From The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1927)
Copyright, 1918, by Harper & Brothers.
Barr Center almost always excited the amusement of strangers. “Why Barr Center?” they would inquire, and follow up the query, if they were facetious, with another, “The center of what?”
In reality, Barr Center, the little village where lived the Edgewaters, the Ellertons, the Dinsmores, and a few more very good old New England families, was hardly anything but a center, and almost, regarded geographically, the mere pin prick of a center of four villages. As a matter of fact, the apex of a triangle would have been a more accurate description. The village came first on the old turnpike from the city; Barr-by-the-Sea was on the right, three miles away; Leicester, which had formerly been West Barr, was three miles to the left; South Barr was three miles to the south.
There was a popular saying that Barr Center was three miles from everywhere. All four villages had, of course, been originally one, the Precinct of Barr. Leicester had been the first to revolt and establish a separate township and claim a different name. Leicester was the name of the one wealthy old family of the village, which had bestowed its soldiers' monument, its town hall, and its library, and had improved the cemetery and contributed half of the high school.
Barr-by-the-Sea came next, and that had serious and legitimate reasons for individuality. From being a mere summer colony of tents and rude cottages it had grown to be almost a city, frequented by wealthy city folk, who had beautiful residences along the shore. Barr-by-the-Sea was so large and important that it finally made an isosceles triangle of the original Precinct of Barr. All summer long it hummed with gay life, ending in the autumn with a carnival as a grand crescendo. Barr-by-the-Sea was, however, not the center. It boasted no old family, resident all the year round, as did Barr Center.
South Barr was the least important of all. It was simply the petering out of the Barrs. It was a little farming hamlet which humbly sold butter, fresh eggs, and garden truck to Barr-by-the-Sea for the delectation of the rich folk who dwelt in the hotels and boarding houses and stately residences on the ocean front.
Barr-by-the-Sea was an exclusive summer resort. Its few permanent inhabitants were proud of it, and none were prouder than old Captain Joe Dickson and his wife Martha. The Dicksons lived in a tiny house beyond the fashionable limits. They were on the opposite side of the road from the sea. The house stood in a drift of sandy soil, pierced by coarse beach grass like green swords. Captain Joe, however, had reclaimed a little garden from the easily conquered waste, and his beans, his cucumbers, and his tomatoes were flourishing.
In front of the house Martha had two great tubs of hydrangeas, which she colored a ghastly blue with bluing water from her weekly wash. Captain Joe did not approve of the unnatural blue.
“Why don't ye leave the posies the way the Lord made 'em?” he inquired.
“They have them this way at a lot of the grand places,” replied Martha. “The big bugs color them.”
“Ruther guess the big bugs ain't any bigger than the Lord A'mighty,” returned Captain Joe. “I guess if He had thought them posies would look better blue He would have made 'em blue in the fust place.”
Captain Joe, having spoken his mind, puffed his pipe amiably over the tops of the blue flowers. He sat on his bit of a porch, tipping back comfortably in his old chair.
Martha did not prolong the discussion. She was not much of a talker. Captain Joe always claimed that a voyage with him around the world in a sailing vessel had cured her of talking too much in her youth.
“Poor Marthy used to be a regular buzz saw at the talk,” he would say, “but rockin' round the world with such a gale that she couldn't hear her own tongue wag, and bein' scared 'most to death, cured her.”
Whether the great, primeval noises of the world had, in fact, subdued the woman to silence, rendering her incapable of much sounding of her own little note all through her life, or not, she was a very still woman. She went silently about her household tasks. When they were done there was much mending while her husband smoked.
Over across the road the littered, wave-marked beach sloped broadly to the sea. There were several boats anchored. One was Captain Joe's, the Martha Dickson. He had been out in it fishing that very morning, had had a good catch, and sold well to the customers who flocked on the beach when the fishing boats came in. The rich people sent their servants with baskets for the fresh fish.
Joe had sold his catch, with the exception of one fine cod, which Martha was making into a savory chowder. Captain Joe sniffed with pleasure the odor of frying onions which were to make the foundation of the good dish. He gazed at the sea, which now and then lapped into view with a foaming crest over the beach. There was no passing, as a rule. The fine road for driving and motoring stopped several yards before Joe's house was reached. He was mildly surprised, therefore, when a runabout with a red cross on the front, with a young man at the wheel and a pretty young girl by his side, came skidding over the sand and stopped.
