By William Mcfee
William McFee’s name is associated with the sea, but in his writing he treats the life of ships and sailors more as a background than as the essential substance of his tale. I have chosen this brief and colorful little sketch to represent his talent because it is different from the work with which most of his readers are familiar, and because it represents a mood very characteristic of him—an imaginative and observant treatment of the workings of commerce. His interest in fruit is intimate, as he has been for some years an engineer in the sea service of the United Fruit Company, with a Mediterranean interim—reflected in much of his recent writing—during the War.
The publication of McFee’s Casuals of the Sea in 1916 was something of an event in the world of books, and introduced to the reading world a new writer of unquestionable strength and subtlety. His earlier books, An Ocean Tramp and Aliens (both republished since), had gone almost unnoticed—which, it is safe to say, will not happen again to anything he cares to publish. His later books are Captain Macedoine’s Daughter, Harbours of Memory, and An Engineer’s Notebook. He was born at sea in 1881, the son of a sea-captain; grew up in a northern suburb of London, served his apprenticeship in a big engineering shop, and has been in ships most of the time since 1905.
THERE is a sharp, imperative rap on my outer door; a rap having within its insistent urgency a shadow of delicate diffidence, as though the person responsible were a trifle scared of the performance and on tiptoe to run away. I roll over and regard the clock. Four-forty. One of the dubious by-products of continuous service as a senior assistant at sea is the habit of waking automatically about 4 A. M. This gives one several hours, when ashore, to meditate upon one’s sins, frailties, and (more rarely) triumphs and virtues. For a man who gets up at say four-thirty is regarded with aversion ashore. His family express themselves with superfluous vigor. He must lie still and meditate, or suffer the ignominy of being asked when he is going away again.
But this morning, in these old Chambers in an ancient Inn buried in the heart of London City, I have agreed to get up and go out. The reason for this momentous departure from a life of temporary but deliberate indolence is a lady. “Cherchez la femme,” as the French say with the dry animosity of a logical race. Well, she is not far to seek, being on the outside of my heavy oak door, tapping, as already hinted, with a sharp insistent delicacy. To this romantic summons I reply with an articulate growl of acquiescence, and proceed to get ready. To relieve the anxiety of any reader who imagines an impending elopement it may be stated in succinct truthfulness that we are bound on no such desperate venture. We are going round the corner a few blocks up the Strand, to Covent Garden Market, to see the arrival of the metropolitan supply of produce.
Having accomplished a hasty toilet, almost as primitive as that favored by gentlemen aroused to go on watch, and placating an occasional repetition of the tapping by brief protests and reports of progress, I take hat and cane, and drawing the huge antique bolts of my door, discover a young woman standing by the window looking out upon the quadrangle of the old Inn. She is a very decided young woman, who is continually thinking out what she calls “stunts” for articles in the press. That is her profession, or one of her professions—writing articles for the press. The other profession is selling manuscripts, which constitutes the tender bond between us. For the usual agent’s commission she is selling one of my manuscripts. Being an unattached and, as it were, unprotected male, she plans little excursions about London to keep me instructed and entertained. Here she is attired in the flamboyant finery of a London flowergirl. She is about to get the necessary copy for a special article in a morning paper. With the exception of a certain expectant flash of her bright black Irish eyes, she is entirely businesslike. Commenting on the beauty of an early summer morning in town, we descend, and passing out under the ponderous ancient archway, we make our leisurely progress westward down the Strand.
London is always beautiful to those who love and understand that extraordinary microcosm; but at five of a summer morning there is about her an exquisite quality of youthful fragrance and debonair freshness which goes to the heart. The newly-hosed streets are shining in the sunlight as though paved with “patines of bright gold.” Early ‘buses rumble by from neighboring barns where they have spent the night. And, as we near the new Gaiety Theatre, thrusting forward into the great rivers of traffic soon to pour round its base like some bold Byzantine promontory, we see Waterloo Bridge thronged with wagons, piled high. From all quarters they are coming, past Charing Cross the great wains are arriving from Paddington Terminal, from the market-garden section of Middlesex and Surrey. Down Wellington Street come carts laden with vegetables from Brentwood and Coggeshall, and neat vans packed with crates of watercress which grows in the lush lowlands of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and behind us are thundering huge four-horse vehicles from the docks, vehicles with peaches from South Africa, potatoes from the Canary Islands, onions from France, apples from California, oranges from the West Indies, pineapples from Central America, grapes from Spain and bananas from Colombia.
We turn in under an archway behind a theatre and adjacent to the stage-door of the Opera House. The booths are rapidly filling with produce. Gentlemen in long alpaca coats and carrying formidable marbled note-books walk about with an important air. A mountain range of pumpkins rises behind a hill of cabbages. Festoons of onions are being suspended from rails. The heads of barrels are being knocked in, disclosing purple grapes buried in corkdust. Pears and figs, grown under glass for wealthy patrons, repose in soft tissue-lined boxes. A broken crate of tangerine oranges has spilled its contents in a splash of ruddy gold on the plank runway. A wagon is driven in, a heavy load of beets, and the broad wheels crush through the soft fruit so that the air is heavy with the acrid sweetness.
We pick our way among the booths and stalls until we find the flowers. Here is a crowd of ladies, young, so-so and some quite matronly, and all dressed in this same flamboyant finery of which I have spoken. They are grouped about an almost overpowering mass of blooms. Roses just now predominate. There is a satisfying solidity about the bunches, a glorious abundance which, in a commodity so easily enjoyed without ownership, is scarcely credible. I feel no desire to own these huge aggregations of odorous beauty. It would be like owning a harem, one imagines. Violets, solid patches of vivid blue in round baskets, eglantine in dainty boxes, provide a foil to the majestic blazonry of the roses and the dew-spangled forest of maiden-hair fern near by.
“And what are those things at all?” demands my companion, diverted for a moment from the flowers. She nods towards a mass of dull-green affairs piled on mats or being lifted from big vans. She is a Cockney and displays surprise when she is told those things are bananas. She shrugs and turns again to the musk-roses, and forgets. But to me, as the harsh, penetrating odor of the green fruit cuts across the heavy perfume of the flowers, comes a picture of the farms in distant Colombia or perhaps Costa Rica. There is nothing like an odor to stir memories. I see the timber pier and the long line of rackety open-slatted cars jangling into the dark shed, pushed by a noisy, squealing locomotive. I see the boys lying asleep between shifts, their enormous straw hats covering their faces as they sprawl. In the distance rise the blue mountains; behind is the motionless blue sea. I hear the whine of the elevators, the monotonous click of the counters, the harsh cries of irresponsible and argumentative natives. I feel the heat of the tropic day, and see the gleam of the white waves breaking on yellow sands below tall palms. I recall the mysterious impenetrable solitude of the jungle, a solitude alive, if one is equipped with knowledge, with a ceaseless warfare of winged and crawling hosts. And while my companion is busily engaged in getting copy for a special article about the Market, I step nimbly out of the way of a swarthy gentleman from Calabria, who with his two-wheeled barrow is the last link in the immense chain of transportation connecting the farmer in the distant tropics and the cockney pedestrian who halts on the sidewalk and purchases a banana for a couple of pennies.