Oldport in Winter
OUR August life rushes by, in Oldport, as if we were all shot from the mouth of a cannon, and were endeavoring to exchange cards on the way. But in September, when the great hotels are closed, and the bronze dogs that guarded the portals of the Ocean House are collected sadly in the music pavilion, nose to nose, — when the last four-in-hand has departed, and a man may drive a solitary horse on the avenue without a pang, — then we know that “the season ” is over. Winter is yet several months away, — months of the most delicious autumn weather that the American climate holds. But to the human bird of passage all which is not summer is winter; and those who seek Oldport most eagerly for two months are sometimes those who regard it as uninhabitable for the other ten.
The Persian poet Saadi says that in a certain region of Armenia where he travelled people never died the natural death. But once a year they met on a certain plain, and occupied themselves with recreation, in the midst of which individuals of every rank and age would suddenly stop, make a reverence to the west, and, setting out at full speed toward that part of the desert, be seen no more. It is quite in this fashion that guests disappear from Oldport when the season ends. They also are apt to go toward the west, but by steamboat. It is pathetic, on occasion of each successive bereavement, to observe the same looks and language among those who linger behind ; and it needs some fortitude to think of spending the winter near such a Wharf of Sighs.
But we console ourselves. Each season brings its own attractions. In summer one may relish what is new in Oldport, as the liveries, the incomes, the manners. There is often a delicious freshness about these exhibitions ; it is a pleasure to see some opulent citizen in his first kid gloves. His new-born splendor stands in such brilliant relief against the confirmed respectability of the “Old Mill,” the only thing on the Atlantic shore which has had time to forget its birthday. But in winter the Old Mill gives the tone to the society around it ; we then bethink ourselves of the crown upon our Trinity Church steeple, and resolve that the courtesies of a by-gone age shall yet linger here. Is there any other place in America where gentlemen still take off their hats to one another, on the public promenade ? The hat is here what it still is in Southern Europe, the lineal successor of the sword as the mark of a gentleman. It is noticed that in going from Oldport to New York or Boston, one is liable to be betrayed by an over-flourish of the hat, as is an Arkansas man by a display of the bowie-knife.
Winter also imparts to these spacious estates a dignity which is sometimes wanting in summer. I like to stroll over them during this epoch of desertion, just as once, when I happened to hold the key of a church, it seemed pleasant to sit, on a week-day, among its empty pews. The silent walls appeared to hold the pure essence of the prayers of a generation, while the routine and the ennui had vanished all away. One may here do the same with fashion as there with devotion, extracting its finer flavors, if such there be, unalloyed by vulgarity or sin. In the winter I can fancy these fine houses tenanted by a true nobility; all the sons are brave, and all the daughters virtuous. These balconies have heard the sighs of passion without selfishness ; those cedarn alleys have admitted only vows that were never broken. If the occupant of the house be unknown, even by name, so much the better. And from homes more familiar, what lovely childish faces seem still to gaze from the doorways,—what graceful Absences (to borrow a certain poet’s phrase) are haunting those windows !
There is a sense of winter quiet that makes a stranger soon feel at home in Oldport, while the prospective stir of next summer removes the feeling of stagnation. In most quiet places, one suffers from the knowledge that everybody wishes them to be unquiet; but nobody has any such longing here. Doubtless there are aged persons who deplore the good old times when the Oldport mail-bags were larger than those arriving at New York. But if it were so now, what memories would there be to talk about ? If you wish for “ Syrian peace, immortal leisure,” — a place where no grown person ever walks rapidly along the street, and where few care enough for rain to carry an umbrella or walk faster, — come here.
My abode is on a broad, sunny street, with a few great elms overhead, and with large old houses and grass-banks opposite. There is so little snow that the outlook in the depth of winter is often merely that of a paler and leafless summer, and a soft, spring-like sky almost always spreads above. Past the window streams an endless sunny panorama, for the house fronts the chief thoroughfare between country and town ; — relics of summer equipages in faded grandeur, —great fragrant hay-carts, — vast moving mounds of golden straw, — loads of crimson onions, — heaps of pale green cabbages, —piles of gray tree-prunings, looking as if the patrician trees were sending their superfluous wealth of branches to enrich the impoverished orchards of the Poor Farm, — wagons of sea-weed just from the beach, with bright moist hues, and dripping with sea-water and sea-memories, each weed an argosy, bearing its own wild histories. At this season, the very houses move, and roll slowly by, looking round for more lucrative quarters next season. Never have I seen real estate made so transportable as in Oldport. The purchaser, after finishing and furnishing to his fancy, puts his name on the door, and on the fence a large white placard signifying “For Sale.” Then his household arrangements are complete, and he can sit clown to enjoy himself.
