Down Along The Maine Coast
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT WAS very foolish to be walking down the main street of Portland the next morning admiring the arrangement of fruit, flowers, and vegetables in the shop windows when I ought to have been digging into my guidebook and brushing up on dates.
We were back on historic ground again, and we would continue on it from that point until we were home. I once dreamed, after a day of delving into the library, that we were motoring over a flat country devoid of beauty, and with no characteristics save rows of date palms along the way. The palms were rich in fruit, if it could be called that, yet the bearing was but a series of figures swaying in the wind. We passed every date from the reign of the Ptolemies to the blowing up of the Maine. It was a most tiring trip, and I determined that no tour of mine in real life should be marred by too great a predominance of this obnoxious fruit.
I take space for the relating of this nightmare, that I may be pardoned any slurring of the events which stand out prominently in the making of our history, and, instead, speak more continuously of what we saw in the beauty of the country and the lives of those about us. The dates will be with you forever—but you can take but one trip with the Illustrator and the humble (?) scribe.
Ergo: I did some shopping in Portland (which was founded in 1632, was first called Casco and then Falmouth. I'll admit that much!), as I in-tended to have my shoes shined. There was a bootblack across the street, but he showed no disposition to take my money. He sat on his own high throne, strumming on a mandolin as he read an Italian newspaper spread upon his knee, and he was so entirely happy that I did not disturb him, for ten cents more or less could mean nothing to this man. As a result of this, I went on down the street and very nearly bought some ostrich feathers.
This desire to shop when in a small city, for fear one will not find anything as good when one reaches a metropolis, seizes the traveller after several days in the country. I felt as I looked at those feathers in the showcase that they would be the one great bargain of my life, and that I would never see anything like them in New York. I resisted the temptation, fearing the Illustrator, for they would have to be carried in a large box, and since then I have seen many other feathers not only cheaper but better, and have bought none of them.
I even got away without an air plant which beckoned me from a florist's. It seemed folly not to buy the air plant, for it needed neither earth nor water, and would look very well blossoming on top of the typewriter. But W came along at the psychological moment of my greatest weakness with one of Portland's most prominent citizens. The artist was taking him up the street behind our hotel to show him a most lovely composition of an old gateway and an older tree, for the distinguished man was as alive as we were to the charm of his town. Yet the citizen laughed when he saw the find, saying it was the back yard of Mrs. Blank's boarding-house. But we all three thought it very nice in art to grant the good compositions as freely to the poor as to the rich.
We saw the full sweep of the bay, at last, as we left the city going toward Biddeford, and, just at the city limits, guarded by a policeman, lay the body of a man who had tramped for the last time. I felt sorry that he must die on so glorious a day, for surely no man can better appreciate the tempered wind and soft sunshine than a tramp.
But he lay very easily in the lap of his mother: Earth.
We followed the trolley to Biddeford, but it was not a busy trolley, and when we reached the town we found most of the mills shut down, with the great smoke stacks, which we would gladly have had polluting the sky, unfulfilling their mission. Men and women were idle in the door-ways, and hanging out of windows. We have come upon evil days for our mill people, although I understand the owners endeavour to run them for half the week, that the bodies of the workers may remain integral with their souls.
The blight appears to have extended itself to the trees of the open country. At least they have a blight of their own, and such trees as have been sprayed with arsenic bear large placards of " POISION," doubtless to warn the educated New England cows against eating the leaves. In spite of these calamities of town and country, the places were prosperous in appearance, the farmhouses were finely built, and fat oxen in the fields lent an air of solidarity to the scene. We were headed for Kerinebunkport, having been told, en route, that the golf course was on this side " The Tombs," and the town beyond them. In Maine the cemeteries are given that terse name. It has a resonance that consorts well with these little patches of the dead which lie along the rocky, booming coast.
We stopped at Kennebunkport for old time's sake, although the cottages of our friends were closed, and the hotel where we lunched was about to close. Or perhaps I should say that it wished to be about to close, as the proprietress whispered to me that as soon as old Mr. K left she would shut right up. We saw old Mr. K puttering about happily with no evidence of leaving, and while I did not wish to distress the proprietress, I told her of a man I knew who had been invited to stay overnight at the house of a friend of ours, and who lingered there for seven years.
In spite of that she gave us a good luncheon, although I don't know what Mr. K received, and we walked out among the cottages afterwards to the water's edge. This was our first beach on the tour, and several years ago it was the first one that I had ever visited. Men who write come to Kennebunkport, and I was the guest of one of them. The sightseeing buckboards used to drive past, pointing out the author as he sat on the front porch. The top of his head would get pink, then, and while I sat up very straight, trying to look like the famous man's wife, the real wife and her illustrious liege would crawl around to the kitchen steps, there to sit as the next contingent went by.
