And Now the Old Scow May Slant As It Pleases
by Charles Hoy Fort
Out on the river many windmills were pumping water into the water. A tugboat puffed over the water to take water from land. It was not in an upside-down land, but by one of New York's many beaches. For along the water-front of the East River and North River, where the wharves of the steamship companies die out, and the piers of the sand, stone, ice, lumber, and brick scows begin, there are many beaches of sand deposited in the street and waiting to be carted away. Longshoremen are always longshoremen down where the funnels of steamships bristle; but up in the archipelago of scows they are only dock laborers, and may be clerks next week, and may have been bartenders the week before. They work in whatever old clothes they own and are not of the regiments in blue that storm the gangplanks farther down.
Out on the river the windmills of the ice-barges were fluttering or spinning as they pumped, from the holds, water from melting ice, into the river. A tugboat puffed to the tugboat company's landing to fill her tanks with fresh water, taken on through a ten-inch canvas pipe, because salt water clogs and ruins boilers in a short time. And then we come to Mary Fallon. Mary was not beautiful, but her ribs were sound, and what more in her favor need be said? And her complexion was bright red.
The Mary Fallon, of Haverstraw, lay at her pier--stanch old brick-scow, brick-dust ground into every beam--tied with great hawsers, so that she should remain true and not go flirting away with the tide. Six laborers passed bricks to the drivers of Halpin's carts, which came in such a steady stream all day that the very moment one cart was loaded another rattled up to take its place. Each laborer threw seven bricks at a time to the driver, who was most dexterous and played a game of skill that any baseball-catcher might envy, for he handled six pitchers, keeping them busy, provided that, in a half-second, only seven came at a time.
You could sit and count all day, and you would never see a laborer take six bricks; certainly you could sit--we say sit, because one always sits when bathing in the idle comfort of watching others toil--sit, week in and week out, and never see him take eight bricks at a time. He slaps down his hand upon a row of bricks, without looking at it, and, by instinct, his hand always slaps upon the seventh brick. The seventh is deftly plucked out and placed over against the first, so that there is room at each end of the seven for a hand.
Captain Burt, of the Mary Fallon, sat down on the pier-head, fishing for eels, catching none, but scorning to exclaim: "Hi! But that was a nibble!" to others around. The unloading of bricks was of no concern to him; the men would attend to that, and they needed no head over them, because the clockwork carts came steadily, and if one were kept waiting, there would be trouble from Halpin's office right away.
And Captain Burt had married not long before. He had met a neat, quiet, young person in Haverstraw. The home that this neat, quiet, young person had come from was in the Adirondacks, it was vaguely known. She had never returned to peaks and valleys, but had made her wedding-trip in the cabin of the Mary Fallon; and a neater cabin you could not find along the water-front, even though neatness was at the cost of unceasing warfare with brick-dust, which blew in whenever the windows were open, sifted in through seams, and was tracked in by the captain's huge feet.
Sleeves rolled up to elbows, the swishing of the broom, the scratching of the scrubbing-brush indicated that while red was the color everywhere else, red in the cabin was a color tabooed. And something was worrying Mrs. Burt, as bricks soared by sevens and then clattered in heaps. She came out on deck, shutting the cabin door in the face of the red-dust enemy, and watched the men with an expression of whimsical despair.
"Anything wrong, mum? Would you like me to run over and get you a lump of ice?" asked Larry Dunn, polite for politeness' sake, and polite because he might steal a moment from the stooping and the plucking and the tossing of bricks.
"Oh, no; there's nothing wrong, only--I was just wondering what time it is."
"And with the fine clock your coopons brought you?"
"You've stopped it again--I mean the scow has stopped it again. Oh, my ornaments!" cried Mrs. Burt.
The scow was motionless; four barges ahead softened all rollers from the river into ripples; but in the cabin there was a crash.
"My ornaments!" said Mrs. Burt tragically; and she ran into the cabin, to find that the pink shepherdess had slid toward the charming blue shepherd boy, and had fallen at his feet and lost her head--a tragedy not uncommon when shepherd boys are charming and all dressed in blue.
"Oh never mind your old ornaments!" said Captain Burt, when he returned with one eel the size of a lead-pencil. "Anyhow it can't be helped."
