The Project Gutenberg ebook of Java Head, by Joseph Hergesheimer

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The evening was surprisingly warm and still, with an intermittent falling of rain, and the windows were open in the room where Rhoda Ammidon sat regarding half dismayed her reflection in the mirror of a dressing table. A few minutes before she had discovered her first gray hair. It was not only the mere assault upon her vanity, but, too, a realization far deeper—here was the stamp of time, the mark of a considerable progress toward the end itself. Her emotions were various; but, curiously enough, almost the first had been a wave of passionate tenderness for William and her little girls. The shock of finding that arresting sign was now giving place to a purely feminine reaction. She considered for a moment the purchase of a bottle of hair coloring, then with a disdainful gesture dismissed such a temporary and troublesome measure.

She kept an undiminishing pride in her appearance and a relentless care and choice in the details of her dress, pleased by the knowledge that the attention men paid her showed no indication yet of growing perfunctory. She had been much admired both in Boston and London through her youth, and she recalled her early doubts at the prospect of life in Salem; but she realized now that, as her years and children multiplied, she was by imperceptible degrees returning to a traditional New England heritage.

She was glad, however, that William's wide connections lifted him above a purely local view; William was really a splendid husband. Rhoda was conscious of this together with a clear recognition of his faults, and quite aside from both existed her unreasoning affection. The latter vividly dominated her, shut out, on any occasion of stress, all else; but for the most part she held him in an attitude of mildly amused comprehension.

Gerrit Ammidon she hadn't seen until after her engagement to William, and she sometimes thought of the former in connection with marriage. Gerrit, she admitted to herself, was a far more romantic figure than William; not handsomer—William Ammidon was very good looking—but more arresting, with his hair swinging about his ears and intense blue gaze. An exciting man, she decided again, for whom one would eternally put on the loveliest clothes possible; a man to make you almost as ravishingly happy as miserable, and, therefore, disturbing as a husband.

At this her mind returned to her gray hair and the fact that the metal backlog of the kitchen fire, which supplied the house with hot water, had been leaking over the hearth. A feeling of melancholy possessed her at the turning of younger visions into commonplace necessities, but she dismissed it with the shadow of a smile—it was absurd for a woman of her age to dwell on such frivolous things. Yet she still lingered to wonder if men too kept intact among their memories the radiant image of their youth, if they ever thought of it with tenderness and extenuation. She decided in the negative, convinced that men, even at the end of many years, never definitely lost connection with their early selves, there was always a trace of hopefulness, of jaunty vanity—sometimes winning and sometimes merely ridiculous—attached to their decline.

Rhoda stirred and moved to a window, gazing vaguely out into the moist blue obscurity. Sidsall, she realized, was maturing with a disconcerting rapidity. Depths were opening in the girl's being at which she, her mother, could only guess. It was exactly as if a crystal through and through which she had gazed had suddenly been veiled by rosy clouds. Sidsall had a charming nature, direct and unsuspicious and generously courageous.

There was a sound at the door, and William entered, patently ruffled. It was clear that he had had another disagreement with his father. "It's shameful how you disturb him," she declared.

"Look here, Rhoda," he replied vigorously. "I won't continually be put in the wrong. It seems as if I had no affection for the old gentleman. I always have the difficult thing to do, and he has been slightly contemptuous ever since I was a boy because I didn't go to sea. The truth is—while I wouldn't think of letting him know—he's a tremendous nuisance pottering about the countingrooms with his stories of antediluvian trading voyages. And worse is to come—these new clipper ships and passages have knocked the wind out of the old slow full-bottomed vessels. We have about determined to reorganize our fleet entirely, and are in treaty with Donald McKay for an extreme clipper type of twelve hundred tons.

"Of course, he's my parent; but I wonder at Saltonstone's patience. Father won't hear of the opium trade and it's turning over thousand per cent profits. We are privately operating two fast topsail schooners in India now, but it's both inconvenient and a risk. They ought to be put right under our house flag for credit alone. It is all bound to come up, and then he'll go off like a cannon."

