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The Sailorman by Richard Harding Davis

 

Before Latimer put him on watch, the Nantucket sailorman had not a care in the world. If the wind blew from the north, he spun to the left; if it came from the south, he spun to the right. But it was entirely the wind that was responsible. So, whichever way he turned, he smiled broadly, happily. His outlook upon the world was that of one who loved his fellowman. He had many brothers as like him as twins all over Nantucket and Cape Cod and the North Shore, smiling from the railings of verandas, from the roofs of bungalows, from the eaves of summer palaces. Empaled on their little iron uprights, each sailorman whirled--sometimes languidly, like a great lady revolving to the slow measures of a waltz, sometimes so rapidly that he made you quite dizzy, and had he not been a sailorman with a heart of oak and a head and stomach of pine, he would have been quite seasick. But the particular sailorman that Latimer bought for Helen Page and put on sentry duty carried on his shoulders most grave and unusual responsibilities. He was the guardian of a buried treasure, the keeper of the happiness of two young people. It was really asking a great deal of a care-free, happy-go-lucky weather-vane.

Every summer from Boston Helen Page's people had been coming to Fair Harbor. They knew it when what now is the polo field was their cow pasture. And whether at the age of twelve or of twenty or more, Helen Page ruled Fair Harbor. When she arrived the "season" opened; when she departed the local trades-people sighed and began to take account of stock. She was so popular because she possessed charm, and because she played no favorites. To the grooms who held the ponies on the sidelines her manner was just as simple and interested as it was to the gilded youths who came to win the championship cups and remained to try to win Helen. She was just as genuinely pleased to make a four at tennis with the "kids" as to take tea on the veranda of the club-house with the matrons. To each her manner was always as though she were of their age. When she met the latter on the beach road, she greeted them riotously and joyfully by their maiden names. And the matrons liked it. In comparison the deference shown them by the other young women did not so strongly appeal.

"When I'm jogging along in my station wagon," said one of them, "and Helen shrieks and waves at me from her car, I feel as though I were twenty, and I believe that she is really sorry I am not sitting beside her, instead of that good-looking Latimer man, who never wears a hat. Why does he never wear a hat? Because he knows he's good-looking, or because Helen drives so fast he can't keep it on?"

"Does he wear a hat when he is not with Helen?" asked the new arrival. "That might help some."

"We will never know," exclaimed the young matron; "he never leaves her."

This was so true that it had become a public scandal. You met them so many times a day driving together, motoring together, playing golf together, that you were embarrassed for them and did not know which way to look. But they gloried in their shame. If you tactfully pretended not to see them, Helen shouted at you. She made you feel you had been caught doing something indelicate and underhand.

The mothers of Fair Harbor were rather slow in accepting young Latimer. So many of their sons had seen Helen shake her head in that inarticulate, worried way, and look so sorry for them, that any strange young man who apparently succeeded where those who had been her friends for years had learned they must remain friends, could not hope to escape criticism. Besides, they did not know him: he did not come from Boston and Harvard, but from a Western city. They were told that at home, at both the law and the game of politics, he worked hard and successfully; but it was rather held against him by the youth of Fair Harbor that he played at there games, not so much for the sake of the game as for exercise. He put aside many things, such as whiskey and soda at two in the morning, and bridge all afternoon, with the remark: "I find it does not tend toward efficiency." It was a remark that irritated and, to the minds of the men at the country clubs, seemed to place him. They liked to play polo because they liked to play polo, not because it kept their muscles limber and their brains clear.

"Some Western people were telling me," said one of the matrons, "that he wants to be the next lieutenant-governor. They say he is very ambitious and very selfish."

"Any man is selfish," protested one who for years had attempted to marry Helen, "who wants to keep Helen to himself. But that he should wish to be a lieutenant-governor, too, is rather an anticlimax. It makes one lose sympathy."

