A tale of two loves and the man between
B. W. AMHERST
BEN CADER stared at the money as if he couldn’t believe it. Forty-eight dollars and fifty cents, all extra to his wages. It hardly seemed real to get such pay at Long Harbor, Newfoundland.
"I thought you knew they were givin' a bonus this spring." A thick-set man beside him stopped thumbing a roll of bills and glanced back at the pulp mill pay office. “I’ve got sixty-nine dollars even, an’ you would have had the same only you went home a week in March.”
"I had to go." Ben stowed his money carefully in a flap pocket of his thick shirt. "Sally was bothered about the baby havin’ a small fever.” He stood awhile, thinking, then scowled. "I would have had sixty-nine dollars, too,” he muttered, "an’ it were nothin’ the baby showed.”
"That,” said the burly man in great g(xxi humor, “is what comes of marryin’. Me, I’m steady all the time, and now I’ve money to go to Boston. They pay big wages down in the States, and there’s fun and girls plenty, they say. I’m goin’ down along on Tuesday.”
Ben walked away, his pulses pounding. He hated the fellow for talking of Boston, far places, big money, girls, fun. Years ago he had the same dreams, and had never realized them. This chap would. Angrily, without looking behind him, Ben trudged down to the wharf and there paid out three dollars of his hard-earned money for passage to his home at Bell Tickle.
There were two young men on board who were going to St. John’s, and they chattered incessantly. Ben could not avoid listening to them, and his veins heated again as he heard them discussing the adventure they would have in the States. One had a cousin living near New York, and the cousin had promised to find them a job. They painted a rosy future that made Ben seethe mentally until he perspired. Why had he been such a fool as to marry young?
It grew chilly at sundown, and the young men cursed the cold. One tore open a cheap suitcase and from it produced a bottle. He drank noisily, then passed the liquor to his chum.
Ben refused a drink. It was not so much that he disliked straight whisky as that he didn’t want Sally to have a chance to get her tongue going first thing—and she would if
she smelled liquor. So he abstained, and comforted himself by patting the roll in his shirt pocket. The forty-eight extra dollars should make her good-natured for a week at least.
He turned at the hill above the wharf
and counted the fishing boats. Only he had landed at Bell Tickle, and there was no one within hail to tell him who were away. Never had he owned a boat, but he knew every dory and all the bigger craft along the shore. He counted twice before he went on, and muttered to himself. No other man was away from the Tickle. He alone had missed the first good months of spring, had stayed longest at the mill.
He wondered if fish were “goin’.” The sea had drawn him, tugged at him, all the years he had known; and never had he shipped for a cruise or gone “to the ice” with the sealers.
C ALLY was the principal reason he had not. Fate had ^ made him the youngest in a family of boys, had caused him to do a girl’s work about the house and attend an ailing mother until she died. Then Sally had met him and netted him like a cod. He spat on the hill gravel as he thought of how pretty she had been when he first knew her—darkeyed, rosy, dimpled, pleasingly plump, bewitching. There was nothing he would not have promised her.
Sally, however, had asked only one thing. “Say you’ll keep off the water. Ben.” she had said, her cheek against his, “an’ that’s all the bargain I’m wantin’. I’ve lost my father and my two brothers at sea, an’ I won’t marry till you say you won’t go.” He had promised eagerly. What else mattered if he had Sally for a wife?
Then had come, in the second year, their first pinch of hard times, and he had argued with her. He liad had an offer of a share in fishing gear and a boat, and they sorely needed the wages.
“You promised you wouldn’t,” objected Sally, and she was deaf to all he could say.
He tried once again, when he had a chance to buy a boat from his brother, but Sally was as unchanged as ever. It was the beginning of small bickerings, and his realization that he had married a shrew'. There had been a year of hard days and then the pulp mills had come, with plenty of work.
If only he hadn’t married. He thought, as he follow'ed the hill path, of the young men on their way to sure jobs near New York. What luck! He could have had the same chances. He knew he could w'ork at anything alongside any man, for he was deft, strong, sure-footed, sw'ift-handed. And he w'anted to see life. Every man w'anted to get out of the place in which he w'as bom and have a look at the w'orld. He stepped faster as his thoughts burned.
