The surge of the sea at flood; a night of black despair—and dawn triumphant
MARTHA DANCY started up from her chair, stirred to some instinctive fear. The heavy rain of days had leaped suddenly into a lancing fury.
It roared up on the kitchen roof, it lashed the roiled earth and tore in rivulets down the hill into a fast rising lake on the Flats. Every window of the house, built high on the Mound, looked out upon flooded fields. Where would it end. this rain, this flood?
She hurried to the south window. Never had she seen the water so high. The sombre sheen of its silver islanded the Mound. And closer, closer, like veilings of brooding pain, crept in the wall of rain-mist. Could there be danger of a sea-flood? Southward, a league beyond the rainmist. ran the river, freshet-full. But for years it had beat in vain against the dykes that guarded the rich low Flats. And far to the west, where the river poured its bubbling heart into the Gulf of Georgia, ocean tides challenged the flood-gates chained like watch-dogs at the narrow mouth. Reassured, she turned away.
The ring of a hammer in the barn sent a tingle of restlessness through her. She moved about the kitchen, but its shining neatness defied her hovering, useless care. The polished range shone against the clean pine floor, the white window curtains hung crisp and smooth, the neat rows of dishes shone through the glass door of the kitchen cabinet. Everything was done, the house in perfect order. Nothing to do but knit.
She sat down by the stove and picked up a half-finished sweater. There flashed through her a sudden hatred for the soft blue wool, a fierce longing for some real work, something so hard and gruelling as to make her forget all else. She began to knit furiously. The loose sleeve of her blue gingham flapped annoyingly about her forearm. She checked an irritated impulse to roll it up. The dress looked well on her. It softened her strong blondness, brought out the heavy gold of her hair. And years ago she had hated blue! Now she wore it as a warrior wears his weapons.
The door burst open. Jeff Dancy rushed in, a swirl of rain dripping from his black gum coat and sou’wester. Martha gave a little start.
His sudden presence was as a shaft driven straight into her heart. He looked so fresh and strong with the moisture clinging to his black ruffled hair, glistening on his tanned face.
‘Til wipe it up, Martha,” he protested, glancing apologetically at the wet floor, but she went swiftly toward him, and taking the hat and coat, hung them up so that they would drip into the sink. She bent quickly to wipe up the floor. Her cheeks were burning, her hands trembling. Absurd! Her own husband! In rare moments he was the the man she had fallen in love with. That irresistible mingling of gentleness and vital sporting qualities . . .
“Finish mending the barn?” she asked, grasping at some pretext for holding his attention.
“Finish!” he echoed. “No. I fixed the worst holes in the roof. But the walls ...”
"Too bad you waited till it rained,” she returned.
"Well, who knew it was going to rain like this?” demanded Jeff. “I’ve been busy all fall.”
Martha went back to her chair. Furtively she watched his lean, straight figure cross the room to the south window. She hated his very tread, eager, expectant, the throbbing expectancy of youth! She knew the dumb longing that drew him to the south window, that held him there for moody, wistful hours. Just this side of the river stood Green Ridge, a rise of ground similar to the Mound, and there Celia Day lived. Celia Day, who æemed destined to stand forever between Martha and happiness! A hot wave of jealousy flashed through her. 'Have you fed the stock?” she asked aggressively.
Jeff nodded. She noted, with the precise knowledge bom of suspicious watching, the familiar sagging of his shoulders, the wistful abstraction that settled like a weight upon him. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t, endure it any longer! Didn’t he suppose that she knew?
“Don’t think the cattle’ll be able to weather this in that old bam,” she burst forth. “If only you’d been more careful about lights our new bam mightn’t have burned down ...”
She stopped in bitter futility. Jeff had not even turned his head. His intent, brooding poise lighted a fury within her.
“Needn’t stand there looking off at Green Ridge! Can’t see anything but rain. If this keeps on the Ridge’ll be under water?” she flung at him vindictively.
