A STORY IN TWO PARTS. PART ONE.
IT was in the dark, before dawn of a December morning, that Marden Sebright woke. Some vague sound below, a stirring about somewhere downstairs, had called him out of troubled sleep to a still more troubled waking. For an instant he lay staring at the faint blur of the window, aware only of that and of a world of unhappiness. Then he remembered. It was the last morning at home. His mother was up and about. He rose, ashamed, groped round in the dark, broke the ice in the tin basin on the stand, dashed the cold water over his hands, face, and head, fumbled into his clothes, and felt his way slowly down the narrow stairs that led between lath walls from the loft rooms to the kitchen.
“ Good-morning, dear,” said his mother’s voice, as the door shut clinking behind him.
The room was lighted by one kerosene lamp that burned pale and strangely yellow on the bare table near the window. In the white frost on the pane it had melted watery circles, through which shone the winter dawn, — the deep, sad, mysterious blue that is neither darkness nor daylight.
“ Good-morning, mother,” said Marden quietly. With his hand still on the latch of the little deal door, he stood looking at her. She had just taken a lid from the stove, and through the open circle below thin tongues of flame quivered upward, showing her plainly, — this little woman in black, with gray hair and gray eyes, who stood in the flickering light and smiled at him. She looked very beautiful to him then. And she must have looked so to others once; years ago, she must have been an English “ hawk blonde ” of the gentler type, — a type that appeared with a difference in Marden’s thin, fine features and bright gray eyes.
Now, as he stood looking at her, her eyes were large and shining.
“ Why, mother,” he said before he thought, “ you have n’t been crying, have you ? ”
She put the lid slowly back. Like all the other pieces in the top of the stove, it was bent and warped with age. It fell into place clattering. The fire crackled, and shone through the gaps and chinks in the uneven surface. Then came a silence, so long that while mother and son stood there looking at each other it seemed to Marden as if his words still sounded in the quiet room, and as if they had not been said gently enough.
When she spoke, her voice was quite steady, a sweet and level voice.
“Yes, Marden, I have been, a little.”
« Oh ” — he broke out, then stopped blankly, and turned to another question. “ What did you come down and build the fire and do all these things for? You might have let me, this — this ” —
“ I wanted to do it for once,” she said simply.
He crossed the room at a stride, and they kissed each other. There were no further words between them, and no further glances. But as they moved about the bare little room, bringing the knives and spoons and the cheap, heavy dishes from the shelves to the table, they stayed very close together. It was meagre diet on the pine table, — a few slices of bread, two bowls of steaming oatmeal, and cold water in the clumsy cups that were meant to hold coffee.
As they sat down, Mrs. Sebright thriftily blew out the lamp, and left the room in dusk.
“ The sun’s rising already,” she said.
And indeed it was : through the watery circles in the panes they could see that the mysterious deep blue had gone, and that a gray light was slowly turning into day.
They both sat peering through the frosty window.
“ Can you see her ? ” asked his mother.
“ No,” he answered. “ Not yet. But of course she’s still there.”
Silence fell once more, while both made a pretense of eating. His mother was the first to speak again.
“ It’s ten days to Christmas,” she said, then paused, and then went on timidly, “ Sicily’s a long voyage. Remember about writing to me, won’t you ? ”
“ Yes, mother,” said he, “ I ’ll write on board, and mail it the first time we land.”
“ Lee said he would,” she continued sadly, “ and it ’s been ten years now without a word beyond hearsay. But, you ’re not like Lee, dear.”
“ Lee ! ” cried the younger son in a hard voice, “ Lee ! Oh mother, if ever I meet him ! — No, no, o’ course I must n’t — I would n’t ” —
“No, dear, you mustn’t. Lee meant — but he’s different. He ’s more like — Some men don’t think much about such things! ” She paused and sighed. “ When a boy goes out into the world, and to sea — Dear, you must never, never forget what I warned you against. It was so hard to tell you — but your father — poor John, I’m afraid he was n’t always a good man.”
“ Always ! ” cried Marden, his cheeks glowing and his gray eyes flashing in the twilight. “ Good ! See where we are now, through him and Lee. Poor, and half-starved, and ragged, and shivering, in this mean little dead town; and me having to go to sea to keep us both alive, and leaving you alone in winter ! ”
“ Hush, Marden, hush,” his mother said, and there were tears in her voice. “ We must n’t be bitter — this morning of all others. We ought to be glad, too, that Captain Harlow is so good to us, for if it was n’t for him I don’t know how we’d weather through till spring.”
