Salvage Point

by


The Hermanns built their house at the very end of the island, five or six miles from the more or less violently rustic "summer-cottages" which adorned the hills and bluffs around the native village of Winterport.

There was a long point running out to the southward at the mouth of the great bay, rough and rocky for the most part, with little woods of pointed firs on it, some acres of pasture, and a few pockets of fertile soil lying between the stony ridges. A yellow farmhouse, with a red barn beside it, had nestled for near a hundred years in one of these hollows, buying shelter from the winter winds at the cost of an outlook over sea and shore.

It was a large price to pay. The view from the summit of the little hill a few hundred yards away was superb--a wonder even on that wonderful coast of Maine where mountain and sea meet together, forest and flood kiss each other.

But I suppose the old Yankee farmer knew what he wanted when he paid the price and snuggled his house in the hollow. I am certain the Hermanns knew what they wanted when they bought the whole point and perched their house on the very top of the hill, where all the winds of heaven might visit it as roughly as they pleased, but where nothing could rob the outlook of its ever-changing splendor and mystery, its fluent wonder and abiding charm.

You see, the Hermanns knew what they wanted because they had come through a lot of trouble. I met them when they were young--no matter how many years ago--when they were in the thick of it.

Alice Mackaye and Will Hermann had the rare luck to fall in love--a very real and great love--when they were in their early twenties. You would think that extraordinary piece of good fortune would have been enough to set them up for life, wouldn't you? But no. There was an Obstacle. And that Obstacle came very near wrecking them both.

Will Hermann was an artist and the son of an artist. The love of beauty ran in his blood. Otherwise he was poor. He earned a decent living by his painting, but each year's living depended on each year's work. Hence he was in the proletarian class.

Alice Mackaye, on the other hand, belonged to the capitalist class. I say "belonged," because that is precisely the word to describe her situation. Her father was a millionaire sugar-merchant, who lived in an ugly palace near Morristown, New Jersey, and was accustomed to have his own way in that and other States. He was the Obstacle.

He was a florid, handsome old Scotchman, orthodox in religion, shrewd in business, correct in conduct, but with no more sentiment than a hard-shell crab, and obstinate as the devil. His fixed idea was that none of his daughters should ever be carried off by a fortune-hunter. The two older girls apparently escaped this danger by making fairly wealthy matches. But Alice--come away! why should she take up with this impecunious painter? He was good-looking and had the gift of the gab, but what was that worth? If he would come into the sugar-business, where a place was waiting for him, and make good there, it would be all right. Otherwise, the affair must be broken off, absolutely, finally, and forever. From this you can see that the Obstacle was not bad-hearted, but only pig-headed.

Well, for five or six years things drifted rather miserably along this way. Will Hermann was forbidden the house at Morristown. Alice was practically a captive; her correspondence was censored. But of course, even before Marconi, wireless communication in matters of this kind has always been possible.

The trouble was that the state of affairs between them, while conventionally correct, was thoroughly unnatural and full of peril. Alice, a very good girl, obedient and tractable, was in danger of becoming a recalcitrant and sour old maid. Will, a healthy and normal young man, with no bad habits, was in danger of being driven to them by the emptiness and exasperation of his mind. The worst of it all was that both of the young people were, in accordance with a well-known law of nature, growing older with what seemed to them a frightful and unreasonable rapidity. The years crawled like snails. But the sum of them rose by leaps and bounds to an appalling total. Alice found two grey hairs in her red-gold locks. Will had to use glasses for reading fine print at night. From their point of view, decrepitude, senility, dotage stared them in the face, while the bright voyage of life which they were resolved to make only together, was threatened with shipwreck among the shoals of interminable delay.

It was at this juncture of affairs that they came to me, as fine-looking a young couple as ever I saw. They were good, as mortals go; they were loyal and upright, they wanted no scandal, no rumpus in the family, no trouble or pain for anybody else; but they wanted to belong to each other much more than they wanted to belong to any class, artistic, proletarian, or capitalist. And they were desperate because of the pertinacity of the Obstacle, whom they both respected fully as much as he deserved.

When they had stated their case, I made my answer.

"So far as I can see, the salvage of your ship of love depends entirely on yourselves. Mr. Hermann is not after a fortune, he only wants his girl; is that so? [Hermann nodded vigorously.] And Miss Mackaye does not care about being supported in the manner of living to which she has been accustomed; she only wants to live with the man whom she has chosen; is that so? [Alice blushed and nodded.] Well, then, why shouldn't you lay your course and sail ahead together? You are both of age, aren't you?"

They smiled at each other. "Yes, and a little over."

"But my father!" said Alice. "You know I honor him, and I can never deny his authority over me."

Here was the turn of the talk, the critical moment, the point where the chosen counsellor had to fall back upon the ultimate reality of his faith.

