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

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.”

“Chanties?”

“That’s it. I’ve been told the word’s French.”

“Oh! Chanter!”

“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:

ROLLING HOME

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.