William Henry Winslow.

The sea letter : a mystery of Martha's Vineyard online

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The Sea Letter

Digitized by the Internet Arciiive

in 2010 with funding from

Boston Public Library



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ne f

ea Letter

A Mystery of Martha's Vineyard J

Author of
-Cruising and Blockading. Etc.


Libera Terra Dherque Animus "




f A

Copyright 1901,
by William Henry Winslow

^Ifmpton iPres0

«c «' flC^RWQOe, MA§S., 0.*.A,


I One of the Cape Cod Folks, who came, ^x
t Hke Maushope's great eagle, to Martha's (£
^ Vineyard, studied its tides, charted its f^
shallows, gathered its literature, and ,^
encouragred and aided in this product
5 of winter evenings, I gratefully dedicate
my book.
^ The Author.

Vineyard Haven) Mass.,
June 15th, 1901.

(jfi *' A perfect judge will read each zuork of wit ^Z*
^ With the same spirit that its author writ^ %

The Sea Letter


An olive-green island lay panting beneath a
fervid summer sun amid swirling currents and vio-
lent tides of dark blue sea. Great parti-colored
clay bluffs and a light-house faced the west, and a
low sandy point and a light-house marked the
eastern extremity. A line of shining surf along
the South shore, broken only where a brown
boulder reared its washed face above, or a vagrant
stream flowed out to sea, showed over the sand
dunes and green meadows like a fringe of silver.
Great hills along the North shore, covered by grass
and boulders, or by forests of pine, oak and locust,
protected the adjacent valleys and the interior
plain from wintry gales. Wild grape-vines, haw-
thorn, and berry-bushes grew in ravines and upon
hillsides. Pastures and cultivated fields lay be-
tween woodlands ; and riotous gardens hugged the
farm-houses that were scattered rather sparingly
over the country.

A gentle southerly breeze, that had borrowed
moisture from the Gulf Stream not far away,


patted the cheek as if with feathers, and barely
Hfted the leaves of elm and poplar trees around the
oldest house upon the island, which stood facing a
little harbor between the hills. No one could
doubt its age, who noticed the one story walls ; the
great unbroken roof ; the massive, eight-foot square
chimney ; the high-silled windows of twenty-four
lights, and the old portico at the front door, covered
only by canvas that was spread out or gathered
back against the eaves, as occasion demanded.

The skeptic could examine the yellow clay
and straw mortar of the brick work ; the hard-burnt
English bricks, stamped 1642 ; the long ovens
beside the fire-places; the queer wrought-iron
hinges and latches, and the peculiarly paneled

Documentary proof was available in the Reg-
ister's office at the County town, where the records
ran back over two hundred and fifty years, when
entries were found defective and a legal chain was
no longer possible.

The Olivers had lived in the house through
three generations. The last survivor declared the
timbers of the frame had been cut and hewed upon
the spot, and pointed to marks of the axe and
some bark upon the beams, projecting in the ceil-
ing and the corners of the lower rooms. Indeed,
the window and door sills were worn hollow, and
one's feet rose and fell in walking the floors as
upon a ship's deck at sea.


Captain George Oliver, a retired officer of
the whaling fleet, and of the Volunteer U. S.
Navy, hale and hearty at sixty years of age, lived
in the old mansion with his wife Alice and
daughter Lucy.

A married daughter in Boston, and a son
who was mate on the Savannah Line, made
occasional visits there during the year.

The old Captain was seated upon the front
porch among the honeysuckles and clematis that
covered its latticed sides, smoking his pipe, and
looking with a long spy-glass at a white steamboat,
which was moving rapidly among the anchored
craft towards the wharf, where all passengers and
baggage were landed and distributed around the
island by carriage and car.

It was evident this particular morning that he
expected something of importance, as he watched
the decks and wharf more intently than he usually
did when he had nothing to do but to smoke and
doze and spy out passing vessels.

The captain was not indolent. Though he
had given up going to sea, he clung to the shore,
sailed his cat-boat to the fishing grounds ; went
clamming, lobstering an-d hunting ; cut the lawn
grass ; cultivated the garden, and swapped yarns
with nautical hulks like himself, out of commission.
He received a retired lieutenant's pay monthly
from Washington ; had a few bonds in a safe-de-
posit box on the main land, and found an occasional


check in his son's letters. The world revolved
easily now, and the captain had begun to play
before life had lost its attractions and he had be-
come decrepit.

