The days, to Nettie Vollar, seemed to be both unutterably dull and colored by a possibility of excitement like an undercurrent of hardly perceptible fever. Her mother, it was true, took on herself most of the duties of Barzil Dunsack's house; but there were still a large number of little things that returned unvaried with every morning, noon and night for the girl's attention. The cause of any impending excitement—except the mere presence of Gerrit Ammidon in Salem, now surely of no moment to her—she was unable to place. The feeling that pervaded her most was the heavy conviction that her life was a complete waste, she had the sensation of being condemned to stay in surroundings, in a service, that never for a moment represented her desire or true capabilities. Her family, as she had grown into maturity, seemed strange, her place there an unhappy accident.
At her brightest periods she pictured being suddenly, arbitrarily, removed into happier appropriate regions. For a time that vision had assumed the tangible shape of Gerrit Ammidon; then this comfortable figure had abruptly left her to an infinitely more seldom return of her faint indefinite hope.
Through the inordinate number of hours when she was potentially alone she had developed a strain of almost painful thought out of keeping with the whole of her naturally unreflective being. In moments such as the present—she was sitting in her room overlooking Hardy Street on its landward reach—she followed the slow turnings of her mind in the manner of a child spelling out a sentence. Two things seemed to her of the first importance—the existence into which she had been forced by the circumstance of her birth, and her unknown father himself: unknown, that is, except for vague promptings and desires which, for need of a better reason, she traced to his personality. That he was superior, in that he had had a distinct measure of gentle blood, she was assured by her mother on one of the rare occasions when the subject was touched between them. To that she credited the greater part of her obscure dissatisfaction with conditions which she described as mean.
The latter evidently didn't disturb her mother or grandfather; she realized that the long-drawn silent severity of the old man had crushed what spirit her mother may have had. It was clear that the elder woman had been very pretty, with wide fluttering eyes which made you think of gray moths, and delicately colored cheeks; but all that had been crushed, too. She was meek in a way that filled her daughter with determined resentment and fear. The resentment sprang from the silent assertion that she wouldn't be worn down like that; the fear followed the realization of the rigid power of the old man and the weight of all that held her powerless to escape. Naturally she was rather cheerful than somber, an involuntary gayety rose from her in the drabbest moments; she even defied Barzil Dunsack with ribbons and flowers on her bonnet.
The prospect from her window offered no relief from the interior; it was true that in the other direction she could catch glimpses of the harbor, by leaning out she could get the comparatively full sweep at the bottom of the street; but there were usually things ugly and restraining between her and the freedom of the horizon. Her favorite place had been at the edge of the grass above the tide; but, since his return, Edward Dunsack had hit upon it too, and his proximity made her increasingly uneasy. For one thing he talked to himself out loud, principally in Chinese, and the sliding unintelligible tongue, accompanied by the sight of his gaunt yellow face, his inattentive fixed eyes, gave her an icy shiver. It was almost worse when he conversed with her in a palpable effort at an effect of sympathy.
She rose and wandered finally to the embankment of the garden. The water shimmered under the full flood of afternoon; she was gazing at the distance in an aimless manner that had lately fastened on her when she heard a stirring of the grass behind her and Edward Dunsack approached. He was livid in the pitiless light, and seemed terribly fragile, a thing that a mere clap of thunder might crumble to nothing; she felt that she could sweep him away with a broom; yet at the same time there were startling gleams of inner violence, a bitter energy, an effect of deepness, that appalled her.
"If you should ask me," he declared, "if my opinion is of any value, I'd say that Ammidon owed you considerable. He led you to expect something better than his running away without a word; I'd have an explanation out of him. Of course, if he had come back married—this affair with a Chinese woman isn't that—it would be all over. But, somehow, with things as they are, I can't believe that it is."
"Do you expect me to go to their house, like you did?" she replied resentfully.
He turned such a malicious face on her that instinctively she moved back. For a moment he was silent, his meager leaden lips drawn tight over dark teeth in a dry grin, his fingers like curved wires; then, relaxing, he cursed the entire house of Ammidon. "The truth is," he ended, "that you were a little fool; you had everything, everything, in your hand and threw it away." His gaze strayed from her to the surface of the water, a short distance from the land. "Threw it away," he repeated; "it can't be got in this country either."
He was, she thought, crazy. However, all that he said about Gerrit lingered in her mind; it fanned to new life the embers of her rebellion. If a chance should come she would let Gerrit Ammidon know something of the wrong he had done her. As her uncle had pointed out, the Chinese woman was different from an American, a white woman. Their entire position, Gerrit's and her own, was peculiar, outside ordinary judgments.
She saw him occasionally from a distance, as she must continue to do while he was in Salem, since no opportunity had been made for them to exchange words. That must come from Gerrit.
Her mother called her, and she went in, finding the elder in the kitchen. "I can't get enough heat to bake," she worried; "you can bear your hand right in the oven. Your grandfather won't have his sponge biscuit for supper." Nettie declared, "I certainly wouldn't let it bother me. Just tell him and let him say what he likes." Her mother turned palpably startled. "But—", she began weakly.
"I know exactly what you're going to say," Nettie cut in, "he has it every night and he'll expect it. How much, I'd like to ask, have you been expecting all your life and getting nothing? And now I am the same. I don't believe we're as wicked as grandfather lets on, and I'm certain he's not so good as he thinks. I don't admit we are going to hell, either; if I did I can tell you I'd be different. I'd have a good time like some other girls I see. I guess it would be good, anyhow, with silk flounces four yards around. I'm what I am because I don't listen to him; I don't pay any attention to the pious old women who make long faces at us."
