The Woman at Seven Brothers (part 2/4)

I turned and looked at her sidewise. She was standing by the railing, leaning a little outward, the top of her from the waist picked out bright by the lens behind her. I didn’t know what in the world to say, and yet I had a feeling I ought not to sit there mum.

“I wonder,” said I, “what that captain’s thinking of, fetching in so handy to-night. It’s no way. I tell you, if ’twasn’t for this light, she’d go to work and pile up on the ledge some thick night—”

She turned at that and stared straight into the lens. I didn’t like the look of her face. Somehow, with its edges cut hard all around and its two eyes closed down to slits, like a cat’s, it made a kind of mask.

“And then,” I went on, uneasy enough—”and then where’d all their music be of a sudden, and their goings-on and their singing—”

“And dancing!” She clipped me off so quick it took my breath.

“D-d-dancing?” said I.

“That’s dance-music,” said she. She was looking at the boat again.

“How do you know?” I felt I had to keep on talking.

Well, sir—she laughed. I looked at her. She had on a shawl of some stuff or other that shined in the light; she had it pulled tight around her with her two hands in front at her breast, and I saw her shoulders swaying in tune.

“How do I know?” she cried. Then she laughed again, the same kind of a laugh. It was queer, sir, to see her, and to hear her. She turned, as quick as that, and leaned toward me. “Don’t you know how to dance, Ray?” said she.

“N-no,” I managed, and I was going to say “Aunt Anna,” but the thing choked in my throat.

I tell you she was looking square at me all the time with her two eyes and moving with the music as if she didn’t know it. By heavens, sir, it came over me of a sudden that she wasn’t so bad-looking, after all. I guess I must have sounded like a fool.

“You—you see,” said I, “she’s cleared the rip there now, and the music’s gone. You—you hear?”

“Yes,” said she, turning back slow. “That’s where it stops every night—night after night—it stops just there—at the rip.”

When she spoke again her voice was different. I never heard the like of it, thin and taut as a thread. It made me shiver, sir.

“I hate ’em!” That’s what she said. “I hate ’em all. I’d like to see ’em dead. I’d love to see ’em torn apart on the rocks, night after night. I could bathe my hands in their blood, night after night.”

And do you know, sir, I saw it with my own eyes, her hands moving in each other above the rail. But it was her voice, though. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say, so I poked my head through the railing and looked down at the water. I don’t think I’m a coward, sir, but it was like a cold—ice-cold—hand, taking hold of my beating heart.

When I looked up finally, she was gone. By and by I went in and had a look at the lamp, hardly knowing what I was about. Then, seeing by my watch it was time for the old man to come on duty, I started to go below. In the Seven Brothers, you understand, the stair goes down in a spiral through a well against the south wall and first there’s the door to the keeper’s room and then you come to another, and that’s the living-room, and then down to the store-room. And at night, if you don’t carry a lantern, it’s as black as the pit.

Well, down I went, sliding my hand along the rail, and as usual I stopped to give a rap on the keeper’s door, in case he was taking a nap after supper. Sometimes he did.

I stood there, blind as a bat, with my mind still up on the walk-around. There was no answer to my knock. I hadn’t expected any. Just from habit, and with my right foot already hanging down for the next step, I reached out to give the door one more tap for luck.

Do you know, sir, my hand didn’t fetch up on anything. The door had been there a second before, and now the door wasn’t there. My hand just went on going through the dark, on and on, and I didn’t seem to have sense or power enough to stop it. There didn’t seem any air in the well to breathe, and my ears were drumming to the surf—that’s how scared I was. And then my hand touched the flesh of a face, and something in the dark said, “Oh!” no louder than a sigh.

Next thing I knew, sir, I was down in the living-room, warm and yellow-lit, with Fedderson cocking his head at me across the table, where he was at that eternal Jacob’s-ladder of his.

“What’s the matter, Ray?” said he. “Lord’s sake, Ray!”

“Nothing,” said I. Then I think I told him I was sick. That night I wrote a letter to A.L. Peters, the grain-dealer in Duxbury, asking for a job—even though it wouldn’t go ashore for a couple of weeks, just the writing of it made me feel better.

