A STORY IN TWO PARTS. PART TWO.
THE SINGING IN THE HOUSE.
AFTER this, a year went by without further incident, — a summer of hard work, a winter of desperate sitting about and staring out of the window at snowfields and white-caps, of reading again the few books that had been his mother’s, of pacing up and down like a wolf before the closed door of the other room. After the adventure on the shore, Marden knew himself for a man apart from other men. Yet it had renewed his purposes within him. He must be steadfast to a memory, and the Sebright blood must die out of his veins. All winter he hammered at these thoughts. The spring drew on, when the cakes of ice came floating down in the black water, and a brown haze covered the horizon, and the patches of snow melted from under the firs and cedars, and the thin, black crescent lines of geese quivered northward in the sky, and the air was filled with the pungent, resinous smoke of brushwood fires, and the fields turned slowly from buff to green, and May-flowers grew again, and dandelions, and later the twin-flowers that Marden’s mother had taught him to love. There were long comforting walks in the warm air; now that he felt the settled calm of knowing himself irretrievably alone, the return of spring seemed no longer a cruel mechanism of Nature. Summer found him at work again on the beach, pausing now and then to look shoreward, with a kind of sad beatitude, at the house that he guarded.
Once when he was at the wharf to help in shipping some of the Yankee’s barrels, he saw among the bystanders, city and country loungers, the woman of that memorable noon. He recognized her with an odd emotion that he could not name. She had seen him, he was sure ; but she looked scornfully past him, and began talking gayly to a great sullen man with a red beard and a Viking face, who stood beside her and scowled. Later he saw the two driving in a furious cloud of dust past the Griswold house into the up-country road.
“ There goes old man Barclay and his housekeeper,” called Heber from his doorway. “ She must keep house pretty lively, to git so much time outdoor and off the farm.” And he winked solemnly. Marden went on, laughing inwardly for the first time in months, but not at Heber’s joke.
The summer passed quietly enough. Once he went to church, to please the rector, a comfortable blond Englishman who often asked him why he did not go. “ Your mother was so very devout, you know,” the rector had said, beaming at him mildly.
“Yes, but you see, sir,” Marden had answered, “ she hardly ever went, because she could n’t walk so far. And so I ’ve got in the way of spending my Sundays at home always.”
It was by this argument, nevertheless, that Mr. Bradwell prevailed. Unluckily, however, Marden happened to come on a morning when the good man had elected to inform the younglings of his flock that they should honor their parents. The exhortation remained long as a distressing memory. Marden had given the matter years of thought as against the rector’s week. He had never liked the latter part of the text, — “ that thy days may be long,” — which this man, moreover, did not explain to his satisfaction. “ It’s like a bargain,” he thought, and his mind wandered curiously away to call up a picture of some black-bearded Jews he had seen trading in Palermo. Out of the whole hour in the dark little church he remembered chiefly this impression, and the sense of waiting for help that was not offered, and the look of the fog that had been drifting like smoke past the windows. Always afterward the church-bell recalled that morning to him, till finally it seemed to ring an ironical refrain, — “ that thy days may be long, long, — that thy days may be long.” As if a man needed that, and as if they were not long enough already !
Though the rector saw that the odd young Sebright came no more to hear him, he took interest in the young man, and later had some comfortable ecclesiastical talks with him. He even was at pains to point him out, one day on the wharf, to a brother clergyman from the great world of cities.
“ That young man there,” he said, “ the bright-eyed one who stands so straight, is quite an extraordinary character. He has been a sailor, and is a clam-digger. But do you know, he really has a mind of his own, and ideas. I was urging him the other day to go to the cities and make a career for himself, and he replied with a quotation from The Pilgrim’s Progress, — well, I can’t quite recall it now, but I assure you it was astonishingly apt. His personality has puzzled me extremely, I confess. He keeps entirely alone, and has something almost fanatical about him that is beyond my comprehension.”
“ Very interesting,” said the greater prelate, nodding his gray head benignly. “ One sees hermits nowadays, to be sure, and I presume that they all have their stories. Edwin and Angelina, perhaps ? ” He smiled gently as at a drollery, and added, “ It is doubtless he whom I have observed on the beach digging — quite like a picture of Millet’s. . . . He has a good face.”
“ He seems to feel it his duty to stay here, I think,” said the other, and they passed on to talk of golf.
That very afternoon duty was to put on toward Marden a newer and a sterner face. He had no presentiment while he walked through the street toward the setting sun, and through the fields already yellow with the autumn. He even felt a deep content when he mounted the knoll and stopped, as he often did, to look at the house standing there gray and silent, with the woodbine leaves glossy in the late afternoon sunshine. It was very still and peaceful, — the sleepy village with long stilted wharves behind him, the long beach and low water at his left hand, and in front, beyond the house, the yellow fields sloping up to the dark belt of fir woods toward which the sun was drawing down. The tide was far out; from the island and the point on the main shore the two long bars ran in thin and black penciling, almost joined at the channel. The horses that were pastured on the island were coming home, — tiny black figures that galloped along the bar, became mere specks as they swam the channel, and then galloped again to the land. Their whinnying, faint and thin across the mirror of the harbor, was the only sound. And as Marden stood there in the path, breathing the cool air that rose from the wet beach, drinking it in with the autumn sunshine, he was content in the happy weariness of a good day’s work.
Suddenly he noticed that the door of the house was open, and that a thin smoke was curling from the chimney. And he had not recovered from this surprise, when out of the dim interior there came an incredible sound. A voice was singing in the house, — a coarse, throaty bass that growled the semblance of a tune : —
It caused me grief an’ pain,
So we ’ll h’ist up on the Turkey,
An’ we ’ll whelt the road again.”
The singer cleared his throat with a deeper growl, then spat, and went on : —
We ’ll whelt the road again,
We ’ll h’ist up on the Turkey,
An’ we ’ll whelt the road again.”
Marden stood transfixed. He knew in an instant what it meant. But it was impossible, he would not believe it, that this creature could be alive after sixteen years, and could return thus. His mind reeled in a vertigo, a nausea of dismay. Yet he pulled himself together, waited an instant to feel himself strong for the encounter, and advanced to the door.
