[Frontispiece: THE SKIPPER TELLS OF "THE GLORIOUS, FASCINATING SEA." See Chapter II.]
THE SKIPPER AND THE SKIPPED
BEING THE SHORE LOG OF CAP'N AARON SPROUL
BY HOLMAN DAY
AUTHOR OF "THE RAMRODDERS" "KING SPRUCE" ETC.
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS MCMXI
BOOKS BY HOLMAN DAY
THE SKIPPER AND THE SKIPPED. Post 8vo . . $1.50 THE RAMRODDERS. Post 8vo . . . . . . . . $1.50 KING SPRUCE. Ill'd. Post 8vo . . . . . . $1.50 THE EAGLE'S BADGE. Ill'd. Post 8vo . . . $1.25
HARPER & BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS, N.Y.
COPYRIGHT, 1911. BY HARPER & BROTHERS PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PUBLISHED FEBRUARY, 1911
THE SKIPPER AND THE SKIPPED
Cap'n Aaron Sproul, late skipper of the Jefferson P. Benn, sat by the bedside of his uncle, "One-arm" Jerry, and gazed into the latter's dimming eyes.
"It ain't bein' a crowned head, but it's honer'ble," pleaded the sick man, continuing the conversation.
His eager gaze found only gloominess in his nephew's countenance.
"One way you look at it, Uncle Jed," said the Cap'n, "it's a come-down swifter'n a slide from the foretop the whole length of the boomstay. I've been master since I was twenty-four, and I'm goin' onto fifty-six now. I've licked every kind in the sailorman line, from a nigger up to Six-fingered Jack the Portugee. If it wa'n't for—ow, Josephus Henry!—for this rheumatiz, I'd be aboard the Benn this minute with a marlinespike in my hand, and op'nin' a fresh package of language."
"But you ain't fit for the sea no longer," mumbled One-arm Jerry through one corner of the mouth that paralysis had drawn awry.
"That's what I told the owners of the Benn when I fit 'em off'm me and resigned," agreed the Cap'n. "I tell ye, good skippers ain't born ev'ry minute—and they knowed it. I've been turnin' 'em in ten per cent. on her, and that's good property. I've got an eighth into her myself, and with a man as good as I am to run her, I shouldn't need to worry about doin' anything else all my life—me a single man with no one dependent. I reckon I'll sell. Shipmasters ain't what they used to be."
"Better leave it where it is," counselled Jerry, his cautious thrift dominating even in that hour of death. "Land-sharks is allus lookin' out sharp for sailormen that git on shore."
"It's why I don't dast to go into business—me that's follered the sea so long," returned the skipper, nursing his aching leg.
"Then do as I tell ye to do," said the old man on the bed. "It may be a come-down for a man that's had men under him all his life, but it amounts to more'n five hundred a year, sure and stiddy. It's something to do, and you couldn't stand it to loaf—you that's always been so active. It ain't reskin' anything, and with all the passin' and the meetin' folks, and the gossipin' and the chattin', and all that, all your time is took up. It's honer'ble, it's stiddy. Leave your money where it is, take my place, and keep this job in the family."
The two men were talking in a little cottage at the end of a long covered bridge. A painted board above the door heralded the fact that the cottage was the toll-house, and gave the rates of toll.
"It's Providence that has sent you here jest as I was bein' took out of the world," went on Uncle Jerry. "You're my only rel'tive. I'm leavin' you the three thousand I've accumulated. I want to leave you the job, too. I—"
A hoarse hail outside interrupted. The Cap'n, scowling, shuffled out and came in, jingling some pennies in his brown hand.
"I feel like a hand-organ monkey every time I go out there," he muttered.
"I tell ye," protested the old man, as earnestly as his feebleness would permit, "there's lots of big business in this world that don't need so long a head as this one does—bein' as how you're goin' to run it shipshape. You need brains; that you do, nephy. It'll keep you studyin' all the time. When you git interested in it you ain't never goin' to have time to be lonesome. There's the plain hello folks to be treated one way, the good-day folks, the pass-the-time-o'-day folks, the folks that need the tip o' the hat—jest for politeness, and not because you're beneath 'em," he hastened to add, noting the skipper's scowl; "the folks that swing up to the platform, the folks that you've got to chase a little, even if it is muddy; the folks that pay in advance and want you to remember it and save 'em trouble, the folks that pay when they come back, and the folks that never pay at all—and I tell ye, nephy, there's where your work is cut out for ye! I've only had one arm, but there's mighty few that have ever done me out of toll, and I'm goin' to give ye a tip on the old bell-wether of 'em all. I'm goin' to advise ye to stand to one side and let him pass. He's—"
"And me a man that's licked every—"
"Hold on! He's diff'runt from all you've ever tackled."
In his excitement the old toll-gatherer attempted to struggle upon his elbow. He choked. The nurse came and laid him back with gentle remonstrance. Before he had regained his voice to talk more the minister came, obeying a summons of grave import. Then came One who sealed One-arm Jerry's lips and quieted the fingers that had been picking at the faded coverlet as though they were gathering pennies.
And a day later, half sullenly, the Cap'n accepted the proposition of the directors of the bridge company, who had said some very flattering things to him about the reliability of the Sproul family. He reflected that he was far enough from tide-water to avoid the mariners who had known him in his former state. "I'll dock and repair riggin'," he pondered. "It's a come-down, but I'll clear and cruise again when the notion strikes me."
His possessions came promptly by express—his sea-chest, two parrots, and a most amazing collection of curios that fairly transformed the little cottage where the skipper, with seaman's facility in housekeeping, set up bachelor's hall.
He grudgingly allowed to himself that he was going to like it. The sun beamed blandly warm on the little bench before the toll-house. His rheumatism felt better. People commented admiringly on such of the curios as were displayed in the windows of the cottage. And when the parrots—"Port" and "Starboard"—ripped out such remarks as "Ahoy!" "Heave to!" "Down hellum!" and larded the conversation with horrible oaths, the wayfarers professed to see great humor in the performance.
In a little while the parrots would squall as soon as a traveller appeared at the brow of the river hill or poked out from the dim depths of the covered bridge. Even when the Cap'n was busy in his little kitchen he never failed to receive due notice of the approach of persons either in wagons or on foot.
"It will be a good man who runs toll on this bridge," he mused one day, as he poked dainties between the bars of the parrots' cages. "The old 'un was a good man in his day, like all the Sprouls. He didn't have but one arm, but there wa'n't many that ever come it over him. I've been thinkin' about one that did, and that he was scart of. If there was ever a man that scart him, and kept him scart till the day he died, then I'd like to see that same. It will be for me to show him that the nephy has some accounts of the poor old uncle to square."
Up the slope where the road to Smyrna Bridge wound behind the willows there was the growing rattle of wheels. The Cap'n cocked his head. His seaman's instinct detected something stormy in that impetuous approach. He fixed his gaze on the bend of the road.
Into sight came tearing a tall, gaunt horse, dragging a wagon equally tall and gaunt. The horse was galloping, and a tall man in the wagon stood up and began to crack a great whip, with reports like a pistol fusillade.
Cap'n Sproul took three defiant steps into the middle of the road, and then took one big step back—a stride that made his "rheumatiz speak up," but a stride that carried him safely to his platform. The team roared past. The big whip swished over his head, and the snapper barked in his ear. He got one fleeting glimpse at the man who was driving—a man with a face as hard as a pine knot. His lips were rolled away from his yellow teeth in a grimace that was partly a grin, partly a sneer. A queer, tall, pointed cap with a knob on its top was perched on his head like a candle-snuffer on a taper. With a shrill yell and more crackings of his whip he disappeared into the gloomy mouth of the covered bridge, and the roaring echoes followed him.
The skipper stood looking first at the mouth of the bridge and then at the sign above it that warned:
THREE DOLLARS' FINE FOR DRIVING FASTER THAN A WALK
"As I was jest sayin'," he muttered, as the noise of the wheels died away, "I should like to see that man—and I reckon as how I have."
He sat down under the woodbine that wreathed the little porch and slowly filled his pipe, his gaze still on the bridge opening. As he crooked his leg and dragged the match across the faded blue of his trousers he growled:
"I dunno who he is, nor where he's come from, nor where he's goin' to, nor when he expects to get back, but, as near as I can figger it, he owes me ten cents' toll and three dollars' fine-money, makin' a total of three ten, to be charged and collected, as I understand it."
When he had got his pipe to going, after some little gruntings, he pulled out a note-book and a stubby pencil and marked down the figures. At the head of the page he scrawled:
"Old Hurrycain, Dr."
"That name 'll have to do till I git a better one," he mused, and then stood up to receive toll from a farmer who drove slowly out from the bridge, his elbows on his knees, his horse walking slouchily.
"If it ain't no great output to you, mister, to tell, do you happen to know who was the nub of that streak of wind and cuss-words that jest went past here?"
The farmer bored him strangely a moment with his little gimlet eyes, snorted out a laugh, clapped his reins, and started on.
"I heard ye was a joker!" he shouted back, his beard trailing over his shoulder as he turned his head.
"There ain't no joke to this!" roared the skipper. But the man kept on.
Another patron emerged from the bridge, digging from his trousers pocket.
"You spoke it, didn't ye?" demanded the skipper. "Chain lightnin' on wheels. Who is he?"
The man grinned amiably and appreciatively.
"Quite a hand to hector, ain't ye, toll-keeper? He was goin' so fast I didn't know him, neither." He drove on, though the Cap'n hobbled after him, shouting strong language, in which the parrots joined.
"You needn't try to make me think that there ain't nobody who don't know the Kun'l," was the retort the man flung over his shoulder.
"Nice and accommodatin' class of paternage that's passin'," growled the Cap'n, kicking an inoffensive chair as he came back to his platform. "They talk about him as though he was Lord Gull and ruler of the stars. Jest as though a man that had sailed deep water all his days knowed all the old land-pirut's 'round here!"
It was a pedestrian—Old Man Jordan, bound to the village with a few pats of butter in a bucket—that the skipper finally held up.
"Oh, sho!" said Old Man Jordan. "'Course ye know him. Every one does."
"I tell you I don't!" bawled the skipper.
"Why, yas you do."
"Say, look a-here, What's-your-name, I'm goin' to give ye ten seconds to tell me the name of that critter."
He made a clutch to one side, and then remembered with a flush that he was no longer in reach of a spike-rack.
"Why, that was Kun'l Gideon Ward," faltered Uncle Jordan, impressed at last by the Cap'n's fury. "I thought ye knew."
"Thought! Thought! Why, ye never thought in your life. You only thought you thought. I dunno no more who you mean by 'Kun'l Gideon Ward' than as though you said General Bill Beelzebub."
"Why, yas you do—"
"There you go again! Do you mean to stand here and tell me I'm a liar?"
The glare in the seaman's eyes was too fierce to be fronted.
"Kun'l Gideon Ward is—is—wall, he's Kun'l Gideon Ward."
