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.
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