E-text prepared by Al Haines
SARA WARE BASSETT
"The Harbor Road," "The Wall Between," "Taming of Zenas Henry," etc.
With Frontispiece by M. L. Greer
[Frontispiece: "Delight's kinder bowled over by surprise, Tiny," Willie explained gently.]
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ———— New York Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company Copyright, 1921, By Sara Ware Bassett. All rights reserved Published March, 1921
I. THE WEAVER AND HIS FANCIES II. WILLIE HAS AN IDEE III. A NEW ARRIVAL IV. THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER ENTERS V. AN APPARITION VI. MARRYING AND GIVING IN MARRIAGE VII. A SECOND SPIRIT APPEARS VIII. SHADOWS IX. A WIDENING OF THE BREACH X. A CONSPIRACY XI. THE GALBRAITH HOUSEHOLD XII. ROBERT MORTON MAKES A RESOLVE XIII. A NEWCOMER ENTERS XIV. THE SPENCES ENTER SOCIETY XV. A REVELATION XVI. ANOTHER BLOW DESCENDS XVII. A GRIM HAND INTERVENES XVIII. THE PROGRESS OF ANOTHER ROMANCE XIX. WILLIE AS PILOT XX. ONE MORE OF WILLIE'S SHIPS REACHES PORT XXI. SURPRISES XXII. DELIGHT MAKES HER DECISION XXIII. FAME COMES TO THE DREAMER OF DREAMS
THE WEAVER AND HIS FANCIES
Willie Spence was a trial. Not that his personality rasped society at large. On the contrary his neighbors cherished toward the little old man, with his short-sighted blue eyes and his appealing smile, an affection peculiarly tender; and if they sometimes were wont to observe that although Willie possessed some common sense he was blessed with uncommon little of it, the observation was facetiously uttered and was offered with no malicious intent.
In fact had one scoured Wilton from end to end it would have been difficult to unearth a single individual who bore enmity toward the owner of the silver-gray cottage on the Harbor Road. It was impossible to talk ten seconds with Willie Spence and not be won by his kindliness, his optimism, his sympathy, and his honesty. Willie probably could not have dissembled had he tried, and fortunately his life was of so simple and transparent a trend that little lay hidden beneath its crystalline exterior. What he was he was. When baffled by phenomena he would scratch his thin locks and with a smile of endearing candor frankly admit, "I dunno." When, on the other hand, he knew himself to be master of a debated fact, no power under heaven could shake the tenacity with which he clung to his beliefs. There was never any compromise with truth on Willie's part. A thing was so or it was not.
This reputation for veracity, linked as it was with an ingenuous good will toward all mankind, had earned for Willie Spence such universal esteem and tenderness that whenever the stooping figure with its ruddy cheeks, soft white hair, and gentle smile made its appearance on the sandy roads of the hamlet, it was hailed on all sides with the loving and indulgent greetings of the inhabitants of the village.
Even Celestina Morton, who kept house for him and who might well have lost patience at his defiance of domestic routine, worshipped the very soil his foot touched. There was, of course, no denying that Willie's disregard for the meal hour had become what she termed "chronical" and severely taxed her forbearance; or that since she was a creature of human limitations she did at times protest when the chowder stood forgotten in the tureen until it was of Arctic temperature; nor had she ever acquired the grace of spirit to amiably view freshly baked popovers shrivel neglected into nothingness. Try as she would to curb her tongue, under such circumstances, she occasionally would burst out:
"I do wish, Willie Spence, you'd quit your dreamin' an' come to dinner."
For answer Willie would rise hastily and stand arrested, a bit of string in one hand and the hammer in the other, and peering reproachfully over the top of his steel-bowed spectacles would reply:
"Law, Tiny! You wouldn't begretch me my dreams, would you? They're about all I've got. If it warn't fur the things I dream I wouldn't have nothin'."
The wistfulness in the sensitive face would instantly transform Celestina's irritation into sympathy and cause her to respond:
"Nonsense, Willie! What are you talkin' about? Ain't you got more friends than anybody in this town? Nobody's poor so long as he has good friends."
"Oh, 'taint bein' poor I mind," laughed Willie, now quite himself again. "It's knowin' nothin' an' bein' nothin' that discourages me. If I'd only had the chance to learn somethin' when I was a youngster I wouldn't have to be goin' it blind now like I do. There's times, Celestina," added the man solemnly, "when I really believe I've got stuff inside me that's worth while if only I knew what to do with it."
"Pshaw! Ain't you usin' what's inside you all the time to help the folks of this town out of their troubles? I'd like to know how they'd get along if it warn't fur you. Ain't you doctorin' an' fixin' up things for the whole of Cape Cod from one end to the other, day in and day out? I call that amountin' to somethin' in the world if you don't."
Willie paused thoughtfully.
"I do do quite a batch of tinkerin', that's true," admitted he, brightening, "an' I'm right down glad to do it, too. Don't think I ain't. Still, I can't help knowin' there's better ways to go at it than blunderin' along as I have to, an' sometimes I can't help wishin' I knew what the right way is. There must be folks that know how to do in half the time what I do by makeshift an' fussin'. Sometimes it seems a pity there never was anybody to steer me into findin' out the kind of things I've always wanted to know."
Celestina began to rock nervously.
Being of New England fiber, and classing as morbid all forms of introspection, she always so dreaded to have the conversation drift into a reflective channel that whenever she found Willie indulging in reveries she was wont to rout him out of them, tartly reproaching herself for having even indirectly been the cause of stirrin' him up.
"Next time I'll set the chowder back on the stove an' say nothin'," she would vow inwardly. "I'd much better have waited 'til his dream was over an' done with. S'pose I am put out a bit—'twon't hurt me. If I don't care enough for Willie to do somethin' for him once in a while, good as he's always been to me, I'd oughter be ashamed of myself."
Hence it is easily seen that neither to Wilton in general nor to Celestina in particular was Willie Spence a trial.
No, it was to himself that Willie was the torment. "I plague myself 'most to death, Tiny," he would not infrequently confess when the two sat together at dusk in the little room that looked out on the reach of blue sea. "It's gettin' all these idees that drives me distracted. 'Tain't that I go huntin' 'em; they come to me, hittin' me broadside like as if they'd been shot out of a gun. There's times," ambled on the quiet voice, "when they'll wake me out of a sound sleep an' give me no peace 'til I've got up and 'tended to 'em. That notion of hitchin' a string to the slide in the stove door so'st you could open the draught without stirrin' out of your chair—that took me in the night. There warn't no waitin' 'til mornin'! Long ago I learned that. Once the idee has a-holt of me there's nothin' to do but haul myself out of bed, even if it's midnight an' colder'n the devil, an' try out that notion."
"The plan was a good one; it's saved lots of steps," put in Celestina.
"It had to be done, Tiny," Willie answered simply. "That's all there was to it. Good or bad, I had to carry it to a finish if I didn't sleep another wink that night."
The assertion was true; Celestina could vouch for that. After ten years of residence in the gray cottage she had become too completely inured to hearing the muffled sound of saw and hammer during the wee small hours of the night to question the verity of the statement. Therefore she was quite ready to agree that there was no peace for Willie, or herself either, until the particular burst of genius that assailed him had been transformed from a mirage of the imagination to the more tangible form of tacks and strings.
For strings played a very vital part in Willie Spence's inspirational world. Indeed, when Celestina had first come to the weathered cottage on the bluff to keep house for the lonely little bachelor and had discovered that cottage to be one gigantic spider's web, her initial impression was that strings played far too important a part in the household. What a labyrinthine entanglement the dwelling was! Had a mammoth silkworm woven his airy filaments within its interior, the effect could scarcely have been more grotesque.
Strings stretched from the back door, across the kitchen and through the hallway, and disappeared up the stairs into Willie's bedroom, where one pull of a cord lifted the iron latch to admit Oliver Goldsmith, the Maltese cat, whenever he rattled for entrance. There was a string that hoisted and lowered the coal hod from the cellar through a square hole in the kitchen floor, thereby saving one the fatigue of tugging it up the stairs.
"A coal hod is such an infernal tote to tote!" Willie would explain to his listeners.
Then there was a string which in like manner swung the wood box into place. Other strings opened and closed the kitchen windows, unfastened the front gate, rang a bell in Celestina's room, and whisked Willie's slippers forth from their hiding place beneath the stairs; not to mention myriad red, blue, green, yellow, and purple strings that had their goals in the ice chest, the pump, the letter box, and the storm door, and in connection with which objects they silently performed mystic benefactions.
Probably, however, the most significant string of all was that of stout twine that reached from Willie's shop to the home of Janoah Eldridge, two fields beyond, just at the junction of the Belleport and Harbor roads. This string not only linked the two cottages but sustained upon its taut line a small wooden box that could be pulled back and forth at will and convey from one abode to the other not only written communications but also such diminutive articles as pipes, tobacco, spectacles, balls of string, boxes of tacks, and even tools of moderate weight. By means of this primitive special delivery service Jan Eldridge could be summoned posthaste whenever an especially luminous inspiration flashed upon Willie's intellect and could assist in helping to make the dream a reality.
