Masses & Mainstream
November, 1949, pp. 28-41
Journey to Boston
A Story by HOWARD FAST
FROM the journal of Reuben Joshua Dover, it will be noted that even after he had well passed the allotted three score years and ten, he wrote with a firm, round hand. Therefore, it is not surprising that at the age of only sixty-six, he was a sound, dry and healthy man, able to do his day's work if it was necessary for him to do it; the trouble was that it was not wholly necessary, since he had four strong sons and two buxom daughters - and they were good children, which is not so often the case.
Like an old nut, Reuben Dover rattled a little, but he was sound, drying slowly like an apple that begins just bulging with juice and never has a bad spot on it. Of Puritan stock, he was city born, town born - he never forgot that and wore it like a badge - until the big layoff on the rope walk pushed him out to the stony fields of Middlesex where he hired on and learned what a damned crofter does. He was a man for a working wage, and he liked the feel of a wage and the companionship and good feeling that goes with a social way of work; and if left to himself he probably would have gone on that way, with occasional shipping out to see all the various Christian and heathen places of the world, the way a Boston boy does, until he ended deep in Davey Jones locker or on a board in the poorhouse; that's the way it probably would have been if left to himself, but he married Annie Cartwheel, an ambitious girl, and then he was not left to himself again, but had to go out after the war to the Mohawk bottoms and till the land and build a hard stone house. But prosperity never brought him the gladness of a glass of rum with the hard-headed boys on the waterfront. He had eighty-three milch cows, but he could climb his peaked barn roof and never see a ship or something that resembled one, and he would walk all over his acres and never see the pretty little whores that walked on King Street or the wonderful sights of the yellow Chinese or the great black men from the warm places. At night, there was the chirping of the crickets everywhere, but nowhere the soft sweet singing of the Portugee fishers who sailed their boats across from the Azores and often enough bedded down with and even married some Yankee lassie, and nowhere the gentle crooning of the Kanaka harpoon men, so strong and graceful and gentle.
There was work and prosperity and a lumber mill and the six children, and suddenly he was old but not too old and what his sons couldn't take care of were just odds and ends of nothing at all, just miserable chores and not for a man who had worked a lifetime.
Thus, when it came out of the east, riding and sighing on the wind, brought by the fast post and by word of mouth too that the man Samuel Adams, old Sam Adams, seldom Sam Adams, had passed away and gone to rest with the best and the least of them, laid down his tired old body for ever and ever, Reuben Dover announced to his wife and children and grandchildren: "Now I think I'll go and walk in the procession and pay my respects, you know."
"As if they intended to put him on ice and just keep the corpse awaiting you," his wife commented sourly.
"Now maybe they would, knowing how folks will come from here and there as the news spreads."
"He's buried deep under right now," the son Joshua said.
"And if that's the case, I'll have me a glass of rum on his grave and toast him good, God bless him."
"Good riddance to a trouble maker," his wife said, and he told her sharp:
"You shut your mouth, Annie. I never took a hand to you, but sure as there's a God in heaven I will, talking that way."
"A sudden belief in God?" the son Adam said.
"I never had no trouble with God, you young fool - just never stood in no awe of Him nor no other, I tell you that! And how would you know today when there ain't men left! And how would you know about old Samuel either?" thinking to himself, by all that was holy, he wouldn't come back, but go and pay his respects and then ship onto some four-master out for nowhere, even if he went as a cook's helper.
"Wouldn't know a thing about him," the son Adam agreed.
"Still I'm going, and that's that, so we don't need to hash it over and over. I'm going, do you hear me? And I'm going on my best mare with my best suit and my best hat, and I'm going to pay my respects regular, deep and regular and sorrowful. Do you hear?"
But he thought to himself, there will be no one to weep, no one to know the truth of it, no one to remember, when it was all so long ago and like a dream that it had ever happened at all. And that very morning, he saddled up the mare and left for Boston.
IT WAS a two hundred mile trip to Boston, and no more Indians along the way to threaten your scalp and no more danger of British patrols, as there was once a quarter of a century past, but everywhere the mushroom growth of town and city and mill and farm, with the Yankees out to make a dollar where a dollar was to be made. The copper smelter smoked and the iron works glowed red by night; the gathered corn stood in the fields. The geese honked south in mighty flocks, for the Yankees had not yet figured out a way to get rid of the geese as expeditiously as they had gotten rid of the deer, who had once been as thick as flies over this land.
