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On Sankota Head by Ethel C. Gale

"Yay, Jim, there ain't no doubt but Sairy Macy's a mighty nice gal, but, thee sees, what I'm a-contendin' fur is that she's tew nice fur thee—that is, not tew nice egzackly, but a leetle tew fine-feathered. No, not that egzackly, nuther; but she's a leetle tew fine in the feelin's, an' I don't b'lieve that in the long run thee an' she'll sort well tugether. Shell git eout o' conceit with thy ways—thee ain't the pootiest-mannered feller a gal ever see—an' thee'll git eout o' conceit with hern. Thee'll think she's a-gittin' stuck up, an' she'll think thee's a-gittin'low-minded. Neow, Jim, my 'dvice is good; an' ef thee'll take it, an' not go on with this thing no furder, thee'll both be glad on it arterwa'ds. 'Spesh'ly 's she ain't very rugged, an' sickly gals had oughter hev rich husbands."

"But, father, Sairy an' me loves o' 'nother."

"Oh, wal, then it's tew late ter say nothin'," said the old man with a mingled sigh and smile as, raising his basket of quahaugs to his shoulder, he walked off, pressing his bare feet into the yielding sand with the firm but clumsy tread of vigorous old age. The rough hat of plaited straw was pushed back from a brow that with a cultivated nature would have been considered as evidence of considerable intellectual power, but, as it was, only showed the probable truth of the opinion of his neighbors, that "Stephen Starbuck was a shrewd, common-sense ole feller."

Jim was of a little finer grade than his father, having inherited some of the traits of his gentle mother, but the young Hercules could by no means have been mistaken for an Apollo; neither did his somewhat heavy features bear the expression of unselfish loyalty which would have given better promise than any mere refinement of features or manner for the future happiness of Sarah Macy. But she found nothing wanting in her lover as she stood on the cliff-head gazing down upon him. Sarah knew that the man she loved was not considered her equal, but because she loved him she believed him capable of becoming all that she or others could desire. There is in the world no faith so absolute as that of a woman in the possibilities of the man she loves. Had Sarah read of Sir Galahad—but this was in 1779, and the fame of the search for the Holy Grail had not reached the popular ear—she would have said to herself, "My Jim is just so pure and holy." Had "her Jim" been a Royalist during the English Revolution, Prince Rupert's laurels would not have been unshared. Had Jim been a Puritan—though the little Quaker maiden did not love Puritans over well, and did not fancy her Jim as fighting on that side—England's Protector would not have borne the name of Cromwell. Or if Jim were not one of the peace-loving Friends, and would enlist in the present struggle for liberty, the fame of Commodore James Starbuck should soon eclipse that of Paul Jones.

Not for the world would Sarah have given voice to the heretical desire, but in her inmost heart was even now a wish that her dear Jim held religious opinions that would not interfere with his showing to the country how talented, noble and valiant he was; while the fair-haired, sunburnt, indolent young Hercules idly gazing out to sea was fired with no higher ambition for himself than to be able soon to erect on the Head another small house like that of his father, to which he might bring "the sweet little girl who loved him, so much." For Sarah had committed the common mistake of loving women, and had let Jim see how dear he was to her. So now, instead of dwelling on his love for her and scheming how he might be worthy of her heart, he was fully satisfied with himself, and inclined to grumble at Fortune for not at once bestowing the trifle he asked at her hands.

"Jim, how long's thee goin' ter stan' there? If the water is pretty, thee can see it any day, so 't ain't worth while to look at it all day ter a time."

As, the sweet tones floated down the cliff Jim turned lazily to smile up at the speaker, and, raising his heavy basket of quahaugs, came leisurely up the steep sand-path, which seemed to shrink from his weight at every step: "Wal', Sairy, I wa'n't a-thinkin' much o' the water: I was a-thinkin' o' thee, an' o' what fayther said a little spell ago."

"What was that, Jim?" Sarah's tone was a little anxious, for she knew that there was a jealousy among some of the islanders of the facts that her father had brought with him a few heavy articles of "real mahogany furnitur," and that her stepmother had always been able to hire others to do her spinning and weaving, and even to "help her at odd spells with the heft o' the housework."

