The Gateway of the New World.
LIBERTY ENLIGHTENING THE WORLD.
The entrance to the harbour of New York is not unworthy its position as the gateway—the ever open gateway—of the New World.
And the colossal monument raised by the genius of Bartholdi at the threshold of the gateway is no inapt emblem of the sentiments with which millions have hailed the sight of the American continent.
The harbour, though guarded by great guns against hostile intruder, and infested by the myrmidons of the Customs, is nevertheless an appropriate antechamber of the Republic, from whose never-dying torch stream the rays of Liberty enlightening the world.
Over the great lagoon-like waters flit the white-winged yachts—the butterflies of the sea—dancing in the rays of the rising sun. On shore the luxuriant foliage of the trees betrays but here and there the hectic flush that portends the glories of the Indian summer. The islands, as emeralds in the setting of the sea, are a doubly welcome sight to eyes which for days past have seen nothing but the heaving billows of the broad Atlantic. Here and there, flecking with colour the sunlit scene, flutter the Stars and Stripes. Far away in the West, faintly audible in the distance, come the multitudinous sounds of the awakening seaport. The great Liner, which shuddered and throbbed for three thousand miles as it forged five hundred miles a day across the sea, is gliding smoothly and softly as a gondola towards the Venice of the Western World. Except when approaching the Golden Horn, no more beautiful scene greets the traveller on[Pg 10] approaching a great capital than that presented by the entrance to the harbour of New York. And right in the centre of the fair vision stands the Bartholdi monument, with its gigantic figure hailing the pilgrims from the Older World with the glad welcome of the New. What more appropriate janitress of the Land of Liberty?
The cynic may sneer that the analogy between the City of the Great Assassin and the City of the Boss extends further than the sea-gate to the city. But to the millions whose eyes have rested hungrily upon the nearing land such reflections are unknown. To them the New World, of which New York holds the keys, has ever been arrayed in the rainbow garment of Hope. New York, merely as the portal of the continent, had long been to them as a kind of New Jerusalem, let down from Heaven in mercy to hard-driven, hopeless men. From their earliest childhood they had heard of the great Commonwealth beyond the sea, where the blood-tax of the conscription was unknown, where all men were free and all men were equal, and where, in solid, unmistakable reality, the dreams of the poets were found embodied in a Constitution that was at once the envy and despair of the world:—
There’s freedom at thy gates and rest
For earth’s downtrodden and oppressed;
A shelter for the hunted head,
For the starved labourer toil and bread;
Power at thy bounds
Stops, and calls back his baffled hounds.
What wonder that the storm-tossed emigrant, as he first saw the city of New York glimmering through the haze, felt the magic charm with which the tribes of Israel first gazed upon the confines of the Promised Land.
To the great mass of the English, Scottish, and Irish people—as distinguished from the travelled and more or less cultured minority—the United States has for a hundred years been the land of their ideal, often dearer to them than their own. A very large section, possibly a majority, of our race has ever been more in sympathy with the people that was believed to have sprung from the loins of the men of the Mayflower than with the nation which recalled Charles the Second and still tolerates the ascendency of the Establishment and the dominance of the landed aristocracy. It is quite recently that this enthusiastic devotion to the American Commonwealth has been somewhat dashed in Great Britain. It still exists in full force across the Irish Channel. To the Irishman the United States is much more of a fatherland than the British Empire. We are, indeed, but a step-motherland to the Irishman, whereas in the United States he is not merely at home, but in most of the cities he is at the head of the household. But forty, thirty, and even twenty years ago it was practically the accepted creed of the English Radical that America led[Pg 11] the van, and whenever he was downcast and dispirited by the temporary triumph of the Tories, he found consolation in the reflection that in the great Republic beyond the Atlantic a new and vigorous race was carrying out his ideals, free from the hateful clog of the hidebound Conservatism of the Old Country. No one can read the speeches of Bright and Cobden without feeling that it was on the Hudson and the Mississippi they found their spiritual fatherland, and the generation that sat at their feet learned from them to regard America much as Walt Whitman painted it in his swinging dithyrambs in praise of “Liberty’s Nation.” We all more or less were brought up to exult in the belief that—
America is the continent of the Glories, and of the triumph of Freedom,
And of the Democracies, and of the fruits of Society, and of all that is begun.
Hence nothing more extravagant can be said in praise of New York Harbour than that even to those nurtured on such pabulum it is no unworthy approach to the sea-gate of a new and better world.
Nor is it only the outside of the harbour that is most impressive. The Hudson—that stately river compared with which the Rhine is but a muddy creek, and the Thames a sluggish rivulet—is not less worthy of its rôle as the throne of the great city. It is impossible to exaggerate the impression which the Hudson at night must produce on the peasant from the Carpathians or the labourer from Connemara. Even to those who have more travelled eyes, and are not unfamiliar with seagirt citadels, the spectacle is superb. Never shall I forget my first impression of the mighty river.
It seemed as if I had strayed to the entrance of faerie-land, or that, unawares, I had been transported to the sea-gate of some enchanted city. Midnight was near. In the sky overhead the stars gleamed, but they were faint and speck-like, for the moon was shining unveiled by cloud. But it was neither the lapping of the rippling water nor the silver sheen of the moonlight on the wave that gave the scene its fascination of wonder. These things are the universal poetry of Nature—the music of the waves and the magic of the moon. And there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. But here there was something more. For on either side of the expanse of water rose high banks of irregular outline, from whose rugged shadows gleamed the lights as of a myriad eyes:—
Behold the enchanted towers of Carbonek,
A castle like a rock upon a rock,
With chasm-like portals open to the sea,
And steps that met the breaker.
