Prefaces remind me of a certain text of Scripture, —i. e., "the last shall be first," – for they are things written after which go before! Whether or not they serve a useful purpose is hard to say. I have several thousands of them in my library, most of which I have read, and perhaps the fact that I am a reader of prefaces may mark me as unique. And the mark may be accentuated to the gentle reader – if this preface should have any – when I say that I am also one of the few remaining authors who write them. Only one of my books is without a preface, – though some of them are disguised as notes, or forewords, or afterwords, – and I hereby apologize for the acephalous condition of that volume.
I am determined that this book shall be amply provided, and though I write the preface while I am sending back the proof galleys, yet I will begin at the beginning. Beginnings are sometimes interesting, although the interest of a beginning largely depends on the ending thereof. I shall hope that this book in the end may commend itself sufficiently to my indulgent readers to make the story of the beginning worth while.
"The years are many, the years are long," since a happy young sailor, fresh from his graduation at the United States Naval Academy, spent some of the pleasantest days of his life in the shadow of the old ship; for there was a ship, just such a one as I have described, and in just such a condition. There was a white house on the hill, too, and a very old naval officer, who took a great interest in the opening career of the young aspirant who passed so many hours lying on the grass amid the mouldering ways, with the huge bulk of the ship looming over his head and the sparkling waters of the bay breaking at his feet.
There were girls, too, and a sailor, and soldiers galore across the harbor in the barracks, and back of all the sleepy, dreamy, idle, quaint, and ancient little town. The story, of course, is only a romance; but the setting at least is actual, and there is this touch of realism in the tale: when the old ship was torn down to be made into kindling-wood, a part of it fell upon one of the destroyers and crushed the life out of him, – stern protest against an ignoble ending!
The idea of the story came to me twenty years ago. Indeed, in a brief, disconnected way I set it down on paper and forgot it until I chanced to resurrect it last year, when I threw aside the old notes and wrote the story de novo.
I intend it as a character sketch of the old admiral, the veteran sailor, the young officer, the innocent woman they all loved, and – dare I say it? – the mighty ship. Here are contrasts, surely.
When I wrote "Hohenzollern," I thought it would be perfectly plain to every one that it was not an historical novel. Vain hope! Yet I am not discouraged by the lack of perception on the part of the critics. Therefore I put this novel forth with a stronger confidence that it will not be considered in that category. Save for what I have admitted, there is not one word of history in it. Indeed, I have deliberately, and because it was my fancy, chosen to appropriate the name of Admiral Charles Stewart, "Old Ironsides," – who did indeed live well into the Civil War period, but who died under very different circumstances, – for the name of the ancient captain in the white house on the hill. I apologize to his manes, his descendants, and his friends for the liberty.
Now, I do not write this because I wish to make any apology for the historical novel. Not at all. The thing is slightly overdone at present, but that is proof of its goodness. So far as I am concerned I will stand by my guns. I love to read historic romances when they are good, and I love to write them – even when they are as my own. I expect to write more of them, too; but this really is not one. It is a war story without any war, a sea story without any sea; yet it exhibits a great struggle and rings with a great victory. The reader may characterize it further at pleasure.
As for the second part of the volume I have called it Veracious Tales advisedly, for all of these stories are founded upon facts in one way or another. Some of them have been suggested to me by incidents with which I am familiar because in them I bore a small part. The substance of one of them came from a young English traveller who told a romantic incident at a delightful dinner at the New York University Club. A real diary suggested another. An historical mystery as to what became of a certain cargo of slaves captured by Decatur in the Mediterranean evoked a third. Neglected chapters in history and biography are responsible for some of the others, as the Martinique tale, for the Diamond Rock was once a ship! Sir Henry Irving's marvellous rendition of Matthias in The Bells so possessed me with its power that after I came home from the theatre I could not sleep until I had written the story. All of these tales represent real incidents, therefore, or are founded upon them in some way.
