A sterner tradition clings around an old building on a remoter wharf; for men have but lately died who had seen slaves pass within its doors for confinement. The wharf in those days appertained to a distillery, an establishment then constantly connected with the slave-trade, rum being sent to Africa, and human beings brought back. Occasionally a cargo was landed here, instead of being sent to the West Indies or to South Carolina, and this building was fitted up for their temporary quarters. It is but some twenty-five feet square, and must be less than thirty feet in height, yet it is divided into three stories, of which the lowest was used for other purposes, and the two upper were reserved for slaves. There are still to be seen the barred partitions and latticed door, making half the second floor into a sort of cage, while the agent's room appears to have occupied the other half. A similar latticed door--just such as I have seen in Southern slave-pens--secures the foot of the upper stairway. The whole small attic constitutes a single room, with a couple of windows, and two additional breathing-holes, two feet square, opening on the yard. It makes one sick to think of the poor creatures who may once have gripped those bars with their hands, or have glared with eager eyes between them; and it makes me recall with delight the day when I once wrenched away the stocks and chains from the floor of a pen like this, on the St. Mary's River in Florida. It is almost forty years since this distillery became a mill, and sixty since the slave-trade was abolished. The date "1803" is scrawled upon the door of the cage,--the very year when the port of Charleston was reopened for slaves, just before the traffic ceased. A few years more, and such horrors will seem as remote a memory in South Carolina, thank God! as in Rhode Island.
Other wharves are occupied by mast-yards, places that seem like play-rooms for grown men, crammed fuller than any old garret with those odds and ends in which the youthful soul delights. There are planks and spars and timber, broken rudders, rusty anchors, coils of rope, bales of sail-cloth, heaps of blocks, piles of chain-cable, great iron tar-kettles like antique helmets, strange machines for steaming planks, inexplicable little chimneys, engines that seem like dwarf-locomotives, windlasses that apparently turn nothing, and incipient canals that lead nowhere. For in these yards there seems no particular difference between land and water; the tide comes and goes anywhere, and nobody minds it; boats are drawn up among burdocks and ambrosia, and the platform on which you stand suddenly proves to be something afloat. Vessels are hauled upon the ways, each side of the wharf, their poor ribs pitiably unclothed, ready for a cumbrous mantua-making of oak and iron. On one side, within a floating boom, lies a fleet of masts and unhewn logs, tethered uneasily, like a herd of captive sea-monsters, rocking in the ripples. A vast shed, that has doubtless looked ready to fall for these dozen years spreads over, half the entrance to the wharf, and is filled with spars, knee-timber, and planks of fragrant wood; its uprights are festooned with all manner of great hawsers and smaller ropes, and its dim loft is piled with empty casks and idle sails. The sun always seems to shine in a ship-yard; there are apt to be more loungers than laborers, and this gives a pleasant air of repose; the neighboring water softens all harsher sounds, the foot treads upon an elastic carpet of embedded chips, and pleasant resinous odors are in the air.
Then there are wharves quite abandoned by commerce, and given over to small tenements, filled with families so abundant that they might dispel the fears of those alarmists who suspect that children are ceasing to be born. Shrill voices resound there--American or Irish, as the case may be--through the summer noontides; and the domestic clothes-line forever stretches across the paths where imported slaves once trod, or rich merchandise lay piled. Some of these abodes are nestled in the corners of houses once stately, with large windows and carven doorways. Others occupy separate buildings, almost always of black, unpainted wood, sometimes with the long, sloping roof of Massachusetts, oftener with the quaint "gambrel" of Rhode Island. From the busiest point of our main street, I can show you a single cottage, with low gables, projecting eaves, and sheltering sweetbrier, that seems as if it must have strayed hither, a century or two ago, out of some English lane.
Some of the more secluded wharves appear wholly deserted by men and women, and are tenanted alone by rats and boys,--two amphibious races; either can swim anywhere, or scramble and penetrate everywhere. The boys launch some abandoned skiff, and, with an oar for a sail and another for a rudder, pass from wharf to wharf; nor would it be surprising if the bright-eyed rats were to take similar passage on a shingle. Yet,after all, the human juveniles are the more sagacious brood. It is strange that people should go to Europe, and seek the society of potentates less imposing, when home can endow them with the occasional privilege of a nod from an American boy. In these sequestered haunts, I frequently meet some urchin three feet high who carries with him an air of consummate worldly experience that completely overpowers me, and I seem to shrink to the dimensions of Tom Thumb. Before his calm and terrible glance all disguises fail. You may put on a bold and careless air, and affect to overlook him as you pass; but it is like assuming to ignore the existence of the Pope of Rome, or of the London Times. He knows better. Grown men are never very formidable; they are shy and shamefaced themselves, usually preoccupied, and not very observing. If they see a man loitering about, without visible aim, they class him as a mild imbecile, and let him go; but boys are nature's detectives, and one does not so easily evade their scrutinizing eyes. I know full well that, while I study their ways, they are noting mine through a clearer lens, and are probably taking my measure far better than I take theirs. One instinctively shrinks from making a sketch or memorandum while they are by; and if caught in the act, one fondly hopes to pass for some harmless speculator in real estate, whose pencillings may be only a matter of habit, like those casual sums in compound interest which are usually to be found scrawled on the margins of the daily papers in Boston reading-rooms.
