Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Death of a salesman

This will be a bit of an extended gloss on my previous post, which I devoted to an excerpt from Samuel H. Hadley's Down in Hadley Street, a record of his activities as the successor to Jerry McAuley's work at the Water Street Mission in lower Manhattan. In the excerpt, Hadley related the story of one James D. Underwood, commercial traveler and reformed drunkard, who met his end in a St. Louis jewelry store in 1898 as the result of inadvertently (or so it was said) drinking a glass of potassium cyanide.

Hadley made it clear that he considered Underwood's death to have been a horrible accident, and so it may have been; I am not particularly invested in proving otherwise. But the Underwood incident is a bit of a loose cannon, the one detail in Hadley's enjoyable but largely predictable volume that doesn't quite fit in comfortably with the rest. In chapter after chapter the book describes the redeeming work performed at the mission, how one desperate inebriate or career criminal after another was transformed into a useful and upright citizen. James D. Underwood's life had seemingly followed the same course; at one time a successful salesman for a jewelry company, he had fallen prey to alcoholism, lost his job, and had been repeatedly imprisoned for vagrancy. Set on his feet and shown the true Christian path by the mission, he had turned his life around, resumed his commercial travels (possibly for his old employer), and become a reliable provider for his sister and elderly mother. The stinger in the story was at the very end:
One hot day, May 21, 1898, he went into the jewelry store of F. H. Niehaus and Company, No. 312 North 6th Street, St. Louis, Mo., and in some unaccountable manner plunged a glass into a two-gallon crock of cyanide potassium, supposing it was water, and was dead in fifteen minutes.
Hadley's apparent defensiveness about the incident is reflected in the phrases in some unaccountable manner, supposing it was water; remove those words and the story takes on a very different color. Had Underwood fallen off the wagon again and killed himself in a fit of remorse, or succumbed to depression and the lonely life of a traveler? If so, his story would obviously not have suited Hadley's uplifting purpose, nor would it have reflected as positively on the mission's work.

I honestly don't know how plausible it is that one could drink a lethal solution of potassium cyanide without realizing it, or that a two-gallon crock of the poison would be so carelessly labeled and stored that a visiting salesman might accidentally serve himself a draught of it. (The chemical was in fact regularly used by jewelers, so its presence on the premises of Niehaus and Company is not remarkable.) I don't expect to find the answer, and as I said, I don't really care. Underwood appears to have been a good man, at bottom, and his end was ghastly whether he intended it or not. But because his life took such an unusual twist I decided to take a closer look at the circumstances of his end, and as it happens the life and death of this long forgotten man have left a few fleeting traces beyond what we know of him from Hadley's memoir.

First of all, there is the brief account in The New York Times of June 1, 1898:
ST. LOUIS, May 31. James Underwood, a traveling salesman for the Champenois Jewelry Company of Newark, N. J., drank a quantity of cyanide of potassium by mistake at the jewelry store of F. H. Niehaus, thinking it was water. He fell to the floor immediately and lived but ten minutes.
Except for the address of the store and the detail of the two-gallon crock, all of the essential elements of Hadley's account are already established; the date is different, but the article may have been posted some time after the accident. The language in some points is so similar ("thinking it was water") that Hadley may well have referred to the clipping when he wrote.

In the years when Underwood was making his rounds there was a trade journal called The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review, which among other things of interest to the jewelry business contained reports of the visits of commercial travelers to the various cities where they had customers. And sure enough, we find Underwood's name in those reports. In the issue of May 4, 1898, he is in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 11, 1898 -- just days before the poisoning -- he is already in Missouri, approaching his appointment with death:
The travelers in Kansas City, Mo., last week were: Thos. E. Rogers, Riker Bros.; S. W. Abbey, E. Ira Richards & Co.; Paul Fuesline, Bawo & Dotter; J. D. Underwood, Champenois & Co.; E. A. Reed, Reed & Barton.