For it was always through Willie's plastic imagination that these creative visions flitted. In all his seventy years Jan had been beset by only one outburst of genius and that had pertained to whisking an extra blanket over himself when he was cold at night. How much pleasanter to lie placidly between the sheets and have the blanket miraculously appear without the chill and discomfort of arising to fetch it, he argued! But alas! the magic spell had failed to work. Instead the strings had wrenched the corners from the age-worn covering, thereby arousing Mrs. Eldridge's ire. Moreover, although Jan had not confessed it at the time, the blanket while in process of locomotion had for some unfathomable reason dragged in its wake all the other bedclothes, freeing them from their moorings and submerging his head in a smothering weight of disorganized sheets and counterpanes only to leave his poor shivering body a prey to the unfriendly elements. An attack of lumbago that rendered him helpless from January until March followed and had decided Jan that inventors were born, not made. Thereafter he had been content to abandon the realm of research to his comrade and allow Willie to furnish the inspiration for further creative ventures. Nevertheless his retirement from the spheres of discovery did not prevent him from zealously assisting in the mechanical details that rendered Willie's schemes material. Jan not only possessed a far more practical type of mind than did his friend but he was also a more skilful workman and therefore in the carrying out of any plan his aid was indispensable. He was, moreover, content to be the lesser power, looking up to Willie's ability with admiration and asserting with unfeigned sincerity to every one he met that Willie Spence had not only been born with the injun but he had the newity to go with it.
"Why," Jan would often declare with spirit, "in my opinion Willie has every whit as much call to write X, Y, Z, an' all them other letters after his name as any of those fellers that graduate from colleges! He's a wonder, Willie Spence is—a walkin' wonder! Some day he's goin' to make his mark, too, an' cause the folks in this town to set up an' take notice. See if he don't."
Willie's neighbors had long since tired of waiting for the glorious moment of his fame to arrive; and although they had too genuine a regard for the little old inventor to state publicly what they really thought of the strings, the nails, the spools, the wires, and the pulleys, in private they did not hesitate to denounce derisively the scientist's contrivances and assert that some fine day the house on the bluff would come to dire disaster.
"Somebody's goin' to get hung or strangled on one of them contraptions Willie's rigged up," Captain Phineas Taylor prophesied impressively to Zenas Henry as the two men sat smoking in the lee of the wood pile. "You watch out an' see if they don't."
Indeed there was no denying that Celestina was continually catching hairpins, hooks, and buttons in the strings; or that some such dilemma as had been predicted had actually occurred, for one day while alone in the house a pin fastening the back of her print gown had become inextricably entangled in the maze amid which she moved, and fearing Willie's wrath if she should sunder her fetters she had been forced to stand captive and helplessly witness a newly made sponge cake burn to a crisp in the oven. She had hoped the ignominious episode would not reach the outside world; but as Wilton was possessed of a miraculous power for finding out things the story filtered through the community, affording the village a laugh and the opportunity to affirm with ominous shakings of the head that it was only because the Lord looked out for fools and little children that a worse evil had not long ago befallen the Spence household.
Willie accepted the banter in good part. Born with a forgiving, noncombative disposition he seldom took offence and although Janoah Eldridge, who knew him better perhaps than anyone else on earth did, acclaimed that this tranquil exterior concealed, as did Tim Linkinwater's, unsuspected depths of ferocity, Wilton had yet to encounter its lionlike fury. Instead the mild little inventor, with his spools and his pulleys, his bits of wire and his measureless reaches of string, pursued his peaceful though tortuous way, and if his abode became transformed into a magnified cobweb only himself and Celestina were inconvenienced thereby.
To Celestina inconvenience was second nature since from the moment of her birth it had been her lot in life. Arriving in the world prematurely she had found nothing prepared for her coming and had been forced to put up with such makeshifts for comfort as could be hurriedly scrambled together. From that day until the present instant the same fate had shadowed her path; perhaps it was in her stars. Her parents had been of dilatory habits and by the time a crib with the necessary pillows and bedding had been secured, and she had drawn a few peaceful breaths therein a new baby had arrived and she had been ousted from her resting place and compelled to surrender it to the more recent comer. Ever since she had been shunted from pillar to post, sleeping on cots, on couches, in folding beds and in hammocks, and keeping her meager possessions in paste-board boxes tucked away beneath tables and bureaus. Poised on the ragged edge of domesticity she continued throughout her girlhood to look forward with hope to an eventual state of permanence. When she was eighteen, however, her mother died and in the task of bringing up six brothers and sisters younger than herself all considerations for her personal ease were forgotten. Ten years passed and her father was no more; than gradually, one after another, the family she had so patiently reared took wing, leaving Celestina a lonely spinster of fifty, homeless and practically penniless.
This cruel lack of responsibility on the part of her relatives resulted less from a want of affection than from a supreme misunderstanding of their older sister. So completely had Celestina learned to efface her personality and her inclinations that they reasoned she was utterly without preferences; that she lacked the homing instinct; and was quite as happy in one place as in another. Having thus washed their hands of her they proceeded to sell the Morton homestead and each one pocket his share of the proceeds. Very scanty this inheritance was, so scanty that it compelled Celestina to begin a rotation around the village, where in return for shelter she filled in domestic gaps of various kinds. She helped here, she helped there; she took care of babies, nursed the sick, comforted the aged. On she moved from house to house, no enduring foundation ever remaining beneath her feet. No sooner would she strike her roots down into a congenial soil than she would be forced to pluck them up again and find new earth to which to cling.
She might have married a dozen times during her youth had not her conscience deterred her from deserting her father and the children left to her care. In fact one persistent swain who refused to take "No" for an answer had begged Celestina to wait and pray over the matter.
"I never trouble the Lord with things I can settle myself," replied she firmly. "I can't go marryin' an' that's all there is to it."
Other offers had been declined with the same characteristic firmness until now the golden season of mating-time was past, and although she was still a pretty little woman the stamp of spinsterhood was unalterably fixed upon her.
Wilton, in the meantime, had long ago lost sight of the uncomplaining self-sacrifice it had previously lauded and explained Celestina Morton's unwedded state by declaring that she was too "easy goin'" to make anybody a good wife. This criticism came, perhaps, more loudly from the female faction of the town than from the male. However that may be, the stigma, merited or unmerited, had become so firmly branded upon Celestina that it could not be effaced. She may to some extent have brought it upon herself, for certain it was that she never kicked against the pricks or tried to shape her circumstances more in accordance with her liking. Undoubtedly had she accepted her lot less meekly she might have commanded a greater measure of attention and sympathy; still, if she had not been of a more or less plastic nature and surrendered herself patiently to her destiny it is a question whether she would have survived at all.
It was this mutability, this power to detach herself from her environment and view it with the stoical indifference of a spectator that caused Wilton with its harsh New England standards, to characterize Celestina as "easy goin'." In fact, this popularly termed "flaw" in her make-up was what had acted as an open sesame to every door at which she knocked and had kept a roof above her head. She had been just sixty years of age when Willie Spence's sister had died and left him alone in the wee cottage on the Harbor Road, and all Wilton had begun to speculate as to what was to become of him. Willie was as dependent as an infant; the village gossips who knew everything knew that. From childhood he had been looked after,—first by his mother, then by his aunt, and lastly by his sister; and when death had removed in succession all three of these props, leaving the little old man at last face to face with life, his startled blue eyes had grown large with terror. What was to become of him now? Not only did Willie himself helplessly raise the interrogation but so did all Wilton.
Of course he could go and board with the Eldridges but that would mean renting or selling the silver-gray cottage where he had dwelt since birth and would be a tragic severing of all ties with the past; moreover, and a fact more potent than all the rest, it would mean dismantling the house of the web that for years he had spun, the symbols of dreams that had been his chief delight. Should he go to the Eldridges there could be no more inventing, for Jan's wife was a hard, practical woman who had scant sympathy with Willie's "idees." Nevertheless one redeeming consideration must not be lost sight of—she was a famous cook, a very famous cook; and poor Willie, although he cared little what he ate, was incapable of concocting any food at all. But the strings, the strings! No, to go to live with Jan and Mrs. Eldridge was not to be thought of.
It was just at this psychological juncture, when Willie was choosing 'twixt flesh and spirit, that he saw Celestina Morton standing like a vision in the sunshine that spangled his doorway. She said she knew how lonely he must be and therefore she had come to make a friendly call and tidy up the house or mend for him anything that needed mending. With this simple introduction she had taken off her hat and coat, donned an ample blue-and-white pinafore, and set to work. Fascinated Willie watched her deft movements. Now and then she smiled at him but she did not speak and neither did he; nor, he noticed, did she disturb his strings or comment on their inconvenience. When twilight came and the hour for her departure drew near Willie stationed himself before the peg from which dangled her shabby wraps and stubbornly refused to have her hat and cloak removed from the nail. There, figuratively speaking, they had hung ever since, the inventor reasoning that life without this paragon of capability was a wretched and profitless adventure.
In justifying his sudden decision to Janoah Eldridge, Willie had merely explained that he had hired Celestina because she was so comfortable to have around, a recommendation at which Wilton would have jeered but which, perhaps, in the eyes of the Lord was quite as praiseworthy as that which her more hidebound but less accommodating sisters could have boasted. For disorder and confusion never kept Celestina awake nights or prevented her from partaking of three hearty meals a day as it would have Abbie Brewster or Deborah Howland. So long as things were clean, their being an inch or two, or even a foot, out of plumb did not worry the new inmate of the gray house an iota. And when Willie was balked in an "idee" that had "kitched him," and left half-a-dozen strings and wires swinging in mid-air for weeks together, Celestina would patiently duck her head as she passed beneath them and offer no protest more emphatic than to remark:
"Them strings hangin' down over the sink snare me every time I wash a dish. Ain't you calculatin' ever to take 'em down, Willie?"
