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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In A Wherry

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How much deeper seems his solitude than that of any other "lone fisher on the lonely sea"! Yet all such things are comparative; and while the others contrast that wave-tossed isolation with the cheeriness of home, his home is silent too. He has a wife and children; they all speak, but he hears not their prattle or their complaints. He summons them with his fingers, as he summons the fishes, and they are equally dumb to him. Has he a special sympathy with those submerged and voiceless things? Dunfish, in the old newspapers, were often called "dumb'd fish"; and they perchance come to him as to one of their kindred. They may have learned, like other innocent things, to accept this defect of utterance, and even imitate it. I knew a deaf-and-dumb woman whose children spoke and heard; but while yet too young for words, they had learned that their mother was not to be reached in that way; they never cried or complained before her, and when most excited would only whisper. Her baby ten months old, if disturbed in the night, would creep to her and touch her lips, to awaken her, but would make no noise.

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One might fancy that all men who have an agonizing sorrow or a fearful secret would be drawn by irresistible attraction into the society of the deaf and dumb. What awful passions might not be whispered, what terror safely spoken, in the charmed circle round yonder silent boat,--a circle whose centre is a human life which has not all the susceptibilities of life, a confessional where even the priest cannot hear! Would it not relieve sorrow to express itself, even if unheeded? What more could one ask than a dumb confidant? and if deaf also, so much the safer. To be sure, he would give you neither absolution nor guidance; he could render nothing in return, save a look or a clasp of the hand; nor can the most gifted or eloquent friendship do much more. Ah! but suddenly the thought occurs, suppose that the defect of hearing, as of tongue, were liable to be loosed by an overmastering emotion, and that by startling him with your hoarded confidence you were to break the spell! The hint is too perilous; let us row away.

A few strokes take us to the half-submerged wreck of a lime-schooner that was cut to the water's edge, by a collision in a gale, twelve months ago. The water kindled the lime, the cable was cut, the vessel drifted ashore and sunk, still blazing, at this little beach. When I saw her, at sunset, the masts had been cut away, and the flames held possession on board. Fire was working away in the cabin, like a live thing, and sometimes glared out of the hatchway; anon it clambered along the gunwale, like a school-boy playing, and the waves chased it as in play; just a flicker of flame, then a wave would reach up to overtake it; then the flames would be, or seem to be, where the water had been; and finally, as the vessel lay careened, the waves took undisturbed possession of the lower gunwale, and the flames of the upper. So it burned that day and night; part red with fire, part black with soaking; and now twelve months have made all its visible parts look dry and white, till it is hard to believe that either fire or water has ever touched it. It lies over on its bare knees, and a single knee, torn from the others, rests imploringly on the shore, as if that had worked its way to land, and perished in act of thanksgiving. At low tide, one half the frame is lifted high in air, like a dead tree in the forest.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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