But for all of that, the land was still beautiful, with the lovely Mohawk wending its way into the lovely Hudson, and with the shadow of the pretty Berkshire hills on the eastern horizon. It was autumn time, the maples already red, the birch yellow, the dead leaves rustling as they fell, and the wonderful clean smell of coming winter on the air; and as old Reuben Dover rode along, he felt that his youth was flowing back into his veins. He felt free and footloose and full of good memories, and sitting bolt upright in his saddle, he put back his head and sang:
"Oh, pretty are the riggers as they sail across the sea,
The better he felt, the younger he felt, the more certain Reuben Dover became that he would not go back to the farm, to his family, to his pinch-faced, carping wife. And when round about sundown, he saw a little stone Dutch inn, nestling in the shade of two giant maples and two giant oaks, with all the wood trim painted a neat white, he made up his mind to spend the night here. Most probably it was true that Sam Adams had already been taken into the earth, and a body in a grave will keep for more than a day or two, and it was seven years now since he had gone anywhere at all. He was in no hurry, and the dead were not impatient.
But prettier is the lassie who waits at home for me,
With her sewing and her spinning and her weaving and her song,
May the best winds only grant it that she never waits too long,
That she never waits too long,
That she never waits too long,
For when I up and left her, I did a mighty wrong."
The boy who took his horse had been a crawling babe the last time he came this way, and that gave him additional thought about what happens when a man beds down in just one place. The innkeeper had a new wife, and sitting before the strong red fire in the tap-room were two of the new men, the selling men or salesmen as they were occasionally called, who took merchandise made in the Boston and Albany mills and drummed it to the farmers through the valleys. In the old days, Reuben recalled, you could always find at one of these wayside inns a Jew or a Scotsman with his pack of trinkets, cheap jewelry and piece goods, going out with a couple of pack animals to trade with the Indians for furs; but such men did a barter business pure and simple, while these new ones drummed for cash sale and nothing else. The wandering Jews and Scotsmen of the old times went out with never a thought for the time it took and were always ready to pass the time of the day over a cup of coffee, but these new ones were sharp and brisk with no time for anything that stood in the way of business.
There was also a neighborhood farmer, Fromm Vanjoorden by name, who had come in for a glass of hot rum and butter, and there was the post rider from Albany, a tall and sallow man in his middle thirties. The merchandise men were stout and neatly put together, intent on the fat barmaid, but Reuben, full of the juices of youth, set himself on the innkeeper's wife, a fine-looking woman of fifty or so; and when the innkeeper himself failed to appear, he began to think of the coming night just like some hot lad of twenty. He pinched her behind and shouldered her thigh and put away a pint of hot rum before his dinner.
She, on the other hand, looked sidewise at him, her blue eyes sparkling; for he was lean and hard and healthy-looking, for all of his years, and her husband was off to the market in Albany.
TALK was on, and Reuben listened before he put his oar into it. He himself was a Democrat and a strong one, but the two drummers seemed to talk Federalist talk; and whenever Reuben heard Federalist talk, he began to think of himself not so much as a Democrat as a Jacobin. He kept eyeing the Dutch farmer, speculating on whether he might not be a Jacobin too, which would make the odds better if he had to put the two damned fat fools in their places. But you could never tell about a Dutchman; they were as unpredictable in politics as in anything else; and Reuben bided his time until one of the salesmen called Tom Jefferson a "scut" and a "canting liar."
"I didn't hear you," Reuben said.
"I said, liar."
Then the lady of the house said, "Not in my house. No such talk in my house - or out you go."
"It's a free country, ain't it?"
"And no great credit to you," the Dutch farmer drawled. "No sir, mister."
Reuben was bulwarked. When the older of the two drummers said, just as he had expected, "What is this, Jacobinism?" he rose to his feet and answered: "God damned right!"
"There are ladies present."
"My apologies," Reuben said to the lady gallantly. And to the salesmen, "Did you call me a Jacobin?"
"If the name fits."
"It fits," Reuben said shortly. "And better than that, I'm on my way to pay my respects to the best of them all, old Sam Adams. I'll drink to him." He raised his glass.
