O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/What Do You Mean—Americans?
WHAT DO YOU MEAN—AMERICANS?
By WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
From Pictorial Review
THEY live in the country of the old—old houses, old sands, old men. Already they dream, and this is their dream, that when they are gone the tides, which seem to eat deeper into the Cove each year, will just come on up one spring and carry what’s left of Cape Cod down under the water of the Seven Seas that in its old youth it conquered, its work and its glory done. And that will be before long now, for there are only a few folks left.
You can count the families on one hand. There are the Whites and the Fullers in the Hollow, the Rogerses at the Bog, the Brewster brothers at the Cove. That’s about all now in this tenuous, half-drowned, seven-mile wrist of the Cape. Of the Whites and Rogerses there are four generations, in the Fuller house three: the latter ends run pretty puttering, though, and pretty thin.
If it’s a far cry from the Edward Fuller who came ashore to say his prayers, chase Indians, and leave his name on the Pilgrim Tablet over in Provincetown, down to Eddie Fuller, yawning and attending to his pimples behind the post-office boxes at the Center—if it’s a far cry from those dreadless “subjects of the dread sovereign” down to the youthless White youths, flivver-rattling to their fevered merrymakings at Wellfleet or Eastham, their galvanic dead-frog dancing, their drug-store tipple, and their radio jazz—if there’s a gap there, there’s a gap almost as wide and quite as melancholy between these tag-ends of the stock and a generation still living under the roofs with them—Sam White and Benjie Fuller in the Hollow, Ember Rogers at the Bog, Andy and Isaiah Brewster at the Cove—men who fetched Kennebec ice-cakes to Calcutta and brought new China tea up the Thames in the Sea Glory and the A. J. Stowell two weeks ahead of London’s own East-Indiamen in the days that were days.
In those days the Cape bred women, too. Look at Molly, Andy Brewster’s wife, that’s dead and gone. Then look at the Molly Brewster of to-day. She keeps house for her great-grandfather Andy and his brother Isaiah at the Cove, and what house she keeps! Well, it’s not the way the other Molly did it sixty years ago. Bread baked in Boston, beans baked in Chicago, cake in cardboard from goodness-knows-where! She hasn’t the time, she says.
Hasn’t the time! Those two old men fathom the sad, deep, literal truth of that. She hasn’t the time. She came too late, the sands too nearly run. After her the deluge; so why take pains? What’s the use of forethought, with nothing to come? What’s the use of character, never to be handed down? What’s the use even of appearances? Studying her secretly from beneath their watery lids, they comprehend. That is why, then, she speaks a language of strange, daring, slipshod words; why her gestures are all immoderate and her songs out of tune; why she goes about unabashed in skirts as short and lips as red as a California harlot in the days of gold. That is why she is never at home evenings, darning or quilting under the sitting-room lamp, but off as soon as ever the supper dishes are stacked, with a pat and a fling and a mouth of rebellion, flitting the devil alone knows where in the dark of the country of the old.
“Let us eat, drink, and be merry——” Poor girl!
She hasn’t the time even to care about the company she keeps. This strikes deepest into the hearts of Andy and Isaiah. Their pride is bitter. To think of these two blond vikings of the republic who carried the Stars and Stripes around a wondering world, who came home to fetch good, honest Indies rum ashore under the dark of the Cove like the free men they were, and went up to the meeting-house in their Sabbath beavers to worship the God of Massachusetts as only free men may—to think of them having to sit, shackled to their rockers by the weight of their proud years, and watch the remnant of their line and population going, without visibly caring, to the dogs!
They would have called him a dog in their time, or at least “one of them niggers of some sort.”
He comes out of the deepening shadows. Whence he comes, in that narrow land where there are only the Rogerses and Brewsters, the Fullers and the Whites, who can say? Andy and Isaiah can’t. When they try, their minds close up.
Their minds do that of late years. More and more easily. When, at the ice-cream feast of the Dorcases last autumn, the two old fellows undertook in mournful gaiety to twit the schoolma’am upon the dwindling of her flock, and when she looked puzzled (for all the world) and told them that, land alive! they weren’t to worry, she had her hands full, and would have them a sight fuller, she guessed, before they got around to putting in the new primary room—when she said that, Isaiah looked at Andy and Andy at Isaiah, one winked and the other cackled, and their minds, like wary clam-shells, closed up tight. “Primary room!” They weren't to be taken in by jokes like that. They were too smart.
