NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Published by Arrangement with The Macmillan Company.
BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
Set up and electrotyped. Published February, 1915 Reprinted February, 1915 Twice. March, 1915 Three Times. April, 1915 Twice May, 1915. Twice June, 1915. Twice July, 1915. August, 1915. September, October, November, December, 1915. January, 1916. March, 1916
TO M. A.
"You chump," I thought contemptuously. I was seven years old at the time, and the gentleman to whom I referred was Henry Ward Beecher. What it was that aroused my contempt for the man will be more fully understood if I tell first of the grudge that I bore him.
I was sitting in my mother's pew in the old church in Brooklyn. I was altogether too small for the pew, it was much too wide for the bend at my knees; and my legs, which were very short and fat, stuck straight out before me. I was not allowed to move, I was most uncomfortable, and for this Sabbath torture I laid all the blame on the preacher. For my mother had once told me that I was brought to church so small in order that when I grew up I could say I had heard the great man preach before he died. Hence the deep grudge that I bore him. Sitting here this morning, it seemed to me for hours and hours, I had been meditating upon my hard lot. From time to time, as was my habit when thinking or feeling deeply, one hand would unconsciously go to my head and slowly stroke my bang. My hair was short and had no curls, its only glory was this bang, which was deliciously soft to my hand and shone like a mirror from much reflective stroking. Presently my mother would notice and with a smile she would put down my hand, but a few moments later up it would come and would continue its stroking. For I felt both abused and puzzled. What was there in the talk of the large white-haired old man in the pulpit to make my mother's eyes so queer, to make her sit so stiff and still? What good would it do me when I grew up to say that I had heard him?
"I don't believe I will ever say it," I reasoned doggedly to myself. "And even if I do, I don't believe any other man will care whether I say it to him or not." I felt sure my father wouldn't. He never even came to church.
At the thought of my strange silent father, my mind leaped to his warehouse, his dock, the ships and the harbor. Like him, they were all so strange. And my hands grew a little cold and moist as I thought of the terribly risky thing I had planned to do all by myself that very afternoon. I thought about it for a long time with my eyes tight shut. Then the voice of the minister brought me back, I found myself sitting here in church and went on with this less shivery thinking.
"I wouldn't care myself," I decided. "If I were a man and another man met me on the street and said, 'Look here. When I was a boy I heard Henry Ward Beecher before he died,' I guess I would just say to him, 'You mind your business and I'll mind mine.'" This phrase I had heard from the corner grocer, and I liked the sound of it. I repeated it now with an added zest.
Again I opened my eyes and again I found myself here in church. Still here. I heaved a weary sigh.
"If you were dead already," I thought as I looked up at the preacher, "my mother wouldn't bring me here." I found this an exceedingly cheering thought. I had once overheard our cook Anny describe how her old father had dropped dead. I eyed the old minister hopefully.
But what was this he was saying! Something about "the harbor of life." The harbor! In an instant I was listening hard, for this was something I knew about.
"Safe into the harbor," I heard him say. "Home to the harbor at last to rest." And then, while he passed on to something else, something I didn't know about, I settled disgustedly back in the pew.
"You chump," I thought contemptuously. To hear him talk you would have thought the harbor was a place to feel quite safe in, a place to snuggle down in, a nice little place to come home to at night. "I guess he has never seen it much," I snorted.
For I had. From our narrow brownstone house on the Heights, ever since I could remember (and let me tell you that seems a long time when you are seven years old), I had looked down from our back windows upon a harbor that to me was strange and terrible.
I was glad that our house was up so high. Its front was on a sedate old street, and within it everything felt safe. My mother was here, and Sue, my little sister, and old Belle, our nurse, our nursery, my games, my animals, my fairy books, the small red table where I ate my supper, and the warm fur rug by my bed, where I knelt for "Now I lay me."
But from the porch at the back of our house you went three steps down to a long narrow garden—at least the garden seemed long to me—and if you walked to the end of the garden and peered through the ivy-covered bars of the fence, as I had done when I was so little that I could barely walk alone, you had the first mighty thrill of your life. For you found that through a hole in the ivy you could see a shivery distance straight down through the air to a street below. You found that the two iron posts, one at either end of the fence, were warm when you touched them, had holes in the top, had smoke coming out—were chimneys! And slowly it dawned upon your mind that this garden of yours was nothing at all but the roof of a gray old building—which your nurse told you vaguely had been a "warehouse" long ago when the waters of the harbor had come 'way in to the street below. The old "wharves" had been down there, she said. What was a "wharf?" It was a "dock," she told me. And she said that a family of "dockers" lived in the building under our garden. They were all that was left in it now but "old junk." Who was Old Junk, a man or a woman? And what in the world were Dockers?
Pursuing my adventurous ways, I found at one place in the garden, hidden by flowers near a side wall, a large heavy lid which was painted brown and felt like tin. But how much heavier than tin. Tug as I might, I could not budge it. Then I found it had an iron hook and was hooked down tight to the garden. Yes, it was true, our whole garden was a roof! I put my ear down to the lid and listened scowling, both eyes shut. I heard nothing then, but I came back and tried it many times, until once I jumped up and ran like mad. For faintly from somewhere deep down under the flower beds I had heard a baby crying! What was this baby, a Junk or a Docker? And who were these people who lived under flowers? To me they sounded suspiciously like the goblins in my goblin book. Once when I was sick in bed, Sue came shrieking into the house and said that a giant had heaved up that great lid from below. Up had come his shaggy head, his dirty face, his rolling eyes, and he had laughed and laughed at the flowers. He was a drunken man, our old nurse Belle had told her, but Sue was sure he was a giant.
"You are wrong," I said with dignity. "He is either a Junk or a Docker."
The lid was spiked down after that, and our visitor never appeared again. But I saw him vividly in my mind's eye—his shaggy wild head rising up among our flowers. Vaguely I felt that he came from the harbor.
As the exciting weeks of my life went on I discovered three good holes in that ivy-covered fence of ours. These all became my secret holes, and through them I watched the street below, a bleak bare chasm of a street which when the trucks came by echoed till it thundered. Across the street rose the high gray front of my father's warehouse. It was part of a solid line of similar gray brick buildings, and it was like my father, it was grim and silent, you could not see inside. Over its five tiers of windows black iron shutters were fastened tight. From time to time a pair of these shutters would fly open, disclosing a dark cave behind, out of which men brought barrels and crates and let them down by ropes into the trucks on the street below. How they spun round and round as they came! But most of the trucks drove rumbling into a tunnel which led through the warehouse out to my father's dock, out to the ships and the harbor. And from that mysterious region long lines of men came through the tunnel at noontime, some nearly naked, some only in shirts, men with the hairiest faces. They sat on the street with their backs to the warehouse wall, eating their dinners out of pails, and from other pails they took long drinks of a curious stuff all white on top. Some of them were always crossing the street and disappearing from my view into a little store directly underneath me. Belle spoke of this store as a "vile saloon" and of these men as "dockers." So I knew what Dockers were at last! In place of the one who lived under our garden and had burst up among the flowers, I saw now that there were hundreds and thousands of men like him down there on the docks. And all belonged to the harbor.
Their work I learned was to load the ships whose masts and spars peeped up at me over the warehouse roofs. From my nursery window above I could see them better. Sometimes they had large white sails and then they moved off somewhere. I could see them go, these tall ships, with their sails making low, mysterious sounds, flappings, spankings and deep boomings. The men on them sang the weirdest songs as they pulled all together at the ropes. Some of these songs brought a lump in your throat. Where were they going? "To heathen lands," Belle told me. What did she mean? I was just going to ask her. But then I stopped—I did not dare! From up the river, under the sweeping arch of that Great Bridge which seemed high as the clouds, came more tall ships, and low "steamers" belching smoke and "tugs" and "barges" and "ferry boats." The names of all these I learned from Belle and Anny the cook and my mother. And all were going "to heathen lands." What in the world did Belle mean by that?
Once I thought I had it. I saw that some of these smaller boats were just going across the river and stopping at the land over there, a land so crowded with buildings you could barely see into it at all. "Is that a heathen land?" I asked her. "Yes!" said Belle. And she laughed. She was Scotch and very religious. But later I heard her call it "New York" and say she was going there herself to buy herself some corsets. And so I was even more puzzled than ever. For some deep instinct told me you could buy no corsets in "heathen land"—least of all Belle's corsets.
She often spoke of "the ocean," too, another place where the tall ships went. But what was the ocean? "It's like a lake, but mightier," Belle had said. But what was a lake? It was all so vague and confusing. Always it came back to this, that I had no more seen the "ocean" than I had seen a "heathen land," and so I did not know them.
But I knew the harbor by day and by night, on bright sunny days and in fogs and rains, in storms of wind, in whirling snow, and under the restful stars at night that twinkled down from so far above, while the shadowy region below twinkled back with stars of its own, restless, many-colored stars, yellow, green and red and blue, moving, dancing, flaring, dying. And all these stars had voices, too. By night in my bed I could hear them—hoots and shrieks from ferries and tugs, hoarse coughs from engines along the docks, the whine of wheels, the clang of bells, deep blasts and bellows from steamers. And closer still, from that "vile saloon" directly under the garden, I could hear wild shouts and songs and roars of laughter that came, I learned, not only from dockers, but from "stokers" and "drunken sailors," men who lived right inside the ships and would soon be starting for heathen lands!
"I wonder how I'd feel," I would think, "if I were out in the garden now—out in the dark all by myself—right above that vile saloon!"
