Sunday, 23 December 2018

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

This is the final post until after the festivities. Here's to a peaceful and joyful break, however you celebrate, and we'll reconnect afterward.


With Love

The Christmas Ghost

The Christmas Ghost

The Christmas Ghost was published in Everybody's Magazine in December, 1900. Jane White had lived her life almost completely alone, but came to realize that "love and kindness were not such strangers upon the earth as she had thought."

Camille Pissarro, The Post-House, the Route de Versailles, 1872

In front of Jane White's house roared and surged, beating the rocky shores with unfailing tides, the great Atlantic. The waves floating an occasional fishing vessel, were all that passed before her front windows. From gazing all her life at such stern and mighty passers, the woman's face had gotten a look of inflexible peace. Jane White looked as if she would always do her duty, but as if she would spare neither herself nor her friends, if they came in the way; as if nothing could interpose between herself and her high tide mark, not even her own happiness nor that of others.
She was not an old woman, but she seemed to have settled into that stability of old age which comes before the final greatest change of all. Her days were absolutely monotonous. She lived alone, she kept her old house in order, she made her simple garments; always on Saturdays she harnessed her old horse into the wagon, and drove to the village three miles away for groceries; on Sundays she drove as regularly to church. These simple excursions for bodily and spiritual food were all that brightened her life. There were only two houses near hers. In one of them lived a bedridden old woman, and her elderly son and daughter; in the other, David Gleason. The bedridden old woman and the son and daughter had not been on friendly terms with Jane for years, and they had not entered each other's houses. Sometimes Jane used to look down the road to the gray slant of the Rideing house rising out of the hollow, with a scowl of dissent. She could hate with vigor, in spite of the severe peace of her expression. There was a mighty grudge between them. Once the son, Thomas Rideing, had paid attention to Jane White (that was in her mother's day), and Thomas's mother and sister had interfered, and broken off the match. They had told stories as to Jane's temper and poor housekeeping, and the young man had believed them. He had ceased courting Jane, and she had known the reason. Once afterward, coming home from church, she had stopped her wagon in the narrow, sandy road, beside the Rideing team, and taxed the mother and sister with it openly. Thomas had been driving his old gray horse. His mother and sister sat one on each side of him — that was before the old woman got the hurt which laid her up for life. Jane's mother sat at her left hand, quivering with resentment. She had been a wiry little woman, with a fierce temper.
“Whoa!” said Jane to her horse. Then she spoke out her mind once for all to Sarah Rideing and her mother. “I know just what you've said about me; you needn't think I don't,” said she.
“And it's all lies, every word of it,” said her mother, in a panting voice.
“We've got ears, and we've heard the loud talkin' when the windows were open and the wind our way!” Sarah Rideing had replied, with a vicious click of thin lips. Sarah Rideing was pretty, with a hard, sharp prettiness.
“And we've seen the clothes on the line,” said her mother. Mrs. Rideing wore a false front, and that and her bonnet were grotesquely twisted to one side.
“We ain't never had a word in our family betwixt us, and as for our clothes, I'd be ashamed to hang such lookin' things as yours be out on the line!” panted Jane's mother.
“We've got eyes and we've got ears,” repeated Sarah Rideing.
“Then I should advise your mother to look in the glass when you get home, and set her wig an' her bunnit straight,” said Jane's mother, unexpectedly.
“Don't, mother,” whispered Jane. Then she shouted g'lang to her horse, as did Thomas Rideing to his, but Jane passed him. Thomas had not spoken a word during the whole; he left the talking to the women. He had sat still, with his rather clumsy, good-humored face fixed on his horse's ears. He was a little flushed; otherwise he showed no sign of agitation. “Thomas Rideing is dreadful woodeny, anyhow; you ain't missed much,” Jane's mother had observed, as they sped along the sandy road. Once she looked back and saw, with that glee over petty revenge which is often seen in an old woman who has lived a narrow life, old Mrs. Rideing trying to straighten her front piece and her bonnet, which was trimmed with tall, nodding purple flowers. “She'd better talk,” said she. “She'd better get on her own bunnit and wig straight before she talks about other folks not being neat.”
“I most wish you hadn't said that,” said Jane.
“Why not, I'd like to know?”
“I wish you hadn't. It didn't have anything to do with it. It's like sticking in pins when folks have come at you with hammers.”
“I hope you ain't goin' to get cracked because Thomas Rideing has jilted you,” said her mother, sharply.
Jane laughed. “I ain't one of the kind to be cracked,” said she. And she spoke the truth. She had taken the young man's attentions as a matter of course, very much as she had always taken the unfolding of the leaves in the spring. This was something which came to most women, and it seemed to be coming to her. When she saw that she was mistaken, she no more thought of questioning the justice of it, than she would have done if a cloud which promised rain had cleared away to fair weather, or the bush which budded last spring had failed to do so this. Matters of that kind she relegated entirely to a higher Power, and it was the easier for her to do so since Thomas Rideing was not a young man to awaken easily any girl's imagination. He was such a solid, incontrovertible fact of clumsy flesh and blood, and slowly, steadily working brain, that he could arouse only observation and acquiescence — never dreams. Jane was fully alive to the humiliation of being jilted, and wrathful as to the interference of Thomas's sister and mother, but in reality that, and the stigma cast upon her temper and her neatness, hurt her more at the time than the cessation of the young man's nightly visits. Ever afterward the clothes which flaunted from the White line shone like garments of righteousness, as, indeed, they had done before. Jane White's little domicile fairly shone with cleanliness, as did her person. Not a hair was out of place on her head; she was clean as one of the wave-washed pebbles on the beach. As for her temper, her mother died soon afterward, and there was no one for her to attack with a loud tongue, as she had been accused of doing, unless, indeed, she attacked that hard Providence in whose shaping of her destiny she believed. She was absolutely alone from one week's end to the other, since she and the Rideings never exchanged calls, and as for David Gleason, he was a single man, and many said an underwit, and he kept to himself, and never went into another house than his own, and Jane certainly could not call upon him. He was a small, fair-haired man, who had come to the place and built his little shack some ten years ago. Nobody knew from whence he came, nor anything about him. He seemed to be quiet and peaceable, and to have enough money for his simple needs, and the stigma of underwit had somehow attached itself to him from his secrecy. People argued that a man would be likely to tell something to his credit if there was anything to tell, and as nobody could imagine him to be a criminal with such a physiognomy, they concluded that he must be lacking in his intellects. He was commonly said to be love-cracked.
Sometimes Jane used to see this man going down the road, moving with a gentle shuffle and slight stoop, and wonder if he were love-cracked. Now and then she felt inclined to ask him to ride, when she passed him on the way to church — he kept no horse — but she never did. The man used to look after her, sitting up straight in her wagon, and disappearing between the scrubby pines of the coast country, with admiration, as any man might have done. The red coil of hair on the back of her head gleamed under her bonnet like a mat of red gold, she held her head and shoulders superbly. She was, in fact, a very handsome woman. The severe repose of her face had kept wrinkles at bay, and she had one of those rare complexions which the sea-air does not tan, and seam, and harden, but awakens to life and rosy color. People used to say that there wasn't a young girl that went to church who was any handsomer than Jane White; still, she had never had an opportunity to marry since Thomas Rideing deserted her. Everybody, in fact, believed her to be a slovenly housekeeper, and to have a bad temper. A fire of scandal is a hard thing to stamp out, an the sparks fly wide, and kindle afar.
