Story type: Literature
One evening, at the end of August, in Dunnet Landing, I heard Mrs. Todd’s firm footstep crossing the small front entry outside my door, and her conventional cough which served as a herald’s trumpet, or a plain New England knock, in the harmony of our fellowship.
“Oh, please come in!” I cried, for it had been so still in the house that I supposed my friend and hostess had gone to see one of her neighbors. The first cold northeasterly storm of the season was blowing hard outside. Now and then there was a dash of great raindrops and a flick of wet lilac leaves against the window, but I could hear that the sea was already stirred to its dark depths, and the great rollers were coming in heavily against the shore. One might well believe that Summer was coming to a sad end that night, in the darkness and rain and sudden access of autumnal cold. It seemed as if there must be danger offshore among the outer islands.
“Oh, there!” exclaimed Mrs. Todd, as she entered.”I know nothing ain’t ever happened out to Green Island since the world began, but I always do worry about mother in these great gales. You know those tidal waves occur sometimes down to the West Indies, and I get dwellin’ on ’em so I can’t set still in my chair, nor knit a common row to a stocking. William might get mooning, out in his small bo’t, and not observe how the sea was making, an’ meet with some accident. Yes, I thought I’d come in and set with you if you wa’n’t busy. No, I never feel any concern about ’em in winter ’cause then they’re prepared, and all ashore and everything snug. William ought to keep help, as I tell him; yes, he ought to keep help.”
I hastened to reassure my anxious guest by saying that Elijah Tilley had told me in the afternoon, when I came along the shore past the fish houses, that Johnny Bowden and the Captain were out at Green Island; he had seen them beating up the bay, and thought they must have put into Burnt Island cove, but one of the lobstermen brought word later that he saw them hauling out at Green Island as he came by, and Captain Bowden pointed ashore and shook his head to say that he did not mean to try to get in.”The old Miranda just managed it, but she will have to stay at home a day or two and put new patches in her sail,” I ended, not without pride in so much circumstantial evidence.
Mrs. Todd was alert in a moment.”Then they’ll all have a very pleasant evening,” she assured me, apparently dismissing all fears of tidal waves and other sea-going disasters.”I was urging Alick Bowden to go ashore some day and see mother before cold weather. He’s her own nephew; she sets a great deal by him. And Johnny’s a great chum o’ William’s; don’t you know the first day we had Johnny out ‘long of us, he took an’ give William his money to keep for him that he’d been a-savin’, and William showed it to me an’ was so affected, I thought he was goin’ to shed tears? ‘Twas a dollar an’ eighty cents; yes, they’ll have a beautiful evenin’ all together, and like ‘s not the sea’ll be flat as a doorstep come morning.”
I had drawn a large wooden rocking-chair before the fire, and Mrs. Todd was sitting there jogging herself a little, knitting fast, and wonderfully placid of countenance. There came a fresh gust of wind and rain, and we could feel the small wooden house rock and hear it creak as if it were a ship at sea.
“Lord, hear the great breakers!” exclaimed Mrs. Todd.”How they pound! — there, there! I always run of an idea that the sea knows anger these nights and gets full o’ fight. I can hear the rote o’ them old black ledges way down the thoroughfare. Calls up all those stormy verses in the Book o’ Psalms; David he knew how old sea-goin’ folks have to quake at the heart.”
I thought as I had never thought before of such anxieties. The families of sailors and coastwise adventurers by sea must always be worrying about somebody, this side of the world or the other. There was hardly one of Mrs. Todd’s elder acquaintances, men or women, who had not at some time or other made a sea voyage, and there was often no news until the voyagers themselves came back to bring it.
“There’s a roaring high overhead, and a roaring in the deep sea,” said Mrs. Todd solemnly, “and they battle together nights like this. No, I couldn’t sleep; some women folks always goes right to bed an’ to sleep, so ‘s to forget, but ‘taint my way. Well, it’s a blessin’ we don’t all feel alike; there’s hardly any of our folks at sea to worry about, nowadays, but I can’t help my feelin’s, an’ I got thinking of mother all alone, if William had happened to be out lobsterin’ and couldn’t make the cove gettin’ back.”
“They will have a pleasant evening,” I repeated.”Captain Bowden is the best of good company.”
“Mother’ll make him some pancakes for his supper, like ‘s not,” said Mrs. Todd, clicking her knitting needles and giving a pull at her yarn. Just then the old cat pushed open the unlatched door and came straight toward her mistress’s lap. She was regarded severely as she stepped about and turned on the broad expanse, and then made herself into a round cushion of fur, but was not openly admonished. There was another great blast of wind overhead, and a puff of smoke came down the chimney.
“This makes me think o’ the night Mis’ Cap’n Tolland died,” said Mrs. Todd, half to herself.”Folks used to say these gales only blew when somebody’s a-dyin’, or the devil was a-comin’ for his own, but the worst man I ever knew died a real pretty mornin’ in June.”
“You have never told me any ghost stories,” said I; and such was the gloomy weather and the influence of the night that I was instantly filled with reluctance to have this suggestion followed. I had not chosen the best of moments; just before I spoke we had begun to feel as cheerful as possible. Mrs. Todd glanced doubtfully at the cat and then at me, with a strange absent look, and I was really afraid that she was going to tell me something that would haunt my thoughts on every dark stormy night as long as I lived.
“Never mind now; tell me to-morrow by daylight, Mrs. Todd,” I hastened to say, but she still looked at me full of doubt and deliberation.
“Ghost stories!” she answered.”Yes, I don’t know but I’ve heard a plenty of ’em first an’ last. I was just sayin’ to myself that this is like the night Mis’ Cap’n Tolland died.’Twas the great line storm in September all of thirty, or maybe forty, year ago. I ain’t one that keeps much account o’ time.”
“Tolland? That’s a name I have never heard in Dunnet,” I said.
“Then you haven’t looked well about the old part o’ the buryin’ ground, no’theast corner,” replied Mrs. Todd.”All their women folks lies there; the sea’s got most o’ the men. They were a known family o’ shipmasters in early times. Mother had a mate, Ellen Tolland, that she mourns to this day; died right in her bloom with quick consumption, but the rest o’ that family was all boys but one, and older than she, an’ they lived hard seafarin’ lives an’ all died hard. They were called very smart seamen. I’ve heard that when the youngest went into one o’ the old shippin’ houses in Boston, the head o’ the firm called out to him: ‘Did you say Tolland from Dunnet? That’s recommendation enough for any vessel!’ There was some o’ them old shipmasters as tough as iron, an’ they had the name o’ usin’ their crews very severe, but there wa’n’t a man that wouldn’t rather sign with ’em an’ take his chances, than with the slack ones that didn’t know how to meet accidents.”