This would always scare me so that I would bury my head in the covers and shake. But I often did this, for I liked to be scared. It was a game I had all by myself with the harbor.
* * * * *
And yet this old man in the pulpit called it a place where you went to rest!
Twenty-five years have gone since then, and all that I can remember now of anything Henry Ward Beecher said was this—that once, just once, I heard him speak of something that I knew about, and that when he did he was wrong.
And though all the years since then have been for me one long story of a harbor, restless, heaving, changing, always changing—it has never changed for me in this—it has never seemed a haven where ships come to dock, but always a place from which ships start out—into the storms and the fogs of the seas, over the "ocean" to "heathen lands." For so I saw it when I was a child, the threshold of adventures.
As I walked home from church with my mother that day the streets seemed as quiet and safe as her eyes. How suddenly tempting it seemed to me, this quiet and this safety, compared to the place where I was going. For I had decided to run away from my home and my mother that afternoon, down to the harbor to see the world. What would become of me 'way down there? What would she do if I never came back? A lump rose in my throat at the thought of her tears. It was terrible.
"All the same I am going to do it," I kept thinking doggedly. And yet suddenly, as we reached our front steps, how near I came to telling her. But no, she would only spoil it all. She wanted me always up in the garden, she wanted me never to have any thrills.
My mother knew me so well. She had seen that when she read stories of fairies, witches and goblins out of my books to Sue and me, while Sue, though two years younger, would sit there like a little dark imp, her black eyes snapping over the fights, I would creep softly out of the room, ashamed and shaken, and would wait in the hall outside till the happy ending was in plain view. So my mother had gradually toned down all the fights and the killings, the witches and the monsters, and much to my disappointment had wholly shut out the gory pirates who were for me the most frightfully fascinating of all. Sometimes I felt vaguely that for this she had her own reason, too—that my mother hated everything that had to do with the ocean, especially my father's dock that made him so gloomy and silent. But of this I could never be quite sure. I would often watch her intently, with a sudden sharp anxiety, for I loved my mother with all my soul and I could not bear to see her unhappy.
"Never on any account," I heard her say to Belle, "are the children to go down the street toward the docks."
"Yes, ma'am," said Belle. "I'll see to it."
At once I wanted to go there. The street in front of our house sloped abruptly down at the next corner two blocks through poorer and smaller houses to a cobblestone space below, over which trucks clattered, plainly on their way to the docks. So I could go down and around by that way. How tempting it all looked down there. Above the roofs of the houses, the elevated railroad made a sharp bend on its way to the Bridge, trains roared by, high over all the Great Bridge swept across the sky. And below all this and more thrilling than all, I caught glimpses of strange, ragged boys. "Micks," Belle sometimes called them, and sometimes, "Finian Mickies." Up here I had no playmates.
From now on, our garden lost its charms. Up the narrow courtway which ran along the side of the house I would slip stealthily to the front gate and often get a good look down the street before Belle sharply called me back. The longest looks, I found, were always on Sunday afternoons, when Belle would sit back there in the garden, close to the bed of red tulips which encircled a small fountain made of two white angels. Belle, who was bony, tall and grim, would sit by the little angels reading her shabby Bible. Her face was wrinkled and almost brown, her eyes now kind, now gloomy. She had a song she would sing now and then. "For beneath the Union Jack we will drive the Finians back"—is all I can remember. She told me of witches in the Scotch hills. At her touch horrible monsters rose in the most surprising places. In the bathtub, for example, when I stayed in the bath too long she would jerk out the stopper, and as from the hole there came a loud gurgle—"It's the Were-shark," Belle would mutter. And I would leap out trembling.
This old "Were-shark" had his home in the very middle of the ocean. In one gulp he could swallow a boy of my size, and this he did three times each day. The boys were brought to him by the "Condor," a perfectly hideous bird as large as a cow and as fierce as a tiger. If ever I dared go down that street and disobey my mother, the Condor would "swoop" down over the roofs, snatch me up in his long yellow beak with the blood of the last boy on it, and with thunder and lightning would carry me off far over the clouds and drop me into the Were-shark's mouth.
Then Belle would sit down to her Bible.
Sunday after Sunday passed, and still in fascinated dread I would steal quietly out to the gate and watch this street forbidden. Pointing to it one day, Belle had declared in awful tones, "Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction." But it was not broad. In that at least she was all wrong. It was in fact so narrow that a Condor as big as a cow might easily bump himself when he "swooped." Besides, there were good strong lamp-posts where a little boy could cling and scream, and almost always somewhere in sight was a policeman so fat and heavy that even two Condors could hardly lift him from the ground. This policeman would come running. My mother had said I must never be scared by policemen, because they were really good kind men. In fact, she said, it was foolish to be scared by anything ever. She never knew of Belle's methods with me.
* * * * *
So at last I had decided to risk it, and now the fearful day had come. I could barely eat my dinner. My courage was fast ebbing away. In the dining-room the sunlight was for a time wiped out by clouds, and I grew suddenly happy. It might rain and then I could not go. But it did not rain nor did anything I hoped for happen to prevent my plan. Belle sat down by the angels and was soon so deep in her Bible that it was plain I could easily slip up the path. Sue never looked up from her sand-pile to say, "Stop Billy! He's running away from home!" With a gulp I passed my mother's window. She did not happen to look out. Now I had reached the very gate. "I can't go! I can't open the gate!" But the old gate opened with one push. "I can't go! There is no policeman!" But yes, there he was on my side of the street slowly walking toward me. My heart thumped, I could hardly breathe. In a moment with a frantic rush I had reached the nearest lamp-post and was clinging breathless. I could not scream, I shut my eyes in sickening fear and waited for the rushing of enormous wings.
But there came no Condor swooping.
Another rush—another post—another and another!
"What's the matter with you, little feller?"
I looked up at the big safe policeman and laughed.
"I'm playing a game," I almost shouted, and ran without touching another post two blocks to the cobblestone space below. I ran blindly around it several times, I bumped into a man who said, "Heigh there! Look out!" After that I strutted proudly, then turned and ran back with all my might up the street, and into our house and up to my room. And there on my bed to my great surprise I found myself sobbing and sobbing. It was a long time before I could stop. I had had my first adventure.
* * * * *
I made many Sunday trips after that, and on no one of them was I caught. For delighted and proud at what I had done I kept asking Belle to talk of the Condor, gloomily she piled on the terrors, and seeing the awed look in my eyes (awe at my own courage in defying such a bird), she felt so sure of my safety that often she would barely look up from her Bible the whole afternoon. Even on workdays over her sewing she would forget. And so I went "to destruction."
At first I stayed but a little while and never left the cobblestone space, only peering up into the steep little streets that led to the fearsome homes of the "Micks." But then I made the acquaintance of Sam. It happened through a small toy boat which I had taken down there with the purpose of starting it off for "heathen lands." As I headed across the railroad tracks that led to the docks, suddenly Sam and his gang appeared from around a freight car. I stood stock-still. They were certainly "Micks"—ragged and dirty, with holes in their shoes and soot on their faces. Sam was smoking a cigarette.
"Heigh, fellers," he said, "look at Willy's boat."
I clutched my boat tighter and turned to run. But the next moment Sam had me by the arm.
"Look here, young feller," he growled. "You've got the wrong man to do business with this time."
"I don't want to do any business," I gasped.
"Smash him, Sam—smash in his nut for him," piped the smallest Micky cheerfully. And this Sam promptly proceeded to do. It was a wild and painful time. But though Sam was two years older, he was barely any larger than I, and when he and his gang had gone off with my boat, as I stood there breathing hard, I was filled with a grim satisfaction. For once when he tried to wrench the boat from me I had hit him with it right on the face, and I had had a glimpse of a thick red mark across his cheek. I tasted something new in my mouth and spit it out. It was blood. I did this several times, slowly and impressively, till it made a good big spot on the railroad tie at my feet. Then I walked with dignity back across the tracks and up "the way of destruction" home. I walked slowly, planning as I went. At the gate I climbed up on it and swung. Then with a sudden loud cry I fell off and ran back into the garden crying, "I fell off the gate! I fell on my face!" So my cut and swollen lip was explained, and my trips were not discovered.
I felt myself growing older fast. For I knew that I could both fight and tell lies, besides defying the Condor.
In the next years, for weeks at a time my life was centered on Sam and his gang. How we became friends, how often we met, by just what means I evaded my nurse, all these details are vague to me now. I am not even sure I was never caught. But it seems to me that I was not. For as I grew to be eight years old, Belle turned her attention more and more to that impish little sister of mine who was always up to some mischief or other. There was the corner grocer, too, with whom I pretended to be staunch friends. "I'm going to see the grocer," I would say, when I heard Sam's cautious whistle in front of the house—and so presently I would join the gang. I followed Sam with a doglike devotion, giving up my weekly twenty-five cents instead of saving it for Christmas, and in return receiving from him all the world-old wisdom stored in that bullet-shaped head of his which sat so tight on his round little shoulders.
And though I did not realize it then, in my tense crowded childhood, through Sam and his companions I learned something else that was to stand me in good stead years later on. I learned how to make friends with "the slums." I discovered that by making friends with "Micks" and "Dockers" and the like, you find they are no fearful goblins, giants bursting savagely up among the flowers of your life, but people as human as yourself, or rather, much more human, because they live so close to the harbor, close to the deep rough tides of life.
Into these tides I was now drawn down—and it did me some good and a great deal of harm. For I was too little those days for the harbor.
