The Final Reflections of Malcolm Melville, His Father’s Son
Father would take me down to the Battery of a Sunday morning, lean against a rail and stare out at the sea. Words spoken between us came even less frequently on those mornings than on others. Was he so quickly forgetful of my presence, or did he merely value me as audience to his dim brooding? Was I only a stand-in for the audience that his brooding in print no longer brought him? Perhaps, confronted with a prospect that seemed to him little finally but a dead wall, he simply preferred not to speak.
It is some years since we shared those somber Sunday mornings, and now, six days a week, I stare out the window toward the Battery and beyond and occasionally spy a sail headed to parts unknown—unknown to me, at any rate, while I sit dutifully, just as Father wishes, behind my desk at the Great Western Marine Insurance Company. What have I to complain of? Unlike Father’s poor Bartleby, I have something of a view, for if I angle my chair only slightly, I get a glimpse of bay and sky between the two sooty buildings across the alley. When the weather is fair and brisk, I catch glints of sunshine on the small choppy waves, and when it is bleak, the grayness of water and cloud makes for an harmonious whole with the dingy walls flanking it. Thus, whichever way the wind blows, one might say, I look out upon a scene that, though narrow, to be sure, is not without striking composition. Father has assured me in few but telling words that at my age he was already well versed in circumstances less enviable.
In truth, it is through words on paper that Father has always spoken most directly to me. Seven years ago, he sailed to California on a clipper captained by his brother Thomas; and one snowy day at home, when, aboard what I called my “clipper sled,” I was happily outstripping my friends in race after race, Mother called me in and placed in my hand a letter from my distant Father. In it he told me something of what he had witnessed on this latest voyage of his. Not far from Tierra del Fuego, a young sailor had fallen from the rigging to his death on the deck far below. As the ship rolled and groaned with every surge of a dark sea, the body of the luckless fellow was placed on a plank, had a prayer muttered over it by a harried captain before a silent crew, and then with no word of further farewell was tipped over the side. “The body,” so my father wrote me, “slipped beneath the waves and we saw it no more; such is the way a poor sailor is buried at sea.” He continued, “I hope you have been obedient to your mother, and helped her all you could, and saved her trouble. Now is the time to show whether you are a good, honorable boy, or a good-for-nothing one.”
I mused on this question for a time before finishing his letter, which closed—I do recall every last word of it—“The picture which I have of you and little Stanwix and your sisters, I look at sometimes till the faces almost seem real. Now my Dear Boy, good-bye, and God bless you.” I read the letter through several times, then read it to Mother, who, after a moment’s pause, said, “See, Malcolm, how your dear father does wish for your welfare.” I nodded but said nothing. I wondered how real my face had ever seemed to him, even in his presence. I never again thought of my sled as a “clipper.”
Strange that Father should ever urge God to bless me. The thought of it calls to mind an oppressively hot August afternoon five years ago that we spent at Gansevoort, Mother’s hometown. Father and I had tramped about for hours over field and hill. When he had spoken at all, his talk was of the war. He told of visiting Mathew Brady’s photography studio in New York to see “The Dead of Antietam.” Father said the bodies lay in postures more hideous than noble. A few, he said, were on their backs, their legs and arms splayed at grotesque angles, bellies swollen, mouths agape, hands clenched, and eyes wide as if, he claimed, “staring fixedly into the pale vacancy above in vain search of the source of their undoing.” Then, from the brow of the hill where we sat for a moment, he gazed out over the rolling meadows, ponds, and brooks, the houses clustered in the distance near white steeples, and he said quietly, “Mackie, in no world but a fallen one can such things be.” At first, I thought he meant merely what he had seen at the studio, but quickly I saw that he meant not merely that but all that lay before us and indeed all that lay beyond.
As we returned to the little town, faint heaving of thunder came from the darkening west, and we heard a man shouting and receiving answering cries from a crowd gathered in a dusty field brightened fitfully by the glare of torches. Father grasped my elbow and drew me rapidly toward the tumult and the flames. “This may prove instructive,” he said. As always when he quickened his pace, he took on a rolling gait and leaned forward, shoulders hunched, as if treading the boards of a ship battling heavy seas. And as always at such times with him, after several strides, I found my own shoulders rounding, my own head dropping, my own gait carrying me from side to side with each step.
