The great river was flowing peacefully down to the sea, opening its blue tides at the silver fretting of the bar into a shallow expanse some miles in width, a part of which on either side overlay stretches where the submerged eel-grass lent a tint of chrysoprase to the sheathing flow, and into which one gazed, half expecting to see so ideal a depth peopled by something other than the long ribbons of the weed streaming out on the slow current--the only cool sight, albeit, beneath the withering heat of the day across all that shining extent. Far down the shores, on the right, a line of low sand-hills rose, protecting the placid harbor from sea and storm with the bulwark of their dunes, whose yellow drifts were ranged by the winds in all fantastic shapes, and bound together by ropes of the wild poison-ivy and long tangles of beach-grass and the blossoming purple pea, and which to-day cast back the rays of the sun as though they were of beaten brass. Above these hills the white lighthouse loomed, the heated air trembling around it, and giving it so vague and misty a guise that, being by itself a thing of night and storm and darkness, it looked now as unreal as a ghost by daylight. On the other side of the harbor lay the marshes, threaded by steaming creeks, up which here and there the pointed sails of the hidden hay-barges crept, the sunshine turning them to white flames: farther off stood a screen of woods, and from brim to brim between swelled the broad, smooth sheet of the river, coming from the great mountains that gave it birth, washing clean a score of towns on its way, and loitering just here by the pleasant old fishing-town, whose wharves, once doing a mighty business with the Antilles and the farther Indies, now, in the absence of their half dozen foreign-going craft, lay at the mercy of any sand-droger that chose to fling her cable round their capstans. A few idle masts swayed there, belonging to small fishers and fruiters, a solid dew of pitch oozing from their sides in the sun, but not a sail set: a lonely watchman went the rounds among them, a ragged urchin bobbed for flounders in the dock, but otherwise wharves and craft were alike forsaken, and the sun glared down on them as though his rays had made them a desert. The harbor-water lay like glass: now and then the tide stirred it, and all the brown and golden reflections of masts and spars with it, into the likeness of a rippled agate. Not one of the boats that were ordinarily to be seen darting hither and yon, like so many water-bugs, were in motion now; none of the white sails of the gay sea-parties were running up and swelling with the breeze; none of the usual naked and natatory cherubs were diving off the wharves into that deep, warm water; the windows on the seaward side of the town were closed; the countless children, that were wont to infest the lower streets as if they grew with no more cost or trouble than the grass between the bricks, had disappeared in the mysterious way in which swarms of flies will disappear, as if an east wind had blown them; but no east wind was blowing here. In all the scene there was hardly any other sign of life than the fervent sunbeams shedding their cruel lustre overhead: the river flowed silent and lonely from shore to shore; the whole hot summer sky stretched just as silent and lonely from horizon to horizon; only the old ferryman, edging along the bank till he was far up stream, crossed the narrower tide and drifted down effortless on the other side; only an old black brig lay at anchor, with furled sail and silent deck, in the middle channel down below the piers, and from her festering and blistering hull it was that all the heat and loneliness and silence of the scene seemed to exude--for it was the fever-ship.
It was a different picture on the bright river when that brig entered the harbor on the return of her last voyage, to receive how different a welcome! But pestilence raged abroad in the country now, and the people of the port, who had so far escaped the evil, were loth to let it enter among them at last, and had not yet recovered from the recoil of their first shock and shiver at thought of it in their waters--waters than which none could have fostered it more kindly, full as they were in their shallow breadth of rotting weeds and the slime of sewers. Perhaps the owner of some pale face looked through the pane and thought of brother or father, or, it may be, of lover, and grew paler with pity, and longed to do kind offices for those who suffered; but the greater part of all the people hived upon the shores would have scouted the thought of going out with aid to those hot pillows rocking there upon the tide, and of bringing back infection to the town, as much as though the act had been piracy on the high seas. And they stayed at home, and watched their vanes and longed for an east wind--an east wind whose wings would shake out healing, whose breath would lay the destroying fever low; but the east wind refused to seek their shores, and chose rather to keep up its wild salt play far out on the bosom of its mid-sea billows.
Yes, on that return of the last voyage of the brig the stream had swarmed with boats, flags had fluttered from housetops and staffs, piers and quays had been lined with cheering people, all flocking forth to see the broken, battered little craft; for the brig had been spoken by a tug, and word had been brought to the wharves, and had spread like wild-fire through the town, that, wrecked in a tempest and deserted by the panic-stricken crew, the steadfast master and a boy who stood by him had remained with her, had refitted her as best they might when the storm abated, and had brought her into port at last through fortunate days of fair weather and slow sailing. The town was ringing with the exploit, with praise of the noble faithfulness of master and boy; and now the river rang again, and no conquering galley of naval hero ever moved through a gladder, gayer welcome than that through which the little black brig lumbered on her clumsy way to her moorings.
But though all the rest of the populace of the seaport had turned out with their greetings that day, there was one little body there who, so far from hurrying down to shore or sea-wall with a waving handkerchief, ran crying into a corner; and it was there that Andrew Traverse, the person of only secondary importance in the river scene, rated as a boy on the brig's books, but grown into a man since the long voyage began,--it was there he found her when the crowd had let him alone and left him free to follow his own devices.
"It's the best part of all the welcome, I declare it is!" said he, standing in the doorway and enjoying the sight before him a moment.
"Oh, Andrew," cried the little body with a sob, but crouching farther away into the corner, "it was so splendid of you!"
"What was so splendid of me?" said he, still in the doorway, tall and erect in the sunshine that lay around him, and that glanced along his red shirt and his bronzed cheek to light a flame in the black eyes that surveyed her.
"Standing by him so," she sobbed--"standing by the captain when the others left--bringing home the ship!"
"It's not a ship--it's a brig," said Andrew, possibly too conscious of his merit to listen to the praise of it. "Well, is this all? Ain't you going to shake hands with me? Ain't you glad to see me?"
"Oh, Andrew! So glad!" and she turned and let him see the blushing, rosy face one moment, the large, dark, liquid eyes, the tangled, tawny curls; and then overcome once more, as a sudden shower overcomes the landscape, the lips quivered again, the long-lashed eyelids fell, and the face was hidden in another storm of tears. And then, perhaps because he was a sailor, and perhaps because he was a man, his arms were round her and he was kissing off those tears, and the little happy body was clinging to him and trembling with excitement and with joy like a leaf in the wind.