He had thought himself ready, but he had not counted on such a sight. Just inside the door a canvas bag lay dumped with the letters “ J. S. — Bark Gild— ” showing through the dirt. Beyond it he saw his father’s big armchair drawn out of its corner and before the stove, where it had not been for years; and slumped in the chair was a great hulk of a man, with a fierce white mustache and a graybrown face. The room smelled of a rank pipe and of whiskey.
For the first instant Marden thought his father had come back to life ; for the next, it was surely a dream ; then he was himself again, grasping wildly at the situation, and thanking God that his mother had died before this thing could happen.
Since Barney came ashore,” —
growled the apparition, and spat again, so that the warped stove sizzled. Then, as if conscious of the eyes fixed upon him, he looked up and saw Marden gripping the door frame. For all the world, the big face and staring, puffy eyes were those of the old Captain, John Sebright.
“ Hello, podner,” he grunted, half surly, half cheerful, “ who might you be ? An’ where’s the inmates o’ this here shanty, I want to know ? ” Then suddenly, his eyes staring wider and a grin of foolish astonishment spreading over his brown face, — “ Well, if it ain’t the kid, by James Rice ! ” And with surprising quickness for a man of his bulk, he was out of the chair and wringing Marden by the hand, with roars of laughter that made the windows rattle. “ Ho ho ho ! I would n’t ’a’ knowed ye, Mard, God damn ye, I would n’t ’a’ knowed ye, honest! Ooh, ho ho ! ”
Marden let him go on shaking the hand, but could not trust himself to speak. The other suddenly stopped and stared.
“ He don’t know me ! By the Lord Harry, he don’t know me ! ” he cried, and burst into enormous guffaws.
“ Yes, I do,” said Marden quietly, pulling his hand away, for he too had a strong arm. “ You ’re Lee.” He added with an effort, “ You ’re my brother.”
“ Right you are, boy,” cried Lee, laughing still, “ Lee Sebright, otherwise Bat. — But you don’t seem so damn glad to see your brother, either,” he grumbled ; and then cheering up again, “ That’s all right, boy. You ’ll like me better more ye see o’ me. Everybody does. Say, I was afraid the’ was n’t nobody at home, anyway. Where’s the old woman ? ”
Marden shot him a black look.
“ If you mean our mother,” said he, “she died while you were away.”
Looking his elder brother square in the face, he read there a genuine surprise, which gave way to genuine dejection. At least the gross joviality of the man oozed out of his hulking body, and he stood crestfallen, thumbing his pipebowl, and looking down at his feet, which were braced widely apart as if on shipboard.
“ Well, now, that’s noos for ye,” said he, shaking his great head gloomily. “ That’s what I call downright noos for ye. Is that straight, Mard, boy ? — Well, I ’ll be damned. It don’t seem possible. She was— It don’t seem possible. Why look a-here,” he cried petulantly, “ here was me a-thinkin’ how glad she’d be to see me, and a-lookin’ for’ard to comin’ home, and — and — a-lookin’ for’ard to it, ye know ” — He stepped back, and leaning against the edge of the table, pulled his fierce white mustache, and stared weakly at the floor.
“ You seem to have looked for’ard to it long enough,” said Marden dryly. “ Meantime, she died — six years ago last April. I was n’t so clever as this damned Yankee, and must go away to sea to keep her alive through the winter. But she died,”— his voice was like flint, — “ and she died alone, because she never told them how sick she was. And I was enjoying myself at sea, and so were you, — oh, I’m with you there,— and we were both looking for’ard to coming home! Ah, I tell you we ’re a fine pair of sons ! ”
The rebuke reached the elder brother, who stood like a whipped schoolboy. But it contained subtleties beyond him, for he replied at last, in a tone of piety, —
“ Well, boy, we must make the best of it, I s’pose. We both had our faults, says you. An’ ’t was a sad home-comin’ for you, an’ a sadder one for me, ye see, bein’ gone longer. If ’t was to do over again, we’d do better. Well, here’s our comfort,” — and before Marden could stop him, he had pulled a black bottle from his pocket, and taken a long swig, leaning back over the table till the sunlight shone through his white mustache. “ Here,”said he, “ have some. It ’ll cheer us up.”
Marden snatched the bottle from his hand, and whirled it out of the door far down the bank.
“ There ’ll be none o’ that in this house,” be cried, his gray eyes blazing, “ nor out of it while we ’re talking o’ such matters! ”
Lee sprang from the table, bulky but active, with knotted fists and an ugly face flushed purple.
“Wha’ d’ye mean?” he bellowed. " Who are you to take a man’s drink away from him ? Do you own this house ? It’s much mine as yours, an’ if I want to take a drink in it, or anything else, what ’ll you do about it ? Hey? ”
Marden stepped closer. He stood very straight, and looked very proud and handsome and dangerous in his anger.
“ Hey ? What ’ll you do about it ? ” roared his brother.
“ I ’ll smash your face,” he answered, slowly and incisively, as if giving a piece of advice.
Through the open door came the faint whinnying of the horses on the point; the clock on the shelf ticked heavily ; and Lee breathed as if he had been running. The two brothers stood ominously close, looking each other in the eye. Though one was a stripling beside the other’s gigantic width, they were both strong men, both physically brave, both at white heat. Yet the power of victory shone like a light through Marden’s eyes, and the older brother saw it. He stood undecided for an instant, then struck his colors and unclinched his fists.
“ Why, look a-here,” said he, turning it off with an uneasy laugh. “ Look here at us, would ye ? Sixteen years, an’ here we are like a couple o’ gamecocks! Mard, boy, I like yer spunk, damn me if I don’t. ’D lick yer big brother, would ye ? ” His good nature broke out again. “ By the Lord, a chip o’ the old linkumvity block ! Ho ho ho! I ’ll give ye credit fer that, buster ! ”
And he would have clapped Marden on the shoulder — but did not.
