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Flood Tide

Sara Ware Bassett




  Author of

  "The Harbor Road," "The Wall Between," "Taming of Zenas Henry,"etc.

  With Frontispiece by M. L. Greer

  [Frontispiece: "Delight's kinder bowled over by surprise, Tiny," Willieexplained gently.]

  A. L. Burt CompanyPublishers -------- New YorkPublished by arrangement with Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright, 1921,By Sara Ware Bassett.All rights reservedPublished March, 1921







  Willie Spence was a trial. Not that his personality rasped society atlarge. On the contrary his neighbors cherished toward the little oldman, with his short-sighted blue eyes and his appealing smile, anaffection peculiarly tender; and if they sometimes were wont to observethat although Willie possessed some common sense he was blessed withuncommon little of it, the observation was facetiously uttered and wasoffered with no malicious intent.

  In fact had one scoured Wilton from end to end it would have beendifficult to unearth a single individual who bore enmity toward theowner of the silver-gray cottage on the Harbor Road. It was impossibleto talk ten seconds with Willie Spence and not be won by hiskindliness, his optimism, his sympathy, and his honesty. Willieprobably could not have dissembled had he tried, and fortunately hislife was of so simple and transparent a trend that little lay hiddenbeneath its crystalline exterior. What he was he was. When baffled byphenomena he would scratch his thin locks and with a smile of endearingcandor frankly admit, "I dunno." When, on the other hand, he knewhimself to be master of a debated fact, no power under heaven couldshake the tenacity with which he clung to his beliefs. There was neverany compromise with truth on Willie's part. A thing was so or it wasnot.

  This reputation for veracity, linked as it was with an ingenuous goodwill toward all mankind, had earned for Willie Spence such universalesteem and tenderness that whenever the stooping figure with its ruddycheeks, soft white hair, and gentle smile made its appearance on thesandy roads of the hamlet, it was hailed on all sides with the lovingand indulgent greetings of the inhabitants of the village.

  Even Celestina Morton, who kept house for him and who might well havelost patience at his defiance of domestic routine, worshipped the verysoil his foot touched. There was, of course, no denying that Willie'sdisregard for the meal hour had become what she termed "chronical" andseverely taxed her forbearance; or that since she was a creature ofhuman limitations she did at times protest when the chowder stoodforgotten in the tureen until it was of Arctic temperature; nor had sheever acquired the grace of spirit to amiably view freshly bakedpopovers shrivel neglected into nothingness. Try as she would to curbher tongue, under such circumstances, she occasionally would burst out:

  "I do wish, Willie Spence, you'd quit your dreamin' an' come to dinner."

  For answer Willie would rise hastily and stand arrested, a bit ofstring in one hand and the hammer in the other, and peeringreproachfully over the top of his steel-bowed spectacles would reply:

  "Law, Tiny! You wouldn't begretch me my dreams, would you? They'reabout all I've got. If it warn't fur the things I dream I wouldn'thave nothin'."

  The wistfulness in the sensitive face would instantly transformCelestina's irritation into sympathy and cause her to respond:

  "Nonsense, Willie! What are you talkin' about? Ain't you got morefriends than anybody in this town? Nobody's poor so long as he hasgood friends."

  "Oh, 'taint bein' poor I mind," laughed Willie, now quite himselfagain. "It's knowin' nothin' an' bein' nothin' that discourages me.If I'd only had the chance to learn somethin' when I was a youngster Iwouldn't have to be goin' it blind now like I do. There's times,Celestina," added the man solemnly, "when I really believe I've gotstuff inside me that's worth while if only I knew what to do with it."

  "Pshaw! Ain't you usin' what's inside you all the time to help thefolks of this town out of their troubles? I'd like to know how they'dget along if it warn't fur you. Ain't you doctorin' an' fixin' upthings for the whole of Cape Cod from one end to the other, day in andday out? I call that amountin' to somethin' in the world if you don't."

  Willie paused thoughtfully.

  "I do do quite a batch of tinkerin', that's true," admitted he,brightening, "an' I'm right down glad to do it, too. Don't think Iain't. Still, I can't help knowin' there's better ways to go at itthan blunderin' along as I have to, an' sometimes I can't help wishin'I knew what the right way is. There must be folks that know how to doin half the time what I do by makeshift an' fussin'. Sometimes itseems a pity there never was anybody to steer me into findin' out thekind of things I've always wanted to know."