Jane lived alone, with a sort of rigid acquiescence to the will of the Lord, and a smouldering hatred of the human instruments who had brought it to pass. In spite of her severe calm of demeanor, she had the natural weaknesses and longings of her kind. There were times, as the years went on, when she longed for Thomas Rideing to come again, as she had never longed at first. She was often afraid alone in her house, especially in the winter time. She confessed her fears to no one, hardly to herself. “What good does it do to be afraid? I know I've got to live alone, and there's no way out of it,” she said. “I might as well get over it first as last.” But she never was able to conquer her nervous fears. Often when the murmur of the waves on the shingle below the bank on which the house stood arose to a roar, and the winter wind was shaking the walls, this lonely human soul in the midst of it would light her candle, and peer about the house for the evil which she seemed to feel to be present; then she would extinguish her candle, and, shading her eyes, press her face close to the window, but she could see nothing except the wild drive of the storm outside. Then the saying in the Bible about the “Prince of the Powers of the Air” would come to her mind, and if she had been a Catholic she would have crossed herself. A vague fear, which was none the less terrible because it was vague, seemed to hold her as in a vise. However, Jane White's health, in spite of her sensitive nerves, was superb. She had never an ache nor ail until two days before Christmas, ten years after her mother died. Then she had a sudden attack of rheumatism, after a spell of damp, warm, unseasonable weather. It was all she could do to hobble about the house. When it came to going to the well for water, she thought at first she could never manage it. Finally she succeeded, fairly hitching herself over the ground, one step at a time. She thought of having the doctor, but she had no one to send for him, unless she could waylay some one passing. Both the Rideing and the Gleason houses were out of hailing distance, and had they not been, she would not have asked any of the dwellers therein to go for the doctor, unless it had been David Gleason. She thought that she might ask him, if she were to see him going by — he looked good-natured. But she did not see him nor any one passing that day. It was midwinter, and toward noon the snow began to fall. The lonely woman thought dejectedly that she didn't know what she was going to do. The stitch in her back was no better; she had no remedies to apply to it; she saw no likelihood of getting the doctor. It was much as ever she could do to keep up her fire and make herself a cup of tea at night-fall. A sense of utter loneliness, which was fairly desolation, smote her as she sat alone that evening. She heard the wind roar and the waves break, and the dash of the sleet on the window. She seemed to herself loneliness personified — one little human spark in the midst of an infinity of space and storm. At nine o'clock she went to bed. She slept upstairs. She had left the little bedroom on the first floor since her mother died. Her chamber was icy cold. She had heated a soapstone, and she rolled herself in an old flannel blanket, and clambered into bed with groans of pain.
It was a long time before she went to sleep; then she slept soundly for a few hours. It was perhaps four o'clock when she awoke with a shock of deadly terror. She knew some one was in the house. She was no longer suspicious that some one was in the house; this time she knew. The storm was still howling outside. She could hear the constant surge of the ocean, and the small drive of the sleet on the window. The room was absolutely dark; it must be still far from the winter dawn. She was sure that there was some one in the house.
She reached out for the matches which she always kept on the table beside her bed, and, as she did so, a cramp of pain seized her from the rheumatism. She nearly screamed, and the matches were gone. She usually moved them from the mantel-shelf when she went to bed, but she must have omitted to do so — it had been so difficult for her to get about the night before. Jane endeavored to rise. She thought she would grope her way across the room to the shelf and get the matches, but the pain in her back was so great that she dare not make the attempt. She said to herself, What if she should fall and break a bone out there in the dark? It seemed to her that she was safer in the bed. So she lay still, listening fearfully. She became more and more convinced that there was somebody in the house. She heard movements, soft and guarded, but plainly evident to a sharp ear, below. Once or twice she was sure that she heard a door open and shut. Later on she heard the pump out in the yard, which had a peculiar creak. She lay bathed in a cold sweat of terror, expecting every moment to hear steps on the stairs; and presently the first cold glimmer of dawn was in the room, and she heard a door shut below — then she heard nothing more. Everything was still.
It was late before Jane succeeded in dragging herself up, with groans and frequent pauses, and getting dressed and down stairs. She felt convinced that the visitor, whoever he was, had gone; but she thought of her mother's silver teaspoons, and the clock, and a gold watch which had belonged to her father and would not go, but was still an impressive gold watch, and very dear to her, and she thought of her table linen, and everything which was of any value; for she had no doubt then that the visitor was a thief.
But when she reached the kitchen, moving by slow and painful stages, she gasped, and stared, and stared again. A bright fire was burning in the stove (she had wondered if she could, by any possibility, make a fire with those pains like screwing knives in her back and shoulders), and the table was laid for breakfast, and the room was full of the aroma of coffee, for the pot was on the stove, and a pan of something covered with a towel stood on the back, and when she took off the towel fearfully, there were fresh biscuits. Then a nice little bit of beefsteak was in the frying-pan, all ready to cook, and the tea-kettle was full of hot water, and the water-pail in the sink was full. Outside the storm was still raging, but the kitchen seemed like a little oasis of warmth and comfort in the midst of it. Even the geraniums in the south window had been watered. She heard the cat mew, and opened the cellar door. The cat had been out when she went to bed, for she had called her in vain. Somebody had let the cat in and put her down cellar, lest she steal the beefsteak.
“Who let you in?” said Jane feebly to the cat.
She looked at the beefsteak and at the biscuits doubtfully, as if they might be fairy food, and have some uncanny property of harm. “I was out of meat, and to-day's Saturday, and I couldn't have got down to the store,” said she; “and I didn't have a mite of bread mixed, and I don't know how I could have done it.”
Finally Jane White cooked the beefsteak, poured out a cup of coffee, and ate her breakfast, though it was still with an unreasoning terror. It seemed a kindly deed, and yet it was so unexplained that it struck her with all the horror of the unusual. She ate suspiciously, almost as if she thought the food were poisoned. When she crept into the pantry to put away the dishes, she had another surprise, for she found on the shelf a little roasting piece, two pies, two loaves of bread, a piece of squash cut ready to boil, and some washed potatoes.
Jane looked at them, white as ashes. “My land!” said she. She staggered back to the warm kitchen, sat down, and reflected. She tried to think who could have done it, but she was entirely at a loss. For a moment she had a wild idea of Thomas Rideing and his old love for her, then she dismissed it. “He'd never get round to it,” she said to herself. Then she thought of David Gleason, to dismiss that more peremptorily than the other. “There ain't anybody in creation who would do anything like this for me, and what's more, there wasn't anybody knew I had the rheumatism and couldn't do it myself,” she argued.
She gave it up. She roasted her meat, and cooked the squash and potato, and remained alone all day. The storm continued until sunset. Then, when the west was a clear, pale gold, the flakes stopped falling, and the earth looked like a white ocean frozen suddenly in the midst of a tumult of rage. As for the real ocean, she could hear the boom of that louder than ever, for its fury does not subside so quickly as that of the earth. It cleared off very cold. Jane heaped her stove with wood when she went to bed (she burned wood from her own woodland), but she feared it would not last until morning, and she feared that she could not get down-stairs to replenish it. As night came on her rheumatism was worse, and then her fears arose to such a pitch that, had it not been for the cold and her illness, she would actually have gone over to the Rideings. She went to bed, and lay quaking with sheer terror for some time. At last all was still and she fell asleep, to awaken as she had done the night before, at the sounds below. This time her matches were in reach. She struck one and lighted a candle. Then she pulled up the blanket with painful efforts, and wrapped it around her; then she crept out of bed. Along with the woman's timidity was a spirit of investigation. Had she been a man she would have been afraid enough to make an excellent soldier. The battle would have been, for her, the only method of ridding herself of her panic. She could never have borne to cower behind breastworks.
