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Six

Indian summer came that year in late October, and as sometimes happens, that gracious month was warmer and more golden with autumn sunshine than September. September’s frosts had touched the maples and birches and beeches and turned them into swaying turrets of scarlet and gold. The firs and spruces stood up cold and stiff like giant Christmas trees, rather proud and austere, as if in defiance of the coming winter, and changed their costume of summer green into one of dark greenish blue. The alder covers took on shades of heliotrope and purple, and the long grasses left behind at heading and fencerow were brittle and yellow. The raggedy hackmatacks tossed their half yellowed branches wildly, as if they were sons of spruces, not quite right in their minds. The fierce owls no longer hooted at night, but often Rosalie and the little old lady heard the love-call of the cow-moose in the forest, and the answer, and sometimes a crash of branches as her lover blundered toward her. Everyday or two a V of geese winged southward and these Rosalie always watched till they vanished.

Now they gathered what was left of the garden vegetables. The potatoes had been already dug and most of the apples gathered, though there were a few Bishop Pippins, Russets and Northern Spy gleaming among the withered leaves.

“I can’t get the high ones anymore, I can only reach as high as the stepladder goes, but maybe you can.”

“I’m a grand climber,” said Rosalie. You should have seen Rosalie, her skirt tucked up about her slender waist, one foot braced in a crotch, and one long slim leg twined around a bough, laughing and singing and gathering golden russets to toss them down into the net held by the little old lady. There are so many pictures that should have been painted, but are lost alas, because no painter with the seeing eye was present.

The bean pods were all brown and withered, but these were picked and dried and beaten with a flail and winnowed in the western October wind. Celery and parsnips are best left in the ground as long as possible, this the old lady knew, and squash winters best if left out of doors till the big leaves are all wilted and drooping in the frost. It is always fun to gather the autumn vegetables and store them away in the cellar for in so doing man recalls a primitive instinct that he shares with the animals. The pleasure is increased if you gather with someone you like or love. Rosalie and the little old lady made a happy game of gathering and storing.

“You mustn’t pick squash up by the handles. Put your hands under­neath them and carry them in your arms like a baby. If you carry them by the handles you loosen a little place in the skin and then they get a rotten spot. You must store them where it’s dry and fairly warm. The stairs in the hall is the best place, there’s a wide landing there, and they’ll be handy.”

One day the pig had to be killed. Rosalie didn’t like that very much. The pig-killer made eyes at her and she had to force herself to give him a smile. “My niece, Miss Star, is spending the winter with me,” explained the little old lady, and then in an aside to Rosalie, “Everyone will know that in a day or two, you have to make some kind of explanation to people in the country.” Then she added to comfort her, “I always make the man shoot them behind the ear, and they never know what’s happened to them.” Rosalie heard the shot but there were no such screams of pain and terror as had haunted her childhood. She had grown up in a poverty-stricken country and knew that animals and fish and birds must die, that men may eat and live, but she always suffered when living things were hurt. When the second pork-keg was filled, the hams and sides salted and smoked, the head-cheese and pig’s puddings made, they were nearly set for winter. The first snow flurries arrived on November fifth and a carpenter came and screwed on double windows and storm-doors. Soon it was necessary to crack the sheet-ice on the spring where the cow drank. Lamps were lighted and gave their yellow spots of light before five in the afternoon. Now it was snugger than ever indoors.

One evening when they were settled by the fire the little old lady
said, “Do you know, Rosalie, the book I like best of all?”

“How could I?” said Rosalie.

“Great Expectations, I’ve read it at least thirty times. I’ve
read it on the land and I’ve read it on the sea, I’ve read it in steaming
hot lands, and in bleak roaring harbours, and I’ve never tired of it.”

“Shall we read it aloud this winter?” said Rosalie. “I’ve never
even heard of it.”

“Could we?” said the little old lady eagerly.

“Of course all the women in it are fools except Jo’s wife—Mr. Dickens always made his women sentimental, soft things, but the men
are strong and kind, and I like a book to begin with a little child,
and carry him along through joys and sorrows, till he’s almost through
with life.” The little old lady went into her bedroom and brought out
a well-worn copy.

“One night we’ll read, and one night we’ll tell stories.”