Sam had the most wonderful life in the world. He could go wherever he liked and at any hour day or night. Once, he said, when a "feller" was drowned, he had stayed out on the docks all night. His mother always let him alone. An enormous woman with heavy eyes, I was in awe of her from the first. The place that she kept with Sam's father was called "The Sailor's Harbor." It stood on a corner down by the docks, a long, low wooden building painted white, with twelve tight-shuttered, mysterious windows along the second story, and below them a "Ladies' Entrance." In front was a small blackboard with words in white which Sam could read. "Ten Cent Dinners" stood at the top. Below came, "Coffee and rolls." Next, "Ham and eggs." Then "Bacon and eggs." And then, "To-day"—with a space underneath where Sam's fat father wrote down every morning still more delicious eatables. You got whiffs of these things and they made your mouth water, they made your stomach fairly turn against your nursery supper.
But most of our time we spent on the docks. All were roofed, and exploring the long dock sheds and climbing down into the dark holds of the square-rigged ships called "clippers," we found logs of curious mottled wood, huge baskets of sugar, odorous spices, indigo, camphor, tea, coffee, jute and endless other things. Sam knew their names and the names of the wonder-places they came from—Manila, Calcutta, Bombay, Ceylon. He knew besides such words as "hawser," "bulkhead" and "ebb-tide." And Sam knew how to swear. He swore with a fascinating ease such words as made me shiver and stare. And then he would look at me and chuckle.
"You think I'll go to hell for this, don't you," he asked me once. And my face grew hot with embarrassment, for I thought that he assuredly would.
I asked him what were heathen lands, and he said they were countries where heathen lived. And what were heathen? Cannibals. And what were they?
"Fellers that eat fellers," he said.
"Alive?" I inquired. He turned to the gang:
"Listen to the kid! He wants to know if they eat 'em alive!" Sam spat disgustedly. "Naw," he said. "First they roast 'em like any meat. They roast 'em," he added reflectively, "until their skin gets brown and bubbles out and busts."
One afternoon a carriage brought three travelers for one of the ships, a man, his wife and a little girl with shining yellow pig-tails. "To be et," Sam whispered as we stood close beside them. And then, pointing to some of the half-naked brown men that made the crew of the ship near by—"cannibals," he muttered. For a long time I stared at these eaters, especially at their lean brown stomachs.
"We're safe enough," Sam told me. "They ain't allowed to come ashore." I found this very comforting.
But what a frightful fate lay in store for the little girl with pig-tails. As I watched her I felt worse and worse. Why couldn't somebody warn her in time? At last I decided to do it myself. Procuring a scrap of paper I retired behind a pile of crates and wrote in my large, clumsy hand, "You look out—you are going to be et." Watching my chance, I slipped this into her satchel and hoped that she would read it soon. Then I promptly forgot all about her and ran off into a warehouse where the gang had gone to slide.
These warehouses had cavernous rooms, so dark you could not see to the ends, and there from between the wooden columns the things from the ships loomed out of the dark like so many ghosts. There were strange sweet smells. And from a hole in the ceiling there was a twisting chute of steel down which you could slide with terrific speed. We used to slide by the hour.
Outside were freight cars in long lines, some motionless, some suddenly lurching forward or back, with a grinding and screeching of wheels and a puffing and coughing from engines ahead. Sam taught me how to climb on the cars and how to swing off while they were going. He had learned from watching the brakemen that dangerous backward left-hand swing that lands you stock-still in your tracks. It is a splendid feeling. Only once Sam's left hand caught, I heard a low cry, and after I jumped I found him standing there with a white face. His left hand hung straight down from the wrist and blood was dripping from it.
"Shut up, you damn fool!" he said fiercely.
"I wasn't saying nothing," I gasped.
"Yes, you was—you was startin' to cry! Holy Christ!" He sat down suddenly, then rolled over and lay still. Some one ran for his mother, and after a time he was carried away. I did not see him again for some weeks.
We did things that were bad for a boy of my size, and I saw things that I shouldn't have seen—a docker crushed upon one of the docks and brought out on a stretcher dead, a stoker as drunk as though he were dead being wheeled on a wheelbarrow to a ship by the man called a "crimp," who sold this drunken body for an advance on its future pay. Sam told me in detail of these things. There came a strike, and once in the darkness of a cold November twilight I saw some dockers rush on a "scab," I heard the dull sickening thumps as they beat him.
And one day Sam took me to the door of his father's saloon and pointed out a man in there who had an admiring circle around him.
"He's going to jump from the Bridge on a bet," Sam whispered. I saw the man go. For what seemed to me hours I watched the Great Bridge up there in the sky, with its crawling processions of trolleys and wagons, its whole moving armies of little black men. Suddenly one of these tiny specks shot out and down, I saw it fall below the roofs, I felt Sam's hand like ice in mine. And this was not good for a boy of ten.
But the sight that ended it all for me was not a man, but a woman. It happened one chilly March afternoon when I fell from a dock into water covered with grease and foam, came up spluttering and terrified, was quickly hauled to the dock by a man and then hustled by Sam and the gang to his home, to have my clothes dried and so not get caught by my mother. Scolded by Sam's mother and given something fiery hot to drink, stripped naked and wrapped in an old flannel nightgown and told to sit by the stove in the kitchen—I was then left alone with Sam. And then Sam with a curious light in his eyes took me to a door which he opened just a crack. Through the crack he showed me a small back room full of round iron tables. And at one of these a man, stoker or sailor I don't know which, his face flushed red under dirt and hair, held in his lap a big fat girl half dressed, giggling and queer, quite drunk. And then while Sam whispered on and on about the shuttered rooms upstairs, I felt a rush of such sickening fear and loathing that I wanted to scream—but I turned too faint.
I remember awakening on the floor, Sam's mother furiously slapping Sam, then dressing me quickly, gripping me tight by both my arms and saying,
"You tell a word of this to your pa and we'll come up and kill you!"
That night at home I did not sleep. I lay in my bed and shivered and burned. My first long exciting adventure was over. Ended were all the thrills, the wild fun. It was a spree I had had with the harbor, from the time I was seven until I was ten. It had taken me at seven, a plump sturdy little boy, and at ten it had left me wiry, thin, with quick, nervous movements and often dark shadows under my eyes. And it left a deep scar on my early life. For over all the adventures and over my whole childhood loomed this last thing I had seen, hideous, disgusting. For years after that, when I saw or even thought of the harbor, I felt the taste of foul, greasy water in my mouth and in my soul.
So ended the first lesson.
The next morning as I started for school, suddenly in the hallway I thought of what my mother had told me—always when I was frightened to shut my eyes and speak to Jesus and he would be sure to make everything right. I had not spoken to Jesus of late except to say "Holy Christ!" like Sam. But now, so sickened by Sam and his docks, my head throbbing from the sleepless night, on the impulse I kneeled quickly with my face on a chair right there in the hall. But I found I was too ashamed to begin.
"If he would only ask me," I thought. Why didn't he ask me, "What's the matter, little son?" or say, "Now, you must tell me and then you'll feel better"—as my mother always did. But Jesus did not help me out. I could not even feel him near me. "I will never tell anyone," I thought. And I felt myself horribly alone.
Help came from a quite different source.
"There he is! Look!"
I heard Sue's eager whisper. Jumping quickly to my feet, I saw in the library doorway Sue's dark little figure and her mocking, dancing eyes as she pointed me out to our father, her chum, whose face wore a smile of amusement. In a moment I had rushed out of doors and was running angrily to school, furious at myself for praying, furious at Sue for spying and at my father for that smile. My terror was forgotten. No more telling Jesus things! I retreated deep inside of myself and worked out of my troubles as best I could.
From that day the harbor became for me a big grim place to be let alone—like my father. A place immeasurably stronger than I—like my father—and like him harsh and indifferent, not caring whether when I fell into it I was pulled up to safety or drawn far down into grease and slime. It made no difference. I was nothing to it one way or the other. And I was nothing to my father.
Of course this was by no means true. As I look back now I know that often he must have tried to be kind, that in the jar and worry of his own absorbing troubled life he must have often turned to me and tried to make himself my friend. But children pass hard judgments. And if my father was friendly at times it did no good. For he was a man—big and strong—and I was a small boy craving his love.
Why couldn't he really love me? Why couldn't he ask me how I felt or pull my ear and say "Hello, Puss?" He was always saying these things to Sue, and caring about her very hard and trying to understand her, although she was nothing but a girl, two years younger and smaller than I and far less interesting. And yet with her he was kind and tender, curious and smiling, he watched her with wholly different eyes. My father was a short, powerful man, and though he was nearly fifty years old his hair was black and thick and coarse. At night he would rub his unshaven cheek on Sue's small cheek and tickle her. She would chuckle and wriggle as though it were fun. I used to watch this hungrily, and once I awkwardly drew close and offered my cheek to be tickled. My father at once grew as awkward as I, and he gave me a rub so rough it stung. And this wasn't fair—I had hoped for a cuddle. Besides, he was always praising Sue when I knew she didn't deserve it. He called her brave. Once when he took us duck shooting together a squall came up and he rowed hard, and Sue sat with her eyes on his, smiling and quite unafraid. At home that night I heard him tell my mother how wonderfully brave she had been, and of how I, on the other hand, had gripped the boat and turned white with fear, while little Sue just sat and smiled.
"We'll see how brave she is," I thought, and the next day I hit her in Sam's best style, fairly "knocked her nut off," in fact, with one quick blow. "There," I said to myself while she screamed. "I guess that shows how brave you are. I didn't scream when Sam hit me."
