Cape Cod – Genius Loci – Pt. 2

WE do well, now and again, to make friends with another time than our own; and by good fortune some of us, then, may find a path to the Cape of pines and dunes where lay a township recreated for us in twilight stories by the nursery fire. Here peaked-roof houses look out over “the lilac trees which bear no fruit but a pleasant smell,” willow and silvery poplars meet above the road, and here genial spirits populate the brave old time — days when deep-water sailors hailed the little town as home, and women, demure, pure-faced, neat-footed, kept the houses as spotless as their hearts.

From month on to month, the village might have been a colony forsworn by world and men; but when the Flying Cloud or Halcyon made port, it brimmed with life eager to have its due before next sailing-day. From the cap’n’s mansion on Main Street to the loweaved house whose oldest son swung his hammock in the fo’c’s’le, doors opened with an easy welcome. This home had sent a mate, that a cabin boy, another would never see again the brave fellow who had been lost off Mozambique. They had been as sons to the “old man,” who on the planks of his ship was patriarch or despot as character should determine; but now all were equal by the freemasonry of home. Seachests gave up their treasure, and bits of ebony and jade were added to mantel curios, an ivory junk spread its crimson sail beside the Tower of Pisa, a spirited portrait of the Leviathan entering the port of Malaga was hung opposite the waxen survival of Aunt Jane’s funeral wreath. And in shaded parlors the fragrance of sandalwood and attar-of-rose and the spicy odor of lacquer mingled with the breath of syringa wafted in from the garden.

Then there was an interchange of high festivities among the cap’n’s families when French china, latticed with gold, set off Belfast damask, and the silver tea-service, which Cap’n Jason had brought from Russia in ’36, stood cheek by jowl with East Indian condiment and English glass. Amid the rustle of lustrous satin and silk the guests gathered about the board, and cups were stood in cup-plates while tea was sipped from saucers poised in delicately crooked fingers. Conversation swung easily around the world, from adventures in the Spanish Main to a dinner at “Melbun” on the English barque whose captain they had greeted in every harbor of the globe where trade was good; and they recalled with Homeric jest the ball at Singapore when many friendly ships rode at anchor in the bay.

But it was on a Sunday that the town blossomed as sweetly as any rose in June, when wives and sweet-hearts, in silks and fairy penas and wraps heavy with patient embroideries of the East, made their way to the village church where a second mate led the hymns with his flute and the cap’n droned after on a viol. “There is a land mine eye hath seen” swelled into a joyous chorus of treble and rumbling bass, while men thought of the sultry day at Surinam when they had longed for the “blissful, shores” of home. And as the parson made his prayer for “those who go down to the sea in ships,” they pitied the poor fellows whose guide-post was a compass as cheerfully as if they themselves were to dare no perils greater than the Big Channel in the bay. Church over, the road was aflutter with rainbow color. And sunburnt beaux in tight white trousers, blue coats, agonizing stocks, and top-hats rakishly a-tilt, peered under the arc of leghorn bonnets where moss-rosebuds nestled against smoothly banded hair, while beneath his surtout and her mantilla or pelisse the hearts beat out their mating-tune.