It could not. Things in the cabin would surely slide. You see, down the scow ran an imaginary equator. Men took bricks from the half of the scow that was nearest the wharf, and, to pass the equator for bricks farther away and requiring more walking was a thing no brick-passer would do. Therefore, as one side lightens and the other side remains as heavy as at first, the heavy side of the brick-scow sinks until there is an angle of twenty, or even thirty, degrees. Then work is so up and down hill that the scow must be turned. This is hard work, and it takes time.
Mrs. Burt was tearful. To have clocks stopped by the tilting of the scows, to have every kitchen pot and pan with anything in it suddenly beginning to trickle when one's kitchen is looking its neatest, to cook on a frying-pan deep in one part with bubbling lard and smoking on a dry part--these annoyances could be tolerated, but the fate of the shepherdess was too much. Perhaps Mrs. Burt was a little hysterical.
"Oh, I know we can't have everything like on land!" she wept. "I'm willing to put up with anything, just to be here. I wouldn't leave you here for anything in the world. But everything is so different from home. There aren't any women for me to talk to, because most of the women on the barges are German, and can't understand, and the rest are Irish and fight. I don't want a piano nor lots of furniture, nor anything very expensive, but I do want some little things to remind me of home, even though it may be a very long time before we can take a trip up there. Then I want the cabin to look as near like the kitchen at home as the kitchen part of it can, and I want the parlor part of it to remind me of the parlor at home. I want my little ornaments just like we used to have; and I can't glue them down, because the mantelpiece is too nice to spoil."
"Oh, tut, tut!" said the captain. He went away and left her for the evening, and she felt that he had no sympathy with her fanciful desires. But he came back with a Dresden milkmaid. He had a plaster horse's head and vases with blue butterflies on them.
"Oh, tut, tut!" said the captain; but he seemed to understand very well.
Mrs. Burt was sewing the next day, in her rocking chair, but not rocking, because rocking was work too hard on a floor slowly going uphill. She was deeply interested in the sewing, making sash curtains, so that air could enter the cabin windows, but the red enemy should be kept out. There was a crash. A new vase fell to the floor, and blue butterflies flew away on shattered chips. She clutched out in one direction and saved the horse's head, but the milkmaid spilled on the floor. Mrs. Burt just stood on sliding feet and looked at the horse's head, which was the ornament she prized the least.
Out on the pier, Captain Burt laughed.
"I'd best take a little walk," he said. "I guess it ain't healthy for me in the cabin just now. Little temper there, I guess."
"Why?" asked Larry Dunn, always willing to pause. "Something broke?"
"Heard one of them ornaments go, didn't you? You see, she had things pretty nice up in the mountains, where she came from, and she likes to have the cabin like her home to remind her; though that's the last thing I'd want--to be reminded of something I couldn't have. Foolishness, ain't it?"
He thought it was foolishness, but went to Tenth Avenue to buy another horse's head, because he was sure it was the horse's head that had broken.
"Foolishness," said Larry Dunn and "Mac" Brown; but they started to turn the scow around and correct the slanting that always caused such distress and disaster.
This took the time and labor of all six men. Three pushed with the long pole against the bow of the scow until it was slowly under way. A rope was thrown to another boat, and the bow was slowly pulled around, then worked from the pier, back to the pier, nursed and pulled until it was where the stern had been. But there were three of Halpin's carts waiting; their time was taken, and allowance was made in the office for the turning of the scow only twice a day.
"What's your rush?" growled the drivers. "The bricks ain't half taken from that side!" And every one growled and every one was angry, especially the driver, who had growled most, because he had twenty-one bricks thrown at him at a time, and that's too many for any driver to catch.
In one way Larry Dunn and Mac Brown were different. They were working together on the bricks, but Larry had never done anything better, while Mac was a decorator by trade and worked along the piers only two weeks every summer to counteract the effects of his not very healthful trade. You could see the difference by their hands--Larry's were inwardly curving hoofs; Mac's were soft and flexible, and would have been torn and blistered had he not worn leathers on them. But they were alike in sympathy with the captain's wife.
"Why, say," remarked Larry, when time had been made up and there were even five minutes for loafing, because the next cart was not yet in sight, "that must be pretty tough! Women got them foolish little notions, and it sort of suits them and ain't no disgrace. Of course she likes them little things to remind her of her home, and, if I could see any way of bracing up the hefty side of the scow from the bottom of the dock, so as to prevent this tilting, I'd do it and save them little things she likes to have around."
