THE snow blew in gusts across the village street; and in the pauses of the wind one could hear the sea beating against the worm-eaten old piers. The inhabitants of Posett came to the windows and looked out into the darkness, and knowingly observed that it would be "worse afore it was done with." So they drew the curtains and shut in the cheerful radiance of their own warm firesides.
One cheerful square of light, however, came from the windows of the village store. A little senate of villagers was assembled within, as usual. The storm might have kept some of them at home had they been other than sturdy Posett people used to the dangers of storm and darkness on the terrible sea. To gather at the store and listen to and discuss the news was their one mental relaxation; and they valued it accordingly. In summer these veterans of many a cruise assembled on the long piazza; in winter the genial warmth of a round stove enticed them to the back part of the store, where the typical three-legged stools and empty packing-boxes, with one or two dilapidated easy-chairs, provided accommodations which were comfortable if not luxurious.
Toward this square of light, on the evening in question, a child's figure was struggling manfully through the blinding snow. The child was not any too warmly dressed to battle alone against such heavy odds: an old fur cap and a bright red scarf, over a short round-jacket; hands without mittens, that he kept in his pockets as well as he could. The boy made slow progress, being beaten back by sudden gusts of wind and snow; slowly gaining after each rebuff of this sort, he at last reached the store. His hands were by this time so benumbed that he could not turn the doorknob; so he stood outside and looked through the glass into the warm room, rapping once or twice to draw the attention of its inmates. No one paid the slightest attention to his signals: perhaps they were not heard, for he was a little fellow, a mere baby to be out at such a time. Besides, everybody in the store was looking the other way, apparently listening to Captain Peregrine Batt, who, to judge from his gestures, was narrating a story of breathless interest Nahum Metcalf, the storekeeper, had forgotten his only customer in the interest of the recital, and leaned over the counter as far as his long, thin form would allow; and the customer himself, resting against a barrel, forgot about Indian meal and sugar, and looked at the speaker. Presently, Captain Peregrine ended, and the customer was duly served; and then it was that this same customer, opening the outer door, stumbled over the waiting child.
"Hi! Hurt ye?" he queried, surprised at the suddenness of the encounter.
The youngster was dazed with cold and weariness, and made no reply. He took advantage of the open door to enter and, chafing and blowing upon his red hands, walked up to the counter. But Mr. Nahum Metcalf had deserted his post to join the group around the stove.
"Thet wuz a sly trick on the ole man."
"Yaas," continued Captain Batt slowly. "He never knew nuthin' about it till few days arter. An' then - 'Why, confound the feller, he's gumm'd me out o' my money ter no puppos,' was all ole Jake said."
"Suthin' wuss'n 'confound,' I'll go bail," drily observed Captain Jonas Batt. It was a deculiarity of Posett people that they were all more or less nearly related.
"Yaas, mebbe. Still, 'z long 'z I'm a perfesser, I kinder feel sorter del'kit - "
"Jake 's a reg'lar pirick, but thet blamed pedlar did rake him daown well," admitted Metcalf complacently. "I declar' to 't, I wish the Widder Hannam could ekil it. Some folks thinks their own flesh 'n blood ain't no better 'n" - (casting about for an original comparison) - "better 'n - dirt."
A man dressed in a long ulster, who looked as if he had travelled a good way through the cold, started a little at the last name, and turned observantly to the speaker.
"Yaas," began Captain Peregrine again, with his inevitable introductory monosyllable, "I s'pose the Widder Hannam 'z havin' a pooty hard time on 't. An' there's Jake, her own husban's brother, one o' the richest men in taown. I vum 't is a shame!"
"Bless me!" cried the stranger, so suddenly that every one turned in his direction. "Is the woman as poor as all that?"
This diversion distracted Nahum Metcalf's attention from his own meditations to such a degree that he caught sight of the waiting child.
"Hullo, Bub?" he said interrogatively.