Jordan backed away suddenly at the oath the Cap'n ripped out.
"He owns more timber land than any other man in the county. He hires more men than any one else. He ain't never been downed in a trade or a fight yet. He's got double teeth, upper and lower, all the way round, drinks kairosene in the winter 'cause it's more warmin' than rum, and—and—"
"Well, what's that got to do with his runnin' toll on this bridge?" demanded the Cap'n.
"Bridge piers hold up his logs, he says, and he ain't never goin' to pay toll till the bridgemen pay him for loss of time on logs. It's been what you might call a stand-off for a good many years. Best thing is to let him run toll. That's what your uncle thought. I reckoned you knew all about Kun'l Gid Ward. Why, everybody knows—"
"Say, you let up on that string right now and here," snorted the Cap'n.
Old Man Jordan trotted away.
While the skipper was still pondering on the matter of Colonel Ward—the meditation had lasted over into the next day—there was a roar on the bridge, and the subject of his reflections passed in a swirl of dust on his return trip. He was standing up in his wagon as before, and he saluted the indignant toll-man with a flick of his whip that started the dust from the latter's pea-jacket.
"He's been over to the home place to see his sister Jane," volunteered Uncle Jordan, again on his way to the village with eggs. "She ain't never got married, and he ain't never got married. Old Squire Ward left his whole property to the two of 'em, and the Kun'l ain't ever let it be divided. He runs the whole estate and domineers over her, and she don't dast to say her soul's her own. If I was Jane I'd have my half out and git married to some nice man, and git a little comfort out'n life. He don't give her none—don't let her have the handlin' of a cent of money. She's a turrible nice sort of woman. There's risin' a hundred thousand dollars in her share, if the truth was known, and there's been some pretty good men shine up around her a little, but the Kun'l has run 'em away with a picked stick."
"There ain't no Jack the Giant-Killers in these parts," sighed Old Man Jordan, hooking his bucket upon his arm and shambling away.
For several days Cap'n Sproul was busy about the gable end of the bridge during his spare moments and hours, climbing up and down the ladder, and handling a rope and certain pulleys with sailor dexterity. All the time his grim jaw-muscles ridged his cheeks. When he had finished he had a rope running through pulleys from the big gate up over the gable of the bridge and to the porch of the toll-house.
"There," he muttered, with great satisfaction, "that's the first bear-trap I ever set, and it ain't no extra sort of job, but I reckon when old grizzly goes ag'inst it he'll cal'late that this 'ere is a toll-bridge."
Then came days of anxious waiting. Sometimes a teamster's shouts to his horses up around the willows sent the Cap'n hobbling to the end of the rope. An unusual rattling in the bridge put him at his post with his teeth set and his eyes gleaming.
One day a mild and placid little woman in dove-gray came walking from the bridge and handed over her penny. She eyed the skipper with interest, and cocked her head with the pert demureness of a sparrow while she studied the parrots who were waddling about their cages.
"I never heard a parrot talk, sir," she said. "I hear that yours talk. I should dearly love to hear them."
"Their language is mostly deep-water flavor," said the Cap'n, curtly, "and 'tain't flavored edsackly like vanilla ice-cream. There's more of the peppersass tang to it than ladies us'ly enjoys."
The little woman gave a chirrup at the birds, and, to the skipper's utter astonishment, both Port and Starboard chirruped back sociably. Port then remarked: "Pretty Polly!" Starboard chirruped a few cheery bars from "A Sailor's Wife a Sailor's Star Should Be." Then both parrots rapped their beaks genially against the bars of the cages and beamed on the lady with their little button eyes.
"Well, I swow!" ejaculated the Cap'n, rubbing his knurly forefinger under his nose, and glancing first at the parrots and then at the lady. "If that ain't as much of an astonisher as when the scuttle-butt danced a jig on the dog-vane! Them two us'ly cusses strangers, no matter what age or sect. They was learnt to do it." He gazed doubtfully at the birds, as though they might possibly be deteriorating in the effeminacies of shore life.
"I always was a great hand with pets of all kinds," said the lady, modestly. "Animals seem to take to me sort of naturally. I hear you have long followed the sea, Cap'n Sproul—I believe that's the name, Cap'n Sproul?"
"Sproul it is, ma'am—Aaron for fore-riggin'. Them as said I follered the sea was nearer than shore-folks us'ly be. Took my dunnage aboard at fourteen, master at twenty-four, keel-hauled by rheumatiz at fifty-six—wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that. I ain't stuck on a penny-flippin' job of this sort."
"I should think it would be very pleasant after all the storms and the tossings. And yet the sea—the sea, the glorious sea—has always had a great fascination for me—even though I've never seen it."
"Nev—nev—never seen salt water!" This amazedly.
"Never." This sadly. "I've been kept—I've stayed very closely at my home. Being a single lady, I've had no one to talk to me or take me about. I have read books about the ocean, but I've never had any chance to hear a real and truly mariner tell about the wonderful waste of waters and describe foreign countries. I suppose you have been 'way, 'way out to sea, Cap'n Sproul—across the ocean, I mean."
She had timidly edged up and taken one of the chairs on the porch, gazing about her at the curios.
"Well, ma'am," remarked the Cap'n, dryly, as he seated himself in another chair, "I've waded across a cove wunst or twice at low water."
"I should love so to hear a mariner talk of his adventures. I have never had much chance to talk with any man—I mean any sailor. I have been kept—I mean I have stayed very closely at home all my life."
"It broadens a man, it sartain does, to travel," said the skipper, furtively slipping a sliver of tobacco into his cheek and clearing his throat preparatory to yarning a bit. The frank admiration and trustful innocence in the eyes of the pretty woman touched him.
"I suppose you have been out at sea in some awful storms, Cap'n. I often think of the sailormen at sea when the snow beats against the window and the winds howl around the corner."
"The wu'st blow I ever remember," began the skipper, leaning back and hooking his brown hands behind his head like a basket, "was my second trip to Bonis Airis—general cargo out, to fetch back hides. It was that trip we found the shark that had starved to death, and that was a story that was worth speakin' of. It—"
There was a hoarse bellow of "Giddap!" up behind the willows. Then into sight came galloping the tall, gaunt horse of Colonel Gideon Ward. The Colonel stood up, smacking his whip.
With one leap the Cap'n was at his rope, and began to haul in hand over hand.
The big gate at the mouth of the bridge squalled on its rusty hinges.
"You mustn't shut that gate—you mustn't!" shrieked the little woman. She ran and clutched at his sturdy arms. "That's my brother that's coming! You'll break his neck!"
The gate was already half shut, and the doughty skipper kept on pulling at the rope.
"Can't help it, ma'am, if it's the apostle Paul," he gritted. "There ain't nobody goin' to run toll on this bridge."
"It will kill him."
"It's him that's lickin' that hoss. 'Tain't me."
"It's my brother, I tell you!" She tried to drag the rope out of his hands, but he shook her off, pulled the big gate shut, set his teeth, clung to the rope, and waited.
The rush down the hill had been so impetuous and the horse was now running so madly under the whip that there was no such thing as checking him. With a crash of splintering wood he drove breast-on against the gate, throwing up his bony head at the end of his scraggy neck. At the crash the woman screamed and covered her eyes. But the outfit was too much of a catapult to be stopped. Through the gate it went, and the wagon roared away through the bridge, the driver yelling oaths behind him.
Cap'n Aaron Sproul walked out and strolled among the scattered debris, kicking it gloomily to right and left. The woman followed him.
"It was awful," she half sobbed.
"So you're Miss Jane Ward, be ye?" he growled, glancing at her from under his knotted eyebrows. "Speakin' of your pets, I should reckon that 'ere brother of yourn wa'n't one that you had tamed down fit to be turned loose. But you tell him for me, the next time you see him, that I'll plug the end of that bridge against him if it takes ev'ry dum cent of the prop'ty I'm wuth—and that's thutty thousand dollars, if it's a cent. I ain't none of your two-cent chaps!" he roared, visiting his wrath vicariously on her as a representative of the family. "I've got money of my own. Your brother seems to have made door-mats out'n most of the folks round here, but I'll tell ye that he's wiped his feet on me for the last time. You tell him that, dum him!"
Her face was white, and her eyes were shining as she looked at him.
"Gideon has always had his own way, Cap'n Sproul," she faltered. "I hope you won't feel too bitter against him. It would be awful—he so headstrong—and you so—so—brave!" She choked this last out, unclasping her hands.
"Well, I ain't no coward, and I never was," blurted the Cap'n.
"It's the bravest man that overcomes himself," she said. "Now, you have good judgment, Cap'n. My brother is hot-headed. Every one knows that you are a brave man. You can afford to let him go over the bridge without—"
"Never!" the skipper howled, in his best sea tones. "You're the last woman to coax and beg for him, if half what they tell me is true. He has abused you wuss'n he has any one else. If you and the rest ain't got any spunk, I have. You'll be one brother out if he comes slam-bangin' this way ag'in."
She looked at him appealingly for a moment, then tiptoed over the fragments of the gate, and hurried away through the bridge.
"You ain't no iron-clad, Kun'l Ward," muttered Sproul. "I'll hold ye next time."
He set to work on the river-bank that afternoon, cutting saplings, trusting to the squall of the faithful parrots to signal the approach of passers.
But the next day, when he was nailing the saplings to make a truly Brobdingnagian grid, one of the directors of the bridge company appeared to him.
"We're not giving you license to let any one run toll on this bridge, you understand," said the director, "but this fighting Colonel Ward with our property is another matter. It's like fighting a bear with your fists. And even if you killed the bear, the hide wouldn't be worth the damage. He has got too many ways of hurting us, Cap'n. He has always had his own way in these parts, and he probably always will. Let him go. We won't get the toll, nor the fines, but we'll have our bridge left."
"I was thinking of resigning this job," returned the Cap'n; "it was not stirrin' enough for a seafarin' man; but I'm sort of gittin' int'rested. How much will ye take for your bridge?"
But the director curtly refused to sell.
"All right, then," said the skipper, chocking his axe viciously into a sapling birch and leaving it there, "I'll fill away on another tack."
For the next two weeks, as though to exult in his victory, the Colonel made many trips past the toll-house.
He hurled much violent language at the Cap'n. The Cap'n, reinforced with his vociferous parrots, returned the language with great enthusiasm and volubility.
Then came the day once more when the little woman sat down in a chair in the shade of the woodbine.
"I took the first chance, Cap'n, while my brother has gone up-country, to come to tell you how much I appreciate your generous way of doing what I asked of you. You are the first man that ever put away selfish pride and did just what I asked."
The seaman started to repudiate vigorously, but looked into her brimming eyes a moment, choked, and was silent.
"Yes, sir, you're what I call noble, not to pay any attention to the boasts my brother is making of how he has backed you down."
"He is, is he?" The Cap'n rolled up his lip and growled.
