OCTOBER was drawing to a close, and the shores of Deep Cove had a sombre and forbidding aspect; soft purple shadows lurked amid the slowly turning foliage of the oaks and apple-trees overhanging the waters, and above the crest of the hill one might see here and there the bare branches of some solitary maple outlined black against the hard gray of the autumn sky. A strong northwest wind was blowing, and far back in all the little bays and inlets, the waves had been covered with white caps throughout the day. It was now almost evening, and the tide, running out around the Point at Wanasquam, left visible the twisting channel which flowed, leaden and sullen, between slippery masses of brownish-green eel-grass.
The sun had just set, leaving a threatening red edge to fringe the heavy clouds that lowered over the sand-hills across the harbor, when a young woman carrying a load of sketching materials came forward from under the trees, and leaping from stone to stone, deposited her burden on the flat top of a great boulder that lay far out on the edge of the current. She stood there for some time noting the dark red shadows on the black buildings of the opposite wharf; the wind, flapping her heavy skirts in spiral folds about her and roaring stoutly in the branches of the oaks behind, so filled her ears with its din that she was wholly unconscious of the approach of a small dory, and deaf to the first greeting of the old man who rowed it. Leaning forward on his oars he waited, turning upward his thin bronzed face with a smile of mingled approval and derision.
“When you’ve got done admirin’ the coal wharf, we’ll just start home!” he shouted at last. “Mrs. Banks’ll be waitin’ supper.” The girl turned, and with very little show of hurry, handed down to him her sketching materials.
“Have you been here long?” she asked.
“Long enough — Be careful! By King and Great Judas, you had a close, shave that time!” he exclaimed, somewhat angrily, for letting herself as far down the face of the rock as she dared, the girl had jumped lightly into the boat and seated herself in the stern.
“The doctor must have had long legs,” she said, looking at him with a shade of triumph in her eyes.
“It don’t make any difference what kind of legs he had,” answered the old man, crossly. “’Tain’t safe to jump into a dory that way unless you know how.”
“But did he have long legs?”
“Oh, leave his legs alone!” said Captain Banks. “I’m sick of him. You haven’t let a day go by, since you came in June, without pesterin’ me about the doctor, or the Doctor’s Rock. I have told you all I mean to.”
The girl looked at him mischievously. “It is your last chance, you know,” she said; “I am going with the Sanbornes to-morrow. I hope Mrs. Banks broke the news to you gently.”
Banks’s eyes shifted; he looked out over the water with affected unconsciousness, while a slow, provoking smile pervaded every feature.
“I know it is a blow to you,” continued she. “Do not hesitate to let your natural grief have its course.”
“Thank you,” he answered, dryly, “but I’m not goin’ to give way till you’re out of sight;” and falling to with a sudden access of vigor, he sent the dory flying gayly along toward an old gambrel-roofed house on the next cove, rounding in at the pier with a turn equivalent to a whole flourish of trumpets. Something seemed to be pleasing the old man, for, as the girl turned at the head of the ladder to take her sketches, she caught him furtively wiping his mouth to hide an irrepressible grin.
“Be along to supper pretty soon?” he asked, carelessly. “Mrs. Banks expects you. Mrs. Sanborne fixed it all up with her when she left.”
“Mrs. Sanborne!” said the girl, with a movement of surprise. “She has not gone! Do you mean to say that she has left me alone in this dismal house with no one but the cook?”
“Well, no—” said Banks, with an air of virtuous candor; “she hasn’t, because she had a row with the cook after breakfast, and the cook—she left first.”
The girl stood still. Some long streamers of chestnut hair had blown from under her close-fitting boy’s cap, and the wind tossed them wildly about her face; drawing her heavy eyebrows angrily together, she frowned down upon him resentfully.
A look of curiosity and of horror slowly replaced the smile on the old man’s face.
“By Godfrey Dumm Sir!” he said, in a slow, reflective voice. “You’d ought to sit for a photograph of the knocker.”
Annoyed and provoked, Miss Langford turning away in silence, crossed through the tangled grass and mounted the three rough-hewn steps at the rear entrance of the house; from the upper panel of the door a small, scowling Medusa face vividly reflected the expression of her own. Raising herself on tiptoe, she gazed intently at its stormy features.
“He may be right,” she said, thoughtfully. “How did it come here?” and turning the knob she entered, reluctantly. A long, narrow hall, with a door at either end, ran directly through the middle of the house. At the front, in the far corner, stood a tall clock of some dark reddish wood; she moved toward it and tried to read the hour, but its gray face glimmered dim and undistinguishable in the shadows.
Drawing back the little curtain that hung at the side-light of the front door, she pressed close to the glass and looked out. Between the house and the water, the few trees that stood on the lawn were rocking slowly in the wind, and beyond, long stretches of marsh and winding channel spread out toward the low hills that in the gathering darkness dimly marked the horizon. Shuddering slightly, she turned away. A last, pale remnant of day shone through the glass that framed in the door through which she had entered; faint creaking noises issued from the dusky rooms on either hand, and the ticking of the old clock became aggressive. She looked up with startled eyes. “I am not frightened,” she said to herself, dubiously, as she carefully felt her way down the hall again. Suddenly a shutter somewhere noisily swung open in the wind; with a great start she sprang forward, catching her arm as she did so in a dangling cord at the stairway which set in motion a small, angry bell. Its sudden, fretful remonstrance completed her panic and followed her half-way up the avenue, as she fled to the gate that opened upon the highway.
