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Notes of a Vanished Summer by William Dean Howells

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This etext was produced by David Widger

[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them. D.W.]

LITERATURE AND LIFE--Staccato Notes of a Vanished Summer

by William Dean Howells

STACCATO NOTES OF A VANISHED SUMMER

Monday afternoon the storm which had been beating up against the
southeasterly wind nearly all day thickened, fold upon fold, in the
northwest. The gale increased, and blackened the harbor and whitened the
open sea beyond, where sail after sail appeared round the reef of
Whaleback Light, and ran in a wild scamper for the safe anchorages
within.

Since noon cautious coasters of all sorts had been dropping in with a
casual air; the coal schooners and barges had rocked and nodded knowingly
to one another, with their taper and truncated masts, on the breast of
the invisible swell; and the flock of little yachts and pleasure-boats
which always fleck the bay huddled together in the safe waters. The
craft that came scurrying in just before nightfall were mackerel seiners
from Gloucester. They were all of one graceful shape and one size; they
came with all sail set, taking the waning light like sunshine on their
flying-jibs, and trailing each two dories behind them, with their seines
piled in black heaps between the thwarts. As soon as they came inside
their jibs weakened and fell, and the anchor-chains rattled from their
bows. Before the dark hid them we could have counted sixty or seventy
ships in the harbor, and as the night fell they improvised a little
Venice under the hill with their lights, which twinkled rhythmically,
like the lamps in the basin of St. Mark, between the Maine and New
Hampshire coasts.

There was a dash of rain, and we thought the storm had begun; but that
ended it, as so many times this summer a dash of rain has ended a storm.
The morning came veiled in a fog that kept the shipping at anchor through
the day; but the next night the weather cleared. We woke to the clucking
of tackle, and saw the whole fleet standing dreamily out to sea. When
they were fairly gone, the summer, which had held aloof in dismay of the
sudden cold, seemed to return and possess the land again; and the
succession of silver days and crystal nights resumed the tranquil round
which we thought had ceased.

I.

One says of every summer, when it is drawing near its end, "There never
was such a summer"; but if the summer is one of those which slip from the
feeble hold of elderly hands, when the days of the years may be reckoned
with the scientific logic of the insurance tables and the sad conviction
of the psalmist, one sees it go with a passionate prescience of never
seeing its like again such as the younger witness cannot know. Each new
summer of the few left must be shorter and swifter than the last: its
Junes will be thirty days long, and its Julys and Augusts thirty-one, in
compliance with the almanac; but the days will be of so small a compass
that fourteen of them will rattle round in a week of the old size like
shrivelled peas in a pod.

To be sure they swell somewhat in the retrospect, like the same peas put
to soak; and I am aware now of some June days of those which we first
spent at Kittery Point this year, which were nearly twenty-four hours
long. Even the days of declining years linger a little here, where there
is nothing to hurry them, and where it is pleasant to loiter, and muse
beside the sea and shore, which are so netted together at Kittery Point
that they hardly know themselves apart. The days, whatever their length,
are divided, not into hours, but into mails. They begin, without regard
to the sun, at eight o'clock, when the first mail comes with a few
letters and papers which had forgotten themselves the night before. At
half-past eleven the great mid-day mail arrives; at four o'clock there is
another indifferent and scattering post, much like that at eight in the
morning; and at seven the last mail arrives with the Boston evening
papers and the New York morning papers, to make you forget any letters
you were looking for. The opening of the mid-day mail is that which most
throngs with summer folks the little postoffice under the elms, opposite
the weather-beaten mansion of Sir William Pepperrell; but the evening
mail attracts a large and mainly disinterested circle of natives. The
day's work on land and sea is then over, and the village leisure, perched
upon fences and stayed against house walls, is of a picturesqueness which
we should prize if we saw it abroad, and which I am not willing to slight
on our own ground.

II.

