An Old Fool by Frances Fuller Victor
PART I. PART II.
The annual rain-fall on the lower Columbia River is upward of eighty inches—often almost ninety; and the greater amount of this fall is during the winter months, from November to March, generally the least intermittent in December. I mention this climatic fact, the better to be understood in attempting to describe a certain December afternoon in the year 186-.
It lacked but two days of Christmas, and the sun had not shone out brightly for a single hour in three weeks. On this afternoon the steady pour from the clouds was a strong reminder of the ancient deluge. Between the rain itself and the mist which always accompanies the rain-fall in Oregon, the world seemed nearly blotted out. Standing on the wharf at Astoria, the noble river looked like a great gray caldron of steaming water, evaporating freely at 42°. The lofty highlands on the opposite shore had lost all shape, or certain altitude. The stately forest of firs along their summits were shrouded in ever-changing masses of whitish-gray fog. Nothing could be seen of the light-house on the headland at the mouth of the river; nothing of Tongue Point, two miles above Astoria; and only a dim presentment of the town itself, and the hills at the back of it. Even the old Astorians, used to this sort of weather and not disliking it, having little to do in the winter time, and being always braced up by sea-airs that even this fresh-water flood could not divest of their tonic flavor—these old sea-dogs, pilots, fishermen, and other
amphibia, were constrained at last to give utterance to mild growls at the persistent character of the storm.
A crowd of these India-rubber clad, red-cheeked, and, alas! too often red-nosed old men of the sea, had taken shelter in the Railroad Saloon—called that, apparently, because there was no railroad then within hundreds of miles—and were engaged in alternate wild railings at the weather, reminiscences of other storms, and whisky-drinking; there being an opinion current among these men that water-proof garments alone did not suffice to keep out the all-prevailing wet.
"If 'twant that we're so near the sea, with a good wide sewage of river to carry off the water, we should all be drownded; thet's my view on't," said Rumway, a bar pilot, whose dripping hat-rim and general shiny appearance gave point to his remark.
"You can't count on the sea to befriend you this time, Captain. Better git yer ark alongside the wharf; fur we're goin' to hev the Columbia runnin' up stream to-night, sure as you're born."
"Hullo! Is that you, Joe Chillis? What brought you to town in this kind o' weather? And what do you know about the tides?—that's
business, I calculate."
"Mebbe it is; and mebbe a bar pilot knows more about the tides nor a mountain man. But there'll be a rousin' old tide to-night, and a sou'wester, to boot; you bet yer life on that!"
"I'll grant you thet a mountain man knows a heap thet other men don't. But I'll never agree thet he can tell
business. Take a drink, Joe, and then let's hear some o' your mountain yarns."
"Thankee; don't keer ef I do. I can't stop to spin yarns, tho', this evenin'. I've got to git home. It won't be easy work pullin' agin the tide an hour or two from now."
"What's your hurry?" "A story—a story!" "Let's make a night of it." "O, come, Joe, you are not wanted at home. Cabin won't run away; wife won't scold." "Stop along ov us till mornin';" were the various rather noisy and ejaculatory remarks upon Chillis's avowed intention of abandoning good and appreciative company, without stopping to tell one of his ever-ready tales of Indian and bear fighting in the Rocky Mountains thirty years before.
"Why, you ain't goin' out again till you've shaken off the water, Joe. You're dripping like a Newfoundland;" said Captain Rumway, as Chillis put down his empty glass, and turned toward the door, which he had entered not five minutes before. This thoughtfulness for his comfort, however, only meant, "Stay till you've taken another drink, and then maybe you will tell us a story;" and Chillis knew the bait well enough to decline it.
"Thankee, Captain. One bucketful more or less won't make no difference. I'm wet to the skin now. Thank ye all, gentlemen; I've got business to attend to this evenin'. Have any of you seen Eb Smiley this arternoon?"—looking back, with his hand on the door-knob. "I'd like to speak to him afore I leave, ef you can tell me whar to find him."
"You'll find him in there," answered the bar-tender, crooking his thumb toward a room leading out of the saloon, containing a tumbled single-bed and a wooden settee, besides various masculine bijouterie in the shape of boots, old and new, clean and dirty; candle and cigar ends; dusty bits of paper on a stand, the chief ornament of which was a black-looking derringer; coats, vests, fishing-tackle; and cheap prints, adorning the walls in the wildest disregard of effect—except, indeed, the effect aimed at were chaos.
Into this apartment Chillis unceremoniously thrust himself through the half-open door, frowning as darkly as his fine and pleasant features would admit of, and muttering to himself, "Damme, I thought as much."
On the wooden settee reclined a man thirty years his junior—Chillis was over sixty, though he did not look it—sleeping the heavy, stupid sleep of intoxication. The old hunter did not stand upon ceremony, nor hesitate to invade the sleeper's privacy, but marched up to the settee, his ragged old blanket-coat dripping tiny streams from every separate tatter, and proceeded at once roughly to arouse the drunken man by a prolonged and vigorous shaking.
"Wha'er want? Lemme 'lone," grumbled Smiley, only dimly conscious of what was being said or done to him.
"Get up, I say. Get up, you fool! and come along home. Your wife is needin' ye. Go home and take care of her and the boy. Come along—d'ye hear?"
But the sleeper's brain was impervious to sound or sense. He only muttered, in a drowsy whisper, "Lemme 'lone," a few times, and went off into a deeper stupor than before.
"You miserable cuss," snarled Chillis, in his wrath, "be d——d to you, then! Drink yerself to death, ef you want to—the sooner the better;" and, with this parting adjuration, and an extra shake, the old mountain man, who had drank barrels of alcohol himself with comparative immunity from harm, turned his back upon this younger degenerate victim of modern whisky, and strode out of the room and the house, without stopping to reply to the renewed entreaties of his friends to remain and "make a night of it."
Making directly for the wharf, where his boat was moored, half filled with water, he hastily bailed it out, pushed off, and, dropping the oars into the row-locks, bent to the work before him; for the tide was already beginning to run up, and the course he had to take brought him dead against it for the first two or three miles, after which the tide would be with him, and, if there should not be too much sea, the labor of impelling the boat would be materially lessened.
The lookout from a small boat was an ugly one at three o'clock of this rainy December afternoon. A dense, cold fog had been rolling in from the sea for the last half hour, and the wind was rising with the tide. Under the shelter of the hills at the foot of which Astoria nestled, the wind did not make itself felt; but once past "The Point," and in the exposed waters of Young's Bay, the south-westers had a fair sweep of the great river, of which the bay is only an inlet. One of these dreaded storms was preparing to make itself felt, as Chillis had predicted, and as he now saw by the way in which the mist was being blown off the face of the river, and the "white-caps" came instead. Before he arrived off the Point he laid down his oars, and, taking out of his coat-pocket a saturated yellow cotton handkerchief, proceeded to tie his old soft felt hat down over his ears, and otherwise make ready for a struggle with wind and water—neither of them adversaries to be trifled with, as he knew.
Not a minute too soon, either; for, just when he had resumed the oars, the boat, having drifted out of her course, was caught by a wave and a blast on its broadside, and nearly upset.
"Steady, little gal," said Chillis, bringing his boat round, head to the wind. "None o' your capers now. Thar is serious work on hand, an' I want you to behave better'n ever you did afore. It's you an' me, an' the White Rose, this time, sure," and he pressed his lips together grimly, and peered out from under his bent old hat at the storm which was driving furiously against his broad breast, and into his white, anxious face, almost blinding and strangling him. His boat was a small one—too small for the seas of the lower Columbia—but it was trim and light, and steered easily. Besides, the old mountaineer was a skilled oarsman, albeit this accomplishment was not a part of the education of American hunters and trappers, as it was of the French
voyageurs. Keeping his little craft head to the wind, he took each wave squarely on the prow, and with a powerful stroke of the oars cut through it, or sprang over it, and then made ready for the next. Meanwhile, the storm increased, the rain driving at an angle of 45°, and in sheets that flapped smotheringly about him like wet blankets, and threatened to swamp his boat without assistance from the waves. It was growing colder, too, and his sodden garments were of little service to protect him from the chill that comes with a south-wester; nor was the grip of the naked hands upon the oars stimulating to the circulation of his old blood through the swollen fingers.
But old Joe Chillis had a distinct comprehension of the situation, and felt himself to be master of it. He had gone over to Astoria that day, not to drink whisky and tell stories, but to do a good turn for the "White Rose." Failing in his purpose, he was going back again, at any cost, to make up for the miscarriage of that effort. Death itself could not frighten him; for what was the Columbia in a storm to the dangers he had passed through in years of hunting and trapping in the Rocky Mountains? He had seemed to bear a charmed life then; he would believe that the charm had not deserted him.
But, O, how his old arms ached! and the storm freshening every minute, with two miles further to row, in the teeth of it. The tide was with him now; but the wind was against the tide, and made an ugly sea. If he only could reach the mouth of the creek before dark. If he could? Why, he must. The tide would be up so that he could not find the entrance in the dark. He worked resolutely—worked harder than ever—but he did not accomplish so much, because his strength was giving out. When he first became aware of this, he heaved a great sigh, as if his heart were broken, then pressed his lips together as before, and peered through the thick gray twilight, looking for the creek's mouth while yet there was a little light.
