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The Tides of Barnegat

Francis Hopkinson Smith

  Produced by Duncan Harrod. HTML version by Al Haines.

  The Tides Of Barnegat


  F. Hopkinson Smith






  One lovely spring morning--and this story begins on a spring morningsome fifty years or more ago--a joy of a morning that made one glad tobe alive, when the radiant sunshine had turned the ribbon of a roadthat ran from Warehold village to Barnegat Light and the sea to satin,the wide marshes to velvet, and the belts of stunted pines to bands ofpurple--on this spring morning, then, Martha Sands, the Cobdens' nurse,was out with her dog Meg. She had taken the little beast to the innerbeach for a bath--a custom of hers when the weather was fine and thewater not too cold--and was returning to Warehold by way of the road,when, calling the dog to her side, she stopped to feast her eyes on thepicture unrolled at her feet.

  To the left of where she stood curved the coast, glistening like ascimitar, and the strip of yellow beach which divided the narrow bayfrom the open sea; to the right, thrust out into the sheen of silver,lay the spit of sand narrowing the inlet, its edges scalloped with lacefoam, its extreme point dominated by the grim tower of Barnegat Light;aloft, high into the blue, soared the gulls, flashing like jewels asthey lifted their breasts to the sun, while away and beyond the sailsof the fishing-boats, gray or silver in their shifting tacks, crawledover the wrinkled sea.

  The glory of the landscape fixed in her mind, Martha gathered her shawlabout her shoulders, tightened the strings of her white cap, smoothedout her apron, and with the remark to Meg that he'd "never see nothin'so beautiful nor so restful," resumed her walk.

  They were inseparable, these two, and had been ever since the day shehad picked him up outside the tavern, half starved and with a sorepatch on his back where some kitchen-maid had scalded him. Somehow thepoor outcast brought home to her a sad page in her own history, whenshe herself was homeless and miserable, and no hand was stretched outto her. So she had coddled and fondled him, gaining his confidence dayby day and talking to him by the hour of whatever was uppermost in hermind.

  Few friendships presented stronger contrasts: She stout andmotherly-looking--too stout for any waistline--with kindly blue eyes,smooth gray hair--gray, not white--her round, rosy face, framed in acotton cap, aglow with the freshness of the morning--a comforting,coddling-up kind of woman of fifty, with a low, crooning voice, gentlefingers, and soft, restful hollows about her shoulders and bosom forthe heads of tired babies; Meg thin, rickety, and sneak-eyed, with abroken tail that hung at an angle, and but one ear (a black-and-tan hadruined the other)--a sandy-colored, rough-haired, good-for-nothing curof multifarious lineage, who was either crouching at her feet or infull cry for some hole in a fence or rift in a wood-pile where he couldflatten out and sulk in safety.

  Martha continued her talk to Meg. While she had been studying thelandscape he had taken the opportunity to wallow in whatever camefirst, and his wet hair was bristling with sand and matted with burrs.

  "Come here, Meg--you measly rascal!" she cried, stamping her foot."Come here, I tell ye!"

  The dog crouched close to the ground, waited until Martha was nearenough to lay her hand upon him, and then, with a backward spring,darted under a bush in full blossom.

  "Look at ye now!" she shouted in a commanding tone. "'Tain't no use o'my washin' ye. Ye're full o' thistles and jest as dirty as when Ithrowed ye in the water. Come out o' that, I tell ye! Now, Meg,darlin'"--this came in a coaxing tone--"come out like a good dog--sureI'm not goin' in them brambles to hunt ye!"

  A clatter of hoofs rang out on the morning air. A two-wheeled gig drawnby a well-groomed sorrel horse and followed by a brown-haired Irishsetter was approaching. In it sat a man of thirty, dressed in a long,mouse-colored surtout with a wide cape falling to the shoulders. On hishead was a soft gray hat and about his neck a white scarf showing abovethe lapels of his coat. He had thin, shapely legs, a flat waist, andsquare shoulders, above which rose a clean-shaven face of singularsweetness and refinement.

