Read CHAPTER IV of The Harbor , free online book, by Ernest Poole, on ReadCentral.com.

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?”

“Yes.”

“And all those things you did on the harbor?”

“Yes-all.”

For some moments she sat by my bedside quietly stroking one of my hands.

“Billy.”

“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.