A Girl of the Gray Sea
A Girl of the Gray Sea
BY JENNETTE LEE
THE dining-room of the "Island House" was full of soft light. It filtered through the drawn shades, and lay along the tables, with their coarse cloths and stiff, pointed napkins, with a kind of radiance, as if it fell through stained glass upon some primitive altar made ready for use. Four young girls moved in the subdued light, putting the last touches to the room, and chatting lightly or singing little snatches of song as they worked. Each girl wore a wild rose in her hair, and in the centre of the long tables stood stiff, awkward bunches of wild flowers, each bunch thrust firmly under its tumbler—hardhack, daisies, St.-John's-wort, bartsia, and heal-all. One glass held a handful of trailing yew that sprawled a little on the cloth. The girl who was arranging the table bent over and drew it in place with careful fingers. She had a pale, clear face, with eyes the color of the sea; they clouded a little as she looked up from the handful of yew.... It was later than she had thought—the others were all ready.
They stood grouped at the other end of the room, moving a little to a kind of dance tune that one of them hummed softly, striking her tray with tapping fingers to mark the time. The wild roses in their hair swayed coquettishly as they moved. They were full of unexpressed youth and vigor, as if they played some game of chance—alert to win. The girl watching them had a sudden sense of difference—a wave of loneliness that swept close to tears.
She moved swiftly to finish her table. Her face as it bent to the work had a look of service, a kind of sweetness, that relieved the commonplaceness of it as the rose in her hair had relieved the bareness of the rock that it grew beside. Her rose did not coquet like the others, and there was no music in her movements as she stumbled, hurrying a little to finish her work. She was a native girl, like the rest of them, and she had come over from "the Main" for the summer—to do table work. But for her there was no excitement in it—only painstaking care and a little wonder at the life about her. Things were not easy—something in her seemed always harking back—something half remembered and different haunted her. Her great-grandfather had been a seafaring man, and the blue of his roving was in her eyes; but the family had degenerated since then, and the grayness of their life touched her face and lay on her spirit always. But across it ran now and then a wave.... Sleeping or waking it came to her, and for a swift instant she would remember—things that had never happened to her, things that her gray, plodding life had not known.
She hurried now, fast—the bell had rung and the shades were drawn up, letting in the clear August light. A breeze blew in, and a chatter of voices filled the room. Trays came through the swinging doors—the wild roses leaned to listen, and hurried away with an air of importance. The table with the trailing yew was full, and the girl moved fast to the hurrying orders. Her face, beneath its look of care, was still; but drops of moisture came to her forehead, into the dull hair where the rose lay. The ten people eating and laughing and talking did not look up. They reached out unseeing hands and the girl filled them. The other table girls chatted a little with their orders; they tilted the roses to one side and brought special dishes to favorite guests.
But Elvia Bardwell had no thought except for service. The sea-roving had come to this—except in her dream.... He was a poet—at the lower end of the table near the old man with gray hair. But he did not look at her—except in the dream. He had eyes for no one, except in the dream. He was composing a sonnet—to the young girl at the next table—the tall, free-limbed college girl with firm muscles and good sense. She had eyes for every one, and quick sympathy; and her glance rested often on the girl carrying the heavy tray—backing against the swinging doors and disappearing—only to reappear the next moment with heavier tray and the worn, eager look of service. Sometimes when the college girl came or went she spoke to the other girl, stopping for a moment to chat with her if the room were empty ... and she went on to join the poet on the steps.
They were going up the hill now. The girl glanced impassively from the window, watching them as they disappeared over the rim of the moor. Then she carried her tray to the kitchen. The cook, bending over her stove, with fat, red face, looked up good-naturedly.
"Want to go to walk byme-by, Elvy?" she asked, lifting a kettle and carrying it to the door.
The girl set down her tray slowly. "I don't know, Ainsie. I am a little tired, I guess."
Her voice had the slow, drawling cadence of the fisherfolk—full of courtesy and indecision.
"Oh, come along. It 'll do you good." She was looking over her shoulder as she worked, surveying the girl with shrewd, kind eyes. "You got your table done?"
The girl shook her head.
"Well, you hurry and get done. I've got to wash up and change. You look all right just as you be." She looked at her approvingly.
The girl hesitated again. "I don't seem to feel just like going.—I'm tired, I guess."
Her blue eyes sought the window. They were alone in the room, and in the silence between them the sound of the bell-buoy swinging with the waves came faintly.
The cook looked at her with motherly eyes. "You go finish up," she said, kindly, "and come right along. It 'll do you good."
They climbed the hill to the lighthouse, the cook puffing and scrambling a little at the top.
The girl looked at her with sympathetic glance. "You 'll be all tired out," she said.