  At the sound of the wheels the tattered cur poked his head from betweenthe blossoms, twisted his one ear to catch the sound, and with aside-spring bounded up the road toward the setter.

  "Well, I declare, if it ain't Dr. John Cavendish and Rex!" Marthaexclaimed, raising both hands in welcome as the horse stopped besideher. "Good-mornin' to ye, Doctor John. I thought it was you, but thesun blinded me, and I couldn't see. And ye never saw a better nor abrighter mornin'. These spring days is all blossoms, and they ought tobe. Where ye goin', anyway, that ye're in such a hurry? Ain't nobodysick up to Cap'n Holt's, be there?" she added, a shade of anxietycrossing her face.

  "No, Martha; it's the dressmaker," answered the doctor, tightening thereins on the restless sorrel as he spoke. The voice was low and kindlyand had a ring of sincerity through it.

  "What dressmaker?"

  "Why, Miss Gossaway!" His hand was extended now--that fine, delicatelywrought, sympathetic hand that had soothed so many aching heads.

  "You've said it," laughed Martha, leaning over the wheel so as to presshis fingers in her warm palm. "There ain't no doubt 'bout that skinnyfright being 'Miss,' and there ain't no doubt 'bout her stayin' so. AnnGossaway she is, and Ann Gossaway she'll die. Is she took bad?" shecontinued, a merry, questioning look lighting up her kindly face, herlips pursed knowingly.

  "No, only a sore throat" the doctor replied, loosening his coat.

  "Throat!" she rejoined, with a wry look on her face. "Too bad 'twarn'ther tongue. If ye could snip off a bit o' that some day it would helpfolks considerable 'round here."

  The doctor laughed in answer, dropped the lines over the dashboard andleaned forward in his seat, the sun lighting up his clean-cut face.Busy as he was--and there were few busier men in town, as everyhitching-post along the main street of Warehold village from BillyTatham's, the driver of the country stage, to Captain Holt's, couldprove--he always had time for a word with the old nurse.

  "And where have YOU been, Mistress Martha?" he asked, with a smile,dropping his whip into the socket, a sure sign that he had a few moreminutes to give her.

  "Oh, down to the beach to git some o' the dirt off Meg. Look athim--did ye ever see such a rapscallion! Every time I throw him in he'sinto the sand ag'in wallowin' before I kin git to him."

  The doctor bent his head, and for an instant watched the two dogs: Megcircling about Rex, all four legs taut, his head jerking from side toside in his eagerness to be agreeable to his roadside acquaintance; theagate-eyed setter returning Meg's attentions with the stony gaze of aclub swell ignoring a shabby relative. The doctor smiled thoughtfully.There was nothing he loved to study so much as dogs--they had apeculiar humor of their own, he often said, more enjoyable sometimesthan that of men--then he turned to Martha again.

  "And why are you away from home this morning of all others?" he asked."I thought Miss Lucy was expected from school to-day?"

  "And so she is, God bless her! And that's why I'm here. I was thatrestless I couldn't keep still, and so I says to Miss Jane, 'I'm goin'to the beach with Meg and watch the ships g
o by; that's the only thingthat'll quiet my nerves. They're never in a hurry with everybodypunchin' and haulin' them.' Not that there's anybody doin' that to me,'cept like it is to-day when I'm waitin' for my blessed baby to comeback to me. Two years, doctor--two whole years since I had my armsround her. Wouldn't ye think I'd be nigh crazy?"

  "She's too big for your arms now, Martha," laughed the doctor,gathering up his reins. "She's a woman--seventeen, isn't she?"

  "Seventeen and three months, come the fourteenth of next July. Butshe's not a woman to me, and she never will be. She's my wee bairn thatI took from her mother's dyin' arms and nursed at my own breast, andshe'll be that wee bairn to me as long as I live. Ye'll be up to seeher, won't ye, doctor?"