There was so long a pause, and Mrs. Todd still looked so absent-minded, that I was afraid she and the cat were growing drowsy together before the fire, and I should have no reminiscences at all. The wind struck the house again, so that we both started in our chairs and Mrs. Todd gave a curious, startled look at me. The cat lifted her head and listened too, in the silence that followed, while after the wind sank we were more conscious than ever of the awful roar of the sea. The house jarred now and then,
in a strange, disturbing way.
“Yes, they’ll have a beautiful evening out to the island,” said Mrs. Todd again; but she did not say it gayly. I had not seen her before in her weaker moments.
“Who was Mrs. Captain Tolland?” I asked eagerly, to change the current of our thoughts.
“I never knew her maiden name; if I ever heard it, I’ve gone an’ forgot; ‘twould mean nothing to me,” answered Mrs. Todd.
“She was a foreigner, an’ he met with her out in the Island o’ Jamaica. They said she’d been left a widow with property. Land knows what become of it; she was French born, an’ her first husband was a Portugee, or somethin’.”
I kept silence now, a poor and insufficient question being worse than none.
“Cap’n John Tolland was the least smartest of any of ’em, but he was full smart enough, an’ commanded a good brig at the time, in the sugar trade; he’d taken out a cargo o’ pine lumber to the islands from somewheres up the river, an’ had been headin’ for home in the port o’ Kingston, an’ had gone ashore that afternoon for his papers, an’ remained afterwards ‘long of three friends o’ his, all shipmasters. They was havin’ their suppers together in a tavern; ’twas late in the evenin’ an’ they was more lively than usual, an’ felt boyish; and over opposite was another house full o’ company, real bright and pleasant lookin’, with a lot o’ lights, an’ they heard somebody singin’ very pretty to a guitar. They wa’n’t in no go-to-meetin’ condition, an’ one of ’em, he slapped the table an’ said, ‘Le’ ‘s go over ‘n’ hear that lady sing!’ an’ over they all went, good honest sailors, but three sheets in the wind, and stepped in as if they was invited, an’ made their bows inside the door, an’ asked if they could hear the music; they were all respectable well-dressed men. They saw the woman that had the guitar, an’ there was a company a-listenin’, regular highbinders all of ’em; an’ there was a long table all spread out with big candlesticks like little trees o’ light, and a sight o’ glass an’ silverware; an’ part o’ the men was young officers in uniform, an’ the colored folks was steppin’ round servin’ ’em, an’ they had the lady singin’.’Twas a wasteful scene, an’ a loud talkin’ company, an’ though they was three sheets in the wind themselves there wa’n’t one o’ them cap’ns but had sense to perceive it. The others had pushed back their chairs, an’ their decanters an’ glasses was standin’ thick about, an’ they was teasin’ the one that was singin’ as if they’d just got her in to amuse ’em. But they quieted down; one o’ the young officers had beautiful manners, an’ invited the four cap’ns to join ’em, very polite; ’twas a kind of public house, and after they’d all heard another song, he come to consult with ’em whether they wouldn’t git up and dance a hornpipe or somethin’ to the lady’s music.
“They was all elderly men an’ shipmasters, and owned property; two of ’em was church members in good standin’,” continued Mrs. Todd loftily, “an’ they wouldn’t lend theirselves to no such kick-shows as that, an’ spite o’ bein’ three sheets in the wind, as I have once observed; they waved aside the tumblers of wine the young officer was pourin’ out for ’em so freehanded, and said they should rather be excused. An’ when they all rose, still very dignified, as I’ve been well informed, and made their partin’ bows and was goin’ out, them young sports got round ’em an’ tried to prevent ’em, and they had to push an’ strive considerable, but out they come. There was this Cap’n Tolland and two Cap’n Bowdens, and the fourth was my own father.” (Mrs. Todd spoke slowly, as if to impress the value of her authority. ) “Two of them was very religious, upright men, but they would have their night off sometimes, all o’ them old-fashioned cap’ns, when they was free of business and ready to leave port.
“An’ they went back to their tavern an’ got their bills paid, an’ set down kind o’ mad with everybody by the front window, mistrusting some o’ their tavern charges, like ‘s not, by that time, an’ when they got tempered down, they watched the house over across, where the party was.
“There was a kind of a grove o’ trees between the house an’ the road, an’ they heard the guitar a-goin’ an’ a-stoppin’ short by turns, and pretty soon somebody began to screech, an’ they saw a white dress come runnin’ out through the bushes, an’ tumbled over each other in their haste to offer help; an’ out she come, with the guitar, cryin’ into the street, and they just walked off four square with her amongst ’em, down toward the wharves where they felt more to home. They couldn’t make out at first what ’twas she spoke, — Cap’n Lorenzo Bowden was well acquainted in Havre an’ Bordeaux, an’ spoke a poor quality o’ French, an’ she knew a little mite o’ English, but not much; and they come somehow or other to discern that she was in real distress. Her husband and her children had died o’ yellow fever; they’d all come up to Kingston from one o’ the far Wind’ard Islands to get passage on a steamer to France, an’ a negro had stole their money off her husband while he lay sick o’ the fever, an’ she had been befriended some, but the folks that knew about her had died too; it had been a dreadful run o’ the fever that season, an’ she fell at last to playin’ an’ singin’ for hire, and for what money they’d throw to her round them harbor houses.
” ‘Twas a real hard case, an’ when them cap’ns made out about it, there wa’n’t one that meant to take leave without helpin’ of her. They was pretty mellow, an’ whatever they might lack o’ prudence they more ‘n made up with charity: they didn’t want to see nobody abused, an’ she was sort of a pretty woman, an’ they stopped in the street then an’ there an’ drew lots who should take her aboard, bein’ all bound home. An’ the lot fell to Cap’n Jonathan Bowden who did act discouraged; his vessel had but small accommodations, though he could stow a big freight, an’ she was a dreadful slow sailer through bein’ square as a box, an’ his first wife, that was livin’ then, was a dreadful jealous woman. He threw himself right onto the mercy o’ Cap’n Tolland.”