Now in the dusk, as the thunder drew nearer, we joined perhaps a hundred sweating persons who stood before a platform that held a much-scarred pulpit. Not far from it stood the battered wagon that had carried platform and pulpit into the field, and on either side was a placard with a painting of a large, staring blue eye and the words “HE SEES.” Painted on the pulpit was that same eye, gazing sternly at all it looked upon. Below it hung black bunting.
A gaunt, thin-lipped man stood behind the pulpit. His lank red hair was combed straight back from his high forehead and hung to his shoulders. His spectacles returned the flames of the torches as he turned his face toward those gathered in the field beneath him. Father and I stood at the rear of the crowd as the preacher called to his listeners, “He sees!” His long arm, clothed in rusty black broadcloth, reached out tremblingly to the crowd, pointing a bony forefinger here and there, back and forth, seemingly missing no one who stood before him. Scattered shouts of “He sees! He sees!” rose among them.
“He knows!” His shout was fearful, the long arm still reaching and trembling. The echoing cries came again, louder than before. And now, after allowing the answering shouts to die down, he sobbed, and cried out, “He weeps!” Then, as the cries from the crowd came again, louder still and more numerous, the preacher reached around his pulpit, stripped the bunting from its front, to reveal a large tear that had been painted beneath the eye.
“Yes, yes, yes,” the preacher called now, the strains of a sob still wrenching his voice. “He weeps for us all. How quickly, though, did our Father see us plummet from grace, and He is dreadfully disappointed.” His bony finger seemed to reach forward till it nearly touched each in the crowd, and he cried, “You have made your Heavenly Father weep the bitterest of tears over his straying offspring. And now you are lost.” Frantic lamentations sprang up among a goodly number of those who stood before him, and my own hands started to tremble and my own eyes grew moist. Suddenly, I felt a firm hand take my shoulder and pull me away. It was Father’s.
As we walked from the scene, the thunder building, Father declared once more, “In no world but a fallen one, Mackie, no world but a fallen one.” And I recalled the Sunday school song I’d inscribed in the Bible Mother had given me one evening when I was still a little boy.
Little travelers Zionward,
Each one ent’ring into rest
In the Kingdom of your Lord,
In the Mansions of the Blest
There to welcome Jesus waits,
Gives the Crowns his followers win.
Lift your heads ye Golden Gates!
Let the little travelers in!
The next morning, the first of a fresh spring, I’d been singing that song as I pulled my little cousin Frank and one of his playmates along in a toy wagon. A wooden sword in hand and paper helmet on my head, I was full ready to defend them with my life against any pagans we might encounter on that arduous but glorious journey Zionward, to the Mansions of the Blest.
Father, sitting on the porch, book in lap, cigar in hand, had looked up as we came by. Smiling mirthlessly, he’d nodded to us children and said, “Let us hope that your Zion will prove worth the trip!” Then he’d stood up, muttered something under his breath, shut his book, tossed his cigar to the dirt and ground it in roughly with his heel.
The memory of that long-ago afternoon came to me as I walked with Father from the preaching in the torch-lit field. I shivered despite the heat. Father said nothing further. The rain fell hard as we neared Grandmother’s house. Father did not quicken his pace, and my shivering grew upon me. That night, as I lay in bed, warm and drowsy at last, Father passed my room, and seeing that I was awake, entered, and stood by my bed. “Malcolm, lad,” he asked, “did the scene you witnessed with me prove an instructive one?”
“I don’t know, Father,” I answered.
“You are a soft and caring boy, Malcolm, and, I sometimes fear, ill-equipped to face the buffetings of this hard world.” He stared at me for a long moment and, perhaps troubled that he had spoken too much, said, “I know you’re a good boy, one I can depend on,” then leaned over and patted my head, less, it seemed, in affection than in solemn pity. He left, and I began shivering once more and slept little that night, seeing again through my closed lids the pulpit’s staring eye, the flame-reflecting spectacles of the man behind it, and, gazing grimly over all, our weeping Lord.