By a side-glance from our window, one may look down an ancient street, which in some early epoch of the world’s freshness received the name of Spring Street. A certain lively lady, addicted to daring Scriptural interpretations, thinks that there is some mistake in the current versions of Genesis, and that it was Spring Street which was created in the beginning, and the heavens and earth at some subsequent period. There are houses in Spring Street, and there is a confectioner’s shop ; but it is not often that a sound comes across its rugged pavements, save perchance (in summer) the drone of an ancient handorgan, such as might have been devised by Adam to console his Eve when Paradise was lost. Yet of late the desecrating hammer and the earpiercing saw have entered that haunt of ancient peace. May it be long ere any such invasion reaches those strange little wharves in the lower town, full of small black gambrel-roofed houses, with projecting eaves that might almost serve for piazzas. It is possible for an unpainted wooden building to assume, in this climate, a more time-worn aspect than that of any stone ; and on these wharves everything is so old, and yet so stunted, you might fancy that the houses had been sent down there to play during their childhood, and that nobody bad ever remembered to fetch them back.
The ancient aspect of things around us, joined with the softening influences of the Gulf Stream, imparts an air of chronic languor to the special types of society which here prevail in winter, — as, for instance, people of leisure, tradespeople living on their summer’s gains, and, finally, fishermen. Those who pursue this last laborious calling are always lazy to the eye, for they are on shore only in lazy moments. They work by night or at early dawn, and by day they perhaps lie about on the rocks, or sit upon one heel beside a fish-house door. I knew a missionary who resigned his post at the Isles of Shoals, because it was impossible to keep the Sunday worshippers from lying at full length on the seats. Our boatmen have the same habit, and there is a certain dreaminess about them, in whatever posture. Indeed they remind one quite closely of the German boatman in Uhland, who carried his reveries so far as to accept three fees from one passenger.
But the truth is, that in Oldport we all incline to postures of repose. Now and then a man comes here, from farther east, with the New England fever in his blood, and with a pestilent desire to do something. You hear of him, presently, proposing that the Town Hall should be repainted. Opposition would require too much effort, and the thing is done. But the Gulf Stream soon takes its revenge on the intruder, and gradually repaints him also, with its own soft and mellow tints. In a few years he would no more bestir himself to fight for a change than to fight against it.
It rather makes us smile, therefore, to observe that universal delusion among the summer visitors, that we spend all winter in active preparations for next season. Not so ; we all devote it solely to meditations on the season past. I observe that nobody in Oldport ever believes in any coming summer. Perhaps the tide is turned, we think, and people will go somewhere else. You do not find us altering our houses in December, or building out new piazzas even in March, We wait till the people have actually come to occupy them. The preparation for visitors is made after the visitors have arrived. This may not be the way in which things are done in what are called " smart business places.” But it is our way in Oldport.
It is another delusion to suppose that we are bored by this long epoch of inactivity. Not at all ; we enjoy it. If you enter a shop in winter, you will find everybody rejoiced to see you — as a friend ; but if it turns out that you have come as a customer, they will look a little disappointed. It is rather inconsiderate of you to make such demands out of season. Winter is not exactly the time for that sort of thing. It seems rather to violate the conditions of the truce. Could you not postpone the affair till next July? Every country has its customs. I observe that in other places, New York for instance, the shopkeepers seem rather to enjoy a “field-day ” when the sun and the customers are out, and the business and the ladies drive. In Oldport, on the contrary, men’s spirits droop at such times, and they go through it sadly. They force themselves to it during the summer, perhaps, — for one must make some sacrifices, — but in winter it is as inappropriate as strawberries and cream.
The same spirit of repose pervades the streets. Nobody ever looks in a hurry, or as if an hour’s delay would affect the thing in hand. The nearest approach to a mob that one ever sees here is when some stranger, thinking himself late for the train, (as if the thing were possible,) is tempted to run a few step’s along the sidewalk. On such an occasion I have seen doors open, and heads thrust out. but ordinarily even the physicians drive slowly, as if they wished to disguise their profession, or to soothe the nerves of some patient who may be gazing from a window.