“Any fresh fish?” inquired the young man, who was Doctor Tom Ellerton.
Joe shook his head.
“Know where I can get any?”
“Guess mebbe you can get a cod at the third house from me. He was late gettin' in and didn't sell the hull. But you'll capsize if you try to go there in that.”
Tom eyed the road billowing with sand. “Sit here while I find out,” he told Margy, his sister. She nodded.
After Tom had gone plowing through the sand, Captain Joe rose stiffly. He was not a very old man, but a broken leg had not been set properly, and kept him from his life-work of cruising the high seas.
He limped up to the car. “Pooty hot day,” he remarked.
“Very,” replied Margy.
“Wish I'd had the fish. Sold all my catch except the cod Marthy's cookin'.”
Margy sniffed appreciatively. “A chowder?” she inquired.
Joe nodded. “About the only way to cook a cod. Goin' to have yourn cooked that way?”
“It isn't for us,” explained Margy. “My brother is trying to find some really fresh fish for an old lady who is ill. My brother is a doctor. He has just been to see her. She wanted fresh fish, and he said he would try to find some. Their servants are all busy because they are closing the house. They are going to sail for Europe tomorrow.”
“What house?” inquired Joe, eagerly.
“The very large house on the ocean side of the road, about half a mile back.”
“The one with all them yaller flowers in the front yard, and a garden of 'em on the roof, with vines hangin' over?”
Margy nodded. “That sounds like it,” said she. “There are two square towers, one on each side, then the flowers and vines are on the balcony between; and there is a roof garden, too; and there are quantities of beautiful flowers on the grounds. It is a lovely place.”
“Know the name of the folks that live there?”
“Willard,” replied Margy. She eyed Joe with surprise.
“Lord!” said he. “They goin' away so soon?”
He paid no more attention to Margy, but limped into the house, and the girl heard loud exclamations. Then she saw Tom coming with a fine glistening fish in each hand.
“I have one for us, too,” he said as he got into the car. “They are fine fish.”
Tom put on power, as he wished not only to deliver the fish to the Willards fresh, but to reach home with his own in good condition, and it was a scorching day. Margy clung to her side of the car as they spun along. After the fish had been left at the grand Willard house, and a beautiful young lady in a pale-blue gown had thanked the young doctor charmingly, and they were on a smooth road, Margy asked Tom why he thought the lame man, of whom he had inquired about the fish, had been so interested in the Willard family.
“Oh, probably he is one of the old residents here. I discovered some time ago that they feel a queer interest in the comings and goings of the summer folks,” said Tom. “Their lives are pretty narrow eight months of the year. They have to be interested in something outside themselves. I think lots of them have a feeling that they own a good deal that they only have liberty to look at.”
“I can see how a fisherman can feel that he owns the sea,” said Margy. “Maybe it is because so many of them are fishermen.”
She looked reflective with her deep-set blue eyes. Tom cast a quick glance at her. “Maybe,” he said.
Tom was not imaginative. When Margy said things like that he always wondered if she were well. He began to plan a prescription for her as they sped along.
He did not know how intensely Margy had felt that she owned the sea, just from looking at it, when she had sat in the car waiting for him when he was making professional calls, and that her reasoning was quite logical and not unnecessarily imaginative. If she considered that she owned the sea, which is the vast untaxed asset of the world, how much more would the fisherman who got his daily bread from it?
Meantime, the fisherman with whom she had talked was in excited colloquy with his wife in the kitchen and living room of the little house. The room, though comfortable and clean, was poorly equipped, with the exception of various articles that were at direct odds with all else. There was a cooking stove, on which the chowder was steaming. There was a kitchen table, set for a meal with the commonest utensils, save that in the center, ready for the chowder, was a bowl of old Japanese pottery which would have adorned a palace. Martha did not think much of this bowl, which Joe had brought home from one of his voyages. She considered the decorations ugly, and used it to save a lovely one from the ten-cent store, decorated with pink rosebuds. Martha could understand pink rosebuds, but she could not fathom dragons and ugly, grinning faces of Oriental fancy.