Marden made some inarticulate sound. Then he fell to eating, as a lad of twenty must, in spite of sorrow. Slowly through the frosty panes came the first of the sunlight, and shone faintly upon the old shotgun and the powder-horn hung high on the wall behind the stove, and upon the picture below, — a picture stiffly daubed in blue, black, and white of “ the Bark Gilderoy, off Tristan da Cunha.” Over these and a hanging bunch of last year’s red rowan berries the light stole softly.
“ Sunlight! ” said his mother. “ See now if she’s there.”
They turned eagerly to the window, pressing their thumbs against the pane to make peep-holes in the frost that already had gathered white again. Outside, the snow - fields and the stringy, shivering larch by the door were plain in the low-slanting light; then the ice and black open water of the bay, the island and its fir trees, and beyond, rising to the pale winter sky, the hills of the American shore, with broad fields of snow cut by fences that looked like black strings tied full of knots. In the middle of the bay was what they both had feared to see, — a gray old threemasted schooner, the Merry Andrew, lying at anchor.
“ There she is,” said Marden. “ And see, she’s swung on her anchor-chains, and pointing bowsprit up-river. The tide’s going already, mother.”
“ They ’ll be ” — faltered his mother, “ they ’ll be — before long — Is your bag ready ? ”
“ In the corner, all ready,” he replied, pointing toward the door, where there lay a long canvas bag such as sailors carry, lumpy, dingy, bolster-like, and pursed at the top with a web of cords.
“ Lee took your father’s bag with him, you know,” said his mother, evidently for the sake of saying something. “ It was better than that one. It had ' J. S.’ painted on it,—John Sebright, — and then underneath, ‘ Bark Gilderoy.’ He had it all along, when we were both young and everything went well, — and later when we lost the Gilderoy — and all those down-hill years ; and he kept it after we had to stay here ashore. I wonder if Lee’s got it still? ”
Marden was silent. He thought of his father seldom, and bitterly. But now it was with a touch of pity that he recalled him sitting in the big chair by the stove, — a hulking wreck of a man, broad, squat, with a great, hopeless face mottled in purple veins. He could almost smell again the rank pipe and ranker West India rum, and hear the growl of defeat from under the fierce white mustache, “ Here we are in stays, by Christ, in stays, that’s where we are! ” Then from this vision the lad looked across the table at his mother, gentle, grayhaired, smiling in her sorrow, and a wave of anger rose in his heart, and was overwhelmed in a greater wave of pity.
“ Oh, mother,” he cried, choking, “you are — you are — in all the world ” — His voice was stifled again. “ If ever I ’m of any use in my life, it’s all — it’s all ” —
He was on the verge of breaking down utterly ; and no one can tell whether her bravery, great as it was, would have sufficed for both. But suddenly, in the tense quiet of the room, there sounded a knocking at the door that shut them in from the outside world. It was a strange series of raps, uncertain, hesitating, fumbling.
The woman’s face grew very white. The boy pulled himself together, and rose.
“ They ’ve come,” he said. “ It’s the Maltee.”
The knocking sounded sharp on the frosty wood as he crossed the room. The door swung open, letting in a flood of freezing cold and of sunshine; and there on the half millstone that formed the doorstep was a little black ape of a man, in a blue reefer and teamster’s cap, with gold rings in the stubby lobes of his ears.
“Êccomi,” said this swarthy apparition. His bright little eyes looked up and down, up and down, quick and distressed, like a monkey’s. “ Time now. Alla-board. Ebba-tide. You come, by damn, we go.”
Angelo the Maltese was never given a bigger part to play in this world than that of an incapable sea-cook and a distorter of the simplest messages ; but now for one instant it fell to him to speak important lines in the obscure tragedy of the Sebrights. To them his faltering knock at the door had sounded like the thunder of the Commander’s statue; his mumbling, broken English, the words of a Fate large, inexorable, and as cold as the wind that blew into the room from over the bay and the dazzling snow-fields. But Angelo did not guess his own importance, for he remained cringing in the doorway, against a background of bright snow and black water, looking up and down, up and down, with his troubled eyes, scraping and shuffling his heavy brogans on the flint millstone.
He pulled from the breast pocket of his reefer a dingy letter.
“ Alla madre. Cap’na Harlow send. Pay— un mése — one mont’ pay. You write gotta him ? ”
While Marden took his threadbare jacket and cap from the peg by the door, his mother, at the table, signed the receipt for twenty-five dollars, one month’s pay in advance, on paper that was a blur before her brimming eyes. Her life, like that of many women, had been one of partings ; but they were none the easier for that, and now it was as if she were selling her youngest son, who had never left her before, and selling him to go with strangers into a strange country.
Even Angelo with the monkey eyes did not see how they parted.
