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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 2. Maria Port
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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 2. Maria Port Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :630

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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 2. Maria Port

CHAPTER II. Maria Port

Olive stood impatiently at the door of the little tollhouse. In one hand she held three copper cents, because she felt almost sure that the person approaching would give her a dime or two five-cent pieces.

"I never knew horses to travel so slowly as they do on this pike!" she said to herself. "How they used to gallop on those beautiful roads in France!"

In due course of time the vehicle approached near enough to the toll-gate for Olive to take an observation of its occupant. This was a middle-aged woman, dressed in black, holding a black fan. She wore a black bonnet with a little bit of red in it. Her face was small and pale, its texture and color suggesting a boiled apple dumpling. She had small eyes of which it can be said that they were of a different color from her face, and were therefore noticeable. Her lips were not prominent, and were closely pressed together as if some one had begun to cut a dumpling, but had stopped after making one incision.

This somewhat somber person leaned forward in the seat behind her young driver, and steadily stared at Olive. When the horse had passed the toll-bar the boy stopped it so that his passenger and Olive were face to face and very near each other.

"Seven cents, please," said Olive.

The cleft in the dumpling enlarged itself, and the woman spoke. "Bless my soul," she said, "are you Captain Asher's niece?"

"I am," said Olive in surprise.

"Well, well," said the other, "that just beats me! When I heard he had his niece with him I thought she was a plain girl, with short frocks and her hair plaited down her back."

Olive did not like this woman. It is wonderful how quickly likes and dislikes may be generated.

"But you see I am not," she replied. "Seven cents, please."

"Don't you suppose I know what the toll is?" said the woman in the carriage. "I'm sure I've traveled over this road often enough to know that. But what I'm thinkin' about is the difference between what I thought the captain's niece was and what she really is."

"It does not make any difference what the difference is," said Olive, speaking quickly and with perhaps a little sharpness in her voice, "all I want is for you to pay me the toll."

"I'm not goin' to pay any toll," said the other.

Olive's face flushed. "Little boy," she exclaimed, "back that horse!" As the youngster obeyed her peremptory request Olive gave a quick jerk to a rope and brought down the toll-gate bar so that it stretched itself across the road, barely missing in its downward sweep the nose of the unoffending horse. "Now," said Olive, "if you are ready to pay your toll you can go through this gate, and if you are not, you can turn round and go back where you came from."

"I'm not goin' to pay any toll," said the other, "and I don't want to go through the gate. I came to see Captain Asher.--Johnny, turn your horse a little and let me get out. Then you can stop in the shade of this tree and wait until I'm ready to go back.--I suppose the captain's in," she said to Olive, "but if he isn't, I can wait."

"Oh, he's at home," said Olive, "and, of course, if I had known you were coming to see him, I would not have asked you for your toll. This way, please," and she stepped toward a gate in the garden hedge.

"When I've been here before," said the visitor, "I always went through the tollhouse. But I suppose things is different now."

"This is the entrance for visitors," said Olive, holding open the gate.

Captain Asher had heard the voices, and had come out to his front door. He shook hands with the newcomer, and then turned to Olive, who was following her.

"This is my niece, my brother Alfred's daughter," he said, "and Olive, let me introduce you to Miss Maria Port."

"She introduced herself to me," said Miss Port, "and tried to get seven cents out of me by letting down the bar so that it nearly broke my horse's nose. But we'll get to know each other better. She's very different from what I thought she was."

"Most people are," said Captain Asher, as he offered a chair to Miss Port in his parlor, and sat down opposite to her. Olive, who did not care to hear herself discussed, quietly passed out of the room.

"Captain," said Miss Port, leaning forward, "how old is she, anyway?"

"About twenty," was the answer.

"And how long is she going to stay?"

"All summer, I hope," said Captain John.

"Well, she won't do it, I can tell you that," remarked Miss Port. "She'll get tired enough of this place before the summer's out."

"We shall see about that," said the captain, "but she is not tired yet."

"And her mother's dead, and she's wearin' no mournin'."

"Why should she?" said the captain. "It would be a shame for a young girl like her to be wearing black for two years."

"She's delicate, ain't she?"

"I have not seen any signs of it."

"What did her mother die of?"

"I never heard," said the captain; "perhaps it was the bubonic plague."

Miss Port pushed back her chair and drew her skirts about her.

"Horrible!" she exclaimed. "And you let that child come here!"

The captain smiled. "Perhaps it wasn't that," he said. "It might have been an avalanche, and that is not catching."

Miss Port looked at him seriously. "It's a great pity she's so handsome," she said.

"I don't think so; I am glad of it," replied the captain.

