Read CHAPTER IX - THE SPREAD OF FIRE of The Tides of Barnegat, free online book, by F. Hopkinson Smith, on ReadCentral.com.

The doctor kept his word.  His hand was the first that touched Jane’s when she came down the gangplank, Martha beside him, holding out her arms for the child, cuddling it to her bosom, wrapping her shawl about it as if to protect it from the gaze of the inquisitive.

“O doctor! it was so good of you!” were Jane’s first words.  It hurt her to call him thus, but she wanted to establish the new relation clearly.  She had shouldered her cross and must bear its weight alone and in her own way.  “You don’t know what it is to see a face from home!  I am so glad to get here.  But you should not have left your people; I wrote Martha and told her so.  All I wanted you to do was to have her meet me here.  Thank you, dear friend, for coming.”

She had not let go his hand, clinging to him as a timid woman in crossing a narrow bridge spanning an abyss clings to the strong arm of a man.

He helped her to the dock as tenderly as if she had been a child; asking her if the voyage had been a rough one, whether she had been ill in her berth, and whether she had taken care of the baby herself, and why she had brought no nurse with her.  She saw his meaning, but she did not explain her weakness or offer any explanation of the cause of her appearance or of the absence of a nurse.  In a moment she changed the subject, asking after his mother and his own work, and seemed interested in what he told her about the neighbors.

When the joy of hearing her voice and of looking into her dear face once more had passed, his skilled eyes probed the deeper.  He noted with a sinking at the heart the dark circles under the drooping lids, the drawn, pallid skin and telltale furrows that had cut their way deep into her cheeks.  Her eyes, too, had lost their lustre, and her step lacked the spring and vigor of her old self.  The diagnosis alarmed him.  Even the mould of her face, so distinguished, and to him so beautiful, had undergone a change; whether through illness, or because of some mental anguish, he could not decide.

When he pressed his inquiries about Lucy she answered with a half-stifled sigh that Lucy had decided to remain abroad for a year longer; adding that it had been a great relief to her, and that at first she had thought of remaining with her, but that their affairs, as he knew, had become so involved at home that she feared their means of living might be jeopardized if she did not return at once.  The child, however, would be a comfort to both Martha and herself until Lucy came.  Then she added in a constrained voice: 

“Its mother would not, or could not care for it, and so I brought it with me.”

Once at home and the little waif safely tucked away in the crib that had sheltered Lucy in the old days, the neighbors began to flock in; Uncle Ephraim among the first.

“My, but I’m glad you’re back!” he burst out.  “Martha’s been lonelier than a cat in a garret, and down at our house we ain’t much better.  And so that Bunch of Roses is going to stay over there, is she, and set those Frenchies crazy?”

Pastor Dellenbaugh took both of Jane’s hands into his own and looking into her face, said: 

“Ah, but we’ve missed you!  There has been no standard, my dear Miss Jane, since you’ve been gone.  I have felt it, and so has everyone in the church.  It is good to have you once more with us.”

Mrs. Cavendish could hardly conceal her satisfaction, although she was careful what she said to her son.  Her hope was that the care of the child would so absorb Jane that John would regain his freedom and be no longer subservient to Miss Cobden’s whims.

“And so Lucy is to stay in Paris?” she said, with one of her sweetest smiles.  “She is so charming and innocent, that sweet sister of yours, my dear Miss Jane, and so sympathetic.  I quite lost my heart to her.  And to study music, too?  A most noble accomplishment, my dear.  My grandmother, who was an Erskine, you know, played divinely on the harp, and many of my ancestors, especially the Dagworthys, were accomplished musicians.  Your sister will look lovely bending over a harp.  My grandmother had her portrait painted that way by Peale, and it still hangs in the old house in Trenton.  And they tell me you have brought a little angel with you to bring up and share your loneliness?  How pathetic, and how good of you!”

The village women ­they came in groups ­asked dozens of questions before Jane had had even time to shake each one by the hand.  Was Lucy so in love with the life abroad that she would never come back? was she just as pretty as ever? what kind of bonnets were being worn? etc., etc.

The child in Martha’s arms was, of course, the object of special attention.  They all agreed that it was a healthy, hearty, and most beautiful baby; just the kind of a child one would want to adopt if one had any such extraordinary desires.