** What are you looking at, papa } Is there
an excursion upon the boat this morning, that you
gaze at her so long } " asked Lucy, as she stepped
out upon the platform and smiled at her parent's
grotesque appearance, with one eye screwed shut
and the other glued to the spy-glass.

" Where are your ears and your wits, lassie 1 "
said the captain. *' Didn't you hear me tell your
mother about Mr. Delano and his tally-ho coming
from New York this week 1 I've been watching
every boat, and naught have I seen but buggies
and traps and bakers' wagons. The deck-hands
have tumbled out the luggage and are now lead-
ing out some horses. There's a great yellow thing
behind the bulwarks. Do you know the color of a
tally-ho, a kind of old fashioned coach with a new
f angled name } "

" No ; how could I know 1 We never went to
the Horse Show. I suppose they are like other
coaches. If you'd take us to New York, we might
learn something about turnouts and style. "

'* Yes, hats and wraps and opera cloaks and —
it is a coach — and they are now hitching up the
horses ! Run and tell your mother to air the
front room ; Mr. Delano has arrived. No such rig
as that ever landed on this island before, and it


must be his ! " and the captain lowered the glass
and wiped his eyes.

'' Let me look first, papa," said Lucy, shaking
her head backwards to clear away the stray locks
of yellow brown hair that had been blown over her
perfect features. " Oh ! I see the four horses,
and men climbing upon the coach. They have
started, and so has the steamboat — hear her

Lucy laid the glass upon the seat and rushed
away to tell her mother, and the captain went and
polished his shoes, and put on his Sunday suit
which was rather warm for the season.

The captain's house was in the suburbs of the
little village of E — , which covered the hills along
the shore of the harbor as far as the light-house
and bluffs. This shore had long borne the name of
Barbary Coast because of its bleak winds and
heavy seas in Winter. Cosy cottages, picturesque
villas, and spacious hotels with lawns, gardens, play-
grounds, parks and a band-stand, gave quite a
metropolitan appearance to the resort, and it had
its full share of summer sojourners.

Across the harbor opposite, one could see the
houses of the Haven nestling in the trees ; Man-
ter's Hill, where three patriotic girls blew up a flag-
pole in 'y6 to prevent its seizure by the English
for a topmast ; Neptune Heights, with its vestige
of an Indian stockade, and, great bluff sseaward,


surmounted by brown villas and a light-house with
a background of dark forest.

The salt meadows up the harbor were deli-
cate shades of green which soothed tired eyes, but
the glory of the island was the sea. One caught
glimpses of its sparkle and its white-caps all
around, and the pleasure craft in the harbor and
the stately vessels sailing by, presented a delight-
ful panorama.

The principal hotel of E — was two squares
away from the ancient home of the doughty captain,
and he hastened to greet his friend Delano, whom
he had not seen since the previous summer. The
hotel faced the harbor and was surrounded by
broad piazzas and trees. There was the usual hum
of voices about the hotel ; a few gentlemen were
sitting around the main entrance smoking, and
reading their morning mail and newspapers ; a
youth in knickerbockers was showing a dip-net to
a lady and telling of the millions of little fishes at
the bridge ; a man in rough clothes and rubber
boots had a basket of fish-lines and a pail of live
minnows, and his companion carried a pair of oars
and a lunch-basket ; several ladies occupied rock-
ing-chairs near the parlor windows, knitting or
making art embroidery ; boys and girls, with rack-
ets in hand, chattered and flirted on the way to
the tennis-court ; servants shuffled up and down
the steps and stairs ; drivers of buck-board, surrey
and phaeton lolled upon the seats and whisked


away the flies from the horses ; market wagons
called or drove past, and bicyclists sped by like
the wind, or pushed their wheels to a rest by the
steps. In fact, everything went on in and around
this hotel, just as it does at most caravansaries
upon the sea-coast, and the guests were little diff-
erent from those one meets at such summer places
all the way from Campo Bello to Virginia Beach.

