The New Generation
The New Generation
BY JAMES OPPENHEIM
AS the trolley-car, with whistle loosed, fled between the farms, skirted a forest of pungent broad acres of sky-climbing pine, swung curves of sudden crop-patched scenery, swept against a lofty blue sky, or dropped beside a chanting creek, the smell of the sea grew stronger. I had to hold the post beside me against the sway and the breeze that made my face feel liquid. It was a real Maine day—blue, blowing, brilliant—and the time was late May. Apple orchards were in blossom, daisies whitened sloping meadows, and waves of green went over the world.
For three months I had been inland, working my way among the factory towns, touching, as was my wont, such life as I could in roving, but one gray morning the "wind that blows over water" came to my nostrils, and I set out for open sea. It seemed then that the inland country was suffocating, dusty, and unclean; I wanted the solid hills to take the rhythm of the tides and the meadows to slope into spilling breakers; I wanted horizon and salt health.
And now, sharply, the trolley-car curved into an old sea town, and glided down the solemn oak-shaded street beside the white-and-green New England houses and the airy old churches. A perfection of peace and content lay on the place.
At the post-office, beside the bridge that connected the river-parted halves of the town, the car stopped. I went at once to the bridge-rail to glimpse the racing tide which the Atlantic was sending inland, to get the delicious sea smell and to drink deep of the Maine weather. And then I realized the perfection of the day—the sky, blue, with nothing in it but the sun; the shining air; the town shaded and asleep; the three-masted schooner just being moored at the dock; the music of the tide against the bridge.
But even as I decided that all was well with the world, I noticed a crowd at the bridge end. A man came hurrying by me.
"What's the trouble?" I asked.
"Clemm's boy," he murmured, "drowned."
I pushed my way curiously through the throng and looked. They had him in the tall grass, a beautiful young Shelley, with limbs tossed idly, his hair and rough clothes clinging to him; blood reddened the forehead and the sleeping face. There was a wild grace about him lying there, while hardy, eager men rubbed the limbs and bared the breast.
"Hands over his head," I muttered, "and then back and forth!"
I was at it myself in a moment. After a while he stirred and murmured something, and several women began to sob.
"He's coming to—he's alive!" the whisper passed.
There was the swift lunge of an automobile then, and the gray-bearded doctor was down among us, working at the wound. I stood up. A grizzled fisherman leaned at my elbow.
"How did it happen?" I asked.
"You see," he said, huskily, "the boy's got a fishing-launch, and he followed yon schooner in, and here at the bridge the tide's treacherous. The old hulk swung and knocked the launch under. Bert Taylor fished him out. He'd orter have more sense," he muttered, "but I've always noticed the lad hanging about schooners. You can lay stakes that his mother hates the sea."
The doctor was ready then, the boy's head bandaged, hiding the eyes. I lifted the dripping youth easily—he was very slim—and climbed into the automobile. With a snort the light car swung into a beautiful seaward road and went leaping along between ancient decaying houses, vine-clad, and fronted with old-fashioned gardens. The boy lay limp and hushed in my arms, and I drew him closer, and the tears started.
"He's a grandson of old Dougherty." explained the doctor, "oldest settler here. Old Man Dougherty can tell you stories of the Indians and sea-tales from here to Bombay. They keep a summer boarding-house. Wish," he mused, "I knew a good nurse. The boy will be in bed a fortnight, and his mother's getting ready for the summer."
"I might do," I murmured; "I've worked in a hospital."
"You're a professional?" He glanced at me, the quizzical glance I know so well, that questions my open-neck flannels, my brown beard and sunburnt face, my general tramp-untidiness.
"No," I laughed. "My profession is roving." And I hinted at my free, wandering life, the gipsy in me that made me thread the cities and the plains and the North Woods, touching life everywhere as I went.
"It's a rare case," he pondered, a little more at ease. "It's usually the low-grade, uneducated men who do it." He smiled. "But I've heard of super-tramps. I'll speak to the family."