He comes out of the deepening shadows, his approach heralded, long before he is seen, by the sounding-boards of the hills that gather down to the Cove, the clank of a loose brake-beam, the whine of gritted springs, gaskets wheezing. A curious centaur, head and shoulders and busy arms of a man, body of an ungroomed half-ton truck; so from their rockers on the porch behind the mosquito-netting they always see him, Jimmy the Greek. So he careens to a halt under the antique, uneasy willows in the blue-brown shadow cast by Sheep Hill; so he snorts, backs, swerves, carricoles, pawing the sand, gambolling in the twilight of these Yankee gods; so he rears there, breathing heavily with his pitted cylinders, peering glassily with his one large rectangular eye at the house beyond the turf, the house native and noble, solid and broad and low, with a roof like another slope of the gray Pamet moors. So, unbudging from his hybrid shell, he calls through the dusk: “Molly to home?”
Neither Andy nor Isaiah answers. Rock, rock, rock, their chairs and their dry bones creaking, their eyes meeting, full of repugnance, rebellion, appeal. They’d have their tongues cut out before they’d speak.
No need. Molly has answered herself. “Yep, just a second I'll be with yu, Jim, old kid.”
She passes out between the rockers, hatless, free of elbow, wanton of stocking, neither mother of to-morrow nor daughter of yesterday.
“Where you bound for, Molly?” Andy writhes. He feels degraded.
“Where you bound?” Isaiah writhes. He, too, had sworn never to ask again.
“Oh, nowheres. Up to the dance at Chatham, that’s all. Oh, for the love, Jimmy, can that honking , will yu ! Tm on my way! Now, Daddies, run, climb in "your beds like good boys. Sound sleep, sweet dreams!”
Sleep! Dreams! The mockery!
Their rockers are still. Leaning forward, squeezing the chair-arms with their vein-corded fists, they “follow the iron flight of the centaur, cast back in fainter and fainter reverberations from the folded moor-sides, careening farther away, deeper away in the mists of the falling night.
He’s going up Graveyard Hill now. If only their legs could run as swiftly as their minds. He’s abreast of the old Snow place now. Thrrrmmm! Whine and wheeze! An abominable whisper threading the valleys. It’s louder for an instant, as though a door in the hills had opened. He’s crossing the marsh at the Centre now, this what-is-he? This Greek. This what’s-his-name? J. Krenk, General Trucking. Jimmy the Greek. And Molly Brewster!
Anger, reckless and helpless, sweeps them.
Let him take her. Let him take her back to his lemon-peddling, olive-stinking, two-for-a-nickel Levant ports. Then let her see!
Then let her think of those White women, the other Mollys, her mothers!Memories submerge the two men; their tantrum passes and gives place to nostalgia; they turn cowards, feeling themselves abandoned, defeated at last. The mosquito-bar is a cage, oppressing their lungs and bringing to their skins a faint, chill sweat. Moved by a common impulse, they get up and rush out. They have forgotten their hats, and Isaiah’s head is as bald as a porpoise. What matter? Their rheumatics! Their hearts! What odds!
Where are they going, hoisting their feet so industriously along the clam-shell metal of this road? Where and why?
“We might drop around and see Sam White a minute, the night’s so fine.”
“So we might. I hear tell he was ailin’ a trifle yesterday.”
Two shafts of light, streaming from nowhere, wheel across the dark. Two orbs, sudden and blinding, fetch up with a snort to eye the vivid old men.
“Here they are now,” comes a voice out of the creature.
“Why,” gasps Andy, “if ’tain’t the White boys!’’ Isaiah, blinking into the headlights, lifts a reedy voice: “We was bound your way, boys.”
“Well, Ma said we should stop by and tell you, and save you the trip. It'll be Friday at two, the fun’ral.”
The monster squats there on its rubber haunches, purring, reading their stupid faces. After a little it says: “You'd heard about Gran’pa, hadn’t you? Went last evenin’, quiet, no pain. And it’s Friday at two.” Presently it gives them over for dumb ones, bounces around in the road and streams off up the vale, leaving their eyes full of stars.
“Sam!” says one.
“Sam!” says the other. That’s all.
Perhaps it’s the way it happened, the stage-effects; perhaps it’s something long predestined in the calendar of their years. No matter, the night has turned a corner and become apocalyptic.
Sam White is gone.
In silence they plod back. They plod back toward the cage of the netting, the eighty-year prison of the dark house. Sleep. Dreams.
