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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tides Of Barnegat - Chapter 22. The Claw Of The Sea-Puss
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The Tides Of Barnegat - Chapter 22. The Claw Of The Sea-Puss Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :852

Click below to download : The Tides Of Barnegat - Chapter 22. The Claw Of The Sea-Puss (Format : PDF)

The Tides Of Barnegat - Chapter 22. The Claw Of The Sea-Puss

CHAPTER XXII. THE CLAW OF THE SEA-PUSS

With the closing of the doors the murmur of the crowd, the dull glare of the gray sky, and the thrash of the wind were shut out. The only light in the House of Refuge now came from the two small windows, one above the form of the suffering man and the other behind the dead body of Archie. Jane's head was close to the boy's chest, her sobs coming from between her hands, held before her face. The shock of Archie's death had robbed her of all her strength. Lucy knelt beside her, her shoulder resting against a pile of cordage. Every now and then she would steal a furtive glance around the room--at the boat, at the rafters overhead, at the stove with its pile of kindling--and a slight shudder would pass through her. She had forgotten nothing of the past, nor of the room in which she crouched. Every scar and stain stood out as clear and naked as those on some long-buried wreck dug from shifting sands by a change of tide.

A few feet away the doctor was stripping the wet clothes from the rescued man and piling the dry coats over him to warm him back to life. His emergency bag, handed in by Polhemus through the crack of the closed doors, had been opened, a bottle selected, and some spoonfuls of brandy forced down the sufferer's throat. He saw that the sea-water had not harmed him; it was the cordwood and wreckage that had crushed the breath out of him. In confirmation he pointed to a thin streak of blood oozing from one ear. The captain nodded, and continued chafing the man's hands--working with the skill of a surfman over the water-soaked body. Once he remarked in a half-whisper--so low that Jane could not hear him:

"I ain't sure yet, doctor. I thought it was Bart when I grabbed him fust; but he looks kind o' different from what I expected to see him. If it's him he'll know me when he comes to. I ain't changed so much maybe. I'll rub his feet now," and he kept on with his work of resuscitation.

Lucy's straining ears had caught the captain's words of doubt, but they gave her no hope. She had recognized at the first glance the man of all others in the world she feared most. His small ears, the way the hair grew on the temples, the bend of the neck and slope from the chin to the throat. No--she had no misgivings. These features had been part of her life--had been constantly before her since the hour Jane had told her of Bart's expected return. Her time had come; nothing could save her. He would regain consciousness, just as the captain had said, and would open those awful hollow eyes and would look at her, and then that dreadful mouth, with its thin, ashen lips, would speak to her, and she could deny nothing. Trusting to her luck--something which had never failed her--she had continued in her determination to keep everything from Max. Now it would all come as a shock to him, and when he asked her if it was true she could only bow her head.

She dared not look at Archie--she could not. All her injustice to him and to Jane; her abandonment of him when a baby; her neglect of him since, her selfish life of pleasure; her triumph over Max--all came into review, one picture after another, like the unrolling of a chart. Even while her hand was on Jane's shoulder, and while comforting words fell from her lips, her mind and eyes were fixed on the face of the man whom the doctor was slowly bringing back to life.

Not that her sympathy was withheld from Archie and Jane. It was her terror that dominated her--a terror that froze her blood and clogged her veins and dulled every sensibility and emotion. She was like one lowered into a grave beside a corpse upon which every moment the earth would fall, entombing the living with the dead.

The man groaned and turned his head, as if in pain. A convulsive movement of the lips and face followed, and then the eyes partly opened.

Lucy clutched at the coil of rope, staggered to her feet, and braced herself for the shock. He would rise now, and begin staring about, and then he would recognize her. The captain knew what was coming; he was even now planning in his mind the details of the horrible plot of which Jane had told her!

Captain Holt stooped closer and peered under the half-closed lids.

"Brown eyes," she heard him mutter to himself, "just 's the Swede told me." She knew their color; they had looked into her own too often.

Doctor John felt about with his hand and drew a small package of letters from inside the man's shirt. They were tied with a string and soaked with salt water. This he handed to the captain.

The captain pulled them apart and examined them carefully.

"It's him," he said with a start, "it's Bart! It's all plain now. Here's my letter," and he held it up. "See the printing at the top--'Life-Saving Service'? And here's some more--they're all stuck together. Wait! here's one--fine writing." Then his voice dropped so that only the doctor could hear: "Ain't that signed 'Lucy'? Yes--'Lucy'--and it's an old one."

The doctor waved the letters away and again laid his hand on the sufferer's chest, keeping it close to his heart. The captain bent nearer. Jane, who, crazed with grief, had been caressing Archie's cold cheeks, lifted her head as if aware of the approach of some crisis, and turned to where the doctor knelt beside the rescued man. Lucy leaned forward with straining eyes and ears.