The startled lift of his dark eyes convicted him. In their brown and gold depths his secret lay stripped and naked. This was the first time that she had mentioned Green Ridge during the two years that Celia had lived there. A flush swept Jeff’s tanned face, receded, leaving it white and set. His glance dropped, stared again through the leaden window. Martha’s hands shut. Not even the feeblest attempt to deny her imputations! But he was hurt. He had winced as though she had lashed him! Well, let him know what it was to suffer too!
Her quivering fingers jerked at the blue yarn. That look in Jeff’s eyes haunted her, maddened her! The confirmation of a long acute suspicion carries a deadly conviction. Before, she had had the easement of a doubt, a reprieve. But now . . . what if she had merely precipitated a solution? Her anger cooled in fresh dread.
The set of Jeff’s shoulders, the stony way he stared out into the rain, filled her with forebodings. But presently ne took a small mouth organ from his pocket and began to play. She listened jealously. The old-time air ran in wistful, silvery treble against the crescendo of the storm. Suddenly her throat was tight with sobs. A caged singing bird, its longing for the things it could never have!
Her eyes swam with tears. If only Celia’s husband hadn’t died two years ago, if only she had had some other place than Green Ridge to go to! Little helpless thing, with her blue dresses and fluffy gold hair! With a surge of self-scorning Martha thrust the blue sweater from her. And she had tried to compete with Celia! Why, she was as strong as Celia was helpless!
A BOAT moved across the flooded fields toward the Mound. Ivan, the old fish-peddler. He came up the path stooping under his basket. From beneath a gum hat his face peered, so old and withered one could not have told either his age or his nationality.
“Fish?” he queried toothlessly, as Martha opened the door.
She beckoned him inside. Old Ivan’s strange tales and weird reminiscences had still, for Martha, the thrill of elfin fancies that had colored a solitary childhood.
“Well, how is the flood?” she asked.
The old man pursed his wrinkles prophetically, shook his head:
“Full forty year ago it was,” he quavered, “last time the big flood came. This Mound an island, salt water waves abeatin’ an’ apoundin’ her! Out there gulls screamin’ an’ dippin’! The Ridge—it was only a speck. An’ the river! ’Twas then they built the dykes. But tonight it’s full tide, round midnight. There’s no tellin’ what the river’ll do. She’s full to the top now, full!” He lowered his voice to a rusty whisper. “The sea—she’s been fightin’ to get back ever sence they shut her out. An’ when it comes to a showdown Nature’ll have her way somehow, somehow!”
Fumblingly, he opened his basket and took out a silvery-scaled fish. Fingering his change he went out into the hammering rain. Martha’s thoughts went leaping back to childhood. Old Ivan had told her many times of the big flood. And of days further back than that he had told— Indian legends, stories so old and dim they were only myths.
Below the barn, on a slope of the Mound, he had shown her the ancient wave-marks on the rocks where centuries ago the sea used to beat and boom, where the sea-gulls spread their ivory wings, and screamed and dipped above the crested waves. The sea would come back, he had warned her, and the gulls, too. There would be sorrow, trouble! She had smiled in childish trust. She was not afraid. She would spread her wings and fly with the sea-gulls, out, out to the wide, wide sea.
The dream had grown dim with the years, like the burned out lights in old Ivan’s eyes. To-day details, old memories, came vividly back.
Martha roused from her abstraction. Jeff was rustling into his gum coat.
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“Out a while,” was the brief retort.
The door closed upon him, upon her sharp admonitions. She hurried to the window. He stood in the rain talking to old Ivan. Pointing, gesticulating, the old man went on to his boat. Jeff got into his own boat and rowed swiftly over the flooded fields. Martha watched him in a panic of conjecture. Was he—would he dare go to Green Ridge? Perhaps after what she had said . . . Yet he had never gone there, she felt almost certain. But what madness could have driven him out into such a storm? That look of guilt, of suffering in his eyes came back a searing memory. She started for the door. But already the rainmists had hidden him. White and trembling, she sank into a chair.