“ What’s the use of manhandlin’ each other over half a long-neck ? ” he sneered genially. “ ’T wa’n’t no better ’n rot-gut, anyhow, an’ the’ ’s lots more where that come from. Ye see,” he added with a face and a voice of great candor, " I don’t bear no malice. A word and a blow, as the old sayin’ is, an’ all right again. That’s my style. I like yer spirit, lad, I tell you. — Oh, well, if ye want to be sulky, sail ahead, and be good an’ God damned to ye ! ”
He went over to the big chair, slumped into it once more, lighted his pipe, and spat on the stove. But he was too well pleased with his magnanimity to stay silent long, for presently he began to hum, or rather grumble : —
An’ they all shipped fer sailors aboard the Black Ball.
Oh give the wind time fer to blow a man down.”
“ That’s all right,” he added consolingly. “ That’s all right, Mard. You ’ll like me. Every one does as knows me.”
Marden looked at him, where the heavy shoulders bulged beyond the chairback, and was torn between laughter, scornful silence, and tears. At least he was the master, and he felt thankful, though he had had no doubt at any moment. For a long time he stood watching, while his brother smoked, and spat, and growled snatches of song.
“ That’s the shotgun I shot the loon with,” Lee broke in pensively. “ An’ that’s the Gilderoy a-hangin’ there, same as when we was boys, ain’t it? A fine ship she must ’a’ been, an’ a fine man as run her. The’ ain’t no more ships like her these days. Sawin’ ’em off fer coal-barges, they are now. All the ships now’s coffins with three sticks in ’em, or little better. Well, say, Mard,” emptying his pipe on the stove-lid, “ ain’t it gettin’ round time to eat, huh ? ”
That was a strange supper the two brothers ate together at the table by the window where Marden and his mother had used to face each other. Lee did most of the eating, and all the talking, which ran chiefly on his voyages and what a figure he had cut in the world, — strange disconnected yarns, jumping from port to port, from London to Valparaiso, Melbourne, and Hong Kong. Some were funny, some rudely picturesque, some obscene. Through them all Marden found himself wondering to think how easily he might once have gone on doing just as this other of the Sebright blood.
Finally when the fish and bread and butter and coffee had all disappeared, and Marden was busy clearing away the things, the sailor took to the armchair again by the stove.
“ It’s a cold climate you ’ve got here,” he grumbled, huddling in the chair. “ Ongodly cold.” But he was evidently in gross comfort, for he sat there gorged, Staring in front of him, and from time to time made a sucking noise through his teeth that sounded in the room as loud as a man chirruping to a horse.
By lamplight he seemed once more like the ghost of the old captain, so that Marden, sitting at the window and watching him in silence, felt an obsession of unreality.
Toward nine o’clock Lee roused himself, and looked about.
“Say, mate, I’m a-goin’ to turn in. I ’ll take this here room on the lower deck, I guess. Hullo, it’s locked. Where ’s the key ? ” And he shook the door.
“ Never you mind,” said his brother, with a calmness he did not feel. “ That’s closed for good, and you ’ll sleep in the loft, — whichever room you want.”
“ Humph ! ” grunted the sailor. “ You ’re free with yer orders, ain’t ye ? ”
Marden looked so dangerous, however, that he said no more, but took the lamp in one hand and grappled the canvas bag in the other.
“ It’s a pretty poor sort o’ homecomin’,” he growled, kicking the little deal door open, and standing at the foot of the stair with his pirate face shining brown and evil in the lamplight. “ It’s a pretty poor sort o’ home-comin’, to find yer old woman gone an’ yer brother turned into a tee-total parson. That’s what I say.”
The door clinked behind him. Marden, left in darkness but for the firelight through the chinks in the stove, heard the heavy feet go clumping upstairs. Then there came a stirring about and creaking boards overhead, and growls, and boots dropped heavily, then silence, and at last tremendous snores. Fumbling in the dark, he took the key from behind the spyglass, to hang it by a string about his neck. Then he sat there by the table, and thought, and thought. The creature overhead seemed actually to weigh down upon him and the whole house. But he felt equal to the burden, and even resigned, now that it had so happily come six years too late. He sat thinking and thinking, long after the gleam of the fire had died. At last, from bodily weariness, he fell into a doze and then into a sleep, with his head on his arms.
When he woke the dawn was glimmering in the window beside him. Heavy with sleep, he stared about and thought drunkenly that it must have been a dream ; but next instant the loud snoring in the loft set him right.
THE SEBRIGHT BLOOD.
For the first day or two of their life together, it seemed again to Marden as if it were all a dream, as if his brother had long ago been drowned at sea, and this were a phantom come to torment him in the lonely house. The reality of the thing soon came back to him, however. Lee was too much in the flesh, too loud and jovial and earthy. With that terrible ease with which a man adapts himself to anything, the younger brother became used to having the older about. Marden saw his past life, alone or with his mother in the house, as some distant memory almost in a golden age, a quiet interregnum between the tyrants of circumstance. By brute weight this new duty crushed together the epochs of his life, joining the present to that past when old John Sebright had been a growling nightmare in the house. The northern autumn, a season of paradox when Nature grows more sad and cold while the young blood flows brisker in the veins, drew slowly with ironical sunlight across the dying fields and through the shivering trees. And by November, when the first flurry of snow whirled in the air, it seemed to Marden as if he had always lived so, guarding the closed door against this creature of his own blood.
Their life was together, yet vastly separate. When Lee found his brother unmoved by stories that had set all the forecastle in an uproar, he grew more surly and silent indoors. By tacit agreement the two saw less of each other. Whoever came first to table left the bread and the knife lying ready for the other ; and if it were Lee, there were always very dirty dishes left to be washed, while he was out lounging about the village from morning till night. In fine weather he never came home at noon, which made it easier for Marden, who must keep a constant but secret watch upon him and the house. This was not hard to do, so far as that the season of clam-digging was virtually over. Yet it became very dull work, — always to be on hand as if by chance, always to outwatch him at night, — and always the same old songs in the throaty bass, the stories out of the gutter, or out of the scuppers and the bilge, the same boasting, the same sneers, the tobacco smoke, the spitting, the odor of bad liquor.
In the matter of this same liquor there appeared a droll sign of the younger brother’s mastery, which after the open quarrel had come to be silently recognized. Lee never again attempted to bring a bottle indoors. But whether in fair weather or rain, whether on a hot summer noon or a bitter morning when the snow clogged the door knee-high, he would tramp to the shelf, take down the old brass spyglass, and with a growl — “ Here’s for a look at yer damn fresh water shippin’ ” — would be gone outdoors to some hiding-place or other. At night, it was, “Well, let’s see if all’s snug alow and aloft.” He always came back more bitter or more gay, according to the mood in which he had set out. And Marden, who could rule him drunk or sober, was content to let it go at this.