But, no-sir! Not by a dang sight, they won’t. They bolt the road and flee it at right angles across the tricky footing of the poverty-grass.
"They seek water, and die in the open.” ‘That’s rats.
But why all this? They knew Sam had to go sooner or later and give over his much of room to the returning wilder- ness and the climbing tides. Just as they know that Benjie and Ember will have to give over theirs, and they themselves, and let the tired Cape go down. Didn’t they know that?
They’re silly, but you can’t argue it. It’s something in this night, something let loose, something that pursues and climbs up their legs like a travesty of strength, another child- hood. So they clamber for all they’re worth, in silence, their mouths open, as if it were true that the valley behind was filling up with the flood.
They look back when they reach the crest of Sheep Hill, and from the height they see the country familiar to them, rod by rod of its folded moors, its dunes and winding marshes, spread of a sudden fantastic and pixy-peopled under this night. Will-o’-the-wisps and ghost-fires.
There’s John Champion’s house, under the shoulder of Finback, a mile to the east. John died a good twenty years ago, and his daughter’s family moved to Iowa. Yet there looks to be a light in it, a goblin cheer. Dave Burch passed on in the ’nineties; his children live in Los Angeles; the home-. stead, hidden under the cottonwoods in the Flat, opens an eye in distant banshee mockery. And there again. As if there were people, populations! And there again. Like a lamp on Borneo Plain!
There’s one element that never betrays, but always plays fair. If the land is playing tricks with your eyes, old fellows, turn them to the sea.
Across the water the sky toward Boston shows a late loom of dusk, doubled upside down in the mirroring plain. Not far offshore, across the mouth of the Cove, a fisherman sails, his dim masts erect in the meagre breeze. Farther distant, toward the lights on Provincetown shore, a monster lies at rest on the sea.
So the sea, too, is corruptible to-night, even the sea. It abides Leviathan. Leviathan blowing a leaden, lazy spout; prodigious creature, ink-black, and incandescent-striped.
"She come in weeth engine-trouble,” says a voice.
There’s another watcher on Sheep Hill. He arises from a beach-plum bush at their feet, headless, because he has his coat shawlwise over his head.
“I never seen her beefore, thees ship, and that’s funny because my boy goes een her, and she’s lak a city, he says. Fifty-nine t’ousand ton! What you know about that?”
What, indeed, do they know about that? Except that the night is trying to play them another trick. Painting that shadow on the shadows out there, enormous; as though a master and a mate of an incomparable Sea Glory were to be taken in by a jest as thin as that, a ship enormous as eighty Sea Glories on one keel!
“I tell you,” says the shade, “these Englishmann, these Germann, they got nootheng on us now. One day us Americans we weel be as beeg a shipping nation as they is on the sea; you watch.”
It’s too rare. Andy and Isaiah open their mouths to chuckle, and before they can chuckle, a hot, contemptuous anger has got in their throats instead.
“Who are you?” they cry, and “Where you from?” Those voices that rang, full-winded, absolute, over the decks of the white clippers of the years when the world rubbed its eyes. Echoes now.
Echoes, yes, but echoes still puissant. The headless Jack-in-the-box sounds fetched-aback and ill at ease.
“Wh-wh-who am I? Well, I guess you know me, Meester Brewster. You know Manuel Braganza. You seen me round plentee, I guess. Since five year I got thees old Champion place back here, crost from Jimmee the Greek. I guess you know me, all right.”
“You don’t know Manuel Brag—— Don’t know Manny the Lisbon?”
“‘Never hear the name. Never!”
“You—you—never hear o’ my boy Johnee?”
Silence. That has done for him. It has done for them, too; done wonders. Their feet are solid on their own hill again and they begin to tower. Men against bogies, men will win every time.
It’s true. The spook hasn’t a word. Presently he begins to fade before their eyes, a receding whisper of sand. Across the hilltop and down the slope the long, black, dismembered torso vanishes degree by degree into the dark above the invisible Cove.Give these old fellows an inch and they'll take a mile. The impulse to pursue, to rout him seven-fold, to crow, to pile it on, is too strong. Nor is it altogether this that hauls them to the sandy precipice where he disappeared. Triumph has given sudden rein to memories; their feet are in old paths, their tongues wag.
"Remember that night the revenue-man come snoopin’?”
“Remember the skiff bottom-up on the beach with the three bar’ls of rum under it, and me under it with ’em and my legs caught out by the gun’l, full in view?”
“Rec’lect the brig hove to out there, ’bout where that fisherman lays now?”
