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RUTH loved the ocean. She loved it when it was ruffled by bland spring breezes; when it dimpled beneath fervid summer suns; when it calmly reflected the pale autumnal moon light; she loved it when winter winds shrieked, and there was no world save this Island of Nantucket shut in by a tempestuous watery motion which borrowed its hue from leaden skies and lashed itself to the fury of white surf. She could not tell in what mood she loved it best, for her happy heart made all environment beautiful. On this smooth beach she and her brother Nathaniel had played with waveworn pebbles and delicately tinted shells; here she had kissed him good-by when he took boat for the ship which should carry him to China; here she had loitered time after time in the radiance of the sun's setting to look across the leagues of water and wish him home again; and here she was walking through the cloudy chill of a waning November day when she heard her father's voice:
"Little maid 1 little maid I"
His own most tender name for her! She turned and ran toward him, her fair curls flying from the hood of her scarlet cloak, her fair face dimpling in its curl halo like some rare sea-anemone. The keen eyes under Nathaniel Starbuck's cocked hat softened as she sped along the beach, for dearly did be love this only
remaining one of his daughters. Six graves in the island burial-place marked where the others lay—six little graves, for all had been chilled to early death by the sea winds on which this most fragile bud had bloomed to maidenhood. The softening in his eyes grew to an embracing fatherliness when she caught his arm, for Ruth had no fear of the stern magistrate before whom culprits trembled, and whom even her brother Nathaniel invariably addressed as "Sir." Now he smiled down at her, and lapsed into the Quaker speech which he never used save with his own.
"Thou lookedst like a gull winging alongshore, little maid."
At which she laughed aloud, shaking back her curls.
"A red sea-gull, father I Who ever heard tell of a red gull? But what have you in your hand? A letter, and in Nathaniel's writing 1 Oh, father, comes he home soon? And for how long?"
"What a maid I Can I answer two questions at once? But, yea—I have broke the seal, and read enough to know that he keeps Thanksgiving feast with us—God willing."
"Nathaniel home at Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving almost here I" she cried. "Hasten then, father, for I cannot wait to tell mother the good news—neither can I leave you behind. So hasten 1"
At the kitchen window of a well-built house overlooking the ocean, Miss Esther Starbuck glanced from her spinning-wheel to see the scarlet-cloaked figure and the figure in dark small-clothes coming hand in hand.
"Nathaniel will spoil that child. I wonder, Content, that thee allows her to be so indulged. Look, pray, and see the two running like little ones at frolic 1"
Dame Content swung into place on the crane over the open fire an iron pot of succotash which she had been stirring, and joined her sister-in-law at the window. Her calm face lighted more sweetly as she looked.
"They keep together excellently well."
"Keep together excellently well," mimicked Miss Esther. "Surely, Content, thy daughter Ruth is too old for such sport. At eighteen she should be of a woman's ways. As for Nathaniel, methinks he is over given to undignified demeanor for one whose father was a Friend."
Miss Esther's fault-finding was interrupted by the opening of the outer door, which let in father and daughter—he panting, she with cheeks wild-rose red.
"The little maid drew me into it," he replied to his wife's questioning eyes.
"'Tis ever the woman who leads the man astray," sniffed Miss Esther.
"And thou hast escaped great evil in not having man to lead astray, eh, Esther?" Then, as his sister's pale face flushed, and she put her hand to her throat with pained motion, he said very gently: "We Starbucks are of hasty speech despite our Quaker blood. Forgive me, Esther I I jorgot thy sailor who sleeps somewhere out at sea. As for our haste—we have good news. The little maid and I would tell it apace."
He held up the folded sheet with its broken seal of red wax, and his wife came toward him as drawn by a magnet.
"From our Nathaniel 1"
Ruth added joyfully:
"And just think, mother, he keeps Thanksgiving feast with us!"
"God willing," said her father, reverently. "But we will read the letter. Fetch my eyes, little maid."
She brought his horn-rimmed spectacles and leaned upon his shoulder as he sat in his favorite chair beside the hearth.
Dame Content hovered near, like one who scarce could wait for tidings which her mother heart was spelling ere she listened; Miss Esther spun on beside the window that gave a view of the gray ocean.
"Most honored parents," wrote young Nathaniel, "my ship made port yesterday, and I shall be with you at Thanksgiving if no ill befalls. By the vessel which carries this I send to you a box of tea, also a coral necklace for Ruth. The trinket was got by Captain Morris, under whom I voyaged, and at whose home here in Boston city I am stopping. When I come, I bring the Captain with me. He says he fain would see a certain little girl of Nantucket with his necklace on. I am, most honored sir and madam, your ever affectionate and dutiful son."
"Dear boy!" murmured Dame Content. "I would I knew what day he comes. Then I could have fresh popovers awaiting him. When he was no higher than my knee he would beg for popovers."
Ruth pulled a stool to the fire and threw off her scarlet cloak.