We drew up before a large, clean, white house, green-shuttered, almost circled with a grave forest of tall pines, which gave an air of wildness to the place, and as we paused I heard, through the still air, the boom of the sea in the distance, beyond the woods. The sound made the wild spot enchanted.
"Good there's no one around," the doctor murmured, getting down. He hurried to the kitchen door, entered the house, and I waited through long, throbbing moments, expecting to hear the shrill cry of the mother. And all the while the boy never stirred in my arms.
Then the doctor emerged again, and after him came a hardy pioneer woman, a Maine sea-woman—red-haired, blue-eyed, deep-bosomed, clean and tanned, with springy step and high-poised head. Her eyes were lit with a keen, tragic fatalism, but she came steadily.
"Bring him in," she whispered, "bring him in."
I should have preferred a releasing cry to that fierce whisper. The doctor helped me down, and we followed her. And how salt-clean and sweet the house smelt! And how right and tight and cozy it closed against the Northern weather! And how winter-empty were the halls and vacant rooms that later would be crowded with gossiping city-folk! We went up the narrow stairs and entered a small seaward room, with white lilac peeping in at the open windows, and on the neat bed we laid him. His mother busily undressed him while she sharply put questions and absorbed answers from the doctor.
"The schooner!" she cried out once. "I've waited for this. How I hate the sea!"
And then, "William!" she whispered, "William!"
The doctor and I left her alone with him. She was kneeling, and had an arm under his head. I paced the hall, while the doctor went down to hunt for the men. They came tramping up shortly after, trying to acquire a new sick-room tread in their heavy hide boots. First came the father, Clemm, and then the grandfather, Old Man Dougherty. Clemm was a hardy, stocky, dark-skinned fellow, passionate but quiet, with black mustache and sparse hair over his hawk-like face; but the Old Man was a marvel, a six-footer, absolutely straight, flesh like leather, a grizzled, stubby beard, a shock of gray hair, and the bleared, acute eyes of a bald-headed eagle. There was about him a large humanity, a wrinkled wisdom, the natural grace, strength, and aplomb of the sea and the open, and a pleasing smell of sun-burnt, sea-salted flesh. I liked his big, callous hands.
Clemm spoke with loving anger.
"It's a wonder the young fool wasn't killed."
"Gosh," said the Old Man, "the sea never killed a Dougherty."
And they looked in at the door, and the doctor and I peered over their shoulders. The boy was whispering to his mother, and she was sobbing openly. The release blinded me suddenly, and shamedly I wiped my face.
That evening, while William slept peacefully, I went down to the little dining-sitting-room. The wind had risen, and it seemed as if the spirit of the Atlantic went roaring from pine to pine, buffeting the house with strong musical blows. The low room was snug, with shining windows shutting out the cold, and the lamp on the center-table was fighting off the shadows. The three sat about the lamp, their faces lit and vivid with humanest expression. We seemed to be on a weather-tight ship at sea. I was glad to be there, glad to pause among these people for a fortnight.
"How is he?" asked his mother.
"Asleep. I think he'll sleep till morning," I sat down.
"It all comes," she murmured, "of the madness in him."
I thrilled to the phrase. Clemm spoke bitterly.
"I hope it will teach the boy a lesson. I wanted to get rid of that launch long ago. He's got no business on the water. Anything he wants but that"—his voice grew a little savage—"anything but that. I want to pass on this property to him. It's a gold-mine for him. And he'd like to waste his life at sea. What does a fellow learn there? I want him to grow respectable, hold his head high as any city man that boards here. I want him educated. Nosing around schooners!" he snorted. "The boy's crazy!"
The old man was puffing serenely on the home-made stem of a chubby pipe. His strong bass voice boomed with the pine-played wind.
"Jest the same, Asa," he said, slowly, "you'll have to let the boy go. It was at his age I went myself, sailing round the Horn. You know it's in his blood, Asa, and he's got to go. He's a boy after my own heart; you needn't waste anger on him. He's none of those soft city chaps that loaf the summer through in white trousers. Ha!" he laughed, "he was apprenticed to the sea before you was born! He's me over again." He paused, puffing. "You'll have to let him go."
