By H. C. Bunner.
THERE had been a heavy rain the night before, and I was playing with sand and water in the deep trench between the road and the lower wall of my father's garden, and enjoying it as much as a boy of eight years can enjoy anything without the company of other boys. A swift stream of clear water rushed down this sandy gutter, and made for me a far-western river, on whose bank I was constructing a fort to defy the hostile Indians. I had selected a grassy promontory, jutting out into the stream, and had pulled all the grass out by the roots and levelled the earth, and was beginning on my fortifications, when I observed with alarm the dissolution of the point of my site, which, no longer held together by the fibrous grass roots, was rapidly turning into black mud and going down the current in a cloud.
I tried to stem the flood with a flat stone set on end; but it would not stay on end, and I was contemplating the necessity of a change of base for my military operations, when the end of a thick walking-stick was thrust between my face and the water, and I heard a tremulous, eager old voice cry earnestly:
"Farther up— farther up, my lad—there—there where you have it now—set off the current ever so little—ay, that's it! Now build your sea-wall—good boy!"
I obeyed him mechanically, and in a few seconds saw the stream swirl off from my point, leaving it in a safe space of calm water. The Indians on the other shore must have felt gloomy forebodings.
I looked up. A tall, gaunt old gentleman, with a Roman nose and a delicate mouth, with deep wrinkles about it, as though he drew his lips together a good deal, stood and looked hard at the water. He did not look at me at all; but I looked hard at him—at his sad old face, his shabby brown broadcloth coat, the great rusty black satin stock about his neck, and his napless beaver hat with its rolling brim.
He stared at the water for a moment or two, gave an odd sort of half-choked sigh, and passed on his way.
That was the first time Squire Five-Fathom spoke to me.
The town where I lived and fought Indians was called Gerrit's Gate. (For the benefit of a generation that pronounces Coney Island and Hoboken as they are spelled, that knows not oelykoeks, and that desecrates suppawn by calling it mush, let me say that Gerrit to the eye is Gerrit to the ear.) The story of Gerrit's Gate is the story of Myndert Gerrit and his son, the old gentleman who helped me in my civil-engineering.
Myndert Gerrit came from Schenectady to found the place. He was a rich man by inheritance, and he had moreover inherited pride, ambition, and a high temper—a mental and spiritual outfit which put him sadly out of place in a conservative old midland town. I do not know just what was his quarrel with Schenectady; but I know he bought his square mile of "military lots" on the shore of Lake Ontario with the avowed intention of building up a town that should be to Schenectady as a mountain to a hill—and that should incidentally outrival Rochester and Oswego. He said, and indeed it seemed, that the finger of heaven had pointed out the place.
As he stood on the hill to the south-west of his new purchase, Myndert Gerrit saw before him three wooded promontories stretching out into the lake—Near Point to the east, Far Point to the west, and Middle Point, shorter by half than its neighbors, nestling between them, and dividing a large bay into two snug harbors. Middle Point must have been, centuries ago, as long as the others, but it had been fighting a slowly losing battle with the mighty current from the west that swept inward from Far and out again past the end of Near Point. This current made entrance to the western harbor difficult—even dangerous—but the eastern it was an easier matter to reach, and, once in, the largest ship on the lake could lie in safe water while the northwester went by Far and Near and the current hammered away at Middle, making a poor foot a year out of the firm, root-bound soil. And at the head of this little haven the land lay in a low plateau, forming a natural levee.
Here came Myndert Gerrit, in 1822, with his only son (he was a widower) and his whole household, including ten free negroes, formerly his slaves. The son was then a man of thirty, unmarried and devoted in all things to his father. They were constant companions, and as far as I could learn, they cared little for other society. Gerrit reserved the high eastern promontory for his own mansion. He laid the foundation that year, while he and his people lived in log-cabins. During the summer he surveyed the level land, and staked it out for streets. In the fall he went to New York, and he returned the next spring, leading a caravan of some twenty families, and bringing with him the machinery for a saw-mill and a grist-mill. It was a long and tiresome journey: a great labor of transportation; but, by water and by wagon, they made it in about a month.
Laborers came from neighboring villages (or rather settlements) and ground was broken without delay. They cut a good road running two miles to the eastward, where it opened up a branch of Gravelly River which gave them flat-boat navigation to the line of the Grand Canal, as they called the Erie, at that time within a year or two of completion,
The mansion on Near Point was finished in September, and the two Gerrits went to live in it. Standing at his west window late one afternoon, be looked out and saw a sight that filled him with pride. Middle Point was shorn of every tree, and bristled only with surveyor's stakes. Only the great gaps in the earth showed where the twisted roots had been, and these were growing into larger holes, that marked the sites of houses to be. Up in the streets back of the levee a few light structures had already arisen. Two or three temporary docks stretched out into the quiet blue waters of the harbor. Myndert Gerrit looked longest at Middle Point, now a low table of land with water on both sides. A street—or what was to be a street—ran down its middle, from the water to where, at the mainland, it joined the great road that stretched away through the woods to the river—to the great world—to trade and life and fortune.
"Now," he said to his son, "my part is done. I have made all ready for them. Now we may begin to look for returns."
