The Harbor


It was about a year after this that again Joe Kramer broke in on my dreams.

He arrived early on a raw, wet morning in the following winter. His all-night ride from Cherbourg had left him disheveled, unshaven and hungry.

"Well, boys," he asked when our greetings were over, "what do you think of the news?"

"What news?"

Joe gave us a grim, fatherly smile.

"Say. Do I have to come all the way from Chicago to tell you what's happening down the street? Well, you young beauty boosters, there's a panic on the Bourse this week that's got your fair city flat on her back. And the cause of the said panic is that France is in deep on Russian bonds, which are now worth about a cent to the dollar. Because the Russian people—already dead sick of the war with Japan—have risen in a howling mob against their government. See?"

"I did hear of that," said the painter among us. "A Polish chap in the studio said something about it yesterday."

"Now, did he?" said the ironical Joe. "Just kind of murmured it, I suppose, while bending reverently over his art." He rose. "Well, boys, I'm sorry for you, but I've only got a day in this town, I'm off for Russia on the night train. Bill, I wish you'd help me here. I've got an awful lot to do and my French is still a little weak."

It was not at all weak, it was strong and loud. I can hear it still, Joe Kramer's French, and it is a fitting memory of that devastating day.[Pg 85]

The day began so splendidly, so big with promise of great ideas. I grew quite excited about it. Here was Joe on his way to a real revolution. Sent out by his Chicago paper, he was going to Russia to see a whole people fight to be free—a struggle prophesied long ago by Turgenief, Tolstoy and other big Russians whose work I admired. And now it was actually coming off—and Joe, the lucky devil, was going to be right on hand! From some mysterious source in New York he had secured a letter to a Russian revolutionist leader who for many years had been an exile here in Paris. Joe was anxious to see him at once.

"All right," I said eagerly. "Give me his address."

"Hold on," J. K. retorted. "It's not so easy as all that. I want to get into Russia. This man's house in Paris is watched day and night by the Russian secret police, and nobody who's seen with him has a chance of crossing the frontier. We've got to go slow."

"What'll we do?"

"I want you to steer me first to a Frenchman. He's an anarchist. Here's his address."

The anarchist was a bit disappointing. A mild little man, we found him in an attic room receiving a vigorous scolding from the huge blonde with whom he lived. But after reading Joe's letter, he, too, took on a mysterious air. He came with us in our cab, and off we went over Paris until I thought we should never end. Again and again the cab would stop and our guide would darkly disappear. But from one of these trips he returned triumphant.

"I have found his wife," he announced. "But she says she must have a look at you first." The cab rattled off, and the next stop was in front of a public library.

"Now," said our guide, "go in and sit down at a table and pretend you are reading."

We went in and did as he said. Soon a middle-aged woman in black sat down at the other side of the table.[Pg 86] She stared at us gloomily a moment; then with a yawn she opened a book and calmly started making notes. Presently, scowling over her work, she began muttering to herself.

"You must not look up," I heard in French. "A Russian spy sits over there. You wish to see my husband. Come to-night at nine o'clock to the second floor of the Café Voltaire. He will be at the top of the stairs. Good-by." And she yawned again over her writing.

"Now, this," I thought, "is a revolution!" I thoroughly approved of this. The Café Voltaire was an excellent choice, an almost perfect mise-en-scène. It had long been one of my favorite haunts. A tall white wooden building, so toned down, so tumbled down, so heavy laden with memories of poets, dramatists, pamphleteers and fiery young orators, who had sat here and conspired and schemed and exhorted over human rights. It had well lived up to its glorious name. What great ideas had started from here! Here French history had been made!

But alas! Into this hallowed spot that night, at nine o'clock on his way to his train, came Joe in a yellow mackintosh with a brand-new suitcase in his hand—and showed me history in the making. It was made in a small, stuffy room upstairs. On the one side J. K. with a million American readers behind him, on the other this revolutionist whose name that week had been in newspapers all over the world. So far, so good. But look at him, look at this history maker. Tall, sallow and dyspeptic, a professor of economics. Romance, liberty, history, thrill? Not at all. They talked of factories, wages, strikes, of railroads, peasants' taxes, of plows and wheat and corn and hay! They got quite excited over hay.

And all this had to come through their defenseless interpreter—me. My head ached, one foot fell asleep. The Social Democratic Party, the Social Revolutionist Party, the Constitutional Democrats, in and out of my head they trooped. If this be revolution, then God save the king![Pg 87] Crushed to earth, as we left at last, my head still buzzing with economics, I looked dismally back on my poor café, on liberty, justice and human rights. There was something as bad as the harbor in Joe; he was always spoiling everything.