On the other side of the road Captain John Banks’s house, with the usual inaccessible front door, stood terraced high at the brink of a little quarry. Miss Langford had a moment of indecision, but in her present state of mind the thought of the house on the cove was insupportable; half laughing at her own cowardice, she raced up the slope that led to the kitchen.
Old lady Banks—something in the little woman’s refined, delicate face and gentle speech, had earned her the title—stood in the door waiting for her.
“I was just coming down for you,” she said. “They’ve played you a nice trick, haven’t they?” and her manner was almost deprecatory. Miss Langford stood straight and irresponsive.
“I am sorry to put you to this trouble,” she said, coldly.
“It is no trouble at all,” answered the older woman, eagerly. “We have a nice room with a warm fire. I’d be glad to have you stay a month if you wanted to.”
“I must go to-morrow,” said the girl, seating herself at the small table prepared for her at the window, “and—I shall stay down at the other house to-night to do my packing.” She was committed to it now, and her courage rose distinctly.
“Oh! you can’t do that!” cried Mrs. Banks, in great distress. “You must not think of it;” but Miss Langford went on with her supper, unmoved.
“You can’t possibly stay there alone!” repeated Mrs. Banks, her voice trembling and her eyelids twitching nervously. “I am going to speak to Banks about it.” She hurried out to the barn, where her husband was milking the cow.
“She is angry,” said Mrs. Banks.
“Fumin’,” said he, chuckling audibly but not raising his head. “Never saw her in such a temper before. Great Judas! if she didn’t nearly scare me out of my senses looking like that confounded knocker come to life.”
“I am sorry,” returned his wife; “she has been so friendly.”
“Great King! ain’t I sorry, too?” queried Banks, defensively. “But she’s been so darn lively all summer—pretendin’ I was in love with her—” Here he stopped milking, and with a characteristic gesture drew his horny hand across his smooth-shaven mouth. “Still, I can’t say it ain’t a satisfaction to see her brought up short. Come bad, come good, nothin’s seemed to faze her for the last four months. “’Tain’t natural.”
“No,” said his wife, with a sudden sigh; “I suppose it isn’t. She has been happy.”
He looked up keenly. “What is the matter now?” he asked, abruptly.
“She says she is going to stay down there all night.”
“By—Cuss!” It was his most solemn asseveration.
“She’s set on it,” said Mrs. Banks, helplessly. “What shall we do?”
“Do? We can’t do anything,” answered Banks, irritably. “That girl’s as obstinate as a little mule when she’s once made up her mind.”
“I’ll have to tell her.”
“You’ll have to do nothin’ of the kind!” answered Banks. “That’s my house, and I’m not goin’ to have the rentin’ of it spoiled. Besides, who’s ever seen anything?”
“Nobody’s seen anything,” said his wife, “but they have felt things. Why, you wouldn’t be hired yourself to stay down there at night when the weather comes on like this in October!”
“I’d stay down there this very night if I hadn’t ’a’ promised the Browns to go out with them after herrin’.” And Banks rose with the brimming milk-pail in his hand.
“Oh, not to-night! not to-night!” cried his wife, catching his arm. “It’s coming. I feel it.”
“Trash!” said Banks. “What’s comin’? I don’t believe a word of it, and if it does come—” he smiled grimly—“she’s been possessed about the doctor all summer; let her find out something for herself.”
“Yet you pretend to like her!” exclaimed Mrs. Banks, indignantly, leaving him and returning to the house; but the girl was gone.
Dreading interference, Miss Langford had hastily finished her supper and hurried down to the house on the cove. The wind had increased; she could hear the water lashing against the pier; to her left a dull red arc in the sky, reflected from the lights of the city further along the coast, lit up the horizon, and added menace to the scudding clouds overhead; dry leaves whirled by her like living things in haste. But her spirits had risen, and the nervousness of the early evening wholly disappeared. Singing, whistling, and talking to herself, she went about the house, lighting the lamps. Long, gleaming reflections shone from the windows far across the waters; inside, a fire crackled cheerfully in the great Franklin stove, and to all without the place put on an air of joyful festivity.
The packing for a whole summer is not done in an hour, or even in two; it was after nine o’clock when Miss Langford tucked the last articles into her trunk-trays, closed the lids, and went downstairs to the sitting-room. Drawing a large leather easy-chair to the fire, she pulled the lamp toward her and opened her book. At the end of half an hour or more she began to be unwontedly alert and watchful; the fire had burned down; she piled it up with fresh logs and fir-cones, but all her jaunty spirits were beginning to desert her. She found herself listening, startled, intent, and became conscious of ominous corners in the narrow hall, which she dared not investigate. A smoking lamp was going out somewhere, but she could not turn her head, and the swollen front door had opened of itself, allowing the wind to blow in upon her shoulders.
“My dear?” The voice, scarcely more than a breath, came from a shadowy figure at the door. “Aren’t you about ready to come up?”
“Mrs. Banks!” The girl sprang to her feet and stood trembling. “How you startled me! But I am not in the least afraid. No; I think I’d better stay where I am. The coach will be here early in the morning.”
“You don’t mean you think of staying here all night?”
Mrs. Banks came forward to the fire and seated herself in one of the tall black chairs.
“Don’t do it!” she entreated.
Miss Langford wavered a moment. “Nothing can hurt me,” she answered.