“I’ve told you I haven’t any stories to tell,” said Rosalie. “You
see I’m not quite nineteen.”

“Not yet you haven’t, but I have thousands. I’ll tell you all about
my three husbands.”

“Did you love them all?” laughed Rosalie.

“I liked then all,” said she little old lady, “but of course I only
loved the first one. The others were agreeable companions, though I did
have a bit of trouble with the last one, he’s the one that burnt the
church.”

“Oh,” said Rosalie, “what a terrible thing.”

“Not so bad, he was a bit cracked at the end. Anything over done always makes a crack-pot of a man. But come now, begin.”

Rosalie opened the book and began in a rather prim school teacher’s voice:

“My father’s family name being Pirrip and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names together, nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myseIf Pip, and came to called Pip.”

Here the little old lady interrupted: “I often wonder how a great author writes the first sentence of a book. There are so many places to begin and so many ways to begin.”

“Perhaps,” said Rosalie, “he just takes a pencil in his hand and writes down first whatever comes into his mind.”

“No, no, for he might write down first the hero’s dying words and then the story would end as soon as it was begun. I still think a good book should begin with the birth of the chief character, and he’s pretty close to it here, and end with the death of the hero or with his getting married. However, the mother or the doctor would be the only ones that could tell about the child’s birth, and the doctor’s usually in a hurry, and the mother too far gone for writing.”

“I read a joke once,” said Rosalie, “where the writer said, ‘I was born in Tatamagouche, because my mother was living there at that time, and as she was not very well, I felt I ought to be near her.’ ”

The old lady laughed, “Do you know what we are, Rosalie? A couple of chatterboxes, and if we make comments on every sentence we’ll never get on with the book. Now not another word out of either of us till we’ve finished two chapters. You’ll like Jo and that old humbug Pumblechook.”

Rosalie read on as directed, “it’s very interesting,” she said as she put a mark in the book and closed it. “And now for one of your stories, little old lady.”

“Do you know any geography, Rosalie?”

“Some,” said Rosalie. “I’ve taught geography to children, and I can rattle off the exports of Trinidad, ‘sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, cocoa, pitch and timber,’ and the minerals of England, ‘iron, coal, copper, tin, lead, zinc and salt.’ ”

“That’s all very well, that’s geography out of books, and that’s the best most people can do, but the way to learn geography really is to travel the wide world and look at peoples and places. That’s what I’ve done, for my first husband was a sea-captain and with him, when I was young, I sailed for ten years, the seven seas.”

“Oh, tell me about that,” cried Rosalie. “I have such a longing to know what the world and people are really like.”

The little old lady lit a cigarette and hitched up her chair. “I fell in love with Mat Decker when I was a little girl in school. I suppose I was about ten then and he was a big strong boy. Women are funny things, for even at that age I knew I was going to try hard to marry Mat when I grew up. I always had my eye on him, though he hardly looked at me, but he sometimes shyly pulled my pigtails when he passed behind me. When he was fourteen his father took him out of school and put him in the forecastle. That was the way they did in those days, any sea-coast boy worth his salt must start in the foc’s’le and learn foc’s’le discipline. And away he sailed down river in the barque Arethusa, one of the vessels my father owned. I managed to get his mother to put a housewife, full of pins and needles and thread and yarn, into his dunnage-bag, with my name on it. I had a good deal of child­ish grief when he sailed away, and I never expected to see him again.

“We lived in a village of steep hills that centered on a bridge and a tidal river that was only a trickle of water at slack low tide, but a good four fathom at the top of the flood. It was a village of green hills, a strip of brown water, and snug white houses on the hillsides, very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Above the bridge was the store, and the shipyard where my father and uncle built ships and launched them slanting, down river on the top of the flood. We were quite the people of the village for both my father and my uncle had married daughters of shipbuilders further up shore, and we owned the store, and everybody was a little in debt to us. Nobody ever squared up their bills, and the accounts were carried on from year to year, and every­thing depended on the goodwill of my father, who felt some responsi­bility for the people in the village. No one ever went hungry, even the poorest, or without clothes or working equipment. It was what they now call the patriarchal system.