When the boy came out, he stumbled at the millstone step, to be sure, and the world of snow and sunlight reeled before his eyes ; but his chin was high, the canvas bag rode light as a feather on his shoulder, and he swung so briskly along the narrow path in the snow that the Maltese had close work to follow with his sea-legs.
They were hardly down over the knoll from which the gray cottage overlooked the bay, when a woman in black, with an old plaid shawl about her head, stole out of the door, and followed slowly along the path. She made no attempt to overtake the two men, nor did they look back. On the bank at the edge of the shore she halted, and stood watching them as, in the morning sun, they went crashing their way down the beach, over ice thin as paper, that splintered underfoot and broke tinkling into broad plates for yards around, to show the gray pebbles or black mud-flats beneath.
Beyond the ice, where the water smoked in the sun, lay a ship’s boat with a dark Italian sailor and a fat watercask in it. Angelo hopped in lightly. Marden was about to follow, when he turned, and at the sight of his mother standing on the distant bank, started and made a step landward. There was a growl in the boat. He pitched the bag to one of the sailors, waved his cap in answer to his mother’s hand, shoved off, and jumped into the bow. The boat turned, and palled slowly away through the mist that from all the open water rose like smoke, and drew slowly down with the tide. And through the smoke the heart in the boat and the heart on the shore were aching for each other across the growing distance.
The woman on the shore saw the boat pull under the stern of the gray Merry Andrew, and rise with a creak of tackle to the davits ; saw the men going about the deck, black and small as ants ; heard the chirrup of blocks on the headsails, fore and mainsail, and even, in the stillness, the clinking of the capstan pawls, till suddenly it was drowned in the halfhearted quaver of a chanty raised by Captain Harlow’s Americans on board, heaving short: —
Sometimes we ’re bound for France ;
But now we ’re off for Sicily
For to give those girls a chance.
We ’re all bound to go.
Walk her round, my bully boys,
We ’re all bound to go.”
Then she saw the gray schooner wear round before a fair wind and tide, and, with the peak of the dingy spanker crawling up against the snow-fields of the American shore, draw slowly out of sight behind the evergreens of the island.
As for the boy, those few minutes were a dream in which he stumbled about the deck hauling on frozen ropes, and worrying that his mother should stand there so long in the snow before the house.
Thus it was that the schooner Merry Andrew of Hinkley, Maine, took on another cask of water, shipped a forerast hand to fill her crew, and was off for Sicily. Among the frozen islands and headlands of Etchemin Bay her master, Cyrus Harlow, steered her warily, and through the bold water under many an evergreen crag, till she won to open sea. With a good bottom, and a light cargo of shooks for orange-boxes, she rode handily out on the long swell of the wintry North Atlantic.
When a boy has been brought up at his mother’s side, — apron strings or not, — he is hardly at his ease among the rough men of a sulky and half-frozen crew, part Yankees who curse at him for a young blue-nose lubber, and part Italians who curse the less only that their teeth are chattering the more. But if a boy is quick with his hands, and stows his tongue, and looks at you with clear eyes that are not afraid, you can easily let him alone, or perhaps forget that he is on board. “ A good enough lad,” said the second mate, three days out. “ No one minds the boy.” And they let it go at that.
Of course the boy’s heart ached at first, and sorely. The thought of what he had left behind, and how, and why, rankled in him for many a day, while he staggered about the slewing deck, or choked down Angelo’s greasy food at the duskiest corner of the heaving table, or lay in his bunk stark awake and miserable, hearing the timbers creak and strain, watching the lamp swing the shadows across the roof of the forecastle, that was stifling with tobacco, and woolen socks steaming, and tar and oilskins, and the brute smell of cooped-up men. But as his first sea-sickness quickly left him, who was son and grandson to English sea-captains, so his health and youth pulled him through the vast misery of the first longing for home. His conscience often upbraided him for his rising spirits. Of course he would not forget his mother and her loneliness. But then there was so much to see and learn and live through ! To sail southward in a vessel sheeted with ice ; to beat dizzily and wearily all day into a blind whirl of snowflakes ; on a calm morning to see the snow, that strange white creature of the land, so odd and out of place about ship, lying ankledeep along the deck, or capping the deck-house with a dome, or drifted over the anchor-chains, or caught like thistledown in the dirty fold of a frozen sail; and then, little by little, week by week, as the sun grew higher and warmer, to be sailing into spring weather, with the sweet smell of clean beech and maple rising from the hold, while the Italians thawed into laughter and left their reefers in the forecastle, till all the crew went about the deck sweating, in their blue undershirts, with tattooed arms bare : all this, and the slow process of time on the ocean, the lazy afternoous on deck, the long yarns and longer silences by starlight, and at last the sight of the great rock Gibraltar rising vaguely ahead in a shimmer of brown morning haze, were enough to make the thoughts of a healthy boy fly forward rather than astern.