"You mustn't talk like that, Nettie," her mother protested anxiously. "It has a right hard sound. Your grandfather is a very upright religious man. It's proper for those who sin to suffer in this world that they may be humble for the next."
"I don't want to be humble," Nettie told her. "The Ammidons aren't humble. Mrs. Saltonstone isn't." A pain deepened visibly on the elder's pale countenance. "You mustn't think it doesn't hurt me, Nettie, to—to see you away from all the pleasure. It tears at my heart dreadful. That is part of the punishment." The girl made a vivid gesture, "But you sit back and take it!" she cried. "You talk of it as punishment. I won't! I won't! I'm going to do something different."
"What?" her mother demanded, terrified.
"I don't know," Nettie admitted. "But if I had it to do over I'd kiss
Gerrit Ammidon as soon as he looked for it."
"Nettie, do you—do you think he wanted to marry you?"
"Yes," she answered shortly. "He's like that. Whatever you might say against him he's honest."
Her mother began to cry, large slow tears that rolled out of her eyes without a sound. She sat with lax hopeless hands in her lap of cheap worn dress stuff. Nettie Vollar felt no impulse toward crying; she was bright with anger—anger at what Barzil Dunsack had done with her mother, at the harm he had worked in her. "You are a saint compared to Uncle Edward," she asserted. "I don't know what's wrong with him, but there is something."
"I've noticed it too: times his eyes are glazed like, and then his staring at you like a cat. It's a fact he doesn't eat right, and he forgets what's said as soon as a body speaks. Might he have some Chinese disease, do you think?"
"It's not like a real sickness…."
The evening in the dreary sitting room with only the reddish illumination of one lamp was almost unendurable. Her grandfather sat with broad wasted hands gripping his shrunken knees, his eyes gazing stonily out above a nose netted with fine blue veins and harsh mouth almost concealed by the curtain of beard. Edward rose uneasily and returned, casting a swelling and diminishing shadow—obscurely unnatural like himself—over the faded and weather-stained wall paper. Her mother was bowed, speechless. Nettie wanted to scream, to horrify them all with some outrageous remark. She would have liked to knock the lamp from the table, send it crashing over the floor, and see the flames spread out, consume the house, consume… she stopped, horrified at her thoughts.
She didn't want things like that in her mind, she continued, but the echo of dancing, of music, of the Salem Band marching up Essex Street with Mr. Morse playing his celebrated silvery fanfare on the bugle. She wanted to laugh, to talk, yes—to love. Why, she was young, barely twenty-one; and here she was in a house like the old cemetery on Charter Street. Before they went to bed her grandfather would read out from the Bible, but always the Old Testament. Finally he rose and secured the volume, bound in dusty calf, its pages brown along the edges. His voice rang in a slow emphasized fervor:
"'Hast thou not procured this unto thyself, in that thou hast forsaken the Lord, thy God, when he led thee by the way?
"'And now what hast thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the waters of Sihor? or what hast thou to do in the way of Assyria, to drink the waters of the river?
"'Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee; know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord God of hosts.
"'For of old I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bonds; and thou saidst, I will not transgress; when upon every high hill and under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot.
"'Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?
"'For though thou wash thee with nitre—'"
Nettie was impressed, intimidated, in spite of the contrary resolution in the kitchen: the words seemed to burn into her mother, herself, like boiling fat from a pan; and a great relief flooded her when she could escape again to the temporary relief of her room. It was hot, the windows were up, and she made no light that might attract mosquitoes or force her to draw the close shades. She stood undressed luxuriating in the sense of freedom of body. She was richly white in the gloom: her full young beauty gave her a feeling of contentment and strength, and, equally, a great loneliness. It wasn't corrupt, a "degenerate plant," she thought with a passionate conviction like a cry.
She determined to say no prayer to such a ruthless Being; yet, soon after, in her coarse nightgown, she found herself kneeling by the bed with hard-clasped hands. It was a prayer for which Barzil Dunsack would have had nothing but condemnation: she implored the dark, the mystery of Augustness, for carnal and light things, yes—for waltzes and quadrilles and songs and pleasure, young pleasure, all the aching desires of her health and spirit and nature and years; but most for love. She said the last blindly, in an instinct without definition, with the feeling that it was the key, the door, to everything else; and in her mind rose the image of Gerrit Ammidon. She saw his firm direct countenance, the frosty blue eyes and human warmth. He needn't have come at all, she added, if it had been only to double the dreariness of her existence.
She wondered a little, her emotion subsiding, at the interest her uncle showed in her affairs. It wasn't like what else she had gathered of him; and she searched, but without success, for any hidden reason he might have. He actively blackened the name of Ammidon while he was lost in too great an indifference to be moved by any but extraordinary pressures. Everything left his mind, as her mother had said, almost immediately. Suddenly weary, she gave up all effort at understanding.
A wind moved in from the sea, fluttering the light curtains, and brought her a sense of coolness and release. It came from the immense free sweep of ocean to which her sinking consciousness turned in peaceful recognition and surrender.
