BY EDWARD WEEKS
IPSWICH BAY is as moody and sensitive as a woman. This lovely body of water, estuary of the Ipswich, Essex, Parker, Rowley, and Merrimack rivers, reflects more truly than any weatherman the changing season and the quick, the all too quick, approach of fall. Here come the low skimming flights of sandpipers and the higher, slower V’s of black duck to tell us, long before the leaves turn, that summer is cooling off. The flights came earlier than usual this year, causing the boatmen to shake their heads at the omen. “Cold coming,” they said, “and soon. The birds know.”
The sandy moors and marshes are a natural sanctuary for the migrants and a secure resort for those who choose to linger. On one afternoon’s run from Rowley to the mouth of the Parker River, I saw purple martin pairing, dipping, and swooping together in that flight which resembles the grace of young skaters, and further down I watched their counterpart, the swifts, darting in and out of their tenements in the sandy bank. I saw white crane, cold and immobile above the eelgrass; heard the protest of the shrike; saw the ponderous beat of the gray heron and was answered for an instant by the piercing whistle of Canadian plover.
For a time our little boat lay motionless against the marsh grass; and as I gazed downstream, the water fifty yards distant was suddenly riffled as if young fish were feeding. A striped bass broke surface in a curving leap; and while it seemed that he hung suspended in air, the pursuing force was revealed in the hungry ferocity of a seal’s head. Fish and seal disappeared in the twinkling and were, I suspect, one. And the tide continued to run in. “Those seal,” said the boatman, “they push ’em right out of water.”
We were to see six other sleek heads on our way to the river’s mouth, all of them feeding close to shore, and one old grandfather so stuffed with fish that he no longer bothered to submerge, but lay there logy with his beady eyes on us as we passed.
The five rivers in their confluence form an ever refreshed feeding ground for the schools that in August turn north from Cape Cod. These incoming cycles of fish recall that cold-blooded but beautiful novel of the sea, Salar the Salmon, by Henry Williamson: first come the squid and herring, and feeding on them the striped bass that are in turn pursued by the tuna feeding further out in the Bay. The seal just play along the edges and take their choice, while overhead the terns, hovering close to the purpleshadowed water, — sure sign of the school beneath, — dive and dive again for the silver splinters driven to the surface by the tinker mackerel or the larger perennial hunger beneath.
In times past, no time as fish go, but more than half a century for us, the shad, salmon, sturgeon, and stripers were commuters to all these streams. Then wood pulp and rubber goods, textiles, and ladies’ girdles monopolized the power of white water and polluted the run. The fish went elsewhere to feed and to spawn. Cunners, flounders, cod, smelt, and haddock kept to the outer reach, venturing in on the fresh tides; the game fish made new rendezvous away from industry. Came the depression, nulls closed down, and as streams ran clean again, the telegram went out underwater. The fish returned home.
There is something still and powerful in the flood tides of late September as they embrace the warm brown sedge and spill over the marsh. The Coast Guard station, the lighthouse and the cottages on Plum Island, stand out in pristine detail. If only one could hold back time and tide to dwell forever in the golden pause of Indian summer! Now should high tide and full moon coincide and the wind drop; now in a small boat trolling close to the northern rocks of Wingaersheek Beach, trolling an eel skin deep at the end of fifty yards of line, your reel is suddenly spun from your control, and as it whines, your companion cuts the motor. For at the end of your leader stretching out in ihe black deep is an incalculable strength; now he is running away with you, and now in sudden slack as you reel in like mad, your heart sinks at the thought you have lost him. But again the rod goes down as he makes his spurt; now the pencil beam of the electric torch picks out the joining of line and water and silhouettes the dark, fierce turning shape against the clear bottom; now the gaff goes into action, and with a heave the big silver-scaled striper thuds into the floor boards; now for an hour autumn has stood still.
Along the coast ihe equinoctial storms, usually three-day northeasters, ring down the curtain on summer. On the clearing thereafter you notice how many leaves and branches cover the lawn, how the nasturtiums have been flattened, how the tough little asters reassert themselves. Summer has been blown away. But when in 1938 and again in 1944 the blow became a hurricane, the loss was more profound. The land was changed, beach colonies were swept out of existence trees of a century, the King’s pine preserved in the Harvard forest, the old elms of Stonington, were pressed down by a giant thumb whose reach extended as far inland as Peterborough. An island as beautiful as Naushon lost a third of its trees, many of them beeches which went back to the Revolution; or a harbor as protected as South Dartmouth saw five boats piled one above the other in splintered wood against the breakwater. Because it was the first, the hurricane of 1938 was the high-water mark in the lives of many New Englanders, who never again will lake storm warnings lightly.