He said she was quicker than I at her lessons. And this rankled the deeper because it was true. But I would never admit it.
"Of course she's quick, when he's always helping her. Why doesn't he ever come and help me?" I would burst into tears of vexation. My father was unfair!
More than that, it was he and his dock and his warehouse, in the years that followed my thrills with Sam, that stripped all these thrills away. A great ship with her spreading, booming white sails might move up the river from heathen lands as wonderful and strange as you please. But the moment she reached my father's dock she became a dirty, spotted thing, just a common every-day part of his business.
He himself was nothing but business. His business was with ships and the sea, and yet he had never once in his life taken a long sea voyage. "Why doesn't he? Why does he like only tiresome things?" I argued secretly to myself. "Why does he always come ashore?" He always did. In my memories of ships sailing I see him always there on deck talking to the captain, scowling, wrinkling his eyes over the smoke of his cigar, but always coming down the gang-plank at the end, unconcernedly turning his back on all the excitement and going back to his warehouse.
He could get excited about ships, but only in the queerest way that had something to do with his business. Late one night from my bed I heard his voice downstairs, cutting and snarling through other voices. I got out of bed and stole downstairs and along the half-lit hall to the library door, and there from behind the curtain I watched what was going on inside. The library was full of men, grave, courteous-looking gentlemen, some of them angry, some merely amused. My father was leaning over his table talking of ships, of mysterious things that he said must be done with battleships and tariffs.
"And mark me, gentlemen," he cried. "If we don't do these things in time American sails will be swept from the seas!"
Listening, I got a picture of an immense broom reaching out of the clouds and sweeping American ships off the ocean. But I could make nothing of this at the time. I only watched his face and eyes and his fist that came down with a crash on the table. And I was afraid of my father.
When ships lay at his dock the captains often came up to dinner. But even these marvelous creatures lost in my father's presence all that Sam had given them in my eyes. They did not like my mother, they ate in uneasy silence, or spoke gruffly of their dull affairs. Once or twice I heard talk of mutinies, of sailors shot down or put in irons, but all in a matter-of-fact sort of way. Mere grunts came from my father. Steadily drearier grew the ocean, flatter all the heathen lands.
One stout, red-faced captain, jovial even in spite of my mother, would annoy me frightfully by joking about my going to sea. He was always asking me when I meant to run away and be "a bloody pirate." He took it for granted I liked the sea, was thrilled by the sea, when the truth of it was that I hated the sea! It was business now, only business!
My father's warehouse, too, lost its mystery as I grew older. For exploring into its darkness I found that of course it did have walls like any common building. The things in it, too, lost their wonder. It was as though my father had packed all the rich and romantic Far East into common barrels and crates and then nailed down the covers. And he himself became for me as common as his warehouse. For in his case, too, I could see the walls.
"I know you now," I thought to myself. He could sit through supper night after night and not utter a word in his gloom. But the mystery in him was gone. Business, nothing but business. A man and a place to be let alone.
* * * * *
But it was my mother more than anyone else who drew me away from the harbor. All through those early years she was the one who never changed, the strong sure friend I could always come back to. My mother was as safe as our house.
She was a small, slender woman grown bodily stronger year by year by the sheer force of her spirit. I remember her smoothly parted hair, brown but showing gray at forty, the strong, lined face and the kindly eyes which I saw so often lighted by that loving smile of hers for me. If my father didn't care for me, I was always sure she did. I could feel her always watching, trying to understand what I was thinking and feeling. As when I was very small she toned down the stories she read, so she did in everything else for me, even in her religion. Though she was a strong church woman, I heard little from her of the terrors of hell. But I heard much of heaven and more still of a heaven on earth. "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." I can never forget how she spoke those words as I knelt and repeated them after her—not so much in the tone of a prayer to a higher being as in one of quiet resolve to herself. To do her share, through church and hospital and charity work and the bringing up of her children, her share in the establishment of a heaven upon the earth, this was her religion.
And this heaven on earth of my mother's was made up of all that was "fine" in humanity past and present. "Fine, fine!" she would say of some kind deed, of some new plan for bettering life, or of some book she was reading, some music she had heard, or of a photograph of some great painting over in Europe. All her life she had wanted to go abroad.
My mother was one of those first American women who went to college, and one of that army sent out from college as school teachers all over the land. She had taught school in frontier hamlets far out West, homesick she had looked back on the old college town in New England, and those ten years of her life out West had been bare and hard, an exile. At last she had secured a position in an expensive girls' school in New York, and from there a few years later she had married my father. I think they had been happy at first, I think that his work with the ships had seemed to her a gateway leading out to Europe, to all the very "finest" things. But later, as he set his whole mind upon his warehouse worries, upon his fight for Yankee ships, a navy, subsidies, tariffs, and shut out all thought of travel, culture, friends, all but the bare, ugly business of life—my mother had rebelled against this, had come to hate his harbor, and had determinedly set herself to help me get what she had missed.
I don't mean that she babied me. She was too good a teacher for that. I mean she steered me through hard work away from what she saw in the harbor up toward what she felt was fine. She began when I was very little giving me daily lessons at home in the brief time she had to spare from her house and charity work. She made me study and she studied me. My mother, sooner or later, seemed to find out all I did or felt.
Often I would hold stubbornly back. While I was going with Sam to the docks I never once gave her a hint of my rovings. It was not until two years after that drunken woman disaster that I suddenly told my mother about it. I remember then she did not chide. Instead she caught the chance to draw out of me all I had learned from the harbor. I talked to her long that night, but she said little in reply. I can vividly remember, though, how she came to me a few days later and placed a "book for young men" in my hands.
"You are only twelve," she said. "It's a pity. But after what you have seen, my son, it is better that you know."
She did this twenty years ago. It was far in advance of what most parents did then or are doing even now for their children. And it threw a flood of light into the darkest place in my mind, swept away endless forebodings, secret broodings over what until then had seemed to me the ugliest, the dirtiest, the most frightening thing I had found in life.
"When you meet anything ugly or bad," she told me, "I don't want you to turn away at once, I want you to face it and see what it is. Understand it and then leave it, and then it won't follow you in the dark."
"Keep clean," she said. And understanding me as she did, I think she added to herself, "And I must keep you quiet." She once told me she hoped that when I grew up I might become a professor in one of those college towns she loved, where I might work all my life in peace.
Although she never said anything to me against the harbor, I knew that my mother put all the ugliest things in life down there. And the things that were fine were all up here.
"I always like the front door of a house," she used to say, "to be wide and low with only a step or two leading up. I like it to look hospitable, as though always waiting for friends to come in."
Our front door was like that, and the neighborhood it waited for was one of the quietest, the cleanest and the finest, according to her view, of any in the country. The narrow little street had wide, leisurely sidewalks and old-fashioned houses on either side, a few of red brick, but more of brown stone with spotless white-sashed windows which were tall and narrow and rounded at the top. There were no trees, but there were many smooth, orderly vines. Almost all the houses had wide, inviting doorways like ours, but the people they invited in were only those who lived quietly here, shutting out New York and all the toots and rumblings of the ships and warehouses and docks below, of which they themselves were the owners.
These people in their leisurely way talked of literature and music, of sculpture and painting and travel abroad, as their fathers and even grandfathers had done—in times when the rest of the country, like one colossal harbor, changing, heaving, seething, had had time for only the crudest things, for railroads, mining camps, belching mills, vast herds of cattle and droves of sheep, for the frontier towns my mother had loathed, for a Civil War, for a Tweed Ring, for the Knights of Labor, a Haymarket riot, for the astounding growth of cities, slums, corporations and trusts, in this deep turbulent onward rush, this peopling of a continent.
And because my father, crude and self-made and come out of the West, was of this present country, he was an intruder politely avoided by these people of the past. The men would come sometimes at night, but they came only on business. They went straight through to the library, whence I could hear my father's voice, loud, impatient, angry, talking of what must be done soon, or Germany and England would drive the American flag from the ocean and make us beggars on the seas, humbly asking the ships of our rivals to give us a share in the trade of the world. To such disturbing meetings these grave and courteous gentlemen came less and less as the years went by.
And so that hospitable front door of ours waited long for neighbors.
But if my father was an intruder, a disturber of the peace of these contented gentlemen, my mother was more and more liked by their wives. As time wore on they came to our house in the afternoons, upon hospital and church affairs. And first in the church and then in a private school near by I grew to be friends with their children.
Across the street from us at the corner there stood a huge, square brownstone house with a garden and a wide yard around it. Two boys and a little girl lived here, and about them our small circle centered. Here we played hockey in winter, part of the yard being flooded for our use; and in Spring and Autumn, ball, tag, I spy, prisoner's base and other games. They were all well enough as far as they went, but all were so very young and tame compared to my former adventures with Sam. Adventures, that was the difference. These were only games.
I felt poor beside these boys, in this ample yard by their grandfather's house. I often saw his great carriage roll out of the stable behind the yard. "Coach," they called it. It had rich silver trimmings and a red thing called a "crest," and a footman and coachman in top boots. Inside the house was a butler who was still more imposing, and a lofty room with spacious windows called the picture gallery. But by far the most awesome of all was the white-headed grandfather of these boys, who had been to Europe twenty-eight times and could read and speak "every language on earth," as I was told in whispers while we peeped in through his library door. There he sat with all his books, a man so rich he never even went to his office, a man who had owned not only warehouses but hundreds of ships and had sent them to every land in the world! While, as for me, my grandfather was not even alive. I felt poor and small, and I did not like it.
