Haunted by G. Ranger Wormser

He lived quite alone in the stone built shanty perched on the highest pinnacle of the great sun bleached chalk cliffs. All about him, as far as the eye could reach, lay the flat, salt marshes with their dank, yellowed grasses. Against the inland horizon three, gaunt, thin-foliaged trees reared themselves from the monotonously even soil. Overhead the cloud splotched blue gray sky, and below him the changing, motion pulled, current swirling depths of the blue green sea. And at all times of the day and the night, the wild whirring of the sea gulls' wings and the uncanny inhuman piercing sound of their shrieking.

He had lived there since that day when the fisherman had pulled him half drowned out of the sea. He could never remember where he had come from, or what had happened. All that he ever knew was that far out by the nets in the early morning they had come upon him and had brought him in to shore. Naturally, the fishermen had questioned him; but his vagueness, his absolute lack of belief that he had ever been anything before they had snatched him from the waters, had frightened them so that since that day they had left him severely alone. Fishing folk have strange, superstitious ideas about certain things. He had borne the full weight of their credulous awe. Perhaps because he, himself, thought as they thought. That he was something come from the sea, and of the sea, and always belonging to the sea.

He had built himself the stone shanty upon the highest pinnacle of those waste grown chalk cliffs; and he had stayed on and on, year in and year out, close there to the sea.

In winter for a livelihood he made baskets from the reeds he had picked in the swamps about him. In the summer he sold the vegetables he grew in the tiny truck garden behind his house. Somehow he managed to eke out a living.

The fishing folk in the small village at the foot of the cliffs saw him come and go along their narrow streets, morose and taciturn. He never spoke to any of them unless he had to. They in their turn avoided him with their habitual superstitious uneasiness. He went to and fro between his shanty and the village store when the need arose. The rest of the time he sat in front of his iron bolted door staring and staring down at the sea.

Daybreak and noon. Evening and night he sat there.

When the sky above was tinged with the first streaking colors of the dawn he watched the ghostly gray expanse of the ocean. When the sun was high in the heavens he looked steadily at the light-flecked spotted swells of the waves. When the shadows began to creep up from the earth he stared at the greater blackness that swam in glistening undulating darkness to him from across the water. And at night his eyes strained through the fitful gloom at the pitchy, turbulent sea.

It was like that in all kinds of weather. The spring tides, with their quick changes from calm to storm, and the slender silver crescent of the new moon hanging just above the horizon. The long summer laziness of the green ocean with its later gigantic flame-red moons and the wide yellow streak of phosphorescent light that streamed in moving ripples to him; the chill, lashing spray in autumn. The foam-covered seething breadth of it in winter when the blackness of the low night skies and the darkness of the high tides were as one menacing roaring turmoil churning itself into white spumed frenzy. It always held him.

He was a man of one idea: The sea. He was a man who drew his life from one source: The sea. It had taken his body and had tried to drown it; the sea had for that short time caught and gripped his soul. The slimy, wet touch of it was seared into him.

It fascinated him; it kept him near it so that he could not have gotten away from it, had he had the courage to want to get away. It kept him there as though he belonged to it; as though it knew he belonged to it; and knew that he knew it. And always and ever the sea haunted him.

The fishing men coming home late at night across the water had grown used to steering their course by the unreal light that trickled out to them from the shanty on the top of the cliffs. And in the dawn when they pushed their smacks off from the long, hard beach to sail out to the nets, they knew that from the high precipices above them the man was watching.

And outwardly they laughed at him; even when in their hearts they feared the thing they thought he was.

They could not understand him. They, who made their living from the sea, could not understand how he could be content to live the way he was living. They could not have known that he would infinitely rather have died than to have taken one thing from out the sea from which he had already filched his soul.

His enslavement by it had made him understand it a lot better than they understood it.

And so he lived the stupid, hypnotized life of one who is held so enchained and cowed that he could not think for himself, or of himself. Until that day when he first met Sally.

It was a sunny day late in the autumn that he stood in front of the weather beaten wooden hut of the village store, his arms filled with baskets. And as he stood there, Sally Walsh came from the store and out into the street.

She had seen the man a hundred times but she had never seen him so close. She stopped short and stared quite frankly at the bigness of him; at the heavily matted hair clinging so damply to his forehead; and at the white face so strange to her beside the sun-burned faces she had always seen. It was when, quite suddenly, he looked at her and she saw the odd blue green sea colored eyes of him, that she started to hurry on.

She had gotten half way down the street when he overtook her.