“You see when they built a ship, and there was plenty of cheap ship timber, they divided her into sixty shares. The builders took thirty-one shares to have control, and the other shares were divided up in ones and twos and bought by little people, who had saved something. So a great many people had an interest in ships, even the women talked ships. Then nearly every man in the village had a special trade or craft. Some cut nails, some were riggers, one old fellow made all the figure-heads, some were painters, some dubbers, some made spars and yards, some finished the fine work in teak or mahogany of cabins, wheels and binnacles, and some hammered out anchors and heavy iron work.

“Of course as a little girl I didn’t know what an interesting village it was. Then, when I was waiting, waiting, it seemed shut in and dull to me, but now when I see these present day slovenly people about me, I realize that it’s best to have a village full of craftsmen where many have an interest in the common good. Nobody had much money, but they had plenty of things and that is what counts. My people never insured their ships, and if they were lost they were lost, and everyone bore the loss patiently in men and money. The little village cemetery was crowded with stones that corresponded to no body buried in a grave. So-and-so slipped off the jib-boom in the China Sea, so-and-so fell from the royals in the Indian Ocean.

“It was four years before the Arethusa came up the river again on a full flood tide to be overhauled and refitted. Everyone in the village was on the wharves when the stubby tug nestled the Arethusa in to her berth. Mat, my Mat, was on the forecastle head, shouting orders and telling the sailors what to do, for he was third mate now, and my heart was almost bursting with love and pride. I was about fifteen then and a grown woman, for girls ripened earlier in those days, and I was a good four inches taller than I am now for old people shrink with age, like woollen socks washed in hot water. Mat was home all winter for the Arethusa had to be hauled out on the slip, and scraped and painted and have her bottom coppered. We used to go coasting down the steep village hills and Mat always too me on his double-runner. One night we slewed off track and ran into a deep snowbank and got covered with snow. We both laughed and Mat turned around quick and put his arms around me and kissed me, a quick kiss that was frosty outside and warm within, and said, ‘Will you be my sweetheart, Kitty? ‘ And I wasn’t ashamed, but I said quite boldly, ‘Yes I always wanted to be your sweetheart.’

“Then he said, ‘You’ll wait for me? I’ll be a master soon.’

“ ‘I’ll wait, Mat,’ said I. ‘Don’t fall overboard.’

“ ‘No fear,’ said he. ‘I’ll hold fast for you, Kitty. I don’t have to go aloft after I’m first mate.’

“ ‘Good,’ said I, ‘and never forget the rule of the sea, ‘One hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.’

“ ‘I learned that long ago Kitty,’ he said and he kissed me again, and that was all the courting I ever had, for he sailed away soon after that. I didn’t see him again till he was twenty-three, and when he brought the Arethusa up the river that time he was master. That’s was almost a record, though an uncle of mine has been master at nineteen, but then his father owned half the ship and he pushed his son along. But the Deckers were poor people and Mat had to push his way up from ’prentice-boy to third, second, first mate, and at last to master by the sheer strength of his arms and brains.

“There was quite a family row when I told mother and father I was going to marry Mat Decker for Mat’s father was only a ship’s iron worker who swung a heavy hammer in a forge, and my people, as I said before, had got to think they were somebody. However, they couldn’t get over the fact that Mat was Master of the barque Arethusa, and that shipmasters were the only aristocrats we knew. Shipmasters in those days went ashore in top hats and Prince Albert coats when they wanted to do business with a Consul or make a bargain for the freight or cargo. You see, Rosalie, a master is a king and more than a king for he is the absolute ruler of his ship, and a ship on the high seas is a tiny state. He has to be doctor, lawyer, trader, priest, and judge, and the safety of the twenty-five men aboard is in his absolute keeping. He treats them when they’re sick, he buries the dead, he can marry and put mutineers to death, and above all, he has get to be a first class seaman and a shrewd trader. He’s really a very great man. So my parents couldn’t talk me out of it, though they’d hoped I’d marry the son of a rich snob who owned a flock of ships. But I couldn’t abide him. He thought money, clothes and going to college make a man, but I knew in my bones that only labour, cold, poverty and humility – and not too much humility – make a man.