Mrs. Todd indulged herself for a short time in a season of calm reflection.
“I always thought they’d have done better, and more reasonable, to give her some money to pay her passage home to France, or wherever she may have wanted to go,” she continued.
I nodded and looked for the rest of the story.
“Father told mother,” said Mrs. Todd confidentially, “that Cap’n Jonathan Bowden an’ Cap’n John Tolland had both taken a little more than usual; I wouldn’t have you think, either, that they both wasn’t the best o’ men, an’ they was solemn as owls, and argued the matter between ’em, an’ waved aside the other two when they tried to put their oars in. An’ spite o’ Cap’n Tolland’s bein’ a settled old bachelor they fixed it that he was to take the prize on his brig; she was a fast sailer, and there was a good spare cabin or two where he’d sometimes carried passengers, but he’d filled ’em with bags o’ sugar on his own account an’ was loaded very heavy beside. He said he’d shift the sugar an’ get along somehow, an’ the last the other three cap’ns saw of the party was Cap’n John handing the lady into his bo’t, guitar and all, an’ off they all set tow’ds their ships with their men rowin’ ’em in the bright moonlight down to Port Royal where the anchorage was, an’ where they all lay, goin’ out with the tide an’ mornin’ wind at break o’ day. An’ the others thought they heard music of the guitar, two o’ the bo’ts kept well together, but it may have come from another source.”
“Well; and then?” I asked eagerly after a pause. Mrs. Todd was almost laughing aloud over her knitting and nodding emphatically. We had forgotten all about the noise of the wind and sea.
“Lord bless you! he come sailing into Portland with his sugar, all in good time, an’ they stepped right afore a justice o’ the peace, and Cap’n John Tolland come paradin’ home to Dunnet Landin’ a married man. He owned one o’ them thin, narrow-lookin’ houses with one room each side o’ the f
ront door, and two slim black spruces spindlin’ up against the front windows to make it gloomy inside. There was no horse nor cattle of course, though he owned pasture land, an’ you could see rifts o’ light right through the barn as you drove by. And there was a good excellent kitchen, but his sister reigned over that; she had a right to two rooms, and took the kitchen an’ a bedroom that led out of it; an’ bein’ given no rights in the kitchen had angered the cap’n so they weren’t on no kind o’ speakin’ terms. He preferred his old brig for comfort, but now and then, between voyages he’d come home for a few days, just to show he was master over his part o’ the house, and show Eliza she couldn’t commit no trespass.
“They stayed a little while; ’twas pretty spring weather, an’ I used to see Cap’n John rollin’ by with his arms full o’ bundles from the store, lookin’ as pleased and important as a boy; an’ then they went right off to sea again, an’ was gone a good many months. Next time he left her to live there alone, after they’d stopped at home together some weeks, an’ they said she suffered from bein’ at sea, but some said that the owners wouldn’t have a woman aboard.’Twas before father was lost on that last voyage of his, an’ he said mother went up once or twice to see them. Father said there wa’n’t a mite o’ harm in her, but somehow or other a sight o’ prejudice arose; it may have been caused by the remarks of Eliza an’ her feelin’s tow’ds her brother. Even my mother had no regard for Eliza Tolland. But mother asked the cap’n’s wife to come with her one evenin’ to a social circle that was down to the meetin’-house vestry, so she’d get acquainted a little, an’ she appeared very pretty until they started to have some singin’ to the melodeon. Mari’ Harris an’ one o’ the younger Caplin girls undertook to sing a duet, an’ they sort o’ flatted, an’ she put her hands right up to her ears, and give a little squeal, an’ went quick as could be an’ give ’em the right notes, for she could read the music like plain print, an’ made ’em try it over again. She was real willin’ an’ pleasant, but that didn’t suit, an’ she made faces when they got it wrong. An’ then there fell a dead calm, an’ we was all settin’ round prim as dishes, an’ my mother, that never expects ill feelin’, asked her if she wouldn’t sing somethin’, an up she got, — poor creatur’, it all seems so different to me now, — an’ sung a lovely little song standin’ in the floor; it seemed to have something gay about it that kept a-repeatin’, an’ nobody could help keepin’ time, an’ all of a sudden she looked round at the tables and caught up a tin plate that somebody’d fetched a Washin’ton pie in, an’ she begun to drum on it with her fingers like one o’ them tambourines, an’ went right on singin’ faster an’ faster, and next minute she begun to dance a little pretty dance between the verses, just as light and pleasant as a child. You couldn’t help seein’ how pretty ’twas; we all got to trottin’ a foot, an’ some o’ the men clapped their hands quite loud, a-keepin’ time, ’twas so catchin’, an’ seemed so natural to her. There wa’n’t one of ’em but enjoyed it; she just tried to do her part, an’ some urged her on, till she stopped with a little twirl of her skirts an’ went to her place again by mother. And I can see mother now, reachin’ over an’ smilin’ an’ pattin’ her hand.
“But next day there was an awful scandal goin’ in the parish, an’ Mari’ Harris reproached my mother to her face, an’ I never wanted to see her since, but I’ve had to a good many times. I said Mis’ Tolland didn’t intend no impropriety, — I reminded her of David’s dancin’ before the Lord; but she said such a man as David never would have thought o’ dancin’ right there in the Orthodox vestry, and she felt I spoke with irreverence.
“And next sunday Mis’ Tolland come walkin’ into our meeting, but I must say she acted like a cat in a strange garret, and went right out down the aisle with her head in air, from the pew Deacon Caplin had showed her into.’Twas just in the beginning of the long prayer. I wish she’d stayed through, whatever her reasons were. Whether she’d expected somethin’ different, or misunderstood some o’ the pastor’s remarks, or what ’twas, I don’t really feel able to explain, but she kind o’ declared war, at least folks thought so, an’ war ’twas from that time. I see she was cryin’, or had been, as she passed by me; perhaps bein’ in meetin’ was what had power to make her feel homesick and strange.
“Cap’n John Tolland was away fittin’ out; that next week he come home to see her and say farewell. He was lost with his ship in the Straits of Malacca, and she lived there alone in the old house a few months longer till she died. He left her well off; ’twas said he hid his money about the house and she knew where ’twas. Oh, I expect you’ve heard that story told over an’ over twenty times, since you’ve been here at the Landin’?”