"D'you want—anything of—me?" He asked it, his blue green eyes going quickly over her slight form, her small face, and resting for a second curiously upon her masses of coiled golden hair.

"I—? why—no."

"You sure?"

"Sure."

She went on her way again and he stood there watching her go; then he turned abruptly and walked slowly back to the store.

It was not so long after that when he met her for the second time.

She was on her knees in the yard in front of her father's house mending the tar-covered fishing nets with quick deft fingers. He stopped at the gate. Feeling the intensity of his blue green eyes upon her, she looked up and saw him.

She got to her feet.

"It's a nice morning."

She spoke to him first.

"Yes"; he said.

"You live up there?" She pointed a bare browned arm up toward the sun bleached chalk cliffs. "By yourself?"

"Yes."

"You ain't got a boat?"

"No."

"They say you don't ever fish. Why don't you, Mister?"

"I—I ain't the one to fish."

"Want to help me with these here nets?"

"I—I can't do—that."

"It ain't hard, Mister."

"I—can't—do—it."

"Come on in; I'll show you how."

He opened the gate and went into the yard and then he stood there just looking down at her.

"I wouldn't touch—no—net—"

Her brows drew together in a puzzled frown.

"You mean you don't like fishing?"

Somehow he did not want her to know.

"I—ain't—the—one—to—take—no—sea-thing—away—from—the—sea."

"Oh;" she said, not understanding.

They were silent a moment.

"You sell baskets?" She asked him.

"D'you want one?"

"Mebbe. Got a medium-sized one?"

"Got a lot."

"Mebbe—I—could—use—one."

"I'd like mighty well to—to give you one, little girl."

"Why, I ain't a little girl, Mister. I—I thought—I'd mebbe—buy—"

He interrupted her.

"You'll not buy one off of me. I'll bring you one—; if you like."

"A medium-sized one."

"I'll bring it to you—; to-morrow."

"Thanks."

"Good-by, little girl."

"Good-by, Mister."

At the end of the street he turned to look back.

She was on her knees working at her mending of the nets again. She looked very small kneeling there on the hard brown earth with the straggling lines of squat weather darkened shanties trailing behind her out onto the edge of the yellow sanded beach, and the clear unbroken blue of the autumn skies above. She glanced up and then she waved her hand at him.

He went slowly along the narrow pathway that wound through the sharp crevices of the chalk cliffs to the back of his own stone built shanty.

That night he stood staring out at the sea. The moon was on the wane. It hung very low in the sky so that the red-gold streak of it seemed to dip into the water. A cold northeast wind lashed over the waves. Dark swollen purplish clouds raced together in an angry mass. The sea itself was black but for the tossing gigantic waves with their dead white crests of spraying foam. The pounding of them on the beach below him vibrated in his ears. The sea-gulls were flying heavily close to the earth; their inhuman, piercing shrieking filling the air.

The little girl had spoken to him.

He turned from the sea then. He went into his shanty. He bolted the great iron bolts of the door and braced himself against it as if he were shutting something out; something that he feared; something that was certain to come after him. He crouched there shivering and shuddering. The pounding of the sea was in his ears. The wind that came from the ocean whistled and wailed shrilly around and around the house. He leaned there; his back to the door; his hands pressing stiff fingered against it; his lips moving, mumbling dumbly. His eyes, the color of the sea, stared blindly before him. The rumbling roar of the rising tide; the thundering boom of it. And in the sudden lull of the wind the hiss of the seething spray.

The sea was angry.

He thought with a kind of paralyzing terror that it was angry with him. It was calling to him. The lashing of the big waves demanded him. The sonorous drumming of it. He had never before denied its call. The persistent thudding of it there at the base of the chalk cliffs. It was insisting that he belonged to it. The inhuman piercing shrieks of the circling sea-gulls mocked him. They knew that he belonged to the sea. How could he even think of that golden haired little girl who had spoken to him—

The sea was angry.

He tore at the iron bolts and flinging the door wide open he rushed out to the edge of the chalk cliffs. And as he stood there the clouds dwindled in a vaporous haze away from the skies. The thin red-gold line of the waning moon grew brighter. The sea lay foam flecked and calm beneath the dark heavens. And at the base of the chalk cliffs the water lapped and lapped with a strange insidious sound.

And the next day he sat there in front of his shanty, his reeds in his hands, his fingers busy with his basket weaving; making big baskets and small baskets; and his eyes, blue green and strained, were fixed on the tranquil blue green of the water below him.

For two days he sat there in front of his iron bolted door that now swung wide open on its rusty hinges.

The third day he stood upon the edge of the precipice.

