Child-Life at the Isles of Shoals

I WELL remember my first sight of White Island, where we took up our abode on leaving the mainland. I was scarcely five years old ; but from the upper windows of our dwelling in Portsmouth, I had been shown the clustered masts of ships lying at the wharves along the Piscataqua River, faintly outlined against the sky, and, baby as I was, even then I was drawn, with a vague longing, seaward. How delightful was that long, first sail to the Isles of Shoals ! How pleasant the unaccustomed sound of the incessant ripple against the boat-side, the sight of the wide water and limitless sky, the warmth of the broad sunshine that made us blink like young sandpipers as we sat in triumph, perched among the household goods with which the little craft was laden ! It was at sunset that we were set ashore on that loneliest, lovely rock, where the lighthouse looked down on us like some tall, black-capped giant, and filled me with awe and wonder. At its base a few goats were grouped on the rock, standing out dark against the red sky as I looked up at them. The stars were beginning to twinkle ; the wind blew cold, charged with the sea’s sweetness ; the sound of many waters half bewildered me. Some one began to light the lamps in the tower. Rich red and golden, they swung round in mid-air; everything was strange and fascinating and new. We entered the quaint little old stone cottage that was for six years our home. How curious it seemed, with its low, whitewashed ceiling and deep windowseats, showing the great thickness of the walls made to withstand the breakers, with whose force we soon grew acquainted ! A blissful home the little house became to the children who entered it that quiet evening and slept for the first time lulled by the murmur of the encircling sea. I do not think a happier triad ever existed than we were, living in that profound isolation. It takes so little to make a healthy child happy ; and we never wearied of our few resources. True, the winters seemed as long as a whole year to our little minds, but they were pleasant, nevertheless. Into the deep window-seats we climbed, and with pennies (for which we had no other use) made round holes in the thick frost, breathing on them till they were warm, and peeped out at the bright, fierce, windy weather, watching the vessels scudding over the intensely dark blue sea, all “feather-white” where the short waves broke hissing in the cold, and the sea-fowl soaring aloft or tossing on the water ; or, in calmer days, we saw how the stealthy Star-Islander paddled among the ledges, or lay for hours stretched on the wet sea-weed, watching for wild-fowl with his gun. Sometimes the round head of a seal moved about among the kelp-covered rocks. A few are seen every winter, and are occasionally shot; but they are shyer and more alert even than the birds.

We were forced to lay in stores of all sorts in the autumn, as if we were fitting out a ship for an Arctic expedition. The lower story of the lighthouse was hung with mutton and beef, and the store-room packed with provisions.

In the long, covered walk that bridged the gorge between the lighthouse and the house we played in stormy days, and every evening it was a fresh excitement to watch the lighting of the lamps, and think how far the lighthouse sent its rays, and how many hearts it gladdened with assurance of safety. As I grew older I was allowed to kindle the lamps sometimes myself. That was indeed a pleasure. So little a creature as I might do that much for the great world ! But by the fireside our best pleasure lay, — with plants and singing birds and books and playthings and loving care and kindness the cold and stormy season wore itself at last away, and died into the summer calm. We hardly saw a human face beside our own all winter; but with the spring came manifold life to our lonely dwelling,— human life among other forms. Our neighbors from Star paddled across ; the pilot-boat from Portsmouth steered over, and brought us letters, newspapers, magazines, and told us the news of months. The faint echoes from the far-off world hardly touched us little ones. We listened to the talk of our elders. “Winfield Scott and Santa Anna ! ” “ The war in Mexico; ” “The famine in Ireland ! ” It all meant nothing to us. We heard the reading aloud of details of the famine, and saw tears in the eyes of the reader, and were vaguely sorry ; but the fate of Red Riding-Hood was much more near and dreadful to us. We waited for the spring with an eager longing; the advent of the growing grass, the birds and flowers and insect life, the soft skies and softer winds, the everlasting beauty of the thousand tender tints that clothed the world, — these things brought us unspeakable bliss. To the heart of Nature one must needs be drawn in such a life ; and very soon I learned how richly she repays in deep refreshment the reverent love of her worshipper. With the first warm days we built our little mountains of wet gravel on the beach, and danced after the sandpipers at the edge of the foam, shouted to the gossiping kittiwakes that fluttered above, or watched the pranks of the burgomaster gull, or cried to the crying loons. The gannet’s long white wings stretched overhead, perhaps, or the dusky shag made a sudden shadow in mid-air, or we startled on some lonely ledge the great blue heron that flew off, trailing legs and wings, stork-like, against the clouds. Or, in the sunshine on the bare rocks, we cut from the broad, brown leaves of the slippery, varnished kelps, grotesque shapes of man and bird and beast, that withered in the wind and blew away ; or we fashioned rude boats from bits of driftwood, manned them with a weird crew of kelpies, and set them adrift on the great deep, to float we cared not whither.