“Never one word,” I insisted.
“It was a good while ago,” explained Mrs. Todd, with reassurance.”Yes, it all happened a great while ago.”
At this moment, with a sudden flaw of the wind, some wet twigs outside blew against the window panes and made a noise like a distressed creature trying to get in. I started with sudden fear, and so did the cat, but Mrs. Todd knitted away and did not even look over her shoulder.
“She was a good-looking woman; yes, I always thought Mis’ Tolland was good-looking, though she had, as was reasonable, a sort of foreign cast, and she spoke very broken English, no better than a child. She was always at work about her house, or settin’ at a front window with her sewing; she was a beautiful hand to embroider. Sometimes, summer evenings, when the windows was open, she’d set an’ drum on her guitar, but I don’t know as I ever heard her sing but once after the cap’n went away. She appeared very happy about havin’ him, and took on dreadful at partin’ when he was down here on the wharf, going back to Portland by boat to take ship for that last v’y’ge. He acted kind of ashamed, Cap’n John did; folks about here ain’t so much accustomed to show their feelings. The whistle had blown an’ they was waitin’ for him to get aboard, an’ he was put to it to know what to do and treated her very affectionate in spite of all impatience; but mother happened to be there and she went an’ spoke, and I remember what a comfort she seemed to be. Mis’ Tolland clung to her then, and she wouldn’t give a glance after the boat when it had started, though the captain was very eager a-wavin’ to her. She wanted mother to come home with her an’ wouldn’t let go her hand, and mother had just come in to stop all night with me an’ had plenty o’ time ashore, which didn’t always happen, so they walked off together, an’ ’twas some considerable time before she got back.
” ‘I want you to neighbor with that poor lonesome creatur’,’ says mother to me, lookin’ reproachful.’She’s a stranger in a strange land,’ says mother.’I want you to make her have a sense that somebody feels kind to her.’
“‘Why, since that time she flaunted out o’ meetin’, folks have felt she liked other ways better’n our’n,’ says I. I was provoked, because I’d had a nice supper ready, an’ mother’d let it wait so long ’twas spoiled.’I hope you’ll like your supper!’ I told her. I was dreadful ashamed afterward of speakin’ so to mother.
“‘What consequence is my supper?’ says she to me; mother can be very stern, — ‘or your comfort or mine, beside letting a foreign person an’ a stranger feel so desolate; she’s done the best a woman could do in her lonesome place, and she asks nothing of anybody except a little common kindness. Think if ’twas you in a foreign land!’
“And mother set down to drink her tea, an’ I set down humbled enough over by the wall to wait till she finished. An’ I did think it all over, an’ next day I never said nothin’, but I put on my bonnet, and went to see Mis’ Cap’n Tolland, if ’twas only for mother’s sake.’Twas about three quarters of a mile up the road here, beyond the schoolhouse. I forgot to tell you
that the cap’n had bought out his sister’s right at three or four times what ’twas worth, to save trouble, so they’d got clear o’ her, an’ I went round into the side yard sort o’ friendly an’ sociable, rather than stop an’ deal with the knocker an’ the front door. It looked so pleasant an’ pretty I was glad I come; she had set a little table for supper, though ’twas still early, with a white cloth on it, right out under an old apple tree close by the house. I noticed ’twas same as with me at home, there was only one plate. She was just coming out with a dish; you couldn’t see the door nor the table from the road.
“In the few weeks she’d been there she’d got some bloomin’ pinks an’ other flowers next the doorstep. Somehow it looked as if she’d known how to make it homelike for the cap’n. She asked me to set down; she was very polite, but she looked very mournful, and I spoke of mother, an’ she put down her dish and caught holt o’ me with both hands an’ said my mother was an angel. When I see the tears in her eyes ’twas all right between us, and we were always friendly after that, and mother had us come out and make a little visit that summer; but she come a foreigner and she went a foreigner, and never was anything but a stranger among our folks. She taught me a sight o’ things about herbs I never knew before nor since; she was well acquainted with the virtues o’ plants. She’d act awful secret about some things too, an’ used to work charms for herself sometimes, an’ some o’ the neighbors told to an’ fro after she died that they knew enough not to provoke her, but ’twas all nonsense; ’tis the believin’ in such things that causes ’em to be any harm, an’ so I told ’em,” confided Mrs. Todd contemptuously.”That first night I stopped to tea with her she’d cooked some eggs with some herb or other sprinkled all through, and ’twas she that first led me to discern mushrooms; an’ she went right down on her knees in my garden here when she saw I had my different officious herbs. Yes, ’twas she that learned me the proper use o’ parsley too; she was a beautiful cook.”
Mrs. Todd stopped talking, and rose, putting the cat gently in the chair, while she went away to get another stick of apple-tree wood. It was not an evening when one wished to let the fire go down, and we had a splendid bank of bright coals. I had always wondered where Mrs. Todd had got such an unusual knowledge of cookery, of the varieties of mushrooms, and the use of sorrel as a vegetable, and other blessings of that sort. I had long ago learned that she could vary her omelettes like a child of France, which was indeed a surprise in Dunnet Landing.
All these revelations were of the deepest interest, and I was ready with a question as soon as Mrs. Todd came in and had well settled the fire and herself and the cat again.
“I wonder why she never went back to France, after she was left alone?”
“She come here from the French islands,” explained Mrs. Todd.”I asked her once about her folks, an’ she said they were all dead; ’twas the fever took ’em. She made this her home, lonesome as ’twas; she told me she hadn’t been in France since she was ‘so small,’ and measured me off a child o’ six. She’d lived right out in the country before, so that part wa’n’t unusual to her. Oh yes, there was something very strange about her, and she hadn’t been brought up in high circles nor nothing o’ that kind. I think she’d been really pleased to have the cap’n marry her an’ give her a good home, after all she’d passed through, and leave her free with his money an’ all that. An’ she got over bein’ so strange-looking to me after a while, but ’twas a very singular expression: she wore a fixed smile that wa’n’t a smile; there wa’n’t no light behind it, same ‘s a lamp can’t shine if it ain’t lit. I don’t know just how to express it, ’twas a sort of made countenance.”
