Story type: Literature
Last winter was socially the most disgusting that I remember ever having known, because everybody lost money, except Sally’s father and mine. We didn’t, of course, mind how much money our friends lost–they always had plenty left; but we hated to have them talk about it, and complain all the time, and say that it was the President’s fault, or poor John Rockefeller’s, or Senator So-and-so’s, or the life insurance people’s. When a man loses money it is, as a matter of fact, almost always his own fault. I said so at the beginning of last winter, and I say so still. And Sally, who is too lazy to think up original remarks, copied it from me and made no bones about saying it to all the people she knew who she thought needed that kind of comfort. But perhaps, now that I think of it, Sally and I may have contributed to making the winter socially disgusting. Be that as it may, we were the greatest sufferers.
We moved to Idle Island in September. And we were so delighted with what the architects, and landscape-gardeners, and mosquito doctors had done to make it habitable; with the house itself, and the grape-house, and greenhouses, and gardens, and pergolas, and marble columns from Athens, and terraces, and in-and-out door tennis-courts, and swimming-pools, and boat-houses, and golf links, and all the other country-place necessities, and particularly with a line of the most comfortable lounging-chairs and divans in the world, that we decided to spend the winter there. Sally telephoned to my father’s secretary and asked him to spend the winter with us, and make out lists for week-end parties, and to be generally civil and useful. The secretary said that he would be delighted to come if he could persuade my father and mother to go abroad for the winter; and later he called Sally up, and said that he had persuaded them.
Well, from the first our week-end parties were failures. On the first Friday in October the President of the United States said that he hated cheats and liars (only he mentioned names) and the stock-market went to smash. Saturday it was still in a messy state, and the people who came out Saturday afternoon couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about anything else. They came by the 4:30 to Stepping-Stone, and were ferried over to the island in the motor boat. Sally and I rode down to the pier in the jinrikishas that my father’s secretary had had imported for us for a wedding present; and, I give you my word, the motor-boat as it slowed into the pier looked like an excursion steamer out to view the beauties of the Hudson. Everybody on board was hidden behind a newspaper.
“Fong,” said Sally to her jinrikisha man, “take me back to the house.”
He turned and trotted off with her, and they disappeared under the elms.
“Just because your guests aren’t interested in you,” I called after her, “is no reason why you shouldn’t be interested in them.”
But she didn’t answer, and I was afraid I’d hurt her feelings; so I said to my man, or horse, or horse-man–it’s hard to know what to call them:
“Long Lee, you go back to the house, clip-step.”
Clip-step soon overtook Sally, and I asked her what she was mad about.
“I’m mad,” she said, “because none of those people have ever seen this beautiful island before, and they wouldn’t look up from their dirty old newspapers. What’s the matter with them?”
“They’re worried about the market,” said I, “and each one wants the others to think that he’s more worried than they are. That’s all.”
“But the women!” said Sally. “There we sat waving to them, and not so much as a look for our pains. My arm is all numb from waving hospitably.”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll–I’ll–ask your maid to rub it for you. And then we’ll send the motor-boat for the very latest edition of the papers, and we’ll have Blenheim and Windermere fold them like ships and cocked hats, the way they do the napkins, and put them at each person’s place at dinner. That will be the tactful way of showing them what we think about it.”
Sally, naturally enough, was delighted at this idea, and forgot all about her poor, numb arm. But the scheme sounded better than it worked. Because when we went in to dinner the guests, instead of being put to shame by the sight of the newspapers, actually sputtered with pleasure, and fell on them and unfolded them and opened them at the financial pages. And then the men began to shout, and argue, and perspire, and fling quotations about the table, and the women got very shrill, and said they didn’t know what they would do if the wretched market kept up, or rather if it didn’t keep up. And nobody admired the new furniture or the pictures, or the old Fiffield plate, or Sally’s gown, or said anything pleasant and agreeable.
“Sam,” said Tony Marshall to me, “I’m glad that you can empty your new swimming-pool in three-quarters of an hour, but if you don’t watch out you may be so poor before the winter’s over that you won’t be able to buy water enough to fill it.”
“If you’re not careful,” I said, “I’ll fill it with champagne and make you people swim in it till you’re more sprightly and agreeable. I never saw such a lot of oafs. I–“
“I tell you, Sam,” bellowed Billoo, “that the financial status of this country, owing to that infernal lunatic in the White House–“
“If you must tell me again–” I began.
