IX.

MR. RANKIN "GIVES IN" FOR THE FIRST TIME.

 

"WALL, I guess the Lord has about concluded to give Randy her freedom."

This remark was made by Mrs. Yates the other morning, as we all sat in the tent, each of us with a handful of pea-pods in her apron, and each shelling peas with different degrees of alacrity. Maria Jane was doing most of the work, for we were still very red and moist and palpitating from rowing in our dory on Salt Pond. We had set up a dory the day before, and naturally we wanted to use it, even though the wind was southwest and the sun scorching. It was hard, however, to come back to the tent and know that we could n't have any dinner until we had prepared it. Fortunately, Maria Jane dropped in at this moment, vigorous and alert as ever. She said that Marsh was pretty tired; she left him trying to rest, and she took hold energetically in the matter of shelling peas.

"Did n't you know," she went on in answer to our questions, "that Mr. Rankin ain't well? He ain't. I don't know's I'm called upon to make believe I'm sorry, for I ain't, one grain. He's one of them kind that's always pleasant and smilin',--never says a cross word. But he will have his own way if he cuts yer heart out all the time and sees it a-bleedin', and he'll be jest as soft, and you 'd be sure to think 'twas you that was the wretch, and likely 's not you'd beg his pardon, seein' 's he was 90 gentle. In tile end you '11 find out he 's done jest what he calkilated on coin' all the time. When you plead with him, and cry, and groan, and agonize, as it were, he'll smile, and say, 'Sho, now don't git excited.' I guess there would n't none of us git excited if we was as sure of our own way as that man's always ben. But he ain't got no bad habits. You can't put your finger on a thing he's done. For all that, I believe he killed his first wife. And I sh'd think she'd ben glad of it. Yes, he jest killed her a-bein' so pleasant and so cussed. She never had her own way in a thing They say she was as delikit as she could be, and she was a perfect picter to look at. I remember when she was married and 'peered out bride. I was a little tot, and set with my mother two seats behind where they sot. I reck'lect exactly how I felt and what I thought when they walked in slow along the broad aisle, she holding on to his arm. I did n't look at him at all, but I stared at her all the service. I was blacker even than I am now, and she Noms like a white rose, I thought. She had n't had good health, and she'd had a spell a few months before of bleedin' at the lungs, but they said she'd got over that and was well. She had on that fust Sunday a purple velvet bunnit with a long white feather. I c'n see jest how the plume lay along over the velvet. I sot and stared and stared. I knew I never could be so interestin' as to wear a purple bunnit with a white feather 'n' bleed at the lungs."

Maria Jane took a large handful of pea-pods from the tin pan, and was silent for a time, reviewing those days. The hot wind fluttered the tent; there was the sound of talk and high laughter from a small sail-boat that was gliding by, so near as to seem to be almost on the sands below the bluff. How hot it was! It is only when the wind is in some other quarter than the south or west that it is cool on this coast, notwithstanding the hotel advertisements. And in summer, if you will notice, the wind is usually either in the south or west or between those two points, and then it is at the hottest. Then, also, there is constant danger that the ma'sh will send forth its mysterious, hellish odor. I am choosing this latter adjective advisedly.

The word "infernal" is not sufficiently strong, as you would say yourself if you had ever happened to be here when as the natives say, "the ma'sh was a-smellin'."

Nevertheless, we were glad to be in a tent on the South Shore. The life was free and charming. The people thus far had a constant interest for us. We felt that it would be a long time yet before we should be tired of their different phases of character. Also now, and for almost two months more, there will be the kaleidoscope of fashionable life to watch at a distance. This movement of gayety was just far enough away to amuse without fatiguing. If some unutterably fascinating belle came to us for a glass of water, we could examine her more nearly, while she examined us.

Just now, we had also a visit to which to look forward; or we did have, until we heard Maria Jane's words this morning. When Randy Rankin had left us, on the day she had called, she had given us a special invitation to spend a day with her in the following week. She named Wednesday, for on that day the baker came along the ridge here by the shore, and then went over to the Two-mile. She was confident he would let us go with him. But we had said we would go across Salt Pond in our boat, then hire a horse and carriage at one of the hotels on "the road." This arrangement had greatly shocked her as being extravagant in the extreme. She said they were monstrous dear at them liv'ries. We promised, after her remonstrances, that if the wind should be in the east we could venture to walk from the road. Thus the matter was left. For some reason, we hardly knew why, Mrs. Rankin had interested us greatly; we were very desirous of making that visit.

Mrs. Yates remained silent so long that we asked her about Mr. Rankin. Was he ill? Instead of replying, she went on from where she had left off.

"Wall, odd Rankin--though he wa'n't old then--did n't have his wife but a year. She had one child, John,--that lives under the cliff vender,--and died in two months after. Lucky for her and good 'nough for him, I say. He was a-edgin' up to Randy Sherman in less 'n six months, pleasant as a barsket of chips, jest as he always is. I tell you, you c'n hev some hopes of a man or woman as sometimes rares up and is mad, and gits in the wrong, and is sorry. But when you find one that's always in the right and never gives in, look out, I tell ye! Randy Sherman was teachin' school in that very same schoolhouse where Mr. Rankin lives now when he begun to shine up to her. I s'pose she thought he was sweeter nor honey. Any way, she married him, and I don't reckon she's seen many happy days sence. Women is fools! Fools, I say!"