This talk continued until they had gained the highway, when they also agreed ­and this without a single dissenting voice ­that in all the village Jane Cobden was the only woman conscientious enough to want to bring up somebody else’s child, and a foreigner at that, when there were any quantity of babies up and down the shore that could be had for the asking.  The little creature was, no doubt, helpless, and appealed to Miss Jane’s sympathies, but why bring it home at all?  Were there not places enough in France where it could be brought up? etc., etc.  This sort of gossip went on for days after Jane’s return, each dropper-in at tea-table or village gathering having some view of her own to express, the women doing most of the talking.

The discussion thus begun by friends was soon taken up by the sewing societies and church gatherings, one member in good standing remarking loud enough to be heard by everybody: 

“As for me, I ain’t never surprised at nothin’ Jane Cobden does.  She’s queerer than Dick’s hat-band, and allus was, and I’ve knowed her ever since she used to toddle up to my house and I baked cookies for her.  I’ve seen her many a time feed the dog with what I give her, just because she said he looked hungry, which there warn’t a mite o’ truth in, for there ain’t nothin’ goes hungry round my place, and never was.  She’s queer, I tell ye.”

“Quite true, dear Mrs. Pokeberry,” remarked Pastor Dellenbaugh in his gentlest tone ­he had heard the discussion as he was passing through the room and had stopped to listen ­“especially when mercy and kindness is to be shown.  Some poor little outcast, no doubt, with no one to take care of it, and so this grand woman brings it home to nurse and educate.  I wish there were more Jane Cobdens in my parish.  Many of you talk good deeds, and justice, and Christian spirit; here is a woman who puts them into practice.”

This statement having been made during the dispersal of a Wednesday night meeting, and in the hearing of half the congregation, furnished the key to the mystery, and so for a time the child and its new-found mother ceased to be an active subject of discussion.

Ann Gossaway, however, was not satisfied.  The more she thought of the pastor’s explanation the more she resented it as an affront to her intelligence.

“If folks wants to pick up stray babies,” she shouted to her old mother on her return home one night, “and bring ’em home to nuss, they oughter label ’em with some sort o’ pedigree, and not keep the village a-guessin’ as to who they is and where they come from.  I don’t believe a word of this outcast yarn.  Guess Miss Lucy is all right, and she knows enough to stay away when all this tomfoolery’s goin’ on.  She doesn’t want to come back to a child’s nussery.”  To all of which her mother nodded her head, keeping it going like a toy mandarin long after the subject of discussion had been changed.

Little by little the scandal spread:  by innuendoes; by the wise shakings of empty heads; by nods and winks; by the piecing out of incomplete tattle.  For the spread of gossip is like the spread of fire:  First a smouldering heat ­some friction of ill-feeling, perhaps, over a secret sin that cannot be smothered, try as we may; next a hot, blistering tongue of flame creeping stealthily; then a burst of scorching candor and the roar that ends in ruin.  Sometimes the victim is saved by a dash of honest water ­the outspoken word of some brave friend.  More often those who should stamp out the burning brand stand idly by until the final collapse and then warm themselves at the blaze.

Here in Warehold it began with some whispered talk:  Bart Holt had disappeared; there was a woman in the case somewhere; Bart’s exile had not been entirely caused by his love of cards and drink.  Reference was also made to the fact that Jane had gone abroad but a short time after Bart’s disappearance, and that knowing how fond she was of him, and how she had tried to reform him, the probability was that she had met him in Paris.  Doubts having been expressed that no woman of Jane Cobden’s position would go to any such lengths to oblige so young a fellow as Bart Holt, the details of their intimacy were passed from mouth to mouth, and when this was again scouted, reference was made to Miss Gossaway, who was supposed to know more than she was willing to tell.  The dressmaker denied all responsibility for the story, but admitted that she had once seen them on the beach “settin’ as close together as they could git, with the red cloak she had made for Miss Jane wound about ’em.