Mrs. Clemm was begging him for mercy with her eyes. She whispered:
"Pa, he sha'n't go. If the other children had lived, all right. But William sha'n't go."
"The same blood's in you, Stella," he answered, slowly. "It's a wonder you can't understand. It's good for young men. It's made me, Thad," he turned toward me. "How old do you take me for?"
"Between sixty and sixty-five."
He laughed joyously.
I was astounded.
"The sea toughened me; salt has kept me fresh. It's good for young men."
"Good for others, maybe," murmured Mrs. Clemm, "not good for him."
"And there's nothing to keep him here?" I asked.
"Not his folks or his home," said Clemm, bitterly. "Something else—maybe."
His mother softly smiled, and the Old Man grunted.
"What?" I questioned.
For answer the door opened, and a cold wind swept us, with a great breath of the open sea, and nearly extinguished the lamp-flame. For a moment the forest seemed to leap with a roar into the room, and then the door sharply shut out the night, and I saw a young girl standing in the shadows. Her voice was sweet.
"I just heard—" she stammered; "I had to come. ..."
Mrs. Clemm rose quickly.
The girl fled to her arms, and they hugged, and cried together.
"Oh, how is he?" she whispered.
"Better—all right—so, Mary."
The girl turned to us with beautiful modesty.
"I didn't see any one here—I didn't mean to act so foolish—"
"Cry away!" boomed the Old Man. "Cry away, sweetheart!"
She flung off her hooded cape then, and I saw in her the elusive magic of human life, the gleam that comes and goes in youth. She had the slender grace of a sapling; her cheeks were quick with pallor and color; her eyes held as many changes as the sea; her dark hair was soft in the lamplight, and she seemed more an airy spirit than a human being. It was the brief beauty of a young girl, the transient touch of a far loveliness, the child-sweetness poignant with the wonder of woman-love—so tragic in its swift vanishing,—as if for an hour all the glory of creation were revealed through a face, too wonderful to last and quickly lost in the hardy years.
She sat at the table, yet quite a simple girl, quick with silvery laughter and glistening tears, and low-voiced questions and replies. But when she spoke of William I saw that her life was his, that she was lost utterly, and that the high love in her made her face a hint of the loveliness that enfolds us.
Twice that night I awoke and heard the sea booming, and longed for the gray great ocean. Then, at five, William stirred.
"Yes, I'm all right, all except my head. Open both windows, please. I want to hear the sea."
I was able to get away for half an hour. I couldn't wait any longer; I wanted to complete my quest. So I went through the dawn-dripping woods, through drenches of early sunlight and glisten of dew, and heard something come through the throat of a hermit-thrush—just what, I don't know—possibly the glory of a new morning. The woods gave to a wooden bridge over an inlet, and then came sand-dunes. I strode swiftly, climbed to the top, and there rolled the sea.
The shore made a mile-long crescent with horns of rocky headland; the smooth beach was a hard gray, and out of pink horizons came the motion of the melting blue sea—like May-skies fallen, rolling, a tumble of the softest sound. As my feet imprinted the watery sand, the low sun splashing the wet girdled my steps with fire; I saw fish jumping out of the blue water, their iridescent sides flashing; I tasted the wild-flavored air (it was as if earth breathed it breathless with ecstasy—so fresh, so exhilarant), and I felt like a grain of sand lost on a sea-strip of blue vastness. Earth and the Atlantic seemed to sing a morning hymn to the sun, and there was not a creature stirring, only faint blue smoke curling here and there from some hidden chimney.
It was the sea—the sea in a woman-mood; new health seemed to charge me; I broke into a run, loping like a colt along that tide-swept mile, and blue swallows dipped and circled about me. And the sea seemed as living as I, as full of joy, as full of health; she rolled her million years of water at my feet, she waved her white hands at the crest of the waves, she laughed softly in the break of the beached billow.