It’s hard to tell you how those two weeks went by. I don’t know why, but I felt like hiding in a corner all the time. I had to come to meals, but I didn’t look at her, though, not once, unless it was by accident. Fedderson thought I was still ailing and nagged me to death with advice and so on. One thing I took care not to do, I can tell you, and that was to knock on his door till I’d made certain he wasn’t below in the living-room—though I was tempted to.

Yes, sir; that’s a queer thing, and I wouldn’t tell you if I hadn’t set out to give you the truth. Night after night, stopping there on the landing in that black pit, the air gone out of my lungs and the surf drumming in my ears and sweat standing cold on my neck—and one hand lifting up in the air—God forgive me, sir! Maybe I did wrong not to look at her more, drooping about her work in her gingham apron, with her hair stringing.

When the Inspector came off with the tender, that time, I told him I was through. That’s when he took the dislike to me, I guess, for he looked at me kind of sneering and said, soft as I was, I’d have to put up with it till next relief. And then, said he, there’d be a whole house-cleaning at Seven Brothers, because he’d gotten Fedderson the berth at Kingdom Come. And with that he slapped the old man on the back.

I wish you could have seen Fedderson, sir. He sat down on my cot as if his knees had given ‘way. Happy? You’d think he’d be happy, with all his dreams come true. Yes, he was happy, beaming all over—for a minute. Then, sir, he began to shrivel up. It was like seeing a man cut down in his prime before your eyes. He began to wag his head.

“No,” said he. “No, no; it’s not for such as me. I’m good enough for Seven Brothers, and that’s all, Mr. Bayliss. That’s all.”

And for all the Inspector could say, that’s what he stuck to. He’d figured himself a martyr so many years, nursed that injustice like a mother with her first-born, sir; and now in his old age, so to speak, they weren’t to rob him of it. Fedderson was going to wear out his life in a second-class light, and folks would talk—that was his idea. I heard him hailing down as the tender was casting off:

“See you to-morrow, Mr. Bayliss. Yep. Coming ashore with the wife for a spree. Anniversary. Yep.”

But he didn’t sound much like a spree. They had, robbed him, partly, after all. I wondered what she thought about it. I didn’t know till night. She didn’t show up to supper, which Fedderson and I got ourselves—had a headache, be said. It was my early watch. I went and lit up and came back to read a spell. He was finishing off the Jacob’s-ladder, and thoughtful, like a man that’s lost a treasure. Once or twice I caught him looking about the room on the sly. It was pathetic, sir.

Going up the second time, I stepped out on the walk-around to have a look at things. She was there on the seaward side, wrapped in that silky thing. A fair sea was running across the ledge and it was coming on a little thick—not too thick. Off to the right the Boston boat was blowing, whroom-whroom! Creeping up on us, quarter-speed. There was another fellow behind her, and a fisherman’s conch farther offshore.

I don’t know why, but I stopped beside her and leaned on the rail. She didn’t appear to notice me, one way or another. We stood and we stood, listening to the whistles, and the longer we stood the more it got on my nerves, her not noticing me. I suppose she’d been too much on my mind lately. I began to be put out. I scraped my feet. I coughed. By and by I said out loud:

“Look here, I guess I better get out the fog-horn and give those fellows a toot.”

“Why?” said she, without moving her head—calm as that.

Why?” It gave me a turn, sir. For a minute I stared at her. “Why? Because if she don’t pick up this light before very many minutes she’ll be too close in to wear—tide’ll have her on the rocks—that’s why!”

I couldn’t see her face, but I could see one of her silk shoulders lift a little, like a shrug. And there I kept on staring at her, a dumb one, sure enough. I know what brought me to was hearing the Boston boat’s three sharp toots as she picked up the light—mad as anything—and swung her helm a-port. I turned away from her, sweat stringing down my face, and walked around to the door. It was just as well, too, for the feed-pipe was plugged in the lamp and the wicks were popping. She’d have been out in another five minutes, sir.

When I’d finished, I saw that woman standing in the doorway. Her eyes were bright. I had a horror of her, sir, a living horror.

“If only the light had been out,” said she, low and sweet.

“God forgive you,” said I. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

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