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Oldport Days by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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Note: I have closed contractions in the text, e.g., "did n't"
becoming "didn't" for example; I have also added the missing
period after "caress" in line 11 of page 61, and have changed
"ever" to "over" in line 16 of page 121.





Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1873,
in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

University Press:





Our August life rushes by, in Oldport, as if we were all shot
from the mouth of a cannon, and were endeavoring to exchange
visiting-cards on the way. But in September, when the great
hotels are closed, and the bronze dogs that guarded the portals
of the Ocean House are collected sadly in the music pavilion,
nose to nose; when the last four-in-hand has departed, and a man
may drive a solitary horse on the avenue without a pang,--then we
know that "the season" is over. Winter is yet several months
away,--months of the most delicious autumn weather that the
American climate holds. But to the human bird of passage all that
is not summer is winter; and those who seek Oldport most eagerly
for two months are often those who regard it as uninhabitable for
the other ten.

The Persian poet Saadi says that in a certain region of Armenia,
where he travelled, people never died the natural death. But once
a year they met on a certain plain, and occupied themselves with
recreation, in the midst of which individuals of every rank and
age would suddenly stop, make a reverence to the west, and,
setting out at full speed toward that part of the desert, be seen
no more. It is quite in this fashion that guests disappear from
Oldport when the season ends. They also are apt to go toward the
west, but by steamboat. It is pathetic, on occasion of each
annual bereavement, to observe the wonted looks and language of
despair among those who linger behind; and it needs some
fortitude to think of spending the winter near such a Wharf of

But we console ourselves. Each season brings its own attractions.
In summer one may relish what is new in Oldport, as the liveries,
the incomes, the manners. There is often a delicious freshness
about these exhibitions; it is a pleasure to see some opulent
citizen in his first kid gloves. His new-born splendor stands in
such brilliant relief against the confirmed respectability of
the"Old Stone Mill," the only thing on the Atlantic shore which
has had time to forget its birthday! But in winter the Old Mill
gives the tone to the society around it; we then bethink
ourselves of the crown upon our Trinity Church steeple, and
resolve that the courtesies of a bygone age shall yet linger
here. Is there any other place in America where gentlemen still
take off their hats to one another on the public promenade? The
hat is here what it still is in Southern Europe,--the lineal
successor of the sword as the mark of a gentleman. It is noticed
that, in going from Oldport to New York or Boston, one is liable
to be betrayed by an over-flourish of the hat, as is an Arkansas
man by a display of the bowie-knife.

Winter also imparts to these spacious estates a dignity that is
sometimes wanting in summer. I like to stroll over them during
this epoch of desertion, just as once, when I happened to hold
the keys of a church, it seemed pleasant to sit, on a week-day,
among its empty pews. The silent walls appeared to hold the pure
essence of the prayers of a generation, while the routine and the
ennui had vanished all away. One may here do the same with
fashion as there with devotion, extracting its finer flavors, if
such there be, unalloyed by vulgarity or sin. In the winter I can
fancy these fine houses tenanted by a true nobility; all the sons
are brave, and all the daughters virtuous. These balconies have
heard the sighs of passion without selfishness; those cedarn
alleys have admitted only vows that were never broken. If the
occupant of the house be unknown, even by name, so much the
better. And from homes more familiar, what lovely childish faces
seem still to gaze from the doorways, what graceful Absences (to
borrow a certain poet's phrase) are haunting those windows!

There is a sense of winter quiet that makes a stranger soon feel
at home in Oldport, while the prospective stir of next summer
precludes all feeling of stagnation. Commonly, in quiet places,
one suffers from the knowledge that everybody would prefer to be
unquiet; but nobody has any such longing here. Doubtless there
are aged persons who deplore the good old times when the Oldport
mail-bags were larger than those arriving at New York. But if it
were so now, what memories would there be to talk about? If you
wish for"Syrian peace, immortal leisure,"--a place where no grown
person ever walks rapidly along the street, and where few care
enough for rain to open an umbrella or walk faster,--come here.

My abode is on a broad, sunny street, with a few great elms
overhead, and with large old houses and grass-banks opposite.
There is so little snow that the outlook in the depth of winter
is often merely that of a paler and leafless summer, and a soft,
springlike sky almost always spreads above. Past the window
streams an endless sunny panorama (for the house fronts the chief
thoroughfare between country and town),--relics of summer
equipages in faded grandeur; great, fragrant hay-carts; vast
moving mounds of golden straw; loads of crimson onions; heaps of
pale green cabbages; piles of gray tree-prunings, looking as if
the patrician trees were sending their superfluous wealth of
branches to enrich the impoverished orchards of the Poor Farm;
wagons of sea-weed just from the beach, with bright, moist hues,
and dripping with sea-water and sea-memories, each weed an
argosy, bearing its own wild histories. At this season, the very
houses move, and roll slowly by, looking round for more lucrative
quarters next season. Never have I seen real estate made so
transportable as in Oldport. The purchaser, after finishing and
furnishing to his fancy, puts his name on the door, and on the
fence a large white placard inscribed "For sale". Then his
household arrangements are complete, and he can sit down to enjoy

By a side-glance from our window, one may look down an ancient
street, which in some early epoch of the world's freshness
received the name of Spring Street. A certain lively lady,
addicted to daring Scriptural interpretations, thinks that there
is some mistake in the current versions of Genesis, and that it
was Spring Street which was created in the beginning, and the
heavens and earth at some subsequent period. There are houses in
Spring Street, and there is a confectioner's shop; but it is not
often that a sound comes across its rugged pavements, save
perchance (in summer) the drone of an ancient hand-organ, such as
might have been devised by Adam to console his Eve when Paradise
was lost. Yet of late the desecrating hammer and the ear-piercing
saw have entered that haunt of ancient peace. May it be long ere
any such invasion reaches those strange little wharves in the
lower town, full of small, black, gambrel-roofed houses, with
projecting eaves that might almost serve for piazzas. It is
possible for an unpainted wooden building to assume, in this
climate, a more time-worn aspect than that of any stone; and on
these wharves everything is so old, and yet so stunted, you might
fancy that the houses had been sent down there to play during
their childhood, and that nobody had ever remembered to fetch
them back.

The ancient aspect of things around us, joined with the softening
influences of the Gulf Stream, imparts an air of chronic languor
to the special types of society which here prevail in
winter,--as, for instance, people of leisure, trades-people
living on their summer's gains, and, finally, fishermen. Those
who pursue this last laborious calling are always lazy to the
eye, for they are on shore only in lazy moments. They work by
night or at early dawn, and by day they perhaps lie about on the
rocks, or sit upon one heel beside a fish-house door. I knew a
missionary who resigned his post at the Isles of Shoals because
it was impossible to keep the Sunday worshippers from lying at
full length on the seats. Our boatmen have the same habit, and
there is a certain dreaminess about them, in whatever posture.
Indeed, they remind one quite closely of the German boatman in
Uhland, who carried his reveries so far as to accept three fees
from one passenger.

But the truth is, that in Oldport we all incline to the attitude
of repose. Now and then a man comes here, from farther east, with
the New England fever in his blood, and with a pestilent desire
to do something. You hear of him, presently, proposing that the
Town Hall should be repainted. Opposition would require too much
effort, and the thing is done. But the Gulf Stream soon takes its
revenge on the intruder, and gradually repaints him also, with
its own soft and mellow tints. In a few years he would no more
bestir himself to fight for a change than to fight against it.

It makes us smile a little, therefore, to observe that universal
delusion among the summer visitors, that we spend all winter in
active preparations for next season. Not so; we all devote it
solely to meditations on the season past. I observe that nobody
in Oldport ever believes in any coming summer. Perhaps the tide
is turned, we think, and people will go somewhere else. You do
not find us altering our houses in December, or building out new
piazzas even in March. We wait till the people have actually come
to occupy them. The preparation for visitors is made after the
visitors have arrived. This may not be the way in which things
are done in what are called "smart business places." But it is
our way in Oldport.

It is another delusion to suppose that we are bored by this long
epoch of inactivity. Not at all; we enjoy it. If you enter a shop
in winter, you will find everybody rejoiced to see you--as a
friend; but if it turns out that you have come as a customer,
people will look a little disappointed. It is rather
inconsiderate of you to make such demands out of season. Winter
is not exactly the time for that sort of thing. It seems rather
to violate the conditions of the truce. Could you not postpone
the affair till next July? Every country has its customs; I
observe that in some places, New York for instance, the
shopkeepers seem rather to enjoy a "field-day" when the sun and
the customers are out. In Oldport, on the contrary, men's spirits
droop at such times, and they go through their business sadly.
They force themselves to it during the summer, perhaps,--for one
must make some sacrifices,--but in winter it is inappropriate as
strawberries and cream.

The same spirit of repose pervades the streets. Nobody ever looks
in a hurry, or as if an hour's delay would affect the thing in
hand. The nearest approach to a mob is when some stranger,
thinking himself late for the train (as if the thing were
possible), is tempted to run a few steps along the sidewalk. On
such an occasion I have seen doors open, and heads thrust out.
But ordinarily even the physicians drive slowly, as if they
wished to disguise their profession, or to soothe the nerves of
some patient who may be gazing from a window.

Yet they are not to be censured, since Death, their antagonist,
here drives slowly too. The number of the aged among us is
surprising, and explains some phenomena otherwise strange. You
will notice, for instance, that there are no posts before the
houses in Oldport to which horses may be tied. Fashionable
visitors might infer that every horse is supposed to be attended
by a groom. Yet the tradition is, that there were once as many
posts here as elsewhere, but that they were removed to get rid of
the multitude of old men who leaned all day against them. It
obstructed the passing. And these aged citizens, while permitted
to linger at their posts, were gossiping about men still older,
in earthly or heavenly habitations, and the sensation of
longevity went on accumulating indefinitely in their talk. Their
very disputes had a flavor of antiquity, and involved the
reputation of female relatives to the third or fourth generation.
An old fisherman testified in our Police Court, the other day, in
narrating the progress of a street quarrel; "Then I called him
'Polly Garter,'--that's his grandmother; and he called me 'Susy
Reynolds,'--that's my aunt that's dead and gone."

In towns like this, from which the young men mostly migrate, the
work of life devolves upon the venerable and the very young. When
I first came to Oldport, it appeared to me that every institution
was conducted by a boy and his grandfather. This seemed the case,
for instance, with the bank that consented to assume the slender
responsibility of my deposits. It was further to be observed,
that, if the elder official was absent for a day, the boy carried
on the proceedings unaided; while if the boy also wished to amuse
himself elsewhere, a worthy neighbor from across the way came in
to fill the places of both. Seeing this, I retained my small hold
upon the concern with fresh tenacity; for who knew but some day,
when the directors also had gone on a picnic, the senior
depositor might take his turn at the helm? It may savor of
self-confidence, but it has always seemed to me, that, with one
day's control of a bank, even in these degenerate times,
something might be done which would quite astonish the

Longer acquaintance has, however, revealed the fact, that these
Oldport institutions stand out as models of strict discipline
beside their suburban compeers. A friend of mine declares that he
went lately into a country bank, nearby, and found no one on
duty. Being of opinion that there should always be someone behind
the counter of a bank, he went there himself. Wishing to be
informed as to the resources of his establishment, he explored
desks and vaults, found a good deal of paper of different kinds,
and some rich veins of copper, but no cashier. Going to the door
again in some anxiety, he encountered a casual school-boy, who
kindly told him that he did not know where the financial officer
might be at the precise moment of inquiry, but that half an hour
before he was on the wharf, fishing.