"Oh, nothin'," replied Jim, passing his free arm carelessly round the girl's waist—"othin', undly th' old story 'beout heow we'd best not merry, 'cause by'm-by thee'll git ter feelin' better nor me."

"But thee don't believe him, Jim? Thee knows better. Thee knows," adding this with the sweet and sincere but often sadly mistaken humility of love—"thee knows thou art better than me. Thou art so grand and so noble! If folks only knew thee better they would wonder at thee fur puttin' up wi' me. I wish I could make thee a better wife. But, Jim, if I ain't very strong, I'm pretty good at contrivin', an' I don't believe but what I can manage so's to git along a'most as well as them that's tougher."

"Git along? O' course thee'll git along," answered Jim patronizingly. "I telled mother th'other day that I didn't cafe ef thee wa'n't 's strong as Mary Allen: thee was a good deal smarter, an' I'd be willin' tu resk but what I'd hev as little waitin' on ter dew fur thee 's fur her. Besides"—and here a gleam of real if shallow affection sprang from Jim's eyes as he looked down at the loving creature by his side—"besides, I'd like to take care o' thee, Sairy—I would indeed."

It is said that the sky has no color of its own—that the deep blue we think so beautiful is only owing to the atmosphere through which we view it. To Sarah this very slight expression of her lover's care for her bore more weight than the most passionate protestations of affection could have done to a colder nature, for it was colored by the glowing tints of her own warm love; and when the two parted that day she carried with her a sweet, satisfying sense of being beloved by the "best man on the earth" even as she loved him; while he whistled cheerily over his net-mending, thinking "what a sweet little thing it was!" "how pretty its eyes were!" and "how kitten-like its ways!" and only checked his whistling once in a while to wonder whether the day would ever really come when "Sairy would feel herself better than him," and to think it also a little hard that old Thomas Macy was "so sot agin' the match" that he would give his daughter no portion but an outfit of clothes and household linen. "He might jest's well's not," reasoned Jim to himself, "give us a little lift: I guess he would if Sairy's own mother was alive; but them step-mothers never wants to give nothin' ter the fust wives' childern." In which opinion Jim did the second Mrs. Macy much injustice, for it was owing solely to her influence that Sarah's father had consented to provide his daughter with even a new dress in which to be married to "that big, lazy boy o'old Steve Starbuck's."

Meantime, sad, gentle old Mrs. Starbuck had been turning over many things in her mind. She felt her son's defects; she knew that warm-hearted, imaginative Sarah Macy would be doing a foolish thing to marry Jim—as foolish a thing as in her inmost heart she felt, rather than acknowledged, that she herself had done when she married Jim's father. But the mother-heart longed that her son should grow to be what she desired (and what poor Sarah thought he already was), and she hoped much from the elevating influence of so good a wife.

So, as she sat knitting, while Jim and his father sat, hats on heads and pipes in mouths, mending their nets, old Mrs. Starbuck had "made a plan." "Father," said, she at last, "I've be'n thinkin'—"

"Yay," replied the old man gruffly but not unkindly—"yay, I 'spect so. Thee's pooty nigh allus a-thinkin' o' suthin. What is it neow? Eout with it!"

"I've be'n thinkin' that Jim's all the child we've got—"

"Wal, yay. Hain't had no other—not's I knows on. What o' that?"

"Well, I was a-thinkin' that, that bein' so, an' Jim an' Sairy thinkin' so much o' 'nother, it wa'n't o' no use fur them ter keep waitin' along year eout an' year in fur a chance tu keep house by 'emselves. They'd best git married right off an' come an' live along o' us."

"W'y, ole woman!"

"W'y, mother!"

"Yay; I hear both on ye," said the gentle old mother with a half smile. "I s'posed likely ye'd think strange on't at fust; but ye h'ain't no need ter, fur it's a sens'ble thing ter dew, an' yell see't so when ye've thought on't a spell: see if ye don't."

So well was the proposal liked that very soon the simple ceremony of the Friends made James and Sarah husband and wife; and for a while all seemed happiness in the humble cottage on the cliff—cottage so humble that it scarcely deserved even that lowly name.