Drunk, he was for the most part, between visits to his private cache, somewhere under a rail fence behind the house, and visits to Jim Driscoll’s secret bar-room. This last, a secret which all the town knew, was in a tumble-down shanty, with windows shuttered and barred, on the most rickety wharf of all the crazy old piles. Here, where one dim kerosene lamp burned night and day from among the bottles behind the greasy bar, Lee spent much of his time, making friends over a glass of beer or rum and water. What little money he had brought home, he spent quickly and generously on these friends, as he afterward spent what he could borrow from Marden on various pretenses, and what little he got by spasmodic efforts at clam-digging. His favorite trick was to borrow somebody’s sailboat, take a party of summer people out, run them cleverly aground on the bar or elsewhere, and after entertaining them with sea stories, overcharge them for the loss of his time in getting home so much later than they had agreed. The profits of these social afternoons he would spend freely at Driscoll’s in still more social evenings. And the boozy loungers admired his cleverness and his knowledge of men and cities.
“Why, look a-here,” he would cry sometimes, leaning against the bar, with his piratical mustache bristling and his slouch hat raked over one ear. “ Look now, what do you swabs know about life, huh ? Ever been in Archangel, or London, or Fernando Po, or South Georgia, or Candlemas, or the Tonga Islands, or Noo Caledonia, or Lisbon, or Sitka, or Bombay ? ” He pounded the bar till the dregs leapt upward in his glass. “ No, says you, never a one of ’em ! But I have, mind ye, an’ more to boot; an’ I’ve seen men, an’ women, too. Aaw, hell ” — and in a tone of great disgust he would launch into one of his thousand yarns. At the end there would be loud laughter, and more drinks, till his audience forgot this great man’s contempt in the flattery of his friendship.
Strangely enough, he was not so unpopular among the orderly people in the village as one might have thought. His loud good nature and bluff willingness to be friends made him tolerated where he was not liked. Then, too, he had brought a fiddle home in the old captain’s bag, and was eager to play it at dances, which he did with tipsy vigor and flourish. Being too large and strong for a butt, he became a “ character.” And so if people laughed at Bat Sebright behind his back, they usually wore a friendly smile when they met him face to face.
“ He ain’t so queer and offish, like his brother,” they said. Even the rector took something like this view.
“ Those two Sebrights,” he said, smiling, “are like the man and woman in the barometer. You never see them together, and it’s always cloudy weather with one, and sunshine with the other.”
Heber Griswold was almost alone in opposing this simile.
“Humph !'” said he, on hearing it reported. “ What ? Him ? Bat Sebright ? Humph! —A street angel and a house devil.”
As two years drifted along, and Bat’s figure lost its novelty in the village street, more people inclined to Heber’s opinion. The flavor of the sea still clung about him, but the romance had faded away. Perhaps he borrowed too many little sums ; perhaps he made too free among the sailboats ; perhaps he waked too many people when, almost every midnight or early morning, he scuffed and stumbled home, roaring to some companion, “ You ’re the damnedest finest man on the green globe ! ” or bellowing sadly, to the echoes of the empty street and darkened houses, —
Loow Lands, Loow Lands,
Oh, they sank her in the Low Lands low! ”
Whatever it was, he fell off in the general estimation. His glory paled, like the moon seen by day ; or like himself when, after an evening of hearty rule, big and flushed and effulgent on the platform of the dance-hall, he came slouching home by daylight, blear-eyed and gray, and years older in a white stubble of unshaven beard. When the gossips learned that Marden always sat up till the drunkard was in bed, they began to guess, though vaguely, why the younger brother, too, looked so much older and more haggard.
Some of the women in the village stood out longest in liking Bat Sebright without reserve. Perhaps there were those who hoped to gain through him a better acquaintance with his indifferent and inscrutable brother. But others liked him for his own sake and his own taking way, which he had none the less because he bragged of it. Certainly there had been rumors and veiled jokes within his first fortnight ashore, and little by little he walked in an inglorious halo of scandal, which grew more luminous with the affair of old Barclay’s housekeeper. He met her, it seems, at a dance where he was in one of his most dashing and picturesque moods. The affair soon became notorious.
Yet Marden did not hear of it, and found it out for himself only by accident. Once, when the high tide had stopped his work for the afternoon, he was walking where the up-country road dipped into a valley of sombre firs. From time to time, out of the dark woods on either hand and into the sunshine on the dusty road, rabbits came hopping, lean and brown in their summer coats. To watch them the closer, Marden walked very quietly over the short parched grass of the roadside. And so, turning the flank of a granite boulder noiselessly, he came upon his brother, who stood with his broad back toward him, and who held in a bearlike hug the woman of that noon on the beach. In the same moment she struggled free, with a little shriek ; but she was quite shameless, for with what sight there was in her wild, glazed eyes she looked only scorn at the intruder. Marden passed without change of stride or turn of head, though his heart beat curiously faster; and when their loud derision followed him, it was he who was both angry and ashamed.
That night Lee came home late, but sober enough. He sat down by the open window, and smoked; and while Marden glowered from the furthest corner, he looked out with great satisfaction across the harbor. Presently, spitting out of the window upon a tall stalk of London Pride so that it swayed with its flowers red in the lamplight, he said, —
“ Lord, don’t she think small o’ you ! — Bess, I mean. — Say, she would n’t give you hell-room, honest. — Dunno why, but,” he added with malice, “ she’s a fine judge o’ men. Knows me like a book.”
“ That’s enough,” said Marden savagely. “ You ’ll mention her no more in this house, do you hear?”
“Jealous, huh? ” chuckled the sailor.
“ Shut your head,” said his brother.
