He winked at Prudence and nudged her. The outstanding incident for the old man was the unmistakable signs Tunis and Sheila had given that they were in love with each other.
"What did I tell ye when that gal first come here?" whispered Cap'n Ira hoarsely, when the girl had left the room. "I knowed that the hull generation here on the Cape hadn't been struck blind, not by a jugful! And it's evident to my mind, Prudence, that Tunis Latham has had his eyes pretty wide open from the first."
"Oh! I hope—it can't be that Ida May would leave us," murmured Prudence. "I don't mean to be selfish."
"Looks like we could get another gal easy enough if we wanted her," remarked the old man, with some bitterness. "I swan, Prue! S'pose Ida May had turned out to be the sort of a gal that flyaway critter is? We are blessed; we certainly are." And he treated himself to a liberal pinch of snuff.
Sheila did not wish to hear the two old people talk about the real Ida May Bostwick. When Tunis took the girl away it was an enormous relief. Of that she was quite sure. The malevolent attitude of the frustrated Ida May was sufficient to frighten anybody.
Shelia was positive enough that, as Ida May had promised, the matter was not ended. That venomous girl would not be content to leave Big Wreck Cove without making a further attempt—perhaps many—to establish herself in her right identity and in what she considered her rightful place with the Balls.
Supper was late that evening. They were only just seated at the table when Tunis returned.
"Come on, boy," said Cap'n Ira. "There's a place set for you. Tell us what you did with that crazy girl."
Sheila was busy between the stove and the table and did not come to the side of the captain of the Seamew as he took the chair indicated. He was not smiling as usual, but neither did he seem alarmed. He replied to the questions of the old people with tranquillity.
"I did not advise her to go to the Burchell House," Tunis said. "You know what a talker Sally Burchell is. I remember that Mrs. Pauling took boarders in the summer, and I went to her with that girl."
"You mean Zeb's mother?" asked Prudence. "Well, she'll take care of her, I guess. And Zeb is strong and willing. If she gets crazy in the night, they ought to be able to hold her."
A faint smile flickered for a moment about Tunis Latham's stern lips.
"I don't guess she will act up so very bad with strangers."
"I swan! We was strangers enough to her, it would seem," exclaimed Cap'n Ira.
"But she seems to consider that you ought not to be," Tunis pointed out.
"Never heard of such a thing!" muttered the old man.
"I would have been glad to get her out of town this very night," Tunis observed quietly. "But it could not be done. She is convinced that she has what she calls 'rights,' and she proposes to remain and fight for them."
"You will have to be firm with her. I explained to Zeb's mother what we thought was the matter with her. And I'll try to find her friends. She says she comes from Boston."
"Goodness gracious gallop!" exclaimed the old woman, more angry than frightened now. "She certainly can't stay here and tell those awful things she was saying about Ida May."
"I don't really see how we are going to stop her, right at first," Tunis rejoined. "Of course, if she continues to come up here and bother you, you can have her arrested."
"Oh!" gasped Sheila.
"Now, gal," said Cap'n Ira firmly, "don't you let your tender heart deceive you. That crazy critter ain't worth worrying about. She shan't be hurt. But I won't have her coming round here frightening you and Prudence. No, sir!"
"Quite right," said Tunis, agreeing.
"Oh, Tunis!" murmured the girl.
"But she will make talk. No doubt she will make talk," said Prudence in a worried tone. "We ought to stop her, somehow, from telling such things about our Ida May."
"Does she want money?" asked Cap'n Ira gruffly. "She talked as though she did."
"I think to offer her money would be the very worst possible way of shutting her up," said Tunis. "She wants to come here and live and be accepted as your niece."
"I never did!" gasped Prudence.
"She says nothing else will suit her. She seems to think she can prove what she had claimed. I think the best thing to do is to let her try it."
Sheila could not eat. She merely stared from one to the other of the three and listened to the discussion. In no way could she see a shadow of escape from ultimate disaster; yet she saw that Tunis was determined to fight it out on this line, to deny the stranger's claim and hold to what had already been gained for the girl in possession!
"Well," Prudence said, with a sigh, "I can see plainly it is going to stir up a puddle of muddy water. Unless she says or does something that makes the authorities take her and put her away, there will be them that will believe her—or half believe her."
"Let 'em talk," growled Cap'n Ira. "'Twon't be the first time Big Wreck Cove folks got a mouthful to chew."
"But it will hurt Ida May," said Prudence, her voice trembling, as she squeezed the girl's hand and held it.
"'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,'" began Cap'n Ira. Then he broke off in anger when he saw the girl's face, and exclaimed: "But, I swan! They'll keep you dodging, and that's a fact! Ought to be some way of shutting her up, Tunis."
"I don't know how that is going to be done. Not just at first, anyway. Perhaps something will turn up. And, anyway, she hasn't begun to talk yet."
"It's like being tied down to one o' them railroad tracks and waiting for the fast express to come along and crunch ye," grumbled the old man. "I know how Ida May feels. But you keep a stiff upper lip, my gal. You've got plenty of friends that won't listen to any such crazy notions as that other gal's got in her noodle."
In this manner the old folks comforted themselves in part. But nothing that was said could comfort Sheila. Tunis smoked a pipe with Cap'n Ira after supper, while the girl cleared off the table and washed and dried the dishes. Then he got her outside just after he had bidden Cap'n Ira and Prudence good night.
They walked away silently from the kitchen door into the deep murk of a starless night. The moaning of a rising sea upon the outer reefs was the requiem of Sheila's hopes. One thing, she saw clearly, she must do. If she remained and fought for her place with the Balls, she must stand alone. Whether or not she held her place, she must not allow Tunis to be linked with her in this situation. As she slipped deeper and deeper into the morass, she could not cling to him and drag him as well into infamy and disgrace.
Away from the house, fully out of earshot from the kitchen, she halted. Tunis had taken her hand in his warm, encouraging grasp. She let it remain, but she did not return his pressure.
"Dear, this is dreadful," he whispered, "I know. But leave it to me. I'll find some way out."
"There is no way out, Tunis," she said confidently.
"Cat's-foot! Don't say that," he cried in exasperation. "There is always a way out of every jam."
"This girl will do one of two things," said Sheila firmly. "Either she will prove her claim, or she will give up and go back to Boston. You know that."
"She'll fight hard, I guess" he admitted.
"Either way, Tunis," the girl pursued, "there is bound to be much doubt cast upon my character—upon me. If the truth becomes known, I am utterly lost. If it is hushed up, I must go on living a lie—if I stay here."
"Don't talk that way!" he exclaimed gruffly. "Of course you'll stay here. If not with the Balls, then with me."
"Stop!" she begged him. "Wait! I am going to state the matter plainly as it is. We can no longer dodge it. This is the truth which we have been trying to ignore. I have not been foolish only; I have been wicked. And my greatest sin was in allowing you to link yourself with me so closely."
"What do you mean?" he gasped.
"Just what I say. It was wrong for me to allow you to be friendly with me before the Balls and other people. I should not have gone to your house last Sunday. I should not have allowed you to introduce me to your Aunt Lucretia."
"That is not my name," she whispered. "Let there be no further mockery between you and me, Tunis. I have been wicked; we have been wicked. We must pay for what we have done. There is no escaping that. I must not keep you as my lover, Tunis. I was wrong—oh! so wrong—last Sunday. Reckless, wicked, drifting with a current, I scarcely knew where."
"My dear girl—"
"Now I see the rocks ahead, Tunis. I can shut my eyes to them no longer. Disaster is at hand. You shall not be overwhelmed, as I may be overwhelmed at any time. I will not have your ruin on my conscience!"
"My ruin?" he repeated. "Ridiculous! My dear girl, you are talking like a mad woman. You cannot snap the tie that binds us. You cannot shoulder all the responsibility for this situation. The sin is as much mine as yours, if it is a sin. I'm in it as deep as you are."
"You must not be," she cried. "You can escape. You shall escape."
"Suppose I refuse to do so?" And he said it confidently.
"Tunis, I have thought of a way out for you," she cried suddenly.
"I don't want to hear it."
"But you must hear it!"
"I will not accept it."
"You cannot help yourself," she told him firmly. "Oh, I know what I am about! You may be angry; you will perhaps be laughed at a bit. But to be laughed at is better than to be scorned."
"What under the sun do you mean, girl?" he exclaimed, both startled and horrified by her determined words. "Do you think I would desert you in the middle of the current and swim ashore?"
"But I will desert you. I am determined to desert you. I refuse to cling to you, a millstone about your neck to drag you down. Ah, Tunis, whether or not that girl makes her claim good, what you and I had hoped for cannot be! An explanation must be made of your part in this frightful affair. That, in itself, must separate you and me."
"What explanation? There is no such explanation that can be made. I glory in the fact that we are together in this, Sheila, and whatever comes of it, we stand or fall together!"
"Ah, Tunis, you are a man! I knew that before. But nothing you can say will bend my determination. I withdraw all I said to you Sunday and on Monday morning before you went away. I positively withdraw all I promised you. It cannot be, Tunis. We cannot look forward to any happiness when we began so unwisely."
