It was in the dark, before dawn of a December morning, that Marden Sebright woke. Some vague stirring below 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 Harden 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! O mother, if ever I meet him!—No, no, o' course I must n't—I would n't"—
"No, dear, you must n't. Lee meant—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, Harden, 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 powderhorn 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 snowfields 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 three-masted 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 downhill 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, gray-haired, 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.
"Eccomi," 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 snowfields. 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 mese—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 crashed 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 water-cask in it. Angelo hopped in lightly. Harden 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 pulled 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 half-hearted quaver of a chanty raised by Captain Harlow's Americans on board, heaving short:—
"Sometimes we 're bound for Liverpool,
Sometimes we 're bound for France;
But now we 're off for Sicily
For to give those girls a chance.
"Walk her round, boys-oh-boys,
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 snowfields 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.