Ay, Myndert Gerrit, your part is done, and it was done when you uprooted the first tree and dug the first well on Middle Point. Look from your window to-day in the red fall sunset, and see if you can, in your fancy, the town of your love and hope. See the glister of the evening sun on the low roofs of houses, on steeple and spire rising serenely above them! See it redden the chimneys of homes and set its dazzling blaze in the window-panes. Hear, if you can, in your thought, the sound of people moving about the streets, of children's voices at play, of clanking anvils, of horses feet on the roadways, of creaking cordage and flapping canvas where your laden ships lie at their docks with their white sails emblazoned by the warm light of the west! See it—hear it—be glad of it in the pride of your heart: rejoice in the town in which you have sunk all your wealth and the heritage of your son! For when you wake to-morrow you will awake from a dream, your returns shall be water and the wind of the north; your house shall be taken from you, and in a little while you shall have no part or lot in this home of your own choosing—save in six feet of earth above your face.
That night Myndert Gerrit heard the northwester come roaring down from the Canada forests; but he paid no heed to it. He had heard it many a night before. It might knock at his headland gates till it wearied, for all he cared.
But the next morning at five o clock, his son, looking pale and frightened, came to his bedside, and told him he must go at once to the town—so they called it already. He dressed himself and hastened to Middle Point, and there he found all the towns-people gathered. They stood in little knots, or wandered about trying to make out the full extent of the damage. Their faces were pale, and showed ghastly in the gray and doubtful light. A chill of alarm and apprehension had seized them. They looked suspiciously and almost resentfully at the old man and his son. What had these two men brought them to?
Myndert Gerrit saw his great mistake with his eyes, but his heart at first refused to accept the truth. He was like a man who sees death for the first time, knows it is death, and yet cannot make it real to his own mind that the blood will no more flow in the cold veins, that the heart shall not beat again; that breath and life have gone out together. At first he went about bravely, showing the people how a jetty here, and a dyke there, and a sea-wall in a third place would put all to rights; but even before his hearers had seen that the remedy was far beyond any means that they possessed, he himself knew that the danger to come was not to be met by any scheme of his devising. The greater part of the Point was still there, but fifty yards were gone from the further end, and the unprotected earth was still crumbling into the turbid current. The cellars were full of water, and along the western side deep gullies ran up to the line of the main street. The framework and foundation of the Point were gone; it was a mere bank of earth before that violent and uncontrollable inland ocean.
When he saw this, he went back to his house and locked himself in his room, and not even his son saw him until the next day. Then he appeared again, and tried, for a little, to save the day by moving his settlement further back. But the panic was too strong for him; the people would have none of him or of his settlement. Some of them were for going back to their old homes; but the most went over to Far Point and bought land there, for Gerrit paid back to every man what his land had cost him. Then he took to his bed, and died on New Year's day, leaving his son to straighten out the tangle of his affairs. This task, prosecuted with the sternest economy and industry, occupied seven years. At the end of the seven years, he had paid off every cent that his father owed, and he himself was able to live on a pitiful remainder of their great fortune, just enough to pay for what little he ate and drank. He lived rent free in one of the old cabins on the level land. That marshy strip was his yet, for no one cared to take it from him.
Middle Point was gone entirely. A low earth bluff marked its landward end. The water had crept up, urged by the current, that now set far in, and out along Near Point, and a shallow inlet ran far up into what had been the levee. On the edge of this inlet, among the low trees and underbrush at the base of the high point on which his father's house had stood, old John Gerrit dwelt in his little log-cabin, that had once been the temporary shelter of his father's negroes. He was fifty years old when the sad work of his life was done; and, knowing of no other work for himself, having no other aim in life, he sat himself down to live life out without troubling his neighbors.
A quarter of a century passed between the wreck of the Gerrit fortunes and the days when I first saw the old man, who had once been the young man of the house, walking about the streets of Gerrit's Gate in those unaccountable rusty clothes of his, which, though he changed them often enough, never looked new or fresh. Gerrit's Gate, in the meanwhile, had thriven, after a fashion, in the very teeth of fortune, and in spite of being settled upon the site despised of Myndert Gerrit. In my boyhood it had a couple of grain-elevators (which changed hands every year or so), a steam saw-mill, a lumber-yard, and a patent-medicine factory. It had old residents and new residents, a conservative party and a progressive party. Need I say that the progressive party was divided from its opponents on the question of getting such an appropriation from Congress as would stimulate the town's consumptive prosperity with the glow of commercial health, and make her the Metropolis of the Northern Lakes?
What I have here set down of John Gerrit's early history I gathered in part from my father, in part from John Gerrit himself. But it was not until after the old man's death that I learned why the old folks of the town called him Squire Five-Fathom. It seemed, an old lake sailor told me, that the water off the end of what had been Middle Point stood just thirty feet deep, and the ridge of rock that had formed the Point's foundation was marked "Five-Fathom Point" on old charts—marked as a dangerous spot, where the current had seized more than one storm-driven ship and cast her against the stony shore.
But what I had heard was quite enough to fire a boy's imagination, and from the day he first spoke to me, Squire Five-Fathom was to me a figure of romance and mystery who got tangled up in my dreams with Old Mortality and Robinson Crusoe and Ethan Brand—I had no "Jack Popaways" or "Young Gold-Coiners" to read about in my lone provincial youth. I stood at the gate to watch him as he went past the house every morning toward the town, on the pitiful little errands of his commissary. How long he made those errands—how much ground he contrived them to cover! Many a time, in later years, I have seen him going from shop to shop, and even wandering in search of street stands, that he might buy the one apple that seemed to him best worth a "penny."