Latimer went on his way without asking any sympathy. The companionship of Helen Page was quite sufficient. He had been working overtime and was treating himself to his first vacation in years--he was young--he was in love and he was very happy. Nor was there any question, either, that Helen Page was happy. Those who had known her since she was a child could not remember when she had not been happy, but these days she wore her joyousness with a difference. It was in her eyes, in her greetings to old friends: it showed itself hourly in courtesies and kindnesses. She was very kind to Latimer, too. She did not deceive him. She told him she liked better to be with him than with any one else,--it would have been difficult to deny to him what was apparent to an entire summer colony,--but she explained that that did not mean she would marry him. She announced this when the signs she knew made it seem necessary. She announced it in what was for her a roundabout way, by remarking suddenly that she did not intend to marry for several years.

This brought Latimer to his feet and called forth from him remarks so eloquent that Helen found it very difficult to keep her own. She as though she had been caught in an undertow and was being whirled out to sea. When, at last, she had regained her breath, only because Latimer had paused to catch his, she shook her head miserably.

"The trouble is," she complained, "there are so many think the same thing!"

"What do they think?" demanded Latimer.

"That they want to marry me."

Checked but not discouraged, Latimer attacked in force.

"I can quite believe that," he agreed, "but there's this important difference: no matter how much a man wants to marry you, he can't LOVE you as I do!"

"That's ANOTHER thing they think," sighed Helen.

"I'm sorry to be so unoriginal," snapped Latimer.

"PLEASE don't!" pleaded Helen. "I don't mean to be unfeeling. I'm not unfeeling. I'm only trying to be fair. If I don't seem to take it to heart, it's because I know it does no good. I can see how miserable a girl must be if she is loved by one man and can't make up her mind whether or not she wants to marry him. But when there's so many she just stops worrying; for she can't possibly marry them all."

"ALL!" exclaimed Latimer. "It is incredible that I have undervalued you, but may I ask how many there are?"

"I don't know," sighed Helen miserably. "There seems to be something about me that--"

"There is!" interrupted Latimer. "I've noticed it. You don't have to tell me about it. I know that the Helen Page habit is a damned difficult habit to break!"

It cannot be said that he made any violent effort to break it. At least, not one that was obvious to Fair Harbor or to Helen.

One of their favorite drives was through the pine woods to the point on which stood the lighthouse, and on one of these excursions they explored a forgotten wood road and came out upon a cliff. The cliff overlooked the sea, and below it was a jumble of rocks with which the waves played hide and seek. On many afternoons and mornings they returned to this place, and, while Latimer read to her, Helen would sit with her back to a tree and toss pine-cones into the water. Sometimes the poets whose works he read made love so charmingly that Latimer was most grateful to them for rendering such excellent first aid to the wounded, and into his voice he would throw all that feeling and music that from juries and mass meetings had dragged tears and cheers and votes.

But when his voice became so appealing that it no longer was possible for any woman to resist it, Helen would exclaim excitedly: "Please excuse me for interrupting, but there is a large spider--" and the spell was gone.

One day she exclaimed: "Oh!" and Latimer patiently lowered the "Oxford Book of Verse," and asked: "What is it, NOW?"

"I'm so sorry," Helen said, "but I can't help watching that Chapman boy; he's only got one reef in, and the next time he jibs he'll capsize, and he can't swim, and he'll drown. I told his mother only yesterday--"

"I haven't the least interest in the Chapman boy," said Latimer, "or in what you told his mother, or whether he drowns or not! I'm a drowning man myself!"

Helen shook her head firmly and reprovingly. "Men get over THAT kind of drowning," she said.

"Not THIS kind of man doesn't!" said Latimer. "And don't tell me," he cried indignantly, "that that's ANOTHER thing they all say."

"If one could only be sure!" sighed Helen. "If one could only be sure that you--that the right man would keep on caring after you marry him the way he says he cares before you marry him. If you could know that, it would help you a lot in making up your mind."

"There is only one way to find that out," said Latimer; "that is to marry him. I mean, of course," he corrected hastily, "to marry me."

