Greatest Short Stories (P. F. Collier & Son)/Volume 1/The Man in the Reservoir
THE MAN IN THE RESERVOIR
BY CHARLES FENNO HOFFMAN
You may see some of the best society in New York on the top of the Distributing Reservoir, any of these fine October mornings. There were two or three carriages in waiting, and half a dozen senatorial-looking mothers with young children, pacing the parapet, as we basked there the other day in the sunshine—now watching the pickerel that glide along the lucid edges of the black pool within, and now looking off upon the scene of rich and wondrous variety that spreads along the two rivers on either side.
“They may talk of Alpheus and Arethusa,” murmured an idling sophomore, who had found his way thither during recitation hours, “but the Croton in passing over an arm of the sea at Spuyten Duyvil, and bursting to sight again in this truncated pyramid, beats it all hollow. By George, too, the bay yonder looks as blue as ever the Ægean Sea to Byron’s eye, gazing from the Acropolis! But the painted foliage on these crags!—the Greeks must have dreamed of such a vegetable phenomenon in the midst of their grayish olive groves, or they never would have supplied the want of it in their landscape by embroidering their marble temples with gay colors. Did you see that pike break, sir?”
“I did not.”
“Zounds! his silver fin flashed upon the black Acheron, like a restless soul that hoped yet to mount from the pool.”
“The place seems suggestive of fancies to you?” we observed in reply to the rattlepate.
“It is, indeed, for I have done up a good deal of anxious thinking within a circle of a few yards where that fish broke just now.”
“A singular place for meditation—the middle of the Reservoir!”
“You look incredulous, sir; but it's a fact. A fellow can never tell, until he is tried, in what situation his most earnest meditations may be concentrated. I am boring you, though?”
“Not at all. But you seem so familiar with the spot, I wish you could tell me why that ladder leading down to the water is lashed against the stonework in yonder corner.”
“That ladder,” said the young man, brightening at the question—“why, the position, perhaps the very existence, of that ladder resulted from my meditations in the Reservoir, at which you smiled just now. Shall I tell you all about them?”
“Well, you have seen the notice forbidding any one to fish in the Reservoir. Now, when I read that warnings the spirit of the thing struck me at once as inferring nothing more than that one should not sully the temperance potations of our citizens by steeping bait in it, of any kind; but you probably know the common way of taking pike with a slip noose of delicate wire. I was determined to have a touch at the fellows with this kind of tackle.
“I chose a moonlight night; and an hour before the edifice was closed to visitors, I secreted myself within the walls, determined to pass the night on the top. All went as I could wish it. The night proved cloudy, but it was only a variable drift of broken clouds which obscured the moon. I had a walking cane-rod with me which would reach to the margin of the water, and several feet beyond if necessary. To this was attached the wire, about fifteen inches in length.
“I prowled along the parapet for a considerable time, but not a single fish could I see. The clouds made a flickering light and shade, that wholly foiled my steadfast gaze. I was convinced that should they come up thicker, my whole night’s venture would be thrown away. ‘Why should I not descend the sloping wall and get nearer on a level with the fish, for thus alone can I hope to see one?’ The question had hardly shaped itself in my mind before I had one leg over the iron railing.
“If you look around you will see now that there are some half-dozen weeds growing here and there, amid the fissures of the solid masonry. In one of the fissures from whence these spring, I planted a foot and began my descent. The Reservoir was fuller than it is now, and a few strides would have carried me to the margin of the water. Holding on to the cleft above, I felt round with one foot for a place to plant it below me.
“In that moment the flap of a pound pike made me look round, and the roots of the weed upon which I partially depended gave way as I was in the act of turning. Sir, one’s senses are sharpened in deadly peril; as I live now, I distinctly heard the bells of Trinity chiming midnight, as I rose to the surface the next instant, immersed in the stone caldron, where I must swim for my life Heaven only could tell how long!
“I am a capital swimmer; and this naturally gave me a degree of self-possession. Falling as I had, I of course had pitched out some distance from the sloping parapet. A few strokes brought me to the edge. I really was not yet certain but that I could clamber up the face of the wall anywhere. I hoped that I could. I felt certain at least there was some spot where I might get hold with my hands, even if I did not ultimately ascend it.