Thus I worshipped, for a long time, in silence and at a distance. Then came a dull, cloudy, summer Saturday afternoon, when my parents went to Catullus Corners, a town some miles down our little branch railroad, for the funeral of some aunt or cousin, and I was left alone, in charge of an Irish handmaiden, who presently swore me to secrecy, and herself went off to a christening. She told me, as she departed, that if I stirred "off the block"—my usual limits of solitary excursion, set by paternal decree—the banshee of the family would catch me. But, ah! I was beyond the day of faith in the banshee, and the Celtic wraith had no terrors for me. I hung awhile on the gate, waiting for some wandering boy, that I might lure him in to play with me; but no boy came. As I look back now, it seems to me that boys must have been very scarce at Gerrit's Gate. Perhaps they were all fishing on that day, for it was cloudy and still. All I know is, they came not. I looked up and down the road. I walked to the east corner and back, and then to the west corner, and then temptation seized me. It was only a couple of hundred yards down the dusty high-road to the head of the lane that led down to the inlet. There, in the mysterious, enchanting thickets by the water's edge lay the dwelling of the one human being of my acquaintance who looked as though he had come out of one of those books which were far more real to me then than real life.
Far off, the clock in our kitchen struck three. Three long hours before my father and mother should return! Three long hours of a lonely summer afternoon—and only a feeble and inadequate conscience of eight years growth to stiffen my moral backbone and nerve me to heroism and renunciation! One stray, momentary glimmer of sunlight flashed through the clouds, and lit up the leafy entrance to the lane.
Three minutes later I was running down that bough-roofed avenue, my pace gradually slowing, for the gleam of sunlight was gone, and it was dismally dim under the trees. But the delicious thrill of illicit adventure was in all my small body, and by and by I was out of the dim shade and on the broad open path that the pot-hunters had trodden all around the inlet. Then I saw below me its shallow reaches of water, paved with round stones, and bordered with bushes. Then, almost before I knew where I was, the log-cabin lay almost under my feet, between the path and the edge of the inlet.
There were bushes all about it, except for a little space in front. A mountain-ash, at one end, towered above it, and tossed high in the air its bunches of reddening berries. In my memory of that guilty hour, the smell of the mountain-ash is stronger than the picture of the dark cabin, the dull sky, and, to the northward, the gray, uneasy lake, restless even in that heavy, storm-breeding calm.
I stole cautiously down into the little clearing, and viewed my field of exploration. Smoke rose from the chimney; a smell of broth on the fire overcame the rank, raw smell of the ash-berries. I was too deeply steeped in crime to attempt to resist an irrational impulse which came over me, and I walked up to the door and knocked loudly. Then I stood there with my heart beating hard, like a repeated echo of my knock. Would he come to the door? What would he say? What should I say? Would he speak pleasantly to me? Would he talk to me of his strange history? Should we stray into delightful confidences? Could I trust him with certain speculations which I had long nursed concerning the treasures of Captain Kidd? What was before me—the magic vista of romance, or the bitter ignominy of a snub?
The door opened, and the tall figure of Squire Five-Fathom leaned over me. Between his legs I saw the fire on the cabin hearth. All else was a smoky darkness. He looked down at me, and his great dark eyes stared, startled, questioning, out of their deep sockets. My hand was in all human probability the first that had knocked at his door in a quarter of a century. Even the tax-collector left him alone.
"What do you want, little boy?" he asked, in a voice that seemed to come from the ground underneath him.
Inwardly I was something dashed; but the spirit of my impulse was not to be overcome.
"I have come to call," I said, and I said it firmly.
His eyes, still troubled with the wonder of lonely old age at any unusual thing, looked me all over. Slowly he seemed to comprehend that I was but a natural, mortal boy. His voice had lost its startled tone of depth and had come back to the quaver of old age when he spoke again, asking my name. I gave it, and he repeated it in an accent of recognition mixed with reserve, which I noted at the time, without understanding it at all. But I have not forgotten that delicate inflection, and I know now that my grandfather and his father were warm friends, and that their sons knew each other only by name.
However, if Squire Five-Fathom remembered anything of this sort, he checked his memory suddenly, for he drew back with a courteous bow, invited me to enter, and asked me to be seated with a grace so fine and stately that before I had put myself on a low old-fashioned chair I had forgotten that I had ever been addressed as a "little boy."
"While I talked with the Squire I looked furtively around the cabin. I saw first the great fireplace of logs and flat stones, where was a crane from which a pot hung simmering over a light wood fire. Then my eyes rose above the high mantel-shelf, and saw the old flint-lock shot-gun that had been Myndert Gerrit's, hanging on its hooks. Then, bit by bit, out of the dull gloom of the place, I picked the strange appointments of the last home of the Gerrits. Odd bits of make-shift fishing-tackle were all about; some nets hung on the wall over a mahogany sideboard with great claw-feet, on the top of which stood a brush and comb, and a poor little square of looking-glass. Opposite these things a pair of oars, wound with twine to cover many breaks, leaned against a lady's work-stand, with its faded green silk bag all in shreds and tatters.
Two miniatures, rimmed with thin bands of gold, hung over the Squire's bed, which was a hospital cot. The white spread was clean, but there were holes in it, and the edges were frayed. On this bed the Squire sat down, by the side of a heap of old clothes. We looked shyly at each other for nearly a minute before we began a formal and elegant conversation.
"It was very kind of you to call—very kind, indeed," said the Squire; "but unexpected—quite unexpected."
"Yes, sir," I replied, in all sincerity; "it was very unexpected indeed. I only made up my mind when I heard the clock strike three."
The Squire looked puzzled.
"Do you—do you make many calls?" he inquired.
"No, sir," I replied. Then, after reflection and self-examination, I added: "I think this is the first one I ever made."
The Squire somehow brightened up at this.
