Home On The East River
( Originally Published 1893 )
FELIX OLDBOY'S HOT WEATHER HOME-ON THE EAST RIVER, FACING HELL GATE-A STATELY MANSION OF SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO -SOLITUDE IN THE CITY
I DISCOVERED it. A new De Soto, in pantaloons, coat of broadcloth and silk hat-most degenerate successors of the velvets and lace and plumes of three centuries ago. I was making a pedestrian voyage through the old haunts of my boyhood when I sighted a lonely acre of ground in which stood an ancient house and some still more venerable trees. To the eye of the casual voyager it was a wreck amid the spick and span newness of the busy town that had grown up around it and overshadowed its age with noise and bustle, but I knew better. To me it was an oasis amid a desert of strange faces and crowding streets. Not Robinson Crusoe was more delighted with the treasures of his island home in the Pacific than I with this acre of sunshine and grasses and green leaves, lapped by the tides of a swift river on one side and by the waves of sound from a great city all about it. The hand of improvement had claimed the house for its own, and the progress of prosperity had decreed its destruction. But I pleaded for yet another year of its life, and my prayer was heard. Some of my friends smiled at the madness of the project, and others prophesied that I would soon weary of my exile, and others yet again drew enticing pictures of the pleasures to be found at the sea-side and in the mountains; but these things were as little to the purpose as warnings that the heat of the dog-days would beat pitilessly upon the house, and the dust of droughts encompass it. I persisted in my plan and in the early spring moved with a strange de-light, that somehow felt like the quickening pulse of boyhood, into what my daughter Nellie was pleased to call the ark.
My summer acre fronts upon the East River, near the spot where the waters of Hell Gate begin to seethe and swirl. Standing on the little bluff in which its garden ends, and towards which its velvety lawn descends from the back porch, one can see the rarest and loveliest of pictures. Across and up the river where Pot Rock once made the waters boil and the Frying Pan was a terror to navigators ; where Flood Rock is alternately submerged and exposed by the tides; where the Hog's Back and Nigger's Head yet wreck an occasional vessel ; where the shaded river road of Astoria allows rare glimpses of stately mansions between the trees, and the green ramparts of Ward's Island are wondrous pleasant to the eye and hide other lovely islands beyond that are fruitful of legends as of lobsters-are stretches of scenery than which there is nothing more beautiful on the Atlantic coast line. Back of me and on either hand may be heard the coarse melody of the hand-organ, the strident shriek of steam, the shouts of children at play in the streets, the ceaseless undertone of wagon and incessant hum of labor, and the puff of steamboat and clatter of tug may be heard upon the waters; but the sunshine turns the silver of the breakers upon the rocks to gold, the shadows of overhanging trees mirror them-selves in the quiet waters of tiny bays, the little hills are clothed with beauty as with a garment, and I have enough of imagination left to fancy myself in Arcadia.
The house is as old as our second war with Great Britain. It was built for the summer residence of a family whose city mansion was then in the neighbor-hood of the Bowling Green. Built in a most substantial manner of wood, it is two stories in height, surmounted by a "gallery "-a flattened top to its slightly sloping roof that is fenced in by a light and graceful railing. Here, at the close of the summer day, the family would gather to enjoy the sunset hour, and here, not infrequently, tea was handed around, to be followed by supper at a later hour. Seen from the street, the building is long and low, painted white, with a wide porch upheld by plain white columns, smooth and round, extending along the entire front as well as the rear. The windows have small panes, and the shutters are of solid wood with round holes cut through the tops. The north side is shaded by an immense elm that must have been mature when the house was born, and at the south side are a cluster of ancient cherry-trees, whose scant blossoms in April were like the white locks on the head of fourscore years. Honeysuckle vines almost cover the porch ; lilac bushes rise up to hide the view of garden and lawn, and a gigantic pine, that tradition declares to be older than the Union, stands sentinel at the front gate. It is small wonder that I loved the place when I saw it.
