LX. HOME AT LAST
Next day was Sunday; and the mid-day sun shone upon a glassy sea.
After the uproar of the breeze and the gale, this profound, pervading calm seemed suited to the tranquil spirit of a day, which, in godly towns, makes quiet vistas of the most tumultuous thoroughfares.
The ship lay gently rolling in the soft, subdued ocean swell; while all around were faint white spots; and nearer to, broad, milky patches, betokening the vicinity of scores of ships, all bound to one common port, and tranced in one common calm. Here the long, devious wakes from Europe, Africa, India, and Peru converged to a line, which braided them all in one.
Full before us quivered and danced, in the noon-day heat and mid-air, the green heights of New Jersey; and by an optical delusion, the blue sea seemed to flow under them.
The sailors whistled and whistled for a wind; the impatient cabin-passengers were arrayed in their best; and the emigrants clustered around the bows, with eyes intent upon the long-sought land.
But leaning over, in a reverie, against the side, my Carlo gazed down into the calm, violet sea, as if it were an eye that answered his own; and turning to Harry, said, "This America's skies must be down in the sea; for, looking down in this water, I behold what, in Italy, we also behold overhead. Ah! after all, I find my Italy somewhere, wherever I go. I even found it in rainy Liverpool."
Presently, up came a dainty breeze, wafting to us a white wing from the shore—the pilot-boat! Soon a monkey-jacket mounted the side, and was beset by the captain and cabin people for news. And out of bottomless pockets came bundles of newspapers, which were eagerly caught by the throng.
The captain now abdicated in the pilot's favor, who proved to be a tiger of a fellow, keeping us hard at work, pulling and hauling the braces, and trimming the ship, to catch the least cat's-paw of wind.
When, among sea-worn people, a strange man from shore suddenly stands among them, with the smell of the land in his beard, it conveys a realization of the vicinity of the green grass, that not even the distant sight of the shore itself can transcend.
The steerage was now as a bedlam; trunks and chests were locked and tied round with ropes; and a general washing and rinsing of faces and hands was beheld. While this was going on, forth came an order from the quarter-deck, for every bed, blanket, bolster, and bundle of straw in the steerage to be committed to the deep.—A command that was received by the emigrants with dismay, and then with wrath. But they were assured, that this was indispensable to the getting rid of an otherwise long detention of some weeks at the quarantine. They therefore reluctantly complied; and overboard went pallet and pillow. Following them, went old pots and pans, bottles and baskets. So, all around, the sea was strewn with stuffed bed-ticks, that limberly floated on the waves—couches for all mermaids who were not fastidious. Numberless things of this sort, tossed overboard from emigrant ships nearing the harbor of New York, drift in through the Narrows, and are deposited on the shores of Staten Island; along whose eastern beach I have often walked, and speculated upon the broken jugs, torn pillows, and dilapidated baskets at my feet.
A second order was now passed for the emigrants to muster their forces, and give the steerage a final, thorough cleaning with sand and water. And to this they were incited by the same warning which had induced them to make an offering to Neptune of their bedding. The place was then fumigated, and dried with pans of coals from the galley; so that by evening, no stranger would have imagined, from her appearance, that the Highlander had made otherwise than a tidy and prosperous voyage. Thus, some sea-captains take good heed that benevolent citizens shall not get a glimpse of the true condition of the steerage while at sea.
That night it again fell calm; but next morning, though the wind was somewhat against us, we set sail for the Narrows; and making short tacks, at last ran through, almost bringing our jib-boom over one of the forts.
An early shower had refreshed the woods and fields, that glowed with a glorious green; and to our salted lungs, the land breeze was spiced with aromas. The steerage passengers almost neighed with delight, like horses brought back to spring pastures; and every eye and ear in the Highlander was full of the glad sights and sounds of the shore.
No more did we think of the gale and the plague; nor turn our eyes upward to the stains of blood, still visible on the topsail, whence Jackson had fallen; but we fixed our gaze on the orchards and meads, and like thirsty men, drank in all their dew.
On the Staten Island side, a white staff displayed a pale yellow flag, denoting the habitation of the quarantine officer; for as if to symbolize the yellow fever itself, and strike a panic and premonition of the black vomit into every beholder, all quarantines all over the world, taint the air with the streamings of their fever-flag.
But though the long rows of white-washed hospitals on the hill side were now in plain sight, and though scores of ships were here lying at anchor, yet no boat came off to us; and to our surprise and delight, on we sailed, past a spot which every one had dreaded. How it was that they thus let us pass without boarding us, we never could learn.
Now rose the city from out the bay, and one by one, her spires pierced the blue; while thick and more thick, ships, brigs, schooners, and sail boats, thronged around. We saw the Hartz Forest of masts and black rigging stretching along the East River; and northward, up the stately old Hudson, covered with white sloop-sails like fleets of swans, we caught a far glimpse of the purple Palisades.
Oh! he who has never been afar, let him once go from home, to know what home is. For as you draw nigh again to your old native river, he seems to pour through you with all his tides, and in your enthusiasm, you swear to build altars like mile-stones, along both his sacred banks.
Like the Czar of all the Russias, and Siberia to boot, Captain Riga, telescope in hand, stood on the poop, pointing out to the passengers, Governor's Island, Castle Garden, and the Battery.
"And that" said he, pointing out a vast black hull which, like a shark, showed tiers of teeth, "that, ladies, is a line-of-battle-ship, the North Carolina."
"Oh, dear!"—and "Oh my!"—ejaculated the ladies, and— "Lord, save us," responded an old gentleman, who was a member of the Peace Society.
Hurra! hurra! and ten thousand times hurra! down goes our old anchor, fathoms down into the free and independent Yankee mud, one handful of which was now worth a broad manor in England.
The Whitehall boats were around us, and soon, our cabin passengers were all off, gay as crickets, and bound for a late dinner at the Astor House; where, no doubt, they fired off a salute of champagne corks in honor of their own arrival. Only a very few of the steerage passengers, however, could afford to pay the high price the watermen demanded for carrying them ashore; so most of them remained with us till morning. But nothing could restrain our Italian boy, Carlo, who, promising the watermen to pay them with his music, was triumphantly rowed ashore, seated in the stern of the boat, his organ before him, and something like "Hail Columbia!" his tune. We gave him three rapturous cheers, and we never saw Carlo again.
Harry and I passed the greater part of the night walking the deck, and gazing at the thousand lights of the city.
At sunrise, we warped into a berth at the foot of Wall-street, and knotted our old ship, stem and stern, to the pier. But that knotting of her, was the unknotting of the bonds of the sailors, among whom, it is a maxim, that the ship once fast to the wharf, they are free. So with a rush and a shout, they bounded ashore, followed by the tumultuous crowd of emigrants, whose friends, day-laborers and housemaids, stood ready to embrace them.
But in silent gratitude at the end of a voyage, almost equally uncongenial to both of us, and so bitter to one, Harry and I sat on a chest in the forecastle. And now, the ship that we had loathed, grew lovely in our eyes, which lingered over every familiar old timber; for the scene of suffering is a scene of joy when the suffering is past; and the silent reminiscence of hardships departed, is sweeter than the presence of delight.