Certainly no two happier, prouder beings walked along the sea-wall that night, greeted with hearty hands at every step, followed by all eyes till the shelter of deepening dusk obscured them, and with impish urchins, awe-struck for once, crying mysteriously under their breath to each other, "That's him! That's the feller saved the Sabrina! That's him and her!" How proud the little body was! how her heart beat with pleasure at thought of the way in which all men were ready to do him honor! how timidly she turned her eyes upon him and saw the tint deepen on his cheek, the shadow flash into light in his eye, the smile kindle on his lips, as he looked down on her--glad with her pride and pleasure, strong, confident, content himself--till step by step they had left the town behind, wandering down the sandy island road, through the wayside hedge of blossoming wild roses and rustling young birches, till they leaned upon the parapet of the old island bridge and heard the water lap and saw the stars come out, and only felt each other and their love in all the wide, sweet summer universe.
Poor Louie! She had always been as shy and wary as any little brown bird of the woods. It was Andrew's sudden and glorious coming that had surprised her into such expression of a feeling that had grown up with her until it was a part of every thought and memory. And as for Andrew--certainly he had not known that he cared for her so much until she turned that tearful, rosy face upon him in welcome; but now it seemed to him that she had been his and he hers since time began: he could neither imagine nor remember any other state than this: he said to himself, and then repeated it to her, that he had loved her always, that it was thought of her that had kept him firm and faithful to his duty, that she had been the lodestar toward which he steered on that slow homeward way; and he thanked Heaven, no doubt devoutly enough, that had saved him from such distress and brought him back to such bliss. And Louie listened and clung closer, more joyful and more blest with every pulse of her bounding heart.
After all, sudden as the slipping into so divine a dream had been, it had need to be full as intense and deep, for it was only for a little while it lasted. A week's rapt walking in these mid-heavens, where earth and care and each to-morrow was forgotten, and there broke in upon them the voice of the Sabrina's owner seeking for Andrew Traverse.
Of course such conduct as that of one who preferred to do his utmost to save a sinking ship rather than seek safety with her flying crew, was something too unusual to go unrewarded: it must be signalized into such a shining light that all other mariners must needs follow it. And if the sky had fallen, Andrew declared, he could have been no more surprised than he was when he found himself invited with great ceremony to a stately tea-drinking at the house of the owner of the Sabrina. "Now we shall catch larks," said he; and dressed in a new suit, whose gray tint set off the smoothness of his tanned cheek with the color sometimes mantling through the brown, he entered the house with all the composure of a gentleman used to nothing but high days and holidays. Not that either the state or ceremony at Mr. Maurice's required great effort to encounter with composure--trivial enough at its best, wonderful though it was to the townsfolk, unused to anything beyond. But Andrew had seen the world in foreign parts, and neither Mr. Maurice's mansion-house and gardens, nor his gay upholstery, nor his silver tea-service, nor his condescending manners, struck the least spark of' surprise from Andrew's eyes, or gave them the least shadow of awe.
"This is some mistake," said the owner graciously, after preliminary compliment had been duly observed. "How is it that you are rated on the books as a boy--you as much a man as you will ever be?"
"A long voyage, sir, slow sailing and delays over so many disasters as befell us, three years out in the stead of a year and a half--all that brings one to man's estate before his reckoning."
"But the last part of the time you must have done able seaman's service?"
"The captain and I together," said Andrew with his bright laugh. "We were officers and crew and passengers, cox'n and cook, as they say."
"A hard experience," said Mr. Maurice.
"Oh, not at all, but worth its weight in gold--to me, at least. Why, sir, it taught me how to handle a ship as six years before the mast couldn't have done."
"Good! We shall see to what purpose one of these days. And you have had your share of schooling, they tell me?"
"All that the academy had to give, sir."
"And that's enough for any one who has the world to tussel with. How should you like to have gone through such hard lines, Frarnie?" turning to his daughter, a pale, moon-faced girl, her father's darling.
"Were you never afraid?" she asked in her pretty simpering way.
"Not to say afraid," answered Andrew, deferentially. "We knew our danger--two men alone in the leaky, broken brig--but then we could be no worse off than we were before; and as for the others--"
"They got their deserts," said Mr. Maurice.
"The poor fellows left us in such a hurry that they took hardly any water or biscuit; and at the worst our fate could not be so bad as theirs, under the hot sun in those salt seas."
"Well, well!" said Mr. Maurice, who loved his own ease too much to like to hear of others' dis-ease. And to turn the conversation from the possible horrors into which it might lapse, he invited his guest out into his gardens, among his grapehouses, his poultry and his dogs. It was a long hour's ramble that they took there, well improved on both sides, for Andrew of course knew it to be for his interest to please the brig's owner; and Mr. Maurice, who prided himself on having a singularly keen insight into character, studied the young man's every word and gesture, for it was not often that he came across such material as this out of which to make his captains; and to what farther effect in this instance be pursued his studies might have been told, by any one keener than himself, through the tone of satisfaction with which, on re-entering the parlor, he bade his daughter take Andrew down the rooms and tell him the histories of the surprising pictures there. For Mr. Maurice, one of the great fortunes of the seaport, being possessed by a mania of belief that every youth who cast tender eyes upon his daughter cast them not on her, but on her future havings and holdings, had long since determined to select a husband for her himself--one who evinced no servile reverence for wealth, one whom he could trust to make her happy. "And here," he said, "I am not sure but that I have him."