The stillness of death fell upon the small room. Outside could be heard the pound and thrash of the surf and the moan of the gale; no human voice--men and women were talking in whispers. One soul had gone to God and another life hung by a thread.

The doctor raised his finger.

The man's face twitched convulsively, the lids opened wider, there came a short, inward gasp, and the jaw dropped.

"He's dead," said the doctor, and rose to his feet. Then he took his handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over the dead man's face.

As the words fell from his lips Lucy caught at the wall, and with an almost hysterical cry of joy threw herself into Jane's arms.

The captain leaned back against the life-boat and for some moments his eyes were fixed on the body of his dead son.

"I ain't never loved nothin' all my life, doctor," he said, his voice choking, "that it didn't go that way."

Doctor John made no reply except with his eyes. Silence is ofttimes more sympathetic than the spoken word. He was putting his remedies back into his bag so that he might rejoin Jane. The captain continued:

"All I've got is gone now--the wife, Archie, and now Bart. I counted on these two. Bad day's work, doctor--bad day's work." Then in a firm tone, "I'll open the doors now and call in the men; we got to git these two bodies up to the Station, and then we'll get 'em home somehow."

Instantly all Lucy's terror returned. An unaccountable, unreasoning panic took possession of her. All her past again rose before her. She feared the captain now more than she had Bart. Crazed over the loss of his son he would blurt out everything. Max would hear and know--know about Archie and Bart and all her life!

Springing to her feet, maddened with an undefinable terror, she caught the captain's hand as he reached out for the fastenings of the door.

"Don't--don't tell them who he is! Promise me you won't tell them anything! Say it's a stranger! You are not sure it's he--I heard you say so!"

"Not say it's my own son! Why?" He was entirely unconscious of what was in her mind.

Jane had risen to her feet at the note of agony in Lucy's voice and had stepped to her side as if to protect her. The doctor stood listening in amazement to Lucy's outbreak. He knew her reasons, and was appalled at her rashness.

"No! Don't--DON'T!" Lucy was looking up into the captain's face now, all her terror in her eyes.

"Why, I can't see what good that'll do!" For the moment he thought that the excitement had turned her head. "Isaac Polhemus'll know him," he continued, "soon's he sets his eyes on him. And even if I was mean enough to do it, which I ain't, these letters would tell. They've got to go to the Superintendent 'long with everything else found on bodies. Your name's on some o' 'em and mine's on some others. We'll git 'em ag'in, but not till Gov'ment see 'em."

These were the letters which had haunted her!

"Give them to me! They're mine!" she cried, seizing the captain's fingers and trying to twist the letters from his grasp.

A frown gathered on the captain's brow and his voice had an ugly ring in it:

"But I tell ye the Superintendent's got to have 'em for a while. That's regulations, and that's what we carry out. They ain't goin' to be lost--you'll git 'em ag'in."

"He sha'n't have them, I tell you!" Her voice rang now with something of her old imperious tone. "Nobody shall have them. They're mine--not yours--nor his. Give them--"

"And break my oath!" interrupted the captain. For the first time he realized what her outburst meant and what inspired it.

"What difference does that make in a matter like this? Give them to me. You dare not keep them," she cried, tightening her fingers in the effort to wrench the letters from his hand. "Sister--doctor--speak to him! Make him give them to me--I will have them!"

The captain brushed aside her hand as easily as a child would brush aside a flower. His lips were tight shut, his eyes flashing.

"You want me to lie to the department?"

"YES!" She was beside herself now with fear and rage. "I don't care who you lie to! You brute--you coward-- I want them! I will have them!" Again she made a spring for the letters.

"See here, you she-devil. Look at me!"--the words came in cold, cutting tones. "You're the only thing livin', or dead, that ever dared ask Nathaniel Holt to do a thing like that. And you think I'd do it to oblige ye? You're rotten as punk--that's what ye are! Rotten from yer keel to yer top-gallant! and allus have been since I knowed ye!"

Jane started forward and faced the now enraged man.

"You must not, captain--you shall not speak to my sister that way!" she commanded.

The doctor stopped between them: "You forget that she is a woman. I forbid you to--"

"I will, I tell ye, doctor! It's true, and you know it." The captain's voice now dominated the room.

"That's no reason why you should abuse her. You're too much of a man to act as you do."