Father has never told me just what it is he depends on me for. Perhaps it is merely my being there for him to contemplate as further evidence of the nature of things while he muses on the next writings with which he will seek to affront that nature. His reticence is a wall that none can break through.
Even his rages are more often silent than not. Two Sunday mornings ago, as I lay in bed, my head heavy from revelry the night before, I heard Mother cry, “Herman, no, please!,” and Stanwix and the girls begging, “Father, please, please, don’t.” I rushed from my room to find Mother on her knees at the head of the staircase, Father standing above her, his open palm raised, a look of fearsome anger on his face. The girls and poor little Stanwix, all pleading and weeping, were below, as if to keep their mother from tumbling down the stairs with the blow about to befall her.
I grasped Father at his wrist and said, “Father, don’t, it’s not right!” He turned, and his blue eyes stared into mine with what seemed an unfathomably deep bitterness. Then, with little more than a shrug of his broad shoulder, he flung me from him and raised his hand as if to strike. As I lay quivering against the wall, he lowered his hand and muttered, “No, ’tis not right to turn woe to madness.” And with that, he stroked my head gently with his broad palm, turned, and walked into his study, closing the door softly behind him.
Beside the door, Father’s framed print of The Raft of the Medusa hung askew, making it seem that all who had survived the shipwreck and clung now to the makeshift raft were imminently to slip from it into the bottomless sea. The surging waves and blackening sky toward which they stared off into the vacant distance were raised with the tilt till they loomed over the scene, ready to cover all forever.
When I asked Mother what had prompted Father’s anger, she shook her head and said softly, “He said nothing. Perhaps it was that I had dressed for church. I haven’t gone for months.” Then with a sob she said, “Oh, my dear children, be patient with your father. The world makes him suffer so.”
Last Sunday morning, she sat knitting and looked quietly out the window. Seeing this, Father smiled solemnly and proposed that he and I walk together. I refused, pleading a headache, which indeed I had, but I would have pleaded one in any event. Father took Stanwix instead, who, as he left, his small hand swallowed in Father’s, looked as if he were being taken to the gallows.
Did Father depend on me to stay his hand as he raised it over Mother that Sunday morning, two weeks past? Will he depend on me to care for the family should he go off again, traveling the world in search of he knows not what, certain he’ll never find it, an Ahab with no visible loss, no livid scar? Is that why he has insisted that I myself never go to sea, but stay anchored to my desk in the eternal dry dock of the Great Western Marine Insurance? Does he depend on me never to see more than that rectangle of sky and water that I angle my chair to more and more as I sit with endless columns of figures before me? Does he, perhaps in love, perhaps not, seek to keep me from all dangers he himself has never been able not to face?
Five nights ago, I came home smiling happily, entered Father’s study, and announced, “Father, I have joined the Guard.”
Father put down his pen, looked up, and, smiling slightly, said, “Well, well, Mackie, and what Guard would that be?”
Squaring my shoulders and forcing myself to meet his gaze, I responded, “The New York State National Guard, sir, Company B of the Second Regiment of Infantry, First Brigade First Division, sir.”
“I see,” he said, nodding. “‘Pro patria mori,’ sweet and fitting, my boy, sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. And what has prompted this sublime burst of patriotism, Mackie? Has there not been dying aplenty in these last years? Is Moloch yet thirsting for more young blood? Do the Mexicans wish to lose more of their land to these States? Are the three millions of Canada planning to sweep across our borders and contend with the thirty millions of America? Do you spy dangers, lad, from over the great oceans?”
I stood there speechless, as abashed as any member of the Pequod’s crew before his dark and inscrutable captain.
“Do you perhaps see domestic conflicts brewing, Mackie?”
“Yes, Father, perhaps domestic ones,” I said, finally, my posture no longer erect.
He gave me a long, searching look, and then, more mildly, asked, “Why have you joined, Malcolm?”
In one of his poems, Father wrote, “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” Yes. He sees. He knows. He knows that I signed up as a boyish enthusiast, as I now know that I have. The bright splendid uniform, the sword, the Colt revolver, the one night a week of drill and the seven-day summer bivouac, the camaraderie —all boyish, of course, of a piece with wooden sword and paper helmet.