Altogether, in the days that followed, she realized a greater degree of mental freedom than before her revolt. She had removed herself, it appeared, a little outside the family, almost as if she were studying them calmly through a window: a large part of the terror her grandfather had possessed for her had disappeared, leaving for her recognition a very old and worn man; she was sorry for her mother with a deep affection mixed with impatience. At first she had tried to put something of her own revived spirit in the older woman but it was like pouring water into a cracked glass: her mother was too utterly broken to hold any resolution whatever.
Nettie's feeling for Edward Dunsack became an instinctive deep distrust. It was almost impossible for her to remain when—as he so often did now—he approached her to talk about the injustice of her mode of life and the debt Gerrit Ammidon owed her. He would stand with his fingers twitching, talking in a rapid sharp voice, blinking continuously against any light brighter than that of a shaded room or dusk. He seldom left the office or went out through the day; his place at the dinner table was far more often empty than not. But after their early supper, in the long late June twilights, he had an inexhaustible desire for her to stroll with him. She occasionally agreed for the reason that they invariably passed in the vicinity of Washington Square and Pleasant Street, and saw the impressive block of the Ammidon mansion. However, they never met any of its inmates. Once they had walked directly by the entrance; some girls, perhaps a woman, certainly two men, were grouped in the doorway: it was growing dark and Nettie couldn't be certain.
Edward Dunsack clearly hesitated before the bricks leading in between the high white fence posts topped with carved twisting flames; and, in a sudden agony at the possibility of his stopping, Nettie hurried on, her cheeks flaming and her heart, she thought, thumping in her throat.
Her uncle followed her. There was a trail of intimate merriment from the portico, a man's voice mingling gayly with those of the girls. "That was the Brevard who's in the Mongolian Marine Insurance Company," Edward Dunsack informed her. "I hear he's a great hand for leading cotillions and balls—the balls you ought to take part in." On and on he went with the familiar recital of her wrongs. It carried them all the way over Pleasant and Essex and Derby Streets home. The next day, however, he was forced to go about the town, and returned for dinner in a state of excitement evident to anyone.
He ate without attention whatever was before him, and extravagantly pleasant, related how he had conversed with Mrs. Gerrit Ammidon in the family carriage in front of the countinghouse of Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone on Liberty Street. Nettie was surprised that his concern was caused by such a commonplace event. "The women of China—." Words failing him, he waved a thin dry hand. His father frowned heavily. Then, abruptly, as if he had been snatched out of his chair by an invisible powerful clutch, he started up and disappeared.
The afternoon passed the full and Nettie, bound in preparation for supper for Redmond's, the Virginia Oysterman's at Derby Wharf, stood waiting for some money. "I can't think where I left my reticule," her mother called, "unless it's in Edward's room where I cleaned this morning. Just run up and see…. He'll be at the office."
Above, Nettie found the door closed, but it opened readily as she turned the knob: she went in without hesitation. The interior she naturally thought was empty; and then, with an unreasoning cold fear, she saw that Edward Dunsack was lying on the bed. Some of his clothes were tumbled on the floor, and he wore his black Chinese gown. The room was permeated with a heavy smooth odor; on a stand at her uncle's hand was a curious collection of strange objects—a little brass lamp with a flickering bluish flame, a black and silver object like a swollen unnatural pipe, stained bodkins, a lump of what she took to be tar—
Her attention was caught by Edward Dunsack's face: it had fallen back with his pinched chin pointing toward the ceiling, it was the color of yellow clay, and through his half-opened eyelids was an empty glimmer of gray-white. She shrank away involuntarily, and the word "Dead" formed just audibly on her trembling lips. In an instant she was in the hall, calling in a panic-stricken voice, her icy hands at her throat; and her grandfather mounted the stair with surprising agility, followed by his daughter Kate.
"Uncle Edward," Nettie articulated, waving toward the room from which she had fled. The two women followed the rigid advance of Barzil Dunsack. As he saw the figure of his son there was a stabbing gasp of his breath. He halted for a moment, and it seemed to Nettie Vollar that suddenly his determined carriage crumbled, his shoulders sagged; then he went forward. The bed had high slender posts that at one time supported a canopy, but now they were bare, and an old hand held to one as he bent over.
"Is he dead?" the older woman asked.
Barzil Dunsack made no immediate reply; his gaze turned from his son to the stand, the fluttering lamp and its accessories. His head moved slowly in the act of sniffing the pungent haze swimming in the interior. Nettie could see his face, and she was appalled by an, expression grimmer than any she remembered; it was both harsh, implacable, and stricken, as empty of blood as the countenance on the bed. The hand on the post tightened until it, too, was linen white. She drew close to her mother's side, putting a supporting arm about the soft shaking shoulders.
"No," said Barzil Dunsack, in a booming voice, "not dead, and yet dead forever. Go downstairs," he commanded. They backed confused to the door. "If Edward is sick—" Kate Vollar began. The old man's face blazed with intolerable pain and anger.
"Woman," he demanded, "can you cure what God has smitten?" His eyes alone, hard and bright in the seamed and hairy face, drove them out into the hall. Below in the sitting room Nettie exclaimed, "He might have told us something!"
"Whatever it is," her mother returned, "it's dreadful bad. I've felt that all along about Edward; he's never been himself this last time." Mechanically she found her reticule beside the painted ostrich egg from Africa. "You'll have to get the oysters anyhow," she told her daughter, maintaining the inevitable pressure of small necessities that defied all tragedy and death.