"'Unwisely?' What do you mean?" demanded the captain of the Seamew. "Chance threw us together. Providence, I tell you! I needed you fully as much as you needed me. And surely these poor old folks needed you, Sheila. Consider what you have been to them."
"It makes no difference in our association, Tunis," she said, shaking her head.
"Why, that night we talked upon that bench on Boston Common, had I dared propose such a thing, I would have said: 'Come and marry me now.' I would, indeed, Sheila."
The girl clenched her hands and drew in a breath. She raised her face to his, and in the darkness Tunis Latham saw it shine with a light from within. A great and desperate longing filled her voice when she cried:
"Oh, why didn't you do just that, Tunis Latham? I would have said 'yes.' And all this—this need not have been."
Swiftly she caught him around the neck, pressed her lips fiercely to his, while the tears rained down her face, wetting his face as well. Then she was gone. He heard her sobbing wildly in the dark. He was alone.
A CALL UNANNOUNCED
Cap'n Ira and Prudence did not see Sheila again that evening, for she slipped in by the kitchen door after they had gone into the sitting room and went up to her own chamber. They heard her mount the stairs and marked the tread of her light feet overhead.
The girl was not thinking of the old people just then. Their need entered into her determination to remain if she could. But this night was one time when Sheila Macklin thought almost altogether of herself and her personal difficulties.
Her present and acknowledged love for the young captain of the Seamew had been of no mushroom growth. She might not say, as Tunis did, that she had fallen in love at first sight. But very soon after meeting the young shipmaster from Big Wreck Cove she had appreciated his full value and realized that he was far and away the best man she had ever met.
Indeed, in that moment when Tunis Latham had caught Sheila in his arms as she had slipped in front of the restaurant on Scollay Square, the girl's mind had been stabbed through by such a poignant feeling, such a desire to know more about him, that she was actually frightened by the strength of this concern.
She knelt before her north window with the frosty air breathing in like a balm upon her fevered body, and strained her eyes for a glimpse of the light that always burned in Tunis' window when he was at home. It was a long time before she saw it. For Tunis Latham had walked about the fields a long time after she left him, and it was late when he finally entered the big brown house behind the cedars.
Aunt Lucretia, who had been expecting him, after she had seen the Seamew heading for the cove that afternoon, was still sitting in the kitchen when her nephew entered. Composed as the man's features were, there was still an expression upon them which startled the woman. It brought her out of her chair, even if it did not bring an audible question to her lips.
"I was delayed, Aunt 'Cretia," he said. "No; nothing new about the Seamew or about business. It's—there's trouble up to the Balls'."
He knew her first thought would be for the health of the two old people, and he had to explain a little more.
"They are all right—Cap'n Ira and Aunt Prue. It's about Sh—Ida May."
"Tunis! Nothing has happened to the girl?"
He must take Aunt Lucretia into his confidence—at least, to some extent. Just how much could he tell her? How much dared he tell her?
From somebody, he felt sure, she would hear about this other girl who had appeared to claim kinship with the Balls and demand that Sheila give over to her the place she had with Cap'n Ira and Prudence. For Ida May Bostwick was going to talk. Tunis knew that well enough. Although he had warned her sternly that evening against talking, he knew well enough that after the girl had recovered from her first fright she would spit out the venomous tale that she had already concocted in her mind about Sheila and himself.
He could not bring himself to confess to Aunt Lucretia all the truth about his first meeting and subsequent association with Sheila. Indeed, he hoped he would never be obliged to tell it.
But he must tell Aunt Lucretia nothing but the truth. He did this by beginning at the coming of the real Ida May Bostwick to the Ball house that afternoon and her claim to Sheila's place with the family. As he told the story, Aunt Lucretia gazed upon him so fixedly, so intently, that the captain of the Seamew was disturbed. He could not understand her expression.
Perhaps he told the story haltingly of how Ida May had been turned out and he had taken her back to the port and housed her with Mrs. Pauling. He made few comments, however; he left Aunt Lucretia to draw her own conclusions. It was not until he had quite finished that she spoke again.
"That crazy girl, is she—"
"I don't know that she's crazy," said Tunis gruffly.
"It would seem so. Does she look like Ida May?"
Tunis started. The question seemed to probe into a matter that he had not before considered. But he shook his head negatively.
"Nothing like her," he said. "Reddish hair. Brown eyes—or kind of brown. When she's maddest there are green lights in 'em. Not nice eyes at all."
Aunt Lucretia nodded and said no more upon that point. What her question had dealt with in her own mind, Tunis could not guess. She watched his face, now pale and sadly drawn. Then she placed a firm hand upon his arm to arouse his attention.
"Tunis! This—this girl at Cap'n Ira's is something to you?"
"My God! Aunt 'Cretia, she's everything to me," he groaned, his reticence breaking down.
"Is she a good girl, Tunis?"
"As good as gold. On my honor, there was never a nobler or better girl. I—I love her!" The words burst from him now in a great gush of emotion. These Lathams, when they did break up, often ran over. "I can't tell you the hold she has on me. If I lose her through this or any other cause, I'm done for!
"She thinks she isn't good enough for me. She is afraid of this girl who claims her place. She fears that I am going to be looked down on if I have anything more to do with her. And I tell you, if she was not the girl I know her to be, I would still cling to her. I must have her. I tell you, I must!"
Tears came to his eyes. His voice, hoarse and broken, carried to the woman's heart the knowledge that the one and overpowering passion of the man's life was rampant within him. What or whoever the girl at the Ball homestead might be, Tunis Latham was bound to her by ties which could not be broken.
She did the thing most generous; quite in accordance with her unselfish disposition. She stepped nearer to her nephew and put her arms about his neck. She kissed him. She gave no further evidence of doubt or disapproval. Indeed, when he left her to go to his room, he was assured that, however the world might look upon him, Aunt Lucretia was his supporter.
The girl in the Ball house saw the glimmer of his lamp that night for a very few minutes. There was a day's work before him, and Tunis Latham, like other hard-working men, must have his sleep.
Sheila kept the night watches alone. She went to bed, but the lids of her eyes could not close. Sleep was as far from her as heaven itself. She went over the entire happenings of the previous afternoon and evening with care, giving to each incident its rightful importance, judging the weight of each word said, each look granted her. Did the Balls suspect her in the least? Had the story Ida May Bostwick told made any real impression upon their minds?
No! She finally told herself that thus far she was secure. Ida May must bring something besides assertion to influence the minds of the two old people. And if she had had documentary proof in her possession yesterday, the new claimant would have shown it.
Nobody carries about with him birth certificate or memoranda of identification and relationship. If Ida May had been warned of what she was to meet at the old house on Wreckers' Head, without doubt she would have tried to equip herself in some such way for the interview.
It might be very difficult for the girl to obtain any evidence that would assure the Balls of her actual relationship to them. Sheila had foreseen this possibility from the first. She was still quite determined to hold on, to make the other girl do all the talking and all the proving. She herself would rest upon the foundation of her establishment in the place Ida May Bostwick claimed.
The latter certainly could not know Sheila's true history. Sheila was as much a stranger to Ida May as she had been to the Balls when Tunis had brought her to Wreckers' Head.
And then, suddenly, a thought seared through the girl's mind. Something that Ida May Bostwick had said just before Tunis hurried her out of the house!
"I believe I've seen her before. Somehow, she looks familiar."
These two sentences, spoken in Ida May's sneering way, had made little impression on the excited Sheila at the time they were spoken. But now they made the girl's heart beat wildly.
Suppose it were true! Suppose Ida May should really remember who Sheila was? It was not impossible that the girl from the lace counter of Hoskin & Marl's knew of Sheila's disgrace.
Sleep was not within her reach. The long hours of the night dragged past. Dimly dawn crept along the dark line of the horizon, circling all her world as far as Sheila could see it from her bed. But it was still dark below her north window when she caught the sound of a familiar step, the crunch of gravel under Tunis' boot.
She lay shaking for a moment, holding her breath. She heard the tiny pebbles rattle upon the window sill. For the first time she had not been downstairs to greet Tunis on his way to the port. Could she let him go now without a word?
But she must! She must be firm.
Nevertheless, she slipped softly out of bed. The pebbles rattled again. She caught up a dark veil from her bureau and wrapped it about her face. She crept to the north window. The veil would mask her face so that he could not distinguish it in the shadow.
But she could look down upon him. She saw him standing there so firmly—so determinedly. His was no nature to give over easily anything he had set his heart on. All the more reason why Sheila should not appear to weaken.
She crouched there breathlessly as he tossed up more pebbles. Then she heard him sigh. Then he turned slowly away, and his feet dragged off along the path, and he went out of sight.
The girl crept back into bed. She hid her face in the pillow and dry sobs racked her frame. This was the hardest of all the hard things she had to do. She had wounded Tunis to the heart!
Tunis Latham went down the track toward the port as the dull dawn glimmered behind him in a frame of mind so dismal and despairing that more than Sheila Macklin would have pitied the captain of the Seamew. Against the tide of emotions which now surged in his heart he scarcely had the energy to battle.