Death comes to the aged at last, however, even in Oldport. We
have lately lost, for instance, that patient old postman,
serenest among our human antiquities, whose deliberate tread
might have imparted a tone of repose to Broadway, could any
imagination have transferred him thither. Through him the
correspondence of other days came softened of all immediate
solicitude. Ere it reached you, friends had died or recovered,
debtors had repented, creditors grown kind, or your children had
paid your debts. Perils had passed, hopes were chastened, and the
most eager expectant took calmly the missive from that
tranquillizing hand. Meeting his friends and clients with a step
so slow that it did not even stop rapidly, he, like Tennyson's
Mariana, slowly
"From his bosom drew
Old letters."

But a summons came at last, not to be postponed even by him. One
day he delivered his mail as usual, with no undue precipitation;
on the next, the blameless soul was himself taken and forwarded
on some celestial route.

Irreparable would have seemed his loss, did there not still
linger among us certain types of human antiquity that might seem
to disprove the fabled youth of America. One veteran I daily
meet, of uncertain age, perhaps, but with at least that air of
brevet antiquity which long years of unruffled indolence can
give. He looks as if he had spent at least half a lifetime on the
sunny slope of some beach, and the other half in leaning upon his
elbows at the window of some sailor boarding-house. He is hale
and broad, with a head sunk between two strong shoulders; his
beard falls like snow upon his breast, longer and longer each
year, while his slumberous thoughts seem to move slowly enough to
watch it as it grows. I always fancy that these meditations have
drifted far astern of the times, but are following after, in
patient hopelessness, as a dog swims behind a boat. What knows he
of the President's Message? He has just overtaken some remarkable
catch of mackerel in the year thirty-eight. His hands lie buried
fathom-deep in his pockets, as if part of his brain lay there to
be rummaged; and he sucks at his old pipe as if his head, like
other venerable hulks, must be smoked out at intervals. His walk
is that of a sloth, one foot dragging heavily behind the other. I
meet him as I go to the post-office, and on returning, twenty
minutes later, I pass him again, a little farther advanced. All
the children accost him, and I have seen him stop--no great
retardation indeed--to fondle in his arms a puppy or a kitten.
Yet he is liable to excitement, in his way; for once, in some
high debate, wherein he assisted as listener, when one old man on
a wharf was doubting the assertion of another old man about a
certain equinoctial gale, I saw my friend draw his right hand
slowly and painfully from his pocket, and let it fall by his
side. It was really one of the most emphatic gesticulations I
ever saw, and tended obviously to quell the rising discord. It
was as if the herald at a tournament had dropped his truncheon,
and the fray must end.

Women's faces are apt to take from old age a finer touch than
those of men, and poverty does not interfere with this, where
there is no actual exposure to the elements. From the windows of
these old houses there often look forth delicate, faded
countenances, to which belongs an air of unmistakable refinement.
Nowhere in America, I fancy, does one see such counterparts of
the reduced gentlewoman of England,--as described, for instance,
in "Cranford,"-- quiet maiden ladies of seventy, with perhaps a
tradition of beauty and bellehood, and still wearing always a bit
of blue ribbon on their once golden curls,--this headdress being
still carefully arranged, each day, by some handmaiden of sixty,
so long a house-mate as to seem a sister, though some faint
suggestion of wages and subordination may be still preserved.
Among these ladies, as in "Cranford," there is a dignified
reticence in respect to money-matters, and a courteous blindness
to the small economies practised by each other. It is not held
good breeding, when they meet in a shop of a morning, for one to
seem to notice what another buys.

These ancient ladies have coats of arms upon their walls,
hereditary damasks among their scanty wardrobes, store of
domestic traditions in their brains, and a whole Court Guide of
high-sounding names at their fingers' ends. They can tell you of
the supposed sister of an English queen, who married an American
officer and dwelt in Oldport; of the Scotch Lady Janet, who
eloped with her tutor, and here lived in poverty, paying her
washerwoman with costly lace from her trunks; of the Oldport dame
who escaped from France at the opening of the Revolution, was
captured by pirates on her voyage to America, then retaken by a
privateer and carried into Boston, where she took refuge in John
Hancock's house. They can describe to you the Malbone Gardens,
and, as the night wanes and the embers fade, can give the tale of
the Phantom of Rough Point. Gliding farther and farther into the
past, they revert to the brilliant historic period of Oldport,
the successive English and French occupations during our
Revolution,and show you gallant inscriptions in honor of their
grandmothers, written on the window-panes by the diamond rings of
the foreign officers.

The newer strata of Oldport society are formed chiefly by
importation, and have the one advantage of a variety of origin
which puts provincialism out of the question. The mild winter
climate and the supposed cheapness of living draw scattered
families from the various Atlantic cities; and, coming from such
different sources, these visitors leave some exclusiveness
behind. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, are doubtless
good things to have in one's house, but are cumbrous to travel
with. Meeting here on central ground, partial aristocracies tend
to neutralize each other. A Boston family comes, bristling with
genealogies, and making the most of its little all of two
centuries. Another arrives from Philadelphia, equally fortified
in local heraldries unknown in Boston.

A third from New York brings a briefer pedigree, but more gilded.
Their claims are incompatible; but there is no common standard,
and so neither can have precedence. Since no human memory can
retain the great-grandmothers of three cities, we are practically
as well off as if we had no great-grandmothers at all.

But in Oldport, as elsewhere, the spice of conversation is apt to
be in inverse ratio to family tree and income-tax, and one can
hear better repartees among the boat-builders' shops on Long
Wharf than among those who have made the grand tour. All the
world over, one is occasionally reminded of the French officer's
verdict on the garrison town where he was quartered, that the
good society was no better than the good society anywhere else,
but the bad society was capital. I like, for instance, to watch
the shoals of fishermen that throng our streets in the early
spring, inappropriate as porpoises on land, or as Scott's pirates
in peaceful Kirkwall,--unwieldy, bearded creatures in oil-skin
suits,--men who have never before seen a basket-wagon or a
liveried groom and, whose first comments on the daintinesses of
fashion are far more racy than anything which fashion can say for

The life of our own fishermen and pilots remains active, in its
way, all winter; and coasting vessels come and go in the open
harbor every day. The only schooner that is not so employed is,
to my eye, more attractive than any of them; it is our sole
winter guest, this year, of all the graceful flotilla of yachts
that helped to make our summer moonlights so charming. While
Europe seems in such ecstasy over the ocean yacht-race, there
lies at anchor, stripped and dismantled, a vessel which was
excluded from the match, it is said, simply because neither of
the three competitors would have had a chance against her. I like
to look across the harbor at the graceful proportions of this
uncrowned victor in the race she never ran; and to my eye her
laurels are the most attractive. She seems a fit emblem of the
genius that waits, while talent merely wins. "Let me know," said
that fine, but unappreciated thinker, Brownlee Brown,--"let me
know what chances a man has passed in contempt; not what he has
made, but what he has refused to make, reserving himself for
higher ends."

All out-door work in winter has a cheerful look, from the triumph
of caloric it implies; but I know none in which man seems to
revert more to the lower modes of being than in searching for
seaclams. One may sometimes observe a dozen men employed in this
way, on one of our beaches, while the cold wind blows keenly off
shore, and the spray drifts back like snow over the green and
sluggish surge. The men pace in and out with the wave, going
steadily to and fro like a pendulum, ankle-deep in the chilly
brine, their steps quickened by hope or slackening with despair.
Where the maidens and children sport and shout in summer, there
in winter these heavy figures succeed. To them the lovely crest
of the emerald billow is but a chariot for clams, and is
valueless if it comes in empty. Really, the position of the clam
is the more dignified, since he moves only with the wave, and the
immortal being in fish-boots wades for him.

The harbor and the beach are thus occupied in winter; but one may
walk for many a mile along the cliffs, and see nothing human but
a few gardeners, spreading green and white sea-weed as manure
upon the lawns. The mercury rarely drops to zero here, and there
is little snow; but a new-fallen drift has just the same virgin
beauty as farther inland, and when one suddenly comes in view of
the sea beyond it, there is a sensation of summer softness. The
water is not then deep blue, but pale, with opaline reflections.
Vessels in the far horizon have the same delicate tint, as if
woven of the same liquid material. A single wave lifts itself
languidly above a reef,--a white-breasted loon floats near the
shore,--the sea breaks in long, indolent curves,--the distant
islands swim in a vague mirage. Along the cliffs hang great
organ-pipes of ice, distilling showers of drops that glitter in
the noonday sun, while the barer rocks send up a perpetual steam,
giving to the eye a sense of warmth, and suggesting the comforts
of fire. Beneath, the low tide reveals long stretches of
golden-brown sea-weed, caressed by the lapping wave.

High winds bring a different scene. Sometimes I fancy that in
winter, with less visible life upon the surface of the water, and
less of unseen animal life below it, there is yet more that seems
like vital force in the individual particles of waves. Each
separate drop appears more charged with desperate and determined
life. The lines of surf run into each other more brokenly, and
with less steady roll. The low sun, too, lends a weird and jagged
shadow to gallop in before the crest of each advancing wave, and
sometimes there is a second crest on the shoulders of the first,
as if there were more than could be contained in a single curve.
Greens and purples are called forth to replace the prevailing
blue. Far out at sea, great separate mounds of water rear
themselves, as if to overlook the tossing plain. Sometimes these
move onward and subside with their green hue still unbroken, and
again they curve into detached hillocks of foam, white,
multitudinous, side by side, not ridged, but moving on like a mob
of white horses, neck overarching neck, breast crowded against

Across those tumultuous waves I like to watch, after sunset, the
revolving light; there is something about it so delicate and
human. It seems to bud or bubble out of the low, dark horizon; a
moment, and it is not, and then another moment, and it is. With
one throb the tremulous light is born; with another throb it has
reached its full size, and looks at you, coy and defiant; and
almost in that instant it is utterly gone. You cannot conceive
yourself to be watching something which merely turns on an axis;
but it seems suddenly to expand, a flower of light, or to close,
as if soft petals of darkness clasped it in. During its moments
of absence, the eye cannot quite keep the memory of its precise
position, and it often appears a hair-breadth to the right or
left of the expected spot. This enhances the elfish and fantastic
look, and so the pretty game goes on, with flickering surprises,
every night and all night long. But the illusion of the seasons
is just as oquettish; and when next summer comes to us, with its
blossoms and its joys, it will dawn as softly out of the darkness
and as softly give place to winter once more.


Everyone who comes to a wharf feels an impulse to follow it down,
and look from the end. There is a fascination about it. It is the
point of contact between land and sea. A bridge evades the water,
and unites land with land, as if there were no obstacle. But a
wharf seeks the water, and grasps it with a solid hand. It is the
sign of a lasting friendship; once extended, there it remains;
the water embraces it, takes it into its tumultuous bosom at high
tide, leaves it in peace at ebb, rushes back to it eagerly again,
plays with it in sunshine, surges round it in storm, almost
crushing the massive thing. But the pledge once given is never
withdrawn. Buildings may rise and fall, but a solid wharf is
almost indestructible. Even if it seems destroyed, its materials
are all there. This shore might be swept away, these piers be
submerged or dashed asunder, still every brick and stone would
remain. Half the wharves of Oldport were ruined in the great
storm of 1815. Yet not one of them has stirred from the place
where it lay; its foundations have only spread more widely and
firmly; they are a part of the very pavement of the harbor,
submarine mountain ranges, on one of which yonder schooner now
lies aground. Thus the wild ocean only punished itself, and has
been embarrassed for half a century, like many another mad
profligate, by the wrecks of what it ruined.