Nettie escaped with an enormous relief into the sunny normal tranquility of the afternoon. The house had become too horrible to bear; and even on the thronged length of Derby Wharf, like a street robbed of its supports and thrust out into the harbor, she was followed by the vision of Edward Dunsack's peaked clayey face.
She got the oysters, and in an overwhelming reluctance to return walked out to the end of the wharf, where a ship was discharging her cargo—heavy plaited mats of cassia with a delicate scent, red and blue slabs of marble, baskets of granular cakes of gray camphor, rough brown logs of teak, smooth dull yellow rolls of gamboge, bags with sharp conflicting odors, baled silks and half chests of tea wrapped in bamboos and matting painted with the ship's name, Rose and Rosalie.
There Nettie found herself beside a little girl clasping the hand of a bulky old gentleman in pongee and a palm leaf hat and following every operation with a grave critical regard. "I guess," she said to her companion, "it's only the cheap sort of tea, a late picking, or it would be in canisters." She was, Nettie realized, the youngest Ammidon child with her grand-father. The latter looked round and recognized Nettie Vollar. "How's Barzil Dunsack?" he asked immediately.
She was at a loss for an answer, since she could not describe the subject of the inquiry as all right nor explain their unhappy condition. "Intend to stop in," Jeremy Ammidon continued; "last time I was there I went up like a rocket." Laurel—that was the child's name, she remembered—gazed at her intently. "I was saying to grandfather," she repeated precisely, "that this wasn't really much of a cargo. Nothing like the one Uncle Gerrit brought back in the Nautilus. We were having an argument about Salem too. But, of course, all the big cargoes are going into Boston," she sturdily confronted the flushed old man.
"You're William all over again," he asserted, almost annoyed. Both their expressions grew stubborn in a manner that, in view of their great difference in age and experience, Nettie thought quite absurd. What a beautiful dress the child had on—Porto Rico drawn work, with pale yellow ribbons to her bonnet. "I wish you'd stay here a minute with Nettie Vollar," Jeremy told her, "while I see the wharfinger." He went unhurried along the wharf, and Laurel Ammidon drew closer to her.
"She's not much of a ship either," Laurel said, indicating the Rose and Rosalie. "She's built like—like grandfather. They're different now. I went to New York to see the Sea Witch launched, and she's the tallest vessel afloat, with three standing skysail yards and, ringtail and water sails. She's black and has a gilded dragon for a figurehead; and, although she went out in a gale, got to Rio in twenty-five days. I talked to Captain Waterman, too; he commanded the Natchez, you know."
How the child ran on! "You've studied a lot on, ships," Nettie commented. "I know the main truck from a jewel block," Laurel replied complacently. "But Camilla's a frightful lubber. I should think she'd make Uncle Gerrit sick. She does me." Nettie Vollar was seized by the temptation to question Laurel about Gerrit Ammidon, about his wife—anything that touched or concerned him. A wave of emotion swept over her, a loneliness and a desire the cause of which she would not face. She wanted to take Laurel's hand in hers, and with the old ponderous comfortable gentleman go up to the serenity of their gardens and wide happy house. She wanted Gerrit Ammidon to smile at her with his eyes blue like a fair sea… His father was returning.
Laurel again grasped the large hand and they turned to leave. Jeremy Ammidon nodded to Nettie. Nothing remained for her but the place on Hardy Street; then she saw that the others had stopped and were signaling for her. "Captain Dunsack… old friend," the elder said abruptly. "Stubborn as the devil. No worse than me, though, no worse than me. Confounded proud, too. You let me know if there is anything, that is, if you need—" he paused, breathing stormily, glaring at her in an assumed angry impatience.
"Thank you," she answered, "but there's nothing."
What most shocked her on the return home was the manner in which their life callously continued when she felt it should have been shattered by their suffering in Edward Dunsack's room; yet not so much theirs as her grandfather's. He took his place at the head of the table, the grace went up as loudly as ever above their heads; but in spite of that she saw that the old man suddenly looked infinitely spent. His knife slipped insecurely and scraped against the plate in fumbling and palsied hands. All at once she had a feeling of gazing straight into his heart, and finding—like a burning ruby hidden in earth—such an agony beneath his schooled exterior that she choked thinking about it.
Nettie wondered what he would do if she put an affectionate arm about his neck and told him of their sympathy. She knew now that her Uncle Edward had been smoking opium, and that it was a worse vice, more hopeless and destructive, than drink. But she was certain that he'd repel her; he looked on them all, Edward Dunsack, her mother and herself, as sinful, "degenerate plants." Even now, she realized, there was no weakening of his spiritual fibers such as had plainly overtaken his physical being. He had a blasting contempt for the unrighteous flesh.
When they had risen from the table, Edward Dunsack appeared and sinking weakly into a chair demanded a cup of tea. He knew nothing of their discovery, of the fact that they had stood above his revolting insensibility. After the tea he seemed to revive; he lighted a cheroot and said something about going out. It wasn't possible, however; his knees sagged walking the length of the floor; in the sitting room he fell into a leaden apathy. Nettie Vollar's gaze rested on the volume of the life of the missionary who had died at such an early age on the Île de France. The lamplight spread over the depressing mustard yellow paint of the woodwork with its obviously false graining and deepened the blackness of the fireplace. Throughout the reading of the Scripture Edward Dunsack never shifted his slumped position; his face, with smudged closed eyes, seemed fixed in a skeptical smile. The hollows of his temples were green. The reading finished, old Barzil said:
"I wish to speak to Edward alone."