The hotel was hardly awake yet : the poplar
trees along the front had not felt enough breeze to
shake off the dust that had gathered during the
previous evening ; the blooded pet dogs and
village curs were stretched out in the sunny spots ;
the vessels' sails hung idly up and down, and the
bathing-time was still an hour away. Suddenly,
there arose upon the breeze a long, musical blast,
with wind and trill and sweet cadence. The dogs
raised their drooping ears ; the hotel life roused as
from sleep ; people looked and questioned, and
Miss Gabrielle Palmer cried, " Did you hear that,
mother ? They are coming — I know the sound of
the horn, " as she arose from her chair and gazed
down the road.

"Who is coming, my dear?" asked the lady
calmly, shifting her chair a little, while others did
likewise and looked inquiringly from the road to
the fair young girl, whose blue eyes sparkled, and
tender cheeks flushed with excitement over antici-
pation of an important arrival.



"Mr. Delano.?"

" Yes ; he left Newport yesterday, and wrote
me he would try and catch the first boat over and
get his friends here before dinner. "

Sweet and clear rose and fell the winding of
the horn ; the drivers turned around to look, the
loungers and business men twisted their chairs or
stood up, the tennis party stopped the play, and the
clerks and servants gathered at the doors and win-
dows ; all listening eagerly and looking down the
road. Nothing was to be seen except a cloud of
dust, for it had been sunny and dry, and the road
along the border of the harbor was not well ma-

" How is he coming, Gabrielle .? " asked her

" In the tally-ho, of course."

" And who is with him pray } "

" A lot of jolly bachelors — just what we need
to save the season from being an ignominious

" Why, Gabrielle ! Don't talk that way ! "

" I must. Mamma. You know it is true.
There's not an eligible in the place except the
Marine Surgeon, and he is wedded to his profess-
ion, and needs too much encouragement ."

" Sh ! my child. Who makes up the party .? "

" Some odd sticks Tom has picked up. You
know he's great on improving himself. He says,


*I only got a smattering of knowledge at the Uni-
versity, and, when I go away on vacation, I take
along some bookish men and keep them bright,
asking them questions.' "

" An excellent plan, I am sure. Do you know
the names .-^ "

" Well, if Tom has not changed his list, it
includes Prof. Thompson, who knows all the ani-
mals from an amoeba to a megatherium ; Prof.
McFarlane, who names all the plants ; Mr. Atkins,
a legal light with a penchant for astronomy ; Mr.
Sanders, a commercial traveller, practical and gen-
erally hungry ; Mr. Young, a sort of socialist, in
the iron business ; Mr. Wilson, an electrical char-
acter, and others, who know enough to laugh at
his jokes and wag their heads in unison. "

" Quite a distinguished party, I should say. "
*' Yes ; all striving for wealth and honor, I
suppose. A farmer showed me some potato-bugs
in water yesterday. They formed a squirming
ball : those beneath climbed to the top out of
water only to be rolled under again and again,
until only a few remained at last upon the mass of
their drowned companions. Wasn't that a fine
example of men's struggles in knowledge and foot-
ball .? "

'' What a strange creature you are, Gabrielle."
The ladies sitting around listened wonder-
ingly and nodded.


The music of the horn floated upon the
southerly breeze that was cooled by lake and sea,
and the people caught a glimpse of four prancing
horses and a coach covered outside by young men.
The chestnut pole-horses were broad and strong,
and had the proud necks and steady movements of
English thoroughbreds. The Kentucky leaders
were slender, agile, and pla3^ful, and tossed their
manes and heads and stepped gingerly, as if afraid
of breaking through the asphalt upon which they
were now trotting. The harnesses were mounted
in jet and gold, and glittered in the sunlight as the
horses changed position. The coach, in old gold
and red colors, seemed to roll along after the horses
instead of being pulled by them. The riders
turned and twisted to look at the landscape and
the people ; the driver held the reins firmly and
swung the whip gracefully ; the colored servant in
livery on a rear corner of the coach pointed his
horn in different directions and blew sweet, sharp
tones to the neighborhood; and, amid flying
bicycles, barking dogs, rushing children, and the
bustle and excitement of servants and guests upon
the ground and piazza, the team drew up at the
entrance of the hotel, stable-boys grasped the
leaders by the bridles, the riders climbed down and
entered the hotel office, and the outfit was taken
to the stables in the rear.

Then the gentlemen resumed their conversa-
tion and newspapers ; the ladies re-arranged their


rocking-chairs and fancy work; some of the girls
went in and looked over the register and brought
the names of the new arrivals out to their
elders; the willows and poplars waved their dusty
leaves lazily as before, and the sleepy dogs
stretched out and took another nap.