“Oh,” he said disgustedly, “you can’t be serious about anything. You’re so da–a–ah–urn–rich that you never give a thought to the suffering of the consumer.”
“Don’t I?” said I. “Did you happen to see me the morning after the Clarion’s ball last winter?–I thought about the consumer then, I can tell you.”
Billoo turned his back on me very rudely. I looked across the table to Sally. She smiled feebly. She had drawn back her chair so that Tombs and Randall could fight it out across her plate without hitting her in the nose. They were frantically shaking their fists at each other, and they kept saying very loud, and both at once:
“I tell you!” and they made that beginning over and over, and never got any further.
At two o’clock the next morning Mrs. Giddings turned to Sally and said:
“And now, my dear, I can’t wait another moment. You must show me all over your lovely new house. I can think of nothing else.”
“Can’t you?” said Sally. “I can. It’s two o’clock. But I’ll show you to your own lovely room, if you like.”
In the morning I sent for Blenheim, and told him to take all the Sunday papers as soon as they arrived and throw them overboard. All I meant to be was tactful. But it wouldn’t do. The first thing the men asked for was the papers; and the second thing. And finally they made such a fuss and threw out so many hints that I had to send the motor-boat over to the main-land. This made me rather sore at the moment, and I wished that the motor-boat was at the bottom of the Sound; but it wasn’t, and had to be sent.
Later in the day I was struck with an idea. It was one of the few that ever struck me without outside help, and I will keep it dark for the present. But when I got Sally alone I said to her:
“Now, Sally, answer prettily: do you or do you not know what plausible weather is?”
“I do not,” she said promptly.
“Of course, you do not,” I said, “you miserable little ignoramus. It has to do with an idea.”
“No, Sam!” cried Sally.
“One of mine,” I said.
“Oh, Sam!” she said. “Can I help?”
“You can pray for it.”
“For the idea?” she asked.
“No, you silly little goat,” I said. “For the plausible weather.”
“Must I?” she asked.
“You must,” I said. “If you have marrow-bones, prepare to use them now.”
Sally looked really shocked.
“Knees,” I explained. “They’re the same thing. But now that I think of it, you needn’t use yours. If anybody were looking, it would be different, of course. But nobody is, and you may use mine.”
So Sally used my knees for the moment, and I explained the idea to her briefly, and some other things at greater length; and then we both laughed and prayed aloud for plausible weather.
But it was months coming.
Think, if you can, of a whole winter passing in Westchester County without its storming one or more times on any single solitary Saturday or Sunday or holiday! Christmas Day, even, some of the men played tennis out-of-doors. The balls were cold and didn’t bounce very high, and all the men who played wanted to sit in the bar and talk stocks, but otherwise it made a pretty good game. Often, because our guests were so disagreeable about the money they had lost or were losing, we decided not to give any more parties, but when we thought that fresh air was good for our friends, whether they liked it or not, of course we had to keep on asking them. And, besides, we were very much set on the idea that I have referred to, and there was always a chance of plausible weather.
It did not come till May. But then it “came good,” as Sally said. It “came good” and it came opportunely. Everything was right. We had the right guests; we had the right situation in Wall Street, and the weather was right. It came out of the north-east, darkly blowing (this was Saturday, just after the usual motor-boat load and their afternoon editions had been landed), and at first it made the Sound, and even the sheltered narrows between the island and the main-land, look pancake-flat and oily. Then it turned the Sound into a kind of incoming gray, striped with white; and then into clean white, wonderfully bright and staring under the dark clouds. I never saw a finer storm come up finer. But nobody would go out to the point to see it come. The Stock Exchange had closed on the verge of panic (that was its chronic Saturday closing last winter) and you couldn’t get the men or women away from the thought of what might happen Monday. “Good heavens,” said Billoo, “think of poor Sharply on his way home from Europe! Can’t get to Wall Street before Wednesday, and God knows what he’ll find when he gets there.”
“What good would it do him to get there before?” I asked. “Wouldn’t he sail right in and do the wrong thing, just as everybody has done all winter?”
“You don’t understand, Sam,” said Billoo, very lugubriously; and then he annihilated me by banging his fist on a table and saying, “At least he’d be on the spot, wouldn’t he?“
“Oh,” I said, “if you put it that way, I admit that that’s just where he would be. Will anybody come and have a look at the fine young storm that I’m having served?”
“Not now, Sam–not now,” said Billoo, as if the storm would always stay just where, and as, it was; and nobody else said anything. The men wanted to shout and get angry and make dismal prophecies, and the women wanted to stay and hear them, and egg them on, and decide what they would buy or sell on Monday.