There was a lounge with a hideous cover, two old chairs worn into hollows of comfort, two kitchen chairs, an old clock, and a superb teakwood table. Martha did not care for that, either. The contortions of the carved wood gave her a vague uneasiness. She kept it covered with an old fringed spread, and used to set her bread to rise on it. On the mantel, besides the clock and three kerosene lamps, was a beautiful old Satsuma vase, and a pressed glass one, which Martha loved. The glass one was cracked, and she told Joe she did not see why the other vase could not have suffered instead. Joe agreed with her. He did not care much for the treasures which he had brought from foreign ports, except the shells — lovely, pinked-lipped ones that were crowded on the shelf between the other things, and completely filled more shelves which Joe had made expressly to hold them. The shelves were in three tiers, and the shells were mounted on them, catching the light from broken surfaces of rose and pearl and silver. Martha privately considered that the shells involved considerable work. She washed them carefully, and kept them free from dust, but she also admired them.
In front of the outer door was a fine old prayer rug of dull, exquisite tones. Martha kept it there for Joe to wipe his feet on, because it was so faded, but she had a bright red one in the center of the room. Joe never stepped on that until his shoes were entirely clean. He had made quite sure there was not a speck of dust to injure this brilliant rug before he entered to give Martha the intelligence.
“They are goin' away from Our House tomorrow,” said he.
Martha, standing over the chowder, turned, spoon in hand. She waved the spoon as if it were a fan. “Before the carnival?” said she.
Martha was a small, wide-eyed woman with sleek hair. She was not pretty, but had a certain effect of being exactly in place which gave the impression of prettiness to some people.
“They are goin' to sail for Europe,” said Joe.
“I suppose for His health,” said Martha. Nobody could excel the air of perfect proprietorship with which she uttered the masculine pronoun. The man indicated might have been her own father, or her brother, or her son.
“I guess so,” said Joe. “He has looked pooty bad lately when I've seen him.”
“I suppose They are goin'?”
“I s'pose so, because they are closin' the house. That young doctor from the Center stopped out here just now, and wanted to know where he could get fresh fish, and I told him I guessed Mac had some left; and whilst he was gone his sister — she was with him — told me they were closin' the house, and Old Lady Willard wanted fresh fish, and they were out huntin' for it, because all the help was busy.”
“That means Old Lady Willard's goin', and Him, and his Wife, and the three girls, Grace and Marie and Maud, and the two little boys.”
“And they will take the ladies' maids, and His man. Maybe that pretty young lady that visits there so much will go, too.”
“Maybe; and the lady that teaches the little boys will go.”
“O Lord, yes! They couldn't get on without her. My! there will be 'most enough to fill the ship.”
“About enough to sink my old one I sailed around when you was aboard,” said Joe, and laughed.
Martha never laughed. The seriousness of New England was in her very soul. She was happy and good-natured, but she saw nothing whatever to laugh at in all creation. She never had.
“Land, yes!” said she. “You know there wa'n't any room in that little cabin.”
“Not more'n enough to hold you and your Bible and sewin' machine,” said Captain Joe. He cast a glance at the old sewing machine as he spoke, and laughed again. It was perfectly useless because of that long-ago voyage, and the fact always amused him. Martha considered it no laughing matter. The sewing machine was dear to her, even in its wrecked state. She kept the Bible on it, and a little cup and saucer.
“The chowder's done,” said she. “Draw up, Joe.”
Joe drew up a chair to the table. “Smells prime,” said he.
“Guess it's all right.”
“Ef your chowders ever wa'n't all right I'd think the sun was goin' to rise in the west next mornin',” said Joe.
Martha ladled the chowder into the beautiful bowl, then into heavy, chipped plates. The two ate with relish.
“Tomorrow's Saturday,” said Joe. “That means we can go to Our House come Sunday.”
Martha nodded. Her good mouth widened in the semblance of a smile. Her steady eyes gleamed with happy intelligence at her husband.
“It will seem nice,” said she. “Land! I'd been thinkin' we might have to wait till 'way into October, the way we did last year, and now it's only the first of August.”
