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THE MAN ON THE BEACH (3)

2006-09-07 20:24

    III

    James North did not sleep well that night. He had taken Miss Bessy's bedroom, at her suggestion, there being but two, and "Dad never using sheets and not bein' keerful in his habits." It was neat, but that was all. The scant ornamentation was atrocious; two or three highly colored prints, a shell work-box, a ghastly winter bouquet of skeleton leaves and mosses, a star-fish, and two china vases hideous enough to have been worshiped as Buddhist idols, exhibited the gentle recreation of the fair occupant, and the possible future education of the child. In the morning he was met by Joe, who received the message of his daughter with his usual dejection, and suggested that North stay with him until the child was better. That event was still remote; North found, on his return to his cabin, that the child had been worse; but he did not know, until Miss Bessy dropped a casual remark, that she had not closed her own eyes that night. It was a week before he regained his own quarters, but an active week- indeed, on the whole, a rather pleasant week. For there was a delicate flattery in being domineered by a wholesome and handsome woman, and Mr. James North had by this time made up his mind that she was both. Once or twice he found himself contemplating her splendid figure with a recollection of the doctor's compliment, and later, emulating her own frankness, told her of it.

    "And what did YOU say?" she asked.

    "Oh, I laughed and said——nothing."

    And so did she.

    A month after this interchange of frankness, she asked him if he could spend the next evening at her house. "You see," she said, "there's to be a dance down at the hall at Eureka, and I haven't kicked a fut since last spring. Hank Fisher's comin' up to take me over, and I'm goin' to let the shanty slide for the night."

    "But what's to become of the baby?" asked North, a little testily.

    "Well," said Miss Robinson, facing him somewhat aggressively, "I reckon it won't hurt ye to take care of it for a night. Dad can't—— and if he could, he don't know how. Liked to have pizened me after mar died. No, young man, I don't propose to ask Hank Fisher to tote thet child over to Eureka and back, and spile his fun."

    "Then I suppose I must make way for Mr. Hank——Hank——Fisher?" said North, with the least tinge of sarcasm in his speech.

    "Of course. You've got nothing else to do, you know."

    North would have given worlds to have pleaded a previous engagement on business of importance, but he knew that Bessy spoke truly. He had nothing to do. "And Fisher has, I suppose?" he asked.

    "Of course——to look after ME!"

    A more unpleasant evening James North had not spent since the first day of his solitude. He almost began to hate the unconscious cause of his absurd position, as he paced up and down the floor with it. "Was there ever such egregious folly?" he began, but remembering he was quoting Maria North's favorite resume of his own conduct, he stopped. The child cried, missing, no doubt, the full rounded curves and plump arm of its nurse. North danced it violently, with an inward accompaniment that was not musical, and thought of the other dancers. "Doubtless," he mused, "she has told this beau of hers that she has left the baby with the 'looney' Man on the Beach. Perhaps I may be offered a permanent engagement as a harmless simpleton accustomed to the care of children. Mothers may cry for me. The doctor is at Eureka. Of course, he will be there to see his untranslated goddess, and condole with her over the imbecility of the Man on the Beach." Once he carelessly asked Joe who the company were.

    "Well," said Joe, mournfully, "thar's Widder Higsby and darter; the four Stubbs gals; in course Polly Doble will be on hand with that feller that's clerking over at the Head for Jones, and Jones's wife. Then thar's French Pete, and Whisky Ben, and that chap that shot Archer,——I disremember his name,——and the barber——what's that little mulatto's name-that 'ar Kanaka? I swow!" continued Joe, drearily, "I'll be forgettin' my own next——and——"

    "That will do," interrupted North, only half concealing his disgust as he rose and carried the baby to the other room, beyond the reach of names that might shock its ladylike ears. The next morning he met the from-dance-returning Bessy abstractedly, and soon took his leave, full of a disloyal plan, conceived in the sleeplessness of her own bedchamber. He was satisfied that he owed a duty to its unknown parents to remove the child from the degrading influences of the barber Kanaka, and Hank Fisher especially, and he resolved to write to his relatives, stating the case, asking a home for the waif and assistance to find its parents. He addressed this letter to his cousin Maria, partly in consideration of the dramatic farewell of that young lady, and its possible influence in turning her susceptible heart towards his protege. He then quietly settled back to his old solitary habits, and for a week left the Robinsons unvisited. The result was a morning call by Trinidad Joe on the hermit. "It's a whim of my gal's, Mr. North," he said, dejectedly, "and ez I told you before and warned ye, when that gal hez an idee, fower yoke of oxen and seving men can't drag it outer her. She's got a idee o' larnin'——never hevin' hed much schoolin', and we ony takin' the papers, permiskiss like——and she says YOU can teach her—— not hevin' anythin' else to do. Do ye folly me?"

