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High-water Mark

From: Selected Stories

When the tide was out on the Dedlow Marsh, its extended dreariness
was patent. Its spongy, low-lying surface, sluggish, inky pools, and
tortuous sloughs, twisting their slimy way, eel-like, toward the open
bay, were all hard facts. So were the few green tussocks, with their
scant blades, their amphibious flavor and unpleasant dampness. And if
you choose to indulge your fancy--although the flat monotony of the
Dedlow Marsh was not inspiring--the wavy line of scattered drift gave
an unpleasant consciousness of the spent waters, and made the dead
certainty of the returning tide a gloomy reflection which no present
sunshine could dissipate. The greener meadowland seemed oppressed with
this idea, and made no positive attempt at vegetation until the work of
reclamation should be complete. In the bitter fruit of the low cranberry
bushes one might fancy he detected a naturally sweet disposition curdled
and soured by an injudicious course of too much regular cold water.

The vocal expression of the Dedlow Marsh was also melancholy and
depressing. The sepulchral boom of the bittern, the shriek of the
curlew, the scream of passing brent, the wrangling of quarrelsome
teal, the sharp, querulous protest of the startled crane, and syllabled
complaint of the "killdeer" plover, were beyond the power of written
expression. Nor was the aspect of these mournful fowls at all cheerful
and inspiring. Certainly not the blue heron standing mid-leg deep in the
water, obviously catching cold in a reckless disregard of wet feet
and consequences; nor the mournful curlew, the dejected plover, or
the low-spirited snipe, who saw fit to join him in his suicidal
contemplation; nor the impassive kingfisher--an ornithological
Marius--reviewing the desolate expanse; nor the black raven that went to
and fro over the face of the marsh continually, but evidently couldn't
make up his mind whether the waters had subsided, and felt low-spirited
in the reflection that, after all this trouble, he wouldn't be able to
give a definite answer. On the contrary, it was evident at a glance that
the dreary expanse of Dedlow Marsh told unpleasantly on the birds, and
that the season of migration was looked forward to with a feeling
of relief and satisfaction by the full-grown, and of extravagant
anticipation by the callow, brood. But if Dedlow Marsh was cheerless
at the slack of the low tide, you should have seen it when the tide was
strong and full. When the damp air blew chilly over the cold, glittering
expanse, and came to the faces of those who looked seaward like another
tide; when a steel-like glint marked the low hollows and the sinuous
line of slough; when the great shell-incrusted trunks of fallen trees
arose again, and went forth on their dreary, purposeless wanderings,
drifting hither and thither, but getting no farther toward any goal
at the falling tide or the day's decline than the cursed Hebrew in the
legend; when the glossy ducks swung silently, making neither ripple nor
furrow on the shimmering surface; when the fog came in with the tide and
shut out the blue above, even as the green below had been obliterated;
when boatmen lost in that fog, paddling about in a hopeless way, started
at what seemed the brushing of mermen's fingers on the boat's keel, or
shrank from the tufts of grass spreading around like the floating hair
of a corpse, and knew by these signs that they were lost upon Dedlow
Marsh and must make a night of it, and a gloomy one at that--then you
might know something of Dedlow Marsh at high water.

Let me recall a story connected with this latter view which never failed
to recur to my mind in my long gunning excursions upon Dedlow Marsh.
Although the event was briefly recorded in the county paper, I had the
story, in all its eloquent detail, from the lips of the principal actor.
I cannot hope to catch the varying emphasis and peculiar coloring of
feminine delineation, for my narrator was a woman; but I'll try to give
at least its substance.

She lived midway of the great slough of Dedlow Marsh and a good-sized
river, which debouched four miles beyond into an estuary formed by
the Pacific Ocean, on the long sandy peninsula which constituted the
southwestern boundary of a noble bay. The house in which she lived was
a small frame cabin raised from the marsh a few feet by stout piles, and
was three miles distant from the settlements upon the river. Her husband
was a logger--a profitable business in a county where the principal
occupation was the manufacture of lumber.

It was the season of early spring when her husband left on the ebb of a
high tide, with a raft of logs for the usual transportation to the lower
end of the bay. As she stood by the door of the little cabin when the
voyagers departed she noticed a cold look in the southeastern sky, and
she remembered hearing her husband say to his companions that they must
endeavor to complete their voyage before the coming of the southwesterly
gale which he saw brewing. And that night it began to storm and blow
harder than she had ever before experienced, and some great trees fell
in the forest by the river, and the house rocked like her baby's cradle.

But however the storm might roar about the little cabin, she knew that
one she trusted had driven bolt and bar with his own strong hand, and
that had he feared for her he would not have left her. This, and her
domestic duties, and the care of her little sickly baby, helped to keep
her mind from dwelling on the weather, except, of course, to hope that
he was safely harbored with the logs at Utopia in the dreary distance.
But she noticed that day, when she went out to feed the chickens and
look after the cow, that the tide was up to the little fence of their
garden-patch, and the roar of the surf on the south beach, though miles
away, she could hear distinctly. And she began to think that she would
like to have someone to talk with about matters, and she believed that
if it had not been so far and so stormy, and the trail so impassable,
she would have taken the baby and have gone over to Ryckman's, her
nearest neighbor. But then, you see, he might have returned in the
storm, all wet, with no one to see to him; and it was a long exposure
for baby, who was croupy and ailing.

