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The two captains did not ask many questions. They helped anchor the cat-boat, and then they took the man on their boat and rowed him to shore. He was getting chilled sitting out there doing nothing, and so when they reached the house they made him some hot grog, and promised in the morning, when the tide rose, they would go out and help him bring his boat in. Then Captain Cephas showed the stranger to a bunk, and they all went to bed. Such experiences had not enough of novelty to the good captains to keep them awake five minutes.
In the morning they were all up very early, and the stranger, who proved to be a seafaring man with bright blue eyes, said that, as his cat-boat seemed to be riding all right at its anchorage, he did not care to go out after her just yet. Any time during flood-tide would do for him, and he had some business that he wanted to attend to as soon as possible.
This suited the two captains very well, for they wished to be on hand when the little girl discovered her stocking.
"Can you tell me," said the stranger, as he put on his cap, "where I can find a Mrs. Trimmer, who lives in this village?"
At these words all the sturdy stiffness which, from his youth up, had characterized the legs of Captain Eli entirely went out of them, and he sat suddenly upon a bench. For a few moments there was silence.
Then Captain Cephas, who thought some answer should be made to the question, nodded his head.
"I want to see her as soon as I can," said the stranger. "I have come to see her on particular business that will be a surprise to her. I wanted to be here before Christmas began, and that's the reason I took that cat-boat from Stetford, because I thought I'd come quicker that way than by land. But the wind fell, as I told you. If either one of you would be good enough to pilot me to where Mrs. Trimmer lives, or to any point where I can get a sight of the place, I'd be obliged."
Captain Eli rose and with hurried but unsteady steps went into the house (for they had been upon the little piazza), and beckoned to his friend to follow. The two men stood in the kitchen and looked at each other. The face of Captain Eli was of the hue of a clam-shell.
"Go with him, cap'n," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I can't do it."
"To your house?" inquired the other.
"Of course. Take him to my house. There ain't no other place where she is. Take him along."
Captain Cephas's countenance wore an air of the deepest concern, but he thought that the best thing to do was to get the stranger away.
As they walked rapidly toward Captain Eli's house there was very little said by either Captain Cephas or the stranger. The latter seemed anxious to give Mrs. Trimmer a surprise, and not to say anything which might enable another person to interfere with his project.
The two men had scarcely stepped upon the piazza when Mrs. Trimmer, who had been expecting early visitors, opened the door. She was about to call out "Merry Christmas!" but, her eyes falling upon a stranger, the words stopped at her lips. First she turned red, then she turned pale, and Captain Cephas thought she was about to fall. But before she could do this the stranger had her in his arms. She opened her eyes, which for a moment she had closed, and, gazing into his face, she put her arms around his neck. Then Captain Cephas came away, without thinking of the little girl and the pleasure she would have in discovering her Christmas stocking.
When he had been left alone, Captain Eli sat down near the kitchen stove, close to the very kettle which he had filled with water to heat for the benefit of the man he had helped bring in from the sea, and, with his elbows on his knees and his fingers in his hair, he darkly pondered.
"If I'd only slept with my hard-o'-hearin' ear up," he said to himself, "I'd never have heard it."
In a few moments his better nature condemned this thought.
"That's next to murder," he muttered, "fer he couldn't have kept himself from fallin' asleep out there in the cold, and when the tide riz held have been blowed out to sea with this wind. If I hadn't heard him, Captain Cephas never would, fer he wasn't primed up to wake, as I was."
But, notwithstanding his better nature, Captain Eli was again saying to himself, when his friend returned, "If I'd only slept with my other ear up!"
Like the honest, straightforward mariner he was, Captain Cephas made an exact report of the facts. "They was huggin' when I left them," he said, "and I expect they went indoors pretty soon, fer it was too cold outside. It's an all-fired shame she happened to be in your house, cap'n, that's all I've got to say about it. It's a thunderin' shame."
Captain Eli made no answer. He still sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands in his hair.
"A better course than you laid down fer these Christmas times was never dotted on a chart," continued Captain Cephas. "From port of sailin' to port of entry you laid it down clear and fine. But it seems there was rocks that wasn't marked on the chart."
"Yes," groaned Captain Eli, "there was rocks."
Captain Cephas made no attempt to comfort his friend, but went to work to get breakfast.
When that meal--a rather silent one--was over, Captain Eli felt better. "There was rocks," he said, "and not a breaker to show where they lay, and I struck 'em bow on. So that's the end of that voyage. But I've tuk to my boats, cap'n, I've tuk to my boats."
"I'm glad to hear you've tuk to your boats," said Captain Cephas, with an approving glance upon his friend.
About ten minutes afterwards Captain Eli said, "I'm goin' up to my house."
"By yourself?" said the other.
"Yes, by myself. I'd rather go alone. I don't intend to mind anything, and I'm goin' to tell her that she can stay there and spend Christmas,--the place she lives in ain't no place to spend Christmas,--and she can make the little gal have a good time, and go 'long just as we intended to go 'long--plum-duff and mince-pie all the same. I can stay here, and you and me can have our Christmas dinner together, if we choose to give it that name.
And if she ain't ready to go to-morrow, she can stay a day or two longer. It's all the same to me, if it's the same to you, cap'n."
Captain Cephas having said that it was the same to him, Captain Eli put on his cap and buttoned up his pea-jacket, declaring that the sooner he got to his house the better, as she might be thinking that she would have to move out of it now that things were different.
Before Captain Eli reached his house he saw something which pleased him. He saw the sea-going stranger, with his back toward him, walking rapidly in the direction of the village store.
Captain Eli quickly entered his house, and in the doorway of the room where the tree was he met Mrs. Trimmer, beaming brighter than any morning sun that ever rose.
"Merry Christmas!" she exclaimed, holding out both her hands. "I've been wondering and wondering when you'd come to bid me `Merry Christmas'--the merriest Christmas I've ever had."
Captain Eli took her hands and bid her "Merry Christmas" very gravely.
She looked a little surprised. "What's the matter, Captain Eli?" she exclaimed. "You don't seem to say that as if you meant it."
"Oh, yes, I do," he answered. "This must be an all-fired--I mean a thunderin' happy Christmas fer you, Mrs. Trimmer."
"Yes," said she, her face beaming again. "And to think that it should happen on Christmas day--that this blessed morning, before anything else happened, my Bob, my only brother, should--"
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Stockton's Short Stories -by- Frank Stockton