When Andrew went in to see Louie a moment on his way home that night, he was in great spirits over the success of his visit, and, dark as it was, made her blush the color of the rose over the low doorway where they stood when he asked how she would like to go captain's wife next voyage. And then he told her of Mr. Maurice's scrutiny and questioning, and the half hint of a ship of his own to sail some day, and of the pale-faced Miss Frarnie's interest, and of the long stroll down the parlors among the pictures, the original of one of which he had seen somewhere in the Mediterranean, when he and a parcel of sailors went ashore and rambled through the port, and looked in at a church, where, in the midst of music and incense and a kneeling crowd, they were shearing the golden locks off of young girls and making nuns of them. And Andrew forgot to tell of the way in which Miss Frarnie listened to him and hung upon his words: indeed, how could he? Perhaps he did not notice it himself; but if he had had a trifle more personal vanity, and had seen how this pale young girl--forbidden by a suspicious father much companionship with gallants--had forgotten all difference of station and purse, and had looked upon him, nobly made, handsome, gay, knowing far more than she did, much as upon a young god just alighted by her side a moment,--if Andrew had been aware of this, and had found any words in which to repeat it, then Louie might have had something to startle her out of her blessedness, and pain might have come to her all the sooner. But since the pain would have been as sharp then as at any future time, it was a pitying, pleasant Fate that let her have her happiness as long as might be. For Louie's love was a different thing from the selfish passion that any clown may feel: she had been happy enough in her little round of commonplace satisfactions and tasks before Andrew came and shed over her this great cloud of delight--happy then just in the enjoyment of that secret love of hers that went out and sought him every night sailing over foreign sunlit waters, and hovered like a blessing round his head; and now that he had come and folded her about and about with such warm devotion, it was not for the new happiness he gave her that she loved him, but in order to make his own happiness a perfect thing; and if her heart's blood had been needed for that, it would have been poured out like water. The pale-faced Frarnie--if question could be of her--might never know such love as that: love with her could be a sentiment, a lover one who added to her pleasure, but a sacrifice on her part for that lover would have been something to tell and sing for ever, if indeed it were possible that such a thing should be made at all.
So day by day the spell deepened with Louie, and for another week there was delightful loneliness with this lover of hers--strolls down through the swampy woods hunting for moss to frame the prints he had brought home uninjured, and which were to be part of the furnishing of their future home; others across the salt meadows for the little red samphire stems to pickle; sails in the float down river and in the creeks, where the tall thatch parted by the prow rustled almost overhead, and the gulls came flying and piping around them: here and there, they two alone, pouring out thought and soul to each other, and every now and then glancing shyly at those days, that did not seem so very far away, when they should be sailing together through foreign parts; for Louie's father, the old fisherman, was all her household, and a maiden aunt, who earned her livelihood in nursing the sick and attending the dead, would be glad to come any day and take Louie's place in the cottage.
At the end of the week, Mr. Maurice sent for Andrew to his counting-room; and after that, on one device or another, he had him there the greater part of every day, employing him in a score of pleasant ways--asking his advice as to the repairs of the Sabrina, taking him with him in his chaise jogging through the shipyard, where a new barque was getting ready for her launching, examining him the while carefully from time to time after his wont; at last taking him casually home to dinner with him one day, keeping him to tea the next, and finally, fully satisfied with the result of his studies in that edition of human nature, giving him the freedom of the family as much as if he had been the son of the house.
"I've some plans ahead for you, my boy," said he one day with a knowing shake of the head; and Andrew's innocent brain began to swim straightway between the new barque and the Sabrina.
"Look at him!" said Mr. Maurice to his wife one evening as Andrew walked in the garden with Miss Frarnie. "My mind's made up about him. He's the stuff for a sea-captain, afraid neither of wind nor weather nor the face of clay--can sail a ship and choose her cargo. He's none of your coxcombs that go courting across the way: he's a man into the core of his heart, and as well bred as any gentleman that walks; though Goodness knows how he came by it."
"These sea-coast people," said his wife, reflectively (she was inland-born herself), "see the world and learn."
"Well, what do you say to it? I don't find the flaw in him. If Heaven had given me a son, I'd have had him be like this one; and since it didn't, why here's my way to circumvent Heaven."
"Oh, my dear," said the wife, "I can't hear you talk so. And besides--"
"Well? Besides what?"
"I think it is always best to let such things take their own course. We did."
"Of course we did," laughed Mr. Maurice. "But how about our fathers and mothers?"
"I mean," said Mrs. Maurice, "not to force things."
"And who intends to force them? It's plain enough the young fellow took a fancy to our Frarnie the first time he laid eyes on her, isn't it?"
"I mean," said Mrs. Maurice again, "that if Frarnie should have the same fancy for him, I don't know that there'd be any objection. He is quite uncommon--quite uncommon when you consider all things--but I don't know why you want to lead her to like any one in particular, when she has such a nice home and is all we have."
"Girls will marry, Mrs. Maurice. If it isn't one, it will be another. So I had rather it should, be one, and that one of my own choosing--one who, will use her well, and not make ducks and drakes of her money as soon as we are gone where there's no returning, and without a 'thank you' for your pains. Look at them now! Should you imagine they thought there was any one else on earth but each other at this moment? They're fond of each other, that's plain. They'd be a remarkable-looking couple. What do you think of it?"
"Frarnie might have that India shawl that I never undid, to appear out in," said Mrs. Maurice, pensively, continuing her own reflections rather than directly replying. "And I suppose we needn't lose her really, for she could make her home with us."
And so the conspiracy advanced, its simple victims undreaming of its approach--Louie sighing faintly to think she saw so little of Andrew now, but content, since she was sure it was for his best interest to make the friendship of the Sabrina's owner; Andrew fretting to see how all this necessary submission to superiors kept him from Louie, but more than half compensated with the dazzling visions that danced before his eyes of the Sabrina in her new rig--of the barque coming down for her masts and sails from her launching.
The Sabrina had been so badly injured by her disasters that it took much more time to repair her than had at first been thought. "I'm going to stand by the old brig," said Andrew to some one--by accident it was in Mr. Maurice's hearing. "But if I'd known it was going to take so long to have her whole again, I should have made a penny in taking a run down the bay, for I had an offer to go second mate on the Tartar."
"I'll go one better than that," said Mr. Maurice then. "Here's the Frarnie, nearly ready to clear for New Orleans and Liverpool, with your old captain. You shall go mate of her. That'll show if you can handle a ship. The Sabrina won't be at the wharf till the round voyage is over and the Frarnie coming up the stream again. What say you?"
Of course what Andrew said was modest thanks--what he felt was a rhapsody of delight; and when he told Louie that night, what she said was a sob, and what she felt was a blank of fright and foreboding. Oh what should she do? cried the selfish little thing--what should she do in the long, long, weary days with Andrew gone? But then in a moment she remembered that this was the first step toward going master of that craft in which her bridal voyage was to be taken. "And what a long step it is, Andrew!" she cried. "Was the like of it ever known before? What a long, long step it would be but for that bitter apprenticeship when you and the captain brought the wreck home!"
