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 well have come from the stranded "Golden Rule" on Roncador Reef,--that picturesque shipwreck where (as a rescued woman told me) the eyes of the people in their despair seemed full of sublime resignation, so that there was no confusion or outcry, and even gamblers and harlots looked death in the face as nobly, for all that could be seen, as the saintly and the pure. Or who knows but it floated round Cape Horn, from that other wreck, on the Pacific shore, of the "Central America," where the rough miners found that there was room in the boats only for their wives and their gold; and where, pushing the women off, with a few men to row them, the doomed husbands gave a cheer of courage as the ship went down.
Here again is a piece of pine wood, cut in notches as for a tally, and with every seventh notch the longest; these notches having been cut deeply at the beginning, and feebly afterwards, stopping abruptly before the end was reached. Who could have carved it? Not a school-boy awaiting vacation, or a soldier expecting his discharge; for then each tally would have been cut off, instead of added. Nor could it be the squad of two soldiers who garrison Rose Island; for their tour of duty lasts but a week. There are small barnacles and sea-weed too, which give the mysterious stick a sort of brevet antiquity. It has been long adrift, and these little barnacles, opening and closing daily their minute valves, have kept meanwhile their own register, and with their busy fringed fingers have gathered from the whole Atlantic that small share of its edible treasures which sufficed for them. Plainly this waif has had its experiences. It was Robinson Crusoe's, Annie, depend upon it. We will save it from the flames, and when we establish our marine museum, nothing save a veritable piece of the North Pole shall be held so valuable as this undoubted relic from Juan Fernandez.
But the night deepens, and its reveries must end. With the winter will pass away the winter-storms, and summer will bring its own more insidious perils. Then the drowsy old seaport will blaze into splendor, through saloon and avenue, amidst which many a bright career will end suddenly and leave no sign. The ocean tries feebly to emulate the profounder tragedies of the shore. In the crowded halls of gay hotels, I see wrecks drifting hopelessly, dismasted and rudderless, to be stranded on hearts harder and more cruel than Brenton's Reef, yet hid in smiles falser than its fleecy foam. What is a mere forsaken ship, compared with stately houses from which those whom I first knew in their youth and beauty have since fled into midnight and despair?
But one last gleam upon our hearth lights up your innocent eyes, little Annie, and dispels the gathering shade. The flame dies down again, and you draw closer to my side. The pure moon looks in at the southern window, replacing the ruddier glow; while the fading embers lisp and prattle to one another, like drowsy children, more and more faintly, till they fall asleep.
When I reached Kenmure's house, one August evening, it was rather a disappointment to find that he and his charming Laura had absented themselves for twenty-four hours. I had not seen them together since their marriage; my admiration for his varied genius and her unvarying grace was at its height, and I was really annoyed at the delay. My fair cousin, with her usual exact housekeeping, had prepared everything for her guest, and then bequeathed me, as she wrote, to Janet and baby Marian. It was a pleasant arrangement, for between baby Marian and me there existed a species of passion, I might almost say of betrothal, ever since that little three-year-old sunbeam had blessed my mother's house by lingering awhile in it, six months before. Still I went to bed disappointed, though the delightful windows of the chamber looked out upon the glimmering bay, and the swinging lanterns at the yard-arms of the frigates shone like some softer constellation beneath the brilliant sky. The house was so close upon the water that the cool waves seemed to plash deliciously against its very basement; and it was a comfort to think that, if there were no adequate human greetings that night, there would be plenty in the morning, since Marian would inevitably be pulling my eyelids apart before sunrise.
It was scarcely dawn when I was roused by a little arm round my neck, and waked to think I had one of Raphael's cherubs by my side. Fingers of waxen softness were ruthlessly at work upon my eyes, and the little form that met my touch felt lithe and elastic, like a kitten's limbs. There was just light enough to see the child, perched on the edge of the bed, her soft blue dressing-gown trailing over the white night-dress, while her black and long-fringed eyes shone through the dimness of morning. She yielded gladly to my grasp, and I could fondle again the silken hair, the velvety brunette cheek, the plump, childish shoulders. Yet sleep still half held me, and when my cherub appeared to hold it a cherubic practice to begin the day with a demand for lively anecdote, I was fain drowsily to suggest that she might first tell some stories to her doll. With the sunny readiness that was a part of her nature, she straightway turned to that young lady,--plain Susan Halliday, with both cheeks patched, and eyes of different colors,--and soon discoursed both her and me into repose.
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