“The Abraham, wa’n’t it? And Ezra Small?”
They pause. Pause? Where are they? What in the name of Jehoshaphat are they doing here, old flies, clinging midway of the precipitous sand? This much is certain: if they don’t catch their death one way they’ll catch it another.
They pause. Hunkering down in little sand-slides, they gaze at the becalmed schooner. In the cobweb starlight it might truly be the Abraham, and Captain Ezra prowling the deck and chewing his whisker and wondering what’s wrong with the Brewster boys ashore. They gaze at the pool of the inlet below them, and there the starlight, chasing the ripples, weaves silver stuff of dreams, mesmeric, fluent. The gods are young.
“Rec'lect that night, eh?”
Molly! A subconscious discord. A rift of syncopation, dilute, galvanic; a painted mouth, an empty head; a half-ton truck, a Greek.
No, though! By thunder, no! Molly, they’re talking of. Molly!
She was the wife of one, the sister-in-law of the other. Years have almost outlawed that inequality. To each she comes back all comeliness, all docile bravery, all grace. A woman of those days.
“Remember Molly that night, Isaiah? You couldn’t see her, though, and you stuck under the skiff; the way she come trippin’ down from nowheres, fetch one look at your boots croppin’ out like a hamstrung turtle, set down on the skiff, tidied her skirts out over, and set there gazing at the stars as soberlike as if she was in the habit of star-gazin’ every night with a shotgun laid across her lap. Nor you couldn’t see the way old Revenue Perkins ey od her and hesitated, scrawn out his neck and fetch to a halt.”
“I heard him, though, Andy; promise you that. ‘Pleasant evenin’, Mis’ Brewster!’ ‘Pleasant evenin’, Mr. Perkins!’ ‘I’m aimin’ to have a look innunder that skiff, if you don’t mind, Mis’ Brewster?’ ‘In which case, Mr. Perkins, you’re aimin’ to do something you ain’t able; not so long’s I’m settin’ onto it.’ ‘In which case, Mis’ Brewster, I shall have the law onto the lot of you———’ ‘In which case, Mr. Perkins, I’ll have something a sight quicker actin’ than the law onto you, sir.’ (With that I hear the gun-butt easin’ up along the garboard-strake.) ‘Quit it, Molly Brewster!’ says Perkins. ‘Git, Eben Perkins,’ says Molly, ‘and git quick!’”
“And Revenue gat! I guess he gat!”
“Never hear the last of it, did he? Nor come snoopin’ this way again, eh?”
‘Feared O’ meetin’ up with Molly! Heh-heh!”
The gentlest, the abidingest of women! What homage could be more precious to the heroine of long ago than this cachination of old men, this mirth flung out in thready challenge to reconquering nothingness and the prowling powers of the dark?
The dark answers, coagulating in another shade at their feet, down-hill.
“What you doin’ here, you guys?”
Their mouths dry and fall agape.
“Well, I v-v-vow!” bleats Isaiah, and Andy echoes him: “I vow!”
“Oh,” breathes the shade, “I know now. It’s old Isaiah and old Andy.”
“But who in—in —— are you ?”
“Don’t you rec’nize me? It’s Tony Fuller from the Coast Guard. You know me.”
“Tony!” They see their chance. “Tony Fuller!” The impostor is delivered into their hands. Their voices break high. “There wa’n’t never a man—there’s been Eds and Ezras, Johns and Jonathans—but never a man amongst the Fullers’ called by any such nigger name, such a lemon-peddlin’ name, as ‘Tony.’ No-sir-ee!”
The haunt chuckles, rubbing his lips with a spectral sleeve.
“Try Farquiera then; that’s my family’s name when they come from the Azores. Or if you’re bent on crackin’ your jaws, try ’em on this guy Sob-lef-sky—Sub-lof-sky—whatever ’tis. He’s down in the road there to the left, waitin’; so you get along now, quiet, and tell him I sent you, and he'll leave you through. Skedaddle, my boys; clear out o' here!"
If there is one there are a dozen retorts, just at their scandalized lips; arrogant laughter, withering old quarter-deck oaths. Dumbly, though sending down a whispering lace of sand, like autumnal spiders, they flee as they are told, not knowing why. They get off the cliff, their own cliff, not knowing how; a lichenous ground is underfoot, then a streak half clay, then ruts. A wind, a slow draft redolent of clam and weed, bears them along; an air familiar as the years of their youth, turned secret and queer. It bears them into the mouth of a hollow floored with blackness and roofed with stars. Sergeant Belkar Soblievski of the State Police snaps on the headlight of his motor-cycle and examines them with his yellow cornucopia of flame.
