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Chapter 14

The day of the picnic struggled till ten o'clock to peer through the fog that wrapt it with that remote damp and coolness and that nearer drouth and warmth which some fogs have. The low pine groves hung full of it, and it gave a silvery definition to the gossamer threads running from one grass spear to another in spacious networks over the open levels of the old fields that stretch back from the bluff to the woods. At last it grew thinner, somewhere over the bay; then you could see the smooth water through it; then it drifted off in ragged fringes before a light breeze: when you looked landward again it was all gone there, and seaward it had gathered itself in a low, dun bank along the horizon. It was the kind of fog that people interested in Campobello admitted as apt to be common there, but claimed as a kind of local virtue when it began to break away. They said that it was a very dry fog, not like Newport, and asked you to notice that it did not wet you at all.

Four or five carriages, driven by the gentlemen of the party, held the picnic, which was destined for that beautiful cove on the Bay of Fundy where the red granite ledges, smooth-washed by ages of storm and sun, lend themselves to such festivities as if they had been artificially fashioned into shelves and tables. The whole place is yet so new to men that this haunt has not acquired that air of repulsive custom which the egg shells and broken bottles and sardine boxes of many seasons give. Or perhaps the winter tempests heap the tides of the bay over the ledge, and wash it clean of these vulgar traces of human resort, and enable it to offer as fresh a welcome to the picnics of each successive summer as if there had never been a picnic in that place before.

This was the sense that Mavering professed to have received from it, when he jumped out of the beach wagon in which he had preceded the other carriages through the weird forest lying between the fringe of farm fields and fishing-villages on the western shore of the island and these lonely coasts of the bay. As far as the signs of settled human habitation last, the road is the good hard country road of New England, climbing steep little hills, and presently leading through long tracts of woodland. But at a certain point beyond the furthest cottage you leave it, and plunge deep into the heart of the forest, vaguely traversed by the wheel-path carried through since the island was opened to summer sojourn. Road you can hardly call it, remembering its curious pauses and hesitations when confronted with stretches of marshy ground, and its staggering progress over the thick stubble of saplings through which it is cut. The progress of teams over it is slow, but there is such joy of wildness in the solitudes it penetrates that; if the horses had any gait slower than a walk, one might still wish to stay them. It is a Northern forest, with the air of having sprang quickly up in the fierce heat and haste of the Northern summers. The small firs are set almost as dense as rye in a field, and in their struggle to the light they have choked one another so that there is a strange blight of death and defeat on all that vigour of life. Few of the trees have won any lofty growth; they seem to have died and fallen when they were about to outstrip the others in size, and from their decay a new sylvan generation riots rankly upward. The surface of the ground is thinly clothed with a deciduous undergrowth, above which are the bare, spare stems of the evergreens, and then their limbs thrusting into one another in a sombre tangle, with locks of long yellowish-white moss, like the grey pendants of the Southern pines, dripping from them and draining their brief life.

In such a place you must surrender yourself to its influences, profoundly yet vaguely melancholy, or you must resist them with whatever gaiety is in you, or may be conjured out of others. It was conceded that Mavering was the life of the party, as the phrase goes. His light-heartedness, as kindly and sympathetic as it was inexhaustible, served to carry them over the worst places in the road of itself. He jumped down and ran back, when he had passed a bad bit, to see if the others were getting through safely; the least interesting of the party had some proof of his impartial friendliness; he promised an early and triumphant emergence from all difficulties; he started singing, and sacrificed himself in several tunes, for he could not sing well; his laugh seemed to be always coming back to Alice, where she rode late in the little procession; several times, with the deference which he delicately qualified for her, he came himself to see if he could not do something for her.

"Miss Pasmer," croaked her friend Miss Anderson, who always began in that ceremonious way with her, and got to calling her Alice further along in the conversation, "if you don't drop something for that poor fellow to run back two or three miles and get, pretty soon, I'll do it myself. It's peyfectly disheaytening to see his disappointment when you tell him theye's nothing to be done."