But that night, she never could tell why, she didn't feel like sleeping
or even lying down. The storm had somewhat abated, but she still "sat
and sat," and even tried to read. I don't know whether it was a Bible or
some profane magazine that this poor woman read, but most probably the
latter, for the words all ran together and made such sad nonsense that
she was forced at last to put the book down and turn to that dearer
volume which lay before her in the cradle, with its white initial leaf
as yet unsoiled, and try to look forward to its mysterious future. And,
rocking the cradle, she thought of everything and everybody, but still
was wide-awake as ever.

It was nearly twelve o'clock when she at last lay down in her clothes.
How long she slept she could not remember, but she awoke with a dreadful
choking in her throat, and found herself standing, trembling all over,
in the middle of the room, with her baby clasped to her breast, and she
was "saying something." The baby cried and sobbed, and she walked up
and down trying to hush it when she heard a scratching at the door. She
opened it fearfully, and was glad to see it was only old Pete, their
dog, who crawled, dripping with water, into the room. She would like to
have looked out, not in the faint hope of her husband's coming, but to
see how things looked; but the wind shook the door so savagely that she
could hardly hold it. Then she sat down a little while, and then walked
up and down a little while, and then she lay down again a little while.
Lying close by the wall of the little cabin, she thought she heard
once or twice something scrape slowly against the clapboards, like the
scraping of branches. Then there was a little gurgling sound, "like the
baby made when it was swallowing"; then something went "click-click"
and "cluck-cluck," so that she sat up in bed. When she did so she was
attracted by something else that seemed creeping from the back door
toward the center of the room. It wasn't much wider than her little
finger, but soon it swelled to the width of her hand, and began
spreading all over the floor. It was water.

She ran to the front door and threw it wide open, and saw nothing but
water. She ran to the back door and threw it open, and saw nothing
but water. She ran to the side window, and throwing that open, she saw
nothing but water. Then she remembered hearing her husband once say that
there was no danger in the tide, for that fell regularly, and people
could calculate on it, and that he would rather live near the bay than
the river, whose banks might overflow at any time. But was it the tide?
So she ran again to the back door, and threw out a stick of wood. It
drifted away toward the bay. She scooped up some of the water and put it
eagerly to her lips. It was fresh and sweet. It was the river, and not
the tide!

It was then--O God be praised for his goodness! she did neither faint
nor fall; it was then--blessed be the Saviour, for it was his merciful
hand that touched and strengthened her in this awful moment--that fear
dropped from her like a garment, and her trembling ceased. It was then
and thereafter that she never lost her self-command, through all the
trials of that gloomy night.

She drew the bedstead toward the middle of the room, and placed a table
upon it and on that she put the cradle. The water on the floor
was already over her ankles, and the house once or twice moved so
perceptibly, and seemed to be racked so, that the closet doors all flew
open. Then she heard the same rasping and thumping against the wall,
and, looking out, saw that a large uprooted tree, which had lain near
the road at the upper end of the pasture, had floated down to the house.
Luckily its long roots dragged in the soil and kept it from moving as
rapidly as the current, for had it struck the house in its full career,
even the strong nails and bolts in the piles could not have withstood
the shock. The hound had leaped upon its knotty surface, and crouched
near the roots shivering and whining. A ray of hope flashed across her
mind. She drew a heavy blanket from the bed, and, wrapping it about
the babe, waded in the deepening waters to the door. As the tree swung
again, broadside on, making the little cabin creak and tremble, she
leaped on to its trunk. By God's mercy she succeeded in obtaining a
footing on its slippery surface, and, twining an arm about its roots,
she held in the other her moaning child. Then something cracked near the
front porch, and the whole front of the house she had just quitted fell
forward--just as cattle fall on their knees before they lie down--and at
the same moment the great redwood tree swung round and drifted away with
its living cargo into the black night.

For all the excitement and danger, for all her soothing of her crying
babe, for all the whistling of the wind, for all the uncertainty of
her situation, she still turned to look at the deserted and water-swept
cabin. She remembered even then, and she wonders how foolish she was to
think of it at that time, that she wished she had put on another dress
and the baby's best clothes; and she kept praying that the house would
be spared so that he, when he returned, would have something to come to,
and it wouldn't be quite so desolate, and--how could he ever know what
had become of her and baby? And at the thought she grew sick and faint.
But she had something else to do besides worrying, for whenever the
long roots of her ark struck an obstacle, the whole trunk made half a
revolution, and twice dipped her in the black water. The hound, who kept
distracting her by running up and down the tree and howling, at last
fell off at one of these collisions. He swam for some time beside her,
and she tried to get the poor beast up on the tree, but he "acted silly"
and wild, and at last she lost sight of him forever. Then she and her
baby were left alone. The light which had burned for a few minutes
in the deserted cabin was quenched suddenly. She could not then
tell whither she was drifting. The outline of the white dunes on the
peninsula showed dimly ahead, and she judged the tree was moving in a
line with the river. It must be about slack water, and she had
probably reached the eddy formed by the confluence of the tide and the
overflowing waters of the river. Unless the tide fell soon, there was
present danger of her drifting to its channel, and being carried out to
sea or crushed in the floating drift. That peril averted, if she were
carried out on the ebb toward the bay, she might hope to strike one
of the wooded promontories of the peninsula, and rest till daylight.
Sometimes she thought she heard voices and shouts from the river, and
the bellowing of cattle and bleating of sheep. Then again it was only
the ringing in her ears and throbbing of her heart. She found at about
this time that she was so chilled and stiffened in her cramped position
that she could scarcely move, and the baby cried so when she put it to
her breast that she noticed the milk refused to flow; and she was so
frightened at that, that she put her head under her shawl, and for the
first time cried bitterly.