He was now in the very worst part of the bay, where the current from Young's River was strongest, setting out toward the Columbia, and where the wind had the fairest sweep, blowing from the coast across the low Clatsop plains. Only the tide and his failing strength were opposed to these; would they enable him to hold his own? He set his teeth harder than ever, but it was all in vain, and directly the catastrophe came. His strength wavered, the boat veered round, a sudden gust and roll of water took it broadside, and over she went, keel up, more than a mile from land.
But this was not the last of Joe Chillis—not by any manner of means. He had trapped beaver too many years to mind a ducking more or less, if he only had his strength. So, when he came up, he clutched an oar that was floating past him, and looked about for the boat. She was not far off—the tide was holding her, bobbing up and down like a cork. In a few minutes she was righted, and Chillis had scrambled in, losing his oar while doing it, and regaining it while being nearly upset again.
It had become a matter of life and death now to keep afloat, with only one oar to fight the sea with; and, though hoping little from the expedient, in such a gale—blowing the wrong way, besides—Chillis shouted for assistance in every lull of the tempest. To his own intense astonishment, as well as relief, his hail was answered.
"Where away?" came on the wind, the sound seeming to flap and flutter like a shred of torn sail.
"Off the creek, about a mile?" shouted Chillis, with those powerful lungs of his, that had gotten much of their bellows-like proportions during a dozen years of breathing the thin air of the mountains.
"All right!" was returned on the snapping, fluttering gale. After this answer, Chillis contented himself with keeping his boat right side up, and giving an occasional prolonged "Oh-whoo!" to guide his rescuers through the thickening gloom. How long it seemed, with the growing darkness, and the effort to avoid another upset! But the promised help came at last, in the shape of the mail-carrier's plunger, her trim little mast catching his eyes, shining white and bare out of the dusk. Directly he heard the voices of the mail-carrier and another.
"Where be ye?
"Right here, under yer bow. Joe Chillis, you bet your life!"
"Waal, come aboard here, mighty quick. Make fast. Mind your boat; don't let her strike us. Pole off—pole off, with yer oar!"
oars," returned Chillis; "I'll mind mine"—every word spoken with a yell.
"What was the row, out there?" asks the mail-carrier, making a trumpet of his hand.
"Boat flopped over; lost an oar," answered Chillis, keeping his little craft from flying on board by main force.
"Guess I won't go over to-night," says the carrier. "'Taint safe for the mail"—The wind snatching the word "mail" out of his mouth, and scattering it over the water as if it had been a broken bundle of letters. "I'll go back to Skippanon"—the letters flying every way again.
"Couldn't get over noways, now," shouts back Chillis, glad in his heart that he could not, and that the chance, or mischance, favored his previous designs. Then he said no more, but watched his boat, warding it off carefully until they reached the mouth of the creek and got inside, with nothing worse to contend against than the insolent wind and rain.
"This is a purty stiff tide, for this time o' day. It won't take long to pull up to Skippanon, with all this water pushin' us along. Goin' home to-night, Joe?"
"Yes, I'm goin' home, ef I can borrer an oar," said Chillis. "My house ain't altogether safe without me, in sech weather as this."
"Safer 'n most houses, ef she don't break away from her moorin's," returned the mail-carrier, laughing. "Ef I can git somebody to take my place for a week, I'm comin' up to spend it with you, an' do some shootin'. Nothin' like such an establishment as yours to go huntin' in—house an' boat all in one—go where you please, an' stay as long as you please."
"Find me an oar to git home with, an' you can come an' stay as long as the grub holds out."
"Waal, I can do that, I guess, when we git to the landin'. I keep an extra pair or two for emergencies. But it's gittin' awful black, Chillis, an' I don't envy you the trip up the creek. It's crooked as a string o' S's, an' full o' shoals, to boot."
"It won't be shoal to-night," remarked Chillis, and relapsed into silence.
In a few minutes the boat's bow touched the bank. "Mind the tiller!" called out both oarsmen, savagely. But as no one minded it, and it was too dark to see what was the matter, the mail-carrier dropped his oar, and stepped back to the stern to
what it was.
"He's fast asleep, or drunk, or dead, I don't know which," he called to the other oarsman, as he got hold of the steering gear, and headed the boat up-stream again. His companion made no reply, and the party proceeded in silence to the landing. Here, by dint of much shouting and hallooing, the inmates of a house close by became informed of something unusual outside, and, after a suitable delay, a man appeared, carrying a lantern.
"It's you, is it?" he said to the mail-carrier. "I reckoned you wouldn't cross to-night. Who ye got in there?"
"It's Joe Chillis. We picked him up outside, about a mile off the land. His boat had been upset, an' he'd lost an oar; an' ef we hadn't gone to his assistance it would have been the last of old Joe, I guess."
"Hullo, Joe! Why don't you git up?" asked the man, seeing that Chillis did not rise, or change his position.
"By George! I don't know what's the matter with him. Give me the lantern;" and the mail-carrier took the light and flashed it over Chillis's face.
"I don't know whether he's asleep, or has fainted, or what. He's awful white, an' there's an ugly cut in his shoulder, an' his coat all torn away. Must have hurt himself tryin' to right his boat, I guess. George! the iron on the rowlock must have struck right into the flesh."
"He didn't say he was hurt," rejoined the other oarsman.
"It's like enough he didn't know it," said the man with the lantern. "When a man's in danger he doesn't feel a hurt. Poor old Joe! he wasn't drunk, or he couldn't have handled his boat at all in this weather. We must take him in, I s'pose."
Then the three men lifted him upon his feet, and, by shaking and talking, aroused him sufficiently to walk with their support to the house. There they laid him on a bench, and brought him a glass of hot whisky and water; and the women of the house gathered about shyly, gazing compassionately upon the ugly wound in the old man's delicate white flesh, white and delicate as the fairest woman's.
Presently, Chillis sat up and looked about him. "Have you got me the oars?" he said to the mail-carrier.
"You won't row any more to-night, Joe,
guess," the carrier answered, smiling grimly. "Look at your shoulder, man."
"Shoulder be d——d!" retorted Chillis. "Beg pardon, ladies; I didn't see you. Been asleep, haven't I? Perhaps, sence you seem to think I'm not fit for rowin', one of these ladies will do me the favor to help me put myself in order. Have you a piece of court-plaster, or a healing salve, ma'am?"—to the elder woman. "Ladies mostly keep sech trifles about them, I believe."
Then he straightened himself up to his magnificent height, and threw out his broad, round chest, as if the gash in his shoulder were an epaulet or a band of stars instead.
"Of course, I can do something for you," said the woman he had addressed, very cheerfully and quickly. "I have the best healing salve in all the country;" and, running away, she quickly returned with a roll of linen, and the invaluable salve.
"I must look at the wound, and see if it wants washing out. Ugh! O, dear! it is a dreadful cut, and ragged. You will have to go to the doctor with that, I'm afraid. But I'll just put this on to-night, to prevent your taking cold in it; though you will take cold, anyway, if you do not get a change of clothes;" and the good woman looked round at her husband, asking him with her eyes to offer this very necessary kindness.
"You'll stop with us to-night, Joe," said the man, in answer to this appeal, "an' the sooner you git off them wet clothes the better. I'll lend you some o' mine."
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Chillis, you must get out of these wet things, and put on some of Ben's. Then you will let me get you a bit of hot supper, and go right to bed. You don't look as if you could sit up. There!" she added, as the salve was pressed gently down over the torn flesh, and heaving a deep sigh, "if you feel half as sick as I do, just looking at it, you will do well to get ready to lie down."
"Thankee, ma'am. It's worth a man's while to git hurt a leetle, ef he has a lady to take care o' him," answered Chillis, gallantly. "But I can't accept your kindness any furder to-night. Ef I can git the loan of a lantern an' a pair o' oars, it is all I ask, for home I must go, as soon as possible."
"Ben will lend you a lantern," said the mail-carrier, "an' I will lend you the oars, as I promised; but what on earth you want to go any further in this storm for, beats me."
"This storm has only jist begun, and its goin' to last three days," returned Chillis. "No use waitin' for it to quit; so, good-night to you all. I've made a pretty mess o' your floor," he added, turning to glance at the little black puddles that had drained out of his great spongy blanket coat, and run down through his leaky boots on to the white-scoured boards of the kitchen; then, glancing from them to the mistress of the house—"I hope you'll excuse me." And with that he opened the door quickly, and shut himself out into the tempest once more, making his way by the lantern's aid to the boat-house at the landing, where he helped himself to what he needed, and was soon pulling up the creek. Luckily there was no current against him, for it was sickening work making the oar-stroke with that hurt in his shoulder.
He could see by the light of the lantern, which he occasionally held aloft, that the long grass of the tide-marsh was already completely submerged, the immense flats looking like a sea, with the wind driving the water before it in long rolls, or catching it up and flirting it through the air in spray and foam. His only guide to his course was the scattering line of low willows whose tops still bent and shook above the flood, indicating the slightly raised banks of the creek, everything more distant being hidden in the profound darkness which brooded over and seemed a part of the storm. But even with these landmarks he wandered a good deal in his reckoning, and an hour or more had elapsed before his watchful eyes caught the gleam of what might have been a star reflected in the ocean.
"Thank God!" he whispered, and pulled a little faster toward that spark of light.