"I make very few calls myself," he said; "ve-ry few. In fact," he continued, in a burst of confidence like my own, "I don't think I've made a call in twenty-five years twen-ty-five years!"
He had a habit of repeating words, by way of giving a gentle emphasis to his speech. That is a trick that rather belongs to old ladies than to old men. He had, in truth, something of an old lady's manner of talking, with an occasional hesitancy, as though he were not much in the way of using his tongue.
"It must be lonely for you, sir," I ventured.
"Lonely!" he repeated, in surprise, "why, no! Oh, dear me, not at all." Then he reflected. "Perhaps it is, though. I am not sure but that you are right. Yes, I suppose it is lonely. I had not thought of it, however."
He mused over this new idea for some moments.
"You see," he began again, "one has so much to think of—so many things to think of, that there is really no time to think of being lonely—aha!"—he laughed a crackling, pleased little laugh—"d'ye see? no time to think of it—aha!"
He smiled over his little ghost of a joke, and I laughed too, for I saw he expected it. That broke the ice, and we became more friendly.
"Why," he said, "there's many a night—many and many a night—when I don't get to bed before half-past eight or nine. But then, you know, I lie awake a good deal, in the course of the night—thinking, too. I suppose that's what keeps me awake. It's wonderful what a deal of thinking there is in this life!"
He stopped to think over this, and I hastily took up the conversation, lest he should give over talking altogether.
"I suppose, sir," I said, "you are a great sportsman?" and I glanced at the gun on the wall.
"Oh, no!" he returned, hastily, "I was fond of my gun, at one time; but I have lost the fancy. I have so much else to do—" Here his hand wandered involuntarily to the heap of clothes by his side—then it went quickly back to his lap. (I thought he colored faintly.) He looked at me and then at the clothes in irresolute hesitation, and at last said, anxiously:
"Would it disturb you if I were to continue my work? It need not interrupt our conversation in the least, I assure you."
"Oh, please don't stop for me, sir," I cried, much shocked at the idea. (It is within the memory of the present generation that it was once held improper for little boys to disturb the occupations of their elders.)
"Thank you," he said, gravely, and, lifting a faded coat from the heap, he laid it across his lap, and began sewing a worn velvet collar upon it.
"I must have it ready for Sunday," he said; "pray converse."
I stared at him and forgot my manners.
"Is it your coat, sir?" I asked.
"It was my father's coat," he replied; "but I have cut it over for myself, and it fits me very well—very well indeed."
Every child is something of a snob, and I do not think we can fairly blame the child. We must consider that he has only material standards of comparison; that a fine coat is to him clearly and naturally an object of admiration, while it may take a life-time to learn the beauty of an ethical virtue; that, moreover, he is, by the necessity of his condition, a dependent, a pauper, who has not yet worked for his freedom and his self-respect. I felt ashamed of my hero when I saw him making over his father's old clothes for himself.
But he was unconscious of my secret condemnation, and he went on cheerfully:
"I should prefer to patronize the tailor in the town—the little tailor from Germany, I mean—he is a worthy man, and it is our duty, of course, to encourage the industries of the place; but my income—owing to circumstances which occurred very long ago—very long ago—is limited, yes, quite limited."
Whatever I may have felt in my small secret heart, I was mannerly enough to keep it to myself, and even to feign an interest in the old gentleman's confidences—for he went on to tell me with some pride of his achievements in tailoring, and of the almost inexhaustible stock of garments which his father had left behind him—garments, he assured me, much finer, in fabric and workmanship, than anything that later days could produce. The interest at last became real, in spite of myself, and although I felt that my sympathies were low and reprehensible, when the Squire (with grave apologies for the informality of the act) took off his old coat and tried on his new-old coat, I helped him with conscientious criticism on the set of the back and the fulness of the skirts.
We got to be quite easy and friendly with all this, and when we heard a knock at the door, I hastened to save my host the trouble of opening it.
"It's only an Indian, sir," I reported, with easy contempt.
This may sound like a startling announcement; but it was no painted brave who stood before me. It was only a very old Reservation Indian, hideous and wrinkled. Yet he was no darker, no more coarse of hair, and but little dirtier than any one of the French Canadians who lived on the outskirts of the town. I knew him for an Indian only by his high cheek-bones and his tall hat. I regarded him with scornful disgust; but it was only because I conceived that to be the feeling which an American boy ought to bear toward a colored person who could not speak English, and who lived by selling baskets and feather fans and bunches of Seneca grass.
"It's Abe," said the Squire; "come in, Abe."
Abe came in, thrust an empty basket into the Squire's hand, and stood still and silent, regarding me. One of his eyes was wholly blinded by a cataract; the other, as if it were uncomfortably conscious of having to do double duty, rolled about in a gruesome way. With this eye Abe examined me; and there was no friendship in his look.
The Squire took the basket, and put into it some packages which he took from a corner cupboard, talking all the while in a tone of cheery affability, of which I thoroughly disapproved. The Indian responded only by half-audible grunts, which might have meant either Yes or No.
"Ah, Abe," said the old gentleman; "and how is Abe to-night? How is the back, Abe? Did you have any difficulty in finding your way?—it's getting dark." (I had noted this, as I opened the door, and I had a twinge of conscience.) "Here's the bacon, Abe, and the beans, and the tea—but I can't let you have more than a quarter of a pound—you'll have to put catnip with it. And you have a little sugar left, have you not?—ah, yes, a little sugar left—well, that will have to do for the present, till better times come, Abe."