He saw his house lights, and wondered if Sally expected him and what her attitude would be. They had wrangled about the baby’s fever when she called him home in March, and he had left her sullen. Perhaps the mood remained. He sniffed the smell of newly-turned earth as he neared his house. Sally had been digging in their garden, planting something. He tingled slightly. Tending growing things was one of his few pleasures. He stopped and peered in the gloom, and was conscious of an ache in his bones. That meant more rain. He spat at the garden and went to the house. What were green plants when one might have been going to Boston?
Ben stepped into the kitchen defiantly, ready for displeasure, but stopped short. The table was spread in "company style,” with knives and forks crossed, and Bride
Ginney, a slim, blonde girl, niece of Simon Ginney, was sitting by the stove. She came each year to Bell Tickle for a holiday.
Ben stammered awkwardly as Bride greeted him, tongue-tied at sight of her dominant allure. Sally laughed without restraint and gave Ben a goodnatured shove.
“He’s gettin’ to be a backward old one,” she jeered. “You would think he was fifty an’ had never set eyes on city clothes.”
Ben grinned, but knew his face was hot and flushed, and he wras in the end bedroom before he found that his fists were clenched. Sally’s mockery had infuriated him. He let his canvas telescope cast drop to the floor, and fumbled about the room to find a necktie. It was red and black, and he liked its appearance as he adjusted it before a small mirror.
He glanced at the children. His two boys, sturdy youngsters, were sleeping with their heads close together; and a quick pride surged within him, cooled his temper. He looked at the baby, a girl, chubby as a red apple, and her health made him remember the trip he had made in March—for nothing. He went abruptly to the kitchen.
Bride was talking smoothly—a low, inflective voice, strangely soothing in contrast to Sally’s harshness.
"Bride,” said Sally, “is goin’ to the States. No gettin’ married and this life for her.” There was grimness in Sally’s tones.
“I think,” retorted Ben, “that she’s wise. This life is no
good at ail." He said it rather vindictively.
"It’s the wimmen knows it best." returned Sally, battle glinting in her black eyes. She was putting fried fish and potatoes and tea on the table, and she moved aggressively.
Ben made no answer, but gazed at the sullen heaviness of her, the sag of her fleshy cheeks, the lumpiness of her figure. Sally had grown fat and vixenish. Her tongue had become poison.
“I’m goin’ to Boston." said Bride. “A man I know is manager of a big factory there, and he told me he could find a job for anybody.”
rT'HE sound of her voice calmed Ben. and Sally sat down without saying anything more. Ben ate hungrily, then looked up. The women were talking in an absorbed way. and he covertly studied Bride. Her skin was perfect; she had soft full lips, and long lashes, and blue eyes. Her hair was like flossed gold silk and was bobbed attractively. Sally’s black hair had become stringy, and she kept it bunched in a knot that was always slipping.
Bride’s dress was a flimsy thing, very dainty, and it clung to her so that it detailed her superb slenderness. Her beauty and slimness stirred Ben, made him acutely aware of Sally’s lumpy flesh. Then his memory teased him with a picture of the previous summer, when he had found Bride playing with his boys in a small cove out of sight of the houses. She had taken off her shoes and stockings and was wading in the shallow pools, and her legs had seemed to him as beautiful as her neck and arms. He had reddened and hurried away. Many times after, when he passed the cove, he had thought of her.
“Ben looks as if he could eat you.” Sally tossed her black head and laughed discordantly. “He’s been all eyes at you.” She let all her scorn of him into her voice, and his anger rushed back.
“It’s good to have somethin’ purty to look at,” he flared, and met Sally’s gaze as if they were matching blades. He saw her regain control with a mighty effort, and knew she did not want to make a show of herself before her guest.
“Your tongue is as tricky as ever it was,” retorted Sally in her sharpest tones, “but you’re only a joke. You couldn’t catch nobody with fine talk now.”
“I got my picture taken,” said Bride as coolly as if she were not
interrupting, “and I brought one of them for you, Sally.”
"Thanks." said Sally warmly. “It’ll be nice to have somethin' good-lookin’ about the house.”
