch. It marked three. Again the gun! He threw up the window. The fog was breaking fast, and lights were visible too far out for the the land, too near for a vessel at sea; unless, Great Heavens! it was, it must be, a ship grounded off the Point. For an instant, the thought of Marsden's fire-ship flashed across his mind; but his head was too clear to be fooled in such fashion.
Banging on Brady's door, he shouted:
"A wreck off the Point! I'm going down to the shore!"
"Hold on! Wait for me, can't you?" called Brady, still half asleep.
"No; there's no time to lose. I may be of use. Come on as fast as you can!"
As Flint rushed downstairs, he met Marsden coming out of his room, lantern in hand. The old man's face was ashen gray, and his fingers fumbled at the buttons of his coat.
"Did you hear it?" he said in a trembling, shaken voice. "It's the gun of a ship in distress. Many's the time I've laid awake a-listenin' for it when the wind was wild and the sea lashin' up over the rocks; and now it's come on a night as ca'm as a prayer-meetin'. I told you no good would come of our talk this evenin'."
"Is there any life-saving station near?" Flint asked, as they stumbled along the road in the dark.
"No, not near as you might say. Ten miles away is as bad as a hundred."
Once out of doors, they started on a run down the road which led to the shore. The booming of the gun grew louder in their ears; and dimly through the mist they caught sight of a vessel lying keeled over on her side well in shore. Flint was conscious of a not wholly unpleasing excitement as he watched her. As yet his mind had found no room for thoughts of individual suffering. It was a wreck, and he had always wished to see a wreck.
The thoughts passing through his mind did not delay his footsteps, and he made such good speed that, half way to the shore, he had left Marsden far behind, and struggled on alone through the last few rods of heavy sand.
When he reached the beach, several people were gathered there already: Ben Bradford and Dr. Cricket, with that dishevelled air which always marks a midnight alarm; Michael and Leonard Davitt, who slept in their fisherman's hut by the pond, in order to get an early morning start, and were therefore first at the scene of excitement.
Michael felt all the importance of his position as first witness, and with unusual loquacity was giving an account of the catastrophe to the group around.
"I can't nohow account for it," he said; "that captain must be an escaped idjit to go on a lee-shore a night like this."
"Had the fog lifted when she struck?" queried Marsden.
"Well, it was jest a-waverin', breakin' up like, and then shuttin' down agin. The idjit must er thought he was off the Bug Light, where the water's deep right up close in; but why should he a-thought so?—that's the question."
"Well, it is a question that can wait, I should think," said Brady, who had come up panting from his run. "The most important question is, what are you going to do about it? There's not much danger, I suppose, as long as the night is as calm as this; though there's such a ground swell on it looks as if there must have been a big storm at sea. See how she pounds on the reef out there! She is likely to go to pieces before many hours, I should say, and if a wind springs up, as it's pretty sure to do with morning, it would be an ugly lookout."
"Is there a life-boat anywhere?" asked Flint.
"Yes," said Leonard, somewhat scornfully, "in the pond." (He pronounced it pawnd.)
"They must have boats on the ship," said Marsden; "seems to me I see 'em launchin' one now." At this the men on shore huddled closer together, as though four could see farther than one.
Yes, there was no doubt of it. The misty dawn showed forms standing on the slanting deck of the ship, and a boat hoisted, held out, and then dropped into the waves, which were already rising with the rising wind.
"They'd best make haste," muttered Michael, uneasily; "if the sea gets up, they'll go down."
It seemed an age to the little waiting group before the boat put off from the ship. The wind had begun to blow in cold and strong. Flint buttoned his coat tight to his chin, and still he shivered. On the little boat came, now dipping almost out of sight in the hollow of the big green waves, now rising like a cork upon their crest.
"Hurrah!" cried Brady, "they're almost in."
"Hm!" said Michael, "not yet, by a long sight! The danger comes when they git into the breakers."
Flint was enough of a sailor to know that the fisherman spoke truth. A little later, he saw the white, combing foam break over the boat. He drew his breath quicker, and caught his under-lip between his teeth.