In ten minutes more, he moored his boat to the hitching-post in front of a tiny cottage, from whose uncurtained window the light of a brisk wood-fire was shining. As the chain clanked in the ring, the door opened, and a woman and child looked out.
"Is that you, Eben?" asked the woman, in an eager voice, made husky by previous weeping. "I certainly feared you were drowned." Then seeing, as her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, that the figure still lingering about the boat was not her husband's she shrank back, fearing the worst.
"I'm sorry I'm not the one you looked for, Mrs. Smiley," answered Chillis, standing on the bit of portico, with its dripping honeysuckle vines swinging in the wind; "but I'm better than nobody, I reckon, an' Smiley will hardly be home to-night. The bay's awful rough, an' ef I hadn't started over early, I shouldn't have ventured, neither. No, you needn't look for your husband to-night, ma'am."
"Will you not come in by the fire, Mr. Chillis?" asked the woman, hesitatingly, seeing that he seemed waiting to be invited.
"Thankee. But I shall spile your floor, ef I do. I'm a perfect sponge, not fit to come near a lady, nohow. I thought," he added, as he closed the door and advanced to the hearth, "that I would jest stop an' see ef I could do anything for you, seein' as I guessed you'd be alone, and mebbe afeard o' the storm an' the high tide. Ladies mostly is afeard to be alone at sech times"—untying the yellow cotton handkerchief and throwing his sodden hat upon the stone hearth.
"Do you think there is any danger?" asked Mrs. Smiley, embarrassed, yet anxious. She stood in the middle of the room, behind him, with that irresolute air an inexperienced person has in unexpected circumstances.
He turned around with his back to the blaze, while a faint mist of evaporation began to creep out all over him, and occasionally to dart out in slender streams and float up the wide chimney.
"There's no danger
now, an' mebbe there won't
any. But the tide will not turn much afore midnight, an' it's higher now than it generally is when it is full."
"What's that?" cried Willie, the boy, his senses sharpened by the mention of danger.
"It's the wind rattlin' my boat-chains," returned Chillis, smiling at the little fellow's startled looks.
"Your boat-chain!" echoed his mother, not less startled. "Was it your boat that you were fastening to the hitching-post? I thought it was your horse. Is the water up so high, then, already?"—her cheeks paling as she spoke.
"I dragged it up a little way," returned Chillis, slowly, and turning his face back to the fire. He was listening attentively, and thought he caught the sound of lapping water.
"Have you just come from Astoria?" asked Mrs. Smiley, approaching, and standing at one corner of the hearth. The fire-light shone full upon her now, and revealed a clear white face; large, dark-gray eyes, full of sadness and perplexity; a beautifully shaped head, coiled round and round with heavy twists of golden hair, that glittered in its high lights like burnished metal; and a figure at once full and lithe in its proportions, clad in a neat-fitting dress of some soft, dark material, set off with a tiny white collar and bright ribbon. It was easy to see why she was the "White Rose" to the rough old mountain man. She was looking up at him with an eager, questioning gaze, that meant, O, ever so much more than her words.
"Not quite direct. I stopped down at the landin', an' I lost a little time gittin' capsized in the bay. I left about three o'clock."
"Might not Eben have left a little later," the gray eyes added, "and have been capsized, too?"
to cross half an hour later—I'll wager my head on that. He can't get away from town to-night; an', what is worse, I don't think he can cross for two or three days. We've got our Christmas storm on hand, an' a worse one than we've had for twenty years, or I'm mistaken."
"If you thought the storm was going to be severe, why did you not warn Eben, Mr. Chillis?" The gray eyes watched him steadily.
"I did say, there would be a sou'-wester uncommon severe; but Rumway laughed at me for prophesyin' in his company. Besides, I was in a hurry to get off, myself, and wouldn't argue with 'em. Smiley's a man to take his own way pretty much, too."
"I wish you had warned him," sighed Mrs. Smiley, and turned wearily away. She left her guest gazing into the fire and still steaming in a very unsavory manner, lighted a candle, set it in the window, and opened the door to look out. What she saw made her start back with a cry of affright, and hurriedly close the door.
"Your boat is this side of the hitching-post, and the water is all around us!"
"An' it is not yet eight o'clock. I guessed it would be so."
Just then, a fearful blast shook the house, and the boat's chain clanked nearer. Willie caught his mother's hand, and shivered all over with terror. "O, mamma!" he sobbed, "will the water drown our house?"
"I hope not, my boy. It may come up and wet our warm, dry floor; but I trust it will not give us so much trouble. We do not like wet feet, do we, Willie?"
Then the mother, intent on soothing the child, sat down in the fire-light and held his curly head in her lap, whispering little cooing sentences into his ear whenever he grew restless; while her strange, unbidden guest continued to evaporate in one corner of the hearth, sitting with his hands on his knees, staring at something in the coals. There was no attempt at conversation. There had never, until this evening, been a dozen words exchanged between these neighbors, who knew each other by sight and by reputation well enough. Joe Chillis was not a man whose personal appearance—so far as clothes went—nor whose reputation, would commend him to women generally—the one being shabby and careless, the other smacking of recklessness and whisky. Not that any great harm was known of the man; but that he was out of the pale of polite society even in this new and isolated corner of the earth. He had had an Indian wife in his youth; being more accustomed to the ways of her people than of his own. For nearly twenty years he had lived a thriftless, bachelor existence, known among men, and by hearsay among women, as a noted story-teller, and genial, devil-may-care, old mountain man, whose heart was in the right place, but who never drew very heavily upon his brain resources, except to embellish a tale of his early exploits in Indian-fighting, bear-killing and beaver-trapping. It was with a curious feeling of wonder that Mrs. Smiley found herself
with him at her own fireside; and, in spite of her anxiety about other matters, she could not help studying him a good deal, as he sat there, silent and almost as motionless as a statue; nor keep from noticing his splendid
physique, and the aristocratic cut of his features; nor from imagining him as he must have been in his youth. She was absorbed for a little while, picturing this gallant young White among his Indian associates—trying to fancy how he treated his squaw wife, and whether he really cared for her as he would for a White woman; then, she wondered what kind of an experience his present life would be for any one else—herself, for instance—living most of the year on a flat-boat housed in, and hiding in sloughs, and all manner of watery, out-of-the-way places. She loved forest and stream, and sylvan shades, well enough; but not well enough for that. So a human creature who could thus voluntarily exile himself must be peculiar. But Joe Chillis did not look peculiar; he looked as alive and human as anybody—in fact, particularly alive and human just now; and it was not any eccentricity which had brought him to her this night, but a real human reason. What was the reason?
What with his mother's cooing whispers, and the passing of her light hand over his hair, Willie had fallen asleep. Mrs. Smiley lifted him in her arms and laid him on the lounge, covering him carefully, and touching him tenderly, kissing his bright curls at the last. Chillis turned to watch her—he could not help it. Perhaps he speculated about
way of living and acting, as she had speculated about his. Meantime, the tempest outside increased in fury, and the little cottage trembled with its fitful shocks.
Now that Willie was asleep, Mrs. Chillis felt a growing nervousness and embarrassment. She could not bring herself to sit down again, alone with Joe Chillis. Not that she was afraid of him—there was nothing in his appearance to inspire a dread of the man; but she wanted to know what he was there for. The sensitive nerves of the man felt this mental inquiry of her, but he would not be the first to speak; so he let her flutter about—brightening the fire, putting to right things that were right enough as they were, and making a pretense of being busied with household cares. At length, there was nothing more to do except to wind the clock, which stood on the mantel, over the hearth. Here was her opportunity. "The evening has seemed very long," she said, "but it is nine o'clock, at last."
Chillis got up, went to the door, and opened it. The boat was bumping against the floor of the tiny portico. She saw it, too, and her heart gave a great bound. Chillis came back, and sat down by the fire, looking very grave and preoccupied. With a little shiver, she sat down opposite. It was clear that he had no intention of going; and, strange as she felt the situation to be, she experienced a sort of relief that he was there. She was not a cowardly woman, nor was her guest one she would have been likely to appeal to in any peril; but, since a possible peril had come, and he was there of his own accord, she owned to herself she was not sorry. She was a woman, any way, and must needs require services of men, whoever they might be. Having disposed of this question, it occurred to her to be gracious to the man whose services she had made up her mind to accept. Glancing into his face, she noticed its pallor; and then remembered what he had said about being capsized in the bay, and that he was an old man; and then, that he might not have had any supper. All of which inspired her to say, "I beg pardon, Mr. Chillis. I presume you have eaten nothing this evening. I shall get you something, right away—a cup of hot coffee, for instance." And, without waiting to hear his faint denial, Mrs. Smiley made all haste to put her hospitable intentions into practice, and soon had spread a little table with a very appetizing array of cold meats, fruit, bread, and coffee.
While her guest, with a few words of thanks, accepted and disposed of the refreshments, Mrs. Smiley sat and gazed at the fire in her turn. The little cottage trembled, the windows rattled, the storm roared without, and—yes, the water actually lapped against the house! She started, turning to the door. The wind was driving the flood in under it. She felt a chill run through her flesh.
"Mr. Chillis, the water is really coming into the house!"
"Yes, I reckoned that it would," returned the old man, calmly, rising from the table and returning to the hearth. "That is the nicest supper I've had for these dozen years; and it has done me good, too. I was a little wore out with pullin' over the bay, agin the wind."