“It'll make you remember me when I’m in Boston.” said Bride, smiling.
"I wish to glory I was goin’.” The words broke from Ben before he realized it.
“You!” mocked Sally, her laughter as brittle as glass. “You’re too old to go anywhere. He doesn’t like it told. Bride, but his birthday’s the first of April—you know what that means—and he’s thirty-four.” She said it as if he were past his prime.
Ben made no reply. He w'ent to his mackinaw and got his pipe. He wanted to smoke, to soothe his mind. The women stayed at the table, talking like girls, eagerly, confidentially. Ben, watching, scowled. Something gripped him, jeered at him. He knew all at once that he had missed much enjoyment that could have been his, that all the last months as he had sweated on the pole roads and fought black flies this lovely creature had been spending evenings at his home, chatting with Sally, joking with her, ready for any fun. If only he had got through sooner at the mill!
“I had my hand read down at St. John’s.” Bride and Sally moved from the table and joined him. “There was a professor there who’s the best there is at tellin’your fortune.”
“And what did he tell you?” Ben asked, removing his pipe. He would make the evening as pleasant as possible.
“He said I’m to be lucky,” Bride stated in her low, thrilling voice. “He told me I’d fall in love with an ambitious man who’d give me everything I want.”
“That sounds good,” said Ben, but he spoke dully. It hurt him to think of Bride being married and away.
“I didn’t swallow all that,” returned Bride pertly, “but I believe that professor is real good.”
“There’s one thing,” Sally joined in; “you’ll never find any ambitious man here.”
Ben’s cold fury returned in a flash, but he forced himself to be calm. He knew Sally was taunting him purposely.
Suddenly Bride looked at the window in mild dismay.
“Is it raining?” she asked. “And me in this dress.”
They listened, and heard a faint pattering on the roof. Sally went to the door.
“It’s black dark out,” she said, “and that means it’s a shower, but it might be a long one. It’s lucky Ben’s home.
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He can go with you and carry the umbrella, and bring back my coat. It’ll cover you to the feet.”
AS SALLY hurried into an inner room for the coat. Bride turned her head slowdy. Ben, watching her, was conscious of odd sensations, aware of a tense, vibrant atmosphere. Bride’s eyes came to his as if a long search were ended, startling him with their message, thrilling him as nothing else in life had thrilled him. It was dangerous to return her look as he did, there, with Sally so near, but he smiled and nodded toward the window, the outside. Bride understood, and flashed him a response so eager that he felt as if he had been drinking heady liquor. They both were imbued, he knew, with a daring akin to the insane desire to jump from high places.
“Will I be seein’ you again?” asked Sally as Bride was ready to go.
“Not for a long while,” answered Bride softly as they embraced.
Outside. Ben heard their parting, and wondered how women ecu Id be so treacherous with each other.
"It looks weatherish tc m.^.’ Ben knew it was an inane remark, but v.3 they started away from the house, he holding the umbrella awkwardly over Bride, he was so fevered with anticipation that he felt confused.
Bride walked slowly, leaned toward him. She seemed to slip in the soft mud and he steadied her with his arm. She snuggled to him instantly, and he tingled with adventurous joy. 11 was as i f. in the short distance, they had gone miles from all else in the world. He forgot entirely that it was raining.
“I was afraid,” Bride murmured, “that you wouldn't come home.”
“Why?” he asked, thirsting for assurance of that which he knew.
“Don’t you know?” she breathed in his ! ear.
! His arm tightened its hold. “I’ve never ! forgot,” he said in a low tone, “that day at ! the cove, and my boys patting your pink j skin. You was purtier’n a flower.”
“And I.” she responded, “was so glad ! when you came, after I saw your eyes, and I j was so hurt when you didn't stay. I —I was I loving you right then.”
"I was afraid you wouldn’t want,” he explained clumsily.
“Why, Ben.” Bride upturned her face so that it was a white blur before his own. “You’re the only real man I’ve ever met, or”—she paused effectively—“ever want to meet.”
The thought of all that he had missed through his blind misunderstanding cut Ben like a knife, filled him with a hot resentment. Fiercely he stopped her, took her in his arms.
