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 mayflowers 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. Harden 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:—
"Oh, the National Line it ruined me.
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, my boys.
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 gray-brown 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.
"Oh, I 've got no good o' me daughters
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, my boy,—I would n't 'a' knowed ye, honest! O-oh, 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 mighty 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 pipe-bowl, 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 swear! It don't seem possible. She was—It don't seem possible. Why, look a-here," he cried petulantly, "here was me a-thinkin' bow 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 Yankee here, 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' 'twas 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."
Harden 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," he 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 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 longneck?" he sneered genially. "'T wan'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 have yer own way!"
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:—
"Wey, hey, blow a man down.
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 chair-back, 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' home-comin'," 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' homecomin', to find yer old woman gone an' yer brother turned into a teetotal 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.