Mrs. Smiley looked at him curiously, and then at the water splashing in under the door. He understood her perfectly.
"A wettin' wouldn't hurt you, though it would be disagreeable, an' I should be sorry to have you put to that inconvenience. But the wind
the water may unsettle the foundation o' your house, the chimney bein' on the outside, an' no support to it. Even that would not certainly put you in danger, as the frame would likely float. But I knew, ef sech a thing should happen, an' you here alone, you would be very much frightened, an' perhaps lose your life a-tryin' to save it."
"And you came up from the landing in all this storm to take care of me?" Mrs. Smiley exclaimed, with flushing cheeks.
"I came all the way from Astoria to do it," answered Chillis, looking at the new-blown roses of her face.
"And Eben——" She checked herself, and fixed her eyes upon the hearth.
"He thought there was no danger, most likely."
"Mr. Chillis, I can never thank you!" she cried, fervently, as she turned to glance at the sleeping child.
"White Rose," he answered, under his breath, "I don't want any thanks but those I've got." Then, aloud to her: "You might have some blankets ready, in case we are turned out o' the house. The fire will be 'most sure to be put out, any way, an' you an' the boy will be cold."
Mrs. Smiley was shivering with that tenseness of the nerves which the bravest women suffer from, when obliged to wait the slow but certain approach of danger. Her teeth chattered together, as she went about her band-box of a house, collecting things that would be needed, should she be forced to abandon the shelter of its lowly roof; and, as she was thus engaged, she thought the place had never seemed so cosy as it did this wild and terrible night. She put on her rubber overshoes, tied snugly on a pretty woollen hood, got ready a pile of blankets and a warm shawl, lighted a large glass lantern (as she saw the water approaching the fireplace), and, last, proceeded to arouse Willie, and wrap him up in overcoat, little fur cap, and warm mittens; when all was done, she turned and looked anxiously at the face of her guest. It might have been a mask, for all she could learn from it. He was silently watching her, not looking either depressed or hopeful. She went up to him, and touched his sleeve. "How wet you are, still," she said, compassionately. "I had forgotten that you must have been uncomfortable after your capsize in the bay. Perhaps it is not too late to change your clothes. You will find some of Eben's in the next room. Shall I lay them out for you?"
He smiled when she touched him, a bright, warm smile, that took away ten years of his age; but he did not move.
"No," said he, "it's no use now, to put on dry clothes. It won't hurt me to be wet; I'm used to it; but I shall be sorry when this cheerful fire is out."
He had hardly spoken, when a blast struck the house, more terrific than any that had gone before it, and a narrow crack became visible between the hearth-stone and the floor, through which the water oozed in quite rapidly. Mrs. Smiley's face blanched.
"That started the house a leetle," said Chillis, lighting his lantern by the fire.
"Could we get to the landing, do you think?" asked Mrs. Smiley, springing instinctively to the lounge, where the child lay in a half-slumber.
"Not afore the tide begins to run out. Ef it was daylight, we might, by keepin' out o' the channel; but the best we can do now is to stick to the place we're in as long as it holds together, or keeps right side up. When we can't stay no longer, we'll take to the boat."
"I believe you know best, Mr. Chillis; but it's frightful waiting for one's house to float away from under one's feet, or fall about one's head. And the tide, too! I have always feared and hated the tides, they have been a horror to me ever since I came here. It seems so dreadful to have the earth slowly sinking into the sea; for that is the way it appears to do, you know."
"Yes, I remember hearin' you say you were nervous about the tides, once, when I called here to see your husband. Curious, that I often thought o' that chance sayin' o' yours, isn't it?"
Mrs. Smiley's reply was a smothered cry of terror, as another blast—sudden, strong, protracted—pushed the house still further away from the fire-place, letting the storm in at the opening; for it was from that direction that the wind came.
"Now she floats!" exclaimed Chillis. "We'll soon know whether she's seaworthy or not. I had better take a look at my boat, I reckon; for that's our last resort, in case your ark is worthless, Mrs. Smiley." He laughed softly, and stepped more vigorously than he had done, as the danger grew more certain.
"All right yet—cable not parted; ready to do us a good turn, if we need it."
"We shall not be floated off to the bay, shall we?" asked Mrs. Smiley, trying to smile too.
"Not afore the tide turns, certain."
"It seems to me that I should feel safer anywhere than here. Unseen dangers always are harder to battle with, even in imagination. I do not wish to put you to any further trouble; but I should not mind the storm and the open boat so much as seeing my house going to pieces, with me in it—and Willie."
"I've been a-thinkin'," replied Chillis, "that the house, arter all, ain't goin' to be much protection, with the water splashin' under foot, an' the wind an' rain drivin' in on that side where the chimney is took away. It's an awful pity such a neat, nice little place should come to grief, like this—a real snug little home!"
"And what else were you thinking?"—bringing him back to the subject of expedients.
"You mentioned goin' to the landin'. Well, we can't go there; for I doubt ef I could find the way in the dark, with the water over the tops of the bushes on the creek bank. Besides, in broad daylight it would be tough work, pullin' agin' the flood; an' I had the misfortin to hurt my shoulder, tryin' to right my boat in the bay, which partly disables me, I am sorry to say; for I should like to put my whole strength to your service."
"O, Mr. Chillis!—say no more, I beg. How selfish I am! when you have been so kind—with a bruise on your shoulder, and all! Cannot I do anything for you? I have liquor in the closet, if you would like to bathe with it."
"See—she moves again!" cried he, as the house swayed yet further away from the smouldering fire. "I've heard of 'abandonin' one's hearth-stone;' but I'd no idea that was the way they done it."
"I had best get the brandy, any way, I think. We may need it, if we are forced to go into the boat. But do let me do something for you now, Mr. Chillis? It seems cruel, that you have been in your wet clothes for hours, and tired and bruised besides."
"Thankee—'tain't no use!"—as she offered him the brandy-flask. "The lady down at the landin' put on a plaster, as you can see for yourself"—throwing back the corner of a cloth cape the woman had placed over his shoulders, to cover the rent in his coat. "The doctor will have to fix it up, I reckon; for it is cut up pretty bad with the iron."
Mrs. Smiley turned suddenly sick. She was just at that stage of excitement when "a rose-leaf on the beaker's brim" causes the overflow of the cup. The undulations of the water, under the floor and over it, contributed still further to the feeling; and she hurried to the lounge to save herself from falling. Here she threw herself beside Willie, and cried a little, quietly, under cover of her shawl.
"There she goes! Well, this isn't pleasant, noways," said Chillis, as the house, freed with a final crash from impediments, swayed about unsteadily, impelled by wind and water. "I was sayin', a bit ago, that we could not git to the landin', at present. There are three ways o' choosin', though, which are these: to stay where we are; to git into the boat, an' let the house take its chances; or to try to git to my cabin, where we would be safe an' could keep warm."
"How long would it take us to get to your house?" asked Mrs. Smiley, from under her shawl.
"An hour, mebbe. We should have to feel our way."
Mrs. Smiley reflected. Sitting out in an open boat, without trying to do anything, would be horrible; staying where she was would be hardly less so. It would be six or seven hours still to daylight. There was no chance of the storm abating, though the water must recede after midnight.
"Let us go," she said, sitting up. "You will not desert
me, I know; and why should I keep you here all night, in anxiety and peril? Once at home, you can rest and nurse yourself."
"So be it; an' God help us!"
Chillis opened the door and looked out, placing a light first in the window. Then coming back for a basin, he waded out, bailed his boat, and, unfastening the chain, hauled it alongside the doorway. Mrs. Smiley had hastily put some provisions into a tin bucket, with a cover, and some things for Willie into another, and stood holding them, ready to be stowed away.
"You will have to take the tiller," said Chillis, placing the buckets safely in the boat.
"I meant to take an oar," said she.
"If you know how to steer, it will be better for me to pull alone. Now, let us have the boy, right in the bottom here, with plenty o' blankets under and over him; the same for yourself. The lanterns—so. Now, jump in!"
"The fire is dead on the hearth," she said, looking back through the empty house, and across the gap of water showing through the broken wall. "What a horrible scene! God sent you, Mr. Chillis, to help me live through it."
"I believe he did. Are you quite ready?"
"Quite; only tell me what I must do. I wish I could help you."
"You do?" he answered; and then he bent himself to the work before him, with a sense of its responsibility which exalted it into a deed of the purest chivalry.
The widow Smiley did not live on Clatsop Plains. Ever since the great storm at Christmas, when her house was carried off its foundations by the high tide, she had refused to go back to it. When the neighbors heard of her husband's death, they took her over to Astoria to see him buried, for there was no home to bring him to, and she had never returned. Smiley, they say, was drowned where he fell, in the streets of Astoria, that night of the high tide, being too intoxicated to get up. But nobody told the widow that. They said to her that he stumbled off the wharf, in the dark, and that the tide brought him ashore, and that was enough for her to know.
She was staying with the family at the landing when the news came, two days after his death. Joe Chillis brought her things down to the landing, and had them sent over to Astoria, where she decided to stay; and afterward she sold the farm and bought a small house in town, where, after two or three months, she opened a school for young children. And the women of the place had all taken to making much of Joe Chillis, in consideration of his conduct during that memorable time, and of his sufferings in consequence; for he was laid up a long while afterward with that hurt in his shoulder, and the consequences of his exposure. Mrs. Smiley always treated him with the highest respect, and did not conceal that she had a great regard for him, if he
nothing but an old mountain man, who had had a squaw wife; which regard, under the circumstances, was not to be wondered at.