One could not help thinking of Sir Philip Sidney’s phrase, “A made countenance, between simpering and smiling.”
“She took it hard, havin’ the captain go off on that last voyage,” Mrs. Todd went on.”She said somethin’ told her when they was partin’ that he would never come back. He was lucky to speak a home-bound ship this side o’ the Cape o’ Good Hope, an’ got a chance to send her a letter, an’ that cheered her up. You often felt as if you was dealin’ with a child’s mind, for all she had so much information that other folks hadn’t. I was a sight younger than I be now, and she made me imagine new things, and I got interested watchin’ her an’ findin’ out what she had to say, but you couldn’t get to no affectionateness with her. I used to blame me sometimes; we used to be real good comrades goin’ off for an afternoon, but I never give her a kiss till the day she laid in her coffin and it come to my heart there wa’n’t no one else to do it.”
“And Captain Tolland died,” I suggested after a while.
“Yes, the cap’n was lost,” said Mrs. Todd, “and of course word didn’t come for a good while after it happened. The letter come from the owners to my uncle, Cap’n Lorenzo Bowden, who was in charge of Cap’n Tolland’s affairs at home, and he come right up for me an’ said I must go with him to the house. I had known what it was to be a widow, myself, for near a year, an’ there was plenty o’ widow women along this coast that the sea had made desolate, but I never saw a heart break as I did then.
“‘Twas this way: we walked together along the road, me an’ uncle Lorenzo. You know how it leads straight from just above the schoolhouse to the brook bridge, and their house was just this side o’ the brook bridge on the left hand; the cellar’s there now, and a couple or three good-sized gray birches growin’ in it. And when we come near enough I saw that the best room, this way, where she most never set, was all lighted up, and the curtains up so that the light shone bright down the road, and as we walked, those lights would dazzle and dazzle in my eyes, and I could hear the guitar a-goin’, an’ she was singin’. She heard our steps with her quick ears and come running to the door with her eyes a-shinin’, an’ all that set look gone out of her face, an’ begun to talk French, gay as a bird, an’ shook hands and behaved very pretty an’ girlish, sayin’ ’twas her fête day. I didn’t know what she meant then. And she had gone an’ put a wreath o’ flowers on her hair an’ wore a handsome gold chain that the cap’n had given her; an’ there she was, poor creatur’, makin’ believe have a party all alone in her best room; ’twas prim enough to discourage a person, with too many chairs set close to the walls, just as the cap’n’s mother had left it, but she had put sort o’ long garlands on the walls, droopin’ very graceful, and a sight of green boughs in the corners, till it looked lovely, and all lit up with a lot o’ candles.”
“Oh dear!” I sighed.”Oh, Mrs. Todd, what did you do?”
“She beheld our countenances,” answered Mrs. Todd solemnly.”I expect they was telling everything plain enough, but Cap’n Lorenzo spoke the sad words to her as if he had been her father; and she wavered a minute and then over she went on the floor before we could catch hold of her, and then we tried to bring her to herself and failed, and at last we carried her upstairs, an’ I told uncle to run down and put out the lights, and then go fast as he could for Mrs. Begg, being very experienced in sickness, an’ he so did. I got off her clothes and her poor wreath, and I cried as I done it. We both stayed there that night, and the doctor said ’twas a shock when he come in the morning; he’d been over to Black Island an’ had to stay all night with a very sick child.”
“You said that she lived alone some time after the news came,” I reminded Mrs. Todd then.
“Oh yes, dear,” answered my friend sadly, “but it wa’n’t what you’d call livin’; no, it was only dyin’, though at a snail’s pace. She never went out again those few months, but for a while she could manage to get about the house a little, and do what was needed, an’ I never let two days go by without seein’ her or hearin’ from her. She nev
er took much notice as I came an’ went except to answer if I asked her anything. Mother was the one who gave her the only comfort.”
“What was that?” I asked softly.
“She said that anybody in such trouble ought to see their minister, mother did, and one day she spoke to Mis’ Tolland, and found that the poor soul had been believin’ all the time that there weren’t any priests here. We’d come to know she was a Catholic by her beads and all, and that had set some narrow minds against her. And mother explained it just as she would to a child; and uncle Lorenzo sent word right off somewheres up river by a packet that was bound up the bay, and the first o’ the week a priest come by the boat, an’ uncle Lorenzo was on the wharf ‘tendin’ to some business; so they just come up for me, and I walked with him to show him the house. He was a kind-hearted old man; he looked so benevolent an’ fatherly I could ha’ stopped an’ told him my own troubles; yes, I was satisfied when I first saw his face, an’ when poor Mis’ Tolland beheld him enter the room, she went right down on her knees and clasped her hands together to him as if he’d come to save her life, and he lifted her up and blessed her, an’ I left ’em together, and slipped out into the open field and walked there in sight so if they needed to call me, and I had my own thoughts. At last I saw him at the door; he had to catch the return boat. I meant to walk back with him and offer him some supper, but he said no, and said he was comin’ again if needed, and signed me to go into the house to her, and shook his head in a way that meant he understood everything. I can see him now; he walked with a cane, rather tired and feeble; I wished somebody would come along, so ‘s to carry him down to the shore.
“Mis’ Tolland looked up at me with a new look when I went in, an’ she even took hold o’ my hand and kept it. He had put some oil on her forehead, but nothing anybody could do would keep her alive very long; ’twas his medicine for the soul rather ‘n the body. I helped her to bed, and next morning she couldn’t get up to dress her, and that was Monday, and she began to fail, and ’twas Friday night she died.” (Mrs. Todd spoke with unusual haste and lack of detail. ) “Mrs. Begg and I watched with her, and made everything nice and proper, and after all the ill will there was a good number gathered to the funeral.’Twas in Reverend Mr. Bascom’s day, and he done very well in his prayer, considering he couldn’t fill in with mentioning all the near connections by name as was his habit. He spoke very feeling about her being a stranger and twice widowed, and all he said about her being reared among the heathen was to observe that there might be roads leadin’ up to the New Jerusalem from various points. I says to myself that I guessed quite a number must ha’ reached there that wa’n’t able to set out from Dunnet Landin’!”
Mrs. Todd gave an odd little laugh as she bent toward the firelight to pick up a dropped stitch in her knitting, and then I heard a heartfelt sigh.