She crawled down stairs, feeling as if she were a stiff lay figure instead of herself. She planted her feet rigidly as if they were wood; every step was agony, but she kept on. At that moment she was more terrified, if anything, to confront the stranger — because he had conferred benefits upon her — than if he had worked her harm. It would not have seemed so uncanny. In spite of her religious training the thought of the supernatural was strong in the woman's mind. She thought of her mother, of her father — how they would have felt to know she was all alone, sick with rheumatism in the winter storm, and God knew what she thought next.
When she opened the kitchen door her face was ghastly, peering over her candle. The kitchen was lighted; the fire burning; she smelled coffee; it was later than she had thought — five o'clock in the morning. She had only a vision of a figure swiftly moving out of sight into the pantry. Then she sprang, with a stab of pain, to the pantry door, and shot the bolt. She had a bolt on the pantry door, because the pantry window had no fastening; but she had never used it. After she fastened it she heard the person whom she had locked in trying to open that window, and said to herself grimly that he could not do it. That north window must be frozen down so hard that it would be impossible to stir it without hot water. The man, whoever he was — she was sure it was a man, there had been no flirt of feminine skirts on that flying figure — must have come in through the cellar. The bulkhead had never had a lock, for Jane and her mother, reasoning with the innocent fatuity of some women, had always said, “Nobody will ever think of coming through the cellar.”
The person whom Jane had locked into the pantry did not pound or try to get out. Finally she took the carving-knife from the table — he had been slicing some sausage for her breakfast, apparently — and she went to the pantry door, and leaned her head toward it, curving her body at a careful distance. “Who be you?” said she.
There was no response.
Then she spoke again: “Who be you?”
“A well wisher,” came in a feeble voice from the pantry.
Then a cold shiver ran again over the woman. Again the supernatural terror reasserted itself. It was much more alarming that a well wisher should come to her house, and do these kindly deeds for her on this wicked earth the night before Christmas — she remembered with an additional shiver that Christmas Day was dawning — than a burglar. She went over to the kitchen door, and stood there, all ready to run should the person in the pantry make a motion to escape. She kept her eyes riveted on the pantry door. She made up her mind that as soon as it was light enough she would go for the Rideings, no matter how they had treated her in times gone by. It seemed to her that the full day would never come; but at last the light broadened and deepened over the blue hollows and white crests of snow, and then she saw that a nice path was dug from her door to the well. “My land!” said she. She took a shawl off the peg, wrapped it around her, putting one corner over her head; succeeded, after many painful efforts, in getting into her rubbers, and was about to set out when she caught a glimpse of a man's figure going down the road. It was David Gleason going for his milk, which he got from a farmhouse two miles toward the village.
Jane crept out in the yard a little way and called. He heard her, and came shuffling toward her in a light spray of snow.
He had a mild, pleasant face; but Jane, after the prevalent report as to the state of his intellects, felt a little afraid to ask him into the house. “You go to the Rideings, and ask Sarah and Thomas to come right over here as fast as they can,” said she. She was almost crying. David Gleason looked at her anxiously. “Anything the trouble, anything I can do?” he began, but she interrupted him. “Go as quick as you can,” said she. She was almost hysterical.
It seemed to her an age before she saw David Gleason plod into the Rideing house, and presently he and Sarah, not Thomas, emerge. “Where in the world is Thomas?” she thought. “What good can a woman do?” She was glad to see Gleason returning with Sarah. She thought she would not be afraid of Gleason if Sarah were with him, and nobody knew what was in the pantry.
Jane met them at the door. Suddenly her rheumatism seemed better; she moved quite easily.
Sarah Rideing looked at her half alarmed, half indignant. “What is the matter, Jane White?” said she.
“There's something in the house,” replied Jane in an awful voice, and the other woman turned pale.
“What do you mean?”
“There's something in the house. It came last night and made up the fire, and got breakfast, and got the water, and brought roast meat, and bread, and it came again to-night, and I came down and I locked it into the pantry.”
“Did you see it?” asked Sarah, quivering. She grasped Jane's arm hard.
The two old enemies fairly clung together, drawn by mutual terror.
But David Gleason went close to the pantry door.
“It wasn't a woman, I know that,” gasped Jane.
“Who's in there?” cried David Gleason.
There was no reply.
“It told me once it was a well wisher,” said Jane, and Sarah Rideing trembled like a leaf. The reply struck her much as it had done Jane. Well wishers abroad in the deadly cold of a winter morning might well arouse terror.
“Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I wish Thomas was here,” cried Sarah. “I couldn't find him nowheres. I don't know but something has got him. Oh, dear!”
“Who's in there?” demanded David Gleason. He had a firm voice for such a small, slight man.
“He ain't any more half-witted than I be,” thought Sarah Rideing.
Then the voice replied again, but with a trifle more emphasis, “A well wisher.” Both women started.
“It's Thomas,” cried Sarah Rideing. Then she flew to the pantry door and unbolted it. “Thomas Rideing, what be you doin' here?” she demanded. “Be you gone crazy?”
Thomas Rideing, emerging from the cold, blue depths of the frozen pantry, looked at once shamefaced and self-assertive. “You needn't say a word, Sarah,” said he. “I saw her having such hard work to get out to the well yesterday mornin', and I knew she'd got the rheumatism, and when the storm begun, and I thought of her all alone over here, I couldn't stan' it, an',” he went on, his voice gathering firmness in spite of an agitation which made him tremble from head to foot, “I — I know it was all a lie you and mother told about her not bein' a good housekeeper. There it was neat as wax here, and she laid up with rheumatism, too, and as for her temper, anybody that can get around at all with the rheumatism, and not say anything to be sorry for, hasn't got much temper, and — I wouldn't have minded one mite if she had.”
“I should think you'd gone crazy,” said Sarah scornfully, and yet her voice softened.
Thomas looked pitifully at Jane. “It don't seem as if I could stan' havin' you live here alone any longer,” he said brokenly, as if his unhappiness over her loneliness were the only thing to be considered. It was the refinement of masculine selfishness, but Jane liked it.
“I didn't know you thought so much of me, Thomas,” said she; then her face flamed.
“Well, I haven't got anything to say; you must suit yourself,” Sarah said, still in that softened voice; then she and Gleason went out.
Thomas Rideing approached Jane, and put his arm around her. “Ain't you been afraid here all alone?” said he.
“Yes, I have; but I didn't suppose you cared.”
“I did,” said he. “There's no use in rakin' up bygones, but I know I've treated you mean.”
“Yes, you have,” admitted Jane impartially, but her eyes upon his face were tender.
“It wasn't so much because I was afraid you were a bad housekeeper, and bad-tempered, I didn't believe it; and I wouldn't have minded if you had been, but I backed out because mother and Sarah felt so. I guess mother will feel different now, but I can't help it if she don't. As for Sarah, I can't help it either. You ain't goin' to be left alone here any longer. How's your rheumatism, Jane?”
“I guess it's better; I haven't thought of it,” replied Jane.
Then the outer door opened suddenly, and Sarah Rideing looked in. David Gleason's face showed over her shoulder. “Wish you a merry Christmas!” said Sarah. Her thin, pretty face was quite transformed by a sudden triumph of the best within her. The man behind her beamed with friendliness toward these people who were nothing to him.
It was suddenly borne in upon the consciousness of Jane White that love and kindness were not such strangers upon the earth as she had thought.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Let it snow!

Running out of time to be online, so Bards and Tales is posting this for those who like a Christmassy tale with a twist. There's 8 of those in this great anthology!

Captain Eli's Best Ear

Captain Eli's Best Ear

"This whole business come out of my sleepin' with my best ear up. Fer if I'd slept with my hard-o'-hearin' ear up, it would have been different."