Within the house there was an air of by-gone stateliness in the wide central hall and large, empty rooms on either side, which my daughter Nellie (her name by baptism is Eleanor) has toned down into an atmosphere of enticing comfort by the deft witchery of a woman's touch. The solid mahogany doors and oaken wainscoting are still there, but portieres and rugs, sleepy hollows of chairs and lounges that irresistibly invite to forty winks of sleep, have lessened their imposing effect, and I have only partly revived the antique by insisting upon dining at my grand-mother's massive mahogany table, having my ancient mahogany chairs with tall backs placed on guard in hall and parlor, and having time dealt out to us by a clock above whose face the moon rolls out its changes and whose case reaches quite up to the ceiling. Thus the old keeps its ground, even if the new challenges it at every turn.
" Snug," said my friend, the old colonel, as he stood in the hall and looked about him, taking in, with a twitch of satisfaction at his mouth, the wood fire that blazed on the parlor hearth in the chill May morning. " Upon my word, Felix, it is not half as bad as it might be. For a dreamer like you, it's snug." That was praise indeed. For be it known that the colonel, who prides himself upon being a man of action, labors under the conceit that, because I love the past and am apt to be happy in the company of ghosts, and, in-deed, at times to seek their fellowship, I am a dreamer.
He is young, intensely young. His family Bible declares that he has passed the earthly limit of four-score years, and this one fact has almost led me to doubt the testimony of that book and to declare my-self an agnostic. Though I am much his junior, he persists in declaring that I am the elder of the two, and to look at him one might believe him my contemporary in years. When he enters and calls for me to come out and take a constitutional, I drop pen or book and surrender at discretion. If on these occasions I can get off with a march of five miles, I count myself fortunate. I verily believe he will be able to do his ten miles a day when he rounds the century point.
If the old colonel has an aggressive quality it is his intensity. He does nothing by halves. Upright in every thought and act, he would never be content to go to a half-way heaven, or send his enemies to a half-way hell. Yet he has the heart of a little child. To hear him after a ferocious fashion pitch into radicalism -for he imagines himself the most consistent of conservatives-with an emphasis that might lead the black cook in the kitchen to imagine that the house is on fire, while all the time he is caressing a purring kitten on his ample knee and its mother sits blinking confidingly at him, is to inspire the spectator with a doubt whether he, the spectator, has as yet really acquired a knowledge of human nature. On these occasions I am as speechless as the cats. Like them, I blink ; superior to them, I smoke, and hide myself be-hind a cloud. But Nellie has only to raise a finger, and the voice of the old warrior, who is her devoted slave, sinks almost to a whisper. Mistress Nell knows
her power, and does not hesitate to exercise it. In fact, as between her little ladyship in the parlor and massive Diana in the kitchen, I am always ready to own the inferiority of my sex-inside the house, of course. But to see the old colonel meet and exchange compliments with his enslaver, after the stately methods of sixty years ago, is a lesson in manners which I cannot help wishing were taught in our clubs of to-day.
Our cats are three in number. Nebuchadnezzar, an immense feline symphony in yellow and white, is my special property, and usually answers to the name of " Neb." Martha Washington, whose attire is an unbroken black, is more generally known as " Pat." I have my doubts whether the Father of his Country ever called Mrs. Washington " Pat," or would have dared to do so, but he speaks frequently in his letters and diary of his favorite niece, his " dearest Patsey." Satan, the small black son of Martha Washington, completes the group. Very important are these three to my life in my summer acre. I cannot make the round of my domains in comfort unless Nebuchadnezzar is trotting at my heels, and Mrs. W. is the faithful attendant and beloved confidant of Master Felix Oldboy, Jr., aged fourteen. As for Satan, he shall speak for himself.
Nellie laughs at my idea of contentment in an acre. Even so did I laugh in my youth. Bless her heart, and keep it childlike ! I know that by-and-by will come a time when she will understand how it is that an acre is a world to a child of threescore, and will realize that my sunshine is as full of warmth and splendor as if I were possessor of an estate as big as a township. I sit watching the moon rise over 'the bubbling waters of Hell Gate, and hold in my hand the slender palm of my little boy-the Benjamin of my riper years-whose love I would not exchange for the crown of the czars. The boy turns and smiles as if he had read my thoughts, and Nebuchadnezzar solemnly rises, rubs himself against us, and purs a whole hymn of happiness.