Widow Smiley was young, and pretty, and
smart; and Captain Rumway, the pilot, was dreadfully taken up with her, and nobody would blame her for taking a second husband, who was able and willing to provide well for her. If it was to be a match, nobody would speak a word against it. It was said that he had left off drinking on her account, and was building a fine house up on the hill, on one of the prettiest lots in town. Such was the gossip about Mrs. Smiley, a year and a half after the night of the high tide.
It was the afternoon of a July day, in Astoria; and, since we have given the reader so dismal a picture of December, let us, in justice, say a word about this July day. All day long the air had been as bright and clear as crystal, and the sun had sparkled on the blue waters of the noblest of rivers without blinding the eyes with glare, or sickening the senses with heat. Along either shore rose lofty highlands, crowned with cool-looking forests of dark-green firs. Far to the east, like a cloud on the horizon, the snowy cone of St. Helen's mountain stood up above the wooded heights of the Cascade Range, with Mount Adams peeping over its shoulder. Quite near, and partly closing off the view up the river, was picturesque Tongue Point—a lovely island of green—connected with the shore only by a low and narrow isthmus. From this promontory to the point below the town, the bank of the river was curtained and garlanded with blossoming shrubs—mock-orange, honeysuckle, spirea,
aerifolia, crimson roses, and clusters of elder-berries, lavender, scarlet, and orange—everywhere, except where men had torn them away to make room for their improvements.
Looking seaward, there was the long line of white surf which marks where sea and river meet, miles away; with the cape and light-house tower standing out in sharp relief against the expanse of ocean beyond, and sailing vessels lying off the bar waiting for Rumway and his associates to come off and show them the entrance between the sand-spits. And nearer, all about on the surface of the sparkling river, snowy sails were glancing in the sun, like the wings of birds that skim beside them. It is hard, in July, to believe it has ever been December.
Perhaps Mrs. Smiley was thinking so, as from her rose-embowered cottage-porch on the hill, not far from Captain Rumway's new house, she watched the sun sinking in a golden glory behind the light-house and the cape. Her school dismissed for the week, and her household tasks completed, she was taking her repose in a great sleepy-hollow of a chair, near enough to the roses to catch their delicate fragrance. Her white dress looked fresh and dainty, with a rose-colored ribbon at the throat, and a bunch of spirea; sea-foam, Willie called it, in her gleaming, braided hair. Her great gray eyes, neither sad nor bright, but sweetly serious, harmonized the delicate pure tones that made up her person and her dress, leaving nothing to be desired, except, perhaps, a suggestion of color in the clear, white oval of her cheeks. And that an accident supplied.
For, while the sun yet sent lances of gold up out of the sea, the garden gate clicked, and Captain Rumway came up the walk. He was a handsome man, of fine figure, with a bronzed complexion, dark eyes, and hair always becomingly tossed up, owing to a slight wave in it, and a springy quality it had of its own. The sun and sea-air, while they had bronzed his face, had imparted to his cheeks that rich glow which is often the only thing lacking to make a dark face beautiful. Looking at him, one could hardly help catching something of his glow, if only through admiration of it. Mrs. Smiley's sudden color was possibly to be accounted for on this ground.
"Good evening, Mrs. Smiley," he said, lifting his hat gracefully. "I have come to ask you to walk over and look at my house. No, thank you; I will not come in, if you are ready for the walk. I will stop here and smell these roses while you get your hat."
"Is your house so nearly completed, then?" she asked, as they went down the walk together.
"So nearly, that I require a woman's opinion upon the inside arrangements; and there is no one whose judgment upon such matters I value more than yours."
"I suppose you mean to imply that I am a good housekeeper? But there is great diversity of taste among good housekeepers, Mr. Rumway."
"Your taste will suit me—that I am sure of. I did not see Willie at home; is he gone away?" he asked, to cover a sudden embarrassing consciousness.
"I let him go home with Mr. Chillis, last evening, but I expect him home to-night."
"Poor old Joe! He takes a great deal of comfort with the boy. And no wonder!—he is a charming child, worthy such parentage,"—glancing at his companion's face.
"I am glad when anything of mine gives Mr. Chillis pleasure," returned Mrs. Smiley, looking straight ahead. "I teach Willie to have a great respect and love for him. It is the least we can do."
Rumway noticed the inclusive
we, and winced. "He is a strange man," he said, by way of answer.
"A hero!" cried Mrs. Smiley firmly.
"And never more so then when in whisky," added Rumway, ungenerously.
"Younger and more fortunate men have had that fault," she returned, thinking of Eben.
"And conquered it," he added, thinking of himself.
"Here we are. Just step in this door-way a bit and look at the view. Glorious, isn't it? I have sent for a lot of very choice shrubs and trees for the grounds, and mean to make this the prettiest place in town."
"It must be very pretty, with this view," replied Mrs. Smiley, drinking in the beauty of the scene with genuine delight.
"Please to step inside. Now, it is about the arrangement of the doors, windows, closets, and all that, I wanted advice. I am told that ladies claim to understand these things better than men."
"They ought, I am sure, since the house is alone their realm. What a charming room! So light, so airy, with such a view! and the doors and windows in the right places, too. And this cunning little porch towards the west! I'm glad you have that porch, Mr. Rumway. I have always said every house should have a sunset porch. I enjoy mine so much these lovely summer evenings."
And so they went through the house: she delighted with it, in the main, but making little suggestions, here and there; he palpitating with her praises, as if they had been bestowed on himself. And, indeed, was not this house a part of himself, having so many of his sweetest hopes built into it? For what higher proof does a man give of a worthy love then in constructing a bright and cheerful shelter for the object of it—than in making sure of a fitting home?
"It will lack nothing," she said, as they stood together again on the "sunset porch," talking of so grouping the shrubbery as not to intercept the view.
"Except a mistress," he added, turning his eyes upon her face, full of intense meaning. "With the right woman in it, it will seem perfect to me, without her, it is nothing but a monument of my folly. There is but one woman I ever want to see in it. Can you guess who it is? Will you come?"
Mrs. Smiley looked up into the glowing face bent over her, searching the passionate dark eyes with her clear, cool gaze; while slowly the delicate color crept over face and neck, as her eyes fell before his ardent looks, and she drew in her breath quickly.
"I, I do not know; there are so many things to think of."
"What things? Let me help you consider them. If you mean—"
"O, mamma, mamma!" shouted Willie, from the street. "Here we are, and I've had such a splendid time. We've got some fish for you, too. Are you coming right home?" And there, on the sidewalk, was Chillis, carrying a basket, with his hat stuck full of flowers, and as regardless as a child of the drollery of his appearance.
Mrs. Smiley started a little as she caught the expression of his face, thinking it did not comport with the holiday appearance of his habiliments, and hastened at once to obey its silent appeal. Rumway walked beside her to the gate.
"Have you no answer for me?" he asked, hurriedly.
"Give me a week," she returned, and slipped away from him, taking the basket from Chillis, and ordering Willie to carry it, while she walked by the old man's side.
"You have been lookin' at your new house?" he remarked. "You need not try to hide your secret from me. I see it in your face;" and he looked long and wistfully upon the rosy record.
"If you see something in
face, I see something in yours. You have a trouble, a new pain of some kind. Yesterday you looked forty, and radiant; this evening your face is white and drawn by suffering."
"You do observe the old man's face sometimes, then? That other has not quite blotted it out? O, my lovely lady! How sweet an' dainty you look, in that white dress. It does my old eyes good to look at you."
"You are never too ill or sad to make me pretty compliments, Mr. Chillis. Do you know, I think I have grown quite vain since I have had you to flatter me. We constitute a mutual admiration society, I'm sure."
Then she led him into the rose-covered porch, and seated him in the "sleepy-hollow;" brought him a dish of strawberries, and told him to rest while she got ready his supper.
"Rest!" he answered; "I'm
not tired. Willie an' I cooked our own supper, too. So you jest put Willie to bed—he's tired enough, I guess—an' then come an' talk to me. That's all I want to-night—is jest to hear the White Rose talk."
While Mrs. Smiley was occupied with Willie—his wants and his prattle—her guest sat motionless, his head on his hand, his elbow resting on the arm of the chair. He had that rare repose of bearing which is understood to be a sign of high breeding, but in him was temperament, or a quietude caught from nature and solitude. It gave a positive charm to his manner, whether animated or depressed; a dignified, introspective, self-possessed carriage, that suited with his powerfully built, symmetrical frame, and regular cast of features. Yet, self-contained as his usual expression was, his face was capable of vivid illuminations, and striking changes of aspect, under the influence of feelings either pleasant or painful. In the shadow of the rose-vines, and the gathering twilight, it would have been impossible to discern, by any change of feature, what his meditations might be now.
"The moon is full to-night," said Mrs. Smiley, bringing out her low rocker and placing it near her friend. "It will be glorious on the river, and all the 'young folks' will be out, I suppose."
"Did not Rumway ask you to go? Don't let me keep you at home, ef he did."