Yet they are not to be censured, since Death, their antagonist, here drives slowly too. The number of the aged among us is surprising, and explains some phenomena otherwise strange. You will notice, for instance, that there are no posts before the houses in Oldport to which horses may be tied. Fashionable visitors might infer that every horse is supposed to be attended by a groom. But the tradition is, that there were once as many posts here as elsewhere, but that they were removed to get rid of the multitude of old men who leaned all day against them. It obstructed the passing. And yet these aged citizens, while permitted to linger at their posts, were gossiping about men still older, in earthly or heavenly habitations, and the sensation of longevity went on accumulating indefinitely in their talk. Their very disputes had a flavor of antiquity, and involved the reputation of female relatives to the third or fourth generation. An old fisherman testified in our Police Court, the other day, in narrating the progress of a street quarrel : “ Then I called him ‘ Polly Carter,’ — that ’s his grandmother; and he called me ‘ Susy Reynolds,’ — that ’s my aunt that’s dead and gone.”
In towns like this, from which the young men mostly migrate, the work of life devolves upon the venerable and the very young. When I first came to Oldport, it appeared to me that every institution was conducted by a boy and his grandfather This seemed the case, for instance, with the bank that consented to assume the slender responsibility of my deposits. It was further to be observed, that, if the elder official was absent for a day, the boy carried on the proceedings unaided; while if the boy also wished to amuse himself elsewhere, a worthy shoe-dealer from across the way came in to fill the place of both. Seeing this, I retained my small hold upon the concern with fresh tenacity ; for who knew but some day, when the directors also had gone on a picnic, the senior depositor might take his turn at the helm ? It may savor of self-confidence, but it has always seemed to me, that, with one day’s control of a bank, even in these degenerate days, something might be done which would quite astonish the stockholders.
Longer acquaintance has, however, revealed the fact, that these Oldport institutions stand out as models of strict discipline beside their suburban compeers. A friend of mine declares that he went lately into a country bank, near by, and found no one on duty. Being of opinion that there should always be some one behind the counter of a bank, he went there himself. Wishing to be informed as to the resources of his establishment, he explored desks and vaults, found a good deal of paper of different kinds, and some rich veins of copper, but no cashier. Going to the door again in some anxiety, he encountered a casual school-boy, who kindly told him that he did not know where that financial officer might be at that precise moment, but that half an hour before he was on the wharf, fishing.
Death comes to the aged at last, however, even in Oldport. We have iately lost, for instance, that patient old postman, serenest among our human antiquities, whose deliberate tread might have imparted a tone of repose to Broadway, could any imagination have transferred him thither. Through him the correspondence of other days came softened of all immediate solicitude. Ere it reached you, friends had died or recovered, debtors had repented, creditors grown kind, or your children had paid your debts. Perils had passed, hopes were chastened, and the most eager expectant took calmly the missive from that tranquillizing hand. Meeting his friends and clients with a step so slow that it did not even stop rapidly, he, like Tennyson’s Mariana, slowly
But a summons came at last, not to be postponed even by him. One day he delivered his mail as usual, with no undue precipitation ; on the next, the blameless soul was himself taken and forwarded on some celestial route.
Irreparable would have seemed his loss, did there not still linger among us certain types of human antiquity that might seem to disprove the fabled youth of America. One veteran I daily meet, of uncertain age, perhaps, but with at least that air of brevet antiquity which long years of unruffled indolence can give. He looks as if he had spent at least half a lifetime on the sunny slope of some beach, and the other half in leaning upon his elbows at the window of some sailor boarding-house. He is hale and broad, with a head sunk between two strong shoulders ; his beard falls like snow upon his breast, longer and longer each year, while his slumberous thoughts seem to move slowly enough to watch it as it grows. I always fancy that these meditations have drifted far astern of the times, but are following after, in patient hopelessness, as a dog swims after a boat. What knows he of the President’s Message ? He has just overtaken some remarkable catch of mackerel in the year thirty-eight. His hands lie buried fathom-deep in his pocket; as if part of his brain lay there to be rummaged; and he sucks at his old pipe as if his head, like other venerable hulks, must be smoked out at intervals. His walk is that of a sloth, one foot dragging heavily behind the other. I meet him as I go to the post-office, and on returning, twenty minutes later, I pass him again, a little farther advanced. All the children accost him, and I have seen him stop — no great retardation indeed — to fondle in his arms a puppy or a kitten. Yet he is liable to excitement, in his way; for once, in some high debate wherein he assisted as listener, when one old man on a wharf was doubting the assertion of another old man about a certain equinoctial gale, I saw my friend draw his right hand slowly and painfully from his pocket, and let it fall by his side. It was really one of the most emphatic gesticulations I ever saw, and tended obviously to quell the rising discord. It was as if the herald at a tournament had dropped his truncheon, and the fray must end.