  Celestina began to rock nervously.

  Being of New England fiber, and classing as morbid all forms ofintrospection, she always so dreaded to have the conversation driftinto a reflective channel that whenever she found Willie indulging inreveries she was wont to rout him out of them, tartly reproachingherself for having even indirectly been the cause of stirrin' him up.

  "Next time I'll set the chowder back on the stove an' say nothin'," shewould vow inwardly. "I'd much better have waited 'til his dream wasover an' done with. S'pose I am put out a bit--'twon't hurt me. If Idon't care enough for Willie to do somethin' for him once in a while,good as he's always been to me, I'd oughter be ashamed of myself."

  Hence it is easily seen that neither to Wilton in general nor toCelestina in particular was Willie Spence a trial.

  No, it was to himself that Willie was the torment. "I plague myself'most to death, Tiny," he would not infrequently confess when the twosat together at dusk in the little room that looked out on the reach ofblue sea. "It's gettin' all these idees that drives me distracted.'Tain't that I go huntin' 'em; they come to me, hittin' me broadsidelike as if they'd been shot out of a gun. There's times," ambled onthe quiet voice, "when they'll wake me out of a sound sleep an' give meno peace 'til I've got up and 'tended to 'em. That notion of hitchin'a string to the slide in the stove door so'st you could open thedraught without stirrin' out of your chair--that took me in the night.There warn't no waitin' 'til mornin'! Long ago I learned that. Oncethe idee has a-holt of me there's nothin' to do but haul myself out ofbed, even if it's midnight an' colder'n the devil, an' try out thatnotion."

  "The plan was a good one; it's saved lots of steps," put in Celestina.

  "It had to be done, Tiny," Willie answered simply. "That's all therewas to it. Good or bad, I had to carry it to a finish if I didn'tsleep another wink that night."

  The assertion was true; Celestina could vouch for that. After tenyears of residence in the gray cottage she had become too completelyinured to hearing the muffled sound of saw and hammer during the weesmall hours of the night to question the verity of the statement.Therefore she was quite ready to agree that there was no peace forWillie, or herself either, until the particular burst of genius thatassailed him had been transformed from a mirage of the imagination tothe more tangible form of tacks and strings.

  For strings played a v
ery vital part in Willie Spence's inspirationalworld. Indeed, when Celestina had first come to the weathered cottageon the bluff to keep house for the lonely little bachelor and haddiscovered that cottage to be one gigantic spider's web, her initialimpression was that strings played far too important a part in thehousehold. What a labyrinthine entanglement the dwelling was! Had amammoth silkworm woven his airy filaments within its interior, theeffect could scarcely have been more grotesque.

  Strings stretched from the back door, across the kitchen and throughthe hallway, and disappeared up the stairs into Willie's bedroom, whereone pull of a cord lifted the iron latch to admit Oliver Goldsmith, theMaltese cat, whenever he rattled for entrance. There was a string thathoisted and lowered the coal hod from the cellar through a square holein the kitchen floor, thereby saving one the fatigue of tugging it upthe stairs.

  "A coal hod is such an infernal tote to tote!" Willie would explain tohis listeners.

  Then there was a string which in like manner swung the wood box intoplace. Other strings opened and closed the kitchen windows, unfastenedthe front gate, rang a bell in Celestina's room, and whisked Willie'sslippers forth from their hiding place beneath the stairs; not tomention myriad red, blue, green, yellow, and purple strings that hadtheir goals in the ice chest, the pump, the letter box, and the stormdoor, and in connection with which objects they silently performedmystic benefactions.

  Probably, however, the most significant string of all was that of stouttwine that reached from Willie's shop to the home of Janoah Eldridge,two fields beyond, just at the junction of the Belleport and Harborroads. This string not only linked the two cottages but sustained uponits taut line a small wooden box that could be pulled back and forth atwill and convey from one abode to the other not only writtencommunications but also such diminutive articles as pipes, tobacco,spectacles, balls of string, boxes of tacks, and even tools of moderateweight. By means of this primitive special delivery service JanEldridge could be summoned posthaste whenever an especially luminousinspiration flashed upon Willie's intellect and could assist in helpingto make the dream a reality.

