English Literature

Pencillings by the Way by Nathaniel Parker Willis

Pencillings by the Way by Nathaniel Parker Willis.jpg


At Sea.—I have emerged from my berth this morning for the first time since we left the Capes. We have been running six or seven days before a strong northwest gale, which, by the scuds in the sky, is not yet blown out, and my head and hand, as you will see by my penmanship, are anything but at rights. If you have ever plunged about in a cold rain-storm at sea for seven successive days, you can imagine how I have amused myself.

I wrote to you after my pilgrimage to the tomb of Washington. It was almost the only object of natural or historical interest in our own country that I had not visited, and that seen, I made all haste back to embark, in pursuance of my plans of travel, for Europe. At Philadelphia I found a first-rate merchant-brig, the Pacific, on the eve of sailing for Havre. She was nearly new, and had a French captain, and no passengers—three very essential circumstances to my taste—and I took a berth in her 12without hesitation. The next day she fell down the river, and on the succeeding morning I followed her with the captain in the steamboat.

Some ten or fifteen vessels, bound on different voyages, lay in the roads waiting for the pilot boat; and, as she came down the river, they all weighed anchor together and we got under way. It was a beautiful sight—so many sail in close company under a smart breeze, and I stood on the quarter-deck and watched them in a mood of mingled happiness and sadness till we reached the Capes. There was much to elevate and much to depress me. The dream of my lifetime was about to be realized. I was bound to France; and those fair Italian cities, with their world of association and interest were within the limit of a voyage; and all that one looks to for happiness in change of scene, and all that I had been passionately wishing and imagining since I could dream a day-dream or read a book, was before me with a visible certainty; but my home was receding rapidly, perhaps for years, and the chances of death and adversity in my absence crowded upon my mind—and I had left friends—(many—many—as dear to me, any one of them, as the whole sum of my coming enjoyment), whom a thousand possible accidents might remove or estrange; and I scarce knew whether I was more happy or sad.

We made Cape Henlopen about sundown, and all shortened sail and came to. The little boat passed from one to another, taking off the pilots, and in a few minutes every sail was spread again, and away they went with a dashing breeze, some on one course some on another, leaving us in less than an hour, apparently alone on the sea. By this time the clouds had grown black, the wind had strengthened into a gale, with fits of rain; and as the order was given to “close-reef the top-sails,” I took a 13last look at Cape Henlopen, just visible in the far edge of the horizon, and went below.

Oct. 18.—It is a day to make one in love with life. The remains of the long storm, before which we have been driven for a week, lie, in white, turreted masses around the horizon, the sky overhead is spotlessly blue, the sun is warm, the wind steady and fresh, but soft as a child’s breath, and the sea—I must sketch it to you more elaborately. We are in the Gulf Stream. The water here as you know, even to the cold banks of Newfoundland, is always blood warm, and the temperature of the air mild at all seasons, and, just now, like a south wind on land in June. Hundreds of sea birds are sailing around us—the spongy sea-weeds, washed from the West Indian rocks, a thousand miles away in the southern latitudes, float by in large masses—the sailors, barefoot and bareheaded, are scattered over the rigging, doing “fair-weather work”—and just in the edge of the horizon, hidden by every swell, stand two vessels with all sail spread, making, with the first fair wind they have had for many days, for America.

This is the first day that I have been able to be long enough on deck to study the sea. Even were it not, however, there has been a constant and chilly rain which would have prevented me from enjoying its grandeur, so that I am reconciled to my unusually severe sickness. I came on deck this morning and looked around, and for an hour or two I could scarce realize that it was not a dream. Much as I had watched the sea from our bold promontory at Nahant, and well as I thought I knew its character in storms and calms, the scene which was before me surprized and bewildered me utterly. At the first glance, we were just in the gorge of the sea; and, looking over the leeward 14quarter, I saw, stretching up from the keel, what I can only describe as a hill of dazzling blue, thirty or forty feet in real altitude, but sloped so far away that the white crest seemed to me a cloud, and the space between a sky of the most wonderful beauty and brightness. A moment more, and the crest burst over with a splendid volume of foam; the sun struck through the thinner part of the swell in a line of vivid emerald, and the whole mass swept under us, the brig rising and riding on the summit with the buoyancy and grace of a bird.

