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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Drift-Wood Fire

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The eagle is silent, and I suspect, Annie, that he is but a plain, home-bred fowl after 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 voyages yet longer; and it may just as well have come from the stranded "Golden Rule" on Roncador Reef,--that picturesque shipwreck where (as a rescued woman told me) the eyes of the people in their despair seemed full of sublime resignation, so that there was no confusion or outcry, and even gamblers and harlots 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 where, pushing the women off, with a few men to row them, the doomed husbands gave a cheer of courage as the ship went down.

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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 meanwhile 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 its 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?

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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