The Woman at Seven Brothers (part 3/4)

She went down the stair into the well, winding out of sight, and as long as I could see her, her eyes were watching mine. When I went, myself, after a few minutes, she was waiting for me on that first landing, standing still in the dark. She took hold of my hand, though I tried to get it away.

“Good-by,” said she in my ear.

“Good-by?” said I. I didn’t understand.

“You heard what he said to-day—about Kingdom Come? Be it so—on his own head. I’ll never come back here. Once I set foot ashore—I’ve got friends in Brightonboro, Ray.”

I got away from her and started on down. But I stopped. “Brightonboro?” I whispered back. “Why do you tell me?” My throat was raw to the words, like a sore.

“So you’d know,” said she.

Well, sir, I saw them off next morning, down that new Jacob’s-ladder into the dinghy-boat, her in a dress of blue velvet and him in his best cutaway and derby—rowing away, smaller and smaller, the two of them. And then I went back and sat on my cot, leaving the door open and the ladder still hanging down the wall, along with the boat-falls.

I don’t know whether it was relief, or what. I suppose I must have been worked up even more than I’d thought those past weeks, for now it was all over I was like a rag. I got down on my knees, sir, and prayed to God for the salvation of my soul, and when I got up and climbed to the living-room it was half past twelve by the clock. There was rain on the windows and the sea was running blue-black under the sun. I’d sat there all that time not knowing there was a squall.

It was funny; the glass stood high, but those black squalls kept coming and going all afternoon, while I was at work up in the light-room. And I worked hard, to keep myself busy. First thing I knew it was five, and no sign of the boat yet. It began to get dim and kind of purplish-gray over the land. The sun was down. I lit up, made everything snug, and got out the night-glasses to have another look for that boat. He’d said he intended to get back before five. No sign. And then, standing there, it came over me that of course he wouldn’t be coming off—he’d be hunting her, poor old fool. It looked like I had to stand two men’s watches that night.

Never mind. I felt like myself again, even if I hadn’t had any dinner or supper. Pride came to me that night on the walk-around, watching the boats go by—little boats, big boats, the Boston boat with all her pearls and her dance-music. They couldn’t see me; they didn’t know who I was; but to the last of them, they depended on me. They say a man must be born again. Well, I was born again. I breathed deep in the wind.

Dawn broke hard and red as a dying coal. I put out the light and started to go below. Born again; yes, sir. I felt so good I whistled in the well, and when I came to the first door on the stair I reached out in the dark to give it a rap for luck. And then, sir, the hair prickled all over my scalp, when I found my hand just going on and on through the air, the same as it had gone once before, and all of a sudden I wanted to yell, because I thought I was going to touch flesh. It’s funny what their just forgetting to close their door did to me, isn’t it?

Well, I reached for the latch and pulled it to with a bang and ran down as if a ghost was after me. I got up some coffee and bread and bacon for breakfast. I drank the coffee. But somehow I couldn’t eat, all along of that open door. The light in the room was blood. I got to thinking. I thought how she’d talked about those men, women, and children on the rocks, and how she’d made to bathe her hands over the rail. I almost jumped out of my chair then; it seemed for a wink she was there beside the stove watching me with that queer half-smile—really, I seemed to see her for a flash across the red table-cloth in the red light of dawn.

“Look here!” said I to myself, sharp enough; and then I gave myself a good laugh and went below. There I took a look out of the door, which was still open, with the ladder hanging down. I made sure to see the poor old fool come pulling around the point before very long now.

My boots were hurting a little, and, taking them off, I lay down on the cot to rest, and somehow I went to sleep. I had horrible dreams. I saw her again standing in that blood-red kitchen, and she seemed to be washing her hands, and the surf on the ledge was whining up the tower, louder and louder all the time, and what it whined was, “Night after night—night after night.” What woke me was cold water in my face.

The store-room was in gloom. That scared me at first; I thought night had come, and remembered the light. But then I saw the gloom was of a storm. The floor was shining wet, and the water in my face was spray, flung up through the open door. When I ran to close it, it almost made me dizzy to see the gray-and-white breakers marching past. The land was gone; the sky shut down heavy overhead; there was a piece of wreckage on the back of a swell, and the Jacob’s-ladder was carried clean away. How that sea had picked up so quick I can’t think. I looked at my watch and it wasn’t four in the afternoon yet.