He was obeyed. Not only for that evening, but from then on, they exchanged no further word of Barclay’s Bess. But Lee, imagining himself the cause of a bitter jealousy, so gloried in himself as a dramatic figure that he became generous, after his fashion. True, there came a period of great sullenness that October, when he had been away for three days, and came back old and transformed with the white stubble covering his face, and his nose broken, and a bloody cheek bone. He had the doctor in to set his nose. Marden paid for it. Meantime the village rang with the saga of a fight in the hawthorn lane on the Barclay farm between Bat Sebright and the old red-bearded Viking. And for a fortnight the sailor nursed himself and cursed himself by the stove.
This must have been only an episode, however, for his good humor returned and in a month soared at higher pitch than ever. But now that winter was on, Marden found him more of a “ house devil” again. He went out oftener with the spyglass to watch the shipping from behind the rail fence, and as the weather grew worse he sat in the great chair, and smoked, spat, and fiddled, or grumbled out his songs. On evenings when the snow or the cold kept him from going to Driscoll’s or elsewhere, he often did his best to be entertaining, with no encouragement beyond silence.
One winter night, after scraping lugubriously on the fiddle, Lee broke out into a song of incredible filth.
“ That ’ll do,” said Marden from his corner.
The sailor leered at him, but stopped, and contented himself with sucking noisily through his teeth. Then he began another:—
For to give those girls a chance.
We ’re all bound to go.
Walk her round, my ” —
“ Please don’t sing that, either,” Marden broke in with unusual gentleness.
His brother looked up in wrathful surprise.
“ Why, look a-here,” he bellowed. “ What’s the matter with you ? The’ ain’t a word o’ dirt in that song, so help me.”
Marden could not have explained to him what echoes it had raised, and was silent.
“ You ’re a beauty, you are,” growled Lee. “You ain’t got common sense. A man’s got to come to psalm-singin’, like a reg’lar damn Rescue Mission. — Well, here ’s one for ye, parson, that I learned from Scotty McKenzie.” And, with a fair imitation of the Scots, he croaked away: —
John come kiss me now,
John come kiss me by and by,
And mak na mair adow.
That, John, doth thee call.
John, signifies man,
By grace ce-les-ti-all.
John come kiss me now,
John come kiss me by and by,
And mak na mair adow.”
“ There’s a godly one for ye,” he sneered. Hereafter this became his favorite song indoors, and he sang it in the black joy of his heart.
But this was not so bad as his long evenings of drunken gloom, when he sat there with a hopeless face, silent, or growling from under his white mustache, “ Here we are on a lee shore an’ the riggin’ rotten! ” Then it seemed as if Marden were sitting by lamplight in a house of ghosts. The loss of sleep and the constant watching had worn him thin, febrile, and morbid. Often, now, the old captain was there bodily before his eyes ; behind him, in the room with the closed door, his mother sat trembling with fear, as he remembered her in his boyhood. It was no fancy, but reality. Through all that hideous time he felt his mother’s actual presence in the house, a comfort and a strength. Yet the long winter of spectral evenings told on him. By spring, the world seemed feverish and phantasmagoric. By summer, though he could work again, he dug the clams in a frenzy of hatred toward them and all creatures of the sea, of which he now felt a physical loathing. Given a Hamlet who lives with his ghosts, who has no power of foolery to relieve his overwrought mind, and whose mission is one of endurance harder than action, you will find him grow dangerous. Marden himself began to feel that something must happen.
At length something did. In August, the Yankee, hearing of some new clambeds at the head of the bay, came to get Marden to drive there with him and inspect them. Since the road ran thirty miles about, it meant staying there overnight, and Marden at first refused. But while the Yankee lingered on the knoll, arguing nasally, Lee came out of the house and hailed them.
“Ahoy, parson, I’m a-goin’ off fer three days. D’ ye hear ? ” And he slouched off across the fields into the upcountry road.
As the sailor always told the truth about his excursions, and —if anything — forecast them too short, Marden gave in to his employer, locked up carefully, and went along. But he was uneasy all the time they were gone, and in the strange bed he lay awake all night, listening to the rain. When finally in midafternoon of the next day the Yankee pulled up the rattling wagon and let him out where the road turned into the village street, Marden took to his heels and ran through the tall grass to the knoll. Somehow it was like his first coming home from sea, to find himself alone.
He was climbing the path, when suddenly he looked at the house. His heart stopped beating, then began to pound against his ribs. Among the woodbine that covered the end nearest him the window of his mother’s room stood open. It had not been so since the days when she had sat there knitting, to smile at him as he came up the bank. For one instant o£ madness he expected to see her face appear in the frame of woodbine leaves. Then he sprang forward to the door, sick with a new fear.
“ THAT THY DAYS MAY BE LONG.”
The door was still locked. Puzzled not a little, he turned the key, and stopped to listen. All was quiet within. Wondering, he pushed the door open, looked in, and was astounded.
The kitchen, always so orderly, was in the dirtiest confusion. Over the floor lay the tracks of muddy boots, with here and there a cake of dried mud. A broken chair and the fragments of a plate cluttered round the legs of the table, on which there stood, in a litter of dishes, two great empty bottles. The stuffed loon in the corner leaned its black head tipsily against the wall, as if it were the culprit. Through the back door, which stood open, Marden caught sight of another bottle smashed at the foot of the chopping-block. All this he saw in a flash, thinking, “ He came home late, for his boots were muddy, and I did n’t hear it rain till nearly midnight.” Taking a lid from the stove, he found coals still smouldering. Lee had been there till noon or thereabout.
But next instant he lost all use of reason. The door into his mother’s room stood open, splintered about the lock. With the cry of an animal, he darted in, and saw everything in a state of indescribable breakage, as if men had been wrestling about there. Some one had climbed in through the window, shoving the table aside. The knitting lay flung in a corner, and beside it the envelope to his letter, ripped open. The floor-boards and the rugs were smeared with muddy tracks.
Marden shook his fist at the cracked ceiling and at the heavens beyond it. “ He ’ll pay for this ! ” he cried, choking. “By God, he ’ll pay for this ! ”
Then as he stood in dumb rage, the tears running down his cheeks, he mechanically straightened with his foot the deerskin rug that lay by the bureau. The movement uncovered something small that shone on the floor. He picked it up, but dropped it as if burned. He had seen it shine before. It was three links of silver chain, on a silver bangle perforated with star-shaped holes. Both of them had been there.
