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:-
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