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!
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