"You’re out late, my friends." Then, not meaning the light-blistered couple to stand there all night, he says in a kindlier tone: "Go right on, the way you were going, my fathers, and keep your mouths shut, and no harm done. Good-night."
It is some moments before he snaps off the snooping light. Behind Isaiah and Andy, across the wheel-track to the Eden of their ancestral Cove, the ray hangs horizontal, like a lazy angel's flaming sword.
Here come the willows out of the hill. There’s a moon somewhere under the eastern ocean, and its foreglow, refracting from the zenith, describes with faint silver the slopes of the roof, the two fat chimneys, the fence.
So it's home they're coming, after all.
Their boots drag; soul and body they're beat, the pair of them, dead beat.
The house opens and swallows them. No need of a lamp; they can find their beds in the dark. Mind the table, Isaiah. Take care of that swayed door; it's got to be fixed, no two ways. Here’s the chair for Andy, and here’s the chair for Isaiah, to drape their coats and trousers over, their shirts and drawers.
There’s nothing left but sleep, then. Sound sleep. Sweet dreams.
Isaiah, the youngster of the two, lies on his back, toes up, wide awake. Andy, across the room, lies toes up, too, counting sheep. One sheep over the fence; two sheep over the fence; three sheep over the fence. There’s a nigger-looking fellow herding them. Land! he’s got no head. Manny the Lisbon! That’s a dirty port, Lisbon. And he had the gall to say—this headless Portugee Eyetalian fly-by-night———
What’s that? There! Again! Passing like spirit footfalls across the turf outside!
The hall clock is still—still these years—but Molly's alarm-clock sends in a tinny cheeping from the kitchen. Where can Molly be?
Five sheep over the fence; six sheep over the———
What's that? "Andy!"
Isaiah slides out of bed, tiptoes across the chamber, creeps in beside his elder brother. Neither of them says anything. It's nearly seventy years since Isaiah did that. But neither of them speaks.
They're not used to lying awake. It's this night. This night of supernal license, weird air-quakes, invasions crepuscular and fleering of little peoples from beyond the pale.
Seven sheep over the fence———
"What's wrong, boy?"
"I hear a mosquito in the room, dang him, and I can't sleep."
"Pshaw, Isaiah, now you turn over and shut your eyes and———" Andy sits bolt up, a listener. "Hark!"
Thud! A fault in the atmosphere, small, echoless. A gunshot, unmistakable. Thud! Thud! Thud! An imponderable fusillade.
Is it ghosts, in this land of the dead? Memories? All inside the brain?
Andy tries Isaiah: "Isaiah, did you hear anything?"
The youngster lies there with the quilt tight over his chest. It's a terrible thing, when you’ve been equal to anything and everything, to find yourself suddenly like this. His voice comes as thin as eel-grass.
"Where’s that girl?"
It’s too much for Andy, and he joins in: “Why don't she ever come home? What's she thinkin' on, this hour of the night?"
"'Tain't decent, Andy. What'll folks say?"
“What does she care for that?”
“What does she care if she keeps us wakin’ for her?”
“Who are we, anyhow? What do we ’mount to?”
“What does anything ’mount to these days; anything but cavortin’ about with foreigners, dancin’, huggin’ maybe, carryin’ on, forgettin’ your religion, your elders, your upbringin’—anything to make the time go quick?”
“And devil take the hindmost!”
There’s a cry, chambered in distance. The devil taking the hindmost, perhaps. The empty moors and dunes where men used to live give it out; one lone articulation, anger, terror, mortal pain, who can tell from the spent whisper creeping in through the Brewster blinds?
“A-n-d-y, I wish—I wish that girl was to home.”
“I—I wish she was.”
The shame of it, confessed at last, mutually, out loud! Isaiah Brewster, who in the name of the Great Republic stood up on his feet and told the port-bashaw of the Emperor of Siam to go to Jericho! Andy Brewster, who with his own hands put half his crew in irons at the height of the Seventy-one Typhoon! The two of them now, praying nothing but the sound of Molly’s dance-shoes on the floor beyond the wall; the comfort of even Molly’s doomsday youthfulness under the roof with them!
Prayers aren’t half-ton trucks, though, for beggars to ride.
Or are they? Wait!
Isaiah is up now, sitting as bolt and gray as Andy.
