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 barroom. This last, a secret which all the town knew, was in a tumbledown 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 leaped 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. Aw, 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:—
"Oh, they sank her in the Low Lands,
Lo-ow Lands, Lo-ow 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 farthest 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 cheekbone. 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, Harden 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 big 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:—
"… But now we 're off to Adelaide
For to give those girls a chance.
"Walk her round, boys-oh-boys,
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 down to psalm-singin', like a reg'lar 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 now,
John come kiss me by and by.
And mak na mair adow.
"The Lord thy God I am.
That, John, doth thee call.
John signifies man.
By grace ce-les-ti-all.
"So it's John come kiss me now,
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 clam-beds 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 over night, 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 up-country 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 mid-afternoon 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 of 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.