Something gave inside Marden’s head ; he shuddered as with ice and fire; the room swam black round him. He heard a strange voice cry in the distance, and knew that it was himself. When the darkness cleared, he found himself standing on the stove in the kitchen, tearing down the gun and the powder-horn from over the Gilderoy. He jumped to the floor again, and sobbing and whispering strange words, tugged with his teeth at the wooden plug in the horn. With the facility of acts in a dream, the black grains poured softly in ; the wadding was rammed home; the cap from the little box on the shelf slipped over the nipple precisely ; the leaden ball dropped plump into the barrel. He deliberated a moment.
“ No, one bullet’s enough,” he whispered. “ It could n’t miss him.”
Then he searched wildly for a second wad, but could not find it, till at last, ransacking the table drawer, he fished out a scrap of soiled blue paper, written on in a large hand. He stopped and read it carefully : —
“ Drake caulking ballast ports do. 15. do.
Bissant brasswork 2.17.11
Ross ballast 53.13. 4
Edy butcher 18.15. 8
Moon optician .18. 6
Doyle sailmaker 11. 1. 1
Pilotage to the Downs 10.10.
forwd. £298.18. 1”
He thought painfully. “ I don’t believe this is important,” he concluded, then crumpled the paper up and rammed it home fiercely, enraged at the loss of time, and with the words, “Hurry, hurry!” coming in a savage whisper from somewhere.
He ran blindly out into the hot sun, bareheaded, gun in hand. For an instant, habit told him to lock the door. But the abomination was done, the sanctuary violated. With a frantic, hopeless gesture he turned again and ran down through the fields into the up-country road. The heat had burned away all traces of the rain, so that the silent yellow dust rose softly in his trail. Over the hill he ran, down through the valley of firs, past the granite boulder, from behind which a solitary lean rabbit hopped across his way and into the dark woods. Sweating, breathless, Marden ran on and on, without sight, without hearing, and without plan save for an instinct, a certainty that he was in the right path ; till suddenly, as he plunged down into a gully that cleft an open space through the woods on either side, a plan flashed into his head, and he stopped, panting, blind with sweat and tears.
Beyond, just above the little hill that wound sharply upward before him, he knew that the highway forked into two roads, both of which ran past the great triangle of the Barclay farm. Lee might come by either. The thought of deliberate waiting, of ambush, filled him with nausea. But there must be no mistake, — that creature must not have the devil’s luck to get by. He grounded his gun in the dust, and looked about the little clearing.
“ It must be here,” he thought, and for all his hurry in the sun, was struck cold and shuddered.
The clearing, an old dry watercourse, slanted down from the left in a tangle of low bushes and weeds. Marden chose the upper side of the road, and flung himself in, to swelter in the fierce heat.
He listened and listened for footsteps on the hill, and stared through the bushes till his neck and elbows ached. Then while time dragged by, long as years, the details of the place grew focused out of a blur into painful and weary distinctness. Trees stood out from the vague green wall — cedars, spruces, firs, alders, and a willow with its leaves blown silver side out in the hot, faint breeze. The wild growth about him resolved itself into bushes of dusty, crumbling raspberries, into yellow St. John’s-wort and the sickly pink of fire-weed and sheep’s-laurel, into withered caraways, into scorched strawberry leaves with wiry runners, old nameless twigs bleached silver gray, the rusty white cockades of queen-of-the-meadow. The road wound up over the little hill to the sky-line, a bleak avenue of pebbles and dust between tall weedy mullein stalks and fat little childish fir trees with their pale green tips sticking up kneehigh. The very blades of grass became amazingly diverse under his eyes, and achingly full of the minutest life. The very silence grew into a thin, metallic hum of flies that he had heard in some other stillness before. And over and through it all blazed and quivered the truculent heat.
All at once his heart gave a jump, and began to flutter in his ribs, little as a kitten’s. There were footsteps scrambling among the pebbles at the top of the hill. He grasped the gun, and craned his neck to see above a clump of snapdragon. He could have cried out aloud in the long suspense. But no, it was not his brother : the man was little and thin. As he came down into the gully, Marden knew him for Heber Griswold. He came very close, stopping once nearly opposite Marden to pluck a joint of timothy, which he did with difficulty, it was so dry and tough with over-ripeness. The straw swayed in his teeth as he passed on, smiling in quizzical meditation. And Marden, lying smothered in the hot underbrush, found kindly feelings mingled in the confusion of his heart.
The heat and the hum of flies settled down again more intensely. A long time passed. Finally a new sound broke in, — the bell in the distant village, ringing to Wednesday vespers. The old refrain started up once more, — " that thy days may be long, long, that thy days may be long,” — ringing slowly over and over again. Marden nodded over his shoulder toward the sound, his teeth bare in a grin of satirical friendliness. “ Right you are, old fellow, for once,” he thought, while the warning rang on in his head, half solemnly, half in a kind of black merriment.
Turning to watch again, he noticed a mosquito on the gun-barrel, and crushed it with his finger mechanically. The thing must have been biting him and sucking its fill, for it left a sticky smear of blood on the warm brown metal. The sight of blood disgusted him. He wiped his hand vigorously in the shriveled grass.
Suddenly, from the trees above the hill, a squirrel chittered like a fisherman’s reel. As if it had been a signal, there followed a scuffing among the pebbles, and in the gap of the bare road the broad figure of Lee heaved against the sky. He came slouching down close by the line of dusty mullein stalks, and almost reached the foot of the gully.
Marden leapt out into the road, cocking the gun as he stood up straight. At the sight of this squat creature, all the years of smothered hatred blazed ungovernably.
“ Stop ! ” he cried, dry and harsh.
The sailor jumped back with a motion of his arm like a boxer guarding.
“ Hold on ! Hold on, Mard ! ” he cried in a strangely little voice. “ I did n’t — it was n’t us, honest! ”
Each man, looking at the other, knew that the lie would not serve. And Lee saw death in the round black muzzle and the blazing eyes behind it. Let it go to his credit that he bellowed like a bull and hurled himself forward with great gnarled hands grappling in the air.
The gun roared in the stifled gully.