"There ought to be some way," said Mac thoughtfully. "Would a lot of poles stuck down in the mud brace it up?" But along came a driver, and up jumped seven of the bricks.
Perhaps it was stubbornness in the captain's wife, or a feminine inability to learn by experience. Everything would be arranged so as to look like something at home; the tilting would go on insidiously, because so slowly; then there would be a heartrending crash.
Heartrending crashes seemed to have no power to emphasize the fact that gravitation cannot be defied, except with nails or string or glue. The mantelpiece would be arranged again. Mrs. Burt would come out from the cabin and watch the diminishing mounds of bricks, standing as if fascinated--and the greater the slant the greater her distress--casting back anxious glances, but believing that, after all, there would be an escape this time. Then the familiar crash.
It was about seven o'clock one morning. The work of the day was beginning. The Mary Fallon had gone to Haverstraw and had returned with her red plateau of bricks. Every one except Mac Brown was busy. A sailor in a bos'n's chair, with nothing else to do, was scraping the weather-beaten mast of a lumber schooner. Little derricks, worked on wheeled platforms, were lifting buckets of coal by horse-power, and for every horse there was a board walk, so that a beaten path should not be worn in the flooring of the pier.
There were no inspectors in sight, so, back and forth, nowhere near their board walks, went the horses, lifting buckets of coal. Strings of men rolled barrows of sand; every one was busy except Mac, whose last day along the water-front had come.
"Captain," said Mac, "I suppose we'll hear the usual crashes to-day."
"I'll go broke, too," said the captain seriously. "I don't want to be on the bricks all the days of my life, but what with buying all them blamed ornaments and then buying new ones, it ain't much I can lay away; and I ain't got the heart to refuse her being reminded of home, because it must be fierce down here in the hot sun and the smells of these docks, when you was brought up in mountain air."
"Has your wife been to Coney Island yet?" asked Mac.
""I've been going to bring her every day, but somehow ain't started," answered the captain.
"Take her with you this morning. Take her, and leave the cabin to me. If I do any damage, she don't like, I'll make it all right again. But you'd like her to be contented, wouldn't you? Just leave that cabin to me."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Captain Burt. "What? Oh, well, then, take the cabin and do like you please with it. I was going to bring her to Coney for a day, anyway."
All day carts rattled as whole bricks and half bricks--for one in every dozen of bricks will surely be broken--were tossed from the scow, and Mac worked alone, permitting no one to see what he was doing. Drivers caught sevens with ease and had trouble when the third or fourth was only a toppling half-brick, and Mac worked steadily on. He was still working when the last cart took away its load, but his work was finished when the captain and his wife returned.
"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed dismayed Mrs. Burt. For the cabin windows had been open all day, and there was no knowing to what degree the red enemy had drifted in. And then her exclamation was of indignation. The mantelpiece had been taken down! Ornaments were in a basket by the cabin door. Captain Burt lighted the lantern. Mrs. Burt exclaimed again. This time the exclamation was of purest wonder and delight.
And the wonder and delight continued the next day. Out she came to look at the brick-passers. To their astonishment, the greater the slant of the scow the greater her pleasure, instead of former distress.
"Why, it's not necessary to turn around yet, is it?" she asked. "You can take a ton or two more without danger. Why, keep on till the heavy side touches the water, for all I care!"
Mrs. Burt, with no desire for ornaments, and quite desirous that the scow should tilt, returned to the cabin, to sew and sing, with her feet against something to brace against sliding, the happiest little scow-wife, feeling right at home and contented, that you could find along the water-front.
For Mac had painted a mountain chain along the cabin walls, a valley here and a peak there, and pasturage with very good grass and very bad cows at the base; here a clump of mountain ash, done very well for so short a time, and there a daub of a fallen and moss-covered tree.
"Just let it slant all it likes!"
For when the deck of the scow is level the scene is only a level mountain range; but the more the boat slants, the steeper goes the mountain, until, when it is time to turn around--why, there is the sewing, singing, contented little scow-wife living on a mountain slope, right on an angle of thirty degrees, just like her own mountainside home.
And Mac, with a gift that he has never developed very much, has done something that many, with great gifts, have never done.
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