The reply vouchsafed would be as mild as the suggestion:
"I reckon they ain't there for eternity, Tiny," the inventor would respond. "Like as not both you an' me will live to see 'em out of the way."
That was all the satisfaction Celestina would get from her feeble complaints; it was all she ever got. Yet in spite of the exasperating response she adored Willie who had been to her the soul of kindliness and courtesy ever since she had come to the bluff to live. He might forget to come to his meals,—forget, in fact, whether he had eaten them or not; he might venture forth into the village with one gray sock and one blue one; or when part way to the post-office become lost in reverie and return home again without ever reaching his destination. Such incidents had happened and were likely to happen again. Nevertheless, notwithstanding his absentmindedness, he was never too much absorbed to maintain toward Celestina an old-fashioned deference very appealing to one accustomed to being ignored and slighted.
The impulse, it was quite obvious, was prompted less by conventionality than by a knightliness of heart, and Celestina, who had never before been the recipient of such courtesies, found herself inexpressibly touched by the trifling attentions. Often she speculated as to whether this mental attitude toward all womanhood was one Willie himself had evolved or whether it was the result of standards instilled into his sensitive consciousness by the women who had been his companions through life,—his mother, his aunt, his sister. Whichever the case there was no question that the old man's bearing toward her placed her on a pinnacle where gossip was silenced, and transformed her humble ministrations from those of a hireling into acts of graciousness and beauty.
Moreover to live in the same house with such an optimist was no ordinary experience. Well Celestina remembered the day when at dinner the little old man had choked violently, turning purple in the face in his fight for breath. She had rushed to his side, terror-stricken, but between his spasms of coughing the inventor had gasped out:
"Why make so much fuss over what's gone down the wrong way, Tiny? Think—of—the—things—I've—swallered—all—these—years—that have—gone down—right!"
The observation was characteristic of Willie's creed of life. He never emphasized the exceptions but always the big, fine, elemental good in everything.
Even the name by which he went had been bestowed on him by the community as a term of endearment. There were, to be sure, other men in the hamlet whose names had passed into diminutives. There was, for example, Seth Crocker, whose wife explained that she called him Sethie "for short." But Sethie's name was never pronounced with the same affectionate drawl that Willie's was.
No, Willie had his peculiar niche in Wilton and a very sacred niche it was.
What marvel, therefore, that Celestina reverenced the very earth which he trod and cheerfully put up with the strings, the wires, the spools, the tacks, and the pulleys; that she shifted the meals about to suit his convenience; and that when she was awakened at midnight by a rhythmic hammering which portended that the inventor had once again "got kitched with a new idee" she smiled indulgently in the darkness and instead of cursing the echoes that disturbed her slumber whispered to herself Jan Eldridge's oft-repeated prediction that the day would come when Willie Spence would astonish the scoffers of Wilton and would make his mark.
WILLIE HAS AN IDEE
On a day in June so clear that a sea gull loomed mammoth against the sky; a day when a sail against the horizon was visible for miles; a day when the whole world seemed swept and garnished as for a festival, Zenas Henry Brewster drew rein before the Spence cottage, hitched the Admiral to the picket fence that bordered the highway, and ascending the bank which sloped abruptly to the road presented himself at the kitchen door from which issued the aroma of baking bread.
"Mornin', Tiny," called the visitor, poking his head across the threshold. "Willie anywheres about?"
Celestina, who was washing the breakfast dishes, glanced up at the lank figure with a start.
"Law, Zenas Henry, what a turn you gave me!" she exclaimed. "I never heard a footfall. Yes, Willie's outside somewheres. He and Jan Eldridge have been tinkerin' with the pump since early mornin'. They've had it apart a hundred times, I guess, an' like as not they're round there now pullin' it to pieces for the hundred-an'-oneth."
Zenas Henry grinned.
"That's a queer to-do," he remarked. "What's got all the pumps? Bewitched, I reckon. Ours ain't workin' fur a cent either, an' I drove round thinkin' I'd fetch Willie home with me to have a look at it. He's got a knack with such things an' I calculate he'd know what's the matter with it. Darned if I do."
The man began to move away across the grass.
Celestina, however, who was in the mood for gossip, had no mind to let him escape so easily.
"How's your folks?" questioned she, dropping her dishcloth into the pan and following him to the door.
"Oh, we're all right," returned Zenas Henry with a backward glance. "Captain Benjamin's shoulder pesters him some about layin', but I tell him he can't expect rain an' fog not to bring rheumatism."
"That's so," agreed Celestina. "What a spell of weather we've had! I guess it's about over now, though. I'm sorry Benjamin's shoulders should hector him so. We're gettin' old, Zenas Henry, that's the plain truth of it, an' must cheerfully take our share of aches an' pains, I s'pose. Are Captain Phineas an' Captain Jonas well?"
"Oh, they're nimble as crabs."
"Fine as a clipper in a breeze!" responded the man with enthusiasm. "Best wife that ever was! The sun rises an' sets in that woman, Celestina. What she can't do ain't worth doin'! Turns off work like as if it was of no account an' grows better lookin' every day a-doin' it."
"I reckon you didn't make no mistake gettin' married, Zenas Henry," mused she.
"Mistake!" repeated Zenas Henry.
"An' no mistake takin' in the child, either," went on Celestina, unheeding the interruption.
She saw his face soften and a glow of tenderness overspread it.
"Delight was sent us out of heaven," he declared with solemnity. "'Twas as much intended that ship should come ashore here an' the three captains an' myself bring that little girl to land as that the sun should rise in the mornin'. The child was meant fur us—fur us an' fur nobody else on earth. Was she our own daughter we couldn't be fonder of her than we are. It's ten years now since the wreck of the Michleen. Think of it! How time flies! Ten years—an' the girl's most twenty. I can't realize it. Why, it seems only yesterday she was clingin' to my neck an' I was bringin' her home."
"She's grown to be a regular beauty," Celestina observed.
"I s'pose she has; folks seem to think so," replied Zenas Henry. "But it wouldn't make an ounce of difference to me how she looked; I'd love her just the same. I reckon she'll never seem to me anyhow like she does to other people. Still I ain't so blind that I don't know she's pretty. Her hair is wonderful, an' she's got them big brown eyes an' pink cheeks. I'm proud as Tophet of her. If it warn't fur Abbie I figger the three captains an' I would have the child clean spoilt. But Abbie's always kept a firm hand on us an' prevented us from puttin' nonsensical notions into Delight's head. Much of the way she's turned out is due to Abbie's common sense. Well, the girl's a mighty nice one," concluded Zenas Henry. "There's none to match her."
"You're right there!" Celestina assented cordially. "She's one in a hundred, in a thousand. She has the sweetest way in the world with her, too. A body couldn't see her an' not love her. I guess there's many a young feller along the Cape thinks so too, or I'm much mistaken," added she slyly. "She must have a score of beaux."
"Beaux!" snapped Zenas Henry, wheeling abruptly about. "Indeed she hasn't. Why, she's nothin' but a child yet."
"She's most twenty. You said so yourself just now."
"Pooh! Twenty! What's twenty?" Zenas Henry cried derisively. "Why, I'm three times that already an' more too, an' I ain't old. So are you, Tiny. Twenty? Nonsense!"
"But Delight is twenty, Zenas Henry," persisted Celestina.
"What of it?"
"Well, you mustn't forget it, that's all," continued the woman softly. "Many a girl her age is married an'——"
"Married!" burst out the man with indignation. "What under heaven are you talkin' about, Celestina? Delight marry? Not she! She's too young. Besides, she's well enough content with Abbie an' the three captains an' me. Marry? Delight marry! Ridiculous!"
"But you don't mean to say you expect a creature as pretty as she is not to marry," said Celestina aghast.
"Oh, why, yes," ruminated Zenas Henry. "Of course she's goin' to get married sometime by an' by—mebbe in ten years or so. But not now."
"Ten years or so! My goodness! Why, she'll be thirty or thirty-five, an' an old maid by that time."
"No, she won't. I was forty-five before I married, an' it didn't do me no hurt or spoil my chances."
"You might have been livin' with Abbie all them years, though."
"I know it."
He paused thoughtfully.
"Yes," he reflected aloud, "I've often thought what a pity it was Abbie an' I didn't have our first youth together. It took me half a lifetime to find out how much I needed her."
"You wouldn't want Delight should do that," ventured Celestina.
"Delight? We ain't discussin' Delight," retorted Zenas Henry, promptly on the defensive. "Delight's another matter altogether. She's nothin' but a baby. There's no talk of her marryin' for a long spell yet."
Peevishly he kicked the turf with the toe of his boot.
Although he said no more, it was quite evident that he was much irritated.
"Well," he presently observed in a calmer tone, "I reckon I'll go round an' waylay Willie."
Celestina, leaning against the door frame, watched the gaunt, loose-jointed figure stride out into the sunshine and disappear behind the corner of the house.