"There's four men in her," said Marsden, making a telescope of his closed hands.
"Five," said Leonard,—"five, and one of 'em is a woman!"
Flint unbuttoned his coat and threw it off.
"What are you about?" asked Brady. "You'll get your death of cold."
Flint made no answer, but, stooping, unfastened his boots, and kicked them off. Rapidly as he undressed, he was too slow; for, as the boat reached the tenth breaker, a great wave struck her a little on the side, and over she went, spilling out her contents as heedlessly as though they had been iron or lead in place of flesh and blood. In an instant, Flint was in the surf, and striking out for the spot where he had seen a woman's shawl.
"Curse it!" cried Leonard, "why can't I swim, and me a sailor!"
"I'd orter a-learned yer, Leon, and thet's a fact. Look at him! He's got her. He's a pullin' of her in. Make a line, men! Make a line! Quick as thunder, and the last man grab 'em when they come within reach!"
In answer to Michael's words, the men hastily formed in line, and moved out till Brady stood chest-deep in water. It was a wise precaution, for Flint, though a good swimmer, found his task too hard for him. He felt like a man in a nightmare with a weight of lead upon his chest; and arms that must move, and could not move, and yet must again.
Dimly, a sense of possible escape for himself came over him. Why should two drown in place of one? He had but to let go this weight and strike out. Why not?
Why not indeed? This man held to no altruistic creed. His doctrines, had he expounded them quite coolly, would have claimed that self-preservation was the first law of Nature, and that Nature was the best guide. But now, with no time for reason, by the flashlight of instinct, intuition, inheritance,—call it what you will,—he found himself absolutely physically unable to let his load slip. With this stranger he would live or die, most likely die!
With the last thought, he felt a numbness creep over him. The limbs refused to obey the will. The will itself was paralyzed. Blank darkness fell around; the end had come.
He awoke to consciousness with a painful gasp, to find himself stretched out on the sand, and to hear Dr. Cricket's voice sounding far away, saying: "He'll be all right soon. Keep on working his arms, Ben! Here comes Marsden with the brandy and warm blankets." Then followed a vague sensation of swallowing fire, and a blissful warmth creeping along his veins as though Nature had taken him to her heart once more.
Languidly, he unclosed his eyes. What did it all mean: the waves roaring close at hand; the driftwood fire burning hard by; the circle of anxious faces? Through his dim senses ran the lines long familiar, never till now fully realized:
"The tall masts flickered as they lay afloat The crowds, the temples wavered, and the shore."
What made everything wobble about like that? Was he dying? What had brought him here, anyhow? Then, with a rush, it all came back. Raising himself on one elbow, he looked about inquiringly. "Where is she?" he asked, and fell back exhausted by the effort of speech.
"Here and safe," answered a woman's voice which he recognized as that of Winifred Anstice. "The captain and crew are saved too."
"Could they all swim?" Flint questioned feebly.
"Hold your tongue!" cried Dr. Cricket, with more good sense than good manners. "Your business now is to save your strength. Leave questions for later in the day. If that coffee is done, Ben, pass it round. We will all have a pull at it."
The commonplace of the daily routine is a blessed relief after the overstrained excitement of a great catastrophe. We eat and drink, and life seems real once more. Even Dr. Cricket was drawn for a moment from his patient's side to the circle gathered about Ben Bradford, who stood with the steaming coffee-pot in one hand, and a tin dipper in the other. Nectar and ambrosia, served from jewelled plate, could not have offered more temptation to the appetite of the weary group. Flint, lying a little apart, was conscious that Leonard Davitt was standing beside him, staring down into his face. As the young fisherman turned away, Flint heard him say, below his breath: "Damn him!"
"We pass through life separated from many people as by a wall of glass. We see them, we are conscious of their presence; but we never touch."