“All right, Billoo-on-the-spot,” I said. “Sally–?”
Sally was glad to come. And first we went out on the point and had a good look at the storm. The waves at our feet were breaking big and wild, the wind was groaning and howling as if it had a mortal stomach-ache, and about a mile out was a kind of thick curtain of perpendicular lines, with dark, squally shadows at its base.
“Sam!” cried Sally, “it’s snow–snow,” and she began to jump up and down.
In a minute or two flakes began to hit us wet slaps in the face, and we took hands and danced, and then ran (there must have been something intoxicating about that storm) all the way to the pier. And there was the captain of the motor-boat just stepping ashore.
“The man himself,” said Sally.
“Captain,” said I, “how are we off for boats?”
By good-luck there were in commission only the motor-boat, and the row-boat that she towed behind, and a canoe in the loft of the boat-house.
“Captain,” I said, “take the Hobo (that was the name of the motor-boat) and her tender to City Island, and don’t come back till Wednesday morning, in time for the Wall Street special.”
“When you get to City Island,” said Sally, “try to look crippled.”
“Not you,” I said, “but the Hobo.”
“Tell them,” said Sally, “if they ask questions, that you were blown from your moorings, and that you couldn’t get back in the teeth of the gale because–because–“
“Because,” said I, “your cylinders slipped, and your clutch missed fire, and your carbureter was full of prunes.”
“In other words,” said Sally, “if anybody ever asks you anything about anything–lie.”
We gave him a lot more instructions, and some eloquent money, and he said, “Very good, ma’am,” to me, and “Very good, miss,” to Sally, and pretty soon he, and the Hobo, and the engineer, and the Hobo’s crew of one, and the tender were neatly blown from their moorings, and drifted helplessly toward City Island at the rate of twenty-two miles an hour. Then Sally and I (it was snowing hard, now) climbed into the loft of the boat-house, and fixed the canoe.
“There,” said Sally, putting down her little hatchet, “I don’t believe the most God-fearing banker in this world would put to sea in that! Well, Sam, we’ve done it now.”
“We have,” said I.
“Will Monday never come?” said Sally.
“Stop,” said I; “the telephone.”
Idle Island was moored to the mainland by a telephone cable. It took us nearly an hour to find where this slipped into the water. And we were tired and hungry and wet and cold, but we simply had to persevere. It was frightful. At length we found the thing–it looked like a slimy black snake–and we cut it, where the water was a foot deep–the water bit my wrists and ankles as sharply as if it had been sharks–and went back to the house through the storm.
It was as black as night (the weather, not the house), snowing furiously and howling. We crept into the house like a couple of sneak-thieves, and heard Billoo at his very loudest shouting:
“I had Morgan on the wire all right–and the fool operator cut me off!”
Sally snipped her wet fingers in my face.
“Hello, fool operator,” she said.
“Hello, yourself,” said I. “But oh, Sally, listen to that wind, and tell me how it sounds to you. A wet hug if you guess the answer.”
“To me,” said Sally, “it sounds plausible.” And she got herself hugged.
I don’t believe that anybody slept much Saturday night. You never heard such a storm in your life. It seemed to Sally and me, who would have been the chief sufferers if it had blown down, that our comfortable, brand-new marble house flapped like a flag. Every now and then there came a tremendous crack from one part of the island or another; and each time Sally would say, “There goes my favorite elm,” or I would say, “There goes that elm again.”
Most of the men came down to breakfast Sunday morning. What with the storm and the worry about stocks keeping them awake most of the night, they were without exception nervous and cross, particularly Billoo. He looked like an owl that had been first stuffed and then boiled. Blenheim told me later that at various times during the night he had carried four several pints of champagne to Billoo’s room; and at 7 A.M., bicarbonate of soda and aromatic spirits of ammonia.
“I tell you, Sam,” said Billoo crossly, “I’ve been awake all night thinking what it would mean to some of us–yes, me!–if this storm should wreck that ferry-boat of yours.”
A lot of wet snow and wind hit the dining-room windows a series of rattling slaps.
“She’s a good boat, Sam, but smallish to ride out such a storm as this.”
“What a goat you are, Sam,” said Tombs, also crossly, “not to keep two ferry-boats, so that if one breaks down you have the other.”
