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

Now for something bigger. I would have a whack at the place by day. No mystery now, just ugliness. I would show it up in broad daylight, bringing out every detail in the glare. I would do this by comparing it to the harbor of long ago, and the snowy white sails of my father’s youth.

His youth was gone. A thick-set and gray-headed old figure, he bent over his desk by my side, putting up a fierce, silent fight for his strength, and now slowly getting enough of it back to keep him at his job as a clerk in what had been his warehouse. Only once, coming suddenly into the room, I found him settled deep down in his chair, heavy, inert, his cigar gone out, staring vacantly out of the window.

The sails were gone. Down there at his dock, where even in days that I could remember the tall clippers had lain for weeks, I saw now a German whaleback. She had slipped in but three days before and was already snorting to get away. She was black and she wallowed deep, and she had an enormous bulging belly into which I descended one day and explored its metallic compartments that echoed to the deafening din of some riveters at work on her sides. Though short and stout, she was nine thousand tons. Hideous, she was practical, as practical as a factory. In her the romance of the sea was buried and choked in smoke and steam, in grime, dirt, noise and a regular haste. One morning as her din increased and the black, sooty breath of her came drifting in through our window, my father rose abruptly and slammed the window down.

“The damn sea hog!” he muttered.

Gone, too, were the American sailors. All races of men on the earth but ours seemed gathered around this hog of the sea. From barges filled with her cargo, the stuff was being heaved up on the dock by a lot of Irish bargemen. Italian dockers rolled it across to this German ship, and on deck a Jap under-officer was bossing a Coolie crew. These Coolies were dwarfs with big white teeth and stooping, round little shoulders. They had strange, nervous faces, long and narrow with high cheek bones and no foreheads at all to speak of. Their black eyes gleamed. Back and forth they scurried to the sound of that guttural Japanese voice.

“The cheapest sea labor there is,” growled Dad. “Good-by to Yankee sailors.”

The Old East with its riches was no longer here. For what were these Coolies doing? Handling silks and spices? Oh, no. They were hoisting and letting down into the hold an automobile from Dayton, Ohio, bound for New South Wales. Gone were the figs and almonds, the indigo, ivory, tortoise shells. Into the brand-new ledgers over which my father worked, he was entering such items as barbed wire, boilers, car wheels and gas engines, baby carriages, kegs of paint. I reveled in the commonplace stuff, contrasting it vividly in my mind with the starlit ocean roads it would travel, the picturesque places it would help spoil.

I filled in the scene with all its details, the more accurate, glaring and real the better-the brand-new towering skyline risen of late on Manhattan, the new steel bridge, an ugly one this, and all the modern steam craft, tugs, river boats, Sound steamers, each one of them panting and spewing up smoke. I sat there like a stenographer and took down the harbor’s dictation, noting the rasping tones of its voice, recording eagerly all its smells. And all this and more that I gathered, I focussed on the sea hog.

And then toward the end of a winter’s day we looked out of our window and saw her “sail.” She sailed in a nervous, worrying haste to the grunts and shrieks of a lot of steam winches. Up rattled her anchor, out she waddled, tugs puffing their smoke and steam in her face. She didn’t depart. Who ever heard of a hog departing? She just went. There were no songs, no last good-byes-except from a man in his shirt sleeves who called from the deck to a man on the pier, “So long, Mac, see you next Spring,” and then went into the factory.

When the work of the day was over, I went down into the dock shed. My father’s old place was at peace for a time, the desecration done with. She was empty, dark and silent. In her long, inward-sloping walls the eight wide sliding doors were closed. Only through the dusty skylights here and there fell great masses of soft light. Big bunches of canvas hung from above, ropes dangled out of the shadows. And there were huge rhythmic creakings that made you feel the ocean still here, an old ocean under an old, old dock. The place grew creepy with its past.

“Faint, spicy odors,” I jotted down, as I stood there in the dimness, “ghosts of long ago-low echoes of old chanties sung by Yankee sailors-romance-mystery-

I broke off writing and drew back behind a crate. My father had entered the dock shed and was coming slowly up the dock. Presently I saw him stop and look into the shadows around him. I saw a frown come on his face, I saw his features tighten. So he stood for some moments. Then he turned and walked quickly out. A lump had risen in my throat, for I thought I knew what he had seen.

“The Phantom Ship” became my title. A fine contrast to the sea hog, I thought. I asked Dad endless questions at night about the old days not only here, but all up along the coast of New England, and hungrily I listened while he glorified the rich life and color of those seaport towns now gray, those wharves now rotting and covered with moss. He glorified the spacious homes of the men who had ordered their captains to search the Far East for the rugs and the curtains, the chairs and the tables, the dishes, the vase, the silks and the laces, the silver and gold and precious stones with which those audacious old houses were stored. He glorified the ships themselves. From the quarter decks of our clippers, those marvels of cleanliness and speed, he told how those miraculous captains had issued their orders to Yankee sailors, brawny, deep-chested, keen-eyed and strong-limbed. He told what perils they had faced far out on the Atlantic-“the Roaring Forties” those waters were called!

“Yes, boy, in those days ships had men!”

In my room I eagerly wrote it all down and added what I myself could remember. Here from my bedroom window I tried to see what I had seen as a boy, the immaculate white of the tall sails, the fresh blue and green of the dancing waves. Oh, I was romancing finely those nights! And there came no Blessed Damozel to say to me gruffly, “Couches-toi. Il est tard.”

When the sketch was completed at last I gave it to my father to read and then went out for a long walk. It was nearly midnight when I returned, but he was still reading. He cleared his throat.

“Son,” he said very huskily, “this is a strong piece of work!” His eyes were moist as they moved rapidly down the page. He looked up with a jerk. “Who’ll print it?” he asked.

“I wish I knew, Dad-

I mailed it that night to a magazine. In the next two weeks my father’s suspense was even deeper than my own, though he tried hard to joke about it, calling me “Pendennis.” One day in his office chair he wheeled with a nervous sharpness, and I could feel his eyes fixed on the envelope which the postman had just thrown on my desk. God help me, it was heavy and long, it had my manuscript inside. Dismally I searched for a letter. Still I could feel those anxious eyes.

“Hold on!” I cried. “They’ve taken it! All they want me to do is to cut it down!”

“Then do it!” My radiant father snarled. “It ought to be cut to half its length! That’s the way with beginners, a mass of details! Some day maybe you’ll learn to write!”

I smiled happily back. He came suddenly over and gripped my hand.

“My boy, I’m glad, I’m very glad! I’m”-he cleared his throat and went back to his desk and tried to scowl over what he was doing.

“Dad.”

“Huh?”

“They say they’ll give me a hundred dollars. Pretty good for one month’s work.”

“Huh.”

“And they want me to do some more on the harbor. They say it’s a new field. Never been touched.”

“Then touch it,” he said gruffly. “Leave me alone. I’m busy.”

But coming in late after luncheon that day, I found him reading the editor’s letter.

“Boy,” he said that evening, “you ought to read Thackeray for style, and Washington Irving, and see what a whippersnapper you are. Work-work! If your mother were only alive she could help you!”

And just before bedtime, taking a bottle of beer with my pipe, I caught his disapproving eye.

“Worst thing you can put in your stomach,” he growled. He said this regularly each night, and added, “Why can’t you keep up your health for your work?”

His own health had improved astonishingly.

“It’s the winter air that has done it,” he said.