  For it was always through Willie's plastic imagination that thesecreative visions flitted. In all his seventy years Jan had been besetby only one outburst of genius and that had pertained to whisking anextra blanket over himself when he was cold at night. How muchpleasanter to lie placidly between the sheets and have the blanketmiraculously appear without the chill and discomfort of arising tofetch it, he argued! But alas! the magic spell had failed to work.Instead the strings had wrenched the corners from the age-worncovering, thereby arousing Mrs. Eldridge's ire. Moreover, although Janhad not confessed it at the time, the blanket while in process oflocomotion had for some unfathomable reason dragged in its wake all theother bedclothes, freeing them from their moorings and submerging hishead in a smothering weight of disorganized sheets and counterpanesonly to leave his poor shivering body a prey to the unfriendlyelements. An attack of lumbago that rendered him helpless from Januaryuntil March followed and had decided Jan that inventors were born, notmade. Thereafter he had been content to abandon the realm of researchto his comrade and allow Willie to furnish the inspiration for furthercreative ventures. Nevertheless his retirement from the spheres ofdiscovery did not prevent him from zealously assisting in themechanical details that rendered Willie's schemes material. Jan notonly possessed a far more practical type of mind than did his friendbut he was also a more skilful workman and therefore in the carryingout of any plan his aid was indispensable. He was, moreover, contentto be the lesser power, looking up to Willie's ability with admirationand asserting with unfeigned sincerity to every one he met that WillieSpence had not only been born with the _injun_ but he had the _newity_to go with it.

  "Why," Jan would often declare with spirit, "in my opinion Willie hasevery whit as much call to write X, Y, Z, an' all them other lettersafter his name as any of those fellers that graduate from colleges!He's a wonder, Willie Spence is--a walkin' wonder! Some day he's goin'to make his mark, too, an' cause the folks in this town to set up an'take notice. See if he don't."

  Willie's neighbors had long since tired of waiting for the gloriousmoment of his fame to arrive; and although they had too genuine aregard for the little old inventor to state publicly what they reallythought of the strings, the nails, the spools, the wires, and thepulleys, in private they did not hesitate to denounce derisively thescientist's contrivances and assert that some fine day the house on thebluff would come to dire disaster.

  "Somebody's goin' to get hung or strangled on one of them contraptionsWillie's rigged up," Captain Phineas Taylor prophesied impressively toZenas Henry as the two men sat smoking in the lee of the wood pile."You watch out an' see if they don't."

  Indeed there was no denying that Celestina was continually catchinghairpins, hooks, and buttons in the strings; or that some such dilemmaas had been predicted had actually occurred, for one day while alone inthe house a pin fastening the back of her print gown had becomeinextricably entangled in the maze amid which she moved, and fearingWillie's wrath if she should sunder her fetters she had been forced tostand captive and helplessly witness a newly made sponge cake burn to acrisp in the oven. She had hoped the ignominious episode would notreach the outside world; but as Wilton was possessed of a miraculouspower for finding out things the story filtered through the community,affording the village a laugh and the opportunity to affirm withominous shakings of the head that it was only because the Lord lookedout for fools and little children that a worse evil had not long agobefallen the Spence household.

  Willie accepted the banter in good part. Born with a forgiving,noncombative disposition he seldom took offence and although JanoahEldridge, who knew him better perhaps than anyone else on earth did,acclaimed that this tranquil exterior concealed, as did TimLinkinwater's, unsuspected depths of ferocity, Wilton had yet toencounter its lionlike fury. Instead the mild little inventor, withhis spools and his pulleys, his bits of wire and his measurelessreaches of string, pursued his peaceful though tortuous way, and if hisabode became transformed into a magnified cobweb only himself andCelestina were inconvenienced thereby.

  To Celestina inconvenience was second nature since from the moment ofher birth it had been her lot in life. Arriving in the worldprematurely she had found nothing prepared for her coming and had beenforced to put up with such makeshifts for comfort as could be hurriedlyscrambled together. From that day until the present instant the samefate had shadowed her path; perhaps it was in her stars. Her parentshad been of dilatory habits and by the time a crib with the necessarypillows and bedding had been secured, and she had drawn a few peacefulbreaths therein a new baby had arrived and she had been ousted from herresting place and compelled to surrender it to the more recent comer.Ever since she had been shunted from pillar to post, sleeping on cots,on couches, in folding beds and in hammocks, and keeping her meagerpossessions in paste-board boxes tucked away beneath tables andbureaus. Poised on the ragged edge of domesticity she continuedthroughout her girlhood to look forward with hope to an eventual stateof permanence. When she was eighteen, however, her mother died and inthe task of bringing up six brothers and sisters younger than herselfall considerations for her personal ease were forgotten. Ten yearspassed and her father was no more; than gradually, one after another,the family she had so patiently reared took wing, leaving Celestina alonely spinster of fifty, homeless and practically penniless.