Henry Scott Tuke, The Old Sea Dog, 1888

The little seaside village of Sponkannis lies so quietly upon a protected spot on our Atlantic coast that it makes no more stir in the world than would a pebble which, held between one's finger and thumb, should be dipped below the surface of a millpond and then dropped. About the post-office and the store--both under the same roof--the greater number of the houses cluster, as if they had come for their week's groceries, or were waiting for the mail, while toward the west the dwellings become fewer and fewer, until at last the village blends into a long stretch of sandy coast and scrubby pine-woods. Eastward the village ends abruptly at the foot of a windswept bluff, on which no one cares to build.
Among the last houses in the western end of the village stood two neat, substantial dwellings, one belonging to Captain Eli Bunker, and the other to Captain Cephas Dyer. These householders were two very respectable retired mariners, the first a widower about fifty, and the other a bachelor of perhaps the same age, a few years more or less making but little difference in this region of weather-beaten youth and seasoned age.
Each of these good captains lived alone, and each took entire charge of his own domestic affairs, not because he was poor, but because it pleased him to do so. When Captain Eli retired from the sea he was the owner of a good vessel, which he sold at a fair profit; and Captain Cephas had made money in many a voyage before he built his house in Sponkannis and settled there.
When Captain Eli's wife was living she was his household manager. But Captain Cephas had never had a woman in his house, except during the first few months of his occupancy, when certain female neighbors came in occasionally to attend to little matters of cleaning which, according to popular notions, properly belong to the sphere of woman.
But Captain Cephas soon put an end to this sort of thing. He did not like a woman's ways, especially her ways of attending to domestic affairs. He liked to live in sailor fashion, and to keep house in sailor fashion. In his establishment everything was shipshape, and everything which could be stowed away was stowed away, and, if possible, in a bunker. The floors were holystoned nearly every day, and the whole house was repainted about twice a year, a little at a time, when the weather was suitable for this marine recreation. Things not in frequent use were lashed securely to the walls, or perhaps put out of the way by being hauled up to the ceiling by means of blocks and tackle. His cooking was done sailor fashion, like everything else, and he never failed to have plum-duff on Sunday. His well was near his house, and every morning he dropped into it a lead and line, and noted down the depth of water. Three times a day he entered in a little note-book the state of the weather, the height of the mercury in barometer and thermometer, the direction of the wind, and special weather points when necessary.
Captain Eli managed his domestic affairs in an entirely different way. He kept house woman fashion--not, however, in the manner of an ordinary woman, but after the manner of his late wife, Miranda Bunker, now dead some seven years. Like his friend, Captain Cephas, he had had the assistance of his female neighbors during the earlier days of his widowerhood. But he soon found that these women did not do things as Miranda used to do them, and, although he frequently suggested that they should endeavor to imitate the methods of his late consort, they did not even try to do things as she used to do them, preferring their own ways. Therefore it was that Captain Eli determined to keep house by himself, and to do it, as nearly as his nature would allow, as Miranda used to do it. He swept his doors and he shook his door-mats; he washed his paint with soap and hot water; he dusted his furniture with a soft cloth, which he afterwards stuck behind a chest of drawers. He made his bed very neatly, turning down the sheet at the top, and setting the pillow upon edge, smoothing it carefully after he had done so. His cooking was based on the methods of the late Miranda. He had never been able to make bread rise properly, but he had always liked ship- biscuit, and he now greatly preferred them to the risen bread made by his neighbors. And as to coffee and the plainer articles of food with which he furnished his table, even Miranda herself would not have objected to them had she been alive and very hungry.
The houses of the two captains were not very far apart, and they were good neighbors, often smoking their pipes together and talking of the sea. But this was always on the little porch in front of Captain Cephas's house, or by his kitchen fire in the winter. Captain Eli did not like the smell of tobacco smoke in his house, or even in front of it in summer-time, when the doors were open. He had no objection himself to the odor of tobacco, but it was contrary to the principles of woman housekeeping that rooms should smell of it, and he was always true to those principles.
It was late in a certain December, and through the village there was a pleasant little flutter of Christmas preparations. Captain Eli had been up to the store, and he had stayed there a good while, warming himself by the stove, and watching the women coming in to buy things for Christmas. It was strange how many things they bought for presents or for holiday use--fancy soap and candy, handkerchiefs and little woollen shawls for old people, and a lot of pretty little things which he knew the use of, but which Captain Cephas would never have understood at all had he been there.
As Captain Eli came out of the store he saw a cart in which were two good-sized Christmas trees, which had been cut in the woods, and were going, one to Captain Holmes's house, and the other to Mother Nelson's. Captain Holmes had grandchildren, and Mother Nelson, with never a child of her own, good old soul, had three little orphan nieces who never wanted for anything needful at Christmas-time or any other time.
Captain Eli walked home very slowly, taking observations in his mind. It was more than seven years since he had had anything to do with Christmas, except that on that day he had always made himself a mince-pie, the construction and the consumption of which were equally difficult. It is true that neighbors had invited him, and they had invited Captain Cephas, to their Christmas dinners, but neither of these worthy seamen had ever accepted any of these invitations. Even holiday food, when not cooked in sailor fashion, did not agree with Captain Cephas, and it would have pained the good heart of Captain Eli if he had been forced to make believe to enjoy a Christmas dinner so very inferior to those which Miranda used to set before him.
But now the heart of Captain Eli was gently moved by a Christmas flutter. It had been foolish, perhaps, for him to go up to the store at such a time as this, but the mischief had been done. Old feelings had come back to him, and he would be glad to celebrate Christmas this year if he could think of any good way to do it. And the result of his mental observations was that he went over to Captain Cephas's house to talk to him about it.
Captain Cephas was in his kitchen, smoking his third morning pipe. Captain Eli filled his pipe, lighted it, and sat down by the fire.
"Cap'n," said he, "what do you say to our keepin Christmas this year? A Christmas dinner is no good if it's got to be eat alone, and you and me might eat ourn together. It might be in my house, or it might be in your house--it won't make no great difference to me which. Of course, I like woman housekeepin', as is laid down in the rules of service fer my house. But next best to that I like sailor housekeepin', so I don't mind which house the dinner is in, Cap'n Cephas, so it suits you."
Captain Cephas took his pipe from his mouth. "You're pretty late thinkin' about it," said he, "fer day after to-morrow's Christmas."
"That don't make no difference," said Captain Eli. "What things we want that are not in my house or your house we can easily get either up at the store or else in the woods."
"In the woods!" exclaimed Captain Cephas. "What in the name of thunder do you expect to get in the woods for Christmas?"
"A Christmas tree," said Captain Eli. "I thought it might be a nice thing to have a Christmas tree fer Christmas. Cap'n Holmes has got one, and Mother Nelson's got another. I guess nearly everybody's got one. It won't cost anything--I can go and cut it."
Captain Cephas grinned a grin, as if a great leak had been sprung in the side of a vessel, stretching nearly from stem to stern.
"A Christmas tree!" he exclaimed. "Well, I am blessed! But look here, Cap'n Eli. You don't know what a Christmas tree's fer. It's fer children, and not fer grown-ups. Nobody ever does have a Christmas tree in any house where there ain't no children."
Captain Eli rose and stood with his back to the fire. "I didn't think of that," he said, "but I guess it's so. And when I come to think of it, a Christmas isn't much of a Christmas, anyway, without children."
"You never had none," said Captain Cephas, "and you've kept Christmas."
"Yes," replied Captain Eli, reflectively, "we did do it, but there was always a lackment--Miranda has said so, and I have said so."