An hour later, men and women, girls and
boys, in couples and groups, were seen going to
the shore; some fully dressed, some in negligee,
and some in complete bathing-suits ready for a
dip, as it was but a short walk to the bathing-
beach. There was true democracy, a mixture of
the vulgar and the refined upon the sea level.
People did not care to insist upon social prestige,
where class distinction was obliterated by a
common dress, and one could not recognize any
difference between plebeian and patrician forms.
There was a hilarity, an abandon and a bonhomie
quite characteristic of Americans on pleasure bent.

The sandy, pebbly beach stretched away with
a gentle curve of foam to a point which jutted
seaward. Rows of bath-houses stood along the
bank, backed by sedgy grass and sand-hills;
little landings, with steps for tender feet, led to
deep water; and lobster and fish-cars and boats
lay beyond half buried in sand or drawn above
high-water mark.

The swell of the sea caused a gentle surf
to rise and curl and fall like a flattened scroll at
the feet of the bathers now gathered along the


beach. The surface of the water was roughened
by waves of pearly hue, which resembled flutter-
ing silver-poplar leaves before a storm. Streaks
of sand reflected yellow lights upwards, between
green and inky hues of water over eel-grass,
seaweed and boulders. The day was sunny and
warm; and the soft southwest breeze brought
the delicious odors of seaweed and salt-marsh

The bathers began to dabble along the
beach, to wade in timidly, and to cry: "O, it's
cold!" ''Come on, never mind!" ''Wet your head
first ! " "I must not wet my hair ! " " Stop spat-
tering me ! " " Don't pull my arm so ! " " Wet all
over at once and you'll find the water delicious."
" Don't go out so far ! " " But you must, if you
wish to learn to swim." " Get your feet off the
bottom and see how the water will hold you up."
*' O, I cannot!" Trust the water once — I'll hold
your chin up." " O, I'm choking ! I swallowed a
pint." "Your feet are too high — kick straight back."
"You want to drown me." "I'll hold you by the
belt." "Let me breathe a minute." "Try sleigh-
riding." "Don't dive under me. Oh! Oh ! get
away ! " " Now Molly, come on ! " " Not so fast."
"Buh! I swallowed a quart. Oh! it is nasty." "It
nearly breaks my back, stretching out so."
"Keep your black stockings down! — You don't
need to kick the stars." "I never found anything
so hard except fractions." "Now Susie, strike


out like a frog, you know." "I can float some."
"Um, that's jolly." *'Oh! you nearly upset me."
"Excuse me, madam, I was awkward." ''Ugh!
I'm — I'm — stran — Strang — ling!"

" Madam, I'll help you. Move your hands
so — flat at first, then turned a little upwards
and outwards ; swing your arms back ; kick with
both feet, drawing the legs up to the body
each time — so — practice in deep water and you will
soon learn."

"Thank you. The water is fine to-day."

" I have bathed everywhere from Maine to
Virginia, and this is the warmest place of all, and
the surf is not dangerous."

These were some of the exclamations and
phrases of the amateurs in shallow water, and
the exertions, antics and mishaps were numerous
and remarkable.

Out in deeper water, men and women,
young and old, were floating sleigh-riding, swim-
ing on the stomach and back, diving, and
jumping from a spring-board and float anchored
off.. They sat in rows along the stage;
reclined upon it in the sun ; sunk it to force every-
one off, and played pranks, shouting and laughing,
unconscious of clinging garments and exposed lines
of beauty or angularity, and heedless of criticism
in the excitement and unwonted pleasure.
Young men were fearless ; young women swam
and dove like mermaids ; athletes of both sexes


revealed hardened muscles and glorious curves
of symmetrical development, and elderly persons,
with craned necks and round shoulders,
resembled a gathering of drowning Brownies.

The wharf, the wreck and the bank were
occupied by many ladies, dressed in the light,
bright shades of summer stuffs, and shaded by gay
parasols from the fierce rays of the sun. Gentle-
men shared the grateful shade with their acquaint-
ances, sweethearts, or wives, and little children
helped to make up merry groups. Calls to
acquaintances, shouts of approval or direction,
clapping of hands, and bursts of laughter, greeted
the bathers from time to time, and mingled
with quiet conversation and the music of the
band. The bathers left the water slowly, drip-
ping and straggling; some reclined and played
upon the sand; some ran up and down swinging
their arms ; some rushed to the bath houses and
wrung out their hair and clothes; some wrapped
their heads in towels, or let their hair hang
loosely down their backs, or tipped their hats
jauntily over their noses; and all soon sought their
rooms at the cottages or hotels to dress for dinner —
for it was a rule of this place to dine about noon —
at one o'clock — when vitality was highest and the
sun near its zenith.