  This cruel lack of responsibility on the part of her relatives resultedless from a want of affection than from a supreme misunderstanding oftheir older sister. So completely had Celestina learned to efface herpersonality and her inclinations that they reasoned she was utterlywithout preferences; that she lacked the homing instinct; and was quiteas happy in one place as in another. Having thus washed their hands ofher they proceeded to sell the Morton homestead and each one pocket hisshare of the proceeds. Very scanty this inheritance was, so scantythat it compelled Celestina to begin a rotation
around the village,where in return for shelter she filled in domestic gaps of variouskinds. She helped here, she helped there; she took care of babies,nursed the sick, comforted the aged. On she moved from house to house,no enduring foundation ever remaining beneath her feet. No soonerwould she strike her roots down into a congenial soil than she would beforced to pluck them up again and find new earth to which to cling.

  She might have married a dozen times during her youth had not herconscience deterred her from deserting her father and the children leftto her care. In fact one persistent swain who refused to take "No" foran answer had begged Celestina to wait and pray over the matter.

  "I never trouble the Lord with things I can settle myself," replied shefirmly. "I can't go marryin' an' that's all there is to it."

  Other offers had been declined with the same characteristic firmnessuntil now the golden season of mating-time was past, and although shewas still a pretty little woman the stamp of spinsterhood wasunalterably fixed upon her.

  Wilton, in the meantime, had long ago lost sight of the uncomplainingself-sacrifice it had previously lauded and explained CelestinaMorton's unwedded state by declaring that she was too "easy goin'" tomake anybody a good wife. This criticism came, perhaps, more loudlyfrom the female faction of the town than from the male. However thatmay be, the stigma, merited or unmerited, had become so firmly brandedupon Celestina that it could not be effaced. She may to some extenthave brought it upon herself, for certain it was that she never kickedagainst the pricks or tried to shape her circumstances more inaccordance with her liking. Undoubtedly had she accepted her lot lessmeekly she might have commanded a greater measure of attention andsympathy; still, if she had not been of a more or less plastic natureand surrendered herself patiently to her destiny it is a questionwhether she would have survived at all.

  It was this mutability, this power to detach herself from herenvironment and view it with the stoical indifference of a spectatorthat caused Wilton with its harsh New England standards, tocharacterize Celestina as "easy goin'." In fact, this popularly termed"flaw" in her make-up was what had acted as an open sesame to everydoor at which she knocked and had kept a roof above her head. She hadbeen just sixty years of age when Willie Spence's sister had died andleft him alone in the wee cottage on the Harbor Road, and all Wiltonhad begun to speculate as to what was to become of him. Willie was asdependent as an infant; the village gossips who knew everything knewthat. From childhood he had been looked after,--first by his mother,then by his aunt, and lastly by his sister; and when death had removedin succession all three of these props, leaving the little old man atlast face to face with life, his startled blue eyes had grown largewith terror. What was to become of him now? Not only did Williehimself helplessly raise the interrogation but so did all Wilton.

  Of course he could go and board with the Eldridges but that would meanrenting or selling the silver-gray cottage where he had dwelt sincebirth and would be a tragic severing of all ties with the past;moreover, and a fact more potent than all the rest, it would meandismantling the house of the web that for years he had spun, thesymbols of dreams that had been his chief delight. Should he go to theEldridges there could be no more inventing, for Jan's wife was a hard,practical woman who had scant sympathy with Willie's "idees."Nevertheless one redeeming consideration must not be lost sight of--shewas a famous cook, a very famous cook; and poor Willie, although hecared little what he ate, was incapable of concocting any food at all.But the strings, the strings! No, to go to live with Jan and Mrs.Eldridge was not to be thought of.