The evening following the wreck of "The Mary Ann" found the friends in council, who included most of the summer population of Nepaug, gathered around the White-House hearth, on which blazed a hospitable fire, doubly cheering in its radiant contrast to the gathering darkness without. The wind, which had risen to half a gale, rattled at the window panes and roared down the chimney. The sound of the booming surf, as the great waves hurled themselves against the dunes, made itself heard, even through the heavy pine doors and shutters. The foam, which yesterday curved in lines of delicate spray below the headland, was now lashed into a lather of white terror. Above it through the twilight rose, dim and ghostlike, the masts of the wrecked vessel.
The dreariness outside lent an added charm to the snug and cheerful cosiness within the little parlor, the inmates of which drew closer than usual, as they talked in somewhat subdued voices.
Jimmy Anstice lay on his back upon the hearth-rug, his head pillowed upon Paddy, and his knees braced one on top of the other. Ben Bradford sat on a chair tipped back against the wall, with his thumbs thrust through the armholes of his corduroy vest. Winifred lounged upon the haircloth sofa with one foot surreptitiously tucked under her. Every one's attitude suggested a degree of comfort rare in society. A wonderful sense of intimacy is imparted by perils undergone together, or profound experiences shared. They seem to sweep away, as with a whirlwind breath, that thick veil of convention and commonplace which shroud many acquaintances from beginning to end. At these times the real nature has shown itself, as it does only in the great crises of life; and, once revealed, it can never wholly conceal itself again.
At the White-House that evening, the wreck was discussed over and over from every point of view. Each person wished to describe the moment when he awoke to the apprehension of the calamity,—what he said and did, thought and planned. Such conversations lead one to believe that the chief pleasure of the resurrection will lie in the comparison of post-mortem experiences on first awakening.
Dr. Cricket said that when he first heard the booming of guns, half-asleep as he was, he dreamed that the statue of William Penn was falling off the dome of the Philadelphia city hall.
Miss Standisth said that she was broad awake; but had happened not to catch any sound till she heard the commotion of people moving about downstairs. This she took to mean that breakfast-time had arrived, and that this was destined to be another dark day like the freak of nature famous in the colonial annals.
"I heard Fred call out—" Jimmy Anstice began; but his sister interrupted, "Please, Jimmy, leave me out. You know Papa forbade you to talk about me in company."
"My dear," remonstrated her father, mildly, "don't speak so abruptly to your little brother."
Thus, in one shape and another, every one said his say.
Flint alone, of the entire group, was silent, almost surly. He submitted without comment to being ensconced in the great chintz-covered chair. He even swallowed, under protest, the various pills and potions which Dr. Cricket presented to him at intervals; but the most adroit questioning on the part of Miss Standish failed to elicit any information as to his sensations or emotions, past or present. Brady, who understood his friend better than all the rest, strove to shelter him by talking longer and laughing louder than usual; but this Miss Standish resented as much as Flint's silence, and set it down to flippancy. Her ethical training impelled her to strive to improve the occasion to these young people. She shook her gray curls, and cleared her throat several times before her conversational opening arrived.
"I hope, Mr. Flint," she said at last, "that you feel as strongly as that poor girl upstairs, the mercy of the divine Providence which brought you to the rescue at that critical moment, and enabled you to save a life."
Something in Miss Standish's tone irritated Flint.
"If, for 'divine Providence,' you will substitute 'lucky accident,' I will agree to it as heartily as either you or she. If you persist in dragging in Providence, I must really beg leave to inquire where Providence was when the ship struck."
The silence which reigned in the room was like the space cleared for a sparring-match. The old combative instinct of the primitive man arises in the most civilized, and makes him delight in a fight. Brady looked amused; Winifred a little apprehensive; Mr. Anstice preserved a dignified neutrality; and Miss Standish fumbled with her cameo brooch, and smoothed the folds of her skirt, as if to make sure that all was in order before entering upon a possibly ruffling contest.
"I suppose—" she began; but old Marsden, who sat on the other side of the fire, and who was no respecter of persons, broke in: "I've heerd a deal about how you all felt, and what you all thought; but what I'd like to know is what really happened. The men at the inn wont talk without their captain gives them leave; and Dr. Cricket has got him and his sister shut up in their rooms, to git over the shawk. Now perhaps the Doctor can tell us how it wuz thet thet air ship went aground on a sandy coast, in a ca'm night like the last."
