“All must be fair and straight between you and me, my son. I always think of myself as a widow but I am not that in name. I am Miss Cornelia Baker. I will tell you about it, though it is not altogether easy because I never speak of these things to anyone but good Old Mary who has loved and tended me for many years.
“When I was a young woman of twenty-three I became engaged to a man named Ernest Gregory. He was second mate of a merchant ship and had every prospect of advancement. We decided to wait until he should have a captaincy, and then I was to live with him at sea. He got his ship in three years but one thing after another interfered to delay our marriage. One night in an awful storm, his ship, the Grayling, was driven upon the Hampstead reef, somewhere near Australia. Not one was saved.
"It was years before I could get hold of my life again. I could not bear the mention of the ocean or a ship.
"When I read about that good woman in Indiana I suddenly wanted a son who was on the sea. The thought seemed to bring me, somehow, nearer to him. Do you understand? All this was twenty-three years ago, five years before you were born. But I think some way, that you will understand.
"Don't forget to send me your picture. Do you have plenty of warm clothing these cold days?"
Miss Cornelia quite forgot that the Michigan was cruising in the southern Pacific; but the boy's next letter reminded her and she laughed merrily at herself.
"Dear Mother Cornelia:
I am going to call you that if you like it. I like it. It sounds sort of cozy.
"And now I am going to tell you something that will please you.
"We have been near Australia for two days now, and when I came on deck yesterday morning I saw the water foaming over the long line of rocks that lay just outside a stretch of sandy beach. I heard the captain talking to someone and I caught a word that made me stop and listen. The captain is over sixty and he knows all the history of these coasts.
"'Yes,' he was saying, 'that is Hampstead Reef, as ugly a little stretch as the eastern hemisphere can boast. I suppose it has done as much wickedness as any half dozen reefs.'
"'Tell us some of its crimes,' I heard someone ask.
"'Well, for one of its worst deeds, it sent the Grayling to her tomb with every man aboard, Captain Gregory commanding. That was twenty--no twenty-three years ago,'
"He looked over at the reef and his voice was softer than I ever heard it before.
"'Gregory was a fine chap. He was one of the most fearless and one of the best captains that ever docked in New York.'
"That was all I heard but it made me feel proud of the man my mother loved, and, as we passed the reef, I took off my cap to him who had faced his death there so long ago.
"I like your picture. You are a lot like I thought you would be. Here comes mine. It was taken a year ago and I am some heavier now. I'll have some others taken when I come home. Home! A real home with a fire place and a flower garden and a chicken yard. And you told me I could put rings and a punching bag in the big basement. Five more whole months!
"I have some little things for you, seashells and some little things made of bamboo and a little ivory lion and Something Else. I will not tell you what till I come. And there's a Bombay shawl for Mary and a piece of pottery from Algiers. You mustn't tell her though.
"There are heaps of thing to talk over together. We will talk together about everything, won't we? Some fellows don't seem to feel the need of someone to talk to but I do. My vacation begins in April, and I can spade up your flower beds. Won't it be fun?
"The other day the captain walked over to where I was working and whistling away (work seems to go so much faster these days) and he stood looking at me a while. It bothered me like the dickens and I guess I blushed and he laughed and said, "Have you adopted a mother, Durkan?"
"I guess I looked astonished and I stammered, "Yes, sir," and he laughed and walked away. Now how do you suppose he knew?"