What a day it was! From beneath the lattice that arched the entrance to the cottage and supported a rambler rose bursting into bloom she could see the bay, blue as a sapphire and scintillating with ripples of gold. A weather-stained scow was making its way out of the channel, and above it circled a screaming cloud of tern that had been routed from their nesting place on the margin of white sand that bordered the path to the open sea. Mingling with their cries and the rhythmic pulsing of the surf, the clear voices of the men aboard the tug reached her ear. It was flood tide, and the water that surged over the bar stained its reach of pearl to jade green and feathered its edges with snowy foam.
It was no weather to be cooped up indoors doing housework.
Idly Celestina loitered, drinking in the beauty of the scene. The languor of summer breathed in the gentle, pine-scented air and rose from the warm earth of the garden. Voluptuously she stretched her arms and yawned; then straightening to her customary erectness she went into the house, being probably the only woman in Wilton who that morning had abandoned her domestic duties long enough to take into her soul the benediction of the world about her.
It was such detours from the path of duty that had helped to win for Celestina her pseudonym of "easy goin'." Perhaps this very vagrant quality in her nature was what had aided her in so thoroughly sympathizing with Willie in his sporadic outbursts of industry. For Willie was not a methodical worker any more than was Celestina. There were intervals, it is true, when he toiled steadily, feverishly, all day long and far into the night, forgetting either to eat or sleep; then would follow days together when he simply pottered about, or did even worse and remained idle in the sunny shelter of the grape arbor. Here on a rude bench constructed from a discarded four-poster he would often sit for hours, smoking his corncob pipe and softly humming to himself; but when genius went awry and his courage was at a low ebb, strings, wires, and pulleys having failed to work, he would neither smoke nor sing, but with eyes on the distance would sit immovable as if carved from stone.
To-day, however, was not one of his "settin' days." He had been up since dawn, had eaten no breakfast, and had even been too deeply preoccupied to fill and light the blackened pipe that dangled limply from his lips. Yet despite all his coaxings and cajolings, the iron pump opposite the shed door still refused to do anything but emit from its throat a few dry, profitless gurgles that seemed forced upward from the very caverns of the earth. Both Willie and Jan Eldredge looked tired and disheartened, and when Zenas Henry approached stood at bay, surrounded by a litter of wrenches, hammers, and scattered fragments of metal.
"What's the matter with your pump?" called Zenas Henry as he strolled toward them.
Willie turned on the intruder, a smile half humorous, half contemptuous, flitting across his face.
"If I could answer that question, Zenas Henry, I wouldn't be standin' here gapin' at the darn thing," was his laconic response. "It's just took a spell, that's all there is to it. It was right enough last night."
"There's no accountin' fur machinery," Zenas Henry remarked.
The observation struck a note of pessimism that rasped Willie's patience.
"There's got to be some accountin' fur this claptraption," retorted he, a suggestion of crispness in his tone. "I shan't stir foot from this spot 'til I find out what's set it to actin' up this way."
Zenas Henry laughed at the declaration of war echoing in the words.
"I've given up flyin' all to flinders over everything that gets out of gear," he drawled. "If I was to be goin' up higher'n a kite every time, fur instance, that the seaweed ketches round the propeller of my motor-boat, I'd be in mid-air most of the time."
Willie raised his head with the alertness of a hunter on the scent.
"Seaweed?" he repeated vaguely.
Zenas Henry nodded.
"Ain't there no scheme fur doin' away with a nuisance like that?"
"I ain't discovered any," came dryly from Zenas Henry. "We've all had a whack at the thing—Captain Jonas, Captain Phineas, Captain Benjamin, an' me—an' we're back where we were at the beginnin'. Nothin' we've tried has worked."
"U—m!" ruminated Willie, stroking his chin.
"I've about come to the conclusion we ain't much good as mechanics, anyhow," went on Zenas Henry with a short laugh. "In fact, Abbie's of the mind that we get things out of order faster'n we put 'em in."
Janoah Eldridge rubbed his grimy hands and chuckled, but Willie deigned no reply.
"This propeller now," he presently began as if there had been no digression from the topic, "I s'pose the kelp gets tangled around the blades."
"That's it," assented Zenas Henry.
"An' that holds up your engine."
"Uh-huh," Zenas Henry agreed with the same bored inflection.
"An' that leaves you rockin' like a baby in a cradle 'til you can get the wheel free."
There was a moment of silence.
"It can't be much of a stunt tossin' round in a choppy sea like as if you was a chip on the waves," commented Jan Eldridge with a commiserating grin.
"What do you do when you find yourself in a fix like that?" he inquired with interest.
"Do?" reiterated Zenas Henry. "What a question! What would any fool do? There ain't no choice left you but to hang head downwards over the stern of the boat an' claw the eel-grass off the wheel with a gaff."
Janoah burst into a derisive shout.
"Oh, my eye!" he exclaimed. "So that's the way you do it, eh? Don't talk to me of motor-boats! A good old-fashioned skiff with a leg-o'-mutton sail in her is good enough fur me. How 'bout you, Willie?"
No reply was forthcoming.
"I say, Willie," repeated Jan in a louder tone, "that these new fangled motor-boats, with their noise an' their smell, ain't no match fur a good clean dory."
Willie came out of his trance just in time to catch the final clause of the sentence.
"Who ever saw a clean dory in Wilton?"
Jan faltered, abashed.
"Well, anyhow," he persisted, "in my opinion, clean or not, a straight wholesome smell of cod ain't to be mentioned in the same breath with a mix-up of stale fish an' gasoline."
Zenas Henry bridled.
"You don't buy a motor-boat to smell of," he said tartly. "You seem to forget it's to sail in."
"But if the eel-grass holds you hard an' fast in one spot most of the time I don't see's you do much sailin'," taunted Jan. "'Pears to me you're just adrift an' goin' nowheres a good part of the time."
"No, I ain't" snapped Zenas Henry with rising ire. "It's only sometimes the thing gets spleeny. Most always—"
"Then it warn't you I saw pitchin' in the channel fur a couple of hours yesterday afternoon," commented the tormentor.
"No. That is—let me think a minute," meditated Zenas Henry. "Yes, I guess it was me, after all," he admitted with reluctant honesty. "The tide brought in quite a batch of weeds, an' they washed up round the boat before I could get out of their way; quicker'n a wink we were neatly snarled up in 'em. Captain Jonas an' Captain Phineas tried to get clear, but somehow they ain't got much knack fur freein' the wheel. So we did linger in the channel a spell."
"Linger!" put in Willie. "I shouldn't call bobbin' up an' down in one spot fur two mortal hours lingerin'. I'd call it nearer bein' hypnotized."
Zenas Henry was now plainly out of temper. He was well aware that Wilton had scant sympathy with his motor-boat, the first innovation of the sort that had been perpetrated in the town.
"Hadn't you better turn your attention from motor-boats to pumps?" he asked testily.
"I reckon I had, Zenas Henry," Willie answered, unruffled by the thrust. "As you say, if you chose to wind yourself up in the eel-grass it's none of my affair."
Turning his back on his visitor, he bent once more over the pump and adjusted a leather washer between its rusty joints.
"Now let's give her a try, Jan," he said, as he tightened the screws. "If that don't fetch her I'm beat."
By this time Jan's faith had lessened, and although he obediently raised the iron handle and began to ply it up and down, it was obvious that he did not anticipate success. But contrary to his expectations there was a sudden subterranean groan, followed by a rumble of gradually rising pitch; then from out the stubbed green spout a stream of water gushed forth and trickled into the tub beneath.
"Hurray!" shouted Jan. "There she blows, Willie! Ain't you the dabster, though!"
The inventor did not immediately acknowledge the plaudits heaped upon him, but it was evident he was gratified by his success for, as he wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead he sighed deeply.
"If I hadn't been such a blame fool I'd 'a' known what the matter was in the first place," he remarked. "Well, if we knew as much when we're born as we do when we get ready to die, what would be the use of livin' seventy odd years?"
In spite of his irritation Zenas Henry smiled.
"I don't s'pose you're feelin' like tacklin' another pump to-day," he ventured with hesitation. "Ours up at the white cottage has gone on a strike, too."
Instantly Willie was interested.
"What's got yours?" he asked.
"Blest if I know. We've took it all to pieces an' ain't found nothin' out with it, an' now to save our souls we can't put it together again," Zenas Henry explained. "I drove round, thinkin' that mebbe you'd go back with me an' have a look at it."
"Course I will, Zenas Henry," Willie said without hesitation. "I'd admire to. A pump that won't work is like a fishline without a hook—good for nothin'. Have you got room in your team for Jan, too?"
"Then let's start along," said the inventor, stooping to gather up his tools.
But he had reckoned without his host, for as he swept them into a jagged piece of sailcloth and prepared to tie up the bundle, Celestina called to him from the window.
"Where you goin', Willie?" she demanded.
"Up to Zenas Henry's to mend the pump."
"But you can't go now," objected she. "It's ten o'clock, an' you ain't had a mouthful of breakfast this mornin'."
The little man regarded her blankly.
"Ain't I et nothin'?" he inquired with surprise.
"No. Don't you remember you got up early to go fishin', an' then you found the pump wasn't workin', an' you've been wrestlin' with it ever since."
"So I have!"
A sunny smile of recollection overspread the old man's face.