On the ninety-seventh day the Merry Andrew tied up at the long stone quay in Palermo, on the island of Sicily. Then there were stirring times. Captain Cyrus Harlow brought papers out of his cabin and went ashore, flushed with the new dignity of international affairs, blowing his great nose like a herald’s blast before him. Angelo and the other Italian became mad creatures, and jabbered with gestures as of life and death among the stevedores who bundled the shooks up from the dark hold. And Marden loafed on deck with the Yankees, happy to watch these swarthy people work so fast in the heat that quivered on the quay, to admire the foreign city with its strangely fashioned houses all of stone, to follow with his eyes the long line of the quay and breakwater, the dark blue platoons of soldiers drilling in a distant field, and the Conca d’ Oro sheltering all in a semicircle of mountains. All the unaccustomed sounds and colors and smells of this, his first city, went to Marden’s head. He was glad just to be alive, to lean over the rail and watch the giddy ripples of sunlight that the waves set shivering along the foot of the pier, or to gaze northward to where Mt. Pellegrino overlooked the sea, or to whistle, or to shred a bit of oakum with his fingers, and all the while think of nothing. Such kinship had he with his brother Lee.
They stayed ten days at Palermo discharging. So Marden found time to wander through the streets, under the heavy balconies of the houses, past little halfhidden buildings older than the Saracens, and churches that reminded him of a picture in his Arabian Nights. At the Quattro Cantoni he lounged nearly a whole bright afternoon, looking down the long streets to the mountains and the sea. There were nights of shore leave, too, when the sailors trooped along the quay in the cool of the Sicilian evening, and bought fruit dirt-cheap, and for ten cents a long-necked bottle of Italian wine.
“Why the hell don’t ye git some to take aboard fer goin’ back ? ” they would ask Marden. And when he answered that he had n’t the money to spare, “You ’re too young to be so damn close,” was their retort. For all that, it was a good-humored group of mariners that pushed along the streets, staring into the lighted windows, or at some pretty, dark, Sicilian woman in a doorway. Yet always after a while the group mysteriously separated. The men disappeared, Marden noticed, alone or in pairs down some obscure side street, laughing loudly. Then Bunty Gildart, the second mate and a philosophical married man, took the boy carefully in tow, and they went back aboard ship together early.
“ Ye see, boy,” Bunty would say apologetically, as they two came along the quay together, “ye see, they has to be quiet ones in a crew, jest like everywheres else in the world, as a man might say.” And he would wag his colorless beard sadly, and halt, and look out over the harbor with something like a sigh. Then changing the subject with laborious tact, he would exclaim, in the surprised tone of a good child, “ This town’s got a pop’lation of three hund’ed and ten thousand! ” or, “ The old man tells me it’s only a fortnight to Jerusalem and all them holy places. Think o’ that, boy ! ”
The crew came back at different hours after midnight, in different stages of disorder. Marden felt toward them an odd mixture of repulsion and envy, and was ashamed of something that he could not quite name.
On the last night ashore, however, a strange thing happened. The crew had halted before the mouth of an alleyway, and were looking in to see whether the fierce eddy of Sicilian men and women there meant a riot or a family rejoicing. Marden, on the outskirts of their own group, felt a plucking at his elbow, and turned to look down into the ugly face of Jerry Fox, with his harelip and bulging, froglike eyes. The creature winked, beckoned, and then waddled off on his bowlegs round the nearest corner. Wondering at this sudden and secret friendliness, the boy followed.
“ See ’ere, podner,” grunted the harelip, slipping his arm through Marden’s and dragging him along the street, “ the homeliest man in the crew’s got ter have the handsomest man fer ter tow alongside of. That’s a square deal, ain’t it? And say, mate, I ain’t a-goin’ back aboard no more o’ the Andrew. The old man makes me tired. Sick of him. I’m a-goin’ to duck out to-night. Don’t say nothin’. But you come along fust an’ I ’ll show you a good time.”
Before Marden could free himself, the misshapen creature had pulled him along, halted squarely in front of two women in a lighted doorway, and began to address them in wonderfully bad Italian. At his words, and the sight of his froglike face, the older woman broke into clear laughter, that showed her white teeth and set her ear-rings swinging ; but the younger, a mere girl, turned upon Marden a pair of dark, steady eyes, so large and starlike that the lad stood wondering, delighted, yet afraid. He would have given worlds to know what to say to the owner of such eyes. But just then the rest of the crew, swinging noisily round the corner, with loud cries and laughter surrounded the two truants and swept them along. The rest of the evening went quickly, for they would have to sail for Trapani in the early morning; and after visiting a maze of wineshops, they all trooped aboard, laden with bottles, jugs, and small kegs, like pirates from the sack of a town. All but Fox, for he kept his word and deserted, no one saw where; at which Captain Harlow swore next morning, loud and nasal, for several miles along the northern coast of Sicily.
