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THE HERITAGE OF DEDLOW MARSH (2)

2006-09-07 20:32

    II. Arriving at the house, the young people ascended the outer flight of wooden steps, which bore an odd likeness to the companion-way of a vessel, and the gallery, or 'deck,' as it was called——where a number of nets, floats, and buoys thrown over the railing completed the nautical resemblance. This part of the building was evidently devoted to kitchen, dining-room, and domestic offices; the principal room in the centre serving as hall or living-room, and communicating on the other side with two sleeping apartments. It was of considerable size, with heavy lateral beams across the ceiling——built, like the rest of the house, with a certain maritime strength——and looked not unlike a saloon cabin. An enormous open Franklin stove between the windows, as large as a chimney, blazing with drift-wood, gave light and heat to the apartment, and brought into flickering relief the boarded walls hung with the spoils of sea and shore, and glittering with gun-barrels. Fowling-pieces of all sizes, from the long ducking-gun mounted on a swivel for boat use to the light single-barrel or carbine, stood in racks against the walls; game-bags, revolvers in their holsters, hunting and fishing knives in their sheaths, depended from hooks above them. In one corner stood a harpoon; in another, two or three Indian spears for salmon. The carpetless floor and rude chairs and settles were covered with otter, mink, beaver, and a quantity of valuable sealskins, with a few larger pelts of the bear and elk. The only attempt at decoration was the displayed wings and breasts of the wood and harlequin duck, the muir, the cormorant, the gull, the gannet, and the femininely delicate half-mourning of petrel and plover, nailed against the wall. The influence of the sea was dominant above all, and asserted its saline odors even through the spice of the curling drift-wood smoke that half veiled the ceiling.

    A berry-eyed old Indian woman with the complexion of dried salmon; her daughter, also with berry eyes, and with a face that seemed wholly made of a moist laugh; 'Yellow Bob,' a Digger 'buck,' so called from the prevailing ochre markings of his cheek, and 'Washooh,' an ex-chief; a nondescript in a blanket, looking like a cheap and dirty doll whose fibrous hair was badly nailed on his carved wooden head, composed the Culpepper household. While the two former were preparing supper in the adjacent dining-room, Yellow Bob, relieved of his burden of game, appeared on the gallery and beckoned mysteriously to his master through the window. James Culpepper went out, returned quickly, and after a minute's hesitation and an uneasy glance towards his sister, who had meantime pushed back her sou'wester from her forehead, and without taking off her jacket had dropped into a chair before the fire with her back towards him, took his gun noiselessly from the rack, and saying carelessly that he would be back in a moment, disappeared.

    Left to herself, Maggie coolly pulled off her long boots and stockings, and comfortably opposed to the fire two very pretty feet and ankles, whose delicate purity was slightly blue-bleached by confinement in the tepid seawater. The contrast of their waxen whiteness with her blue woolen skirt, and with even the skin of her sunburnt hands and wrists, apparently amused her, and she sat for some moments with her elbows on her knees, her skirts slightly raised, contemplating them, and curling her toes with evident satisfaction. The firelight playing upon the rich coloring of her face, the fringe of jet-black curls that almost met the thick sweep of eyebrows, and left her only a white strip of forehead, her short upper lip and small chin, rounded but resolute, completed a piquant and striking figure. The rich brown shadows on the smoke-stained walls and ceiling, the occasional starting into relief of the scutcheons of brilliant plumage, and the momentary glitter of the steel barrels, made a quaint background to this charming picture. Sitting there, and following some lingering memory of her tramp on the Marsh, she hummed to herself a few notes of the bugle call that had impressed her——at first softly, and finally with the full pitch of her voice.

    Suddenly she stopped.

    There was a faint and unmistakable rapping on the floor beneath her. It was distinct, but cautiously given, as if intended to be audible to her alone. For a moment she stood upright, her feet still bare and glistening, on the otter skin that served as a rug. There were two doors to the room, one from which her brother had disappeared, which led to the steps, the other giving on the back gallery, looking inland. With a quick instinct she caught up her gun and ran to that one, but not before a rapid scramble near the railing was followed by a cautious opening of the door. She was just in time to shut it on the extended arm and light blue sleeve of an army overcoat that protruded through the opening, and for a moment threw her whole weight against it.