"Why don't you take Carlyle's French Revolution along?" I suggested forlornly. "You might read it on the train."

"Because, you poor kid, he's way out of date."

It took me days to get into my work.

About two months later, back he came. From one of our front windows he looked down into the old Gardens, into all the loveliness the April twilight was bringing there, and,

"Where can I get a typewriter?" he asked. "I've got such an awful lot of stuff that I want to dictate it right off the bat."

This was literature in the making. For hours in Joe's room that week I sat and heard him make it. In one corner lay a heap of dirty shirts and collars, in another a stack of papers and books. An English stenographer sat at the window, J. K. strode up and down and talked. It was real enough, this narrative. Facts and figures, he had them down cold, to back up with a crushing force the points he was making against the Czar. Poverty, tyranny, bloody oppression, wholesale slaughter of a people in a half-mad monarch's war—Joe pounded them in with sledgehammer blows. He not only made you sure they were true, he made you sure that these things must be stopped and that you as a decent American certainly wanted to help with your money. And as for the revolution itself, he left no doubt in your mind about that. It was there all right, Joe had seen people give up their lives, he had seen men and women clubbed and shot down, he had been so near he had seen the blood. (But he made human blood so darned commonplace, curse him!) And[Pg 88] in Petersburg for two long nights he had gone about a city in darkness, every street light put out by the strikers, the streets filled with surging black masses of figures. Yes, Joe had certainly seen big things.

Then what was the matter with me, I thought, that all this did not thrill me? "Young men are lucky. They will see great things." All right, here was one of my great things, a whole nation rising to throw off its chains, to show the world that wars must cease—and to me it didn't seem great at all, it seemed only big, and there was a world of difference. Big? It was enormous, not only what Joe had seen up there, but what he was doing right here in this room. He was talking to a million people, damn him, and doubtless this was just the kind of writing that would appeal to them. Thousands of his commonplace readers would send their dollars to Russia, where dyspeptic professors of economics would use the money to hire halls, into which millions of commonplace Russians would crowd to hear about strikes, wages, taxes and hay! And then some more commonplace blood would be shed, the dyspeptic professors would be put in office—and this was a modern revolution!

Was everything modern only big? Must I always have that feeling the harbor used to give me?

"No!" I decided angrily. The fault didn't lie in me nor in Russia, but in J. K. and the way he was writing. As I followed that blunt narrative of his journey through cities and factory towns, into deep forests, across snowy plains and through little hamlets half buried in snow and filled with the starving families of the men who had gone to the war, I tried to picture it all to myself—not as he described it, confound him, but with all the beauty which must have been there. Ye Gods of the Road, what a journey! What tremendous canvases teeming with life, such strange, dramatic significant life! What a chance for a writer!

One night on a train whose fifth-class cars, cattle cars[Pg 89] and nothing more, were packed with wounded men from the front, out of one of those traveling hells Joe had pulled a peasant boy half drunk, and by the display of a bottle of vodka had enticed him into his own compartment in a second-class car ahead. The boy's right arm was a loathsome sight, festering from a neglected wound. Amputation was plainly a matter of days. But it was not to forget that grim event that the boy had jumped off at each little station to spend his few kopecks on vodka. No, he was stolidly getting drunk because, as he confided to Joe, at dawn he would come to his home town and there he knew he was going to tell twenty-six wives that their men had been killed. He laboriously counted them off on his fingers—each wife and each husband by their long, homely Russian names. Then he burst into half-drunken sobs and pounded the window ledge with his fist. It was the fist of his right arm, and the kid gave a queer, sharp scream of pain.

If Voltaire had been there he would have come back and described that peasant boy he'd seen in a way that would have gripped men's souls and sent a great shudder over the world at war and what it meant to mankind—while Joe was simply slapping it down like some hustling, keen reporter.

"Look here, Joe; you make me sick!" I exploded at last. "You ought to stick right here for months and work on this wonderful stuff you've got till there's nothing left you can possibly do!"

"Be an artist, eh, a poet, a great writer." He gave me one of those fatherly smiles. "I've got some things to say to you, Kid. I don't like the life you're leading."

"Don't you? Why don't you?" I rejoined. And so began a fight that lasted as long as he was in Paris.

Nothing that I had been doing here made any appeal whatever to Joe. I showed him my sketch of Notre Dame from under that old bridge at night.