“When we made up our minds to spend the winter here,” I said, “I ordered another; in fact, two. But they’re still building; and besides, what if the Hobo does break down? There’s plenty to eat and drink, I hope. Nobody would suffer much.”
“No,” said Billoo, “it would be no suffering for a business man to be storm-bound here during a probable panic in Wall Street!
“I’m tired,” I said, “of hearing you refer to yourself or any of these gentlemen as business men. You always gamble; and when you’re in good-luck you gambol, and when you aren’t, you don’t. What makes me sickest about you all is that you’re so nauseatingly conceited and self-important. You all think that your beastly old Stock Exchange is the axle about which the wheel of the world revolves, and each of you thinks, privately, that he’s the particular grease that makes it revolve smoothly.”
“Well,” said Billoo, “you know that the presence on the floor of one steady, conservative man may often avert a panic.”
“Show me the man,” I said. “Has any one here ever caused a panic or averted one? But you all lose money just as often because you’re on the spot, as make it. Wouldn’t you all be the richer for an absence now and then?”
“Of course,” said Randall, “there are times when it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But when–well, when the market’s in the state it is now, it’s life or death, almost, to be on the spot.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “When the market looks fussy, why not sell out, and wait for better times?”
“We can’t sell out,” said Billoo. “We’re loaded up to the muzzle.”
“You look as if you had been,” I said courteously; but Billoo brushed the remark aside as if it had been a fly.
“If we try to unload,” he said, “the market begins to collapse. We can’t unload, except a little at a time, and still prices get lower and lower and margins thinner and thinner. Now, I happen to know”–he looked about him importantly–“that to-morrow will hear the failure of a very well-known house, and after that’s announced–God knows.”
“How true that is!” I said. “But tell me: suppose you gentlemen deliberately absented yourselves for a few days–wouldn’t it restore confidence? Wouldn’t the other brokers say: ‘Billoo, Randall, Tombs, Marshall, Bedlo, etc., don’t seem to think there’s much doing. None of ’em’s here–what’s the use of me being scared?’”
“It would have the contrary effect, Sam,” said Tombs solemnly. “They would think that we had decamped in a body for Canada.”
“I don’t know,” said I, “but it would be a better thing for the country if you all did ship to Canada–I don’t think there’s much doing out-doors to-day. Hear that wind!”
“If I can get rid of all my holdings,” said Billoo, “I’ll sit tight. We’ll see lower prices before we see higher.”
“Well,” said I, “I’ll bet you we don’t.”
“Young man,” said Billoo, and he looked almost well and happy, “just name your sum.”
“I’ll bet you a thousand,” I said.
“Sammy,” said Tombs very sweetly, “have you got another thousand up your sleeve?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Done with you,” said Tombs.
In about five minutes I had bet with everybody present.
“But mind,” I said, “there mustn’t be any dirty work. You people mustn’t go to town to-morrow with the idea of forming a strong coalition and putting prices down.”
“It wouldn’t be worth while,” said Billoo. “As a matter of fact, we’d like nothing better than to see you win your bet, but as you can’t, possibly–why, a thousand dollars is always a thousand dollars.”
“Just the same,” said I, “no coalitions.”
The wind went on howling till late in the afternoon and then it began to peter out. We had spent the whole day in the house, and everybody was tired and bored, and nervous about Monday, and bedtime came earlier than usual.
“Sam,” said Sally, when we were alone, “it’s just occurred to me that we may be causing some of these people to lose a lot of money.”
“Why, Sally,” I said, “you look scared.”
“I am,” she said. “Don’t you think it would be rather awful?”
“No, I don’t,” I said; “I think it would be split-tingly funny. But they won’t lose. Their absence will steady the market.”
“Who told you that, Sam?” said Sally.
“Sam!” said I.
Even before the leaves come, you can’t see the pier from the house. It runs out from the bottom of a high bank and is otherwise hidden by trees. But it’s only a short distance, and in good weather we have the guests walk it, because it gives them a better chance to admire the gardens and the Athenian columns and things. But Monday, which dawned bright and still and warm, and was just as typical of May in Westchester as was the snow-and-wind storm, we drove them down in a bus because the roads and paths were horribly muddy. Of course, none of the women wanted to take the early train, so there were only the men and Sally and I in the bus. Sally said that there was going to be some fun when the men got to the pier and didn’t find the Hobo, and she wasn’t going to miss it. Just before we started she drew me aside and said:
“Sam, when we get there, for Heaven’s sake look blank.”