Women’s faces are apt to take from old age a finer touch than those of men, and poverty does not interfere with this, where there is no actual exposure to the elements. From the windows of these old houses there often look forth delicate, faded countenances, to which belongs an air of unmistakable refinementNowhere in America, I fancy, does one see such counterparts of the reduced gentlewoman of England,— as described, for instance, in “Cranford,”—quiet maiden ladies of seventy, with perhaps a tradition of beauty and bellehood, and still wearing always a bit of blue ribbon on their once golden curls, — this head-dress being still carefully arranged, each day, by some handmaiden of sixty, so long a house-mate as to seem a sister, though some faint suggestion of wages and subordination may be still preserved. Among these ladies, as in “ Cranford,” there is a dignified reticence in respect to money-matters, and a courteous blindness to the small economies practised by each other. It is not held good-breeding, when they meet in a shop of a morning, for one to seem to notice what another buys.
These ancient ladies have coats of arms upon their walls, hereditary damasks among their scanty wardrobes, store of domestic traditions in their brains, and a whole Court Guide of high-sounding names at their fingers’ ends. They can tell you of the supposed sister of an English queen, who married an American officer and dwelt in Oldport, — of the Scotch Lady Janet, who eloped with her tutor, and here lived in poverty, paying her washerwoman with costly lace from her trunks, — of the Oldport dame who escaped from France at the opening of the Revolution, was captured by pirates on her voyage to America, then retaken by a privateer and carried into Boston, where she took refuge in John Hancock’s house. They can describe to you the Malbone Gardens, and as the night wanes and the embers fade, can give the tale of the Phantom of Rough Point. Gliding farther and farther into the past, they revert to the brilliant historic period of Oldport, the successive English and French occupations during our Revolution, and show you gallant inscriptions in honor of their grandmothers, written on the window-panes by the diamond rings of the foreign officers.
The newer strata of Oldport society are formed chiefly by importation, and have the one advantage of a variety of origin which puts provincialism out of the question. The mild winter climate, and the supposed cheapness of living, draw scattered families from the various Atlantic cities ; and, coming from such different sources, they leave some exclusiveness behind. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, are doubtless good things to have in one’s house, but are cumbrous to travel with. Meeting here on central ground, partial aristocracies tend to neutralize each other. A Boston family comes, bristling with genealogies, and making the most of its little all of two centuries. Another arrives from Philadelphia, equally fortified in local heraldries unknown in Boston. A third from New York brings a briefer pedigree, but more gilded. Their claims are incompatible. There is no common standard, and neither can have precedence. Since no human memory can retain the great-grandmothers of three cities, wo arc practically as well off as if we had no great-grandmothers at all.
But in Oldport, as elsewhere, the spice of conversation is apt to be in inverse ratio to family-tree and incometax, and one can hear better repartees among the boat-builders’ shops on Long Wharf than among those who have made the grand tour. All the world over, one is occasionally reminded of the French officer’s verdict on the garrison town where he was quartered, that the good society was no better than the good society anywhere else, but the bad society was capital. I like, for instance, to watch the shoals of fishermen that throng our streets in the early spring, inappropriate as porpoises on land, or as Scott’s pirates in peaceful Kirkwall, — unwieldy, bearded creatures in oil-skin suits, — men who have never before seen a basket-wagon or a liveried groom, and whose first comments on the daintinesses of fashion are far more racy than anything which fashion can say for itself.