The latter straightened up. "Eh!" he exclaimed. "What?" He resettled his stock and crossed a knee with a show of ease. Nettie followed her mother from the room. Her last impression was that of a startling resemblance between the young man and old—her uncle's face was as ruined as the other's—between father and son. "I wish he'd go away," her mother surprisingly asserted; "I won't sleep for thinking of him lying there like a corpse."
"He'll not," Nettie replied, musing; "something is holding him we still don't know of."
She had lately begun to realize a great many things of which only a month before she had not been aware—that sudden illuminating grasp of old Barzil's inner pain, of her mother's wasted spirit, and the sense that some unguessed potent motive was at the back of her Uncle Edward's apparently erratic strolling and reiterations. Nettie stopped to wonder a little at the change in herself: she was more alive, more included. There were no reasons that she could see why this should be so; never had the present, the entire future, been darker. With her deeper consciousness, too, came an increased shrinking from life, a greater capacity for injury; and there could be no doubt that it was an older Nettie Vollar who, in her mirror, returned the questioning in the resentful black eyes.
No further mention was made of the opium, no hint escaped from the two men of what Barzil Dunsack had said to his son after the evening reading of the Bible. An evidence of the miserable episode was visible for a while in the difficulty of any attempted general conversation; then that died away and everything was seemingly as it had been before. But the rising gayety and widespread public preparations at the approach of the Fourth of July made her existence drabber than ever. There was, too, unusual planning, for later in the month President Polk was to be in Salem.
The various military organizations drilled incessantly: the Salem Light Infantry, the Mechanic Light Infantry, the Salem Cadets and Independents and a squad of the Salem Artillery might be seen at any hour of the morning or early evening smartly marching and countermarching, led by Flag's or the Salem Band. Strange constructions of light wood climbed in Washington Square—the set pieces of the celebrated pyrotechnist secured at a "staggering expense." Preliminary strings of firecrackers were exploded by impatient boys and the dawn of the holiday was greeted with a sustained uproar of powder.
All this was communicated to Nettie in the form of a determination to forget the dreariness of home and for once anyhow be a part of the careless holiday town. Edward Dunsack opened the day by deprecating what fireworks Salem could show and recalling the extravagant art of China in that particular. No one, he said, of the least moment would be abroad in the rabble; and he intended to spend the day over the invoice of a schooner returned from Curaçao. She was glad of this, for it left her free to get an uninterrupted pleasure from the morning parade, the floats and fantasies, the afternoon drilling in Washington Square, and see the last colored disk of the fireworks. Maybe, she told herself, tying the becoming ribbon of her bonnet beneath a round chin with a lurking dimple, maybe she wouldn't come back home once during the entire day! She ignored, in the rush of her spirits, even her mother's lonely labors: for once they'd have to do without her. Nettie took a scarlet merino shawl for the cooler evening, shook forward the little black curls about her face, and hurried away from Hardy Street.
She was swept along in the crowd on Essex Street until, before the office of the Salem Register, she found a place that commanded the parade. There Nettie lost all memory of the dreariness that pressed upon her; she became one of the throng, applauding the members of the East India Marine Society carrying the palanquin from the Museum in native dress, or stood with sentimental tears blurring her vision. The parade ended, and currents of people swept toward dinner; but she stopped at a baker's and got a paper of seed cakes, made in the shape of oak leaves and sat contentedly eating them in the Common.
The thought of Gerritt Ammidon, with all the other deeper aspects of her life, was thrust into the back of her consciousness; she was existing as she breathed—without will; the instinctive lighter qualities had her in full possession. She felt that her cheeks were glowing and hummed the refrains of the music she had heard. One by one the military companies marched into the Square. She was fascinated by the tall leather helmets and silver straps under severe young lips. The Newburyport men were in a new scarlet uniform, that was the Boston Brass Band—it was painted on the bass drum—with the Independents; there were the Beverly Taylor Guards. The massed onlookers filled the broad plain.
The drilling and countermarching proceeded and the afternoon waned. At the disposal of the spectacle, when for an hour or two Washington Square was comparatively deserted, when the sun sank lower and lower over the roofs of Brown Street and the gold haze thickened, turning to blue, Nettie became quieter but no less happy. The time sped; never was she conscious of being lonely, by herself in a multitude composed of grouped families and friends. It was all such a beautiful relief to the other constant dwelling on somber and hopeless facts! Already people were streaming in under the wooden arched gates for the evening display; already she could see a star in the clear-shining green east.
The fireworks, the papers said, were to be in two parts, ending with a bombardment of Vera Cruz, five hundred feet long, and a series of triumphant arches with full-length portraits in colored lights of celebrated Americans. There was a sudden salute of artillery, and a flight of rockets soared upward in long flaming curves, dissolving in showers of liquid emerald and ruby and silver against the night. Bengola lights casting a blue glare over the standing mob and farther house fronts were followed by a great Peruvian Cross, a silvery fountain of water and Grand Representation of Bunker Hill Monument.
With this the first came all too soon to an end, and Nettie was folding the shawl about her shoulders when almost the entire Ammidon family were upon her…. In an instinctive confusion she saw William Ammidon and his wife with their daughters, the old man, Jeremy, and Gerrit.