"Ain't you hungry?"
"I dunno," considered he without interest. "Mebbe I am. Yes, now you speak of it, I will own to feelin' a mite holler. Can't you hand me a snack to eat as I go along?"
"You'd much better come in an' have your breakfast properly."
"Oh, I don't want nothin' much," the altruist protested. "Just fetch me out a slice of bread or a doughnut. We've got to get at that pump of Zenas Henry's. I'm itchin' to know what's the matter with it."
Celestina looked disappointed.
"I've been savin' your coffee fur you since seven o'clock," murmured she reproachfully.
"That was very kind of you, Tiny," Willie responded with an ingratiating glance into her eyes. "You just keep it hot a spell longer, an' I'll be back. Likely I won't be long."
"You've been workin' five hours on your own pump!"
"Five hours? Pshaw! You don't say so," mused the tranquil voice. "Think of that! An' it didn't seem no time. Well, it's a-pumpin' now, Celestina."
The mild face beamed with satisfaction, and Celestina had not the heart to cloud its brightness by annoying him further.
"That's capital!" she declared. "Here's your bread an' butter, Willie. An' here's some apple turnovers fur you, an' Jan, an' Zenas Henry. They'll be nice fur you goin' along in the wagon." Then turning to Jan she whispered in a pleading undertone:
"Do watch, Jan, that Willie don't lay that bread down somewheres an' forget it. Mebbe if he sees the rest of you eatin' he'll remember to eat himself. If he don't, though, remind him, for he's just as liable to bring it back home again in his hand. Keep your eye on him!"
Jan nodded understandingly, and climbing into the dusty wagon, the three men rattled off over the sandy road. Willie dropped his tools into the bottom of the carriage but the slice of bread remained untouched in his fingers. Now that triumph had brought a respite in his labors he seemed silent and thoughtful. It was not until the Admiral turned in at the Brewster gate that he roused himself sufficiently to observe with irrelevance:
"Speakin' about that propeller of yours, Zenas Henry—it must be no end of a temper-rasper."
Zenas Henry slapped the reins over the horse's flank and waited breathlessly, hoping some further comment would come from the little inventor, but as Willie remained silent, he at length could restrain his impatience no longer and ventured with diffidence:
"S'pose you ain't got any notion what we could do about it, have you, Willie?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders.
"No, not the ghost," was his terse reply.
That night, however, Celestina was awakened from her dreams by the ring of a hammer. She rose, and lighting her candle, tip-toed into the hall. It was one o'clock, and she could see that Willie's bedroom door was ajar and the bed untouched.
With a little sigh she blew out the flame in her hand and crept back beneath the shelter of her calico comforter.
She knew the symptoms only too well.
Willie was once again "kitched by an idee!"
A NEW ARRIVAL
The new idea, whatever it was, was evidently not one to be hastily perfected, for the next morning when Celestina went down stairs, she found the jaded inventor seated moodily in a rocking-chair before the kitchen stove, his head in his hands.
"Law, Willie, are you up already?" she asked, as if unconscious of his nocturnal activities.
The reply was a wan smile.
"An' you've got the fire built, too," went on Celestina cheerily. "How nice!"
"Eh?" repeated he, giving her a vague stare. "The fire?"
"Yes. I was sayin' how good it was of you to start it up." The man gazed at her blankly.
"I ain't touched the fire," he answered. "I might have, though, as well as not, Tiny, if I'd thought of it."
"That's all right," Celestina declared, making haste to repair her blunder. "I've plenty of time to lay it myself. 'Twas only that when I saw you settin' up before it I thought mebbe you'd built it 'cause you were cold."
"I was cold," acquiesced Willie, his eyes misty with thought. "But I warn't noticin' there was no heat in the stove when I drew up here."
Celestina bit her lip. How characteristic the confession was!
"Well, there'll be a fire now very soon," said she, bustling out and returning with paper and kindlings. "The kitchen will be warm as toast in no time. An' I'll make you some hot coffee straight away. That will heat you up. This northerly wind blows the cobwebs out of the sky, but it does make it chilly."
Although Willie's eyes automatically followed her brisk motions and watched while she deftly started the blaze, it was easy to see that he was too deep in his own meditations to sense what she was doing. Perhaps had his mood not been such an abstract one he would have realized that he was directly in the main thoroughfare and obstructing the path between the pantry and the oven. As it was he failed to grasp the circumstance, and not wishing to disturb him, Celestina patiently circled before, behind and around him in her successive pilgrimages to the stove. Such situations were exigencies to which she was quite accustomed, her easy-going disposition quickly adapting itself to emergencies of the sort. So skilful was she in effacing her presence that Willie had no knowledge he was an obstacle until suddenly the iron door swung back of its own volition and in passing brushed his knuckles with its hot metal edge.
"Ouch!" cried he, starting up from his chair.
"What's the matter?" called Celestina from the pantry.
"Nothin'. The oven door sprung open, that's all."
"It didn't burn you?"
"N—o, but it made me jump," laughed Willie. "Why didn't you tell me, Tiny, that I was in your way?"
"You warn't in my way."
"But I must 'a' been," the man persisted. "You should 'a' shoved me aside in the beginnin'."
Stretching his arms upward with a comfortable yawn, he rose and sauntered toward the door.
"Now you're not to pull out of here, Willie Spence," Celestina objected in a peremptory tone, "until you've had your breakfast. You had none yesterday, remember, thanks to that pump; an' you had no dinner either, thanks to Zenas Henry's pump. You're goin' to start this day right. You're to have three square meals if I have to tag you all over Wilton with 'em. I don't know what it is you've got on your mind this time, but the world's worried along without it up to now, an' I guess it can manage a little longer."
Willie regarded his mentor good-humoredly.
"I figger it can, Celestina," he returned. "In fact, I reckon it will have to content itself fur quite a spell without the notion I've run a-foul of now."
Celestina offered no interrogation; instead she said, "Well, don't let it harrow you up; that's all I ask. If it's goin' to be a long-drawn-out piece of tinkerin', why there's all the more reason you should eat your three good meals like other Christians. Next you know you'll be gettin' run down, an' I'll be havin' to brew some dandelion bitters for you." She came to an abrupt stop half-way between the oven and the kitchen table, a bowl and spoon poised in her hand. "I ain't sure but it's time to brew you somethin' anyway," she announced. "You ain't had a tonic fur quite a spell an' mebbe 'twould do you good."
A helpless protest trembled on Willie's lips.
"I—I—don't think I need any bitters, Celestina," he at last observed mildly.
"You don't know whether you do or not," Celestina replied with as near an approach to sharpness as she was capable of. "However, there's no call to discuss that now. The chief thing this minute is for you to sit up to the table an' eat your victuals."
Docilely the man obeyed. He was hungry it proved, very hungry indeed. With satisfaction Celestina watched every spoonful of food he put to his lips, inwardly gloating as one muffin after another disappeared; and when at last he could eat no more and took his blackened cob pipe from his pocket, she drew a sigh of satisfaction.
"There now, if you want to go back to your inventin' you can," she remarked, as she began to clear away the dishes. "You've took aboard enough rations to do you quite a while."
Notwithstanding the permission Willie did not immediately avail himself of it but instead lingered uneasily as if something troubled his conscience.
"Say, Tiny," he blurted out at length, "if you happen around by the front door and miss the screen don't be scared an' think it's stole. I had to use it fur somethin' last night."
"The screen door?" gasped Celestina.
"But—but—Willie! The door was new this Spring; there wasn't a brack in it."
"I know it," was the calm answer. "That's why I took it."
"But you could have got nettin' over at the store to-day."
"I couldn't wait."
Celestina did not reply at once; but when she did she had herself well in hand, and every trace of irritation had vanished from her tone.
"Well, we don't often open that door, anyway," she reflected aloud, "so I guess no harm's done. It's a full year since anybody's come to the front door, an' like as not 'twill be another before—"
A jangling sound cut short the sentence.
"What's that?" exclaimed she aghast.
"It's a bell."
"I never heard a bell like that in this house."
"It's a bell I rigged up one day when you were gone to the Junction," exclaimed Willie hurriedly. "I thought I told you about it."
"Well, no matter now," he went on soothingly.
"I meant to."
"Where is it?" demanded Celestina.
"It's in the hall. It's a new front-door bell, that's what it is," proclaimed the inventor, his voice lost in a second deafening peal.
"My soul! It's enough to wake the dead!" gasped Celestina, with hands on her ears. "I should think it could be heard from here to Nantucket. What set you gettin' a bell that size, Willie? 'Twould scare any caller who dared to come this way out of a year's growth. I'll have to go an' see who's there, if he ain't been struck dumb on the doorsill. Who ever can it be—comin' to the front door?"
With perturbed expectancy she hurried through the passageway, Willie tagging at her heels.
The infrequently patronized portal of the Spence mansion, it proved, was so securely barred and bolted that to unfasten it necessitated no little time and patience; even after locks and fastenings had been withdrawn and the door was at liberty to move, not knowing what to do with its unaccustomed freedom it refused to stir, stubbornly resisting every attempt to wrench its hinges asunder. It was not until the man and woman inside had combined their efforts and struggled with it for quite an interval that it contrived to creak apart far enough to reveal through a four-inch crack the figure of a young man who was standing patiently outside.