The type is mostly of a seafaring brown, a complexion which seems to be
inherited rather than personally acquired; for the commerce of Kittery
Point perished long ago, and the fishing fleets that used to fit out from
her wharves have almost as long ago passed to Gloucester. All that is
left of the fishing interest is the weir outside which supplies, fitfully
and uncertainly, the fish shipped fresh to the nearest markets. But in
spite of this the tint taken from the suns and winds of the sea lingers
on the local complexion; and the local manner is that freer and easier
manner of people who have known other coasts, and are in some sort
citizens of the world. It is very different from the inland New England
manner; as different as the gentle, slow speech of the shore from the
clipped nasals of the hill-country. The lounging native walk is not the
heavy plod taught by the furrow, but has the lurch and the sway of the
deck in it.

Nothing could be better suited to progress through the long village,
which rises and sinks beside the shore like a landscape with its sea-legs
on; and nothing could be more charming and friendly than this village.
It is quite untainted as yet by the summer cottages which have covered so
much of the coast, and made it look as if the aesthetic suburbs of New
York and Boston had gone ashore upon it. There are two or three old-
fashioned summer hotels; but the summer life distinctly fails to
characterize the place. The people live where their forefathers have
lived for two hundred and fifty years; and for the century since the
baronial domain of Sir William was broken up and his possessions
confiscated by the young Republic, they have dwelt in small red or white
houses on their small holdings along the slopes and levels of the low
hills beside the water, where a man may pass with the least inconvenience
and delay from his threshold to his gunwale. Not all the houses are
small; some are spacious and ambitious to be of ugly modern patterns; but
most are simple and homelike. Their gardens, following the example of
Sir William's vanished pleasaunce, drop southward to the shore, where the
lobster-traps and the hen-coops meet in unembarrassed promiscuity. But
the fish-flakes which once gave these inclines the effect of terraced
vineyards have passed as utterly as the proud parterres of the old
baronet; and Kittery Point no longer "makes" a cod or a haddock for the
market.

Three groceries, a butcher shop, and a small variety store study the few
native wants; and with a little money one may live in as great real
comfort here as for much in a larger place. The street takes care of
itself; the seafaring housekeeping of New England is not of the
insatiable Dutch type which will not spare the stones of the highway; but
within the houses are of almost terrifying cleanliness. The other day I
found myself in a kitchen where the stove shone like oxidized silver; the
pump and sink were clad in oilcloth as with blue tiles; the walls were
papered; the stainless floor was strewn with home-made hooked and braided
rugs; and I felt the place so altogether too good for me that I pleaded
to stay there for the transaction of my business, lest a sharper sense of
my unfitness should await me in the parlor.

The village, with scarcely an interval of farm-lands, stretches four
miles along the water-side to Portsmouth; but it seems to me that just at
the point where our lines have fallen there is the greatest concentration
of its character. This has apparently not been weakened, it has been
accented, by the trolley-line which passes through its whole length, with
gayly freighted cars coming and going every half-hour. I suppose they
are not longer than other trolley-cars, but they each affect me like a
procession. They are cheerful presences by day, and by night they light
up the dim, winding street with the flare of their electric bulbs, and
bring to the country a vision of city splendor upon terms that do not
humiliate or disquiet. During July and August they are mostly filled
with summer folks from a great summer resort beyond us, and their lights
reveal the pretty fashions of hats and gowns in all the charm of the
latest lines and tints. But there is an increasing democracy in these
splendors, and one might easily mistake a passing excursionist from some
neighboring inland town, or even a local native with the instinct of
clothes, for a social leader from York Harbor.

With the falling leaf, the barge-like open cars close up into well-warmed
saloons, and falter to hourly intervals in their course. But we are
still far from the falling leaf; we are hardly come to the blushing or
fading leaf. Here and there an impassioned maple confesses the autumn;
the ancient Pepperrell elms fling down showers of the baronet's fairy
gold in the September gusts; the sumacs and the blackberry vines are
ablaze along the tumbling black stone walls; but it is still summer, it
is still summer: I cannot allow otherwise!

III.