“I understand your fears, Sally,” I said, “and I will look as blank as I possibly can. But remember, child, how easy it is for you to look blank; and don’t always be urging others to attempt the impossible.”
“Mrs. Sam,” said Billoo, on the way down, “I can’t tell you what a good time I’ve had.”
“You nice man,” said Sally, “I wish we could persuade you to stay a day or two longer.”
“If it wasn’t for the market, I could stay forever,” said Billoo.
“Not if I lived,” said I. “Saturday to Monday is plenty long enough–Hello–!”
The pier and the empty stretch of water between the island and the mainland were in sight, but there was no Hobo.
“Hello what?” said Tombs. “Why, where’s the ferry?”
“I don’t see her,” I said, and, I hope, anxiously; “you don’t suppose–“
“Isn’t the Hobo there?” shrieked Billoo. He turned his head on his fat neck, and at first he looked very angry, and then scared.
We walked down to the pier, and then out on the float to get as big a water view as possible, but there wasn’t so much as a row-boat in sight.
“What can have happened?” said Sally.
“I’m worried to death,” I said. “Suppose she was blown from her moorings, the captain could have run her into New Rochelle, and come back yesterday afternoon when the wind went down. Something must have happened.”
“Oh, Sam,” cried Sally, “you don’t think she may have been run down by one of the Sound steamers and sunk?”
“I dare not think of it,” I said. “I dare not think of the poor chaps on board.”
“I don’t see how I’m to get to town,” said Billoo dismally. He pulled out his watch, and held it in his hand, and every moment or two looked at it. “Haven’t you a couple of row-boats? We couldn’t get this train, but we could get the next–“
I shook my head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re not much on the water, and we’ve never been properly supplied with boats–“
Billoo swallowed some hasty thought or other, and began to look across at the mainland. My father owns all the land opposite the island, even the pier and the short road to the village of Stepping-Stone; and although there were several boats at the pier, there were no people, and the rest of the shore is nothing but thick woods.
“We must telephone somewhere,” said Billoo.
“You can’t,” I said. “You know you tried to telephone all yesterday and couldn’t, and the butler told me this morning that he had tried to put in a call and got no answer.”
“What does it matter?” said Sally. “You’ve all got to stay now. I think that’s splendid.”
“Mrs. Sam,” said Tombs hollowly, “do you realize that this accident may mean ruin for some of us?”
“Oh, dear!” said Sally “how dreadful!”
“Somehow of other,” said Billoo, “I’m going to get across.”
And the others said that somehow or other they were going to get across, too.
“I’ve got to!” said Billoo, and he looked about in a fat, challenging way as if daring any one to say that he had not got to.
“You poor things,” said Sally, “I hope to Heaven you can; but how?”
“Where there’s a will, Mrs. Sam–” Billoo said. And he began to think hard. All of a sudden his face brightened.
“It’s too easy,” he said. “The wind’s right; four or five of us have umbrellas–Sam, you’ll have to lend us this float. We’ve only to cut it from its moorings, and sail it across–May we have it?”
“Yes,” I said, “but you’re crazy to try it.”
“It’s a case of sink or swim,” said he. “Who’s coming?”
Without exception the men agreed to sail with him on the float. It was a fine, big platform, floated on sheet-iron air-tanks, and moored at the four corners by heavy ropes.
Sally and I withdrew to the pier and watched Billoo and the others cut slowly through the ropes with their pocket-knives. Presently the float began to move, and a second or two later the float end of the gang-plank slipped into the water with a heavy splash. Those who had umbrellas opened them to catch the breeze, and the others lit cigars, and stood about in graceful attitudes. Sally and I cheered as loud as we could.
“I’ll send you a tug or something,” Billoo called back to us, “and try to find out what’s happened to the Hobo.”
“Thank you!” I called back.
“Sam,” said Sally, “I don’t know what you think, but I call it good sand.”
“So do I,” said I, “but foolish.”
“Why foolish?” said Sally. “They’re really going quite fast, and they’ll be across in no time, and they’ll get the next train and everything.”
“They will not,” I said.
“Why?” said Sally.
“Because,” said I, “they will run on to the middle ground, and stay there.”
“Not at high tide!” exclaimed Sally.
“At high tide,” said I. “That float draws a good two feet, and it’s so heavy that once it runs on the mud it will stay on the mud–” And then I shouted to Billoo:
“Look out for the middle ground!”
“What?” he answered.
“Why do you warn him?” said Sally.
“Because it won’t help him,” said I.