We played with the empty limpetshells ; they were mottled gray and brown, like the song-sparrow’s breast. We launched fleets of purple musselshells on the still pools in the rocks, left by the tide, — pools that were like bits of fallen rainbow with the wealth of the sea, with tints of delicate seaweeds, crimson and green and ruddy brown and violet ; where wandered the pearly eolis with rosy spines and fairy horns, and the large round sea-urchins, like a boss upon a shield, were fastened here and there on the rock at the bottom, putting out from their green, prickly spikes transparent tentacles to seek their invisible food. Rosy and lilac star-fish clung to the sides ; in some dark nook perhaps a holothuria unfolded its perfect ferns, a lovely, warm buff color, delicate as frost-work ; little forests of coralline moss grew up in stillness, gold-colored shells crept about, and now and then flashed the silverdarting fins of slender minnows. The dimmest recesses were haunts of seaanemones that opened wide their starry flowers to the flowing tide, or drew themselves together, and hung in large, half-transparent drops, like clusters of some strange, amber-colored fruit, along the crevices as the water ebbed away. Sometimes we were cruel enough to capture a female lobster hiding in a deep cleft, with her millions of mottled eggs ; or we laughed to see the hermit-crabs challenge each other, and come out and fight a deadly battle till the stronger overcame, and, turning the weaker topsy-turvy, possessed himself of his ampler cockle-shell, and scuttled off with it triumphant. Or, pulling all together, we dragged up the long kelps, or devil’s-aprons ; their roots were almost always fastened about large, living mussels ; these we unclasped, carrying the mussels home to be cooked ; fried in crumbs or batter, they were as good as oysters. We picked out from the kelp-roots a kind of star-fish which we called sea-spider; the moment we touched it an extraordinary process began. One by one it disjointed all its sections, — whether from fear or anger we knew not; but it threw itself away, bit by bit, until nothing was left of it save the little, round body whence the legs had sprung !

With crab and limpet, with grasshopper and cricket, we were friends and neighbors, and we were never tired of watching the land-spiders that possessed the place. Their webs covered every window-pane to the lighthouse top, and they rebuilt them as fast as they were swept down. One variety lived among the round gray stones on the beach, just above high-water mark, and spun no webs at all. Large and black, they speckled the light stones, swarming in the hot sun ; at the first footfall they vanished beneath the pebbles.

All the cracks in the rocks were draped with swinging veils like the window-panes. How often have we marvelled at them, after a fog or a heavy fall of dew, in the early morning, when every slender thread was strung with glittering drops, — the whole symmetrical web a wonder of shining jewels trembling in the breeze! Tennyson’s lines, always bring back to my mind the memory of those delicate, spangled draperies, more beautiful than any mortal loom could weave, that curtained the rocks at White Island and “ shook their threaded tears” in every wind.

“The cobweb woven across the cannon’s throat
Shall shake its threaded tears in the wind no more,”

Sometimes we saw the bats wheel through the summer dusk, and in profoundly silent evenings heard, from the lighthouse top, their shrill, small cries, their voices sharper and finer than needle-points. One day I found one clinging to the under side of a shutter, — a soft, dun-colored, downy lump. I took it in my hand, and in an instant it changed to a hideous little demon, and its fierce white teeth met in the palm of my hand. So much fury in so small a beast I never encountered, and I was glad enough to give him his liberty without more ado.