From Trapani the Merry Andrew cleared with a cargo of salt for Boothbay, Maine. The voyage home was longer, and to Marden, whose thoughts were now homeward bound so fast, was tedious. Ten days out from Gibraltar they ran into a dead tropical calm, with the sun blazing down from overhead in intolerable heat, the deck like the top of a great stove, and the ocean dead and blank to the high, taut line of the horizon. All day long the tar dripped from the rigging like raindrops on the deck, and the crew lay about as dead men.
When this had lasted nearly a week, and it seemed possible that the water might run short, there came a memorable night when a little coolness stole from somewhere over the blank ocean, and Captain Harlow allowed the Italian wine to be served out in place of water. The amount was moderate, to be sure, yet that evening the Merry Andrew was another ship, officers and men. Forward, from sunset till long after dark, there rose the merry sound of harmonicas, rough songs, and shuffling heel and toe. Aft, the captain — sun-dried Yankee as he was — relaxed to the extent of two bottles with the first mate, by lantern-light and starlight. Marden, who stood useless at the wheel, was forced to listen to the talk, which ran seriously upon Jerry Fox and the causes of desertion in general.
“ I’ve seen men, Mr. Spinney,” the captain said, with a vinous buoyancy in his voice, “ I’ve seen men go plumb to hellelujah over women that if they ’d ’a’ brung me my food to the table, I couldn’t ’a’ eat it.” Then,to Marden’s surprise, the captain addressed him, turning so that the lantern-light threw a sinister shadow of his great nose across half his face. “ Sebright,” he said, speaking with fine irrelevancy, “ I sailed under your father on the Gilderoy, and a sour man he was ; but his wife was an angel, as we all knowed, at sea or ashore.” He gave no explanation of this, but rising to his great height, and weighing the empty bottle in his palm, added, “ They’s only two kinds o’ women, Mr. Spinney, — they ’s angels, and they’s brimstone devils.” And he flung the bottle overboard, where it sank in a bright splash of phosphorus.
“ They ’s dummies, sometimes,” replied the first mate sagely. But the captain did not hear, for he was clumping down into his cabin, to be alone.
Marden stood and wondered. Up forward, the reedy mouth-organ wheezed, and the heavy soles smote the planking faster and harder. But the boy was looking overhead, past the dim blackness of the topmast, into the deep multitude of stars. He remembered having heard somewhere that Cyrus Harlow had married most unhappily. Then, all at once, while he was pitying the gaunt captain, he understood the mention of his mother, so that he wondered still more, and suddenly saw as it were further into her life, in clearer light and truer proportion, — its relation to other persons, dead, or mere names to him, its complexities, and its sadness. The thought of her now alone so long came with a new poignancy, making him astonished to recall that he had been sometimes happy on this voyage, forgetful in the pleasure of new sights, new experiences, and life at young flood. The starry eyes of the Sicilian girl shone in his mind, and he was strangely and bitterly ashamed. “ That’s like father or Lee,” he thought. “ I ’ll be damned if I ’ll take after them.” On the heels of this a bit out of the Bible came to him. “ The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing; ” and he repeated it, looking up into the stars. “That’s their kind,” he thought, “ father and Lee, — seeing things for themselves everywhere, and not a thought or a worry,” As for him, he would stay ashore at home after this, for good, and not care if he never saw a thing in all his days. And he would find something, make something, to work at for his living. He was eager to get home and begin. The situation there was bleak and desperate enough, to be sure; but as he thought it over and over, there seemed to be a chance of some kind, surely. The stars grew more friendly while he looked at them, pondering; the half-tipsy songs and shuffling became the music of the homeward bound ; and when he turned in that night, he lay in his bunk cheerfully figuring out his wages over and over.
It was late in July before the Merry Andrew lay off his native town, and sent him ashore in a boat—to the wharf in the village, for there was not time to land him up on his own beach. The unpainted houses along the straggling main street seemed flat and small and widely spaced, the church steeple lower, after the cities he had seen. As they rowed in on the young flood, the distances between old landmarks seemed to have changed, and the landmarks themselves to be the same yet not the same as before. In the hot noon stillness the village wore a blighted and ghostlike appearance. But the land breeze brought across the harbor the sweet smell of the Canadian fields of clover, still uncut and still blooming. And the boy, with his pockets full of money, and his eyes straining for a glimpse of the gray house on the knoll beyond the town, was on fire to be at home again.