"A coral necklace! How fine 1" She leaned elbow on chimney-jamb and chin in palm. "I wonder," she added irrelevantly, "I wonder is the Captain young."
Her father looked around, and something in the dreaminess of her face smote him to pain. Then he met her mother's eyes regarding him with such unalloyed happiness that the half-thought died before its birth. But Miss Esther could not let Ruth's girlish wondering pass unchidden.
"If this Captain be young or no, 'tis not thee he comes visiting, silly one 1 Thou hast only to drop him a curtsy and sit silent, as maiden should. See thy cloak I It hath fallen on the floor. 'Twere well if thee had less thought for trinkets and more for caring after thy garments." Then she looked out of the window, adding in milder tone: "Here is Cesar and a box. Thy necklace, no doubt."
Ruth was at the door before Cesar, the slave boy, could open it. Her flower face sparkled such radiant expectation that his white teeth showed sympathetically in his ebon countenance. He stood by, staring and grinning, as the box was opened. Ruth clasped the necklace about her throat, and turned to her father for approval, which was readily given. Dame Content and Miss Esther were talking over the tea.
"I know not just how it should be prepared," said the dame, with the anxiety of a good cook. ""Tis a new dish to us here on Nantucket."
"Is it to be drunk, or eaten with a spoon?" asked Miss Esther. "Methinks our cousin Olivia Starbuck was telling but a while s nee of having drunk some in Boston city. She said it was served with cream and sugar, or with the one, or neither, as persons fancied. Yet it may be she eat it boiled tender."
"Before Nathaniel's letter was finished reading I had planned a party of our cousins to welcome him at Thanksgiving feast, and thought to give each one a dish of tea. But if 'tis to be eaten, and doth not swell greatly, this small boxful will scarce make the twenty of us a taste apiece," said Dame Content. "In sooth, though, 'tis the first tea known on Nantucket," she added, with pardonable pride. "Cesar, did the captain of the vessel that fetched this say nothing about it?"
Cesar ducked, with widening ivories.
"Yes, missus. He say, ' Here's a box ob tea fo' de Justice' folks,' he say. 'An' tell 'em not use it too free, 'kase it a shillin' a leaf.'"
"A shilling a leaf 1" the two women echoed with such dismayed faces that Nathaniel Starbuck smiled and said the Captain spoke in jest, though, truth to tell, this Chinese herb was extravagantly dear. Ruth laughingly popped one of the precious leaves between her rosy lips, then made a wry mouth.
"'Tis sore puckery. I think Nathaniel might have sent something more palatable."
Her mother shook a reproving head.
"Nathaniel knew we should value it for its great rarity, my daughter. Think, Cesar—did Captain Nahut say nothing more about the tea?"
Cesar ducked and grinned again.
"Yes, missus; he say, when I ax him what it fo', he say, 'It ain't fo' de likes ob niggers to drink, yo' brack limb ob Satan 1 Go 'long wid yo' tongue an' de box ob tea,' he say."
Even Miss Esther smiled as Cesar shuffled out.
"It seems 'tis to be drunken, then, Content," she said.
Such scrubbing of oaken floors, such polishing of pewter and silverware, such brewing and baking as reigned in the Starbuck mansion during those days preceding Thanksgiving! Nathaniel Starbuck declared that his women folk were no respecters of persons through festival preparations, for even the island magistrate was pressed into service when the others were busy elsewhere. Dinah and Chloe snickered at Cesar, who rolled eyes prodigiously over seeing "master," with apron tied about his neck and choppingknife in hand, beating lively rhythm in the bowl of niince-meat, all three getting their ears cuffed by their parents, Daniel and Sukey, who had grown up in the Starbuck family, and who, calling them "onregenerate chillens fo' mekin' master 'dickerlous," set them at onion-peeling until they shed tears of repentance. Dame Content measured and weighed and tasted, Miss Esther beat and mixed and rolled, until the pantry shelves were loaded with such delicious eatables as only old-fashioned housewives could compound; Ruth flitted about like a bird, now brightening a silver tankard, again wiping a bit of rare china, and singing—ever singing some quaint English ditty which begot new graciousness from her linnet voice.
On the eve before Thanksgiving everything was ready for the morrow's feast and guests. The floor of the large state parlor was newly waxed, the furniture repolished, samplers worked by Dame Content herself had been pinned on either side of the high carved mantel above the tiled fireplace, and now the sacred apartment was closed against the festival. The servants were story-telling in the back kitchen, and in the front kitchen sat the family—with the light of the open fire dancing over the whitely scoured floor, throwing sparkles among the dishes in the dresser, and showing festoons of red peppers, sliced apples, and pumpkins hung to dry from the rafters. The spinning-wheel stood by the wall as on the Sabbath Day, but Dame Content and Miss Esther knitted long stockings like those Nathaniel Starbuck wore with knee-breeches and buckled shoes, the bright needles flashing through their fingers, as the fire-glow struck the steel. All had looked for young Nathaniel during the day, and now, with that weariness which follows unrealized anticipation,