Never had he felt less like approaching his usual tasks as commander and owner of the schooner and facing the trials he knew would meet him upon this coming trip to Boston. Freight was waiting upon Luiz Wharf, and he would be able to pick up the remainder of his cargo at Hollis, which, with the wind as it was now, he could reach that afternoon by four o'clock. Given good luck, he would warp into the T-wharf next day before nightfall.
The uncertain point which troubled him most was the matter of the crew of the Seamew. The Portygees remaining with him—even Johnny Lark, the cook—had been in a most unhappy temper all the way back from Boston on the last trip. Tunis could depend upon Mate Chapin, Boatswain Newbegin, and 'Rion Latham himself to stick by the schooner. For, in spite of his quarreling and long tongue about a hoodoo, Tunis thought that his cousin was a man above any real fear of the very superstitions he talked about.
But four men could not safely work the schooner to Boston, nor in season to keep his contract with the consignees of freight which the Seamew carried. Troubled as he had been at Boston, and delayed, Tunis wished now that he had remained there even longer while he made search for and engaged a proper crew for the schooner. He had better, perhaps, have paid the fare of the Portygees back to Big Wreck Cove and so saved quarreling with them.
When he had been about to leave the schooner the afternoon before, the foolish fellows had sent a spokesman to him asking if he was sure the Seamew was not the old Marlin B., the Salem fishing craft which had been acclaimed "the murder ship" from the Banks to the Cape by all coasting seamen several years before. To answer this question rasped the pride of the owner of the Seamew. For a seaman to ask a question of one of the officers—a question of such a nature—was flaunting authority in any case.
Although Captain Latham considered the question ridiculous and utterly unworthy of a serious answer, he had replied to it.
He had told the sailor that to the best of his knowledge and belief the old Marlin B. was several thousand miles away from the Cape at that time, and that the Seamew was herself and no other. In any case, he had said he had no personal fear of sailing in the schooner as long as he could keep a decent crew of seamen aboard her, but that he would stand for no more foolishness from his present crew.
Tunis had spoken quite boldly. But, to tell the truth, he did not know where or how he was to sign another crew and a cook if the Portygees deserted the schooner. Not at Big Wreck Cove. He had heard too many whispers about the curse upon his schooner from people of all classes in the port. Even Joshua Jones, who was supposed to be a pretty hard-headed merchant, had been influenced by the story 'Rion Latham had first told about the Seamew. He and his father had hesitated to give Tunis an order for another lot of freight now waiting on the dock at Boston. They wanted to be sure that the schooner was not going to sail from the latter port undermanned. Whether or not the Joneses believed in the hoodoo, they did know that if the Seamew sailed without a proper crew their insurance on the freight would be invalid.
So the farther Tunis walked down toward the wharves, the more these thoughts assailed and overcame his mind, to the exclusion even of the tragic happenings back there on the Head the night before. He could not consider Ida May Bostwick—not even Sheila—now. The schooner, with her affairs, was a harsh mistress. His all was invested in the Seamew, and business had not been so good thus far that he could withdraw with a profit. Far from that! There were financial reefs and shoals on either hand, and that fact the young skipper knew right well.
As he drew near to Portygee Town, he glanced toward the open door of Pareta's cottage and saw the girl, Eunez, seated upon the step. She did not come out to meet him, as had been her wont, but she hailed him as he approached—though in a sharper tone than usual.
"So Captain Tunis Latham has still another girl? He is a lion with the ladies, it is plain to be seen. Ah!"
"You don't mind, do you, Eunez?" replied the young man, trying to assume his usual careless manner of speech. "You have the reputation of being pretty popular with the fellows yourself."
"Ah!" she said again, tossing her head. "Who is this new girl I see you walk with last evening, Tunis?"
"She is a stranger in Big Wreck Cove," was his noncommittal reply.
"So I see. They come and go for you, Tunis Latham. You are the fickle man, eh?"
"Tut, tut, Eunez!" he laughed. "Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. How about yourself? Didn't I see you going to church with Johnny Lark last Sunday? And then, in the afternoon, you had another cavalier along the beaches. Oh, I saw you!"
The color flashed into her dark cheek, and her black eyes reflected some unexplained anger. Beside her, leaning against the house wall, was the handle end of a broken oar. Tunis chanced to mark that there was a streak of dull blue paint on it.
"You have sharp eyes. Tunis Latham," hissed the girl. "Not all of the Lathams are too proud to walk with Eunez Pareta—or too proud to think of her. But you—bah!"
She got up suddenly, turned her back upon him, and entered the cottage. Tunis walked on, just a little puzzled.
Horry Newbegin sat on the rail of the schooner smoking, and evidently looking anxiously for the appearance of the skipper. There was no smoke rising from the galley chimney.
"What's the matter with cooky?" demanded Tunis briskly.
"The dratted Portygee's gone off to Paulmouth. He left word that he couldn't sail with us this trip."
"Then he'll never sail on the Seamew again," declared the skipper grimly.
"And that won't bother him none," said the boatswain gloomily.
"I'll get breakfast for all hands," said Tunis. "I'm not above that. Where are the hands?"
"As far as I know, Cap'n Tunis, they are where Johnny Lark is. Haven't shown up, and don't mean to," said Horry doggedly.
Tunis Latham cursed his delinquent crew soundly. The rage which flamed into his eyes, added to the pallor of his face, made an ugly mask indeed. It was not often that he gave way to such an outburst, but Horry had seen the same deadly anger displayed on occasion by Captain Randall Latham.
"Where's Mr. Chapin?"
"He was here before you, Cap'n Tunis. He's gone up to town to see if he can drum up some hands."
"He says he'll be here by the time you get ready to wheel the stuff aboard." And the old man pointed with his pipe-stem toward the open door of the shed.
"Ha!" ejaculated Tunis. "Feared I'd set him to work, eh? Well, they're all dogs together—the whole litter of 'em. I'll make the coffee. Tell me when Mr. Chapin comes. I suppose we can hire enough hands to get the freight aboard."
"But we can't work the schooner with three men, Cap'n Tunis; nor yet with four."
"Don't I know that? I'll get a crew if I have to shanghai them," promised Tunis grimly.
Mason Chapin came along with half a dozen fellows after a while. One was a negro who could cook. But there was no breakfast worthy of the name served aboard the Seamew that morning. They were late already in getting to work.
It was the middle of the forenoon before the schooner left port. There was a crew, such as it was. But Mason Chapin had been obliged to promise them extra pay to get them aboard the schooner at all.
When 'Rion Latham slipped aboard finally, half the loading of the cargo had been accomplished. Tunis himself was keeping tally. The skipper beckoned his cousin to him.
"'Rion," he said, "you certainly are about as useless a fellow as I ever had anything to do with. These Portygees who have left me in the lurch have some excuse for their actions. They are ignorant and superstitious. You know mighty well that the stuff you have been repeating about the schooner being cursed is nothing but lies and old-women's gossip! You've done it to make trouble. I ought to have had booted you overboard at the start."
"Close your hatch!" ejaculated Tunis. "And keep it closed. I'm talking, and I won't take any of your slack in return. I am not married to you, thanks be! I think you've got pretty near enough of me, and I'm sure I have of you, 'Rion. I give you warning—"
"Oh! You do?" snarled 'Rion, his ugly face aflame.
"Yes. I give you fair warning. When the Seamew gets back here to Big Wreck Cove again, you're through! You can take your dunnage ashore now if you like, but you go without pay if you do. Or you can do your work properly on this trip and return. Then you get through. Take your choice."
He expected 'Rion would leave the Seamew then and there. Tunis half hoped, indeed, that he would do so. But to his surprise, Orion suddenly snatched the book and pencil out of the skipper's hand and, growling that "he'd stay the voyage out," shuffled away to the rail and began taking tally of the barrels and cases being hauled aboard.
Working smartly, the new crew got the Seamew under sail and out of the cove two hours later. The wind held in a favorable quarter, and they reached Hollis betimes. There they finished the schooner's loading, and about dark went out to sea on a long tack and got plenty of sea room before they made the short leg of it.
Supper was the first good meal they had had aboard that day. After everything was cleaned up, the black cook joined the crew forward. In whispers the men talked over both the skipper and his schooner. The story of the curse was known to everybody in Big Wreck Cove by this time, and none of these new men was ignorant of it. They had, however, merely used it as a means of getting more pay than ordinary seamen were getting in such vessels.
"'Tain't nothing as I can see," one of the older men said, "that is likely to hurt us. It's a curse on the schooner, not on us folks that warn't aboard her when she run under that other boat. And as long as we keep away from the spot where the poor devils was drowned, we ain't likely to see no ha'nts."
The cook's eyes rolled tremendously.
"You thinks likely this yere is that Marlin B.?"
"Bah!" exclaimed one, whose name was Carney. "It's only talk. Maybe she ain't that schooner at all. Mr. Chapin says she ain't."
"Is that so?" sneered the voice of 'Rion Latham behind them. "You fellows don't want to believe what the skipper and the mate say. It ain't to their benefit for you to believe the truth. Look here!"
"What's that?" asked Carney, looking at the article Orion pushed forward in the dark. "A broken oar?"