Up and down either side, as far as you could see, until the dark outlines merged in the distant horizon, these innumerable eyes[Pg 12] looked out over the water. Sometimes they winked, and now and then one or another would close. It was as if each bank were guarded by some vast monster with a thousand times the eyes of him who watched the treasure of the Golden Fleece.
And behind the basilisk of the shore there rose, tier upon tier, the buildings of the city, in which dwelt millions and millions of the children of men. Palaces and temples, brightly outlined in light or towering dark against the luminous haze behind, pierced the sky-line. Amidst the vast confusion two lofty eminences stood out conspicuous, dominating the whole. One was a crown-like dome, poised in mid-air, shining resplendent with jewels of electric light; the other a lofty tower girdled with a blazing zone of fire. Stars of flame shone on its summit, while ever and anon a beam of white light, quick and piercing as a two-edged sword, flashed like the brand of an archangel over the shadowy city. And it was as it was written of old time, when our first parents, after being cast out of Eden, looked back and saw “a flaming sword turning every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” The sword was not of fire, but of pure white light. Above and below it made darkness visibly black, but revealed with startling distinctness everything on which it fell.
That was but the background, the framework of the picture. For the great scene was on the water. Never until at Spithead this midsummer, when six square miles of the Solent crowded with the warships of the world burst at a signal into a glittering wilderness of lights, had I ever seen anything to compare to the Hudson at midnight. In Paris on the night of the fête of the Republic in Exhibition year, when the Seine was crowded with steamers, all illuminated and decorated from stem to stern, there was something like this. But the Seine was but a skein of silk stretched across the city; the water was hidden by the craft. Here the whole expanse of waterway exceeded even that of the Neva at St. Petersburg; and, although full of life and colour and sound, was nowhere crowded.
Imagine a great arm of the sea across which, between the two shores, were swiftly, ceaselessly gliding like silent faerie shuttles in some enchanter’s loom huge floating palaces, radiant from end to end with innumerable lights. They moved with such strenuous rapidity that the waters foamed beneath their keel, and the anchored vessels seemed to fly past as we left them behind. No great galleon of Spain illuminated in honour of her patron saint ever shone more resplendent, and none ever moved with half the fierce, resistless rush of these monsters of the river. No sails had they or visible means of propulsion, they sped as if thought-impelled. Seldom had I seen anything more weirdly beautiful, or more calculated to impress the imagination.
[Pg 14]Now and then a smaller palace would float down the stream, reviving, I know not how, strange reminiscences of the great State barges in which the Rinaldos of mediæval romance would be rowed to some high festival in Armida’s garden. Two starry lights overhead, as at the masthead—though masts there were none—dimly revealed the contour below, where the light streaming from serried windows produced a curious effect, as if banks of illuminated oars were speeding the galley on her way. And then again, silent and slow, with but one light burning at her prow, a sombre melancholy scow would drift across the moonlit waters—like
Whereon the lily maid of Astolat
Lay smiling like a star on darkest night.
On sea and on shore it was one perpetual feast of lanterns. Mingled with the golden and silver rays of the electric lights there shone everywhere lamps of ruby and of amethyst and of emerald, glowing like jewels of intense colour, set in a tiara of diamonds and pearls.
And to add to the weirdness and mystery of the scene, ever and again there would rise from the waters a strange melodious murmur, increasing in intensity to a wail, which would continue a minute and then die away as it arose. It was like the plaintive lowing of sea-monsters for their lost or wandering calves. Otherwise all was still, save the lapping of the waves on the shore.
“And behold I saw,” said the seer of the Apocalypse, “as if it were a sea of glass mingled with fire. And lo——”
It was New York seen from a New Jersey ferry-boat on the Hudson, plying between 23rd Street and the Pennsylvania railway. Could there be a more sudden descent from the poetry of faerie-land to the vulgar prose of a work-a-day world? The light-crowned dome was the office of the World newspaper, the flashing beam from the tower the advertisement of a dry goods store from Chicago. Yet, nevertheless, the effect of the reality, as it may be seen every fine night, far exceeds my poor description. To those who have eyes to see it is one of the most wonderful and beautiful and suggestive of scenes.
Such then is the outward and visible aspect of the Empire City, a city which from its situation is beautiful exceedingly, and which until quite recently was regarded as the joy of the whole earth, and which still does honour to the statue of such a martyr of Liberty as Nathan Hale. How it has come to pass that the mighty has fallen, and the city which was once a name at the sound of which men renewed their hope and faith in the progress of the world, has become a byword, a hissing and reproach, it will be the object of this volume to explain. It is a subject in which we of the Old World[Pg 15] have weighty reason to be interested. For we have suffered a severe blow and a grievous discouragement in the betrayal of the cause of Liberty in the very vestibule and entrance chamber of the Republic. For all round the world the shame of New York darkens the sombre shade which encompasses the oppressed and gladdens with evil joy the heart of the oppressor.
Categories: English Literature