"No; I am not counted among young folks any longer," returned she, with a little sigh, that might mean something or nothing. Then a silence fell between them for several minutes. It was the fashion of these friends to wait for the spirit to move them to converse, and not unfrequently a silence longer than that which was in heaven came between their sentences; but to-night there was thunder in their spiritual atmosphere, and the stillness was oppressive. Mrs. Smiley beat a tattoo with her slipper.
"Rumway asked you to marry him, did he?" began Chillis, at last, in a low and measured tone.
"An' you accepted him?"
"Not yet"—in a quavering adagio.
"But you will?"
"Perhaps so. I do not know"—in a firmer voice.
"Rumway is doin' well, an' he is a pretty good fellow, as men go. But he is not half the man that I was at his age—or, rather, that I might have been, ef I had had sech a motive for bein' a man as he has."
"It is not difficult to believe that, Mr. Chillis. There is heroic material in you, and, I fear, none in Mr. Rumway." She spoke naturally and cheerfully now, as if she had no sentiment too sacred to be revealed about the person in question. "But why was there no motive?"
"Why? It was my fate; there was none—that's all. I had gone off to the mountains when a lad, an' couldn't git back—couldn't even git letters from home. The fur companies didn't allow o' correspondence—it made their men homesick. When I came to be a man, I did as the other men did, took an Indian wife, an' became the father o' half-breed children. I never expected to live any other way than jest as we lived then—roamin' about the mountains, exposed to dangers continually, an' reckless because it was no use to think. But, after I had been a savage for a dozen years—long enough to ruin any man—the fur companies began to break up. The beaver were all hunted out o' the mountains. The men were ashamed to go home—Indians as we all were—an' so drifted off down here, where it was possible to git somethin' to eat, an' where there was quite a settlement o' retired trappers, missionaries, deserted sailors, and such-like Whites."
"You brought your families with you?"
"Of course. We could not leave them in the mountains, with the children, to starve. Besides, we loved our children. They were not to blame for bein' half-Indian; an' we could not separate them from their mothers, ef we had a-wished. We did the only thing we could do, under the circumstances—married the mothers by White men's laws, to make the children legitimate. Even the heads of the Hudson's Bay Company were forced to comply with the sentiment of the White settlers; an' their descendants are among the first families of Oregon. But they had money an' position; the trappers had neither, though there were some splendid men among them—so our families were looked down upon. O, White Rose! didn't I use to have some bitter thoughts in those days? for my blood was high blood, in the State where I was raised."
"I can imagine it, very easily," said Mrs. Smiley, softly.
"But I never let on. I was wild and devil-may-care. To hide my mortification, I faced it out, as well as I could; but I wasn't made, in the beginnin', for that kind o' life, an' it took away my manhood. After the country began to settle up, an' families—real White families—began to move in, I used to be nearly crazy, sometimes. Many's the day that I've rode through the woods, or over the prairies, tryin' to git away from myself; but I never said a cross word to the squaw wife. Why should I?—it was not her fault. Sometimes she fretted at me (the Indian women are great scolds); but I did not answer her back. I displeased her with my vagabond ways, very likely—her White husband, to whom she looked for better things. I couldn't work; I didn't take no interest in work, like other men."
"O, Mr. Chillis! was not that a great mistake? Would not some kind of ambition have helped to fill up the blank in your life?"
"I didn't have any—I couldn't have any, with that old Indian woman sittin' there, in the corner o' my hearth. When the crazy fit came on, I jest turned my back on home, an' mounted my horse for a long, lonely ride, or went to town and drank whisky till I was past rememberin' my trouble. But I never complained. The men I associated with expected me to amuse them, an' I generally did, with all manner o' wild freaks an' incredible stories—some o' which were truer than they believed, for I had had plenty of adventures in the mountains. White Rose, do you imagine I ever loved that squaw wife o' mine?"
"I remember asking myself such a question, that night of the storm, as you stood by the fire, so still and strange. I was speculating about your history, and starting these very queries you have answered to-night."
"But you have never asked me."
"No; how could I? But I am glad to know. Now I understand the great patience—the tender, pathetic patience—which I have often remarked in you. Only those who have suffered long and silently can ever attain to it."
"An' so people say, 'Poor old Joe!' an' they don't know what they mean, when they say it. They think I am a man without the ambitions an' passions of other men; a simple, good fellow, without too much brain, an' only the heart of a fool. But they don't know me—they don't know me!"
"How could they, without hearing what you have just told me, or without knowing you as I know you?"
"They never will know. I don't want to be pitied for my mistakes. 'Poor old Joe' is proud, as well as poor."
Mrs. Smiley sat silent, gazing at the river's silver ripples. Her shapely hands were folded in her lap; her whole attitude quiet, absorbed. Whether she was thinking of what she had heard, or whether she had forgotten it, no one could have guessed from her manner; and Chillis could not wait to know. The fountains of the deep had been stirred until they would not rest.
"Was there no other question you asked yourself about the old mountain man which he can answer? Did you never wonder whether he ever had loved at all?"
"You have made me wonder, to-night, whether, at some period of your life, you have not loved some woman of your own race and color. You must have had some opportunities of knowing white women."
"Very few. An' my pride was agin seekin' what I knew was not for me; for the woman I fancied to myself was no common white woman. White Rose, I carried a young man's heart in my bosom until I was near sixty,
an' then I lost it." He put out a hand and touched one of hers, ever so lightly. "I need not tell you any more."
A silence that made their pulses seem audible followed this confession. A heavy shadow descended upon both hearts, and a sudden dreary sense of an unutterable and unalterable sorrow burdened their spirits.
After a little, "Mr. Chillis! Mr. Chillis!" wailed the woman's pathetic voice; and "O, my lovely lady!" sighed the man's.
"What shall I do? what shall I do? I am so sorry. What shall I do?"
"Tell me to go. I knew it would have to end so. I knew that Rumway would drive me to say what I ought not to say; for he is not worthy of you—no man that I know of is. Ef I was as young as he, an' had his chance, I would
myself worthy o' you, or die. But it is too late. Old Joe Chillis may starve his heart, as he has many a time starved his body in the desert. But I did love you so! O, my sweet White Rose, I did love you so! always, from the first time I saw you."
"What is that you say?" said Mrs. Smiley, in a shocked voice.
"Always, I said, from the first time I saw you. My love was true; it did not harm you. I said, 'There
is such a woman as God designed for me. But it is too late to have her now. I will jest worship her humbly, a great ways off, an' say "God bless her!" when she passes; an' think o' her sweet ways when I am ridin' through the woods, or polin' my huntin'-boat up the sloughs, among the willows an' pond-lilies. She would hardly blame me, ef she knew I loved her that way.'
"But it grew harder afterwards, White Rose, when you were grateful to me, in your pretty, womanly way, an' treated me so kindly before all the world, an' let your little boy love me, an' loved me yourself—I knew it—in a gentle, friendly fashion. O, but it was sweet!—but not sweet enough, sometimes. Ef I have been crazed for the lack o' love in my younger days, I have been crazed with love since then. There have been days when I could neither work nor eat, nights when I could not sleep, for thinkin' o' what might have been, but never could be; times when I have been tempted to upset my boat in the bay, an' never try to right it. But when I had almost conquered my madness, that you might never know, then comes this Rumway, with his fine looks, an' his fine house, an' his fine professions, an' blots me out entirely; for what will old Joe be worth to Madame Rumway, or to Madame Rumway's fine husband?"
Mrs. Smiley sat thoughtful and silent a long time after this declaration of love, that gave all and required so little. She was sorry for it; but since it was so, and she must know it, she was glad that she had heard it that night. She could place it in the balance with that other declaration, and decide upon their relative value to her; for she saw, as he did, that the two were incompatible—one must be given up.
"It is late," she said, rising. "You will come up and take breakfast with Willie and me, before you go home? My strawberries are in their prime."
"I thought you would a-told me to go, an' never come back," he said, stepping out into the moonlight with the elastic tread of twenty-five. He stopped and looked back at her, with a beaming countenance, like a boy's.
She was standing on the step above him, looking down at him with a pleasant but serious expression. "I am going to trust you never to repeat to me what you have said to-night. I know I can trust you."
"So be it, White Rose," he returned, with so rapid and involuntary a change of attitude, voice, and expression, that the pang of his hurt pierced her heart also. "But I know I can trust you," she repeated, as if she had not seen that shrinking from the blow. "And I am going to try to make your life a little pleasanter, and more like other people's. When you are dressed up, and ordered to behave properly, and made to look as handsome as you can, so that ladies shall take notice of you and flatter you with their eyes and tongues, and you come to have the same interest in the world that other men have—and why shouldn't you?—then your imagination will not be running away with you, or making angels out of common little persons like myself—how dreadfully prosy and commonplace you have no idea! And I forbid you to allow Willie to stick your hat full of flowers, when you go fishing together; and order you to make that young impudence respectful to you on all occasions—asserting your authority, if necessary. And, lastly, I prefer you should not call me Madame Rumway until I have a certified and legal claim to the title. Good-night."
He stood bareheaded, his face drooping and half-concealed, pulling the withered flowers out of his hat. Slowly he raised it, made a military salute, and placed it on his head. "It is for you to command and me to obey," he said.
"Breakfast at seven o'clock precisely," called out the tuneful voice of Mrs. Smiley after him, as he went down the garden-path with bent head, walking more like an old man than she had ever seen him. Then she went into the house, closed it carefully, after the manner of lone women, and went up to her room. But deliciously cool and fragrant as was the tiny chamber, Mrs. Smiley could not sleep that night. Nor did Chillis come to breakfast next morning.