When I closed the door, sir, it was almost dark in the store-room. I’d never been in the Light before in a gale of wind. I wondered why I was shivering so, till I found it was the floor below me shivering, and the walls and stair. Horrible crunchings and grindings ran away up the tower, and now and then there was a great thud somewhere, like a cannon-shot in a cave. I tell you, sir, I was alone, and I was in a mortal fright for a minute or so. And yet I had to get myself together. There was the light up there not tended to, and an early dark coming on and a heavy night and all, and I had to go. And I had to pass that door.

You’ll say it’s foolish, sir, and maybe it was foolish. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten. But I began thinking of that door up there the minute I set foot on the stair, and all the way up through that howling dark well I dreaded to pass it. I told myself I wouldn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I felt the landing underfoot and I went on, four steps, five—and then I couldn’t. I turned and went back. I put out my hand and it went on into nothing. That door, sir, was open again.

I left it be; I went on up to the light-room and set to work. It was Bedlam there, sir, screeching Bedlam, but I took no notice. I kept my eyes down. I trimmed those seven wicks, sir, as neat as ever they were trimmed; I polished the brass till it shone, and I dusted the lens. It wasn’t till that was done that I let myself look back to see who it was standing there, half out of sight in the well. It was her, sir.

“Where’d you come from?” I asked. I remember my voice was sharp.

“Up Jacob’s-ladder,” said she, and hers was like the syrup of flowers.

I shook my head. I was savage, sir. “The ladder’s carried away.”

“I cast it off,” said she, with a smile.

“Then,” said I, “you must have come while I was asleep.” Another thought came on me heavy as a ton of lead. “And where’s he?” said I. “Where’s the boat?”

“He’s drowned,” said she, as easy as that. “And I let the boat go adrift. You wouldn’t hear me when I called.”

“But look here,” said I. “If you came through the store-room, why didn’t you wake me up? Tell me that!” It sounds foolish enough, me standing like a lawyer in court, trying to prove she couldn’t be there.

She didn’t answer for a moment. I guess she sighed, though I couldn’t hear for the gale, and her eyes grew soft, sir, so soft.

“I couldn’t,” said she. “You looked so peaceful—dear one.”

My cheeks and neck went hot, sir, as if a warm iron was laid on them. I didn’t know what to say. I began to stammer, “What do you mean—” but she was going back down the stair, out of sight. My God, sir, and I used not to think she was good-looking!

I started to follow her. I wanted to know what she meant. Then I said to myself, “If I don’t go—if I wait here—she’ll come back.” And I went to the weather side and stood looking out of the window. Not that there was much to see. It was growing dark, and the Seven Brothers looked like the mane of a running horse, a great, vast, white horse running into the wind. The air was a-welter with it. I caught one peep of a fisherman, lying down flat trying to weather the ledge, and I said, “God help them all to-night,” and then I went hot at sound of that “God.”

I was right about her, though. She was back again. I wanted her to speak first, before I turned, but she wouldn’t. I didn’t hear her go out; I didn’t know what she was up to till I saw her coming outside on the walk-around, drenched wet already. I pounded on the glass for her to come in and not be a fool; if she heard she gave no sign of it.

There she stood, and there I stood watching her. Lord, sir—was it just that I’d never had eyes to see? Or are there women who bloom? Her clothes were shining on her, like a carving, and her hair was let down like a golden curtain tossing and streaming in the gale, and there she stood with her lips half open, drinking, and her eyes half closed, gazing straight away over the Seven Brothers, and her shoulders swaying, as if in tune with the wind and water and all the ruin. And when I looked at her hands over the rail, sir, they were moving in each other as if they bathed, and then I remembered, sir.

A cold horror took me. I knew now why she had come back again. She wasn’t a woman—she was a devil. I turned my back on her. I said to myself: “It’s time to light up. You’ve got to light up”—like that, over and over, out loud. My hand was shivering so I could hardly find a match; and when I scratched it, it only flared a second and then went out in the back draught from the open door. She was standing in the doorway, looking at me. It’s queer, sir, but I felt like a child caught in mischief.

“I—I—was going to light up,” I managed to say, finally.

“Why?” said she. No, I can’t say it as she did.

Why?” said I. “My God!

She came nearer, laughing, as if with pity, low, you know. “Your God? And who is your God? What is God? What is anything on a night like this?”

I drew back from her. All I could say anything about was the light.

“Why not the dark?” said she. “Dark is softer than light—tenderer—dearer than light. From the dark up here, away up here in the wind and storm, we can watch the ships go by, you and I. And you love me so. You’ve loved me so long, Ray.”

“I never have!” I struck out at her. “I don’t! I don’t!”

Her voice was lower than ever, but there was the same laughing pity in it. “Oh yes, you have.” And she was near me again.

“I have?” I yelled. “I’ll show you! I’ll show you if I have!”

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