Mrs. Banks made no answer; for a whole minute she remained silent, thoughtful, struggling with herself.
“You won’t come?” she asked, at last.
The girl shook her head, half smilingly; there was another long pause.
“Then I must stay with you,” answered Mrs. Banks, with a heavy sigh.
“The captain will not know what has become of you,” objected Miss Langford.
“You are not the only wilful fool in ’Squam to-night,” said Mrs. Banks, hotly, borrowing for once something of her husband’s plainness of speech. “Banks is out after herring!” and pressing her lips tightly together, she drew from her pocket a long strip of knitting, and commenced to work.
“May I make a sketch of you?” asked Miss Langford, taking up a pencil and block.
“Well, you may try,” said Mrs. Banks, with a slightly reluctant manner, and the sitting began.
“How still you are!” said the girl.
“Oh, I’ve done it before,” said Mrs. Banks; “when I was young I used to ‘pose’—as he called it—for the doctor by the—” She stopped.
“The doctor was an artist, then?” queried Miss Langford with triumphant curiosity.
“I suppose so,” answered Mrs. Banks, unwillingly.
“I thought that he was a physician. Somebody over in the village told me that the people brought their children to him for miles around, and that he seemed to know by instinct what to do for them.”
“Well, they did,” said Mrs. Banks. “He had a kind of genius for doctoring, but he hated it; painting was his trade.”
“Rather a dangerous kind of genius for the poor children.”
“I don’t see why! He was educated a doctor!”
“So it was only the painting that was poor, then?” said Miss Langford, lightly, holding her little picture off at arm’s length, and half shutting her eyes at it.
Gentle Mrs. Banks seemed thoroughly exasperated. She rose with decision, and drawing from her pocket a bunch of keys, unlocked an old secretary in the corner.
“There,” she said, bringing out a small framed sketch. “Is that what you call poor painting?”
Miss Langford took the picture and studied it intently.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” said the old woman, wistfully.
“Pretty!” exclaimed the girl, and then slowly, without turning her eyes from it, “Why, this is wonderful! Who can have been the—?” As she spoke she held it under the lamp and carefully examined the artist’s signature in the corner. “Ah!” she said, with sudden enlightenment. “Mrs. Banks—” looking up with puzzled brows—“Did the doctor do this?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Banks. “He painted it just thirty-one years ago this summer. I was twenty then.”
The girl glanced at her incredulously.
“You do not mean that you are fifty-one years old?”
“Yes,” answered Mrs. Banks, with a little sigh. “I’m fifty-one! I don’t look it, do I?”
Miss Langford had taken her for seventy! But not being quick at convenient subterfuges, she continued to examine the sketch in silence.
“Are you sure that his name was really Brown?” she asked, laying the picture carefully on the table.
“I’m sure I never called him anything else!” The answer was given somewhat shortly.
The girl looked at her keenly for a moment, and then leaning her elbow on her knee, and resting her chin on her hand, gazed frowning into the fire. She seemed to be trying to recall and reconstruct something in her thoughts.
“Did that knocker on the back door belong to him?” she asked at last, looking Mrs. Banks squarely in the face, as if to prevent evasions.
“Yes”—a little defiantly—“it did. Do you think he stole it?”
Miss Langford smiled. “You needn’t be so touchy,” she said. “I suppose you know it is a wonderful piece of work.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t know anything about ‘work,’” answered Mrs. Banks, as if harping upon an old grievance. “All I know about it is that it isn’t for sale.”
“I shall not again ask you to sell it,” said the girl, haughtily. “I am evidently not rich enough to buy it; but the offer I made you was not a cent less than its full value.”
“There is no fault to find with your offer,” retorted Mrs. Banks; “no honest woman would take all that for a little brownish-green piece of brass. But I should like to know what you want it for.”
“There are reasons,” said Miss Langford, with painful hesitation. “It was a portrait—” She stopped short.
“I don’t want to pry,” apologized Mrs. Banks, “but I’ve always thought that the thing was a portrait. If it wasn’t, it was certainly about the best likeness I ever saw, and of course—if you’ve any better right to it than I, you shall have it.”
“It looks like my mother, and she is dead!” said the girl, with an effort. “But—but—” Without finishing her sentence she rose and went into the hall to close the door, which had again opened silently in a lull of the wind. Returning, she seated herself at the fire; from time to time she raised her eyes as if about to speak, and then changing her mind, fell back into what Mrs. Banks, watching her furtively, called a “study.”
“What was your reason for thinking it a portrait?” she asked at last.
“Because I saw her.”
The girl looked at her, disquieted and uneasy.
“I cannot understand!” she said. “Her? Not Mamma? It was never meant for her.”
“Miss Langford!” exclaimed Mrs. Banks, “you oughtn’t to expect me to tell you. Here you have been all summer trying to find out what you could about the doctor, without once letting me see that you already knew more than—”
“Never mind the doctor!” cried the girl, impatiently. “Why should I care to hear of a man willing to live under an assumed name? But this other—interests me.”
“You’ll not hear about the one without the other,” said Mrs. Banks, sternly. “And as for the doctor’s name being assumed, it was no such thing. It began with the little sick children calling him the “Brown Doctor”—for he used to get about as black as an Indian before summer was half over—and then his own name being a kind of a jaw-breaker, the people just naturally dropped it. Why, even Ezra James, the man who kept this boarding-house then, had the doctor’s real name in writing plain enough at first, but later on he made out all the bills to ‘Doctor Brown;’ I’ve seen them myself. I lived with the James’s from the time I was a child until I left here to teach district school. I’ve a mind to tell you the whole thing. You’ve kind of forced it on me, but if ever the day comes when you’re sorry you’ve heard it, you’ve only got yourself to blame. But, since you don’t care to hear about the doctor, I’ll begin with the lady.
