If we follow northward from "Queen-Hithe" along the shore, we pass into a region where the ancient wharves of commerce, ruined in 1815, have never been rebuilt; and only slender pathways for pleasure voyagers now stretch above the submerged foundations. Once the court end of the town, then its commercial centre, it is now divided between the tenements of fishermen and the summer homes of city households. Still the great old houses remain, with mahogany stairways, carved wainscoting, and painted tiles; the sea has encroached upon their gardens, and only boats like mine approach where English dukes and French courtiers once landed. At the head of yonder private wharf, in that spacious and still cheerful abode, dwelt the beautiful Robinson sisterhood,--the three Quaker belles of Revolutionary days, the memory of whose loves might lend romance to this neighborhood forever. One of these maidens was asked in marriage by a captain in the English army, and was banished by her family to the Narragansett shore, under a flag of truce, to avoid him; her lover was afterward killed by a cannon-ball, in his tent, and she died unwedded. Another was sought by two aspirants, who came in the same ship to woo her, the one from Philadelphia, the other from New York. She refused them both, and they sailed southward together; but, the wind proving adverse, they returned, and one lingered till he won her hand. Still another lover was forced into a vessel by his friends, to tear him from the enchanted neighborhood; while sailing past the house, he suddenly threw himself into the water,--it must have been about where the end of the wharf now rests,--that he might be rescued, and carried, a passive Leander, into yonder door. The house was first the head-quarters of the English commander, then of the French; and the sentinels of De Noailles once trod where now croquet-balls form the heaviest ordnance. Peaceful and untitled guests now throng in summer where St. Vincents and Northumberlands once rustled and glittered; and there is nothing to recall those brilliant days except the painted tiles on the chimney, where there is a choice society of coquettes and beaux, priests and conjurers, beggars and dancers, and every wig and hoop dates back to the days of Queen Anne.
Sometimes when I stand upon this pier by night, and look across the calm black water, so still, perhaps, that the starry reflections seem to drop through it in prolonged javelins of light instead of resting on the surface, and the opposite lighthouse spreads its cloth of gold across the bay,--I can imagine that I discern the French and English vessels just weighing anchor; I see De Lauzun and De Noailles embarking, and catch the last sheen upon their lace, the last glitter of their swords. It vanishes, and I see only the lighthouse gleam, and the dark masts of a sunken ship across the neighboring island. Those motionless spars have, after all, a nearer interest, and, as I saw them sink, I will tell their tale.
That vessel came in here one day last August, a stately, full-sailed bark; nor was it known, till she had anchored, that she was a mass of imprisoned fire below. She was the "Trajan," from Rockland, bound to New Orleans with a cargo of lime, which took fire in a gale of wind, being wet with sea-water as the vessel rolled. The captain and crew retreated to the deck, and made the hatches fast, leaving even their clothing and provisions below. They remained on deck, after reaching this harbor, till the planks grew too hot beneath their feet, and the water came boiling from the pumps. Then the vessel was towed into a depth of five fathoms, to be scuttled and sunk. I watched her go down. Early impressions from "Peter Parley" had portrayed the sinking of a vessel as a frightful plunge, endangering all around, like a maelstrom. The actual process was merely a subsidence so calm and gentle that a child might have stood upon the deck till it sank beneath him, and then might have floated away. Instead of a convulsion, it was something stately and very pathetic to the imagination. The bark remained almost level, the bows a little higher than the stern; and her breath appeared to be surrendered in a series of pulsations, as if every gasp of the lungs admitted more of the suffocating wave. After each long heave, she went visibly a few inches deeper, and then paused. The face of the benign Emperor, her namesake, was on the stern; first sank the carven beard, then the rather mutilated nose, then the white and staring eyes, that gazed blankly over the engulfing waves. The figure-head was Trajan again, at full length, with the costume of an Indian hunter, and the face of a Roman sage; this image lingered longer, and then vanished, like Victor Hugo's Gilliatt, by cruel gradations. Meanwhile the gilded name upon the taffrail had slowly disappeared also; but even when the ripples began to meet across her deck, still her descent was calm. As the water gained, the hidden fire was extinguished, and the smoke, at first densely rising, grew rapidly less. Yet when it had stopped altogether, and all but the top of the cabin had disappeared, there came a new ebullition of steam, like a hot spring, throwing itself several feet in air, and then ceasing.
As the vessel went down, several beams and planks came springing endwise up the hatchway, like liberated men. But nothing had a stranger look to me than some great black casks which had been left on deck. These, as the water floated them, seemed to stir and wake, and to become gifted with life, and then got into motion and wallowed heavily about, like hippopotami or any unwieldy and bewildered beasts. At last the most enterprising of them slid somehow to the bulwark, and, after several clumsy efforts, shouldered itself over; then others bounced out, eagerly following, as sheep leap a wall, and then they all went bobbing away, over the dancing waves. For the wind blew fresh meanwhile, and there were some twenty sail-boats lying-to with reefed sails by the wreck, like so many sea-birds; and when the loose stuff began to be washed from the deck, they all took wing at once, to save whatever could be picked up,--since at such times, as at a conflagration on land, every little thing seems to assume a value,--and at last one young fellow steered boldly up to the sinking ship itself, sprang upon the vanishing taffrail for one instant, as if resolved to be the last on board, and then pushed off again. I never saw anything seem so extinguished out of the universe as that great vessel, which had towered so colossal above my little boat; it was impossible to imagine that she was all there yet, beneath the foaming and indifferent waves. No effort has yet been made to raise her; and a dead eagle seems to have more in common with the living bird than has now this submerged and decaying hulk with the white and winged creature that came sailing into our harbor on that summer day.
