Tess of the Storm Country

Grace Miller White

Preview: Issue 1 of 37

CHAPTER I

One September afternoon, not many years ago, three men sat on the banks of Cayuga Lake cleaning the fish they had caught in their nets the previous night. When they glanced up from their work, and looked beyond the southern borders of the lake, they could see, rising from the mantle of forestry, the towers and spires of Cornell University in Ithaca City. An observer would have noticed a sullen look of hatred pass unconsciously over their faces as their eyes lighted on the distant buildings, for the citizens of Ithaca were the enemies of these squatter fishermen and thought that their presence on the outskirts of the town besmirched its fair fame. Not only did the summer cottages of the townfolk that bordered the lake, look down disdainfully upon their neighbors, the humble shanties of the squatter fishermen, but their owners did all they could to drive the fishermen out of the land. None of the squatters were allowed to have the title of the property upon which their huts stood, yet they clung with death-like tenacity to their homes, holding them through the rights of the squatter-law, which conceded them the use of the land when once they raised a hut upon it. Sterner and sterner the authorities of Ithaca had made the game laws until the fishermen, to get the food upon which they lived, dared only draw their nets by night. In the winter whilst the summer residents were to be found again in the city, Nature herself made harder the lot of these squatters, by sealing the lake with thick ice, but they faced the bitter cold and frozen surroundings with stolid indifference.

A grim silence had reigned during which the three men had worked with feverish haste, driven on by the vicissitudes of their unwholesome lives. Moving his crooked legs upon the hot sand and closing a red lid over one white blind eye, Ben Letts spoke viciously.

"Tess air that cussed," said he, "that she keeps on saying fishes can feel when they gets cut. She air worse than that too."

"And she do say," put in Jake Brewer, grasping a large pickerel and thrusting his blade into its quivering body after removing the scales, "that it hurts her insides to see the critters wriggle under the knife. She air that bad too."

Ben Letts scratched his head tentatively.

"She ain't had no bringin' up," he resumed, again plying the sharp-bladed knife to his scaly victims, "and they do say as how when she air in a tantrum she'll scratch her dad's face, jumpin' on his back like a cat. Orn air a fool, I say."

"So says I too," agreed Brewer; "no wonder his shoulders air humped. But you never hears as much as a grunt from him. He knows he ain't never give her no bringin's up, that's why."

"Some folks has give their kids bringin's up," interposed Ben Letts with a glance at the third man, who was industriously cleaning fish and had not yet spoken. "And they hain't turned out no better than Tessibel will."

At this the industrious one turned.

"I spose ye be a hittin' at my poor Myry, Ben," he muttered. "I spose ye be, but God'll some time let me kill the man, and then ye won't be hittin' at her no more, 'cause there won't be nothin' to hit at. It air dum hard to keep a girl from the wrong way, love her all ye will."

For an instant Ben Letts dropped his head.

"We always wondered who he was, but more wonder has been goin' on why ye ain't made no offer to find the fellow."

"Ain't had no time," said the desperate cleaner of fish; "had to get bread and beans, to say nothin' of bacon."

"But why didn't ye send the brat to the workhouse?" asked Jake.

"Satisfied" Longman, as he was called, shook his head.

"I was satisfied to let it stay," was all he answered.

"My old mammy says," offered Ben Letts, "as how yer son Ezy asked Tessibel Skinner to marry him and as how she slicked him in the face with a dirty dishrag."

He slowly closed the scarlet lids over his crossed eyes, suspending the pickerel in his hand the while.

"Tess ain't had no mother," remonstrated Longman, after a long silence, pausing a moment in his bloody work and allowing his eyes to rest upon the magnificent buildings of the University, rearing above the town, "and Myry says that them what has ought to be satisfied."

Just then a shadow fell upon the shore of the lake near the fishermen.

"There air Tess now," muttered Letts and his two companions eyed a figure clad in rags, with flying copper-colored hair and bare dirty feet, which dropped down beside Longman without asking whether or no.

"Cleanin' fish?" she queried.

"Can't ye see?" growled Ben.

"'Course I can," she answered; "just wondered if ye knowed yerselves."