"Ay," said Andrew, proudly: "I served my time before the mast then, if ever any did."
"And I suppose with the next step you will be master of the Sabrina? Oh, I should so like it!"
"I don't know," said Andrew, more doubtfully than he had used to speak. "I'm afraid the owners will think this is enough. This is a great lift. I'll do my best to satisfy them, though; for I'd rather sail master of the Sabrina than of the biggest man-of-war afloat."
"We used to play round her when we were children," said Louie, encouragingly. "Don't you remember leading me down once to admire the lady on her stern?--like a water-witch just gilded in the rays of some sunrise she had come up to see, you said."
"Yes; and we used to climb her shrouds, we boys, and get through the lubber-hole, before we could spell her name out. She's made of heart of oak: she'll float still when the Frarnie is nothing but sawdust. We used to watch for her in the newspapers--we used to know just as much about her goings and comings as the owner did. Somehow--I don't know why--I've always felt as if my fate and fortune hung upon her. It used to be the top of my ambition to go master of her. It is now. I couldn't make up my mind to leave her when the others did that cruel morning after the wreck; and when the captain said he should stay by her, my heart sprang up as if she had been a living thing, and I stayed too. And I'd rather sail her than a European steamer to-day--that I would, by George!"
"Oh, of course you will," said the sympathizing voice beside him.
"I don't know," said Andrew again, more slowly and reflectively. "I've the idea--and I can't say how I got it--that there's some condition or other attached to my promotion--that there's something Mr. Maurice means that I shall do, and if I don't do it I don't get my lift. It can't be anything about wages: I don't know what it is!"
"Perhaps," said Louie, innocently, and without a glimpse of the train her thoughtless words fired--"perhaps he means for you to marry Frarnie!" laughing a little laugh at the absurd impossibility.
And Andrew started as if a bee had stung him, and saw it all. But in a moment he only drew Louie closer, and kissed her more passionately, and sat there caressing her the more tenderly while they listened to a thrush that had built in the garden thicket, mistaking it for the wood, so near the town's edge was it, and so still and sunny was the garden all day long with its odors of southernwood and mint and balm; and he delayed there longer, holding her as if now at least she was his own, whatever she might be thereafter.
As he walked home that night, and went and sat upon the wharf and watched the starlit tide come in, he saw it all again, but with thoughts like a procession of phantoms, as if they had no part even in the possible things of life, and were indeed nothing to him. How could they have any meaning to him--to him, Louie's lover? What would the whole world be to him, what the sailing of the Sabrina, without Louie? And then a shiver ran across him: what would Louie be to him without the sailing of the Sabrina! for that, indeed, as he had said, was the top of his ambition, and that being his ambition, perhaps ambition, was as strong with him as love.
But with this new discovery on Andrew's part of Mr. Maurice's desires, Andrew could only recall circumstances, words, looks, hints: he could not shape to himself any line of duty or its consequences: enough to see that Mr. Maurice fancied his simple and thoughtless attentions to Frarnie to be lover-like, and, approving him, looked kindly on them and made his plans accordingly; enough to see that if he should reject this tacit proffer of the daughter's hand, then the Sabrina was scarcely likely to be his; and that in spite of such probability, the first and requisite thing in honor for him to do was to tell Mr. Maurice of his marriage engagement with Louie, and then, if the man had neither gratitude nor sense enough to reward him for his assistance in saving the brig, to trust to fortune and to time, that at last makes all things even. As he sat there listening to the lapping of the water and idly watching the reflected stars peer up and shatter in a hundred splinters with every wash of the dark tide, he could not so instantaneously decide as to whether he should make this confession or not. "What business is it of Maurice's?" he said to himself. "Does he think every one that looks at his scarecrow of a daughter--" But there he had need to acknowledge to himself his injustice to Miss Frarnie, a modest maiden who had more cause to complain of him than he of her, since he had done his best to please her, and her only fault lay in being pleased so easily. She was pleased with him: he understood that now, though his endeavors to enlist her had been for a very different manifestation of interest. Perhaps it flattered him a little: he paused long enough to consider what sort of a lot it would be if he really had been plighted to Frarnie instead of Louie. Love and all that nonsense, he had heard say, changed presently into a quiet sort of contentment; and if that were so, it would be all the same at the end of a few years which one he took. He felt that Frarnie was not very sympathetic, that her large white face seldom sparkled with much intelligence, that she would make but a dull companion; but, for all that, she would be, he knew, an excellent housewife: she would bring a house with her too; and when a man is married, and has half a dozen children tumbling round him, there is entertainment enough for him, and it is another bond between him and the wife he did not love too well at first; and if she were his, his would be the Sabrina also, and when the Sabrina's days were over perhaps a great East Indiaman, and with that the respect and deference of all his townsmen: court would be paid to him, his words would be words of weight, he would have a voice in the selection of town-officers, he would roll up money in the bank, and some day he should be master of the great Maurice mansion and the gardens and grapehouses. It was a brilliant picture to him, doubtless, but in some way the recollection of two barelegged little children digging clams down on the flats when the tide was out, with the great white lighthouse watching them across the deserted stretches of the long bent eel-grass, rose suddenly and wiped the other picture out, and he saw the wind blowing in Louie's brown and silken hair and kissing the color on her cheeks; he saw the shy sparkle of her downcast eyes, lovely and brown then as they were now; and as he stood erect at last, snapping his fingers defiantly, he felt that he had bidden Mr. Maurice's ships and stocks and houses and daughter go hang, and had made his choice rather to walk with Louie on his arm than as master of the Sabrina.