One day, when on their way to the cliff at the end of the wood road, the man who makes the Nantucket sailor and peddles him passed through the village; and Latimer bought the sailorman and carried him to their hiding-place. There he fastened him to the lowest limb of one of the ancient pine-trees that helped to screen their hiding-place from the world. The limb reached out free of the other branches, and the wind caught the sailorman fairly and spun him like a dancing dervish. Then it tired of him, and went off to try to drown the Chapman boy, leaving the sailorman motionless with his arms outstretched, balancing in each hand a tiny oar and smiling happily.

"He has a friendly smile," said Helen; "I think he likes us."

"He is on guard," Latimer explained. "I put him there to warn us if any one approaches, and when we are not here, he is to frighten away trespassers. Do you understand?" he demanded of the sailorman. "Your duty is to protect this beautiful lady. So long as I love her you must guard this place. It is a life sentence. You are always on watch. You never sleep. You are her slave. She says you have a friendly smile. She wrongs you. It is a beseeching, abject, worshipping smile. I am sure when I look at her mine is equally idiotic. In fact, we are in many ways alike. I also am her slave. I also am devoted only to her service. And I never sleep, at least not since I met her."

From her throne among the pine needles Helen looked up at the sailorman and frowned.

"It is not a happy simile," she objected. "For one thing, a sailorman has a sweetheart in every port."

"Wait and see," said Latimer.

"And," continued the girl with some asperity, "if there is anything on earth that changes its mind as often as a weather-vane, that is less CERTAIN, less CONSTANT--"

"Constant?" Latimer laughed at her in open scorn. "You come back here," he challenged, "months from now, years from now, when the winds have beaten him, and the sun blistered him, and the snow frozen him, and you will find him smiling at you just as he is now, just as confidently, proudly, joyously, devotedly. Because those who are your slaves, those who love YOU, cannot come to any harm; only if you disown them, only if you drive them away!

The sailorman, delighted at such beautiful language, threw himself about in a delirium of joy. His arms spun in their sockets like Indian clubs, his oars flashed in the sun, and his eyes and lips were fixed in one blissful, long-drawn-out, unalterable smile.

When the golden-rod turned gray, and the leaves red and yellow, and it was time for Latimer to return to his work in the West, he came to say good-by. But the best Helen could do to keep hope alive in him was to say that she was glad he cared. She added it was very helpful to think that a man such as he believed you were so fine a person, and during the coming winter she would try to be like the fine person he believed her to be, but which, she assured him, she was not.

Then he told her again she was the most wonderful being in the world, to which she said: "Oh, indeed no!" and then, as though he were giving her a cue, he said: "Good-by!" But she did not take up his cue, and they shook hands. He waited, hardly daring to breathe.

"Surely, now that the parting has come," he assured himself, "she will make some sign, she will give me a word, a look that will write 'total' under the hours we have spent together, that will help to carry me through the long winter."

But he held her hand so long and looked at her so hungrily that he really forced her to say: "Don't miss your train," which kind consideration for his comfort did not delight him as it should. Nor, indeed, later did she herself recall the remark with satisfaction.

With Latimer out of the way the other two hundred and forty-nine suitor attacked with renewed hope. Among other advantages they had over Latimer was that they were on the ground. They saw Helen daily, at dinners, dances, at the country clubs, in her own drawing-room. Like any sailor from the Charlestown Navy Yard and his sweetheart, they could walk beside her in the park and throw peanuts to the pigeons, and scratch dates and initials on the green benches; they could walk with her up one side of Commonwealth Avenue and down the south bank of the Charles, when the sun was gilding the dome of the State House, when the bridges were beginning to deck themselves with necklaces of lights. They had known her since they wore knickerbockers; and they shared many interests and friends in common; they talked the same language. Latimer could talk to her only in letters, for with her he shared no friends or interests, and he was forced to choose between telling her of his lawsuits and his efforts in politics or of his love. To write to her of his affairs seemed wasteful and impertinent, and of his love for her, after she had received what he told of it in silence, he was too proud to speak. So he wrote but seldom, and then only to say: "You know what I send you." Had he known it, his best letters were those he did not send. When in the morning mail Helen found his familiar handwriting, that seemed to stand out like the face of a friend in a crowd, she would pounce upon the letter, read it, and, assured of his love, would go on her way rejoicing. But when in the morning there was no letter, she wondered why, and all day she wondered why. And the next morning when again she was disappointed, her thoughts of Latimer and her doubts and speculations concerning him shut out every other interest. He became a perplexing, insistent problem. He was never out of her mind. And then he would spoil it all by writing her that he loved her and that of all the women in the world she was the only one. And, reassured upon that point, Helen happily and promptly would forget all about him.