One could not have asked for a franker, merrier face than that which peered at Celestina through the narrow chink of sunshine. To judge at random the visitor had come into his manhood recently, for the brown eyes were alight with youthful humor and the shoulders unbowed by the burdens of the world. He had a mass of wavy, dark hair; a thoughtful brow; ruddy color; a pleasant mouth and fine teeth; and a tall, erect figure which he bore with easy grace.
"Is Miss Morton at home?" he asked, smiling at Celestina through the shaft of golden light.
Celestina hesitated. So seldom was she addressed by this formal pseudonym that for the instant she was compelled to stop and consider whether the individual designated was on the premises or not.
"Y—e—s," she at last admitted feebly.
"I wonder if I might speak with her," the stranger asked.
"Why don't you tell him you're Miss Morton," coached Willie, in a loud whisper.
But the man on the steps had heard.
"You're not Miss Morton, are you?" he essayed, "Miss Celestina Morton?"
"I expect I am," owned Celestina nervously.
"I'm your brother Elnathan's boy, Bob."
Celestina crumpled weakly against the door frame.
"Nate's boy!" she repeated. "Bless my soul! Bless my soul an' body!"
The man outside laughed a delighted laugh so infectious that before Celestina or Willie were conscious of it they had joined in its mellow ripple. After that everything was easy.
"We can't open the door to let you in," explained Willie, peering out through the rift, "'cause this blasted door ain't moved fur so long that its hinges have growed together; but if you'll come round to the back of the house you'll find a warmer welcome."
The guest nodded and disappeared.
"Land alive, Willie!" ejaculated Celestina while they struggled to replace the dislocated bars and bolts. "To think of Nate's boy appearin' here! I can't get over it! Nate's boy! Nate was my favorite brother, you know—the littlest one, that I brought up from babyhood. This lad is so completely the livin' image of him that when I clapped eyes on him it took the gimp clear out of me. It was like havin' Nate himself come back again."
With fluttering eagerness she sped through the hall.
Robert Morton was standing in the kitchen when she arrived, his head towering into the tangle of strings that crossed and recrossed the small interior. Whatever his impression of the extraordinary spectacle he evinced no curiosity but remained as imperturbable amid the network that ensnared him as if such astounding phenomena were everyday happenings. Nevertheless, a close observer might have detected in his hazel eyes a dancing gleam that defied control. Apparently it did not occur either to Willie or to Celestina to explain the mystery which had long since become to them so familiar a sight; therefore amid the barrage of red, green, purple, pink, yellow and white strings they greeted their guest, throwing into their welcome all the homely cordiality they could command.
From the first moment of their meeting it was noticeable that Willie was strongly attracted by Robert Morton's sensitive and intelligent face; and had he not been, for Celestina's sake he would have made an effort to like the newcomer. Fortunately, however, effort was unnecessary, for Bob won his way quite as uncontestedly with the little inventor as with Celestina. There was no question that his aunt was delighted with him. One could read it in her affectionate touch on his arm; in her soft, nervous laughter; in the tremulous inflection of her many questions.
"Your father couldn't have done a kinder thing than to have sent you to Wilton, Robert," she declared at last when quite out of breath with her rejoicings. "My, if you're not the mortal image of him as he used to be at your age! I can scarcely believe it isn't Nate. His forehead was high like yours, an' the hair waved back from it the same way; he had your eyes too—full of fun, an' yet earnest an' thoughtful. I ain't sure but you're a mite taller than he was, though."
"I top Dad by six inches, Aunt Tiny," smiled the young man.
"I guessed likely you did," murmured Celestina, with her eyes still on his face. "Now you must sit right down an' tell me all about yourself an' your folks. I want to know everything—where you come from; when you got here; how long you can stay, an' all."
"The last question is the only really important one," interrupted Willie, approaching the guest and laying a friendly hand on his shoulder. "The doin's of your family will keep; an' where you come from ain't no great matter neither. What counts is how long you can spare to visitin' Wilton an' your aunt. We ain't much on talk here on the Cape, but I just want you should know that there's an empty room upstairs with a good bed in it, that's yours long's you can make out to use it. Your aunt is a prime cook, too, an' though there's no danger of your mixin' up this place with Broadway or Palm Beach, I believe you might manage to keep contented here."
"I'm sure I could," Bob Morton answered, "and you're certainly kind to give me such a cordial invitation. I wasn't expecting to remain for any length of time, however. I came down from Boston, where I happened to be staying yesterday afternoon, and had planned to go back tonight. I've been doing some post-graduate work in naval engineering at Tech and have just finished my course there. So, you see, I'm really on my way home to Indiana. But Dad wrote that before I returned he wanted me to take a run down here and see Aunt Tiny and the old town where he was born, so here I am."
Willie scanned the stranger's face meditatively.
"Then you're clear of work, an' startin' off on your summer vacation."
"That's about it," confessed Bob.
"Anything to take you West right away?"
"N—o—nothing, except that the family have not seen me for some time. I've accepted a business position with a New York firm, but I don't start in there until October."
"You're your own master for four months, eh?"
"Well, I ain't a-goin' to urge you to put in your time here; but I will say again, in case you've forgotten it, that so long as you're content to remain with us we'd admire to have you. 'Twould give your aunt no end of pleasure, I'll be bound, an' I'd enjoy it as well as she would."
"You're certainly not considerin' goin' back to Boston today!" chimed in Celestina.
"I was," laughed Bob.
"You may as well put that notion right out of your head," said Willie, "for we shan't let you carry out no such crazy scheme."
"But to come launching down on you this way—" began the younger man.
"You ain't come launchin' down," objected his aunt with spirit. "We ain't got nothin' to do but inventin', an' I reckon that can wait."
Glancing playfully at Willie she saw a sudden light of eagerness flash into his countenance. But Bob, not understanding the allusion, looked from one of them to the other in puzzled silence.
"All right, Aunt Tiny," he at last announced, "if you an' Mr. Spence really want me to, I should be delighted to stay with you a few days. The fact is," he added with boyish frankness, "my suit case is down behind the rose bushes this minute. Having sent most of my luggage home, and not knowing what I should do, I brought it along with me."
"You go straight out, young man, an' fetch it in," commanded Willie, giving him a jocose slap on the back.
Nevertheless, in spite of the mandate, Robert Morton lingered.
"Do you know, Aunt Tiny, I'm almost ashamed to accept your hospitality," he observed with winning sincerity. "We've all been so rotten to you—never coming to see you or anything. Dad's terribly cut up that he hasn't made a single trip East since leaving Wilton."
The honest confession instantly quenched the last smouldering embers of Celestina's resentment toward her kin.
"Don't think no more of it!" she returned hurriedly. "Your father's been busy likely, an' so have you; an' anyhow, men ain't much on follerin' up their relations, or writin' to 'em. So don't say another word about it. I'm sure I've hardly given it a thought."
That the final assertion was false Robert Morton read in the woman's brave attempt to control the pitiful little quiver of her lips; nevertheless he blessed her for her deception.
"You're a dear, Aunt Tiny," he exclaimed heartily, stooping to kiss her cheek. "Had I dreamed half how nice you were, wild horses couldn't have kept me away from Wilton."
Celestina blushed with pleasure.
Very pretty she looked standing there in the window, her shoulders encircled by the arm of the big fellow who, towering above her, looked down into her eyes so affectionately. Willie couldn't but think as he saw her what a mother she would have made for some boy. Possibly something of the same regret crossed Celestina's own mind, for a shadow momentarily clouded her brow, and to banish it she repeated with resolute gaiety:
"Do go straight out an' bring in that suit case, Bob, or some straggler may steal it. An' put out of your mind any notion of goin' to Boston for the present. I'll show you which room you're to have so'st you can unpack your things, an' while you're washin' up I'll get you some breakfast. You ain't had none, have you?"
"No; but really, Aunt Tiny, I'm not—"
"Yes, you are. Don't think it's any trouble for it ain't—not a mite."
Willie beamed with good will.
"You've landed just in time to set down with us," he remarked. "We ain't had our breakfast, either."
Celestina wheeled about with astonishment. Willie's hospitality must have burst all bounds if it had lured him, who never deviated from the truth, into uttering a falsehood monstrous as this. One glance, however, at his placid face, his unflinching eye, convinced her that swept away by the interest of the moment the little old man had lost all memory of whether he had breakfasted or not.
She did not enlighten him.
"Mebbe it ain't honest to let him go on thinkin' he's had nothin' to eat," she whispered to herself, "but if all them muffins, an' oatmeal, an' coffee don't do nothin' toward remindin' him he's et once, I ain't goin' to do it. This second meal will make up fur the breakfast he missed yesterday. I ain't deceivin' him; I'm simply squarin' things up."
THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER ENTERS
Before the morning had passed Bob Morton was as much at home in the little cottage that faced the sea as if he had lived there all his days. His property was spread out in the old mahogany bureau upstairs; his hat dangled from a peg in the hall; and he had exchanged his "city clothes" for the less conventional outing shirt and suit of blue serge, both of which transformed him into a figure amazingly slender and boyish. For two hours he and Celestina had rehearsed the family history from beginning to end; and now he had left her to get dinner, and he and Willie had betaken themselves to the workshop where they were deep in confidential conversation.