“I'm feelin' jest as set up as you be about it,” said Joe.
That night all the family from the great house where Tom Ellerton had called went by train to Boston. They were to stay in the city overnight to be ready for the steamer. Not one of the numerous company even noticed Captain Joe Dickson and his wife Martha, who were at the station watching them closely, hearing everything that was said, noting all details — the baggage, the host of servants.
All the servants were to be out of the house next day, the Dicksons heard Her tell another lady who inquired. “Only a caretaker, the same old colored man we always employ,” stated Mrs. Richard Willard, tall, elegant, a bit weary of manner. “The servants will finish closing the house tomorrow, then some of them have vacations, and the rest will be in our Boston house. We take only our maids and Mr. Willard's man up tonight. We shall not go to the city house at all ourselves. It will be much more sensible to stay at the hotel.”
“Of course,” said the lady. Then she said something about an unexpected start, and so early in the season, and Mrs. Willard replied that to her nothing was ever unexpected. That had ceased with her youth, and Mr. Willard was not quite well, and there were seasons all over creation. She said that with a pleasant smile — weary, however.
Martha eyed her keenly when she and Joe, after the train with all the Willards on board had pulled out, were walking home.
“She said that She didn't look none too strong, and she guessed it was a good thing She was going.” Martha said that as if Mrs. Richard Willard, who had never heard of her, was her dearly beloved friend or relative.
Joe nodded solemnly. “She did look sorter peaked,” he agreed. “As for Him, he didn't look no worse than usual to me, but I guess it's jest as well for them they're off, let alone us.”
The remark seemed enigmatic, but Martha understood. They walked home from the station. They passed the Willard house, standing aloof from the highway like a grand Colonial lady.
“The awnin's are down,” said Martha, “and they've begun to board up the winders.”
“It is unlooked for, as far as we are concerned,” said Martha, with a happy widening of her lips.
“Day arter tomorrer — only think of it!” said Captain Joe.
“Goin' out fishin' tomorrer?”
“Reckon not; got an considerable today, and I want to git my hair cut tomorrer.”
“I'm goin' to trim my bunnit over, and fix my best dress a little, too; and I guess your best suit needs brushin'.”
“There's a spot on the coat.”
“I'll git it off. Land! I do hope Sunday is pleasant.”
“Goin' to be. It's a dry moon,” declared Joe.
However, Sunday, although fair, was one of those fervid days of summer which threatened storm.
“It's goin' to shower,” declared Martha. She was clad in her best black silk, hot, and tightly fitted, trimmed with cascades of glittering jet. A jet aigrette on her bonnet caught the light. She had fastened a vivid rose on one side of the bonnet to do honor to the occasion. Crowning glory — she wore her white gloves, her one pair, which was the treasure of her wardrobe.
“Better take the umbrell', I guess,” said Joe.
“Guess you'd better.”
Joe held his head stiffly because of his linin collar. He wore a blue suit much too large for him, but it was spotless. He took the umbrella from behind the door. It was distinctly not worthy of the occasion, although it was entirely serviceable. Still, it was large, and greenish-black, and bulged determinedly from its mooring of rubber at the top.
Martha, as they walked along, looked uncomfortably at the umbrella. “Can't ye roll the umbrell' up tight, the way I see 'em?” she inquired.
Joe stopped, unfastened the rubber strap, and essayed to roll it. It was in vain. “The umbrell' is too thick,” he said. “No use, Marthy. It's a good umbrell'. If it showers it will keep it off, but I can't make it look slim.”
“Well, don't show it any more than you can help,” admonished Martha.
Joe henceforth carried the umbrella between himself and Martha. It continually collided with their legs, but Martha's black-silk skirt flopped over its green voluminousness and it was comparatively unseen.
“I declare; it does seem like showerin',” said Joe.
“You said it was a dry moon.”
“Ef thar's anything in nature to be depended on least of anything else it's a dry moon,” said Joe, with an air of completely absolving himself from all responsibility in the matter of the moon.
“Of course in such hot weather nobody can tell when a thunder-tempest is goin' to come up,” said Martha. She was extremely uncomfortable in her tight black raiment. Drops of perspiration stood on her forehead.
