The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE fever of games is very contagious in this country. I notice that those who were not cut out to be athletes in college sometimes have a delayed attack of competition in later life. But latent in most of us, especially those who are city bred, is the desire to know the country, — to identify ourselves with the streams, the mountains, and the sea, — and so in mid-life as the zest for tennis or golf plays itself out and subsides, we hear a new call, a call to do things in the open with our children — camping, fishing, cruising, hunting with guns or camera, the reaching out for unspoiled America and for shared experience which brings alive the antennae we had almost forgotten we possessed.
I had not realized this was happening to me until some years ago on a winter night an older man (he had just lost his only son of college age) and I were walking home toward Beacon Hill, talking of fishing as we breasted the snowstorm. I remarked unguardedly that I enjoyed fishing with young Ted. “Do it,” he said, and I felt the emotion in his voice. “Do it every chance you get! You have him with you for so short a time.”
The admonition comes back to me across the years; now that old Bob himself is dead, I know the urgency he felt: the war years, the insecurity, the military training ahead, have intensified the same desire in hundreds of thousands of other families, as I could see this summer from the cars heading north with canoe racks, trailers, dogs at the open window, and the youngsters piled in with the duffel in the back seat. The new Maine highway was one steady stream of family cars heading for the woods and the boats. Holiday and anticipation made the crowd good-natured.
Our log cabin faced north to the Blue Mountains, the Kennebago Range, and the almost three hundred miles of wilderness stretching between our lake and Quebec; off to the right was the mountain trail taken by Benedict Arnold and his “rabble in arms” on that march Kenneth Roberts has depicted so magnificently; to the left the peak at the end of the lake had the fire ranger’s lookout like a tiny saltcellar at its very tip. The green heights and valleys receding in the distance caught the sunset in different planes of light and shadow; the deep water off our float was glassy but dimpled where a fish rose, and from down the lake we heard the mockery of the loon. This was our first impression.
In the seven days that followed, dawn and dusk took on a new meaning and we napped after lunch to make up for the shortened night. Always on a fishing trip I find myself waking early to catch the coming of day: rising at five o’clock with the mist still on the water, then the single file through the fragrant wet evergreens with always the chance of surprising a deer, then the roar of the river and the breath-taking first sight of Canoe Pool and of a leaping fish — if you didn’t disturb the water too much as you waded in.
The kingfishers blustered at us in our early exploration of the lake. Black duck and the goldeneye whistlers rose as our boat probed the lagoon of the Boneyard, where the great gray skeletons of the trees traced the forest that was, before the lumbermen cut and flooded the land. Sheer white against the spruce were a pair of egrets — the first, the natives told us, ever to venture this far north. The little sandpipers pecked and scurried along the sandy shore, and always we were on the lookout for those silent marauders, the hawks and the young eagle.
We fished as a family, our three rods always busy; and with Jim O’Brien, our guide and the best cook in Maine, we took as many meals as possible on the river and lake shore. I remember his trout chowder, — onions, thin-sliced potatoes, and a dozen of the little fellows, eight to ten inches, skinned, boned, and delectable as they were brewed in the milk. Trout chowder, toast, crisp bacon, blueberries, spice cake and coffee, and then a nap stretched out under the balsam. The pink-fleshed trout of the stream are a delicacy no restaurant provides. They were our staple and we topped them off with wild raspberries or blueberries which we gathered as Jim made the fire.
I know now better than ever before the restraint and rivalry, the teasing and the pride, which are all a part of family fishing. Young Ted of course would never leave the water alone. Casting from the float at the end of the first day he derricked in a 9½-incher (exact by tape measure) and then came running to report, “Boy, he sure would have made me work if I hadn’t pulled him on the dock as I came through!” The timing of the remark was as perfect as his back cast.
We all learned from Jim, and Ted learned the most. The skill, the discipline so shrewdly conveyed in the boat and on the stream, the quiet teasing as when Jim took over the youngster’s line, straightened out the snarls in the leader, made a single cast, hooked into a 2-pounder, turning the rod back to Ted with the remark, “Look what you had on your line, son, — why didn’t you pull him up?"; the pride felt but unexpressed when the thirteen-yearold skunked us all by netting two salmon under his mentor’s eye; the walk home under the moonlight, the boots clumping, and the note of triumph creeping into each individual’s recital.
Good guides are quiet-spoken and the example is soothing to city nerves. There is plenty of exasperation in fishing, and when I had been fighting my dry fly in a perverse wind one hot afternoon, tangling the brown puff in my rod every third cast, it took a quiet remark of Jim’s to blow my head of steam. “River’s full of fish,”he said, “and you’ll get one if you rest the pool. Might even get that 6-pounder that’s got so many hooks in him that they wanted him for the scrap drive.”
Jim’s gravity was forever fooling us: he spoke so seriously that we were never prepared. “Want to hear me call a moose?” he asked one noon as we were trudging towards home. We stopped. He scanned the horizon, fixed his eyes on a distant point, cupped his lips, took a prodigious breath, and said, “Here, moosey, moosey, moosey.”Coming from a 230-pounder it knocked you flat.