The truth faced her pitilessly. Jeff loved Celia, he loved her still, even though he had been her—Martha’s —husband for ten years! Had it beep worth it, her triumph of ten years ago. when she had clung to Jeff, to his promise that he would marry her, even though she
knew he had fallen in love with Celia? Suppose she had given him up in that slender margin of time before their marriage. Her father had begged her to, assuring her that she could never be happy.
COULD it be ten years since that magic spring-time that lay like a lovely dream among her sombre memories? She had urged her father to have the Flats measured into new fields. With the surveyors had come Jeff. She could see him yet, whistling up the path to the kitchen door. The gay charm of his greeting had stirred her like a strain of music. With a vague shame she had hidden her rough hands, had stood shrinking in her limp black dress. Then she had forgotten all about them, forgotten everything in the buoyant brightness vibrating within her.
At first she had argued with herself that it was just the spring, shimmering and dancing in radiant wild bloom. But when, before, had she noticed how the wild roses and magenta hardhack hid the harsh old fences? Nor how the meadows rippled with the gold of buttercups and the flame of sorrel? Had there ever been such twilights, soft, sweet with wild odors of loam and young grass? Ah, that had been a spring, brief and fragrant and lovely'
And suddenly the surveying was finished; Jeff was going away. That last evening as they stood in the willow grove. She had no clear memory of what had been said, only that she was wild, wild at the thought of his going. The Mound without his gay whistle, his ringing laughter. She had burst into tears, had sobbed out some incoherent words. And then she was lifted into a melting, surging warmth. He loved her, he was whispering, her, Martha Hildreth, who had never even thought of love!
The vivid, sharp memory of that evening. Night folding them in blueblack mystery, the stars blossoming above them like flowers of gold! The wedding must be soon, Jeff had urged, just as soon as he had finished his contract with the surveyors.
But the contract proved troublesome. It stretched over long months that took Jeff into lonesome back settlements. Somewhere there he had met Celia. Absorbed in her wedding preparations, Martha began to hear rumors, exaggerated, colored by malice. Openly she had flouted the idea; secretly she had suffered. When • Jeff had come to her, hesitant, wistful, she had told him
that everything was ready, that they could be married on the date first set. Give him up? As well shut the sunlight out of her life. A desperate hope that the rumors were all false grew and strengthened with his silence.
But her days became a torture of uncertainty. She lay through sleepless nights, terror-stricken at the thought of waking to hear that Jeff had married Celia. There were times when she had felt she would go insane! And then, in a revulsion of relief and joy, came the news that Celia had been married to an elderly farmer. She was only nineteen, and her parents had prevailed upon her to accept a good provider.
Months after, Martha and Jeff were married. The Mound had been gay that day. Curious neighbours, who had carried to Martha the gossip, now came to the wedding with presents and congratulations, and sat through the festivities with watchful, calculating eyes. The Mound would be Martha’s some day. Jeff knew what he was about, they hinted covertly.
During the days that followed Martha had felt the flame of her triumph transmuted into a slow, self-consuming fire. The thought of Celia hovered, a wall of restraint, between her and Jeff. He had thrown himself into the farm work, pleading ignorance as an excuse for his absorption. Martha hungered to work with him, to help him. But her father, who had begun to show signs of failing health, had counselled her:
“Don’t try to do it all, my girl. Leave the outside to Jeff. That’s what he needs—responsibility.’’
She had left the outside to Jeff, chiefly because she knew he admired the rather helpless type of woman. Jeff farmed spasmodically. For weeks he would work with vehement energy, long hours when he came to the house only to eat and sleep. There followed usually a period of irresponsibility. He would go away in the boat down the river, hunting, fishing. Martha defended him proudly, resenting the least hint of criticism. But the dragging years left a sense of futility, of defeat.