Further along in the same column he is listed among the travelers visiting St. Louis, but after that the next mention of him is a posthumous one:

St. Louis, Mo., June 24.—At a meeting of the jewelers of St. Louis, held on Wednesday, June 1, the resolutions below were adopted. Publicity, however, was not given them until this week, when they were beautifully engrossed:

Whereas, it has pleased Almighty God to remove from our midst by death our most esteemed friend, Jas. D. Underwood, and, whereas, in his death we deplore the loss of a real friend, his mother and sister a true and affectionate son and brother. Therefore, be it resolved. That we tender our heartfelt sympathy to the bereaved mother and sister in their hour of grief for their irreparable loss; and be it further resolved, that a copy of these resolutions, suitably engrossed, be tendered to the bereaved mother and sister, and a copy thereof be published in the jewelry trade journals. F. W. Baier, F. W. Drosten, W. F. Kemper, committee.
But the eeriest notices in The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review don't concern Underwood at all, at least directly. In this single volume of the periodical there are no less than half a dozen mentions of suicides or attempted suicides involving members of the jewelry trade. (From a cursory glance through other volumes it seems that suicide may have been endemic to the profession.) Several of the incidents involve self-poisonings with chemicals used by jewelers, and in one case in particular the details are all too familiar:
William Lucas, a man well advanced in years, who was a jeweler by trade and employed in one of the shops in the Lederer building [in Providence, R. I.] some time during the night committed suicide last week by drinking cyanide of potassium.
Lucas's suicide was reported in the issue of June 28, 1898, meaning that his death followed Underwood's by only a matter of weeks. Had he heard of the latter's end and been inspired to imitate him? Or was death by cyanide poisoning the professional jeweler's little secret, something that everyone in the trade -- craftsmen and seasoned travelers alike -- knew was always at hand?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Supposing it was water

Call me a cynic if you like, but I can't help wondering whether there wasn't more to the following story, which can be found in Samuel H. Hadley's Down in Water Street, Fleming H. Revell, 1902.
James D. Underwood had been a drunkard for years. He came from Providence, R. I., and was arrested many times there. He then located here. At one time he had been a successful jewelry salesman for a large house in Maiden Lane, but finally became so addicted to drink he could not secure employment.

Many times in the early missionary labours of the writer along the Bowery, long after midnight, he has been approached by "Jim" with a request for a nickel, or "Won't you buy some court-plaster so I can get my lodging?" He had often been to Water Street, and had been helped repeatedly.

One night, when the invitation hymn was being sung, the writer was passing down the aisle, asking the poor drunkards here and there to come up to our mercy-seat, when on the last seat near the door sat Jim Underwood. He had come down from the Island that evening for the sixteenth time, having been committed for drunkenness and vagrancy. I took him by the hand and said:

"Jim, aren't you tired of this life? Won't you come ?"

"Yes," he said, "I will come;" and picking up his old cap, he walked up the aisle. He was saved that very night. He worked one week in a restaurant. We helped him to clothing, lodging and food when he needed it, and before long he found employment at his old business, selling jewelry.

When his first anniversary rolled around, he went up and down Maiden Lane, John Street and all over the jewelry district and told everybody, Christian, Heathen, Turk and Jew, that he was going to celebrate his first year in the Christian life. He not only invited them to come, but said he wanted to raise a good sum for the Mission. Nearly all of these people had been pestered sorely by Jim in his old life for nickels and dimes, which always went for whiskey: but how different now! Some well-known Jews said:

"Yes, I'll gladly give to any cause that can make a man of such a drunkard as Jim Underwood."

After Jim had read the lesson and given his testimony, he presented the superintendent with a large envelope containing three hundred and ten dollars for the Mission. The largest gift was ten dollars, and the smallest, one dollar. About one hundred jewelers contributed, probably two-thirds of whom were not professors of Christ.

He traveled for a large house in Maiden Lane, the Champenois Jewelry Manufacturing Company, for about ten years, and supported his aged mother and sister. He laid up a snug sum of money also.

One hot day, May 21, 1898, he went into the jewelry store of F. H. Niehaus and Company, No. 312 North 6th Street, St. Louis, Mo., and in some unaccountable manner plunged a glass into a two-gallon crock of cyanide potassium, supposing it was water, and was dead in fifteen minutes.

We present his picture here to show how this handsome, smart business man was changed from a tramp and a nuisance to a useful Christian gentleman.