"But I know just how brave you are, to put down all your anger at the word of a poor woman. And a true gentleman, too. There are only a few real gentlemen in the world, after all."
The Cap'n slid his thumb into the armhole of his waistcoat and swelled his chest out a little.
"There was no man ever come it over me, and some good ones have tried it, ma'am. So fur as women goes, I ain't never been married, but I reckon I know what politeness to a lady means."
She smiled at him brightly, and with such earnest admiration that he felt a flush crawling up from under his collar. He blinked at her and looked away. Starboard, with an embarrassing aptness that is sometimes displayed by children, whistled a few bars of "A Sailor's Wife a Sailor's Star Should Be."
"I don't mind owning up to you that my brother has imposed upon me in a great many ways," said the little lady, her eyes flashing. "I have endured a good deal from him because he is my brother. I know just how you feel about him, Cap'n, and that's why it makes me feel that we have a—a sort of what you might call common interest. I don't know why I'm talking so frankly with you, who are almost a stranger, but I've been—I have always lacked friends so much, that now I can't seem to help it. You truly do seem like an old friend, you have been so willing to do what I asked of you, after you had time to think it over."
The Cap'n was now congratulating himself that he hadn't blurted out anything about the bridge director and that sapling fence. It certainly was a grateful sound—that praise from the pretty lady! He didn't want to interrupt it.
"Now will you go on with that story of the storm?" she begged, hitching the chair a bit nearer. "I want to hear about your adventures."
She had all the instincts of Desdemona, did that pretty little lady. Three times that week she came to the toll-house and listened with lips apart and eyes shining. Cap'n Sproul had never heard of Othello and his wooing, but after a time his heart began to glow under the reverent regard she bent on him. Never did mutual selection more naturally come about. She loved him for the perils he had braved, and he—robbed of his mistress, the sea—yearned for just such companionship as she was giving him. He had known that life lacked something. This was it.
And when one day, after a stuttering preamble that lasted a full half hour, he finally blurted out his heart-hankering, she wept a little while on his shoulder—it being luckily a time when there was no one passing—and then sobbingly declared it could never be.
"'Fraid of your brother, hey?" he inquired.
She bumped her forehead gently on his shoulder in nod of assent.
"I reckon ye like me?"
"Oh, Aaron!" It was a volume of rebuke, appeal, and affection in two words.
"Then there ain't nothin' more to say, little woman. You ain't never had any one to look out for your int'rests in this life. After this, it's me that does it. I don't want your money. I've got plenty of my own. But your interests bein' my interests after this, you hand ev'rything over to me, and I'll put a twist in the tail of that Bengal tiger in your fam'ly that 'll last him all his life."
At the end of a long talk he sent her away with a pat on her shoulder and a cheery word in her ear.
It was Old Man Jordan who, a week or so later, on his way to the village with butter in his bucket, stood in the middle of the road and tossed his arms so frenziedly that Colonel Ward, gathering up his speed behind the willows, pulled up with an oath.
"Ye're jest gittin' back from up-country, ain't ye?" asked Uncle Jordan.
"What do you mean, you old fool, by stoppin' me when I'm busy? What be ye, gittin' items for newspapers?"
"No, Kun'l Ward, but I've got some news that I thought ye might like to hear before ye went past the toll-house this time. Intentions between Cap'n Aaron Sproul and Miss Jane Ward has been published."
"They were married yistiddy."
"Wha—" The cry broke into inarticulateness.
"The Cap'n ain't goin' to be toll-man after to-day. Says he's goin' to live on the home place with his wife. There!" Uncle Jordan stepped to one side just in time, for the gaunt horse sprung under the lash as though he had the wings of Pegasus.
The Cap'n was sitting in front of the toll-house. The tall horse galloped down the hill, but the Colonel stood up, and, with elbows akimbo and hands under his chin, yanked the animal to a standstill, his splay feet skating through the highway dust. The Colonel leaped over the wheel and reversed his heavy whip-butt. The Cap'n stood up, gripping a stout cudgel that he had been whittling at for many hours.
While the new arrival was choking with an awful word that he was trying his best to work out of his throat, the Cap'n pulled his little note-book out of his pocket and slowly drawled:
"I reckoned as how ye might find time to stop some day, and I've got your account all figgered. You owe thirteen tolls at ten cents each, one thutty, and thirteen times three dollars fine—the whole amountin' to jest forty dollars and thutty cents. Then there's a gate to—"
"I'm goin' to kill you right in your tracks where you stand!" bellowed the Colonel.
The Cap'n didn't wait for the attack. He leaped down off his porch, and advanced with the fierce intrepidity of a sea tyrant.
"You'll pay that toll bill," he gritted, "if I have to pick it out of your pockets whilst the coroner is settin' on your remains."
The bully of the countryside quailed.
"You've stole my sister!" he screamed. "This ain't about toll I'm talkin'. You've been and robbed me of my sister!"
"Do you want to hear a word on that?" demanded the Cap'n, grimly. He came close up, whirling the cudgel. "You're an old, cheap, ploughed-land blowhard, that's what you are! You've cuffed 'round hired men and abused weak wimmen-folks. I knowed you was a coward when I got that line on ye. You don't dast to stand up to a man like me. I'll split your head for a cent." He kept advancing step by step, his mien absolutely demoniac. "I've married your sister because she wanted me. Now I'm goin' to take care of her. I've got thutty thousand dollars of my own, and she's giv' me power of attorney over hers. I'll take every cent of what belongs to her out of your business, and I know enough of the way that your business is tied up to know that I can crowd you right to the wall. Now do ye want to fight?"
The tyrant's face grew sickly white, for he realized all that threat meant.
"But there ain't no need of a fight in the fam'ly—and I want you to understand that I'm a pretty dum big part of the fam'ly after this. Be ye ready to listen to reason?"
"You're a robber!" gasped the Colonel, trying again to muster his anger.
"I've got a proposition to make so that there won't be no pull-haulin' and lawyers to pay, and all that."
"What is it?"
"Pardnership between you and me—equal pardners. I've been lookin' for jest this chance to go into business."
The Colonel leaped up, and began to stamp round his wagon.
"No, sir," he howled at each stamp. "I'll go to the poor-farm first."
"Shouldn't wonder if I could put you there," calmly rejoined the Cap'n. "These forced lickidations to settle estates is something awful when the books ain't been kept any better'n yours. I shouldn't be a mite surprised to find that the law would get a nab on you for cheatin' your poor sister."
Again the Colonel's face grew white.
"All is," continued the Cap'n, patronizingly, "if we can keep it all in the fam'ly, nice and quiet, you ain't goin' to git showed up. Now, I ain't goin' to listen to no more abuse out of you. I'll give you jest one minute to decide. Look me in the eye. I mean business."
"You've got me where I'll have to," wailed the Colonel.
"Is it pardnership?"
"Yas!" He barked the word.
"Now, Colonel Ward, there's only one way for you and me to do bus'ness the rest of our lives, and that's on the square, cent for cent. We might as well settle that p'int now. Fix up that toll bill, or it's all off. I won't go into business with a man that don't pay his honest debts."
He came forward with his hand out.
The Colonel paid.
"Now," said the Cap'n, "seein' that the new man is here, ready to take holt, and the books are all square, I'll ride home with you. I've been callin' it home now for a couple of days."
The new man at the toll-house heard the Cap'n talking serenely as they drove away.
"I didn't have any idee, Colonel, I was goin' to like it so well on shore as I do. Of course, you meet some pleasant and some unpleasant people, but that sister of yours is sartinly the finest woman that ever trod shoe-leather, and it was Providunce a-speakin' to me when she—"
The team passed away into the gloomy mouth of the Smyrna bridge.
Once on a time when the Wixon boy put Paris-green in the Trufants' well, because the oldest Trufant girl had given him the mitten, Marm Gossip gabbled in Smyrna until flecks of foam gathered in the corners of her mouth.
But when Cap'n Aaron Sproul, late of the deep sea, so promptly, so masterfully married Col. Gideon Ward's sister—after the irascible Colonel had driven every other suitor away from that patient lady—and then gave the Colonel his "everlasting comeuppance," and settled down in Smyrna as boss of the Ward household, that event nearly wore Gossip's tongue into ribbons.
"I see'd it from a distance—the part that happened in front of the toll-house," said Old Man Jordan. "Now, all of ye know that Kun'l Gid most gin'ly cal'lates to eat up folks that says 'Boo' to him, and pick his teeth with slivers of their bones. But talk about your r'yal Peeruvian ragin' lions—of wherever they come from—why, that Cap'n Sproul could back a 'Rabian caterwouser right off'm Caterwouser Township! I couldn't hear what was said, but I see Kun'l Gid, hoss-gad and all, backed right up into his own wagon; and Cap'n Sproul got in, and took the reins away from him as if he'd been a pindlin' ten-year-old, and drove off toward the Ward home place. And that Cap'n don't seem savage, nuther."
"Wal, near's I can find out," said Odbar Broadway from behind his counter, where he was counting eggs out of Old Man Jordan's bucket, "the Cap'n had a club in one hand and power of attorney from Kun'l Gid's sister in the other—and a threat to divide the Ward estate. The way Gid's bus'ness is tied up jest at present would put a knot into the tail of 'most any kind of a temper."
"I'm told the Cap'n is makin' her a turrible nice husband," observed one of the store loungers.
Broadway folded his specs into their case and came from behind the counter.
"Bein' a bus'ness man myself," he said, "I come pretty nigh knowin' what I'm talkin' about. Kun'l Gid Ward can never flout and jeer that the man that has married his sister was nothin' but a prop'ty-hunter. I'm knowin' to it that Cap'n Sproul has got thutty thousand in vessel prop'ty of his own, 'sides what his own uncle Jerry here left to him. Gid Ward has trompled round this town for twenty-five years, and bossed and browbeat and cussed, and got the best end of every trade. If there's some one come along that can put the wickin' to him in good shape, I swow if this town don't owe him a vote of thanks."
"There's a movement on already to ask Cap'n Sproul to take the office of first s'lec'man at the March meetin'," said one of the loafers.
"I sha'n't begretch him one mite of his popularity," vowed the storekeeper. "Any man that can put Kun'l Gid Ward where he belongs is a better thing for the town than a new meetin'-house would be."
But during all this flurry of gossip Cap'n Aaron Sproul spent his bland and blissful days up under the shade of the big maple in the Ward dooryard, smoking his pipe, and gazing out over the expanse of meadow and woodland stretching away to the horizon.
Most of the time his wife was at his elbow, peering with a species of adoration into his browned countenance as he related his tales of the sea. She constantly carried a little blank-book, its ribbon looped about her neck, and made copious entries as he talked. She had conceived the fond ambition of writing the story of his life. On the cover was inscribed, in her best hand:
FROM SHORE TO SHORE
LINES FROM A MARINER'S ADVENTURES
The Life Story of the Gallant Captain Aaron Sproul
Written by His Affectionate Wife
"I reckon that Providunce put her finger on my compass when I steered this way. Louada Murilla," said the Cap'n one day, pausing to relight his pipe.