Yet the surges are wont to deal very tenderly with these wharves.
In summer the sea decks them with floating weeds, and studs them
with an armor of shells. In the winter it surrounds them with a
smoother mail of ice, and the detached piles stand white and
gleaming, like the out-door palace of a Russian queen. How softly
and eagerly this coming tide swirls round them! All day the
fishes haunt their shadows; all night the phosphorescent water
glimmers by them, and washes with long, refluent waves along
their sides, decking their blackness with a spray of stars.

Water seems the natural outlet and discharge for every landscape,
and when we have followed down this artificial promontory, a
wharf, and have seen the waves on three sides of us, we have
taken the first step toward circumnavigating the globe. This is
our last terra firma. One step farther, and there is no possible
foothold but a deck, which tilts and totters beneath our feet. A
wharf, therefore, is properly neutral ground for all. It is a
silent hospitality, understood by all nations. It is in some sort
a thing of universal ownership. Having once built it, you must
grant its use to everyone; it is no trespass to land upon any
man's wharf.

The sea, like other beautiful savage creatures, derives most of
its charm from its reserves of untamed power. When a wild animal
is subdued to abjectness, all its interest is gone. The ocean is
never thus humiliated. So slight an advance of its waves would
overwhelm us, if only the restraining power once should fail, and
the water keep on rising! Even here, in these safe haunts of
commerce, we deal with the same salt tide which I myself have
seen ascend above these piers, and which within half a century
drowned a whole family in their home upon our Long Wharf.

It is still the same ungoverned ocean which, twice in every
twenty-four hours, reasserts its right of way, and stops only
where it will. At Monckton, on the Bay of Fundy, the wharves are
built forty feet high, and at ebb-tide you may look down on the
schooners lying aground upon the mud below. In six hours they
will be floating at your side. But the motions of the tide are as
resistless whether its rise be six feet or forty; as in the lazy
stretching of the caged lion's paw you can see all the terrors of
his spring.

Our principal wharf, the oldest in the town, has lately been
doubled in size, and quite transformed in shape, by an
importation of broad acres from the country. It is now what is
called "made land,"--a manufacture which has grown so easy that I
daily expect to see some enterprising contractor set up endwise a
bar of railroad iron, and construct a new planet at its summit,
which shall presently go spinning off into space and be called an
asteroid. There are some people whom would it be pleasant to
colonize in that way; but meanwhile the unchanged southern side
of the pier seems pleasanter, with its boat-builders' shops, all
facing sunward,--a cheerful haunt upon a winter's day. On the
early maps this wharf appears as "Queen-Hithe," a name more
graceful than its present cognomen. "Hithe" or "Hythe" signifies
a small harbor, and is the final syllable of many English names,
as of Lambeth. Hythe is also one of those Cinque-Ports of which
the Duke of Wellington was warden. This wharf was probably still
familiarly called Queen-Hithe in 1781, when Washington and
Rochambeau walked its length bareheaded between the ranks of
French soldiers; and it doubtless bore that name when Dean
Berkeley arrived in 1729, and the Rev. Mr. Honyman and all his
flock closed hastily their prayer-books, and hastened to the
landing to receive their guest. But it had lost this name ere the
days, yet remembered by aged men, when the Long Wharf became a
market. Beeves were then driven thither and tethered, while each
hungry applicant marked with a piece of chalk upon the creature's
side the desired cut; when a sufficient portion had been thus
secured, the sentence of death was issued. Fancy the chalk a live
coal, or the beast endowed with human consciousness, and no
Indian, or Inquisitorial tortures could have been more fearful.

It is like visiting the houses at Pompeii, to enter the strange
little black warehouses which cover some of our smaller wharves.
They are so old and so small it seems as if some race of pygmies
must have built them. Though they are two or three stories high,
with steep gambrel-roofs, and heavily timbered, their rooms are
yet so low that a man six feet high can hardly stand upright
beneath the great cross-beams. There is a row of these
structures, for instance, described on a map of 1762 as "the old
buildings on Lopez' Wharf," and to these another century has
probably brought very little change. Lopez was a Portuguese Jew,
who came to this place, with several hundred others, after the
Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He is said to have owned eighty
square-rigged vessels in this port, from which not one such craft
now sails. His little counting-room is in the second storey of
the building; its wall-timbers are of oak, and are still sound;
the few remaining planks are grained to resemble rosewood and
mahogany; the fragments of wall-paper are of English make. In the
cross-beam, just above your head, are the pigeon-holesonce
devoted to different vessels, whose names are still recorded
above them on faded paper,--"Ship Cleopatra," "Brig Juno," and
the like. Many of these vessels measured less than two hundred
tons, and it seems as if their owner had built his ships to match
the size of his counting-room.

A sterner tradition clings around an old building on a remoter
wharf; for men have but lately died who had seen slaves pass
within its doors for confinement. The wharf in those days
appertained to a distillery, an establishment then constantly
connected with the slave-trade, rum being sent to Africa, and
human beings brought back. Occasionally a cargo was landed here,
instead of being sent to the West Indies or to South Carolina,
and this building was fitted up for their temporary quarters. It
is but some twenty-five feet square, and must be less than thirty
feet in height, yet it is divided into three stories, of which
the lowest was used for other purposes, and the two upper were
reserved for slaves. There are still to be seen the barred
partitions and latticed door, making half the second floor into a
sort of cage, while the agent's room appears to have occupied the
other half. A similar latticed door--just such as I have seen in
Southern slave-pens--secures the foot of the upper stairway. The
whole small attic constitutes a single room, with a couple of
windows, and two additional breathing-holes, two feet square,
opening on the yard. It makes one sick to think of the poor
creatures who may once have gripped those bars with their hands,
or have glared with eager eyes between them; and it makes me
recall with delight the day when I once wrenched away the stocks
and chains from the floor of a pen like this, on the St. Mary's
River in Florida. It is almost forty years since this distillery
became a mill, and sixty since the slave-trade was abolished. The
date "1803" is scrawled upon the door of the cage,--the very year
when the port of Charleston was reopened for slaves, just before
the traffic ceased. A few years more, and such horrors will seem
as remote a memory in South Carolina, thank God! as in Rhode

Other wharves are occupied by mast-yards, places that seem like
play-rooms for grown men, crammed fuller than any old garret with
those odds and ends in which the youthful soul delights. There
are planks and spars and timber, broken rudders, rusty anchors,
coils of rope, bales of sail-cloth, heaps of blocks, piles of
chain-cable, great iron tar-kettles like antique helmets, strange
machines for steaming planks, inexplicable little chimneys,
engines that seem like dwarf-locomotives, windlasses that
apparently turn nothing, and incipient canals that lead nowhere.
For in these yards there seems no particular difference between
land and water; the tide comes and goes anywhere, and nobody
minds it; boats are drawn up among burdocks and ambrosia, and the
platform on which you stand suddenly proves to be something
afloat. Vessels are hauled upon the ways, each side of the wharf,
their poor ribs pitiably unclothed, ready for a cumbrous
mantua-making of oak and iron. On one side, within a floating
boom, lies a fleet of masts and unhewn logs, tethered uneasily,
like a herd of captive sea-monsters, rocking in the ripples. A
vast shed, that has doubtless looked ready to fall for these
dozen years spreads over, half the entrance to the wharf, and is
filled with spars, knee-timber, and planks of fragrant wood; its
uprights are festooned with all manner of great hawsers and
smaller ropes, and its dim loft is piled with empty casks and
idle sails. The sun always seems to shine in a ship-yard; there
are apt to be more loungers than laborers, and this gives a
pleasant air of repose; the neighboring water softens all harsher
sounds, the foot treads upon an elastic carpet of embedded chips,
and pleasant resinous odors are in the air.

Then there are wharves quite abandoned by commerce, and given
over to small tenements, filled with families so abundant that
they might dispel the fears of those alarmists who suspect that
children are ceasing to be born. Shrill voices resound
there--American or Irish, as the case may be--through the summer
noontides; and the domestic clothes-line forever stretches across
the paths where imported slaves once trod, or rich merchandise
lay piled. Some of these abodes are nestled in the corners of
houses once stately, with large windows and carven doorways.
Others occupy separate buildings, almost always of black,
unpainted wood, sometimes with the long, sloping roof of
Massachusetts, oftener with the quaint "gambrel" of Rhode Island.
From the busiest point of our main street, I can show you a
single cottage, with low gables, projecting eaves, and sheltering
sweetbrier, that seems as if it must have strayed hither, a
century or two ago, out of some English lane.

Some of the more secluded wharves appear wholly deserted by men
and women, and are tenanted alone by rats and boys,--two
amphibious races; either can swim anywhere, or scramble and
penetrate everywhere. The boys launch some abandoned skiff, and,
with an oar for a sail and another for a rudder, pass from wharf
to wharf; nor would it be surprising if the bright-eyed rats were
to take similar passage on a shingle. Yet,after all, the human
juveniles are the more sagacious brood. It is strange that people
should go to Europe, and seek the society of potentates less
imposing, when home can endow them with the occasional privilege
of a nod from an American boy. In these sequestered haunts, I
frequently meet some urchin three feet high who carries with him
an air of consummate worldly experience that completely
overpowers me, and I seem to shrink to the dimensions of Tom
Thumb. Before his calm and terrible glance all disguises fail.
You may put on a bold and careless air, and affect to overlook
him as you pass; but it is like assuming to ignore the existence
of the Pope of Rome, or of the London Times. He knows better.
Grown men are never very formidable; they are shy and shamefaced
themselves, usually preoccupied, and not very observing. If they
see a man loitering about, without visible aim, they class him as
a mild imbecile, and let him go; but boys are nature's
detectives, and one does not so easily evade their scrutinizing
eyes. I know full well that, while I study their ways, they are
noting mine through a clearer lens, and are probably taking my
measure far better than I take theirs. One instinctively shrinks
from making a sketch or memorandum while they are by; and if
caught in the act, one fondly hopes to pass for some harmless
speculator in real estate, whose pencillings may be only a matter
of habit, like those casual sums in compound interest which are
usually to be found scrawled on the margins of the daily papers
in Boston reading-rooms.

Our wharves are almost all connected by intricate by-ways among
the buildings; and one almost wishes to be a pirate or a
smuggler, for the pleasure of eluding the officers of justice
through such seductive paths. It is, perhaps, to counteract this
perilous fascination that our new police-office has been
established on a wharf. You will see its brick tower rising not
ungracefully, as you enter the inner harbor; it looks the better
for being almost windowless, though beauty was not the aim of the
omission. A curious stranger is said to have asked one of our
city fathers the reason of this peculiarity. "No use in windows,"
said the experienced official sadly; "the boys would only break
'em." It seems very unjust to assert that there is no
subordination in our American society; the citizens show
deference to the police, and the police to the boys.