A Map of Bohemia

Luther Emanuel Widen alias Lew Ney likely rates barely a footnote in American literary history, but there was a time during the 1920s and '30s when he had a certain notoriety in Bohemian circles, and a New York Times article, back in the day, even referred to him, perhaps generously, as "the Mayor of Greenwich Village." His most durable contribution to letters was probably as a letterpress printer responsible for such curiosities as Christopher Morley's Rubaiyat of Account Overdue, which was dedicated to Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, but he also garnered attention for such tepid publicity stunts as baptising a baby in the company of the entertainer Texas Guinan and paying for the marriage license for his wedding to Ruth Willis Thompson with 200 copper pennies donated by 100 friends. (Instead of receiving wedding gifts, Thompson, a poet, gave her guests copies of her latest book.) As a correspondent for Variety, Ney reportedly once concocted an item about an upcoming raid on an unnamed adulterous couple's Washington Square love nest, leading to widespread panic and hasty decamping on the part of any number of local philanderers who assumed that they were the parties in question.

I haven't been able to find a single online trace of the existence of this leaflet periodical, The Greenwich Village Saturday Night, which was written, illustrated, and distributed by Ney, and consequently I'm posting it in its entirety. It does say Volume II, No. 3, so presumably there were other issues, but on the other hand it also says "perhaps there will be a series of Saturday Nights similar to this issue in size and tone," so the numbering may have been a fiction.

For this issue, at least, Ney evidently had only one advertiser, the Smock Shop (smocks were big in Greenwich Village, apparently), but the effusiveness of his praise for the Little Quakeress restaurant suggests he might have been slipped a few coppers by that establishment as well. As a money-making scheme The Greenwich Village Saturday Night probably didn't go very far, but Ney's annotated map has a certain charm as a record of the Village's bygone amenities.

Update (2013): Julie Melby, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University's Firestone Library, has posted some examples of Wyden's printing work on the Graphic Arts Collection blog. The Princeton University Library holds one other number of The Greenwich Village Saturday Night in addition to the one shown here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Conversion

It was his second morning in the city. He had spent the night in a flophouse and when dawn came collected his things and went out in search of work or breakfast, or failing that a deep, fast-moving river he could throw himself into. The morning air was grey, metallic, and saturated with dust. There was a ruckus coming from a tavern but his pockets were empty and anyway he didn't want company.

He stepped into the flow of pedestrians. Their faces were downcast and ashen, and they were treading forward, anonymous and expressionless, at a uniform mechanical pace. He let himself be carried along until he came to the corner of the avenue, across from the El line heading uptown. He crossed and stood beneath one of the cast iron supports that held the tracks aloft. A train was screeching to a halt above him and the column shuddered with the vibration. He watched the passengers disembark and begin their descent, then stepped away.

All at once, without the slightest premonition, he felt like he had been struck by lightning. He staggered forward a few steps, then sank to his knees; for a brief moment he blacked out entirely. He felt a man's trouser leg graze his shoulder and keep going, but he couldn't raise his head to see who it might be. The sidewalk no longer seemed solid beneath him, and a deep chill quickly spread through his limbs. For several minutes he knelt there without moving, then at last he opened his eyes, swaying and blinking at the harsh glare reflected from the pavement and feeling the blood slowly return to his extremities. He slid one shoe forward, then pushed up with the other leg until he stood once more with his feet solidly planted on the ground.

He took a few steps and was surprised as he did so that his feet appeared to meet so little resistance. His body seemed unimaginably light, as if it were not tethered to the earth at all. He quickened his pace, then shortened his stride and began to run uptown, underneath the tracks, slowly at first in a kind of wayward lunge, then faster and faster as he felt his strength increase until he seemed to be propelled forward by the sheer momentum of his flight. Block after block he dashed across intersections with no regard for traffic, jostling one puzzled stranger after another. He ran ten blocks, then twenty, then forty, until when he came to the end of the overhead line and emerged from its mottled shadow he stopped suddenly, gasping for breath, and stood looking in awe from left to right at the great concrete edifices soaring around him. Through a gap between buildings the sun fell across his face and seared his skin like a brand.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Notes for a Commonplace Book (4)

Luc Sante:

At night sometimes in certain parts of the city, usually in those remaining streets that are left deserted, usually in winter, but sometimes in other seasons if the streets are sufficiently forsaken, the past can be seen as if through a smeared window. Sometimes this effect occurs only for an instant: when you’re walking back from someplace with a head crammed with company and music and sensations, to a point where all new sensations dissipate, on some dead street in the middle West Side lined with jobbers and import showrooms and loading docks and shuttered luncheonettes, or on a street on the Lower East Side where the intersections have no stoplights and everything is nailed down and dark and the only people to be seen dart by as furtively as wraiths. There will be no traffic, and the streetlights will seem to shrink back into their globes, drawing their skirts of illumination into tight circles, and the rutted streets reveal the cobbles under a thin membrane of asphalt, and the buildings all around are masses of unpointed blackened brick or cacophonies of terra-cotta bric-a-brac or yawning cast-iron gravestones six or eight stories tall. This is the sepulcher of New York, the city as a living ruin.

From Low Life: Lures & Snares of Old New York (1989)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


From her fourth-story window, open to the breeze, she looks out over the green and silent square. Overnight, without notice, the soldiers have decamped. In the hours before dawn she had heard the sound of their engines, the rattling of trucks and artillery pieces as they lumbered through the streets, but hadn't bothered to get out of bed. She knew what it meant; it wasn't, after all, unexpected. Now there's an uneasy stillness in the city; nobody's celebrating or settling scores, not just yet. The leaves of the lindens quiver in the morning haze, but no one strolls beneath their shade. A stray dog crosses the avenue, nosing among the benches and windblown pages of yesterday's news for something to eat.

From the other room, behind her, she hears the baby stirring awake. She doesn't call to him but only lifts her hand from where it had rested among the folds of her thin white curtains, turns her back on the square, and goes inside, not thinking if she can avoid it about the fates of things left undefended: cities, nations, fatherless children.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Madonna of Cherry Hill (postscript)

Thanks to a tip from the New York City Fire Museum, I have a tentative identification for Captain Michael E. Graham, whose promotion to Battalion Chief and subsequent death in the line of duty were mentioned in a manuscript account by William Siemes or Siemis. A Battalion Chief Michael Graham of Whitestone NY was fatally injured while fighting a major fire at a Standard Oil Company warehouse in Brooklyn in February 1909. The manuscript states that Graham's "aged mother" outlived him, though not by much, and in fact the obituary of Michael Graham's mother Marcella appears in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 2, 1910. The author of the manuscript had worked with Capt. Michael E. Graham at Manhattan's Engine Company 12, but the Graham who perished was assigned to a Brooklyn battalion, so he may have been transferred at the time he was promoted.

The fire at the Standard Oil facility, which was also known as the Pratt Oil Works, was one of a series that occurred around the same period. Eventually a teenager, William Reddy, was arrested and charged with arson. He confessed to setting several of the fires, telling police that he had hoped to win promotion at the company by reporting them. When asked about the incident that killed Graham he refused to answer.

The report of Reddy's fate, in the New York Times, suggests a different motive, and is worth quoting in full:
William Reddy, the eighteen-year-old pyromaniac, who confessed to having set fire to the Standard Oil Company's sheds at North Twelfth Street, Williamsburg, was sentenced yesterday to the Elmira Reformatory by Judge Fawcett, in the County Court, Brooklyn. After he was arrested for the crime, he said he had started the fire simply to see the flames. He admitted smoking 100 cigarettes a day. Judge Fawcett said he would be kept at Elmira long enough to be cured of that habit.
An account of the fire can be found in the New York Times for February 15, 1909. Reddy's sentencing was reported on April 6, 1909.

(Postscript backdated from January 2011)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Madonna of Cherry Hill

I don't do it that much anymore, but for many years I made a point of going to as many used book sales as I could get to, and over time I suppose I bought hundreds of books -- maybe more than a thousand -- that way, some of which I still own, most of which I read once or twice and then culled out of my shelves years ago.

The thing about buying second-hand books is that as a rule you generally don't know anything about their previous owner or owners. Once in a while there might be a name scrawled on the endpapers, but outside of a handful of occasions when I bought a copy that had coincidentally belonged to someone I knew or had heard of, the books came to me with their past histories and prior associations stripped away, just as the volumes in my own library, should they escape the dumpsters and landfills that are fated to be the last resting places of countless millions of other forgotten books and go on to live a further life, will likely tell no stories of me.

