On the Tantramar Dyke.



THE wind blew hard across the marshes of Tantramar and across the open bay. The yellow waters of the bay were driven into long, white-crested waves, and the deep green grass of the marshes was bowed in rushing, pallid lines. From the marshes the water was fenced back by ramparts of dyke, following the curve of the shore. The dyke was clothed with a sparse, gray-green, wind-whipped herbage, and along its narrow top ran a foot-path, irregularly worn bare. Following this path went a tall young woman with a yellow-haired child at her side. The wind wrapped roughly her bluish-gray [Page 181] homespun skirt about her knees, making it hard for her to walk; and the child, a little boy perhaps two years old, kept pulling back upon her grasp from time to time, to catch at weed or grass-top, or to push the blown curls out of his eyes. The woman grasped him securely, lest the wind should buffet him off the dyke, but to his babbling and his laughter she paid no heed. Her eyes held a grave sorrow that went curiously with so young a face; and her red lips, full but firm, were compressed as if in bitter retrospection. Like the child, she wore no hat upon the rich masses of her hair, but a blue and white calico sun bonnet, crisply ironed, hung by its strings from her arm.
    In the sheltered mouth of a creek some hundreds of yards behind these two figures a boat was coming to land. It came from a brig which lay at anchor under the lee of a high [Page 182] point, half a mile further down the shore. Two sailors pulled upon the oars. In the stern sat a young fellow with an air of authority which proclaimed him at least first mate or second. In spite of his dignity, however, there was a boyish zest in his eyes. A mop of light hair, longer than is usually affected by seamen of English speech, came down upon his red and sturdy neck, and suggested that he had been sojourning long among foreigners. But in his face was the light of a glad homecoming. Eagerly he sprang to land as the boat touched the little wharf. With a shade of irresolution, he cast a quick glance up and down the shore. Then, muttering under his breath an exclamation of surprise and delight, he climbed the dyke, and made haste in pursuit of the woman and the child.
    The wind was in their ears; the wind-beaten grass was thick and soft [Page 183] on the dyke-top; and they did not hear his hurrying footsteps. When he was yet half a dozen paces behind them, he called out “Libby!”
    Like a flash the woman turned, starting as if the sound of his voice had stung her, and her hands went up to her bosom. As her eyes rested upon him, a hot flush spread over her comely young face. Her lips quivered an instant, then set themselves in stern and bitter lines. Turning on her heel without a syllable, she resumed her way. The child, who had clutched her knee in alarm at the strange voice, she kept hold of by the hand, so that now, the dyke being narrow, there was no room for another to walk beside her.
    The man scanned ardently her trim, tall figure, and the heavy red-brown coil of hair which drooped low upon her neck. His eyes danced as they fell upon the child. His hands [Page 184] went out as if they would snatch the little fellow to his lips, but he checked the impulse.
    “Libby,” he repeated, in a tone of mingled confidence and coaxing, “I’ve come back to make it all right to you—an’ the boy! I jest couldn’t git here no sooner!”
    His words fell unheeded, except that the boy half turned a smiling face, and babbled shyly at him.
    “Libby,” he repeated, anxiously, the confidence fading out of his voice, “won’t ye speak to a feller?” and after hesitating a moment for response, he stepped forward, and grasped her arm appealingly.
    She caught her breath, and he thought she was going to relent; but the next instant, dropping her hold upon the child, she swung around the other arm, and struck him fiercely across the face with her open hand.
    He fell back a pace or two, and [Page 185] stared about him foolishly, as if he thought some one on the distant ship or in the upland village might have seen his discomfiture. He felt furtively at his smarting lips, and was on the point of laughing, but changed his mind. His brows creased themselves in anxious concern, and for a good five minutes he walked behind the woman without a word. The problem he was facing grew suddenly very serious in his eyes. He had always had a vague consciousness that Libby was in some way different from the other girls of his little fishing-village; but this perception had become obscured to him in the hour when he found that she actually returned his love and could be melted by his passion. Now, however, the feeling returned to him with a new force. Being a young man, he had been wont to flatter himself that he knew the “women-folks” through and [Page 186] through; but now he tasted a sensation of doubt and diffidence.