The revisiting of a locality which one associates with friends when the friends are absent is like sitting before a wide hearth on which no fire is burning. We did not feel the want of acquaintances in places that were new to us, but the day in Kennebunkport brought to me most poignantly that it is people, not things, which make up a large part of the world. And I offer the old thought as a solace to those who must stay at home, yet are surrounded by men and women whom they know.
I spoke of this to W—, who did not care for my log fire simile, preferring to liken my sensation of loss on this beautiful coast to the contemplation of a lovely woman without a heart. Since this locality was unfamiliar to him I thought the reference to the lady rather unnecessary, for he, himself, was feeling nothing but a mild indignation that I could remember so little of the route.
I could pick out the way to Kennebunk proper only by my recollection of a fine old Colonial house on the right which had been over-ornamented with white encrustations like the icing on the wedding cake. No traveller must or will fail to observe it. Its appearance makes one long for a building committee to restrict extravagances of architecture both of town and country. What a tearing down of towers and a removal of gingerbread porches there would be if a body of capable architects were set loose among the cottages built some twenty years ago.
At my earnest solicitation, we stopped at Kennebunk to inquire of a setter dog that I had found in that vicinity upon my last visit there. The famous novelist had refused to give it house room for about the same reason that W had resented my annexing the golf ball back in Bretton Woods: he feared he might some day meet the owner. But the dog was undoubtedly lost, and, at last, I bestowed it upon a very willing Kennebunk sportsman, who declared the animal perfectly pointed.
Upon inquiring now, it was no longer with him. He was sorry for this, and enlarged upon dogs that don't appreciate a good home. He said some people were like that, just born strays, run and run through the country till they die. I thought of the tramp back in Portland. And the dog and that tramp and ourselves were all curiously confused in my mind. The Illustrator and I raced on, understanding a good deal the joy of the dog's running, and not finding the tramp's end so very unlovely after all.
Before Ogunquit we were forced to make a detour, and discovered an old gentleman in a small car stuck in a sandy pasture, bleating piteously for Portland. " Is it all sand? " he asked, under the impression that Maine had no more roads to offer. But this detour was occasioned by the process of hitching together as good a road as one can ask for. It ran now among colorful moors, for we were out of the pine forests, and the sea threw its spray among the rocks, like, as our chauffeur charmingly put it : " like an atomiser." Studios with great north skylights were part of many of the cottages, and maidens sat in meadows, braving the cows to paint the cliffs. At one turn of the road we stopped to admire and " register " (as they say in taking a moving picture) a house and a tree beside it, and the sea beyond them both. That was all. Why does the heart go out to some habitations and remain so cold to others?
The roadbed grew so extraordinarily good as we neared York Beach that the automobile association urges you to keep within bounds by posting horrible warnings of swift motor-cycle police who lurk behind every heather bush. Even so, the Maine automobile travels with throttle wide open, a conscious look upon the face of the taxpayer, as though he would say: " As you make your own bed, so shall you ride upon it."
I believe that the beach which stretched before us on our left is the finest in the world, just as the cottages which were on our right are certainly the meanest, and in no way deserve the view, considering that the ocean has to look back at them. Every name that could be derived by mediocre minds was given to those shacks, and flaunted over the door, from (hospitably) " Letumcum " to (modestly) " The Atlantic "—a very small bungalow.
In close juxtaposition was York Harbor, a summer place rich in fashion but poor in interest. A beautiful woman with seventy-five summer gowns once told me that the large hotels get a hold on you, and you go back year after year. Forewarned by this, we did not stop at all, for we cannot imagine any greater misery than a large hotel getting a hold on us," and, like the setter dog, we ran and ran toward Portsmouth.
It was the Illustrator's wish to visit the Navy Yard before it was closed for the day. It lies at Kittery Point, and we were as near to reaching it on time as we ever were at getting anywhere, for the gun had just fired for the closing of the shops as we brought up before the sentry. Having garnered our camera, we were allowed to motor among the buildings and visit some of the warships which were in dry-dock. It was here that General Cervera was pleasantly imprisoned during the Spanish-American war, and if he had the run of the beautiful Governor's house and the officers' quarters scattered along the Point, I think be did well to be captured.
The workmen were going off to Portsmouth in launches, a much more festive fashion than electric cars, although they were soberly reading news-papers and paying no attention to the sunset, as Venetian laborers always seem to be doing. The vessels in dry-dock were preparing for the evening meal. I asked one neat scullion who was carrying pails of potato peelings to the water's edge if he preferred being ashore in this half-and-half fashion, and he said, upon reflection, that he didn't. I was stirred by his preference for the high seas, but, after probings, learned that the advantage of the broad ocean was the pitching of the potato peelings directly out the port holes. "That's the worst of being ashore," completed the tar gloomily. " No place to throw things."