It was a good resolution; and if he had but sealed it by speaking next day to Mr. Maurice of his engagement, there would not have been a word to say. But, though he valiantly meant to do it, it was not so easy, after all, as he had thought, and so he put it off for a more convenient season, and the season did not come, and the day of sailing did. And the outfit that went on board the Frarnie was made and packed by the hands of Mrs. Maurice and her daughter--such an outfit as he had never dreamed of; such warm woolens for the storms, such soft linens for the heats, such finery for port, such dainties and delicacies as only the first mate of the Frarnie could think to have. And as for Louie, it was no outfit, no costly gift of gold or trouble either, that she could give him: she had nothing for him but a long, fine chain woven of her own hair, and she hung it round his neck with tears and embraces and words that could not be uttered and sighs that changed to sobs, and then came lingering delay upon delay, and passionate parting at the last. But when the crew had weighed anchor and the sails were swelling and the waves beyond the bar crying out for them, Miss Frarnie and her mother could still be seen waving their handkerchiefs from an upper window; and half blind with the sorrow and the pain he choked away from sight, and mad with shame to think he had found no way but to accept their favors, Andrew felt that their signal must be answered, and sullenly waved his own in reply; and then the pilot was leaving the barque, and presently the shore and all its complications, and Louie crying herself sick, were forgotten in the excitement of the moment and its new duties.
"Didn't say a word of love to Frarnie, eh?" remarked Mr. Maurice in answer to his wife's communications that evening. "A noble lad, then! I like him all the better for it. He shall have her all the sooner. He won't abuse our confidence: that's it. He'll wait till he's bridged over the gap between them. The first mate of a successful voyage is a better match for my daughter than the boy who stayed by the Sabrina, brave as he was. He's fond of her? Don't you think so? There's no doubt about that? None at all! All in good time--all in good time. I'll speak to him myself. They're going to write to each other? I thought so."
Short as the trip was that the Frarnie made in that favorable season, it seemed to Louie an interminable period; but from the cheerful, hopeful smile upon her lips no one would ever have known how her heart was longing for her lover as she went about her work; for the little housekeeper had quite too much to do in keeping the cottage clean, the garden weedless, the nets mended, to be able to neglect one duty for any love-sick fancies it might be pleasant to indulge. From morning till night her days were full in bringing happiness to others: there was her father to make comfortable; there were the sick old women, of whom her aunt brought word, to concoct some delicacy for--a cup of custard, to wit, a dish of the water-jelly she had learned how to make from the sea-moss she gathered on the beach, a broiled and buttered mushroom from the garden; there were the canaries and the cat to be cared for, and the dog that Andrew left with her to feed and shower caresses on; and there was the parrot's toilet to be made and her lesson to be taught, and the single jars of preserves and pickles and ketchups to be put up for winter, and the herbs to be dried: there were not, you may see, many minutes to be wasted out of that busy little life in castle-building or in crying. One day there came a letter with Victoria's head and the Liverpool stamp upon it: she knew it by heart presently, and wore it next her heart by night and day; and even if she had known that Miss Frarnie Maurice received one in the same handwriting by the same mail, it would hardly have made much difference to her; and one day the Sabrina, all freshly coppered and painted and repaired, with new masts and sails, and so much else that it was not easy to say what part of her now represented the old brig, came round to her old wharf and began to take in cargo. Louie ran down one evening with her father, and went all over her from stem to stern, only one old sailor being aboard; and she could have told you then every rope from clew to ear-ring; and, as if it were all the realization of a dream, a thousand happy, daring thoughts of herself and Andrew then filled her fancy like birds in a nest; and so swiftly after that did one day flow into another for Louie that the Frarnie lay in the mid-stream once more before she had more than begun to count the days to that on which her Liverpool letter had promised that she should see its writer come walking into her father's cottage again.
But she never did see him come walking into her father's cottage again. That promised day passed and the night, and another--a long, long day that seemed as if it would never quench its flame in sunset, and a night that seemed as if it would never know the dawning; but the threshold of the fisherman's cottage Andrew Traverse crossed no more.
For Mr. Maurice, on his notable errand of circumventing Heaven, had been ahead of Fate, and had gone down on the pilot-boat to meet the Frarnie--with no settled designs of course, but in his own impatient pleasure; and, delighted with the shipmaster's report and with the financial promise of the voyage, the cargo, the freights, and ventures and all, had greeted Andrew with a large-hearted warmth and after a manner that no churl could withstand; and unwilling to listen to any refusal, had taken Andrew up to the mansion-house with him the moment the ship had touched the wharf.
"You don't ask after her?" said Mr. Maurice when they were alone in the chaise together. And knowing well enough what he meant, Andrew blushed through all his bronze--knowing well enough, for had he not gone below in a mighty hurry and tricked himself out in his best toggery so soon as he understood there was no escape from the visit? Louie would have been glad enough to see him in his red shirt and tarpaulin!
"Oh, you scamp!" said Mr. Maurice, quickly then detecting the blush. "Don't say a word! I've been there myself: I know how you're longing to see her; and she's been at the window looking through the glass every half hour, the puss!"
"Mr. Maurice," began Andrew, half trembling, but wholly resolved, he thought--although it must be confessed that with time, and distance, and Frarnie's effusive letters and flattering prospects on the other hand, Louie's image was not so bright at that moment as it had been at others, and for that very reason Andrew was taking great credit to himself for his upright intentions--credit enough to tide him over a good deal of baseness if need were,--"Mr. Maurice--" he began; and there he paused to frame his sentence more suitably, for it was no easy thing to tell a man that he was throwing his child at one who did not care for her, and that man the disposer of his fortunes.
But Mr. Maurice saved him any such trouble. "I know all you're going to say," he exclaimed. "I understand your hesitation, and I honor you for it. But I'm no fool, and there's no need to have you tell me that you want my Frarnie, for I've known that long ago."
"Yes, I have," answered the impulsive gentleman. "Mrs. Maurice and I talked it over as soon as we saw which way the wind lay; but of course we decided to say nothing till we were sure, quite sure, that it was Frarnie and not her prospects--"
"Oh, sir, you--"
"Tush, tush! I know all about it now. But it becomes a father to be wary," continued the other, taking the words from Andrew's lips in spite of himself, and quite wary enough not to mention that in Frarnie's easily-excited favor a young scapegrace was very likely to supplant Mr. Andrew if things were not brought to a point at once. "It was my duty to look at all sides," he said, without stopping for breath. "Now I know you, and I see you'd rather give the girl the go-by for ever than have her think you wanted her because she was her father's daughter, and not some poor fisherman's."
"Indeed, indeed--" began Andrew again, leaning forward, his cheeks crimson, his very hands shaking.