She reached up to him from Sally’s enveloping black raincoat as sweet as an opening rose, and dizzied him with the warmth of her embrace. Her ardor stunned him, bewildered him. It was almost too much for his liking. Then she cleared his mind with her low cry.
“You can’t think how long it’s been for me, or how frightened I was you wouldn’t come.”
He released her after a time, but she held to him.
“Will you come with me?” she asked. “I’m afraid to go to Boston alone, without you. The man I know will get you a job; I’m sure he will. It must be awful for you -here.”
“I was half a mind to keep on down along tonight,” Ben explained. "It’s been bad enough with you cornin’ each summer, but if you’re goin’for keeps, why ...”
They were at her uncle’s door before Ben got a clear grasp of himself. They had made all their plans. He was to use the bonus for travelling expenses, to join Bride in the morning at Black Bay, and to write to Sally from St. John’s.
“I’ll get a job even if I am a ‘backward old one,’ ” he said as he was leaving her.
“Old!” scoffed Bride. “You’re only thirty-four, Sally said. Anyway, Ben. age don’t matter. I’m twenty-five, and I love you more because you’re older’n that. Can’t you feel it?”
“I do,” said Ben hoarsely, giving her a last kiss.
TUTE STARTED guiltily when he arrived
* within sight of his house, for Sally had put out the lights. She would be bitter because he had been gone so long.
It was easy to get in without making much
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noise, and he stood in the kitchen, pondering. Should he go at once without trying to get his clothes? The fire was still glowing in the stove and by the flickering light he saw a small paper, a note, lying on the table. It was scrawled in Sally’s loose writing. He fumbled for a match and struck a light, his hands trembling, a million thoughts whirling through his mind. Had she left him? Was everything ruined? “Ben im going over to Jorams to the dance and dont come if your tired.” He sat down, weak with reaction, perspiring. but glad with relief. He fished for his pipe in wrong pockets, found it and lighted it, then leaned back for a few reflective draw's. His brain seemed in two parts. One side pictured all the glamor of life in Boston, all the allure of life with Bride Ginney. The other side held to Sally’s probable hysterics and venom, the talk of Bell Tickle, where every move was watched and measured. Once, he remembered, one of the Neekers had deserted a w'oman, and there had been a collection taken for her, and terrible threats for the man. He started. He had turned the lamp wick low, and in the dim light he saw an ovalshaped pink and white bow’l of dandelions on the window sill. The bowl, in the halflight, gleamed like faces, all Bride’s, some in challenge, some in w'istfulness, some in allure. He turned in his seat, away from the bowl. She was so—so ready for him. One of the children whimpered in its sleep, and he tiptoed into the room. They were still again, and he looked around. This was his chance to get away with all the clothes he needed, and his extra pair of boots. He’d take them and get on the road. And he’d leave a note.
The idea warmed him. He hadn’t thought of it before. “Sally. I’m going over to Black Bay now. A man who owes me is going away on the morning boat.” That would be all. Sally wouldn’t mind so long as he was after money. Money, his wages, his work: that was all she cared about. He turned the paper over, then couldn’t find a pencil.
He searched a moment, then started as he saw that it was almost midnight, and fear prodded him. It would never do for Sally to find him packing his clothes. She would rouse the neighborhood.
The rain had stopped when Ben got outside, his canvas telescope case with him, and he headed straight across the hill toward the Black Bay road. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked suddenly as if it scented danger, and he had queer chills up and down his spine.
He hurried on. Joram Peters’ house was just around the turn, but he must chance passing it unseen, as it meant a much shorter route. He could hear a fiddle squeaking gaily, hear shouts and the tramping of feet. The dance was going merrily.
The sounds made his blood run faster. He and Sally had never missed a dance until the children hindered . . . For the first time he realized that he had left the children alone in the house. After being away all winter and spring, he had not realized his responsibilities. That was why Sally had said for him not to come to the dance if he were tired. He knew that if he did go, she would hurry home.
He stopped, irresolute, then resolved to make sure that the fire back in the house was all right. He had made it up so that Sally would find the place warm when she returned. He hustled back down the hill, irritated by circumstances, dreading bad luck as a consequence.