The cook shook her head, breathing scantily, with little puffs between. She seated herself on a broad rock and wiped her warm face. "It takes the tuck out of you!" she said good-naturedly. "But, my!—ain't it grand!" She waved her hand toward the scene below them—the small harbor, the handful of gray houses clustering about it—and beyond them the sea shining in the sun.
The girl assented absently. She had picked a thread of grass from beside the rock, and was drawing it through her fingers, her sombre, far-seeing eyes voyaging on the water.
"It's a lovely view!" said the cook, contentedly. She spread out her skirt a little on the rock. "I don't know what folks want to go traipsing all over the island for. You can't see anything anywheres that you can't see right here." She said this turning her neck on its pivot and circling the sea on every side. "I'd like to set here all day," she said.
The girl smiled a little—a slow, pale smile—like the reflection of a great laugh somewhere out of the past.
"You enjoy everything, Ainsie," she said, gently.
"Well, I like to. Everybody does. You don't take half enough comfort with things, Elvy." She looked at her affectionately.
The blue eyes had not left the water. "I guess I don't know how," said the girl, slowly. "I want to—but I don't seem to have the things I want."
"Well, I don't know what you want more'n you've got," said the woman. "It's a good place down to the House," she waved her hand. "Mis' Wood's good to the help. She ain't hard on 'em ever—we all have this time off afternoons. Of course the's rush days, when you don't get a breath through, hardly, but that's what you expect—in a hotel."
"I don't mind the hard times, nor the work," said the girl. She turned her eyes to her companion. "It's the things I don't have, Ainsie, that I mind. I seem always just coming to 'em somehow—" Her thin, work-worn fingers reached out a little, as if to touch something. They fell to her side.
From down below, the voices of children at play on the beach came to them happily.
Ainsie broke off to watch them. "Them young ones have a dreadful good time, don't they?" she said, approvingly. "Down there all day long, into the water and out again, just like ducks or gulls or anything. I dun'no's it's more'n half good for 'em." She laughed a little. "They eat enough, goodness knows!"
The girl made no reply, and in the silence the harsh cry of the sea-birds rose to their ears.
She turned her head a little to the sound.
"I like to have 'em eat," said the woman; "I like to have everybody eat—all they want to. That's the way they get their good times—eatin'—and I get mine cookin' for 'em. That's the way the world's made." She turned to the girl. "You don't seem to enjoy eatin'," she said. "You don't eat more'n a bird, anyway. Seem's if you kind of lived on air, and you don't enjoy your work, either—do you?" Her look was full of kindly rebuke.
The girl looked down, a little guiltily, as if trying to remember something that eluded her. She smoothed the spear of grass slowly on her knee. "I try to like the work," she said. "I do it as well as I can—but I don't do very well."
"Oh, you do it well enough," said Ainsie. "It's doin' and likin', I mean. The' ain't anything I enjoy better than to cook a meal of victuals and have it all et up—all of it, every bit. I don't want any messes left over to fuss along with. I never was any great hand for leftovers," she said, slowly. "When a thing's et it's et. Some folks are always puttering along with 'em. They'll fry what's left to-day, and make hash of it to-morrow, and a salad the next day, like enough, and so on, till you can't hardly tell what you started with. But I want it all et up and start fresh." She had turned her head a little.
A young man and woman were coming down the path to the right—the young woman looked back as they passed and smiled, waving her hand.
"That's Miss Millekin," said the cook, contentedly. "She's a nice lady. You know her, don't you?"
"She comes into the kitchen for things, and she's always laughing and talking. She's the kind it does you good to have round." She glanced at the sky. "Seems to me they're comin' back pretty early."
"They are going down to the beach," said the girl.
"So they be," said the woman.
They watched them going down the path, stopping to speak with some young girls who were coming up. The young man had taken off his hat, and his fair hair glistened in the sun.
The girl on the rock above watched it, her lips half parted.
The groups separated, and the two went leisurely down, laughing and talking. The young man did not replace the hat; he was carrying it in his hand, his face turned toward her—he was talking with light, courteous gesture. Suddenly he stumbled a little on the rocky path, and caught himself with a little spring, replacing the hat.
The girl above leaned back with a quick sigh.
The cook's eyes were fixed on the pair below. "You know who that is with her?" she asked.
"His name is Partridge—George R. Partridge," said the girl, slowly. "He sits at my table. I've seen his name on letters. He is nice, too," she added, after a little, half shyly.
"Is he?" said the cook, indifferently. "That sleepy kind's dreadful particular—I've known 'em to be—sometimes."
"Yes, he's particular," admitted the girl—but not as if it were a fault.
They watched the two cross the beach and pull in a dory.
"They're going out," she said.
The young man seated himself in the stern and the girl took up the oars.
"She's going to row him!" said the cook. "Now, if that don't beat all!" She leaned forward. "Just look at her!"