In the cloud of smoke the sailor reeled, with a gray face and his open mouth a black circle ; then his bulk collapsed like a telescope, or rather like an empty meal-sack that has been held open and suddenly dropped. Marden, deafened by the explosion, and with his shoulder smarting from the recoil, gave a loud cry as he saw the man fall so through the smoke, and then jerk forward convulsively, burying his face in the sharp bristles of a little fir tree, as a heavy sleeper might bury it in a pillow. This lasted only a moment, for the body rolled over with a terrible limpness and lay on its back, the twisted legs pointing uphill, and the head jammed over against one shoulder by the weight. Almost in the same instant there shuddered over the gray features a swift and mortal change.
The smoke drew slowly up the hill, trailing in low-spread layers and wisps, among the lean mullein stalks. With the smell of powder mingled that of burning paper from the wads, which lay smoking among the pebbles and dust. There also rose the pungent odor of rum : in the pocket of the blue flannel shirt that was drawn so tight over the huge chest a flat bottle had broken. The cloth was dark and sopping with this and another stain, that spread. No trace of red appeared : life-blood and rum soaked the flannel together, indistinguishable.
Marden, with gun grounded, looked down at this, his thin face stern as bronze in the hot sun, — the face of a soldier and a priest.
Slowly the ringing in his ears turned into the hum of flies that made the silence. Then of a sudden the place was struck into dusk. The sun had gone behind the trees above the road, leaving the gully in shadow, as if clouded over before a storm. The hollow seemed also to become cooler. And just then Marden, with his eyes still fixed on the dead man’s face, lying half sidewise, in the stubble of beard, saw it as if it had been his father’s. At the thought, his heart shrank small and cold : it was as though he had killed them both. His whole body unstrung, like a fiddle-string when the peg slips. Without another look at the dead man, he turned and ran in panic and horror, shivering with cold, stumbling to his knees with weakness, back into the sunlight and along the deserted road.
Why he went back to the house he never could have told, any more than how he got there, or whether he had passed any one — though he had not — on the way. He only knew that he found himself sitting on the millstone at the door, and that in the east, over the sea, an ancient star shone bright in mocking calmness. He held his head in his hands, shuddering uncontrollably in a tumult of dismay. He could not rightly think what he had done. Which of them had he killed, or was it indeed both ? Why, why in all the welter of chances, had this thing happened ? He racked his brain for some word of help, but no word came except a fragment he had been reading the day before, — by what right had he read it ? — the prayer of Elijah : “ It is enough. Now, 0 Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” Better ? How many times worse ! They, rough, simple men, had done what they knew, no more. And he, what sacred things had he not known, what high purposes had he not guarded, only to dash them underfoot.
He shook his fist at the calm, inveterate star.
“ Who ’ll be the judge, then ? ” he asked fiercely, in a whisper more heartbreaking than a cry. “ What’s right, and what’s wrong ? And what is there left ? ”
He found no answer, and dropped his head again, shivering as in a fever-fit.
A horse, left alone in the island pasture where the tide had cut him off, whinnied out of the distant dark. Even in Marden’s torment, the sound brought back that evening when his brother had returned. Memories and questions swarmed in his brain again, rioting. Why could not he that now lay there dead in the gully, why could not he have stayed away ? The world was so big, and full of a million other mishaps. If he were to die, a drunken lurch on the string-piece of a pier, a slip on an icy foot-rope, and Fate would have been satisfied without this dreadful means. Or again, was it all a fault of his, Marden’s ? Could he not have treated Lee differently ? Had he not been too stern and sour with the poor devil ? “ For God knows,” he cried within himself, “ we are all poor devils together.” Had it been a test, long, secret, subtle, and had he failed once more through dullness ? Perhaps all the years of night - long watching, without complaint, showed him only a hard-hearted prig, a weakling Pharisee. Or if not, were they all to go for nothing because the watchman had been false a single night ? These and a hundred worse questions hounded him over a black, shifting wilderness of despair. He was alone. There was no creature believed in him or loved him, not even his mother, of whom he dared not think. The remembrance of the starry night aboard the Merry Andrew, of the spring walks alone that had strengthened his devotion, rose in his mind like pale glimpses in the life of some other man, long ago. Surely that boy — and yet here he sat, a murderer, with the eldest primal curse upon him. He groaned aloud, and flinging back his head, looked up into the infinite brightness and distance of the stars, from whence came no help. His sight and his thought could no longer penetrate among them, to thread a measureless way from depth to outermost depth, and be cleansed in the wonder of space. His head only grew the dizzier, with thoughts confined and whirling. A light, flurried footstep sounded in the path close by. He sprang up. People in the world — he had forgotten them, and here was one coming, perhaps to speak empty words, perhaps to ask why he had done what was done.
He hoped the last, and was prepared to answer humbly.
Before he knew what was happening, a woman had run and flung her arms about him where he stood by the larch tree. Surely it was a dream, this swift embrace in the dark. But she was alive, warm, breathless, and was shaken violently as she clung to him.
“Oh,” she panted, in tempestuous relief and hurry, “oh, why didn’t you — why did n’t you — oh, you fool! ” She laughed in breathless and wild happiness, her voice smothered by his clothing.
“ Why did n’t you let me know ? ” she cried. “ You ’re so deep — I never guessed — not till I found him there — Aah ! ” she shuddered, and clung to him as if she would have fallen.
“ There was blood on him,” she whispered brokenly. “ And it’s on me now — my sleeves. He was all wet when I — I dragged him into the bushes. It was in the dark — and oh God, so heavy ! — Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, quick ! ”
“ Where ? Go where ? ” Marden asked in amazement. He tried to raise her face, but could not, from where she held it buried against his side and in the crook of his arm.
“ Across — over to the other side,” she said. “ Him an’ I was goin’ anyway to-night. That’s why we — But that’s before I knew what you— Come on, the boat’s ready hid. Come along ! ”
Marden slowly drew near the brink of comprehension. The woman suddenly raised her head, seizing him anew and fiercely by the arm.