It shows what conversational resources are always at hand in a seaport town, that the boatman with whom I first happened to visit this burning vessel had been thrice at sea on ships similarly destroyed, and could give all the particulars of their fate. I know no class of uneducated men whose talk is so apt to be worth hearing as that of sailors. Even apart from their personal adventures and their glimpses at foreign lands, they have made observations of nature which are far more careful and minute than those of farmers, because the very lives of sailors are always at risk. Their voyages have also made them sociable and fond of talk, while the pursuits of most men tend to make them silent; and their constant changes of scene, though not touching them very deeply, have really given a certain enlargement to their minds. A quiet demeanor in a seaport town proves nothing; the most inconspicuous man may have the most thrilling career to look back upon. With what a superb familiarity do these men treat this habitable globe! Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope are in their phrase but the West Cape and the East Cape, merely two familiar portals of their wonted home. With what undisguised contempt they speak of the enthusiasm displayed over the ocean yacht-race! That any man should boast of crossing the Atlantic in a schooner of two hundred tons, in presence of those who have more than once reached the Indian Ocean in a fishing-smack of fifty, and have beaten in the homeward race the ships in whose company they sailed! It is not many years since there was here a fishing-skipper, whose surname was "Daredevil," and who sailed from this port to all parts of the world, on sealing voyages, in a sloop so small that she was popularly said to go under water when she got outside the lights, and never to reappear until she reached her port.
And not only those who sail on long voyages, but even our local pilots and fishermen, still lead an adventurous and untamed life, less softened than any other by the appliances of modern days. In their undecked boats they hover day and night along these stormy coasts, and at any hour the beating of the long-roll upon the beach may call their full manhood into action. Cowardice is sifted and crushed out from among them by a pressure so constant; and they are withal truthful and steady in their ways, with few vices and many virtues. They are born poor, and remain poor, for their work is hard, with more blanks than prizes; but their life is a life for a man, and though it makes them prematurely old, yet their old age comes peacefully and well. In almost all pursuits the advance of years brings something forlorn. It is not merely that the body decays, but that men grow isolated and are pushed aside; there is no common interest between age and youth. The old farmer leads a lonely existence, and ceases to meet his compeers except on Sunday; nobody consults him; his experience has been monotonous, and his age is apt to grow unsocial. The old mechanic finds his tools and his methods superseded by those of younger men. But the superannuated fisherman graduates into an oracle; the longer he lives, the greater the dignity of his experience; he remembers the great storm, the great tide, the great catch, the great shipwreck; and on all emergencies his counsel has weight. He still busies himself about the boats too, and still sails on sunny days to show the youngsters the best fishing-ground. When too infirm for even this, he can at least sun himself beside the landing, and, dreaming over inexhaustible memories, watch the bark of his own life go down.
It was always a mystery to me where Severance got precisely his combination of qualities. His father was simply what is called a handsome man, with stately figure and curly black hair, not without a certain dignity of manner, but with a face so shallow that it did not even seem to ripple, and with a voice so prosy that, when he spoke of the sky, you wished there were no such thing. His mother was a fair, little, pallid creature,--wash-blond, as they say of lace,--patient, meek, and always fatigued and fatiguing. But Severance, as I first knew him, was the soul of activity. He had dark eyes, that had a great deal of light in them, without corresponding depth; his hair was dark, straight, and very soft; his mouth expressed sweetness, without much strength; he talked well; and though he was apt to have a wandering look, as if his thoughts were laying a submarine cable to another continent, yet the young girls were always glad to have the semblance of conversation with him in this. To me he was in the last degree lovable. He had just enough of that subtile quality called genius, perhaps, to spoil first his companions, and then himself. His words had weight with you, though you might know yourself wiser; and if you went to give him the most reasonable advice, you were suddenly seized with a slight paralysis of the tongue. Thus it was, at any rate, with me. We were cemented therefore by the firmest ties,--a nominal seniority on my part, and a substantial supremacy on his.
We lodged one summer at an old house in that odd suburb of Oldport called "The Point." It is a sort of Artists' Quarter of the town, frequented by a class of summer visitors more addicted to sailing and sketching than to driving and bowing,--persons who do not object to simple fare, and can live, as one of them said, on potatoes and Point. Here Severance and I made our summer home, basking in the delicious sunshine of the lovely bay. The bare outlines around Oldport sometimes dismay the stranger, but soon fascinate. Nowhere does one feel bareness so little, because there is no sharpness of perspective; everything shimmers in the moist atmosphere; the islands are all glamour and mirage; and the undulating hills of the horizon seem each like the soft, arched back of some pet animal, and you long to caress them with your hand. At last your thoughts begin to swim also, and pass into vague fancies, which you also love to caress. Severance and I were constantly afloat, body and mind. He was a perfect sailor, and had that dreaminess in his nature which matches with nothing but the ripple of the waves. Still, I could not hide from myself that he was a changed man since that voyage in search of health from which he had just returned. His mother talked in her humdrum way about heart disease; and his father, taking up the strain, bored us about organic lesions, till we almost wished he had a lesion himself. Severance ridiculed all this; but he grew more and more moody, and his eyes seemed to be laying more submarine cables than ever.
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