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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport In Winter

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But in Oldport, as elsewhere, the spice of conversation is apt to be in inverse ratio to family tree and income-tax, and one can hear better repartees among the boat-builders' shops on Long Wharf than among those who have made the grand tour. All the world over, one is occasionally reminded of the French officer's verdict on the garrison town where he was quartered, that the good society was no better than the good society anywhere else, but the bad society was capital. I like, for instance, to watch the shoals of fishermen that throng our streets in the early spring, inappropriate as porpoises on land, or as Scott's pirates in peaceful Kirkwall,--unwieldy, bearded creatures in oil-skin suits,--men who have never before seen a basket-wagon or a liveried groom and, whose first comments on the daintinesses of fashion are far more racy than anything which fashion can say for itself.

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The life of our own fishermen and pilots remains active, in its way, all winter; and coasting vessels come and go in the open harbor every day. The only schooner that is not so employed is, to my eye, more attractive than any of them; it is our sole winter guest, this year, of all the graceful flotilla of yachts that helped to make our summer moonlights so charming. While Europe seems in such ecstasy over the ocean yacht-race, there lies at anchor, stripped and dismantled, a vessel which was excluded from the match, it is said, simply because neither of the three competitors would have had a chance against her. I like to look across the harbor at the graceful proportions of this uncrowned victor in the race she never ran; and to my eye her laurels are the most attractive. She seems a fit emblem of the genius that waits, while talent merely wins. "Let me know," said that fine, but unappreciated thinker, Brownlee Brown,--"let me know what chances a man has passed in contempt; not what he has made, but what he has refused to make, reserving himself for higher ends."

All out-door work in winter has a cheerful look, from the triumph of caloric it implies; but I know none in which man seems to revert more to the lower modes of being than in searching for seaclams. One may sometimes observe a dozen men employed in this way, on one of our beaches, while the cold wind blows keenly off shore, and the spray drifts back like snow over the green and sluggish surge. The men pace in and out with the wave, going steadily to and fro like a pendulum, ankle-deep in the chilly brine, their steps quickened by hope or slackening with despair. Where the maidens and children sport and shout in summer, there in winter these heavy figures succeed. To them the lovely crest of the emerald billow is but a chariot for clams, and is valueless if it comes in empty. Really, the position of the clam is the more dignified, since he moves only with the wave, and the immortal being in fish-boots wades for him.

The harbor and the beach are thus occupied in winter; but one may walk for many a mile along the cliffs, and see nothing human but a few gardeners, spreading green and white sea-weed as manure upon the lawns. The mercury rarely drops to zero here, and there is little snow; but a new-fallen drift has just the same virgin beauty as farther inland, and when one suddenly comes in view of the sea beyond it, there is a sensation of summer softness. The water is not then deep blue, but pale, with opaline reflections. Vessels in the far horizon have the same delicate tint, as if woven of the same liquid material. A single wave lifts itself languidly above a reef,--a white-breasted loon floats near the shore,--the sea breaks in long, indolent curves,--the distant islands swim in a vague mirage. Along the cliffs hang great organ-pipes of ice, distilling showers of drops that glitter in the noonday sun, while the barer rocks send up a perpetual steam, giving to the eye a sense of warmth, and suggesting the comforts of fire. Beneath, the low tide reveals long stretches of golden-brown sea-weed, caressed by the lapping wave.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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