It was a gray fog drenched day. The mist dripped all about him. The opaque veil of it shut out everything in wet obliteration. He stood quite still knowing that beneath its dank dribbling thickness, the sea churned wildly in its rising tide.

And standing there motionless he heard a voice calling through the quiet denseness of the fog. A voice coming from a distance and muffled by the mist. He started. It was her voice calling to him from the narrow pathway that wound up the chalk cliffs to the back of his shanty.

"Mister—oh, Mister."

He reached his hand out in front of him trying to break the saturating cover of the fog. He went stumbling unseeingly toward the rear of the house.

"Mister—oh, Mister."

The rear of the shanty. His feet sank down into the turned soil of the truck garden. He stood still.

"Here."

"Mister;" the voice of her was nearer. "Where are—you—?"

He could not see in front of him. He felt that she was close.

"Here;—little girl."

He saw the faint outline of her shadow then through the obliterating denseness of the mist.

"Some fog; ain't it, Mister?"

"Stay where—you are. There's the precipice."

"I ain't afraid of no precipice."

"Stay—where—you—are!"

He could hear the dripping of the mist over the window ledges. And then he thought he heard, smothered by the weight of the fog, the pounding of the sea.

"You surprised to see me? But you ain't able to see me. Are you?"

"No."

"You ain't surprised?"

Down there at the base of the chalk cliffs the sea was still; waiting.

"You—shouldn't—have—come."

"Why—you don't mean;—you ain't trying to tell me;—you—don't—want—me—here?"

Great beads of moisture trickled down across his eyes.

"Little girl—; I just said you shouldn't have come. Not up here in this kind of weather."

"Oh, the weather!" She laughed. "I ain't the one to mind the weather, Mister."

Again he reached his hand out in front of him in an effort to rend the suffocating thickness of the fog. His fingers touched her arm and closed over it. From below him came the repeated warning roar of the waves.

"Can you find your way home—by yourself—little girl?"

"I ain't going home, Mister;—not yet. I came up here to get that basket you said you had for me; you know, the medium sized one."

"I'll give it to you—now."

Her hand caught at his hand that lay on her arm. Her fingers fastened themselves around his and held tightly. He had never felt anything like that. The touch of them was cool and fresh, like sea weed that had just drifted in from the sea.

And then from far off across the water came the shrill, piercing shriek of a gull.

He felt her start.

"That's only a sea-gull, little girl."

"I know, Mister. But don't it sound strange; almost as if it were the sea itself; calling for something."

For a second he could not speak.

"Why—;" his voice was hoarse, "Why d'you say that?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I get to feeling mighty queer about that water out there."

"You mean—; why—you ain't afraid of it, little girl, are you?"

"Afraid? There ain't nothing that I'm afraid of, Mister. Why, I'd go anywhere and not be afraid—"

He repeated her words very slowly to himself.

"You'd—go—anywhere—and—not—be—afraid—"

He thought then that the fog was lifting. A sickly, yellowish glow filtered through the heavy grayness. He could see her more distinctly.

"There's only one thing about the sea, Mister, that'd scare me, and that's—"

She broke off abruptly.

"What, little girl?"

"Why, Mister; why, I can't hardly say it. But there's Pa and there's my brother, Will. If anything ever happened—; if the sea ever did anything to Pa or Will, why—I guess, Mister, I'd just die."

"Don't!" He said quickly. "Don't you talk like that."

For a second they were silent.

The sun was breaking through the dwindling thickness of the mist. He could see it lifting in a faint gray line, uncovering the reach of the flat salt marshes with their dank yellowed grasses; a thin silver net of it hung for a second between the sky and the earth, and was gone.

From the base of the chalk cliffs came the sound of the sea lapping and lapping with insistent cunning.

She dropped his hand and she stood there looking up to him, scanning his white face with those childlike eyes of hers.

"You live up here because of the sea, Mister?"

"Yes."

"You ever feel the sea's something—alive, like you and me?"

"You—feel—that—too?"

"Yes," she said slowly, "and I knew you felt it, because the first time I saw you—why—you're somehow—something like the sea."

His hands clinched at his sides. His breath came in quick rasping gasps.

"I'll get your basket," he muttered.

He rushed into his one room shanty and caught up the basket nearest to him and went out again to her.

She took the basket from him in silence. She slipped the handle of it on to her arm. Her hands rubbed against each other; the fingers of them twining and intertwining.

"I'll be going now, Mister."

"Yes."

"I've got to be getting home before Pa and Will go out to the nets."

"Good-by, little girl."

"Good-by, Mister; and—thanks."