A kind of sandhopper about an inch long, that infested the beach, was a great source of amusement. Lifting the stranded sea-weed that marked the high-water line, we always startled a gray and brown cloud of them from beneath it, leaping away, like tiny kangaroos, out of sight. In storms these were driven into the house, forcing their way through every crack and cranny till they strewed the floors, — the sea so encircled us ! Dying immediately upon leaving the water from which they fled, they turned from a clear brown, or what Mr. Kingsley would call a “ pellucid gray,” to bright brick-color, like a boiled lobster, and many a time I have swept them up in ruddy heaps ; they looked like bits of coral.

I remember in the spring kneeling on the ground to seek the first blades of grass that pricked through the soil, and bringing them into the house to study and wonder over. Better than a shop full of toys they were to me! Whence came their color ? How did they draw their sweet, refreshing tint from the brown earth, or the limpid air, or the white light ? Chemistry was not at hand to answer me, and all her wisdom would not have dispelled the wonder. Later the little scarlet pimpernel charmed me. It seemed more than a flower ; it was like a human thing. I knew it by its homely name of poor-man’s weather-glass. It was so much wiser than I, for, when the sky was yet without a cloud, softly it clasped its little red petals together, folding its golden heart in safety from the shower that was sure to come! How could it know so much ? Here is a question science cannot answer. The pimpernel grows everywhere about the islands, in every cleft and cranny where a suspicion of sustenance for its slender root can lodge; and it is one of the most exquisite of flowers, so rich in color, so quaint and dainty in its method of growth. I never knew its silent warning fail. I wondered much how every flower knew what to do and to be : why the morning-glory did n’t forget sometimes, and bear a cluster of elder-bloom, or the elder hang out pennons of gold and purple like the iris, or the golden-rod suddenly blaze out a scarlet plume, the color of the pimpernel, was a mystery to my childish thought. And why did the sweet wild primrose wait till after sunset to unclose its pale yellow buds ; why did it unlock its treasure of rich perfume to the night alone? Few flowers bloomed for me upon the lonesome rock ; but I made the most of all I had, and neither knew of nor desired more. Ah, how beautiful they were ! Tiny stars of crimson sorrel threaded on their long brown stems ; the blackberry blossoms in bridal white; the surprise of the blue-eyed grass ; the crowfoot flowers, like drops of yellow gold spilt about among the short grass and over the moss; the rich, blue-purple beach-pea, the sweet, spiked germander, and the homely, delightful yarrow that grows thickly on all the islands. Sometimes its broad clusters of dull white bloom are stained a lovely reddishpurple, as if with the light of sunset. I never saw it colored so elsewhere. Quantities of slender, wide-spreading mustard-bushes grew about the house ; their delicate flowers were like fragrant golden clouds. Dandelions, buttercups, and clover were not denied to us; though we had no daisies nor violets nor wild roses, no asters, but gorgeous spikes of golden-rod, and wonderful wild morning-glories, whose long, pale, ivory buds I used to find in the twilight, glimmering among the dark leaves, waiting for the touch of dawn to unfold and become each an exquisite incarnate blush, — the perfect color of a South Sea shell. They ran wild, knotting and twisting about the rocks, and smothering the loose boulders in the gorges with lush green leaves and pink blossoms.