Then, with a kindly pat on the back, Abe was dismissed; but on the threshold he paused and turned to say:
"Um biddle new house this side town."
"Yes, yes, Abe," said the Squire, with a smile on his lips and a sad look in his eyes, "it'll come, it'll come. They will recognize our advantages some day, never fear."
And Abe vanished into the stormy twilight that was fast settling down.
"Abe was my body-servant when I was—when I was a young man," said the Squire; "he taught me to shoot—yes, to ride and to swim. We were great friends, Abe and I. And now he is old and half blind, I—I—we help each other along—yes, help each other along."
I had taken my hat to go, but the Squire did not notice me. He had gone to the fire, where he lifted the lid of the pot to glance at its contents. Then he sat down on the low chair I had just quitted, and talked, half to me, half to himself. At first he recalled the days of his hunting and fishing with Abe, and lingered over their common scrapes and adventures. Then he began to speak of his father—in a lower tone, almost reverential in its fondness—and at last he began the story of the wreck of the old man's great ambition. I stood with my hat in my hand, ready to take my leave; but I could no more have gone home than if I had stood on Robinson Crusoe's Island, and looked over his shoulder at the footprint on the sand. I heard the patter of the first rain-drops on the one window of the cabin, and the growling of the distant thunder; I heard the full rush of the summer storm break upon us, and the rain pouring gusty torrents upon the roof, but I stayed and listened and forgot all things, for my excited spirit was back in Myndert Gerrit's world, in Myndert Gerrit's generation.
"But it will all come back some day," he said, as he made an end of the story; "some day Congress will recognize the vast importance of this location, and build the pier we have asked for. And then it will be only a question of time—only a question of time—till they enclose the whole harbor. And then—and then—which is the better site—I ask you on your honor, sir, on your honor as a gentleman, which is the better—this, or that?"
He stretched out his long right arm and pointed to the new town, with an infinite contempt on his fine old face. His eyes glowed; his voice had grown deep and hollow, and firm once more.
"Some day we shall get the appropriation——"
"But we've got it now," I broke in, speaking for the first time.
"What—what do you mean, sir?"
"We got the appropriation yesterday. I heard Father say so last night—I mean, Mr. Tappan told Father."
He caught at the sleeve of my coat with his bony fingers.
"What do you say, sir? Say it again, sir!"
"I heard Mr. Tappan tell Father that we got the appropriation yesterday—yes, and he said something about three hundred thousand dollars, too!" I asserted, with vigor.
"Tappan!" he said; "they ought to know. You aren't mistaken? Say it again!"
His voice had now grown tremulous. He was standing erect, trembling with an excitement that frightened me. As well as I could, I repeated the brief conversation between the mayor of the town and my father. He heard me through, I thought, though his eyes glared straight ahead, as though he heard some distant sound. Then, when I ceased, he turned away from me and fell on his knees by the side of the bed, burying his face in his faded coat.
He knelt there so long that I was frightened, and after a while I touched him gently on the shoulder. He arose with a start, and I saw that he hardly knew where he was. Then his look fell upon me, and an expression of compunction came over his face.
"My poor boy!" he said; "I have been shamefully careless—shamefully careless. You should have been at home long ago. How have I treated the messenger of good tidings!" He smiled again, and this time not only with his lips. There was a light in his eyes that almost made me think him young.
"You cannot go home by yourself," he said; "you must let me go with you." With this he bustled about and brought from a corner a great mohair cloak, with a cape to it. The cape he took off, and fastened over my shoulders. Then he put on the cloak, and we set forth.
"I would ask you to stay and sup with me," he said, "but I fear your parents might be anxious—so we will postpone that pleasure—we will postpone it."
As we walked along, he held my hand, and occasionally patted it gently. He kept his face lifted somewhat toward the sky, although the rain beat on it. I thought it must be unpleasant for him; but when he glanced down at me I saw that he was smiling.
We came soon to the dark lane, and here he gently insisted upon carrying me. I made some protest; but he lifted me up, and I felt the muscles of his arm like a bar of iron under my thighs. His tall figure swayed a little; but he set a firm foot upon the slippery ground under the trees, and in a little while we were in the high-road. I got down then, and we walked together to my father's door. My heart was beating hard—harder than when I set out.
I am afraid it would have gone hard with me, for it was past six, and the maid was discharged, and my mother wellnigh in hysterics, and my father just setting out with a lantern to call the neighbors, when we arrived. But the Squire took so much blame upon himself, and pleaded for me with such courtly and gentle grace, that my parents contented themselves with harrowing my feelings, which were sore enough already, and so when my mother and I had wept enough, I was forgiven, and the Squire went back down the dark highway. He would not be persuaded to stay to supper. "His own was waiting," he said. Perhaps he found in his thoughts better company than we could offer him.
That evening I told my tale, and it excited interest enough to satisfy even a boy. When I came to the part about the tailoring, my mother drew in her breath as though she were in pain.
"Oh," she cried; "I wish we could do something for him but I suppose——"
My father shook his head.
"We could only wound him."
The comments of my parents on the whole story cleared my infant mind of one set of snobbish ideas, and I perceived that even old coats and Indians were entitled to respectful consideration from a white American boy who was still walking around in the clothes his parents had bought for him.
Nor was it long before Abe and I were friends. This friendship came as a corollary to my greater friendship for his patron. I was allowed to visit the Squire at all proper times and seasons, and there grew up between us a strong attachment. This association was of infinite value to me, and I humbly trust that it brought some pleasure into the dear old gentleman's life. It certainly drew him somewhat nearer to his fellow-men. On dark evenings he would walk home with me, and stay to chat with my father for a half-hour. Never could he be prevailed upon to share our evening meal, save on a formal invitation, delivered the day before. Then he would come in his best black satin stock and his favorite coat, and would hand my mother in to the dining-room with pomp and circumstance.
