The Project Gutenberg eBook, Mermaid, by Grant Martin Overton, Illustratedby Henry A. Botkin
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Author: Grant Martin Overton
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GRANT M. OVERTON
Frontispiece by Henry A. Botkin
Garden CityNew York
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF
TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES,
INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
“NO ONE,” snapped Keturah Smiley, “can playProvidence to a married couple.”
“Some women can play Lucifer,” retorted herbrother. His hoarse but not unmusical voice shookwith anger.
“I had nothing to do with your wife’s running away,”Keturah Smiley answered. “What is this child youhave adopted?”
“I have adopted no child,” said Cap’n John Smileywith coldness. “A child was saved from the wreck ofthe Mermaid and the men at the station have adoptedher. The fancy struck them and—I certainly had noobjection. It’s—she’s—a girl, a little girl of about six.We don’t know her name. The men are calling herMermaid after the ship.”
Keturah Smiley sniffed. She wrapped the man’scoat she wore more closely about her, and made as if toreturn to her gardening.
Her brother eyed her with a wrathful blue eye. Henever saw her that they did not quarrel. He wasaware that, deep down, she loved him; he was awarethat it was this jealous love of Keturah’s which hadcaused her to nag the young girl he had married someseven years earlier. Mary Rogers, in Keturah’s eyes,was a silly, thoughtless, flighty person quite unfitted tofill the rŰle of John Smiley’s wife and the mother ofJohn Smiley’s children. She must be made to feelthis; Keturah had done her best to make her feel it.And there could be no question that the young wife hadfelt it. So much so that, joined to John Smiley’s longabsences on duty at the Coast Guard station on thebeach, joined to her loneliness, joined to who knowswhat secret doubts and anguish, she had disappearedone day some months after their child was born, takingthe baby girl with her and leaving no word, no note, notoken. And she had never come back. She hadnever been traced. She might be dead; the childmight be dead; no one knew.
Of course this was the crowning evidence of the unfitnessKeturah Smiley had found in her; but somehowKeturah Smiley did not make that triumphant pointbefore her brother. It is possible that KeturahSmiley who wore a man’s old coat, who drove hardbargains at better than six per cent., whose tonguemade the Long Islanders of Blue Port shrink as undera cutting lash—it is possible that Keturah Smiley wasjust the least bit afraid of her brother.
If so she could hardly be said to show it. Therewas no trace of the stricken conscience in the airwith which she always faced him. There was nonenow.
“Well, John,” she said, almost pleasantly, as she hoedher onion bed. “You’re blowing from the southeastpretty strong to-day and you appear to be bringingtrouble. I’ll just take three reefs in my temper andlisten to what further you have to say.”
John Smiley was not heeding her. He had foundthat there are times in life when it is necessary not tolisten if you would keep sane and kind. He was reflectingon the difficulty of his errand.
“Keturah,” he asked, off-handedly, “this little girlhas got to have some clothes. Do you suppose——”
“Perhaps you would like me to adopt her,” his sisterinterrupted. “No, I thank you, John. As for clothes,I daresay that if you and your men are going to bringup a six-year-old girl the lot of you can get clothes fromsomewhere.”
Do we always torture the things we love? Love andjealousy, jealousy and torture. Cap’n Smiley saw redfor a moment; then he turned on his heel and strodedown the path and out the gate.
He walked up the long main street until he came tothe handful of stores at the crossroads. Entering oneof the largest he went to the counter where a pleasant-facedwoman confronted him.
“Oh, Cap’n Smiley!” exclaimed the shopwoman.“Are you all right? Are all the men all right? Whata terrible time you have been a-having! That ship—she’spounded all to pieces they say.”
The Coast Guard keeper nodded. He began his errand:
“I’ve got to get some clothes for a little girl that wassaved—only one we got ashore alive except one of thehands. I guess I need a complete outfit for a six-year-old,”he explained.
The shopwoman, with various exclamations, bustledabout. She spread out on the counter a variety ofgarments. The keeper eyed them with some confusion.It appeared he had to make a selection; impossible task!“What would you think was best?” he inquired,anxiously. The shopwoman came to his aid and abundle was made up. Two little gingham dresses, awarm coat; and did he want a nice dress? A dress-updress? The keeper had given no thought to the matter.A pity the little girl wasn’t along! It was hard to tellwhat would become her. She had blue eyes and reddishhair? Something dark and plain, but not toodark. A plaid; yes, a warm plaid would be best. Herewas a nice pattern.
“I s’pose you’ll be bringing her over here,” venturedthe shopkeeper. “Does any one know who sheis?... What a pity! Mermaid! After the ship!I declare. I don’t know’s I ever heard that for a girl’sname, though it’s suitable, to be sure. I s’pose you’lllook after her.”