"Not me, sir."
A long-limbed, red-faced man came in then, sleeves rolled and his leather apron of trade on him. "Did I hear that name?" he demanded. "Who's talking about Sam Adams?"
"I am, sir," Reuben said aggressively.
"For him or against him?"
"For him. If you'd a come a moment sooner, you would a heard me called a Jacobin too."
"Are you one?"
"I am." And then he added, "What in hell are you?"
"A bottle blower," the man in the apron answered.
"A Democrat to my friends, and to them - " Nodding at the drummers, "Jacobin."
"Let me buy you a drink," Reuben said . . .
By nine o'clock, he was comfortably, homely drunk as he hadn't been in fifteen years, and he had kissed the landlady in the pantry and given her his gold watch fob to remember him by, not ten years from now, but around midnight, when he said he might just happen along to her room; and she called him a dirty old goat, which made him feel prouder than he had felt in a long time.
The two salesmen went to bed, and Reuben, the Dutch farmer, and the glass blower held down the fireside, with the boy fetching wood to keep it blazing and port wine to be mulled and keep them burning, at least to a degree.
LIKE most of the Dutchmen, the farmer had served in and out of the New Jersey line, and the glass blower had been on the long hike north to Canada with Arnold, whom he hated with a just and ripening hatred, not a quiet resentment at all. But neither of them had known Sam Adams, whom they toasted again and again.
"God bless him," they said.
"He never had a bad moment with God," Reuben pointed out. "A most religious man, orthodox, if you understand, but it never interfered with his tactics. Now Joe Warren never believed in God; came from cutting up too many bodies and seeing what was underneath, but Samuel respected the quality of disbelief. Could he have built a movement of Puritans - now answer me that?"
"That's granted," the glassblower said.
"So when Reverend Sutter came to him and demanded that Warren go out for being a damned atheist, Samuel asked him, Now what is most necessary for belief - mind, heart or body? Sutter thought to outsmart him, and knowing that Sam was one for tactics, answered - mind, just like that. Not at all, said Samuel, for I believe with the heart and Joe Warren - before Sutter could get a word in - believes with the body. There he was. A man who never had a mite of trouble with God."
"And I wonder how he died?" the Dutch farmer speculated.
"You can be just as sure that he died confident - and with everyone in that cursed city hating him," Reuben said.
"There should be a delegation," the glass blower nodded.
"With Yankees?" the farmer asked scornfully.
"Now wait a minute. There are good ones and bad ones. What did we build a movement out of, but the Yankees?"
"The quality of him was Yankee," Reuben agreed. "My own folks came from Plymouth, and that's nothing to be ashamed of, but he was not limited. Not narrow. Let me point this out to you - what did they fix on when they wanted to put a noose around his neck and squeeze the character from him: that he was a thief, and I tell you this, what honesty was to him is something different than what is to you and me. With him it was the way of life, that no man should be ground down under another man. All right, they still grind them down, don't they, but it's a little different and it will be more different, mark my word. Well, what for did they make out of him a tax collector? That was the mad thing to do, and did they expect him to collect from poor people who could not pay? But mark this, there was a man who went out of the world with as little as he came into it, never a penny - and never a penny did he have but the little bit he needed to eat and feed his children."
"Amen," the farmer said.
"Now you ask them that go on the road to drum business. They won't say many amens."
"That's the truth."
A little drunk now, for he had more this evening than any evening in a long while, and that on top of the wonderful sensation of freedom, Reuben's thoughts wandered idly through the past, with now and then just a flicker of anticipation toward the immediate future and the landlady. When men sit for hours looking at a roaring fire, and getting a little drunk in the bargain, they will see in the flames what they want to see, and sometimes very clearly indeed. Into life in Reuben Joshua Dover's memories came the Boston of long, long ago, when it was Sam Adams' town, when the carpenters and rope-makers felt for the first time on the continent the inevitable and irresistible strength of men who work together, and when they formed their revolutionary committees and lit a spark that burned for quite a while.