The ancient aspect of these wharves extends itself sometimes to
the vessels which lie moored beside them. At yonder pier, for
instance, has lain for thirteen years a decaying bark, which was
suspected of being engaged in the slave-trade. She was run ashore
and abandoned on Block Island, in the winter of 1854, and was
afterwards brought in here. Her purchaser was offered eight
thousand dollars for his bargain, but refused it; and here the
vessel has remained, paying annual wharf dues and charges, till
she is worthless. She lies chained at the wharf, and the tide
rises and falls within her, thus furnishing a convenient
bathing-house for the children, who also find a perpetual
gymnasium in the broken shrouds that dangle from her masts.
Turner, when he painted his "slave-ship," could have asked no
better model. There is no name upon the stern, and it exhibits
merely a carved eagle, with the wings clipped and the head
knocked off. Only the lower masts remain, which are of a dismal
black, as are the tops and mizzen cross-trees. Within the
bulwarks, on each side, stand rows of black blocks, to which the
shrouds were once attached; these blocks are called by sailors
"dead-eyes," and each stands in weird mockery, with its three
ominous holes, like so many human skulls before some palace in
Dahomey. Other blocks like these swing more ominously yet at the
ends of the shrouds, that still hang suspended, waving and
creaking and jostling in the wind. Each year the ropes decay, and
soon the repulsive pendants will be gone. Not so with the iron
belaying-pins, a few of which still stand around the mast, so
rusted into the iron fife-rail that even the persevering industry
of the children cannot wrench them out. It seems as if some
guilty stain must cling to their sides, and hold them in. By one
of those fitnesses which fortune often adjusts, but which seem
incredible in art, the wharf is now used on one side for the
storage of slate, and the hulk is approached through an avenue of
gravestones. I never find myself in that neighborhood but my
steps instinctively seek that condemned vessel, whether by day,
when she makes a dark foreground for the white yachts and the
summer waves, or by night, when the storm breaks over her
desolate deck.

If we follow northward from "Queen-Hithe" along the shore, we
pass into a region where the ancient wharves of commerce, ruined
in 1815, have never been rebuilt; and only slender pathways for
pleasure voyagers now stretch above the submerged foundations.
Once the court end of the town, then its commercial centre, it is
now divided between the tenements of fishermen and the summer
homes of city households. Still the great old houses remain, with
mahogany stairways, carved wainscoting, and painted tiles; the
sea has encroached upon their gardens, and only boats like mine
approach where English dukes and French courtiers once landed. At
the head of yonder private wharf, in that spacious and still
cheerful abode, dwelt the beautiful Robinson sisterhood,--the
three Quaker belles of Revolutionary days, the memory of whose
loves might lend romance to this neighborhood forever. One of
these maidens was asked in marriage by a captain in the English
army, and was banished by her family to the Narragansett shore,
under a flag of truce, to avoid him; her lover was afterward
killed by a cannon-ball, in his tent, and she died unwedded.
Another was sought by two aspirants, who came in the same ship to
woo her, the one from Philadelphia, the other from New York. She
refused them both, and they sailed southward together; but, the
wind proving adverse, they returned, and one lingered till he won
her hand. Still another lover was forced into a vessel by his
friends, to tear him from the enchanted neighborhood; while
sailing past the house, he suddenly threw himself into the
water,--it must have been about where the end of the wharf now
rests,--that he might be rescued, and carried, a passive Leander,
into yonder door. The house was first the head-quarters of the
English commander, then of the French; and the sentinels of De
Noailles once trod where now croquet-balls form the heaviest
ordnance. Peaceful and untitled guests now throng in summer where
St. Vincents and Northumberlands once rustled and glittered; and
there is nothing to recall those brilliant days except the
painted tiles on the chimney, where there is a choice society of
coquettes and beaux, priests and conjurers, beggars and dancers,
and every wig and hoop dates back to the days of Queen Anne.

Sometimes when I stand upon this pier by night, and look across
the calm black water, so still, perhaps, that the starry
reflections seem to drop through it in prolonged javelins of
light instead of resting on the surface, and the opposite
lighthouse spreads its cloth of gold across the bay,--I can
imagine that I discern the French and English vessels just
weighing anchor; I see De Lauzun and De Noailles embarking, and
catch the last sheen upon their lace, the last glitter of their
swords. It vanishes, and I see only the lighthouse gleam, and the
dark masts of a sunken ship across the neighboring island. Those
motionless spars have, after all, a nearer interest, and, as I
saw them sink, I will tell their tale.

That vessel came in here one day last August, a stately,
full-sailed bark; nor was it known, till she had anchored, that
she was a mass of imprisoned fire below. She was the "Trajan,"
from Rockland, bound to New Orleans with a cargo of lime, which
took fire in a gale of wind, being wet with sea-water as the
vessel rolled. The captain and crew retreated to the deck, and
made the hatches fast, leaving even their clothing and provisions
below. They remained on deck, after reaching this harbor, till
the planks grew too hot beneath their feet, and the water came
boiling from the pumps. Then the vessel was towed into a depth of
five fathoms, to be scuttled and sunk. I watched her go down.
Early impressions from "Peter Parley" had portrayed the sinking
of a vessel as a frightful plunge, endangering all around, like a
maelstrom. The actual process was merely a subsidence so calm and
gentle that a child might have stood upon the deck till it sank
beneath him, and then might have floated away. Instead of a
convulsion, it was something stately and very pathetic to the
imagination. The bark remained almost level, the bows a little
higher than the stern; and her breath appeared to be surrendered
in a series of pulsations, as if every gasp of the lungs admitted
more of the suffocating wave. After each long heave, she went
visibly a few inches deeper, and then paused. The face of the
benign Emperor, her namesake, was on the stern; first sank the
carven beard, then the rather mutilated nose, then the white and
staring eyes, that gazed blankly over the engulfing waves. The
figure-head was Trajan again, at full length, with the costume of
an Indian hunter, and the face of a Roman sage; this image
lingered longer, and then vanished, like Victor Hugo's Gilliatt,
by cruel gradations. Meanwhile the gilded name upon the taffrail
had slowly disappeared also; but even when the ripples began to
meet across her deck, still her descent was calm. As the water
gained, the hidden fire was extinguished, and the smoke, at first
densely rising, grew rapidly less. Yet when it had stopped
altogether, and all but the top of the cabin had disappeared,
there came a new ebullition of steam, like a hot spring, throwing
itself several feet in air, and then ceasing.

As the vessel went down, several beams and planks came springing
endwise up the hatchway, like liberated men. But nothing had a
stranger look to me than some great black casks which had been
left on deck. These, as the water floated them, seemed to stir
and wake, and to become gifted with life, and then got into
motion and wallowed heavily about, like hippopotami or any
unwieldy and bewildered beasts. At last the most enterprising of
them slid somehow to the bulwark, and, after several clumsy
efforts, shouldered itself over; then others bounced out, eagerly
following, as sheep leap a wall, and then they all went bobbing
away, over the dancing waves. For the wind blew fresh meanwhile,
and there were some twenty sail-boats lying-to with reefed sails
by the wreck, like so many sea-birds; and when the loose stuff
began to be washed from the deck, they all took wing at once, to
save whatever could be picked up,--since at such times, as at a
conflagration on land, every little thing seems to assume a
value,--and at last one young fellow steered boldly up to the
sinking ship itself, sprang upon the vanishing taffrail for one
instant, as if resolved to be the last on board, and then pushed
off again. I never saw anything seem so extinguished out of the
universe as that great vessel, which had towered so colossal
above my little boat; it was impossible to imagine that she was
all there yet, beneath the foaming and indifferent waves. No
effort has yet been made to raise her; and a dead eagle seems to
have more in common with the living bird than has now this
submerged and decaying hulk with the white and winged creature
that came sailing into our harbor on that summer day.

It shows what conversational resources are always at hand in a
seaport town, that the boatman with whom I first happened to
visit this burning vessel had been thrice at sea on ships
similarly destroyed, and could give all the particulars of their
fate. I know no class of uneducated men whose talk is so apt to
be worth hearing as that of sailors. Even apart from their
personal adventures and their glimpses at foreign lands, they
have made observations of nature which are far more careful and
minute than those of farmers, because the very lives of sailors
are always at risk. Their voyages have also made them sociable
and fond of talk, while the pursuits of most men tend to make
them silent; and their constant changes of scene, though not
touching them very deeply, have really given a certain
enlargement to their minds. A quiet demeanor in a seaport town
proves nothing; the most inconspicuous man may have the most
thrilling career to look back upon. With what a superb
familiarity do these men treat this habitable globe! Cape Horn
and the Cape of Good Hope are in their phrase but the West Cape
and the East Cape, merely two familiar portals of their wonted
home. With what undisguised contempt they speak of the enthusiasm
displayed over the ocean yacht-race! That any man should boast of
crossing the Atlantic in a schooner of two hundred tons, in
presence of those who have more than once reached the Indian
Ocean in a fishing-smack of fifty, and have beaten in the
homeward race the ships in whose company they sailed! It is not
many years since there was here a fishing-skipper, whose surname
was "Daredevil," and who sailed from this port to all parts of
the world, on sealing voyages, in a sloop so small that she was
popularly said to go under water when she got outside the lights,
and never to reappear until she reached her port.

And not only those who sail on long voyages, but even our local
pilots and fishermen, still lead an adventurous and untamed life,
less softened than any other by the appliances of modern days. In
their undecked boats they hover day and night along these stormy
coasts, and at any hour the beating of the long-roll upon the
beach may call their full manhood into action. Cowardice is
sifted and crushed out from among them by a pressure so constant;
and they are withal truthful and steady in their ways, with few
vices and many virtues. They are born poor, and remain poor, for
their work is hard, with more blanks than prizes; but their life
is a life for a man, and though it makes them prematurely old,
yet their old age comes peacefully and well. In almost all
pursuits the advance of years brings something forlorn. It is not
merely that the body decays, but that men grow isolated and are
pushed aside; there is no common interest between age and youth.
The old farmer leads a lonely existence, and ceases to meet his
compeers except on Sunday; nobody consults him; his experience
has been monotonous, and his age is apt to grow unsocial. The old
mechanic finds his tools and his methods superseded by those of
younger men. But the superannuated fisherman graduates into an
oracle; the longer he lives, the greater the dignity of his
experience; he remembers the great storm, the great tide, the
great catch, the great shipwreck; and on all emergencies his
counsel has weight. He still busies himself about the boats too,
and still sails on sunny days to show the youngsters the best
fishing-ground. When too infirm for even this, he can at least
sun himself beside the landing, and, dreaming over inexhaustible
memories, watch the bark of his own life go down.


It was always a mystery to me where Severance got precisely his
combination of qualities. His father was simply what is called a
handsome man, with stately figure and curly black hair, not
without a certain dignity of manner, but with a face so shallow
that it did not even seem to ripple, and with a voice so prosy
that, when he spoke of the sky, you wished there were no such
thing. His mother was a fair, little, pallid
creature,--wash-blond, as they say of lace,--patient, meek, and
always fatigued and fatiguing. But Severance, as I first knew
him, was the soul of activity. He had dark eyes, that had a great
deal of light in them, without corresponding depth; his hair was
dark, straight, and very soft; his mouth expressed sweetness,
without much strength; he talked well; and though he was apt to
have a wandering look, as if his thoughts were laying a submarine
cable to another continent, yet the young girls were always glad
to have the semblance of conversation with him in this. To me he
was in the last degree lovable. He had just enough of that
subtile quality called genius, perhaps, to spoil first his
companions, and then himself. His words had weight with you,
though you might know yourself wiser; and if you went to give him
the most reasonable advice, you were suddenly seized with a
slight paralysis of the tongue. Thus it was, at any rate, with
me. We were cemented therefore by the firmest ties,--a nominal
seniority on my part, and a substantial supremacy on his.

