Thus it was that the schooner Merry Andrew, of Hinkley, Maine, took on another cask of water, shipped a foremast 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 seasickness 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 aboard ship, lying ankle-deep along the deck, or capping the deckhouse 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 afternoons 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 Italians became mad creatures, and jabbered with gestures as of life and death among the stevedores who bundled the shooks up from the dark hole. 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 Mount 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 Harden found time to wander through the streets, under the heavy balconies of the houses, past little half-hidden 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 don't ye git some to take aboard fer goin' back?" they would sometimes ask Harden. 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, frog-like 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 Harden could free himself, the misshapen creature had pulled him along, halted squarely in front of two women in a lighted doorway, and begun 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 earrings 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: 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. Harden, 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 could n'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, with swift disgust. "I won't 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 upon 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 knowed 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 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.