The girl pulled with strong, vigorous strokes, and the young man leaned back watching her dreamily.
"She likes to row," said the girl on the rock. "She's told me so." She spoke a little defensively.
"Like enough," said the cook. "But it looks kind o' funny. Just look at them tern, will you!—How they act!" The birds rose—a flutter of wings that beat the light and darted in swift flight and pursuit.
The young man and girl in the boat had turned a little to look at them.
"They're just crazy hungry," said the woman, watching them swirl at the water. "They always act like that—half starved!"
"Ainsie," said the girl. She spoke with a swift breath. "Did anybody ever take off their hat to you?"
"Why, I don't know 's they ever did," said the woman. She turned a puzzled glance on her. "I can't remember whether they did or not. I wouldn't be noticin', likely enough, if they did."
A quick breath escaped the parted lips. "Nobody ever did to me," she said. "I'd 'a' noticed."
"Well, it don't make no odds either way," said the cook. "It's just an idea."
"Yes." She breathed the word softly. "But I should like it."
"The fog's comin' in," said the cook. She moved her arm to the left, where a soft mass of gray spread itself on the water.
The girl's eyes sought the boat.
"They won't take no hurt," said the cook. "They'll just row round the harbor. She's been here years enough to know how things act—days like this. I'll have to be gettin' back," she added, rising ponderously from the rock. "The fog always drives 'em in early—and crazy for supper. Other nights you can ring and ring for 'em and you won't get 'em in—not till it's pitch dark. You have to cook hard when it fogs like this." She stood looking about her—toward the approaching fog and the sunlit water to the west. "The's suthin' about a fog that makes you want to be indoors," she said—"most folks. And it comes in fast. It 'll be all over the island in five minutes."
They went down the rocky path together, the heavy figure hurrying ahead. At the foot the girl lingered a little. The cook looked back.
"I don't need to hurry, Ainsie," said the girl. "I think I'll stop a little, and watch the children on the beach."
The cook nodded good-naturedly. "Well, don't be late. Mis' Wood won't want you late, you know."
"No—I'll come—pretty soon." She watched the cook hurry away to meet the fog. It swallowed the hurrying figure and came nearer, drifting along the beach. The girl stood with clasped hands, looking into it, her blue eyes deadened to its tone.
The children ran past her, leaping and shouting. They emerged out of the grayness with soft touch, and vanished into it again. Across the harbor the fog-horn sounded its note—a long gray sound that neither rose nor fell; the voice of the fog—without question or answer—out of the eternal gray.
The girl's head drooped a little. Across the water, through the fog, she heard the faint click of oar-locks rise and fall with even beat.
The cook was bending over the fire with anxious, bustling face—things were almost done, and the bell would ring soon. The swinging door parted, and a table girl appeared in it with a crimson flower in her hand.
"We're going to wear these to-night," she said. "Aren't they pretty!"
The cook cast a fleeting, tolerant glance at the flower and returned to her pots.
The girl passed to the small mirror by the sink and tucked the flower in her hair, turning her head to catch the light on it. "Where's Elvia?" she said. "I've got one for her, too." She gave the flower in her hair a little pat.
"She's coming," said the cook. "She stopped down to the beach."
"She'll be late," said the girl, smiling at the image in the glass and taking up her tray.
The woman made no reply. She opened the oven door and peered in with set face. Then she reached out for a fork behind her.
A small boy had come in noiselessly. He dodged the great arm as it swung past him. "Do get out o' my way, Hennie!" she said, sharply. "You know I can't have young ones in here!"
The boy drew back. "Elvia Bardwell's drownded," he said,—"down to the beach."
The woman turned on him. She seized him by the shoulders and shook him fiercely. "You stop sayin' that, Hennie Bell!" she gasped. "Hain't I got all I can 'tend to without your lyin'!"
The boy drew back farther, whimpering a little. His air of importance had collapsed. "She is drownded," he said, sullenly.
The girl with the tray came forward. "What do you mean?" Her empty, pretty face had grown white.
He looked at her, half defiant, digging his bare toes in the floor. "She got drownded," he said, "on to the beach. She was under ten minutes—and they can't bring her to. They've rolled her and done everything." His voice grew important again. "They want some dry things—and brandy."
The cook started toward the door.... Her eye fell on her stove and she halted. "I can't go!" she moaned. "They'd eat if their mother was dyin'"—with a gesture toward the dining-room. She seized a stew-pan and turned it fiercely in its place. "You go find Mis' Wood. She's in the office. Get her quick, Hennie!" She thrust her hand across her eyes, and drew a quick, sobbing breath as she bent to her work.
The boy's noiseless feet fled.
The supper bell sounded its harsh, happy clang, and the cook lifted the steaming kettle and placed it one side.