Another mosquito? No. Hardly louder than a mosquito, to be sure, and oddly like the insect’s silky whine—that whine of springs and beams and gaskets, all in one, a mile away.
“He’s to the marsh now—or—or no——”
“You mean it don’t sound like ’twas on——”
"’Tain’t on. ’Tain’t on any road I know of, Isaiah. That’s clear to the north’rd somewheres. Sounds to me——”
“Sounds to me like it was all adrift somewheres up Borneo Plain——”
Thud! The shadow of the phantom of a shot! That’s gone. So is the whine, like the whir of a night-hawk planing back into the night again.
“Isaiah,” says Andy, “you lay down and go to sleep. This is foolishness.”
Five minutes, up they knife again.
A step. A clandestine sole on the porch. A sneaking tread.
Andy wouldn’t speak for a million dollars; neither would Isaiah.
“Molly!” they call in the same breath.
No answer. Only the scratch of a match, out the kitchen way.
The match goes out. More footfalls. Odd footfalls. Odd chills.
The second match is at the very foot of their bed, a blinding nimbus. In the nimbus there are two eyes, a lean, green-brown face, a hat like an inverted flower-pot made of kinky wool.
“You gaht ahny rags, say?”
When Isaiah was mate in the Boston fruit-bark Hope Wade he used once a year to load figs at Smyrna. He used to sit in an armchair on the house within one spit of the rail and keep those natives going as only a Cape man could, with alternate volleys of truculence and wit. “If there’s one thing I’d love to see before I die,” he used to say, “it’s one of you lazy heathen Turk-fellahs tryin’ to earn a meal in the town of Pamet, Barnstable County, Mass. If there’s one thing I’d love!”
It comes back to Isaiah, every fatal syllable. The white rims widen around his eyes. He begins to speak.
“You’re that Turk——”
“Curse the Toork! He keeled my fahther, my mahther, my brahther!”
“No-sir, though, no-sir, all foolin’, you’re the one—the one folks c-c-calls the Turk—that comes by sellin’ carpets. You are so!”
A frown withers the green-brown face. “You gaht ahny rags, say? You gaht ahny rags?”
The match burns a finger and sails away in two red stars, blown by an Asian oath. In reverse the business of footfalls reënacted, across the kitchen, across the porch.
The night has overreached itself. “Got any rags?” That’s a joke.
There a glimmer of moon through the cracks in the blinds. In the wraith of light Andy lifts on an elbow and studies supine Isaiah. The youngster lies with his head cracked back, as though by a blow, his mouth open, the shape of a black egg, and his whisker thrust straight up in the air. He’s not dead, though; he’s asleep.
Andy lies back and summons all his resolution. Resolutely he envisions sheep, just such sheep as Dave Burch used to run on Borneo Plain, matted gray-brown bodies and slender legs snapping under them. Over the stone wall they go. One sheep over two sheep over; three sheep over; four—or was it five?-five—six sheep——
When he awakens it is with a gulp and a kick.
Who’s that? By the bed there, towering in the new gray?
It’s Isaiah. It’s the youngster, getting his pants on.
“I can’t stand it,” says Isaiah, his teeth aclatter.
“What is it now?”
“I don’t know. My godfrey, if I knowed, I—there! Hark to that!”
“That trompin’ like?”
'“Trompin’, yes. Trompin’, skitterin’, skutterin’ all about, whisperin’, too, and groanin’ into the bargain. There, now! Will y’ hark?”
““In the wood-house. Or more like Molly’s room. Mebby it’s Molly.”
“I want to know.”
“I want to know.”
Andy fumbles his pale legs out of the quilt and into his trousers. They go in stocking-feet, carrying their boots. In the kitchen Andy pauses.
“Molly come home?”
"Never hear her.”
"You been asleep, though.”
“I ain’t. Not one blessed wink, and that’s true. No-sir, everything I seen, I seen. There’s niggers and heathen and all manner of islanders and dagoes spiritin’ about this night. Andy, there was a Turk come into our room, and I seen him with my own two eyes. So I ain’t been asleep.”
“I'll look in her room, anyway, on the chance.”
Holding his breath, he edges open Molly’s door. His head disappears. It reappears, the cheeks collapsing with relief.
“By glory, she be. Here all this time, to bed, asleep. Us fools!”