“She came one dismal, misty evening about thirty years ago. I was waiting down on the pier for the men to come in from the fishing. Mrs. James had told me to watch, so that I could let her know when they were in sight, for she meant to have an omelet for the doctor. He had stayed in ’Squam that year later than usual, and James had agreed not to take any new boarders; the doctor hated strangers, and was willing to pay for having the house to himself. It was a lot prettier here then than it is now; the bridge-dam wasn’t built, and this cove stretched away back into the hills. I was looking that way when I saw a boat put out from over on the Gloucester road, with a lady in it. The stage-coach had broken down, and they’d told her we took boarders; so she came to see if she could get a room for the night. I went in and spoke to Mrs. James, who sent me back to say that her rooms were all taken. But the lady had followed me, and was now into the sitting-room. No sooner did Mrs. James lay eyes on her than she went right down before her; and I must say I don’t think I ever saw a sweeter woman myself, or one with a more taking way. Mrs. James gave her the spare chamber, the one over the room behind the one we’re in, and was promising all sorts of things to make her comfortable, when there was a shout by the pier.
“‘My!’ said Mrs. James, starting off. ‘There’s the doctor, and not a sign of an omelet ready.’ And sure enough, there he was, sauntering along the pier, his pipe in his mouth, his hands in the pockets of his reefer, with the kind of a powerful look big men like that ’most always have. I always liked to look at him.
“‘Quick!’ said the lady, ‘show me to my room.’ I turned around fast enough. She was leaning, deadly white, against the chair you’re sitting on. ‘Where can I have seen her before?’ I thought, but she motioned to me to lead the way. I started, feeling as if there was some awful hurry, and when I opened the door at the top of the stairs I was as breathless as though I’d been carried up in a whirlwind. But the lady went by me with a face as unruffled as a child’s.
“‘Do not call anyone,’ she said, softly, and then without another word she sank down on the lounge and fainted away. I never dreamed of disobeying, and before long she came to herself. She had been badly shaken in the upsetting of the coach, she said, and if I did not mind, would like to be quiet until tea-time. Of course I went down-stairs, and there I found that poor Mrs. James had fallen into trouble with the doctor. He came in, she told me afterward, and stood uneasily at the sitting-room door over yonder.
“‘Someone has been here to see me,’ he said, though what made him think so I never could see, and Mrs. James said she had hard work to convince him that it was not so. But when he really found that she had taken a strange lady in for the night, he lost his temper completely, and said that if they didn’t send her on to the hotel at the Point, he’d go there himself.
“‘The lady can’t go to the Point,’ I said. ‘She’s just fainted away.’
“‘Very well,’ said the doctor. ‘Until she does go, I shall take my meals in my room!’
“We sent up his supper, and the next morning, after an early breakfast, he started off to be gone all day. As far as I could see, the lady did not know he was in the house. His room was the one just overhead; it is separated, you know, from the back room that she had by the two closets, and opens into the little middle room. When she asked what her inner door led to, I told her it was only a vacant chamber where our other boarder kept his rubbish. She did not seem much interested, though people generally thought that hidden room, tucked in between those two others, rather a curious thing. She was far from well, to tell the truth, and toward noon she grew so feverish that Mrs. James said she wouldn’t ask her to leave, even if the doctor never set foot in the house again. But he seemed to have changed his mind about that, for toward night he came back, and going up-stairs, slammed his door in a way that made the house rattle. I was downright ashamed of him, but I took him up his supper, for it was plain he didn’t mean to come down. I found him walking to and fro like a tiger in a cage.
“‘When is that woman going?’ he said.
“‘I can’t tell,’ I answered; ‘but I’m sure she doesn’t disturb anybody.’
“‘She does,’ said the doctor; ‘she disturbs me. She makes me intolerably nervous.’
“‘I don’t see how she can,’ said I, ‘when you haven’t seen her.’
“‘It is absurd,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I cannot account for it. Perhaps it is going to storm.’
“Sure enough the next morning it was blowing hard. When I took the doctor his breakfast, he asked to have a luncheon put up, as he meant to be gone all day again.
“‘It’s pretty cold,’ I said, ‘and very rough, a regular gale,’ but he paid no attention. About eight I went up to get his dishes, and found him rummaging about in his bureau drawer.
“‘Those thick shirts are on the shelf of the closet,’ I said. ‘I’ll get you one,’ and I pulled in a chair and mounted it.
“‘Where is my great-coat?’ he called.
“‘Hanging in the middle room,’ said I.
“I suppose, Miss Langford, youve noticed that big round hole in the top of the closet wall? Well, the doctor had it put there for ventilation. It was just on a level with my face, an’ as he opened the door into the little room, I heard something that made me look through. There stood the lady, with one hand on the latch of her door, as if she had just closed it behind her; she seemed terribly frightened; a sort of agony was in her eyes, as she stood with her head back against the panel, and I knew where I had seen her before; she was just like the little knocker that the doctor had put up in the early summer. For a time not a word was spoken. The doctor came a step toward her.