"That's what it is. I found it only this morning in the hold, when I was helping stow the last of the cargo. It was wedged in behind a timber of her frame."
"Well? What of it?"
"Strike a match somebody. See what's burned into that handle?"
Their heads were clustered about the faint glimmer of the match flame. But the light was sufficient to reveal what 'Rion pointed out. Burned more or less unevenly were the letters M A R L I N B.
"What do you think of that?" exclaimed 'Rion. "Would that broken oar be aboard of this dratted schooner if she wasn't the Marlin B. painted over and a new name give her? What do you fellows think of it?"
There was silence in the group when the match flame died out. It was finally the negro cook who made comment:
"Lawsy me!" he groaned. "Ef I had only de faith of Peter I'd up an' walk ashore from dis here cussed schooner right now!"
TO LOVE AND BE LOVED
The girl whom Cap'n Ira Ball found in the kitchen of the old house on Wreckers' Head when he hobbled out of his bedroom the next morning was not the Ida May he had been wont to find of late, ready with his shaving materials, hot water, and a clean and voluminous checked apron to be tucked in about the neckband of his shirt.
All was in readiness as usual, but the girl herself was smileless, heavy-eyed, and slack of step. That she had suffered both in body and mind since the day before, the least observant person in the world would have easily comprehended.
"I swan, Ida May!" gasped the old man. "Whatever's happened to you?"
"I did not sleep well, Uncle Ira," she told him faintly.
"Sleep? Why you look as though you'd been standing double watch for a week of Sundays! I never see the beat! Has that crazy gal coming here set ye all aback this way?"
"I—I am afraid so."
"'Tis a shame. I won't stand to have that gal come here again. Prudence has been starting and crying out all night, too. She's as much upset as you be. I cal'late you don't feel like shaving of me this morning, Ida May."
"Oh, yes, I do, Uncle Ira! Don't mind how I look."
"But I do mind," he grumbled. "Folks' looks is a great p'int. I've always held to it. Talk about a singed cat being better than it looks—I doubt it!"
"People of my complexion always look worse after a sleepless night," explained Sheila, trying to smile at him.
"That's a pity, too. And I feel the need of being spruced up a good deal myself this morning, Ida May," he continued. "D'you see how straggly my hair is gettin'? Do you think you could trim it a mite?"
"Why, of course I can, Uncle Ira," she rejoined cheerfully.
"I swan! You be a likely gal, Ida May," said the old man, both reflectively and gratefully. "What would Prue and me do without you? And no other girl but just you would have begun to fill the bill o' lading. That's as sure as sure! See now," he went on, with emphasis, "suppose you'd been such a one as that half-crazy critter that come here yesterday! Where'd Prudence and me been with her in the house? Well!"
"She—she may not be as bad as she seemed under those particular circumstances," Sheila said hesitatingly. "If she had come here—had come here first and you and Aunt Prue had not known me at all—"
"I swan! Don't say no more! Don't say no more, I tell ye!" gasped Cap'n Ira. "It's bad luck to talk such a way; I do believe it is. Come on, Ida May. You tackle my hair and let's see what you can do with it. I know right well you'll make it look better than Prudence used to do."
Cap'n Ira was talking for effect, and the result he wished to achieve was bringing a smile to Sheila's face and a brighter light into her eyes, the violet hues of which were far more subdued than he desired. His success was not marked, but he changed to some degree the forlorn expression of the girl's countenance, so that when Prudence appeared in the midst of the operation of shaving, Sheila could greet the old woman with a tremulous smile.
"You deary-dear!" crooned Prudence, with her withered arms about the strong, young frame of the girl, drawing her close. "I know you've suffered this night. That mad girl was enough to put us all out o' kilter. But don't let any thought of her bother you, Ida May. Your uncle and I love you, and if forty people said you didn't belong here, we should keep you just the same. Ain't that so, Ira?"
"Sure is," declared the captain vigorously. "No two ways about it. We couldn't get along without Ida May, and I cal'late, the way things look, that I'd better get that high fence I spoke of built around this place at once. We're likely to have somebody come here and carry the gal off almost any time. I can see that danger as plain as plain!"
Prudence laughed, yet there was a catch in her voice too. She kissed the girl's tear-wet face tenderly. Sheila's heart throbbed so that she could scarcely go on with the task of shaving Cap'n Ira. How could she continue to live this lie before two people who were so infinitely kind to her and who loved her so tenderly?
And the girl loved them in return. It was no selfish thought which held Sheila Macklin here in the old house on Wreckers' Head. She had put aside all concern for her own personal comfort or ease. Had it not been for her desire to shield Tunis and continue to aid and comfort Cap'n Ira and Prudence, she might quickly and quietly have left the place and thus have escaped all possibility of punishment for the deception she had practiced.
Yes, had these other considerations not been involved, she would have run away! Although she chanced to have no money just at this time, she would have left the Ball homestead and Wreckers' Head and the town itself and walked so far away that nobody who knew her would ever see her again. She had thought of doing this even as far back as the time when she was so lonely and miserable in Boston. Now, she would willingly have become a tramp for the purpose of getting out of the affliction which enmeshed her.
She could not, nevertheless, yield to this temptation. If she ran away from the Balls and Big Wreck Cove, she would tacitly admit the truth of all Ida May Bostwick's claims, and possibly involve Tunis in the wreckage. Therefore she held to her determination of keeping her place here until she was actually driven forth.
As a last resort, having now worked out the detail of that plan in her mind, she believed she could save Tunis from much calumny if it became positively necessary for her to depart under this cloud and abandon her place to the real Ida May. The latter must, however, come with positive proof of her identity—evidence sufficient to convince Cap'n Ira and Prudence—before Sheila Macklin would release her grasp upon what she had obtained by trickery and deceit.
Not for a moment did the girl try to excuse to herself what she had done. In spite of the Balls' need of her, and in spite of Tunis' love, Sheila did not try to deceive herself with any sophistry about the end justifying the deed. Such thinking could not satisfy her now.
Sheila's eyes were opened. She beheld before her both the wide and the narrow way. If she took the pleasanter path, it was with a full knowledge of what she did. Yet would it be the pleasanter path? She doubted this. If she continued to fight for a place which was not hers by right, she must walk for all time in a slippery way. This claim of the real Ida May might be perennial; the girl might return again and again to the attack. For years—as long as the Balls lived and Sheila remained with them—she must be ever on the alert to defend her position with them.
And after the good old people died—what then? Their property here on the Head and their money would no more belong to Sheila Macklin than it did now. She shrank in horror from the thought of swindling the real Ida May out of anything which might legally be hers when the Balls were gone. Of course, Cap'n Ira and Prudence could will their property to whom they pleased. Still, Ida May was Prudence's niece!
As the day dragged on, Ida May did not appear, but the old folks talked about her continually, until Sheila thought she must cry aloud to them to stop.
"The poor thing must be half-witted, of course," Mrs. Ball said ruminatively. "Can't be otherwise. But she must have known something about Sarah Honey and her folks."
"Seems likely," agreed Cap'n Ira.
"Now, you know, Ira, Sarah was an orphan and I was her mother's only relation—and only that in a kind of a left-handed way, for I wasn't really her aunt. That branch of the Honeys—Sarah's father's folks—had all died out. Sarah lived about—kinder from pillar to post as you might say—till she went to Boston and met Mr. Bostwick. Isn't that so, Ida May?"
"Yes. So I understand," agreed the girl faintly.
"Now, you don't remember your mother much, Ida May," pursued Prudence confidently. "You was too young when she died. And you being brought up among the Bostwicks, you didn't know much about us down here on the Cape. But don't you remember any neighbor that lived near you there in Boston that had a gal something like this crazy one that come here?"
"I swan!" ejaculated Cap'n Ira. "You're coming out strong, old woman, I do say."
Sheila could only shake her head.
"Why, see," said Prudence, encouraged by her husband's commendation, "there might have been a neighbor woman that Sarah—your mother, you know, Ida May—was close acquainted with. Maybe she used to talk with this neighbor a good deal about her young days, and how she lived down here. You know women often gossip that way."
"I'll say they do!" put in Cap'n Ira, tapping the knob of his cane.
"Well, now," said the old woman, greatly interested in her own idea, and a little proud of it, "suppose that neighbor had a little girl who heard all these things Sarah Bostwick might have said. And if that child's brain wasn't just right—if she was a little weak-minded, poor thing—what's more reasonable than that she treasured it all up in her mind and after years, in one of her spells of weak-mindedness, she got the idea she was Ida May Bostwick, and determined to come here and visit us!"
"I swan, Prudence!" exclaimed Cap'n Ira. "It's like a story-book—a reg'lar novel."
"Well, it might be," said his wife, smiling quite proudly.
"Only after all, that gal didn't seem so very weak-minded," muttered Cap'n Ira. "She seemed more mean and ugly than weak."
Sheila had thought somewhat along this line herself. At least, she knew how weak the real Ida May's story must sound to most people in the neighborhood, unless the claimant had actual proof of birth and name to bolster her attempt to win the Balls. There was but a tenuous thread connecting Ida May with Big Wreck Cove, or any other part of Cape Cod. The Bostwicks—the girl's immediate family, at least—were dead.