Writing a short story, with me at least, is very different from writing a novel. I can invent plots of novels without the slightest difficulty, but the making of a short story is different. The making is a case of birth! The single incident, the brief condensed plot, or the vivid character sketch which is necessary to a proper short story has to come to me from outside. The short story is the product of inspiration, the long story the result of labor. Perhaps, therefore, there is more truth in the short story than in the long – from my point of view.
At any rate, in this volume are two kinds, and the readers may decide. If they have half as much pleasure out of the book as I had, they will thank me for having written.
C. T. B.
The Lake Placid Club,
Adirondacks, New York,
June 16, 1902.
Just half a century had elapsed since, cutting down the virgin forest to make room for the ways, they laid her keel blocks in the clearing. With the cunning brain of Henry Eckford, one of the greatest of our shipbuilders, to plan, and the skilful hands of the New England shipwrights to execute, with timber cut by the sturdy woodsmen from where it stood in the forest, the giant frames rose apace, until presently, in an incredibly short time, there stood upon Ship House Point a mighty vessel ready for the launching.
Ship House Point – so called from the ship – was a long ridge of land sloping gently down from a low hill and extending far out into Lake Ontario. It helped to enclose on one side a commodious lake haven known in that day, and ever since, as Sewell's Harbor, from old George Sewell, a hunter, fisherman, innkeeper, and trader, who had settled there years before.
Thither, in the busy warlike days of 1813-14, had resorted dashing naval officers in their ruffled shirts, heavily laced blue coats, with their huge cocked hats, skin-tight kersey pantaloons, and tasselled half boots. In their wake rolled ancient tars in blue shirts and flowing trousers, their mouths full of strange oaths and tales of distant seas; some of the older veterans among them still wearing their hair in the time-honored pigtail of an already disappearing age.
On the bluff across the harbor mouth, and just opposite to Ship House Point, a rude log fort had been erected in 1812, a central block-house and a surrounding stockade, mounting a few inconsiderable pieces of artillery. From a tall staff on the parade the stars and stripes fluttered in the wind, and nodded in amicable salute toward a similar ensign which the patriotic builders had hoisted on the Point.
Government storehouses filled with munitions and supplies of various kinds, both for the naval forces on the lakes and for the armies designed for the long projected invasion of Canada likewise, stood back of the wharves crowded with the miscellaneous shipping of the suddenly thriving little town. Soldiers from the fort, therefore, in blue and gray uniforms mingled with the ship-carpenters, wood-cutters, pioneers, sailors, and traders, and the spot speedily became one of the busiest in the then far Northwest.
Sometimes in the offing the white sails of the English or American squadrons could be seen, and on the summer days from the distant horizon might have been heard the dull boom of cannon telling a tale of some spirited engagement. And more than once thereafter a melancholy and shattered ship brought in a ghastly cargo of dead, dying, and wounded, the care of which heavily taxed the resources of the community; and the women of the village – for there were women there from the beginning – had grim lessons, learned sometimes through breaking hearts, that war was a more serious business than the gay officers, the bright uniforms, the beautiful flags, and the brave ships had indicated.
The town had sprung into being around Sewell's store and tavern, amid all these activities and undertakings, almost as if by magic – quite as the great ship had risen on the shore, in truth. Men did things in a hurry in those days, and no one was much surprised when, some thirty days after the keel was laid, the indefatigable Eckford informed stout old Commodore Chauncey, the American commander on the lakes, that the Susquehanna– for so the ship-of-the-line which was to establish finally the American preponderance of force over the British on Lake Ontario was called – was ready for launching, and great preparations were made in the very early spring of 1815 for this important and interesting ceremony.