The sudden death of her father had cut, a real crisis, into the wearing uncertainty of her life. Jeff had been so tenderly kind during the first sharp grief and loneliness. There had been something humble in his attitude toward her, as though mutely pleading forgiveness for the past. All the old love had flamed to a new intensity within Martha. She had no one else now, she needed his
love. Surely God would give her this one thing . . .
Even while life seemed to be settling back into the old dreaded grooves she had felt, with trembling hope, the growth of a subtle difference in Jeff. He worked more steadily, he began to take an interest in community affairs. The spring came back to her step.
One lovely spring day two years ago, a neighbor, calling, had turned the conversation abruptly to Celia. It seemed her marriage hadn’t turned out so well after all. There had been losses, heavy losses, then her husband had died, and here she was left to earn her own living. Yes, indeed. Why, hadn’t Martha heard that Celia was at Green Ridge keeping house for an uncle? A pity. So young looking, quite pretty . . .
Martha had felt that the thing she dreaded most had come to pass. Again the neighbors gossiped and surmised. Celia a widow and living just across the Flats from the Mound! Martha had gone her proud, quiet way, but suspicion tinged her very thoughts. Every word, every act of Jeff’s seemed fraught with some significance. The old barrier of restraint rose between them again. More and more she withdrew into herself, dreading the calls of neighbors with their casual hints that pierced her like barbed shafts, that drove her to watch and spy. But so far as she knew Jeff had never been at Green Ridge. And yet the mute yearning that drew him to the south window hurt more than the most flagrant wrongdoing! And now, to-night . . . How would it end? she asked herself with a little shiver, as she stared about the old familiar room.
rT"'HE beat of rain on the roof had softened. The drops grew finer, blurred into mist. Gradually the storm within Martha subsided into the old unrest. It was growing dark. Jeff ought to be home. Perhaps he had gone straight to the barn as he often did after a day’s hunting. She rose and began to prepare supper. Deftly she cleaned the fish, placed it in a shining bake-pan, and pushed it into the oven. A dish of scalloped potatoes went in beside the fish. This was the supper Jeff liked.
She spread the table with a crisp white cloth and took down the neat white dishes. The homely routine brought a sense of stability, of security. The precise daintiness of the supper table, with its lighted frosted cake and bowl
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öf strawberry jam, gave an added reassurance. She picked up her knitting and sat down to wait.
The clock ceased its ticking for brief moments of chiming. She glanced up, startled. Jeff had never been so late. She went swiftly to the door. The lamplight from within fell upon ashy darkness. The rain had blurred to a heavy mist. How still it was, as though shadowy dangers hovered near. Could something have happened to Jeff? In a surge of terror she called into the night. The muffling grayness drove her voice back into her throat. She fought down the strangling fear, flung his name again and again against that mask of darkness. Panting she leaned against the door.
Reason flowed back, steadied the tumult of her thoughts. The water on the flooded fields was shallow. He was warmly dressed. He knew the Flats thoroughly. She closed the door. But with the calming of her fears old doubts, suspicions, crowded upon her. Suppose he had left her! Suppose he had gone to Green Ridge?
Her glance darted to his old coat hung behind the stove. She moved toward it, laid her hands on its rough folds. She bowed her head upon it and wept.
The muffled stamping of hoofs in the barn recalled her at last. She dried her eyes, ashamed of her weakness. Crying uselessly while her stock needed her! She must take the lantern and see what was wrong.
In the doorway she stopped, alert with a prickling fear. Wraithlike shapes danced in the ring of light, slipped back into the density of the fog.
She lifted the lantern. A bird with wide bill and spread wings struck sharply against her breast and went floundering into the night. The odor of sea-spaces lingered. It saturated the fog. The tang, the brine, were strong in her mouth, in her nostrils. Ah, it was midnight. Full tide! There were always sea-odors then. Jeff! Where was Jeff? Her voice died stranglingly.