Our wharves are almost all connected by intricate by-ways among the buildings; and one almost wishes to be a pirate or a smuggler, for the pleasure of eluding the officers of justice through such seductive paths. It is, perhaps, to counteract this perilous fascination that our new police-office has been established on a wharf. You will see its brick tower rising not ungracefully, as you enter the inner harbor; it looks the better for being almost windowless, though beauty was not the aim of the omission. A curious stranger is said to have asked one of our city fathers the reason of this peculiarity. "No use in windows," said the experienced official sadly; "the boys would only break 'em." It seems very unjust to assert that there is no subordination in our American society; the citizens show deference to the police, and the police to the boys.
The ancient aspect of these wharves extends itself sometimes to the vessels which lie moored beside them. At yonder pier, for instance, has lain for thirteen years a decaying bark, which was suspected of being engaged in the slave-trade. She was run ashore and abandoned on Block Island, in the winter of 1854, and was afterwards brought in here. Her purchaser was offered eight thousand dollars for his bargain, but refused it; and here the vessel has remained, paying annual wharf dues and charges, till she is worthless. She lies chained at the wharf, and the tide rises and falls within her, thus furnishing a convenient bathing-house for the children, who also find a perpetual gymnasium in the broken shrouds that dangle from her masts. Turner, when he painted his "slave-ship," could have asked no better model. There is no name upon the stern, and it exhibits merely a carved eagle, with the wings clipped and the head knocked off. Only the lower masts remain, which are of a dismal black, as are the tops and mizzen cross-trees. Within the bulwarks, on each side, stand rows of black blocks, to which the shrouds were once attached; these blocks are called by sailors "dead-eyes," and each stands in weird mockery, with its three ominous holes, like so many human skulls before some palace in Dahomey. Other blocks like these swing more ominously yet at the ends of the shrouds, that still hang suspended, waving and creaking and jostling in the wind. Each year the ropes decay, and soon the repulsive pendants will be gone. Not so with the iron belaying-pins, a few of which still stand around the mast, so rusted into the iron fife-rail that even the persevering industry of the children cannot wrench them out. It seems as if some guilty stain must cling to their sides, and hold them in. By one of those fitnesses which fortune often adjusts, but which seem incredible in art, the wharf is now used on one side for the storage of slate, and the hulk is approached through an avenue of gravestones. I never find myself in that neighborhood but my steps instinctively seek that condemned vessel, whether by day, when she makes a dark foreground for the white yachts and the summer waves, or by night, when the storm breaks over her desolate deck.
If we follow northward from "Queen-Hithe" along the shore, we pass into a region where the ancient wharves of commerce, ruined in 1815, have never been rebuilt; and only slender pathways for pleasure voyagers now stretch above the submerged foundations. Once the court end of the town, then its commercial centre, it is now divided between the tenements of fishermen and the summer homes of city households. Still the great old houses remain, with mahogany stairways, carved wainscoting, and painted tiles; the sea has encroached upon their gardens, and only boats like mine approach where English dukes and French courtiers once landed. At the head of yonder private wharf, in that spacious and still cheerful abode, dwelt the beautiful Robinson sisterhood,--the three Quaker belles of Revolutionary days, the memory of whose loves might lend romance to this neighborhood forever. One of these maidens was asked in marriage by a captain in the English army, and was banished by her family to the Narragansett shore, under a flag of truce, to avoid him; her lover was afterward killed by a cannon-ball, in his tent, and she died unwedded. Another was sought by two aspirants, who came in the same ship to woo her, the one from Philadelphia, the other from New York. She refused them both, and they sailed southward together; but, the wind proving adverse, they returned, and one lingered till he won her hand. Still another lover was forced into a vessel by his friends, to tear him from the enchanted neighborhood; while sailing past the house, he suddenly threw himself into the water,--it must have been about where the end of the wharf now rests,--that he might be rescued, and carried, a passive Leander, into yonder door. The house was first the head-quarters of the English commander, then of the French; and the sentinels of De Noailles once trod where now croquet-balls form the heaviest ordnance. Peaceful and untitled guests now throng in summer where St. Vincents and Northumberlands once rustled and glittered; and there is nothing to recall those brilliant days except the painted tiles on the chimney, where there is a choice society of coquettes and beaux, priests and conjurers, beggars and dancers, and every wig and hoop dates back to the days of Queen Anne.
Sometimes when I stand upon this pier by night, and look across the calm black water, so still, perhaps, that the starry reflections seem to drop through it in prolonged javelins of light instead of resting on the surface, and the opposite lighthouse spreads its cloth of gold across the bay,--I can imagine that I discern the French and English vessels just weighing anchor; I see De Lauzun and De Noailles embarking, and catch the last sheen upon their lace, the last glitter of their swords. It vanishes, and I see only the lighthouse gleam, and the dark masts of a sunken ship across the neighboring island. Those motionless spars have, after all, a nearer interest, and, as I saw them sink, I will tell their tale.
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