"Captain Costello says it was the light in the tavern-window which he mistook for the Bug Light off the point; but how could that have been, when it was past two o'clock, and I'll answer for it that no one at Nepaug was ever found awake after nine?"
Dr. Cricket questioned with the inflection of a man who neither expects nor desires an answer. Indeed, he had only paused for breath, when Flint, from his easy chair on the other side of the fireplace, broke in:—
"So I am to blame for the whole thing."
"You don't say so!"
"Was the light yours?"
"What on earth were you doing at that hour?"
"Not quite so many questions at once, friends, if you please. My brain is still a little waterlogged, and my thoughts work slowly. I only remember sitting down about ten o'clock to read a novel, and the first thing that roused me was the gun, which for the moment I took for the attack of the enemy of whom I was reading. I rushed out, half expecting to find the tavern surrounded, and to have to risk my life in its defence, and instead—"
"Instead," put in Winifred Anstice, very quietly, "you risked your life to save some one else,—Nora Costello, the Captain's sister, spent the whole morning in tears, because Dr. Cricket would not let her leave her room to go and tell you how grateful she was."
"Hysterical, I suppose," said Flint.
Winifred, who had opened her lips to say something more, shut them closely again, and sat back with the air of a person determined to have no further share in the conversation.
Dr. Cricket hastened to occupy the floor. "A charming girl—upon my word, a charming girl—if she is a Hallelujah lassie."
"A what?" ejaculated Brady.
"A Hallelujah lassie—Feminine of Salvation Soldier, don't you know! Why, she had one of the coal-scuttle bonnets hanging by its draggled strings round her neck when Flint pulled her in, and a number of 'The War Cry' was in the pocket of her dress, when we stripped it off."
"Oh," said Brady, with a touch of disappointment in his tone, "I took her for a different sort of a person; she looked quite the lady."
"So she is, young man," answered Dr. Cricket, with his fierce little frown. "There is no doubt of that. She told me her story this morning. I wanted her to rest; but the poor thing was so nervous I thought it would hurt her less to talk than to keep still."
Flint smiled sardonically. The Doctor's little foible of curiosity had not escaped his observant eye.
"You would have done much better to shut her up; but what did she say?" queried Miss Standish.
Flint smiled again. But the Doctor began briskly:—
"Why, it seems that the Costellos are the children of a Scotch minister; though, from his name, I should guess that he had a drop more or less of Irish blood in his veins, and their looks show it too. They were brought up in a manse on one of those brown and bare Scotch moors. The boy was to be educated for the church, like his father; but when he was seventeen, he grew restive under the strictness of his training, turned wild, and ran away. For ten years they had no word of him. The father reproached himself for having been too hard on the boy; and he never stopped loving and praying for him. On his death-bed, he charged Nora—that's the girl's name you know—to sell all the things in the manse, and start out into the world to find her brother, and never to give up the search as long as she lived."
"That is always the way," said Flint, with a shrug: "the reward of virtue is to be appointed trustee of vice—no assets—assume all the liabilities."
"Hm! wide, of the mark this time, Mr. Flint. The very day after her father's death, Nora Costello received a letter from her brother, saying that he was ashamed to come home without first securing forgiveness, and asking his sister to intercede for him, and to meet him in London with the news of his pardon."
"Exactly," resumed Flint with irritating calmness. "Prodigal son sends postal card stating that he is prepared to receive overtures looking to a resumption of family relations. No questions asked."
"He has not seen Captain Costello, has he, Dr. Cricket? or he would be more sparing of his jibes."
"Never mind, Miss Winifred, Mr. Flint is ashamed of having played the humanitarian this morning, so he is trying to atone by double cynicism this evening; but don't let him interrupt my story again, under pain of being sent back to the tavern, instead of taken care of in Mrs. White's best bed-room, under the charge of the best doctor (though I do say it) in Philadelphia.