He had insisted on renaming his wife "Louada Murilla," and she had patiently accepted the new name with the resignation of her patient nature. But the name pleased her after her beloved lord had explained.
"I was saving that name for the handsomest clipper-ship that money could build," he said. "But when I married you, little woman, I got something better than a clipper-ship; and when you know sailorman's natur' better, you'll know what that compliment means. Yes, Providunce sent me here," continued the Cap'n, poking down his tobacco with broad thumb. "There I was, swashin' from Hackenny to t'other place, livin' on lobscouse and hoss-meat; and here you was, pinin' away for some one to love you and to talk to you about something sensibler than dropped stitches and croshayed lamp-mats. Near's I can find out about your 'sociates round here, you would have got more real sense out of talkin' with Port and Starboard up there," he added, pointing to his pet parrots, which had followed him in his wanderings. "We was both of us hankerin' for a companion—I mean a married companion. And I reckon that two more suiteder persons never started down the shady side—holt of hands, hey?"
He caught her hands and pulled her near him, and she bent down and kissed his weather-beaten forehead.
At that instant Col. Gideon Ward came clattering into the yard in his tall wagon. He glared at this scene of conjugal affection, and then lashed his horse savagely and disappeared in the direction of the barn.
"I read once about a skelington at a feast that rattled his dry bones every time folks there started in to enjoy themselves," said the Cap'n, after he watched the scowling Colonel out of sight. "For the last two weeks, Louada Murilla, it don't seem as if I've smacked you or you've smacked me but when I've jibed my head I've seen that ga'nt brother-in-law o' mine standing off to one side sourer'n a home-made cucumber pickle."
"It's aggravatin' for you, I know it is," she faltered. "But I've been thinkin' that perhaps he'd get more reconciled as the time goes on."
"Reconciled?" snapped the Cap'n, a little of the pepper in his nature coming to the surface. "If it was any one but you little woman, that talked about me as though I was death or an amputated leg in this family, I'd get hot under the collar. But I tell ye, we ain't got many years left to love each other in. We started pritty late. We can't afford to waste any time. And we can't afford to have the edge taken off by that Chinese image standin' around and makin' faces. I've been thinkin' of tellin' him so. But the trouble is with me that when I git to arguin' with a man I'm apt to forgit that I ain't on shipboard and talkin' to a tar-heel."
He surveyed his brown fists with a certain apprehensiveness, as though they were dangerous parties over whom he had no control.
"I should dretfully hate to have anything come up between you and Gideon, Cap'n," she faltered, a frightened look in her brown eyes. "It wouldn't settle anything to have trouble. But you've been about so much and seen human nature so much that it seems as though you could handle him different than with—with—"
"Poundin' him, eh?" Smiles broke over the skipper's face. "See how I'm softened, little woman!" he cried. "Time was when I would have chased a man that made faces at me as he done just now, and I'd have pegged him into the ground. But love has done a lot for me in makin' me decent. If I keep on, I'll forgit I've got two fists—and that's something for a shipmaster to say, now, I'll tell ye! A man has got to git into love himself to know how it feels."
Sudden reflection illuminated his face.
"Ain't old pickalilly—that brother of yourn—ever been in love?" he asked.
"Why—why," she stammered, "he's been in—well, sometimes now I think perhaps it ain't love, knowin' what I do now—but he's been engaged to Pharlina Pike goin' on fifteen years. And he's been showin' her attentions longer'n that. But since I've met you and found out how folks don't usually wait so long if they—they're in love—well, I've—"
"Fifteen years!" he snorted. "What is he waitin' for—for her to grow up?"
"Land sakes, no! She's about as old as he is. She's old Seth Pike's daughter, and since Seth died she has run the Pike farm with hired help, and has done real well at it. Long engagements ain't thought strange of 'round here. Why, there's—"
"Fifteen years!" he repeated. "That's longer'n old Methus'lum courted."
"But Gideon has been so busy and away from home so much in the woods, and Pharlina ain't been in no great pucker, seein' that the farm was gettin' on well, and—"
"There ain't no excuse for him," broke in the Cap'n, with vigor. He was greatly interested in this new discovery. His eyes gleamed. "'Tain't usin' her right. She can't step up to him and set the day. 'Tain't woman's sp'ere, that ain't. I didn't ask you to set the day. I set it myself. I told you to be ready."
Her cheek flushed prettily at the remembrance of that impetuous courtship, when even her dread of her ogre brother had been overborne by the Cap'n's masterful manner, once she had confessed her love.
"I know what love is myself," went on the Cap'n. "He don't know; that's what the trouble is with him. He ain't been waked up. Let him be waked up good and plenty, and he won't be standin' around makin' faces at us. I see what's got to be done to make a happy home of this. You leave it to me."
They saw the Colonel stamping in their direction from the barn.
"You run into the house, Louada Murilla," directed the Cap'n, "and leave me have a word with him."
The Colonel was evidently as anxious as the Cap'n for a word.
"Say, Sproul," he gritted, as he came under the tree, "I've got an offer for the stumpage on township number eight. Seein' that you're in equal partners with me on my sister's money," he sneered, "I reckon I've got to give ye figures and prices, and ask for a permit to run my own business."
"Seems 'most as if you don't enj'y talkin' business with me," observed the Cap'n, with a meek wistfulness that was peculiarly aggravating to his grouchy partner.
"I'd about as soon eat pizen!" stormed the other.
"Then let's not do it jest now," the Cap'n returned, sweetly. "I've got something more important to talk about than stumpage. Money and business ain't much in this world, after all, when you come to know there's something diff'runt. Love is what I'm referrin' to. Word has jest come to me that you're in love, too, the same as I am."
The gaunt Colonel glared malevolently down on the sturdy figure sprawling in the garden chair. The Cap'n's pipe clouds curled about his head, and his hands were stuffed comfortably into his trousers pockets. His face beamed.
"Some might think to hear you talk that you was a soft old fool that had gone love-cracked 'cause a woman jest as soft as you be has showed you some attention," choked the Colonel. "But I know what you're hidin' under your innocent-Abigail style. I know you're a jill-poke."
"A what?" blandly asked Sproul.
"That's woods talk for the log that makes the most trouble on the drive—and it's a mighty ornery word."
"Er—something like 'the stabboard pi-oogle,' which same is a seafarin' term, and is worse," replied the Cap'n, with bland interest in this philological comparison. "But let's not git strayed off'm the subject. Your sister, Louada Murilla—"
The gaunt man clacked his bony fists together in ecstasy of rage.
"She was christened Sarah Jane, and that's her name. Don't ye insult the father and mother that gave it to her by tackin' on another. I've told ye so once; I tell ye so—"
"Louada Murilla," went on the Cap'n, taking his huge fists out of his pockets and cocking them on his knees, not belligerently, but in a mildly precautionary way, "told me that you had been engaged to a woman named Phar—Phar—"
"Oh, give her any name to suit ye!" snarled the Colonel. "That's what ye're doin' with wimmen round here."
"You know who I mean," pursued Sproul, complacently, "seein' that you've had fifteen years to study on her name. Now, bein' as I'm one of the fam'ly, I'm going to ask you what ye're lally-gaggin' along for? Wimmen don't like to be on the chips so long. I am speakin' to you like a man and a brother when I say that married life is what the poet says it is. It's—"
"I've stood a good deal from you up to now!" roared Ward, coming close and leaning over threateningly. "You come here to town with so much tar on ye that your feet stuck every time you stood still in one place; you married my sister like you'd ketch a woodchuck; you've stuck your fingers into my business in her name—but that's jest about as fur as you can go with me. There was only one man ever tried to advise me about gitting married—and he's still a cripple. There was no man ever tried to recite love poetry to me. You take fair warnin'."
"Then you ain't willin' to listen to my experience, considerin' that I've been a worse hard-shell than you ever was in marriage matters, and now see the errors of my ways?" The Cap'n was blinking up wistfully.
"It means that I take ye by your heels and snap your head off," rasped Ward, tucking his sleeves away from his corded wrists. "You ain't got your club with you this time."
The Cap'n sighed resignedly.
"Now," went on the Colonel, with the vigorous decision of a man who feels that he has got the ascendency, "you talk about something that amounts to something. That stumpage on number eight is mostly cedar and hackmatack, and I've got an offer from the folks that want sleepers for the railroad extension."
He went on with facts and figures, but the Cap'n listened with only languid interest. He kept sighing and wrinkling his brows, as though in deep rumination on a matter far removed from the stumpage question. When the agreement of sale was laid before him he signed with a blunted lead-pencil, still in his trance.
"Northin' but a cross-cut saw with two axe-handles for legs," he said to himself, his eyes on the Colonel's back as that individual stamped wrathfully away. "Teeth and edge are hard as iron! It's no good to talk mattermony to him. Prob'ly it wouldn't do no good for me to talk mattermony to Phar—Phar—to t'other one. She couldn't ask him to go git a minister. 'Tain't right to put that much onto a woman's shoulders. The trouble with him is that he's too sure of wimmen. Had his sister under his thumb all them years, and thought less and less of her for stayin' there. He's too sure of t'other. Thinks nobody else wants her. Thinks all he's got to do is step round and git her some day. Ain't got no high idee of wimmen like I have. Thinks they ought to wait patient as a tree in a wood-lot. Has had things too much his own way, I say. Hain't never had his lesson. Thinks nobody else don't want her, hey? And she can wait his motions! He needs his lesson. Lemme see!"
With his knurly forefinger at his puckered forehead he sat and pondered.
He was very silent at supper.
The Colonel, still exulting in his apparent victory, said many sneering and savage things, and clattered his knife truculently on his plate. Sproul merely looked at him with that wistful preoccupation that still marked his countenance.
"He's a quitter," pondered the Colonel. "I reckon he ain't playin' lamb so's to tole me on. He's growed soft—that's what he's done."
Ward went to sleep that night planning retaliation.
Sproul stayed awake when the house was quiet, still pondering.
During the next few days, as one treads farther and farther out upon thin ice to test it, the Colonel craftily set about regaining, inch by inch, his lost throne as tyrant. Occasionally he checked himself in some alarm, to wonder what meant that ridging of the Cap'n's jaw-muscles, and whether he really heard the seaman's teeth gritting. Once, when he recoiled before an unusually demoniac glare from Sproul, the latter whined, after a violent inward struggle:
"It beats all how my rheumaticks has been talkin' up lately. I don't seem to have no ginger nor spirit left in me. I reckon I got away from the sea jest in time. I wouldn't even dare to order a nigger to swab decks, the way I'm feelin' now."