    "Yes," said North, "certainly." "Well, she allows ez mebbee you're proud, and didn't like her takin' care of the baby for nowt; and she reckons that ef you'll gin her some book larnin', and get her to sling some fancy talk in fash'n'ble style——why, she'll call it squar."

    "You can tell her," said North, very honestly, "that I shall be only too glad to help her in any way, without ever hoping to cancel my debt of obligation to her."

    "Then it's a go?" said the mystified Joe, with a desperate attempt to convey the foregoing statement to his own intellect in three Saxon words.

    "It's a go," replied North, cheerfully.

    And he felt relieved. For he was not quite satisfied with his own want of frankness to her. But here was a way to pay off the debt he owed her, and yet retain his own dignity. And now he could tell her what he had done, and he trusted to the ambitious instinct that prompted her to seek a better education to explain his reasons for it.

    He saw her that evening and confessed all to her frankly. She kept her head averted, but when she turned her blue eyes to him they were wet with honest tears. North had a man's horror of a ready feminine lachrymal gland; but it was not like Bessy to cry, and it meant something; and then she did it in a large, goddess-like way, without sniffling, or chocking, or getting her nose red, but rather with a gentle deliquescence, a harmonious melting, so that he was fain to comfort her with nearer contact, gentleness in his own sad eyes, and a pressure of her large hand.

    "It's all right, I s'pose," she said, sadly; "but I didn't reckon on yer havin' any relations, but thought you was alone, like me."

    James North, thinking of Hank Fisher and the "mullater," could not help intimating that his relations were very wealthy and fashionable people, and had visited him last summer. A recollection of the manner in which they had so visited him and his own reception of them prevented his saying more. But Miss Bessy could not forego a certain feminine curiosity, and asked,-

    "Did they come with Sam Baker's team?"

    "Yes."

    "Last July?" "Yes."

    "And Sam drove the horses here for a bite?"

    "I believe so."

    "And them's your relations?"

    "They are."

    Miss Robinson reached over the cradle and enfolded the sleeping infant in her powerful arms. Then she lifted her eyes, wrathful through her still glittering tears, and said, slowly, "They don't—— have——this——child-then!"

    "But why?"

    "Oh, why? I saw them! That's why, and enough! You can't play any such gay and festive skeletons on this poor baby for flesh and blood parents. No, sir!"

    "I think you judge them hastily, Miss Bessy," said North, secretly amused; "my aunt may not, at first, favorably impress strangers, yet she has many friends. But surely you do not object to my cousin Maria, the young lady?"

    "What! that dried cuttle-fish, with nothing livin' about her but her eyes? James North, ye may be a fool like the old woman,—— perhaps it's in the family,——but ye ain't a devil, like that gal! That ends it."

    And it did. North dispatched a second letter to Maria saying that he had already made other arrangements for the baby. Pleased with her easy victory, Miss Bessy became more than usually gracious, and the next day bowed her shapely neck meekly to the yoke of her teacher, and became a docile pupil. James North could not have helped noticing her ready intelligence, even had he been less prejudiced in her favor than he was fast becoming now. If he had found it pleasant before to be admonished by her there was still more delicious flattery in her perfect trust in his omniscient skill as a pilot over this unknown sea. There was a certain enjoyment in guiding her hand over the writing-book, that I fear he could not have obtained from an intellect less graciously sustained by its physical nature. The weeks flew quickly by on gossamer wings, and when she placed a bunch of larkspurs and poppies in his hand one morning, he remembered for the first that it was spring. I cannot say that there was more to record of Miss Bessy's education than this. Once North, half jestingly, remarked that he had never yet seen her admirer, Mr. Hank Fisher. Miss Bessy (coloring but cool)——"You never will!" North (white but hot)—— "Why?" Miss Bessy (faintly)——"I'd rather not." North (resolutely)——"I insist." Bessy (yielding)——"As my teacher?" North (hesitatingly, at the limitation of the epithet)——"Y-e-e-s!" Bessy——"And you'll promise never to speak of it again?" North-"Never." Bessy (slowly——"Well, he said I did an awful thing to go over to your cabin and stay." North (in the genuine simplicity of a refined nature)——"But how?" Miss Bessy (half piqued, but absolutely admiring that nature)——"Quit! and keep your promise!"