"Of course, my boy," interrupted his companion as before--"of course. Don't say a word: you're welcome to her at last. I never thought I'd surrender her to any one so freely; but if I were choosing from all the world, Andrew, I don't know any one I'd choose sooner for my son. She's a sensible girl, my Frarnie is, at bottom. We know her heart: it's a good heart--only the froth of all young girls' fancies to be blown off. And the Sabrina always was a pet of mine, and, though I've said nothing of it, I've meant her for Frarnie's husband this many a day." And before Andrew, in his flurry and embarrassment and bewilderment, could enunciate any distinct denial of anything or avowal of anything else, the chaise was at the door, and Mrs. Maurice was waiting for him with extended hands, and Frarnie was standing and smiling behind, half turned to run away. And Mr. Maurice cried out: "Captain Traverse of the Sabrina, my dear! Here, Frarnie, Frarnie! none of your airs and graces! Come and give your sweetheart an honest kiss!" And Andrew, doubting if the minister were not behind the door and he should not find himself married out of hand, irresolute, cowardly, too weak to give up the Sabrina and that sweet new title just ringing in his ears, was pushed along by Mr. Maurice's foolish, hearty hand till he found himself bending over Frarnie with his arm around her waist, his lips upon her cheek, and without, as it seemed to him, either choice or volition on his part. But as he looked up and saw the portraits of the girl's grandfathers, where they appeared to be looking down at him stern and questioning, a guilty shame over the wrong he was doing their child smote him sorely: he saw that he had allowed the one instant of choice to slip away; the sense came over him that he had sealed his own doom, while a vision of Louie's face, full of desolation and horror, was scorching in upon his soul; and there, in the moment of betrothal, his punishment began. He stole down to the Sabrina's wharf that evening, after the moon had set, and looking round to see that it was quite forsaken at that hour, he took from his neck a long, slender hair-chain to drop over into the deep water there; but as he held the thing it seemed suddenly to coil round his hand with a caress, as if it were still a part of Louie's self. He stamped his foot and ground his heel into the earth there with a cry and an oath, and put the chain back again whence he had taken it, and swore he would wear it till they laid his bones under ground. And he looked up at the dark lines of the brig looming like the black skeleton of an evil thing against the darkness of the night, and he cursed himself for a traitor to both women--for a hypocrite, a craven, a man sold to the highest bidder. Well, well, Captain Traverse, there are curses that cling! And Louie sat in the gloom at the window of the fisherman's cottage down below the town, and sighed and wondered and longed and waited, but Captain Traverse went back to the Maurices' mansion.
It is one of the enigmas of this existence how women forgive the wrong of such hours as came to Louie now--hours of suspense and suffering--hours of a misery worse than the worm's misery in blindness and pain before it finds its wings.
At first she expected her lover, and speculated as to his delay, and fretted to think anything might detain him from her; and now she was amazed, and now vexed, and now she was forgiving the neglect, accusing herself and making countless excuses for him; and now imagining a thousand dire mishaps. But as the third day came and he was still away--he who had been always wont to seek her as soon as the craft was made fast to wharf--then she felt her worst forebodings taking bodily shape: he was ill, he had fallen overboard, he had left the vessel at Liverpool and shipped upon another, and a letter would come directly to say so; or else he had been waylaid and robbed and made away with: not once did she dream that he was false to her--to her, a portion of his own life!
How it was with him there were numberless ways in which she might have discovered, for every soul of her acquaintance knew Andrew, and must be aware of the fact if he were missing or ailing, or if any other ill chance had befallen him. But as often as she tried to address one or another passing by the window, her voice failed her and her heart, and she asked no questions, and only waited on. A life of suspense, exclaims some one, a life of a spider! And when we are in suspense, says another, all our aids are in suspense with us. Day after day she stayed continually in the house, looking for him to come, never stirring out even into the garden, lest coming she might miss him. Night after night she sat alone at her window till the distant town-clocks struck midnight--now picturing to herself the glad minute of his coming, the quick explaining words, the bursting tears of relief, the joy of that warm embrace, the touch of those strong arms--now convinced that he would never come, and her heart sinking into a bitter loneliness of despair.
It grew worse with her when she knew that he was really in the town, alive and well; for, from the scuttle in the roof, by the aid of her father's glass, she could see the Sabrina, and one day she was sure that a form whose familiar outlines made her pulses leap was Andrew himself giving orders on the deck there; and after that she tortured herself with conjectures till her brain was wild--chained hand and foot, unable to write him or to seek him in any maidenly modesty, heart and soul in a ferment. Still she waited in that shuddering suspense, with every nerve so tightly strung, that voice or footfall vibrated on them into pain. If Andrew, in the midst of the gayeties by which he found himself accepted of the Maurices' friends, was never haunted by any thought of all this, his heart had grown stouter in one year's time than twenty years had found and left it previously.
But Louie's suspense was of no long duration, as time goes, though to her it was a lifetime. A week covered it--a week full of stings and fevered restlessness--when her father came in one day and said bitterly, thinking it best to make an end of all at once: "So I hear that a friend of ours has been paid off at last. Captain Andrew Traverse of the Sabrina is going to marry his owner's daughter Frarnie. Luck will take passage on that brig!" And when Louie rose from the bed on which she lay down that night, the Sabrina had been a fortnight gone on her long voyage--a voyage where the captain had sailed alone, postponing the evil day perhaps, and at any rate pleading too much inexperience, for all his dazzling promotion, to be trusted with so precious thing as a wife on board during the first trip. He had not felt that hesitation once when portraying the possibilities of the voyage to another.
It was not a long illness, Louie's, though it had been severe enough to destroy for her consciousness both of pain and pleasure. Her aunt had left other work and had nursed her through it; but when, strong and well once more, she went about her old duties, it seemed to her that that consciousness had never returned: she took up life with utter listlessness and indifference, and she fancied that her love for Andrew was as dead as all the rest. The poor little thing, laying this flattering unction to heart, did not call much reason to her aid, or she would have known that there was some meaning in it when she cried all day on coming across an old daguerreotype of Andrew. "It isn't for love of him," she sobbed. "It's for the loss of all that love out of my life that was heaven to me. Oh no, no! I love him no longer: I can't, I can't love him: he is all the same as another woman's husband." But, despite this stout assertion, she could not bring herself to part with that picture: he was not in reality quite the husband of another woman, and till he was indeed she meant to keep it. "He is only promised to her yet, and he was promised first to me," she said for salve to conscience; and meanwhile the picture grew so blurred with conscious tears, and perhaps with unconscious kisses, that it might have been his or another's: Miss Frarnie herself, had she seen it, could not have told whose it was.