A month passed away. Work was suspended on Mr. Rumway's house, the doors and windows boarded up, and the gate locked. Everybody knew it could mean but one thing—that Mrs. Smiley had refused the owner. But the handsome captain put a serene face upon it, and kept about his business industriously and like a gentleman. The fact that he did not return to his wild courses was remarked upon as something hardly to be credited, but greatly to his honor; for it was universally conceded, that such a disappointment as his was enough to drive almost any man to drink who had indulged in it previously; such is the generally admitted frailty of man's moral constitution.
Toward the last of August, Mrs. Smiley received a visit from Chillis. He was dressed with more than his customary regard to appearances, and looked a little paler and thinner than usual. Otherwise, he was just the same as ever; and, with no questions asked or answered on either side, their old relations were re-established, and Willie was rapturously excited with the prospect of more Saturday excursions. Yet there was this difference in their manner toward each other—that he now seldom addressed her as "White Rose," and never as "my lovely lady;" while it was she who made graceful little compliments to him, and was always gay and bright in his company, and constantly watchful of his comfort or pleasure. She prevailed upon him, too, to make calls with her upon other ladies; and gave him frequent commissions that would bring him in contact with a variety of persons. But she could not help seeing, that it was only in obedience to her wishes that he made calls, or mingled with the town-people; and when, one evening, returning together from a visit where he had been very much patronized, he had remarked, with a shrug and smile of self-contempt, "It is no use, Mrs. Smiley—oil an' water won't mix," she had given it up, and never more interfered with his old habits.
So the summer passed, and winter came again, with its long rains, dark days, and sad associations. Although Mrs. Smiley was not at all a "weakly woman," constant effort and care, and the absence of anything very flattering in her future, or inspiring in her present, wore upon her, exhausting her vitality too rapidly for perfect health, as the constantly increasing delicacy of her appearance testified. In truth, when the spring opened, she found herself so languid and depressed as to be hardly able to teach, in addition to her house-work. Then it was that the gossips took up her case once more, and declared, with considerable unanimity, that Mrs. Smiley was pining for the handsome Captain, after all, and, if ever she had refused him, was sorry for it—thus revenging themselves upon a woman audacious enough to refuse a man many others would have thought "good enough for them," and "too good for" so unappreciative a person.
With the first bright and warm weather, Willie went to spend a week with his friend, and Mrs. Smiley felt forced to take a vacation. A yachting-party were going over to the cape, and Captain Rumway was to take them out over the bar. Rumway himself sent an invitation to Mrs. Smiley—this being the first offer of amity he had felt able to make since the previous July. She laughed a little, to herself, when the note came (for she was not ignorant of the town-tattle—what school-teacher ever is?) and sent an acceptance. If Captain Rumway were half as courageous as she, the chatterers would be confounded, she promised herself, as she made her toilet for the occasion—not too nice for sea-water, but bright and pretty, and becoming, as her toilets always were.
So she sailed over to the cape with the "young folks," and, as widows can—particularly widows who have gossip to avenge—was more charming than any girl of them all, to others beside Captain Rumway. The officers of the garrison vied with each other in showing her attentions; and the light-house keeper, in exhibiting the wonders and beauties of the place, always, if unconsciously, appealed to Mrs. Smiley for admiration and appreciation. Yet she wore her honors modestly, contriving to share this homage with some other, and never accepting it as all meant for herself. And toward Captain Rumway her manner was as absolutely free from either coquetry or awkwardness as that of the most indifferent acquaintance. Nobody, seeing her perfectly frank yet quiet and cool deportment with her former suitor, could say, without falsehood, that she in any way concerned herself about him; and if he had heard that she was pining for him, he was probably undeceived during that excursion. Thus she came home feeling that she had vindicated herself, and with a pretty color in her face that made her look as girlish as any young lady of them all.
But, if Captain Rumway had reopened an acquaintance with Mrs. Smiley out of compassion for any woes she might be suffering on his account, or out of a design to show how completely he was master of himself, or, in short, for any motive whatever, he was taken in his own devices, and compelled to surrender unconditionally. Like the man in Scripture, out of whom the devils were cast only to return, his last estate was worse than the first, as he was soon compelled to acknowledge; and one of the first signs of this relapse into fatuity was the resumption of work on the unfinished house, and the ornamentation of the neglected grounds.
"I will make it such a place as she cannot refuse," he said to himself, more or less hopefully. "She will have to accept the house and grounds, with me thrown in. And whatever she is pining for, she
I can see. It may be for outdoor air and recreation, and the care which a husband only can give her. If it be that she can take them along with me."
Thus it was, that when Chillis brought Willie home from his long visit to the woods and streams, he saw the workmen busy on the Captain's house. He heard, too, about the excursion to the cape, and the inevitable comments upon Rumway's proceedings. But he said nothing about it to Mrs. Smiley, though he spent the evening in the snug little parlor, and they talked together of many things personally interesting to both; especially about Willie's education and profession in life.
"He ought to go to college," said his mother. "I wish him to be a scholarly man, whatever profession he decides upon afterward. I could not bear that he should not have a liberal education."
"Yes, Willie must be a gentleman," said Chillis; "for his mother's sake he must be that."
"But how to provide the means to furnish such an education as he ought to have, is what puzzles me," continued Mrs. Smiley, pausing in her needle-work to study that problem more closely, and gazing absently at the face of her guest. "Will ten years more of school-teaching do it, I wonder?"
"Ten years o' school-teachin', an' house-work, an' sewin'!" cried he. "Yes, long before that you will be under the sod o' the grave-yard!
cannot send the boy to college."
"Who, then?"—smiling at his vehemence.
"You, Mr. Chillis? I thought...." She checked herself, fearing to hurt his pride.
"You thought I was poor, an' so I am, for I never tried to make money.
don't want money. But there is land belongin' to me out in the valley—five or six hundred acres—an' land is growin' more valuable every year. Ten years from now I reckon mine would pay a boy's schoolin'. So you needn't work yourself to death for that, Mrs. Smiley."
The tears sprang to the gray eyes which were turned upon him with such eloquent looks. "It is like you," she said, in a broken voice, "and I have nothing to say."
"You are welcome to my land, White Rose, an' there is nothin'
Then she bent her head over her sewing, feeling, indeed, that there was little use for words.
"Do you know," he asked, breaking a protracted silence, "that you have got to give up teachin'?"
"And do what? I might take to gardening. That would be better, perhaps; I have thought about it."
"Let me see your hands. They look like gardenin': two rose-leaves! Don't it make me wish to be back in my prime? Work for you! Wouldn't I love to work for you?"
"And do you not, in every way you can? Am I to have no pride about accepting so much service? What a poor creature you must take me for, Mr. Chillis."
"There is nothin' else in the world that I think of; nothin' else that I live for; an' after all it is so little, that I cannot save you from spoilin' your pretty looks with care. An' you have troubled yourself about me, too; don't think I haven't seen it. You fret your lovely soul about the old man's trouble, when you can't help it—you, nor nobody. An', after all, what does it matter about
am nothin', and you are everything. I want you to remember that, and do everything for your own happiness without wastin' a thought on me. I am content to keep my distance, ef I only see you happy and well off. Do you understand me?"
Mrs. Smiley looked up with a suffused face. "Mr. Chillis," she answered, "you make me ashamed of myself and my selfishness. Let us never refer to this subject again. Work don't hurt me; and since you have offered to provide for Willie's education, you have lifted half my burden. Why should you stand at a distance to see me happier than I am, when I am so happy as to have such a friend as you? How am I to be happier by your being at a distance, who have been the kindest of friends? You are out of spirits this evening, and you talk just a little—nonsense." And she smiled at him in a sweetly apologetic fashion for the word.
"That is like enough," he returned gravely; "but I want you to remember my words, foolish or not. Don't let me stand in your light—not for one minute; and don't forgit this: that Joe Chillis is happy when he sees the White Rose bloomin' and bright."
Contrary to his command, Mrs. Smiley did endeavor to forget these words in the weeks following, when the old mountain-man came no more to her rose-embowered cottage, and when Captain Rumway invented many ingenious schemes for getting the pale school-teacher to take more recreation and fresh air. She endeavored to forget them, but she could not, though her resolve to ignore them was as strong as it ever had been when her burdens had seemed lighter! But in spite of her resolve, and in spite of the fact that it could not be said that any encouragement had been given to repeat his addresses, Rumway continued to work at his house and grounds steadily, and, to all appearance, hopefully. And although he never consulted Mrs. Smiley now concerning the arrangement of either, he showed that he remembered her suggestions of the year before, by following them out without deviation.
Thus quietly, without incident, the June days slipped away, and the perfect July weather returned once more, when there was always a chair or two out on the sunset porch at evening. At last Chillis re-appeared, and took a seat in one of them, quite in the usual way. He had been away, he said, attending to some business.
"An' I have fixed that matter all right about the boy's schoolin'," he added. "The papers are made out in the clerk's office, an' will be sent to you as soon as they are recorded. There are five hundred and forty acres, which you will know how to manage better than I can tell you. You can sell by and by, ef you can't yet the money out of it any other way. The taxes won't be much, the land being unimproved."