    "A dhrop of whiskey, Miss, for the love of God."

    She retained her hold, cocked her weapon, and stepped back a pace from the door. The blue sleeve was followed by the rest of the overcoat, and a blue cap with the infantry blazoning, and the letter H on its peak. They were for the moment more distinguishable than the man beneath them——grimed and blackened with the slime of the Marsh. But what could be seen of his mud- stained face was more grotesque than terrifying. A combination of weakness and audacity, insinuation and timidity struggled through the dirt for expression. His small blue eyes were not ill-natured, and even the intruding arm trembled more from exhaustion than passion.

    "On'y a dhrop, Miss," he repeated piteously, "and av ye pleeze, quick! afore I'm stharved with the cold entoirely."

    She looked at him intently——without lowering her gun. "Who are you?"

    "Thin, it's the truth I'll tell ye, Miss——whisth then!" he said in a half-whisper; "I'm a desarter!"

    "Then it was YOU that was doggin' us on the Marsh?"

    "It was the sarjint I was lavin', Miss."

    She looked at him hesitatingly.

    "Stay outside there; if you move a step into the room, I'll blow you out of it."

    He stepped back on the gallery. She closed the door, bolted it, and still holding the gun, opened a cupboard, poured out a glass of whiskey, and returning to the door, opened it and handed him the liquor.

    She watched him drain it eagerly, saw the fiery stimulant put life into his shivering frame, trembling hands, and kindle his dull eye—— and-quietly raised her gun again.

    "Ah, put it down, Miss, put it down! Fwhot's the use? Sure the bullets yee carry in them oiyes of yours is more deadly! It's out here oi'll sthand, glory be to God, all night, without movin' a fut till the sarjint comes to take me, av ye won't levil them oiyes at me like that. Ah, whirra! look at that now! but it's a gooddess she is——the livin' Jaynus of warr, standin' there like a statoo, wid her alybaster fut put forward."

    In her pride and conscious superiority, any suggestion of shame at thus appearing before a common man and a mendicant was as impossible to her nature as it would have been to a queen or the goddess of his simile. His presence and his compliment alike passed her calm modesty unchallenged. The wretched scamp recognized the fact and felt its power, and it was with a superstitious reverence asserting itself through his native extravagance that he raised his grimy hand to his cap in military salute and became respectfully rigid.

    "Then the sodgers were huntin' YOU?" she said thoughtfully, lowering her weapon.

    "Thrue for you, Miss——they worr, and it's meself that was lyin' flat in the ditch wid me faytures makin' an illigant cast in the mud——more betoken, as ye see even now——and the sarjint and his daytail thrampin' round me. It was thin that the mortial cold sthruck thro' me mouth, and made me wake for the whiskey that would resthore me."

    "What did you desert fer?"

    "Ah, list to that now! Fwhat did I desart fer? Shure ev there was the ghost of an inemy round, it's meself that would be in the front now! But it was the letthers from me ould mother, Miss, that is sthruck wid a mortial illness——long life to her!——in County Clare, and me sisthers in Ninth Avenue in New York, fornint the daypo, that is brekken their harruts over me listin' in the Fourth Infanthry to do duty in a haythen wilderness. Av it was the cavalry——and it's me own father that was in the Innishkillen Dthragoons, Miss——oi wouldn't moind. Wid a horse betune me legs, it's on parade oi'd be now, Miss, and not wandhering over the bare flure of the Marsh, stharved wid the cold, the thirst, and hunger, wid the mud and the moire thick on me; facin' an illigant young leddy as is the ekal ov a Fayld Marshal's darter——not to sphake ov Kernal Preston's——ez couldn't hold a candle to her."

    Brought up on the Spanish frontier, Maggie Culpepper was one of the few American girls who was not familiar with the Irish race. The rare smile that momentarily lit up her petulant mouth seemed to justify the intruder's praise. But it passed quickly, and she returned dryly:

    "That means you want more drink, suthin' to eat, and clothes. Suppose my brother comes back and ketches you here?"