Sarah Macy's father owned one of the largest dwellings on Nantucket—a two-story "double house" with two rooms on each side of a broad hall running through the house from front to rear. On one side of this hall was the "best bedroom," ghostly with tightly-closed white shutters and long white dimity curtains to the "four-poster" and shining white sanded floor, and the "best-room," terrible in its grandeur of cold white walls, straight hard sofa, "spider-legged" table, grenadier-like chairs and striped woolen carpet underlaid with straw. In the rear, on the other side of the hall, was the kitchen with its big brick oven, its yawning fireplace overhung with corpulent iron pots or shining copper kettles depending from numerous gallows-like cranes; with its glittering copper, brass and pewter utensils arrayed on snowy-shelves; with its spotless tables, Its freshly-sanded floor and its heavily-beamed, whitewashed ceiling, from which hung many a bunch of savory herbs or string of red pepper-pods or bunch of seed-corn, or perhaps even a round-backed ham, to get a little browner in the smoke that would sometimes pour out from the half-ignited mass of peat. In front of the kitchen was the "living-room," in one corner of which stood a carved high-post bedstead—glory of the Macys and envy of their neighbors—with its curtains of big figured chintz, brown sunflowers sprawling over a white ground, drawn aside in the daytime to display the marvelous patchwork of the quilt beneath. Fuel was scarce even then on the sandy isle; and economy compelled Mr. and Mrs. Macy to make use of this living-room as a bedchamber also, since Thomas Macy confessed to "bein rather tender," and to liking a warm room to sleep In, though his neighbors often insinuated that he was killing himself by the Indulgence. And indeed the heat must have been stifling when we consider the size of the fireplace, nine feet wide by four deep, with a yawning throat, through which the rain poured freely down on stormy nights, putting out the best arranged mass of coals, ashes and peat, and, in spite of the little gutter purposely made round the broad brick hearth, sometimes overflowing and drenching a portion of the neat rag carpet, in which, with true Quaker consistency, no gay-colored fragment had been allowed a place.

In striking contrast to all this magnificence was the lowly home to which James Starbuck brought his happy bride. This little house was "double" also—that Is, it was entered in the centre by a small square passage just big enough for the outer door to swing in. On one side of this entry was a tiny parlor, as dismal as rag carpet, fireless hearth, dingy paper and dark-green paper shades to the small windows could make it. On the other side of the entry was the tiny and cold bedroom of the senior Starbucks. In the centre of the house rose a massive chimney, big enough to retain all the heat from a dozen fires. Across the rear of parlor, chimney and bedroom ran the long, low sunshiny kitchen. At one end of this certain ladder-like stairs conducted to the loft, which had served Jim for a "roosting-place" ever since he had grown big enough to be trusted o' nights so far away from his mother. On Sarah's advent into the family the dismal "best-room" was made habitable by the addition of a "four-poster"—which Mrs. Starbuck senior regretted was only of cherry-wood and not carved—and by sundry little feminine contrivances of Sarah's own.

I said that for a time all seemed to go on happily in this humble home. And the seeming would have been reality had Jim possessed the faith in his wife which she had in him. True, he loved and believed in her after his fashion, and his mother was a strong ally on his wife's side; but Jim had one fatal weakness of character. He resented the slightest look that was anything but simple admiration on the part of his wife. A strong nature is not afraid of censure, but a weak one, pleading sensitiveness, is easily roused to small retaliations, repaying what is good in intention with what is evil. Jim, as his father had truly told him, was "not the pootiest-mannered feller a gal ever see," and in the daily home-life this became apparent to Sarah as it had never been in all the years they had been near neighbors. Naturally, she wished her husband to be pleasing to her father, and at last ventured to hint, as delicately as she could, at various little points in which improvements might be made. At first Jim did not seem very restless under such reproofs, given, as they were, with many a loving kiss and winsome look; but as months went on his wife's caresses were more carelessly received, and her hinted corrections with more of resentment. One evening stately old Thomas Macy had "happened in," and Jim had greatly grieved his wife by his curt, uncivil manner to her father. After he had gone Sarah spoke in a low tone and kindly as always, but with more spirit than she had ever before manifested or felt, of her husband's disrespectful ways to the aged.