Notwithstanding all the elasticity of youth, life became an inexpressibly dull thing to Louie as the year wore into the next--dull, with neither aim nor object, the past a pain to remember, the future a blank to consider. She could live only from day to day, one day like another, till they grew so wearisome she wondered her hair was not gray--the pretty hair that, shorn from her head in her illness, had grown again in a short fleece of silky curls--for it seemed to her that she had lived a hundred years. And because troubles never come alone, and one perhaps makes the other seem lighter and better to be borne, in the thick of a long winter's storm they brought home her father, the old fisherman, drowned and dead.
Captain Traverse knew of the old fisherman's death through the newspapers that found him in his foreign ports--not through Miss Frarnie's letters, for she knew almost nothing of the existence or non-existence of such low people; and therefore, conjecture as he needs must concerning Louie's means of livelihood now, there was no intelligence to relieve any anxiety he might have felt, or to inform him of the sale of the cottage to pay the debt of the mortgage under which it was bought, or of the support that Louie earned in helping her aunt watch with the sick and lay out the dead: he could only be pricked with knowledge of the fact that he had no right to his anxiety, or to the mention of her name even in his prayers--if he said them.
Poor little Louie! A sad end to such a joyous youth as hers had been, you would have said; but, in truth, her new work was soothing to her: her heart was simply in harmony with suffering, with death and desolation, and by degrees she found that comfort from her double sorrows in doing her best to bring comfort to others which it may be she could never have found had she been the pampered darling of some wealthy house. Often, when she forgot what she was doing, Louie made surmises concerning Frarnie Maurice, wondering if she were the noble thing that Andrew needed to ennoble him--if she were really so strong and beautiful that the mere sight of her had killed all thought or memory of an older love; trying to believe her all that his guardian angel might wish his wife to be, and to acknowledge that she herself was so low and small and ignorant that she could only have injured him--to be convinced that it was neither weakness, nor covetousness, nor perjury in Andrew, having met the sun, to forget the shadows; wondering then if Frarnie cared for him as she herself had done, and crying out aloud that that could never be, until the sound of her own sobs woke her from her forbidden dream. But at other times a calm came to Louie that was more pathetic than her wildest grief: it was the acquiescence in what Providence had chosen for Andrew, cost herself what it might--it was the submission of the atom beneath the wheels of the great engine.
It is true that as, late in the night, when all the town was asleep and only silence and she abroad, she walked home by herself from some deathbed whose occupant she had composed decently for the last sleep, she used to wish it were herself lying there on that moveless pillow, and soon to be sheltered from the cruel light by the bosom of the kindly earth. For now, as she passed the birches softly rustling in the night wind, and hurried by, she remembered other times when she had passed them, and had stopped to listen, cared for, protected, with Andrew's arm about her; and now, as the clocks, one after another, remotely chimed the hour, the sound smote her with a familiar sweetness full of pain; and now, as she came along the sea-wall and saw the dark river glimmering widely and ever the same, while its mysterious tide flowed to meet the far-off spark of the lighthouse lantern, she recalled a hundred happy hours when she and Andrew in the boat together had rocked there in soft summer nights, with sunset melting in the stream and wrapping them about with rosy twilight; or those when whispers of the September gales swelled the sail, and the boat flew like a gull from crest to crest of the bar; or those when misty sea-turns crept up stream and folded them, and drowned the sparkle of the lighthouse and the emerald and ruby ray of the channel lights, and left them shut away from the world, alone with each other on the great gray current silently sweeping to the sea--times when she knew no fear, trusting in the strong arm and stout heart beside her, before the river had brought death to her door; when the whole of life seemed radiant and rich--times that made this solitary night walk trodden now seem colder and drearier and darker than the grave--that made her wish it ended in a grave.
And so at length the year slipped by, and spring had come again, and the sap had leaped up the bough and burst into blossom there, and the blood had bubbled freshly in the veins of youth, and hope had once more gladdened all the world but Louie. With her only a dull patience stayed that tried to call itself content, until she heard it rumored among the harbor-people that the Sabrina was nearly due again, and with that her heart beat so turbulently that she had to crush it down again with the thought that, though Andrew every day drew nearer, came up the happy climates of southern latitudes and spread his sails on favoring gales for home, he only hastened to his wedding-day. And one day, at last, she rose to see a craft anchored in the middle channel down below the piers, unpainted and uncleaned by any crew eager to show their best to shore--a black and blistered brig, with furled sails and silent deck; and some men called it the fever-ship, and some men called it the Sabrina.
As the news of the brig's return and of her terrible companion spread through the town, a panic followed it, and the feeling with which she was regarded all along the shore during that day and the next would hardly be believed by any but those who have once been in the neighborhood of a pestilence themselves. Exaggerated accounts of a swift, strange illness, by many believed to be the ancient plague revived again and cast loose through the land from Asiatic ships had reached the old port; and aware that they were peculiarly exposed by reason of their trade, small as it was, the people there had already died a thousand deaths through expectation of the present coming of the fever already raging in other parts. Hitherto, the health-officers, boarding everything that appeared, had found no occasion to give anything but clean papers, and the town had breathed again. But now, when at last it spread from lip to lip that the fever lay at anchor in mid-channel, knees shook and cheeks grew white, and health-officer and port-physician, in spite of the almost instantaneous brevity of their visit to the infected vessel, were avoided as though they were the pestilence themselves, and not a soul in all the town was found to carry a cup of cold water to the gasping, burning men cared for only by those in less desperate strait than themselves, and who, having buried two-thirds of their number in deep-sea soundings, were likely to be denied as much as a grave on shore themselves; while to Mr. Maurice, half wild with perplexity and foreboding and amazement at Miss Frarnie's yet wilder terror,--to him the red lantern hung out by the brig at nightfall magnified itself in the mist into a crimson cloud where with wide wings lurked the very demon of Fever himself.