They stopped before her in an assured, not unkindly inquisitiveness, the girls fresh and bright-faced, with crisp lovely clothes; their mother, in a smart mantle and little bonnet with knots of French flowers, greeted her with a direct question tempered by a smile. William Ammidon, smoking, was unconcerned; while Gerrit stayed obscured outside the group. "Whom are you with, Nettie?" Rhoda Ammidon asked; and when she admitted that she was alone the elder, with visible disapproval, asserted:
"That won't do at all in this rough assembly. I must see that you are taken care of." She hesitated, with a slight frown on her handsome brow. "But you will want to see the rest of the fireworks. Yes, what you must do is to come over to our steps, the view from there is fairly good, and then some one can walk home with you."
They moved resolutely forward, giving Nettie Vollar no opportunity for protest, the expression of what she might prefer; and, with so many determined minds, she dropped silently into their progress. She was beside Rhoda Ammidon, the girls trooped on before, and the men—Gerrit Ammidon—followed. Her peace of mind had been broken into a hundred half-formed doubts and acute questions. She wished that she had declined to go with them: the invitation, no, command, had been a criticism, really. Now, after so long, it wasn't necessary for them to become suddenly responsible for her.
The happiness of the day sank a little, thoughts of her mother and grandfather and Uncle Edward returned. But, at the same time, she realized that she was near Gerrit once more. This made a confusion of her emotions that hid what she most felt about him. It wasn't a proximity that meant anything, however; it had been utterly different when he came to see her before his marriage. Yet, just the fact of his being close behind her, and that she would be on the steps at the Ammidons' with him, undoubtedly had a power to stir her heart.
It brought, like her carefree excursion, a certain momentary glow, a warmth, without relation to what had gone before or might follow; there was the same quality of momentary rest, refreshment, complete and isolated as a jewel in a ring. She didn't analyze it further; but drifted with the vigorous chattering tide of the Ammidons.
They arrived at the impressive entrance open on a high dim interior. Jeremy and William Ammidon went in, Rhoda lingered while a chair was brought for her, and Sidsall and Camilla, Laurel and Janet ranged themselves facing the Square. Gerrit hung silent in the doorway.
"Perhaps Taou Yuen will come down," Rhoda Ammidon suggested, and Nettie's throat was pinched at the possibility of seeing Gerrit's Chinese wife. But he answered shortly in the negative. Taou Yuen preferred to stay in her room; the view from her window was better than this. The latter was easily possible, for here the set pieces were almost unintelligible: an impressive beehive could be seen surrounded by swarming golden bees, a pyramid of Roman candles discharged their rushes of colored balls and streamers; but the bombardment of Vera Cruz was a cause of bitter complaint to the children.
The fireworks had ceased to have the slightest significance for Nettie; she was luxuriating in the suavity of the Ammidon steps and company. It seemed to her that an actual air of ease rolled out over her from within. Seen from her place of vantage the great throng in the Square was without feature, the passersby on Pleasant Street—as Edward Dunsack and herself had been—were unimportant. The massive portico and dignified fence, the sense of spaciousness and gardens and lofty formal ceilings, the feeling of fine silks and round clear direct voices, of servants for everything, everyone, transcended in force all her speculations. She was familiar—who wasn't in Salem?—with the meaning of the house's name, Java Head. It was more, quite heaven.
Thoughts of Gerrit winged in and out of her mind like wayward birds. She turned with studied caution and glanced swiftly but intently at as much of his countenance as she could see. Her memory vividly supplied the rest. There wasn't another like it—one so clear and compelling to read—in the world.
The past in which he had had a part seemed like an impossibly happy dream. She was hardly able to believe that he had been in their sitting room, walked with her in the evening to the grassy edge of the harbor, or held her fingers in his hard cool grasp. Now she wondered if he were contented. She couldn't quite decide from glimpses of his face; but something that had nothing to do with vision disturbed her with the certainty that he was troubled. It might mean unhappiness, but she wasn't sure.
"Now there go the arches!" a young voice exclaimed, "and I just can't see anything. You'd never know at all it was a temple of eight columns. Oh, look—there's a number coming out, 'July fourth, seventeen seventy-six.'" A tide of hand clapping swept over the dark masses. "No," Laurel continued, "that's Salem…. It's Washington, no, General Taylor."
The amazing day, Nettie realized, was over, the people flowed back through the gates like a lake breaking in streams from its bank; there was a stir on the steps. Looking up she saw that the stars were obscured, and a low rumble of thunder sounded from a distance, a flash lit the horizon. Now she must go back, return to Hardy Street, to her bitter grandfather like an iron statue eaten by rust and storms, to Edward Dunsack following her with his dragging feet and thin insinuating voice, to her hopeless mother.
"It's the powder," she heard, about what she had no conception. Rhoda Ammidon turned decidedly to her. "It was nice to have you, Nettie," she declared; "but we must see about getting you safely home. The carriage would be best since it's threatening rain." She didn't, she replied, want to give them so much bother, she often went on errands after supper, she'd, be all right—
"Nonsense," Mrs. Ammidon interrupted impatiently. Then Gerrit advanced from the doorway. "I'll walk down with her," he said almost roughly. "No need to take the horses out so late." Nettie Vollar thought that his sister-in-law's mouth tightened in protest, but he gave them no chance for further argument. He descended the steps with a quick grinding tread, and she was forced to hurry through her acknowledgments in order to overtake him.
The night at once absorbed them.