"He seems to get over it," said Alice evasively. She smiled with pleasure in Miss Anderson's impeachment, however.

"Oh, he keeps coming, if that's what you mean. But do drop an umbrella, or a rubber, or something, next time, just to show a proper appreciation."

But Mavering did not come any more. Just before they got to the cove, Miss Anderson leaned over again to whisper in Alice's ear, "I told you he was huyt. Now you must be very good to him the rest of the time."

Upon theory a girl of Alice Pasmer's reserve ought to have resented this intervention, but it is not probable she did. She flushed a little, but not with offence, apparently; and she was kinder to Mavering, and let him do everything for her that he could invent in transferring the things from the wagons to the rocks.

The party gave a gaiety to the wild place which accented its proper charm, as they scattered themselves over the ledges on the bright shawls spread upon the level spaces. On either hand craggy bluffs hemmed the cove in, but below the ledge it had a pebbly beach strewn with drift-wood, and the Bay of Fundy gloomed before it with small fishing craft tipping and tilting on the swell in the foreground, and dim sail melting into the dun fog bank at the horizon's edge.

The elder ladies of the party stood up, or stretched themselves on the shawls, as they found this or that posture more restful after their long drive; one, who was skilled in making coffee, had taken possession of the pot, and was demanding fire and water for it. The men scattered themselves over the beach, and brought her drift enough to roast an ox; two of them fetched water from the spring at the back of the ledge, whither they then carried the bottles of ale to cool in its thrilling pool. Each after his or her fashion symbolised a return to nature by some act or word of self-abandon.

"You ought to have brought heavier shoes," said Mrs. Pasmer, with a serious glance at her daughter's feet. "Well, never mind," she added. "It doesn't matter if you do spoil them."

"Really," cried Mrs Brinkley, casting her sandals from her, "I will not be enslaved to rubbers in such a sylvan scene as this, at any rate."

"Look at Mrs. Stamwell!" said Miss Cotton. "She's actually taken her hat off."

Mrs. Stamwell had not only gone to this extreme, but had tied a lightly fluttering handkerchief round her hair. She said she should certainly not put on that heavy thing again till she got in sight of civilisation.

At these words Miss Cotton boldly drew off her gloves, and put them in her pocket.

The young girls, slim in their blues flannel skirts and their broad white canvas belts, went and came over the rocks. There were some children in the party, who were allowed to scream uninterruptedly in the games which they began to play as soon as they found their feet after getting out of the wagons.

Some of the gentlemen drove a stake into the beach, and threw stones at it, to see which could knock off the pebble balanced on its top. Several of the ladies joined them in the sport, and shrieked and laughed when they made wild shots with the missiles the men politely gathered for them.

Alice had remained with Mavering to help the hostess of the picnic lay the tables, but her mother had followed those who went down to the beach. At first Mrs. Pasmer looked on at the practice of the stone-throwers with disapproval; but suddenly she let herself go in this, as she did in other matters that her judgment condemned, and began to throw stones herself; she became excited, and made the wildest shots of any, accepting missiles right and left, and making herself dangerous to everybody within a wide circle. A gentleman who had fallen a victim to her skill said, "Just wait, Mrs. Pasmer, till I get in front of the stake."

The men became seriously interested, and worked themselves red and hot; the ladies soon gave it up, and sat down on the sand and began to talk. They all owned themselves hungry, and from time to time they looked up anxiously at the preparations for lunch on the ledge, where white napkins were spread, with bottles at the four corners to keep them from blowing away. This use of the bottles was considered very amusing; the ladies tried to make jokes about it, and the desire to be funny spread to certain of the men who had quietly left off throwing at the stake because they had wrenched their shoulders; they succeeded in being merry. They said they thought that coffee took a long time to boil.

A lull of expectation fell upon all; even Mavering sat down on the rocks near the fire, and was at rest a few minutes, by order of Miss Anderson, who said that the sight of his activity tired her to death.