But when she remembered him, although months had passed since she had seen him, she remembered him much more distinctly, much more gratefully, than that one of the two hundred and fifty with whom she had walked that same afternoon. Latimer could not know it, but of that anxious multitude he was first, and there was no second. At least Helen hoped, when she was ready to marry, she would love Latimer enough to want to marry him. But as yet she assured herself she did not want to marry any one. As she was, life was very satisfactory. Everybody loved her, everybody invited her to be of his party, or invited himself to join hers, and the object of each seemed to be to see that she enjoyed every hour of every day. Her nature was such that to make her happy was not difficult. Some of her devotees could do it by giving her a dance and letting her invite half of Boston, and her kid brother could do it by taking her to Cambridge to watch the team at practice.

She thought she was happy because she was free. As a matter of fact, she was happy because she loved some one and that particular some one loved her. Her being "free" was only her mistaken way of putting it. Had she thought she had lost Latimer and his love, she would have discovered that, so far from being free, she was bound hand and foot and heart and soul.

But she did not know that, and Latimer did not know that.

Meanwhile, from the branch of the tree in the sheltered, secret hiding-place that overlooked the ocean, the sailorman kept watch. The sun had blistered him, the storms had buffeted him, the snow had frozen upon his shoulders. But his loyalty never relaxed. He spun to the north, he spun to the south, and so rapidly did he scan the surrounding landscape that no one could hope to creep upon him unawares. Nor, indeed, did any one attempt to do so. Once a fox stole into the secret hiding-place, but the sailorman flapped his oars and frightened him away. He was always triumphant. To birds, to squirrels, to trespassing rabbits he was a thing of terror. Once, when the air was still, an impertinent crow perched on the very limb on which he stood, and with scornful, disapproving eyes surveyed his white trousers, his blue reefer, his red cheeks. But when the wind suddenly drove past them the sailorman sprang into action and the crow screamed in alarm and darted away. So, alone and with no one to come to his relief, the sailorman stood his watch. About him the branches bent with the snow, the icicles froze him into immobility, and in the tree-tops strange groanings filled him with alarms. But undaunted, month after month, alert and smiling, he waited the return of the beautiful lady and of the tall young man who had devoured her with such beseeching, unhappy eyes.

Latimer found that to love a woman like Helen Page as he loved her was the best thing that could come into his life. But to sit down and lament over the fact that she did not love him did not, to use his favorite expression, "tend toward efficiency." He removed from his sight the three pictures of her he had cut from illustrated papers, and ceased to write to her.

In his last letter he said: "I have told you how it is, and that is how it is always going to be. There never has been, there never can be any one but you. But my love is too precious, too sacred to be brought out every week in a letter and dangled before your eyes like an advertisement of a motor-car. It is too wonderful a thing to be cheapened, to be subjected to slights and silence. If ever you should want it, it is yours. It is here waiting. But you must tell me so. I have done everything a man can do to make you understand. But you do not want me or my love. And my love says to me: 'Don't send me there again to have the door shut in my face. Keep me with you to be your inspiration, to help you to live worthily.' And so it shall be."