” ‘Twas most forty years ago,” she said; “most everybody’s gone a’ready that was there that day.”
Suddenly Mrs. Todd gave an energetic shrug of her shoulders, and a quick look at me, and I saw that the sails of her narrative were filled with a fresh breeze.
“Uncle Lorenzo, Cap’n Bowden that I have referred to” —
“Certainly!” I agreed with eager expectation.
“He was the one that had been left in charge of Cap’n John Tolland’s affairs, and had now come to be of unforeseen importance.
“Mrs. Begg an’ I had stayed in the house both before an’ after Mis’ Tolland’s decease, and she was now in haste to be gone, having affairs to call her home; but uncle come to me as the exercises was beginning, and said he thought I’d better remain at the house while they went to the buryin’ ground. I couldn’t understand his reasons, an’ I felt disappointed, bein’ as near to her as most anybody; ’twas rough weather, so mother couldn’t get in, and didn’t even hear Mis’ Tolland was gone till next day. I just nodded to satisfy him, ‘twa’n’t no time to discuss anything. Uncle seemed flustered; he’d gone out deep-sea fishin’ the day she died, and the storm I told you of rose very sudden, so they got blown off way down the coast beyond Monhegan, and he’d just got back in time to dress himself and come.
“I set there in the house after I’d watched her away down the straight road far ‘s I could see from the door; ’twas a little short walkin’ funeral an’ a cloudy sky, so everything looked dull an’ gray, an’ it crawled along all in one piece, same ‘s walking funerals do, an’ I wondered how it ever come to the Lord’s mind to let her begin down among them gay islands all heat and sun, and end up here among the rocks with a north wind blowin’.’Twas a gale that begun the afternoon before she died, and had kept blowin’ off an’ on ever since. I’d thought more than once how glad I should be to get home an’ out o’ sound o’ them black spruces a-beatin’ an’ scratchin’ at the front windows.
“I set to work pretty soon to put the chairs back, an’ set outdoors some that was borrowed, an’ I went out in the kitchen, an’ I made up a good fire in case somebody come an’ wanted a cup o’ tea; but I didn’t expect any one to travel way back to the house unless ’twas uncle Lorenzo.’Twas growin’ so chilly that I fetched some kindlin’ wood and made fires in both the fore rooms. Then I set down an’ begun to feel as usual, and I got my knittin’ out of a drawer. You can’t be sorry for a poor creatur’ that’s come to the end o’ all her troubles; my only discomfort was I thought I’d ought to feel worse at losin’ her than I did; I was younger then than I be now. And as I set there, I begun to hear some long notes o’ dronin’ music from upstairs that chilled me to the bone.”
Mrs. Todd gave a hasty glance at me.
“Quick ‘s I could gather me, I went right upstairs to see what ’twas,” she added eagerly, “an ’twas just what I might ha’ known. She’d always kept her guitar hangin’ right against the wall in her room; ’twas tied by a blue ribbon, and there was a window left wide open; the wind was veerin’ a good deal, an’ it slanted in and searched the room. The strings was jarrin’ yet.
“‘Twas growin’ pretty late in the afternoon, an’ I begun to feel lonesome as I shouldn’t now, and I was disappointed at having to stay there, the more I thought it over, but after a while I saw Cap’n Lorenzo polin’ back up the road all alone, and when he come nearer I could see he had a bundle under his arm and had shifted his best black clothes for his every-day ones. I run out and put some tea into the teapot and set it back on the stove to draw, an’ when he come in I reached down a little jug o’ spirits, — Cap’n Tolland had left his house well provisioned as if his wife was goin’ to put to sea same ‘s himself, an’ there she’d gone an’ left it. There was some cake that Mis’ Begg an’ I had made the day before. I thought that uncle an’ me had a good right to the funeral supper, even if there wa’n’t any one to join us. I was lookin’ forward to my cup o’ tea; ’twas beautiful tea out of a green lacquered chest that I’ve got now.”
“You must have felt very tired,” said I, eagerly listening.
“I was ‘most beat out, with watchin’ an’ tendin’ and all,” answered Mrs. Todd, with as much sympathy in her voice as if she were speaking of another person.”But I called out to uncle as he came in, ‘Well, I expect it’s all over now, an’ we’ve all done what we could. I thought we’d better have some tea or somethin’ before we go home. Come right out in the kitchen, sir,’ says I, never thinking but we only had to let the fires out and lock up everything safe an’ eat our refreshment, an’ go home.
“‘I want both of us to stop here to-night,’ says uncle, looking at me very important.
“‘Oh, what for?’ says I, kind o’ fretful.
“‘I’ve got my proper reasons,’ says uncle.’I’ll see you well satisfied, Almira. Your tongue ain’t so easy-goin’ as some o’ the women folks, an’ there’s property here to take charge of
that you don’t know nothin’ at all about.’
“‘What do you mean?’ says I.
“‘Cap’n Tolland acquainted me with his affairs; he hadn’t no sort o’ confidence in nobody but me an’ his wife, after he was tricked into signin’ that Portland note, an’ lost money. An’ she didn’t know nothin’ about business; but what he didn’t take to sea to be sunk with him he’s hid somewhere in this house. I expect Mis’ Tolland may have told you where she kept things?’ said uncle.
“I see he was dependin’ a good deal on my answer,” said Mrs. Todd, “but I had to disappoint him; no, she had never said nothin’ to me.
” ‘Well, then, we’ve got to make a search,’ says he, with considerable relish; but he was all tired and worked up, and we set down to the table, an’ he had somethin’, an’ I took my desired cup o’ tea, and then I begun to feel more interested.
“‘Where you goin’ to look first?’ says I, but he give me a short look an’ made no answer, and begun to mix me a very small portion out of the jug, in another glass. I took it to please him; he said I looked tired, speakin’ real fatherly, and I did feel better for it, and we set talkin’ a few minutes, an’ then he started for the cellar, carrying an old ship’s lantern he fetched out o’ the stairway an’ lit.
“‘What are you lookin’ for, some kind of a chist?’ I inquired, and he said yes. All of a sudden it come to me to ask who was the heirs; Eliza Tolland, Cap’n John’s own sister, had never demeaned herself to come near the funeral, and uncle Lorenzo faced right about and begun to laugh, sort o’ pleased. I thought queer of it; ‘t wa’n’t what he’d taken, which would be nothin’ to an old weathered sailor like him.
