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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In A Wherry

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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.

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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.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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