Miss Port heaved a sigh. "What that girl is goin' to need," she said, "is a female guardeen."

"Would you like to take the place?" asked the captain with a grin.

At that instant it might have been supposed that a certain dumpling which has been mentioned was made of very red apples and that its covering of dough was somewhat thin in certain places. Miss Port's eyes were bent for an instant upon the floor.

"That is a thing," she said, "which would need a great deal of consideration."

A sudden thrill ran through the captain which was not unlike a moment in his past career when a gentle shudder had run through his ship as its keel grazed an unsuspected sand-bar, and he had not known whether it was going to stick fast or not; but he quickly got himself into deep water again.

"Oh, she is all right," said he briskly; "she has been used to taking care of herself almost ever since she was born. And by the way, Miss Port, did you know that Mr. Easterfield is at his home?"

Miss Port was not pleased with the sudden change in the conversation, and she remembered, too, that in other days it had been the captain's habit to call her Maria.

"I did not know he had a home," she answered. "I thought it was her'n. But since you've mentioned it, I might as well say that it was about him I came to see you. I heard that he came to town yesterday, and that her carriage met him at the station, and drove him out to her house. I hoped he had stopped a minute as he drove through your toll-gate, and that you might have had a word with him, or at least a good look at him. Mercy me!" she suddenly ejaculated, as a look of genuine disappointment spread over her face; "I forgot. The coachman would have paid the toll as he went to town, and there was no need of stoppin' as they went back. I might have saved myself this trip."

The captain laughed. "It stands to reason that it might have been that way," he said, "but it wasn't. He stopped, and I talked to him for about five minutes."

The face of Miss Port now grew radiant, and she pulled her chair nearer to Captain Asher. "Tell me," said she, "is he really anybody?"

"He is a good deal of a body," answered the captain. "I should say he is pretty nearly six feet high, and of considerable bigness."

"Well!" exclaimed Miss Port, "I'd thought he was a little dried-up sort of a mummy man that you might hang up on a nail and be sure you'd find him when you got back. Did he talk?"

"Oh, yes," said the captain, "he talked a good deal."

"And what did he tell you?"

"He did not tell me anything, but he asked a lot of questions."

"What about?" said Miss Port quickly.

"Everything. Fishing, gunning, crops, weather, people."

"Well, well!" she exclaimed. "And don't you suppose his wife could have told him all that, and she's been livin' here--this is the second summer. Did he say how long he's goin' to stay?"


"And you didn't ask him?"

"I told you he asked the questions," replied the captain.

"Well, I wish I'd been here," Miss Port remarked fervently. "I'd got something out of him."

"No doubt of that," thought the captain, but he did not say so.

"If he expects to pass himself off as just a common man," continued Miss Port, "that's goin' to spend the rest of his summer here with his family, he can't do it. He's first got to explain why he never came near that young woman and her two babies for the whole of last summer, and, so far as I've heard, he was never mentioned by her. I think, Captain Asher, that for the sake of the neighborhood, if you don't care about such things yourself, you might have made use of this opportunity. As far as I know, you're the only person in or about Glenford that's spoke to him."

The captain smiled. "Sometimes, I suppose," said he, "I don't say enough, and sometimes I say too much, but--"

"Then I wish he'd struck you more on an average," interrupted Miss Port. "But there's no use talkin' any more about it. I hired a horse and a carriage and a boy to come out here this mornin' to ask you about that man. And what's come of it? You haven't got a single thing to tell anybody except that he's big."

The captain changed the subject again. "How is your father?" he asked.

"Pop's just the same as he always is," was the answer. "And now, as I don't want to lose the whole of the seventy-five cents I've got to pay, suppose you call in that niece of yours, and let me have a talk with her. Perhaps I can get something interesting out of her."

The captain left the room, but he did not move with alacrity. He found Olive with a book in a hammock at the back of the house. When he told her his errand she sat up with a sudden bounce, her feet upon the ground.

"Uncle," she said, "isn't that woman a horrid person?"

The captain was a merry-minded man, and he laughed. "It is pretty hard for me to answer that question," said he; "suppose you go in and find out for yourself."

Olive hesitated; she was a girl who had a very high opinion of herself and a very low opinion of such a person as this Miss Port seemed to be. Why should she go in and talk to her? Still undecided, she left the hammock and made a few steps toward the house. Then, with a sudden exclamation, she stopped and dropped her book.

"Buggy coming," she exclaimed, "and that thing is running to take the toll!" With these words she started away with the speed of a colt.

An approaching buggy was on the road; Miss Maria Port, walking rapidly, had nearly reached the back door of the tollhouse when Olive swept by her so closely that the wind of her fluttering garments almost blew away the breath of the elder woman.