And the sea-magic, the sea-madness came upon me—the same that savagely enchanted humanity from England to the Mediterranean, that lured the Viking to the end of the world, that held Columbus westward, that spurred Magellan and Drake. I, too, wanted to rock in that cradle as some craft bore me to seas unchanneled and uncharted and lands unmapped. Suddenly I understood William, felt as if the blood in us was the same, and knew how terribly he was drawn. Surely youth still has its quest, its never-found Grails to seek, and rover that I was I knew how much a man would leave for the strange Voice that calls, how much I myself had left, and still would leave.
All that day the boy and I were together, drawing closer and closer in quiet talk. His eager questions drew from me details of distant country and the populous cities I knew. I knew that in imagination he dogged my footsteps through the long circuits of the past.
"That's living!" he told me. "Only, I want to do it in a ship. Has the Old Man told you of India and Africa? He's been to South America, too." Then he emphasized a magic phrase, "All round the world." He sighed, "The land must be a prison to him."
It was to William—no doubt of that.
"We've all been seafarers—all except my father." His voice lowered: "But I'm like the Old Man. Did you ever see a coral reef?"
Later he burst out: "The women-folk are always holding a man back. But there's been a lot of sailors in spite of them."
And he told me then that the schooner that had nearly killed him was bound for Central America.
At the end of the afternoon a letter came. Mrs. Clemm handed it in and withdrew. Birds were lisping, piping searchingly, hauntingly sweet in the late twilight outside our window, as the earth darkened far from the sun. We could smell the lilacs. It was an hour of tenderness and quiet.
"Read it, Thad," he murmured.
"You know whom it's from? Personal, I can guess."
"You'll understand," he sighed.
I pressed his hand for that, and opened out the folded note-paper, and read the girlish hand:
"My Beloved,—Get well, and come out with me again. Last year this time I stood one day under a low apple bough, and you stole behind me and shook the blossoms down on my hair and shoulders; and I was frightened and turned, and we flung our arms round each other, and laughed and kissed, and the blossoms came off me on to you. Do you remember, William?
"Your father and mother are ready for us to marry; they have set me dreaming again. Get well, so we can plan together. Think of what it will mean for us to have each other. But do you love me as much as I love you? No, that's impossible, dear. Because I love you more than you love the sea and more than I love my mother—but don't tell her.
"I am thinking of you always. A thousand kisses. No, only two. (That's better, isn't it?) And good-night, and get better. I go on sending you love though I know you have it all already—and yet I have more to send.
The simple, unstudied, naive love-letter breathed her girlish personality through us—the frank outpouring of a love-deepened heart. For a while we were silent, while the birds lisped and the room darkened.
"Maybe," murmured William, "maybe I'll stay ... with her. ..."
As the week passed I went pretty deep into that family life. Whenever I had time I followed the Old Man around in his work. There were a few acres of farm beyond the wood, given over to a vegetable garden, and the eighty-three-year six-footer, pipe in mouth and hoe in hand, was a health-giving sight. He was like a bit of old earth; he was the rocky, robust Maine coast, sea-saturated, but green and blooming. He knew all the life of water and land, knew it with love—the litter of pink suckling pigs, the new calves, the strawberry blossoms, the rare stray deer that stumbled upon the pine-forest, the pheasants, the unusual flowers and fruits, the fish and shell-fish.
"Like 'em enough and they won't hurt you!" he said once, as we sat at twilight against the wagon-house. I was diligently fighting off those lingering stingers, the Maine mosquitoes, and the Old Man delighted me by holding forth his knotty arm, which was black with the humming insects.
"Don't bite me!" he chuckled. "They know who's their friend. Stella hates 'em, and they bite her—Clemm, too." He leaned and whispered, "But William—he's the same as me!"