“If we were goin' anywhere else I'd take off my gloves,” said she.
“Well, Marthy, long as it's the first time this year, reckon you'd better stand it, if you can,” returned Joe. “My collar is about chokin' me, but it's the first time this year we're goin' there, you know, Marthy.”
“That's just the way I feel,” agreed Martha.
The sun beat upon their heads. “Ef the umbrell' was a little better-lookin' I'd h'ist her,” said Joe.
“Now, Joe, you know you can't.”
“I know it, Marthy. I can't.”
They were now in the midst of a gay, heterogeneous Sunday throng. The church bells were ringing. A set of chimes outpealed the rest. Elegantly arrayed people — the ladies holding brilliant parasols at all angles above their heads crowned with plumes and flowers; the gentlemen in miraculously creased trousers, many of them moving with struts, swinging sticks — met and went their way. The road was filled with a never-ending procession of motor cars, carriages, horses, and riders. Barr-by-the-Sea was displaying her charms like a beauty at a ball.
Many were bound for church; more for pleasure. There were country people dressed in cheap emulation of the wealthy, carrying baskets with luncheon, who had come to Barr-by-the-Sea to spend Sunday and have an outing. They were silent, foolishly observant, and awed by the splendors around them.
Joe Dickson and his wife Martha moved as the best of them. There was no subserviency in them. They had imbibed the wide freedom and lordliness of the sea, and at any time moved among equals; but today their errand made them move as lords. By what childlike sophistry it had come to pass none could tell, but Joe Dickson, poor ex-captain of a sailing vessel, and his wife Martha were, in their own conviction, on their way to reëstablishment in the best mansion on that coast, inhabited by the wealthy of the country.
When they reached the Willard house Joe and Martha ducked under the iron chain across the carriage drive, and proceeded along the glittering smoothness bordered by brilliant flowers, having no realization of the true state of affairs.
“I declare, it does seem good to get back,” said Joe.
“It certainly does,” said Martha, “and so much earlier than we'd looked forward to.”
“I calculated they might stay till late in October, the way they did last year,” said Joe, joyously. “Just see that red-geranium bed, Marthy.”
“Them ain't geraniums; them is begonias,” said Martha, haughtily.
“It always seems to me as if all the flowers was geraniums,” said Joe. He laughed.
Martha did not smile. “They ain't,” said she.
They passed around to the back of the grand house. The wide veranda was cleared except for two weather-beaten old chairs. The windows, except one on the second floor, were boarded over. The house looked as if asleep, with closed eyes, before that magnificent ocean, a vast brilliance as of gemlike facets reflecting all the glory of the whole earth and the heavens above the earth. The tide was coming in. Now and then a wave broke with a rainbow toss, quite over the sea wall of the beach. The coast in places — and this was one of them — was treacherous.
Captain Joe and his Martha sat down in the rude chairs. Martha sighed a sigh of utter rapture.
“Land! it is certainly nice to be here again,” said she.
Joe, however, scowled at the sea wall. “They had ought to have seen to that wall afore they went off,” he said.
“Land! It's safe, ain't it?”
“I dunno'. Nobody never knows nothin' when the sea's consarned. Ef they had asked me I'd said: ‘Hev a lot of men on the job, and make sure there ain't no shaky places in that 'ere wall; and whilst you're about it, build it up about six foot higher. It wouldn't cut off your view none.’ The hull of it is, the sea never quits the job. Everything on earth quits the job, one way or t'other, but that sea is right on, and she's goin' to be right on it; and bein' right on the job, and never quittin', means somethin' doin' and somethin' bein' done, and nobody knows just what.”
“I guess it's all right,” said Martha. “It ain't likely that they would have gone off and left this house unless it was; and money ain't no object.”
“Sometimes folks with money gits the wrong end of the bargain,” said Joe. “Money don't mean nothin' to the sea. It's swallowed more'n the hull earth holds, and it's ready to swallow till the day of jedgment. That wall had ought to be looked arter.”