Besides, these unadventurous boys all put me down as "a queer kid." I was middling good at most of their games and would get sudden spurts when I would become almost a leader. But at other times, often right in the middle of a game, I would suddenly forget where I was and would think of Sam, of the cannibals that I had seen, of the man who had jumped from the Great Bridge, or of that drunken woman. They would catch me at it and call me queer. And I would grow hot and feel ashamed.
On the other hand, poor and queer as I felt at times, at others I would swell with my wisdom and importance. For what did they know, these respectable boys, about the docks and the gangs of "Micks" deep down there below us all as we played about in our nice little gardens. When they called me queer, sometimes I would retort with dark hints, all games would stop, they would gather close, and then I would tell these intense eager boys the things I had learned from the harbor. And I had the more pleasure in the telling from the feeling of relief that now I was safe away from it all.
"That's the real thing, that is," I would declare impressively. But how good it felt to me to be free of such reality.
* * * * *
At such times we made "the Chips" stay over on their side of the yard. "The Chips" were three small admiring girls. One was my young sister Sue, who was then about nine years old, long-legged, skinny and quick as a flash, her black hair always flying. The second, a plump freckled girl, was the younger sister of the boys who lived here. And the third was a quiet little thing who lived around the corner. We called them "Chips" to annoy them. We got the term from the stout coachman in the barn who used it with a fine sweeping contempt that included all his lady friends. We ourselves had the most profound contempt for these girls who kept poking into our games. At times we would stop everything and take the utmost pains to explain to them that they were nothing whatever but girls. And this would make Sue furious. She would screw up her snapping black eyes and viciously stick out her tongue and stamp her foot and say "darn!" to show she could swear like a regular kid. And still they hung around us.
But as time wore on we grew more indulgent, we included them more and more. And this was largely due to me. For I took a vague curious interest in the one who lived around the corner.
Her name was Eleanore Dillon and her age was eight, and she had attractions that slowly grew. To begin with, as I became gradually aware, she was much the prettiest of the three. She had light curly hair tied up in red ribbons, always fresh red ribbons. Everything about her was always fresh and clean. She had the most serious blue eyes, which at times would grow intent on what a tall chap of twelve like myself condescended to tell her, and at other times wondrously confiding.
Eleanore first attracted me by making me a hero. It was a warm May afternoon and she was sitting on the grass with her doll and her two companions. Sue had stolen some matches and was using them as Jackstraws. Suddenly I heard a scream, then I saw Sue racing like mad toward the garden hose, and I saw that the white skirt of Eleanore's dress had caught fire. As yet there was only a little flame. She was sitting still motionless on the grass, hugging her doll, with scared round eyes. I got to her first and with my cap I beat out the flame. I was suddenly panting, my hands were cold. But a few moments later, when Sue and two of the boys came tugging the hose, it as suddenly flashed upon me that I had done a heroic thing.
"Get out!" I shouted scornfully, as they started to play the hose on her. "Can't you see the whole fire is out?"
And then while the plump freckled girl came screeching out of the kitchen with half the servants behind her, and presently these servants all called me "a little heero"—the one whom I had rescued looked up at me very gratefully and said,
"Thank you, Boy, for not letting them squirt water on my dolly's clean dress."
"Aw, what do I care for a doll?" I retorted ungraciously.
But I liked her from that day. She was not at all like Sue. She was quiet and knew her place. She knew that she was only a girl, how thoroughly well she knew it. And yet, although so feminine, so deliberate and sedate, she had "a pile of ginger" deep down inside of her. In our games, whenever allowed to play, with a dogged resolution she would come pegging along in the rear, she was a sticker, she never gave up. In winter when they flooded the yard she was the poorest skater of all, but patiently plodding along on the ice, each time she fell down she would pick herself up with such determination that at last with a jerk at her arm I said,
"Here, Chip, come on and I'll teach you."
She came on. I can still feel her soft determined clutch on my elbow. When I said, "That's enough," she said, "Thank you, Boy," and went quietly on alone.
After that I taught her many times. One afternoon when there was a thaw, I said,
"Gee, but this ice is rotten." And then Eleanore asked me placidly,
"Do you like my pretty new shoes?"
"What's that got to do with it?" I demanded indignantly.
"Nothing, I guess," she said meekly.
This girl was full of mysteries. One great point in her favor was that she had a mother "at death's door." This appealed to me tremendously. It was so unusual.
"How's your mother?" I would ask her often, just for the pleasure of hearing her answer softly,
"She's at death's door, thank you."
She soon learned to skate much better, and I remember quite vividly still the January afternoon when as the darkness deepened a silvery moon appeared overhead. I had not skated with her for a week, but now we'd been skating for nearly an hour. One by one the others went home, and the plump girl turned at the kitchen door to call back to Eleanore tauntingly,
"You'll catch it, going home so late!"
"Never mind," said a gentle voice at my side, and round and round we skated. The moon grew steadily brighter. Still that soft steady clutch on my arm.
"Now you'd better go home," I said gruffly at last.
"What time is it?" she asked me. I looked at my watch.
"Gee! It's nearly seven o'clock!"
"What a pretty watch that is," she said in a pleased, quiet voice, but I was not to be diverted.
"Go on home, I tell you. Sit down and I'll take off your skates." She sighed regretfully but obeyed.
"What'll they do to you?" I asked her when we stopped in front of her house.
"They'll try to punish me," she answered. I looked down at her anxiously.
"Hard?" I inquired. She smiled at me.
"What time is it now?" she asked.
"Ten minutes after seven."
"Then they won't punish me," she said. "My father always comes home at seven." And she went placidly into the house.
"A mighty smart Chip," I said to myself.
I had told her a little about the docks, and one day she asked me to take her there. I promptly refused, but patiently from time to time she repeated her request. She wanted me to take her "just for a little walk" down there, or she would run if I preferred. She wanted to come out after supper into her garden, which was only the third from ours, and then she would sing and I would whistle. Then I would come around by the street and she would meet me at her front gate. I don't know how she ever persuaded me, but she did, and the plan worked splendidly. At the gate without a word I took her hand and ran down the street. Soon we were flying. Down to the open space we came, and around across the railroad tracks. In and out among grimy freight cars we sped. I would not stop.
"Christ!" I thought in terror. "Suppose Sam and the gang come around this way!" I had not seen them now for years. What might not they do to her?
But she made me stop by my father's dock. She was gasping and her face was red, but with her hand like a little vise on mine she stood there staring at the ship.
"Where are the heathen?" she asked at last, in a queer choking voice.
"There." I pointed to a small brown man with a white skull-cap on his head. "There's one. See him? Now come home!"
"Wait a minute, please," she begged very softly. A moment longer she stared at him. "All right, now we'll go," she said.
When I got her safe inside my gate I was in a cold sweat. This adventure, to my surprise, had been one of the most thrilling of all. And who'd have thought her an adventurer?
Her mother died that summer while we were up in the mountains, and when we came back we found the house empty. Her father had taken her out West.
I remember being distinctly relieved when I heard that she had gone away. For now there was something uncanny about her. It was one thing to have a mother "at death's door." That had been quite exciting. But to have one dead! There was something too awful about it. I would not have known what to say to the girl. And, besides, the thought suddenly entered my mind—suppose my own mother were to die!
* * * * *
We had been splendid chums, my mother and I, that long delightful summer up in the White Mountains. The mountains, we had decided together, were our favorite place to live in. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills," was the part of the Bible which she liked best. She loved these hills for their quiet, I loved them for the exciting adventures I had with Sue and "Stouty," the son of the farmer with whom we stayed. But these adventures were of a kind that my mother warmly approved of for me. They were not like those on the harbor.
An adventure to climb with Stouty and Sue up through the resinous branches of an enormous pine on the mountainside to the hawk's nest in the bare top branches, snatch the eggs and smash them, while Stouty with a big thick stick would beat off the mother hawk. An adventure to clamber half the day up a bouldery path through firs and birches, looking into black caves, peeping over steep cliffs, and at last reaching the wind-swept summit to look off through miles of emptiness. An adventure, coming home from a picnic as evening was falling, to sit snug in that creaking capacious wagon which belonged to Stouty's father, and to watch the lights and shadows that darted in and out of the pines as the lantern swung beneath our wheels.
But even up here in the mountains the harbor reached with its cold embrace. For at night it was an adventure hurriedly to undress and bury myself in the covers in time to hear the first low rumble of "the night freight" that went by some five miles distant. It made me think of the trains on the docks, whose voices I had heard at night, and of the things I had done with Sam. I would hear the mountain engine come panting impatiently up the grade. As it reached the top I would rise from my bed and soar off into space, in one swift rushing flight through the darkness I would be there in the nick of time, I would swing on to a freight car in the way Sam had shown me, climb to the top and crouching there I would watch the dark roadway open ahead through the silent forest. Lower would sink the voice of the engine until it became a faint confused mutter. And the rest was dreamland.
This was one of those secret games I never told my mother about—until, to my own surprise, in one of those long talks at night when she seemed drawing me to her right out through my eyes, I blurted this out. My mother wanted to know all about it. Did my hands get cold? Yes, colder and colder, as listening here in bed I heard the first muttering of the train and knew that in a few moments more I would take that five-mile flight, right through the window and over the trees to the distant track, to be there just ahead of the on-puffing engine. My voice quivered excitedly as I spoke.