"Seven cents!" cried Olive, standing in the covered doorway, but she might have saved herself the trouble of repeating this formula, for the man in the buggy was not near enough to hear her.

When Olive saw it was a man, she turned, and perceiving her uncle approaching the tollhouse, she hurried by him up the garden path, looking neither to the right nor to the left.

"A pretty girl that is of yours!" exclaimed Miss Port. "She might just as well have slapped me in the face!"

"But what were you going to do in here?" asked Captain Asher. "You know that's against the rules."

"The rules be bothered," replied the irate Maria. "I thought it was Mr. Smiley. He's been away from his parish for a week, and there are a good many things I want to ask him."

"Well, it is the Roman Catholic priest from Marlinsville," said Captain Asher, "and he wouldn't tell you anything if you asked him."

The captain had a cheerful little chat with the priest, who was one of his most valued road friends; and when he returned to his garden he found Miss Port walking up and down the main path in a state of agitation.

"I should think," said she, "that the company would have something to say about your takin' up your time talkin' to people on the road. I've heard that sometimes they get out, and spend hours talkin' and smokin' with you. I guess that's against the rules."

"It is all right between the company and me," replied the captain. "You know I am a stockholder in a small way."

"You are!" exclaimed Miss Port. "Well, I've got somethin' by comin' here, anyway." Stowing away this bit of information in regard to the captain's resources in her mind for future consideration, she continued: "I don't think much of that niece of your'n. Has she never lived anywhere where the people had good manners?"

Olive, who had gone to her room in order to be out of the way of this queer visitor, now sat by an upper window, and it was impossible that she should fail to hear this remark, made by Miss Port in her most querulous tones. Olive immediately left the window, and sat down on the other side of the room.

"Good manners!" she ejaculated, and fell to thinking. Her present situation had suddenly presented itself to her in a very different light from that in which she had previously regarded it. She was living in a very plain house in a very plain way, with a very plain uncle who kept a tollhouse; but she liked him; and, until this moment, she had liked the life. But now she asked herself if it were possible for her longer to endure it if she were to be condemned to intercourse with people like that thing down in the garden. If her uncle's other friends in Glenford were of that grade she could not stay here. She smiled in spite of her irritation as she thought of the woman's words--"Anywhere where the people had good manners."

Good manners, indeed! She remembered the titled young officers in Germany with whom she had talked and danced when she was but seventeen years old, and who used to send her flowers. She remembered the people of rank in the army and navy and in the state who used to invite her mother and herself to their houses. She remembered the royal prince who had wished to be presented to her, and whose acquaintance she had declined because she did not like what she had heard of him. She remembered the good friends of her father in Europe and America, ladies and gentlemen of the army and navy. She remembered the society in which she had mingled when living with her Boston aunt during the past winter. Then she thought of Miss Port's question. Good manners, indeed!

"Well," said the perturbed Maria, after having been informed by the captain that his niece was accustomed to move in the best circles, "I don't want to go into the house again, for if I was to meet her, I'm sure I couldn't keep my temper. But I'll say this to you, Captain Asher, that I pity the woman that's her guardeen. And now, if you'll help my boy turn round so he won't upset the carriage, I'll be goin'. But before I go I'll just say this, that if you'd been in the habit of takin' advantage of the chances that come to you, I believe that you'd be a good deal better off than you are now, even if you do own shares in the turnpike company."

It was not difficult for the captain to recognize some of the chances to which she alluded; one of them she herself had offered him several times.

"Oh, I am very well off as I am," he answered, "but perhaps some day I may have something to tell you of the Easterfields and about their doings up on the mountain."

"About her doin's, you might as well say," retorted Miss Port. "No matter what you tell me, I don't believe a word about his ever doin' anything." With this she walked to the little phaeton, into which the captain helped her.

"Uncle John," said Olive, a few minutes later, "are there many people like that in Glenford?"

"My dear child," said the captain, "the people in Glenford, the most of them, I mean, are just as nice people as you would want to meet. They are ladies and gentlemen, and they are mighty good company. They don't often come out here, to be sure, but I know most of them, and I ought to be ashamed of myself that I have not made you acquainted with them before this. As to Maria Port, there is only one of her in Glenford, and, so far as I know, there isn't another just like her in the whole world. Now I come to think of it," he continued, "I wonder why some of the young people have not come out to call on you. But if that Maria Port has been going around telling them that you are a little girl in short frocks it is not so surprising."

"Oh, don't bother yourself, Uncle John, about calls and society," said Olive. "If you can only manage that that woman takes the shunpike whenever she drives this way, I shall be perfectly satisfied with everything just as it is."

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