“‘So it is you!’ he said, at last. ‘I might have known it. Why did you come?’
“‘I did not know you were here,’ said the lady, ‘until I saw you the first evening, and I was then too ill to leave the house. After that, when I perceived that I might remain, unknown to you—that I might be near you for a few days—’
“‘You must go back to your family!’ said the doctor; but in spite of the sternness of his words, his voice was tender, and it was about the sweetest voice I ever heard in a man. He looked at her, too, with a kind of adoration, as if he would like to kneel down and worship her; the lady’s face changed also, and melted into a kind of reflection of the look on his.
“‘Oh—’ she called him some strange name I never could remember—‘let me stay just for one day! Surely two old friends like ourselves can meet by accident in a place like this, and spend a few quiet hours together. Just one day, dear—!’ and she came a step or two forward, and held out her hands—‘one little day, a few hours of forgetfulness in the midst of this horrible, horrible life of mine!’
“The doctor shook his head, and at this the lady gave a sharp cry, and dropped her arms to her sides.
“‘Ah!’ she said, ‘you do not care any more!’
“Before the words had left her mouth the doctor strode toward her and took her in his arms; her head fell back upon his shoulder, and he kissed her again and again.
“‘Not care!’ he exclaimed, with an odd little laugh, ‘when for ten years—’
“‘Then let me stay,’ she said, softly, her head thrown back, as she looked up into his face. The doctor, taking hold of her wrists, gently unloosed her hands which she had clasped about his arm.
“‘I cannot,’ he answered, firmly.
“‘I shall not go!’ she said, with a smile.
“‘Then I must,’ he cried, loudly, and before she could stir he had caught up his great-coat and was gone. I heard him clatter down the stairs in his heavy boots, and then in a fright I jumped from my chair and ran to my own room.
“But before long Mrs. James called me and sent me up to the lady’s room with a pitcher of water. I felt as if I couldn’t face her; but when I screwed up my courage to go in, she was reading quietly, though I noticed that the book was shaking in her hand.
“‘I meant to leave to-day,’ she said, her eyes shining and her cheeks red—‘but Mrs. James tells me that a little longer stay will not inconvenience her; so I think of remaining over to-morrow.’
“‘Don’t you think you might as well stick to your first plan?’ I asked, though I felt she might any minute give me a settler for my interference. ‘There is going to be some nasty weather, and this place is dreadfully gloomy and sad in bad weather.’
“‘Do you mean that it is going to storm?’ she asked, looking at me in a nervous kind of a way.
“‘Storm?’ said I, bent on getting her off, ‘don’t you see it’s storming now? Look at the white caps up the cove, and outside it’ll be running harder than this. The wind is rising every minute. Nothing could live in it!’
“‘But I saw a man put off in a little boat from the pier out here, not ten minutes ago!’ said the lady, and she started up and went to the window.
“‘Oh, that must have been the doctor,’ I said. ‘He’s a good sailor. I guess he only wants to see whether his moorings are all right down by the Rock, where he keeps his big boat.’
“‘Where is this Rock?’ said the lady. ‘I think I should like to take a walk. Can’t you show it to me?’
“‘I can’t leave my work,’ I said, ‘or I would; besides you’d better be getting ready. The coach will be here before long.’
“The lady looked me over from head to foot in a way I’d never been looked at before, and throwing on a big cloak, she wrapped something black, with a soft fur edge, around her head and started down-stairs. Pretty soon Mrs. James came after me.
“‘Come down here,’ she said. ‘This lady’s bent on going for a walk. I told her the wind’d blow her off her feet, and it will, if she hasn’t someone with her. She’s as set on her own way as the doctor himself,’ she added, in a whisper.
“The lady was waiting for me just outside the front door, and as the wind blew her hair against the edge of her hood, I noticed that on the deep black of the fur border it showed full of gray.
“‘Where do you want to go?’ I said, and I expect I was pretty sulky, for she looked at me and laughed, as much as to say, ‘Come, I have beaten you fairly. Let us be good friends!’ But she only answered:
“‘I want to see your Doctor’s Rock.’
“‘It’s a pretty long way,’ I said, ‘and not easy walking.’
“We ploughed through the high wet grass and went down the sloping ground toward the shore. Even in that sheltered place the strong wind nearly took us off our feet, and all the bright color went out of the lady’s face. I began to see that she was worn and thin, and older than I had imagined. Just then a sudden gust nearly sent us both over; she reached out and caught my wrist. She had no gloves, and her bare hand burned like fire.
“‘Do you know you’re ill?’ I said. ‘You’ve got a fever.’ By that time we’d come near the shore, and stooping under the trees, went and looked at the Rock. There was the cutter, but the doctor was nowhere in sight.
“‘It would be easy to get out there,’ she said.
“‘Not so easy as you think,’ I answered, ‘for the stones are slippery, and when the tide’s high, it’s plenty deep enough to drown any woman I ever saw.’
“Just then a loud halloo from the direction of Deep Cove made us turn around, and we saw a big dory come sweeping along, rowed by a lot of the men. Banks was steering. ‘Tell Mrs. James there’s a wreck over on Long Beach,’ he shouted; ‘James and the doctor are going with us to help.’
“‘Are there many people on it?’ I called.
“‘Six people,’ yelled Banks, over his shoulder, ‘and a woman!’
“Something in that upset the lady. She sank down suddenly on the wet ground and began to laugh, and then to cry. I was frightened out of my wits. With a dreadful effort she stopped short, and looked up at me panting and breathless.