This book is an exception. When I bought it, some two decades ago, I didn't just purchase a fairly ordinary volume about a turn of the century mission in lower Manhattan, I became the guardian of a memory as well. For one of its previous owners -- perhaps the original owner from the time it was published in 1903 -- had filled the endpapers and available blank pages of the book with his own recollections of the neighborhood in which the mission was located. Though it appears that he was never as badly off as the indigents and alcoholics who made up the majority of those who were fed and ministered to there, he often attended services at the mission, almost certainly in this room:

According to an 1897 notice in The New York Times, "the mission was established by Jerry McAuley, ex-convict, river pirate, and desperado, for religious work especially among the lowest class of outcast men and women of the city." It stood at 316 Water Street, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Down in Water Street, written by one of McAuley's successors, contains more than two dozen illustrations, but sadly most are rather uninteresting portraits of the worthies who were active in the running of the mission. The photo below is a notable exception. The mission is the building at the extreme left, with the large white sign on its side; the building in the center of the frame, ironically, may be a saloon, as it is festooned with signs advertising lager beer.

The creator of the handwritten account in the book's endpapers was named William Siemes or perhaps Siemis, which suggests that his parents may have been among the millions of German immigrants who arrived in New York City in the 19th century, an influx even exceeding that of the Irish. At least one set of grandparents were already resident in the city by 1845, as he mentions their having formerly owned a grocery store in lower Manhattan. Siemes worked as a fireman, assigned to a firehouse just blocks from the McAuley Water Street Mission, but lived in High Bridge, miles away in the Bronx; his father was apparently also a fireman at the same house. New York City firefighting had once been a rough-and-tumble occupation dominated by competing private companies that were little more than gangs, but that had all been done away with by the time of the events he describes.

In the following transcription of Siemes's account I have tidied some of the punctuation and spelling, but have made no effort to form complete sentences where there were none. At a few points, which I have indicated, the handwriting is not legible.
While attached to Engine Co. 12, William St. near Pearl St. 1902-1904 I often attended meeting at the mission, too tired to travel home to the Bronx for a meal I ate in different restaurants in vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge, sometimes in very clean Chinese restaurants also, along the water front for a fish dinner, and in Nassau restaurant famous for its ham, corned beef, and beans, custard cocoanut pie, and delicious coffee — coffee I've supped and sipped and poured it while in firehouse, and at fires in heavy winter weather, an old battered 4 quart tin can, blacked by gas light smoke, was the container, coffee from the bakery looked like spilled gasoline on a wet pavement — all colors of the rainbow, a medical officer of the Department, Dr Ransdale [?] in 1903 said “you firemen should be the healthiest men in the city, the coffee you drink looks like a disinfectant, and just as potent.”

The Water St. mission in the early 1900 [illegible] was crowded with worshippers and often disturbed by hostile groups.

Living in High Bridge [in the Bronx] in the early days, among bright sunshine, green fields, birds, and flowers, it was a revelation to see the contrast — narrow streets, shabby buildings, squalor, poverty, and crime.

To tell of experiences I witnessed would be hard to believe. Of course, girls of all types I came in contact with, some vicious, others victims of ignorance and misfortune. I vividly recall the little 13 year old Cassie Burns first noticed her one bitter winter night rationing strong tea to the grateful firemen, who soaked and chilled, drank with grateful hearts, Cassie was apple cheeked [?], rosy as the dawn, her lovely Irish dark blue eyes looked straight into yours. We called her the madonna of Cherry Hill.

I learned her brother Lawrence was ill, “T.B.,“ so several of us visited him, corner of New Chambers [?] near Cherry St.

I later learned with interest the building was once occupied by my Grandfather's grocery store in 1845.

A 3 story triangle with fire escape hanging from iron straps [in?] the rotted brick mortar of lime. Well we built a large flower box, placed it on the escape, sad to say in violation of law, but who cared. The box filled with colored asters, petunias, and geraniums bloomed all seasons, and concealed in the soil were tulip and hyacinth bulbs taken from my garden. Lawrence died before the tulips bloomed, a year later his mother also T.B. Years later I learned Cassie had married a “foreigner” and was the mother of 9 children. Every time a fire [illegible] in the vicinity Cassie [illegible — “mother”?] brewed a large water pail of tea and Cassie did the rest at all hours, in the snow and cold she could be seen comforting the men with her drinks that “cheers but not inebriates.”