When Helen read that letter she did not know what to do. She did not know how to answer it. Her first impression was that suddenly she had grown very old, and that some one had turned off the sun, and that in consequence the world had naturally grown cold and dark. She could not see why the two hundred and forty-nine expected her to keep on doing exactly the same things she had been doing with delight for six months, and indeed for the last six years. Why could they not see that no longer was there any pleasure in them? She would have written and told Latimer that she found she loved him very dearly if in her mind there had not arisen a fearful doubt. Suppose his letter was not quite honest? He said that he would always love her, but how could she now know that? Why might not this letter be only his way of withdrawing from a position which he wished to abandon, from which, perhaps, he was even glad to escape? Were this true, and she wrote and said all those things that were in her heart, that now she knew were true, might she not hold him to her against his will? The love that once he had for her might no longer exist, and if, in her turn, she told him she loved him and had always loved him, might he not in some mistaken spirit of chivalry feel it was his duty to pretend to care? Her cheeks burned at the thought. It was intolerable. She could not write that letter. And as day succeeded day, to do so became more difficult. And so she never wrote and was very unhappy. And Latimer was very unhappy. But he had his work, and Helen had none, and for her life became a game of putting little things together, like a picture puzzle, an hour here and an hour there, to make up each day. It was a dreary game.

From time to time she heard of him through the newspapers. For, in his own State, he was an "Insurgent" making a fight, the outcome of which was expected to show what might follow throughout the entire West. When he won his fight much more was written about him, and he became a national figure. In his own State the people hailed him as the next governor, promised him a seat in the Senate. To Helen this seemed to take him further out of her life. She wondered if now she held a place even in his thoughts.

At Fair Harbor the two hundred and forty-nine used to joke with her about her politician. Then they considered Latimer of importance only because Helen liked him. Now they discussed him impersonally and over her head, as though she were not present, as a power, an influence, as the leader and exponent of a new idea. They seemed to think she no longer could pretend to any peculiar claim upon him, that now he belonged to all of them.

Older men would say to her: "I hear you know Latimer? What sort of a man is he?"

Helen would not know what to tell them. She could not say he was a man who sat with his back to a pine-tree, reading from a book of verse, or halting to devour her with humble, entreating eyes.

She went South for the winter, the doctors deciding she was run down and needed the change. And with an unhappy laugh at her own expense she agreed in their diagnosis. She was indifferent as to where they sent her, for she knew wherever she went she must still force herself to go on putting one hour on top of another, until she had built up the inexorable and necessary twenty-four.

When she returned winter was departing, but reluctantly, and returning unexpectedly to cover the world with snow, to eclipse the thin spring sunshine with cheerless clouds. Helen took herself seriously to task. She assured herself it was weak-minded to rebel. The summer was coming and Fair Harbor with all its old delights was before her. She compelled herself to take heart, to accept the fact that, after all, the world is a pretty good place, and that to think only of the past, to live only on memories and regrets, was not only cowardly and selfish, but, as Latimer had already decided, did not tend toward efficiency.

Among the other rules of conduct that she imposed upon herself was not to think of Latimer. At least, not during the waking hours. Should she, as it sometimes happened, dream of him--should she imagine they were again seated among the pines, riding across the downs, or racing at fifty miles an hour through country roads, with the stone fences flying past, with the wind and the sun in their eyes, and in their hearts happiness and content--that would not be breaking her rule. If she dreamed of him, she could not be held responsible. She could only be grateful.

And then, just as she had banished him entirely from her mind, he came East. Not as once he had planned to come, only to see her, but with a blare of trumpets, at the command of many citizens, as the guest of three cities. He was to speak at public meetings, to confer with party leaders, to carry the war into the enemy's country. He was due to speak in Boston at Faneuil Hall on the first of May, and that same night to leave for the West, and three days before his coming Helen fled from the city. He had spoken his message to Philadelphia, he had spoken to New York, and for a week the papers had spoken only of him. And for that week, from the sight of his printed name, from sketches of him exhorting cheering mobs, from snap-shots of him on rear platforms leaning forward to grasp eager hands, Helen had shut her eyes. And that during the time he was actually in Boston she might spare herself further and more direct attacks upon her feelings she escaped to Fair Harbor, there to remain until, on the first of May at midnight, he again would pass out of her life, maybe forever. No one saw in her going any significance. Spring had come, and in preparation for the summer season the house at Fair Harbor must be opened and set in order, and the presence there of some one of the Page family was easily explained.

