I suppose it is from this look of natural fitness that a windmill is always such an appropriate object by the sea-shore. It is simply a four-masted schooner, stranded on a hill-top, and adapting itself to a new sphere of duty. It can have needed but a slight stretch of invention in some seaman to combine these lofty vans, and throw over them a few remodelled sails. The principle of their motion is that by which a vessel beats to windward; the miller spreads or reefs his sails, like a sailor,--reducing them in a high wind to a mere "pigeon-wing" as it is called, two or three feet in length, or in some cases even scudding under bare poles. The whole structure vibrates and creaks under rapid motion, like a mast; and the angry vans, disappointed of progress, are ready to grind to powder all that comes within their grasp, as they revolve hopelessly in this sea of air.
When the sun grows hot, I like to take refuge in a sheltered nook beside Goat Island Lighthouse, where the wharf shades me, and the resonant plash of waters multiplies itself among the dark piles, increasing the delicious sense of coolness. While the noonday bells ring twelve, I take my rest. Round the corner of the pier the fishing-boats come gliding in, generally with a boy asleep forward, and a weary man at the helm; one can almost fancy that the boat itself looks weary, having been out since the early summer sunrise. In contrast to this expression of labor ended, the white pleasure-boats seem but to be taking a careless stroll by water; while a skiff full of girls drifts idly along the shore, amid laughter and screaming and much aimless splash. More resolute and business-like, the boys row their boat far up the bay; then I see a sudden gleam of white bodies, and then the boat is empty, and the surrounding water is sprinkled with black and bobbing heads. The steamboats look busier yet, as they go puffing by at short intervals, and send long waves up to my retreat; and then some schooner sails in, full of life, with a white ripple round her bows, till she suddenly rounds to drops anchor, and is still. Opposite me, on the landward side of the bay, the green banks slope to the water; on yonder cool piazza there is a young mother who swings her baby in the hammock, or a white-robed figure pacing beneath the trailing vines. Peace and lotus-eating on shore; on the water, even in the stillest noon, there are life and sparkle and continual change.
One of those fishermen whose boats have just glided to their moorings is to me a far more interesting person than any of his mates, though he is perhaps the only one among them with whom I have never yet exchanged a word. There is good reason for it; he has been deaf and dumb since boyhood. He is reported to be the boldest sailor among all these daring men; he is the last to retreat before the coming storm; the first after the storm to venture through the white and whirling channels, between dangerous ledges, to which others give a wider berth. I do not wonder at this, for think how much of the awe and terror of the tempest must vanish if the ears be closed! The ominous undertone of the waves on the beach and the muttering thunder pass harmless by him. How infinitely strange it must be to have the sight of danger, but not the sound! Fancy such a deprivation in war, for instance, where it is the sounds, after all, that haunt the memory the longest; the rifle's crack, the irregular shots of skirmishers, the long roll of alarm, the roar of great guns. This man would have missed them all. Were a broadside from an enemy's gunboat to be discharged above his head, he would not hear it; he would only recognize, by some jarring of his other senses, the fierce concussion of the air.
How much deeper seems his solitude than that of any other "lone fisher on the lonely sea"! Yet all such things are comparative; and while the others contrast that wave-tossed isolation with the cheeriness of home, his home is silent too. He has a wife and children; they all speak, but he hears not their prattle or their complaints. He summons them with his fingers, as he summons the fishes, and they are equally dumb to him. Has he a special sympathy with those submerged and voiceless things? Dunfish, in the old newspapers, were often called "dumb'd fish"; and they perchance come to him as to one of their kindred. They may have learned, like other innocent things, to accept this defect of utterance, and even imitate it. I knew a deaf-and-dumb woman whose children spoke and heard; but while yet too young for words, they had learned that their mother was not to be reached in that way; they never cried or complained before her, and when most excited would only whisper. Her baby ten months old, if disturbed in the night, would creep to her and touch her lips, to awaken her, but would make no noise.
One might fancy that all men who have an agonizing sorrow or a fearful secret would be drawn by irresistible attraction into the society of the deaf and dumb. What awful passions might not be whispered, what terror safely spoken, in the charmed circle round yonder silent boat,--a circle whose centre is a human life which has not all the susceptibilities of life, a confessional where even the priest cannot hear! Would it not relieve sorrow to express itself, even if unheeded? What more could one ask than a dumb confidant? and if deaf also, so much the safer. To be sure, he would give you neither absolution nor guidance; he could render nothing in return, save a look or a clasp of the hand; nor can the most gifted or eloquent friendship do much more. Ah! but suddenly the thought occurs, suppose that the defect of hearing, as of tongue, were liable to be loosed by an overmastering emotion, and that by startling him with your hoarded confidence you were to break the spell! The hint is too perilous; let us row away.
A few strokes take us to the half-submerged wreck of a lime-schooner that was cut to the water's edge, by a collision in a gale, twelve months ago. The water kindled the lime, the cable was cut, the vessel drifted ashore and sunk, still blazing, at this little beach. When I saw her, at sunset, the masts had been cut away, and the flames held possession on board. Fire was working away in the cabin, like a live thing, and sometimes glared out of the hatchway; anon it clambered along the gunwale, like a school-boy playing, and the waves chased it as in play; just a flicker of flame, then a wave would reach up to overtake it; then the flames would be, or seem to be, where the water had been; and finally, as the vessel lay careened, the waves took undisturbed possession of the lower gunwale, and the flames of the upper. So it burned that day and night; part red with fire, part black with soaking; and now twelve months have made all its visible parts look dry and white, till it is hard to believe that either fire or water has ever touched it. It lies over on its bare knees, and a single knee, torn from the others, rests imploringly on the shore, as if that had worked its way to land, and perished in act of thanksgiving. At low tide, one half the frame is lifted high in air, like a dead tree in the forest.
Perhaps all other elements are tenderer in their dealings with what is intrusted to them than is the air. Fire, at least, destroys what it has ruined; earth is warm and loving, and it moreover conceals; water is at least caressing,--it laps the greater part of this wreck with protecting waves, covers with sea-weeds all that it can reach, and protects with incrusting shells. Even beyond its grasp it tosses soft pendants of moss that twine like vine-tendrils, or sway in the wind. It mellows harsh colors into beauty, and Ruskin grows eloquent over the wave-washed tint of some tarry, weather-beaten boat. But air is pitiless: it dries and stiffens all outline, and bleaches all color away, so that you can hardly tell whether these ribs belonged to a ship or an elephant; and yet there is a certain cold purity in the shapes it leaves, and the birds it sends to perch upon these timbers are a more graceful company than lobsters or fishes. After all, there is something sublime in that sepulture of the Parsees, who erect near every village a dokhma, or Tower of Silence, upon whose summit they may bury their dead in air.
Thus widely may one's thoughts wander from a summer boat. But the season for rowing is a long one, and far outlasts in Oldport the stay of our annual guests. Sometimes in autumnal mornings I glide forth over water so still, it seems as if saturated by the Indian-summer with its own indefinable calm. The distant islands lift themselves on white pedestals of mirage; the cloud-shadows rest softly on Conanicut; and what seems a similar shadow on the nearer slopes of Fort Adams is in truth but a mounted battery, drilling, which soon moves and slides across the hazy hill like a cloud.
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