“I had a will of my own, and I married Mat at nineteen in the village church in the early morning. We had a wedding breakfast and sailed that very day. The Arethusa had a deck-load of lumber and she was low in the water when the tug took us down the river and through the drawbridge and out into the Basin. There she left, tooting good-bye, and I stood by the steersman as the great sails were set.

“Just outside the Gut we struck a breeze of wind, a squall, a half gale, and deep-laden as she was the old Arethusa heeled over. The tide was running, against the wind and it made a nasty sea. I went below and lost my wedding breakfast, and I had no one to hold my head, for Mat was busy on deck. I was very miserable, but I didn’t cry. I said to myself ‘I don’t care if I die, I’m glad I married Mat and went to sea.’

“The old Arethusa rolled and pitched and rattled and slatted all the way to New York, for that’s the first port we were bound to, and I was sick as a dog all the way. Mat was good to me, he used to kiss me, and rub my head, and run strong fingers through my hair but he never tried to make love to me. I was grateful to him for that. You know, Rosalie, everything has to be right in time and place and cir­cumstances and mood, for love between a man and a woman. Then let moralists prate as they like, it’s Heaven upon earth, there’s no joy quite like it.”

“When we got to New York—it took five days of rough, blowy, blustery weather all the way—I was so sick and wobbly in the knees that Mat had to carry me ashore, and put me in a hospital. I didn’t see much of New York or learn much about it that time, only every day as I lay in bed I used to hear the roar of the streets and a steady rumbling grumbling roar, that was something like the roar of the sea. That’s the first impression I got of New York City. Of course, after that I saw it several times, with all the wonders of Broadway and the shops along Fifth Avenue, and the picture galleries, and often Mat and I dined at the Astor and went to the theatre afterwards. I’ve never forgotten the first light opera I saw, Rosalie. It was called ‘La Poupee’ and the lead was Stella Gastelle. It was all strange and new to me and seemed quite real though part of a fairy world. I was very green and untried then, and it was only long after that I learned that Miss Gastelle was forty and the divorced wife of a doctor in Sunderland. What lovely dreams and illusions youth has. You must have them too, Rosalie.

“It took ten days to load the Arethusa with case-oil for Antwerp and by that time I was well and strong and hungry for food and love. At last we pulled out of the dock, and do you know, I never was seasick again, never again, though I’ve been in plenty of gales, and round the Horn four times, but I never again felt my stomach turn.

“About a hundred miles off New York we entered the Gulf Stream—I always believed Mat had gone south out of his course to give me an easy passage—and in that great stream that flows like a river through the sea the water is a lighter blue and there floats strange yellow seaweeds that grew on no northern shores.”

Here the old lady got up from her chair, reached to a shelf and brought down a globe: “Here you see, Rosalie, here’s New York, and here lies Antwerp, and here’s the good barque Arethusa loaded with case-oil wallowing along through the Gulf Stream. People never think that there are rivers in the sea. The Gulf Stream starts in the hot Carribean and flows broad and strong across the cold Atlantic, splits when it comes to Europe and part turns south towards Spain and part flows through the English Channel, and part turns north along England’s west coast and keeps England warm. It’s geography that makes history Rosalie. I’ve kept my eyes open and noticed that as I wandered about the world. England’s as far north as we are, and if it weren’t for that great warm ocean river the English would be quite a different people. Hunger and necessity and the love of adventure move men and peoples, geography makes history, and different climates promote different religions.”

“Oh,” said Rosalie, “can that be true, old lady? Surely there’s only one true religion.”