The air, charged with the fumes of gunpowder and rumbling with low intermittent thunder, was oppressive and disturbing. Gerrit's head was exactly opposite her own, and she could see his profile, pale and still, moving on a changing dark background. He walked with the short firm stride men acquire on the unsteady decks of vessels, swinging his arms but slightly. Neither spoke. The rain, Nettie saw, was hanging off; probably it would not reach Salem, Washington Square was already empty except for a small obscure stir by the scaffolding for the fireworks. A murmur of young voices came from a door on Bath Street. Such minute observations filled her mind; beneath their surface she was conscious of a deep, a fathomless, turmoil. It was a curious sensation, curious because she couldn't tell whether it was happiness or misery. One now exactly resembled the other to Nettie Vollar.
She grasped, however, one difference—it was happiness now, the misery belonged to tomorrow. But suddenly that last unrealized fact—at once immaterial and the most leaden reality of all—lost its weight. The greater freedom she had lately grown into became an absolute indifference, a half willful and half automatic shutting of her eyes to everything but the present, the actuality of Gerrit Ammidon walking by her side. She wanted him to speak, so that she could discover his thoughts, feelings; yet she was reluctant to have their companionship of silence broken: words, almost all the possible terms she could imagine, would only emphasize the distance between them.
She was thinking of one now—a word he had never pronounced, but which she felt had been, however obscurely, at the back of the attention he had paid her: love. It was a queer thing. It seemed to be—everyone agreed that it was—of the greatest, perhaps the first, importance; and yet all sorts of other considerations, some insignificant and others mean and more, yes—cowardly, held it in check, drove it back out of sight, as you might hurriedly shut some shabby object into a closet at the arrival of visitors.
"How have you been?" he demanded in the abrupt voice of the expression of his determination to see her home. Well enough, she assured him, if he meant her health. He glanced at her with somber eyes. "Not altogether," he admitted; "it included your family, things generally."
"They are as bad as possible," she told him. She admitted this frankly, a part of her entire surrender to the moment, careless of how it might affect him. "They would be," he muttered savagely. "It's a habit … here." The "here," she knew, referred to life on shore; his gloomy attitude toward the management and affairs of the land had caused her a great deal of precious laughter. He had revealed a most astonishing ignorance of necessities that she had understood instinctively when hardly more than a child; and this simplicity had, as much as anything, brought her affection for him to life. At the same time she in particular had felt the justice of a great many of his charges. But no one could reasonably hope for the sort of world—a world as orderly and trim as that of a narrow ship—he thought should be brought about by a mere command. Nettie wished that it could! She sighed, gazing at him.
"Then it's no better than before?" he asked, adding, with a descriptive gesture: "the town and people?"
"I hardly speak to ten in a year, outside the stores and like that. Of course they nod going into church, or a lady, I mean really, your sister-in-law, will say something nice, even do what you saw to-night. Though it's the first time anything like that has happened."
She caught a repressed bitter oath.
"I suppose I'll get used to it," she continued. "No, I won't," she added differently; "never, never, never."
"If you were a man now—" he said with an incredible stupidity.
She wondered angrily if he'd rather have her a man; there had been a time, Nettie reflected, when such a possibility would have stirred him to violent protest. And this brought out the reflection that, while at one time he might have cared for her, now perhaps he was merely sorry for her unhappiness. Yes, this must be it. She had a momentary fatal impulse to throw back at him scornfully any such small kindness. She didn't, she told herself, want condescending sympathy. What silenced her was the sudden knowledge that she did; she wanted anything whatsoever from Gerrit Ammidon. The fact that he had a Chinese wife was powerless to alter her feeling in the smallest degree. On the contrary, she was shocked to find that it had increased immensely, it was growing with every minute.
She wondered drearily if her stubborn love—the term took its place without remark in the procession of her thoughts—for Gerrit didn't, in spite of her protest to the contrary, stamp her as quite bad. Perhaps her grandfather was right about them all—her mother and Uncle Edward and herself, and they were wicked, lost! The energy with which she had combated this charge now faced by the circumstance of her realized affection for a man married to some one else, even Chinese, wavered. All the cheerful influences of the day, rising to the supreme tranquil hour on the Ammidon porch, sank to dejection; it was like the flight of the rockets.
She walked listlessly, her brain was numb; she was terribly tired. Gerrit Ammidon's head was bent and she was unable to see his expression. He might even have forgotten, by the token of his self-absorbed progress, that she was at his side.
"There's going to be a stir in Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone," he said presently, "when my father hears of the new program. Everything is turning to the fastest California runs possible. William and James Saltonstone want me to take command of a clipper. But I find I'm like my father, Nettie; all my experience has been in the East and the China service. I'm used to it. I'd never get on navigating a passenger boat, a packet ship, from Boston to San Francisco and San Francisco to Boston. The other's in my blood, too—running the northeast trades to Brazil and coming up into the southwest passage winds for the Cape of Good Hope. A long reach nearly to Australia and then north again to the Indian Ocean and southeast trades.
"I'm fit for that, for long voyages, a blue-water sailor and all it means; but battering back and forward round the Horn with my deck cluttered up by prospectors and shore crews the mates would have to slam into the rigging—!" His exclamation refused every face of such a possibility. She understood his necessity completely; and the brief account of such far happy journeys, safe from everything that Salem had come to mean for her, filled her with longing.