Another time he had been telling us about the great forest fires of last year. “ They were bad,”he said, “real bad.” A pause. “Did you hear about the herd of deer up here got caught with smoke and cinders in their eyes? Blinded. But there was one young buck who could see: he lined them up and led six of them across the river each holding on to the other’s tail. But a guide crept up, cut the buck’s tail, led the does into camp, and had himself enough deer meat to last all winter.”
Salem and her ships
For a holiday I like a big leisurely historical novel with plenty of episode, the kind of book you read and keep thinking about in off moments. So I took with me to Maine the page proofs of The Running of the Tide (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), the Book-of-the-Month for October, and the winner of the $150,000 MGM Award. The author, Esther Forbes, has New England blood in her veins, the Worcester Antiquarian Society at her back door, and the North Shore of Massachusetts for her imagination to build with. Salem and Boston were the capitals of her early narratives: A Mirror forWitches was laid in the smaller port, and her Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, had the North End for its focal point. To her books Miss Forbes brings a deep and delving delight in the past, a feeling for the New England character by turns shrewd and romantic, and the pepper and salt of everyday living which she translates so accurately into another century.
The Running of the Tide is the story of Salem in the early 1800’s when the ships bound out of the skimpy, silted harbor (no vessel larger than four hundred tons could get into it), in their trade with Russia, the West Indies, China, and India, were making it the wealthiest port in the world. The novel follows the careers of the four young sons of the Inman family, three of them sea captains, and the oldest, Dash, a veteran who had commanded the Crowninshields’ Belisarius at nineteen!
Trouble brewing between Great Britain and Napoleon had made American shipping more than usually hazardous and in less than a twelvemonth the Inmans had lost three of their best ships — the Dorcas to the British at Gibraltar, the Harlequin to the French in the East Indies, and the Antelope, which Dash was bringing home with a cargo worth $100,000, battered to pieces in one night of rain and gale on the Peaked Hill Bar off Cape Cod. Dash was sentenced to a year ashore by his grandmother, the present head of the house, and while he was doing penance the family mortgaged and borrowed for a final venture in their fast new ship, the Victrix. So the three young captains, Dash, Eleazar, and Tom, are on their mettle striving to restore their house flag of navy, with a diagonal white stripe, to the prosperity which it had known under their grandfather in the 1750’s when his little fleet had made a steady profit in the West Indies and an occasional wealthy venture to the Baltic.
This picture of Salem in its pitch of activity comes to us for the most part through the eyes of Peter, the fourth and youngest brother, a thin youngster of sixteen. Peter is too frail for the sea; he has a studious bent that might have taken him to Harvard had there been more money and fewer problems. As it is, with his wiry strength and his sensitive mind he is the shock absorber of the family, the boy who worries things out until they are smooth.
Miss Forbes makes her story turn on the fateful fascination which has long existed between those two old Salem families, the Inmans and the Mompessons. The Inmans have always lived by the sea, fishermen first, then men of command and shipowners; the Mompessons were the moneyed squires, the underwriters who stayed at home and made their play on a cargo. When witches were abroad, a Squire Mompesson had brought charges against Tabby Inman which led to the old woman’s being hanged. Now one hundred years later pretty Polly Mompesson is the thorn in the flesh of Dash and Peter Inman, the sweet bewitcher who drives Dash to such extremities when he is on leave ashore.
Polly is the malefactor in this romance, a clue which the author gives us on an early page. “She could push other people into disaster — Liz or Peter, Dash himself. Little Miss Derby, Jack West, . . . but herself she could not save.” Polly is the victim of that father-daughter relationship which almost strangled Elizabeth Barrett. A dark-blooded, passionate girl, helpless in Dash’s arms, she becomes hidden and warped within the decorum and pose of her father’s house. Polly is the magnet of the book, and I accept her as such; and Polly’s relationship with her father is skillfully conveyed despite the fact that he is such a pompous little manikin that we never quite believe in him; he seems too bloodless for the style and insults which he intends.
The Salem which Miss Forbes has painted for us is the Salem ashore, not afloat. It is the Salem of Essex and Chestnut Streets in the Golden Age, the Salem of the great spacious houses built, by McIntire and furnished with the wealth and curios of Europe and the Orient, the Salem which looked down so condescendingly on Marblehead, the Salem of happy children returning from their beach parties, the Salem of the busy wharves when a dozen great ships might be readying to sail on the outgoing tide. The feminine, the distaff side of the town is revealed in a hundred deft touches, and when the ships return and the men walk in we see them high-lighted as it were against the emotion of homecoming or the passionate omen of departure. The color and essential masculinity of the town when the fleet is making ready have the touch of authenticity, but the chapters at sea and the snatches of seafaring talk as they come back to us from the parlors do not carry an equal force. The typhoon which almost wrecks the Victrix has not the awful force of one of H. M. Tomlinson’s storms, nor is there any scene aboard ship to equal those superb chapters in Masefield’s Bird of Dawning when the clippers come racing up the Channel with all sails set. It is of men ashore and of women who wait that Miss Forbes writes—and that, after all, was essentially the Salem which was at last left high and dry.