These facts, already gathered by Sheila from Aunt Prudence's conversation with the neighboring women, were the foundation on which she had built her desperate hope of keeping up the deception and thwarting the other girl, no matter how bitterly the latter might press her claim.
Nor was she, Sheila felt, depriving Ida May of anything which the latter, if she obtained it, would actually prize. The shallow girl was not the sort of person to appreciate the kindness of the two old people or give them any comfort and sympathy in return. Why, both Cap'n Ira and Prudence already shrank from the new claimant!
This fact, however, did not cause Sheila, the imposter, to lose sight of the point that Cap'n Ira and his wife could both be very stern in attitude and speech toward the evildoer. They made no compromises with evil.
Even the old man, philosophical as he was and wont to look upon most human frailities with a lenient if not a humorous eye, would not excuse actual crime. And something very like a crime had been committed.
The day passed without any reappearance of Ida May upon Wreckers' Head, but just after nightfall and while the supper dishes were being cleared away, Zebedee Pauling knocked at the kitchen door. All three of the Ball household looked upon the young fellow expectantly when he stepped in.
"I was just passing by and thought I'd look in and see how you all were," said Zeb, with his usual shy manner and apologetic smile.
"Come in and set down, Zeb," said the captain eagerly. "I cal'late you've got some news for us."
"I don't know," said Zeb thoughtfully, "but what you've got some news that might satisfy mom and me. That is, about that girl Tunis brought to the house."
"What about her, Zeb?" queried Prudence anxiously.
"Mom and I would be glad to know what you know about her," said Zebedee. "She—she 'pears to have a—a great imagination."
"I shouldn't wonder," Cap'n Ira snorted.
"She don't act crazy, but she certainly talks crazy," the visitor went on emphatically. "Why, she says the most ridiculous things about—about Miss Bostwick!" He bowed and blushed as he spoke the name and looked penitently toward Sheila. "Why, she declares her name is Bostwick!"
"That's what she done up here," said Cap'n Ira grimly. "I cal'late she means to kick up a fuss. Is she still stopping with your mother, Zeb?"
"Yes. She paid a week's board money down. I expect mom wouldn't have taken her, or it, if Tunis hadn't brought her."
"That wasn't Tunis' fault," snapped the old man. "He had to get shet of her somehow. We expect she'll try to make trouble."
"Oh, as for that," said Zeb, with some relief, "I don't see, even if she is your niece, why she should expect you to take her in if you don't want to!"
"She ain't," said Cap'n Ira flatly. "You can take that from me, Zeb."
"Not any relation at all?"
"None at all, as far as we know," declared the captain.
"Then what does she want to talk the way she does, for?" cried the young man. "I told mom she was crazy, and now I know she is."
"I guess likely," agreed the old man, taking upon himself the burden of the explanation. "None of us up here ever saw the gal before. Neither Prudence nor me nor Ida May. She's loony!"
"I told mom so," reiterated Zeb, with a great sigh of relief. "I know what she said must be a pack of foolishness. But you know how mom is. I—"
"She's soft. I know," returned Cap'n Ira.
"She's so tender-hearted," explained Zeb. "The girl talks so. She's talked mom not into believing in her, but into kind of listening and sympathizing with her. And now, to-night, she's took her to see Elder Minnett."
"What? I swan! To see the elder!" ejaculated Cap'n Ira. "What she needs is a doctor, not a minister. What do you think of that, Prudence?"
"I hope Elder Minnett will be able to put her in better mind," sighed his wife. "That girl must have a very wicked heart, indeed, if she isn't really crazy."
ELDER MINNETT HAS HIS SAY
Another night counted among the interminable nights which have dragged their slow length across the couch of sleeplessness. To Sheila, lying in the four-poster—a downy couch, indeed, for a quiet conscience—the space of time after she blew out her lamp and until the dawn passed like the sluggish coils of some Midgard serpent. An eternity in itself.
She came down to her daily tasks again with no change in her looks, although her voice had the same placid, kindly tone which had cheered the old people for these many weeks. But they both were worried about her.
"Maybe she's been working too hard, Prudence," ventured the old man. "Can it be so, d'ye think?"
"She says she likes to work. She's a marvel of a housekeeper, Ira. I don't mean to put too much on her, but I can't do much myself, spry as I do feel this fall. And she won't let me, anyway."
"I know, I know," muttered Cap'n Ira. "She's with you like she is with me. Always running to help me, or to pick up something I let fall, or to fetch and carry. A kinder girl never breathed. I swan! What should we do without her, Prue? That Tunis—"
"Sh!" Prudence begged him. "Don't chaff no more about that, Ira."
"Why not?" he asked. "Though I don't feel much like chaffing when I think of them getting married. 'Tis a pretty serious business for us, Prudence."
"I had a chance to hint about it last night when you went outside with Zebedee," whispered his wife, "I spoke about Tunis. She—she says she'll never leave us to marry Tunis or any other man."
"What's that?" ejaculated Cap'n Ira. "He wouldn't agree to come and live here, I reckon. What would become of his Aunt 'Cretia? I don't guess there's any fear of her getting married, is there?"
"No, no! Don't be funnin'! But Ida May said just that—in so many words."
"She's mad with him, do you cal'late? They had a tiff!" cried her husband. "And they were like two turtledoves the night that other gal come here. It don't seem possible. I swan! That's why she's so on her beam ends, I bet a cake!"
"It may be. She wouldn't say much. I didn't understand, though, that they had quarreled. Only that she'd made up her mind that she wouldn't marry."
"Oh, she'll change her mind!" said Cap'n Ira, wagging his head.
"Do you think so? Not so easy. You'd ought to know by this time how firm Ida May can be."
"The Lord help Tunis then," said Cap'n Ira emphatically. "But his loss is our gain. Ain't no two ways about that."
Sheila's secret thoughts were not calculated to calm her soul. Her determination braced her body as well as her mind to go about her daily tasks with her usual thoroughness, but she could not confront the old people with even a ghost of her usual smile. So she kept out of their way as much as possible and communed alone with her bitter thoughts.
The uncertainty of what Ida May was doing and saying down there in Big Wreck Cove was not all that agitated Sheila. Her conscience, so long lulled by her peaceful existence here with the two old people, was now continually censuring her.
Sin brings its own secret punishment, though the sinner may hide the effects of the punishment for a long time. But Sheila could not now conceal the effect of the mental pain and the remorse she suffered.
Of one thing she might be sure. The neighbors had not as yet heard about the real Ida May or heard her story. Otherwise some of the women living on the Head would have been in to hear the particulars from Prudence.
But that afternoon the throaty chug of Elder Minnett's little car—it had created almost a scandal in Big Wreck Cove when he bought it—was heard mounting the road to the Head.
"I swan!" commented Cap'n Ira, who sat at the sunny sitting-room window, for it was a cold day. "Here comes that tin wagon of the elder's. But he's alone. Get on your best bib and tucker, Prudence, for there ain't any doubt but what he's headin' in this way."
"Oh, dear me!" fluttered his wife. "I wonder what he's going to say. Make the tea strong, Ida May. The elder likes it so it'll about bear up an egg. And open a jar of that quince jam. I wish we had fresh biscuits, although them you made for dinner were light as feathers."
"I'll make some now. There's a hot oven," replied the girl.
"No, no," interposed Cap'n Ira firmly. "I want you should sit in here with us and hear all the elder's got to say."
"Perhaps, Uncle Ira, he will want to talk to you and Aunt Prue privately."
"There won't be no private talk about you, Ida May," snorted the captain, his keen eyes sparkling. "Not much! If he's got anything to say to your aunt and me, he's got to say it in your hearing."
The elder was a tall and bony man with a stiff brush of gray beard and bushy hair to match, which seemed as uncompromising as his doctrinal discourses in the pulpit. He was an old-fashioned preacher, but not wholly an old-fashioned thinker.
Sheila had thought, on the few occasions when she had met him away from his pulpit, that there was an undercurrent of humanity in him quite equal to that in Cap'n Ira Ball, but his personal appearance and rather gruff manner made it difficult for one to be sure of the measure of his tenderness.
How Elder Minnett appeared in the sick room or in the house of sorrow, she did not know. She could not very well imagine his being tender at any time with the sinner at whom he thundered from the pulpit. Secretly she trembled at the old clergyman's approach.
"Well, Elder!" was the warm greeting of Prudence at the front door when the rattling automobile came to a wheezing halt before the gate. "Do tell! Ira said he see you coming up the road, and I was determined you shouldn't drive by without speaking. Do come in."
"I propose to, Sister Ball," was the grim-lipped reply.
He came into the house and took the proffered chair in the sitting room. They spoke of the weather, of the tide, and of the clam harvest. The farm crops back of Big Wreck Cove did not interest Cap'n Ira.
"Well," said the elder finally, clearing his throat, "I've come up here on an errand you can possibly guess, Cap'n Ira and Sister Ball."
"Maybe we can and maybe we can't," observed the captain with a countenance quite as wooden as the elder himself displayed.
"I come on behalf of that young woman who was here to see you the other day."