"I see—I see," she said soothingly. "And when you are riding on top of a car—aren't you ever frightened?"
"No—because all the time I know that I am back there at home in my bed. I can see myself back there behind me."
"Do you fall asleep in bed—or are you still on the top of the car the last thing you can remember?"
"Most always on the top of the car."
"And when you sleep—do you always dream?"
"Yes—that's the finest part of it."
"Do you ever dream of Sam?"
"And all those things you did on the harbor?"
For some moments she sat by my bedside quietly stroking one of my hands.
"Yes, mother." I was growing impatient, I wished she would go, for now it was nearly time for the train.
"Have you ever played other games like that? I mean where you leave yourself and look back—and see your own body behind you."
"Yes—in bed in Brooklyn when I was quite little."
"Where did you go from your bed?"
"I went to the end of the garden. I heard drunken sailors and dockers shouting in that vile saloon below." This was not true. What I had really done was to lie in bed and whisper, "Suppose I were out there"—which is very different. I was too young then to have learned the real trick. But now I was so proud of it that I honestly thought I had always known how. "It was a game I had with the harbor," I said.
"With the harbor." I felt her hand slowly tighten on mine. Then all at once as we heard the first low grumble of the freight train coming, my mother's hold grew tighter and tighter. "Open your eyes." I opened them quickly, for her voice was sharp and stern. She held me until the sound was gone.
"Do you hear it any longer?" she asked quietly at last.
"No," I whispered. My breath still came fast.
"Neither do I." There was another silence. "Let's go and sit by the window," she said.
And there she talked to me of the stars. How great they were and how very quiet. She said that the greatest men in the world were almost always quiet like that. They never let their hands get cold.
Often after that in the evenings just before I went to bed we had these talks about the stars. And not only in the mountains. On sparkling frosty winter nights we watched them over the harbor. And the things she said about them were so utterly absorbing that I would never think to look down, would barely hear the toots and the puffings and grinding of wheels from that infernal region below. For always when she spoke of the stars my mother spoke of great men too, the men who had done the "finest" things—a few in the clash and jar of life like Washington and Lincoln, but most of them more quietly, by preaching, writing, painting, composing, sermons, books, pictures and music so "fine" that all the best people on earth had known about them and loved them.
As I grew older she read to me more and more about these men. And sometimes I would feel deeply content as though I had found what I wanted. But more often I would feel myself swell up big inside of me, restless, worrying, groping for something. I didn't know what I wanted then, but I do know now as I look back, and I think there are thousands of children like me, the kind who are called "queer kids" by their playmates, who are all groping for much the same thing.
"Where is the Golden Age to-day?" they are asking. "We hear of all this from our mothers. We hear of brave knights and warriors, of God and Christ as they walked around on earth like regular people, of saints and preachers, writers and painters. But where are the great men living now? Not in our house nor on our street, nor in school nor in our church on the corner. There is nothing there that thrills us. Why isn't there? What is the matter? We are no longer babies, we are becoming big boys and girls. What will we do when we are grown up? Has everything fine already been done? Is there no chance for us to be great and to do them?"
It was to questionings like these that my mother had led me up from the harbor.
And to such questionings I believe that for many children of my kind there is often some familiar place—a schoolroom or a commonplace street, or a dreary farm in winter, a grimy row of factories or the ugly mouth of a mine—that mutely answers,
"No. There are no more great men for you, nor any fine things left to be done. There is nothing else left in the world but me. And you'd better stop trying to find it."
In my case this message came from the harbor, that one part of the modern world which looked up at me steadily day after day. Vaguely struggle as I would to build up fine things in the present from all that my mother brought out of the past, the harbor would not let me. For what I clothed it soon stripped naked, what I built it soon tore down.
"When you were little," it seemed to say, "for you I was filled with thrilling idols—cannibals and condors, Sam, strange wonder-ships and sailors adventuring to heathen lands. But then I dragged these idols down and made you see me as I am. And as I showed myself to you, so I'll show up all other wonderful places or men that your mother would have you believe in."
It did this, as I remember it, in the easiest most trivial ways, like some huge beast that flicks off a fly and then lumbers unconcernedly on.
My mother by years of patient work had built up my religion, filling it with the grand figures of God and Christ and his followers down to the present time, ending with Henry Ward Beecher. When this man died I felt awe at her silent grief. All at once the idea popped into my head that I too might become a great preacher. And still greater, I soon learned, I might become a preacher who went far off to heathen lands, braving cannibals and death and giving to thousands of heathen eternal happiness and life. Our church was sending out such a man. I heard him described as a hero of God, and I thought of pictures I had seen of saints and martyrs with soft haloes around their heads.
But this hero of God came down to the harbor. He was to sail for China from my father's dock. He wore, I remember, a brown derby hat and a little top coat. He was thin, with stooping shoulders, he was flustered in the excitement of leaving, nervously laughing as he shook hands with admiring women and talking fast in his high jerky voice. Two big dockers trundled his trunks. I saw them grin at the little man and spit tobacco juice his way. My father came by, shot one contemptuous glance, and then went on board to his business. I looked back at the hero. Off fell the halo from his head.
"No," I said gloomily to myself, "I never want to be like you." And drearily I looked around. What heaps and heaps of business here. What an immense gray harbor. I found no more thrills in church after that.
And as with religion, so with love. In reading of men of the Golden Age I came upon stories of high romance that made me strangely happy. But I saw no love of this kind in our house. I saw my mother and father living sharply separate lives, and I saw few kisses between them. I saw my father absorbed in his business, with little time for my mother. And I blamed this on the harbor. Long ago the same grim place had taught me something else about this many-sided passion between men and women, and one day it rose suddenly up in my mind:
I must have been about fifteen when my little friend Eleanore Dillon came back. Soon she and Sue were intimate chums, they went to school together. My mother invited her up to the mountains, and there I was with her a good deal. She was now nearly twelve years old, and the life in the West with her father had left her sturdy as you please. And yet somehow she still seemed to me the same feminine little creature, and as she told me stories of the life out West, where her father, who was an engineer, had built bridges, planned out harbors and new cities, I would wonder vaguely about her. What a fresh, clean little person to be talking of such places.
She was talking to me in this way one drowsy August afternoon. We had been fishing down on the river, and now on our way home up the long hot slope of the meadow we had stopped to cool ourselves in the shadow of a haystack. It was fragrant there. Presently, from the top of the stack close over our heads, a bird poured forth a ravishing song. And Eleanore with a deep "Oh-h" of delight threw both her hands behind her head, sank back in the hay and lay there close beside me. Her eyes were shut and she was smiling to herself. Then as the song of the bird bubbled on, I felt suddenly a little shock, a new disturbing feeling. Breathlessly I watched her face. The song stopped and Eleanore opened her eyes, met mine, and closed them quickly. I saw a slight tightening of her features. I grew anxious at once and awkward. I wanted to get away.
But as I made a first uneasy movement, a bit of bright color caught my eye. It was one of her red garters which had slipped down from beneath her skirt. And all at once out of my memory rose a picture of years ago, a picture from the harbor, of that fat drunken girl I had seen. She too had worn red garters—in fact, little else! With disgusting vividness up she came! And I jumped trembling to my feet.
"I'm going home," I said roughly, and left my small companion.
I kept away from her after that. And even the following winter, when she came over often to our house to spend the night with Sue, I did my best to avoid her. I avoided all Sue's friends. I did not keep girls quite out of my thoughts, I had spells now and then when I would read about them in novels, papers and magazines, anything I could lay hands on. I would read hungrily, at times almost wistfully. But all the stories that I read, however romantic, could never quite overbalance for me that giggling woman I had seen.
"This is what love can be these days, foul as two pigs in a sty," said the harbor.
The same thing happened again with war and the great idea of giving one's life for one's country.
By countless eager questionings I had forced my mother to include among our heroes men like Napoleon, Nelson and Grant, and after I gave up hopes of the church these men for a time became greatest of all. You needed no mother to help you here. It was the easiest thing in the world to picture yourself leading charges or standing high up on a hill like Grant, quietly smoking a black cigar and sending your orderlies on the mad gallop out to all corners of the field. My hill grew very real to me. It had three wind-swept trees on top and I stood just in front of them.
When the war with Spain broke out I was still in my 'teens, still rather thin and by no means tall, but I made up my mind to try to enlist. Even now I can shut my eyes and see again that long night on the docks when I watched two regiments embark on ships which were to sail at dawn. With the uniforms, the crash of bands, the flags, the cheers, the women laughing and crying, the harbor seemed all on my side that night.
"This is certainly what I want!" I thought.
But my father forbade my going. He was not only stern, he was savage. For once he came out of himself and talked. And his talk was not only against this war but against all wars. The Civil War was the worst of all. This was the more a surprise to me because I knew that he himself had been with the Boys of Sixty One, I had often boasted about it. But now I learned he had not fought at all, he had been a mere commissary clerk moving rations and blankets on freight trains!
"The business side of war," he said. "And when you've seen that side of it you know how rotten a big war is! Men in the North made millions by sending such rotten meat to the front that we had to live on the people down South, we had to go into their farms and plantations and plunder defenseless women and children of all they had to eat! That's war! And war is filthy stinking camps where men die of fever and scurvy like flies—and war is field hospitals so rotten in their management that you see the wounded in long lines—packed together like bloody sardines—bleeding to death for the lack of care! When they're dead you dig big trenches and you pile 'em in like dogs! In time of war remember peace—and then you'll be ashamed you're there!"