"Where be yer dad?" queried Longman, smiling as he caught up two long fish, depositing one beside him where it flopped helplessly about upon the hot sand.

"Gone to Ithacy," replied Tessibel, and without change of expression or color caught the floundering fish in her dirty fingers.

"I air a hittin' the little devil on the head with a stone," said she, and with a pointed rock she expertly tapped the fish three times behind the beady eyes and threw him down again motionless.

"Suppose seein' the fish wrigglin' gives Tessibel mollygrubs in her belly," grinned Jake Brewer, but Ben Letts broke in.

"How be yer toad to-day, Tessibel?"

This he said with a malevolent smile, as he took from his pocket a huge hunk of tobacco and munched a generous mouthful therefrom.

"Pretty well," answered Tess pertly, and measuring the blue water with her eye, she sent a flat stone skipping across it. Then with darkening face she wheeled about upon the heavy squatter.

"But air it any of yer business how my toad air, Ben Letts?"

"Naw," laughed Ben, nudging Jake in the ribs with his bare elbow, "only I thought as how he might be dead." Then he whispered to Brewer, "Wait till I get at him."

"Dead--dead, who said as how he air dead? Ye in't been a rubberin' in his hole, have ye, Ben Letts?"

Ben only laughed in reply.

"Ye have, Ben Letts, ye have, damn ye," screamed the girl now glowering above the fishermen with eyes changing to the deep copper of her hair. "Take that, and that, and that."

She had snatched the long fish from his fingers, and with swift swirls slapped it thrice into the fisherman's face. Turning she flashed away, her long shadows giving out the smaller ones of the tatters that hung about her.

"I'll be goldarned," gasped Letts, "and I'll be goldarned twice if I don't get even with her some of these here days. The devil's built his nest in her alright, and if hell fire don't get her, it'll be 'cause she air burned up by her own cussed wickedness."

He rubbed his face frantically with the soiled sleeve of his shirt, spitting out the scales and blood that hat lodged between his dark-colored teeth.

"Ye're always a tormentin' her, Ben," said Longman; "now if ye was only satisfied to let her alone, I air a thinkin' that she wouldn't bother ye. Tess air a good girl, for Myry says as how she can hush the brat when he air a howlin' like a nigger."

"She'll cast a spell over him, that's what she will," muttered Ben Letts. "Her ma could take off warts afore she was knee high to a grasshopper, and so can Tess. Once she whispered ten off from Minister Graves' hand under his very eyes when he was a laughin' at the idee."

"Wish they'd lit on his nose," broke out Jake Brewer, darkly, "he wouldn't be makin' it so hard for us down here. He gets his bread on Sunday if any man does. But they do say as how, when he sees Tess a comin' along, he scoots like a jack-rabbit."

"Sposin' the Dominie don't laugh now, sposin' he don't," put in Longman with a chuckle, "he air lost the ten warts, ain't he? Tess ain't the worst in this here county."

"She can keep the bread-risin' from comin' up," objected Brewer; "she did it with us one day last winter. She scooted by our hut and down dropped the yeast. Wouldn't as much as let her step her foot in my kitchen bakin' day. Air we goin' out again to-night, fellers?"

"Yep," answered Ben Letts. "Sposin' Orn'll go, too. He air in town but he'll get back, Orn will. There ain't no man on the shores of this here lake that can pull a net with a steady hand like Orn Skinner. Pity he has such a gal."

Letts gave another wipe at the scales which still clung to his neck and his eyes glittered evilly as he looked in the direction the girl had taken. He turned when Longman touched his arm. For years it had been the custom of the fishermen to allow the subject of netting to remain undiscussed. They plied their trade, spent a term in prison if detected, and returned to again take up their occupation of catching and selling fish. Ben Letts knew he was venturing upon dangerous ground.

"Broad daylight," he growled, catching the expression upon his companion's face, "and there ain't no one in sight that'll tell."

"Better be satisfied to keep yer mouth shut, Ben Letts," cautioned Longman, "nettin' air bad for the man what gets caught."

"Got any bait out there?" he finished, pointing lakeward to a bobbing box anchored a distance from the shore.