We lodged one summer at an old house in that odd suburb of
Oldport called "The Point." It is a sort of Artists' Quarter of
the town, frequented by a class of summer visitors more addicted
to sailing and sketching than to driving and bowing,--persons who
do not object to simple fare, and can live, as one of them said,
on potatoes and Point. Here Severance and I made our summer home,
basking in the delicious sunshine of the lovely bay. The bare
outlines around Oldport sometimes dismay the stranger, but soon
fascinate. Nowhere does one feel bareness so little, because
there is no sharpness of perspective; everything shimmers in the
moist atmosphere; the islands are all glamour and mirage; and the
undulating hills of the horizon seem each like the soft, arched
back of some pet animal, and you long to caress them with your
hand. At last your thoughts begin to swim also, and pass into
vague fancies, which you also love to caress. Severance and I
were constantly afloat, body and mind. He was a perfect sailor,
and had that dreaminess in his nature which matches with nothing
but the ripple of the waves. Still, I could not hide from myself
that he was a changed man since that voyage in search of health
from which he had just returned. His mother talked in her humdrum
way about heart disease; and his father, taking up the strain,
bored us about organic lesions, till we almost wished he had a
lesion himself. Severance ridiculed all this; but he grew more
and more moody, and his eyes seemed to be laying more submarine
cables than ever.

When we were not on the water, we both liked to mouse about the
queer streets and quaint old houses of that region, and to chat
with the fishermen and their grandmothers. There was one house,
however, which was very attractive to me,--perhaps because nobody
lived in it, and which, for that or some other reason, he never
would approach. It was a great square building of rough gray
stone, looking like those sombre houses which everyone remembers
in Montreal, but which are rare in "the States." It had been
built many years before by some millionnaire from New Orleans,
and was left unfinished, nobody knew why, till the garden was a
wilderness of bloom, and the windows of ivy. Oldport is the only
place in New England where either ivy or traditions will grow;
there were, to be sure, no legends about this house that I could
hear of, for the ghosts in those parts were feeble-minded and
retrospective by reason of age, and perhaps scorned a mansion
where nobody had ever lived; but the ivy clustered round the
projecting windows as densely as if it had the sins of a dozen
generations to hide.

The house stood just above what were commonly called (from their
slaty color) the Blue Rocks; it seemed the topmost pebble left by
some tide that had receded,--which perhaps it was. Nurses and
children thronged daily to these rocks, during the visitors'
season, and the fishermen found there a favorite lounging-place;
but nobody scaled the wall of the house save myself, and I went
there very often. The gate was sometimes opened by Paul, the
silent Bavarian gardener, who was master of the keys; and there
were also certain great cats that were always sunning themselves
on the steps, and seemed to have grown old and gray in waiting
for mice that had never come. They looked as if they knew the
past and the future. If the owl is the bird of Minerva, the cat
should be her beast; they have the same sleepy air of
unfathomable wisdom. There was such a quiet and potent spell
about the place that one could almost fancy these constant
animals to be the transformed bodies of human visitors who had
stayed too long. Who knew what tales might be told by these tall,
slender birches, clustering so closely by the sombre
walls?--birches which were but whispering shrubs when the first
gray stones were laid, and which now reared above the eaves their
white stems and dark boughs, still whispering and waiting till a
few more years should show them, across the roof, the topmost
blossoms of other birches on the other side.

Before the great western doorway spread the outer harbor, whither
the coasting vessels came to drop anchor at any approach of
storm. These silent visitors, which arrived at dusk and went at
dawn, and from which no boat landed, seemed fitting guests before
the portals of the silent house. I was never tired of watching
them from the piazza; but Severance always stayed outside the
wall. It was a whim of his, he said; and once only I got out of
him something about the resemblance of the house to some
Portuguese mansion,--at Madeira, perhaps, or at Rio Janeiro, but
he did not say,--with which he had no pleasant associations. Yet
he afterwards seemed to wish to deny this remark, or to confuse
my impressions of it, which naturally fixed it the better in my

I remember well the morning when he was at last coaxed into
approaching the house. It was late in September, and a day of
perfect calm. As we looked from the broad piazza, there was a
glassy smoothness over all the bay, and the hills were coated
with a film, or rather a mere varnish, inconceivably thin, of
haze more delicate than any other climate in America can show.
Over the water there were white gulls flying, lazy and low;
schools of young mackerel displayed their white sides above the
surface; and it seemed as if even a butterfly might be seen for
miles over that calm expanse. The bay was covered with
mackerel-boats, and one man sculled indolently across the
foreground a scarlet skiff. It was so still that every white
sail-boat rested where its sail was first spread; and though the
tide was at half-ebb, the anchored boats swung idly different
ways from their moorings. Yet there was a continuous ripple in
the broad sail of some almost motionless schooner, and there was
a constant melodious plash along the shore. From the mouth of the
bay came up slowly the premonitory line of bluer water, and we
knew that a breeze was near.

Severance seemed to rise in spirits as we approached the house,
and I noticed no sign of shrinking, except an occasional lowering
of the voice. Seeing this, I ventured to joke him a little on his
previous reluctance, and he replied in the same strain. I seated
myself at the corner, and began sketching old Fort Louis, while
he strolled along the piazza, looking in at the large, vacant
windows. As he approached the farther end, I suddenly heard him
give a little cry of amazement or dismay, and, looking up, saw
him leaning against the wall, with pale face and hands clenched.

A minute sometimes appears a long while; and though I sprang to
him instantly, yet I remember that it seemed as if, during that
instant, the whole face of things had changed. The breeze had
come, the bay was rippled, the sail-boats careened to the wind,
fishes and birds were gone, and a dark gray cloud had come
between us and the sun. Such sudden changes are not, however,
uncommon after an interval of calm; and my only conscious thought
at the time was of wonder at the strange aspect of my companion.

"What was that?" asked Severance in a bewildered tone. I looked
about me, equally puzzled. "Not there," he said. "In the window."

I looked in at the window, saw nothing, and said so. There was
the great empty drawing-room, across which one could see the
opposite window, and through this the eastern piazza and the
garden beyond. Nothing more was there. With some persuasion,
Severance was induced to look in. He admitted that he saw nothing
peculiar; but he refused all explanation, and we went home.

"Never let me go to that house again," he said abruptly, as we
entered our own door.

I pointed out to him the absurdity of thus yielding to a nervous
delusion, which was already in part conquered, and he finally
promised to revisit the scene with me the next day. To clear all
possible misgivings from my own mind, I got the key of the house
from Paul, explored it thoroughly, and was satisfied that no
improper visitor had recently entered the drawing-room at least,
as the windows were strongly bolted on the inside, and a large
cobweb, heavy with dust, hung across the doorway. This did no
great credit to Paul's stewardship, but was, perhaps, a slight
relief to me. Nor could I see a trace of anything uncanny outside
the house. When Severance went with me, next day, the coast was
equally clear, and I was glad to have cured him so easily.

Unfortunately, it did not last. A few days after, there was a
brilliant sunset, after a storm, with gorgeous yellow light
slanting everywhere, and the sun looking at us between bars of
dark purple cloud, edged with gold where they touched the pale
blue sky; all this fading at last into a great whirl of gray to
the northward, with a cold purple ground. At the height of the
show, I climbed the wall to my favorite piazza, and was surprised
to find Severance already there.

He sat facing the sunset, but with his head sunk between his
hands. At my approach, he looked up, and rose to his feet. "Do
not deceive me any more," he said, almost savagely, and pointed
to the window.

I looked in, and must confess that, for a moment, I too was
startled. There was a perceptible moment of time during which it
seemed as if no possible philosophy could explain what appeared
in sight. Not that any object showed itself within the great
drawing-room, but I distinctly saw--across the apartment, and
through the opposite window--the dark figure of a man about my
own size, who leaned against the long window, and gazed intently
on me. Above him spread the yellow sunset light, around him the
birch-boughs hung and the ivy-tendrils swayed, while behind him
there appeared a glimmering water-surface, across which slowly
drifted the tall masts of a schooner. It looked strangely like a
view I had seen of some foreign harbor,--Amalfi, perhaps,--with a
vine-clad balcony and a single human figure in the foreground. So
real and startling was the sight that at first it was not easy to
resolve the whole scene into its component parts. Yet it was
simply such a confused mixture of real and reflected images as
one often sees from the window of a railway carriage, where the
mirrored interior seems to glide beside the train, with the
natural landscape for a background. In this case, also, the frame
and foliage of the picture were real, and all else was reflected;
the sunlit bay behind us was reproduced as in a camera, and the
dark figure was but the full-length image of myself.

It was easy to explain all this to Severance, but he shook his
head. "So cool a philosopher as yourself," he said, "should
remember that this image is not always visible. At our last
visit, we looked for it in vain. When we first saw it, it
appeared and disappeared within ten minutes. On your mechanical
theory it should be other-wise."

This staggered me for a moment. Then the ready solution occurred,
that the reflection depended on the strength and direction of the
light; and I proved to him that, in our case, it had appeared and
disappeared with the sunshine. He was silenced, but evidently not
convinced; yet time and common-sense, it seemed, would take care
of that.

Soon after all this, I was called out of town for a week or two.
If Severance would go with me, it would doubtless complete the
cure, I thought; but this he obstinately declined. After my
departure, my sister wrote, he seemed absolutely to haunt the
empty house by the Blue Rocks. He undoubtedly went here to
sketch, she thought. The house was in charge of a real-estate
agent,--a retired landscape-painter, whose pictures did not sell
so profitably as their originals; and her theory was, that this
agent hoped to make our friend buy the place, and so allured him
there under pretence of sketching. Moreover, she surmised, he was
studying some effect of shadow, because, unlike most men, he
appeared in decent spirits only on cloudy days. It is always so
easy to fit a man out with a set of ready-made motives! But I
drew my own conclusions, and was not surprised to hear, soon
after, that Severance was seriously ill.

This brought me back at once,--sailing down from Providence in an
open boat, I remember, one lovely moonlight night. Next day I saw
Severance, who declared that he had suffered from nothing worse
than a prolonged sick-headache. I soon got out of him all that
had happened. He had seen the figure in the window every sunny
day, he said. Of course he had, if he chose to look for it, and I
could only smile, though it perhaps seemed unkind. But I stopped
smiling when he went on to tell that, not satisfied with these
observations, he had visited the house by moonlight also, and had
then seen, as he averred, a second figure standing beside the

Of course, there was no defence against such a theory as this,
except simply to laugh it down; but it made me very anxious, for
it showed that he was growing thoroughly morbid. "Either it was
pure fancy," I said, "or it was Paul the gardener."

But here he was prepared for me. It seemed that, on seeing the
two figures, Severance had at once left the piazza, and, with an
instinct of common-sense that was surprising, had crossed the
garden, scaled the wall, and looked in at the window of Paul's
little cottage, where the man and his wife were quietly seated at
supper, probably after a late fishing-trip. "There was another
reason," he said; but here he stopped, and would give no
description of the second figure, which he had, however, seen
twice again, always by moon-light. He consented to let me
accompany him the following night.

We accordingly went. It was a calm, clear night, and the moon lay
brightly on the bay. The distant shores looked low and filmy; a
naval vessel was in the harbor, and there was a ball on board,
with music and fire-works; some fishermen were singing in their
boats, late as was the hour. Severance was absorbed in his own
gloomy reveries; and when we had crossed the wall, the world
seemed left outside, and the glamour of the place began to creep
over me also. I seemed to see my companion relapsing into some
phantom realm, beyond power of withdrawal. I talked, sang,
whistled; but it was all a rather hollow effort, and soon ceased.
The great house looked gloomy and impenetrable, the moonlight
appeared sick and sad, the birch-boughs rustled in a dreary way.
We went up the steps in no jubilant mood.

