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 chick weed that choked the path. Harden, 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 shingles; 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 Harden 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 newborn 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 doorkeeper 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 Marden 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 clam-diggers. 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 shoulder-blades, 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 star-shaped 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, with 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 everyone," 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.