Heber Griswold, their nearest neighbor, met him at the head of the slip as he hurried up, dragging his canvas bag.
“ Hello, Heber ! ” called Marden, breathless and happy, and would have shaken hands.
Heber acted queerly, however, part offish and defiant, part cringing. He was in his best clothes.
“ I seen the Andrew a-lyin’ off there,” he said in the tone of a set apology, “ and I know’d you was a-comin’ home. Ye see — ye see, Mard ” —
But Marden had caught sight of something in his hand, something that he knew, — the brass key that always stayed in the lock inside of the front door to the house.
“ What are you doing with that ? ” he cried in the sharp voice of fear. “ Is she away ? Heber, is my — is she ” —
The wharf tilted like a deck underfoot as he saw the man’s face unmask and his eyes answer.
“ Last April,” faltered Heber, “ last April it were — By God, Mard, I’m sorry ”—
But Marden had snatched the key and was running down the village street, the canvas bag bobbing over his shoulder.
A DEBT TO MEMORY.
He ran on blindly, through the street, and out through the fields knee-deep in timothy and clover. A few of the village people at their doors, looking curiously after the brown-faced young sailor with the wild gray eyes, knew him for Marden Sebright only when they saw him scramble up the distant knoll to the deserted house.
Brushing through the rank chickweed that choked the path, Marden, still in a frenzy of haste, reached the door and thrust the key somehow into the lock. Then, as for the first time in his life he tried to unlock the door from without, it came over him suddenly that there was no use in hurrying so. Sick with despair, he stopped, and looked round him in a hateful calmness. He saw the windows, with the white shades pulled down, looking at him like blank eyes; saw the caraway weeds, the yarrow, the everlasting, and the red flowers of the tall London Pride, growing high and wild along the front of the gray shingle ; felt the heat of noon beat down on the millstone doorstep ; heard in the stillness the wiry hum of innumerable flies; and all was flat, and dead, and meaningless.
At last he opened the door. With bared head, slowly and quietly, as if coming into some dread presence, he entered, closed the door gently, and stood looking about him. The kitchen, with the white-shaded windows dimming the sunlight, was cool and dusky. There was the familiar, indefinable smell of home, and his heart sank lower as he recognized it. A single fly buzzed on the pane. Even to the dusty branch of red mountain ash berries hanging under the Gilderoy, everything was in order, as he had known it; except that the door into his mother’s room — the only other room on the ground floor of the little house — now stood open. With a new and deeper reverence he went slowly in, and paused. Here again all was in order, as in the time that seemed so many years ago ; here again were silence and the yellow dimness of muffled sunshine. In all the room the only moving thing was the black shadow-pattern of the woodbine leaves, quivering at the top of the white curtain. He was still calm as he drew near the table by the other window, at the end of the room. On it lay, as if just put down, some unfinished work of his mother’s, — some knitting or other, neatly smoothed out, with the ends of the needles thrust carefully through the black ball. The tears springing to his eyes, he looked again, and there beside it on the table lay a letter in his own handwriting — his letter from Palermo, with the money — unopened. It had come too late ; she had never once heard from him. And turning suddenly, he ran and knelt by the bed, flung his arms upon it, and burying his face, burst into such a passion of weeping as comes only once in a man’s life.
When he came out of the house again he was no longer a boy. There was a hard look on his face : the features, always thin and delicate, had taken on a determined sharpness; out of the swarthy brown of his tan, the gray eyes looked startlingly and piercingly bright. In the carriage of his sinewy body there was far more of the soldier than the sailor.
In front of the Griswold house, at the nearest end of the village street, he met Heber, — an encounter which, if he had only known, was not strange, for the good creature had been watching at a window all the afternoon. In reply to his question, Heber took him along the road that led up the hill and into the little burying-ground, a rough clearing among the funereal pointed firs.
“ Over there,” said Heber, who had barely concealed a sombre pleasure in his office. He pointed to a corner where the sunlight still lay. “ The rector had the stone put up,” he added, as he turned away and left Marden alone once more.
Two stones of plain slate stood there under a stringy hackmatack. One he knew already ; it bore the name “ John Sebright,” and the dates. On the other, made like the first but unspotted by the gray moss, was the name “ Margaret Lee Sebright.”