    "Shure, Miss, he's just now hunten me, along wid his two haythen Diggers, beyond the laygoon there. It worr the yellar one that sphotted me lyin' there in the ditch; it worr only your own oiyes, Miss——more power to their beauty for that!——that saw me folly him unbeknownst here; and that desaved them, ye see!"

    The young girl remained for an instant silent and thoughtful.

    "We're no friends of the Fort," she said finally, "but I don't reckon for that reason my brother will cotton to YOU. Stay out thar where ye are, till I come to ye. If you hear me singin' again, you'll know he's come back, and ye'd better scoot with what you've already got, and be thankful."

    She shut the door again and locked it, went into the dining-room, returned with some provisions wrapped in paper, took a common wicker flask from the wall, passed into her brother's bedroom, and came out with a flannel shirt, overalls, and a coarse Indian blanket, and, reopening the door, placed them before the astonished and delighted vagabond. His eye glistened; he began, "Glory be to God," but for once his habitual extravagance failed him. Nature triumphed with a more eloquent silence over his well-worn art. He hurriedly wiped his begrimed face and eyes with the shirt she had given him, and catching the sleeve of her rough pea-jacket in his dirty hand, raised it to his lips.

    "Go!" she said imperiously. "Get away while you can."

    "Av it vas me last words——it's speechless oi am," he stammered, and disappeared over the railing.

    She remained for a moment holding the door half open, and gazing into the darkness that seemed to flow in like a tide. Then she shut it, and going into her bedroom resumed her interrupted toilette. When she emerged again she was smartly stockinged and slippered, and even the blue serge skirt was exchanged for a bright print, with a white fichu tied around her throat. An attempt to subdue her rebellious curls had resulted in the construction from their ruins of a low Norman arch across her forehead with pillared abutments of ringlets. When her brother returned a few moments later she did not look up, but remained, perhaps a little ostentatiously, bending over the fire.

    "Bob allowed that the Fort boat was huntin' MEN——deserters, I reckon," said Jim aggrievedly. "Wanted me to believe that he SAW one on the Marsh hidin'. On'y an Injin lie, I reckon, to git a little extra firewater, for toting me out to the bresh on a fool's errand."

    "Oh, THAT'S where you went!" said Maggie, addressing the fire. "Since when hev you tuk partnership with the Guv'nment and Kernel Preston to hunt up and take keer of their property?"

    "Well, I ain't goin' to hev such wreckage as they pick up and enlist set adrift on our marshes, Mag," said Jim decidedly.

    "What would you hev done had you ketched him?" said Maggie, looking suddenly into her brother's face.

    "Given him a dose of snipe-shot that he'd remember, and be thankful it wasn't slugs," said Jim promptly. Observing a deeper seriousness in her attitude, he added, "Why, if it was in war-time he'd get a BALL from them sodgers on sight."

    "Yes; but YOU ain't got no call to interfere," said Maggie.

    "Ain't I? Why, he's no better than an outlaw. I ain't sure that he hasn't been stealin' or killin' somebody over theer."

    "Not that man!" said Maggie impulsively.

    "Not what man?" said her brother, facing her quickly.

    "Why," returned Maggie, repairing her indiscretion with feminine dexterity, "not ANY man who might have knocked you and me over on the marshes in the dusk, and grabbed our guns."

    "Wish he'd hev tried it," said the brother, with a superior smile, but a quickly rising color. "Where d'ye suppose I'D hev been all the while?"

    Maggie saw her mistake, and for the first time in her life resolved to keep a secret from her brother——overnight. "Supper's gettin' cold," she said, rising.

    They went into the dining-room——an apartment as plainly furnished as the one they had quitted, but in its shelves, cupboards, and closely fitting boarding bearing out the general nautical suggestion of the house——and seated themselves before a small table on which their frugal meal was spread. In this tete-a-tete position Jim suddenly laid down his knife and fork and stared at his sister.

    "Hello!"

    "What's the matter?" said Maggie, starting slightly. "How you do skeer one."

    "Who's been prinkin', eh?"

