A First Impression
CERTAINLY it was an inconsiderate way of approaching the greatest city of the Americas, but that was not my fault. I wished for the direct approach, the figure of Liberty to rise, haughty and most calm, a noble symbol, as we came in from overseas; then the wide portals; then New York. But the erratic tracks of a tramp steamer, however, go not as her voyagers will. They have no control over her. She moves to an enigmatic will in London. It happens, then, that she rarely shows a wonder of the world any respect. She arrives like sudden rain, like wind from a new quarter. She is as chance as the fall of a star. None knows the day nor the hour. At the most inconvenient time she takes the wonder's visitors to the back door.
We went, light ship from the South, to Barbados, for orders; and because I wanted New York, for that was the way home, we were sent to Tampa for phosphates. As to Tampa, its position on the globe is known only to underwriters and shipbrokers; it is that sort of place. It is a mere name, like Fernando de Noronha, or Key West, which one meets only in the shipping news, idly wondering then what strange things the seafarer would find if he went.
Late one night, down a main street of Tampa, there came, with the deliberate movement of fate, a gigantic corridor train, looming as high as a row of lighted villas, and drawn by the awful engine of a dream. That train behaved there as trains do at home, presently stopping alongside a foot-way.
Behind me was a little wooden shop. In front was the wall of a carriage, having an entrance on the second storey, and a roof athwart the meridian stars. One of its wheels was the nearest and most dominant object in the night to me, a monstrous bright round resting on a muddy newspaper in the road. It absorbed all the light from the little wooden shop. Now, I had hunted throughout Tampa for its railway terminus, fruitlessly; but here its train had found me, keeping me from crossing the road.
"Where do I board this train for New York?" I asked. (I talked like a fool, I know; it was like asking a casual wayfarer in East Ham whether that by the kerb is the Moscow express. Yet what was I to do?) "Board her right here," said the fellow, who was in his shirt sleeves. Therefore I delivered myself, in blind faith, to the casual gods who are apt to wake up and by a series of deft little miracles get things done fitly in America when all seems lost and the traveller has even bared his resigned neck to the stroke.
But I had not the least hope of seeing New York and a Cunarder; not with such an unpropitious start as that. With an exit like Euston one never doubts sure direction, and arrival at the precise spot at the exact moment. You feel there it was arranged for in Genesis. The officials cannot alter affairs. They are priests administering inviolate rites, advancing matters fore-ordained by the unseen, and so no more able to stay or speed this cosmic concern than the astronomer who schedules the planets. The planets take their heavenly courses. But I had never been to the United States before, did not know even the names of their many gods, and New York was at the end of a great journey; and the train for it stopped outside a tobacco shop in the road, like a common tram.
There was another night when, with the usual unreason, the swift and luxurious glide, lessening through easy gradations, ceased. I saw some lights in the rain outside. How should I know it was New York? We had even changed climates since we started. The passengers of my early days in the train had passed away. There was nothing to show. More, I felt no exultation--which should have been the first of warnings. Merely we got to a railway station one night, and a negro insisted that I should get out and stop out. This was Noo Yark, he said.
It was night, I repeat; there was a row of cabs in a dolorous rain. I saw a man in a shiny cape under the nearest lamp, and beyond him a vista of reflections from vacant stones, which to me always, more than bleak hills or the empty round of the sea, is desolation. There were no spacious portals. There was no figure of Liberty, haughty but welcoming. There was rain, and cabs that waited without hope. There was exactly what you find at the end of a twopenny journey when your only luggage is an evening paper, an umbrella, and that tired feeling. Not knowing where to go, and little caring, I followed the crowd, and so found myself in a large well-lighted hall. Having no business there--it was a barren place--I pushed on, and came suddenly to the rim of the world.
Before me was the immensity of dark celestial space in which wandered hosts of uncharted stars; and below my feet was the abyss of old night. Just behind me was a woman telling her husband that they had forgotten Jimmy's boots, and couldn't go back now, for the ferry was just coming.
Jimmy's boots! Now, when you are a released soul, ascending the night, and the earth below is a bright silver ball, not so very big, and some other viewless soul behind you, still with thoughts absent on worldly trifles, mutters concerning boots when in the Milky Way, you will know how I felt. Here was the ultimate empty dark in which the sun could never shine. The sun had not merely left the place. It had never been there. It was a remote star, one of myriads in the constellations at large, the definite groups which occulted in the void before me. Looking at those swiftly moving systems, I watched for the flash of impact; but no great light of collision broke. The groups of lights passed and repassed noiselessly.
Then one constellation presently detached itself, and its orbit evidently would intersect our foothold. It came nearer out of the night, till I could see plainly that it appeared to be a long section of a well-lighted street, say, like a length of Piccadilly. It approached end-on to where I stood, and at last impinged. It actually was a length of street, and I could continue my walk. The street floated off again into the night, with me, Jimmy's father and mother, and all of us, and the vans and motor-cars; and the other square end of it soon joined a roadway on the opposite shore. The dark river was as full of mobile lengths of bright roadway as Oxford Circus is of motor-buses; and the fear of the unknown, as in the terrific dark of a dream where flaming comets stream on undirected courses, numbed my little mind. I had found New York.
I had found it. Its bulk was beyond the mind, its lights were falling star systems, and its movements those of general cataclysm. I should find no care for little human needs there. One cannot warm one's hands against the flames of earthquake. There is no provision for men in the welter, but dimly apprehended in the night, of blind and inhuman powers.
Therefore, the hotel bedroom, when I got to it, surprised and steadied me with its elaborate care for the body. But yet I was not certain. Then I saw against the wall a dial, and reading a notice over it I learned that by working the hands of this false clock correctly I could procure anything, from an apple to the fire brigade. Now this was carrying matters to the other extreme; and I had to suppress a desire to laugh hysterically. I set the hands to a number; waited one minute; then the door opened, and a waiter came in with a real tray, conveying a glass and a bottle. So there was a method then in this general madness after all. I tried to regard the wonder as indifferently as the waiter's own cold and measuring eyes.