English Literature

The Ship Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine

The Ship Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine.jpg



It was a long time ago—far back in another century—that my father brought home from the village, one evening, a brand-new book. There were not so many books in those days, and this was a fine big one, with black and gilt covers, and such a lot of pictures!

I was at an age to claim things. I said the book was my book, and, later, petitioned my father to establish that claim. (I remember we were climbing through the bars at the time, having driven the cows to the further pasture.)

My father was kindly disposed, but conservative; that was his habit. He said that I might look at the book—that I might even read it, some day, when I was old enough, and I think he added that privately[Pg 2] I might call it mine—a privilege which provided as well for any claim I might have on the moon.

I don’t think these permissions altogether satisfied me. I was already in the second reader, and the lust of individual ownership was upon me. Besides, this was a New Pilgrim’s Progress. We had respect in our house for the old Pilgrim’s Progress, and I had been encouraged to search its pages. I had read it, or read at it, for a good while, and my claim of ownership in that direction had never been disputed. Now, here was a brand-new one, and the pictures in it looked most attractive. I was especially enamoured of the frontispiece, “The Pilgrim’s Vision,” showing the “Innocents” on their way “abroad,” standing on the deck of the Quaker City and gazing at Bible pictures in the sky.

I do not remember how the question of ownership settled itself. I do remember how the book that winter became the nucleus of our family circle, and how night after night my mother read aloud from it while the rest of us listened, and often the others laughed.


I did not laugh—not then. In the first place, I would not, in those days, laugh at any Pilgrim’s Progress, especially at a new one, and then I had not arrived at the point of sophistication where a joke, a literary joke, registers. To me it was all true, all romance—all poetry—the story of those happy voyagers who sailed in a ship of dreams to lands beyond the sunrise, where men with turbans, long flowing garments and Bible whiskers rode on camels; where ruined columns rose in a desert that was once[Pg 3] a city; where the Sphinx and the Pyramids looked out over the sands that had drifted about them long and long before the Wise Men of the East had seen the Star rise over Bethlehem.

In the big, bleak farm-house on the wide, bleak Illinois prairie I looked into the open fire and dreamed. Some day, somehow, I would see those distant lands. I would sail away on that ship with “Dan” and “Jack” and “The Doctor” to the Far East; I would visit Damascus and Jerusalem, and pitch my camp on the borders of the Nile. Very likely I should decide to remain there and live happy ever after.

How the dreams of youth stretch down the years, and fade, and change! Only this one did not fade, and I thought it did not change. I learned to laugh with the others, by-and-by, but the romance and the[Pg 4] poetry of the pilgrimage did not grow dim. The argonauts of the Quaker City sailed always in a halo of romance to harbors of the forgotten days. As often as I picked up the book the dream was fresh and new, though realization seemed ever further and still further ahead.

Then all at once, there, just within reach, it lay. There was no reason why, in some measure at least, I should not follow the track of those old first “Innocents Abroad.” Of course, I was dreaming again—only, this time, perhaps, I could make the dream come true.

I began to read advertisements. I found that a good many ship-loads of “Pilgrims” had followed that first little band to the Orient—that the first “ocean picnic” steamer, which set sail in June forty-two years before, had started a fashion in sea excursioning which had changed only in details. Ocean picnics to the Mediterranean were made in winter now, and the vessels used for them were fully eight times as big as the old Quaker City, which had been a side-wheel steamer, and grand, no doubt, for her period, with a register proudly advertised at eighteen hundred tons! Itineraries, too, varied more or less, but Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land were still names to conjure with. Advertisements of cruises were plentiful, and literature on the subject was luminous and exciting. A small table by my bed became gorgeous with prospectuses in blue and gold and crimson sunset dyes. The Sphinx, the Pyramids, and prows of stately vessels looked out from many covers and became backgrounds for lofty, dark-blue camels and dusky men[Pg 5] of fantastic dress. Often I woke in the night and lit my lamp and consulted these things. When I went to the city I made the lives of various agents miserable with my inquiries. It was hard—it was nerve-racking to decide. But on one of these occasions I overheard the casual remark that the S. S. Grosser Kurfürst would set out on her cruise to the Orient with two tons of dressed chicken and four thousand bottles of champagne.

I hesitated no longer. Dear me, my dream had changed, then, after all! Such things had not in the least concerned the boy who had looked into the open fire, and pictured a pilgrimage to Damascus and Jerusalem, and a camp on the borders of the Nile.