"You do not mean that you have
all your land to Willie?" asked Mrs. Smiley. "I protest against it: he must not have it! Would you let us rob you," she asked wonderingly. "What are
to do, by and by, as you say?"
"Me? I shall do well enough. Money is o' no use to me. But ef I should want a meal or a blanket that I couldn't get, the boy wouldn't see me want them long. Ef he forgot old Joe Chillis, his mother wouldn't, I reckon."
"You pay too high a price for our remembrance, Mr. Chillis; we are not worth it. But why do you talk of forgetting? You are not going away from us?"
"Yes; I am goin' to start to-morrow for my old stampin' ground, east o' the mountains. My only livin' son is over there, somewhar. He don't amount to much—the Indian in him is too strong; but, like enough, he will be glad to see his father afore I die. An' I want to git away from here."
"You will come back? Promise me you will come back?" For something in his voice, and his settled expression of melancholy and renunciation, made her fear he was taking this step for a reason that could not be named between them.
"It is likely," he said; "but ef I come or no, don't fret about me. Just remember this that I am tellin' you now. The day I first saw you was the most fortunate day of my life. Ef I hadn't a-met you, I should have died as I had lived—like a creature without a soul. An' now I have a soul, in you. An' when I come to die, as I shall before many years, I shall die happy, thinkin' how my old hands had served the sweetest woman under heaven, and how they had been touched by hers so kindly, many a time, when she condescended to serve
What could she say to a charge like this? Yet say something she must, and so she answered, that he thought too highly of her, who was no better than other women; but, that, since in his great singleness of heart, he did her this honor, to set her above all the world, she could only be humbly grateful, and wish really to be what in his vivid imagination she seemed to him. Then she turned the talk upon less personal topics, and Willie was called and informed of the loss he was about to sustain; upon which there was a great deal of childish questioning, and boyish regret for the good times no more to be that summer.
"I should like to take care of your boat," said he—"your hunting-boat, I mean. If I had it over here, I would take mamma down to it every Saturday, and she could sew and do everything there, just as she does at home; and it would be gay, now, wouldn't it?"
"The old boat is sold, my boy; that an' the row-boat, and the pony, too. You'll have to wait till I come back for huntin', and fishin', and ridin'."
Then Mrs. Smiley knew almost certainly that this visit was the last she would ever receive from Joe Chillis, and, though she tried hard to seem unaffected by the parting, and to talk of his return hopefully, the effort proved abortive, and conversation flagged. Still he sat there silent and nearly motionless through the whole evening, thinking what thoughts she guessed only too well. With a great sigh, at last he rose to go.
"You will be sure to write at the end of your journey, and let us know how you find things there, and when you are coming back?"
"I will write," said he; "an' I want you to write back and tell me that you remember what I advised you some time ago." He took her hands, folded them in his own, kissed them reverently, and turned away.
Mrs. Smiley watched him going down the garden-walk, as she had watched him a year before, and noted how slow and uncertain his steps had grown since then. At the gate he turned and waved his hand, and she in turn fluttered her little white handkerchief. Then she sat down with the handkerchief over her head, and sobbed for full five minutes.
"There are things in life one cannot comprehend," she muttered to herself, "things we cannot dare to meddle with or try to alter; Providences, I suppose, they are. If God had made a man like that for me, of my own age, and given him opportunities suited to his capacities, and he had loved me as this man loves, what a life ours would have been!"
The summer weather and bracing north-west breezes from the ocean renewed, in a measure, Mrs. Smiley's health, and restored her cheerful spirits; and, if she missed her old friend, she kept silent about it, as she did about most things that concerned herself. To Willie's questioning she gave those evasive replies children are used to receive; but she frequently told him, in talks about his future, that Mr. Chillis had promised to send him to college, and that as long as he lived he must love and respect so generous a friend. "And, Willie," she never failed to add, "if ever you see an old man who is in need of anything; food, or clothes, or shelter; be very sure that you furnish them, as far as you are able." She was teaching him to pay his debt: "for, inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these," he had done it unto his benefactor.
September came, and yet no news had arrived from beyond the mountains. Captain Rumway's house was finished up to the last touch of varnish. The lawn, and the shrubbery, and fence were all just as they should be; yet, so far as anybody knew, no mistress had been provided for them, when, one warm and hazy afternoon, Mrs. Smiley received an invitation to look at the completed mansion, and pass her judgment upon it.
"I am going to furnish it in good style," said its master, rather vauntingly, Mrs. Smiley thought, "and I hoped you would be so good as to give me your assistance in making out a list of the articles required to fit the house up perfectly, from parlor to kitchen."
"Any lady can furnish a list of articles for each room, Mr. Rumway, more or less costly, as you may order; but only the lady who is to live in the house can tell you what will please
her;" and she smiled the very shadow of a superior smile.
Mr. Rumway had foolishly thought to get his house furnished according to Mrs. Smiley's taste, and now found he should have to consult Mrs. Rumway's, present or prospective, and the discovery annoyed him. Yet, why should he be annoyed? Was not the very opportunity presented that he had desired, of renewing his proposal to her to take the establishment in charge? So, although it compelled him to change his programme, he accepted the situation, and seized the tide at flood.
"It is that lady—the one I entreat to come and live in it—whose wishes I now consult. Once more will you come?"
Mrs. Smiley, though persistently looking aside, had caught the eloquent glance of the Captain's dark eyes, and something of the warmth of his face was reflected in her own. But she remained silent, looking at the distant highlands, without seeing them.
"You must have seen," he continued, "that notwithstanding your former answer, I have been bold enough to hope you might change your mind; for, in everything I have done here, I have tried to follow your expressed wishes. I should in all else strive to make you as happy as by accepting this home you would make me. You do not answer; shall I say it is 'yes?'" He bent so close that his dark, half-curling mop of hair just brushed her golden braids, and gave her a little shock like electricity, making her start away with a blush.
"Will you give me time to decide upon my answer, Mr. Rumway?"
"You asked for time before," he replied, in an agitated voice, "and, after making me suffer a week of suspense, refused me."
"I know it," she said simply, "and I was sorry I had asked it; but my reasons are even more imperative than they were then for wishing to delay. I want to decide right, at last," she added, with a faint attempt at a smile.
"That will be right which accords with your feelings, and certainly you can tell me now what they are—whether you find me the least bit lovable or not."
The gray eyes flashed a look up into the dark eyes, half of mirth and half of real inquiry. "I think one might learn to endure you, Mr. Rumway," she answered, demurely. "But"—changing her manner—"I can not tell you whether or not I can marry you, until—until—well," she concluded desperately—"it may be a day, or a week, or a month. There is something to be decided, and until it is decided, I can not give an answer."
Captain Rumway looked very rebellious.
"I do not ask you to wait, Mr. Rumway," said Mrs. Smiley, tormentingly. "Your house need not be long without a mistress."
"Of course, I must wait, if you give me the least ground of hope. This place was made for you, and no other woman shall ever come into it as my wife—that I swear. If you will not have me, I will sell it, and live a bachelor."
Mrs. Smiley laughed softly and tunefully. "Perhaps you would prefer to limit your endurance, and tell me how long you
allow me to deliberate before you sell and retire to bachelorhood?"
"You know very well," he returned, ruefully, "that I shall always be hoping against all reason that the wished-for answer was coming at last."
"Then we will say no more about it at present."
"And I may come occasionally to learn whether that 'something' has been decided?"
"Yes, if you have the patience for it. But, I warn you, there is a chance of my having to say 'No.'"
"If there is only a chance of your having to say 'No,' I think I may incur the risk," said Rumway, with a sudden accession of hopefulness; and, as they walked home together once more, the gossips pronounced it an engagement. The Captain himself felt that it was, although, when he reviewed the conversation, he discovered that he founded his impression upon that one glance of the gray eyes, rather than upon anything that had been said. And Mrs. Smiley put the matter out of mind as much as possible, and waited.
One day, about the last of the month, a letter came to her from over the mountains. It ran in this wise:
"My Lovely Lady: I am once more among the familyar seanes of 40 year ago. My son is hear, an' about as I expected. I had rather be back at Clatsop, with the old bote; but, owin' to circumstances I can't controll, think it better to end my dais on this side ov the mountains. You need not look for me to come back, but I send you an' the boy my best love, an' hope you hav done as I advised.
"Yours, faithfully, til deth,
Soon after the receipt of this letter, Captain Rumway called to inquire concerning the settlement of the matter on which his marriage depended. That evening he stayed later than usual, and, in a long confidential talk which he had with Mrs. Smiley, learned that there was a condition attached to the consummation of his wishes, which required his recognition of the claims of "poor old Joe" to be considered a friend of the family. To do him justice, he yielded the point more gracefully than, from his consciousness of his own position, could have been expected.
The next day, Mrs. Smiley wrote as follows:
"Dear Mr. Chillis: I shall move into the new house about the last of October,
according to your advice. We—that is, myself, and Willie, and the present owner of the house—shall be delighted if you will come and stay with us. But if you decide to remain with your son, believe that we think of you very often and very affectionately, and wish you every possible happiness. R. agrees with me that the land ought to be deeded back to you; and
think you had best return and get the benefit of it. It would make you very comfortable for life, properly managed, and about that we might help you. Please write and let us know what to do about it.
No reply ever came to this letter; and, as it was written ten years ago, Mrs. Rumway has ceased to expect any. Willie is about to enter College.