Christopher La Farge was one of many coast dwellers who saw their beloved home places inundated and denuded. He was shocked, as were we all, by ihe unfathomable power of the wind, against which man-made resistance was no more than that of a grass blade. In his novel The Sudden Guest he seeks to measure the force of ihe two hurricanes in descriptive prose and to imagine their effect upon a group of Rhode Islanders dwelling on the exposed coast not far from Saundcrstown. The story is centered in the summer place of Miss Leckton, a sixtyycar-old spinster, austere and self-centered, a New Englander who has made the minimum concession to modern life. It begins on that September afternoon in 1944 when the storm warnings are out and when Miss Leckton and her servants are taking the puny precautions against what may come. As she moves about the big house, which is soon to be deserted, Miss Leckton’s mind goes back again and again to that afternoon six years earlier when, in the violence of the firsl hurricane, her house had been shattered, her elms destroyed, and her privacy invaded. Her conscience, which she had enslaved in her long life of selfishness, on that day had shaken free. And now, as the barometer drops and as the roaring of the new storm weakens her resistance,
conscience once again forces her to face the life she has denied. Vilality had taken shelter with her when her house was the outermost refuge. Grover La Perche with his red hair, the emotional Maude Cleever, dirty Harry Frosten, and the naked little Italian girl he had saved from drowning these people, all so importunate in their own right, had by their very coming left her more terribly alone, more deserted than she could possibly have imagined. All this floods in on her as she tries to lock out the second storm.
I value this novel for its fine fidelity to New England and for its sure delineation of the battered coast and the coast dwellers. I value it for its skill in contrast: the contrast of the demoniac force without and the human sanctuary within; the contrast in effect of the two great storms — the first, so unexpected, so ruthless, the second, foreseen and doubly dreaded; and above all, the contrast in these New Englanders, these people of Negro, Jewish, Italian, and Yankee blood whose impact cracks the hard shell of Miss Leckton and reveals the heart of the story.
The White Ensign
Three sea narratives of color, movement, and authenticity have lived in my mind since first I read them years ago: the story of the clipper ships, The Bird of Dawning, by John Masefield; the superb trilogy, Mutiny on the Bounty, by Nordhoff and Hall; and the books which celebrate the audacity (and misgivings) of Horatio Hornblower. Captain Bligh, whose iron will and inhuman discipline made such a hellhole of the Bounty, and Captain Hornblower, no less a leader for all his self-analysis and modesty, have this in common: they were graduates of the Royal Navy in its greatest epoch, the time of Nelson, and they accepted, each in his own way, the risk, the isolation, and the friendlessness which went with command. Needless to add that in any choice we should all have preferred to serve under Captain Hornblower.
I remember Mr. C. S. Forester’s remarking that the idea for the Hornblower stories first occurred to him while he was serving as a war correspondent in ihe Spanish Revolution; on the ground of the old Peninsula campaign he began to realize the part which the British Fleet had played in the defeat of Bonaparte; and as he witnessed the Spanish people’s desperate resistance to tyranny he was more keenly aware of what the continent had suffered under the Corsican. History has a way of reminding us of certain parallel patterns in human behavior, and Mr. Forester has quietly insinuated this reminder in the historical background of each of his stories.
In Lord Hornblower, the fifth and I suspect final novel of the sequence, we find the Captain at ihe top of his powers and ripe with honors. For twenty-two years of his seafaring he has been contending against the ever encroaching power of Napoleon. His actions have made his name a legend in the Fleet; he fought to the death at Rosas Bay, struck his colors, was taken prisoner by the French, and escaped; he has risen from humble lieutenant to be Knight of the Bath. He has survived his first dowdy wife to become in his high rank the husband of Wellington’s sister. Lady Barbara Wellesley. He could sit pretty. But ashore Horatio is a fish out of water, and when in 1813 he is ordered to suppress a mutiny which is threatening to infect the Channel Fleet, he feels the old incentive in his blood and enters expectantly on what is to prove the final phase of his long personal struggle against Bonaparte.
What makes Hornblower so appealing is that he constantly regards himself with the inner eye. In his own sight he is a “fortunate plodder” — a sailor who is always seasick before he can gain his sea legs; a disciplinarian who hates the cat; a leader who, in the pause before engagement, is torn by doubts of his own judgment. The beauty of Mr. Forester’s portrait is that we see the Captain as others saw him, through the eyes of Brown, his body servant, or through the eyes of Captain Bush, his most devoted lieutenant; we see him as the crew saw him when, cramped by his tiny cabin, he comes on deck, strips, and has buckets of icy water thrown on his bony frame; or when he heads the ship’s company skylarking to warm the blood before they assault Le Havre. He is, as I have said, at his best at sea; when ashore he can be diplomatic, but he can also be as bored or as vulnerable as any sea dog. France, whom he helps to liberate, almost seduces him, and Marie de Gragay, who once assisted him to escape, almost breaks his bonds to Barbara. With Boney shut away on St. Helena, all Horatio can look forward to is a peerage, the red tape of the Admiralty, a London club, and the elegance of Barbara’s drawing room. But that, I surmise, would hardly be enough to keep him happy.