"Couldn't you wait till he's dead, William?" she asked. "It won't be a great while now. I can see that he has failed dreadfully from this worry about Gerrit."

"Five years will make all the difference. We are losing tea cargoes every month to these ships making sensational runs. I don't talk much, Rhoda, about, well—my family; but I am as upset over Gerrit as anyone else. Except for a tendency to carry too much sail there's not a better shipmaster out of New England. Not only that … he's my brother. It's easy to like Gerrit; his opinions are a little wild, and an exaggerated sense of justice gets him into absurd situations; yet his motives are the purest possible. Perhaps that word pure describes him better than any other, however people who didn't know might smile. As a man, Rhoda, I can assert that he is surprisingly clean-hearted."

"That's a wonderful quality," she agreed; "why anyone should smile is beyond me. William, would you know that my hair is turning gray, do I look a lot older than I did five years ago?"

He studied her complacently. "You've hardly changed since I married you," he asserted; "a great deal prettier than these young cramped figgers I see about. The girls, too, are just like you—good armfuls all of them."

The next day was flawlessly sunny, the slightly stirring air reminiscent of the sea, and the lilacs everywhere were masses of purple and white bloom. Stepping down from her carriage on the morning round of shopping Rhoda encountered Nettie Vollar leaving one of the stores of Cheapside.

"Why, Nettie," she exclaimed kindly, "it's been the longest time since I've seen you. It is just no use asking you to the house, and it seems, with nothing to do, I never have a minute for the visits I'd like to make." Nettie, she thought, was a striking girl, no—woman, with her stack of black hair, dark sparkling eyes and red spot on either cheek. More fetching in profile than full face, her nose had a pert angle and her cleft chin was enticingly rounded. Later she would be too fat but now her body was ripely perfect.

"I don't go anywhere much," she responded, in a voice faintly and instinctively antagonistic. "I don't like kindness in people; but I suppose I ought to be contented—that's all I'll probably ever get from anybody who is a thing in the world. Mrs. Ammidon," she hesitated, then continued more rapidly, her gaze lowered, "have you had any word about Captain Ammidon yet? Have they given up hope of the Nautilus?"

"We've had no news," Rhoda told her, and then she added her conviction that Gerrit would return safely.

"He was better than kind," Nettie Vollar said. "I'm sure he liked me, Mrs. Ammidon, or he would have if everything hadn't been spoiled by grandfather. He thinks I'm a dreadful sin, you know, a punishment on mother. But inside of me I don't feel different from others. Sometimes I—I wonder that I don't actually go sinful, I've had opportunities, and being good hasn't offered me much, has it?"

"You are naturally a good girl, Nettie," Rhoda answered simply; "but you must be braver than ordinary. If we think differently from Salem still it is in Salem we must live; I keep many of my beliefs secret just as you must control most of your feelings."

The other responded with a hard little laugh. "Thank you, though. You are more like Gerrit, Captain Ammidon, than Mrs. Saltonstone, his own sister. I hate her," she declared. "I hate all the Salem women, so superior and condescending and Christian. They always have a silly look of wonder at their charity in speaking to me… when they do. They act as if it's just a privilege for me to be in their church. I'd rather go to a cotillion at Hamilton Hall any day."

"Of course you would," Rhoda agreed. There seemed to be so little for her to offer or say that she was relieved when they parted. The afternoon grew really sultry, but, when the shadows had lengthened, she encountered Jeremy Ammidon wandering aimlessly about the hall and, his fine palmetto hat and wanghee in her hand, urged him out to the East India Marine Society. "It's much too beautiful a day for the house," she insisted.

"There's nothing remarkable about it," he returned; "wind's too light and variable, hardly enough to hold way on a ship." There were the stirring strains of a quickstep without; at the door they saw the Salem Cadets, preceded by Flag's Band, marching in columns of fours into Washington Square. The white breeches with scarlet coats and brass buttons made a gay showing on the green Common, the sunlight glittered on silver braid and tassels, gilt and pompons, scaled chin straps and varnished leather.