"It's because I'm a man that I do act this way. She's done nothin' but bring trouble to this town ever since she landed in it from school nigh twenty year ago. Druv out that dead boy of mine lyin' there, and made a tramp of him; throwed Archie off on Miss Jane; lied to the man who married her, and been livin' a lie ever since. And now she wants me to break my oath! Damn her--"

The doctor laid his hand over the captain's mouth. "Stop! And I mean it!" His own calm eyes were flashing now. "This is not the place for talk of this kind. We are in the presence of death, and--"

The captain caught the doctor's wrist and held it like a vice.

"I won't stop. I'll have it out--I've lived all the lies I'm goin' to live! I told you all this fifteen year ago when I thought Bart was dead, and you wanted me to keep shut, and I did, and you did, too, and you ain't never opened your mouth since. That's because you're a man--all four square sides of ye. You didn't want to hurt Miss Jane, and no more did I. That's why I passed Archie there in the street; that's why I turned round and looked after him when I couldn't see sometimes for the tears in my eyes; and all to save that THING there that ain't worth savin'! By God, when I think of it I want to tear my tongue out for keepin' still as long as I have!"

Lucy, who had shrunk back against the wall, now raised her head:

"Coward! Coward!" she muttered.

The captain turned and faced her, his eyes blazing, his rage uncontrollable:

"Yes, you're a THING, I tell ye!--and I'll say it ag'in. I used to think it was Bart's fault. Now I know it warn't. It was yours. You tricked him, damn ye! Do ye hear? Ye tricked him with yer lies and yer ways. Now they're over--there'll be no more lies--not while I live! I'm goin' to strip ye to bare poles so's folks 'round here kin see. Git out of my way--all of ye! Out, I tell ye!"

The doctor had stepped in front of the infuriated man, his back to the closed door, his open palm upraised.

"I will not, and you shall not!" he cried. "What you are about do to is ruin--for Lucy, for Jane, and for little Ellen. You cannot--you shall not put such a stain upon that child. You love her, you--"

"Yes--too well to let that woman touch her ag'in if I kin help it!" The fury of the merciless sea was in him now--the roar and pound of the surf in his voice. "She'll be a curse to the child all her days; she'll go back on her when she's a mind to just as she did on Archie. There ain't a dog that runs the streets that would 'a' done that. She didn't keer then, and she don't keer now, with him a-lyin' dead there. She ain't looked at him once nor shed a tear. It's too late. All hell can't stop me! Out of my way, I tell ye, doctor, or I'll hurt ye!"

With a wrench he swung back the doors and flung himself into the light.

"Come in, men! Isaac, Green--all of ye--and you over there! I got something to say, and I don't want ye to miss a word of it! You, too, Mr. Feilding, and that lady next ye--and everybody else that kin hear!

"That's my son, Barton Holt, lyin' there dead! The one I druv out o' here nigh twenty year ago. It warn't for playin' cards, but on account of a woman; and there she stands--Lucy Cobden! That dead boy beside him is their child--my own grandson, Archie! Out of respect to the best woman that ever lived, Miss Jane Cobden, I've kep' still. If anybody ain't satisfied all they got to do is to look over these letters. That's all!"

Lucy, with a wild, despairing look at Max, had sunk to the floor and lay cowering beneath the lifeboat, her face hidden in the folds of her cloak.

Jane had shrunk back behind one of the big folding doors and stood concealed from the gaze of the astonished crowd, many of whom were pressing into the entrance. Her head was on the doctor's shoulder, her fingers had tight hold of his sleeve. Doctor John's arms were about her frail figure, his lips close to her cheek.

"Don't, dear--don't," he said softly. "You have nothing to reproach yourself with. Your life has been one long sacrifice."

"Oh, but Archie, John! Think of my boy being gone! Oh, I loved him so, John!"

"You made a man of him, Jane. All he was he owed to you." He was holding her to him--comforting her as a father would a child.

"And my poor Lucy," Jane moaned on, "and the awful, awful disgrace!" Her face was still hidden in his shoulder, her frame shaking with the agony of her grief, the words coming slowly, as if wrung one by one out of her breaking heart.

"You did your duty, dear--all of it." His lips were close to her ear. No one else heard.

"And you knew it all these years, John--and you did not tell me."

"It was your secret, dear; not mine."

"Yes, I know--but I have been so blind--so foolish. I have hurt you so often, and you have been so true through it all. O John, please--please forgive me! My heart has been so sore at times--I have suffered so!"

Then, with a quick lifting of her head, as if the thought alarmed her, she asked in sudden haste:

"And you love me, John, just the same? Say you love me, John!"

He gathered her closer, and his lips touched her cheek:

"I never remember, my darling, when I did not love you. Have you ever doubted me?"

"No, John, no! Never, never! Kiss me again, my beloved. You are all I have in the world!"


(THE END)
Francis Hopkinson Smith's Novel: Tides of Barnegat

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