    They were so happy in these new relations that it occurred to Miss Bessy one day to take James North to task for obliging her to ask to be his pupil. "You knew how ignorant I was," she added; and Mr. North retorted by relating to her the doctor's criticism on her independence. "To tell you the truth," he added, "I was afraid you would not take it as kindly as he thought."

    "That is, you thought me as vain as yourself. It seems to me you and the doctor had a great deal to say to each other."

    "On the contrary," laughed North, "that was all we said."

    "And you didn't make fun of me?"

    Perhaps it was not necessary for North to take her hand to emphasize his denial, but he did.

    Miss Bessy, being still reminiscent, perhaps, did not notice it. "If it hadn't been for that ar——I mean that thar——no, that baby——I wouldn't have known you!" she said dreamily.

    "No," returned North, mischievously, "but you still would have known Hank Fisher."

    No woman is perfect. Miss Bessy looked at him with a sudden——her first and last——flash of coquetry. Then stooped and kissed——the baby.

    James North was a simple gentleman, but not altogether a fool. He returned the kiss, but not vicariously.

    There was a footstep on the porch. These two turned the hues of a dying dolphin, and then laughed. It was Joe. He held a newspaper in his hand. "I reckon ye woz right, Mr. North, about my takin' these yar papers reg'lar. For I allow here's suthin' that may clar up the mystery o' that baby's parents." With the hesitation of a slowly grappling intellect, Joe sat down on the table and read from the San Francisco "Herald" as follows: "'It is now ascertained beyond doubt that the wreck reported by the Aeolus was the American brig Pomare bound hence to Tahiti. The worst surmises are found correct. The body of the woman has been since identified as that of the beau-ti-ful daughter of——of——of——Terp——Terp——Terpish'——Well! I swow that name just tackles me."

    "Gin it to me, Dad," said Bessy pertly. "You never had any education, any way. Hear your accomplished daughter." With a mock bow to the new schoolmaster, and a capital burlesque of a confident school girl, she strode to the middle of the room the paper held and folded book-wise in her hands. "Ahem! Where did you leave off? Oh, 'the beautiful daughter of Terpsichore——whose name was prom-i-nently connected with a mysterious social scandal of last year——the gifted but unfortunate Grace Chatterton'——No——don't stop me——there's some more! 'The body of her child, a lovely infant of six months, has not been recovered, and it is supposed was washed overboard.' There! may be that's the child, Mr.

    North. Why, Dad! Look, O my God! He's falling. Catch him, Dad! Quick!" But her strong arm had anticipated her father's. She caught him,

    lifted him to the bed, on which he lay henceforth for many days unconscious. Then fever supervened, and delirium, and Dr. Duchesne telegraphed for his friends; but at the end of a week and the opening of a summer day the storm passed, as the other storm had passed, and he awoke, enfeebled, but at peace. Bessy was at his side——he was glad to see——alone.

    "Bessy, dear," he said hesitatingly, "when I am stronger I have something to tell you."

    "I know it all, Jem," she said with a trembling lip; "I heard it all——no, not from THEM, but from your own lips in your delirium. I'm glad it came from YOU——even then."

    "Do you forgive me, Bessy?" She pressed her lips to his forehead and said hastily, and then falteringly, as if afraid of her impulse:-

    "Yes. Yes."

    "And you will still be mother to the child?"

    "HER child?"

    "No dear, not hers, but MINE!"

    She started, cried a little, and then putting her arms around him, said: "Yes."

    And as there was but one way of fulfilling that sacred promise, they were married in the autumn.

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