In his mind's eye, he breasted the hills to the west, and saw the whole pretty little town standing on its neck of land, and then he went walking on, through the gates and along Orange Street, but he was
young and hale and bold, and the palms of his hands - from walking the ropes - were hard enough to drive tenpenny spikes with, as the saying went. As he walked on, he saw the Boston that would not be again, that strange, unruly, stiff-necked, puritanical yet worldly, narrow yet cosmopolitan town that had already sent its ships to every corner of the civilized and the uncivilized world too. He saw the pigtailed sailors, parrots and monkeys riding their shoulders, and he recalled how carefully the commission merchants and the prim bankers avoided them. He saw the fat, respectable, matronly housewives shudder aside as the tarts passed, for that was a time when for every two honest women in the town, there was one that was a little less than honest. He saw the swaggering students from Cambridge, arm in arm, blasphemously singing, "Study is the most original sin!" And of course, he saw Sam Adams. You could not take a walk through Boston along Orange, up Newbury, through Marlbrough, then around past King's Chapel and over to Hannover along the neck without running into the old man and having him buttonhole you and say, in that close, inviting, confidential way of his:
"Now what do you hear, Reuben?"
"A ruddy sunset," if you were one of them, and Reuben Dover was, from the beginning. Then the old man roared with laughter and squeezed your arm in a way that made you want to do anything for him.
"On and off, Sam. If the ships don't sail, you don't need rope, and that's the mighty hell of it."
"Sure, Reuben." It wasn't just that he seemed to feel for you, he did feel for you. "Who takes the ships from the port - they or us? But I tell you, there are other uses for a prime piece of cordage. A mill turns on rope, and you can pull a cannon with a rope harness - and, do you know, I have even heard it said that a man can hang on the end of a rope?" It came as a question, and questioningly the pale gray eyes regarded you, the big, square face gently curious, the big square nose inquiring rather than aggressive. Only the mouth was round and full and sensitive as well as sensuous, and knowing....
Then in his mind's eye, Reuben Dover saw more, for he passed the day with Sam Adams and walked on to the Old Wharf, where the ships lay in every stage of construction, some with just ribs and keel, like herrings picked clean, some with flesh over the ribs, and some all decked and ready for the launching. One year merged with another, and as he dreamed, looking into the flames, he put the years together haphazardly, the good ones with the bad ones, taking from them what he wanted. So it was that when he came to the shipyards, they hummed with work, and men put down their hammers, saws and planes to wave to him and ask him how it went in the walks.
Rope to rig them, cloth to sail them, food to stock them and men to man them. Then they would dance over the waves like girls to their lovers and across the whole world the yellow folk and the brown folk and the black folk would see the colors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
HE SHOOK himself awake, wiping the moisture from his eyes, and muttering, "He should a perished then, and what good was it for him to go on living, when I met up with one who had seen him in Boston, sitting by the window of his house, his spittle dripping and his hands so palsy they couldn't hold - and never a word of sense out of him, except when you called him a Jacobin, and then the old pride flowed back into him for a minute, God granting him that - "
"Who?" the glass blower asked.
"Why the old man, Sam, who else? He lived a proper life," Reuben said. "He did what he had to do and what he intended to do. And when he had finished, he had finished, that's all."
"And when was that?" came gently.
"To put your finger on it? As a moment? You know, I think I could do it - and I'll tell you of it, too, word by word. It was in 'seventy-five, and he was already by then fifty-three years old - or was it fifty-four? Well, I don't know and it don't matter, does it? There he was, anyway, riding his horse across the ploughed fields of Andy Simmons-"
"When was that, Reuben?" the glass blower inquired, for Reuben Dover was nodding over his rum as he spoke, tending to wander and live through the scene himself, without much thought for the others.
"I told you in 'seventy-five."
"But when? On what side of the year?"
"I told you in April!" Reuben shouted, sitting bolt upright, but the Dutch farmer wagged an uncertain finger at him and said: "Now you did not - not at all."
"And when would it be but in April?" He looked from face to face, and then he smiled, the wrinkles spreading all over his dry, leathery features. The landlady came up then, pulling a stool alongside his chair, and once again Reuben noticed what a fine figure of a woman she was, a ripe plum with clothes like the peel, for all of her years.
"Shouting," she said. Her voice was deep and filled with honey, but maybe Reuben was drunk and a woman's voice would be like that the way he felt now.
"In April, I told them," he said.