One night in her home building a fire occurred in the bakery in store floor and cellar, wrecking the place. Cassie's old grandmother was bellowing like an East River fog horn as she stood on the fire escape near the flower box, her language was expressive of the neighborhood. A ladder was quickly raised and grandma reached the ground in safety a fireman laughing as he told how he lifted the frail old lady of 80, over the fire escape rail, when she said “I'll slap you if you drop me.”

After the fire apparatus left for quarters, I was in charge of a watch line hose “just in case,“ the weather was cold, and the store [illegible] basement were not pleasably [?] placed [?] to occupy — about 4 AM a salvage patrolman on duty said “Do you hear a noise“ all I heard was the drip of water from charred wood.

Then it happened, little Cassie and a 10 yrs old brother carrying a 4x4 ft apple dumpling pan filled with soggy smoky dumpling; struggling [?] to carry its [?] tray up to their room.

The patrolman laughed and said “come back here wid them [?] dumpling[s?].” They came back all right, one at a time as Cassie and her brother threw them at him, sad to say, the dumplings were apple sauce centres and hits in his neck and face smeared him.

Later, down they came again and carted to the regions above whole ferkins of butter, smoky and charred, then several cases of eggs some cracked, roasted, etc. [?] I was relieved at 6 AM learned later the bakery goods were moved to Cassie's flat for safe keeping or for what ever purpose only the children knew.

We humans have much to account for, I remember an incident at 9 Bowery. A small fire summoned us to the cheap, wooden partitioned floor above the street, found our services were not needed, except for a woman lying on a cot worn and thin she begged our captain Michael E. Graham to take her out, said she had been a prisoner for several years and she had no hope of escape.

Capt. Graham summoned an ambulance to carry her to Bellevue Hospital. Our Captain Graham of Engine Co 12 lived in [illegible], we respected him and admired him greatly. I recall the time he was promoted to Batt. chief, how [?] his last night with us was more like a wake than a time of congratulations. My Dad fried three large top sirloin chunks into steaks first in butter and served on toasted bread. Several months later I attended his funeral, a fireman [?] had fallen and our beloved chief and friend was no more. His aged mother said “he was my first born,“ and she soon found rest beside him.
Pasted inside the volume is a newspaper clipping reporting the demolition of the original mission building (the Water Street Mission relocated and in fact still operates.) The clipping is dated, by hand, July 28, 1948, and the ink and penmanship match the fireman's account, so he must still have been alive at that time. On the title page there is a note in another hand stating that the book was "given to Grandpa M[...] by neighbor Mr. Siemis in Ardsley, NY." There is also another owner's name, which I can't make out, in pencil at the top of the page.

(I have since discovered a Social Security Death Record for a William L. Siemes, b. 27 March 1878, d. October 1971 in Ardsley, NY. I've also found a New York Times entry, dated July 9, 1913, recording the transfer of a William L. Siemes from Engine 82 of the New York City Fire Department to Engine 48. Both departments are located in the Bronx. Federal census records for 1920 show a firefighter named William Siemes, age 42, living with his parents and sister on West 166th Street in the Bronx.)

Also see postscript.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Notes for a Commonplace Book (3)

Luc Sante:

The dead ... are a notoriously perverse and unmanageable lot. They tend not to remain safely buried, and in fact resist all efforts at obliterating their traces. Cultures that glorify and memorialize their dead have simply found a clever way to satisfy and therefore quiet them. When the dead are endlessly represented in monuments, images, memorials, and ceremonies, their vigor passes into these objects and events; it is safely defused, made anodyne. New York, which is founded on forward motion, and is thus loath to acknowledge its dead, merely causes them to walk, endlessly unsatisfied and unburied, to invade the precincts of supposed progress, to lay chill hands on the heedless present, which does not know how to identify the forces that tug at its rationality.