Many a summer morning have I crept out of the still house before any one was awake, and, wrapping myself closely from the chill wind of dawn, climbed to the top of the high cliff called the Head to watch the sunrise. Pale grew the lighthouse flame before the broadening day as, nestled in a crevice at the cliff’s edge, I watched the shadows draw away and morning break. Facing the east and south, with all the Atlantic before me, what happiness was mine as the deepening rose-color flushed the delicate cloudflocks that dappled the sky, where the gulls soared, rosy too, while the calm sea blushed beneath. Or perhaps it was a cloudless sunrise with a sky of orange-red, and the sea-line silver-blue against it, peaceful as heaven. Infinite variety of beauty always awaited me, and filled me with an absorbing, unreasoning joy such as makes the songsparrow sing, — a sense of perfect bliss. Coming back in the sunshine, the morning-glories would lift up their faces, all awake, to my adoring gaze. Like countless rosy trumpets sometimes I thought they were, tossed everywhere about the rocks, turned up to the sky, or drooping toward the ground, or looking east, west, north, south, in silent loveliness. It seemed as if they had gathered the peace of the golden morning in their still depths even as my heart had gathered it.

In some of those matchless summer mornings when I went out to milk the little dun cow, it was hardly possible to go farther than the doorstep, for pure wonder, as I looked abroad at the sea lying still, like a vast, round mirror, the tide drawn away from the rich brown rocks, a sail or two asleep in the calm, not a sound abroad except a few bird voices ; dew lying like jewel-dust sifted over everything,—diamond and ruby, sapphire, topaz, and amethyst, flashing out of the emerald deeps of the tufted grass or from the bending tops. Looking over to the mainland, I could dimly discern in the level sunshine the depths of glowing green woods faintly revealed in the distance, fold beyond fold of hill and valley thickly clothed with the summer’s splendor. But my handful of grass was more precious to me than miles of green fields, and I was led to consider every blade where there were so few. Not long ago I had watched them piercing the ground toward the light; now, how strong in their slender grace were these stems, how perfect the poise of the heavy heads that waved with such harmony of movement in the faintest breeze ! And I noticed at mid-day when the dew was dry, where the tall, blossoming spears stood in graceful companies, that, before they grew purple, brown, and ripe, when they began to blossom, they put out first a downy ring of pollen in tiny, yellow rays, held by an almost invisible thread, which stood out like an aureole from each slow-waving head,— a fairy-like effect. On Seavey’s Island (united to ours by a narrow beach covered at high tide with contending waves) grew one single root of fern, the only one within the circle of my little world. It was safe in a deep cleft, but I was in perpetual anxiety lest my little cow, going there daily to pasture, should leave her cropping of the grass and eat it up some day. Poor little cow! One night she did not come home to be milked as usual, and on going to seek her we found she had caught one foot in a crevice and twisted her hoof entirely off! That was a calamity; for we were forced to summon our neighbors and have her killed on the spot.

I had a scrap of garden, literally not more than a yard square, wherein grew only African marigolds, rich in color as barbaric gold. I knew nothing of John Keats at that time, — poor Keats, “ who told Severn that he thought his intensest pleasure in life had been to watch the growth of flowers,” — but I am sure he never felt their beauty more devoutly than the little, half-savage being who knelt like a fire-worshipper to watch the unfolding of those golden disks. When, later, the “ brave new world” of poets was opened to me, with what power those glowing lines of his went straight to my heart,

“ Open afresh your rounds of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds ! ”

All flowers had for me such human interest, they were so clear and precious, I hardly liked to gather them, and when they were withered, I carried them all to one place and laid them tenderly together, and never liked to pass the spot where they were hidden.

Once or twice every year came the black, lumbering old “oil-schooner” that brought supplies for the lighthouse, and the inspector, who gravely examined everything, to see if all was in order. He left stacks of clear red and white glass chimneys for the lamps, and several doe-skins for polishing the great, silver-lined copper reflectors, large bundles of wicks, and various pairs of scissors for trimming them, heavy black casks of ill-perfumed whale-oil, and other things, which were all stowed in the round, dimly-lighted rooms of the tower. Very awe-struck, we children always crept into corners, and whispered and watched the intruders till they embarked in their ancient, clumsy vessel, and, hoisting their dark, weatherstained sails, bore slowly away again. About ten years ago that old white lighthouse was taken away, and a new, perpendicular brick tower built in its place. The lantern, with its fifteen lamps, ten golden and five red, gave place to Fresnel’s powerful single burner, or, rather, three burners in one, enclosed in its case of prisms.' The old light-

house was by far the most picturesque ; but perhaps the new one is more effective, the light being, undoubtedly, more powerful.