The old lady smiled, “Look about you and learn, my dear, look about you and learn, learn if you can. But I mustn’t ride off on one of my he horses, I must stick to my story. Oh, the lovely Atlantic! It’s rough and windy and cold, but there’s something honest about it, and it will always be my best-loved ocean. The Pacific is a false name for there’s nothing pacific about it, it lies sleek and quiet as a cat and hits you with sudden whirling storms. Sailors say the Pacific’s a slut and the Atlantic a strong sailor-man. It blew strong north and north-west all the way across so that we were close-hauled, or with the sheets and braces slackened only a little. I used to go on deck every morning and afternoon and hold fast to something and look about me, and wonder that there was so much water in the world. Mat cracked everything on her, even the sky-sails—the old Arethusa had sky-sails above the royals, though this was unusual in a barque—for he was ambitious to make a quick run and money for the owners. He was always on deck when the watches changed. You see, Rosalie, the men are divided into two watches, one under the second mate and one under the third mate, and they take charge of the ship by turns; the short dog-watches of two hours each run from four to eight, and then begin the long watches from eight to midnight, and from midnight to four in the morning. Mat used to come down to me after the midnight shift, when he left the ship in the first mate’s charge, all fresh and clean rosy and salty, washed with midnight spray, and I’d be waiting for him warm and snug and wide-eyed, in our broad berth. Our cabin was on the starboard side and that was the lee-side all the way on that run. The ship listed that way and we couldn’t roll out of that berth. The Arethusa builders had built the captain’s berth wide with a high outer side­board, as if they knew I’d go to sea with Mat.

“Well,” said the little old lady, after a pause to catch her breath, “I’d like to tell all the women in the world that if they want to be loved properly, they should have a strong man in a warm wide berth, on the Atlantic in half a gale of wind. Poor tame dwellers on the land, they learn so little! A squall of wind would strike the old Arethusa making all her stays and rigging sing and whistle and her canvas bang, and heavily laden though she was, down she’d heel to starboard, carrying Mat and me with her. Then she’d duck like a startled loon, into a hollow between waves, and bury her plump figurehead and half her jib-boom in the next sea, and her stern would fly up in the air till a third of her rudder was clear, and the next minute she’d rear and prance like a restive colt in a spring pasture. And there was the cold rough sea-water swishing and slapping and swooshing within a foot of my head, but I didn’t care for Mat’s strong arms were around me. I used to laugh out loud—I could laugh then—and I didn’t care if the Arethusa turned turtle and sank fathoms deep into the sea, if only Mat kept his arms around me. Sometimes when it blew extra hard I used to whisper to Mat, ‘You’d better take the sky-sails off her, Mat,’ and he’d kiss me and whisper back, ‘No, Kitty, she heels further to starboard this way.’ ”

“Oh, oh,” said Rosalie, “little old lady, I’m glad you loved Mat so beautifully on the rough stormy sea. How did you ever lose him?”

“That doesn’t come yet, that comes at the end of my first long story.

“We only had one adventure on the way over. One afternoon we passed close to the Great Eastern laying cable. Do you know about the cable, Rosalie?”

“Yes, yes,” said Rosalie, “it’s the telegraph under the sea.”

“That’s right. The Great Eastern was too big for her time. She cost three quarters of a million pounds and lost money for her owners. She had five funnels, six masts, paddle wheels and a screw. She was a bulky ship and no dry dock in the world in her time could hold her. So they only painted her twice in all her life and each time they scraped five tons of mussels and barnacles off her bottom.”

Rosalie laughed at this and said, “The very thought of it makes me itchy.”

“Mat looked, at the Great Eastern as we passed, close to starboard, and said, as if he h d been a prophet, ‘There’s the end of the fast-sailing clipper ship!’ From the very start she was unlucky, and do you know why? When the owners decided to break her up—even on that trip she almost got away from her tugs and went ashore on the Isle of Man—what do you think they found?”

“What?” asked. Rosalie.

“Between the sheathing and the planking of the ship, alongside the top of the kelson and the top of the keel, they found the skeleton of a man, and no one ever knew who he was or how he got there.”

“Oh,” said Rosalie, feeling the hair bristle a little on the back of her neck, “poor man, he had no one’s arms around him when the Great Eastern plunged her nose into the sea. How sad and lonely, and cold to die there alone.”

“Now that’s enough for tonight. Let’s have one swift game of rummy and then to bed. You’re such a good listener, Rosalie, I do hope you’ll stay. I’m sure I have stories enough to last all winter.”

“You’ve only made a start on your first husband,” laughed Rosalie.

“Yes, and he was by far the best and most exciting. Stories about husbands should really be told backward or the story turns sour like a bad book. So many authors start well and end ill. They seem to have an idea to begin with but they peter out with time. I hope your foot won’t itch too soon, Rosalie, we’ll make such beautiful dresses together.”

“And I’m beginning to hope that you won’t get a headache too soon little old lady.”

 

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Six by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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