For a moment I was struck dumb with surprise. What was this strange fire deep down within my father's soul that could give out such a flash? Confusedly I wondered. A sudden idea crossed my mind.
"But if that's how you feel," I retorted, "why are you always talking about the battleships we need? You want a big navy——"
"Yes," he snapped, "to keep this country out of war! If you live long enough you'll see what I mean—remember then what I'm telling you! This country needs a navy so big she can trade wherever she likes and make other nations leave her alone! But she doesn't want war! Sixty One was enough! Some day when you get a man's eyes in your head you'll see what that did to this harbor!"
I had it now, the cause of all his curious wrath! War had hurt his harbor! How or why I did not care. Could this harbor of his stand nothing heroic? Patriotism, religion, love—must they all be shoved aside to make way for his dull business?
* * * * *
About a year later I was torn for months between two careers. Should I become a great musician or a famous writer? The idea of writing came to me first, I got it from "Pendennis," and for a time it took hold so hard I thought I was nicely settled for life. But then my mother read aloud "The Lives of Great Musicians," and within a few weeks the piano lessons which for years I had thought so dull became an absorbing passion. My mother bought me a photograph of one of the Beethoven portraits, and around it over my desk I tacked up pictures of famous pianists that I cut from magazines. I went to concerts in New York. Better still, my teacher secured me admittance to some orchestra rehearsals, where like a real professional, all mere amateurs shut out, I could sit in the dark and listen, and shut my eyes and hold my head between my hands. I was composing! After a month or two of this feverish life I remember the pride with which I wrote "Opus 38" over my last composition. My rapidity was astounding!
But one day my teacher, a kind tactful German, told me that Beethoven, when he was composing, had not always shut himself up in a room and scowled with both hands to his head, as in the portrait of him I had, but had rather gone out into the world.
"The Master found his music," he said, "by listening to the life close around him."
"He did?" I became uneasy at once, for again I felt myself being pushed toward that eternal harbor.
"If I were you," my relentless monitor went on, "and desired to become in music the great voice of my country"—I looked at him quickly but saw no smile—"I should watch the great ships down there below, I should listen to them with an artist's ears. They are here from all over the world, these ships, they are manned by men of all nations. I should listen to the songs of these men. I have heard," he added reflectively, "that some of their songs are centuries old. Beethoven gathered only the folk songs of his country. But you in your city of all nations might gather the folk songs of all the seas."
I turned quickly. I had been walking the room.
"I have heard the sailors sing," I said, "ever since I was a little kid out there in the garden." I scowled in the effort to search my soul, my artist's soul. "Yes," I added triumphantly, "and sometimes it brought a lump in my throat!"
"Ah! Now you are a musician!"
"I will see what I can do," I said.
So again I tackled the harbor. By day it was quite impossible, all toots and blares, the most frightful discords—but at night its vulgar loudness was toned down sufficiently so that a fellow with artist's ears could really stand listening to its life, especially if I did not go too close but listened from my window. Here with uglier sounds subdued I could catch low voices, snatches of song and now and then a chorus. "The folk songs of the Seven Seas!" How that phrase took hold of me!
I went for information to an old dock watchman who had been a sailor.
"Songs? Why sure!" he answered. "It must be the chanties ye mean."
"That's it. I've been told the word's French."
"No—chanty. An' the man that sings the verses, he's called the chantyman. He sings while the crew heaves on the ropes an' they all come in on the chorus. If he's a real good chantyman he makes up new verses every time, a kind of a yarn he spins while he sings."
Soon after this, toward the end of a warm, windy April night, I awoke and heard them singing. I jumped up and went to my window. From the dock next to my father's, over the line of warehouse roofs, I could see the immense white sails already slowly rising into the starlit night. Quickly I threw on some clothes and hurried down to the docks. The waterfront was empty, swept clean of all that I disliked. Only overhead a few billowy clouds, the soft rush of the wind, a slight flush in the east, it was almost dawn. Here and there gleamed a light, red, green or yellow, with a phantom tug or barge around it, moving over the black of the water. Not silence but something richer was here—the confused mysterious murmuring, the creaking and the breathing of the sleeping port. And out of this those voices singing.
I drew nearer slowly. Hungrily I tried to take in the details of color and sound. And I felt suddenly such a deep delight as I had never dreamed of. To look around and listen and gather it into me and remember. This was great, no doubt about it—it fitted into all that was fine!
"This is really what I want to do—I'd like to learn to do it well—I'd like to do it all my life!"
Slower, more fearfully, I drew near. Would anything happen to spoil it all? There she lay, the long white ship, laden deep, settled low in the water. I could see the lines of little dark men heaving together at the ropes. Each time they hove they sang the refrain, which, no doubt, was centuries old, a song of the winds, the big bullies of the ocean, calling to each other as in some wild storm at sea they buffeted the tiny men who clung to the masts and spars of ships:
"Blow the man down, bullies, Blow him right down! Hey! Hey! Blow the man down! Give us the time to blow the man down!"
But what were the verses? I could hear the plaintive tenor voice of the chantyman who sang them—now low and almost mournful, now passionate, thrilling up into the night, as though yearning for all that was hid in the heavens. Could a man like that feel things like that? But what were the words he was singing, this yarn he was spinning in his song?
I came around by the foot of the slip and walked rapidly up the dockshed toward one of its wide hatchways. The singing had stopped, but as I drew close a rough voice broke the silence:
"Sing it again, Paddy!"
I looked out. Close by on the deck, in the hard blue glare of an arc-light, were some twenty men, dirty, greasy, ragged, sweating, all gripping the ropes and waiting for Paddy, who rolled his quid in his mouth, spat twice, and then began:
"As I went awalking down Paradise Street A pretty young maiden I chanced for to meet."
A heave on the ropes and a deafening roar:
"Blow the man down, bullies, Blow him right down! Hey! Hey! Blow the man down!"
Again the solo voice, plaintiff and tender:
"By her build I took her for Dutch. She was square in the stuns'l and bluff in the bow."
The rest was a detailed account of the night spent with the maiden. Roar on roar rose the boisterous chorus: "Blow the man down, bullies, blow him right down!" The big patched, dirty sails went jerking and flapping up toward the stars, which from here were so faint they could barely be seen. And the ship moved out on the harbor.
"There go the folk songs of the seas," I thought disgustedly, looking out on the water now showing itself grease-mottled in the first raw light of day.
I tried other songs with my artist's ears and found them all much like the first, the music like the very stars, the words like the grease and scum on the water. I was about giving up my search when I met my old friend, the watchman.
"Well, did ye find the chanties?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "They can't be printed." His old eyes twinkled merrily:
"Of course they can't. An' most songs an' stories can't. But I'll give ye a nice little song ye can print. It's the oldest chanty of 'em all. I'll try to remember an' write it down."
Here is the song he gave me:
To Australia's fair-haired maidens We will bid our last good-bye. We are going home to England, We may never more see you.
Rolling home, rolling home, Rolling home across the sea, Rolling home to merry England, Rolling home dear land to thee.
We will leave you our best wishes As we leave your rocky shores, We are going home to England, We may never see you more. Rolling home....
Up aloft amidst her rigging Spreading out her snow white sails, Like a bird with outstretched pinions, On we speed before the gale. Rolling home....
And the wild waves, as we leave them, Seem to murmur as they roll; There are hands and hearts to greet thee In that land to which you go. Rolling home....
Cheer up, Jack, fond hearts await thee, And kind welcomes everywhere; There are hands and hearts to greet thee, Kind caresses from the fair.
Rolling home, rolling home, Rolling home across the sea, Rolling home to merry England, Rolling home dear land to thee.
"Do they ever sing those words?" I asked suspiciously. The old Irishman looked steadily back.
"Sure they sing 'em—sometimes," he said. "It's the same thing as them other songs—only nicer put. Put to be printed," he added.
He found me others "put to be printed." Soon I had quite a collection. And with the help of my German teacher I wrote down the music.
"There are not enough for a book," he said. "Why don't you write an article, tell where you found them, put them in, and send it to a paper? So you can give them to the world."
This I at once set out to do. In the writing I found again that deep delight I had had on the dock, just far enough off to miss the dirt, the sweat and the words of the song. I showed the article to my mother, and she was surprised and delighted. Working together, in less than a week we had polished it off. I heard her read it aloud to my father, I watched his face, and I saw the grim smile that came over it as he asked me,
"Are those the words you heard them sing?"
"Not all of them are," I answered. And suddenly, somehow or other, I felt guilty, as though I had done something wrong. But angrily I shook it off. Why should I always give in to his harbor? This that I had written was fine! This was Art! At last in spite of him and his docks I had found something great that I could do!
When the article was taken by a Sunday paper in New York and a check for eight dollars was sent me with a brief but flattering letter, my pride and hopes rose high. The eight dollars I spent on a pin for my mother, as "Pendennis" or some other boy genius had done. When the article appeared in the paper my mother bought fifty copies and gave them out to our neighbors. There was nothing to shock such neighbors here, and they praised me highly for what they called my "real descriptive power."
"That boy will go far," I heard one cultured old gentleman say. And I lost no time in starting out. No musical career for me, down came Beethoven from my wall, for I was now a writer. And not of mere articles, either. Inside of six months I had written a dozen short stories, and when each of these in turn was rejected I began to plan out a five-act play. But here my mother stopped me.
"You're trying to go too fast," she said. "Think of it, you are barely nineteen. You must give up everything else just now and spend all your time getting ready for college. For if you are going to be a strong writer, as I hope, you need to learn so many things first. And you will find them all in college—as I did once when I was young," she added a little wistfully.