Often, in pleasant days, the head of the family sailed away to visit the other islands, sometimes taking the children with him, oftener going alone, frequently not returning till after dark. The landing at White Island is so dangerous that the greatest care is requisite, if there is any sea running, to get ashore in safety. Two long and very solid timbers about three feet apart are laid from the boat-house to low-water mark, and between those timbers the boat’s bow must be accurately steered ; if she goes to the right or the left, woe to her crew unless the sea is calm! Safely lodged in the slip, as it is called, she is drawn up into the boat-house by a capstan, and fastened securely. The lighthouse gave no ray to the dark rock below it; sending its beams far out to sea, it left us at its foot in greater darkness for its lofty light. So when the boat was out late, in soft, moonless summer nights, I used to light a lantern, and, going down to the water’s edge, take my station between the timbers of the slip, and, with the lantern at my feet, sit waiting in the darkness, quite content, knowing my little star was watched for, and that the safety of the boat depended in a great measure upon it. How sweet the summer wind blew, how softly plashed the water round me, how refreshing was the odor of the sparkling brine ! High above the lighthouse rays streamed out into the humid dark, and the cottage windows were ruddy from the glow within. I felt so much a part of the Lord’s universe, I was no more afraid of the dark than the waves or winds ; but I was glad to hear at last the creaking of the mast and the rattling of the rowlocks as the boat approached ; and, while yet she was far off, the lighthouse touched her one large sail into sight, so that I knew she was nearing me, and shouted, listening for the reply that came so blithely back to me over the water.

Unafraid, too, we watched the summer tempests and listened to the deep, melodious thunder rolling away over the rain-calmed ocean. The lightning played over the iron rods that ran from the lighthouse-top down into the sea. Where it lay on the sharp ridgepole of the long, covered walk that spanned the gorge, the strange fire ran up the spikes that were set at equal distances, and burnt like pale flame from their tips. It was fine indeed from the lighthouse itself to watch the storm come rushing over the sea and ingulf us in our helplessness. How the rain weltered down over the great panes of plate glass, — floods of sweet fresh water that poured off the rocks and mingled with the bitter brine. I wondered why the fresh floods never made the salt sea any sweeter. Those pale flames that we beheld burning from the spikes of the lightning-rod I suppose were identical with the St. Elmo’s fire that I have since seen described as haunting the spars of ships in thunder-storms. And here I am reminded of a story told by some gentlemen visiting Appledore sixteen or eighteen years ago. T hey started from Portsmouth for the Shoals in a whaleboat, one evening in summer, with a native Star-Islander, one of the Haley family, to manage the boat. They had sailed about half the distance, when they were surprised at seeing a large ball of fire, like a rising moon, rolling toward them over the sea from the south. They watched it eagerly as it bore down upon them, and, veering off, went east of them at some little distance, and then passed astern, and there of course they expected to lose sight of it; but while they were marvelling and speculating, it altered its course and suddenly began to near them, coming back upon its track against the wind and steadily following in their wake. This was too much for the native Shoaler. He took off his jacket and turned it inside out to exorcise the fiend, and lo, the apparition most certainly disappeared ! We heard the excited account of the strange gentlemen and witnessed the holy horror of the boatmen, on the occasion ; but no one could imagine what had set the globe of fire rolling across the sea. Some one suggested that it might be an exhalation, a phosphorescent light, from the decaying body of some dead fish ; but in that case it must have been taken in tow by some living finny creature, else how could it have sailed straight “ into the teeth of the wind ” ? It was never satisfactorily accounted for, and must remain a mystery.