"Yes - and look at the time." She pointed to the tall clock in the corner, and the hands were coming together for midnight. "Would you burn every stick of wood I have?" she wanted to know.
"And how would you have us keep out the chill, woman?" the glass blower wanted to know.
"There are other ways," she answered, smiling at Reuben, who smiled back at her, just as graciously.
"Time enough," he said. The clock began to strike, and he cocked his head, and then they all listened until the twelve chimes had sounded out. "I'll cut you wood in the morning. I'll cut you a cord and stack it up as high as your nose. Now have a drink with us and I'll tell you about that April."
She poured rum from a pitcher, a tot for herself too, and sat on the stool, stroking a cat that cuddled in her lap. She hummed a little, the soft sound of a country dance, which Reuben didn't mind at all. It made a sound together with the roar of the blaze, and he wet his throat and told about that sweet April morning, with the sun coming up all red and clean in the east, and the crows flying and cawing, and the beads of dew all over the fields.
IT COULD have been yesterday," he said, and they nodded, all of them being old enough to know how time makes its way. "It could have been yesterday, and I had a place three miles from Lexington, south over east, where there used to be a stone mealy mill - " But they didn't know the land, being New York bred, and he said, "Well, there it was anyway, and I had a rotten few acres where you broke your plough on the rocks, so when I heard that shooting begin, like frozen twigs snapping, I say to myself, there it is, Reuben, and time enough too. Here's up and off and something doing, and I'll leave ploughing to them as wants it. That's what I said to myself, and I pulled on my britches. What are you up to? my wife says. What am I up to? My land, I'm up to making something and making it prime. Prime. So I took down my gun, a handsome musket of the French make, and I filled my pockets with ball and I took me a bottle of powder, and out I went - with her shouting after me that I hadn't heard the end of it yet " He chuckled to himself over the memory. "Hadn't heard the end of it yet-"
"Where you at now, Reuben?" the glass blower demanded. "You started out with Samuel."
"And I'll be at him. He comes along. He comes along with that son of a bitch, John Hancock, the two of them riding hell for leather until Samuel sees me."
"Why don't you keep your ears cocked? I told you before he came across the fresh ploughed field of Andy Simmons. Never was much of a rider, either, if the truth be told, just hanging onto the saddle and glad enough to pull up when he sees me. Come along, Hancock says to him, and Samuel answers, What do you mean, come along? This here's an old friend of mine, Reuben Dover. Then he says to me, a good day to you, Reuben; and I say, Good morning to you, Samuel, and what was all that commotion I heard?"
"Just like that?" the Dutch farmer grinned, slapping his knee.
"Just like that."
The landlady smiled her warm smile and remarked, "I never known one yet connected with that war that wasn't the biggest liar in the nation."
"All right now," Reuben answered her patiently. "What is a lie and what ain't a lie? Twenty-eight years ago, that was, and the man who says he remembers this and that was said, literal, why he just talks big. Nobody remembers that way, and also it's proper a thing should ripen a little, the way a good wine does, and while it's a ripening, you want a little coloring, the way a painter does, and that's proper - wholly proper."
"Wholly proper," the glass blower agreed. "What I seen, with summer marches and winter camps, and suffering until you wouldn't know blood from tears, my children won't never see - and for their kids, by God, maybe they won't never hear of it even; for what are they saying already of old Samuel but that he was just a dirty and cantankerous old man? What we seen, it was just normal for then, but it ain't normal for now, and you got to dress it a little."
"Just a little," Reuben defended himself. "But I tell you I remember that morning just like yesterday, and when I ask what it is with all that snapping and crackling, the old man says, gunfire, lad, gunfire. It's gone and happened, he says, and the dead are stretched out on the green grass in the most unholy way, and there's going to be a terrible anger all over the land. That's what he says, him who brewed the anger himself for fifteen years-. And I brewed a little of it too," Reuben nodded.
"But he was going the other way," the landlady reminded him.
"Sure, and I said to him, How is it, Samuel? Well, he said, I made it, and I'm off to tell the Congress a little about it. So I asked him, You going to miss the fighting? Miss it, he says, why there's going to be a bellyful for everyone, and I won't miss none of it! It ain't finishing, it's starting. So I waved him goodby, him and Hancock - who I never liked - and I ran North and found them at the bridge...."