My remembrance of the next few days is hazy—that is, it is kaleidoscopic. I recall doing a good many things in a hurry and receiving a good deal of advice. Also the impression that everybody in the world except myself had been everywhere in the world, and that presently they were all going again, and that I should find them, no doubt, strewn all the way from Gibraltar to Jerusalem, when I had been persuading myself that in the places I had intended to visit I should meet only the fantastic stranger. Suddenly it was two days before sailing. Then it was the day before sailing. Then it was sailing day!

Perhaps it was the hurry and stress of those last days; perhaps it is the feeling natural to such a proximity. I do not know. But I do know that during those final flying hours, when I was looking across the very threshold of realization, the old fascination[Pg 6] faded, and if somebody had only suggested a good reason for my staying at home, I would have stayed there, and I would have given that person something valuable, besides. But nobody did it. Not a soul was thoughtful enough to hint that I was either needed or desired in my native land, and I was too modest to mention it myself.

There had been rain, but it was bright enough that February morning of departure—just a bit squally along the west. What a gay crowd there was at the pier and on the vessel! I thought all of New York must be going. That was a mistake—they were mostly visitors, as I discovered later. It would average three visitors to one passenger, I should think. I had more than that—twice as many. I am not boasting—they came mainly to be sure that I got aboard and stayed there, and to see that I didn’t lose most of my things. They knew me and what I would be likely to do, alone. They wanted to steer me to the right state-room and distribute my traps. Then they could put me in charge of Providence and the deck-steward, and wash their hands of me, and feel that whatever happened they had done their duty and were not to blame.

So I had six, as I say, and we worked our way through, among the passengers and visitors, who seemed all to be talking and laughing at once or pawing over mail and packages heaped upon the cabin table. I didn’t feel like laughing and talking, and I wasn’t interested in the mail. Almost everybody in the world that meant anything to me was in my crowd, and they were going away, presently, to leave[Pg 7] me on this big ship, among strangers, bound for the strange lands. My long dream of the Orient dwindled to a decrepit thing.

But presently we found my state-room, and it was gratifying. I was impressed with its regal furnishings. After all, there were compensations in a habitation like that. Besides, there were always the two tons of dressed chicken and those thousands of champagne. I became more cheerful.

Only, I wish the ship people wouldn’t find it necessary to blow their whistle so loud and suddenly to send one’s friends ashore. There is no chance to carry off somebody—somebody you would enjoy having along. They blow that thing until it shivers the very marrow of one’s soul.

How the visitors do crowd ashore! A word—a last kiss—a “God bless you”—your own are gone presently—you are left merely standing there, abandoned, marooned, deserted—feeling somehow that it’s all wrong, and that something ought to be done about it. Why don’t those people hurry? You want to get away now; you want it over with.

A familiar figure fights its way up the gang-plank, breasting the shoreward tide. Your pulse jumps—they are going to take you home, after all. But no, he only comes to tell you that your six will be at a certain place near the end of the dock, where you can see them, and wave to them.

You push to the ship’s side for a place at the rail. The last visitors are straggling off now, even to the final official. Then somewhere somebody does something that slackens the cables, the remaining gang-plank[Pg 8] is dragged away. That whistle again, and then a band—our band—turns loose a perfect storm of music.

We are going! We are going! We have dropped away from the pier and are gliding past the rows of upturned faces, the lines of frantic handkerchiefs. Yes, oh yes, we are going—there is no turning back now, no changing of one’s mind again. All the cares of work, the claims of home—they cannot reach us any more. Those waiting at the pier’s end to wave as we pass—whatever life holds for me is centred there, and I am leaving it all behind. There they are, now! Wave! Wave! Oh, I did not know it would be like this! I did not suppose that I might—need another handkerchief!

The smoke of a tug drifts between— I have lost them. No, there they are again, still waving. That white spot—that is a little furry coat—such a little furry coat and getting so far off, and so blurry. My glass—if I can only get hold of myself enough to see through it. Yes, there they are! Oh, those wretched boats to drift in and shut that baby figure away! Now they are gone, but I cannot find her again. The smoke, the mist, and a sudden drift of snow have swept between. I have lost the direction— I don’t know where to look any more. It is all over—we are off—we are going out to sea![Pg 9]


Categories: English Literature

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