I mumbled feebly in response about the virtues of exercise and discipline, to which he nodded and said, “Both edifying, to be sure.” And he turned back to his page and took up his pen once more.
I left his study with a rolling gait and my shoulders hunched.
Tonight, after our drilling was done, I went with some from the regiment to Kleinow’s beer cellar for a bit of merry-making. After a while, the songs turned from raucous, shouted choruses of “We’ll Rally ’Round the Flag” and “Marching Through Georgia” to dreamy crooning of stanza after stanza of “Lorena,” with several sniffling as they reached the final lines,
Our hearts will soon lie low, Lorena.
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.
But there’s a future, oh, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part—
’Tis dust to dust beneath the sod,
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart.
And while I sang now with the others and fought back my own tears, I dreamt of having a Lorena who would greet me lovingly as I returned victorious from battle, my sword at my waist, my Colt revolver at my hip, a slight scar on my cheek, like that of our regiment’s captain, “Wild Jack” Cabot, grazed by a Rebel bullet at Gettysburg. With such a Lorena, I would spend a life happy and honorable and an eternity heart to heart, watched over by a God who saw, knew, and smiled upon us.
I walked homeward slowly, my hands in my pockets, gazing out past the masts at the East River docks towards the starry sky stretching like an endless sea.
Passing an alley of shabby dwellings, I heard a voice cry, “Don’t touch me, you brute!” I looked in and saw a burly fellow twisting a young woman’s arm. “You’ll do as I say, Lucy,” he snarled.
His back to me, he raised his hand to strike her, and I shouted, “Touch a hair of her head and you’ll pay dearly for it, scoundrel!” My voice quavered, but my resolve was firm. I reached to undo the clasp of the holster at my hip.
Turning toward me, the cur sneered, “Oh, I see, it’s a little soldier boy, is it? Don’t he just look like a fire eater who could melt Stonewall Jackson himself to butter? But that war’s over, sonny, and this one’s just starting.”
He guffawed and lurched toward me while I still struggled with the clasp. My punch struck his barrel chest with no more effect than if I’d struck a wall of the alley. He gripped my jacket, slapped me across the jaw, and sent me sprawling against some trash bins. “I’d pound you to a puddle of puke, my little soldier boy,” he jeered, “but I ain’t gonna end up in a cell again for the likes of you, you tricked-up cockroach.”
As I lay there, my arm before my face, my holster still clasped, the young woman laughed, said, “You sure are full of piss and brimstone tonight, Jake,” and took him by the hand.
Together they walked off, his arm about her waist, her head at his shoulder, both laughing loudly, while he shouted more than sang, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The breeze carried with it the smell of East River waste, as I walked homeward under the distant stars.
Father was waiting when I came in. He warned me briefly of the “pitfalls that await one who keeps irregular hours and pursues pleasures in low places.”
I muttered in response that in a fallen world one takes one’s pleasures where he may.
He sighed, shook his head slightly, patted mine gently, and told me to walk quietly as I climbed the stairs, so as not to disturb Mother. As I strode from him, I tried to carry myself with a military bearing, and as I lie in bed, sleepless now, the final verse of “Lorena” still echoing softly, I roll the cylinder of my Colt. The few hours till dawn pass slowly. I fear that I may be forever in dreadful night.
I close my eyes and see a small boy pulling his wagon Zionward, a pulpit bearing the weeping eye of God, a young sailor plummeting to a deck far below. I spin the cylinder again and again, three of its six chambers filled, and my own tears come. If there is a loving God, I know He will forgive me and let me live my life. If there is no such, if far beyond the office walls, beyond the whale, beyond the brooding eyes and forbidding high, pale brow of Father, there is naught that can be appealed to, then this life must cease, along with all fruitless hopes of strolling through fields of eternal Zion hand in hand with a loving Lorena. The cylinder I whirl and the barrel I raise to my temple will be the means of testing. Perhaps I rise in the morning to hear church bells tolling the hours of Sunday silence; perhaps, instead, I shall be found hearing nothing, offering Father a fresh blank page.