The first thing I needed in college was a good thorough dressing down. And this I got without any delay. In the first few weeks my artist's ears and eyes and soul were hazed to a frazzle. From "that boy who will go far" I became "you damn young freshman." I was told to make love to a horse's hind leg, I was made to perch on a gatepost and read the tenderest passages of "Romeo and Juliet," replacing Romeo's name by my own, and Juliet's by that of stout Mrs. Doogan, who scrubbed floors in a dormitory close by. Refusals only made matters painful. Besides, I was told by a freshman friend that I'd better fit in or I'd "queer" myself.
This dread of "queering" myself at first did me a world of good. Dumped in this community of over a thousand callow youths, three hundred in my class alone and each one absorbed in getting acquainted, fitting in, making friends and a place for himself, I was soon struggling for a foothold as hard as the rest. Within a month the thing I wanted above all else was to shed my genius and become "a good mixer" in the crowd.
This drew me at first from books to athletics. Though still slight of build I was wiry, high-strung and quick of movement. I had a snub nose and sandy hair, and I was tough, with a hard-set jaw. And I now went into the football world with a passion and a patience that landed me at the end of the season—one of the substitute quarterbacks on the freshman team. I did not get into a single game, I was only used on the "scrub" in our practice. This made for a wholesome humility and a real love of my college.
The football season over, I tried for the daily paper. One of the freshman candidates for the editorial Spring elections, I became a daily reporter slave. Here at first I drew on my "queer" past, turning all my "descriptive powers" to use. But a fat senior editor called "Pop" inquired one day with a sneer, "For God's sake, Freshman, why these flowers?" And the flowers forthwith dropped out of my style. At all hours, day and night, to the almost entire neglect of studies, I went about college digging up news—not the trivial news of the faculty's dull, puny plans for the development of our minds, but the real vital news of our college life, news of the things we were here for, the things by which a man got on, news of all the athletic teams, of the glee, mandolin and banjo clubs, of "proms," of class and fraternity elections, mass meetings and parades. Ferreting my way into all nooks and crannies of college life, ears keen for hints and rumors, alert to "scoop" my eighteen reporter rivals—the more I learned the better I loved. And when in the Spring I was one of the five freshman editors chosen, the conquest was complete. No more artist's soul for me. I was part and parcel of college life.
Together with my companions I assumed a genial tolerance toward all those poor dry devils known to us as "profs." I remember the weary sighs of our old college president as he monotoned through his lectures on ethics to the tune of the cracking of peanuts, which an old darky sold to us at the entrance to the hall. It was a case of live and let live. He let us eat and we let him talk. With the physics prof, who was known as "Madge the Scientist," our indulgence went still further. We took no disturbing peanuts there and we let him drone his hour away without an interruption, except perhaps an occasional snore. We were so good to him, I think, because of his sense of humor. He used to stop talking now and then and with a quizzical hopeless smile he would look about the hall. And we would all smile broadly back, enjoying to the full with him the droll farce of our presence there. "Go to it, Madge," someone would murmur. And the work of revealing the wonders of this material universe would limp quietly along. In examinations Madge gave no marks, at least not to the mass of us. If he had, over half of us would have been dropped, so he "flunked" the worst twenty and let the rest through.
The faculty, as a whole, appeared to me no less fatigued. Most of them lectured as though getting tired, the others as though tired out. There were a few lonely exceptions but they had to fight against heavy odds.
The hottest fighter of all against this classic torpor was a tall, joyous Frenchman who gestured not only with his hands but with his eloquent knees as well. His subject was French literature, but from this at a moment's notice he would dart off into every phase of French life. There was nothing in life, according to him, that was not a part of literature. In college he was considered quite mad.
I met him not long ago in New York. We were both hanging to straps in the subway and we had but a moment before he got off.
"I have read you," he said, "in the magazines. And from what you write I think you can tell me. What was the trouble with me at college?" I looked into his black twinkling eyes.
"Great Scott!" I said suddenly. "You were alive!"
"Merci! Au revoir, monsieur!"
What a desert of knowledge it was back there. Our placid tolerance of the profs included the books they gave us. The history prof gave us ten books of collateral reading. Each book, if we could pledge our honor as gentlemen that we had read it, counted us five in examination. On the night before the examination I happened to enter the room of one of our football giants, and found him surrounded by five freshmen, all of whom were reading aloud. One was reading a book on Russia, another the life of Frederick the Great, a third was patiently droning forth Napoleon's war on Europe, while over on the window-seat the other two were racing through volumes one and two of Carlyle's French Revolution. The room was a perfect babel of sound. But the big man sat and smoked his pipe, his honor safe and the morrow secure. In later years, whatever might happen across the sea would find this fellow fully prepared, a wise, intelligent judge of the world, with a college education.
"This reminds me," he said, "of last summer—when I did Europe in three weeks with Dad."
The main idea in all courses was to do what you had to but no more. One day an English prof called upon me to define the difference between a novel and a book of science.
"About the same difference," I replied, "as between an artist's painting and a mathematical drawing."
"Bootlick, bootlick," I heard in murmurs all over the hall. I had answered better than I had to. Hence I had licked the professor's boots. I did not offend in this way again.
* * * * *
But early in my sophomore year, when the novelty had worn away, I began to do some thinking. Was there nothing else here? My mother and I had had talks at home, and she had told me plainly that unless I sent home better reports I could not finish my four years' course. And after all, she wasn't a fool, there was something in that idea of hers—that here in this quiet old town, so remote from the harbor and business, a fellow ought to be getting "fine" things, things that would help him all his life.
"But look what I've got!" I told myself. "When I came here what was I? A little damn prig! And look at me now!"
"All right, look ahead. I'm toughened up, I've had some good things knocked into me and a lot of fool things knocked out of me. But that's just it. Are all the fine things fool things? Don't I still want to write? Sure I do. Well, what am I going to write about? What do I know of the big things of life? I was always hunting for what was great. I'm never hunting for it now, and unless I get something mighty quick my father will make me go into his business. What am I going to do with my life?"
At first I honestly tried to "pole," to find whether, after all, I couldn't break through the hard dry crust of books and lectures down into what I called "the real stuff." But the deeper I dug the drier it grew. Vaguely I felt that here was crust and only crust, and that for some reason or other it was meant that this should be so, because in the fresh bubbling springs and the deep blazing fires whose presence I could feel below there was something irritating to profs and disturbing to those who paid them. These profs, I thought confusedly, had about as much to do with life as had that little "hero of God" who had cut such a pitiful figure when he came close to the harbor. And more pitiful still were the "polers," the chaps who were working for high marks. They thought of marks and little else. They thrived on crust, these fellows, cramming themselves with words and rules, with facts, dates, theorems and figures, in order to become professors themselves and teach the same stuff to other "polers." There was a story of one of them who stayed in his room and crammed all through the big football game of the season, and at night when told we had won remarked blithely,
"Oh, that's splendid! I think I'll go out and have a pretzel!"
God, what a life, I thought to myself! None of that for me! And so I left the "polers."
But now in my restless groping around for realities in life that would thrill me, things that I could write about, I began trying to test things out by talking about them with my friends. What did a fellow want most in life—what to do, what to get and to be? What was there really in business beside the making of money? In medicine, law and the other professions, in art, in getting married, in this idea of God and a heaven, or in the idea I vaguely felt now filtering through the nation, that a man owed his life to his country in time of peace as in time of war. The harbor with rough heavy jolts had long ago started me thinking about questions of this kind. Now I tackled them again and tried to talk about them.
And at once I found I was "queering" myself. For these genial companions of mine had laid a most decided taboo upon all topics of this kind. They did so because to discuss them meant to openly think and feel, and to think or feel intensely, about anything but athletics and other things prescribed by the crowd, was bad form to say the least.
Bad form to talk in any such fashion of what we were going to make of our lives. Nobody cared to warm up on the subject. Many had nothing at all in sight and put off the whole idea as a bore. Others were already fixed, they had positions waiting in law and business offices, in factories, mines, mills and banks, and they took these positions as settled and sure.
"Why?" I would argue impatiently. "How do you know it's what you want most?"
"Oh, I guess it'll do as well as another."
"But damn it all, why not have a look? We can have a big look now, we've got a chance to broaden out before we jump into our little jobs—to see all the jobs and size 'em up and look at 'em as a part of the world!"
"Oh, biff." I got little or no response. The greater part of these decent likable fellows could not warm up to anything big, they simply hadn't it in them.
"Why in hell do you want me to get all hot?" drawled one fat sluggard of a friend. "I'll keep alive when the time comes." And he and his kind set the standard for all. Sometimes a chap who could warm up, who had the real stuff in him, would "loosen up" about his life on some long tramp with me alone. But back in college his lips were sealed. It was not exactly that he was ashamed, it was simply that with his college friends such talk seemed utterly out of place.
"Look out, Bill," said one affectionately. "You'll queer yourself if you keep on."
The same held true of religion. An upper classman, if he felt he had to, might safely become a leader of freshmen in the Y. M. C. A. But when one Sunday evening I disturbed a peaceful pipe-smoking crowd by wondering why it was that we were all so bored in chapel, there fell an embarrassing silence—until someone growled good-humoredly, "Don't bite off more'n you can chew." Nobody wanted to drop his religion, he simply wanted to let it alone. I remember one Sunday in chapel, in the midst of a long sermon, how our sarcastic old president woke us up with a start.