"It's my opinion you'd done better to have gone to the insane asylum folks about her," rejoined Cap'n Ira.
"Now, Ira!" said Prudence softly.
"Seeing it as you do, Cap'n Ira," the elder remarked quite equably, "I conclude that you might think that. But you formed your judgment in the heat of—well, not anger, of course—but without sufficient reflection."
"Humph!" grunted Cap'n Ira noncommittally.
"I have talked with that young woman on two occasions," said the elder.
"With what young woman?" interrupted Cap'n Ira.
"With the girl staying at the Widow Pauling's. The girl who claims to be your niece."
"You'd better talk with the other young woman," said Cap'n Ira sternly. "Ida May! Just you come in here and sit down. You are as much interested as we be, I guess. This is Ida May Bostwick, Elder Minnett," he added, as Sheila entered.
"Yes, yes. I have had the pleasure," said the elder, bowing gravely without offering to shake hands. He turned abruptly to Prudence. "You are quite convinced in your own mind, Sister Ball, that the young woman at the Pauling's is not your niece?"
"Why, Elder Minnett," returned Prudence, "how can she be? Ida May is Sarah Honey's only child, and Sarah was only distantly related to me. There never was another girl in the family—not like that one that came here the other day, for sure!" And the old woman shook her head emphatically.
"That girl you got down there at the port, Elder, is crazy—crazy as a loon," put in Cap'n Ira harshly.
"I am not so sure of that," the clergyman said shortly.
"I swan! Beg your pardon, Elder. No offense. But you don't mean to say that she seems sane and sensible to you?"
"Sane—yes! As for being sensible, that is another thing," confessed Elder Minnett.
"Huh! What do you mean by that?" asked Cap'n Ira curiously.
"She has told her story in full to me, and told it twice alike," said the grim-visaged minister, looking at Sheila as he answered the query. "An insane person is not so likely to do that, I believe. But she is not what I would call a sensible young woman. Not at all."
"I should say not!" gasped Prudence.
"But I have heard her, and I have reflected on what she has said. I do not see, if she is an impostor, how she could have made up that story."
"Then she must be loony," muttered Cap'n Ira.
"I presume she told the same story to you that she did to me," pursued Elder Minnett. "I do not understand Tunis Latham's part in it, but the rest of her story seems quite reasonable."
"Reasonable?" repeated Prudence, with some warmth. "Do you call it reasonable to say what she did about Ida May?"
"In speaking of the young woman's reasonableness I mean in regard to the personal details she gave me. What she said in her anger to, or of, other people has no influence whatsoever on my judgment."
"Well, it has on mine!" exclaimed Cap'n Ira. "I'd have drove out a dozen gals that spoke as she did to Prudence and Ida May—crazy or not!"
"You would be wrong, Cap'n Ball," said the elder severely.
"Well, let's have the p'ints the girl makes!" growled the old shipmaster. "I will listen to 'em."
Elder Minnett bowed formally and began Ida May's story, checking off the several assertions she had made when she was at the Ball house far more clearly than the girl herself had done. As Sheila listened, her heart sank even lower. It was so very reasonable! How could the Balls fail to be impressed?
But Cap'n Ira and Prudence listened with more of a puzzled expression in their countenances than anything else. It seemed altogether wild and improbable to them. Why! There sat Ida May before them. There could not be two Ida May Bostwicks!
"Say!" exclaimed Cap'n Ira suddenly, after Elder Minnett had concluded, "that girl says she worked at Hoskin & Marl's?"
"Why, ain't that where you worked, Ida May?"
"Yes," was Sheila's faint admission.
"You never see her there, did you?"
"I do not remember of having seen her until she came here," the girl said quite truthfully.
"Ought to be some way of proving up that," muttered Cap'n Ira.
"I have written to Hoskin & Marl, at the other young woman's instigation, and have asked about her," said Elder Minnett.
"Well, I never!" gasped Prudence, and her withered, old face grew pink.
"I hope you will not take offense," said the visitor evenly. "You must understand that the young woman has come to me in trouble, and it is my duty to aid her if I can—in any proper way. That is my office. Any young woman"—he looked directly at Sheila again as he said it—"will find in me an adviser and a friend whenever she may need my help."
"We all know how good you are, Elder Minnett," Prudence hastened to say. "But that girl—"
"That girl," he interrupted, "is a human being needing help. I have advised her. Now I want to advise you."
"Out with it, Elder," said Cap'n Ira. "Good advice ain't to be sneezed at—not as I ever heard."
"I have the other young woman's promise that she will tell her story to nobody else—nobody at all—until I can hear from those whom she says are her employers. But with the understanding that you will do your part."
"What's that?" asked Cap'n Ira quickly.
"She wants to come up here and stay with you. She says she is sure you are her relatives. She says if you will let her come, she will be able to prove to you that she is the real niece you expected—whom you sent for last summer."
"Why, she's crazy!" again cried Cap'n Ira.
"I—I am almost afraid of her," murmured Prudence, looking from Sheila to her husband.
"I assure you, Sister Ball, she is not insane. She is harmless."
"She didn't talk as though she was when she was here—not by a jugful," declared Cap'n Ira bitterly.
"That was because she was angry," explained Elder Minnett patiently. "You must not judge her by her appearance when she came here the other day and found—as she declares—another girl in her rightful place."
"I swan!" exclaimed the old shipmaster, bursting out again. "I won't stand for that. Her rightful place, indeed! Why, if she was forty times Prudence's niece and we didn't want her here, what's to make us take her, I want to know?"
"Do you think we ought to, Elder?" questioned Prudence faintly.
"I think, under all the circumstances, that it is your Christian duty. Know the girl better. See if there is not something in her that reminds you—"
"Avast there!" shouted Cap'n Ira, pounding with his cane on the floor. "That's going a deal too far. 'Christian duty,' indeed! How about our duty to Ida May setting there, and to ourselves? Prudence is afraid of that crazy gal in the first place."
"I give you my word she is not insane."
"That's your opinion," said the captain grimly. "I wouldn't back it with my word, Elder, unless I was prepared to go the whole v'y'ge. Do you mean to say that you accept that gal's story as true—in all partic'lars?"
"I don't say that."
"Then I shall stick to my opinion. She's as loony as she can be. And I am plumb against insulting our Ida May by letting the girl come up here. What do you say, Prudence?"
The old woman was much perturbed. Elder Minnett was a minister of the gospel. To be told by him that it was her Christian duty to take a certain course bore much weight with Prudence Ball.
But when she looked at Sheila, sitting there so pale and silent, and realized that on her head all this was falling, the old woman rose up, burst into tears, and threw herself into the girl's arms.
"No, no!" she sobbed. "Don't let her come here, Ira. We don't want her. We don't want anybody but Ida May whom we love so dear, and who we know loves us. We can't do it, Elder Minnett! Why, if they should come and tell me—and prove it—that Ida May wasn't our niece and that other girl was, I couldn't bear the creature 'round. No, I couldn't. I couldn't forgive anybody that would separate us from this dear, dear girl!"
Cap'n Ira had got upon his feet and was leaning forward on his cane. With a shaking finger he drew the elder's attention to the two women, rocking in each other's arms.
"You hear that? You see that?" demanded the captain brokenly, the tears starting from his own eyes and finding gutters down his cleanly shaved cheeks. "That's your answer, Elder! You have some idea how Prudence and I longed for young company in this house, and somebody to help and comfort us. And we got her.
"Ida May come to us like the falling of manna in the wilderness for them spent and wandering Israelites. She has been to us more than ever we dared hope for. If she was our own child and had growed up here on Wreckers' Head our own born daughter, I couldn't think no more of her.
"And you come here and ask us to give countenance for a moment to a half-witted girl that says she belongs here in Ida May's place, and claiming Ida May's name. More than that, she saying that our own girl that we love so is a liar and an impostor and altogether bad—such as she must be if she had fooled us so. I swan! Elder, I should think you'd have more sense." And Cap'n Ira concluded abruptly and with a return to his usual self-control.
The silence which ensued was only broken by the old woman's sobs. Cap'n Ira, frankly wiping his own eyes with the great silk handkerchief which he usually flourished when he took snuff, strode across the room and patted Prudence's withered shoulder. He said nothing, nor did the elder. It was Sheila who broke the silence at last.
She had stood up. Now she put Prudence tenderly into Cap'n Ira's arms. She gave him, too, such a thankful, beaming glance that the old man was almost staggered. For he had not seen one of those smiles for more than two days.
"Elder Minnett," Sheila said, and her voice was quite steady, "I think it is my place to speak."
"Yes?" was the noncommittal response of the grim old minister.
"I should not think for a moment of doubting your judgment in such a matter. If you say Cap'n Ira and Mrs. Ball should receive this—this girl here while the matter is being examined, I hope they will agree with you and allow her to come."
"Why, Ida May!" gasped Prudence.
"That gal's an angel! She ain't nothing but an angel!" marveled Cap'n Ira.
"But I think," said Sheila, "that the girl should be made to promise that while she is here, and if she comes here, that she will not speak to anybody outside this room at the present time of the claim she makes—especially as it seems to affect Captain Latham."