  It was just at this psychological juncture, when Willie was choosing'twixt flesh and spirit, that he saw Celestina Morton standing like avision in the sunshine that spangled his doorway. She said she knewhow lonely he must be and therefore she had come to make a friendlycall and tidy up the house or mend for him anything that neededmending. With this simple introduction she had taken off her hat andcoat, donned an ample blue-and-white pinafore, and set to work.Fascinated Willie watched her deft movements. Now and then she smiledat him but she did not speak and neither did he; nor, he noticed, didshe disturb his strings or comment on their inconvenience. Whentwilight came and the hour for her departure drew near Willie stationedhimself before the peg from which dangled her shabby wraps andstubbornly refused to have her hat and cloak removed from the nail.There, figuratively speaking, they had hung ever since, the inventorreasoning that life without this paragon of capability was a wretchedand profitless adventure.

  In justifying his sudden decision to Janoah Eldridge, Willie had merelyexplained that he had hired Celestina because she was so comfortable tohave around, a recommendation at which Wilton would have jeered butwhich, perhaps, in the eyes of the Lord was quite as praiseworthy asthat which her more hidebound but less accommodating sisters could haveboasted. For disorder and confusion never kept Celestina awake nightsor prevented her from partaking of three hearty meals a day as it wouldhave Abbie Brewster or Deborah Howland. So long as things were clean,their being an inch or two, or even a foot, out of plumb did not worrythe new inmate of the gray house an iota. And when Willie was balkedin an "idee" that had "kitched him," and left half-a-dozen strings andwires swinging in mid-air for weeks together, Celestina would patientlyduck her head as she passed beneath them and offer no protest moreemphatic than to remark:

  "Them strings hangin' down over the sink snare me every time I wash adish. Ain't you calculatin' ever to take 'em down, Willie?"

  The reply vouchsafed would be as mild as the suggestion:

  "I reckon they ain't there for eternity, Tiny," the inventor wouldrespond. "Like as not both you an' me will live to see 'em out of theway."

  That was all the satisfaction Celestina would get from her feeblecomplaints; it was all she ever got. Yet in spite of the exasperatingresponse she adored Willie who had been to her the soul of kindlinessand courtesy ever since she had come to the bluff to live. He mightforget to come to his meals,--forget, in fact, whether he had eatenthem or not; he might venture forth into the village with one gray sockand one blue one; or when part way to the post-office become lost inreverie and return home again without ever reaching his destination.Such incidents had happened and were likely to happen again.Nevertheless, notwithstanding his absentmindedness, he was never toomuch absorbed to maintain toward Celestina an old-fashioned deferencevery appealing to one accustomed to being ignored and slighted.

  The impulse, it was quite obvious, was prompted less by conventionalitythan by a knightliness of heart, and Celestina, who had never beforebeen the recipient of such courtesies, found herself inexpressiblytouched by the trifling attentions. Often she speculated as to whetherthis mental attitude toward all womanhood was one Willie himself hadevolved or whether it was the result of standards instilled into hissensitive consciousness by the women who had been his companionsthrough life,--his mother, his aunt, his sister. Whichever the casethere was no question that the old man's bearing toward her placed heron a pinnacle where gossip was silenced, and transformed her humbleministrations from those of a hireling into acts of graciousness andbeauty.

  Moreover to live in the same house with such an optimist was noordinary experience. Well Celestina remembered the day when at dinnerthe little old man had choked violently, turning purple in the face inhis fight for breath. She had rushed to his side, terror-stricken, butbetween his spasms of coughing the inventor had gasped out:

  "Why make so much fuss over what's gone down the wrong way, Tiny?Think--of--the--things--I've--swallered--all--these--years--thathave--gone down--right!"

  The observation was characteristic of Willie's creed of life. He neveremphasized the exceptions but always the big, fine, elemental good ineverything.

  Even the name by which he went had been bestowed on him by thecommunity as a term of endearment. There were, to be sure, other menin the hamlet whose names had passed into diminutives. There was, forexample, Seth Crocker, whose wife explained that she called him Sethie"for short." Bu
t Sethie's name was never pronounced with the sameaffectionate drawl that Willie's was.

  No, Willie had his peculiar niche in Wilton and a very sacred niche itwas.

  What marvel, therefore, that Celestina reverenced the very earth whichhe trod and cheerfully put up with the strings, the wires, the spools,the tacks, and the pulleys; that she shifted the meals about to suithis convenience; and that when she was awakened at midnight by arhythmic hammering which portended that the inventor had once again"got kitched with a new idee" she smiled indulgently in the darknessand instead of cursing the echoes that disturbed her slumber whisperedto herself Jan Eldridge's oft-repeated prediction that the day wouldcome when Willie Spence would astonish the scoffers of Wilton and wouldmake his mark.