"You didn't have no Christmas tree," said Captain Cephas.
"No, we didn't. But I don't think that folks was as much set on Christmas trees then as they 'pear to be now. I wonder," he continued, thoughtfully gazing at the ceiling, "if we was to fix up a Christmas tree--and you and me's got a lot of pretty things that we've picked up all over the world, that would go miles ahead of anything that could be bought at the store fer Christmas trees--if we was to fix up a tree real nice, if we couldn't get some child or other that wasn't likely to have a tree to come in and look at it, and stay awhile, and make Christmas more like Christmas. And then, when it went away, it could take along the things that was hangin' on the tree, and keep 'em fer its own."
"That wouldn't work," said Captain Cephas. "If you get a child into this business, you must let it hang up its stockin' before it goes to bed, and find it full in the mornin', and then tell it an all-fired lie about Santa Claus if it asks any questions. Most children think more of stockin's than they do of trees--so I've heard, at least."
"I've got no objections to stockin's," said Captain Eli. "If it wanted to hang one up, it could hang one up either here or in my house, wherever we kept Christmas."
"You couldn't keep a child all night," sardonically remarked Captain Cephas, "and no more could I. Fer if it was to get up a croup in the night, it would be as if we was on a lee shore with anchors draggin' and a gale a-blowin'."
"That's so," said Captain Eli. "You've put it fair. I suppose if we did keep a child all night, we'd have to have some sort of a woman within hail in case of a sudden blow."
Captain Cephas sniffed. "What's the good of talkin'?" said he. "There ain't no child, and there ain't no woman that you could hire to sit all night on my front step or on your front step, a-waitin' to be piped on deck in case of croup."
"No," said Captain Eli. "I don't suppose there's any child in this village that ain't goin' to be provided with a Christmas tree or a Christmas stockin', or perhaps both--except, now I come to think of it, that little gal that was brought down here with her mother last summer, and has been kept by Mrs. Crumley sence her mother died."
"And won't be kept much longer," said Captain Cephas, "fer I've hearn Mrs. Crumley say she couldn't afford it."
"That's so," said Captain Eli. "If she can't afford to keep the little gal, she can't afford to give no Christmas trees nor stockin's, and so it seems to me, cap'n, that that little gal would be a pretty good child to help us keep Christmas."
"You're all the time forgettin'," said the other, "that nuther of us can keep a child all night."
Captain Eli seated himself, and looked ponderingly into the fire. "You're right, cap'n," said he. "We'd have to ship some woman to take care of her. Of course, it wouldn't be no use to ask Mrs. Crumley?"
Captain Cephas laughed. "I should say not."
"And there doesn't seem to be anybody else," said his companion. "Can you think of anybody, cap'n?"
"There ain't anybody to think of," replied Captain Cephas, "unless it might be Eliza Trimmer. She's generally ready enough to do anything that turns up. But she wouldn't be no good--her house is too far away for either you or me to hail her in case a croup came up suddint."
"That's so," said Captain Eli. "She does live a long way off."
"So that settles the whole business," said Captain Cephas. "She's too far away to come if wanted, and nuther of us couldn't keep no child without somebody to come if they was wanted, and it's no use to have a Christmas tree without a child. A Christmas without a Christmas tree don't seem agreeable to you, cap'n, so I guess we'd better get along just the same as we've been in the habit of doin', and eat our Christmas dinner, as we do our other meals in our own houses."
Captain Eli looked into the fire. "I don't like to give up things if I can help it. That was always my way. If wind and tide's ag'in' me, I can wait till one or the other, or both of them, serve."
"Yes," said Captain Cephas, "you was always that kind of a man."
"That's so. But it does 'pear to me as if I'd have to give up this time, though it's a pity to do it, on account of the little gal, fer she ain't likely to have any Christmas this year.
She's a nice little gal, and takes as natural to navigation as if she'd been born at sea. I've given her two or three things because she's so pretty, but there's nothing she likes so much as a little ship I gave her."
"Perhaps she was born at sea," remarked Captain Cephas.
"Perhaps she was," said the other; "and that makes it the bigger pity."
For a few moments nothing was said. Then Captain Eli suddenly exclaimed, "I'll tell you what we might do, cap'n! We might ask Mrs. Trimmer to lend a hand in givin' the little gal a Christmas. She ain't got nobody in her house but herself, and I guess she'd be glad enough to help give that little gal a regular Christmas. She could go and get the child, and bring her to your house or to my house, or wherever we're goin' to keep Christmas, and--"
"Well," said Captain Cephas, with an air of scrutinizing inquiry, "what?"
"Well," replied the other, a little hesitatingly, "so far as I'm concerned,--that is, I don't mind one way or the other,--she might take her Christmas dinner along with us and the little gal, and then she could fix her stockin' to be hung up, and help with the Christmas tree, and--"
"Well," demanded Captain Cephas, "what?"
"Well," said Captain Eli, "she could--that is, it doesn't make any difference to me one way or the other--she might stay all night at whatever house we kept Christmas in, and then you and me might spend the night in the other house, and then she could be ready there to help the child in the mornin', when she came to look at her stockin'."
Captain Cephas fixed upon his friend an earnest glare. "That's pretty considerable of an idea to come upon you so suddint," said he. "But I can tell you one thing: there ain't a- goin' to be any such doin's in my house. If you choose to come over here to sleep, and give up your house to any woman you can find to take care of the little gal, all right. But the thing can't be done here."
There was a certain severity in these remarks, but they appeared to affect Captain Eli very pleasantly.
"Well," said he, "if you're satisfied, I am. I'll agree to any plan you choose to make. It doesn't matter to me which house it's in, and if you say my house, I say my house. All I want is to make the business agreeable to all concerned. Now it's time fer me to go to my dinner, and this afternoon we'd better go and try to get things straightened out, because the little gal, and whatever woman comes with her, ought to be at my house to-morrow before dark. S'posin' we divide up this business: I'll go and see Mrs. Crumley about the little gal, and you can go and see Mrs. Trimmer."
"No, sir," promptly replied Captain Cephas, "I don't go to see no Mrs. Trimmer. You can see both of them just the same as you can see one--they're all along the same way. I'll go cut the Christmas tree."
"All right," said Captain Eli. "It don't make no difference to me which does which. But if I was you, cap'n, I'd cut a good big tree, because we might as well have a good one while we're about it."
When he had eaten his dinner, and washed up his dishes, and had put everything away in neat, housewifely order, Captain Eli went to Mrs. Crumley's house, and very soon finished his business there. Mrs. Crumley kept the only house which might be considered a boarding-house in the village of Sponkannis; and when she had consented to take charge of the little girl who had been left on her hands she had hoped it would not be very long before she would hear from some of her relatives in regard to her maintenance. But she had heard nothing, and had now ceased to expect to hear anything, and in consequence had frequently remarked that she must dispose of the child some way or other, for she couldn't afford to keep her any longer. Even an absence of a day or two at the house of the good captain would be some relief, and Mrs. Crumley readily consented to the Christmas scheme. As to the little girl, she was delighted. She already looked upon Captain Eli as her best friend in the world.
It was not so easy to go to Mrs. Trimmer's house and put the business before her. "It ought to be plain sailin' enough," Captain Eli said to himself, over and over again, "but, fer all that, it don't seem to be plain sailin'."
But he was not a man to be deterred by difficult navigation, and he walked straight to Eliza Trimmer's house.
Mrs. Trimmer was a comely woman about thirty-five, who had come to the village a year before, and had maintained herself, or at least had tried to, by dressmaking and plain sewing. She had lived at Stetford, a seaport about twenty miles away, and from there, three years before, her husband, Captain Trimmer, had sailed away in a good-sized schooner, and had never returned. She had come to Sponkannis because she thought that there she could live cheaper and get more work than in her former home. She had found the first quite possible, but her success in regard to the work had not been very great.