The thud of stamping hoofs came insistently through the night. Holding the lantern low she followed the path to the barn. As she opened the door of the cattleshed an uneasy stir, a turning of horned heads, greeted her. The cattle hnddled in their stalls. The fog, the cold, came in through cracks in the wall.
Her eyes fell upon hammer and nails lying beside a pile of boards. Jeff had worked here all day. Her throat tightened as she bent and touched a piece of scantling. Its roughness met her soft palm like the clasp of an old friend. Her hands clenched the board, crushed the thorny splinters into her flesh. The pain of it seemed to ease the suffering that lay deep, deep within her breast. If she could only do something, anything, but sit alone with those chill, eating thoughts. With a flare of desperation she swung the board up, laid it against a ragged chink. Stooping, she snatched up hammer and nails. She drove the first nail in with trembling bravado. The sound of her hammer blows clanked and rang through the night. It gave her courage, drove out the nameless fears that assailed her.
After that she scarcely lifted her eyesEach ugly crack challenged her fierce energy. The fog became a living enemy, creeping into trail chill, ghostly fingers in the gloom of the stalls. She would shut it out, keep it out, fight for these poor shivering beasts.
Her hand steadied, swung triumphantly into its old-time skill. Half forgotten plans took shape in the fire of her brain, the plans that she and her father had made long ago.
Down the long wall she moved, lifting a rough step-ladder, tugging and dragging at the boards. The cattle had quieted.
She could hear them munching at their heaps of hay. When she had covered the last chink she stopped with a warning stagger of fatigue. She must have been a long time at work. Already a grayness framed the cobwebbed windows. A sob of relief and thankfulness broke from her. The night had passed.
OUTSIDE, the fog was thinning. A wind whipped her skirts about her as she hurried up the path. The end of the house gloomed through the fog.
She opened the kitchen door and stood still in a great lift of joy. Jeff was there, standing by the stove. All else was forgotten, was swept away. But the cry of gladness froze on her lips. He was not alone. A woman huddled in the rockingchair, shivering, crying hysterically. Celia! Martha would have known it if only by the way Jeff hung over her. His halfcrooning, half-endearing solicitations brought a note into his voice that Martha felt she, herself, had never heard, no, not even before they were married. She was alone again, alone in a blacker night! The pang of jealousy passed, submerged in a wondrous gladness that he was safe. “So—you’ve come back,” she choked. They glanced up at her without seeming to see her. She was struck by the intense life that looked out of their weary, beaten faces. Fear grew in Celia’s eyes. She shrank toward Jeff. He covered her hands with his large protecting clasp. Martha’s bruised fingers locked. As from a great distance she heard Jeff’s voice:
“ ’Twas your hammering that saved us Martha. Last night when I saw the river I was afraid of the Ridge. Old Ivan told me that Celia was alone. So . . . Martha I went there, started to take her in my boat to the village. But it caught us— first the fog, then the flood. When the dyke broke the first wave swept us—our boat—like a leaf ...”
A shuddering cry broke from Celia. She clung shivering to Jeff, hiding her eyes as though to shut out the horror. For the moment it seemed to Martha that her own thought must kill all life in the room. Some sound must have broken from her, for she heard Jeff’s voice, strained, husky:
“Martha,” he was pleading, “you don’t—you can’t understand—what she’s suffered. ’Twas that dark we could hardly see each other. I felt it coming— coming in the dark. The first floodwave flung us, whirled us, farther, farther . . . I felt the branches of trees strike my face! Think of it—going from nowhere into nowhere! I could hear a roaring—things choking, dying . . .’Twas a miracle—a miracle from God that we were saved. And after, when the water was quiet, we drifted a long time—’twas your hammering that saved us at last, Martha,” he repeated, his eyes filming. “I was rowing the other way—into the currents and eddies ...”