The other day I visited for the first time (in the opulent indifference
of one who could see it any time) the stately tomb of the first
Pepperrell, who came from Cornwall to these coasts, and settled finally
at Kittery Point. He laid there the foundations of the greatest fortune
in colonial New England, which revolutionary New England seized and
dispersed, as I cannot but feel, a little ruthlessly. In my personal
quality I am of course averse to all great fortunes; and in my civic
capacity I am a patriot. But still I feel a sort of grace in wealth a
century old, and if I could now have my way, I would not have had their
possessions reft from those kindly Pepperrells, who could hardly help
being loyal to the fountain of their baronial honors. Sir William,
indeed; had helped, more than any other man, to bring the people who
despoiled him to a national consciousness. If he did not imagine, he
mainly managed the plucky New England expedition against Louisbourg at
Cape Breton a half century before the War of Independence; and his
splendid success in rending that stronghold from the French taught the
colonists that they were Americans, and need be Englishmen no longer than
they liked. His soldiers were of the stamp of all succeeding American
armies, and his leadership was of the neighborly and fatherly sort
natural to an amiable man who knew most of them personally. He was
already the richest man in America, and his grateful king made him a
baronet; but he came contentedly back to Kittery, and took up his old
life in a region where he had the comfortable consideration of an
unrivalled magnate. He built himself the dignified mansion which still
stands across the way from the post-office on Kittery Point, within an
easy stone's cast of the far older house, where his father wedded Margery
Bray, when he came, a thrifty young Welsh fisherman, from the Isles of
Shoals, and established his family on Kittery. The Bray house had been
the finest in the region a hundred years before the Pepperrell mansion
was built; it still remembers its consequence in the panelling and
wainscoting of the large, square parlor where the young people were
married and in the elaborate staircase cramped into the little, square
hall; and the Bray fortune helped materially to swell the wealth of the
Pepperrells.

I do not know that I should care now to have a man able to ride thirty
miles on his own land; but I do not mind Sir William's having done it
here a hundred and fifty years ago; and I wish the confiscations had left
his family, say, about a mile of it. They could now, indeed, enjoy it
only in the collateral branches, for all Sir William's line is extinct.
The splendid mansion which he built his daughter is in alien hands, and
the fine old house which Lady Pepperrell built herself after his death
belongs to the remotest of kinsmen. A group of these, the descendants of
a prolific sister of the baronet, meets every year at Kittery Point as
the Pepperrell Association, and, in a tent hard by the little grove of
drooping spruces which shade the admirable renaissance cenotaph of Sir
William's father, cherishes the family memories with due American
"proceedings."

IV.

The meeting of the Pepperrell Association was by no means the chief
excitement of our summer. In fact, I do not know that it was an
excitement at all; and I am sure it was not comparable to the presence of
our naval squadron, when for four days the mighty dragon and kraken
shapes of steel, which had crumbled the decrepit pride of Spain in the
fight at Santiago, weltered in our peaceful waters, almost under my
window.

I try now to dignify them with handsome epithets; but while they were
here I had moments of thinking they looked like a lot of whited
locomotives, which had broken through from some trestle, in a recent
accident, and were waiting the offices of a wrecking-train. The poetry
of the man-of-war still clings to the "three-decker out of the foam" of
the past; it is too soon yet for it to have cast a mischievous halo about
the modern battle-ship; and I looked at the New York and the Texas and
the Brooklyn and the rest, and thought, "Ah, but for you, and our need of
proving your dire efficiency, perhaps we could have got on with the
wickedness of Spanish rule in Cuba, and there had been no war!" Under my
reluctant eyes the great, dreadful spectacle of the Santiago fight
displayed itself in peaceful Kittery Harbor. I saw the Spanish ships
drive upon the reef where a man from Dover, New Hampshire, was camping in
a little wooden shanty unconscious; and I heard the dying screams of the
Spanish sailors, seethed and scalded within the steel walls of their own
wicked war-kettles.

As for the guns, battle or no battle, our ships, like "kind Lieutenant
Belay of the 'Hot Cross-Bun'," seemed to be "banging away the whole day
long." They set a bad example to the dreamy old fort on the Newcastle
shore, which, till they came, only recollected itself to salute the
sunrise and sunset with a single gun; but which, under provocation of the
squadron, formed a habit of firing twenty or thirty times at noon.