“What?” called Billoo again, and Sally answered at the top of her lungs, “Look–out–for–the–middle–ground!”
“Right O!” Billoo answered; “where is it?”
“Just ahead,” Sally called.
Billoo turned to look, and at that moment the float, which was travelling at a good clip, ran into it.
Billoo and Randall fell flat on their faces; everybody staggered; one umbrella and two hats went overboard and drifted away, and Sally and I sat down on the pier and laughed till we were helpless.
The float had become a fixture in the landscape about two hundred and fifty yards out. We could converse with our friends by shouting only, and when we got tired of condoling with them and giving them assurances of our sympathy, we told them that we were going back to the house to get some more breakfast and think out what was best to be done,
“Sam,” said Sally, “that’s the maddest lot of men I ever saw.”
We looked back. Billoo was stamping up and down the float, waving his arms and orating like Falstaff; Randall and Tombs had their heads together, and were casting what appeared to be baleful glances at Billoo. It was evident that he was not popular on the float.
When we had had some more breakfast, and had sat around a little to digest it, the women began to come down-stairs. Mrs. Randall was the first to come down, and she was in great distress.
“It’s too dreadful,” she said. “I had something of the utmost importance to tell Billy, something that I wanted him to do for me down-town. And I overslept.”
“Well,” said I, “let me tell you what a good fellow Billy is. He hasn’t gone yet.”
“Good Heavens!” she cried, “not gone yet? Why, what time is it? Why, he won’t get down-town in time for the opening!”
“Probably not,” I said. “He was just going, when suddenly he said, ‘I know there’s something my wife wants to say to me.’ I said, ‘Wake her up and find out what it is.’ He said, ‘No, she’s getting so she can’t do without her beauty sleep; I’ll just wait around till she wakes of herself.’”
“Sam,” said Mrs. Randall, “what has happened to my husband?”
“Nothing much,” I said. “He’s in the same boat with many others–only it isn’t a boat. Don’t be alarmed.”
“Where is my husband?” said she.
“If you are equal to a short, muddy walk,” I said, “I will show him to you–Morning, little Miss Tombs–want to see brother and young Fitch? They said they wouldn’t go to town till you’d seen them–Morning, Mrs. Giddings–morning, Miss Marshall–I’m not much on breaking bad news, but there’s been an accident to all your husbands and brothers and fiances. They’re all alive still, so far as I know–but they ought not to last more than five or six days.”
“It’s proposed,” said Sally, “that we all go and see what can be done for them.”
We refused to answer any questions. We led the way to the pier and pointed out the float, and the men on it. “There,” said Sally, “you can see them quite plainly from here.”
“Yes,” said I, “and the more plainly you see them, the plainer they are.”
“Will you kindly tell me,” said Mrs. Randall, “what my husband is doing out there on that float?”
“He is doing nothing,” I said. “You can see for yourself. And it isn’t a float any more.”
“Better tell them what has happened,” said Sally.
“No, Sally,” I said, “no.”
“Yes, Sam,” she said.
“Oh, all right,” I said, “if you really think it’s best. The fact is, ladies, the whole thing is a piece of drunken folly. You know how men are when they get drinking and arguing, and quarrelling. To make a long story short, it came to Billoo’s insulting Randall; Randall challenges him; duelling is against the law; they take pistols and witnesses out on the water beyond the jurisdiction of the United States; and they were going to murder each other. But it’s all right now–don’t be frightened.”
Sally had turned her face away, and I’m sure I was serious as a judge. I patted Mrs. Randall on the shoulder.
“Even if your husband isn’t brave,” I said, “he’s clever, clever and deep.”
“My husband not brave!” she cried. “I like that; he’s the bravest man I ever saw.”
“Well, that may be,” I said doubtfully, “but, considering that on the way out to the duelling ground, or water, when nobody was looking but Sally and me, he kicked the box of cartridges overboard. But, perhaps they’ll agree to use pocket-knives–“
“Sam,” said little Miss Tombs, “I’ll give you a kiss good-morning if you’ll be serious.”
“Wait till Fitch is looking,” I said.
Then Sally explained what had happened, and edged herself so politely between little Miss Tombs and me that the others laughed.
“They’ll float at high tide, won’t they?” asked Mrs. Giddings.
“No,” I said. “It was high tide when they ran aground. It will take a tugboat to get them off.”
The words weren’t out of my mouth when a tugboat appeared round the corner of the island, making up the channel. The men on the float began to scream and yell, and jump up and down, and wave their arms. But the tugboat paid no attention. It thought they were drunk. It passed within three hundred yards of them, whistled a couple of times, and became small in the distance.