Celia’s voice broke in stridently, calling to Jeff that he must save her, save her! She wrung her small hands, she cried out against all the terrors of the night. Jeff’s hand shook as it strayed over her hair with a futile gesture of comfort. Martha listened, dizzy with the conflict of emotions. The full meaning of what had happened rushed upon her.
The terrified tension ¿f Celia’s eyes brought a sense of immediate need. The age-old instinct of service pointed the way to Martha. She bent over Celia, speaking soothingly as to a terrified child:
“Come with me. You are cold and tired. There is a nice warm bed ...” She had darting thoughts across the dimness—Jeff’s tired eyes staring at her as she gently disengaged Celia’s clinging fingers from his coat, of tucking the small shivering form into her own white bed, of a a drift of golden hair upon the pillow . . . When the heavy eyes had closed in sleep
she drew the shade and went back to the kitchen?
TEFF sat on a chair, his head thrown J back, his eyes closed. She seated herself softly and waited, perhaps with some dim idea that he might rouse and need her. Silence hung, palpitant, tense, but to Martha the room seemed crowded by an inner drama, a drama that must soon come crashing to its close. What did the next hour hold for her, for them?
Suddenly she was shaken by a vibration that passed from head to foot. Jeff had risen, was coming toward her. His footsteps had a hollow, far off sound. They faltered beside her chair, she felt he was struggling for speech. She waited, rigid, cold, during that last moment of suspense.
The old love-name, the name she had not heard since that magic spring of long ago, broke from him like a yearning cry. She had a confused feeling that he was calling to her from out the terror of the night. But he was kneeling beside her, his arms about her, the ruff of his hair upon her cheek. The tremor of his overwrought nerves shook her, thrilled and irradiated her like the roll of wild music. Words rushed from him, broken, incoherent:
“God bless you Martha—bless you! I know I’ve been in the wrong! You’d do right to cast me off! For I’ve no more claim on your love than—than . . . Only —last night, when there seemed nothing but death for us—I found myself calling you, calling your name! Martha, there’s something in every one of us—no matter how weak and wicked we’ve been—we turn at the last to the things we love and believe in! Me—I seemed to see into my own heart! ’Twas like finding my way through the dark—back to you—to faith—and light ...”
The broken words ran on, but for Martha every other feeling was lost in the blinding revelation of the moment—that Jeff had come back to her! Her hands came up to the heaving shoulders, her heart seemed to burst with the single word, “Jeff!”
Speech was choked in a well of feeling. Words could not have carried the message vibrating between them. Time itself seemed to hover over them, holding the vivid moments. To Martha life had become a keen consciousness so filled with joy there was no room for doubt or pain. The fullness of it sang within her, a song that had in it some strange elfin harmony that had haunted her childish dreams. The reality grew upon her. From afar off she heard it, growing stronger, clearer, deepening to a tremulous clamor and rush of life. As though Jeff heard it too, he stirred. They moved apart, turned with one impulse toward the door.
Jeff flung it open. In the breath of the rough salt wind they stood transfixed! The fog was rising like the lifting of an apocalyptic veil! Beneath it a winddriven sea with its race and ripple of foam, its crested waves that dashed in frothing fury against the Mound! Martha leaned forward, scarce breathing. The white waves beat and boomed along the ancient wavemarks on the weathered rocks. The sea! The sea had come back!
She lifted her face to the sky. The fog was alive with beating wings, with wild piercing cries. Clouds and spirals of white-winged gulls, wheeling, screaming —the spirits incarnate of the triumphant sea!
Llartha stood rigid, feeling the tremblings, the vibrant warnings, of a world half-made! She moved instinctively toward Jeff. His arm encircled her. Above them the beat and whir of wings swelled to a mighty rhythm, louder, stronger! With the old childish gesture she held out her arms to the sea-gulls flashing their ivory wings, wheeling, screaming in the madness of their victory. For in that divine moment she was flying with them soaring white-winged, triumphant, high, high into the clean wild spaces.