The Harbor


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 immeasura[Pg 21]bly 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.[Pg 22]

"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,[Pg 23] 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[Pg 24] 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.[Pg 25]

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.[Pg 26]

"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[Pg 27] 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.[Pg 28]

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