"Yes," he said, "this is fine writing, awful fine. But it[Pg 90] has about as much meaning to me as a woman's left ear. What's the use of sitting down under a bridge and looking up at an ancient church and trying to feel like a two-spot? For God's sake, Bill, get it out of your system, quit getting reverent over the past. You're sitting here at the feet of the Masters, fellahs who were all right in their day, but are now every one of 'em out of date. And you're so infernally busy copying their technique and style and trying to learn just how to write, that you're getting nothing to write about. Why can't you go to life for your stuff?"

"Go to life?" I said indignantly. "I've done nothing else for over a year!"

"Show me."


He read more of my sketches.

"But damn it, Bill, these people aren't alive. They're only a bunch of artist kids as reverent over the past as yourself, they have about as much connection with anything live and vital to-day as so many mediæval monks. You fellahs think you're free of creeds. You're the creediest kids I ever saw, your religion is style, technique and form. For God's sake lose it and use your own eyes, forget you're an artist and be a reporter, come out in the world and have a try. You'll find so much stuff you won't need any plots, you'll simply report events as they happen. And you won't have any time for technique, the next event will be tuning up before you've got to the end of the last. With a big daily paper behind him a good reporter can follow the front page around the world. Russia's on the front page now. All right, you can go to Russia. By June it may be Hindustan, or Pittsburgh, Turkey or China. Believe me, Bill, the nations of this planet are working themselves into a state where they're ready to do things you never dreamed of. I'm not talking of kings and governments, I'm talking of the people themselves, the people in such excited crowds that nobody knows who's who or what's next.[Pg 91]

"I saw my first crowd in Petersburg the very day I got off the train. They filled a street from wall to wall and as far as you could see. They weren't saying a word or singing a song, and there wasn't even a drum to keep time. But they moved along with their wives and kids as though they'd left home, job and church, and were looking for something else so hard they didn't care for bullets. I saw 'em shot down like so many sheep. But bullets won't stop what I saw in their eyes. God knows I don't want a religion. I'm no socialist nor anarchist. But if there's one thing I want to hang on to it's my belief in the common crowd. They've had a raw deal since the world began. They can have the whole earth whenever they want it. And they're beginning to want it hard!

"Forget your own name and jump into the crowd, write and don't stop to remember you're writing! The place you need is the U. S. A.—and the work you need is a job on a paper!"

"Are you through?" I snapped.

"I am!"

"All right," said I. "I'm going to stay just where I am! I'm not going to be yanked by you all over the earth, to write news articles on the run! I'm going to stick in one place—right here—and take my time and learn my job. I don't want to write news, I want to write books. I'd rather write one good novel than all the headline stuff in the world. It's books that make the headlines."

"Books?" Joe's look was funny.

"Sure they do. Take Russia. What started this whole revolution! Books. It didn't start with your common crowds—they were all eating fried onions. It started with a few writers of novels!"

"Who left their little mahogany desks," said Joe, "got into peasant clothes and went to live with the peasants!"

"Oh no they didn't. Only a few. Turgenief didn't. Tchernichefsky didn't. Dostoiefsky——"[Pg 92]

"Say. Are they Russians? I never heard their names up there."

I looked at J. K. thoughtfully.

"No," I said. "You wouldn't. As yet they're not quite crowdy enough. But they are Russians and their ideas made most of the first revolutionists. The whole revolution was started by books."

"It wasn't," snapped Joe. "It was taxes. Their taxes were doubled because of the war, and——"

"Oh, damn your war taxes, and damn your plows and your corn and hay! You've got a hay mind, that's the trouble with you! You've got so you think that hay and bread and pork and beans are all men live and die for! They don't, Mister Reporter, they die for ideals—freedom, democracy, human rights—which are in 'em so deep that when a big writer sees 'em there and brings 'em out and holds 'em up and says, 'Here! This is you, this is what you want, this is what you believe in!'—your crowd says, 'Sure! Why didn't we see it long ago?' And then they do things that go into headlines! But to be able to write like that a man can't go chasing all over the earth, he's got to quit sneering at art and technique, he's got to learn how to make characters real and build plots that make readers sit up all night to see what becomes of the people he's made! If believing that is a creed, then I'm creedy! I'm willing to throw over everything else, but I'll hang on to this one thing all my life—the fact that big art means working like hell!"

"Gee," said J. K. "What an artist."

These fights of ours left me weak and sore, as though I'd been back on the terrace at home, listening to my father talk and looking at his harbor.[Pg 93]

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