Not a soul to carry the cup of cold water, did I say? Yes, one timid little soul there was, waiting in a fever of longing herself--waiting that those who had a right to go might do so if they would--waiting till assured that neither Frarnie Maurice nor her parents had the first intention of going, though affianced husband and chosen son lay dying there--waiting in agony of impatience, since every delay might possibly mean death,--one little brave and timid soul there was who ventured forth on her errand of mercy alone. The fisherman's old boat still lay rocking in the cove, and the oars stood in the shed: Louie knew how to use them well, and making her preparations by daylight, and leaving the rest till nightfall, lest she should be hindered by the authorities, she found means to impress the little cow-boy into her service; and after dark a keg of sweet water was trundled down and stored amidships of the boat, with an enormous block of ice rolled in an old blanket; a basket of lemons and oranges was added, a roll of fresh bed-linen, a little box of such medicines as her last year's practice had taught her might be of use; and extorting a promise from the boy that he would leave another block of ice on the bank every night after dark for her to come and fetch, Louie quickly stepped into the boat, lifted the oars, and slipt away into the darkness of the great and quiet river.
When, three days afterward, Captain Traverse unclosed his eyes from a dream of Gehenna and the place the smoke of whose torment goes up for ever, a strange confusion crept like a haze across his mind, tired out and tortured with delirium, and he dropped the aching lids and fell away into slumber again; for he had thought himself vexed with the creak of cordage and noise of feet, stived in his dark and narrow cabin, on a filthy bed in a foul air, if any air at all were in that noisome place, reeking with heat and the ferment of bilge-water and fever-smell; and here, unless a new delirium chained him, a mattress lay upon the deck with the awning of an old sail stretched above it and making soft shadow out of searching sun, a gentle wind was blowing over him, a land-breeze full of sweet scents from the gardens on the shore, from the meadows and the marshes. Silence broken only by a soft wash of water surrounded him; a flake of ice lay between his lips, that had lately been parched and withering, and delicious coolness swathed his head, that had seemed to be a ball of burning fire. The last that he remembered had been a hot, dry, aching agony, and this was bliss: the sleep into which he fell when waking from the stupor that had benumbed his power of suffering--a power that had rioted till no more could be suffered--lasted during all the spell of that fervid noon sun that hung above the harbor and the town like the unbroken seal of the expected pestilence. A strange still town, fear and heat keeping its streets deserted, its people longing for an east wind that should kill the fever, yet dreading lest it should blow the fever in on them; a strange still harbor, its great peaceful river darkened only by that blot where the sun-soaked craft swung at her anchor; a strange still craft, where nothing stirred but one slender form, one little being that went about laying wet cloths upon this rude sailor's head, broken ice between the lips of that one, moistening dry palms, measuring out cooling draughts, and only resting now and then to watch one sleeper sleep, to hang and hear if in that deep dream there were any breathing and it were not the last sleep of all. And in Louie's heart there was something just as strange and still as in all other things throughout that wearing, blinding day; but with her the calm was not of fear, only of unspeakable joy; for if Andrew lived it was she that had saved him, and though he died, his delirium had told her that his heart was hers. "If he dies, he is mine!" she cried triumphantly, forgetting all the long struggle of scruple and doubt, "and if he lives, he shall never be hers!" she cried softly and with that inner voice that no one hears.
And so the heat slipped down with the sun to other horizons, coolness crept in upon the running river's breast with the dusk, dew gathered and lay darkly glittering on rail and spar and shroud as star by star stole out to sparkle in it; and Andrew raised his eyes at length, and they rested long and unwaveringly on the little figure sitting not far away with hands crossed about the knees and eyes looking out into the last light--the tranquil, happy face from which a white handkerchief kept back the flying hair while giving it the likeness of a nun's. Was it a dream? Was it Louie? Or was it only some one of the tormenting phantoms that for so many burning days had haunted him? He tried in vain to ask: his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth; he seemed to be in the power of one of those fierce nightmares where life depends on a word and the word is not to be spoken. Only a vision, then: he closed his lids thinking it would be gone when he lifted them, but he did not want it to be gone, and looked again to find it as before. And by and by it seemed to him that long since, in a far-off dream, he had gathered strength and uttered the one thought of his fever, "Louie, what do you do now?" and she had answered him, as though she thought aloud, "I stroke the dead;" and he had cried out, "Then presently me too, me too! And let the shroud be shotted heavily to bury me out of your sight!" And he was crying it out again, but while he spoke a mouth was laid on his--a warm, sweet mouth that seemed to breathe fresh spirit through his frame--his head was lifted and pillowed on a breast where he could hear the heart beneath flutter like a happy bird, and he was wrapped once more in slumber, but this time slumber sweet as it was deep.
Morning was dawning over the vessel's side, a dream of rosy lustre sifting through the purple and pearly mist, behind which the stars grew large and lost while it moved away to the west in one great cloud, and out of which the river gleamed as if just newly rolled from its everlasting fountains,--morning was dawning with the sweet freshness of its fragrant airs stealing from warm low fields, when Andrew once more lifted his eyes only to find that tranquil face above him still, that happy heart still beating beneath his pillowed head. "Oh, Louie," he sighed, "speak to me--say--have I died?--am I forgiven?--is this heaven?"
"To me, dear--oh to me!" answered she with the old radiant smile that used to make his pulse quicken, and that, ill as he yet was, reassured him as to his earthly latitude and longitude.
"And it was all a dream, then?" he murmured. "And I have not lost you?" He raised his wasted hand and drew from his breast the little hair chain that he had hidden there so long ago. "It was a fetter I could not break," he whispered. "I wrote her all about it long ago. I wrote her father that he should have his vessel back again--and I would take my freedom--and not a dollar's wages for the voyage would I ever draw of him. But I should never have dared see you--for--oh, Louie--how can you ever--"
"Hush, hush, dear!" she breathed. "What odds is all that now? We have our life before us."
"Only just help me live it, Louie."
"God will help us," she answered. And as she spoke a sudden rainbow leaped into the western heaven as if to seal her promise, and as it slowly faded there came a wild salt smell, an air that tingled like a tonic through the veins: the east wind was singing in from sea, bringing the music of breaker and shore, and the fever was blasted by its breath throughout the little Sabrina.