He stood there for a long time. It was evening before he returned to the house, and the last of the sunset shone pale over the jagged silhouette of fir-tops on the point, behind which the river flowed down unseen to the bay. He sat on the doorstep, thinking, far into the night. Outwardly he was master of himself, but in his heart the dreadful desperate calm was swept away from time to time by a flood of strange emotions : void, helpless wonder at what he should do with the fragments of a life so shattered ; black hatred of his father and his brother, who had made such things possible, and of himself, who seemed equally to blame ; aching jealousy that his brother should have borne his mother’s name of Lee. These thoughts he tried again and again to crush out as undutiful, — to drown even in bitter imaginings of the last days of his mother’s life. But they appeared again and again, each time more powerful. Still more powerful, mingling with and mastering all his other emotions, was a new-born hatred of the sea, of all ships and sailors ; a hatred as vast as the ocean itself, that lay beyond the village and the islands, under the evening star.
Somewhere round midnight, before he went to bed in one of the two rooms in the loft, he entered his mother’s room, looked slowly about to see that everything was as it had been, then withdrew, and locking the door, hid the key behind the old spyglass on the kitchen shelf. Hereafter that room was to be a holy place.
The next morning his life began, alone ; and alone it continued for five years, in house and village. He had already determined to stay ashore and at home for the rest of his life. It was a vow. He did not think it an act of expiation, though he came to look upon his voyage, necessary as it had been, in the light of a fault beyond atonement. To stay now seemed merely the one course possible. He felt vaguely, without quite putting it into words, that he had this thing to be devoted to, as a door-keeper to the temple. And so he remained, alone. The villagers were kind, and would have been companionable. But theirs was a world apart from his; and although Harden was good to them in return, and indeed became known for innumerable little kindnesses, it was chiefly for a reason that they never dreamed of — that in the same spirit he would have died for the sake of the meanest person in the village, so lightly did he value his time or his life. Like Hercules in the Alcestis, — a Hercules in shabby clothes, — he held his life out on his hand for any man to take. And they, seeing him grow into a young man of few or almost no words, a young man strong, clean, and straight in his ragged jacket, with a thin, sad face and the eyes of a prophet, — they pitied him as a “ queer feller, ” and left him more and more alone.
In the same years the village began to prosper. As in many other little decayed seaports, men and women from the cities began to come there in the summer, and finding the village “ quaint ” and the air pleasant, came again and brought others. Thus there was money to be had for fish, and lamb, and green peas, for the simple work of sailing a boat that you had been brought up in, or if you were a boy, of following a golf-ball over the pasture lots and learning a new game. At about the same time a shrewd Yankee came and saw the abundance of clams in the long stretches of beach at low tide, and began shipping them away by barrelfuls to Boston and New York. Since this gave work to some eight or ten men in the town, there was no ill-feeling beyond perhaps a little envy at his cleverness. Between these two new industries, the village began to enjoy a queer kind of mouldering prosperity, so that people had no longer, in the words of Heber Griswold, to live through the winter on a greased rag.
One of the earliest neighbors to go to work for the Yankee was Marden. He could not deal with the summer people, who, besides being whole civilizations distant from him, came to represent in his mind the pitiable, empty possessors and disbursers of money that once would have meant so much to him. Under the Yankee, however, it was different. It was plain business, with few words ; one was not expected to be a “ character ” into the bargain ; and although Marden often raged to think that he had been too dull to find this means of livelihood when it was needed, he took a degree of comfort in working hard and steadily, out of doors, at a work that kept him along the beach, often within sight of his house. In the first season he became far and away the best among the clamdiggers. On almost any day, when the ebb-tide had bared the dreary waste of greenish brown seaweed and dun flats, he might be seen, an active form stooping along the edge of the bright water, always alone. With fork and basket he worked over the wide sands from one to another of the beds, where the flats were riddled as with buckshot holes, from which little jets of clear water now and then spurted up, bright in the sun. He took solace, not in the money he was laying up, but in the steady work with his hands that kept his lonely mind from running too much in strange channels. Always he hated, with a growing hate, the sea that he worked beside.
So things went on in these five years. Often he longed for some companion to step from the warm lighted circle of human beings that he seemed to stand outside of, in the dark; yet as often as the chance came to talk, he found to his sorrow that he had no words, or few, or empty, and retreated as a ghost from among his kindly fellow beings. In this world there had been only his mother ; in the next — But that was a further darkness in which he found only sickening doubts. And meantime, as a young man often will, he could feel himself growing old.
One hot, bright noon, while he was retreating up the beach with his muddy basketful of clams, before the rising tide that slowly drove him shoreward, his eye caught the flutter of something pink at the edge of the land near the house. Looking closer, he saw — with a touch of surprise, for the place was almost never frequented — that it was a woman who stood there at the foot of the bank. She was looking out toward him, but as he straightened up, she stooped and began plucking busily among the beach-grass. Without much further thought, he fell to digging once more ; yet as often as he looked up, there she was still, and when finally the tide made him give over the day’s work and turn homeward, he found her standing in the nook formed by the two projecting banks between which the path from the house came scrambling down to the beach.