“Sam,” said Sally, “in about an hour they’ll be high and dry on the mud. Then not even a boat can get to them. And by the time it’s high tide again it will be dark and nobody will see them, and they’ll be dying of hunger and thirst.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Sally, you explain that to them, and I’ll have the men fetch one of the stable doors, and we’ll put a sail on it and provision it and trust to its hitting the middle ground about where they did.”
I never worked so hard in my life. I had a stable door taken off its tracks and rigged with the canoe’s sail; and we put a case of champagne on board, and a tub of ice, and bread, and cold meat, and butter, and jam, and cigars, and cigarettes, and liquors, and a cocktail shaker, and a bottle of olives stuffed with red peppers, for Billoo, and two kinds of bitters, and everything else to eat or drink that anybody could think of, and some camp-chairs, and cards for bridge, and score-pads, and pencils, and a folding table. Of course, most of the things got soaked the minute we launched the door, but there wasn’t time to do the thing over again. So we gave the relief boat three cheers and let her go.
The way the men on the float eyed the course of the door, you would have thought them all nearly half dead with hunger and thirst. We were all excited, too.
At first the door made straight for the float. Then the breeze shifted a little, and it made to the left of the float–then to the right of it–and then straight at it again.
Everybody cheered. The relief expedition looked like a success. The men all came to the edge of the float to meet it–and then, just as all seemed well, a dark patch of wind came scudding across the water, filled the door’s sail, and sent the door kiting off to the right again. The game was up, The door was going to miss the float by sixty or seventy feet.
Then the men on the float began to toss coins; there was a shout of delight; and Billoo, trumpeting his hands, called to me:
“Make the ladies go behind the boat-house, quick!” And he began to unbutton his coat. I herded the women behind the boat-house and ran back to the pier. Billoo was stripping as fast as he could.
“What’s he doing?” Mrs. Giddings called to me.
And I answered, “He seems to be overcome by the heat.”
A few moments later Billoo stood revealed, a fat white silhouette against the opposite shore. He stepped from the float into the water; it came to his ankles. Then he waded, gingerly but with determination, toward the passing door. He went as if he expected the water to get suddenly deep, but it didn’t. At no time did it reach to his ankles, until, just as he was reaching out his hand to catch hold of the door, and just as the men on the float set up a cheer, he stepped off the middle ground in to deep water.
The splash that he made lifted the door half out of water, and shot it away from him, the wind filled its sail, and when Billoo came to the surface and looked for it, it was thirty feet off. But he set his teeth (I think he set them) and swam after it. Just as he reached it, he fetched an awful yell. He had been seized with cramps. Still, he had sense enough to cling to the door, and, when the first spasm of the cramp had passed, to sprawl himself upon it. There he lay for a while, lapped by the water that came over the door, and writhing in his fat nakedness.
Meanwhile, the door was caught in the full strength of the ebbing tide, and began to make for the open Sound. Poor Billoo was in a bad way–and when he turned the ice-tub upside down for a seat, and wrapped himself in the canoe sail, I invited the women to come out and see for themselves how brave he was.
He waved his hand to us, and just as he and his well-provisioned craft rounded a corner of the island he selected a bottle of champagne and deftly extracted the cork.
I told some of my men to follow along the shore and to let me know what became of him. I couldn’t do anything more for Billoo; but I liked the man, and took an affectionate interest in his ultimate fate–whatever it might be. And I call that true friendship.
Pretty soon the middle ground on which the float was stuck began to show above water, and as it was evident that we could do nothing further for the relief of our shipwrecked friends, we decided to go back to the house, change our muddy boots, play a rubber or so, and have lunch. But first little Miss Tombs called to young Fitch, and told him if he found himself starving to dig clams in the mud.
The only fault that I could find with the way things had gone so far was that Sally had a disgusting headache that marred her pleasure and her sense of humor. She hadn’t said very much, and had laughed with only a half-heart at things that had seemed to me excruciatingly funny. For instance, when Billoo was seized with the cramps she had barely smiled, and once or twice when I had been doing the talking she had looked pityingly at me, instead of roaring with laughter, the way a wife should do.
And when we got to the house, she said that if we would excuse her she would go to her room and lie down.
“I’ve just got one of my usual headaches,” she said.
