A Drift-Wood Fire
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 live, 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 airily 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 seems 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 lire 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 genius dated from an earlier period than the agricultural, because he preferred woodcraft to gardening ; and I am content to fancy that mine appertains 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 that 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 obtaining, and again in the burning. Yet no work seems to have more of the flavor of play in it than that of collecting driit-wood on some convenient beach, or than this boat-service of ours, Annie, when we go wandering from island on to island in the harbor, and glide over sea-weed groves 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 V ictor 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 inconvenient 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 Brentoirs Point and Castle Hill.
To collect drift-wood is like botanizing, and one soon learns to recognize the prevailing species, and look with pleased eagerness for new. It is a tragic botany indeed, where, as in enchanted gardens, each 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 Brentoirs 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 sea-side 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. One feels 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 with tiny rows of fringing oars that tremble like a baby’s eyelids. There is less of gross substance in them than in any 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 ribbqn-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 indicates 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 lire burned; — such a feeling of protection at least I can recall, when once left suddenly rootless by night in one of the wild gorges of Mount Katahdin. There is a positive demonstrative force in an open fire, which makes it a 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 blast within answering to the blast without. The chimney then becomes the scene of contest, — wind meets wind, sparks encounter raindrops, 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 make a sortie from the chimney-top. I know not how else we can meet the elements by a defiance so magnificent as that of an open hearth ; and in burning drift-wood, especially, wTe 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. Then fire took the shattered remnants, and made them into an adequate defence for us against all three.
It has been pointed out by botanists, as one of Nature’s most graceful retributions, that, in the building of the ship, the apparent balance of vegetable forces is reversed, and the herb becomes master of the tree ; when the delicate blue-eyed flax, taking the stately pine under its protection, spreads over it in cordage, or expands in sails. But more graceful still is this further contest between the great natural elements, when this most fantastic and vanishing thing, this delicate and dancing flame, subdues all these huge vassals to its will, and, after earth and air and water have done their utmost, comes in to complete the task, and be crowned as monarch. “ The sea drinks the air,” said Anacreon, "and the sun the sea.” My fire is the child of the sun.
I come back from every evening stroll to this gleaming blaze; it is a domestic lamp, and shines for me everywhere. It seems to burn visibly through the dark houses, lighting up the whole of this little fishing hamlet, which forms the outer edge of the fashionable watering-place. I fancy that others too perceive it, and that certain visitors are attracted, even when the storm keeps neighbors and friends at home. For the slightest presage of foul weather is sure to bring to the opposite anchorage a dozen silent vessels, that glide up the harbor for refuge, and are heard but once, when the chain-cable rattles as it runs out, and the iron hand of the anchor grasps the rock. It always seems to me that these unwieldy visitors are gathered not about the neighboring lighthouse only, but around our ingle-side. Welcome, ye great winged strangers, whose very names are unknown. This hearth is comprehensive in its hospitalities ; it will accept from you either its fuel or its guests; your mariners may warm themselves beside it, or your scattered timbers may warm me. Strange instincts might be supposed to thrill and shudder in the ribs of ships that sail toward the beacon of a drift-wood fire. Moriiuri salutant. A single shock, and all that magnificent fabric is perhaps mere fuel to prolong the flame.