    "My ha'r was in kinks all along o' that hat," said Maggie, with a return of higher color, "and I had to straighten it. It's a boy's hat, not a girl's."

    But that necktie and that gown——and all those frills and tuckers?" continued Jim generalizing, with a rapid twirling of his fingers over her. "Are you expectin' Judge Martin, or the Expressman this evening?"

    Judge Martin was the lawyer of Logport, who had proven her father's will, and had since raved about his single interview with the Kingfisher's beautiful daughter; the Expressman was a young fellow who was popularly supposed to have left his heart while delivering another valuable package on Maggie in person, and had "never been the same man since." It was a well-worn fraternal pleasantry that had done duty many a winter's evening, as a happy combination of moral admonition and cheerfulness. Maggie usually paid it the tribute of a quick little laugh and a sisterly pinch, but that evening those marks of approbation were withheld.

    "Jim dear," said she, when their Spartan repast was concluded and they were reestablished before the living-room fire. "What was it the Redwood Mill Kempany offered you for that piece near Dead Man's Slough?"

    Jim took his pipe from his lips long enough to say, "Ten thousand dollars," and put it back again.

    "And what do ye kalkilate all our property, letting alone this yer house, and the driftwood front, is worth all together?"

    "Includin' wot the Gov'nment owes us?——for that's all ours, ye know?" said Jim quickly.

    "No——leavin' that out——jest for greens, you know," suggested Maggie.

    "Well nigh onter a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, I reckon, by and large."

    "That's a heap o' money, Jim! I reckon old Kernel Preston wouldn't raise that in a hundred years," continued Maggie, warming her knees by the fire.

    "In five million years," said Jim, promptly sweeping away further discussion. After a pause he added, "You and me, Mag, kin see anybody's pile, and go 'em fifty thousand better."

    There were a few moments of complete silence, in which Maggie smoothed her knees, and Jim's pipe, which seemed to have become gorged and apoplectic with its owner's wealth, snored unctuously.

    "Jim dear, what if——it's on'y an idea of mine, you know——what if you sold that piece to the Redwood Mill, and we jest tuk that money and——and-and jest lifted the ha'r offer them folks at Logport? Jest astonished 'em! Jest tuk the best rooms in that new hotel, got a hoss and buggy, dressed ourselves, you and me, fit to kill, and made them Fort people take a back seat in the Lord's Tabernacle, oncet for all. You see what I mean, Jim," she said hastily, as her brother seemed to be succumbing, like his pipe, in apoplectic astonishment, "jest on'y to SHOW 'em what we COULD do if we keerd. Lord! when we done it and spent the money we'd jest snap our fingers and skip back yer ez nat'ral ez life! Ye don't think, Jim," she said, suddenly turning half fiercely upon him, "that I'd allow to LIVE among 'em——to stay a menet after that!"

    Jim laid down his pipe and gazed at his sister with stony deliberation. "And——what——do——you——kalkilate——to make by all that?" he said with scornful distinctness.

    "Why, jest to show 'em we HAVE got money, and could buy 'em all up if we wanted to," returned Maggie, sticking boldly to her guns, albeit with a vague conviction that her fire was weakened through elevation, and somewhat alarmed at the deliberation of the enemy.

    "And you mean to say they don't know it now," he continued with slow derision.

    "No," said Maggie. "Why, theer's that new school-marm over at Logport, you know, Jim, the one that wanted to take your picter in your boat for a young smuggler or fancy pirate or Eyetalian fisherman, and allowed that you'r handsomed some, and offered to pay you for sittin'——do you reckon SHE'D believe you owned the land her schoolhouse was built on. No! Lots of 'em don't. Lots of 'em thinks we're poor and low down——and them ez doesn't, thinks"-

    "What?" asked her brother sharply.

    "That we're MEAN."