“The—the men have sort of adopted her,” Cap’nSmiley said, hastily. “We thought we could look afterher and it would be rather nice having a youngsteraround. Of course, it’s unusual,” he went on in answerto the shopwoman’s expression of amazement. Hethanked her, and taking his bundles, fared forth.
The woman in the shop sent after him a curiousand softened look. She had a habit of saying aloudthe things that struck her most forcibly. She remarkednow to the empty store:
“Adopt her! Well, there’s those will say a crew ofCoast Guardsmen are no fit lot to bring up a six-year-oldgirl. But any child will be safe with John Smileyto look after her.” A new and important thoughtstruck her.
“Goodness!” she ejaculated. “This will be somethingfor Keturah to exercise her brain about!”
Cap’n Smiley went from the shop directly to thecreek where his boat lay. He stowed his bundles andgave several energetic turns to the flywheel; the enginebegan to chug loudly, the keeper cast off his line, andtaking the tiller started back across the Great SouthBay.
It was a five-mile trip across to the Lone Cove CoastGuard Station and Keeper John had a little time forreflection. He had not meant to quarrel with hissister; he had gone with the express determination notto have the usual row, but this had proved impossible.No one could avoid fighting with his sister, himselfleast of all. If it was not some allusion to his wife itwas some allusion to their aunt’s will which, drawn toleave her considerable property equally to John andhis sister, had at the last moment been altered to leaveall to Keturah because of dissatisfaction with John’smarriage. The keeper had never cared about thatwhile he had had his wife and for a few preciousmonths the baby girl; and after he had lost them itwould seem he might have cared less than ever. Whatwas money then? Never-ceasing pain still gnawedat his heart, but for that very reason the gibes of hissister became the more unendurable. Was it not shewho was in great measure responsible for the loss ofMary and the little Mary? Cap’n Smiley was a clear-mindedman; he did not absolve his wife from blame,but she had been, after all, but a young girl anddespite her lightmindedness he had loved her. Withall her little affectations, with all her craving for amusement,with all her utter inefficiency as a housekeeper,with all her childishness akin to that of the childlikeDora whom David Copperfield cherished—with all andin spite of all John Smiley had loved this young girl.And he could not but believe that his sister was asmuch to blame for her behaviour in leaving him asMary’s own weak nature.
And then the baby girl! How deep the wound oflosing her John Smiley would never let the world know.Her name, too, had been Mary.
He thought of the mute little figure awaiting him andhis bundles on the beach. She was just the age, asnearly as could be surmised, that his own child wouldhave been if ... if....
What was that his sister had said in regard to hisown experience? “No one can play Providence to amarried couple.” Well, a pretty thing for her to say!She had certainly played a rŰle anything but providentialin her brother’s marriage. But if no one couldplay Providence to married folk it might still bepossible for someone to be a Providence to a singlesoul.
This little girl, he thought with a thrill, this littlegirl of the age his own would have been, with her blueeyes and her reddish hair, coppery, almost burnished—shecould play Providence in his life, perhaps.
He remembered how, the night of the wreck, he hadput her to bed in his own bed and had slept in someblankets on the floor. In the middle of the night hehad been wakened by her crying. Some memory inher sleep had made her sob. Very weak, pitiful sobs.They had stirred him to try to comfort her and aftera little she had returned to sleep.
There was in the crew of the Lone Cove CoastGuard Station a man named Hosea Hand andcalled Ho Ha, partly because these were the firstletters of his first and last names, partly because ofthe presence among the crew of another man calledHa Ha. Ha Ha’s name was Harvey Hawley and hewas a silent, sorrowful, drooping figure. He resembleda gloomy question mark and not a joyful exclamationpoint. Ho Ha, however, was merry; Ho Ha wasblithe and gay. Ha Ha, in the week of the six-year-oldchild’s existence at Lone Cove, had hardly done morethan eye her with misgiving. But Ho Ha had pickedher up a dozen times a day for little journeys down tothe surf, back to the station, over to the bay, and up onthe dunes. He had her now, pick-a-back, at the end ofthe little pier that stuck out into the bay shallows.The chugging of the keeper’s launch grew louder everyminute.
“Wave to the Cap’n,” Ho Ha urged her. Mermaidanswered his smile with a smile of her own. The afternoonsun struck her coppery hair and framed the smilein a halo.
Of a sudden the chug-chugging stopped, the launchcame about neatly, and Ho Ha, hastily setting Mermaiddown on the pier, caught the rope end Cap’n Smileytossed him. Then