“‘Who’s the heir?’ says I the second time.
“‘Why, it’s you, Almiry,’ says he; and I was so took aback I set right down on the turn o’ the cellar stairs.
“‘Yes, ’tis,’ said uncle Lorenzo.’I’m glad of it too. Some thought she didn’t have no sense but foreign sense, an’ a poor stock o’ that, but she said you was friendly to her, an’ one day after she got news of Tolland’s death, an’ I had fetched up his will that left everything to her, she said she was goin’ to make a writin’, so ‘s you could have things after she was gone, an’ she give five hundred to me for bein’ executor. Square Pease fixed up the paper, an’ she signed it; it’s all accordin’ to law.’ There, I begun to cry,” said Mrs. Todd; “I couldn’t help it. I wished I had her back again to do somethin’ for, an’ to make her know I felt sisterly to her more ‘n I’d ever showed, an’ it come over me ’twas all too late, an’ I cried the more, till uncle showed impatience, an’ I got up an’ stumbled along down cellar with my apern to my eyes the greater part of the time.
“‘I’m goin’ to have a clean search,’ says he; ‘you hold the light.’ An’ I held it, and he rummaged in the arches an’ under the stairs, an’ over in some old closet where he reached out bottles an’ stone jugs an’ canted some kags an’ one or two casks, an’ chuckled well when he heard there was somethin’ inside, — but there wa’n’t nothin’ to find but things usual in a cellar, an’ then the old lantern was givin’ out an’ we come away.
“‘He spoke to me of a chist, Cap’n Tolland did,’ says uncle in a whisper.’He said a good sound chist was as safe a bank as there was, an’ I beat him out of such nonsense, ‘count o’ fire an’ other risks.’ ‘There’s no chist in the rooms above,’ says I’; ‘no, uncle, there ain’t no sea-chist, for I’ve been here long enough to see what there was to be seen.’ Yet he wouldn’t feel contented till he’d mounted up into the toploft; ’twas one o’ them single, hip-roofed houses that don’t give proper accommodation for a real garret, like Cap’n Littlepage’s down here at the Landin’. There was broken furniture and rubbish, an’ he let down a terrible sight o’ dust into the front entry, but sure enough there wasn’t no chist. I had it all to sweep up next day.
“‘He must have took it away to sea,’ says I to the cap’n, an’ even then he didn’t want to agree, but we was both beat out. I told him where I’d always seen Mis’ Tolland get her money from, and we found much as a hundred dollars there in an old red morocco wallet. Cap’n John had been gone a good while a’ready, and she had spent what she needed.’Twas in an old desk o’ his in the settin’ room that we found the wallet.”
“At the last minute he may have taken his money to sea,” I suggested.
“Oh yes,” agreed Mrs. Todd.”He did take considerable to make his venture to bring home, as was customary, an’ that was drowned with him as uncle agreed; but he had other property in shipping, and a thousand dollars invested in Portland in a cordage shop, but ’twas about the time shipping begun to decay, and the cordage shop failed, and in the end I wa’n’t so rich as I thought I was goin’ to be for those few minutes on the cellar stairs. There was an auction that accumulated something. Old Mis’ Tolland, the cap’n’s mother, had heired some good furniture from a sister: there was above thirty chairs in all, and they’re apt to sell well. I got over a thousand dollars when we come to settle up, and I made uncle take his five hundred; he was getting along in years and had met with losses in navigation, and he left it back to me when he died, so I had a real good lift. It all lays in the bank over to Rockland, and I draw my interest fall an’ spring, with the little Mr. Todd was able to leave me; but that’s kind o’ sacred money; ’twas earnt and saved with the hope o’ youth, an’ I’m very particular what I spend it for. Oh yes, what with ownin’ my house, I’ve been enabled to get along very well, with prudence!” said Mrs. Todd contentedly.
“But there was the house and land,” I asked, — “what became of that part of the property?”
Mrs. Todd looked into the fire, and a shadow of disapproval flitted over her face.
“Poor old uncle!” she said, “he got childish about the matter. I was hoping to sell at first, and I had an offer, but he always run of an idea that there was more money hid away, and kept wanting me to delay; an’ he used to go up there all alone and search, and dig in the cellar, empty an’ bleak as ’twas in winter weather or any time. An’ he’d come and tell me he’d dreamed he found gold behind a stone in the cellar wall, or somethin’. And one night we all see the light o’ fire up that way, an’ the whole Landin’ took the road, and run to look, and the Tolland property was all in a light blaze. I expect the old gentleman had dropped fire about; he said he’d been up there to see if everything was safe in the afternoon. As for the land, ’twas so poor that everybody used to have a joke that the Tolland boys preferred to farm the sea instead. It’s ‘most all grown up to bushes now, where it ain’t poor water grass in the low places. There’s some upland that has a pretty view, after you cross the brook bridge. Years an’ years after she died, there was some o’ her flowers used to come up an’ bloom in the door garden. I brought two or three that was unusual down here; they always come up and remind me of her constant as the spring. But I never did want to fetch home that guitar, some way or ‘nother; I wouldn’t let it go at the auction, either. It was hangin’ right there in the house when the fire took place. I’ve got some o’ her other little things scattered about the house: that picture on the mantelpiece belonged to her.”
I had often wondered where such a picture had come from, and why Mrs. Todd had chosen it; it was a French print of the statue of the Empress Josephine in the Savane at old Fort Royal, in Martinique.
Mrs. Todd drew her chair closer to mine; she held the cat and her knitting with one hand as she moved, but the cat was so warm and so sound asleep that she only stretched a lazy paw in spite of what must have felt like a slight earthquake. Mrs. Todd began to speak almost in a whisper.
“I ain’t told you all,” she continued; “no, I haven’t spoken of all to but very few. The way it came was this,” she said solemnly, and then stopped to listen to the wind, an
d sat for a moment in deferential silence, as if she waited for the wind to speak first. The cat suddenly lifted her head with quick excitement and gleaming eyes, and her mistress was leaning forward toward the fire with an arm laid on either knee, as if they were consulting the glowing coals for some augury. Mrs. Todd looked like an old prophetess as she sat there with the firelight shining on her strong face; she was posed for some great painter. The woman with the cat was as unconscious and as mysterious as any sibyl of the Sistine Chapel.