One autumn at White Island our little boat had been to Portsmouth for provisions, etc. With the spy-glass we watched her returning, beating against the head wind. The day was bright, but there had been a storm at sea, and the breakers rolled and roared about us. The process of “beating” is so tedious that, though the boat had started in the morning, the sun was sending long yellow light from the west before it reached the island. There was no cessation in those resistless billows that rolled from the Devil’s Rock upon the slip ; but still the little craft sailed on, striving to reach the landing. The hand at the tiller was firm, but a huge wave swept suddenly in, swerving the boat to the left of the slip, and in a moment she was overturned and flung upon the rocks, and her only occupant tossed high upon the beach, safe except for a few bruises ; but what a moment of terror it was for us all, who saw and could not save ! All the freight was lost except a roll of iron wire and a barrel of walnuts. These were spread on the floor of an unoccupied eastern chamber in the cottage to dry. And they did dry, but before they were gathered up came a terrible storm from the southeast. It raved and tore at lighthouse and cottage ; the sea broke into the windows of that eastern chamber where the walnuts lay, and washed them out till they came dancing down the stairs in briny foam ! The sea broke the windows of the house several times during our stay at the lighthouse. Everything shook so violently from the concussion of the breakers, that dishes on the closet shelves fell to the floor, and one member of the family was at first always made sea-sick in storms, by the tremor and deafening confusion. One night when, from the southeast, the very soul of chaos seemed to have been let loose upon the world, the whole ponderous “ walk ” (the covered bridge that connected the house and lighthouse) was carried thundering down the gorge and dragged out into the raging sea.

It was a distressing situation for us, — cut off from the precious light that must be kept alive ; for the breakers were tearing through the gorge so that no living thing could climb across. But the tide could not resist the mighty impulse that drew it down ; it was forced to obey the still voice that bade it ebb, all swollen and raging and towering as it was, slowly and surely, at the appointed time, it sank away from our rock, so that, between the billows that still strove to clutch at the white, silent, goldencrowned tower, one could creep across, and scale the height, and wind up the machinery that kept the great clustered light revolving till the gray daylight broke to extinguish it.

I often wondered how it was possible for the sea-birds to live through such storms as these. But, when one could see at all, the gulls were always soaring, in the wildest tumult, and the stormy petrels half flying, half swimming in the hollow’s of the waves.

Would it were possible to describe the beauty of the calm that followed such tempests ! The long lines of silver foam that streaked the tranquil blue, the “ tender curving lines of creamy spray ” along the shore, the clear-washed sky, the peaceful yellow light, the mellow breakers murmuring slumberously 1

Of all the storms our childish eyes watched with delighted awe, one thunder-storm remains fixed in my memory. Late in an August afternoon it rolled its awful clouds to the zenith, and, after the tumult had subsided, spread its lightened vapors in an under-roof of gray over all the sky. Presently this solemn gray lid was lifted at its western edge, and an insufferable splendor streamed across the world from the sinking sun. The whole heaven was in a blaze of scarlet, across which sprang a rainbow unbroken to the topmost clouds, “ with its seven perfect colors chorded in a triumph ” against the flaming background; the sea answered the sky’s rich blush, and the gray rocks lay drowned in melancholy purple. I hid my face from the glory, — it was too much to bear. Ever I longed to speak these things that made life so sweet, to speak the wind, the cloud, the bird’s flight, the sea’s murmur. A vain longing ! I might as well have sighed for the mighty pencil of Michael Angelo to wield in my impotent child’s hand. Better to “ hush and bless one’s self with silence ” ; but ever the wish grew. Facing the July sunsets, deep red and golden through and through, or watching the summer northern lights, — battalions of brilliant streamers advancing and retreating, shooting upward to the zenith, and glowing like fiery veils before the stars ; or when the fog-bow spanned the silver mist of morning, or the earth and sea lay shimmering in a golden haze of noon, in storm or calm, by day or night, the manifold aspects of Nature held me and swayed all my thoughts until it was impossible to be silent any longer, and I was fain to mingle my voice with her myriad voices, only aspiring to be in accord with the Infinite harmony, however feeble and broken the notes might be.

Celia Thaxter.