On one of these occasions we had a Distinguished Guest, a Travelled Celebrity at the house, who fell in love with the Squire's sweet and simple courtliness. "Madam," said the Celebrity to my mother, after Mr. Gerrit was gone; "I need no inducement to avail myself of the chance of accepting your hospitality; but were I invited to meet that gentleman who has just left, in the hovel of a Pawnee Indian, I would come, if I had to come from the Cape of Good Hope." This praise of my idol so filled my boyish heart that I lay awake half the night, thinking of it.
As the years went on the Squire and Abe took me into their united lives, and we formed a triple alliance. Poor Abe's part in this was but small. He lived on the Squire's slender bounty, and the only "help" he could give in return was a lively sympathy with his benefactor's ambition. Of this he knew more than I had thought possible. As I grew older, and acquired an intelligent comprehension of the hope that was the old Squire's life, I found that Abe had concentrated all the mental powers he possessed on that one subject.
When I was fourteen, the great pier was nearing completion. It ran north eastward from Far Point, and was to be supplemented by a similar structure extending due north from the eastward end of the town. From the mouth of the inlet we watched its daily growth, expectant of an end unforeseen by the builders.
It was the first warm day in June, and the three of us sat on the shore. Abe, with his head cocked on one side, so as to bring his work within the range of his good eye, was making a fleet of toy ships out of the chips washed to our beach from the distant lumber-yard. We watched him intently.
He launched eleven ships, and was setting the twelfth in the water when, of a sudden, he turned his one eye toward the lake, and with his trembling thin brown fingers pointed to a stake set amid heavy stones, a hundred feet from the shore. There the first ship of his fleet danced in the breeze—danced out to the stake—beyond it—into how many feet of smooth water I know not, for it had not gone two yards before the Squire was laughing and crying at once, I was shouting with all the strength of my lungs, and even the old Indian had raised his stiff arms above his head, and stood swaying them from side to side, thanking his Indian God after his Indian fashion.
The great pier on Far Point had crawled out till it stemmed the current and turned it off from the shore. With every stone that should be laid, with every day's work, that terrible stream would be forced further and further out—further and further away from our level shore. Our day had come.
The engineers had builded better than they knew. The old Gerrit site had been such a thing of tradition, such a futile memory of the past, that it had been left out of the towns-people's calculations, and no one, save the Squire, had considered that the removal of the current from its low shore must bring it once more into usefulness. But Gerrit's site spoke for itself. The pier crawled out fifty feet further, that summer, and the water in the inlet began to sink. No longer fed by the resistless current, it fell away in scattered pools. In September I walked dry-shod where I had waded ankle-deep in June.
"Our time has come," the Squire said, his face beaming; "we'll buy the old house back, and when you come to pass the night with me, my boy, remember that your room is the little one over the front entry—you won't forget—eh?—you won't forget?"
It was true enough. Something that looked like fortune lay close ahead. The ship-captains brought the news of the shifted channel; the towns-folk came out to look at "the flats a-dryin' up;" hard-featured men of business discussed the ways and means of draining and filling in. By September there was no talk of building the second pier between the Squire's land and Gerrit's Gate—it was to go westward from the extremity of Near Point, and there was to be a Gerrit's Gate in very deed between the two breakwaters, where through Prosperity should come from the North, scattering plenty from full hands.
Of course the lands should have been sold for taxes, over and over again; the Squire had but the simplest notions of business, and altogether he would have reaped little good of his fortune had not my father and a few of the older residents made a friendly league to protect him. He was deeply grateful to them, although he had not the slightest comprehension of what they did for him. They secured his property to him, and he sold his first lot in October, and marked it off on his father's map. He would recognize no later survey.
He sold one or two more lots, and then the sale stopped. Nobody was willing to invest money where it could only lie idle until the completion of the harbor-works gave the new port a positive value. This grieved the old gentleman's soul. He had begun to look upon his father's old house as his own; it seemed a hardship to be kept out of it another year just for the want of a few beggarly thousands of ready money. That was all that he needed. The present owner was ready and willing to sell. He was a prosperous Westerner, who had brought an ailing wife to Gerrit's Gate in the hope that the strong lake winds might strengthen her. They had, however, availed only to keep her within doors and make her fretful. Mr. Garbutt, for himself, was disgusted with the whole town. He despised its petty hopes, he laughed at its modest future; he called it old-fashioned and behind-the-times, and he openly express ed his desire to sell out at cost and go to some region where, as he expressed it, things was alive.
Fifteen thousand dollars would buy the whole Point, and the Squire made several attempts to get this money at a ruinous sacrifice. The friends who had saved him before stepped in and drove off the sharpers who would have taken advantage of him, and for the first time I saw the old man bitterly and unjustly angry. He was kept out of his house, he cried—why were they keeping him out of his house?
By November the Squire had become so fretful and unreasonable that his friends decided upon raising the money for him at their own risk. This took some time. Money was not plentiful in the town, and it was hard to negotiate a loan that must wait a year or eighteen months for its interest and arrears of interest. During the week required for this piece of financiering, I was deputed to keep an eye on my old friend, and I passed most of my time, out of school-hours, in the little cabin which the Squire had declared he would not quit until he took possession of his father's house.