“There, that’s the last struggle o’ the gale,” said Mrs. Todd, nodding her head with impressive certainty and still looking into the bright embers of the fire.”You’ll see!” She gave me another quick glance, and spoke in a low tone as if we might be overheard.
“‘Twas such a gale as this the night Mis’ Tolland died. She appeared more comfortable the first o’ the evenin’; and Mrs. Begg was more spent than I, bein’ older, and a beautiful nurse that was the first to see and think of everything, but perfectly quiet an’ never asked a useless question. You remember her funeral when you first come to the Landing? And she consented to goin’ an’ havin’ a good sleep while she could, and left me one o’ those good little pewter lamps that burnt whale oil an’ made plenty o’ light in the room, but not too bright to be disturbin’.
“Poor Mis’ Tolland had been distressed the night before, an’ all that day, but as night come on she grew more and more easy, an’ was layin’ there asleep; ’twas like settin’ by any sleepin’ person, and I had none but usual thoughts. When the wind lulled and the rain, I could hear the seas, though more distant than this, and I don’ know ‘s I observed any other sound than what the weather made; ’twas a very solemn feelin’ night. I set close by the bed; there was times she looked to find somebody when she was awake. The light was on her face, so I could see her plain; there was always times when she wore a look that made her seem a stranger you’d never set eyes on before. I did think what a world it was that her an’ me should have come together so, and she have nobody but Dunnet Landin’ folks about her in her extremity.’You’re one o’ the stray ones, poor creatur’,’ I said. I remember those very words passin’ through my mind, but I saw reason to be glad she had some comforts, and didn’t lack friends at the last, though she’d seen misery an’ pain. I was glad she was quiet; all day she’d been restless, and we couldn’t understand what she wanted from her French speech. We had the window open to give her air, an’ now an’ then a gust would strike that guitar that was on the wall and set it swinging by the blue ribbon, and soundin’ as if somebody begun to play it. I come near takin’ it down, but you never know what’ll fret a sick person an’ put ’em on the rack, an’ that guitar was one o’ the few things she’d brought with her.”
I nodded assent, and Mrs. Todd spoke still lower.
“I set there close by the bed; I’d been through a good deal for some days back, and I thought I might ‘s well be droppin’ asleep too, bein’ a quick person to wake. She looked to me as if she might last a day longer, certain, now she’d got more comfortable, but I was real tired, an’ sort o’ cramped as watchers will get, an’ a fretful feeling begun to creep over me such as they often do have. If you give way, there ain’t no support for the sick person; they can’t count on no composure o’ their own. Mis’ Tolland moved then, a little restless, an’ I forgot me quick enough, an’ begun to hum out a little part of a hymn tune just to make her feel everything was as usual an’ not wake up into a poor uncertainty. All of a sudden she set right up in bed with her eyes wide open, an’ I stood an’ put my arm behind her; she hadn’t moved like that for days. And she reached out both her arms toward the door, an’ I looked the way she was lookin’, an’ I see some one was standin’ there against the dark. No, ‘twa’n’t Mis’ Begg; ’twas somebody a good deal shorter than Mis’ Begg. The lamplight struck across the room between us. I couldn’t tell the shape, but ’twas a woman’s dark face lookin’ right at us; ‘twa’n’t but an instant I could see. I felt dreadful cold, and my head begun to swim; I thought the light went out; ‘twa’n’t but an instant, as I say, an’ when my sight come back I couldn’t see nothing there. I was one that didn’t know what it was to faint away, no matter what happened; time was I felt above it in others, but ’twas somethin’ that made poor human natur’ quail. I saw very plain while I could see; ’twas a pleasant enough face, shaped somethin’ like Mis’ Tolland’s, and a kind of expectin’ look.
“No, I don’t expect I was asleep,” Mrs. Todd assured me quietly, after a moment’s pause, though I had not spoken. She gave a heavy sigh before she went on. I could see that the recollection moved her in the deepest way.
“I suppose if I hadn’t been so spent an’ quavery with long watchin’, I might have kept my head an’ observed much better,” she added humbly; “but I see all I could bear. I did try to act calm, an’ I laid Mis’ Tolland down on her pillow, an’ I was a-shakin’ as I done it. All she did was to look up to me so satisfied and sort o’ questioning, an I looked back to her.
“‘You saw her, didn’t you?’ she says to me, speakin’ perfectly reasonable.”Tis my mother,’ she says again, very feeble, but lookin’ straight up at me, kind of surprised with the pleasure, and smiling as if she saw I was overcome, an’ would have said more if she could, but we had hold of hands. I see then her change was comin’, but I didn’t call Mis’ Begg, nor make no uproar. I felt calm then, an’ lifted to somethin’ different as I never was since. She opened her eyes just as she was goin’ —
“‘You saw her, didn’t you?’ she said the second time, an’ I says, ‘Yes, dear, I did; you ain’t never goin’ to feel strange an’ lonesome no more.’ An’ then in a few quiet minutes ’twas all over. I felt they’d gone away together. No, I wa’n’t alarmed afterward; ’twas just that one moment I couldn’t live under, but I never called it beyond reason I should see the other watcher. I saw plain enough there was somebody there with me in the room.
“‘Twas just such a night as this Mis’ Tolland died,” repeated Mrs. Todd, returning to her usual tone and leaning back comfortably in her chair as she took up her knitting.”‘Twas just such a night as this. I’ve told the circumstances to but very few; but I don’t call it beyond reason. When folks is goin’ ’tis all natural, and only common things can jar upon the mind. You know plain enough there’s somethin’ beyond this world; the doors stand wide open.’There’s somethin’ of us that must still live on; we’ve got to join both worlds together an’ live in one but for the other.’ The doctor said that to me one day, an’ I never could forget it; he said ’twas in one o’ his old doctor’s books.”
We sat together in silence in the warm little room; the rain dropped heavily from the eaves, and the sea still roared, but the high wind had done blowing. We heard the far complaining fog horn of a steamer up the Bay.
“There goes the Boston boat out, pretty near on time,” said Mrs. Todd with satisfaction.”Sometimes these late August storms’ll sound a good deal worse than they really be. I do hate to hear the poor steamers callin’ when they’re bewildered in thick nights in winter, comin’ on the coast. Yes, there goes the boat; they’ll find it rough at sea, but the storm’s all over.”