The trays came through the swinging doors, and the tragedy came with them—bit by bit.... "Little Jo Sterling—Sanford's boy. He went under—and the children hollered and ran—and she waded right out to him.... No, she couldn't swim. She got him, yes—'twa'n't over her head. She threw him back.... No, not the middle of the beach—farther up, along by the Point—where the big rock shelves off, you know.... She turned to come back—and then she threw her arms up high and just cried, "Oh!—oh!' and went down, just like that.... They said she didn't come up—she must have—yes—but they didn't know—children. They just run and screamed and took on, and nobody came.... They wa'n't a soul on the beach, up or down—except those children running back and forth—and thick fog.... It was Miss Millekin's boat. She see in a minute—and clove off the bow like a boy—brought her up.... Strong—yes. They've took her to the new house—Craft's Cottage—that little house up the Point.... Mis' Wood's gone down."
They brought the news little by little, with shaking hands.... She had been close to them, alive and well, and now she was out there in the fog. They kept close together, repeating the news that filtered through.
When the door opened they looked up with startled faces, as if she might appear to them. But it was a tall, fair woman with worn face and reddened eyes who came in. Her face worked harshly as she closed the door and came toward them. They crowded round her. "Didn't she come to?"
She shook her head. "They did everything," she said.
Then they broke down, in the kitchen, and cried. The sound of their sobs was pitiful—like helpless things.
The woman looked at them with deep, gaunt eyes.... "It's hard all round," she said. Her voice had a lulling cadence like the sea. "It's hard for everybody.... She was a lovely girl...."
"Oh, she was—she was!" The sobs hushed.
"And nobody here—none of her own were here." She paused, her face full of trouble. "If the house wa'n't full—" she said, slowly. "Everything is full. We are going to put her in the church."
They drew apart with startled eyes. "Not there—alone! Poor child!"
"You can put her in my room!" It was the cook's voice—high and shrill. "You can put her in with me. She never took no room—alive or dead. She was a little thing." The shrill voice broke.
"Be quiet, Ainsie!" The woman crossed to her.... "We all feel just the same. But you know how it is—some of the boarders 'most sick now—and nervous.... It wouldn't be right."
"I know," sobbed the cook.... "I know it." She wiped her eyes fiercely. "But she never had things—and now they ain't even a place to put her."
"They've got her dressed," said the woman. " They're bringing her down. We are going to have a little service in the church to-night, and then in the morning early they will take her home. That's what I hurried ahead to tell you. Come."
They passed out of the door, peering into the fog. It had lightened now, and the twilight lay half veiled in it.
Across the harbor, far up the winding road, a cottage stood among the trees, and from a single window a light shone. They fixed their eyes on it.
Her bier was a ladder draped with spruce boughs—a slender bed for the slight form—and those who bore it walked with careful step out from the low woods, across the rock-strewn path, and down the winding road. The night was hushed in the dusk—only the sound of little waves that lapped the sand and drew back, whispering. Everywhere the veil of half-transparent mist and the low sound of the sea and the bell-buoy ringing—forever. The feet of the young men made no sound upon the sand-built road. They walked with gentle tread as if a queen went to her rest. They would not break this new, first sleep. They could not measure the ache in their hearts—strong men—for something gone—hurt, bruised. They bore her tenderly, and the quiet face, uncovered to the night, held a smile—like the night itself—half gray and veiled in mist.... The little work-worn hands did not reach out. They were folded on her breast as if they pressed a secret; and as the slender bier passed on, shadows came from the mist on either side and joined the train—men with tear-wet eyes and uncovered heads and women holding little children by the hand.... So short a life—cut swift in two—the mystery and the pain ... and the bell-buoy swinging out at sea.... Slowly the little procession passed down the winding road, carrying her—at rest.... They could not tell her now. They had not known until the hand had touched their eyes. But the little face did not need them. They looked at it with gentle awe and drew away on either side as it passed, and followed it down the winding road to the church.
With the first light they carried her to the beach and rowed her to the narrow, pointed boat that waited to take her home. It rocked a little as they lowered her gently. Over her they placed a bit of sailcloth half raised above the gunwale, and a little breeze touched her face, stirring the dull hair softly. The steersman moved to his place—the rowers in the dory drew away, lifting their hats and waiting with suspended oars. On the rocks by the shore a poet stood with uncovered head.
From her window, high in the hotel, a young girl looked out upon the morning.
The steersman turned the wheel and the faint chuff-chuff of the motor broke the silence. A gull swerved in flight and drew near, hanging on great wings. The man at the wheel, standing with outstretched hand and fixed gaze, looked intently to the west. Behind him the sea, touched by the first sun, grew radiant, as if a million crimson blossoms lay oil it. The chuff-chuff of the engine struck on the cliff again and grew faint and fainter and died on the wide sea.