The last day of my watch, I went to the post of duty with a heart less light than usual. For two days the old gentleman had been silent, dull, and depressed. I wished the financiers would hurry up, and let the Squire and me be happy and cheerful once more.
I was surprised to find the Squire cheerful, even gay. His depression had vanished; had I been a little older I might have suspected the feverish excitement that had taken its place. Being only a boy, I accepted it gratefully, and we set about cooking our supper. We had royal suppers nowadays. There was a hot, peppery fish-chowder that the Squire alone could make, a great slice of smoked eel, broiled to a rich golden brown, and baked potatoes, the best in the world—baked in the ashes. And new cider to wash it all down!
But though all was good, and I ate as a healthy boy should eat, the Squire hardly touched his food, and seemed to be in haste to make an end of the meal. When it was done, he changed his everyday coat for his best—the same old best coat—and took down his great cloak from its hook.
"Come, my boy," he said, excitedly; "come with me! I've triumphed at last—at last—at last!"
"What do you mean, sir?" I asked.
"I've got the money!" he shouted, almost like a madman: "they'll keep me out of my own house no longer. I've got the money. I sold the water-front to-day, my boy, and I've got the money, here, here, here!" and he slapped his breast-pocket with his trembling old hand.
"Sold the water-front?" I cried—"oh, sir——"
"Never mind, never mind!" he said, frowning; "there's more—there are acres and acres. And what do I care for it all? I'll have my father's house this night—this night—you hear me, sir!"
I loved him well, but I was only a boy, and I had neither the wit nor the strength to combat his resolution. I felt that my father should be sent for; but I knew that I could not find him in time to be of service. The Squire was determined to go to Mr. Garbutt that night and buy the house. I spoke of necessary papers; but he would have none of them. What did he care for papers? Let the lawyers see to the papers in their own good time. That was their work. He would pay his money, and own his house. He could not sleep in it; but he would sleep owning it.
The northwest gale was a tempest when we started up the hill. It was hard work to fight our way across its path; and the booming of the great waves far off at the end of the point frightened me, long as I had known that dreary sound.
When the great door of the house opened for us, and we stepped into the broad entrance hall, we were breathing hard, I from exhaustion, he, I verily believe, from sheer excitement. He looked about him with a wild, uncertain stare. Perhaps, for the moment, he thought it was a dream. Then he grasped my hand firmly, and stalked ahead of the servant into the drawing-room, a vast apartment where Mr. Garbutt sat in his velvet smoking-jacket, grand and lonely.
In Mr. Garbutt I found a friend. He was short, he was fat, he was vulgar in every stitch of his clothing; but he had brains in his big bald head, and a heart sound as the diamond on his breast. The Squire stated his errand, struggling between dignity and impetuosity, and Mr. Garbutt listened, at first in astonishment, and then with a quick understanding of the situation, which he promptly conveyed to me by a quick, significant twist of one eyelid. It was not even a wink; but I knew that he understood. When the Squire ended, he rose, politely.
"Set down, Mr. Gerrit," he said; "set down, sir. We folks out West do business putty lively, but we ain't got to your style of speed yet. This thing ain't to be done quite so quick."
The Squire forced himself to sit down.
"It must be done to-night, Mr. Garbutt," he began.
"It'll be done to-night," said Mr. Garbutt, reassuringly; "but it's got to be done business-like. I can't give you a deed——"
"Your word, your word, Mr. Garbutt," cried the Squire; "your word is quite enough for me!"
"Ef I sh'd die to-night," said Mr. Garbutt, impressively; "my word ain't wuth shucks to my executors, without papers to back it. I know them, 'n' you don't. Now, you jest dror up to that little desk there, an' you write me a little sort of a letter, makin' me an offer for the prop'ty, an I'll write a letter acceptin' your offer. Then I can stow your money away 'n' feel that all's business-like 'n' right. How's that?"
The Squire sat down at the gaudy little desk, and tried to write; but his hand trembled so that what he wrote (I have the sheet now) was but a tremulous scrawl that no man could read.
Meanwhile, Mr. Garbutt was addressing me in my capacity of guardian.
"Know your pa, don't I?" he said. "You kinder look after the old man, eh? Got sorter crazy on this business, ain't he? Well, you tell your pa that I'll lock the old man's money up safe for the night, an he can call 'n' get it when he wants to. Oughter have some one appointed to take charge of him. Heard he sold out his whole water-front to-day to them swindlin' speculators from Buffalo. Well, I'll fix him up somehow to-night, and quiet him down a bit. Can you git him home?"
Mr. Garbutt kept his promise, and he managed matters with a skill at which I marvel as I look back upon it. When the Squire had finished his poor pretence of writing, the Westerner took the scrawled sheet, made an effective pretense of reading it slowly and critically, and then sat down at the desk and wrote a business-like acceptance, which he made me read, after the Squire had looked at it. He examined the drafts which the Squire tendered him, and laid them away in a gorgeously bedizened safe in the wall.
"There," he said, "that's settled. Possession in May, as per my letter. But if you don't conclude to close, Mr. Gerrit, it ain't no more than an option. Suit yourself. Anyways, we'll wet the transaction."
He rang for a servant, and had a decanter of sherry and three heavy cut-glasses set on the table. We must each take a drink, to bind the bargain, he said.
We filled our glasses and lifted them. Mr. Garbutt and I were about to drink, when we saw that the Squire held his glass poised before his lips, and that he looked expectantly toward us. I did not understand what this meant; but Mr. Garbutt did.