For a moment after his wife had ceased, Jim sat with his hat pulled closely over his eyes, fiercely biting into the apple he was eating—biting and throwing the bits into the glowing mass of peat on the hearth. Then he sprang to his feet, exclaiming, "I see! It's all come true, what ev'rybody said. Thee thinks thee an' thy folks is better'n me an' my folks, an' keeps all the time a-naggin' on me. I wish I'd merried Mary Allen! I won't stan' no more o' this talk. If I ain't to be maaster o' my own house I won't stay in't." (The house was his father's, but angry men never think of such trifles.) And waxing pitiful of himself, he continued in a broken and injured tone, "The bed o' the sea's the bes' place fur a man whose own wife's got tew big feelin' ter put up wi' his ways."

With this dignified burst of eloquence the angry fellow flung himself out of the house, letting in at the door as he went a dash of cold, sleety rain and a gust of wind that put out the flickering tallow dip that was enabling Sarah to take the last stitches in the tiny white slip that now fell from her fingers. Too sorely wounded for resentment, too fond of her husband to wish even his parents to see him in the light in which he was now revealed to her, Sarah silently stooped to recover her work, and as she did so her hand was met under the table by a sympathizing pressure from that of her mother-in-law. This was too much, and, laying her head in the elder woman's lap, poor Sarah wept without restraint; while the mother sorrowfully and tenderly stroked her soft brown tresses. The father, quietly puffing at his pipe, seemed to take no notice, only now and then glancing with kindly eye covertly from under his hat-brim at the two grieving women.

Silently, but for the roaring of the wind and surf and fitful dashing of the rain, the hours passed on till the high clock in the kitchen corner sharply struck eleven. This was a late hour for those times, and a faint fear began to come upon them all. Could it be that Jim had really meant what he said? "Had he—" And the two women looked blankly at each other. Not a word had been uttered, but each felt the other's dread.

The father rose and said with a well-affected yawn, "Guess likely Jim's went deown ter Uncle Will'amses, an' they thought as 't's so stormy he'd bes' not come back. So guess I'll jest go eout ter the shed and git some more peat, fur ter keep the fire."

Thus leaving the mother and wife partially reassured, the old father slipped out and down the track, cut deeply in the sand by the one-horse carts, to "Uncle Will'amses," as fast as the storm would permit. But no Jim had been seen there; and still more anxiously the stout old man fought his way back against winds that seemed strong" enough to blow him like a feather over the cliff's edge, and against the spray which shot up from the beach below, smitten by the sounding surf, clear over the high top of Sankota Head.

Reaching his door during a brief lull in the wind, he heard faintly but distinctly the booming of guns fired by a ship in distress. "It mus' be some vessil on the shoals, an' mos' likely Jim's heard her an' got some o' th' other boys, an' 's went off in 's boat ter help her. Poor soul!" With this comforting reflection the father cheered the watchers inside, who had grown fearfully anxious, as the clock had long ago struck for midnight.

"We mus' build a fire on the Head ter light 'em," said the old man. "There hed oughter be a light'us here, but 's there ain't none, we mus' dew the bes' we kin,"

So saying, he harnessed the horse—almost as old as himself—and with the aid of the two women loaded the sled with dry wood and started with it to the cliff, while the mother and daughter followed behind as best they might, struggling to keep alive without being set on fire by the coals in the iron pot which they carried between them. It was a weary half mile, wind, spray and rain all contending against the feeble folk who had come out to help back to land and home the brave fellows who had gone to succor the distressed. They made all the more sure that this was the case, because Jim's new boat, the pride and joy of his life, was not to be found at the spot where he had only that day drawn, it high above the reach of even such a storm as this, ready for building over it on the morrow its winter house of pine-boughs and turf.

At last a fire was kindled; and leaving the women to watch it, old Stephen took several weary trips back to the cottage after fuel, making serious inroads upon a stock at the best not too large to meet the demands of the coming winter. The flame, fanned by the blast even more than dashed by the spray and rain, sprang upward, casting its ruddy lances of light backward over the sandy downs, destitute even then of tree or shrub to break the force of the gale, and forward over the frothing white tops and deep, black troughs of waves that seemed to the excited eyes of the watching women like so many separate fiends leaping upward and stretching out white hands to clutch helpless victims and hurry them to the hell beneath. And all the while the surf thundered at the foot of the trembling cliff. No form could be discovered through the darkness beyond the near neighborhood of the shore; and but for the flash of the gun, which was seen continually, though its sound was but seldom heard above the surf and the wind, the watchers would have thought there was no ship near.