I crossed the piazza at once, looked in at the farthest window,
and saw there my own image, though far more faintly than in the
sunlight. Severance then joined me, and his reflected shape stood
by mine. Something of the first ghostly impression was renewed, I
must confess, by this meeting of the two shadows; there was
something rather awful in the way the bodiless things nodded and
gesticulated at each other in silence. Still, there was nothing
more than this, as Severance was compelled to own; and I was
trying to turn the whole affair into ridicule, when suddenly,
without sound or warning, I saw--as distinctly as I perceive the
words I now write--yet another figure stand at the window, gaze
steadfastly at us for a moment, and then disappear. It was, as I
fancied, that of a woman, but was totally enveloped in a very
full cloak, reaching to the ground, with a peculiarly cut hood,
that stood erect and seemed half as long as the body of the
garment. I had a vague recollection of having seen some such
costume in a picture.

Of course, I dashed round the corner of the house, threaded the
birch-trees, and stood on the eastern piazza. No one was there.
Without losing an instant, I ran to the garden wall and climbed
it, as Severance had done, to look into Paul's cottage. That
worthy was just getting into bed, in a state of complicated
deshabille, his blackbearded head wrapped in an old scarlet
handkerchief that made him look like a retired pirate in reduced
circumstances. He being accounted for, I vainly traversed the
shrubberies, returned to the western piazza, watched awhile
uselessly, and went home with Severance, a good deal puzzled.

By daylight the whole thing seemed different. That I had seen the
figure there was no doubt. It was not a reflected image, for we
had no companion. It was, then, human. After all, thought I, it
is a commonplace thing enough, this masquerading in a cloak and
hood. Someone has observed Severance's nocturnal visits, and is
amusing himself at his expense. The peculiarity was, that the
thing was so well done, and the figure had such an air of
dignity, that somehow it was not so easy to make light of it in
talking with him.

I went into his room, next day. His sick-headache, or whatever it
was, had come on again, and he was lying on his bed. Rutherford's
strange old book on the Second Sight lay open before him. "Look
there," he said; and I read the motto of a chapter:--
"In sunlight one,
In shadow none,
In moonlight two,
In thunder two,
Then comes Death."

I threw the book indignantly from me, and began to invent
doggerel, parodying this precious incantation. But Severance did
not seem to enjoy the joke, and it grows tiresome to enact one's
own farce and do one's own applauding.

For several days after he was laid up in earnest; but instead of
getting any mental rest from this, he lay poring over that
preposterous book, and it really seemed as if his brain were a
little disturbed. Meanwhile I watched the great house, day and
night, sought for footsteps, and, by some odd fancy, took
frequent observations on the gardener and his wife. Failing to
get any clew, I waited one day for Paul's absence, and made a
call upon the wife, under pretence of hunting up a missing
handkerchief,--for she had been my laundress. I found the
handsome, swarthy creature, with her six bronzed children around
her, training up the Madeira vine that made a bower of the whole
side of her little, black, gambrel-roofed cottage. On learning my
errand, she became full of sympathy, and was soon emptying her
bureau-drawers in pursuit of the lost handkerchief. As she opened
the lowest drawer, I saw within it something which sent all the
blood to my face for a moment. It was a black cloth cloak, with a
stiff hood two feet long, of precisely the pattern worn by the
unaccountable visitant at the window. I turned almost fiercely
upon her; but she looked so innocent as she stood there,
caressing and dusting with her fingers what was evidently a pet
garment, that it was really impossible to denounce her.

"Is that a Bavarian cloak?" said I, trying to be cool and

Here broke in the eldest boy, named John, aged ten, a native
American, and a sailor already, whom I had twice fished up from a
capsized punt. "Mother ain't a Bavarian," quoth the young salt.
"Father's a Bavarian; mother's a Portegee. Portegees wear them

"I am a Portuguese, sir, from Fayal," said the woman, prolonging
with sweet intonation the soft name of her birthplace. "This is
my capote, she added, taking up with pride the uncouth costume,
while the children gathered round, as if its vast folds came
rarely into sight.

"It has not been unfolded for a year," she said. As she spoke,
she dropped it with a cry, and a little mouse sprang from the
skirts, and whisked away into some corner. We found that the
little animal had made its abode in the heavy woollen, of which
three or four thicknesses had been eaten through, and then matted
together into the softest of nests. This contained, moreover, a
small family of mouselets, who certainly had not taken part in
any midnight masquerade. The secret seemed more remote than ever,
for I knew that there was no other Portuguese family in the town,
and there was no confounding this peculiar local costume with any

Returning to Severance's chamber, I said nothing of all this. He
was, by an odd coincidence, looking over a portfolio of Fayal
sketches made by himself during his late voyage. Among them were
a dozen studies of just such capotes as I had seen,--some in
profile, completely screening the wearer, others disclosing
women's faces, old or young. He seemed to wish to put them away,
however, when I came in. Really, the plot seemed to thicken; and
it was a little provoking to understand it no better, when all
the materials seemed close to one's hands.

A day or two later, I was summoned to Boston. Returning thence by
the stage-coach, we drove from Tiverton, the whole length of the
island, under one of those wild and wonderful skies which give,
better than anything in nature, the effect of a field of battle.
The heavens were filled with ten thousand separate masses of
cloud, varying in shade from palest gray to iron-black, borne
rapidly to and fro by upper and lower currents of opposing wind.
They seemed to be charging, retreating, breaking, recombining,
with puffs of what seemed smoke, and a few wan sunbeams sometimes
striking through for fire. Wherever the eye turned, there
appeared some flying fragment not seen before; and yet in an hour
this noiseless Antietam grew still, and a settled leaden film
overspread the sky, yielding only to some level lines of light
where the sun went down. Perhaps our driver was looking toward
the sky more than to his own affairs, for, just as all this ended
a wheel gave out, and we had to stop in Portsmouth for repairs.
By the time we were again in motion, the changing wind had
brought up a final thunder-storm, which broke upon us ere we
reached our homes. It was rather an uncommon thing, so late in
the season; for the lightning, like other brilliant visitors,
usually appears in Oldport during only a month or two of every

The coach set me down at my own door, so soaked that I might have
floated in. I peeped into Severance's room, however, on the way
to my own. Strange to say, no one was there; yet some one had
evidently been lying on the bed, and on the pillow lay the old
book on the Second Sight, open at the very page which had so
bewitched him and vexed me. I glanced at it mechanically, and
when I came to the meaningless jumble, "In thunder two," a flash
flooded the chamber, and a sudden fear struck into my mind. Who
knew what insane experiment might have come into that boy's head?

With sudden impulse, I went downstairs, and found the whole house
empty, until a stupid old woman, coming in from the wood-house
with her apron full of turnips, told me that Severance had been
missing since nightfall, after being for a week in bed,
dangerously ill, and sometimes slightly delirious. The family had
become alarmed,and were out with lanterns, in search of him.

It was safe to say that none of them had more reason to be
alarmed than I. It was something, however, to know where to seek
him. Meeting two neighboring fishermen, I took them with me. As
we approached the well-known wall, the blast blew out our lights,
and we could scarcely speak. The lightning had grown less
frequent, yet sheets of flame seemed occasionally to break over
the dark, square sides of the house, and to send a flickering
flame along the ridge-pole and eaves, like a surf of light. A
surf of water broke also behind us on the Blue Rocks, sounding as
if it pursued our very footsteps; and one of the men whispered
hoarsely to me, that a Nantucket brig had parted her cable, and
was drifting in shore.

As we entered the garden, lights gleamed in the shrubbery. To my
surprise, it was Paul and his wife, with their two oldest
children,--these last being quite delighted with the stir, and
showing so much illumination, in the lee of the house, that it
was quite a Feast of Lanterns. They seemed a little surprised at
meeting us, too; but we might as well have talked from Point
Judith to Beaver Tail as to have attempted conversation there. I
walked round the building; but a flash of lightning showed
nothing on the western piazza save a birch-tree, which lay
across, blown down by the storm. I therefore went inside, with
Paul's household, leaving the fishermen without.

Never shall I forget that search. As we went from empty room to
room, the thunder seemed rolling on the very roof, and the sharp
flashes of lightning appeared to put out our lamps and then
kindle them again. We traversed the upper regions, mounting by a
ladder to the attic; then descended into the cellar and the
wine-vault. The thorough bareness of the house, the fact that no
bright-eyed mice peeped at us from their holes, no uncouth
insects glided on the walls, no flies buzzed in the unwonted
lamplight, scarcely a spider slid down his damp and trailing
web,--all this seemed to enhance the mystery. The vacancy was
more dreary than desertion: it was something old which had never
been young. We found ourselves speaking in whispers; the children
kept close to their parents; we seemed to be chasing some awful
Silence from room to room; and the last apartment, the great
drawing-room, we really seemed loath to enter. The less the rest
of the house had to show, the more, it seemed, must be
concentrated there. Even as we entered, a blast of air from a
broken pane extinguished our last light, and it seemed to take
many minutes to rekindle it.

As it shone once more, a brilliant lightning-flash also swept
through the window, and flickered and flickered, as if it would
never have done. The eldest child suddenly screamed, and pointed
with her finger, first to one great window and then to its
opposite. My eyes instinctively followed the successive
directions; and the double glance gave me all I came to seek, and
more than all. Outside the western window lay Severance, his
white face against the pane, his eyes gazing across and past
us,--struck down doubtless by the fallen tree, which lay across
the piazza, and hid him from external view. Opposite him, and
seen through the eastern window, stood, statue-like, the hooded
figure, but with the great capote thrown back, showing a sad,
eager, girlish face, with dark eyes, and a good deal of black
hair,--one of those faces of peasant beauty such as America never
shows,--faces where ignorance is almost raised into refinement by
its childlike look. Contrasted with Severance's wild gaze, the
countenance wore an expression of pitying forgiveness, almost of
calm; yet it told of wasting sorrow and the wreck of a life.
Gleaming lustrous beneath the lightning, it had a more mystic
look when the long flash had ceased, and the single lantern
burned beneath it, like an altar-lamp before a shrine.

"It is Aunt Emilia," exclaimed the little girl; and as she spoke,
the father, turning angrily upon her, dashed the light to the
ground, and groped his way out without a word of answer. I was
too much alarmed about Severance to care for aught else, and
quickly made my way to the western piazza, where I found him
stunned by the fallen tree,--injured, I feared,
internally,--still conscious, but unable to speak.

With the aid of my two companions I got him home, and he was ill
for several weeks before he died. During his illness he told me
all he had to tell; and though Paul and his family disappeared
next day,--perhaps going on board the Nantucket brig, which had
narrowly escaped shipwreck,--I afterwards learned all the
remaining facts from the only neighbor in whom they had placed
confidence. Severance, while convalescing at a country-house in
Fayal, had fallen passionately in love with a young peasant-girl,
who had broken off her intended marriage for love of him, and had
sunk into a half-imbecile melancholy when deserted. She had
afterwards come to this country, and joined her sister, Paul's
wife. Paul had received her reluctantly, and only on condition
that her existence should be concealed. This was the easier, as
it was one of her whims to go out only by night, when she had
haunted the great house, which, she said, reminded her of her own
island, so that she liked to wear thither the capote which had
been the pride of her heart at home. On the few occasions when
she had caught a glimpse of Severance, he had seemed to her, no
doubt, as much a phantom as she seemed to him. On the night of
the storm, they had both sought their favorite haunt, unconscious
of each other, and the friends of each had followed in alarm.

I got traces of the family afterwards at Nantucket and later at
Narragansett, and had reason to think that Paul was employed, one
summer, by a farmer on Conanicut; but I was always just too late
for them; and the money which Severance left, as his only
reparation for poor Emilia, never was paid. The affair was hushed
up, and very few, even among the neighbors, knew the tragedy that
had passed by them with the storm.