"I swan! That's so! He's got a wage and share in this thing, ain't he? And he ain't here to defend himself, if we be."
The elder nodded slowly. His gaze did not leave Sheila's face.
"I think I can promise that in her name. Indeed, I had already extracted such a promise before I would undertake to come up here. I have warned Mrs. Pauling not to repeat a word the girl said to her. And Zebedee is a prudent young man."
"I told Zeb myself to keep his hatch battened," growled Cap'n Ira. "But, I swan, Ida May! I don't see how you can bear to have the crazy critter here. And Prudence—"
"If Ida May says she is willing," sighed the old woman, glad to be able to set a course not opposed to her minister's advice.
"Thank you, young woman," Elder Minnett said, speaking grimly enough to Sheila. "Those who have nothing to fear can afford to be generous. You have done right."
The subject was dropped—to the relief of all of them. Tea was poured from the marble-topped, black-walnut table, and Sheila passed biscuit, jam, cakes, and other delicacies. She performed her part of the ceremony with apparent calm. She did not speak to the elder again, nor he to her, save when she ran out to carry forgotten gloves to him when he had climbed into the automobile.
The grim old man shot her through with the keenest of keen glances as he accepted the gloves.
"I don't think, young woman," he said softly, "that you are likely to put poison in that other girl's tea—as she says she's afraid you will."
Then he drove away.
CAP'N IRA SPEAKS OUT
Wrung as Sheila's heart had been by the expression of the old woman's utter confidence in her and by Cap'n Ira's warm words of approbation spoken before the elder, it was nevertheless for Tunis Latham's sake that she had abetted the minister's desire and had agreed that the real Ida May Bostwick should come to the Ball house on Wreckers' Head.
By extracting a promise from Ida May that she would talk to nobody for the present—especially about the connection of the captain of the Seamew with Ida May's affairs—Sheila believed she had entered a wedge which might open the way for the young man to escape from a situation which threatened both his reputation and his peace of mind.
To save Tunis! She was fairly obsessed by that thought. Her vow before the picture of Tunis' mother in the Seamew's cabin must be in Sheila's view to the very end. She had a sufficient share of that vision of the Celt to be deeply impressed by a promise made as that had been made—though in secret. It was a sacred pledge.
It was no easy matter for any of the Ball household to consider the coming of Ida May with serenity. Prudence, at heart, shrank from the claimant on her hospitality almost as much as Sheila did. If Cap'n Ira hid his perturbation better than the others, he nevertheless hobbled about with a very solemn countenance.
"I swan!" he muttered within Sheila's hearing. "It's most like there was a corpse in the house. This ain't no way to live. I do wish Elder Minnett could have minded his own business and let well enough alone. Let the girl talk, and other folks, too. Trying to stop gossip is like trying to put your finger on a drop of quicksilver. There won't be no good come o' that girl being here. That's as sure as sure."
The elder's car came wheezing up the hill again about the middle of the forenoon. He did not alight himself, but Ida May needed the presence of nobody to lend her assurance. She hopped out of the car with her bag and flaunted her cheap finery through the gate and in at the front door.
Her reception at this end of the house marked the unmistakable fact that Prudence and Cap'n Ira received her as a stranger rather than in a confidential way.
"Well, Aunt Prue! For you are my aunt whatever you may say," was Ida May's prologue. "And you are my uncle," she added, her greenish-brown eyes flashing a glance at the grimly observant captain. "I must say it's pretty shabby treatment I've got from you so far. But I don't blame you—not at all. I blame that girl and Tunis Latham."
"Avast there!" put in Cap'n Ira so sternly and with so threatening a tone of voice and visage that even Ida May was silenced. "We've let you come here, my girl, because Elder Minnett asked us to; and not at all because our opinion of you is changed. Far from it. You're here on sufferance and you'd best be civil spoken while you remain. Ain't that the ticket, Prudence?"
His wife nodded, in full accord with his statement of the situation, although she could not bear to look so sternly on any person as Cap'n Ira now looked at Ida May.
"Well! I like that!" sniffed the girl, tossing her head, but she actually shrank from the captain.
"Furthermore, as regards Tunis Latham, you was to say nothing about him outside of this house if you was let come here. And I warn you, we don't care to hear nothing in his disfavor in this house."
"Oh! I can see he's a favorite with you," muttered Ida May.
"Then trim your sails according," admonished the old man. "In addition, you mentioned the young woman we already got here in a way we don't like none too well. I want to impress on your mind that it was only through her saying she was agreeable to your coming here that we agreed to the elder's request and let you come."
"She did, eh?" cried Ida May, flouncing in her chair. "Well, I don't thank her."
"No. I cal'late you ain't of a thanking disposition," said Cap'n Ira. "But you like enough won't drop your bread butter-side down. That's all."
Ida May, startled by his speech, stared with less impudence at the old man. For his part, the captain watched her pretty closely, and he had met and judged too many people in his day not to form gradually, as the hours passed, a decided opinion regarding Ida May.
Nor did he cling to his first impression—the one made in haste and some vexation, when she had first tried to thrust herself into the Ball household and demanded the place filled by Sheila Macklin. This girl certainly was not insane. But with all her apparent smartness, Cap'n Ira easily saw that she was not intelligent—that she had scarcely ordinary understanding. Beside the newcomer's shallow nature and even more shallow endowments, Sheila seemed to be from a different world.
"I swan!" whispered Cap'n Ira to Prudence some time later. "The difference between them two girls! They ain't to be spoke of in the same county, I declare. Look at that one, Prudence," he said, with a side glance at the newcomer. "Ain't she a sight with them thin and flashy clothes?"
"I can't see anything about her that looks like any of the Honeys, let alone Sarah."
"Huh! No. Only that her hair's sorter red," returned Cap'n Ira, "like Sarah's was."
The visitor proved her position in the household by sitting idly in a rocking-chair looking over some pictures which were on the table or staring out of the window. She offered to do nothing for Prudence. But, of course, Ida May was not very domestic. Living in a furnished room and working behind the counter in a department store does not develop the domestic virtues to any appreciable degree.
She did not see Sheila until dinner was on the table and she was called to the meal with Cap'n Ira and the old woman. The stiff, little bow with which Ida May favored the girl in possession was returned by the latter quite as formally.
Sheila had regained complete control of voice and face now. Although she did not actually address Ida May, her manner was such that there was no restraint put upon the company. It was the newcomer's manner, if anything, that curtailed the usual friendly intercourse at the Ball table.
Ida May possessed some powers of observation. She would have said herself that she was able to "put two and two together." The way the meal had been cooked, the way it was served, and the work entailed in doing both these things, were matters not overlooked by the visitor.
She knew that Prudence had given neither thought nor attention to getting the dinner. The girl the Balls had received in Ida May's name and supposed identity had done it all herself. It seemed to be expected of her!
She saw, before the day was over, that Sheila was a very busy person indeed. That she not only did the housework, but that she waited upon Prudence and Cap'n Ira "hand and foot." She did it with such unconcern that the new girl could be sure these tasks were quite what was expected of her.
"Why," exclaimed Ida May to herself, "she's just hired help! Is that what they wanted me for when they sent Tunis Latham up to Boston after me? I'd like to see myself!"
She had foreseen something of this kind when she had refused so unconditionally to come down here to the Cape. And her observation of the house and its furnishings, as well as the appearance of the old couple, had confirmed her suspicion that her belief in the Balls "being pretty well fixed" was groundless.
After her interview with Elder Minnett, although she had refrained from detailing her story and her spiteful comments about Sheila and Tunis Latham to the Paulings, she had not ceased to question Zebedee and his mother about the financial condition of the Balls.
She had learned that a couple of thousand dollars would probably buy all the real property the old people owned on Wreckers' Head. There was a certain invested sum which secured them a fair living. Beyond that, the Big Wreck Cove people knew of no wealth belonging to either Cap'n Ira or Prudence.
Ida May already considered that she had come down here to the Cape on a fool's errand. She would like to make herself solid, however, with the old folks so as to benefit when they were dead and gone, if that were possible. But to make herself a kitchen drudge for them? She would like to see herself!
There was a phase of the situation which held Ida May to the course she had set sail upon, and one which would hold her to it to the bitter end. Her spitefulness and determination to be revenged upon this unknown girl who had usurped the place originally offered her by the Balls, and who had stolen her name as well, was quite sufficient to cause a person of Ida May Bostwick's character to fight for her rights.
She would be revenged on Tunis, too. Or, at least, she would make him, as well as the other girl, suffer for the slight he had put upon her.
Had she not preened her feathers and strutted her very best on the occasion when he interviewed her at Hoskin & Marl's and taken her out to lunch? And to no end at all! He had been quite unimpressed by Ida May's airs and graces.
Yet he would take up with this other girl—a mere nobody. Worse than a nobody, of course. She must be both a bad and a cunning woman to have done what it was plain she had done. She had wound Tunis Latham around her finger, and had hoodwinked the old people in the bargain!