Side by side, holding the door open, they gaze into the chamber, cave-lit with the seepage of dawn, perfumed with violet water, tar soap, carnation powder, fibre-silk stockings, and all the faint, mingled emanations from frocks and under-things—the rectangular gray whiteness of the bed—the dark spot of a head averted on the pillow.
“Don’t wake ’er.”
“No; easy’s the word; take care.”
The old fools!
“Molly!” breathes Andy, just once. Just to try.
The head on the pillow flops over. The heads in the door thrust out.
Black eyes study them from the pillow, hypnotized.
Jimmy the Greek!
If he is hypnotized, what are they?
It was in this room, in that bed, that Molly White Brewster died, on Cleveland’s election day. It was through that window her soul went to heaven.
They can do nothing but stare; stare at the bureau, holy of holies, untidy, intimate; a pot of cold-cream, a ribbon, a note, a garter, a kitten of combings, a man’s plaid cap; stare at the bed, the pillow, the solitary presence there, obscurely begotten, horde-born, Mediterranean.
They open their mouths to roar like lions; in the hush they bleat.
He holds them with black-and-white eyes; he has lost his tongue.
It’s Molly that answers, Molly’s feet askip on the porch behind them, the wind of her coming across the kitchen, the fling of her arms brushing them aside like wraiths.
Worse than wraiths! Of a sudden something beyond accounting happens. In Molly’s bedroom they’ve always kept the old paper, spotty and faded as it is; funny old paper, peopled by Venetian boatmen and early Victorian trees. And now between two breaths Andy and Isaiah are pictures with the boatmen and memories with the trees. It is as though, still visible, no one saw them; as though reality had abandoned them and gone out into the middle of the room.
Molly is real; they’re not. Tag-end of a race and a tradition, her docked hair tousled, her shoes streaked with mud from another county, hem of a torn petticoat at the trail, she’s flesh alive; a tradition and a race beginning.
She’s on the bed’s edge, hip and elbow, one wild hand in Jimmy Krenk’s black curls, combwise, questioning, and her breath against his cheek.
“Y'all right, kid? Tell me quicker’n quick: y’all right?”
“Are you all right, Moll; you tell me?”
You should worry about me! D’I look sick?”
“Shush, kid, I know. I look like a home-made hang-over. I know I do, but you got to consider a hundred ’n’ thirty miles in that bus of yours is no tea-dansant for a fair young thing, is it now? 'Specially the last fifteen of ’em on a rim. Cheer up; I’ll look good when I get a shot of coffee in me. And don’t worry about the stuff; I got it all safe and dark to you-know-who, you-know-where, thirty-one cases, check, and you couldn’t have made it snappier yourself, you poor angel, and that’s that. And the bus is back in Costa’s g’rage with the old plates on—and the clutch afloat—and that phony rear shoe gone to and that’s that. And that motor-cycle egg was into Yarmouth Hospital at three, I just got word at the marsh, with his right arm out of commish. And that’s that.”
“Was it you, Moll? Was it you plugged the guy, same’s Turkey says?”
“Well, i I didn’t, there’s been some awful mistake. I picked up your gun when you dropped it, and I was peeved. But say, don’t get me talkin’-——"
"Listen, Moll, tell me somethin’. Was it you carried me up here from the Cove, same’s Turkey says?”
“Well, Turkey helped some—as quick as he——”
“Where was the other guys?”
"Busy, don’t you forget. Who’d you s’pose got the cop crowd trailed off down Truro way? Jazzy work for a while. But now, Jim, how’s the bean?”
It’s the strangest sensation, being a Venetian boatman inked on moldy wall-paper, harkening to unintelligible tongues.
“And the leg?”
“Absitively perfect limb.”
“Turkey get it bandaged right? That petticoat of mine I slammed on——?”
“Coold not find ahny rahgs.”
Reality spreads with the growing dawn. It’s the Armenian himself, down on his hams on the carpet beyond the bed.
“No rags? Turkey, you’re a bird! But listen—my——! You mean to say that plugged leg is still———- Oh, you poor lamb! Now, listen, Jim; I'll go as easy as easy, but I got to give it a look.”
The painted boatmen close their painted eyes. Their painted ears they can not close. Earth swarms. Their painted minds they can not get quite shut. Murmurs. Fragments. The land of the old, the turncoat, teems with the pitiless voices of the young. Rumours creep in through the windows.
“Doc and the priest ought to be coming——”
“——No, Gabriel phoned the priest he needn’t come. Jim’s all right.”