The old man's face grew dark at the brilliant line drawn up for inspection, and he muttered a period about cursed young Whigs. "Wouldn't have one of the scoundrels in my house if I could help it. Don't understand William; he's too damned mild for my idea of a good citizen.

"Why, it's only reasonable that a country's got to be run like a ship, from the quarter-deck. How far do you suppose a vessel would get if the crew hung about aft and chose representatives from the port and starboard watches and galley for a body to lay the course and make sail?"

"Please, father," she protested, laughing. "Do go along into the sun." She gently pushed him toward the door. Rhoda realized the fact that William was more than half Whig already. That threatened still another point of difference, of departure, from all that his father held to be sacred necessities. Jeremy, like most of the older shipmasters, was a bitter Federalist, an upholder of a strongly centralized autocratic government. He left, grumbling, and the staccato commands of the military evolutions on the Common rang through the slumberous afternoon.

She lingered in the doorway and Laurel appeared, jigging with excitement.

"Can't I get nearer," she begged; "there's nothing to see from here." Her mother replied, "Ask Camilla to take you over to the Square." Camilla appeared indifferently. "I don't know why anyone should be flustered," she observed; "it isn't like the Fourth of July with a concert and fireworks."

As they were going, Sidsall came out in a white tarlatan dress worked with sprays of yellow barley, her face glowing with color, and sat on the steps. "Positively," her mother said, looking down on the mass of bright chestnut hair in a chenille net, "we'll soon have to have you up in braids."

"I wish I might," she responded. "And Hodie is too silly—I can't get her to lace me tightly enough. She says such things are engines of the devil."

"It's still a little soon for that—" Rhoda broke off as a slight erect man at the verge of middle age turned in from Pleasant Street upon them. "Roger," she said cordially as he came quickly up the steps. He greeted her lightly and bent over Sidsall with an extended hand:

"The apple blossoms, I see, are here."

Rhoda wondered what nonsense Roger Brevard was repeating; Sidsall's face was hidden from view. But then Roger was always like that, his manner was never at a loss for the appropriate gesture. He had a great many points in common with her, she thought; neither had been born in Salem, and his rightful setting was in the best metropolitan drawing-rooms. He had been here for a dozen years, now, in charge of the local affairs of the Mongolian Marine Insurance Company; and she often wondered why, a member of a family socially notable in New York, he continued in a city, a position, of comparative unimportance.

She was, she said, going back to the lawn, the glare of Pleasant Street was fatiguing; and she proceeded through the house with the surety of his following. But on the close-cut emerald sod there was no sign of him, and she found a seat in a basket chair by the willow tree beyond. She waited for Roger with a small but growing impatience; he must be done immediately with whatever he might say to Sidsall, and she wished to discuss the possibilities of a rumor that President Polk intended to visit Salem. There would be a collation, perhaps a military ball, to arrange; Franklin Hall would be the better place for the latter. She heard a faint silvery echo of laughter—Sidsall. It was extremely nice, of course, in Roger Brevard to entertain her daughter, though she didn't care to have the child give the effect of receiving men yet.

It was, finally, Sidsall who appeared, unaccompanied, in the drawing-room window. She came forward to where Rhoda sat, her face still stirred with amusement. "Mr. Brevard went on," she said in response to her mother's look of inquiry. "That's rather odd," the latter commented almost sharply. "He had only a few minutes," the girl explained. She sank into a seat and mood of abstraction. Rhoda studied her with a veiled glance. Hers were exceptional children, they had given her scarcely an hour's concern; and she must see that in the unsettling period which Sidsall was now entering she was not spoiled.

Perhaps Laurel entertained her more than the others. She was a very normal little girl, not thoughtful like Janet, and without Camilla's exaggerated poise; but she had a picturesque imagination; and her companionship with her grandfather was delightful. The latter addressed her quite as if she were a fellow shipmaster; and she had acquired some remarkable sea expressions, some deplorable and others enigmatic: only to-day, questioned about the order of her room, she had said that it was "all square by the lifts and braces." For this her grandfather had given her a gold piece.