There was a sound of the one unboarded window being opened, and it immediately framed an aged colored face, with a fringe of gray beard like wool. The owner of the face could not be seen, and, because of the veranda roof, he could not see, but, his ears being quick to note sounds above the rush of the waters, he heard Joe and Martha talking on the veranda. Presently he came up the veranda steps. He was the caretaker, and his door of entrance and exit was in the basement, under the veranda. He was a tall old colored man with an important mien.
When his head appeared above the veranda floor Joe and Martha rose. “Good day, Sam,” they said almost in concert.
Sam bowed with dignity. “I 'lowed it was you,” he said, then sat down on a fixed stone bench near the chairs.
“So they've gone,” said Joe, as he and Martha resumed their seats.
“Yassir. Mr. Richard is kind of pindlin', and the doctor 'lowed he'd better get away. They went day before yesterday, and all the help last night.”
Joe nodded. Martha nodded. They all sat still, watching the waves dash at the sea wall and break over it.
“They had ought to have looked at that wall,” said Joe, presently.
The colored man laughed with the optimism of his race. “That wall has held more'n twenty year — eber since the house was built,” said he. “Wall all right.”
“Dunno',” said Joe.
Martha was not as optimistic as the colored man, but she was entirely happy. “Seems sorter nice to be settin' here ag'in, Sam,” said she.
“Yes'm,” said Sam.
“We've got a baked fish for dinner, and some fresh beans,” said Martha. “We thought you'd come and have dinner with us, the way you always do the first day.”
“I 'lowed you'd ask me, thank ye, marm,” said Sam, with his wonderful dignity.
“Seems nice to be settin' here ag'in,” repeated Martha, like a bird with one note.
“Yes'm.” Sam's own face wore a pleased expression. He, too, felt the charm of possession. All three, the man and wife and the colored retainer, realized divine property rights. The outside of that grand house was as much theirs as it was any soul's on the face of the earth. They owned that and the ocean. Only Joe's face was now and then disturbed when a wave, crested in foam, came over the sea wall. He knew the sea well enough to love and fear it, while he owned it.
The three sat there all the morning. Then they all went away to the little Dickson house. The thunder was rumbling in the northwest. They walked rapidly. Joe spread the umbrella, but no rain came. There was a sharp flash of lightning and a prodigious report. All three turned about and looked in the direction of the Willard house.
“Struck somewheres, but it didn't strike thar,” said Joe.
When they reached home Martha immediately changed her dress and set about preparing dinner. The two men sat on Joe's upturned boat, on the sloping beach opposite, and smoked and watched the storm. It did not rain for a long time, although the thunder and lightning were terrific. The colored man cringed at the detonations and flashes, but Joe was obdurate. He had sailed stormy seas too much to be anything but a cool critic of summer showers. However, after each unusual flash and report the two stared in the direction of the Willard house.
“Seems as if I had ought to have stayed there,” remarked Sam, trembling, after one great crash.
“What could you have done? That didn't strike no house. Struck out at sea. I'm keepin' an ear out for the fire alarm,” said Joe.
“Have you got it ready?” inquired Sam, mysteriously.
Joe nodded. He flushed slightly. Sam was under orders to keep secret the fact that the poor old sailorman had the preceding year purchased a fire extinguisher, with a view to personally protecting the House. “You can run faster than I can, and you know how to use it,” said Joe.
Then another storm came up swiftly. Martha came to the door. “It's another!” cried she.
Joe rose. “Get it for me, Marthy,” said he.
Martha brought the fire extinguisher.
“Guess you and me had better be on the bridge ef another's comin',” said Joe, grimly, to Sam.
The two disappeared down the road in a gray drive of rain. Martha screamed to Joe to take the umbrella, his best suit would get wet, but he did not hear her. Sam went on a run and Joe hobbled after. They stood on the Willard veranda and kept watch. Both men were drenched. The waves broke over the sea wall, and the salt wind drove the rain in the faces of the men.
At last it was over, and they went back to the Dickson house. The odor of fish and beans greeted them. Martha had continued her dinner preparations. She was not in the least afraid of storms. She, too, only thought of danger to the grand house, but she had great faith in her husband and the fire extinguisher, whose unknown virtues loomed gigantic to her feminine mind.
She made Joe change his best suit, which she hung carefully to dry on the clothesline, and she gave Sam a ragged old suit, and hung up his drenched attire also. “You couldn't do much about taking care of things if you got the rheumatiz,” said she.