FI ere, beside the roaring ocean, this blaze represents the only receptacle more vast than ocean. We say, “unstable as water.” But there is nothing unstable about this flickering flame: it is persistent and desperate, relentless in following its ends. It is the most tremendous physical force that man can use. ‘'If drugs fail,” said Hippocrates, “ use the knife ; should the knife fail, use fire.” Conquered countries were anciently given over to fire and sword; the latter could only kill, but the other could annihilate. Sec how thoroughly it does its work, even when domesticated : it takes up everything upon the hearth and leaves all clean. The Greek proverb says, that “ the sea drinks up all the sins of the world.” It is the most capacious of all things, save fire only. But its task is left incomplete : it only hides its records, while fire destroys them. In the Norse Edda, when the gods try their games, they find themselves able to out-drink the ocean, but not to eat like the flame. Logi, or fire, licks up food and trencher and all. This chimney is more voracious than the sea. Give time enough, and all which yonder depths contain shall pass through this insatiable throat, leaving only a few ashes and the memory of a flickering shade, —pulvis et umbra. We recognize this when we have anything to conceal. Deep crimes are buried in earth, deeper are sunk in water, but the deepest of all are confided by trembling men to the profounder secrecy of flame. If every old chimney could narrate the fearful deeds whose last records it has cancelled, what sighs of undying passion would breathe from its dark summit, — what groans of guilt! Those lurid sparks that whirl over yonder house-top, tossed aloft as if fire itself could not contain them, mav be the last embers of some written scroll, one rescued word of which might suffice for the ruin of a household, and the crushing of many hearts. “ Behold,” shrieks the blast, “ it is the last opportunity.” Withhold thy secrets, fearful witness, and treasure not wrath against the day of wrath.
But this domestic hearth of ours holds only, beside its drift-wood, the peaceful records of the day,— its shreds and fragments and fallen leaves. As the ancients poured wine upon their flames, so I pour rose-leaves in libation ; and each day contributes the faded petals of yesterday's wreaths. All our roses of this season have passed up this chimney in the blaze. Their delicate veins were filled with all the summer’s fire, and they returned to fire once more, — ashes to ashes, flame to flame. For holding, with Bettina, that every flower which is broken becomes immortal in the sacrifice, I deem it more fitting that their earthly part should die by a concentration of that burning element which would at any rate be in some form their ending ; so they have tiieir altar on this bright hearth.
Let hs 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 fire-wood, and to choose among them well. But tonight 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. Bogwood 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 ‘Tykewakes ” of the North ol England, a pinch of salt was placed upon the dead body, as a safeguard against purgatorial flames. Yet salt melts ice, and so tends to warmth, 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. For see what warmth this churning process communicates to the clotted foam which lies in tremulous masses among the rocks, holding all the blue of ocean in its bubbles. After one’s hands arc chilled with the water, one can warm them in the loam. 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 boardinghouse fire in this seaport town, so these shapeless sticks, perhaps gathered from far wider wanderings, now nestle together against the back-log, 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 each other 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 of 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 1 ” 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 lie held untold by yonder fragments that lie unconsumed ! Photography lias 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 mirror, such as the ocean in calm, one is haunted with these fancies. I gaze into its depths, and wonder if no stray vestige has been imprisoned there, still accessible to human eyes, of some scene of passion or despair it has witnessed ; as a maiden visitor at Holyrood Palace, looking in the ancient metallic mirror, starts 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.
In their silence, J 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 liberty, seems a pathetic symbol there. On that fearfully cold Monday of last winter (January 8, 1866), with the mercury at -io°, 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 northwind. 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 eyewitness 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 lain ever since.
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. The wreck appeared so alive, that when I afterwards saw men at work upon it, 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. It seemed as if it came from the empty brig, a ghostly call, to summon phantom sailors.
Yonder burning brand, which seems to bear witness in its smouldering lustre of the strange wreck from which it came, I brought from Price’s Neck last winter, when the Brenton’s Reef Lightship went ashore. Yonder the oddlv 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 October 19, 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 tiie darkness. Let me tell the story.
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, 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, keeping the vessel’s head to the wind, as she drifted in, 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 on 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 seemed like a scene alter 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 seemed instinctively to crawl along the rocks, rather than walk. They were like the little tloating sprays of sea-weed, when you take them from the water and they become a mere mass of pulp in your hand. Martin seemed to share in the general exhaustion, and no wonder; but lie told his story very simply, and showed me where lie had landed, though 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 1 could, no man could do more than that; so I jumped overboard.” it is pleasant to add, that, though a poor man, lie utterly declined one of those small donations of money by which we Anglo-Saxons rather incline 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 lor acts ot less intrinsic daring than his.
Stir the fire, Annie, with yonder broken fragment of a flag-stalf; its truck is still remaining, though the llag is gone, and every nation might claim it. As you stir, the burning brands evince a remembrance oi their sea-tost life, the sparks drift away like foam-flakes, the flames wave and flap like sails, and the wail of the chimney seems 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. 11 has a coaxing, infantile 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 !