“He'll be all right, that is, if we can keep him doggo for a spell——”
“——But what they’ll say up-Cape when he don’t show up at short-stop for the Legion in the Barnstable game next Sunday——”
“Oh, we can bull through it somehow—— Hey, what’s that?”
Another kind of a murmur; a high, faint throbbing in the air.
“Molly! Inside there! Here comes Doc Bader from Provincetown. I guess it’s him, anyway; it sounds like Gaspa’s sea-plane. I'll slide up to the pond and show him the way.”
Still another note, within the room, this one, half crooning: “Good kid, did I hurt? Oh, good kid, I tried to be so gentle——”
“Gentle, Moll? Don’t talk. You’re the gentlest ever; and you’re more’n the gentlest; you’re the beautifulest, and you're more’n the beautifulest; you’re the straightest, bravest——”
“Bravest! Quit kiddin’, you Greek idiot. I been frightened sober; I’m still scared weak. Take hold of me and hang onto me tight, tight.”
“I got yu, tight. All there is, though, I hate to be a bother here.”
“Bother! That’s a good line. It’s my house, isn’t it, Jimmy dearie? And seeing we’re going to get married Friday, where’s the diff?”
(Friday at two!)
The Venetian boatmen end their fading by fading quite away, out of the bedroom, out of the house.
It’s a fog-dawn, the light from the sun-tipped hills coming down at every angle through the pearly smother. It’s as if the night, in place of ending, had just bleached out. Albino darkness. White shades. The veil is troubled by them, half-glimpsed and gone; white shades of youth, black-eyed and swarthy, sallow and gray-eyed.
Once more Andy and Isaiah flee the canopy of the willows and puff up Sheep Hill. The mist dilutes; at the height they find the sun and air. And the sea, Leviathan gone. The honest sea.
They flop on a timber and gaze at it. By and by Isaiah points a finger at the wedge of the Cove, still in shadow below them.
“By cricky, she goes fast these days, Andy.” He is resolved to see it, and he seés it; the marsh growing an estuary, the estuary a strait, a worm of blue salt water eating ever and ever more hungrily into the entrails of the dead Cape. “By cricky, ’twon’t be many years till you can sail a vessel straight through the Hollow to the back side.”
“Where do you get that stuff?” inquires a voice from behind the brothers. They won’t have it. They won’t hear.
“’Twa’n’t so many years ago,” says Andy in resolute musing, “there was beach-plums growin’ out there where them breakers are now.”
“The ——— there was!” A shadow falls across them, and out over their heads, blue and amber, floats the cloud of a cigarette. It’s Frankie Silvado, the surfman from Pamet Station, and he has a purple moustache and dark, live, ardent eyes. He might have yellow eyes and green whiskers for all Andy and Isaiah: they won’t see him and they don’t see him.
Andy clears an indomitable throat: “Accordin’ to my calc’lations, Isaiah, the way she’s sinkin’ now——”
“That’s a lovely pipe, that is,” persists the tactless shade. “I been patrollin’ this shore ten years and more, and I used to have to walk on the cliff because the tide was all over where them grass-flats is now. You old geezers ain’t up with the times, or you’d know all this land is makin’ all the while. There was a professor lectured to Provincetown last summer, and he says, like’s not, it’ll be all dry ground from here clean to Plymouth shore one day, with woods, like’s not, and farms, and cities——”
Cities! The brothers are betrayed. From one to the other passes a sage and soundless guffaw.
“Though,” adds Silvado, “I don’t know what kind o’ people there'll be to live in ’em, the way things are goin’ now with this Cape crowd, gettin’ to be smugglers—runnin’ in liquor off these West Indie vessels for all they’re worth —women as bad as the men, too, accordin’ to what Tony Fuller says he seen last night. I tell you the truth, I don’t know what this country of ourn is comin’ to.”
By and by Andy turns an eye on Isaiah, and once more, with dogmatic patience, clears his throat.
“As I was sayin’—the way she’s sinkin’ now—and the way they’re droppin’ off—Sam yesterday—like’s not you or me to-morrow—’twon’t be so long now before there won’t be any left hereabouts.”
Curse and double curse that Ginny! Like drops of water on the skull it grows suddenly too much.
“Any folks!” cried Isaiah.
Now they upend on their reedy legs and face him and lash out at him.
In the white pouring of the sunshine, as they watch greedily the effect of that brutal blow, the red mottles go out of their cheeks. Now, at last, they are terrified. This fellow doesn’t even know what they’re driving at.
“What do you mean?” he puzzles. “What do you mean—Americans?”