A few days before the appointed time, however, there came to the impatient commodore, the persevering builder, and the busy workmen a messenger bearing a heartrending despatch, long delayed in transmission, from the Secretary of the Navy. That official announced that the war was over, that peace with England had been declared at the close of the preceding year, and directed that the preparations for launching and completing the vessel must be at once abandoned. It was a sore grief to Eckford and his fellow-shipwrights, a great disappointment to Chauncey and his brave seamen, and a terrible blow to the thriving town. It had grown and flourished in war, and it was to languish and die in peace – a reversal of natural law apparently! But there was no help for it. The orders had to be obeyed. The war-ships on the lakes were broken up, or sold, and a few were laid up in ordinary, the officers and men were detached to the more congenial salt-water stations, and the ship-carpenters were withdrawn to the seaboard towns whence they had been collected. The fort was dismantled, the garrison mustered out of the service, and the storehouses emptied and closed.
The young ship-of-the-line, hastily housed over, was left alone with the abandoned town. The busy place, its reasons for being gone, speedily sank into a state of public decay. The deserted storehouses fell into ruin; the once noisy wharves, unvisited by any save an occasional small vessel, rotted away; the merchants and traders closed out their stocks and departed; the hunters and pioneers moved farther westward into the vast wilderness extending its mysterious beckoning call to their adventurous souls; the grass grew thick in the silent streets, and it seemed as if the death-sentence of the village had been written.
But as years sped away some of its pristine life came back to it. The farmer again speeded his plow and planted his corn in the clearings. Sheep and cattle once more dotted the fields. A new order took the place of the old. Country churches rose; little feet plodded unwillingly toward a small red school-house, where childish laughter and play at recess mingled with tears over puzzling lessons and unsolvable problems. The stores were opened one by one, and a few vessels came back to the harbor. On market days the farmers crowded the square with their teams, the village awoke from its long sleep and became a modestly thriving little country town again, – drowsing on into life once more. And although the very oldest inhabitants, remembering the busy days forever gone, were not satisfied, the younger people were content and happy in their pretty little hamlet.
Meanwhile, what of the ship in all these changing years? Time was when Ship House Point had been covered with a virgin forest extending even to the water's edge. It was now bare of trees, for the massive trunks had been wrought into the fabric of the ship, and no others had come to take their places. There, neglected and unnoticed, she had stood naked and gaunt for a long time, for the flimsy ship-house covering her had been the first thing to go. Through the swift years the burning sunshine of many summers fell upon her green, unseasoned planks, and the unsheltered wood shrinking in the fierce heat opened her seams widely on every hand. Upon her decks the rain descended and the snow fell. The storms of bitter winters drove upon her in successive and relentless attacks. The rough spring and autumn gales tore from her huge sections of timber, leaving gaping wounds, while the drying rot of time and neglect penetrated her very heart.
Rust consumed the bolt-heads and slowly ate up the metal that held her together. Yet in spite of all she still stood, outwardly indifferent alike to the attack of the storm or the kiss of the sun, – a mighty monster towering high in the air, unfinished, incomplete, inchoate, disintegrating, weaponless, but still typifying strength and power and war. In spite of her decay, in spite of her age, she looked the masterful vessel she was designed to be.
The waves broke in winter in icy assault upon the rocky shore on the seaward side, as if defying the ship to meet them. They rippled on the shoals, on the other hand, in summer with tender caressing voices, wooing her to her native element, stretching out white-fingered hands of invitation. And the air carried the message of the waters into every hidden recess in the most secret depths of the ship.
In some strange way, to those who grew to know her, the ship seemed to live; they imbued her with personality, and congenial spirits seemed to recognize her yearning for a plunge into that all-embracing inland sea. She hung poised, as it were, like a bird ready for flight, and watchers standing within her shadow divined her longing for that mad first rush from the ways.
The ripple of the water had never curled along that ship's massive keel; her broad bows had never buffeted a way through the thunderous attack of the storm-waves; she had never felt the ocean uplift; the long pitch and toss, the unsteady roll and heave which spoke of water-borne life had never been hers; yet, looking at the graceful lines, the mighty frames, the most unimaginative would have said that the old ship lusted for the sea, and, in futile and ungratified desire, passed her shore-bound days in earth-spurning discontent.