"Thinks he's at home," he whispered to me, with a chuckle. Then he inclined his head toward the Squire.
"Your health, Mr. Gerrit," he said; and we both drank, and the Squire after us, bowing courteously.
"I don't blame you, Mr. Gerrit," said Mr. Garbutt, lolling back in a great velvet easy-chair, "for buying this piece of prop'ty, as a matter of fancy. It's a first-rate house, an' a good bit of land, I'll say that for it. But as for me, this town ain't live enough for me. Mrs. Garbutt, she mostly goes to bed long about eight or ha'-pas'-eight, an I set here 'n' read Patent Office Reports till I go to sleep. If there's any society here, it ain't took the trouble to root me out."
Here he noticed that the Squire's glance was wandering about the room. The old man was looking at the unfamiliar furniture in a puzzled way.
"Things seem a kinder new, eh?" suggested Mr. Garbutt. "Well, I put some money into this here set. Rosewood, the hull of it. Good stuff—the best there was when I bought it. Maybe you'd like to take it off my hands?—well, no, I s'pose not. Come pretty high. Well, now! I hadn't thought of that. There's all your old traps up garret. Found 'em here when I come here, an' couldn't quite get a straight title to 'em with the house, so I packed up these. Plenty of room, says I—might's well be filled 's not. I didn't jest feel safe to give 'em away—don't know as anybody 'd want em. First-rate furn'cher, too; but mahogany—old's the hills—out 'f fashion. No sort of good to me."
"Did you say, sir, "asked the Squire, with a suppressed earnestness that suggested a return of his earlier excitement, "that my father's furniture is now in the attic story? I should greatly like to see it, sir, I should greatly like to see it."
"Why, cert'nly," said Mr. Garbutt, rising, with an uneasy glance at me; "glad to have you see it if you want to; but I don't think you'll find any use for it. Putty well eaten up by this time, I guess."
It was clear that the Squire had set his mind on it, in spite of anything that his host could politely suggest, and as soon as Mr. Garbutt could procure a hand-lamp, we began the toilsome ascent of the back-stairs. Here the windows faced the north, and caught the fury of the storm. The external wall of the house fairly shivered as the recurrent blasts struck it, and the strong wind, coming in through the cracks of the windows, set our lamp flickering. I was second in our line, and, looking over my shoulder, I saw the Squire's familiar face distorted in the wavering light. Up and up we mounted, until we crawled through a narrow hole, and a smell of dry dust and seasoned wood told us that we were in the garret.
Mr. Garbutt lifted the lamp above his head. Its light illumined but a small space in that great chamber under the roof. It fell upon the old furniture of the old house—great pieces of solid mahogany, of broad and generous lines. The cushions were moth-eaten and faded to the color of the dust that covered the polished wood. Still there was a stern dignity about their dishonored forms: almost a sentient resentment of the indignity put upon them. "First-class furniture—in its time," said Mr. Garbutt, as if he felt the need of apology.
The Squire said nothing. He walked among the flickering shadows, and looked from one thing to another with a steady gaze. Once or twice he laid his hand on some table or chair, and I thought that he had a particular reason for doing so.
After he had seen all that lay within the light of Mr. Garbutt's lamp, he came back to where we were standing, and, laying his hand on my head, gently stroked my hair. He must have stood thus full a minute, while neither Mr. Garbutt nor I spoke. Then he turned aside, and going to the west window (he walked through the darkness as one who knows his way) he opened it and looked out. I followed him, and looked over his shoulder.
The Squire looked out upon the same view on which his father had gazed when the fortunes of the Gerrits were at their height. Only, now, he could see nothing of the plain of promise upon which his father had rested his eyes. All below us was hid in blackness. Looking toward the west, we could see the mad turbulence of the bay, and just beyond it a line of clear white—a line that came and went, was broad and dazzling for a second, and then narrowed into darkness. It was the sea breaking on the great pier.
As we stood there, we could hear nothing but the deafening roar of the wind as it rushed in great shuddering blasts through the window. Then, as the ear grew accustomed to the noise, we caught the tremendous undertones of the storm, and at last could distinguish the heavy fall of each successive wave upon the far-off pier.
I was gently drawing the Squire away when there came one of these falls so tremendous that it seemed as though the house shook in answer to it. We all stood still, and then came a second so awful that our very thoughts stood still, and we were like stunned men for the moment. When we turned our eyes to the window, we saw the line of white for the last time; a fainter sound of falling billows reached our ears, and we saw only the confused turmoil of dark waves where the pier had been.
"Where is the old man?" Garbutt asked, a moment or two later: and we both listened. "Great God! " he cried, "where is he going?"
We could hear his footsteps going down the uncarpeted stairs, and we followed him as fast as we could; but he was outside before we got to the outer door at the foot.
Garbutt tried manfully to run; but he had no strength for such a race. I was strong and swift, for my age, and I ran at full speed down the winding path, and in the first flash of lightning saw the Squire far below me, rushing down the hillside, through the trees and over the rocks—taking, as I saw him, a leap that would have killed any sane man.
He was far ahead of me when I reached the level of the shore. I had lost him in the darkness, but a great wave rolled up a wall of light, and against it I saw the Squire's form, with his arms raised high above his head. He ran upon the wave; I saw him beat his arms against it as if to drive it back, and then the wave melted into the night, and when the next wave came, I could not see him.
It was six o clock in the morning when I again came to the place with the searching party. A dim sun shone from the east over the heaving waters. Against its light we saw Indian Abe coming up from the lake, along the edge of the flooded inlet, bearing on his back his master's body.