From Low Life: Lures & Snares of Old New York (1989)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Woman on the Wharf

A number of years ago, before the harbor was dredged and deepened and the entire surrounding district modernized to accommodate container ships, an old man lived in a kind of cramped cabin or shack on one of the long wharves that used to jut out into the bay. He was employed as watchman and fire warden by an import-export firm that held a long-term lease on many of the harborside properties; in lieu of a salary he received free tenancy of the shack and daily meals and as much acrid coffee as he could drink in the firm's commissary. The work was undemanding -- walking the docks several times a night, keeping a lookout for suspicious activity -- and he found it preferable to life in a mission or the poor house. As he made his nightly circuit he carried a kind of staff or cudgel that he would, if necessary, wave in the air to persuade straying drunks to move on, as well as a switchblade in his pocket should real trouble arise, but the waterside was generally deserted once night fell, and it was no longer certain that much of value was passing through the wharves in any case.

Even in the fairest weather it was cold and misty by the water in the evenings, and the old man never left his lodgings without an ancient leather coat, a snug felt cap, and a pair of heavy work gloves. Though a series of pale electric lights had been strung overhead along the length of his route he carried a kerosene lantern with him at all times; his vision was beginning to fail and he held a particular loathing for the formidable rats that sometimes scuttled in front of him as he walked. He did not drink -- had never done so, even in all his travels in his younger days -- never mentioned family and had not been known to be ill or to request a day off. When he had occasion to engage in conversation, which was infrequently, it was noted that he spoke with a faint trace of an accent, though one that was hard to place. It was rumored that he might have been born in Norway or perhaps Orkney or the Hebrides, but no one knew for sure and no one ever took the trouble to inquire.

One particular October evening, after eating his supper in the half-deserted mess and catching a brief twilight nap in his cabin, the watchman dressed, collected his staff and lantern, and stepped out into the night air to begin his rounds. The moon was two nights past full, and its light was diffused by a thin, lingering mist. There were few ships moored at the docks that night, only a listing German freighter -- the Marut -- whose crew had made themselves scarce a few days before, as well as a pair of dark barges piled with scrap iron. Out on the water a long low coaler was steaming further up the harbor, guided by a pair of tugs, and its wake was rocking up against the moorings along shore. It sounded its horn, once, and the muffled echo repeated several times across the bay before dying out.

He passed beneath the dark belly of the freighter, listening to the slapping of the waves against its side, and began walking slowly out towards the end of the wharf. The slanted-roof warehouses that had been constructed along most of its length were now largely empty and stood in need of a coat of paint and more than a few fresh boards. Here and there a window had been broken and boarded up; the rest were dull with salt spray. Between the buildings lay collections of abandoned things: empty barrels and rusting coils of cable, a broken block-and-tackle and an old propeller.

As he approached the opening of the alley between the two outermost buildings he heard an unfamiliar sound that he thought for a second might have been a footfall. He was not alarmed; there was nothing out this far on the wharf to interest a prowler and he suspected it was really just the breaking of the surf, but almost immediately he heard it a second time -- it was unmistakable now -- and then once more again. It didn't sound like the solid tread of a booted workman -- more the light slap of a bare foot on wet wood -- and he wondered if a dog had gotten lost or had wandered out in search of a refuse pail to knock over for scraps. He turned and passed through the narrow alley, and just as he emerged and started for the end of the wharf he caught a fleeting glimpse of a slight figure, dressed in light-colored clothing, who was moving steadily ahead of him.

He called out, but the figure had already disappeared around the corner. He hastily adjusted his lantern, widening its pale glow, and followed, quickening his step. As he came to the end of the warehouse he saw that the fugitive had once again crossed to the opposite side of the wharf and was now heading outwards along the twenty yards of empty deck that remained at its tip. When he called again the figure turned, just for a moment, and to his considerable surprise he saw that it was a woman, whose long, light brown hair flowed down the back of a plain white dress that was not nearly warm enough for the season. In the instant before she turned her back to him again and resumed her course she gave him a frank stare unmarked by either fear or evident curiosity, and as she did so he observed that she was quite strikingly pretty but also not nearly as young as her stride would suggest -- a woman, to all appearances, well into her middle years.