“I tried the nearest spot. The inclination of the wall was so vertical that it did not even rest me to lean against it. I felt with my hands and with my feet. Surely, I thought, there must be some fissure like those in which that ill-omened weed had found a place for its root!
“There was none. My fingers became sore in busying themselves with the harsh and inhospitable stones. My feet slipped from the smooth and slimy masonry beneath the water; and several times my face came in rude contact with the wall, when my foothold gave way on the instant that I seemed to have found some diminutive rocky cleat upon which I could stay myself.
“Sir, did you ever see a rat drowned in a half-filled hogshead—how he swims round, and round, and round; and after vainly trying the sides again and again with his paws, fixes his eyes upon the upper rim as if he would look himself out of his watery prison?
“I thought of the miserable vermin, thought of him as I had often watched thus his dying agonies, when a cruel urchin of eight or ten. Boys are horribly cruel, sir; boys, women, and savages. All childlike things are cruel; cruel from a want of thought and from perverse ingenuity, although by instinct each of these is so tender. You may not have observed it, but a savage is as tender to his own young as a boy is to a favorite puppy—the same boy that will torture a kitten out of existence. I thought then, I say, of the rat drowning in a half-filled cask of water, and lifting his gaze out of the vessel as he grew more and more desperate, and I flung myself on my back, and, floating thus, fixed my eyes upon the face of the moon.
“The moon is well enough in her way, however you may look at her; but her appearance is, to say the least of it, peculiar to a man floating on his back in the centre of a stone tank, with a dead wall of some fifteen or twenty feet rising squarely on every side of him!” (The young man smiled bitterly as he said this, and shuddered once or twice before he went on musingly.) “The last time I had noted the planet with any emotion she was on the wane. Mary was with me; I had brought her out here one morning to look at the view from the top of the Reservoir. She said little of the scene, but as we talked of our old childish loves, I saw that its fresh features were incorporating themselves with tender memories of the past, and I was content.
“There was a rich golden haze upon the landscape, and as my own spirits rose amid the voluptuous atmosphere, she pointed to the waning planet, discernible like a faint gash in the welkin, and wondered how long it would be before the leaves would fall. Strange girl! did she mean to rebuke my joyous mood, as if we had no right to be happy while Nature, withering in her pomp, and the sickly moon, wasting in the blaze of noontide, were there to remind us of ‘the-gone-forever’? ‘They will all renew themselves, dear Mary,’ said I, encouragingly, ‘and there is one that will ever keep tryst alike with thee and nature through all seasons, if thou wilt but be true to one of us, and remain as now a child of nature.’
“A tear sprang to her eye, and then searching her pocket for her card-case, she remembered an engagement to be present at Miss Lawson's opening of fall bonnets at two o'clock!
“And yet, dear, wild, wayward Mary, I thought of her now. You have probably outlived this sort of thing, sir; but I, looking at the moon, as I floated there upturned to her yellow light, thought of the loved being whose tears I knew would flow when she heard of my singular fate, at once so grotesque, yet melancholy to awfulness.
“And how often we have talked, too, of that Carian shepherd who spent his damp nights upon the hills, gazing as I do on the lustrous planet! Who will revel with her amid those old superstitions? Who, from our own unlegended woods, will evoke their yet undetected, haunting spirits? Who peer with her in prying scrutiny into nature's laws, and challenge the whispers of poetry from the voiceless throat of matter? Who laugh merrily over the stupid guesswork of pedants, that never mingled with the infinitude of nature, through love exhaustless and all-embracing, as we have? Poor girl! she will be companionless.
“Alas! companionless forever—save in the exciting stages of some brisk flirtation. She will live hereafter by feeding other hearts with love’s lore she has learned from me, and then, Pygmalion-like, grow fond of the images she has herself endowed with semblance of divinity, until they seem to breathe back the mystery the soul can truly catch from only one.
“How anxious she will be lest the coroner shall have discovered any of her notes in my pocket!
“I felt chilly as this last reflection crossed my mind, partly at thought of the coroner, partly at the idea of Mary being unwillingly compelled to wear mourning for me, in case of such a disclosure of our engagement. It is a provoking thing for a girl of nineteen to have to go into mourning for a deceased lover at the beginning of her second winter in the metropolis.