"You've allus made a good deal of talk about how many men you've handled in your day," said the Colonel, tucking a thumb under his suspender and leaning back with supercilious cock of his gray eyebrows. "It's bein' hinted round town here more or less that you're northin' but bluff. I don't realize, come to think it over, how I ever come to let you git such a holt in my fam'ly. I—"
The two were sitting, as was their custom in those days of the Colonel's espionage, under the big maple in the yard. A man who was passing in the highway paused and leaned on the fence.
"Can one of you gents tell me," he asked, "where such a lady as Miss Phar"—he consulted a folded paper that he held in his hand—"Pharleena Pike lives about here?"
He was an elderly man with a swollen nose, striated with purple veins. Under his arm he carried a bundle done up in meat-paper.
There was a queer glint of excitement in the eyes of the Cap'n. But he did not speak. He referred the matter to Ward with a jab of his thumb.
"What do you want to know where Miss Pike lives for?" demanded the Colonel, looking the stranger over with great disfavor.
"None of your business," replied the man of the swollen nose, promptly. "I've asked a gent's question of one I took to be a gent, and I'd like a gent's reply."
"You see," said Cap'n Sproul to the stranger, with a confidential air, as though he were proposing to impart the secret of the Colonel's acerbity, "Colonel Ward here is—"
"You go 'long two miles, swing at the drab school-house, and go to the second white house on the left-hand side of the road!" shouted Ward, hastily breaking in on the explanation. His thin cheeks flushed angrily. The man shuffled on.
"Why don't you print it on a play-card that I'm engaged to Pharlina Pike and hang it on the fence there?" the Colonel snorted, wrathfully, whirling on the Cap'n. "Didn't it ever occur to you that some things in this world ain't none of your business?"
The Cap'n sighed with the resigned air that he had been displaying during the week past.
"Lemme see, where was I?" went on the Colonel, surlily. "I was sayin', wasn't I, that I didn't see how I'd let you stick yourself into this fam'ly as you've done? It's time now for you and me to git to a reck'nin'. There's blamed liars round here snick'rin' in their whiskers, and sayin' that you've backed me down. Now—"
Another man was at the fence, and interrupted with aggravating disregard of the Colonel's intentness on the business in hand. This stranger was short and squat, stood with his feet braced wide apart, and had a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. His broad face wore a cheery smile.
"I've beat nor'west from the railroad, fetched a covered bridge on the port quarter, shipmates," he roared, jovially, "and here I be, bearin's lost and dead-reck'nin' skow-wowed."
"Seems to be your breed," sneered Ward to the Cap'n. "What's that he's sayin', put in human language?"
"I'm chartered for port—port"—he also referred to a folded paper—"to port Furliny Pike, som'eres in this latitude. Give me p'ints o' compass, will ye?"
Ward leaped to his feet and strode toward the fence, his long legs working like calipers.
"What do ye want of Pharline Pike?" he demanded, angrily.
"None of your business," replied the cheerful sailor. "If this is the way landlubbers take an honest man's hail, ye're all jest as bad as I've heard ye was."
"I'm a mind to cuff your ears," yapped the Colonel.
The other glanced up the angular height of his antagonist.
"Try it," he said, squaring his sturdy little figure. "Try it, and I'll climb your main riggin' and dance a jig on that dog-vane of a head of yourn."
This alacrity for combat clearly backed down Ward. In his rampageous life his tongue had usually served him better than his fists.
"Avast, shipmate!" called the Cap'n, in his best sea tones. The sailor beamed delighted recognition of marine masonry. "The fact of the matter is, my friend here has some claim—the truth is, he's—"
"You go 'long two miles, swing at the drab school-house, and then take the second house—white one—on the left-hand side of the road," bawled Ward, "and you go mighty quick!"
The sailor ducked acknowledgment and rolled away.
"If you'd unpinned that mouth of yourn fur enough to tell that tramp that I'm engaged to Pharline Pike," growled Ward, returning to the tree, "I'd 'a' broke in your head—and you might as well know it first as last."
"Ain't you engaged to her?"
"You know I be."
"Well, I've allus told the truth all my life—and I reckon I shall continner to tell it. If you're ashamed to have it knowed that you're engaged to Pharlina Pike, then it's time she heard so. I'd jest as soon tell her as not."
"I started to say to you," raged Ward, "that you'd stuck your finger into my pie altogether too deep. I ain't killed as many sailors as you're braggin' on, but there ain't no man ever licked Gid Ward, and—"
"Near's I can tell from what I hear about you," retorted the Cap'n, "built on racin' lines as you be, you've never let a man git near enough to lick ye."
Again the Colonel noted that red vengefulness in the skipper's eyes, and recoiled suspiciously.
"Oh, my rheumaticks!" the seaman hastened to moan.
Ward had his back to the fence.
"I cal'late as how there's another party that wants his bearin's," suggested Sproul.
A rather decayed-looking gentleman, wearing a frock-coat shiny at the elbows, and a fuzzy plug-hat, was tapping his cane against one of the pickets to attract attention.
"I am looking for the residence of Miss Pharlina Pike," he announced, with a precise puckering of his lips. "I'll thank you for a word of direction. But I want to say, as a lowly follower of the Lord—in evangelical lines—that it is not seemly for two men to quarrel in public."
Ward had been gaping at him in amazement.
"I can tell ye right now," he cried, "that Miss Pharline Pike ain't hirin' no farm-hand that wears a plug-hat! There ain't no need of your goin' to her place."
"My dear sir," smiled the decayed gentleman, "it is a delicate matter not to be canvassed in public; but I can assure you that I shall not remain with Miss Pike as a menial or a bond-servant. Oh no! Not by any means, sir!"
Ward scruffed his hand over his forehead, blinking with puzzled astonishment.
"I'll thank you for the directions," said the stranger. "They were not able to give me exact instructions at the village—at least, I cannot remember them."
"I ain't no dadfired guide-board to stand here all day and p'int the way to Pharline Pike's," roared Ward, with a heat that astonished the decayed gentleman.
"I don't want no elder to go away from this place and report that he wa'n't used respectful," said Sproul, meekly, addressing the stranger. "You'll have to excuse Colonel Ward here. P'r'aps I can say for him, as a pertickler friend, what it wouldn't be modest for him to say himself. The fact is, he's en—"
The infuriated Ward leaped up and down on the sward and shrieked the road instructions to the wayfarer, who hustled away, casting apprehensive glances over his shoulder.
But when the Colonel turned again on the Cap'n, the latter rose and hobbled with extravagant limpings toward the house.
"I don't reckon I can stay out here and pass talk with you, brother-in-law," he called back, reproachfully. "Strangers, passin' as they be, don't like to hear no such language as you're usin'. Jest think of what that elder said!"
Ward planted himself upon a garden chair, and gazed down the road in the direction in which the strangers had gone. He seemed to be thinking deeply, and the Cap'n watched him from behind one of the front-room curtains.
Two more men passed up the road. At the first, the Colonel flourished his arms and indulged in violent language, the gist of which the Cap'n did not catch. He ran to the fence when the second accosted him, tore off a picket, and flung it after the fleeing man.
Then he sat down and pondered more deeply still.
He cast occasional glances toward the house, and once or twice arose as though to come in. But he sat down and continued to gaze in the direction of Pharlina Pike's house.
It was late in the afternoon when a woman came hurrying down the slope through the maple-sugar grove. The Cap'n, at his curtain with his keen sea eye, saw her first. He had been expecting her arrival. He knew her in the distance for Pharlina Pike, and realized that she had come hot-foot across lots.
Sproul was under the big maple as soon as she.
"For mercy sakes, Colonel Gid," she gasped, "come over to my house as quick's you can!"
She had come up behind him, and he leaped out of his chair with a snap like a jack-in-the-box.
"There's somethin' on, and I knowed it!" he squalled. "What be them men peradin' past here to your house for, and tellin' me it ain't none of my business? You jest tell me, Pharline Pike, what you mean by triflin' in this way?"
"Lord knows what it's all about! I don't!" she quavered.
"You do know, too!" he yelled. "Don't ye try to pull wool over my eyes! You do know, too!"
"It's a turrible thing to be jealous," cooed Cap'n Sproul to his trembling little wife, who had followed at his heels.
"I don't know, either," wailed the spinster. "There's one of 'em in the settin'-room balancin' a plug-hat on his knees and sayin', 'Lo! the bridegroom cometh'; and there's two on the front steps kickin' the dog ev'ry time he comes at 'em; and there's one in the kitchen that smells o' tar, and has got a bagful of shells and sech things for presents to me; there's one in the barn lookin' over the stock—and I s'pose they're comin' down the chimbly and up the suller stairs by this time. You're the only one I've got in the world to depend on, Colonel Gid. For mercy sakes, come!"
"What do they say—what's their excuse?" he demanded, suspiciously.
"They say—they say," she wailed—"they say they want to marry me, but I don't know what they've all come hov'rin' round me for—honest to Moses I don't!" She folded her hands in her apron and wrung them. "I'm pretty nigh scart to death of 'em," she sobbed.
"I reckon you can give 'em an earful when you git down there," said the Cap'n, "when you tell 'em that you've been engaged to her for fifteen years. But it ain't none surprisin' that men that hear of that engagement should most natch'ally conclude that a woman would like to git married after a while. I cal'late ye see now, brother-in-law, that you ain't the only man that appreciates what a good woman Miss Pharlina Pike is."
"You come along, Pharline," said the Colonel, taking her arm, after he had bored the Cap'n for a moment with flaming eye. "I reckon I can pertect ye from all the tramps ever let loose out of jails—and—and when I git to the bottom of this I predict there'll be bloodshed—there'll be bones broke, anyway." With one more malevolent look at the Cap'n he started away.
"It's only a short cut through the maple growth, Louada Murilla," said Sproul. "My rheumaticks is a good deal better of a sudden. Let's you and me go along."
As they trudged he saw farmers at a distance here and there, and called to them to follow.
"Look here, I don't need no bee!" howled the Colonel. "This ain't nothing to spread broadcast in this community."
"Never can tell what's li'ble to happen," retorted Sproul. "Witnesses don't never hurt cases like this."
He continued to call the farmers, despite Ward's objurgations. Farmers called their wives. All followed behind the engaged couple. As usually happens in country communities, word had gone abroad in other directions that there were strange doings at the Pike place. With huge satisfaction the Cap'n noted that the yard was packed with spectators.
"Where be ye?" bellowed Colonel Ward, now in a frenzy. "Where be ye, ye scalawags that are round tryin' to hector a respectable woman that wouldn't wipe her feet on ye? Come out here and talk to me!"
The neighbors fell back, recognizing his authority in the matter; and the men who were suing this modern Penelope appeared from various parts of the premises.
"I desire to say, as a clergyman along evangelical lines, and not a settled pastor," said the man in the fuzzy plug-hat, "that I do not approve of this person's violent language. I have seen him once before to-day, and he appeared singularly vulgar and unrefined. He used violent language then. I desire to say to you, sir, that I am here on the best of authority"—he tapped his breast pocket—"and here I shall remain until I have discussed the main question thoroughly with the estimable woman who has invited me here."