When Captain Eli entered Mrs. Trimmer's little room, he found her busy mending a sail. Here fortune favored him. "You turn your hand to 'most anything, Mrs. Trimmer," said he, after he had greeted her.
"Oh, yes," she answered, with a smile, "I am obliged to do that. Mending sails is pretty heavy work, but it's better than nothing."
"I had a notion," said he, "that you was ready to turn your hand to any good kind of business, so I thought I would step in and ask you if you'd turn your hand to a little bit of business I've got on the stocks."
She stopped sewing on the sail, and listened while Captain Eli laid his plan before her. "It's very kind in you and Captain Cephas to think of all that," said she. "I have often noticed that poor little girl, and pitied her. Certainly I'll come, and you needn't say anything about paying me for it. I wouldn't think of asking to be paid for doing a thing like that. And besides,"--she smiled again as she spoke,--"if you are going to give me a Christmas dinner, as you say, that will make things more than square."
Captain Eli did not exactly agree with her, but he was in very good humor, and she was in good humor, and the matter was soon settled, and Mrs. Trimmer promised to come to the captain's house in the morning and help about the Christmas tree, and in the afternoon to go to get the little girl from Mrs. Crumley's and bring her to the house.
Captain Eli was delighted with the arrangements. "Things now seem to be goin' along before a spankin' breeze,"said he. "But I don't know about the dinner. I guess you will have to leave that to me. I don't believe Captain Cephas could eat a woman- cooked dinner. He's accustomed to livin sailor fashion, you know, and he has declared over and over again to me that woman- cookin' doesn't agree with him."
"But I can cook sailor fashion," said Mrs. Trimmer,--"just as much sailor fashion as you or Captain Cephas, and if he don't believe it, I'll prove it to him; so you needn't worry about that."
When the captain had gone, Mrs. Trimmer gayly put away the sail. There was no need to finish it in a hurry, and no knowing when she would get her money for it when it was done. No one had asked her to a Christmas dinner that year, and she had expected to have a lonely time of it. But it would be very pleasant to spend Christmas with the little girl and the two good captains. Instead of sewing any more on the sail, she got out some of her own clothes to see if they needed anything done to them.
The next morning Mrs. Trimmer went to Captain Eli's house, and finding Captain Cephas there, they all set to work at the Christmas tree, which was a very fine one, and had been planted in a box. Captain Cephas had brought over a bundle of things from his house, and Captain Eli kept running here and there, bringing, each time that he returned, some new object, wonderful or pretty, which he had brought from China or Japan or Corea, or some spicy island of the Eastern seas; and nearly every time he came with these treasures Mrs. Trimmer declared that such things were too good to put upon a Christmas tree, even for such a nice little girl as the one for which that tree was intended. The presents which Captain Cephas brought were much more suitable for the purpose; they were odd and funny, and some of them pretty, but not expensive, as were the fans and bits of shellwork and carved ivories which Captain Eli wished to tie upon the twigs of the tree.
There was a good deal of talk about all this, but Captain Eli had his own way.
"I don't suppose, after all," said he, "that the little gal ought to have all the things. This is such a big tree that it's more like a family tree. Cap'n Cephas can take some of my things, and I can take some of his things, and, Mrs. Trimmer, if there's anything you like, you can call it your present and take it for your own, so that will be fair and comfortable all round. What I want is to make everybody satisfied."
"I'm sure I think they ought to be," said Mrs. Trimmer, looking very kindly at Captain Eli.
Mrs. Trimmer went home to her own house to dinner, and in the afternoon she brought the little girl. She had said there ought to be an early supper, so that the child would have time to enjoy the Christmas tree before she became sleepy.
This meal was prepared entirely by Captain Eli, and in sailor fashion, not woman fashion, so that Captain Cephas could make no excuse for eating his supper at home. Of course they all ought to be together the whole of that Christmas eve. As for the big dinner on the morrow, that was another affair, for Mrs. Trimmer undertook to make Captain Cephas understand that she had always cooked for Captain Trimmer in sailor fashion, and if he objected to her plum-duff, or if anybody else objected to her mince-pie, she was going to be very much surprised.
Captain Cephas ate his supper with a good relish, and was still eating when the rest had finished. As to the Christmas tree, it was the most valuable, if not the most beautiful, that had ever been set up in that region. It had no candles upon it, but was lighted by three lamps and a ship's lantern placed in the four corners of the room, and the little girl was as happy as if the tree were decorated with little dolls and glass balls. Mrs. Trimmer was intensely pleased and interested to see the child so happy, and Captain Eli was much pleased and interested to see the child and Mrs. Trimmer so happy, and Captain Cephas was interested, and perhaps a little amused in a superior fashion, to see Captain Eli and Mrs. Trimmer and the little child so happy.
Then the distribution of the presents began. Captain Eli asked Captain Cephas if he might have the wooden pipe that the latter had brought for his present. Captain Cephas said he might take it, for all he cared, and be welcome to it. Then Captain Eli gave Captain Cephas a red bandanna handkerchief of a very curious pattern, and Captain Cephas thanked him kindly. After which Captain Eli bestowed upon Mrs. Trimmer a most beautiful tortoise-shell comb, carved and cut and polished in a wonderful way, and with it he gave a tortoise-shell fan, carved in the same fashion, because he said the two things seemed to belong to each other and ought to go together; and he would not listen to one word of what Mrs. Trimmer said about the gifts being too good for her, and that she was not likely ever to use them.
"It seems to me," said Captain Cephas, "that you might be giving something to the little gal."
Then Captain Eli remembered that the child ought not to be forgotten, and her soul was lifted into ecstasy by many gifts, some of which Mrs. Trimmer declared were too good for any child in this wide, wide world. But Captain Eli answered that they could be taken care of by somebody until the little girl was old enough to know their value.
Then it was discovered that, unbeknown to anybody else, Mrs. Trimmer had put some presents on the tree, which were things which had been brought by Captain Trimmer from somewhere in the far East or the distant West. These she bestowed upon Captain Cephas and Captain Eli. And the end of all this was that in the whole of Sponkannis, from the foot of the bluff to the east, to the very last house on the shore to the west, there was not one Christmas eve party so happy as this one.
Captain Cephas was not quite so happy as the three others were, but he was very much interested. About nine o'clock the party broke up, and the two captains put on their caps and buttoned up their pea-jackets, and started for Captain Cephas's house, but not before Captain Eli had carefully fastened every window and every door except the front door, and had told Mrs. Trimmer how to fasten that when they had gone, and had given her a boatswain's whistle, which she might blow out of the window if there should be a sudden croup and it should be necessary for any one to go anywhere. He was sure he could hear it, for the wind was exactly right for him to hear a whistle from his house. When they had gone Mrs. Trimmer put the little girl to bed, and was delighted to find in what a wonderfully neat and womanlike fashion that house was kept.
It was nearly twelve o'clock that night when Captain Eli, sleeping in his bunk opposite that of Captain Cephas, was aroused by hearing a sound. He had been lying with his best ear uppermost, so that he should hear anything if there happened to be anything to hear. He did hear something, but it was not a boatswain's whistle; it was a prolonged cry, and it seemed to come from the sea.
In a moment Captain Eli was sitting on the side of his bunk, listening intently. Again came the cry. The window toward the sea was slightly open, and he heard it plainly.