“The water, though, with my motionless position, must have had something to do with my chilliness. I see, sir, you think that I tell my story with great levity; but indeed, indeed I should grow delirious did I venture to hold steadily to the awfulness of my feelings the greater part of that night. I think, indeed, I must have been most of the time hysterical with horror, for the vibrating emotions I have recapitulated did pass through my brain even as I have detailed them.
“But as I now became calm in thought, I summoned up again some resolution of action.
“I will begin at that comer (said I), and swim around the whole inclosure. I will swim slowly and again feel the sides of the tank with my feet. If die I must, let me perish at least from well-directed though exhausting effort, not sink from mere bootless weariness in sustaining myself till the morning shall bring relief.
“The sides of the place seemed to grow higher as I now kept my watery course beneath them. It was not altogether a dead pull. I had some variety of emotion in making my circuit. When I swam in the shadow, it looked to me more cheerful beyond in the moonlight. When I swam in the moonlight, I had the hope of making some discovery when I should again reach the shadow. I turned several times on my back to rest just where those wavy lines would meet. The stars looked viciously bright to me from the bottom of that well; there was such a company of them; they were so glad in their lustrous revelry; and they had such space to move in! I was alone, sad to despair, in a strange element, prisoned, and a solitary gazer upon their mocking chorus. And yet there was nothing else with which I could hold communion!
“I turned upon my breast and struck out almost frantically once more. The stars were forgotten; the moon, the very world of which I as yet formed a part, my poor Mary herself, were forgotten. I thought only of the strong man there perishing; of me in my lusty manhood, in the sharp vigor of my dawning prime, with faculties illimitable, with senses all alert, battling there with physical obstacles which men like myself had brought together for my undoing. The Eternal could never have willed this thing! I could not and I would not perish thus. And I grew strong in insolence of self-trust; and I laughed aloud as I dashed the sluggish water from side to side.
“Then came an emotion of pity for myself—of wild regret; of sorrow, Oh, infinite for a fate so desolate, a doom so dreary, so heart-sickening! You may laugh at the contradiction if you will, sir, but I felt that I could sacrifice my own life on the instant, to redeem another fellow-creature from such a place of horror, from an end so piteous. My soul and my vital spirit seemed in that desperate moment to be separating; while one in parting grieved over the deplorable fate of the other.
“And then I prayed! I prayed, why or wherefore I know not. It was not from fear. It could not have been in hope. The days of miracles are past, and there was no natural law by whose providential interposition I could be saved. I did not pray; it prayed of itself, my soul within me.
“Was the calmness that I now felt torpidity—the torpidity that precedes dissolution to the strong swimmer who, sinking from exhaustion, must at last add a bubble to the wave as he suffocates beneath the element which now denied his mastery? If it were so, how fortunate was it that my floating rod at that moment attracted my attention as it dashed through the water by me. I saw on the instant that a fish had entangled itself in the wire noose. The rod quivered, plunged, came again to the surface, and rippled the water as it shot in arrowy flight from side to side of the tank. At last, driven toward the southeast corner of the Reservoir, the small end seemed to have got foul somewhere. The brazen butt, which, every time the fish sounded, was thrown up to the moon, now sank by its own weight, showing that the other end must be fast. But the cornered fish, evidently anchored somewhere by that short wire, floundered several times to the surface before I thought of striking out to the spot.
“The water is low now, and tolerably clear. You may see the very ledge there, sir, in yonder comer, on which the small end of my rod rested when I secured that pike with my hands. I did not take him from the slip-noose, however; but, standing upon the ledge, handled the rod in a workmanlike manner, as I flung that pound pickerel over the iron railing upon the top of the parapet. The rod, as I have told you, barely reached from the railing to the water. It was a heavy, strong bass rod which I had borrowed in the ‘Spirit of the Times’ office; and when I discovered that the fish at the end of the wire made a strong enough knot to prevent me from drawing my tackle away from the railing around which it twined itself as I threw, why, as you can at once see, I had but little difficulty in making my way up the face of the wall with such assistance. The ladder which attracted your notice is, as you see, lashed to the iron railing in the identical spot where I thus made my escape; and, for fear of similar accidents, they have placed another one in the corresponding comer of the other compartment of the tank ever since my remarkable night's adventure in the Reservoir.”