"Was you at the bridge?" the Dutch farmer asked.
"I was. I was that," Reuben whispered. "In at the first, and in at the last."
"Time for bed," the landlady said.
"You seen him again?" the glass blower wanted to know.
"Last time. I never seen him again, may he rest in peace. That's why I say, he could have died then. A man should know the proper time for packing his things and going off."
"A fine way to talk!" the landlady snorted. "Such a lot of talk, and where does it get to? A fine thing. Now go home - go home now," she said to the glass blower and the Dutch farmer. She bustled around them like a big hen and then she let them out of the door. Only Reuben Dover was left, he and the cat; the cat had curled up on a warm stone of the hearth, and Reuben Dover sat with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his palms, looking at the fire. Perhaps ten minutes went by while the landlady made things fast
for the night, and during that time, Reuben examined the past in the flames with a growing sadness. It was true, he reflected, that life was a moment; it came and it went, and the great treasure of youth was gone from you even before you made a full acquaintance of it. Then you filled yourself full of rum to loosen the strings that tied up your memory, but you never talked what you thought, and the rare goodness and courage of those you had known defied you. You babbled and that was all.
BY THE time Reuben Dover reached Albany, he had already come to the realization that he would not continue on to Boston, that he would not stand over Samuel Adams' grave and pay his respects, that he would not ship out in a square rigger for all the youthful and wonderful places of the world - but that he would go back to his farm and accept the scolding of his wife and the pitying looks of his children, and that he would go to church and listen to the pastor's sermons on the Godless, and he himself would lock his own godlessness within him. He realized that youth is for the young and that youth is a land no one ever revisits. He realized that this journey upon which he had embarked so lightheartedly was a strange contradiction in itself, for more than a journey to do homage to anyone, it was a desperate and rather pathetic search for those things which had animated him so long ago; and he also realized that an old man could not solve the essence of a betrayal so enormous.
A number of things brought him to these realizations. Only the two men he had spent that first night talking to were interested in either him or Samuel Adams. In places where he stopped to eat or sleep thereafter, he was a bore, a tiresome old man. Twice he was roundly insulted, and at Cohoes, where he announced himself a Jacobin, a glass of beer was flung in his face, and when he fought back, a blow on the head laid him out flat. At Cohoes, too, the Merchants' Association had a Jacobin hanging in permanent effigy and now a card was put on his neck naming him Sam Adams; and after his beating, Reuben lacked the courage to tear it down and despised himself for that lack of courage. At Albany, a newspaper carried a story entitled: "An Intimate Exposure of the Frauds and Thieveries of the Late but Not Lamented Samuel Adams." And these were just a sampling of many small but telling incidents. Yet even all of these together did not explain the bitter sadness of Reuben Dover, which he later entered in his journal in this fashion:
"I take this opportunity (he wrote) having taken no other, of paying my own tribute to my olden Comrade, Samuel Adams, may he rest in peace and without disturbance. For I have set out on a long journey to make some gesture to him, yet never completed that journey at all. My intent was to go to Boston, but no farther came I than Albany. Never finding along the way respect or consideration for the virtues I knew and labored for, I have no heart to continue more but will return now to my home.
"I must take note of the way this nation has changed, so that the Young are not brought up with honor for those who took the situation as it was and made from it a Revolution. Nor do citizens in the fullness of their life recall the splendid trials we endured. Rather do they embrace what was mean and narrow in the Yankee than the shining things that seem now so seldom. The honor of men who worked with their hands and their tools is now turned into dishonor, and to ask a wage for wife and child is to be called a Jacobin. To speak a good word for old Samuel Adams, that too is termed Jacobin, and it would seem that the brave People we knew are lost to us. I do not hold that way, for many of them must be in the towns and the countryside, and I think they will rally again as they did once. But who is to call them when those of us who remember are so old? I saw in Albany the new Smelting Mill, and the men who went in there to work took their children with them, holding them by the hand. No head, it seemed, was lifted with pride. The little children walked in shame and the grown ones too. And at a Goodsmill at Shineyside, I saw the same. I saw beggars in the streets and I was stopped by hale and hearty men who whimpered that they had no work.
"I can do honor, but what is the use if not to the living! I turned home because my part is finished and this land does not greet old men."