"Well," I said, "you are absolutely correct, dear daughter, in your feeling toward your father. He has earned his money and has a right to dispose of it as he will. But, you know, there is a statute of limitations in regard to the authority of parents over the _lives_ of their children. You have passed the limitation. What do you want to do?"

"To be married to Will Hermann," she said, "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, I don't care. But I don't want a family quarrel, a runaway match, all that horrid newspaper talk." Here she was evidently a little excited and on the verge of tears.

"Certainly not," I hastened to reassure her, "you can't possibly have a runaway match, because there is nothing for you to run away from. There is not a single duty in your father's house which you have not fulfilled, and of which your sisters can not now relieve you. There is no authority in the world which has the right to command the sacrifice of your life to another's judgment. There is only one thing that stands in your way, and that is your claim on a large inheritance. I understand you are quite willing to let that go. You are not even 'running away' from it--that is not the word--you are ready to _jettison_ it."

She looked puzzled, and murmured; "I don't exactly understand what that means."

"To jettison," I said, in that learned and dispassionate manner which is sometimes useful in relieving an emotional situation, "is a seafaring phrase. It means throwing overboard a part or the whole of a cargo in order to save the ship. As far as I can see that is the question which is up to you and your best friend at the present moment. Are you prepared to jettison the claim on a big fortune for the sake of making your voyage of life together?"

They looked at each other and a kind of radiance spread over their faces. "Surely," they answered with one voice. "But how can the marriage be arranged," asked Alice, "without a row in the family?"

"Very easily," I answered. "Both of you are over age, though you don't look it. Our good lawyer friend Harrison will help you to get the license. Fix your day for the wedding, neither secret nor notorious; invite anybody you like, and come to me on the day you have chosen. The arrangements will be made. You shall be married, all right."

So they came, and I married them, and it was a very good job.

They had some years of difficulty and uncertainty during which I caught brief glimpses of them now and then, always cheerful and happy together. In the course of time the Obstacle, being not at all bad-hearted but only pig-headed, probably relented a little, and finally was gathered to his fathers, according to the common lot of man. The older sisters behaved very well about the inheritance, and Alice was not left portionless. She brought three fine boys into the world. The house on Salvage Point was built by her and Will together.

It was there that I spent a day with them, in the summer of 1918, after many years during which we had not met. I was on naval duty, with Commander Kidd, of a certain station on the Maine coast. By invitation we put in with the motorboat S.P. 297, at Salvage Point. So it was that I met my old friends again, and knew what had become of their barque of love which I had helped to save from shipwreck.

The house on the peak of the hill was just what it ought to be; not aggressively rustic, not obtrusively classic--white pillars in front of it, and a terrace, but nothing dominating--it had the air of a very large and habitable lighthouse.

The extraordinary thing was the arrangement of the grounds. At every point one came upon some reminder of salvage. On the glorious August day when I was there, shipwreck seemed impossible: the Southern Way which opened to the Ocean was dancing with gay waves; the blue mountains of Maine were tranquil on the horizon.

"But you see," said Will Hermann, "this is really rather a dangerous point, though it is so beautiful. It is the gateway of the open sea, and there are three big ledges across it. A ship that has lost her bearings a little, or is driving in through thick weather, easily comes to grief. But there is not often a loss of life, only the ship goes to pieces. And we save the pieces."

It was true. There was a terrace west of the house, with a balustrade made of the taffrail of a wrecked brigantine. The gateway to the garden was the door of an old wheel-house. There was a pergola constructed from the timbers of a four-masted schooner that had broken up on the third ledge. The bow of the sloop _Christabel,_ with the name still painted on it, was just outside the garden-gate. Everywhere you saw old anchor-bits, and rudder-posts, and knees, all silver-greyed by the weather, and fitted in to the _decor_ of the place.

The prettiest thing of all was a crow's-nest from a wrecked brigantine, perched on the highest point of the hill, and looking out over the marvellous panorama of sea and shore, island and mountain. Here we sat, after a hearty luncheon with Alice and her three boys and half-a-dozen others who were with them in a kind of summer camp-school; and while we smoked our pipes, Will Hermann told this story.

"You see, Alice and I have a mania for things that have been salvaged. We don't like the idea of the wrecks, of course. But they would happen any way, whether we were here or not. And since that is so, we like to live here on the point and help save what we can. Sometimes we get a chance to do something for the crews of the little ships that come ashore--hot supper and dry clothes and so forth. But the most interesting salvage case that we ever had on the point was one in which there was really no wreck at all.

"It was a bright September afternoon ten years ago--one of those silver-blue days when there is a little quivering haze in the air everywhere, but no fog. We were sitting up here and looking out to sea. Just beyond the end of Dunker Rock a large motor-boat came in sight through the haze. She was about sixty feet long, with a low cabin forward, a cockpit aft, and a raised place for the steersman amidship--a good-looking craft, and evidently very speedy. She carried no flag or pennant. She came driving on, full tilt, straight toward us. We supposed of course she would turn east through the narrow channel to Winterport, or sheer off to the west into the Southern Way and go up the bay. But not a point did she swerve. Steady on she came, toward the three big ledges that lie out there beyond that bit of shingly beach at the end of the point.