"Not a damn bit," replied Jake Brewer, "don't need it now. Keep the bait cars a floatin' to blind the eyes of some guy that might be a rubberin'. They don't know a minnie from a whale, those city coves don't."

"Ain't that Orn's boat comin' under the shadders of the trees?" queried Longman, rising to his feet and wiping his long jack-knife on his blue-jeans breeches. "Yep, it air him," he added, getting a closer look at the approaching flat-bottomed boat in which sat a big round-shouldered individual working vigorously away at the oars. Orn Skinner was called the "Giant Fisherman," because even in his bare feet he was seven inches above every other man in the settlement. Two enormous humps stood side by side on his shoulders, and a grizzled head lifted and sank with each sweep of the oars. Glancing around to direct his course, Skinner saw the men waiting for him in front of Jake Brewer's hut. With a sharp turn he swung the boat shoreward and a few vigorous strokes sent it grating upon the sand. Jumping out he dragged the boat to a safe mooring, from where the waves could not beat it back into the lake.

CHAPTER II

In the beginning, it is said, God made the heavens and the earth. He made the seas and all that in them is, with the myriads of fish, the toads, the snakes and afterward man. Then to grace His handiwork, He created the heart of a woman--the loving, suffering, unteachable heart of Eve.

The first tinge of thinking sorrow comes into a woman's heart at the age of fifteen, and this was the beginning of Tessibel's sorrow, as she lifted her feet over the hot sands and sped onward. Tessibel was what most people would call a careless, worthless jade. She shamefully neglected her father, but covered the fact to him by the wild, willful worship which she bestowed upon him. If he uttered a word of disapprobation she would fling herself, like a cat, upon his crooked shoulders and bend back his head until the red of her lips met his-- the pathos in her red-brown eyes quieting his qualms as to the dirt he had to go through to get into bed.

In the mornings, either in summer or winter, he was obliged to tumble the ragged girl from the roped cot he had made for her (when at last she had reached an age too old to sleep with him), and force her, grumbling the while, to eat the bacon and fish he had prepared. But he seemed happy through it all, for the brown-eyed girl brought back to his mind the slip of a fishermaid who had died when Tessibel was born. True, there was more copper in the girl's hair and eyes than there had been in the mother's--more of the bright burnishing like that of a polished old-fashioned kettle hanging over the spigot in a tidy housewife's kitchen. But Tessibel's one room was never tidy nor had she a kettle. In one iron frying pan she cooked the fish and bacon, while a small tin pail held the water for the tea. These were the only cooking utensils of the hut.

Tess could climb to the top of the highest pine tree in the forest yonder; she could squirm through the underbrush with the agility of a rabbit. She loved every crawling, hateful thing, such as all honest people despised, and she once fought with the son of an uphill farmer for robbing a bird's nest, making him give up the eggs and restoring them herself to the top of a pine tree in the fodder lot of Minister Graves.

According to the ideas of all who knew her, save her father and Myra Longman, Tessibel was full of eccentric traits; for who but Tess would feel the "mollygrubs," as Ben Letts had said, at the wriggling of the agonized perch and pickerel, as they flopped painfully upon the sands; or who but Tess would mind the squeaking of the mother-bird calling for her own. It was something of this "mollygrub" feeling that hastened her dirt-caked feet, as she rounded the mud cellar near her father's hut, and sped back of the weeping willow tree hanging in green fringes over the cabin. She dropped quickly upon her knees before a large log, which in some former time the flood-waters had dashed to its place.

Tessibel ran her red, bare arm into the hole in the end of the log. Then she sat up and gazed around.

"He air gone," she said aloud, "he air gone. Ben Letts has took him, damn his dirty hide. He ain't no more good than--"

Something caused her to close her lips. A large high-warted toad sprang into her dirty lap and slipped to the ground through the rent in her skirt. Tenderly she took the reptile in her fingers, for she loved this warted monster who seemed by the turn of his head to reciprocate in some way the devotion the girl showered upon him. She lifted him close to her face, and intently searched his poppy eyes.