"It's a lie—I never invited him, Colonel Gid!" cried the spinster. "If you're any part of a man, and mean any part of what you have allus said to me, you'll make him take that back."
For a moment the Colonel's jealous suspicion had flamed again, but the woman's appeal fired him in another direction.
"Look here, you men," he shouted, his gaze running over plug-hat, swollen nose, seaman's broad face, and the faces of the other suitors, "I'm Gideon Ward, of Smyrna, and I've been engaged to Miss Pharline Pike for fifteen years, and—"
"Then I don't blame her for changing her mind, ye bloody landlubber!" snorted the seaman, smacking his hand upon his folded paper.
"Being engaged signifies little in the courts of matrimony," said the decayed-looking man with dignity. "She has decided to choose another, and—"
Colonel Ward threw back his shoulders and faced them all with glittering eyes.
"I'd like to see the man that can step into this town and lug off the woman that's promised to me," he raved. "Engagements don't hold, hey? Then you come this way a week from to-day, and you'll see Gideon Ward and Pharline Pike married as tight as a parson can tie the knot. I mean it!" The excitement of the moment, his rage at interference in his affairs, his desire to triumph thus publicly over these strangers, had led him into the declaration.
The spinster gasped, but she came to him and trustfully put her hand on his arm.
"P'raps some can be put off by that bluff," said the man with the swollen nose, "but not me that has travelled. I'm here on business, and I've got the dockyments, and if there's any shenanigan, then some one's got to pay me my expenses, and for wear and tear." He waved a paper.
Ward leaped forward and snatched the paper from his grasp.
"It's about time for me to see what you're flourishing round here promiskous, like a bill o' sale of these primises," he snarled.
"You can read it, and read it out jest as loud as you want to," said the man, coming forward and putting a grimy finger on a paragraph displayed prominently on the folded sheet of newspaper.
The Colonel took one look and choked. An officious neighbor grabbed away the paper when Ward made a sign as though to tuck it into his pocket.
"I'll read it," said the neighbor. "Mebbe my eyesight is better'n yourn." Then he read, in shrill tones:
"NOTICE TO BACHELORS
"Unmarried maiden lady, smart and good-looking, desires good husband. Has two-hundred-and-thirty-acre farm in good state of cultivation, well stocked, and will promise right party a home and much affection. Apply on premises to Pharlina Pike, Smyrna."
"I never—I never—dadrat the liar that ever wrote that!" screamed the spinster.
"You see for yourself," said the man of the swollen nose, ignoring her disclaimer. "We're here on business, and expect to be treated like business men—or expenses refunded to us."
But the Colonel roared wordlessly, like some angry animal, seized a pitchfork that was leaning against the side of the spinster's ell, and charged the group of suitors. His mien was too furious. They fled, and fled far and forever.
"There's some one," said Ward, returning into the yard and driving the fork-tines into the ground, "who has insulted Miss Pike. I'd give a thousand dollars to know who done that writin'."
Only bewildered stares met his furious gaze.
"I want you to understand," he went on, "that no one can drive me to git married till I'm ready. But I'm standin' here now and tellin' the nosy citizens of this place that I'm ready to be married, and so's she who is goin' to be my companion, and we'll 'tend to our own business in spite of the gossips of Smyrna. It's for this day week! I don't want no more lyin' gossip about it. You're gittin' it straight this time. It's for this day week; no invitations, no cards, no flowers, no one's durnation business. There, take that home and chaw on it. Pharline, let's you and me go into the house."
"I reckon there's witnesses enough to make that bindin'," muttered Cap'n Sproul under his breath.
He bent forward and tapped the Colonel on the arm as Ward was about to step upon the piazza.
"Who do ye suspect?" he whispered, hoarsely.
It was a perfectly lurid gaze that his brother-in-law turned on him.
What clutched Ward's arm was a grip like a vise. He glared into the Colonel's eyes with light fully as lurid as that which met his gaze. He spoke low, but his voice had the grating in it that is more ominous than vociferation.
"I thought I'd warn ye not to twit. My rheumaticks is a good deal better at this writin', and my mind ain't so much occupied by other matters as it has been for a week or so. When you come home don't talk northin' but business, jest as you natch'ally would to a brother-in-law and an equal pardner. That advice don't cost northin', but it's vallyble."
As Cap'n Sproul trudged home, his little wife's arm tucked snugly in the hook of his own, he observed, soulfully:
"Mattermony, Louada Murilla—mattermony, it is a blessed state that it does the heart good to see folks git into as ought to git into it. As the poet says—um-m-m, well, it's in that book on the settin'-room what-not. I'll read it to ye when we git home."
Cap'n Aaron Sproul was posted that bright afternoon on the end of his piazza. He sat bolt upright and twiddled his gnarled thumbs nervously. His wife came out and sat down beside him.
"Where you left off, Cap'n," she prompted meekly, "was when the black, whirling cloud was coming and you sent the men up-stairs—"
"Aloft!" snapped Cap'n Sproul.
"I mean aloft—and they were unfastening the sails off the ropes, and—"
"Don't talk of snuggin' a ship like you was takin' in a wash," roared the ship-master, in sudden and ungallant passion. It was the first impatient word she had received from him in that initial, cozy year of their marriage. Her mild brown eyes swam in tears as she looked at him wonderingly.
"I—I haven't ever seen a ship or the sea, but I'm trying so hard to learn, and I love so to hear you talk of the deep blue ocean. It was what first attracted me to you." Her tone was almost a whimper.
But her meekness only seemed to increase the Cap'n's impatience.
"You haven't seemed to be like your natural self for a week," she complained, wistfully. "You haven't seemed to relish telling me stories of the sea and your narrow escapes. You haven't even seemed to relish vittles and the scenery. Oh, haven't you been weaned from the sea yet, Aaron?"
Cap'n Sproul continued to regard his left foot with fierce gloom. He was giving it his undivided attention. It rested on a wooden "cricket," and was encased in a carpet slipper that contrasted strikingly with the congress boot that shod his other foot. Red roses and sprays of sickly green vine formed the pattern of the carpet slipper. The heart of a red rose on the toe had been cut out, as though the cankerworm had eaten it; and on a beragged projection that stuck through and exhaled the pungent odor of liniment, the Cap'n's lowering gaze was fixed.
"There's always somethin' to be thankful for," said his meek wife, her eyes following his gaze. "You've only sprained it, and didn't break it. Does it still ache, dear?"
"It aches like—of course it aches!" roared the Cap'n. "Don't ask that jeebasted, fool question ag'in. I don't mean to be tetchy, Louada Murilla," he went on, after a little pause, a bit of mildness in his tone, "but you've got to make allowance for the way I feel. The more I set and look at that toe the madder I git at myself. Oh, I hadn't ought to have kicked that cousin of yourn, that's what I hadn't!"
"You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that, Aaron," she cried, with fervor. "I was afraid you hadn't repented."
"I ought to 'a' hit him with a club and saved my toe, that's what I mean," he snorted, with grim viciousness.
She sighed, and he resumed his dismal survey of the liniment-soaked rags.
"Once when I was—" he resumed, in a low growl, after a time.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're goin' to tell a story, Cap'n," she chirped, welcoming his first return of good-nature since his mishap.
"There ain't no story to it," he snapped. "I only want to say that there's a place down in Africa where I put in with the Jefferson P. Benn one time, where they daub honey on folks that they want to git red of, and anchor 'em on an ant-bed. That's jest what's happenin' to me here in Smyrna, and my thutty thousand dollars that I've worked hard for and earnt and saved is the honey. You've lived among them here all your life, Louada Murilla, and I s'pose you've got more or less wonted to 'em. But if I hadn't squirmed and thrashed round a little durin' the time I've lived here, after marryin' you and settlin' down among 'em, they'd have et me, honey, money, hide, and hair. As it is, they've got their little lunch off'm me. I haven't thrashed round enough till—till yistiddy."
He wriggled the toe in the centre of the rose, and grunted.
"I was in hopes we wouldn't have any more trouble in the family, only what we've had with brother Gideon since we've been married," she said mildly. "Of course, Marengo Todd is only a second cousin of mine, but still, he's in the family, you know, and families hang together, 'cause blood—"
"Blood is what they want, blast 'em!" he bawled, angrily. "I've used Marengo Orango, there, or whatever you call him, all right, ain't I? I've let him do me! He knowed I was used to sea ways, and wa'n't used to land ways, and that he could do me. I lent him money, first off, because I liked you. And I've lent him money sence because I like a liar—and he's a good one! I've used all your relatives the best I've knowed how, and—and they've turned round and used me! But I've put a dot, full-stop, period to it—and I done it with that toe," he added, scowling at the pathetic heart of the red rose.
"I wish it hadn't been one of the family," she sighed.
"It couldn't well help bein' one," snarled the Cap'n. "They're about all named Todd or Ward round here but one, and his name is Todd Ward Brackett, and he's due next. And they're all tryin' to borry money off'm me and sell me spavined hosses. Now, let's see if they can take a hint." He tentatively wriggled the toe some more, and groaned. "The Todds and the Wards better keep away from me."
Then he suddenly pricked up his ears at the sound of the slow rumble of a wagon turning into the yard. The wagon halted, and they heard the buzzing twang of a jew's-harp, played vigorously.
"There's your Todd Ward Brackett. I predicted him! 'Round here to sell ye rotten thread and rusted tinware and his all-fired Balm o' Joy liniment."
"It's good liniment, and I need some more for your toe, Aaron," pleaded his wife, putting her worsted out of her lap.
"I'll chop that toe off and use it for cod bait before I'll cure it by buying any more liniment off'm him," the Cap'n retorted. "You jest keep your settin', Louada Murilla. I'll tend to your fam'ly end after this."
He struggled up and began to hop toward the end of the piazza. The new arrival had burst into cheery song:
"There was old Hip Huff, who went by freight To Newry Corner, in this State. Packed him in a—"
There was a red van in the yard, its side bearing the legend:
TINWARE AND YANKEE NOTIONS.
LICENSED BY C.C.
A brisk, little, round-faced man sat on the high seat, bolt upright in the middle of it, carolling lustily. It was "Balm o' Joy" Brackett, pursuing his humble vocation and using his familiar method of attracting customers to their doors.
"Shet up that clack!" roared the Cap'n.
"Hillo, hullo, hallah, gallant Captain," chirped Brackett, imperturbable under the seaman's glare. "I trust that glory floods your soul and all the world seems gay." And he went on breathlessly:
"May ev'ry hour of your life seem like a pan of Jersey milk, and may you skim the cream off'm it. Let's be happy, let's be gay, trade with me when I come your way. Tinware shines like the new-ris' sun, twist, braid, needles beat by none; here's your values, cent by cent, and Balm o' Joy lin-i-ment. Trade with—"
"Git out o' this yard!" bawled the Cap'n, in his storm-and-tempest tones. "You crack-brained, rag-and-bone-land-pirate, git off'm my premises! I don't want your stuff. I've bought the last cent's wu'th of you I'll ever buy. Git out!"