"You see," the inventor was explaining to his guest, "it's like this: it ain't so much that I want to bother with these notions as that I have to. They get me by the throat, an' there's no shakin' 'em off. Only yesterday, fur example, I got kitched with an idee about a boat—" he broke off, regarding his listener with sudden suspicion.
Evidently Willie's scrutiny of the frank countenance opposite satisfied him, for dropping his voice he continued in an impressive whisper:
"About a motor-boat, this idee was."
Glancing around as if to assure himself that no one was within hearing, he hitched the barrel on which he was seated nearer his visitor.
"There's a sight of plague with motor-boats among these shoals," he went on eagerly. "What with the eel-grass that grows along the inlets an' the kelp that's washed in by the tide after a storm, the propeller of a motor-boat is snarled up a good bit of the time. Now my scheme," he announced, his last trace of reserve vanishing, "is to box that propeller somehow—if so be as it can be done—an'—," the voice trailed off into meditation.
Robert Morton, too, was silent.
"You would have to see that the wheel was kept free," he mused aloud after an interval.
"I know it."
"And not check the speed of the boat."
"Right you are, mate!" exclaimed Willie with delight.
"And not hamper the swing of the rudder."
"You have it! You have it!" Willie shouted, rubbing his hands together and smiling broadly. "It's all them things I'm up against."
"I believe the trick might be turned, though," replied young Morton, rising from the nail keg on which he was sitting and striding about the narrow room. "It's a pretty problem and one it would be rather good fun to work out."
"I'd need to rig up a model to experiment with, I s'pose," reflected Willie.
"Oh, we could fix that easily enough," Bob cried with rising enthusiasm.
"Sure! I'll help you."
The announcement did not altogether reassure the inventor, and Bob laughed at the dubious expression of his face.
"Of course I'm only a dry-land sailor," he went on to explain good-humoredly, "and I do not begin to have had the experience with boats that you have. I did, however, study about them some at Tech and perhaps—"
"Study about 'em!" repeated Willie, unable wholly to conceal his scepticism and scorn.
Again the younger man laughed.
"I realize that is not like getting knowledge first-hand," he continued with modesty, "but it seemed the best I could do. As to this plan of yours, two heads are sometimes better than one, and between us I believe we can evolve an answer to the puzzle."
"That'll be prime!" Willie ejaculated, now quite comfortable in his mind. "An' when we get the answer to the riddle, Jan Eldridge will help us. You ain't met Jan yet, have you? He's the salt of the earth, Janoah Eldridge is. Him an' me are the greatest chums you ever saw. He mebbe has his peculiarities, like the rest of us. Who ain't? You'll likely find him kinder sharp-tongued at first, but he don't mean nothin' by it; and' he's quick, too—goes up like a rocket at a minute's notice. Folks down in town insist in addition that he's jealous as a girl, but I've yet to see signs of it. Fur all his little crochets you'll like Jan Eldridge. You can't help it. We're none of us angels—when it comes to that. Hush!" broke off Willie warningly. "I believe that's him now. Didn't you see a head go past the winder?"
"I thought I did."
"Then that's Jan. Nobody else would be comin' across the dingle. Now not a word of this motor-boat business to him," cautioned Willie, dropping his voice. "I never tell Jan 'bout my idees 'till I get 'em well worked out, for he's no great shakes at inventin'."
There was an instant of guilty silence, and then the two conspirators beheld a freckled face, crowned by a mass of rampant sandy hair, protrude itself through the doorway.
"Hi, Willie!" called the newcomer, unmindful of the presence of a stranger. "Well, how do you find yourself to-day? Ready to tackle another pump?"
With simulated indignation Willie bristled.
"Pump!" he repeated. "Don't you dare so much as to mention pumps in my hearin' fur six months, Janoah Eldridge. I've had my fill of pumps fur one spell."
The freckled face in the door expanded its smile into a grin that displayed the few scattered teeth adorning its owner's jaws.
"No," went on the inventor, "I ain't attackin' no pumps to-day. I'm sorter takin' a vacation. You see we've got company. Tiny's nephew, Bob Morton from Indiana, has come to stay with us. This is him on the nail keg."
Shuffling further into the room Jan peered inquisitively at the guest.
"So you're Tiny's nephew, eh?" he commented, examining the visitor's countenance with curiosity. "Well, well! To think of some of Tiny's relations turnin' up at last! Not that it ain't high time, I'll say that. Now which of the Mortons do you belong to, young man?"
"I might 'a' known first glance, for you're like him as his tintype."
"Aunt Tiny thinks I am, too."
"She'd oughter know," was the dry comment. "She had the plague of bringin' him up from the time he could toddle. I'm glad some of you have finally got round to comin' to see her. You've been long enough doin' it. I ain't so sure, though, but if I was in her place I'd—"
"There, there, Jan," interrupted Willie nervously, "why go diggin' up the past? The lad is here now an'—"
"But they have been the devil of a while takin' notice of Tiny," Janoah persisted, not to be coaxed away from his subject. "Why, 'twas only the other day when we was workin' out here that you yourself said the way her folks had neglected her was outrageous."
"And it was, too, Mr. Eldridge," confessed Bob, flushing. "Our whole family have treated Aunt Tiny shamefully. There is no excuse for it."
Before the honest admission of blame, Jan's mounting wrath grudgingly calmed itself.
"Well," he grumbled in a more conciliatory tone, "as Willie says, mebbe it's just as well not to go bringin' to life what's buried already. Like as not there may have been some good reason for your folks never comin' back to Wilton after once they'd left the place. Indiana's the devil of a distance away—'most at the other end of the world, ain't it? You might as well live in China as Indiana. I never could see anyway what took people out of Wilton. There ain't a better spot on earth to live than right here. Yet for all that, every one of the Mortons 'cept Tiny (who showed her good sense, in my opinion) went flockin' out of this town quick as they was growed, like as if they was a lot of swarmin' bees. I doubt myself, too, if they're a whit better off for it. Your father now—what does he make out to do in Indiana?"
"Father is in the grain business," replied Bob with a smile.
"The grain business, is he? An' likely he sets in an office all day long, in out of the fresh air," continued Jan with contempt. "Plumb foolish I call it, when he could be livin' in Wilton an' fishin', an' clammin', an' enjoying himself. That's the way with so many folks. They go kitin' off to the city to make money enough to buy one of them automobiles. You won't ketch me with an automobile—no, nor a motor-boat, neither; nor any other of them durn things that's goin' to set me livin' like as if I was shot out of the cannon's mouth. What's the good of bein' whizzed through life as if the old Nick himself was at your heels—workin' faster, eatin' faster, dyin' faster? I see nothin' to it—nothin' at all."
At the risk of rousing the philosopher's resentment, Bob burst into a peal of laughter.
"But ain't it so now, I ask you? Ain't it just as I say?" insisted Janoah Eldridge. "Argue as you will, what's the gain in it?"
To the speaker's apparent disappointment, the citizen from Indiana did not accept the challenge for argument but instead observed pleasantly:
"I'll wager you will outlive all us city people, Mr. Eldridge."
"Course I will," was the old man's confident retort. "I'll be a-sailin' in my dory when the whole lot of you motor-boat folks are under the sod. You see if I ain't! An' speakin' of motor-boats, Willie—I s'pose you ain't done nothin toward tacklin' Zenas Henry's tribulations with that propeller, have you?"
The question was unexpected, and Willie colored uncomfortably. He was not good at dissembling.
"'Twould mean quite a bit of thinkin' to get Zenas Henry out of his troubles," returned he evasively. "'Tain't so simple as it looks."
Moving abruptly to the work-bench he began to overturn at random the tools lying upon it.
Something in this unusual proceeding arrested Jan's attention, causing him to glance with suspicion from Robert Morton to the inventor, and from the inventor back to Robert Morton again. The elder man was whistling "Tenting To-night," an air that had never been a favorite of his; and the younger, with self-conscious zeal, was shredding into bits a long curl of shavings.
Jan eyed both of them with distrust
"I figger we're goin' to have a spell of fine weather now," remarked Willie with jaunty artificiality.
The offhand assertion was too casual to be real. Cloud and fog were not dealt with in this cursory fashion in Wilton. It clinched Jan's doubts into certainty. Something was being kept from him, something of which this stranger, who had only been in the town a few hours, was cognizant. For the first time in fifty years another had usurped his place as Willie's confidant. It was monstrous! A tremor of jealous rage thrilled through his frame, and he stiffened visibly.
"I reckon I'll be joggin' along home," said he, moving with dignity toward the door.
"But you've only just come, Jan," protested Willie.
"I didn't come fur nothin' but to leave this hammer," Jan answered, placing the implement on the long bench before which his friend was standing.
"Maybe there was something you wanted to see Mr. Spence about," ventured Bob. "If there was I will—"
"No, there warn't," snapped Janoah. "Mister Spence ain't got nothin' confidential to say to me—whatever he may have to say to other folks," and with this parting thrust he shot out of the door.
Bob gave a low whistle.
"What's the matter with the man?" he asked in amazement.
Willie flushed apologetically.
"Nothin'—nothin' in the world!" he answered. "Jan gets like that sometimes. Don't you remember I told you he was kinder quick. It's just possible it may have bothered him to see me talkin' to you. Don't mind him."
"Do you think he suspected anything?"
