The Harbor


"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[Pg 4] 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[Pg 5] 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[Pg 6] 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 ware[Pg 7]house. 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[Pg 8] 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. S 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[Pg 9] 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.[Pg 10]

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