Other martial shows and noises were not so bad. I rather liked seeing
the morning drill of the marines and the bluejackets on the iron decks,
with the lively music that went with it. The bugle calls and the bells
were charming; the week's wash hung out to dry had its picturesqueness by
day, and by night the spectral play of the search-lights along the waves
and shores, and against the startled skies, was even more impressive.
There was a band which gave us every evening the airs of the latest coon-
songs, and the national anthems which we have borrowed from various
nations; and yes, I remember the white squadron kindly, though I was so
glad to have it go, and let us lapse back into our summer silence and
calm. It was (I do not mind saying now) a majestic sight to see those
grotesque monsters gather themselves together, and go wallowing, one
after another, out of the harbor, and drop behind the ledge of Whaleback
Light, as if they had sunk into the sea.

V.

A deep peace fell upon us when they went, and it must have been at this
most receptive moment, when all our sympathies were adjusted in a mood of
hospitable expectation, that Jim appeared.

Jim was, and still is, and I hope will long be, a cat; but unless one has
lived at Kittery Point, and realized, from observation and experience,
what a leading part cats may play in society, one cannot feel the full
import of this fact. Not only has every house in Kittery its cat, but
every house seems to have its half-dozen cats, large, little, old, and
young; of divers colors, tending mostly to a dark tortoise-shell. With a
whole ocean inviting to the tragic rite, I do not believe there is ever a
kitten drowned in Kittery; the illimitable sea rather employs itself in
supplying the fish to which "no cat's averse," but which the cats of
Kittery demand to have cooked. They do not like raw fish; they say it
plainly, and they prefer to have the bones taken out for them, though
they do not insist upon that point.

At least, Jim never did so from the time when he first scented the odor
of delicate young mackerel in the evening air about our kitchen, and
dropped in upon the maids there with a fine casual effect of being merely
out for a walk, and feeling it a neighborly thing to call. He had on a
silver collar, engraved with his name and surname, which offered itself
for introduction like a visiting-card. He was too polite to ask himself
to the table at once, but after he had been welcomed to the family
circle, he formed the habit of finding himself with us at breakfast and
supper, when he sauntered in like one who should say, "Did I smell fish?"
but would not go further in the way of hinting.

He had no need to do so. He was made at home, and freely invited to our
best not only in fish, but in chicken, for which he showed a nice taste,
and in sweetcorn, for which he revealed a most surprising fondness when
it was cut from the cob for him. After he had breakfasted or supped he
gracefully suggested that he was thirsty by climbing to the table where
the water-pitcher stood and stretching his fine feline head towards it.
When he had lapped up his saucer of water; he marched into the parlor,
and riveted the chains upon our fondness by taking the best chair and
going to sleep in it in attitudes of Egyptian, of Assyrian majesty.
His arts were few or none; he rather disdained to practise any; he
completed our conquest by maintaining himself simply a fascinating
presence; and perhaps we spoiled Jim. It is certain that he came under
my window at two o'clock one night, and tried the kitchen door. It
resisted his efforts to get in, and then Jim began to use language which
I had never heard from the lips of a cat before, and seldom from the lips
of a man. I will not repeat it; enough that it carried to the listener
the conviction that Jim was not sober. Where he could have got his
liquor in the totally abstinent State of Maine I could not positively
say, but probably of some sailor who had brought it from the neighboring
New Hampshire coast. There could be no doubt, however, that Jim was
drunk; and a dash from the water-pitcher seemed the only thing for him.
The water did not touch him, but he started back in surprise and grief,
and vanished into the night without a word.

His feelings must have been deeply wounded, for it was almost a week
before he came near us again; and then I think that nothing but young
lobster would have brought him. He forgave us finally, and made us of
his party in the quarrel he began gradually to have with the large yellow
cat of a next-door neighbor. This culminated one afternoon, after a long
exchange of mediaeval defiance and insult, in a battle upon a bed of rag-
weed, with wild shrieks of rage, and prodigious feats of ground and lofty
tumbling. It seemed to our anxious eyes that Jim was getting the worst
of it; but when we afterwards visited the battle-field and picked up
several tufts of blond fur, we were in a doubt which was afterwards
heightened by Jim's invasion of the yellow cat's territory, where he
stretched himself defiantly upon the grass and seemed to be challenging
the yellow cat to come out and try to put him off the premises.

ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:

Ambitious to be of ugly modern patterns
Here and there an impassioned maple confesses the autumn
Houses are of almost terrifying cleanliness
Leading part cats may play in society
Picturesqueness which we should prize if we saw it abroad
Has the lurch and the sway of the deck in it

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