By and by the rain ceased, but there was no moon, and impenetrable wind-clouds still hid the stars. Out through the blackness of the night the flame-light quivered in long, bright streams over the endless lines of ever-advancing waves, but revealed to the watchers no ship, no boat, no tokens even of wreck, only the ceaseless reaching upward of the beckoning white hands; and the wind bore no sound, save at intervals the dull distant boom of the cannon. But ever the solemn surf thundered on the beach below, and the sand-cliff trembled and crumbled beneath its resounding blows.

The old man, who, with a seaman's owl-like eyesight, kneeled intently gazing out through the darkness in the direction of the flash, suddenly exclaimed, "I don't un'erstan' it! That air ship hadn't oughter be in 'stress off where she is. She ain't on no shoal, nor nothin'. She's jest a-lyin' tew. An' I don't see no signs o' no boats nuther; an's fur's I kin see, them folks is a firin' off that air gun jest fur the musicalness on't. Blast 'em! Come, gals: we mought as well be walkin' along hum as ter stop a-yawpin' here in the wind an' spray, a-burnin' up the winter's kindlin' fur folks 'at's a-foolin' on us. 'Spesh'ly as I think she's a Britisher. Blast her!"

The old Quaker was not accustomed to use strong language of any sort, but evidently the human nature in him was so powerful in this instance that he could not help indulging in the most emphatic admissible invective.

But the mother and wife were not so easily satisfied. In their eyes the strange ship and all on board her were not of as much consequence as the unworthy missing Jim, whose fate they associated with it. Jim's boat, they said, was gone. No one could have taken her but Jim himself. He would never have put out on such a night as this save to go to the help of the distressed ship; and if he was on the water, the light burning on Sankota Head would guide him safely back. So, in the midst of spray and wind, the three kneeled on the cliff and kept the blaze alight till the rising dawn made it useless, when, to the dismay of the watchers, the ship hoisted sail and bore away. She showed no colors, but the old islander, once a whaler, declared that she was a British man-o'-war.

But where was Jim? The unanswering surf still boomed at the foot of the cliff, though the height of the waves was rapidly diminishing, and the water was gradually assuming the peculiarly bland expression that often comes after a storm, reminding one of the cat that has "eaten the canary," but there was no sign of incoming boat or men.

Chilled to the bone with the wind and cold sea-spray of the November night, and to the heart with sorrow and disappointment, the three returned to the lonely house. Running to meet them came Mary Allen, breathlessly crying, "Where's Eben and Jim?"

Poor Sarah could not answer, but the brave old mother, a veteran in sorrows, replied with trembling lips, "We don't know anythin' o' thy brother, Mary; an' Jim hain't b'en hum sence las' night. His boat's gone, an' we thought he might ha' went out to help the ship that was a-firin' all night. But she's sailed off this mornin' all right; an' father, he says she was a Britisher an' undly a-firin' ter fool us folks. So I don't know nothin' about it," uttering the last words in a drearily hopeless tone that gave them exceeding pathos.

For a moment Mary stood in dismay; then she cried wildly, "Oh, they're drowned, they're drowned! Jim come deown ter eour heouse las' night a-sayin' he'd heard the firin' o' a ship in 'stress, an' askin' Eb ter go with him an' help him git his boat eout, an' telled me ter run along deown to Zack Tumnaydoo's An' ax Zack an' Ellery ter go with 'em. An' I did, an' that's the las' anybody's seen o' any one on 'em. Oh dear! oh dear!" And wringing her hands, the sobbing girl ran back as quickly as she had come to impart to her mother and sisters the full extent of her evil tidings.

The cold, sad, desolate weeks and months that now rolled slowly on are to this day remembered on Nantucket as those of the "hard winter." Provisions were scarce, fuel was difficult to obtain, the harbor was frozen over, so that few fish could be taken there, and all communication with "the main" was cut off by British cruisers. In January the cherished old horse was killed because there was no longer hay to feed him, and even oats were "too precious to be fed to dumb beasts." In February the stalwart old Stephen lay grimly down to die, saying pityingly, "It's time, gals: I can't dew ye no more good by stayin'; an' I'm so tired."

The day succeeding the silent funeral, where two women had dropped the few tears that were left them to shed, good old Thomas Macy came and took his daughter and her mother to his own home. And in windy, still frozen March the wail of a tiny baby was heard in the house.