On the hill back of the Point, embowered on three sides in the trees, which had been cut away in front to afford a fair view of the ship, the Point itself, and the open waters of the lake beyond, stood an old white house facing the water, with a long covered porch, high-pillared and lofty, extending across its entire front. Old, yet young compared to the ship. Overlooking the ship, on a platform on the very brow of the hill, a long, old-fashioned six-pound gun was mounted on a naval carriage. Back of the gun rose a tall flag-staff, and from the top fluttered night and day a small blue flag with two stars, the ensign of a rear-admiral. There were no masts or spars upon the ship below the hill, of course, but aft from the mouldering taffrail a staff had been erected, and from it flew the stars and stripes, for during the last half of her existence the ship had rejoiced in a crew and a captain!
Some twenty-five years since a quaint old naval officer had taken up his abode at the house on the hill. With him had come a young sailor, who, disdaining the house, had slung his hammock aboard the ship, – finding a place between decks which, after a few repairs, would shelter him from the storms. When the old officer came, he hoisted at the mast which was at once erected in the yard the broad blue pennant of a commodore, and it was only after Farragut had made his splendid passage up the Mississippi, and awakened the quiet shores of the Father of Waters with the thunder of his guns, so that the title of commodore became too small for him, that the old veteran had been promoted with other veterans – and with Farragut himself – to the rank of rear-admiral, recently established, – certainly a rank entirely in consonance with his merit at least.
The old man had been practically forgotten, lost sight of, in the glory accruing to the newer names among the Civil War heroes; yet he had been among the foremost in that great galaxy of sailors who had made the navy of the United States so formidable in the War of 1812.
Old men of the town, whose memories as children ran back beyond even the life of the ship, recalled having seen, in those busy, unforgotten days of 1814-15, many uniforms like to the quaint old dress which the admiral sometimes wore on occasions of ceremony; and there were some yet living who remembered the day when the news came that the mighty Constitution had added to her record the last and most brilliant of her victories in the capture of the frigates Cyane and Levant. The man who had made the capture – who, when his wife had asked him to bring her a British frigate for a present when he set forth upon the cruise, had answered that he would bring her two, and who had done it – was the man who had been stationed in the white house on the hill to watch over the old ship.
The battles and storms, the trials and cares, the sorrows and troubles of eighty-five years had beat upon that white head; and though he was now bent and broken, though he tottered as he paced up and down the porch after the habit of the quarter-deck, though his eye was dim indeed and his natural force greatly abated, he was still master of himself. When the Civil War broke out his brave old soul had yearned to be upon a heaving deck once more, he had craved to hear the roar of guns from the mighty batteries beneath his feet, to feel again the kiss of the salt wind upon his tanned and weather-beaten cheek. He had longed in the deadly struggle of '61-'65 to strike another blow for the old flag he had done so much to make formidable and respected on the sea; but it was not to be. Superannuated, old, laid up in ordinary, he quietly watched over the rotting ship which was his last command.
In some strange way, with a sailor's superstition, as the years had passed, as he had grown feebler and the ship had grown older, he bound up his own term of life with that of the vessel. While it stood he should live, when it fell should come his end. He watched and waited.
When the night threatened to be wild and stormy, the report of the evening gun with which Captain Barry invariably saluted the flag ere he struck it would seem to him the sounding of his death-knell. When the tempest howled around the old house, he could hear, in fancy, above its wild screaming the crashing of the timbers of the ship falling in shapeless ruins on the mouldering ways. In the morning, after such a night, he would rise and creep to the door, totter out on the porch with the aid of his cane, and peer down on the ship. Some portion of it might have been swept away, perhaps, but if it still stood he would feel that he had a respite for another day.
Many a tall vessel had he commanded, many a gallant frigate or great ship-of-the-line he had driven through the tempestuous seas. Upon some of them, as on the Constitution, he had won eternal fame, yet never had he loved a vessel as his heart had gone out to the rotting mass of this incompleted ship.
He did not dream, when he came there twenty-five years before – an old man then – that either he or the ship would last so long; yet there they both stood; older, weaker, feebler, more broken, and breaking with every passing hour, but still a ship and still a captain.