He stood there and watched her go from the back of his stone built shanty down the narrow winding path that lay along the sun bleached chalk cliffs. She went quickly and lightly down the steep incline, her small slender figure in its blue print dress, with the sun bringing out the burnished glints in her golden hair. His eyes strained after her. In a short while he lost her from sight.

He went back to his basket making then.

And as he sat there, his fingers weaving and bending the supple reeds, mechanically working them into shape, he tried to shut out all thought of her; to feel as though she had never come to him; to rivet his attention upon the insistent pounding of the sea that hurled itself again and again at the base of the chalk cliffs; calling and calling to him.

After a while the early deep blue dusk of the twilight came.

He got stiffly to his feet.

The long moving shadows were quivering in fantastic purpled patterns on the ground about him. Great daubs of them clung in the crevices of the chalk cliffs. A mat of shadows crept over the flat salt marshes and through the dank yellowed grasses. There was a sudden chill in the wind that came to him from off the water. A flock of screeching sea-gulls wildly beating their wings, rose from the cliffs and whirred out toward the open sea, the uncanny piercing sound of their shrieking coming deafeningly back to him.

He stood there staring at the ocean, his head well back; his nostrils dilated; his blue green eyes strangely wide.

Far in the distance against the graying horizon he could see the choppy white capped waves racing over the smooth dark water. Even as he looked the sea began to rise in great swollen billows. The wind too was rising. He could hear the distant cry of it.

His heart began to thump wildly. He knew what was going to happen; just as he always knew. He could feel what the sea was going to do.

He stood there undecided.

A quick picture came to him of the storm.

He had seen it all before. He had stood there on the chalk cliffs and watched it all: Watched the shattered broken logs; the swirling sucking water. The sea had held him under its spell; had compelled him to witness its maddened, infuriated stalking of its prey.

Her people were out there. Her Pa and her Will. Why had she told him that? Why had she said if anything ever happened to them she would die? Why?

He could just make out the stiff sticks of the nets reaching thin and dark from the surface of the gray water against the lighter gray skies; and the boats rowing toward them. The boats with the fishermen. He could see the slender patches of them rising and falling with the waves, going slowly to the nets. He could distinguish the small, dark shadows of the men, rowing. They had pulled him out of the sea in that early morning; he who was something come from the sea, and of the sea; and always belonging to the sea.

To—betray—the—sea—

The waves were racing in to the shore. The thumping, deafening boom of them there at the base of the chalk cliffs below him.

He tried to tear his eyes away from it. It held him as it ever held him. It kept him there as though he belonged to it. As though it knew he belonged to it; and knew that he knew it. A strange uneasiness arose within him. Even before he was conscious of it, he felt that the sea had sensed it. Its insistent angry pounding threatened him.

She had said that she would die.

Below him the swirling, churning sea.

He turned then and went very slowly down the narrow, winding path that led along the sun bleached chalk cliffs. Through the deep blue dusk of the evening he went, and the gray blotched reach of the flat salt marshes with their dank yellowed grasses lay all about him; and overhead the cloud spotted, moving gray of the sky, and beneath him the raging sea that called to him; and called.

He never stopped until he came to the weather darkened shanty where she lived.

He paused then at the gate.

A lighted lamp was in one of the windows on the ground floor. The soft glow of it streamed in a long ladder of light out to him in the darkness.

He opened the gate and went haltingly across the yard, and after a moment's hesitation he knocked at the door.

At the far end of the street the sea thudded over the yellow sanded beach; the pale stretch of it coming out of the grayness in a long white line.

She answered his knock.

The light from the lamp swept through the open doorway.

Something in his face terrified her; something that she had never before seen in those blue green eyes, the color of the sea.

"What is it? What's happened?"

He stood there just looking down at her.

"Oh, Mister, tell me; please—what is it?"

Her two hands went up to her throat and caught tightly at her neck.

"There's—a—storm—"

She looked out into the quiet, darkening evening.

"A storm?"

"There's a bad storm—; coming."

He could hardly say the words.

She stared up at him; her childlike eyes were very wide.

"Will it—be—soon—?"

He never took his blue green eyes from off her face.

"It's coming—quick."

"They're out—Pa—and—Will."

He said it very quietly then.

"That's why I'm here."

"How can we—get them—back?"

"Oh, little girl;" he muttered. "Little girl—"

"How, Mister; how?"

"I'll get a boat."

"There's Sam Wilkins' smack—down there at the wharf. We could take that."

"Then—I'll go—after them."