"The Cap'n isn't well to-day, Todd," quavered Mrs. Sproul. Fear prompted her to keep still. But many years of confidential barter of rags for knicknacks had made Todd Brackett seem like "own folks," as she expressed it. "We won't trade any to-day," she added, apologetically.
"Nor we won't trade ever," bawled the Cap'n, poising himself on one foot like an angry hawk. "You go 'long out of this yard."
Without losing his smile—for he had been long accustomed to the taunts and tirades of dissatisfied housewives—the peddler backed his cart around and drove away, crying over his shoulder with great good-humor:
"A merry life and a jolly life is the life for you and me!"
"I'll make life merry for ye, if ye come into this yard ag'in, you whiffle-headed dog-vane, you!" the Cap'n squalled after him. But Brackett again struck up his roundelay:
"There was old Hip Huff, who went by freight To Newry Corner, in this State. Put him in a crate to git him there, With a two-cent stamp to pay his fare. Rowl de fang-go—old Smith's mare."
The Cap'n hopped into the house and set his foot again on the cricket that his wife brought dutifully. He gritted his teeth as long as the voice of the singer came to his ears.
"I wish you hadn't," mourned his wife; "he's as good-meaning a man as there is in town, even if he is a little light-headed. He's always given me good trades, and his st'ilyards don't cheat on rags."
The old mariner was evidently preparing a stinging reply, but a knock on the door interrupted him. Louada Murilla admitted three men, who marched in solemnly, one behind the other, all beaming with great cordiality. Cap'n Sproul, not yet out of the doldrums, simply glowered and grunted as they took seats.
Then one of them, whom Sproul knew as Ludelphus Murray, the local blacksmith, arose and cleared his throat with ominous formality.
"It's best to hammer while the iron is hot, Cap'n," he said. "It won't take many clips o' the tongue to tell you what we've come for. We three here are a committee from the Smyrna Ancient and Honer'ble Firemen's Association to notify you that at a meetin' last ev'nin' you was unanimously elected a member of that organization, and—"
"Oh, Aaron!" cried Louada Murilla, ecstatically. "How glad I am this honor has been given to you! My own father belonged."
"And," continued Murray, with a satisfied smile, and throwing back his shoulders as one who brings great tidings, "it has been realized for a long time that there ain't been the discipline in the association that there ought to be. We have now among us in our midst one who has commanded men and understands how to command men; one who has sailed the ragin' deep in times of danger, and—and, well, a man that understands how to go ahead and take the lead in tittlish times. So the association"—he took a long breath—"has elected you foreman, and I hereby hand you notice of the same and the book of rules."
The Cap'n scowled and put his hand behind the rocking-chair in which he was seated.
"Not by a—" he began, but Murray went on with cheerful explanation.
"I want to say to you that this association is over a hundred years old, and our hand tub, the 'Hecla,' is ninety-seven years old, and has took more prizes squirtin' at musters than any other tub in the State. We ain't had many fires ever in Smyrna, but the Ancients take the leadin' rank in all social events, and our dances and banquets are patronized by the best."
"It's an awful big honor, Aaron," gasped his wife. She turned to the committee. "The Cap'n hasn't been feelin' well, gentlemen, and this honor has kind of overcome him. But I know he appreciates it. My own father was foreman once, and it's a wonderful thing to think that my husband is now."
"'Tain't likely that the Ancients will ever forgit them dinners we had here, Mis' Sproul," remarked one of the men, 'suffling' the moisture at the corners of his mouth.
"Seein' that you ain't well, we don't expect no speech, Cap'n," said Murray, laying the documents upon Sproul's knee. "I see that the honor has overcome you, as it nat'rally might any man. We will now take our leave with a very good-day, and wishin' you all of the best, yours truly, and so forth." He backed away, and the others rose.
"Pass through the kitchen, gentlemen," said Mrs. Sproul, eagerly. "I will set out a treat." They trudged that way with deep bows at the threshold to their newly drafted foreman, who still glared at them speechlessly.
When Mrs. Sproul returned at length, still fluttering in her excitement, he was reading the little pamphlet that had been left with him, a brick-red color slowly crawling up the back of his neck.
"Just think of it for an honor, Aaron," she stammered, "and you here in town only such a little while! Oh, I am so proud of you! Mr. Murray brought the things in his team and left them on the piazza. I'll run and get them."
She spread them on the sitting-room floor, kneeling before him like a priestess offering sacrifice. With his thumb in the pamphlet, he stared at the array.
There was a battered leather hat with a broad apron, or scoop, behind to protect the back. On a faded red shield above the visor was the word "Foreman." There were two equally battered leather buckets. There was a dented speaking-trumpet. These the Cap'n dismissed one by one with an impatient scowl. But he kicked at one object with his well foot.
"What's that infernal thing?" he demanded.
"A bed-wrench, Aaron. It's to take apart corded beds so as to get them out of houses that are on fire. There aren't hardly any corded beds now, of course, but it's a very old association that you're foreman of, and the members keep the old things. It's awfully nice to do so, I think. It's like keeping the furniture in old families. And that big bag there, with the puckerin'-string run around it, is the bag to put china and valuables into and lug away."
"And your idee of an honor, is it," he sneered, "is that I'm goin' to put that dingbusset with a leather back-fin onto my head and grab up them two leather swill-pails and stick that iron thing there under my arm and grab that puckering-string bag in my teeth and start tophet-te-larrup over this town a-chasin' fires? Say—" but his voice choked, and he began to read once more the pamphlet. The red on the back of his neck grew deeper.
At last the explosion occurred.
"Louada Murilla Sproul, do you mean to say that you've had this thing in your fam'ly once, and was knowin' what it meant, and then let them three Shanghaiers come in here and shove this bloodsucker bus'ness onto me, and git away all safe and sound? I had been thinkin' that your Todds and Wards was spreadin' some sail for villuns, but they're only moskeeters to Barb'ry pirates compared with this."
He cuffed his hand against the open pages of the pamphlet.
"It says here that the foreman has to set up a free dinner for 'em four times a year and ev'ry holiday. It says that the foreman is fined two dollars for ev'ry monthly meetin' that he misses, other members ten cents. He's fined ten dollars for ev'ry fire that he isn't at, other members a quarter of a dollar. He's fined one dollar for ev'ry time he's ketched without his hat, buckets, bag, and bed-wrench hung in his front hall where they belong, other members ten cents. And he's taxed a quarter of the whole expenses of gittin' to firemen's muster and back. Talk about lettin' blood with a gimlet! Why, they're after me with a pod-auger!"
All the afternoon he read the little book, cuffed it, and cursed. He snapped up Louada Murilla with scant courtesy when she tried to give him the history of Smyrna's most famous organization, and timorously represented to him the social eminence he had attained.
"It isn't as though you didn't have money, and plenty of it," she pleaded. "You can't get any more good out of it than by spending it that way. I tell you, Aaron, it isn't to be sneezed at, leading all the grand marches at the Ancients' dances and being boss of 'em all at the muster, with the band a-playin' and you leading 'em right up the middle of the street. It's worth it, Aaron—and I shall be so proud of you!"
He grumbled less angrily the next morning. But he still insisted that he didn't propose to let the consolidated Todds and Wards of Smyrna bunco him into taking the position, and said that he should attend the next meeting of the Ancients and resign.
But when, on the third evening after his election, the enthusiastic members of the Smyrna A. & H.F.A. came marching up from the village, the brass band tearing the air into ribbons with cornets and trombones, his stiff resolve wilted suddenly. He began to grin shamefacedly under his grizzled beard, and hobbled out onto the porch and made them a stammering speech, and turned scarlet with pride when they cheered him, and basked in the glory of their compliments, and thrilled when they respectfully called him "Chief." He even told Louada Murilla that she was a darling, when she, who had been forewarned, produced a "treat" from a hiding-place in the cellar.
"I knew you'd appreciate it all as soon as you got wonted to the honor, Aaron," she whispered, happy tears in her eyes. "It's the social prominence—that's all there is to it. There hasn't been a fire in the town for fifteen years, and you aren't going to be bothered one mite. Oh, isn't that band just lovely?"
The Cap'n went to bed late that night, his ears tingling with the adulation of the multitude, and in his excited insomnia understanding for the first time in his life the words: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." He realized more fully now that his shipmaster days had given him a taste for command, and that he had come into his own again.
The new chief of the Ancients devoted the first hours of the next morning to the arrangement of his fire-fighting gear in the front hall, and when all the items had been suspended, so that they would be ready to his hand as well as serve as ornament, he went out on the porch and sunned himself, revelling in a certain snug and contented sense of importance, such as he hadn't felt since he had stepped down from the quarter-deck of his own vessel. He even gazed at the protruding and poignant centre of that rose on his carpet slipper with milder eyes, and sniffed aromatic whiffs of liniment with appreciation of its invigorating odor.
It was a particularly peaceful day. From his porch he could view a wide expanse of rural scenery, and, once in a while, a flash of sun against steel marked the location of some distant farmer in his fields. There were no teams in sight on the highway, for the men of Smyrna were too busily engaged on their acres. He idly watched a trail of dun smoke that rose from behind a distant ridge and zigzagged across the blue sky. He admired it as a scenic attraction, without attaching any importance to it. Even when a woman appeared on the far-off ridge and flapped her apron and hopped up and down and appeared to be frantically signalling either the village in the valley or the men in the fields, he only squinted at her through the sunlight and wondered what ailed her. A sudden inspiring thought suggested that perhaps she had struck a hornets' nest. He chuckled.
A little later a ballooning cloud of dust came rolling down the road toward him and the toll-bridge that led to Smyrna village. He noted that the core of the cloud was a small boy, running so hard that his knees almost knocked under his chin. He spun to a halt in front of the Cap'n's gate and gasped:
"Fi-ah, fi-ah, fi-ah-h-h-h, Chief! Ben Ide's house is a-fi-ah. I'll holler it in the village and git 'em to ring the bell and start 'Hecla.'" Away he tore.
"Fire!" bawled Cap'n Aaron, starting for the front hall with a scuff, a hop, a skip, and jump, in order to favor his sprained toe. "Fire over to Ben Ide's!"
He had his foreman's hat on wrong side to when his wife came bursting out of the sitting-room into the hall. She, loyal though excited lady of the castle, shifted her knight's helmet to the right-about and stuffed his buckets, bag, and bed-wrench into his hands. The cord of his speaking-trumpet she slung over his neck.
"I helped get father ready once, twenty years ago," she stuttered, "and I haven't forgot! Oh, Aaron, I wish you hadn't got such a prejudice against owning a horse and against Marengo when he tried to sell you that one. Now you've got to wait till some one gives you a lift. You can't go on that foot to Ide's."