“‘My poor girl!’ she said, ‘forgive me! I have been ill of late, very ill, and should not have ventured out. Will you try and get me home?’
“It was not an easy task, and by the time we got back again I was worn out, and the lady sank on the stairs unconscious. Mrs. James was worse than no help at all, for as soon as she heard of the wreck, she sent me flying right and left for brandy and flannels, and started off to the light-house to see the fun. And I’ll own that if it hadn’t been for the lady, I’d have been there myself. There wasn’t a single dinner cooked in Wanasquam that day; even the coach didn’t go round—the driver was one of the men in Banks’s dory—so there was no question of the lady’s leaving; but she was too ill for travel, anyhow. All day long she lay on the lounge in her room, and looked out of the window with that horrible, hopeless look on her face; the tears rolled down one by one; she never put up a hand to dry them, and her cheeks burned red with fever. Sometimes she would fall into an uneasy sleep, and sigh and sigh, sobbing like a punished child. From time to time she called the doctor by the queer foreign name she had used in the morning, but the sound of her voice always woke her. She did not want me to stay with her, and so I kept away all I could, coming only when I heard the long sighing that meant she was sleeping.
“It was an awful day. The wind gathered itself up far off and rolled onto us like tumbling breakers, and as the night came on, it seemed to be filled with cries, and shouts, and perishing voices. Mrs. James came home about five o’clock to get something to eat. She said they had not got the people off the wreck yet, and then she took all she could find with her, for the men, and started out again.
“The night came on fast. The wind yelled and howled around us like so many ravening fiends—Oh, not like to-night!” in answer to a gesture from Miss Langford, “though, heaven knows, it’s bad enough now.”
And the two women sat silent for a few moments, listening, as the rising tempest raged outside.
“It is certainly horrible,” said Miss Langford, with a shiver. “Only go on!”
Mrs. Banks did not answer, but continued to look thoughtfully into the fire.
“I never knew exactly how it came about that I should feel so to the lady,” she said, at last. “With the doctor it had been natural; it just grew. I owed him more than I could ever pay. Why, he ’most taught me to read! And many’s the weary night I’d have spent watching down here, if it had not been for the books he gave me. But in spite of the summer-boarders raving about his being a ‘striking-looking man,’ I never could see where the striking part came in, unless it was his eyes; they were blue, his eyes were, for all he was so dark-complected. But his gray hair, and beard, and dark mustache didn’t seem to gee. Still, as I was saying, queer and foreign as he looked, and not to my taste nor to the taste of folks down here, there were times when I’d have died for him, and before that evening was half done I felt the same way to the lady. She grew more and more feverish as night went on, and I fretted over it more than I can say. She refused to move from the lounge, and I did not dare undress; but I went to my room and put on a wrapper, and tried to rest on the bed. I suppose my mind was full of the poor creatures on the wreck, and, besides—” she dropped her voice, and leaned forward. “You’ve not seen awful sorrow in your day, you’re too young. But I have, and I have always felt that same feeling. It wasn’t the thought of the sailors only that filled my mind with cries, and moans, and stifled shrieks; I have heard them often since then, and they can be heard when you come very near any dreadful suffering or grief. And I have wondered if all the air about us might not be full of weeping, mourning souls, and if there weren’t times when we grew liker to them and understood their language? The nights are long down here, and when the men are away on the sea and the house is rocking in the wind, we women think strange things!
“But in spite of the clamor and din all around us that night, I must have fallen into an uneasy sleep, for suddenly a blast like fury shook the very foundations, and in the midst of it someone burst in at the front door and ran up the stairs, leaving everything open behind him. The doctor’s door slammed—it was opposite mine—I jumped to my feet and was hunting for my slippers, when a great shriek rang through the house, a real shriek this time. I did not trouble about my slippers any longer, but ran into the hall. The lamps had all blown out, but as I came to the railing the lady’s door flew open with another such jerk as I had given mine. By the light of the candle that I had left burning there, I saw the doctor break away from her and run two steps at a time down the stairs. He threw open the back door in the lower hall; the blaze of the candle jumped high from the wick and left us in darkness. There was quick rustle of silk against the banister, and I knew that the lady was following him. The door closed behind her, but I could hear her voice above the storm crying that curious name over and over again. Without stopping even to think, I rushed out after her; flying up the avenue, she ran calling, calling—and there was not a glimmer of light on any side. I nearly caught up with her once, and at the little rise in the road, near the gate, I saw her fall. There was some rift in the clouds, or perhaps it may have lightened, for I remember her little white hands flung out to save herself; but the next minute the whole thing was swallowed up in the pitchy night. I tried to follow, but I lost the path and ran so hard against a tree that it knocked me down; still I heard her calling and crying. At times it seemed to be along the Gloucester road, and then again I could have sworn it came from the opposite direction, down by the cove where we had been in the morning; but the darkness and the cut I got—see here, this scar on my cheek is the mark of it—completely bewildered me, and before I knew where I was, I’d waded waist-deep in water, for the tide that night came up among the trees and the pier was completely covered. I had all I could do to find my way back to the house, and there I lay half maddened with anxiety and terror, but too ill from my wetting and loss of blood to move. May I never spend such another night! When I heard James and his wife come home in the early morning, I was almost beyond speaking.
“‘The doctor—’ I called to them.
“‘Oh, is he back?’ said James, outside the door. ‘I’m glad of that!’