Into this nook the sun beat fiercely. The woman had turned her back, and, with one foot on a rock, was tying her shoe. Her pink calico dress, bright against the tawny gravel and parched grass of the bank, clung about her in the wind as close as if it had been wet. She had firm shoulders, — rather broad for a woman of middle stature, — a wide, comely space between the shoulderblades, a trim waist, and the ankle of a racer. Marden noted all this calmly (as he would have studied the build of a ship), and contrasted her with the summer women from the city.
“ They trail their feet,” he thought ungallantly, “ like the cows coming down the lane.”
He was about to carry his fork and basket past her up the bank, when she turned.
“ Hello,” she said cheerily, flashing a pair of bold eyes on him. “ You scairt me. I did n’t hear you comin’.”
“ That’s a lie,” thought Marden, but he stopped and said quietly, “ I ’m sorry.”
“ Oh,” she cried, “ you don’t need be so sorry as all that! ” And at the sight of his solemn face she burst into loud but not unpleasant laughter.
Marden, completely at a loss, was silent; and while he groped for words, the woman watched him with the eyes of raillery. Her whole body, slight almost to thinness, trembled with active merriment. Her cheeks were flushed, and her black eyes of a strange watery lustre and fire. They were not at all those of the Sicilian girl at Palermo, yet somehow he vaguely identified them, and suffered the same dumb confusion before their light. At last, to his great relief, the woman spoke.
“ You ’re Marden Sebright, ain’t you ? I’ve seen you on the w’arf, — and heard a lot about you besides,” she added, with a slyness that seemed unnecessary.
“ I hope,” said Marden, “ I hope ” — but as he did not know exactly what, he stopped. He felt strangely drawn toward this woman, whoever she might be. He had gone about so much alone, so ghostlike ; and she was so very much alive and full of high spirits.
“ Oh, it was all nice,” she cut in, “ awful nice things, all of it, what I heard.”
“ I ’m glad of that,” replied Marden, and balked, and felt himself a fool.
“ I been waitin’ a long time here to have a talk with you,” she said plaintively. “ You ’re different from these people. They don’t understand. And I hurt my finger foolin’ with a rock while I was waitin’. See.” —And she suddenly thrust out her hand for him to take. He put down his basket and fork, very clumsily indeed, and took it as one might handle a knife-blade. It was pale brown, and very small beside his own. Along one finger-nail was the faintest sign of a bruise. Her bracelet shone bright in the sun, — a silver chain, and a round silver bangle perforated with starshaped holes.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and then added with blunt honesty, “ but it ain’t as bad as it might be. A stone-bruise can be pretty bad sometimes. You see, if it gets ” —
But there was that in the mocking lustre of her eyes which cut him short in his pedagogy. Still holding her hand, he felt a great weakness come over him, a weakness overwhelmingly strong. Her face, the triangular face of a kitten, with her eyes of liquid fire, was turned up toward him earnestly in the fierce noon sunlight, and was no longer flushed, but pale. He felt that he ought to tell her something — something that she understood already and expected. But there was a long silence.
“ You must be awful lonesome,” she said slowly, “ livin’ there all alone sence — for so long.”
A light broke in upon Marden somehow, like the sun burning through a fog. In a flash his mind sped over the consequences. By his simple logic, if he should love this woman, he would marry her, and she would come to live — His whole nature suffered a revulsion, an upheaval. He put the hand slowly and coldly away from him. And she, who was looking only for such treatment as she had learned to expect from other men, found his gray eyes suddenly quiet, distant, full of undecipherable thoughts ; and she half wondered at and half despised him.
“ I am,” he replied at last. Then picking up his things from among the gravel, “ Good-by,” he said, and clambered up the path without looking back.
All that afternoon he walked furiously up-river through a quiet hill and valley region that, but for the gulls flecking it, might have been the Scottish highlands. All that evening he paced before the silent house, in the darkness. Sometimes he could have laughed aloud at the figure he had cut; sometimes he felt the deepest degradation. He was vexed, feverish, thrown out of his reckoning. “ It happens to every one,” he kept telling himself ; but that was just the trouble, — why should a thing so common, so laughably simple, so short in point of time, take on this enormous proportion in his life ? And why did he seem now so much weaker and coarser ? Not till late that night did he find himself calm again and fit to go indoors.
At last, addressing the stars, he said, “ Captain Harlow was right about them.”
And he opened the door and went in.
Henry Milner Rideout.
(To be continued.)