There was, she knew, an excellent school for older girls at Lausanne; and, revolving the possibility of obtaining for Sidsall some of the European advantages she, Rhoda, had enjoyed, the following afternoon she drove to the Cliffords' on Marlboro Street for a consultation with Madra, who had spent a number of seasons on Lake Leman. In a cool parlor with yellow Tibet rugs and maroon hangings she had tea while Madra Clifford, thin and imperious, with a settled ill health like white powder and a priceless Risajii shawl, conversed in a shrill key.

"Caroline has been in bed for a week. That vulgar Dr. Fisk, with his elbow in her bosom, tried five times to extract her tooth, and then broke it to the roots. I hear there is a galvanic ring for rheumatism. The pain in my joints is excruciating; I have an idea my bones are changing into chalk; the right knee will hardly bend." The darkly colored shawl with its border of cypress intensified her sunken blue-traced temples and the pallid lips. She developed the subject of her indisposition, sparing no detail; while Rhoda Ammidon, from her superabundance of well-being, half pitied the other and was half revolted at the mind touched, too, by bodily ill. The fortune accumulated by the hardy Clifford men, flogged out of crews and stained by the blood of primitive and dull savages—the Cliffords were notorious for their brutal driving—now served only to support Madra's debility and a horde of unscrupulous panderers to her obsession.

"Edward Dunsack is in Salem," she continued; "and I've heard he has the most peculiar appearance. Very probably the result of the unmentionable practices of the Orient. Father liked the Chinese though; so many of our shipmasters have, and not always the merchants…. What was I saying? Oh, yes, Edward Dunsack. I understand you had a distinct alarm in that quarter, about the girl and Gerrit Ammidon. But I forgot to say how glad I am about Gerrit. You must have been horribly worried—"

"What do you mean?" Rhoda demanded.

"Why, haven't you heard! The Nautilus was sighted. News came from Boston. She ought to be into-day, I believe. I suppose William has been too concerned to get you word at home."

Rhoda Ammidon rose immediately, surprised at the force of the emotion that blurred her eyes with tears. Gerrit was safe! Possibly they had been told at Java Head now, but she must be there with Jeremy Ammidon; surprises, even as joyful as this, were a great strain on him. Neglecting the object of her visit she returned at once to Pleasant Street, urging the coachman to an undignified haste, and keeping the carriage at the door.

Her father-in-law was at his secretary in the library, and it was evident that he had heard nothing of his son's return. "Well, Rhoda," he said, swinging about; "what a bright cheek you have—like Laurel's."

"I feel bright, father," she replied with a nod and smile. "After this none of you will be able to laugh at my predictions. You see, a woman's feeling is often more correct than masculine judgment." His momentary bewilderment gave place to a painfully strained interrogation. "Yes," she told him, "but we are none of us surprised—Gerrit is almost in Salem harbor." She moved near him and, with a veiled anxiety, laid her hand upon his shoulder.

"A splendid sailor," he muttered. It seemed as if Rhoda could really hear the dull rising pounding of his shaken heart. But his excitement subsided, gave way to a normal concern, a flood of vain questions and preparation to go down to the wharf. In the midst of this a message came from the countinghouse of Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone that the Nautilus would dock within an hour.

A small crowd had already gathered on Derby Wharf when Rhoda and her companion made their way past the warehouses built at intervals along the wharf to the place where the Nautilus would be warped in. The wharfinger saluted them, William Ammidon joined his wife, and beyond she could see James Saltonstone conversing with the Surveyor of the Port.

The afternoon was serene, a faint air drew in from the sea; and with it, sweeping slowly inside Peach's Point, was the tall ship with her canvas towering gold in the western sun against the distance of sea and sky. As Rhoda watched she saw their house flag—a white field checkered in blue—fluttering from the main royal truck.