"Hoss!" he snorted. "Marengo! What he tried to sell me would be a nice thing to git to a fire with! Spavined wusser'n a carpenter's saw-hoss, and with heaves like a gasoline dory! I can hop there on one foot quicker'n he could trot that hoss there! But I'll git there. I'll git there!"
He went limping out of the door, loaded with his equipment.
The Methodist bell had not begun to ring, and it was evident that the messenger of ill tidings had not pattered into the village as yet.
But there was a team in sight. It was "Balm o' Joy" Brackett, his arms akimbo as he fished on the reins to hurry his horse. He was coming from the direction of the toll-bridge, and had evidently met the boy.
"I've got my lo'd—I've got my lo'd, but I'll leave behind me all o' the ro'd," he chirped, when the Cap'n went plunging toward him with the evident intention of getting on board.
"I'm foreman of the Ancients," roared the Cap'n, "and I have the right to press into service any craft I see passin'. Take me aboard, I say, dumblast ye!"
"This ain't no high seas," retorted Brackett, trying to lick past. "You can drive gents out of your dooryard, but you can't do no press-gang bus'ness on 'em."
It was apparent that even "Balm o' Joy's" bland nature could entertain resentment.
"'Tain't right to lay up grudges ag'inst a man that was fussed up like I was, Mister Brackett," pleaded the Cap'n, hopping along beside the van. "I've got to git to that fire, I tell you. I'm the foreman! I'll use you right, after this. I will, I tell you. Lemme on board."
"Promus' flies high when it's hot and dry!" twittered the peddler, still cheerful but obstinate.
"I'll give ye five dollars to take me to Ben Ide's—ten!" he roared, when Brackett showed no sign of stopping.
"Promus' on the ground can be better found. Whoa!" cried Brackett, promptly. "I'll take the fare before you climb up! You'll be so busy when you git to the fire that I wouldn't want to bother you then."
The Cap'n glowered but chewed his lips to prevent retort, pulled his wallet, and paid. Then he gathered his apparatus and grunted up to the high seat.
Far behind them the excited clang-clang of the Methodist bell was pealing its first alarm.
"By the time they git hosses up out of the fields and hitched onto 'Hecla,' and git their buckets and didoes and git started, I reckon things will be fried on both sides at Ben Ide's," chatted the peddler.
"Lick up! Lick up!" barked the Cap'n. "I'm payin' for a quick ride and not conversation."
Brackett clapped the reins along his nag's skinny flank, set his elbows on his knees, and began:
"There was old Hip Huff, who went by freight, To Newry Corner, in—"
"Luff, luff!" snorted the Cap'n, in disgust.
"Luff, luff?" queried the songster.
"Yes, luff! Avast! Belay! Heave to! I don't like caterwaulin'. You keep your mind right on drivin' that hoss."
"You must have been a pop'lar man all your life," remarked the peddler, with a baleful side-glance. "Does politeness come nat'ral to you, or did you learn it out of a book?"
The Cap'n made no reply. He only hitched himself forward as though trying to assist the momentum of the cart, and clutched his buckets, one in each hand.
A woman came flying out of the first house they passed and squalled:
"Where's the fire, Mr. Brackett, and is anybody burnt up, and hadn't you jest as liv' take my rags now? I've got 'em all sacked and ready to weigh, and I sha'n't be to home after to-day."
Brackett pulled up.
"Blast your infernal pelt," howled the Cap'n, "you drive on!"
"Bus'ness is bus'ness," muttered the peddler, "and you ain't bought me and my team with that little old ten dollars of yourn, and you can't do northin', anyway, till Hecla gits there with the boys, and when you're there I don't see what you're goin' to amount to with that sore toe."
He was clearly rebellious. Cap'n Sproul had touched the tenderest spot in T.W. Brackett's nature by that savage yelp at his vocal efforts. But the chief of the Ancients had been wounded as cruelly in his own pride. He stood up and swung a bucket over the crouching peddler.
"Drive on, you lubber," he howled, "or I'll peg you down through that seat like I'd drive a tack. Drive on!"
Brackett ducked his head and drove. And the Cap'n, summoning all the resources of a vocabulary enriched by a sea experience of thirty years, yelled at him and his horse without ceasing.
When they topped the ridge they were in full view of Ide's doomed buildings, and saw the red tongues of flame curling through the rolling smoke.
But a growing clamor behind made the Chief crane his neck and gaze over the top of the van.
"Hecla" was coming!
Four horses were dragging it, and two-score men were howling along with it, some riding, but the most of them clinging to the brake-beams and slamming along through the dust on foot. A man, perched beside the driver, was bellowing something through a trumpet that sounded like:
"Goff-off-errow, goff-off-errow, goff-off-errow!"
The peddler was driving sullenly, and without any particular enterprise. But this tumult behind made his horse prick up his ears and snort. When the nag mended his pace and began to lash out with straddling legs, the Cap'n yelled:
"Let him go! Let him go! They want us to get off the road!"
"Goff-off-errow!" the man still bellowed through the trumpet.
"I've got goods that will break and I'll be cuss-fired if I'll break 'em for you nor the whole Smyrna Fire Department!" screamed Brackett; but when he tried to pull up his steed, the Cap'n, now wholly beside himself and intent only on unrestricted speed, banged a leather bucket down across the driver's hands.
Brackett dropped the reins, with a yell of pain, and they fell into the dust and dragged. The horse broke into a bunchy, jerky gallop, and lunged down the hill, the big van swaying wildly with an ominous rattling and crashing in its mysterious interior.
There were teams coming along a cross-road ahead of them and teams rattling from the opposite direction toward the fire, approaching along the highway they were travelling. Collisions seemed inevitable. But in a moment of inspiration the Cap'n grabbed the trumpet that hung from its red cord around his neck and began to bellow in his turn:
"Goff-off-errow, goff-off-errow!" It was as nearly as human voice could phrase "Get off the road" through the thing.
The terrifying bulk of the big van cleared the way ahead, even though people desperately risked tip-ups in the gutter. As it tore along, horses climbed fences with heads and tails up. There were men floundering in bushes and women squalling from the tops of rock-heaps.
The Chief of the Ancients did not halt to attend to his duties at the fire. He went howling past on the high seat of the van, over the next ridge and out of sight.
"We're goin' to tophet, and you done it, and you've got to pay for it," Brackett wailed over and over, bobbing about on the seat. But the Cap'n did not reply. Teams kept coming into sight ahead, and he had thought only for his monotonous bellow of "Goff-off-errow!"
Disaster—the certain disaster that they had despairingly accepted—met them at the foot of Rines' hill, two miles beyond Ide's. The road curved sharply there to avoid "the Pugwash," as a particularly mushy and malodorous bog was called in local terminology.
At the foot of the hill the van toppled over with a crash and anchored the steaming horse, already staggering in his exhaustion. Both men had scrambled to the top of the van, ready to jump into the Pugwash as they passed. The Cap'n still carried his equipment, both buckets slung upon one arm, and even in this imminent peril it never occurred to him to drop them. Lucky fate made their desperate leap for life a tame affair. When the van toppled they were tossed over the roadside into the bog, lighted on their hands and knees, and sank slowly into its mushiness like two Brobdingnagian frogs.
It was another queer play of fate that the next passer was Marengo Todd, whipping his way to the fire behind a horse that had a bit of wire pinched over his nose to stifle his "whistling."
Marengo Todd leaped out and presented the end of a fence-rail to Brackett first, and pulled him out.
When he stuck the end of the rail under the Cap'n's nose the Cap'n pushed it away with mud-smeared hands.
"I don't, myself, nuss grudges in times of distress, Cap Sproul," shouted Todd. "You kicked me. I know that. But you was in the wrong, and you got the wu'st of it. Proverdunce has allus settled my grudges for me in jest that way. I forgive and pass on, but Proverdunce don't. Take that fence-rail. It sha'n't ever be said by man that Marengo Todd nussed a grudge."
When the Cap'n was once more on solid ground, Todd, still iterating his forgiveness of past injuries, picked up a tin pie-plate that had been jarred out of the van among other litter, and began to scrape the black mud off the foreman of the Ancients in as matter-of-fact a way as though he were currycombing a horse.
The spirit of the doughty mariner seemed broken at last. He looked down at himself, at the mud-clogged buckets and his unspeakable bedragglement.
"I've only got one word to say to you right here and now, Cap'n," went on Todd, meekly, "and it's this, that no man ever gits jest where he wants to git, unless he has a ree-li'ble hoss. I've tried to tell you so before, but—but, well, you didn't listen to me the way you ought to." He continued to scrape, and the Cap'n stared mutely down at the foot that was encased in a muddy slipper.
"Now, there's a hoss standin' there—" pursued Todd.
"What will you take for that team jest as it stands?" blurted the mariner, desperately. The fire, the smoke of which was rolling up above the distant tree-tops, and his duty there made him reckless. As he looked down on Todd he hadn't the heart to demand of that meek and injured person that he should forget and forgive sufficiently to take him in and put him down at Ide's. It seemed like crowding the mourners. Furthermore, Cap'n Aaron Sproul was not a man who traded in humble apologies. His independence demanded a different footing with Todd, and the bitter need of the moment eclipsed economy. "Name your price!"
"A hundred and thutty, ev'rything throwed in, and I'll drive you there a mile a minit," gasped Todd, grasping the situation.
With muddy hands, trembling in haste, the Cap'n drew his long, fat wallet and counted out the bills. Brackett eyed him hungrily.
"You might jest as well settle with me now as later through the law," he cried.
But the Cap'n butted him aside, with an oath, and climbed into the wagon.
"You drive as though the devil had kicked ye," he yelled to Todd. "It's my hoss, and I don't care if you run the four legs off'm him."
Half-way to Ide's, a man leaped the roadside fence and jumped up and down before them in the highway. He had a shotgun in his hands.
"It's my brother—Voltaire," shouted Marengo, pulling up, though Cap'n Sproul swore tempestuously. "You've got to take him on. He b'longs to your fire comp'ny."
"I was out huntin' when I heard the bell," bellowed the new passenger, when he had scrambled to a place behind the wagon-seat, his back toward them and his legs hanging down. "I'm fu'st hoseman, and it's lucky you came along and giv' me a lift." He set his gun-butt down between his knees, the muzzle pointing up.
Cap'n Sproul had his teeth set hard upon a hank of his grizzled whiskers, and his eyes on the smoke ahead. Todd ran his wheezing horse up the ridge, and when they topped it they beheld the whole moving scene below them.
Men were running out of the burning house, throwing armfuls of goods right and left. The "Hecla" was a-straddle of the well, and rows of men were tossing at her brake-beams.
"Give her tar, give her tar!" yelled the man behind, craning his thin neck. Todd lashed at the horse and sent him running down the slope. At the foot of the declivity, just before they came to the lane leading into Ide's place, there was a culvert where the road crossed a brook.
The boarding in the culvert made a jog in the road, and when the wagon struck this at top speed its body flipped behind like the tongue of a catapult.