Cape Cod – Genius Loci – Pt. 1

OTIS and Shaw were great, and the qualities that made them so, particularly those of Shaw, were indigenous to the soil. It is interesting to look through a book like Freeman’s “Cape Cod,” and study there the portraits of the men who built this unique community. They are often singularly handsome, with a fine, well-bred, upstanding air. They, preeminently, are not villagers, but men of the world who know their world well and have considered its works. Perhaps in every face, whether it has beauty of line or the homely ruggedness graved by generations of positive character, the dominant feature is a certain poise of mind: these men would think, and then judge; they would look at you straight, and it would be difficult for you to conceal your purpose. It would be easier to be persuaded than to persuade them; and in the end it is probable that your yielding would be justified in wisdom. From such characters could be drawn a composite that might fitly be the genius loci; and lest its secret charm elude us and Cape Cod appear no more than a pleasing sandy offshoot of New England, we should do well to learn of him. He is, as we see him, in essence a follower of the sea: one who pursues romance to mould it to everyday use. For a closer aspect it may be convenient to place him in the eighteen-forties, or earlier, at latest the fifties, in the great days of the clippers.

On the old sailing-vessel there was a constant duel, to challenge the temper of him, between a man’s wit and the lambent will of the sea. And although the steamship has a romance and daring of its own — a puny hull that carries forth upon the waters a little flare of flame to wage the old warfare — it was with sails aloft and no wires from shore that a lad then, who had the gift of using the decisive moment, would best find a career. The master of a ship was master in the markets ashore, and there, or afloat, he must be quick to seize fortune as it came. It is said of such a one that “he had the air, as he had the habit, of success.” He was no reckless adventurer, but aimed to earn an honest living as soberly as any stay-at-home, for whom, and also, perhaps, for fishermen on the Banks, he may have had some easy condescension. He was the aristocrat of the sea. When adventure met him by the way, so much the better if young blood ran hot; but the majority were shrewd cool merchants who sold and bought where their judgment pointed them. They were expert in seamanship because that was one of the tools of their trade; and when they turned a tidy profit on some voyage, they bought shares in the ships they sailed, or others, in-vesting in a business whose every turn was familiar to them, until they could leave the sea to become farmers, or ship-chandlers, or East India merchants. If the seaman founded a house in the city, he sent his boys to college, and took one or two of them into his office to train them as merchants; and in not many decades the same absorbing hazard of trade was to be carried on by other means, or, if by ocean traffic, “steam-kettle sailors” were servants of the counting-rooms ashore.

But our genius loci, who was familiar with the cities of the world, chose for his home the town where he was born. When fortune warranted, he married a wife, and built in the village a house that was adorned, voyage after voyage, with a gradual store of treasures from Europe and the East. His women-folk wore the delicate tissues of foreign looms, and managed the farm when he was away, and practised intellectualities; they cooked, sewed, painted, accomplished a dozen small arts with exquisite care. They were ready for the relaxations of society when ships made port, and the village swung to the tune of a larger world. The seafarer loved them with a reticence called for by the custom of the day, and with a tender chivalry that might be the envy of any time.

There is a pretty story of one old captain — men commanded their ships at twenty and were old at forty — whose treasure was a little daughter. She had a maimed foot that must undergo a cruel cure, and for a bribe she had been promised dancing-lessons, the dearest wish of her childish heart. Her ordeal passed, the captain kept faith with her. Through a long winter, while he waited for his ship, in starlight or snow he set the child upon his shoulder and bore her to the hall where the old fiddler taught the boys and girls their steps, and there danced with her, envied because of such attendance, until the foot grew strong and she, who had been shy from the misfortune that had marked her difference in the children’s world, blossomed into the merriest little jade of all the company.

And for him, all the watery highways he must travel were only the road to lead him home. There, his adventure achieved, he lived healthily upon the produce of his farm; poverty, the city kinsman was ready to aver, his only fault. But he had more than enough for the life he had chosen; his manners were as polished and his speech as fine as if he trod the pavement instead of driving about his beloved country roads — he had paced too many miles of deck to walk a rod ashore. He had rich memories, and discrimination in choosing the elements essential to happiness. What should a man need more? And when the end came, and in the graveyard with an outlook to blue water from the hillside where the willows drooped low, he lay beside her whom he loved best, the epitaph there might be, for her: “During a long life she performed all her duties with fidelity and zeal, and died in the triumph of Christian faith and resignation.” And for him: “His integrity of character gave him an honorable distinction among his fellow citizens : his private virtues endeared him to all: his end was peace.”