“‘Twarn’t none o’ my business, and I told Martha so, and ’tain’t none o’ my business now, but I’d rather die than tell a lie or scandalize anybody, and so if ye ask me if I saw ’em I’ll have to tell ye I did.  I don’t believe, howsomever, that Miss Jane went away to oblige that good-for-nothin’ or that she’s ever laid eyes on him since.  Lucy is what took her.  She’s one o’ them flyaways.  I see that when she was home, and there warn’t no peace up to the Cobdens’ house till they’d taken her somewheres where she could git all the runnin’ round she wanted.  As for the baby, there ain’t nobody knows where Miss Jane picked that up, but there ain’t no doubt but what she loves it same’s if it was her own child.  She’s named it Archie, after her grandfather, anyhow.  That’s what Martha and she calls it.  So they’re not ashamed of it.”

When the fire had spent itself, only one spot remained unscorched:  this was the parentage of little Archie.  That mystery still remained unsolved.  Those of her own class who knew Jane intimately admired her kindness of heart and respected her silence; those who did not soon forgot the boy’s existence.

The tavern loungers, however, some of whom only knew the Cobden girls by reputation, had theories of their own; theories which were communicated to other loungers around other tavern stoves, most of whom would not have known either of the ladies on the street.  The fact that both women belonged to a social stratum far above them gave additional license to their tongues; they could never be called in question by anybody who overheard, and were therefore safe to discuss the situation at their will.  Condensed into illogical shape, the story was that Jane had met a foreigner who had deserted her, leaving her to care for the child alone; that Lucy had refused to come back to Warehold, had taken what money was coming to her, and, like a sensible woman, had stayed away.  That there was not the slightest foundation for this slander did not lessen its acceptance by a certain class; many claimed that it offered the only plausible solution to the mystery, and must, therefore, be true.

It was not long before the echoes of these scandals reached Martha’s ears.  The gossips dare not affront Miss Jane with their suspicions, but Martha was different.  If they could irritate her by speaking lightly of her mistress, she might give out some information which would solve the mystery.

One night a servant of one of the neighbors stopped Martha on the road and sent her flying home; not angry, but terrified.

“They’re beginnin’ to talk,” she broke out savagely, as she entered Jane’s room, her breath almost gone from her run to the house.  “I laughed at it and said they dare not one of ’em say it to your face or mine, but they’re beginnin’ to talk.”

“Is it about Barton Holt? have they heard anything from him?” asked Jane.  The fear of his return had always haunted her.

“No, and they won’t.  He’ll never come back here ag’in.  The captain would kill him.”

“It isn’t about Lucy, then, is it?” cried Jane, her color going.

Martha shook her head in answer to save her breath.

“Who, then?” cried Jane, nervously.  “Not Archie?”

“Yes, Archie and you.”

“What do they say?” asked Jane, her voice fallen to a whisper.

“They say it’s your child, and that ye’re afraid to tell who the father is.”

Jane caught at the chair for support and then sank slowly into her seat.

“Who says so?” she gasped.

“Nobody that you or I know; some of the beach-combers and hide-by-nights, I think, started it.  Pokeberry’s girl told me; her brother works in the shipyard.”

Jane sat looking at Martha with staring eyes.

“How dare they ­”

“They dare do anything, and we can’t answer back.  That’s what’s goin’ to make it hard.  It’s nobody’s business, but that don’t satisfy ’em.  I’ve been through it meself; I know how mean they can be.”

“They shall never know ­not while I have life left in me,” Jane exclaimed firmly.

“Yes, but that won’t keep ’em from lyin’.”

The two sat still for some minutes, Martha gazing into vacancy, Jane lying back in her chair, her eyes closed.  One emotion after another coursed through her with lightning rapidity ­indignation at the charge, horror at the thought that any of her friends might believe it, followed by a shivering fear that her father’s good name, for all her care and suffering, might be smirched at last.

Suddenly there arose the tall image of Doctor John, with his frank, tender face.  What would he think of it, and how, if he questioned her, could she answer him?  Then there came to her that day of parting in Paris.  She remembered Lucy’s willingness to give up the child forever, and so cover up all traces of her sin, and her own immediate determination to risk everything for her sister’s sake.  As this last thought welled up in her mind and she recalled her father’s dying command, her brow relaxed.  Come what might, she was doing her duty.  This was her solace and her strength.

“Cruel, cruel people!” she said to Martha, relaxing her hands.  “How can they be so wicked?  But I am glad it is I who must take the brunt of it all.  If they would treat me so, who am innocent, what would they do to my poor Lucy?”