The warning sense of danger
The professional white hunters like Monsieur Defosse of Indo-China, Major Jim Corbett of India, and Major P. J. Pretorius of South Africa form a clan of hardy survivors. Pretorius, the last-named, was the chief scout for Field Marshal Smuts on many an African campaign. He was the man who tracked down the German warship Königsberg in the Rufiji River and held her all unsuspecting until the monitors arrived. “One has the impression,” writes General Smuts, “that he became a great scout among men because he was the supreme scout among wild animals. Courage, coolness in facing up to danger, extreme resourcefulness and a sense of realities which is unanalyzable and amounts to instinct or genius — these are the qualities that go to the making of a great hunter. Repeatedly in this book he speaks of occasions when without any apparent reason he had a warning sense of danger which turned out to be well founded.”
That Introduction alerts us for the calm-voiced, utterly exciting autobiography, Jungle Man (Dutton, $3.75), the terse volume of recollections which, with the help of a friend, Pretorius set down shortly before his death in 1945. Thin, lithe, colored brown from his continual bouts with malaria and the life spent under the blazing sun, Pretorius could pass more easily as an Arab or Somali than as a European.
He was born, as he tells us, “with the divine unrest of adventure in my blood.” When he was thirteen his father took him on a long trek into King Khama’s country, trading horses and cattle with the natives. The boy returned home with the ambition to walk Africa from one end to the other, and the uneventful life of a Transvaal farm could never hold him after that first glimpse. He ran away from home — it was twenty-five years before he saw his parents again—at the age of sixteen; for eighteen months he worked in the Chicago Gaiko Mine and with his savings he gradually assembled the equipment for his first expedition: .303 rifle, a few hundred rounds of ammunition, a tent, and the calico, brass, wire beads, and so forth, to trade with the natives. Then in 1899 he started out on his own, bound for the Zambesi River, the first of a series of deathdealing adventures which were to carry him beyond the reach of any other white man, which were to expose him to every kind of tropical hardship, and from which at the end of fifty years he was to emerge; with a whole, if somewhat scarred, hide.
Pretorius had a natural aptitude for languages, and could talk with authority with any native anywhere. He never pauses to tell us about this linguistic accomplishment and I rather wish he had. He never forgot any detail he had observed about animals, and some of them are arresting — as, for instance, when he tells us that “a baby baboon only a day or two old knows immediately that the danger of a scorpion lies in his tail, and if he catches one, will first of all break off the tail and throw it away.”
But his two most remarkable faculties are his fortitude and his accuracy with a gun. His body could stand any amount of racking from malaria, dysentery, or thirst; he could operate on himself as he did in 1914 without anesthetics, with only a sharpened knife, when his leg was black with gangrene; when hunting the rogue elephants in the Addo he killed again and again at the range of from five to eight paces; and when he was invited to stage some films of a lion hunt in the Knysna Forest he used himself as bait with some wonderful results which unfortunately the photographer was always too frightened to catch.
In all, Pretorius shot 557 elephants, and presumably if there had been one less the book would not have been written. It is not a sense of squeamishness on my part, but a dislike of repetition, which slackens my interest in the shooting of Jungle Man. As the narrative proceeds I find myself much more interested in the side lights of Africa than in the bigger scenes where the beast comes to a dead stop two yards from the author’s toe.
Boston young and old
I sometimes think that the country cousin who comes to Boston as John Marquand and Cleveland Amory did, or the adopted son who has lived here for a quarter of a century like David McCord, is able to describe the town with more clarity, affection, and understanding than the city-born. In his new book About Boston: Sight, Sound, Flavor & Inflection (Doubleday, $2.50), Mr. McCord has devoted his prose, his verse, and thirtyfive line drawings to the revelation of that city and way of life which other Americans will always laugh at and at least in part envy. His essays fall pleasantly on the ear as they did when they came to us on the air. They are full of telling and unsuspected little details of which the author is a famous collector. They have the glint of laughter and the gay and poking lilt of a writer who turns to verse when prose would be too slow.
Mr. McCord is a country man who loves to skin out of his city shell. Brought up as a boy in the Rogue River valley of Oregon, he has that openmindedness about birds, trees, riverways, and the physical architecture of a city which adds such zest to his prose. In his hands the growth of the Public Garden becomes a living thing. We see the ropewalks along the marsh at the bottom of the Common as they were in the 1790’s; we see the little island, which the British had fortified, leveled off and the soil mixed with oyster shells enough to fill in the small botanical garden of twenty-four acres. For a while circuses used it for a camping ground; then Frederick Olmsted and Charles Sargent began their planning. A pond of four acres is shored up, the tulip bulbs are brought over from Holland, and the migratory birds come down on what Mr. McCord rightly calls so beautiful a landing field.
Whet her he is writing about the North End or the Charles River, Louisburg Square, the Boston artists, Philip Hale, or Boston Harbor as seen from the air, Mr. McCord conveys a happy blend of past and present and an appreciation of the ever changing mood of a great city. His concluding essay, “Early and Late,” is as poetic an appraisal as I have ever read of this red-brick town. Delightful vignettes by a skilled and sensitive hand.