William's mother had much of the Old Man's hardihood. She was often up at five, bustling through her work with surprising swiftness; baked wondrous pies, cooked breakfasts of meat, eggs, muffins, and coffee, washed the dishes, "did" the rooms, and was finished at ten o'clock and ready for sewing. It was only when it came to William that she was weak and unreasonable. But the one child that survives three is more than thrice precious. He is everything and all.
I remember her delight that week-end when I carried William down to the lawn, and she wrapped him in blankets, and brought him beef-tea, and hummed about him as if he were a baby, laughing, anxious, teasing, happy, and the boy sat faintly smiling, his face very pale, his eyes very large, and the healing sunlight drenched him. ...
At three he sat up sharply.
"She's coming, Thad," he said.
And I looked and saw Mary on the road, her arms swinging with the movement of her body, her bare head shining in the sunlight, and a sprig of apple blossoms in her hand. What was she herself but a blossom-girl in blossom-time? She paused on the lawn, blushing, shy, tearful, laughing nervously, and came up with awkward haste, so candid in her love.
It was wonderful what she put in the word. And she knelt and their arms circled each other, and we left them together with their long, precious afternoon.
She came every day then, bringing him gifts—something she had sewed for him, some fruit or some flowers—and he seemed deeply content. But toward the end of the week he grew restless again, and the air seemed to darken for me. There is something terrible in a young girl's love; too much is given to the harder-fibered man.
The outbreak came one brilliant afternoon.
"Thad," he cried, "I'm sure I can walk. I'm sure I could get to the beach."
"With me," I added.
"Oh, with you."
His mother came to the kitchen door. She had heard us.
"Don't go yet," she said. "Wait a day yet, William."
"No," he replied in a harsh voice. "I'm going now."
I motioned to her to goad him no further, and I saw her press her lips together as she withdrew.
He walked with a desperate stride through the cool woods, crossing the bridge, climbing the dunes. He stood leaning against me, trembling, breathing sharply, his eyes full of light. For we saw the sun in the right-hand heavens, the sea to the left far-shining—a fresh-colored world, the blue of whose ocean bathed the eye, the blue of whose sky made the heart leap—and the sea was shouting, a leap of green swimmers that vanished in melodious foam, and the sea-gale sang in our ears and blew through our hair.
"I want to go over to the headland and lie down," he said.
"A long walk, son," I protested.
"Shall I go alone?" he asked, fiercely.
Impetuous youth! We went slowly along that line where a world-ocean and a world-continent meet, and the waves leaped and boomed, swallows circled us, gulls darted. And then we climbed to that headland that, jutting its huge rocks into the sea, takes the swale of tons of sunlit waters, which, with a roar, leap showering in the air. And we stretched flat, face up, on the long-grassed, hot-soiled earth—flat, feeling the heat and strength of the soil breathe through us, and the sun, delicious on our faces, blown away by gusts of spumy sea-wind; and when we dared open eyes we saw only tall, green grass-blades against the skies, and all that swim of blue above, till we felt near the sun, afloat in measureless heavens. To the convalescent boy even the sea-music seemed to heal, even the breeze in the stiff grass lulled, and he felt as clean, salt, splendid as a shore-ward-sloping wave. His eyes, his cheeks sparkled with a new overflow of life, a zest of sharp living.
So I turned toward him and spoke. A rover's life was profitless; the man, washed up and down the tides like spindrift, was a mere vagrant; not in that real life; but forever restlessness, fever, self-contempt, and the exile of the outsider.
"Think of what your mother and father offer you, and what Mary will give you,—oh, the real things, William, the root things, the things I missed."
He plucked at the grass.
"I can come back," he murmured.
"I never came back," I replied. He lay silent for some time, gazing at me; I thought I had won him. Then suddenly he sat up, glanced and pointed.
"Look, Thad!" he cried.
I sat and looked. Far over the glorious eastward-shining seas a tiny smoke-plumed steamer was vanishing on the underside of the world.
"Did you see that?" he asked, fiercely. "Thad, you've no right to talk to me. You've done all this yourself."
I was silenced, and he laughed strangely, and I put an arm about him, and we sat looking out to sea.