"The royals are coming in!" Jeremy Ammidon exclaimed, gripping Rhoda's arm. "He is lowering his top-gallant yards and hauling up the courses! My dear, there's nothing on God's earth finer than a ship."

The Nautilus slipped along surprisingly fast. Rhoda could now see the crew moving about and coiling the gear.

"Look, father, there's Gerrit on the quarter-deck."

The shipmaster, shorter than common, with broad assertive shoulders in formal black, was easily recognizable. A woman with a worn flushed face pressed by Jeremy. "Andrew's there, too," she told them, "Mr. Broadrick, the mate."

The ship moved more slowly, under her topsails and jibs, in a soundless progress with the ripples falling away in water like dark green glass, liquid and still. She was now but a short distance from the end of the wharf. Mr. Broadrick was forward between the knightheads with the crew ranged to the starboard and at the braces, while Gerrit Ammidon stood with one hand on the quarter-deck railing and the other holding a brass speaking trumpet to his lips:

"Let go your port fore and after braces, Mr. Broadrick; brace the fore and mizzen yards sharp up, leave the main braces fast, and lay the main topsail to the mast. As she comes to the wind let the jibs run down." He turned to the man at the wheel, "Helm hard a starboard."

"Hard a starboard, sir."

The ship answered quickly and rounded to while her weather fore and mizzen yards flew forward until they touched the starboard backstays and the men hauled in the slack of the braces. With the main yard square to check her way the jibs drooped down along the stays. "Mr. Broadrick, you may let go the starboard anchor and furl sails." The mate grasped a top maul and struck the trigger of the ring stopper a clean blow, the anchor splashed into the water with a rumbling cable, and the Nautilus was home.

Gerrit Ammidon walked hurriedly to the companionway and went below, while the mate continued, "Stand by to let go your topsail halliards and man the gear. Sharper with the mizzen sheets and unbend those clew lines and garnets… stow the clews in a harbor furl." At a rhythmic shout the bunts of the three topsails came up together.

The wind had died away and the flags hung listlessly from the main truck and spanker gaff. The water of the harbor was unstirred except for the swirls at the oar blades of an incoming quarter boat and the warp paying out at her stern. The voice of the mate, the chantey of the crew heaving at the capstan bars, came to Rhoda subdued:

"The times are hard and wages low,
  Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her.
I guess it's time for us to go,
  Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her.
I thought I heard the old man say,
  Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her.
To-morrow we will get our pay
  …….leave her"

Rhoda Ammidon discovered herself leaning forward tensely, her hands shut in excitement and emotion; and she relaxed with a happy laugh as the Nautilus, with her yards exactly square and rigging taut, her sides and figurehead and ports bright with newly laid on paint, moved to the wharf.

It seemed to her that Gerrit, descending a short stage from the deck, looked markedly older than when he had last sailed. Yet he had a surprisingly youthful air still; partly, she thought, from the manner in which he wore his hair, falling in a waving thick line about his cheeks. His mouth was at once fresh and severe, his face clean shaven, and his eyes—if possible—more directly blue than ever.

"I'll take the ship's manifest to the Collector," he said, greeting them and impatiently waving aside the vendors after the cook's slush, the excited women and runners and human miscellany crowding forward. "Then Java Head." He paused, speaking over his shoulder: "I'd be thankful if you would send the barouche down in an hour or so."

Driving back, her hand on Jeremy Ammidon's knee, Rhoda wondered at Gerrit's request. It was entirely unlike him to ride in the barouche; rather he had always derided it in the terms of his calling. However, unable to find a solution for her surprise, she listened to the other's comments and speculations:

"I suppose William's first question will be about the cargo, and, of course, I hope the ship has done well. But I'm just glad to have Gerrit back; I am for a fact, Rhoda."

"We all are," she assured him, "and William as happy as any. You mustn't be misled by his manner, father. I hope the supper will be good and please you."

