I am determined that this book shall be amply provided, and though I write the preface while I am sending back the proof galleys, yet I will begin at the beginning. Beginnings are sometimes interesting, although the interest of a beginning largely depends on the ending thereof. I shall hope that this book in the end may commend itself sufficiently to my indulgent readers to make the story of the beginning worth while.
"The years are many, the years are long," since a happy young sailor, fresh from his graduation at the United States Naval Academy, spent some of the pleasantest days of his life in the shadow of the old ship; for there was a ship, just such a one as I have described, and in just such a condition. There was a white house on the hill, too, and a very old naval officer, who took a great interest in the opening career of the young aspirant who passed so many hours lying on the grass amid the mouldering ways, with the huge bulk of the ship looming over his head and the sparkling waters of the bay breaking at his feet.
There were girls, too, and a sailor, and soldiers galore across the harbor in the barracks, and back of all the sleepy, dreamy, idle, quaint, and ancient little town. The story, of course, is only a romance; but the setting at least is actual, and there is this touch of realism in the tale: when the old ship was torn down to be made into kindling-wood, a part of it fell upon one of the destroyers and crushed the life out of him,—stern protest against an ignoble ending!
The idea of the story came to me twenty years ago. Indeed, in a brief, disconnected way I set it down on paper and forgot it until I chanced to resurrect it last year, when I threw aside the old notes and wrote the story de novo.
I intend it as a character sketch of the old admiral, the veteran sailor, the young officer, the innocent woman they all loved, and—dare I say it?—the mighty ship. Here are contrasts, surely.
And the pictures are full of faces, many of which may be seen no more by earthly vision. I miss the clasp of vanished hands, I crave the sound of voices stilled. As we old and older grow, there is a note of sadness in our glee. Whether we will or not we must twine the cypress with the holly. The recollection of each passing year brings deeper regret. How many have gone from those circles that we recall when we were children? How many little feet that pattered upon the stair on Christmas morning now tread softer paths and walk in broader ways; sisters and brothers who used to come back from the far countries to the old home—alas, they cannot come from the farther country in which they now are, and perhaps, saddest thought of all, we would not wish them to come again. How many, with whom we joined hands around the Christmas tree, have gone?
Circles are broken, families are separated, loved ones are lost, but the old world sweeps on. Others come to take our places. As we stood at the knee of some unforgotten mother, so other children stand. As we listened to the story of the Christ Child from the lips of some grey old father, so other children listen and we ourselves perchance are fathers or mothers too. Other groups come to us for the deathless story. Little heads which recall vanished halcyon days of youth bend around another younger mother. Smaller hands than ours write letters to Santa Claus and hear the story, the sweetest story ever told, of the Baby who came to Mary and through her to all the daughters and sons of women on that winter night on the Bethlehem hills.