“‘My gracious, what a fright we’ve had about him,’ said his wife, coming into the room; but she stopped and looked at me with her eyes popping out of her head. ‘James!’ she cried, ‘she’s all over blood.’
“‘My God!’ said James, coming in. ‘What has happened?’ But I was so broken and weak that I couldn’t seem to make anything clear. They left me alone and I fell asleep. It was after ten when I woke, and I hardly had the strength to get up; but I dressed, and then plastering up my cut the best I could, I dragged myself out into the hall. Some people were standing at the foot of the stairs. I peeped over, and saw a little gentleman in a great fur overcoat talking to Mrs. James, who was crying and sobbing and wringing her hands. I don’t know what he had been saying, but he seemed to have made her feel that if she wasn’t a murderer she must be a thief, and all with the politest, friendliest manners possible. Suddenly, without the least warning, he looked up to where I was standing.
“‘I have the honor to wish you good-morning!’ he said, and took off his hat with a great sweep. He’d kept it on a-purpose while he talked to Mrs. James. The poor woman looked up as if I had been an angel of deliverance.
“‘Come down here,’ she called. ‘This is the lady’s husband.’ I went down slowly, for I seemed to have no strength left. He watched me every step of the way, his little two-colored eyes boring to the marrow of my bones.”
Miss Langford, who had been gazing dreamily into the fire, turned suddenly with a startled expression.
“There was something about that man that made you hate him by instinct,” Mrs. Banks continued.
“‘I have just been the recipient of a double piece of bad news,’ he said. ‘My poor, unfortunate wife, it seems, has wandered off in a fit of mania—a thing against which I thought I had taken every precaution—and good Mrs. James here informs me of the probable death by drowning of a gentleman who is a very old and dear friend of mine—a very old friend, and very dear.’
“‘Oh, Mrs. James,’ I cried, ‘he can’t mean the doctor?’
“Mrs. James nodded, and I sank on the high bottom stair.
“‘This display of affection does credit to you—and him,’ he said. Something in his tone brought me to my feet again, with all the blood left in my body ringing in my ears. ‘But as the last person, presumably, who saw my wife, I must ask you to defer your present grief to urgent necessity. I hope that this really serious wound in your cheek was not inflicted by that beloved but irresponsible hand?’ and he took me by the chin and turned my face none too gently up to his.
“‘No!’ I exclaimed, ‘I did it myself. The lady was no more mad than you are!’ For the touch of his hand stung me to fury, and his two-colored eyes peered down into mine as if he’d ferret out my very soul.”
“What do you mean by ‘two-colored eyes?’” asked Miss Langford, sitting up impatiently.
“Why, he had one brown eye and one blue eye.”
The girl fell back again. She said nothing, but the thick chestnut eyebrows drew together into her accustomed frown, and the hand resting on the arm of the chair slowly clenched until the knuckles showed white on the back of it. Mrs. Banks looked at her curiously, but went on with her story.
“‘You’ll carry the scar to your grave,’ he said. ‘Oh! the generosity of youth! to forgive a blow like that and then defend the giver!’ And fixing me again with his wicked, wicked eyes, he put me through a lot of questions that made my head swim; but I never once lost my wits. I told him when the lady went, where she went, or at least where I thought, and how I started out after her; but I never once mentioned the doctor; and when I’d got done, if looks could kill, I’d have been blasted with lightning on the spot. It was plain to me he didn’t care whether she lived or died, but that the one thing he’d wanted to get out of me he hadn’t found.
“There was a great search made after that; they looked everywhere—but in the sea—and the little gentleman went away insisting upon it that he was still hopeful. A few days later we had a letter from him, saying we’d be glad to hear that everything had turned out ‘in a manner wholly satisfactory.’ I remember the exact words. But she wasn’t found, whatever he meant us to believe.”
Miss Langford started forward.
“But she was found!” she exclaimed. “What are you trying to make me believe? Would a man like that carry on such a deception for years—?” She stopped and a terrified look came into her eyes.
“She was never found! Long after, Banks was dredging around the Doctor’s Rock one day, and he found her little gold bracelet—nothing else. It had got fastened in what was left of the doctor’s old mooring. We sent it to the little gentleman and he returned it, saying it had never belonged to any of his family. I’ve got it up to the other house—and, Miss Langford, I ask no questions—you are wearing the mate to it now!”
The girl hid her arm mechanically in the folds of her dress.
“But this,” she answered, “has been in my family for generations. I never heard of another.”
“The lady had the other on when she stumbled at the gate. I had noticed it, for it’s curious, and I saw it shine. She only wore one—and she was drowned that night.”
“Are you sure?” said the girl, trying to overcome an uncontrollable shudder.
“As sure as I am that God is merciful,” answered the little woman, solemnly.
“And the doctor?”
“We never knew exactly. James told me that the doctor stayed down there doing all that mortal could to get those people off the wreck, and about twelve or one o’clock at night, when nothing had come of it, he swore he’d take them off himself and rushed away. I can’t think what he meant to do, for he knew enough to be sure that it was certain destruction to go out in a boat, and yet the next morning his cutter was found high on Short Beach, a complete wreck; but there was no sign of the doctor.”
“Perhaps it broke away from the moorings and drifted there,” said Miss Langford.
“It couldn’t have,” said Mrs. Banks. “Any man round here’ll tell you that. Banks says he saw it himself, in the murk, tacking down the channel.”