That remark worried me, because it was the first headache she had ever complained of to me; and when, after she had gone upstairs, Miss Randall said, “Maybe Sally ought to see the doctor,” I had a sudden awful, empty, gulpy feeling. Suppose she was going to be really sick! Suppose she was going to have pneumonia or scarlet-fever or spinal meningitis! Here we were, cut off from medical assistance till Wednesday morning. And it was our own fault–mine; mine, for being too funny. Then I thought, “Maybe those men on the float are losing all the money they’ve got in the world,” and that made me feel pretty glum; and then I thought, “Maybe poor Billoo is drowned by now,” and I went cold all over.
“Why don’t you make the trump, Sam?” said Mrs. Giddings.
“Good Heavens!” I said. “Did I deal? Won’t somebody play my hand? I’m worried about Sally.”
Then I bolted upstairs, and there was Sally lying on her bed, with a glass tube sticking out of her mouth.
“How are you,” I said, “and what are you doing?”
“I feel rather sick, Sam,” she said. And she looked so pale that I could have screamed. “And I’m taking my temperature.”
“Do you think you’ve got fever?” I cried.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Oh, Sally–Sally!” I cried. “Forgive me–it’s all my fault–and I love you so–My God! what shall I do? I know–“
Then I kissed her, and ran out of the room, and all the way to the boat-house. I found a bathing-suit, undressed, put it on, tore down to the pier, and went overboard. I suppose the water was ghastly cold, but I didn’t feel it. I suppose I never should have gotten all the way across to the main-land if I hadn’t been boiling with fear and excitement, and besides I walked and waded across the middle ground and got a rest that way. The men on the float kept calling to me, and asking me questions, but I hadn’t enough breath nor reason to answer them; I just swam and swam and swam.
About fifty feet from the pier on the main-land I began to get horrible pains up and down the muscles of my legs; and they wanted to stop kicking, but I wouldn’t let them. I had to sit on the pier for a while to rest, but pretty soon I was able to stand, and somehow or other, running and walking, I got to the doctor’s house in Stepping-Stone. He is very nice and an old friend, and the moment I told him Sally was desperately sick he said she wasn’t, and I felt better. He gave me some brandy to drink, and we started for the island. I begged him to run, but he wouldn’t. He walked leisurely and pointed out this tree as a very fine specimen and well grown, or that one as too much crowded by its neighbors. He was daft on forestry. Patients didn’t interest him a bit. Finally, however, we got to the pier, and stole somebody’s row-boat, and I took the oars, and then we went faster.
When we entered the house we found all the women except Sally surrounding Billoo. He was very red in the face and dressed only in the canoe sail; but he wasn’t in the least embarrassed. He had a self-satisfied smile; and he was talking as fast and as loud as he could.
We told him to go to bed and be ashamed of himself, and sleep it off. And he said that nobody understood him, and denied having drunk the whole case of champagne, and he said that he was in perfect control of all his faculties, and that if the ladies wished him to, he could dance a hornpipe for them that he had learned when he was a sailor….
The doctor and I went upstairs; and while he was with Sally I changed into proper clothes; and then I waited outside the door for him to come out and tell me the worst. After a long time he came. He looked very solemn, and closed the door behind him.
“What is it?” I said, and I think my voice shook like a leaf.
“Sam,” he said gravely, “Sally is by way of cutting her first wisdom tooth.”
“Good Lord!” I said, “is that all?”
“It’s enough,” said the doctor, “because it isn’t a tooth.”
“Oh!” I said, “oh! What ought I to do?”
“Why,” said he, “I’d go in, and tell her how glad you are, and maybe laugh at her a little bit, and make much of her.”
But I couldn’t laugh at Sally, because she was crying.
I took her in my arms and made much of her, and asked her why she was crying, and she said she was crying because she was glad.
When the doctor had returned to Stepping-Stone, he got the Hobo’s captain on the telephone and told him from me to bring the Hobo back to Idle Island at once. She came about six, just as the tide was getting high, and she brought rescue to the men on the float, and, better than rescue, she brought the evening papers.
There had been a big day on Wall Street; one of the biggest in its history. And the men whom we had kept from going to business had made, among them, hundreds of thousands of dollars, just by sitting still. But they were ungrateful, especially Billoo. He complained bitterly, and said that he would have made three times as much money if he had been on the spot.
* * * * *
When the men paid the bets that they had lost to me, I turned the money over to my father’s secretary and told him to deposit it as a special account.
“What shall I call the account?” he asked.
“Call it,” I said, “the account of W. Tooth.”