    At length, coming up close behind her, that the wind might not blow his words away, he began, very humbly.
    “Won’t ye try to fergive me, Libby?” he pleaded. “I mean square, I do, so help me God. If ye knowed how I’ve been a-hungerin’ for a tech of yer hand, all this long v’yage, ye’d maybe not think so hard o’ me. I ain’t never cared fer no other girl but you—never really cared. I always hev wanted jest you, an’ now I want ye that powerful I can’t begin to tell ye—you an’ the boy—the little lad—what’s a-smiling at me now, ef his mother won’t.”
    He paused to see if his words were producing any effect, and seeing none, he went on yet more anxiously, while the furrows deepened in his forehead.
    “An’ now I’m a-goin’ to do the [Page 187] right thing by you an’ the little lad,”—here the resentment darkened in the woman’s face, but he could not see it,—“an’ ef ye’ll come to the minister with me this day, I lay out to never let ye repent it. Freights is low, an’ I kin stay home the rest of the summer, an’ I’ve brought ye back a tidy little lump of money in my—”
    But at mention of the money the woman faced about, and confronted him with such hot indignation that he was too bewildered to finish his sentence. She opened her mouth to speak, but only uttered a sob, and in spite of herself the tears broke from her eyes. Dashing the corner of her apron across her face, she turned and walked on more hastily than before.
    The man looked discouraged, then impatient, then determined. But he continued more humbly than ever.
    “I know I done wrong, I know I was a mean sneak to leave ye in [Page 188] the lurch the way I done that spring, Libby. But I couldn’t help it—kind of. Stidder comin’ right back here from New York an’ marryin’ ye, like I’d laid out to do, honest, I had to ship in a barquentine of Purdy’s that was loadin’ for Bonus Ayrs. An’ then we went round up the Chili coast way up to Peru for nitrates. An’ there bein’ war between Chili an’ Peru, an’ the Chilians offerin’ good pay, I ’listed, an’ saw it through, an’ so—”
    As an explanation this was all so awkward and glaringly insufficient that the girl was excited out of her reserve. Again she turned, and this time she spoke.
    “Jim Calligan,” said she, fiercely, “you are lyin’ to me right along. You could n’t help leavin’ me to my shame, eh?” What kind of talk ‘s that fer a man? Why don’t you say right out that, havin’ had all you wanted of me, you jest didn’t [Page 189] care what become of me, an’ you jest shipped yerself off fer Bonus Ayrs as the easiest way of gittin’ quit of me? An’—an’ I’d see me an’ the—the babe, both of us, starve to death afore I’d tech a cent of your money.”
    She ended in a fresh burst of noiseless tears, pulled the child close to her side, and walked on.
    The man braced himself, as if about to use an argument which he would fain have avoided.
    “Libby,” said he, “I didn’t want to tell ye the hull truth, but I reckon I’ve got to. Ye see, I cleared out to South Ameriky jest because, fer awhile there, I thought as how the babe—wasn’t agoin’ to be mine.”
    She had turned again, and was gazing at him with a look that made him feel ashamed to lift his face; but he went on.
    “As true as I’m a-standin’ here, Libby, I believed it, an’ it nigh [Page 190] killed me, I tell you. The way it come, I couldn’t help believin’ it. But three months back I found out as how I’d been deceived, and that jest made me so glad, I never thought half enough about the wicked wrong I’d been doin’ ye all this time. I was in—”
    “Who told you such a wicked, wicked lie?” interrupted the woman.
    “Pete Simmons,” said he, simply.
    “And you let him?” she demanded, with eyes flaming.
    “Not much—that is, not exactly,” said the man. “It was all in a letter his sister writ him.”
    “What, Martha, that died last spring?” she asked, eagerly.