"Gerrit will be satisfied with anything," he chuckled. "Probably he's been out of beans even for a month. Did you notice that fore-royal mast and yard? They were rigged at sea: Gerrit carried them away. It hurts him to take in a sail. Some day I tell him he'll drag the spars out of his ship. His confounded pride will founder him." He made these charges lightly, with a palpable underlying pride; and, Rhoda knew, would permit no one else to criticize his son.

She found her daughters in a state of gala excitement on the front steps.
"Uncle Gerrit in the Nautilus," Laurel chanted; and it was evident that
Camilla herself was thrilled. They all went up to put on holiday dress.
Rhoda turned to the coachman, "Have the barouche at the head of Derby
Wharf in an hour."

Gerrit's unusual demand again puzzled her. A fantastic possibility lodged in her brain—perhaps he was not alone. She pulled the bell rope for her maid, changed into black moiré with cut steel bretelles, and selected the peacock coloring of a Peri-taus shawl. She found her husband with his father in the library. "I understand it's a splendid cargo," William remarked. Jeremy nodded triumphantly at her, and she expressed a half humorous resentment at this mercenary display. "He ought to be here," the younger man declared, consulting his watch. As he spoke Rhoda saw the barouche draw up before the house. She had a glimpse of a figure at Gerrit Ammidon's side in extravagantly brilliant satins; there was a sibilant whisper of rich materials in the hall, and the master entered the library with a pale set face.

"Father," he said, "Rhoda and William, allow me—my wife, Taou Yuen."

Rhoda Ammidon gave an uncontrollable gasp as the Chinese woman sank in a fluttering prostration of color at Jeremy's feet. He ejaculated, "God bless me," and started back. William's face was inscrutable, unguessed lines appeared about his severe mouth. Her own sensation was one of incredulity touched with mounting anger and feeling of outrage. The woman rose, but only to sink again before William: she was on her knees and, supported by her hands, bent forward and touched her forehead to the floor three times. Gerrit laughed shortly. "She was to shake your hands; we went over and over it on shipboard. But anything less than the Kûl'on was too casual for her."

She was now erect with a freer murmur of greeting to Rhoda. The latter was instantly aware of one certainty—Chinese she might be, she was, but no less absolutely aristocratic. Her face, oval and slightly flat, was plastered with paint on paint, but her gesture, the calm scrutiny of enigmatic black eyes under delicately arched brows, exquisite quiet hands, were all under the most admirable instinctive command. Rhoda said:

"I see that I am to welcome you for Gerrit's family." The other, in slow lisping English replied:

"Thank you greatly. I am humbled to the earth before your goodness."

"You will want to go to your room," Rhoda continued mechanically. "It was only prepared for one, but I'll send a servant up at once." She was enraged at the silent stupidity of the three men and flashed a silent command at her husband.

"This is a decided surprise," the latter at last addressed his brother; "nor can I pretend that it is pleasant." Jeremy Ammidon's gaze wandered blankly from Gerrit to the woman, then back to his son.

Never before had Rhoda seen such lovely clothes: A long gown with wide sleeves of blue-black satin, embroidered in peach-colored flower petals and innumerable minute sapphire and orange butterflies, a short sleeveless jacket of sage green caught with looped red jade buttons and threaded with silver and indigo high-soled slippers crusted and tasseled with pearls. Her hair rose from the back in a smooth burnished loop. There were long pins of pink jade carved into blossoms, a quivering decoration of paper-thin gold leaves with moonstones in glistening drops, and a band of coral lotus buds. Pierced stone bracelets hung about her delicate wrists, fretted crystal balls swung from the lobes of her ears; and clasped on the ends of several fingers were long pointed filagrees of ivory.

"Taou Yuen," Gerrit repeated shortly, with his challenging bright gaze. "That means Peach Garden. My wife is a Manchu," he asserted in a more biting tone; "a Manchu and the daughter of a noble. Thank you, Rhoda, particularly. But I have always counted on you. Will you go up with her? That is if—if my father has a room, a place, for us."

"This will always be your home, Gerrit," Jeremy said slowly, with the long breath of a diver in deep waters.

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