The Sea From Harbors

Do we most feel the sea from harbors ? On the high seas imagination sleeps. We are lulled by motion and the soft rustling hushing sound of wind and wave and cordage. It is as if the watch of our life had stopped for a few days. We neither plan nor arrange, neither shoulder our old worries, which have somehow slipped away, nor suffer anything (barring a too-often unappreciativeness of our fate, which leads us to turn from food and friend!) save over the daily presentation of the same faces, the same figures, reeling around the rising deck.

But from roadsteads whence we can scan the trim sea-line, ruled between island and snug headland, we gasp over magnitude and possibility. When the rocking buoy cries like a child not quite calmed, and a long banshee moan from the lighthouse seems to reach to the Banks themselves, we lie on the bayberry downs with the boys their mothers call idle. All together dreaming of soft airs, pirates, balancing palms, and brown men putting off with cocoanuts, alluring fruits, and parroquets, we are full of the real sea savor and its gifts.

From a busy cosmopolitan harbor before a great city, I have felt the sea-power deeper than that of the land. As into a broad piazza, the ships come freighted, like diligences from diverging roads. Into the harbor they draw — trawlers, merchantmen, navies, and liners. From harbor quiet, once more laden, they pass out to the sea-blurred line and mystery of chance again, and our eyes look after.

Off the changing water-front of varied craft, among great ferry-boats wallowing like armadillos, I watch for the great ocean liner. The city is lit by morning sun. Some child of the new world seems to have built his block-houses along the shore of dingy wharves, docks, and slips. They shoot up into the sky, and catch pale cloud-colors on their windowed faces, brilliant, giving light themselves. Between their luminous heights points the dark spire of a little old church, precise, overshadowed, not overwhelmed, the finger of Christ. Open-work signs cut across the clouds, gigantic, gayly vulgar. Clock-faces loom above sheds and docks, for the harbor has need to be on time. Lackawanna barges paddle along. Tugs, brown and yellow-barred, olivegreen of New York Central, deep red, all advance and swim away, creaming at their bows. Some sidle with alarmed comic cries, others pass like an arrow, the gold eagle screaming, poised over a weathered impassive man at the wheel.

Scows of freight cars, the line of four, six, or eight cars curving gently, scuttle westward, eastward. Three-masters, tandem, in tow, press forward. An odd foreign boat, with stained red and orange sails, passes fine steam yachts at anchor. The displeased nostril finds hops of breweries and acrid-odored dump-scows. Under bridges flying in the air from great pier to pier, through cobweb of their girders, I look to the stupendous city towers, each fretted with puffing smoke, gray or gleaming, every streamer blowing eastward to-day, barring the wonderful buildings as with blowing snow.

As my boat passes, I look down streets under webbing of the elevated, clean across the city, as in that dear old windmilled map of Nieue Amsterdam with its beacon, flag-pole, and belching welcoming cannon. Great elevators, water-towers, obtrusive gas-tanks, block the sky. Flames burst from foundries. Alphabetic shapes of dredgers with dwindling ladders, stout-forked derrick arms, keep placing new designs on the delicate subtle sky, a sky sea-blown, cut by a few white birds.

Man’s works are so vast, so high, they overpower him. He is invisible. Everywhere I hear mallets, hear screaming whistles, signals, staccato, tremendously occupied. Yet a white-chested, brawny black-faced fellow, yellow-shirted, stands with folded arms on a coal-barge. He is the type visible.

Suddenly a deep note rises steadily, slowly, out of the harbor mouth. Like booming breakers, it brings the sea’s breadth and mystery far inshore. Like a rote it calls. No other sound can give this tremor. The sustained bourdon hums above and below harbor sounds, quiet, unperturbed. After her long following the needle, her lookout has made port. She is drenched with a freedom of high seas which means strictest law. She wears a dignity connected with places lying across the chart in another hemisphere: places to which we must take days to go, which we cannot face without being slowly purged of our haste and suspicion toward ample living. The wonder of these harbors from which she has come, stained by no land air meanwhile, troubled by no threatened bartering, hangs about her. Her arrival is like seeing the magician on his carpet drop before us.

Hundreds of little black heads may dot her rail, looking at a great symbol called Liberty, holding out to them, if they will and if we will, the beauty of good and orderly living, knowledge, and a home. Suddenly their roar of cheering strikes above the tug whistles. I remember their deserted homes, — the little gold harbors they had left, filled to the brim by setting sun. How the pomegranate and primrose houses climbed above the busy sociable shipyards, where a man might have time to tell yarns about coralfishing or catching turtles in the tideway between Sicily and Africa! How laughter must have died for a time when these folk put to sea!

If I could I would put in words the barbaric color about Genoa’s docks and mole, or sing the sea-spell Venice weaves while the lagoon wind steals by the Dogana, bearing gay Istrian boats along. I remember velvet limpid blackness when I steamed on a Lloyd freighter under the stars down Dalmatia’s islands, or the pale mornings when marsh birds flew over a misty river beyond the Adriatic, past white-robed Herzegovinians striking the guzla as they walked through the corn.

Slav and Morlak, as well as Italian, the great ship brings to us. To-day they are remembering their own harbors while ours welcomes them. I cannot think of the North to-day. I have seen the liner that came from little gold harbors filled with western sun — the west that drew these men until they came. Because she drew to us over the south trade, I cannot think of the dear dim North, too often brown in scud and hurling rain. The South calls.