The life of our fishermen and pilots remains active, in its way, all winter; and coasting vessels come and go in the open harbor every day. The only schooner that is not so employed is, to my eye, more attractive than any of them; it is our sole winter guest, this year, of all the graceful flotilla of yachts that helped to make our summer moonlights so charming. While Europe seems in such ecstasy over the ocean-race, there lies at anchor, stripped and dismantled, a vessel which was excluded from the match, it is said, simply because neither of the three competitors would have had a chance against her. I like to look across the harbor at the graceful proportions of this uncrowned victor in the race she never ran ; and to my eye her laurels seem the more attractive. She seems a fit emblem of the genius that waits, while talent merely wins. “ Let me know,” said that fine, but unappreciated thinker. Brownlee Brown, — “ let me know what chances a man has passed in contempt; not what he has made, but what he has refused to make, reserving himself for higher ends.”
All out-door work in winter has a cheerful look, from the triumph of caloric it implies ; but I know none in which man seems to revert more to the lower modes of being than in searching for sea-clams. One may sometimes observe a dozen men employed in this way, on one of our beaches, while the northwest wined blows keenly (our coldest wind), and the spray drifts back like snow over the green and sluggish surge. The men pace in and out with the wave, going steadily to and fro like a pendulum, ankle-deep in the chilly brine, their steps quickened by hope or slackening with despair. Where the maidens and children sport and shout in summer, there in winter these heavy figures succeed. To them the lovely crest of the emerald billow is but a chariot for clams, and is valueless if it comes in empty. Really, the position of the clam is the more dignified, since he moves only with the wave, and the immortal being in fish-boots wades for him. These bivalves resemble the quahaug, and are chiefly salted down for bait. After a heavy gale, a man may sometimes gather several bushels.
The harbor and the beach are thus occupied in winter; but one may walk for many a mile along the cliffs, and see nothing human but a few gardeners, spreading green and white sea-weed as manure upon the lawns. The mercury rarely drops to zero here, and there is little snow; but a new-fallen drift has here just the same virgin beauty as farther inland, and when one suddenly comes in view of the sea beyond it, there is a sensation of summer softness. The water is not then deep blue, but pale, with opaline reflections. Vessels in the far horizon have the same delicate tint, as if woven of the same liquid material. A single wave lifts itself languidly above a reef, — a white-breasted loon floats near the shore, — the sea breaks in long, indolent curves, — the distant islands swim in a vague mirage. Along the cliffs hang great organ-pipes of ice, distilling showers of drops that glitter in the noonday sun, while the barer rocks send up a perpetual steam, giving to the eye a sense of warmth, and suggesting the comforts of fire. Beneath, the low tide reveals long stretches of golden-brown sea-weed, caressed by the lapping wave.
High winds bring a different scene. Sometimes I fancy that in winter, with less visible life upon the surface of the water, and less of unseen animal life below it, there is yet more that seems like vital force in the individual particles of waves. Each separate drop appears more charged with desperate and determined life. The lines of surf run into each other more brokenly, and with less steady roll. The low sun, too, lends a weird and jagged shadow to gallop in before the crest of each advancing wave, and sometimes there is a second crest on the shoulders of the first, as if there were more than could be contained in a single curve. Greens and purples are called forth to replace the prevailing blue. Far out at sea great separate mounds of water rear themselves, as if to overlook the tossing plain. Sometimes these move onward and subside with their green still unbroken, and again they curve into detached hillocks of foam, white, multitudinous, side by side, not ridged, but moving on like a mob of white horses, neck overarching neck, breast crowded against breast.
Across those tumultuous waves I like to watch, after sunset, the revolving light; there is something about it so delicate and human. It seems to bud or bubble out of the low, dark horizon; a moment, and it is not, and then another moment, and it is. With one throb the tremulous light is born ; with another throb it has reached its full size, and looks at you, coy and defiant ; and almost in that instant it is utterly gone. You cannot conceive yourself to be watching something which merely turns on an axis, but it seems suddenly to expand, a flower of light, or to close, as if soft petals of darkness clasped it in. During its moments of absence, the eye cannot quite keep the memory of its precise position, and it often appears a hairbreadth to the right or left of the expected spot. This enhances the elfish and fantastic look, and so the pretty game goes on, with flickering surprises, every night and all night long. But the illusion of the seasons is just as coquettish, and when next summer comes to us. with its blossoms and its joys, it will dawn as softly out of the darkness, and as softly give place to winter once more.