“ You must n’t be afraid of me any more,” she coaxed, still in a whisper. “ Don’t be so cold to me. I understand you now, don’t I ? Don’t I ? ” she repeated vehemently, shaking him. And she gave a little happy laugh that rang dreadful in Marden’s ears. “ Oh, you quiet men ! ”
Warden looked at her, silent. His eyes, accustomed to the starlight, saw with an unaccountable clearness. The woman’s face — the odd, alluring face, triangular like a kitten’s — was upturned to his once more, and once more was mysteriously pale. This time, at night, there was something magic and phantasmal in the yearning darkness of the great eyes. He knew her thoroughly vile, a by-word of the country-side ; yet for one moment she stood before him mystical, a sorceress, and he wondered if there were not help in her.
“ Come on ! ” She tugged at him with triumphant energy. “ It’s all plain as day — an’ easy. See. I’ve got the money that we — I’ve got money enough. — We’ll go to the American side, an’ then to the cities, an’ it ’ll be a week before they find it — him, there, in the bushes —so they ’ll never get us in God’s world. — We’d planned it already — but that was when I thought you did n’t care. — An’ the cities ! ” she cried. “ That’s the place to live. I ’ll show you, for I know ’em all. That’s where Jim found me first — Jim Barclay. The old fool! — old red-headed beast! Pah ! ”
She paused for breath, and while the crickets were trilling in the damp grass, stroked his arm as if in consolation.
“ Golly, how strong you are! ” she purred. “ But you ’re not like them. I’m through with their kind now, honest, for good. They ’re big babies along of you. — Don’t you see ? Don’t you see ? — Oh, you quiet devil! The time we ’ll have ! — I never knew a man like you before.”
Still Marden could not pull himself away from what at once quieted and angered him.
“ A man like me ? ” he stupidly faltered. “ Why — what ” —
“ That’s you all over ! ” cried the woman proudly. “ Why, how many of ’em do you s’pose there is nowadays would do what you done for the sake of a woman ? ”
Once more, as in that meeting on the beach, a light began to grow slowly in his mind. Just so a man underground might see, far ahead, the day glimmering in the mouth of some burrow.
He drew himself free, without violence or scorn. The blood running in his veins was his own again, under control.
“ You ’re right,” he replied slowly, “ right in a way. — I begin to see — By the Lord, it was that! That’s a straw to catch at, anyway. There’s a chance, after all.”
His tone showed that he had forgotten her.
“ What are you after now ? ” she whipped out. “ Don’t go moonin’ again, now we understand each other.”
She made as if to put her hands on his shoulders, but he drew back, regarding her gravely.
“ It’s queer,” — his voice, too, was very grave, and trembled, — “ it’s queer to hear a murderer talk of conscience, and all that — but let Him judge, wherever He is. I’ve meant to do right, and — you see, the fist I’ve made. But now you’ve made me see somehow, a little. — It’s like, well — it’s as if a soldier (a stupid one, that’s me) lost a great battle — for the cause — the cause his whole heart’s in. — That’s how it is. — And the man’s heart breaks, — but he loves the cause just the same, and loves the Commander, too, that puts him to death — you see he deserves it. Hopeless wrong, that’s what I’ve done ; but something on the right side put me up to it.”
“ I don’t know what you ’re talkin’ about, you queer thing,” she said curtly. “ But you ’re wastin’ time, anyway. Hurry up, for God’s sake ! I don’t understand none o’ that stuff, but tins is right under our noses.”
He shook his head sadly.
“ A little while ago I might have killed you too. And now — why, it’s almost a debt you’ve put me under. At least, — go on — go away — We ’re all poor devils together — and how do I know how the two Commanders choose up beforehand ? — Go away, and let me think this out — It ain’t much I have left me — and I want to think it all out.”
“ What’s the matter ? ” complained the woman. “After you done all this for me — What d’ ye mean ? ”
“ For you ? ” he replied quietly. “ It was n’t for you.”
“Not for me ? ” She gave an impatient and incredulous laugh. “ Then who in the devil was it for ? ”
“ A woman,” he slowly answered, — “you never knew her, and I hope you never saw her. I can’t name her name before — either of us. And yet I see now she’s way above any harm you or him or I might say or do against her.”
With a sharp intake of breath that was almost a snarl, the woman advanced on him, quick and hostile.
“ Do you mean that ? ” she cried, shrill with anger. “ Do you understand what I know — what I can do, you fool ? — an’ I will do it, too. — I’m in a pretty fix now — when it was all for some other woman, — Oh, you two liars, you an’ him both — an’ let me go an’ make a fool o’ myself here —Oh, you great —you, you — oh, oh, oh ! ” She could find no words, but ran in close, pelted him viciously with her fists, then turned and bolted toward the town.
Marden neither felt her blows nor heard the sound of her running. He only knew that she had vanished. The darkness swallowed her up, and all memory of her. He was trying to feel his way out of this labyrinth before the tenuous clue should be withdrawn, or spin itself down to nothing in the dark.
“ It was n’t for such reasons as — as it might have been,” he pondered. “ If they ’ll only give me time, I ’ll follow this through yet, and get unsnarled, perhaps.”
A soft breeze was drawing cool out of the west. The leaves of the poplar behind the house began to whisper shiveringly. High in the air, a firefly was blown down the wind, so that at the first glance lie mistook it for a falling star. And in the sudden coolness, Marden found himself thinking clearly and sweetly of his mother, whom he saw again as in the blue December dawn, with the firelight shining upward on the gentle face and the sad gray eyes. It was all very distant, and belonged not to him ; but at all events the vision was there.
“ She’d understand even this,” he thought. “ Whether she ever forgave it or not, she knows what’s been fighting in my veins. That’s as much as a man deserves.”
Through the trilling of the crickets and the soft patter of the leaves came the sound of a frog chunking away among the rushes of the little marsh behind the knoll, croaking his song, older than Aristophanes. Marden did not hear it, but he saw the ancient star hung in the east, and under the Great Bear the ghostly play of the Northern Lights, shifting in long faint streamers across the sky, showing a handiwork beyond all understanding.
He stood lost in wonder, filled with a grief as old as sea and land. Then he slowly faced about.
A light was coming from the village.
“ The house,” he said aloud, “ it does n’t matter now what happens to that, either.”
The light came bobbing across the field. It was a lantern, carried in the midst of a little group of people, who approached silently. He could see their legs moving dim in the path, and the long, blaek. magnified shadows crossing and recrossing, shearing the broad hillside.
Marden walked slowly down to meet them.
Henry Milner Rideout.