One night, on a perilously dark eve, a storm rolled down the New England coast, strewing every which way the steamers with which it became acquainted. It growled and shrieked at them, and it pummeled those that had the courage to continue onward or homeward, thinking to capsize them so they would not show themselves stronger than it. The time was wroth November, with an early winter, so snow fell from the thick, thick clouds—nay, it hardly fell, but the wind hurled it here and there with strength to make it sting one's poor face—and the high waves built those ice dunes along the beaches, moving the coastlines so as to catch the steamers unawares, or trap them when they were forced from their courses.
This despicable storm favored fair little Larch Island with an early Christmas present, which was the Independence—an ironic name, indeed, for the steamer was blown in quite a tyrannical manner until she collided with the great ice dunes of the Island. She broke some of that ice, but though the battle she won, the war she lost, when the stalwart ice sliced the steel of her hull, causing banshee-like screeches that brought echos from the women and children on board. The Independence swooned against the hills of ice, and the gap in her hull caught on a peak so that she was precariously hung in the water, until her weight might snap the hill's summit from its base, in which situation her demise would be imminent, her “watery grave” awaiting her.
Before her lights were knocked and blown away, a woman in the Larch Island village of Harton had seen them from a window in her stairway. She had called her husband to look and asked him if it could be a grounded ship; he concurred, donning an overcoat, fetching his lantern, and bidding his wife ready blankets and hot drinks for those whom he and the other village men could help from the ship. Then, he went to call the other men from their sitting rooms and newspapers, and some thirty men then made their way through the foot of snow on the beach, climbing around and over the ice dunes, and propping ladders, bound end to end for greater length, against the ship’s railing.
Evidently, some passengers had lost their heads and thought to jump overboard and swim to the dunes, or perhaps they had not lost their heads, but had been thrown over by those who had. It does not matter who lost their heads. Several of the Harton men left their overcoats on the beach and went into the sea, upon hearing screams more shrill than the wind. They could see, for their fellows now on the ship hung lit lanterns over the side, and each man in the water took hold of a limp, blue-white wrist or a soaked collar and towed his frigid catch back to the beach.
Mr. Alexander Ernest, though he was but two years from sixty, joined the younger men in hauling the leapers-overboard from the water. He was no decrepit nearly-octogenarian; he could swim as well as his nephew of thirty, and he was less excitable at such a dire time as the wreck. Onward went he, until he saw a head and two puffed sleeves bobbing before him, and then he took hold of one sleeve, his grasp as hard as could be, for the cold water made his fingers rather weak. He made his way back to the beach less than half as quickly as he embarked on his endeavor, two other villagers leaned off a dune to catch the unconscious woman he brought, and finally, when yet another man supported her, the first two helped Alexander from the ocean.
They told him he ought to go home, because he was too old to strain himself so—what young fools they are, thought their indignant elder. However, a village woman, who came to watch over the passengers on the beach, mollified him by mentioning that the lady whom he rescued was rather old (she was a young woman, who spoke) and she was so very cold, so it just might be wise for Mr. Ernest to take her home, as the younger women would want women companions and they must be kept free for them, and make her as warm as he can.
He sighed, but he was sensible: the action of a rescue is exciting, but the rescued must be cared for, so he shivered, picked up his coat from the ice dune on which he abandoned it and clumsily tucked himself into it before he went to collect his guest. She had not revived, and she was almost death-cold, giving him cause to regretfully unbutton his warm coat, take it from his wet shoulders, and use it as a blanket for her, instead, thanking goodness that it was a long coat and she was small. Her weight was as little as her height, for which also he was thankful when he began his journey through the snow and up the beach, and then along a quarter mile of unshoveled meadow path and Harton street.
After fetching his sister to give the lady a dry dress, he quartered the latter in the spare bedroom upstairs, and, once he had changed into dry garments, he could wonder who she might be. As he brewed tea and put together a little pot of soup, he thought he remembered something familiar about her; was it her features, or was it her little stature? Well, well, as soon as this dinner was made, he would be able to see.
Were there any biscuits left from yesterday? Indeed, and as they had not yet dried out, he set several on a plate, which was to share a wooden tray with bowls of the soup and cups of the tea—oh, and fruitcake would be pleasant, would it not? And the cranberry relish, in the stout white crock, would make the meal complete and fine enough for even a first-class passenger—oh, and there ought to be butter for the biscuits, and he supposed cherry preserves would not be amiss. He did hope his guest was hungry!
The guest awakened when Mr. Ernest set down his heavy tray, for the dishes rattled. She must wonder where she was... the last she knew was that she had been shoved from the ship by a well-meaning crewman, but she was in no icy sea at present. She felt soft cotton and wool under her hands, and she was warm, and there were no waves about her, and she smelled not the sea but warm cream, butter, potatoes, fish, and onions. If not for the ache in her head and her hunger, she would think she had left “this Earth,” her surroundings were so lovely.
“Would you like dinner, Madam?” asked the man who brought in the tray.
She looked at him, and he interpreted her wide eyes and parted lips as signs of fright and confusion, so he said, “You were on the Independence, which was wrecked; you somehow ended up in the Atlantic, from which some of the villagers and I assisted you, and, as you were cold and wet, one of the women from the village suggested that I take you home, which I did—of course.”
Why ever was she so flushed? He put his hand to her forehead, wondering if she took cold and fever because of her bath in the ocean. No fever had she, however.
“Please,” she said, with something nearly rapture manifest in her eyes, “I am no Madam, merely Miss.”
“Very well, Miss—and do you care to eat?” again inquired Mr. Ernest, who gave her a bowl of soup when her response was affirmative, and then racked his brains, still wondering why she was so familiar. Oh! Could she—she could not—might not she—of course not!—but thirty-four years could change faces somewhat—could she—? Were her hair gold, instead of silvery white... had she no pretty crows' feet at her lovely eyes...were her skin still youthfully full.... Were she still a girl, she might have looked like Letitia Murray.
“Your wife is an adept cook,” remarked the lady.
He replied that he had no wife and asked if he might be so bold as to take her praise for himself, which she permitted, with a smile that was dearly similar to Letitia's.
She took a biscuit: “May I have some butter, Mr. Ernest?”
Mr. Ernest barely kept hold of the butter dish, so astonished was he! He certainly had not told her his name.
“Letitia!” he exclaimed as he returned the butter dish to the tray. He saw Miss Murray's air about her now, as she lowered her head and gaze, smiled, and laughed, as if she was still a girl of twenty.
Head downward tilted still, Letitia began, “Alexander, may I ask—”
Here, she was (not so very rudely) cut off, for Alexander embraced her, as closely as he held her when he brought her from the wrecked Independence—as closely as he held her those thirty-two years ago. Aye, her question was answered; he had remembered and held her dear for so many years, as she had him.