  "Yes, to-night. How's Miss Jane?" As he made the inquiry his eyeskindled and a slight color suffused his cheeks.

  "She'll be better for seein' ye," the nurse answered with a knowinglook. Then in a louder and more positive tone, "Oh, ye needn't stare sowith them big brown eyes o' yourn. Ye can't fool old Martha, none o'you young people kin. Ye think I go round with my eyelids sewed up.Miss Jane knows what she wants--she's proud, and so are you; I neverknew a Cobden nor a Cavendish that warn't. I haven't a word tosay--it'll be a good match when it comes off. Where's that Meg?Good-by, doctor. I won't keep ye a minute longer from MISS Gossaway.I'm sorry it ain't her tongue, but if it's only her throat she may getover it. Go 'long, Meg!"

  Dr. Cavendish laughed one of his quiet laughs--a laugh that wrinkledthe lines about his eyes, with only a low gurgle in his throat foraccompaniment, picked up his whip, lifted his hat in mock courtesy tothe old nurse, and calling to Rex, who, bored by Meg's attentions, hadat last retreated under the gig, chirruped to his horse, and drove on.

  Martha watched the doctor and Rex until they were out of sight, walkedon to the top of the low hill, and finding a seat by the roadside--herbreath came short these warm spring days--sat down to rest, the dogstretched out in her lap. The little outcast had come to her the dayLucy left Warehold for school, and the old nurse had always regardedhim with a certain superstitious feeling, persuading herself thatnothing would happen to her bairn as long as this miserable dog waswell cared for.

  "Ye heard what Doctor John said about her bein' a woman, Meg?" shecrooned, when she had caught her breath. "And she with her petticoatsup to her knees! That's all he knows about her. Ye'd know better thanthat, Meg, wouldn't ye--if ye'd seen her grow up like he's done? Butgrown up or not, Meg"--here she lifted the dog's nose to get a clearerview of his sleepy eyes--"she's my blessed baby and she's comin' homethis very day, Meg, darlin'; d'ye hear that, ye little ruffian? Andshe's not goin' away ag'in, never, never. There'll be nobody drivin'round in a gig lookin' after her--nor nobody else as long as I kin helpit. Now git up and come along; I'm that restless I can't sit still,"and sliding the dog from her lap, she again resumed her walk towardWarehold.

  Soon the village loomed in sight, and later on the open gateway of"Yardley," the old Cobden Manor, with its two high brick posts toppedwith white balls and shaded by two tall hemlocks, through which couldbe seen a level path leading to an old colonial house with portico,white pillars supporting a balcony, and a sloping roof with hugechimneys and dormer windows.

  Martha quickened her steps, and halting at the gate-posts, paused for amoment with her eyes up the road. It was yet an hour of the time of herbairn's arrival by the country stage, but her impatience was such thatshe could not enter the path without this backward glance. Meg, who hadfollowed behind his mistress at a snail's pace, also came to a haltand, as was his custom, picked out a soft spot in the road and sat downon his haunches.

  Suddenly the dog sprang up with a quick yelp and darted inside thegate. The next instant a young girl in white, with a wide hat shadingher joyous face, jumped from behind one of the big hemlocks and with acry pinioned Martha's arms to her side.

  "Oh, you dear old thing, you! where have you been? Didn't you know Iwas coming by the early stage?" she exclaimed in a half-querulous tone.

  The old nurse disengaged one of her arms from the tight clasp of thegirl, reached up her hand until she found the soft cheek, patted itgently for an instant as a blind person might have done, and thenreassured, hid her face on Lucy's shoulder and burst into tears. Thejoy of the surprise had almost stopped her breath.