The Russian and Japanese met here daily until the peace treaty was signed—could it be as far back as 1905? A tablet on a building commemorates that period, so gay for the Americans, so gratifying to the Russians, and so bitter to the silent little Orientals, who, while the victors, received nothing.
When we reached the Rockingham Hotel in quaint old Portsmouth, we found a disposition on the part of the young girl at the newsstand to claim this hostelry as the one which harboured both factions, but I think she was rather over-zealous than undertruthful. She was only a little girl then, she said, and didn't dream at the time that she would ever be working for her living (so she has her story, I suppose, but, the Illustrator poking me, I did not pry into it). She was playing with her dolls, she remembered, when the guns were fired that announced the signing of the treaty, and she had cried, for she thought the Russians and Japanese were attacking us. " Not yet," said W gloomily, which was unnecessarily foreboding at the close of a sunny day.
The traveller should spend some time in this only port of New Hampshire. Indeed, the traveller should do few of the things that we do—except be happy and follow his own inclination. There was much diplomatic visiting at Portsmouth in early Colonial days, for New England was the White Hope of the nation, and great deference was paid to the wishes of these northern states. Both Washington and Lafayette visited Governor Langdon in the old house still standing, our first President writing of it to a friend as one of the finest houses he had ever seen. The doorways were exceedingly good. I like to see a lovely portal. A young writer, Ernest Poole, has completely expressed it: " I always like the front door of a house to be wide and low with only a step or two leading up. I like it to look hospitable, as though always waiting for friends to come in."
It was the moon that teased us out of the town after we had motored leisurely through its streets, and bought the first chestnuts of the season, popping over a glowing charcoal fire. We called this a sort of wedding trip, as we had been mistaken at one street corner for a conscious pair we had previously met. They were in an automobile labelled " Just Married," like the bride and groom's car away back (a thousand years back it seems) near Amenia. The over-eagerness of those hiding behind a building to pelt them with confetti resulted in an attack upon us. Yet the laugh was upon them, for, as we emerged from coils of colored paper ribbon, they found that they had expended their ammunition on a couple wearing an intense, long-married expression. And as they profusely apologised, the " Just Married " 'drove triumphantly by, confetti-less.
Since it was the moon, " the inconstant moon," that had led them on, so did it us to Newbury-port. We liked the idea of arriving at this old town of the musical name by night, and, fortified by chestnuts, we ran into open country again. It was intensely quiet. We were by our-selves, all New England had gone to supper, all save a woman with a full, rich voice who was too much in love to eat. We had stopped to turn on the headlights, and she gave us the charming benefit of her song as she walked in her garden. She was as unconscious as the thrush in the bush, but the thrush keeps its secrets; there were words to her cry:
" The night has a thousand eyes,
We stood motionless until she had finished, and as she sang to the end my mental picture of her changed. I could see her not as a young woman. There was a break in her rich voice, now and then, which would suggest that the fingers of time were at her throat, making gentle indentations in the flesh, stealing her youngest notes from their ivory casing, sorry to do it, perhaps, but intent upon its eternal remodelling. Thank time, or philosophy, or whatever power it is, that as our body changes so does the spirit within us. One hopes that the woman of middle age singing in her garden that night had found this accommodating spirit—our fears, from the yearning of her song, that she had not.
But New England did not remain indoors for long. The bells were clanging in the villages through which we passed, and old folks were going to the weekly prayer meeting. Young people, who need it most, do not go to prayer meeting, although in my youth I would go as far as the hitching post. Here was tied my grandfather's white horse, and my companions and myself would drive it, " lickety-split," about the town while my dear old grandparents, all unsuspicious, prayed for the redemption of my soul. The " joy ride " did not develop with the institution of the automobile.
Long before we expected it, we caught a line of silver on the horizon which betokened the port of Newbury. Little boats were riding at rest (only a boat can ride and rest at the same time) and there were big ones farther off in the harbour which evidently stayed out later, as grown-ups can, for they were all " lit up "—and that means a number of things.
Once across the long bridge we asked the way to the Wolfe Tavern of an Englishman—judging by his accent—and while his direction was faulty we bore him no ill-will, for it gave us the opportunity of traversing a wide, lovely street which had nothing to do with the Wolfe Tavern. The fine Colonial mansions were set far back from the road, solid and substantial. Even the glow of modern electricity coming from the windows shed its rays with dignity, as an able mind diffuses light. Only the creeping vines and the gardens were invulnerably soft. The first time I saw the Colosseum in Rome was by moonlight, and while it has been awkward to do so, since then I have avoided that locality. So I determined that I would not visit this street again; for a fine impression, however vague, is too good to be destroyed by analysis.