They went from the door together down the street and out onto the back patch of the wharf. Through the grayness they could see the boat rocking on the water at the farther end. The wail of the rising wind; the pounding of the sea; and close to them the muffled, bumping sound of the smack thrown again and again at the long wooden piles of the wharf.

For a second they stood quite still.

"I'm going," he said.

Her arms went suddenly up around his neck. Her lips brushed across his. He felt her body shivering. He caught and held her to him; and then he let her go and went quickly to the end of the wharf and pulled the boat alongside and stepped into it.

He looked up at her standing there against the gray sky. He could see the white patches of her face and her hands and the pale mass of her hair that the wind had loosened. And down through the draggling grayness he distinctly saw her childlike eyes searching for his.

Before he could stop her she was in the boat.

"Get—back."

"I'm going."

"Quick—get—back."

"I'm going—with—you."

"You can't—; you don't know."

"I'm not afraid. Honest—I'm—not."

"You don't know what it means!"

"I'm—not—afraid."

"Little girl—I ain't going—if you go."

"You've got—to—go."

He repeated her words.

"I've—got—to—go."

"If you don't take me with you;" he had never heard her voice like that—"I'll come out myself. You can't leave me—you can't!"

The rain began then. Great drops of it fell into his face. The whining of the wind was terrific.

"You—don't know what it—means."

"I do know;—oh, God,—I do."

He caught up his oars then.

He rowed with all his strength. The whole thing was so strange to him. Her going. Their being out on the water. The rowing.

The waves rose in tremendous black swells all about them. The rain and the spray drenched them. The wind rocked the small boat. The whistling wail of it; the lowering cloud sprawled pitchy sky.

He pulled in silence until they came to the nets.

She stood up in the boat and called; again and again her voice rose into the wind.

"Sit down!" He told her.

A distant shout answered her.

He bent to his oars then till he came to the cluster of smacks on the other side of the nets.

"Pa—;" she cried.

"Sally—! What you doing here?"

"Pa—; there's a storm."

"I can see that."

"Pa—come on back—to shore."

"You get on back, Sally. It'll blow over."

She turned to him then.

"You tell him;" she said it desperately. "You—tell—him."

He waited until he got just alongside of the fishing smack.

"It's going to be—a—bad—one."

He said it slowly.

He thought then that the angry swirling of the sea became more infuriated; that the swell of the waves was greater. Far in the distance he heard the inhuman, piercing shriek of the sea-gulls.

"Who's that there, Sally?"

"It's—me."

He saw that both of the men in the smack leaned toward him.

"What?"

"It's—it's—me."

"You!"

"Go on back, Pa;—Will, make him—go on back. Get the others to go;—please—Pa;—please."

For answer he heard the man's shout to the other boats about the nets.

"Storm—lads;—make—for—shore."

He saw a moment's hesitation in that cluster of fishing smacks and then one by one he watched them pull away from the nets and row toward the beach.

He reached out his hand and caught hold of the other boat's gunwale.

"Make—the little girl—go—back with—you."

"Come on, Sally. Hop across there. Pa'll help you."

"We'll follow you, Pa."

"All right."

"Tell—the—little girl—to go with you!"

"With—me?"

"Tell—her!"

"You go on, Pa. We'll come right after you."

He felt the boat at his side give a quick lurch. His hand slipped into the water. He could feel the sea pulling at it. His own smack rocked perilously for a second. And then he saw the girl's father and brother rowing toward the beach.

"What—what'd—you—do—that—for?"

She did not answer him.

A wave broke over the bow of his boat.

In the darkness he could see her crawling on her hands and knees along the bottom of the smack to him. He reached down and caught her up in his arms.

"Will they get back—safe?" She whispered it.

"Yes."

"Sure?"

"They're there—now."

And then the storm broke. The lightning flashed in zigzagging, blindly flares across the dark of the sky. The thunder rumbled in clattering crescendo. The sea tore and swirled and sucked. Wave after wave broke over the small boat. She rocked and pitched and swivelled. The oars were washed away. The rain and the wind stung them with their fury. The spray cut into their faces. From far off came the uncanny, inhuman, piercing sound of the sea-gulls' shrieking.

He knew then that the time had come.

He held her very close to him.

He had filched his soul from the sea. He who was something come from the sea, and of the sea; and always belonging to the sea.

He had betrayed the sea.

"Little girl."

"I'm not—afraid."

"Little girl."

"I couldn't stay on—without you. I always knew—always—that some time you'd—go—back."

"You're not—scared?"

"Just—hold—me—tight."

The foam covered seething breadth of the water churning itself into white spumed frenzy. The dark, lowering skies. The black deep pull of the sea.

"Tighter—"