She made the three hours' run to Fair Harbor in her car, driving it herself, and as the familiar landfalls fell into place, she doubted if it would not have been wiser had she stayed away. For she found that the memories of more than twenty summers at Fair Harbor had been wiped out by those of one summer, by those of one man. The natives greeted her joyously: the boatmen, the fishermen, her own grooms and gardeners, the village postmaster, the oldest inhabitant. They welcomed her as though they were her vassals and she their queen. But it was the one man she had exiled from Fair Harbor who at every turn wrung her heart and caused her throat to tighten. She passed the cottage where he had lodged, and hundreds of years seemed to have gone since she used to wait for him in the street, blowing noisily on her automobile horn, calling derisively to his open windows. Wherever she turned Fair Harbor spoke of him. The golf-links; the bathing beach; the ugly corner in the main street where he always reminded her that it was better to go slow for ten seconds than to remain a long time dead; the old house on the stone wharf where the schooners made fast, which he intended to borrow for his honeymoon; the wooden trough where they always drew rein to water the ponies; the pond into which he had waded to bring her lilies.

On the second day of her stay she found she was passing these places purposely, that to do so she was going out of her way. They no longer distressed her, but gave her a strange comfort. They were old friends, who had known her in the days when she was rich in happiness.

But the secret hiding-place--their very own hiding-place, the opening among the pines that overhung the jumble of rocks and the sea--she could not bring herself to visit. And then, on the afternoon of the third day when she was driving alone toward the lighthouse, her pony, of his own accord, from force of habit, turned smartly into the wood road. And again from force of habit, before he reached the spot that overlooked the sea, he came to a full stop. There was no need to make him fast. For hours, stretching over many summer days, he had stood under those same branches patiently waiting.

On foot, her heart beating tremulously, stepping reverently, as one enters the aisle of some dim cathedral, Helen advanced into the sacred circle. And then she stood quite still. What she had expected to find there she could not have told, but it was gone. The place was unknown to her. She saw an opening among gloomy pines, empty, silent, unreal. No haunted house, no barren moor, no neglected graveyard ever spoke more poignantly, more mournfully, with such utter hopelessness. There was no sign of his or of her former presence. Across the open space something had passed its hand, and it had changed. What had been a trysting-place, a bower, a nest, had become a tomb. A tomb, she felt, for something that once had been brave, fine, and beautiful, but which now was dead. She had but one desire, to escape from the place, to put it away from her forever, to remember it, not as she now found it, but as first she had remembered it, and as now she must always remember It. She turned softly on tiptoe as one who has intruded on a shrine.

But before she could escape there came from the sea a sudden gust of wind that caught her by the skirts and drew her back, that set the branches tossing and swept the dead leaves racing about her ankles. And at the same instant from just above her head there beat upon the air a violent, joyous tattoo--a sound that was neither of the sea nor of the woods, a creaking, swiftly repeated sound, like the flutter of caged wings.

Helen turned in alarm and raised her eyes--and beheld the sailorman.

Tossing his arms in a delirious welcome, waltzing in a frenzy of joy, calling her back to him with wild beckonings, she saw him smiling down at her with the same radiant, beseeching, worshipping smile. In Helen's ears Latimer's commands to the sailorman rang as clearly as though Latimer stood before her and had just spoken. Only now they were no longer a jest; they were a vow, a promise, an oath of allegiance that brought to her peace, and pride, and happiness.

"So long as I love this beautiful lady," had been his foolish words, "you will guard this place. It is a life sentence!"

With one hand Helen Page dragged down the branch on which the sailorman stood, with the other she snatched him from his post of duty. With a joyous laugh that was a sob, she clutched the sailorman in both her hands and kissed the beseeching, worshipping smile.

An hour later her car, on its way to Boston, passed through Fair Harbor at a rate of speed that caused her chauffeur to pray between his chattering teeth that the first policeman would save their lives by landing them in jail.

At the wheel, her shoulders thrown forward, her eyes searching the dark places beyond the reach of the leaping head-lights Helen Page raced against time, against the minions of the law, against sudden death, to beat the midnight train out of Boston, to assure the man she loved of the one thing that could make his life worth living.

And close against her heart, buttoned tight beneath her great-coat, the sailorman smiled in the darkness, his long watch over, his soul at peace, his duty well performed.