Maria Jane made such a violent gesture that the peas fell out of her lap and rolled over the floor. Max rose slowly from under the bed, and calmly ate all the peas he could find.

"Most everybody blames Randy, of course. They say there never was a pleasanter man to git along with than Mr. Rankin. There 's only a few as has a kind of sense of what he really is. Wall, whatever he is, he 's got to furl his sails now, for I do believe, as I said, that the Lord's goin' to take him. He's sick, and Randy, soon's she heard of it, which was night before last, has gone over to nuss him. She 's wuth fifty of him, I say."

Evidently we should not spend the day at present with Mrs. Rankin.

The story that Mrs. Yates had told kept in our minds in a way for which we could not account. There was a vividness in the picture Maria Jane's words made. I could see that long vista of the irksome years of Randy's married life,--all her best years spoiled by the terrible mistake she made in casting in her lot with that man. And he also, as she owned, must have had his trials; but he had the advantage of being "thick-skinned," and the great consolation of always having his own way.

The next afternoon an "east turn" came up, so that it was really cold sitting in our tent. We started out for a walk along the cliff road, which winds above the sea and close to it. Carriages were whirling by us, and the dust flew. By this time we knew just where were the different routes of the public vehicles,-- "barges," they call them here. We decided to take a "barge" which went within a quarter of a mile of that schoolhouse where the Rankins were.

Alighting, we walked through a small patch of sweet-fern, that sent up to us its odor of wild and rocky pastures. We were on a hill, and the ocean, gray and misty in its east turn, wass before us. There was the building we sought, alone, its old red paint nearly worn off, its whole aspect desolate.

Now that we had come, we felt that we might be intruding. We sat down in a bed of sweet-fern,-- "sweet-firm" they say here, and the boys sometimes dry its leaves and make cigars of them.

Presently we heard a sound at the door, and, looking, saw the gaunt form of Randy Rankin standing there. Her face was turned away from us and toward the water. Her dark gingham gown hung straight down. She had her hands clasped tightly before her, and she suddenly flung them upward. There was not a habitation in sight; a fog was settling fast over everything.

Turning to go back into the house, she saw us, and started. Then she recognized us. We rose, and she stepped out in the tall grass about the old flat step-stone.

"I'm mighty glad you 've come," she said hoarsely. "I didn't dare leave him, and I did wish somebody was here."

Her craggy face was perfectly pallid. She had not slept since she came to the place.

"How is he?" we whispered.

"He's goin' fast. I don't expect he'll last more 'n to tile turnip' of the tide, and that's at eighteen minutes past seven tonight. I've just ben a-lookin' into his almanac to find out. It's comin' in quick, ain't it? Just listen."

We did not need to listen. The roar of water dashing over rocks, sucking up through chasms, and pounding on ledges, was plain enough to hear. It was now nearly six o'clock.

"He ain't known me sence the first half day I was here. Then he told me he was much obleeged to me for comin', and 't was more 'n he expected. I d' know 's I've done right, a-separatin' from him."

She looked off again to the ocean. Then she cried out piercingly, "But God knows I could n't help it! He knows I sh'd have to do the same thing over again! I should! I should!" She struck her hands together. Her hollow eyes flamed. She was remembering her life with the man who was dying.

"Hush!" we said.

My friend put her hand on the woman's clasped bony fingers.

She felt the touch, and looked down on Carlos, her gaze softening in a strange, sudden way that dimmed my eyes. It was almost as though she had never before felt a touch so gentle and so kind.

"Come in," she said a moment after, in a faint voice.

And we went in. We knew that we should not leave her again that night.

It was the most lonesome room I had ever seen. The desks had been removed, but the floor remained as it had been in the old time, when a country schoolhouse floor was made slanting from the back of the building down to the front, where the teacher's desk was placed on a platform about six inches high. This platform was still there, and on this, as the only level place, Mr. Rankin had his bed, which was a substantial four-posted one.

The windows were high and small. Mr. Rankin had evidently disposed of a good deal of his first wife's furniture, which he had taken when the separation occurred between him and his present wife.

The cook-stove was rusted irreparably, which is a thing which happens quickly here by the salt water. On top of it was a small kerosene-lamp stove, whose flame was heating something in a tin dish covered with a blue saucer. There were three chairs of black walnut and haircloth, very dusty and daubed.

The figure on the bed was perfectly still, and breathing deeply.

Mrs. Rankin sat down by him, and began mechanically to move a fan over the ghastly face on the pillow. We sat silently, each on a haircloth chair. All the windows were open, and through them and the door the salt air came in damply and strongly. The broad flame in the lamp wavered and smoked. The sound of the swift, incoming tide pervaded the place. I had not sat there five minutes before I was absorbed in listening to that tide, and almost counting the distinct sounds that the large waves made as they broke on the rough beach below us.

My friend rose, and took the fan from Randy's hand, standing beside her and wielding the palm leaf slowly. Randy sat rigid. She was watching the man's face.

At last there was a change in the sound of the rollers,--an indefinite softening. We knew that the tide had begun to go out.

In uncontrollable but silent excitement I rose, standing still. A quarter of an hour must have passed. Then I saw the sick man open his eyes and look at his wife.

"Randy," he said, in what seemed a perfectly natural voice, "I guess we won't have the Tree of Death hung up in the sett'n'-room any longer, sence you kinder don't like it."

He turned his head more comfortably on his pillow, and closed his eyes again.

The Lord had given Randy Rankin her freedom.

*CHAPTER X - EXPERIENCES IN A DORY

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