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.
THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON.
LEE AND SHEPARD, PUBLISHERS.
CHARLES T. DILLINGHAM.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1873, BY JAMES R. OSGOOD & CO.,
in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
JOHN WILSON AND SON, CAMBRIDGE.
OLDPORT IN WINTER
THE HAUNTED WINDOW
A DRIFT-WOOD FIRE
AN ARTIST’S CREATION
IN A WHERRY
MADAM DELIA’S EXPECTATIONS
SUNSHINE AND PETRARCH
OLDPORT IN WINTER.
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 Sighs.
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 himself.
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 stockholders.
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
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 itself.
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 breast.
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 Island.
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.
THE HAUNTED WINDOW.
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 mind.
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 first.
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 judicial.
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 hoods.”
“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 other.
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 year.
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 storm.
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 comfort.
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 his.
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