My room was next to his. Early the next morning I woke with a start, leaped from the bed, and opened the connecting doorway. The room was empty. I found two notes, one sealed and marked "Mary," and one open.
"Dear Mother and Father,—You would never have let me go; so I had to go this way. God forgive me.
I hurried down the stairs. Clemm and his wife were working in the kitchen. They looked up as I entered and read the tragedy in my face.
"Yes," I whispered, "he's gone."
They stood, unmoving, and suddenly the Old Man darkened the doorway.
"The boy gone?" he murmured, his bleared eyes flashing. "Well, the schooner put to sea at dawn this morning."
Mrs. Clemm looked at her father with a face full of old age.
"Clemm," she said, in a dreadful voice, " 'phone down to the wharf."
"Stella," boomed the Old Man, "I saw the boat go myself."
The mother laughed strangely.
"And in a week the summer boarders will be here!"
Her husband stood with black brow and vengeful eyes.
"He doesn't take after me," he murmured, "and he's no son of mine."
Then the Old Man pulled me by the sleeve, and I went on the lawn with him. And I understood, and my heart quaked.
"She's got to know. Come."
I felt as if the life in me was broken. I, too, seemed old; felt the old age that parents feel when the younger generation has left them, when they are needed no longer by the new manhood and womanhood, when they begin to be pushed back to the past.
Poor Mary's love-letter! This was a strange answer.
The morning was peaceful and still, and the countryside was soaked in ardent sunshine. All about us sang those poets and musicians natural-born, the birds, filling the clover-honeyed air with fresh sprays of melody. Now and then a mild gust of warmed air brought the sea.
Then we turned up a winding country-road, and walked deeper and deeper into pastoral silence, saw cows knee-deep in a snow of daisies, passed blossoming orchards and little flaming gardens. And in the transparent silence the Old Man loosed his booming voice:
"And the boy went in the schooner that nearly killed him—queer!"
And then again:
"The sea in him—the old sea-blood in him. He's me over again! It 'll make a man of' him!"
"But what of Mary," I murmured, "and all that she is?"
He shook his head.
"It's life, and at eighty-three you get your hindsight on trouble. It's not bad in the backward view. There's her house."
Small, quaint, weather-beaten, a little sweet growth behind an old-fashioned garden red and white and purple with rosebuds, magnolia, and wistaria, and in the distance the apple-orchard she had mentioned, and it was still white with blossoms. It seemed impossible that we could bring tragedy into this white peace and silent loveliness.
We went to the door, both of us tip-toeing and too stirred to speak. And then we stood near the open door. A moment passed, a long moment, wherein I saw with sharp distinctness a kitten playing with a loose vine on the doorstep.
Then strangely the Old Man called:
"Mary ... you there?"
She came at once, eager, smiling, so young, so simple. Her hands were dripping with dish-washing.
He seized her hands.
"Mary," he said, "you've got to be brave and patient."
She looked at him twice, as if she did not understand. Then the color fled from her: she stared—stared a little insanely, I thought.
"You see," he went on, "the lad's gone to sea, but he's coming back. Didn't I come back to his grandmother? He's coming back, sweetheart."
"He didn't say good-by," she whispered.
"Yes, he did," I said, and handed her the letter.
She opened it mechanically and read.
It seemed ages then, and the kitten went on frisking and tearing and scratching. Then the tears rolled down her cheeks. And I saw. Magic girlhood was over, and poignant, burdened womanhood had come to her. How many dark days she must wait now, a sea-wife watching sails!
The Old Man clutched her close, and before that tragic grief I shrank, stole off, took up my roving.I, too, had lost William—I knew it then—lost a son, my one son. I, too. felt old. And yet, somehow, it thrilled me that the younger generation leaves the old and goes its way, and creates its own life, and has the right to do so. As we ourselves did. Ever life renewed, evolving, adventurous. But the sea that had drawn me, and drawn him, seemed dreadful to me at that moment, and once again I turned inland.