The children were all right. He tucked them in carefully, then attended to closing all draughts about the stove. As he did so, a pricking soreness at the back of his neck caused him to put his hand up. He swore under his breath, felt again, pulled at his shirt collar. Of all the luck ! A boil, one of those painful, stubborn spring boils to which he was addicted, was commencing!
He went out savagely, closed the door and was off up the hill, then stopped. It was
darker and there was a hint of more rain. He would get chilled, and chills were bad for boils. If Sally could only put a poultice on it before he started. He grimaced at the thought of asking her. Presently he swore again, and muttered to himself. There had been raindrops. He went down the hjll to the house. A boil could not be ignored.
He went on into the bedroom and hurriedly unpacked, with a sort of dull wonder at his own actions. Finished, he felt his neck again. Always he dreaded boils, and Sally was the best doctor of them in Bell Tickle. He went back to the stove, and pictured Bride waiting in the morning at Black Bay.
T) EN started at the sound of voices. Some U man was with Sally. It was young Sam Peters, Joram’s boy, dressed for going away and carrying a suitcase.
“Sam’s headed for Boston,” said Sally. “My, that fire feels good. It’s a chilly rain this time.”
Her presence, the lumpy, fleshy, largenéss of her, was a grim reality ; the first, Ben felt, since he had left Bride. All that had happened between times was unreal. Here she was, and he knew he could not escape her now.
“Sit down for a cup of tea,” said Sally to young Peters. “You’ll have a cold walk to Black Bay.” Then she laughed shrilly. “I can read you like a book,” she said. “You’re chasin’ Bride Ginney like the rest of them. She has acted man hungry since she come, and all you men-folks is after her. Watch the wind, Sam, or you’ll be swamped.”
Man hungry. Ben didn’t like that word. It made him flush, and he knew it and kept his face averted. Ouch ! His collar scraped the boil.
“Sally,” he said peremptorily, “have a look at my neck. It feels there’s a boil started.”
Sally got to her feet at once, and moved the lamp so that she could see better. Her fingers probed gently, carefully.
“Your blood’s bad every spring,” she remarked as she investigated, “but I can stop that one.” And she went to her shelves to make a poultice.
Ben settled in his chair contentedly. He could rely on Sally where boils were concerned. Then he tried to concentrate on Bride. Queer, he thought, that he couldn’t hold to thoughts of her. She seemed remote all at once, ever since Sally had returned.
Sally’s quick fingers applied the poultice without a fumble, and she fastened the bandage around his neck. Her hands seemed to linger, and then, regardless of young Peters by the stove, she gave Ben an unexpected caress. He knew it was caused by impulse, but it thrilled him. For one short instant her cheek was laid to his as she used to lay it in years that seemed far, far back.
Ben tried to meet her eyes, but she avoided him. And then he knew ! He sensed that Sally’s intuition had shown her the designs of Bride, and that her bringing young Peters with her had a purpose. He might be needed. Her relief, her gladness that all was well, were in that short caress.
Ben said nothing. He was tired but comfortable, very comfortable. Sally gave him a fine cup of tea, and it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. This was his house, his home, his wife, and outside was the garden. He looked at young Peters; pitied him, in a way.
“Sally,” he said suddenly, “they paid me forty-eight dollars bonus at the mill.”
“Besides your wages?” Sally put her cup down and stared, incredulous.
“Yes,” he said happily. “You kin have it, too.”
“I—you—that’s real money.” Sally lifted her cup hastily and drank. Ben knew she did it to hide the sudden tremor of her lips. He saw a tear roll down her cheek before she could catch it with her fingers.
Young Peters finished his tea and rose.
“Thanks for cornin’ over with me,” said Sally, “and good luck in Boston.”
Ben followed the boy outside, out of
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earshot of Sally. An idea had come to him. j
just the one he needed.
I “Good luck,” he said, then added as an j afterthought. “Listen. Sam: When Bride gets to the wharf in the morning, tell her I said to remember my birthday, will you?”
I “Sure.” Young Peters seemed glad that he would have an excuse for speaking to Bride. “ITI tell her.”
I Ben went back to the stove and Sally. In a way, it was good to be home again.