What a variety of playthings, too, in this fuel of ours; such inexplicable pieces, treenails and tholepins, trucks and sheaves, the lid of a locker, and a broken capstan-bar. These larger fragments are from spars and planks and knees. Some were dropped overboard in this quiet harbor; others may have floated from Fayal or Hispaniola, Mozambique or Zanzibar. This eagle figure-head, chipped and battered, but stili possessing highly aquiline features and a single eye, may have tangled its curved beak in the vast weed-beds of the Sargasso Sea ere now, or dipped it in the Sea of Milk. Tell us your story, O heroic but dilapidated bird, and perhaps song or legend may find in it themes that shall be immortal.
The eagle is silent, and I suspect, Annie, that he is but a plain, home-bred fowl aiter all. But what shall we say to this piece of plank, hung with barnacles that look large enough for the fabled barnacle-goose to emerge from ? Observe this fragment a little. Another piece is secured to it, not neatly, as with proper tools, but clumsily, with many nails of different sizes, driven unevenly and with their heads battered awry. Wedged clumsily in between these pieces, and secured by a supplementary nail, is a bit of broken rope. Let us touch that rope tenderly ; for who knows what despairing hands may last have clutched it, when this rude raft was made. It may, indeed, have been the handiwork of children, on the Penobscot or the St. Mary’s River. But its condition betokens long voyages, and it may as well have come from the stranded “Golden Rule ” on Runcador Reef, — that picturesque shipwreck where (as a rescued woman told me) the eyes of the people in their despair seemed full of sublime resignation, there was no confusion or outcry, and even the professional gamblers on board, with their female companions, looked death in the face as nobly, for all that could be seen, as the saintly and the pure. Or who knows but it floated round Cape Horn, from that other wreck, on the Pacific shore, of the “ Central America,” where the rough miners found that there was room in the boats only for their wives and their gold, and, pushing them off, with a few men to row them, the doomed husbands gave a cheer of courage as the ship went down.
Here again is a piece of pine wood, cut in notches as for a tally, and with every seventh notch the longest; these notches having been cut deeply at the beginning, and feebly afterwards, stopping abruptly before the end was reached. Who could have carved it ? Not a school-boy awaiting vacation, or a soldier expecting his discharge; for then each tally would have been cut off, instead of added. Nor could it be the squad of two soldiers who garrison Rose Island ; for their tour of duty lasts but a week. There are small barnacles and sea-weed too, which give the mysterious stick a sort of brevet antiquity. It has been long adrift, and these little barnacles, opening and closing daily their minute valves, have kept perchance their own register, and with their busy fringed fingers have gathered from the whole Atlantic that small share of its edible treasures which sufficed for them. Plainly this waif has had its experiences. It was Robinson Crusoe’s, Annie, depend upon it. We will save it from the flames, and when we establish our marine museum, nothing save a veritable piece of the North Pole shall be held so valuable as this undoubted relic from Juan Fernandez.
But the night deepens, and its reveries must end. With the winter will pass away the winter-storms, and summer will bring its own more insidious perils. Then the drowsy old seaport will blaze into splendor, through saloon and avenue, amidst which many a bright career will end suddenly and leave no sign. The ocean tries feebly to emulate the profounder tragedies of the shore. In the crowded halls of gay hotels, I see wrecks drifting hopelessly, dismasted and rudderless, to be stranded on hearts harder and more cruel than Brenton’s Reef, yet hid in smiles falser than the fleecy foam. What is a mere forsaken ship, compared with stately houses from which those whom I first knew in their youth and beauty have since fled into midnight and despair ?
But one last gleam upon our hearth lights up your innocent eyes, little Annie, and dispels the gathering shade. The flame dies down again, and you draw closer to my side. The pure moon looks in at the southern window, replacing the ruddier glow; while the fading embers lisp and prattle to each other, like drowsy children, more and more faintly, till they fall asleep.