Under all the trouble the two brave women made no moan. Silently clinging together, never losing sight of each other for more than a few moments at a time, they yet said nothing of their greatest grief, that Jim should have disappeared with such unworthy words on his lips and thoughts in his heart, until, a few days after the baby's birth, Sarah said to her mother, "I know he's not dead. If he'd ha' died, he'd ha' come back and told me he was sorry. Fur I dew think he'd be sorry. Don't thee, mother?" And the mother nodded assent and smiled through her tears.

But, in truth, they had a more substantial reason than poor Sarah's wistful fancy for thinking that Jim was living. When the ice broke up, his boat was found in a little cove, where it had floated right-side up, without any serious injury except the carrying away of the sails. Of course this discovery roused new hopes in the homes of the missing men. It did not "stand to reason" that four big strong, temperate young fellows, brought up to the hardy, amphibious island-life, had all fallen overboard, any more than it "stood to sense" that the boat had upset and then righted of itself. Besides, "none of the boy's corpuses had ever floated up." So the Tucketers took courage and felt sure that, whatever had become of the missing men, they were not drowned.

But still the slow months came and went, till the summer and autumn and another winter had passed by; and patient old Rachel Starbuck grew daily a little quieter and a little grayer; and the brave young wife grew a little stronger to bear, but not a whit less loving or prone to suffer, and stately old Thomas Macy grew daily more gentle and pitying in his ways as he looked long at the winsome face of the happy, wee grandchild, that throve and crowed and tried to utter sweet little hesitating words as gayly as if the world had never a sin, a sorrow or a weakness in it.

One day Sarah and her mother had carried the baby down to the small cottage at the back of the cliff, whither they went to attend to some little household matter; for, although they did not mention the subject, even to themselves, they still kept all there in readiness against Jim's coming home. Here, in the soft May sunshine, the red-frocked baby was sitting on the green turf step, playing with some "daffies," first of the season, which Sarah had plucked from the little garden in the rear. The mother and daughter were in the house, when both were alarmed by a scream from the usually merry child. A man had it closely clasped in his arms, kissing it and calling it between half-choked sobs his "own pretty, pretty baby." The man was thin, pock-marked, bald, and clad in a ragged uniform of a British sailor, but to the faithful, longing eyes of mother and wife there was no mistaking their Jim.

It was long ere the story could be told, but at last they learned that on that sad November night Jim and his companions had gone out to the relief of the signaling ship. She was, as old Stephen had conjectured, a British man-o'-war. Being short of hands, and having on board as pilot a renegade native of the island, who knew where a ship could "lay-to" in safety, she had taken advantage of the storm to attract strong men within the range of her guns, then to command them to surrender, and thus to impress them into "His Majesty's service" as "able seamen."

For a long time Jim had managed to keep alive his resentful feelings toward his wife, accusing of being the source of all his misfortunes the poor little woman who was loving and longing so sincerely for him. But when illness came he could hold out no longer. "I made up my mind then," said he, "that if ever I got hum agin, I'd go deown on my knees an' ax pardin' o' my Sairy."

But she had never been angry, and was now only too thankful that Jim and his friends had escaped safely.

"Ah!" said Jim in telling his adventures, "we hed a clus run on 't, Sairy, but thee'd better believe that air British navy's a fust-rate place fur larnin' a feller ter know when he's well off. An' Sairy, when I longed so fur thee an' mother, an' thought o' what a wretch I was to speak so ter the dearest little woman in the world, I c'u'd see that I hadn't knowed when I was well off."

Jim's was not an unselfish kind of repentance, but it was the best it was in his nature to offer, and Sarah had long ago learned that her Jim was not the saint and hero she had once dreamed, but only a weak and common-place man; and she asked for nothing higher from him. To his best she had a right, and with that she was content, smiling on her husband with eyes full of a love as tender and true as when in the old days she had gazed down upon her lover from the cliff-head, while the mother laid her hand softly on his scanty hair, and said solemnly, "May God keep thee thus, my son!" adding, after a moment's pause, "But I wish thy fayther was here to see." And a tender silence for the memory of the rough but kindly-natured old man fell over them all; while the baby, reconciled to the stranger, poked her little fingers in the marks on his face, and cried because she could not get them off.