  "No, baby, no," she murmured. "No, darlin', I didn't. I was on thebeach with Meg. No, no--Oh, let me cry, darlin'. To think I've got youat last. I wouldn't have gone away, darlin', but they told me youwouldn't be here till dinner-time. Oh, darlin', is it you? And it's alltrue, isn't it? and ye've come back to me for good? Hug me close. Oh,my baby bairn, my little one! Oh, you precious!" and she nestled thegirl's head on her bosom, smoothing her cheek as she crooned on, thetears running down her cheeks.

  Before the girl could reply there came a voice calling from the house:"Isn't she fine, Martha?" A woman above the middle height, young and ofslender figure, dressed in a simple gray gown and without her hat, wasstepping from the front porch to meet them.

  "Too fine, Miss Jane, for her old Martha," the nurse called back. "I'vegot to love her all over again. Oh, but I'm that happy I could burstmeself with joy! Give me hold of your hand, darlin'--I'm afraid I'lllose ye ag'in if ye get out of reach of me."

  The two strolled slowly up the path to meet Jane, Martha patting thegirl's arm and laying her cheek against it as she walked. Meg hadceased barking and was now sniffing at Lucy's skirts, his bent tailwagging slowly, his sneaky eyes looking up into Lucy's face.

  "Will he bite, Martha?" she asked, shrinking to one side. She had anaversion to anything physically imperfect, no matter how lovable itmight be to others. This tattered example struck her as particularlyobjectionable.

  "No, darlin'--nothin' 'cept his food," and Martha laughed.

  "What a horrid little beast!" Lucy said half aloud to herself, clingingall the closer to the nurse. "This isn't the dog sister Jane wrote meabout, is it? She said you loved him dearly--you don't, do you?"

  "Yes, that's the same dog. You don't like him, do you, darlin'?"

  "No, I think he's awful," retorted Lucy in a positive tone.

  "It's all I had to pet since you went away," Martha answeredapologetically.

  "Well, now I'm home, give him away, please. Go away, you dreadful dog!"she cried, stamping her foot as Meg, now reassured, tried to jump uponher.

  The dog fell back, and crouching close to Martha's side raised his eyesappealingly, his ear and tail dragging.

  Jane now joined them. She had stopped to pick some blossoms for thehouse.

  "Why, Lucy, what's poor Meg done?" she asked, as she stooped over andstroked the crestfallen beast's head. "Poor old doggie--we all loveyou, don't we?"

  "Well, just please love him all to yourselves, then," retorted Lucywith a toss of her head. "I wouldn't touch him with a pair of tongs. Inever saw anything so ugly. Get away, you little brute!"

  "Oh, Lucy, dear, don't talk so," replied the older sister in a pityingtone. "He was half starved when Martha found him and brought himhome--and look at his poor back--"

  "No, thank you; I don't want to look at his poor back, nor his poortail, nor anything else poor about him. And you will send him away,won't you, like a dear good old Martha?" she added, patting Martha'sshoulder in a coaxing way. Then encircling Jane's waist with her arm,the two sisters sauntered slowly back to the house.

  Martha followed behind with Meg.

  Somehow, and for the first time where Lucy was concerned, she felt atightening of her heart-strings, all the more painful because it hadfollowed so closely upon the joy of their meeting. What had come overher bairn, she said to herself with a sigh, that she should talk so toMeg--to anything that her old nurse loved, for that matter? Janeinterrupted her reveries.

  "Did you give Meg a bath, Martha?" she asked over her shoulder. She hadseen the look of disappointment in the old nurse's face and, knowingthe cause, tried to lighten the effect.

  "Yes--half water and half sand. Doctor John came along wi
th Rex shinin'like a new muff, and I was ashamed to let him see Meg. He's comin' upto see you to-night, Lucy, darlin'," and she bent forward and tappedthe girl's shoulder to accentuate the importance of the information.

  Lucy cut her eye in a roguish way and twisted her pretty head arounduntil she could look into Jane's eyes.

  "Who do you think he's coming to see, sister?"

