Atlantic Material

As I cross the river on the ferry, and peer through the haze that swathes Lower Manhattan in a kind of lustrous gauze, I observe with elation that the ship is at her appointed berth and in a reasonably upright position. A feather of steam slides athwart the funnel from the escape-pipe, which is unnecessary but cheering; and I abandon the distant prospect of what can be called a floating home, to contemplate the fascinating vista of the North River.

As usual, I observe, with a passing shadow of irritation, that a mail-boat from Liverpool is coming up from Quarantine, which means that I shall just miss letters from England. However, now that the war is won, it seems that we are rapidly returning to the days of Arcadian simplicity, when it was easier to communicate with the dead than with the distant living, and messengers were many moons upon their way, and the virtues of faith and hope and charity were kept shining with continual exercise.

A British tramp-steamer, moving slowly up to her Hoboken pier, suddenly pauses in midstream with characteristic obstinacy — throwing the pilots of a dozen fast-moving ferries into a panic of indignation, which becomes vocal with hoarse roars from the smokestacks. The clamor increases as the Fall River steamer announces her intention of claiming her inalienable right to enter her pier; and a tall apparition, which resolves itself on examination into a floating grain-elevator with a diminutive tug panting under her lee, challenges one’s judgment as to which way she desires to go.

But the singular phenomenon of this adventure is that but few of the closepacked commuters on the ferry raise their eyes to behold the amazing scene. They are, on the contrary, giving close attention to the newspapers. We land, and many of them sit in an enchanted fashion, reading the newspapers. We pour forth into the chaos of West Street, and surge up under roaring elevated railroads, and one’s fellow man continues to pursue some printed chimæra. Perhaps they are reading the announcements of ‘Short Trips to Sunny Seas,’ and are dreaming of romantic adventures under palm trees and by slumberous beaches. So, one imagines, did the denizens of Babylon throng her crowded ways, intent on slabs of baked clay, whereon was cunningly worded cuneiform publicity, luring them from the city’s mighty towers to trips on the river and vacations on the mysterious shores of the Arabian Sea.

And musing thus, one becomes aware, threading the almost inconceivable difficulties of West Street, of a number of beings in taxi-cabs, immured in vast quantities of baggage, who are evidently bound upon a journey. They are endeavoring to maintain the dignity suitable to those who fare forth in splendor upon the ocean, and who have wrested from a harassed but amiable bureaucrat the documents essential to a world made safe for democracy. They are, in short, some of our passengers, for their baggage proclaims the fact in stentorian tones; and they are arriving, as usual, at an unnecessarily early hour.

Their vehicles move slowly in the dense mass of towering wheeled galleons that are forever tacking along under the cliffs of Manhattan, seeking anchorage beneath the high glass domes of the warehouses. And on the faces of these fortunate beings, who are about to depart for blue seas and yellow sands, — as if the waters of New York Harbor were not as blue as lapis-lazuli, — one discerns an effort to repress impatience at all this high-piled merchandise blocking their way to the gates of Elysium.

There is one young couple, with new leather baggage glistering with an aggressive similarity of initials, who look into each other’s eyes, and smile with toleration at their own restlessness, and give the passer-by, hurrying to enter the dock, an inkling of the tremendous possibilities, to them, of an event so common to him as going to sea. Dodging between yet more taxi-cabs, held up by stern myrmidons who demand passports and permits of the trembling occupants, he succumbs to a wave of sentiment, and resolves (with the traditional lump incommoding his throat) that he will do his small best to make things go smoothly for that fortunate pair.

However, there are other things to think of immediately, besides the problematic felicity of a bridal couple who are painfully conscious, as they emerge into the half-lights of the pier, of their new baggage. To them, no doubt, the departure of a steamer is as causeless and natural an event as the water that runs into their baths, the current in their wires, and their wages at the end of the week. It is our duty to preserve for them this amiable illusion. And I take my last look at them for a week or so, as they mount a sort of wooden pulpit from which the screened gangway springs to the ship’s side. There is a man in semi-uniform on this pulpit, who demands once more the documents of departure; and from where I pause between two ponderous motor-trucks, I see him raise his hand and open his mouth as if he were preaching in some vast cathedral to a careless congregation of worldly automobiles. And then he closes his mouth and smiles, his hand descends upon Benedick’s shoulder in friendly approval, and the pair escape up the gangway, eager to be off. An unforgettable picture.

Leaving them to the good-natured rapacity of a swarm of stewards, I insinuate my way among mountainous heaps of freight and win to a wider but less dignified gangway, up and down which a crowd of hurrying mortals is passing with stores and empties. Close beside it, smooth runways are being piled with boxes and bales, which are immediately seized by long falls from invisible winches and plucked into the air, to descend into the holds. And there is time to reflect, before taking up the tale of departure, upon a feeling of very genuine pleasure which the spectacle of this rush of business inspires in the bosom of one exasperated by several years of war. It is impossible to recall with any comfort the apathy engendered by such colossal squandering of material wealth. To assist in the filling of great ships with goods; to know that, a few days later, they will have gone down in a few minutes, or that eventually their cargoes will have been blown up or burned out and utterly destroyed, is bound to have a deteriorating effect upon one’s spiritual faculties. And so it is pleasant to behold once more the pulsing of the regular arteries of trade; to know that these sewing-machines and typewriters and motor-cars will be used for the good of their owners, and in due course transmuted into coffee and hides and the kindly fruits of the earth. Good, too, to go out upon the waters in open day, unhampered by sinister possibilities; to see the glare of the steamers’ lights spread abroad on the ocean at night, and to forget for a while the sorrowful years of strife. So it may happen that the sight of, say, fifty tons of tomato catsup wedged in between crates of perambulators and pianoplayers, will raise a man’s spirits more than a truculent national anthem, or the sparkle of enemy guns on the horizon.

And here, on board, in the working alleyways on the main deck, far below the bridal pair now regarding their natty quarters with smiling hesitation, one is heartened by the precision and continuity of human effort. There is a methodical thudding of crates and boxes being dumped upon floors, a tramp of feet, a pulsing rhythmic vituperation from husky persons still lower down, a continual emergence of preoccupied toilers from unexpected staircases, a hurrying of men upon problematic journeys, and a prevalence of heated, vaporladen air from the high white engineroom.

In the kitchens, beyond, waiters in blue and silver are being hastily drilled in the mysteries of serving hors d’œuvres, orangeade, and caviar canapé. White-capped chefs stand over shining cupolas of copper and plated domes suspended on chains. Young men whom one would not have suspected of genius cut and disembowel grape-fruit with inconceivable speed.

A sound like the roaring of far-off cataracts announces that the motors of the dish-washing machines are already at work, and a brawny person in a green-striped apron staggers past, laden with an immense tray of trussed fowls. His colleague, down a dark ladder leading to a cold, dark chamber, is busily chopping up meat. As far as can be ascertained, he continues this pastime twenty-four hours a day for the entire voyage. He is forever engaged in cleaving asunder huge quarters of beef, slender bodies of sheep, or slabs of veal. The sound of his chopper on the wooden block is a steady accompaniment of the beat of the engines and the vibrant murmur of the generator. I imagine that he must be a vegetarian in self-defense, for he generally has a leaf of lettuce in his mouth as he works his will upon the cold, sleazy flesh. Anon he ’trolls a stave,’ as the historical novelists phrase it, and reveals, to an irritated engineer who desires to sleep, his passion for a creature named Lulu-lu.