"'I can't see any helmsman,' said Alice, 'those people must be asleep or crazy. Give them a hail through the megaphone. Perhaps you can make them hear.'

"So I yelled at the top of my lungs, and Alice waved her jersey. We might as well have hailed a comet. That boat ran straight for the ledges as if she meant to hurdle them. She came near doing it, too. Over the first she scraped, as if her heel had hit it. Over the second she shivered, hanging there for a second till a wave lifted her. On the third she bumped hard and checked her way for a moment, but the engine kept going, and finally she got herself over somehow and ran head on to the beach.

"Of course we were excited, and everybody hurried down to see what this crazy performance meant. There was not a creature on the boat, alive or dead.

"Everything was shipshape. The little craft had evidently been used for fishing. There were rough men's clothes on board, rubber boots and oilskins, fresh water and provisions, blankets in the cabin, fishing-lines and bait in the cockpit, gasolene in the tanks--a nice little outfit, all complete, and no one to run it.

"Where had she come from? There were no names on bow or stern, no papers in the cabin. Who had started her on this crazy voyage? How did she get away from them? Had they perhaps abandoned her and cast her adrift for some mysterious reason? Undoubtedly there were men--apparently three--on board when she set out. What had happened to them? A drunken quarrel? Or possibly one of the men had fallen overboard; the others had jumped in to save him; the engine had started up and the boat left them all in the lurch. Perhaps one or all of them may have had some reason for wanting to 'disappear without a trace,' so they hit upon the plan of going ashore at some lonely place and turning the boat loose to wreck herself. That would have been a stupid scheme of course, but not too stupid to be human.

"It was just a little piece of sea mystery to which we had no clew. So we debated it for an hour, and then set about the more important work of salvaging the stranded derelict. Fortunately she went ashore near the last of the ebb, and now lay comfortably in the mud, apparently little damaged except for some long scratches on her side, and a broken blade in her propeller. We dug away the mud at bow and stern, made fast a tow-line, and when the tide came in my small cruiser pulled her off easily. In the morning the mysterious stranger lay at anchor in the cove round the corner, as quiet as a China duck.

"Of course we advertised in the coast newspapers, giving a description of the boat--'came ashore,' etc.

"Three days later a boy about thirteen years old turned up at Winterport. He came from a village at the northeast corner of the bay forty miles away. He guessed the boat was his father's, but couldn't say for sure until he had seen it. So he came down to the point and identified it beyond a doubt. He told his story very simply.

"The boat belonged to his father, who was a widow-man with only one child. He used the boat for fishing, and sometimes he took Johnny with him, sometimes not. On the trips without the boy he used to stay out longer, sometimes a week or ten days. About a week ago he had started out on one of these trips with two other men. They had a dory in tow. They hadn't come back. Johnny had seen the piece in the paper. Here was the boat, for sure, but no dory. As for the rest of the story--well, that was all that Johnny had to tell us about it--the mystery was as far away as ever.

"He was a fine, sturdy little chap, with tanned face and clear blue eyes. He was rather shaken by his experience, of course, but he wouldn't cry--not for the world. We were glad to take him in for the night, while we verified his story by telegraph. It seemed the boat was practically his only inheritance, and the first question he asked, after we had gone over it, was how much we wanted him to pay for salvage.

"'Just one cent,' said Alice, taking the words out of my mouth, 'and what is more, we are going to have her repaired for you. She isn't much hurt.' So the boy stammered out the best kind of a 'thank you' that he could manage, and the look in his eyes made up for the lack of words. That was the time that he came nearest to crying. But Alice saved him by asking what he was going to do with the boat.

"He had an idea that he could run her himself, perhaps with another man to help him, for fishing in the fall, and for pleasure parties in the summer. He didn't want to cut loose from home altogether and sell the boat. Perhaps Dad might come back, some day, or send a letter. Anyway Johnny wanted to stay by a seafaring life.

"So we arranged the repairs and all that, and got a man to help on the homeward trip, and after a few days Johnny sailed off with his patrimony. That is what Alice and I consider our neatest job of salvage."

"Did it work all right?" I asked.

"Finely," said Will Hermann, "like a charm."

"And where is the lad now?"

"Bo'sun's mate on a certain destroyer somewhere off the coast of France, fighting in the U. S. Navee."

"And the father?" I inquired, being one of those old-fashioned persons who like all the loose ends of a story to be tied up. "Was anything ever heard of him?"

"That," answered my friend, carefully shaking out the ashes of his pipe beyond the crow's-nest rail, "that belongs in a different compartment of the ship."


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