Ida May saw the other girl waiting on Prudence and Cap'n Ira; she observed her tenderness toward them and their delight in her ministrations; and these things which she regarded with her green-glinting eyes made her taste the bitterness of wormwood. She hated Sheila more and more as the day wore on; and she scorned the old people both for what she considered this niggardliness and for their simplicity, as well, in being fooled by this other girl.
For, of course, to Ida May's mind, Sheila's kindness and the love shown for the Balls on her part was all put on. It could not be otherwise. Ida May Bostwick could not, in the first place, imagine any sane girl "falling for the two old hicks."
Prudence could seldom show herself other than kindly toward any person whether she exactly approved of that person or not. So she chatted cheerfully at Ida May, if not with her. She was quite as insistent as Cap'n Ira, however, in keeping away from the vexing question of the identity of the two girls.
Right at the first the question had been raised: where should the visitor be put to sleep? Ida May was prepared to object strenuously if any slight was put upon her, such as being given some little, tucked-up attic room away from the rest of the family. Had she dared, she would have demanded the use of the room the false Ida May occupied; only she was not sure, after seeing the position Sheila seemed to hold in the household, that she cared to be put to sleep in the room of the "hired help."
But Sheila herself settled that question.
"The guest room is ready. Aunt Prue," she said to Prudence. "I cleaned it this week and the little stove is set up in there if it should grow cold overnight. All the bed needs is aired sheets. I'll get them out of the press."
So Prudence took Ida May to the guest chamber, which was beyond the parlor. A black-walnut set, which had been the height of magnificence when Cap'n Ira and Prudence were married, filled the shade-drawn room with shadows. There was an ingrain carpet on the floor of a green groundwork with pale-yellow flowers on it, of a genus known to no botanist. The tidies on the chair backs were so stiff with starch that it would be a punishment to lay one's head against them.
On a little marble-topped table between the windows was something made of shells and seaweed in a glass-topped case. It looked to Ida May like a dead baby in a coffin.
"Of all the junk!" she muttered to herself when Prudence left her to arrange the contents of her bag as she chose. "And that girl likes it here! Well, I'll show her who's who and what's what!
"I'd like to know where I ever saw her face before? I bet it was somewhere she'd no business to be—just as she has sneaked in here where she doesn't belong. The nasty, hateful thing!
"If Bessie Dole or Mayme Leary could only see this dump!" she added, looking over the room again. "Anyhow, I've made 'em give me the best they've got. I'll show 'em how to treat a real relation that comes to see 'em."
Supper time came and passed no more cheerfully than had the midday meal. The society of the old people was anything but enlivening for Ida May. In desperation she began to talk, and out of sheer perverseness she lighted upon the subject of the establishment of Hoskin & Marl.
Now Prudence found this topic of interest, for since Annabel Coffin—she who was a Buttle—had dilated upon those great marts of trade in Boston, the old woman had been vastly curious. Sheila had never cared to talk of her experiences as saleswoman behind the counter.
"They tell me they sell most everything you could name in those stores," Prudence said reflectively. "Heaps of dry goods, I suppose. Let me see, what did you sell, my dear?"
"I'm in the laces," said Ida May. "But Hoskin & Marl sell lots besides dry goods."
"Oh, yes! Annabel did say something about automobiles and—and plasters; didn't she, Ira?"
"Goodness knows," rejoined her husband with a groan. "Annabel Coffin said so much the last time she was here that my head buzzes now when I think of her."
"Now, you hesh!" said Prudence. "Never can interest a man in such things. So you sold laces, did you, my dear? Oh, Ida May!" she exclaimed suddenly to Sheila, sitting on the other side of the table. "Ida May, what did you say you sold in that store? You worked for Hoskin & Marl, didn't you?"
"Ye-es. I—I was in the silverware and jewelry department," stammered Sheila, the question coming so unexpectedly that she could not exercise consideration before making answer.
"Now, is that so?" cried Prudence. "That must have been nice. To handle all them pretty things. But lace is pretty, too," she added, turning quickly to the guest again. "I expect you find it so."
The old woman was startled into silence by the expression she saw upon Ida May's face. The latter was glaring across the table at Sheila. No other word could so express the intense and malevolent look in those greenish-brown eyes and on that sharp countenance.
Sheila's gaze was enthralled as well by Ida May's sudden emotion. She half rose from her chair. But her strength left her limbs again, and she fell back into the seat.
"What's the matter, Ida May?" demanded Cap'n Ira, in wonder and alarm.
The real Ida May sprang up with a shriek. She shook her hand at Sheila and for a moment could not articulate. Then she said:
"I know her now! I knew I'd seen that creature before and I thought I'd remember what and who she is. And she dares come down here and sneak her way into honest people's houses! The gall of her!"
"Looker here, girl!" exclaimed Cap'n Ira sternly. Putting his hand upon Ida May's shoulder, he forced her down into her chair again. His own eyes gleamed angrily, and his countenance expressed his wrath. "What was you told on coming here? Didn't you promise to keep a taut line on all that foolishness? I won't stand for it. No, Prudence!" he exclaimed, as his wife tried to interfere. "I won't stand for it. She must either keep away from that business, or I'll put her right out of the house. Leastways, it being night, I'll send her to her room."
"Do you think you can boss me like that?" cried Ida May hotly, so angry herself that she forgot her fear of him. "I'm not your slave, nor your hired help, like that creature." She pointed scornfully at Sheila. "And you'll just listen to something I've got to say. If you don't, I'll go out to-morrow and tell everybody in this hick town. I'll hire a hall to tell 'em in!"
"Won't—won't you be good, deary?" begged Prudence, before her husband could make any rejoinder to this defiance. "You know you promised Elder Minnett you would be if we let you come here."
"I don't want to stay here. I've seen enough of this place and you all! And I would be ashamed to stay any longer than I can help with folks that take in such a girl as she is."
Again Ida May's little claw indicated Sheila, who stared, speechless, helpless, at least for the time being. The harassed girl could fight for herself no longer. She knew that she was on the verge of betrayal. She could not stem the tide of Ida May's venom. The latter must make the revelation which had threatened ever since she had come to Wreckers' Head. There was no way of longer smothering the truth. It would come out!
"Look here," Cap'n Ira said, his curiosity finally aroused, "the elder says you ain't crazy! But it looks to me—"
"I'm not crazy, I can tell you," snapped Ida May, taking him up short. "But I guess you and Aunt Prue must be. Why, you don't even know the name of this girl you took in instead of me—in my rightful place. But I can tell you who she is—and what she's done. I remember her now. I knew I'd seen her before—the hussy!"
"Belay that!" exclaimed Cap'n Ira.
But he said it faintly. He was looking at the other girl now, and something in her expression and in her attitude made him lose confidence. His voice died in his throat. Ida May Bostwick had the upper hand at last—and she kept it.
"Look at her," she exulted, the green lights in her brown eyes glinting like the sparkling eyes of a serpent. "Look at her. She knows that I know. She's come down here and fooled you all, but she can't fool you any longer. And that Tunis Latham! Why, it can't be possible he knew what she was from the first!"
"See here," said Cap'n Ira shakily. "What do you mean? What are you getting at—or trying to? If you got anything to say about Ida May, get it out and be over with it."
"Oh, Ira! Don't! Stop her!" wailed Prudence.
Like the old man, Prudence finally realized that there was something wrong—something very wrong, indeed—with the girl they had known for months as Ida May and whom they had learned to love so dearly.
Nobody looking at Sheila could doubt this for a moment. Her tortured expression of countenance, the wild light in her eyes, her trembling lips, advertised to the beholders that the last bastion of her fortress was taken, that the wall was breached and into that breach now marched the triumphant phrases of the real Ida May's bitter, gloating speech.
"Look at her!" repeated the latter. "She can't deny it now. She knows I know her and what she is. Why, Aunt Prue—and you, Captain Ball—have been fooled nice, I must say. And that Tunis Latham! Well, he can't be much!"
"Don't—don't say anything against Tunis!"
It was not a voice at all like the usual mellow tones of Sheila Macklin which uttered those faint words. Hoarse, strained, uncertain, there was yet a note of command in the phrase which had its influence on the wildly excited Ida May.
"I'll say what I've got to say about you, miss!" she exclaimed with exultation. "And you—nor they—shan't stop me. You're the girl that was arrested in the store for stealing. It must have been two—why, it must have been more than three years ago. I hadn't worked there but a little while. No wonder I didn't remember you at first."
Cap'n Ira vented a groan and caught at his wife's hand. She was sobbing frantically. She still murmured her plea for the captain to stop the awful revelation Ida May was bent on making. But the latter gave no heed and the captain himself was speechless.
"And I can't remember her name even now," went on Ida May, flashing a look at the Balls. Their pitiful appearance made no impression upon her. "But that don't matter. I guess they've got your record at Hoskin & Marl's. You worked there all right; sure you worked there, in the jewelry section. You stole something. I saw the store detective, Miss Hopwell, take you up to the manager's office. I never heard what they did to you, but they did a plenty, I bet."
She turned confidently again to the horrified captain and his wife.
"Just see how she looks. She don't deny it. How she managed to work that Tunis Latham into bringing her down here, I don't know. She pulled the wool over his eyes all right.