"Cap'n! " said he, and at the word Captain Cephas was sitting on the side of his bunk, listening. He knew from his companion's attitude, plainly visible in the light of a lantern which hung on a hook at the other end of the room, that he had been awakened to listen. Again came the cry.
"That's distress at sea," said Captain Cephas. "Harken!"
They listened again for nearly a minute, when the cry was repeated.
"Bounce on deck, boys!" said Captain Cephas, getting out on the floor. "There's some one in distress off shore."
Captain Eli jumped to the floor, and began to dress quickly.
"It couldn't be a call from land?" he asked hurriedly. "It don't sound a bit to you like a boatswain's whistle, does it?"
"No," said Captain Cephas, disdainfully. "It's a call from sea." Then, seizing a lantern, he rushed down the companionway.
As soon as he was convinced that it was a call from sea, Captain Eli was one in feeling and action with Captain Cephas. The latter hastily opened the draughts of the kitchen stove, and put on some wood, and by the time this was done Captain Eli had the kettle filled and on the stove. Then they clapped on their caps and their pea-jackets, each took an oar from a corner in the back hall, and together they ran down to the beach.
The night was dark, but not very cold, and Captain Cephas had been to the store that morning in his boat.
Whenever he went to the store, and the weather permitted, he rowed there in his boat rather than walk. At the bow of the boat, which was now drawn up on the sand, the two men stood and listened. Again came the cry from the sea.
"It's something ashore on the Turtle-back Shoal," said Captain Cephas.
"Yes," said Captain Eli, "and it's some small craft, fer that cry is down pretty nigh to the water."
"Yes," said Captain Cephas. "And there's only one man aboard, or else they'd take turns a-hollerin'."
"He's a stranger," said Captain Eli, "or he wouldn't have tried, even with a cat-boat, to get in over that shoal on ebb- tide."
As they spoke they ran the boat out into the water and jumped in, each with an oar. Then they pulled for the Turtle-back Shoal.
Although these two captains were men of fifty or thereabout, they were as strong and tough as any young fellows in the village, and they pulled with steady strokes, and sent the heavy boat skimming over the water, not in a straight line toward the Turtle-back Shoal, but now a few points in the darkness this way, and now a few points in the darkness that way, then with a great curve to the south through the dark night, keeping always near the middle of the only good channel out of the bay when the tide was ebbing.
Now the cries from seaward had ceased, but the two captains were not discouraged.
"He's heard the thumpin' of our oars," said Captain Cephas.
"He's listenin', and he'll sing out again if he thinks we're goin' wrong," said Captain Eli. "Of course he doesn't know anything about that."
And so when they made the sweep to the south the cry came again, and Captain Eli grinned. "We needn't to spend no breath hollerin'," said he. "He'll hear us makin' fer him in a minute."
When they came to head for the shoal they lay on their oars for a moment, while Captain Cephas turned the lantern in the bow, so that its light shone out ahead. He had not wanted the shipwrecked person to see the light when it would seem as if the boat were rowing away from him. He had heard of castaway people who became so wild when they imagined that a ship or boat was going away from them that they jumped overboard.
When the two captains reached the shoal, they found there a cat-boat aground, with one man aboard. His tale was quickly told. He had expected to run into the little bay that afternoon, but the wind had fallen, and in trying to get in after dark, and being a stranger, he had run aground. If he had not been so cold, he said, he would have been willing to stay there till the tide rose; but he was getting chilled, and seeing a light not far away, he concluded to call for help as long as his voice held out.
The two captains did not ask many questions. They helped anchor the cat-boat, and then they took the man on their boat and rowed him to shore. He was getting chilled sitting out there doing nothing, and so when they reached the house they made him some hot grog, and promised in the morning, when the tide rose, they would go out and help him bring his boat in. Then Captain Cephas showed the stranger to a bunk, and they all went to bed. Such experiences had not enough of novelty to the good captains to keep them awake five minutes.
In the morning they were all up very early, and the stranger, who proved to be a seafaring man with bright blue eyes, said that, as his cat-boat seemed to be riding all right at its anchorage, he did not care to go out after her just yet. Any time during flood-tide would do for him, and he had some business that he wanted to attend to as soon as possible.
This suited the two captains very well, for they wished to be on hand when the little girl discovered her stocking.
"Can you tell me," said the stranger, as he put on his cap, "where I can find a Mrs. Trimmer, who lives in this village?"
At these words all the sturdy stiffness which, from his youth up, had characterized the legs of Captain Eli entirely went out of them, and he sat suddenly upon a bench. For a few moments there was silence.
Then Captain Cephas, who thought some answer should be made to the question, nodded his head.
"I want to see her as soon as I can," said the stranger. "I have come to see her on particular business that will be a surprise to her. I wanted to be here before Christmas began, and that's the reason I took that cat-boat from Stetford, because I thought I'd come quicker that way than by land. But the wind fell, as I told you. If either one of you would be good enough to pilot me to where Mrs. Trimmer lives, or to any point where I can get a sight of the place, I'd be obliged."
Captain Eli rose and with hurried but unsteady steps went into the house (for they had been upon the little piazza), and beckoned to his friend to follow. The two men stood in the kitchen and looked at each other. The face of Captain Eli was of the hue of a clam-shell.
"Go with him, cap'n," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I can't do it."
"To your house?" inquired the other.
"Of course. Take him to my house. There ain't no other place where she is. Take him along."
Captain Cephas's countenance wore an air of the deepest concern, but he thought that the best thing to do was to get the stranger away.
As they walked rapidly toward Captain Eli's house there was very little said by either Captain Cephas or the stranger. The latter seemed anxious to give Mrs. Trimmer a surprise, and not to say anything which might enable another person to interfere with his project.
The two men had scarcely stepped upon the piazza when Mrs. Trimmer, who had been expecting early visitors, opened the door. She was about to call out "Merry Christmas!" but, her eyes falling upon a stranger, the words stopped at her lips. First she turned red, then she turned pale, and Captain Cephas thought she was about to fall. But before she could do this the stranger had her in his arms. She opened her eyes, which for a moment she had closed, and, gazing into his face, she put her arms around his neck. Then Captain Cephas came away, without thinking of the little girl and the pleasure she would have in discovering her Christmas stocking.
When he had been left alone, Captain Eli sat down near the kitchen stove, close to the very kettle which he had filled with water to heat for the benefit of the man he had helped bring in from the sea, and, with his elbows on his knees and his fingers in his hair, he darkly pondered.
"If I'd only slept with my hard-o'-hearin' ear up," he said to himself, "I'd never have heard it."
In a few moments his better nature condemned this thought.
"That's next to murder," he muttered, "fer he couldn't have kept himself from fallin' asleep out there in the cold, and when the tide riz held have been blowed out to sea with this wind. If I hadn't heard him, Captain Cephas never would, fer he wasn't primed up to wake, as I was."
But, notwithstanding his better nature, Captain Eli was again saying to himself, when his friend returned, "If I'd only slept with my other ear up!"
Like the honest, straightforward mariner he was, Captain Cephas made an exact report of the facts. "They was huggin' when I left them," he said, "and I expect they went indoors pretty soon, fer it was too cold outside. It's an all-fired shame she happened to be in your house, cap'n, that's all I've got to say about it. It's a thunderin' shame."
Captain Eli made no answer. He still sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands in his hair.
"A better course than you laid down fer these Christmas times was never dotted on a chart," continued Captain Cephas. "From port of sailin' to port of entry you laid it down clear and fine. But it seems there was rocks that wasn't marked on the chart."
"Yes," groaned Captain Eli, "there was rocks."
Captain Cephas made no attempt to comfort his friend, but went to work to get breakfast.