When she raised her head again, the boom of the surf was behind her, and
she knew that her ark had again swung round. She dipped up the water to
cool her parched throat, and found that it was salt as her tears. There
was a relief, though, for by this sign she knew that she was drifting
with the tide. It was then the wind went down, and the great and awful
silence oppressed her. There was scarcely a ripple against the furrowed
sides of the great trunk on which she rested, and around her all was
black gloom and quiet. She spoke to the baby just to hear herself speak,
and to know that she had not lost her voice. She thought then--it was
queer, but she could not help thinking it--how awful must have been the
night when the great ship swung over the Asiatic peak, and the sounds of
creation were blotted out from the world. She thought, too, of mariners
clinging to spars, and of poor women who were lashed to rafts, and
beaten to death by the cruel sea. She tried to thank God that she was
thus spared, and lifted her eyes from the baby, who had fallen into a
fretful sleep. Suddenly, away to the southward, a great light lifted
itself out of the gloom, and flashed and flickered, and flickered and
flashed again. Her heart fluttered quickly against the baby's cold
cheek. It was the lighthouse at the entrance of the bay. As she was yet
wondering, the tree suddenly rolled a little, dragged a little, and
then seemed to lie quiet and still. She put out her hand and the current
gurgled against it. The tree was aground, and, by the position of the
light and the noise of the surf, aground upon the Dedlow Marsh.

Had it not been for her baby, who was ailing and croupy, had it not been
for the sudden drying up of that sensitive fountain, she would have
felt safe and relieved. Perhaps it was this which tended to make all her
impressions mournful and gloomy. As the tide rapidly fell, a great flock
of black brent fluttered by her, screaming and crying. Then the plover
flew up and piped mournfully as they wheeled around the trunk, and at
last fearlessly lit upon it like a gray cloud. Then the heron flew over
and around her, shrieking and protesting, and at last dropped its gaunt
legs only a few yards from her. But, strangest of all, a pretty white
bird, larger than a dove--like a pelican, but not a pelican--circled
around and around her. At last it lit upon a rootlet of the tree, quite
over her shoulder. She put out her hand and stroked its beautiful white
neck, and it never appeared to move. It stayed there so long that she
thought she would lift up the baby to see it, and try to attract her
attention. But when she did so, the child was so chilled and cold, and
had such a blue look under the little lashes which it didn't raise at
all, that she screamed aloud, and the bird flew away, and she fainted.

Well, that was the worst of it, and perhaps it was not so much, after
all, to any but herself. For when she recovered her senses it was bright
sunlight, and dead low water. There was a confused noise of guttural
voices about her, and an old squaw, singing an Indian "hushaby," and
rocking herself from side to side before a fire built on the marsh,
before which she, the recovered wife and mother, lay weak and weary. Her
first thought was for her baby, and she was about to speak, when a young
squaw, who must have been a mother herself, fathomed her thought and
brought her the "mowitch," pale but living, in such a queer little
willow cradle all bound up, just like the squaw's own young one, that
she laughed and cried together, and the young squaw and the old squaw
showed their big white teeth and glinted their black eyes and said,
"Plenty get well, skeena mowitch," "wagee man come plenty soon," and she
could have kissed their brown faces in her joy. And then she found that
they had been gathering berries on the marsh in their queer, comical
baskets, and saw the skirt of her gown fluttering on the tree from afar,
and the old squaw couldn't resist the temptation of procuring a new
garment, and came down and discovered the "wagee" woman and child. And
of course she gave the garment to the old squaw, as you may imagine, and
when HE came at last and rushed up to her, looking about ten years older
in his anxiety, she felt so faint again that they had to carry her to
the canoe. For, you see, he knew nothing about the flood until he met
the Indians at Utopia, and knew by the signs that the poor woman was
his wife. And at the next high tide he towed the tree away back home,
although it wasn't worth the trouble, and built another house, using the
old tree for the foundation and props, and called it after her, "Mary's
Ark!" But you may guess the next house was built above high-water mark.
And that's all.

Not much, perhaps, considering the malevolent capacity of the Dedlow
Marsh. But you must tramp over it at low water, or paddle over it at
high tide, or get lost upon it once or twice in the fog, as I have,
to understand properly Mary's adventure, or to appreciate duly the
blessings of living beyond High-Water Mark.

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