After Severance died, I had that temporary feeling of weakened
life which remains after the first friend or the first love
passes, and the heart seems to lose its sense of infinity. His
father came, and prosed, and measured the windows of the empty
house, and calculated angles of reflection, and poured even death
and despair into his crucible of commonplace; the mother whined
in her feebler way at home; while the only brother, a talkative
medical student, tried to pooh-pooh it all, and sent me a letter
demonstrating that Emilia was never in America, and that the
whole was an hallucination. I cared nothing for his theory; it
all seemed like a dream to me, and, as all the actors but myself
are gone, it seems so still. The great house is yet unoccupied,
and likely to remain so; and he who looks through its western
window may still be startled by the weird image of himself. As I
lingered round it, to-day, beneath the winter sunlight, the snow
drifted pitilessly past its ivied windows, and so hushed my
footsteps that I scarce knew which was the phantom, myself or my
reflection, and wondered if the medical student would not argue
me out of existence next.

This is the end of my story. If I sought for a moral, it would be
hard to attach one to a thing so slight. It could only be this,
that shadow and substance are always ready to link themselves, in
unexpected ways, against the diseased imagination; and that
remorse can make the most transparent crystal into a mirror for
its sin.

A Drift-Wood Fire.
"This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and salt and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule."
A Lyke-Wake Dirge.

The October days grow rapidly shorter, and brighten with more
concentrated light. It is but half past five, yet the sun dips
redly behind Conanicut, the sunset-gun booms from our neighbor's
yacht, the flag glides down from his mainmast, and the slender
pennant, running swiftly up the opposite halyards, dances and
flickers like a flame, and at last perches, with dainty
hesitation, at the mast-head. A tint of salmon-color, burnished
into long undulations of lustre, overspreads the shallower waves;
but a sober gray begins to steal in beneath the sunset rays, and
will soon claim even the brilliant foreground for its own. Pile a
few more fragments of drift-wood upon the fire in the great
chimney, little maiden, and then couch yourself before it, that I
may have your glowing childhood as a foreground for those heaped
relics of shipwreck and despair. You seem, in your scarlet
boating-dress, Annie, like some bright tropic bird,alit for a
moment beside that other bird of the tropics, flame.

Thoreau thought that his temperament dated from an earlier period
than the agricultural, because he preferred woodcraft to
gardening; and it is also pleasant to revert to the period when
men had invented neither saws nor axes, but simply picked up
their fuel in forests or on ocean-shores. Fire is a thing which
comes so near us, and combines itself so closely with our life,
that we enjoy it best when we work for it in some way, so that
our fuel shall warm us twice, as the country people say,--once in
the getting, and again in the burning. Yet no work seems to have
more of the flavor of play in it than that of collecting
drift-wood on some convenient beach, or than this boat-service of
ours, Annie, when we go wandering from island to island in the
harbor, and glide over sea-weedgroves and the habitations of
crabs,--or to the flowery and ruined bastions of Rose Island,--or
to those caves at Coaster's Harbor where we played Victor Hugo,
and were eaten up in fancy by a cuttle-fish. Then we voyaged, you
remember, to that further cave in, the solid rock, just above
low-water-mark, a cell unapproachable by land, and high enough
for you to stand erect. There you wished to play Constance in
Marmion, and to be walled up alive, if convenient; but as it
proved impracticable on that day, you helped me to secure some
bits of drift-wood instead. Longer voyages brought waifs from
remoter islands,--whose very names tell, perchance, the changing
story of mariners long since wrecked,--isles baptized Patience
and Prudence, Hope and Despair. And other relics bear witness of
more distant beaches, and of those wrecks which still lie,
sentinels of ruin, along Brenton's Point and Castle Hill.

To collect drift-wood is like botanizing, and one soon learns to
recognize the prevailing species, and to look with pleased
eagerness for new. It is a tragic botany indeed, where, as in
enchanted gardens, every specimen has a voice, and, as you take
each from the ground, you expect from it a cry like the
mandrake's. And from what a garden it comes! As one walks round
Brenton's Point after an autumnal storm, it seems as if the
passionate heaving of the waves had brought wholly new tints to
the surface, hues unseen even in dreams before, greens and
purples impossible in serener days. These match the prevailing
green and purple of the slate-cliffs; and Nature in truth carries
such fine fitnesses yet further. For, as we tread the delicate
seaside turf, which makes the farthest point seem merely the
land's last bequest of emerald to the ocean, we suddenly come
upon curved lines of lustrous purple amid the grass, rows on rows
of bright muscle-shells, regularly traced as if a child had
played there,--the graceful high-water-mark of the terrible

It is the crowning fascination of the sea, the consummation of
such might in such infantine delicacy. You may notice it again in
the summer, when our bay is thronged for miles on miles with
inch-long jelly-fishes,--lovely creatures, in shape like
disembodied gooseberries, and shot through and through in the
sunlight with all manner of blue and golden glistenings, and
bearing tiny rows of fringing oars that tremble like a baby's
eyelids. There is less of gross substance in them than in any
other created thing,--mere water and outline, destined to perish
at a touch, but seemingly never touching, for they float secure,
finding no conceivable cradle so soft as this awful sea. They are
like melodies amid Beethoven's Symphonies, or like the songs that
wander through Shakespeare, and that seem things too fragile to
risk near Cleopatra's passion and Hamlet's woe. Thus tender is
the touch of ocean; and look, how around this piece of oaken
timber, twisted and torn and furrowed,--its iron bolts snapped
across as if bitten,--there is yet twined a gay garland of
ribbon-weed, bearing on its trailing stem a cluster of bright
shells, like a mermaid's chatelaine.

Thus adorned, we place it on the blaze. As night gathers without,
the gale rises. It is a season of uneasy winds, and of strange,
rainless storms, which perplex the fishermen, and indicate rough
weather out at sea. As the house trembles and the windows rattle,
we turn towards the fire with a feeling of safety. Representing
the fiercest of all dangers, it yet expresses security and

Should a gale tear the roof from over our heads and show the
black sky alone above us, we should not feel utterly homeless
while this fire burned,--at least I can recall such a feeling of
protection when once left suddenly roofless by night in one of
the wild gorges of Mount Katahdin. There is a positive
demonstrative force in an open fire, which makes it your fit ally
in a storm. Settled and obdurate cold may well be encountered by
the quiet heat of an invisible furnace. But this howling wind
might depress one's spirits, were it not met by a force as
palpable,--the warm blast within answering to the cold blast
without. The wide chimney then becomes the scene of contest: wind
meets wind, sparks encounter rain-drops, they fight in the air
like the visioned soldiers of Attila; sometimes a daring drop
penetrates, and dies, hissing, on the hearth; and sometimes a
troop of sparks may make a sortie from the chimney-top. I know
not how else we can meet the elements by a defiance so
magnificent as that from this open hearth; and in burning
drift-wood, especially, we turn against the enemy his own
ammunition. For on these fragments three elements have already
done their work. Water racked and strained the hapless ships, air
hunted them, and they were thrown at last upon earth, the
sternest of all. Now fire takes the shattered remnants, and makes
them a means of comfort and defence.

It has been pointed out by botanists, as one of Nature's most
graceful retributions, that, in the building of the ship, the
apparent balance of vegetable forces is reversed, and the herb
becomes master of the tree, when the delicate, blue-eyed flax,
taking the stately pine under its protection, stretches over it
in cordage, or spreads in sails. But more graceful still is this
further contest between the great natural elements, when this
most fantastic and vanishing thing, this delicate and dancing
flame, subdues all these huge vassals to its will, and, after
earth and air and water have done their utmost, comes in to
complete the task, and to be crowned as monarch. "The sea drinks
the air," said Anacreon, "and the sun the sea." My fire is the
child of the sun.

I come back from every evening stroll to this gleaming blaze; it
is a domestic lamp, and shines for me everywhere. To my
imagination it burns as a central flame among these dark houses,
and lights up the whole of this little fishing hamlet, humble
suburb of the fashionable watering-place. I fancy that others too
perceive the light, and that certain huge visitors are attracted,
even when the storm keeps neighbors and friends at home. For the
slightest presage of foul weather is sure to bring to yonder
anchorage a dozen silent vessels, that glide up the harbor for
refuge, and are heard but once, when the chain-cable rattles as
it runs out, and the iron hand of the anchor grasps the rock. It
always seems to me that these unwieldy creatures are gathered,
not about the neighboring lighthouse only, but around our
ingle-side. Welcome, ye great winged strangers, whose very names
are unknown! This hearth is comprehensive in its hospitalities;
it will accept from you either its fuel or its guests; your
mariners may warm themselves beside it, or your scattered timbers
may warm me. Strange instincts might be supposed to thrill and
shudder in the ribs of ships that sail toward the beacon of a
drift-wood fire. Morituri salutant. A single shock, and all that
magnificent fabric may become mere fuel to prolong the flame.

Here, beside the roaring ocean, this blaze represents the only
receptacle more vast than ocean. We say, "unstable as water." But
there is nothing unstable about the flickering flame; it is
persistent and desperate, relentless in following its ends. It is
the most tremendous physical force that man can use. "If drugs
fail," said Hippocrates, "use the knife; should the knife fail,
use fire." Conquered countries were anciently given over to fire
and sword: the latter could only kill, but the other could
annihilate. See how thoroughly it does its work, even when
domesticated: it takes up everything upon the hearth and leaves
all clean. The Greek proverb says, that "the sea drinks up all
the sins of the world." Save fire only, the sea is the most
capacious of all things.

But its task is left incomplete: it only hides its records, while
fire destroys them. In the Norse Edda, when the gods try their
games, they find themselves able to out-drink the ocean, but not
to eat like the flame. Logi, or fire, licks up food and trencher
and all. This chimney is more voracious than the sea. Give time
enough, and all which yonder depths contain might pass through
this insatiable throat, leaving only a few ashes and the memory
of a flickering shade,--pulvis et umbra. We recognize this when
we have anything to conceal. Deep crimes are buried in earth,
deeper are sunk In water, but the deepest of all are confided by
trembling men to the profounder secrecy of flame. If every old
chimney could narrate the fearful deeds whose last records it has
cancelled, what sighs of undying passion would breathe from its
dark summit,--what groans of guilt! Those lurid sparks that whirl
over yonder house-top, tossed aloft as if fire itself could not
contain them, may be the last embers of some written scroll, one
rescued word of which might suffice for the ruin of a household,
and the crushing of many hearts.

But this domestic hearth of ours holds only, besides its
drift-wood, the peaceful records of the day,--its shreds and
fragments and fallen leaves. As the ancients poured wine upon
their flames, so I pour rose-leaves in libation; and each morning
contributes the faded petals of yesterday's wreaths. All our
roses of this season have passed up this chimney in the blaze.
Their delicate veins were filled with all the summer's fire, and
they returned to fire once more,--ashes to ashes, flame to flame.
For holding, with Bettina, that every flower which is broken
becomes immortal in the sacrifice, I deem it more fitting that
their earthly part should die by a concentration of that burning
element which would at any rate be in some form their ending; so
they have their altar on this bright hearth.