When that meal--a rather silent one--was over, Captain Eli felt better. "There was rocks," he said, "and not a breaker to show where they lay, and I struck 'em bow on. So that's the end of that voyage. But I've tuk to my boats, cap'n, I've tuk to my boats."
"I'm glad to hear you've tuk to your boats," said Captain Cephas, with an approving glance upon his friend.
About ten minutes afterwards Captain Eli said, "I'm goin' up to my house."
"By yourself?" said the other.
"Yes, by myself. I'd rather go alone. I don't intend to mind anything, and I'm goin' to tell her that she can stay there and spend Christmas,--the place she lives in ain't no place to spend Christmas,--and she can make the little gal have a good time, and go 'long just as we intended to go 'long--plum-duff and mince-pie all the same. I can stay here, and you and me can have our Christmas dinner together, if we choose to give it that name.
And if she ain't ready to go to-morrow, she can stay a day or two longer. It's all the same to me, if it's the same to you, cap'n."
Captain Cephas having said that it was the same to him, Captain Eli put on his cap and buttoned up his pea-jacket, declaring that the sooner he got to his house the better, as she might be thinking that she would have to move out of it now that things were different.
Before Captain Eli reached his house he saw something which pleased him. He saw the sea-going stranger, with his back toward him, walking rapidly in the direction of the village store.
Captain Eli quickly entered his house, and in the doorway of the room where the tree was he met Mrs. Trimmer, beaming brighter than any morning sun that ever rose.
"Merry Christmas!" she exclaimed, holding out both her hands. "I've been wondering and wondering when you'd come to bid me `Merry Christmas'--the merriest Christmas I've ever had."
Captain Eli took her hands and bid her "Merry Christmas" very gravely.
She looked a little surprised. "What's the matter, Captain Eli?" she exclaimed. "You don't seem to say that as if you meant it."
"Oh, yes, I do," he answered. "This must be an all-fired--I mean a thunderin' happy Christmas fer you, Mrs. Trimmer."
"Yes," said she, her face beaming again. "And to think that it should happen on Christmas day--that this blessed morning, before anything else happened, my Bob, my only brother, should--"
"Your what!" roared Captain Eli, as if he had been shouting orders in a raging storm.
Mrs. Trimmer stepped back almost frightened. "My brother," said she. "Didn't he tell you he was my brother--my brother Bob, who sailed away a year before I was married, and who has been in Africa and China and I don't know where? It's so long since I heard that he'd gone into trading at Singapore that I'd given him up as married and settled in foreign parts. And here he has come to me as if he'd tumbled from the sky on this blessed Christmas morning."
Captain Eli made a step forward, his face very much flushed.
"Your brother, Mrs. Trimmer--did you really say it was your brother?"
"Of course it is," said she. "Who else could it be?" Then she paused for a moment and looked steadfastly at the captain.
"You don't mean to say, Captain Eli," she asked, "that you thought it was--"
"Yes, I did," said Captain Eli, promptly.
Mrs. Trimmer looked straight in the captain's eyes, then she looked on the ground. Then she changed color and changed back again.
"I don't understand," she said hesitatingly, "why--I mean what difference it made."
"Difference!" exclaimed Captain Eli. "It was all the difference between a man on deck and a man overboard--that's the difference it was to me. I didn't expect to be talkin' to you so early this Christmas mornin', but things has been sprung on me, and I can't help it I just want to ask you one thing: Did you think I was gettin' up this Christmas tree and the Christmas dinner and the whole business fer the good of the little gal, and fer the good of you, and fer the good of Captain Cephas?"
Mrs. Trimmer had now recovered a very fair possession of herself. "Of course I did," she answered, looking up at him as she spoke. "Who else could it have been for!"
"Well," said he, "you were mistaken. It wasn't fer any one of you. It was all fer me--fer my own self."
"You yourself?" said she. "I don't see how."
"But I see how," he answered. "It's been a long time since I wanted to speak my mind to you, Mrs. Trimmer, but I didn't ever have no chance. And all these Christmas doin's was got up to give me the chance not only of speakin' to you, but of showin' my colors better than I could show them in any other way. Everything went on a-skimmin' till this mornin', when that stranger that we brought in from the shoal piped up and asked fer you. Then I went overboard--at least, I thought I did--and sunk down, down, clean out of soundin's."
"That was too bad, captain," said she, speaking very gently, "after all your trouble and kindness."
"But I don't know now," he continued, "whether I went overboard or whether I am on deck. Can you tell me, Mrs. Trimmer?"
She looked up at him. Her eyes were very soft, and her lips trembled just a little. "It seems to me, captain," she said, "that you are on deck--if you want to be."
The captain stepped closer to her. "Mrs. Trimmer," said he, "is that brother of yours comin' back?"
"Yes," she answered, surprised at the sudden question. "He's just gone up to the store to buy a shirt and some things. He got himself splashed trying to push his boat off last night."
"Well, then," said Captain Eli, "would you mind tellin' him when he comes back that you and me's engaged to be married? I don't know whether I've made a mistake in the lights or not, but would you mind tellin' him that?"
Mrs. Trimmer looked at him. Her eyes were not so soft as they had been, but they were brighter. "I'd rather you'd tell him that yourself," said she.
The little girl sat on the floor near the Christmas tree, just finishing a large piece of red-and-white candy which she had taken out of her stocking. "People do hug a lot at Christmas- time," said she to herself. Then she drew out a piece of blue- and-white candy and began on that.
Captain Cephas waited a long time for his friend to return, and at last he thought it would be well to go and look for him. When he entered the house he found Mrs. Trimmer sitting on the sofa in the parlor, with Captain Eli on one side of her and her brother on the other, and each of them holding one of her hands.
"It looks as if I was in port, don't it?" said Captain Eli to his astonished friend. "Well, here I am, and here's my fust mate," inclining his head toward Mrs. Trimmer. "And she's in port too, safe and sound. And that strange captain on the other side of her, he's her brother Bob, who's been away for years and years, and is just home from Madagascar."
"Singapore," amended Brother Bob.
Captain Cephas looked from one to the other of the three occupants of the sofa, but made no immediate remark. Presently a smile of genial maliciousness stole over his face, and he asked, "How about the poor little gal? Have you sent her back to Mrs. Crumley's?"
The little girl came out from behind the Christmas tree, her stocking, now but half filled, in her hand. "Here I am," she said. "Don't you want to give me a Christmas hug, Captain Cephas? You and me's the only ones that hasn't had any."
The Christmas dinner was as truly and perfectly a sailor- cooked meal as ever was served on board a ship or off it. Captain Cephas had said that, and when he had so spoken there was no need of further words.
It was nearly dark that afternoon, and they were all sitting around the kitchen fire, the three seafaring men smoking, and Mrs. Trimmer greatly enjoying it. There could be no objection to the smell of tobacco in this house so long as its future mistress enjoyed it. The little girl sat on the floor nursing a Chinese idol which had been one of her presents.
"After all," said Captain Eli, meditatively, "this whole business come out of my sleepin' with my best ear up. Fer if I'd slept with my hard-o'-hearin' ear up--" Mrs. Trimmer put one finger on his lips. "All right," said Captain Eli, "I won't say no more. But it would have been different."
Even now, several years after that Christmas, when there is no Mrs. Trimmer, and the little girl, who has been regularly adopted by Captain Eli and his wife, is studying geography, and knows more about latitude and longitude than her teacher at school, Captain Eli has still a slight superstitious dread of sleeping with his best ear uppermost.
"Of course it's the most all-fired nonsense," he says to himself over and over again. Nevertheless, he feels safer when it is his "hard-o'-hearin' ear" that is not upon the pillow.