He knew at once that there could be only one explanation for her presence at such an hour, and with more annoyance at her for trespassing on his domain than concern for her welfare he immediately resolved to frustrate her intent. He hurried forward -- not at a run, as the surface of the wharf was slick and treacherous, but as quickly as he could walk -- but she was moving swiftly herself and the distance was too great. When she reached the end of the wharf, just a few yards ahead of him, he nearly caught up with her and lunged for her arm, but it was too late. She did not jump into the bay but instead simply continued walking until the last metal girder was no longer beneath her feet and she plunged downwards and out of sight, making a hollow sound as she broke the surface. The watchman held his lantern up and looked out. A few yards out, the woman had begun to swim calmly and purposefully into the bay; he ordered her to return but she either didn't hear or chose not to heed. He hesitated; there was a dinghy hauled up at the shore end of the wharf but he knew that the oars were locked in a shed and he would have had to find the key. Deciding there was no time, he set the lantern down on the end of the wharf, hurriedly shed his coat and cap, then unbuckled and drew off his boots. Before he leapt he yelled as loud as he could for help, knowing there was little chance that anyone would be within earshot.

As he hit the water the shock of the cold convulsed him and it was a moment before he could regain control of his limbs. Treading water until he had caught his breath, he drew a bead on the woman, illuminated by the moonlight now some thirty yards offshore, and began his pursuit.

He was an experienced swimmer, though no longer as strong as he had once been, and though he quickly drew up to within a few yards of the woman he could not overtake her. Even as he was appalled by her recklessness he could not help but marvel at her practiced stroke. He had never known a woman to swim so well, certainly not in the cold and powerful currents of the bay. She looked over her shoulder briefly and caught sight of him, but gave no indication that his presence affected her or would alter her plan. There were lights on the far shore and on the boats pulled up alongside, casting shining trails across the water, but they were too far away for anyone there to be able make out the two swimmers, even had someone chanced to look, and at that distance the chopping of the waves would muffle even the loudest cry for help. There was nothing for it but to follow the woman until she began to tire, and then hope to persuade her to return with him to shore, assuming his own strength did not give out first.

As she reached the midpoint between the near and far shore, where the channel was cut the deepest, she began to change her course, swinging around until she was parallel to the current, bearing outwards towards the mouth of the bay. For a moment he persuaded himself, with relief, that she was about to make a full circle and return to the wharf and that her madness had, after all, some limit, but all too soon it was clear that that was not at all her purpose. She kept to the center of the bay and even seemed to redouble her pace. He felt fury rising in him at her perverseness and obstinacy, but fascination as well, as he wondered about the mettle of a woman whose strength and determination were more than a match for his own.

They continued swimming and soon had left the busiest part of the harbor behind. The surface of the water was darker here, lit only by the haze-shrouded moon, and the waves began to pick up and slap around him and into his face, but still he maintained a fixed eye on the woman ahead. He could not fathom what purpose she might have in acting as she did; if it were to drown herself she could have done so simply and far closer to shore, unless perhaps his unexpected interference had spoiled her design.

By now, he was no longer swimming to save her -- at this point he no longer thought he could -- nor even to save himself, but still he followed her without knowing why, as if, having already pursued her so far, he had surrendered his will and forfeited the right to turn back. Curiously, he felt no fear. As the cold penetrated his muscles his limbs began to tire and the water felt heavier and darker around him. The steady pull of the falling tide was taking hold, drawing him out into the widest part of the bay. He had begun to swim more slowly now; she seemed to sense this and relaxed her pace as well, turning her head every few strokes as if to gauge where he was. He called to her and for once he thought he saw her listen and consider his words, but still she swam outward, outward...

At last he was exhausted and could do nothing but float. As the current bore him along the woman swam in time with it, still showing no sign of feeling either cold or fatigue. The waves began to break over his head and he gasped for breath, unable to move. The figure ahead of him stopped swimming and turned towards him one last time, treading water, observing him silently, intently, without emotion. As he felt himself being drawn down into the dense, deep water her face was the last thing he saw.

Two days later the crew of a fishing boat spied the watchman's body drifting a few yards offshore at the outermost point of the bay. They notified the harbor patrol, who gaffed him out of the water and brought him to the city morgue. He was buried in an unmarked grave.