    “The very same,” said he. “And Pete didn’t believe it at first, no more’n I did. Pete was all right, an’ advised me as how I’d oughter write ye about it an’ clear it all up. But Marthy’s letter looked so straight, by and by I didn’t see how to get [Page 191] over it. She had it all down fine, how you’d been goin’ with Jud Prescott behind my back; an’ how Jud had as good as owned up to her about it, an’ was powerful amused at the way you an’ he was foolin’ me. Marthy writ as how I was too fine a feller to be treated that way, an’ she jest couldn’t stand it. So then—”
    “Well, what then?” asked the woman, in a hard voice, as he hesitated.
    “Then, fer awhile, I didn’t care ef I died; an’ I went away to South Ameriky.”
    “An’ what’s brought ye back now?” she inquired, in the same hard voice.
    “When Marthy was on her deathbed she writ to Pete, tellin’ him she’d lied about ye, all on account—on account of a kind of a hankerin’ she had fer me,” explained the man with a self-conscious hesitation. “An’, oh, Libby!” he continued, in a burst of [Page 192] eager passion, “my heart’s achin’ fer ye, an’ I do so want the little lad, an’ can’t ye try an’ fergive me all the wrong ye’ve suffered through me?”
    The expression on the woman’s face had undergone a change—but she did not choose to let him see her face just then. She looked across the marshes, and out on the flooding tide, and wondered what made the picture so glowingly beautiful, even like her childhood’s memories of it. Her very walk became unconsciously softer and more yieldingly graceful.
    But she was determined not to pardon him too quickly. Without turning her face, she declared, emphatically:
    “Jim Calligan, ef ye was the only man in the world, I wouldn’t marry ye. Don’t ye dare to lay a finger on me, or I’ll fling the boy an’ myself both into the bito yonder.”
    The aboideau, or, as the fisher-folk of the neighborhood were wont to [Page 193] call it, the “bito,” was a place where the dyke, here become a lofty and massive embankment, crossed a small creek or tidal stream. The essential feature of an aboideau is its tide-gates, so arranged as to give egress to the fresh waters of the creek, while not admitting the great tides of the bay to drown the marshes. The gates of this aboideau, however, were out of repair, and most imperfectly performed their functions. The deep basin behind the dyke was half-filled with the pale water of the creek, through which boiled up a furious yellow torrent where the tide was forcing an entrance.
    In a moment or two they were on top of the aboideau. The man was silent in something like despair, deeming his case almost hopeless at the very moment when the woman was wondering how she could most gracefully capitulate. She half-turned her face, being much moved to look [Page 194] at him and judge from his countenance as to whether she had punished him enough. At this instant a splendid red and black butterfly hovered close before the child’s eyes, and settled on a milk-weed top just over the edge of the dyke. The child slipped from his mother’s grasp, reached eagerly out to catch the gorgeous insect, and tumbled headlong into the seething turmoil of the basin.
    Uttering a faint cry of horror, the woman made as if to spring in after him. But the man grasped her roughly, thrust her back, and cried, in a voice of abrupt command, “Stop there!”
    Then he plunged to the rescue.
    As the little one came to the surface, the man grasped him. A few powerful strokes brought them to the shore; and he was already struggling up the slippery steep with his burden as the woman, who had scrambled down the dyke and run [Page 195] along the brink, paused in the bordering grass and stretched out both hands to help him.
    Without a word, he put the dripping, sobbing little form into her arms. She snuggled it to her bosom, devouring the wet and frightened face with her lips. Then she handed the child back to him, saying:
    “Seems to me ye know how to take care of him, Jim!”
    She was smiling at him through her tears in a way he could hardly fail to understand.
    “An’ of you, too, Libby?” he pleaded, drawing her to him, so that he held both mother and child in the one clasp.
    “May be, Jim, if ye’re quite sure now ye want to,” she assented, yielding and leaning against him.
    And the wind piped on steadily above their heads; but there in the sun, under the shelter of the dyke, the peace was undisturbed [Page 196].