  "Why, you, you little goose. They're all coming--Uncle Ephraim has sentover every day to find out when you would be home, and Bart Holt washere early this morning, and will be back to-night."

  "What does Bart Holt look like?"--she had stopped in her walk to plucka spray of lilac blossoms. "I haven't seen him for years; I hear he'sanother one of your beaux," she added, tucking the flowers into Jane'sbelt. "There, sister, that's just your color; that's what that graydress needs. Tell me, what's Bart like?"

  "A little like Captain Nat, his father," answered Jane, ignoring Lucy'slast inference, "not so stout and--"

  "What's he doing?"

  "Nothin', darlin', that's any good," broke in Martha from behind thetwo. "He's sailin' a boat when he ain't playin' cards or scarin'everybody down to the beach with his gun, or shyin' things at Meg."

  "Don't you mind anything Martha says, Lucy," interrupted Jane in adefensive tone. "He's got a great many very good qualities; he has nomother and the captain has never looked after him. It's a great wonderthat he is not worse than he is."

  She knew Martha had spoken the truth, but she still hoped that herinfluence might help him, and then again, she never liked to hear evenher acquaintances criticised.

  "Playing cards! That all?" exclaimed Lucy, arching her eyebrows; hersister's excuses for the delinquent evidently made no impression onher. "I don't think playing cards is very bad; and I don't blame himfor throwing anything he could lay his hands on at this little wretchof Martha's. We all played cards up in our rooms at school. Miss Sarahnever knew anything about it--she thought we were in bed, and it wasjust lovely to fool her. And what does the immaculate Dr. JohnCavendish look like? Has he changed any?" she added with a laugh.

  "No," answered Jane simply.

  "Does he come often?" She had turned her head now and was looking fromunder her lids at Martha. "Just as he used to and sit around, or hashe--" Here she lifted her eyebrows in inquiry, and a laugh bubbled outfrom between her lips.

  "Yes, that's just what he does do," cried Martha in a triumphant tone;"every minute he kin git. And he can't come too often to suit me. Ijest love him, and I'm not the only one, neither, darlin'," she addedwith a nod of her head toward Jane.

  "And Barton Holt as well?" persisted Lucy. "Why, sister, I didn'tsuppose there would be a man for me to look at when I came home, andyou've got two already! Which one are you going to take?" Here her rosyface was drawn into solemn lines.

  Jane colored. "You've got to be a great tease, Lucy," she answered asshe leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "I'm not in the back ofthe doctor's head, nor he in mine--he's too busy nursing the sick--andBart's a boy!"

  "Why, he's twenty-five years old, isn't he?" exclaimed Lucy in somesurprise.

  "Twenty-five years young, dearie--there's a difference, you know.That's why I do what I can to help him. If he'd had the rightinfluences in his life and could be thrown a little more with nicewomen it would help make him a better man. Be very good to him, please,even if you do find him a little rough."

  They had mounted the steps of the porch and were now entering the widecolonial hall--a bare white hall, with a staircase protected byspindling mahogany banisters and a handrail. Jane passed into thelibrary and seated herself at her desk. Lucy ran on upstairs, followedby Martha to help unpack her boxes and trunks.

  When they reached the room in which Martha had nursed her for so manyyears--the little crib still occupied one corner--the old woman tookthe wide hat from the girl's head and looked long and searchingly intoher eyes.

  "Let me look at ye, my baby," she said, as she pushed Lucy's hair backfrom her forehead; "same blue eyes, darlin', same pretty mouth I kissedso often, same little dimples ye had when ye lay in my arms, but ye'vechanged--how I can't tell. Somehow, the face is different."

  Her hands now swept over the full rounded shoulders and plump arms ofthe beautiful girl, and over the full hips.

  "The doctor's right, child," she said with a sigh, stepping back a paceand looking her over critically; "my baby's gone--you've filled out tobe a woman."