They ate their dinner in comfort, for the thunderstorm had conquered the heat. Afterward, while Martha cleared away, the men sat on the porch and went to sleep. Martha herself slept on the old lounge. She dreamed that she was on the veranda of the Willard house and she awoke to no disillusion. Next day, and all the following days, for nearly a whole year, she and Joe could be there if they chose. They were in possession; for so long that dispossession seemed unreality.
That was the happiest summer Joe and Martha had ever known in Barr-by-the-Sea. There were long afternoons, when Joe had been out and sold his catch; there were wonderful moonlight nights, when they lived on the outside of the beautiful house and inherited the earth.
The fall was late that year. Long into October, and even during warm days in November, they could assemble on the veranda and enjoy their wealth. There came a storm in October, however, which increased Joe's fears concerning the stanchness of the sea wall. He conferred with Sam. Sam was hard to move from his position that the past proved the future, but finally his grudging assistance was obtained. The two worked hard. They did what they could, but even then Joe would look at the wall and shake his head.
“She ought to be six foot higher,” he told Martha.
If Sam could have written, he would have pleaded with him to write the Willards abroad, urging that they order the raising of the wall, but Sam could not write. Joe went to a real-estate agent and talked, but the man laughed at him.
“Don't butt in, Joe,” he advised. “Nobody is going to thank you. I think the wall is all right.”
“It ain't,” declared Joe.
Joe was right. In December there came the storm and the high tide. Joe was up at two o'clock in the morning, awakened by the wild cry of the sea, that wildest of all creation, which now and then runs amuck and leaps barriers and makes men dream of prehistoric conditions.
He hastened along the road, with that terrible menace in his ears, dragging a great length of rope. Martha stayed behind on her knees, praying. Nobody ever knew quite what happened; that is, all the details. They did know that in some miraculous fashion the sea wall of the Willard house had been strengthened by frantic labor of poor men who owned not a stick as valuable as the poorest beam in the house, and that they were urged on by Captain Joe Dickson, with his lame leg and his heart of a lover and a hero. They knew that strange things had been piled against that wall; all the weighty articles from the basement of the Willard house — wood, boats, sandbags, stones, everything which had power to offer an ounce of resistance. They knew that the wall stood and the house was saved, and old Sam was blubbering over old Captain Joe Dickson lying spent almost to death on the veranda where he had been carried.
“Tell Marthy Our House is safe,” stammered old Captain Joe. Then he added something which was vaguely made out to be a note of triumph: “The sea didn't git me.”
When they took him home to Martha she was very calm. All her life, since she had married Joe, she had had in her heart the resolution which should be in the hearts of the wives of all poor sailormen and fishermen, who defy the splendid, eternal danger of the sea to gain their sustenance.
It was Doctor Tom Ellerton, spinning over from Barr Center, at the risk of his neck and his car, who saved Captain Joe, although the old man was saved only to spend the rest of his life in bed or wheel chair, and never could sail the seas again. It was Doctor Tom Ellerton who told the Willards, and it was they who sent the wheel chair and gave Joe a pension for saving their house. Mrs. Richard Willard (Richard had died during their stay abroad) came out on purpose to see Joe. She was sad, and weary, and elegant in her deep black.
She told Joe and Martha what was to be done, and they thanked her and gave her daughter some of their choicest shells. They were quite dignified and grateful about her bounty. On the train going home Mrs. Willard told her daughter that they were evidently superior people. “They belong to the few who can take with an air of giving and not offend,” said Mrs. Willard.
Neither of them dreamed of the true state of the case: that subtly and happily the old man and his wife possessed what they called their own home in a fuller sense than they ever could. More than the announcement of the comfortable annuity had meant Mrs. Willard's statement that they would not open the House at all next summer; they would visit with relatives in the Berkshires, then go abroad.
Joe and Martha looked at each other, and their eyes said: “We can go to Our House as soon as you can wheel me over there. We can stay there as much as we like, all one year.”
Mrs. Willard saw the look, and did not understand. How could she? It was inconceiveable that these two people should own the outside of her home to such an extent that their tenure became well-nigh immortal.