W said after we had covered the street twice that we would never get off it, and that I would probably never see anything else, even if I wanted to. We were too shy to ask of the Tavern at these great doorways, the chauffeur demurring as he feared the iron dogs might be live ones. No one was walking in the streets. There is a curfew law still enforced in Newburyport, yet it seems to have terrors only for the ancient, as we at last overtook some boys who ought to have been in bed. At first it was difficult to get any definite information owing to their concerted desire to please, and when we begged that but one speak at a time there was every promise of a fist fight over who should be the first one.
I sternly insisted that, being a lady, I should be allowed to pick out the dispenser of information, and I sympathetically took the quietest boy as a reward of merit. This created intense de-light among his companions, for I had chosen the village stammerer ; but by long breaths, and pauses, and sticking to it the little fellow told us all that we needed to know—and a good deal more.
You cannot mistake the Wolfe Tavern if you have ever seen General Wolfe. His likeness is painted on the old swinging sign, but as he died on the plains of Abraham while fighting the French, we were better assisted by the name of the Tavern underneath than by any recognition of his features. Like all ancient hotels it is not the original hotel, nor does it stand on the corner where it stood during and before revolutionary times. I do not know why hotels wish to move about in this fashion, nor why they so frequently get themselves burned up—or down, as you feel optimistically or pessimistically. I think they burn up when the insurance is good. It gives me an uneasy sensation o' nights after creeping up delectable old staircases to read of the number of times the hostelry has been reconstructed.
The present inn is old enough for any of us, and means a good deal to the citizens of Newburyport as a Peabody once lived in it. There are two staircases, one early-Victorian and ugly, belonging to Mr. Peabody, and one Colonial and beautiful, belonging to the house next door, for the Wolfe Tavern has taken to spreading. I insisted upon rooms reached by this spiral stair-case, for it curves so delicately that it would seem the way to Heaven.
The old darky porter who carried up the bag-gage, very reluctantly and pantingly, did not agree with me. He confided in a low voice—that the clerk might not hear him—that if Hell's his portion when he dies he'll find it upstairs, not in no basement. " Ancientry is all right," he explained when we reached the roof, and he fumbled for matches to light the gas, but he had carried trunks up and down those stairs for twenty-two years and before it came his turn, " God send," they'd have an elevator.
I fastened on to God send, for here was an old English expression probably not in usage outside of Newburyport. And I fastened on to the old darky also, for he told me that directly he got us settled he was going off to the hospital, for there his son lay with a broken leg. I immediately became an authority on broken legs, and begged that the limb of his son did not remain too long in a plaster cast. I advised splints at first, so that it could be watched from time to time to see if it was knitting correctly. I gave an instance of a young man I knew in England (I made him out an athlete, but he was a poor thing) who had worn a cast for nine weeks, and when it was taken off the bones had not knitted properly—and he was lame for life. As a result of this story the negro went off without bringing us, or any other appealing bells, ice water. And I can imagine my unpopularity among the hospital staff.
We dined Iate, wandering uncertainly through the carte du jour, attended by a buxom creature who gave no evidence of capability beyond a firm mouth. The best thing I can remember either about her or the dinner were the Newburyport crackers. She recommended them, and whenever we seemed to lose our spirit over the meal would offer these huge round wafers to us as one applies a poultice to a more definite pain.
W put down a quarter on the table for her as we went out. You can give a boy a coin with-out the slightest fear of his bursting into tears at the insult, but a waitress, while just as keen for the money, will frequently not deign to touch the tip until the guest has departed. I watched from the hallway to see if she would not disregard it altogether with a sort of guilty consciousness of her own unworthiness, but she swept it up, along with the crumbs fallen from the Newburyport cracker, and secreted it upon her person.
The port of Newbury needs a new hotel with the same clerk, the same porter, the same spiral staircase, and General Wolfe to look down upon it. I would like to have it on the identical spot, and if it would not be too much to ask, to have also the same tree out in front which gently tapped upon my window-pane all night.
Yet it was much quieter than the young man who occupied the room next to mine on the other side of the thin, revolutionary wall. He read a letter after he came in, tearing open the envelope and whistling as he did so. Then there was silence. One rustle as he turned the page, and, after he had finished, six heavy sighs. So, while I did not know All, I was sorry for him, and it was commendable that, in the midst of whatever grief the letter brought, he remembered to brush his teeth.