During the years of their association the admiral had unconsciously invested the ship with a personality of its own. It seemed human to him. He dreamed about it when he slept. He was never so happy as when awake he sat and watched it. He talked to it like a friend when they were alone. Sometimes he reached his old trembling hand out to it in a caressing gesture. He had long since grown too feeble to go down to it; he could only look upon it from afar. Yet he understood its longing, its dissatisfaction, its despair. A certain sympathy grew up between them. He loved it as it had been a woman. He would fain have kissed its keel.
Yet the devotion the admiral felt for the ship was scarcely greater than that which had sprung up in the heart of the old sailor who lived aboard it.
Old John Barry had been a quartermaster on the Constitution, and had followed the fortunes of his captain from ship to ship, from shore to shore, until he died. After that the duty of looking after the captain devolved upon his son, young John Barry; and when the commodore had been ordered to Ship House Point, more with the intention of providing him with a congenial home for his declining years than for any other purpose, young John Barry had followed him.
Young John Barry he was no longer. He was fifty years old now, and, like the admiral, had unconsciously made the life of the ship stand for his own life as well. The witchery of disappointment and regret, pregnant in every timber, bore hard upon him also. He had been a gay, dashing, buoyant, happy-go-lucky jack-tar in his day; but, living alone on that great old ship, some of the melancholy, some of the dissatisfaction, some of the longing, some of the futile desire which fairly reeked from every plank had entered his own rough and rugged soul.
The bitter wind had sung through the timbers of the ship too many tales of might-have-been, as he lay in his hammock night after night, not to have left its impression upon him. He became a silent, taciturn, grave old man. Of huge bulk and massive build, his appearance suggested the ship-of-the-line, – strength in age, power in decay. He loved the ship in his way even as the admiral did.
Risking his life in the process, he climbed all over it, marking with skilful eyes and pained heart the slow process of disintegration. He did not kiss it, – kisses were foreign to his nature, he knew nothing of them, – but he laid his great hands caressingly upon the giant frames, he pressed his cheek against the mighty prow, he stretched himself with open arms upon the bleaching deck, as if he would embrace the ship.
When the storms beat upon it in the night, he sometimes made his way forward and stood upon the forecastle fronting the gale, and as the wind swept over him and the ship quivered and shook and vibrated under the tempestuous attack, he fancied that he felt the deck heave as it might under the motion of the uptossed wave.
He dreamed that the ship quivered in the long rush of the salt seas. Then the rain beat upon him unheeded. Wrapped in his great-coat in winter, he even disdained the driving snow, and as he stood by the weather cathead, from which no anchor had ever depended, and peered out into the whirling darkness, he seemed to hear the roar of a breaker ahead!
The ship was his own, his property. The loss of a single plank, the giving way of a single bolt, was like the loss of a part of himself. With it he lived, with it he would die. Alone he passed his nights in the hollow of that echo of the past. Sometimes he felt half mad in the rotting vessel; yet nothing could have separated him from the ship.
The little children of the adjacent village feared him, although he had never harmed any of them, and was as gentle as a mother in his infrequent dealings with them all; but he was so silent, so grave, so grim, so weird in some way, that they instinctively avoided him. Their light laughter was stifled, their childish play was quieted when Captain Barry – so they called him – passed by. He never noticed it, or, if he did, he gave no sign. Indeed, his heart was so wrapped up in a few things that he marked nothing else.
The old admiral, whom he watched over and cared for with the fidelity of a dog, – nay, I should say of a sailor, – was the earliest object of his affections. To look after him was a duty which had become the habit of his life. He cherished him in his heart along with the ship. When the others had gone to their rest, he often climbed up on the quarter-deck, if the night were still, and sat late in the evening staring at the lights in the house on the hill until they went out, musing in his quaint way on the situation. When the days were calm he thought first of the admiral, in stormy times first of the ship. But above both ship and captain in his secret heart there was another who completed the strange quartet on Ship House Point, – a woman.
Above duty and habit there is always a woman.