    The quick color came to Jim's cheek. "So," he said, facing her quickly, "for the sake of a lot of riff-raff and scum that's drifted here around us——jest for the sake of cuttin' a swell before them——you'll go out among the hounds ez allowed your mother was a Spanish nigger or a kanaka, ez called your father a pirate and landgrabber, ez much as allowed he was shot by some one or killed himself a purpose, ez said you was a heathen and a looney because you didn't go to school or church along with their trash, ez kept away from Maw's sickness ez if it was smallpox, and Dad's fun'ral ez if he was a hoss-thief, and left you and me to watch his coffin on the marshes all night till the tide kem back. And now you-YOU that jined hands with me that night over our father lyin' there cold and despised——ez if he was a dead dog thrown up by the tide—— and swore that ez long ez that tide ebbed and flowed it couldn't bring you to them, or them to you agin! You now want——what? What? Why, to go and cast your lot among 'em, and live among 'em, and join in their God-forsaken holler foolishness, and——and——and"-

    "Stop! It's a lie! I DIDN'T say that. Don't you dare to say it!" said the girl, springing to her feet, and facing her brother in turn, with flashing eyes.

    For a moment the two stared at each other——it might have been as in a mirror, so perfectly were their passions reflected in each line, shade, and color of the other's face. It was as if they had each confronted their own passionate and willful souls, and were frightened. It had often occurred before, always with the same invariable ending. The young man's eyes lowered first; the girl's filled with tears.

    "Well, ef ye didn't mean that, what did ye mean?" said Jim, sinking, with sullen apology, back into his chair.

    "I——only——meant it——for——for——revenge!" sobbed Maggie.

    "Oh!" said Jim, as if allowing his higher nature to be touched by this noble instinct. "But I didn't jest see where the revenge kem in."

    "No? But, never mind now, Jim," said Maggie, ostentatiously ignoring, after the fashion of her sex, the trouble she had provoked; "but to think——that——that——you thought"——(sobbing)。

    "But I didn't, Mag"——(caressingly)。

    With this very vague and impotent conclusion, Maggie permitted herself to be drawn beside her brother, and for a few moments they plumed each other's ruffled feathers, and smoothed each other's lifted crests, like two beautiful young specimens of that halcyon genus to which they were popularly supposed to belong. At the end of half an hour Jim rose, and, yawning slightly, said in a perfunctory way:

    "Where's the book?"

    The book in question was the Bible. It had been the self-imposed custom of these two young people to read aloud a chapter every night as their one vague formula of literary and religious discipline. When it was produced, Maggie, presuming on his affectionate and penitential condition, suggested that to-night he should pick out "suthin' interestin'." But this unorthodox frivolity was sternly put aside by Jim——albeit, by way of compromise, he agreed to "chance it," i. e., open its pages at random.

    He did so. Generally he allowed himself a moment's judicious pause for a certain chaste preliminary inspection necessary before reading aloud to a girl. To-night he omitted that modest precaution, and in a pleasant voice, which in reading was singularly free from colloquial infelicities of pronunciation, began at once:

    "'Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.'"

    "Oh, you looked first," said Maggie.

    "I didn't now——honest Injin! I just opened."

    "Go on," said Maggie, eagerly shoving him and interposing her neck over his shoulder.

    And Jim continued Deborah's wonderful song of Jael and Sisera to the bitter end of its strong monosyllabic climax.

    "There," he said, closing the volume, "that's what I call revenge. That's the real Scripture thing——no fancy frills theer."

    "Yes; but, Jim dear, don't you see that she treated him first—— sorter got round him with free milk and butter, and reg'larly blandished him," argued Maggie earnestly.

    But Jim declined to accept this feminine suggestion, or to pursue the subject further, and after a fraternal embrace they separated for the night. Jim lingered long enough to look after the fastening of the door and windows, and Maggie remained for some moments at her casement, looking across the gallery to the Marsh beyond.

    The moon had risen, the tide was half up. Whatever sign or trace of alien footprint or occupation had been there was already smoothly obliterated; even the configuration of the land had changed. A black cape had disappeared, a level line of shore had been eaten into by teeth of glistening silver. The whole dark surface of the Marsh was beginning to be streaked with shining veins as if a new life was coursing through it. Part of the open bay before the Fort, encroaching upon the shore, seemed in the moonlight to be reaching a white and outstretched arm towards the nest of the Kingfisher.

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