Let us pile up the fire anew with drift-wood, Annie. We can
choose at random; for our logs came from no single forest. It is
considered an important branch of skill in the country to know
the varieties of firewood, and to choose among them well. But
to-night we have the whole Atlantic shore for our wood-pile, and
the Gulf Stream for a teamster. Every foreign tree of rarest name
may, for aught we know, send its treasures to our hearth. Logwood
and satinwood may mingle with cedar and maple; the old cellar
floors of this once princely town are of mahogany, and why not
our fire? I have a very indistinct impression what teak is; but
if it means something black and impenetrable and nearly
indestructible, then there is a piece of it, Annie, on the hearth
at this moment.

It must be owned, indeed, that timbers soaked long enough in
salt-water seem almost to lose their capacity of being burnt.
Perhaps it was for this reason that, in the ancient "lyke-wakes"
of the North of England, a pinch of salt was placed upon the dead
body, as a safeguard against purgatorial flames. Yet salt melts
ice, and so represents heat, one would think; and one can fancy
that these fragments should be doubly inflammable, by their
saline quality, and by the unmerciful rubbing which the waves
have given them. I have noticed what warmth this churning process
communicates to the clotted foam that lies in tremulous masses
among the rocks, holding all the blue of ocean in its bubbles.
After one's hands are chilled with the water, one can warm them
in the foam. These drift-wood fragments are but the larger foam
of shipwrecks.

What strange comrades this flame brings together! As foreign
sailors from remotest seas may sit and chat side by side, before
some boarding-house fire in this seaport town, so these shapeless
sticks, perhaps gathered from far wider wanderings, now nestle
together against the backlog, and converse in strange dialects as
they burn. It is written in the Heetopades of Veeshnoo Sarma,
that, "as two planks, floating on the surface of the mighty
receptacle of the waters, meet, and having met are separated
forever, so do beings in this life come together and presently
are parted." Perchance this chimney reunites the planks, at the
last moment, as death must reunite friends.

And with what wondrous voices these strayed wanderers talk to one
another on the hearth! They bewitch us by the mere fascination of
their language. Such a delicacy of intonation, yet such a volume
of sound. The murmur of the surf is not so soft or so solemn.
There are the merest hints and traceries of tones,--phantom
voices, more remote from noise than anything which is noise; and
yet there is an undertone of roar, as from a thousand cities, the
cities whence these wild voyagers came. Watch the decreasing
sounds of a fire as it dies,--for it seems cruel to leave it, as
we do, to die alone. I watched beside this hearth last night. As
the fire sank down, the little voices grew stiller and more
still, and at last there came only irregular beats, at varying
intervals, as if from a heart that acted spasmodically, or as if
it were measuring off by ticks the little remnant of time. Then
it said, "Hush!" two or three times, and there came something so
like a sob that it seemed human; and then all was still.

If these dying voices are so sweet and subtile, what legends must
be held untold by yonder fragments that lie unconsumed!
Photography has familiarized us with the thought that every
visible act, since the beginning of the world, has stamped itself
upon surrounding surfaces, even if we have not yet skill to
discern and hold the image. And especially, in looking on a
liquid expanse, such as the ocean in calm, one is haunted with
these fancies. I gaze into its depths, and wonder if no stray
reflection has been imprisoned there, still accessible to human
eyes, of some scene of passion or despair it has witnessed; as
some maiden visitor at Holyrood Palace, looking in the ancient
metallic mirror, might start at the thought that perchance some
lineament of Mary Stuart may suddenly look out, in desolate and
forgotten beauty, mingled with her own. And if the mere waters of
the ocean, satiate and wearied with tragedy as they must be,
still keep for our fancy such records, how much more might we
attribute a human consciousness to these shattered fragments,
each seared by its own special grief.

Yet while they are silent, I like to trace back for these
component parts of my fire such brief histories as I share. This
block, for instance, came from the large schooner which now lies
at the end of Castle Hill Beach, bearing still aloft its broken
masts and shattered rigging, and with its keel yet stanch, except
that the stern-post is gone,--so that each tide sweeps in its
green harvest of glossy kelp, and then tosses it in the hold like
hay, desolately tenanting the place which once sheltered men. The
floating weed, so graceful in its own place, looks but dreary
when thus confined. On that fearfully cold Monday of last winter
(January 8, 1866) when the mercury stood at-10° even in this
mildest corner of New England,--this vessel was caught helplessly
amid the ice that drifted out of the west passage of Narragansett
Bay, before the fierce north-wind. They tried to beat into the
eastern entrance, but the schooner seemed in sinking condition,
the sails and helm were clogged with ice, and every rope, as an
eye-witness told me, was as large as a man's body with frozen
sleet. Twice they tacked across, making no progress; and then, to
save their lives, ran the vessel on the rocks and got ashore.
After they had left her, a higher wave swept her off, and drifted
her into a little cove, where she has ever since remained.

There were twelve wrecks along this shore last winter,--more than
during any season for a quarter of a century. I remember when the
first of these lay in great fragments on Graves Point, a schooner
having been stranded on Cormorant Rocks outside, and there broken
in pieces by the surf. She had been split lengthwise, and one
great side was leaning up against the sloping rock, bows on, like
some wild sea-creature never before beheld of men, and come there
but to die. So strong was this impression that when I afterwards
saw men at work upon the wreck, tearing out the iron bolts and
chains, it seemed like torturing the last moments of a living
thing. At my next visit there was no person in sight; another
companion fragment had floated ashore, and the two lay peacefully
beside the sailors' graves (which give the name to the point), as
if they found comfort there. A little farther on there was a brig
ashore and deserted. A fog came in from the sea; and, as I sat by
the graves, some unseen passing vessel struck eight bells for
noon. For a moment I fancied that it came from the empty brig,--a
ghostly call, to summon phantom sailors.

That smouldering brand, which has alternately gleamed and
darkened for so many minutes, I brought from Price's Neck last
winter, when the Brenton's Reef Light-ship went ashore. Yonder
the oddly shaped vessel rides at anchor now, two miles from land,
bearing her lanterns aloft at fore and main top. She parted her
moorings by night, in the fearful storm of October19, 1865; and I
well remember, that, as I walked through the streets that wild
evening, it seemed dangerous to be out of doors, and I tried to
imagine what was going on at sea, while at that very moment the
light-ship was driving on toward me in the darkness. It was thus
that it happened:-

There had been a heavy gale from the southeast, which, after a
few hours of lull, suddenly changed in the afternoon to the
southwest, which is, on this coast, the prevailing direction.
Beginning about three o'clock, this new wind had risen almost to
a hurricane by six, and held with equal fury till midnight, after
which it greatly diminished, though, when I visited the wreck
next morning, it was hard to walk against the blast. The
light-ship went adrift at eight in the evening; the men let go
another anchor, with forty fathoms of cable; this parted also,
but the cable dragged, as she drifted in, keeping the vessel's
head to the wind, which was greatly to her advantage. The great
waves took her over five lines of reef, on each of which her keel
grazed or held for a time. She came ashore on Price's Neck at
last, about eleven.

It was utterly dark; the sea broke high over the ship, even over
her lanterns, and the crew could only guess that they were near
the land by the sound of the surf. The captain was not on board,
and the mate was in command, though his leg had been broken while
holding the tiller. They could not hear each other's voices, and
could scarcely cling to the deck. There seemed every chance that
the ship would go to pieces before daylight. At last one of the
crew, named William Martin, a Scotchman, thinking, as he
afterwards told me, of his wife and three children, and of the
others on board who had families,--and that something must be
done, and he might as well do it as anybody,--got a rope bound
around his waist, and sprang overboard. I asked the mate next day
whether he ordered Martin to do this, and he said, "No, he
volunteered it. I would not have ordered him, for I would not
have done it myself." What made the thing most remarkable was,
that the man actually could not swim, and did not know how far
off the shore was, but trusted to the waves to take him
thither,--perhaps two hundred yards. His trust was repaid.
Struggling in the mighty surf, he sometimes felt the rocks
beneath his feet, sometimes bruised his hands against them. At
any rate he got on shore alive, and, securing his rope, made his
way over the moors to the town, and summoned his captain, who was
asleep in his own house. They returned at once to the spot, found
the line still fast, and the rest of the crew, four in number,
lowered the whaleboat, and were pulled to shore by the rope,
landing safely before daybreak.

When I saw the vessel next morning, she lay in a little cove,
stern on, not wholly out of water,--steady and upright as in a
dry-dock, with no sign of serious injury, except that the rudder
was gone. She did not seem like a wreck; the men were the wrecks.
As they lay among the rocks, bare or tattered, scarcely able to
move, waiting for low tide to go on board the vessel, it was like
a scene after a battle. They appeared too inert, poor fellows, to
do anything but yearn toward the sun. When they changed position
for shelter, from time to time, they crept along the rocks,
instead of walking. They were like the little floating sprays of
sea-weed, when you take them from the water and they become a
mere mass of pulp in your hand. Martin shared in the general
exhaustion, and no wonder; but he told his story very simply, and
showed me where he had landed. The feat seemed to me then, and
has always seemed, almost incredible, even for an expert swimmer.
He thus summed up the motives for his action: "I thought that God
was first, and I was next, and if I did the best I could, no man
could do more than that; so I jumped overboard." It is pleasant
to add, that, though a poor man, he utterly declined one of those
small donations of money by which we Anglo-Saxons are wont
clumsily to express our personal enthusiasms; and I think I
appreciated his whole action the more for its coming just at the
close of a war during which so many had readily accepted their
award of praise or pay for acts of less intrinsic daring than

Stir the fire, Annie, with yonder broken fragment of a
flag-staff; its truck is still remaining, though the flag is
gone, and every nation might claim it. As you stir, the burning
brands evince a remembrance of their sea-lost life, the sparks
drift away like foam-flakes, the flames wave and flap like sails,
and the wail of the chimney sings a second shipwreck. As the tiny
scintillations gleam and scatter and vanish in the soot of the
chimney-wall, instead of "There goes the parson, and there goes
the clerk," it must be the captain and the crew we watch. A
drift-wood fire should always have children to tend it; for there
is something childlike about it, unlike the steadier glow of
walnut logs. It has a coaxing, infantine way of playing with the
oddly shaped bits of wood we give it, and of deserting one to
caress with flickering impulse another; and at night, when it
needs to be extinguished, it is as hard to put to rest as a
nursery of children, for some bright little head is constantly
springing up anew, from its pillow of ashes. And, in turn, what
endless delight children find in the manipulation of a fire!

What a variety of playthings, too, in this fuel of ours; such
inexplicable pieces, treenails and tholepins, trucks and sheaves,
the lid of a locker, and a broken handspike. These larger
fragments are from spars and planks and knees. Some were dropped
overboard in this quiet harbor; others may have floated from
Fayal or Hispaniola, Mozambique or Zanzibar. This eagle
figure-head, chipped and battered, but still possessing highly
aquiline features and a single eye, may have tangled its curved
beak in the vast weed-beds of the Sargasso Sea, or dipped it in
the Sea of Milk. Tell us your story, O heroic but dilapidated
bird! and perhaps song or legend may find in it themes that shall
be immortal.

The eagle is silent, and I suspect, Annie, that he is but a
plain, home-bred fowl after all. But what shall we say to this
piece of plank, hung with barnacles that look large enough for
the fabled barnacle-goose to emerge from? Observe this fragment a
little. Another piece is secured to it, not neatly, as with
proper tools, but clumsily, with many nails of different sizes,
driven unevenly and with their heads battered awry. Wedged
clumsily in between these pieces, and secured by a supplementary
nail, is a bit of broken rope. Let us touch that rope tenderly;
for who knows what despairing hands may last have clutched it
when this rude raft was made? It may, indeed, have been the
handiwork of children, on the Penobscot or the St. Mary's River.
But its Condition betokens voyages yet longer; and it may just as

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