Mrs. Banks said no more; her story was done. The girl rose and walked restlessly about the room.
“Do you feel like going to bed?” asked Mrs. Banks.
“I feel like going crazy!” she answered, fiercely. “What possessed you to invent such a tale as that?”
“Now, look here, Miss Langford,” said Mrs. Banks, decidedly; “does this sound like an invention? You know it don’t, and you know more about the whole thing this very minute than I do. It is not the story itself that’s upset you this way.”
Miss Langford went to the window and stood there staring into the night; the older woman knitted diligently, while the wind outside continued to increase in volume. Thus they remained, each in her own position, and the minutes went by, one after another, stretching into fives, tens, quarters of an hour. The fire was low and the room cold.
“Why did you not tell me this before?” the girl asked, without turning around.
“Because I never felt you’d any call to know,” said Mrs. Banks. “But to-night it’s been borne in on me you’d had a right to, and perhaps it was meant so. ’Tain’t natural to be so set on staying in an old house like this as you have been. I’ve kept watch, year in and year out, for thirty years, and when it’s coming this house is empty, if I can make it so. But I couldn’t compass it this time, though I tried, for your good.”
Miss Langford impatiently shrugged her shoulders.
“I tell you,” said Mrs. Banks, “when this wind comes around and this tide rolls in, the old house is no proper place to stay at; they bring with them—I don’t know what—but you’ll soon find out, for it’s coming now—hark!”
“How horribly it blows,” said the younger woman, under her breath. “The place is fairly rocking.” She stood resting her forehead against the sash. Mrs. Banks rose and glanced quietly at the clock in the hall, and then, going back to her chair, clasped her hands in her lap and sat with bent head and closed eyes.
The wind without kept pushing, pushing, pushing against the house like the shoulder of some great giant, unwilling to put out all his strength. Then the pressure was lifted, and the whole body of the storm rolled onward; but afar off, out at sea, it could be heard gathering new force in a sullen, obstinate roar.
“This is awful!” breathed the girl, not looking away from the window. “Mrs. Banks—?” There was no answer.
Swelling, deep-mouthed, up the channel the blast was returning, and little plaintive, mourning murmurs, as if from voices weary of lamentation, crept in at every cranny and crevice.
“Why are you silent?” cried the girl, impatiently and somewhat loudly, for the roll of the gale had come nearer with every instant. Still no answer. She wheeled about, stood for a second, and then springing to the little woman’s side, shook her violently by the shoulder.
“Mrs. Banks! how dare you? Stop praying instantly. You do it to frighten me. Do you want me to go mad?” Her remonstrance was drowned in the furious outbreak of the tempest. Shrieking like so many demons, its heralds assailed the house, and close in their tracks came the shock and crash of the great blast itself. The front door flew open, and in an instant the room was in darkness. A faint glow from the embers in the fireplace shone vaguely on Mrs. Banks’s bowed head, on her worn clasped hands and silently moving lips—the only still spot in all that appalling orgy of sound. Half-crazed, the young girl ran toward the hall, but drew back with a harsh rattle of terror in her throat.
“Something went by me!” she said, hoarsely, and the wind, like a heavy tread, went clattering up the stairs, while all the air was full of its whistling, piercing, maddening turmoil. The door of the room overhead opened, but it immediately swung violently to, and the upper floor trembled as with the passing of heavy feet. Then came a lull in the tumult, and through the house there rang a different sound, a sound of another quality—human, broken-hearted—a long, terrible, wailing cry. The girl fell on her knees by the door of the room, and at the fireside Mrs. Banks’s motionless figure began to shake a little as she faltered forth aloud the scraps of prayer she had been repeating to herself. The wind had revived the dying embers to a stronger glow, and the wash of the waters and the rustle of dead leaves came in from the outside world. But the quiet was short-lived. With another wild gust down the stairway came the heavy reckless tread, as of one careless of all but haste, flinging out into the night with a violence that made the knocker resound hollow throughout the house; and following after, softly rustling, like silken garments, or perhaps like the swirl of autumn leaves, something flew madly in pursuit.
The girl at the door stretched forth her arms, gave a short cry, and fell forward on her face; but back to her ears, fainter and fainter with each repetition, came a voice calling again and again some strange musical name in every accent of despairing sorrow. Further and further the sounds receded—and the old house was silent.
Reaching forward, cramped and stiff from long continuance in one position, the old woman softly laid a handful of pine cones on the embers. The room took on a sudden glow.
Slowly the girl on the floor raised herself on her hands, and then to her knees; sinking backward she pressed her palms to her temples, and swaying slightly from side to side with a look of horror in her eyes, and yet with relief in her tones, she murmured:
“It was not Mamma! It was not Mamma!”
“Did you see anything?” asked Mrs. Banks, in an awe-struck whisper.
The girl rose slowly to her feet, tottered toward the table, bracing herself against it in a cruel struggle for self-control.
Mrs. Banks leaned forward, her hands clutching the arms of her chair, her old face haggard and sunken.
“What did you see?” she demanded, hoarsely.
“Nothing,” said Miss Langford, after a moment’s hesitation.
There was a long silence.
“Very well!” said Mrs. Banks. “Have it your own way. But I know better!”
“As Haggards of the Rock” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
Scribner’s Magazine v. 7, no. 5, May 1890; reprinted in
A Truce, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1895; second
edition edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2008 by Brian Kunde.