"I said, damn his hide, Frederick," she said in a low tone, "'cause I thought he took ye. And ye ain't done nothin' to him, have ye? Ye was just out huntin' flies, wasn't ye, Frederick? Don't never stay long or ye'll git hit with a spear. Ezry Longman don't like ye nuther, 'cause I kisses ye, and 'cause, on my birthday, I hit his mug with a dishrag when he was tryin' to kiss me fifteen times, and was askin' me to marry him. I'd rather kiss--"

Her sentence remained unfinished. She looked up to see a tall boy leaning upon a rake, a boy with pale gray eyes, and an evil face. His short hair looked as if it had passed through the fingers of a prison barber. His blue-jean breeches were held up by a rope fastened in the button holes with small iron nails, and the blue blouse which had been clean that morning was now drenched with perspiration.

"Ain't ye got nothin' better to do than to be kissin' a toad," he expostulated, without waiting for the girl to greet him, although she had risen to her feet, holding fast to her reptile treasure.

"Ain't nothin' to you, air it, what I does as long as Daddy don't care?" she retorted, and sullenly counted one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight long weeping willow leaves which had died that day and had fallen to the ground. She gathered each leaf between her great bare toe and its next-door neighbor, deftly throwing them aside as she counted.

"I care," stolidly said the boy coming nearer, "and ye air a goin' to throw that toad away, does ye see? Ma says as how ye could be made into a woman if ye hadn't got batty with birds and things. She says as how when ye sing to the brat that yer voice sounds like an angel's, and that's why the kid sleeps. He air a cryin' all the time to have ye sing to him."

Tess hadn't expected this. She did love the tiny unwelcome child of Myra Longman, a child without a father, or a place in the world. Tess loved the babe because there was an expression in its eyes that she had once seen in a wounded baby bird's ... a pitiful unborn expression which would go with the brat to its grave.

She stooped down and placed the toad again in his hole, shoving him deep down into his cavity, for the sun was going down and Frederick would sleep as long as there were no flies about.

The boy spoke again.

"Mammy says as how if ye don't stop runnin' wild ye'll be worse than Myry with another--"

Suddenly the clenched fist of the girl flew up and struck the fisherman with a swiftness and force that took him from his feet. Tessibel was standing over him rigidly.

"I hates ye, I hates ye, I'd ruther marry--yep, I'd ruther marry my toad or a man as ugly as him than you, Ezry Longman, does yer hear, does yer hear?"

The lumbering body raised itself from the ground. The squint eyes were almost closed, only a glint of the gray ring that surrounded the pupil showing between the lids.

"Ye think that ye can hide from me what ye be a doin'," burst out Ezra. "Why did ye name that toad after the student of Minister Graves? Just 'cause he wears nice clothes and don't do no honest rakin' of hay, nor catchin' a fish only by trollin'. Ye loves that feller, that's what ye does."

Bewilderment leapt alive in the girl's brown eyes. The shade deepened almost to black as the thought the boy had planted in the sensitive mind took root and grew. Then the dirty young face flooded with crimson which tinted the rounded neck and colored the low forehead, and Tess dropped down beside the log and covered her face with her hands. The fisherman was so surprised that he uttered not a word while the wild storm broke over the girl's heart, dying away in a smothered moan.

Without a glance at the boy, she lifted herself slowly from the earth and walking, erect and tall, into her father's hut, closed the door with a bang. She slipped the leather fastening into its place and dazedly adjusted the iron peg in the opening to hold it. Tessibel's heart had manifested its hitherto unknown burden and the woman lived amid the dirt and squalor of the fisherman's cabin.

Tessibel's peremptory leaving and the hauteur in her face were so foreign to her that Ezra Longman did not dare follow. He leaned upon his rake looking after her, his gray eyes gathered into an incomprehensive squint. Had Tess again cuffed his ears, he would have been secretly delighted; but this manner, so unlike her, seemed to take her as far above him as that flock of black crows yonder, flying to the forest to find shelter for the night.

"Tessibel," he called helplessly, under his breath, but Tessibel did not hear. He limped away not knowing that she had passed as effectually out of his life as if she had not dwelt in the rickety cabin on his right.

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