"I wonder why always boiled ham at a picnic!" said the lady who took a final plate of it from a basket. "Under the ordinary conditions, few of us can be persuaded to touch it."

"It seems to be dear to nature, and to nature's children," said Mrs. Brinkley. "Perhaps because their digestions are strong."

"Don't you wish that something could be substituted for it?" asked Miss. Cotton.

"There have been efforts to replace it with chicken and tongue in sandwiches;" said Mrs. Brinkley; "but I think they've only measurably succeeded—about as temperance drinks have in place of the real strong waters."

"On the boat coming up," said Mavering, "we had a troupe of genuine darky minstrels. One of them sang a song about ham that rather took me—

"'Ham, good old ham! Ham is de best ob meat; It's always good and sweet; You can bake it, you can boil it, You can fry it, you can broil it—Ham, good old ham!'"

"Oh, how good!" sighed Mrs. Brinkley. "How sincere! How native! Go on, Mr. Mavering, for ever."

"I haven't the materials," said Mavering, with his laugh. "The rest was da capo. But there was another song, about a coloured lady—"

"'Six foot high and eight foot round, Holler ob her foot made a hole in de ground.'"

"Ah, that's an old friend," said Mrs. Brinkley. "I remember hearing of that coloured lady when I was a girl. But it's a fine flight of the imagination. What else did they sing?"

"I can't remember. But there was something they danced—to show how a rheumatic old coloured uncle dances."

He jumped nimbly up, and sketched the stiff and limping figure he had seen. It was over in a flash. He dropped down again, laughing.

"Oh, how wonderfully good!" cried Mrs. Brinkley, with frank joy. "Do it again."

"Encore! Oh, encore!" came from the people on the beach.

Mavering jumped to his feet, and burlesqued the profuse bows of an actor who refuses to repeat; he was about to drop down again amidst their wails of protest.

"No, don't sit down, Mr. Mavering," said the lady who had introduced the subject of ham. "Get some of the young ladies, and go and gather some blueberries for the dessert. There are all the necessaries of life here, but none of the luxuries."

"I'm at the service of the young ladies as an escort," said Mavering gallantly, with an infusion of joke. "Will you come and pick blueberries under my watchful eyes, Miss Pasmer?"

"They've gone to pick blueberries," called the lady through her tubed hand to the people on the beach, and the younger among them scrambled up the rocks for cups and bowls to follow them.

Mrs. Pasmer had an impulse to call her daughter back, and to make some excuse to keep her from going. She was in an access of decorum, naturally following upon her late outbreak, and it seemed a very pronounced thing for Alice to be going off into the woods with the young man; but it would have been a pronounced thing to prevent her, and so Mrs. Pasmer submitted.

"Isn't it delightful," asked Mrs. Brinkley, following them with her eyes, "to see the charm that gay young fellow has for that serious girl? She looked at him while he was dancing as if she couldn't take her eyes off him, and she followed him as if he drew her by an invisible spell. Not that spells are ever visible," she added, saving herself. "Though this one seems to be," she added further, again saving herself.

"Do you really think so?" pleaded Miss Cotton.

"Well, I say so, whatever I think. And I'm not going to be caught up on the tenter-hooks of conscience as to all my meanings, Miss Cotton. I don't know them all. But I'm not one of the Aliceolaters, you know."

"No; of course not. But shouldn't you—Don't you think it would be a great pity—She's so superior, so very uncommon in every way, that it hardly seems—Ah, I should so like to see some one really fine—not a coarse fibre in him, don't you know. Not that Mr. Mavering's coarse. But beside her he does seem so light!"

"Perhaps that's the reason she likes him."

"No, no! I can't believe that. She must see more in him than we can."

"I dare say she thinks she does. At any rate, it's a perfectly evident case on both sides; and the frank way he's followed her up here, and devoted himself to her, as if—well, not as if she were the only girl in the world, but incomparably the best—is certainly not common."

"No," sighed Miss Cotton, glad to admit it; "that's beautiful."

William Dean Howells