"Mercy, no! Not he!" responded Willie comfortably. "He's liable to fly off the handle like that a score of times a day. Don't you worry 'bout him. He'll be back before the mornin's over."
Nevertheless, sanguine as this prediction was, the hours wore on, and Janoah Eldridge failed to make his appearance. In the meantime Bob and Willie became so deeply engrossed in their new undertaking that they were oblivious to his absence. They worked feverishly until noon, devoured a hurried meal, and returned to the shop again, there to resume their labors. By supper time they had made quite an encouraging start on the model they required, their combined efforts having accomplished in a single day what it would have taken Willie many an hour to perfect.
The inventor was jubilant.
"Little I dreamed when you came to the front door, Bob, what I was nettin'!" he exclaimed, clapping his hand vigorously on the young man's shoulder. "You're a regular boat-builder, you are. The moon might 'a' pogeed an' perigeed before I'd 'a' got as fur along as we have to-day. How you've learned all you have about boats without ever goin' near the water beats me. Now you ain't a-goin' to think of quittin' Wilton an' leavin' me high an' dry with this propeller idee, are you? 'Twould be a downright shabby trick."
Bob smiled into the old man's anxious face.
"I can't promise to see you to the finish for I must be back home before many days, or I'll have my whole family down on me. Besides, I have some business in New York to attend to," he said kindly. "But I will arrange to stick around until the job is so well under way that you won't need me. I am quite as interested in making the scheme a success as you are. All is you mustn't let me wear out my welcome and be a burden to Aunt Tiny."
"Law, Tiny'll admire to have you stay long as you can, if only because you drag me into the house at meal time," chuckled Willie.
"At least I can do that," Bob returned.
"You can do that an' a durn sight more, youngster," the inventor declared with earnestness. "I ain't had the pleasure I've had to-day in all my life put together. To work with somebody as has learned the right way to go ahead—it's wonderful. When me an' Jan tackle a job, we generally begin at the wrong end of it an' blunder along, wastin' time an' string without limit. If we hit it right it's more luck than anything else."
Robert Morton, watching the mobile face, saw a pitiful sadness steal into the blue eyes. A sudden shame surged over him.
"I ought to be able to do far more with my training than I have done," he answered humbly. "Dad has given me every chance."
"Think of it!" murmured Willie, scrutinizing him with hungering gaze. "Think of havin' every chance to learn!"
For an interval he smoked in silence.
"Well," he asserted at length, "you've sure proved to-day that brains with trainin' are better'n brains without. Now if Jan an' me—" he broke off abruptly. "There! I wonder what in tunket's become of Jan," he speculated. "We've been so busy that he went clean out of my mind. It's queer he didn't show up again. He ain't stayed away for a whole day in all history. Mebbe he's took sick. I believe I'll trudge over there an' find out what's got him. I mustn't go to neglectin' Jan, inventin' or no inventin'."
He rose from his chair wearily.
"I reckon a note would do as well, though, as goin' over," he presently remarked as an afterthought. "I could send one in the box an' ask him to drop round an' set a spell before bedtime."
He caught up a piece of brown paper from the workbench, tore a ragged corner from it, and hastily scrawled a message.
Bob watched the process with amusement.
"There!" announced the scribe when the epistle was finished. "I reckon that'll fetch him. We'll put it in the box an' shoot it across to him."
Notwithstanding the dash implied in the term, it took no small length of time for the diminutive receptacle to hitch its way through the fields. The two men watched it jiggle along above the bushes of wild roses, through verdant clumps of fragrant bayberry, and disappear into the woods. Then they sat down to await Jan's appearance.
The twilight was rarely beautiful. In a sky of palest turquoise a crescent moon hung low, its arc of silver poised above the tips of the stunted pines, whose feathery outlines loomed black in the dusk. From out the dimness the note of a vesper sparrow sounded and mingled its sweetness with the faintly breathing ocean.
The men on the doorstep smoked silently, each absorbed in his own reveries.
How peaceful it was there in the stillness, with the hush of evening descending like a benediction on the darkening earth!
Bob sighed with contentment. His year of hard study was over, and now that his well-earned rest had come he was surprised to discover how tired he was. Already the peace of Wilton was stealing over him, its dreamy atmosphere almost too beautiful to be real. From where he sat he could see the trembling lights of the village jewelling the rim of the bay like a circlet of stars. A man might do worse, he reflected, than remain a few days in this sleepy little town. He liked Willie and Celestina, too; indeed, he would have been without a heart not to have appreciated their simple kindliness. Why should he hurry home? Would not his father rejoice should he be content to stay and make his aunt a short visit? There was no need to bind himself for any definite length of time; he would merely drift and when he found himself becoming bored flee. To be sure, about the last thing he had intended when setting forth to the Cape was to linger there. He had come hither with unwilling feet solely to please his parents, and having paid his respects to his unknown relative he meant to depart West as speedily as decency would permit, reasoning that it would be a mutual relief when the visit was over.
But a single day in the cozy little house at the water's edge had served to convince him how erroneous had been his premises. Instead of being tiresome, his Aunt Celestina was proving a delightful acquisition, toward whom he already found himself cherishing a warm regard. And what a cook she was! After months of city food her bread, pies, and cookies were ambrosial.
As for Willie—Bob had never before beheld so gentle, ingenuous and lovable a personality. Undoubtedly the little inventor had genius. What a pity he had been cheated of the opportunity for cultivating it! There was something pathetic in the way he reached out for the knowledge life had denied him; it reminded one of a patient child who asks for water to slake his thirst.
If, for some inscrutable reason, fortune had granted him, Robert Morton, the chance denied this groping soul, was it not almost an obligation that, in so far as he was able, he should place at the other's disposal the fruits of the education that had been his?
Presumably this motor-boat idea would not amount to much, for if such an invention were plausible and of value, doubtless a score of nautical authorities would have seized upon it long before now. But to work at the plan would give the gentle dreamer in the silver-gray cottage happiness, and after all happiness was not to be despised. If together he and Willie could make tangible the notion that existed in the latter's brain, the deed was certainly worth the doing. Moreover the process would be an entertaining one, and after its completion he might go away with a sense of having brightened at least one horizon by his coming.
Thus reasoned Robert Morton as in the peace of that June evening he casually shuffled the cards of fate, little suspecting that already a factor in his destiny stronger than any of his arguments was soon to make its influence felt and transform Wilton into a magnet so powerful that against its spell he would be helpless as a child.
He was aroused from his meditations by the voice of Willie.
"Didn't you hear a little bell?" demanded the inventor. "A sort of tinklin' noise?"
"I thought I did."
"It's the box comin' from Jan's," explained he. "Can you kitch a sight of it?"
"I see it now."
Rising, the old man tugged at the string, urging the reluctant messenger through the tangle of roses.
"By his writin' a note, I figger he ain't comin' over," he remarked, as the object drew nearer. "I wonder what's stuck in his crop! Mebbe Mis' Eldridge won't let him out. She's something of a Tartar—Arabella is. Jan has to walk the plank, I can tell you."
By this time the cigar box swaying on the taut twine was within easy reach. Willie raised its cover and took from its interior a crumpled fragment of paper.
"Humph! He's mighty savin'!" he commented as he turned the missive over. "He's writ on the other side of my letter. Let's see what he has to say:
"'Can't come. Busy.'
"Well, did you ever!" gasped he, blankly. "Busy! Good Lord! Jan's never been known to be busy in all his life. He don't even know the feelin'. If Janoah Eldridge is busy, all I've got to say is, the world's goin' to be swallered up by another deluge."
"Maybe, as you suggested, Mrs. Eldridge—"
"Oh, if it had been Mis' Eldridge, he wouldn't 'a' took the trouble to send no such message as that," broke in Willie. "He'd simply 'a' writ Arabella; there wouldn't 'a' been need fur more. No, sir! Somethin's stepped on Jan's shadder, an' to-morrow I'll have to go straight over there an' find out what it is."
The next morning, after loitering uneasily about the workshop a sufficiently long time for Janoah Eldridge to make his appearance and finding that his crony did not make his appearance, Willie reluctantly took his worn visor cap down from the peg and drew it over his brows, with the remark:
"Looks like Jan ain't headed this way to-day, either." He cast a troubled glance through the dusty, multi-paned window of the shed. "Much as I'm longin' to go ahead with this model, Bob, before I go farther I've simply got to step over to the Eldridges an' straighten him out. There's no help fur it."
"All right. Go ahead, Sir," reassuringly returned Bob. "I'll work while you're gone. Things won't be at a complete standstill."
"I know that," Willie replied with a pleasant smile. "'Tain't that that's frettin' me. It's just that I don't relish the notion of shovin' my job onto your shoulders. 'Tain't as if you'd come to Wilton to spend your time workin'. Celestina hinted last evenin' she was afraid you bid fair to get but mighty little rest out of your vacation. 'Twas unlucky, she thought, that you hove into port just when I happened to be kitched with a bigger idee than common."
"Nonsense!" Bob protested heartily. "Don't you and Aunt Tiny give yourselves any uneasiness about me. I'm happy. I enjoy fussing round the shop with you, Mr. Spence. I'd far rather you took me into what you're doing than left me out. Besides, I don't intend to work every minute while I'm here. Some fine day I mean to steal off by myself and explore Wilton. I may even take a day's fishing."