Mr. Delano had witnessed the bathing from a
wreck and was walking slowly up the wharf, when
he was startled to see the figure of a woman, with

777^ SEA LETTER 15

hands clasped beneath her head, lying stretched
out full- length upon the hot sands. " A drowned
woman, perhaps a suicide," flashed through his
mind, and he was about to rush to the body, when
he saw a foot turn and other movements of life. He
stopped astonished and transfixed, and viewed the
lines and curves of this charming creature, who
was warming and resting herself in the sunlight
totally regardless of his critical and admiring gaze.
She was a blonde of the golden hair type, with
deep blue eyes, a slightly aquiline nose, and a head
like Cleopatra. The little silk cap she wore was
half buried in the wealth of her luxuriant tresses.
Delano judged her height to be about five and a
half feet. She turned her face towards him, and
he was startled to recognize an acquaintance, Miss
Gabrielle Palmer.

Ashamed of his surreptitious observation, and
unwilling to dispel her ignorance of his presence,
or to interrupt her repose or reverie, he retreated
across the wharf, hastened to the street and back
to the hotel among the. scurrying figures of bathers,
some in clinging suits, some in bath-robes, and some
covered from head to foot in mackintoshes.

An hour later, all were at dinner, and young
and old displayed ravenous appetites. Acquaint-
ances nodded to each other across the table, or
stopped to greet more warmly as they passed, and
Mr. Delano shook hands with half a dozen persons,
including Gabrielle and her mother, before he


took his seat with his bachelor friends. After
dinner some of the guests went to their rooms for
a nap; others sought the rocking-chairs and shady
piazza; the elderly gentlemen formed a group to
the left of the entrance and smoked and talked,
and the younger men mingled with the ladies and
the children to the right, where wit, beauty and
fashion preferred to congregate.


The piazza of the hotel presented an ani-
mated scene. There were guests from all parts
of North America. Delano had several acquaint-
ances to whom he introduced his friends, and
these introduced others in turn, and frivolous
speeches, confidential chats and earnest discus-
sions mingled with exclamations and laughter, and
the noise of romping children. Many questions
were asked by the newcomers, concerning the
place, its attractions, its customs, its society and
healthfulness, and they related the gossip of
Newport and their experiences and pleasures upon
the coaching trip. Groups of pretty girls, dressed
in lawns, challies, chiffon and silk, giggled over odd
characters and incongruities of dress ; held low
toned conferences about affairs, and looked side-
ways and curiously towards Delano, as the hero of
the hour.

'* We are having fine weather now, but it
was rather wet during June," observed Mrs. Ward
to Mrs. Conant at her right side.


" Yes ; I am thankful we arrived before the
hot spell. It has been 95^ in the shade from
Boston to St. Louis all the week, while here the
temperature has not been above 85^, and there
has been a fine breeze blowing day and night."

" The southwesters blow too strong ; hats
and hair are flying everywhere, " remarked Mrs.

" Breezes make the yachts jump, " declared
Lieut. Ferguson, a naval officer on leave.

" But you do not need wind, when you use
electricity or steam," said Miss Palmer.

^* True ; I was not thinking of tea-kettle
yachtsmen, who are always in a hurry to get
somewhere, and make short stays when they get
there. They take no pleasure in handling sails
and battling with gales, and should travel in public

" Your naval vessels are mostly steam, and
managing their machinery by touching an electric
button has superseded tacking and wearing, "
interrupted Mr. Wilson.

" More's the pity. When we need real
sailors, we are obliged to recruit them from coast-
ers, fishermen and foreigners."

'^ Congress is to blame," declared Mr. Young.
" When the civil war closed, we had over six
hundred naval vessels, and a considerable fleet of
merchantmen that the privateers had not gobbled.
If we had subsidized our steamships and freed

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Online LibraryWilliam Henry WinslowThe sea letter : a mystery of Martha's Vineyard → online text (page 1 of 18)