"I'm beginning to see," he took up again the self-examination, "that I am to blame for a good deal that I've found fault with in others. I mean that I'm a different variety of animal, and, naturally, no judge of the kinds of holes they live in or the way their affairs are managed."
"You are worlds better!" she cried.
He turned to her, obviously startled, and she held for a long breath his unguarded intense gaze. "Not very useful, I am afraid," he replied at last; "not today, anyhow. I belong to a life that is dying, Nettie; mark my words, dying if not already dead. And I'm newfangled to my father. It goes as quickly as that."
This was a fresh mood to all her knowledge of his impatient arrogance, and one that sent her to him in a passionate unperceived emotion. They had arrived at her home and were waiting aimless and silent. Beyond, the gate to the yard was standing open, and Nettie saw that his discovery of the fact had occurred at the identical moment of her own. She made an involuntary movement forward and he followed her through to the blurred tangle of bushes and bare trodden earth. Mutely they turned to the sod spread at the harbor.
The thunder had died away, but pale sheets of reflected lightning hovered at short intervals low in the sky. Directly above them stars shone again. The window of the sitting room still bore the illumination of the lamp within; and Nettie could picture her mother, with stained and rough hands loose on their wrists, opposite Barzil Dunsack's gaunt set countenance.
"You said something about things as bad as possible."
In a level voice she told him about her discovery of Edward Dunsack unconscious in his black wrap on the bed. "I thought he had died," she repeated almost monotonously; "he had such a yellow gone look."
"But that can't be allowed!" he cried. "You mustn't see it. Indecent, worse. The beast will have to be removed. No one will hear of his staying about with two women and a fanatical old man." She was afraid that he would go into the house at once and appear with her uncle, very much in the manner of a dog with a rat. Her sense of a worldly knowledge, a philosophy of realization, far deeper than his own returned. Things couldn't be disposed of in that easy manner; it was probable that they couldn't be disposed of, righted, at all. Her mother, with her help, must continue to keep Barzil's home: there was no other place for Edward Dunsack to go. "He won't hurt us," she said vaguely. "It's principally bad for him. Then, at first, I didn't know. You get used to so much."
He, Gerrit Ammidon, wouldn't have it, he asserted in a heated return of his familiar dictatorial manner. The fellow would be out of there to-morrow. It was a damned unendurable outrage!
She smiled softly and laid a momentary hand on his sleeve. "That's nothing, Gerrit; nothing compared to the rest, to me." He frowned down at her out of the gloom.
"What am I to do?" she asked.
He again cursed Salem and the world with which he had proclaimed himself out of date and sympathy. This, while it communicated to her a certain warm comfort, resolved nothing, made no reply to her question. To-morrow offered precisely the same hopeless outlook of yesterday. No answer from Gerrit, Gerrit married, was possible. She saw that.
"I'm not fit to go around on land blubbering and setting tongues to clapping," he declared. "I ought to be locked in my cabin when the ship's in port, and let out only after sail's made again."
She heard a slight movement in the grass; and turning sharply caught the vague outline of a man, the thin unsubstantial shape of Edward Dunsack. He vanished immediately; Gerrit, absorbed in bitter thought, had missed him. Strangely her uncle only filled her mind with the image of China, the China that had ruined him, and which, too, in the form of a woman, a Manchu, had destroyed the hope of any acceptable existence of her own.
"Great pretensions and idiotic results," he went on; "no ballast. Take what your grandfather said to me—nothing in that unexpected or to drive a man off. Yet off I go and—" he halted oddly, just as her breath was suspended at the admittance which she was certain must follow. But he fell into another glooming silence.
After all, she couldn't expect him to continue that development. A different man might; and Nettie wasn't sure of her refusal to listen…to the end. But she was familiar with Gerrit's unbending conception of the necessity of truth alone. If he married a woman, yellow, black, anything, he would perform, the obligation to the entire boundary of his promise. Good and bad seemed equally united against her. Little flashes of resentment struck through her leaden, conviction that all this was useless.
"I must be of some use to you."
But, Nettie realized, there was only one way in which he could help her; only one thing she wanted—could take—from him. She was terrified at the completeness with which love had possessed her, making every other fact and consideration of little interest or importance. Suddenly it seemed as if she were being swept by an overwhelming current farther and farther out from safety into a bottomless immensity that would claim her life.
"Yet," he cried, "if I lift a hand, here, in Salem, if I as much as cross the street to speak to you—the clapping tongues! I can do you nothing but harm. Though Rhoda might—"
"I don't want your Rhoda!" she interrupted passionately. "I've managed without them all up to now." He raised his arms in a hopeless gesture. "Nothing's to be done," she concluded. "I saw that all along; that is, this last time."
"It's late," he muttered absently; "you have had a day." He turned mechanically and moved away from the indefinite black rim of the harbor. The lamp in the sitting room had been extinguished, the house was dark. A brief embarrassment seized her as he stood trying vainly to find something confident, even adequate, to say for farewell. And as the stir of his footfalls died away up Hardy Street the memory of his last futile words mocked her laboring heart.
She turned and faced Edward Dunsack, advancing from an obscurity deeper than the rest. He murmured approvingly, she caught words of commendation and unspeakable reassurance. She hurried away blindly, sick to the inmost depths of her being. The morning, when she had tied her gay bonnet ribbons and started out with the scarlet merino shawl on her arm, seemed to belong to a long, long time ago, to a girl…. The popping of a final string of firecrackers died outside.