The single view of the ocean which I got at that moment, will be impressed upon my mind for ever. Nothing that I ever saw on land at all compares with it for splendor. No sunset, no lake scene of hill and water, no fall, not even Niagara, no glen or mountain gap ever approached it. The waves had had no time to “knock down,” as the sailors phrase it, and it was a storm at sea without the hurricane and rain. I looked off to the horizon, and the long majestic swells were heaving into the sky upon its distant limit, and between it and my eye lay a radius of twelve miles, an immense plain flashing with green and blue and white, and changing place and color so rapidly as to be almost painful to the sight. I stood holding by the tafferel an hour, gazing on it with a childish delight and wonder. The spray had broken over me repeatedly, and, as we shipped half a sea at the scuppers at every roll, I was standing half the time up to the knees in water; but the warm wind on my forehead, after a week’s confinement to my berth, and the excessive beauty lavished upon my sight, were so delicious, that I forgot all, and it was only in compliance with the captain’s repeated suggestion that I changed my position.

I mounted the quarter-deck, and, pulling off my shoes, like a 15schoolboy, sat over the leeward rails, and, with my feet dipping into the warm sea at every lurch, gazed at the glorious show for hours. I do not hesitate to say that the formation, progress, and final burst of a sea-wave, in a bright sun, are the most gorgeously beautiful sight under heaven. I must describe it like a jeweller to you, or I can never convey my impressions.

First of all, a quarter of a mile away to windward, your eye is caught by an uncommonly high wave, rushing right upon your track, and heaping up slowly and constantly as it comes, as if some huge animal were ploughing his path steadily and powerfully beneath the surface. Its “ground,” as a painter would say, is of a deep indigo, clear and smooth as enamel, its front curved inward, like a shell, and turned over at the summit with a crest of foam, flashing and changing perpetually in the sunshine, like the sudden outburst of a million of “unsunned diamonds;” and, right through its bosom, as the sea falls off, or the angle of refraction changes, there runs a shifting band of the most vivid green, that you would take to have been the cestus of Venus, as she rose from the sea, it is so supernaturally translucent and beautiful. As it nears you, it looks in shape like the prow of Cleopatra’s barge, as they paint it in the old pictures; but its colors, and the grace and majesty of its march, and its murmur (like the low tones of an organ, deep and full, and, to my ear, ten times as articulate and solemn), almost startle you into the belief that it is a sentient being, risen glorious and breathing from the ocean. As it reaches the ship, she rises gradually, for there is apparently an under-wave driven before it, which prepares her for its power; and as it touches the quarter, the whole magnificent wall breaks down beneath you with a deafening surge, and a volume of foam issues from its bosom, green and blue and 16white, as if it had been a mighty casket in which the whole wealth of the sea, crysoprase, and emerald, and brilliant spars, had been heaped and lavished at a throw. This is the “tenth wave,” and, for four or five minutes, the sea will be smooth about you, and the sparkling and dying foam falls into the wake, and may be seen like a white path, stretching away over the swells behind, till you are tired of gazing at it. Then comes another from the same direction, and with the same shape and motion, and so on till the sun sets, or your eyes are blinded and your brain giddy with splendor.

I am sure this language will seem exaggerated to you, but, upon the faith of a lonely man (the captain has turned in, and it is near midnight and a dead calm), it is a mere skeleton, a goldsmith’s inventory, of the reality. I long ago learned that first lesson of a man of the world, “to be astonished at nothing,” but the sea has overreached my philosophy—quite. I am changed to a mere child in my wonder. Be assured, no view of the ocean from land can give you a shadow of an idea of it. Within even the outermost Capes, the swell is broken, and the color of the water in soundings is essentially different—more dull and earthy. Go to the mineral cabinets of Cambridge or New Haven, and look at the fluor spars, and the turquoises, and the clearer specimens of crysoprase, and quartz, and diamond, and imagine them all polished and clear, and flung at your feet by millions in a noonday sun, and it may help your conceptions of the sea after a storm. You may “swim on bladders” at Nahant and Rockaway till you are gray, and be never the wiser.

The “middle watch” is called, and the second mate, a fine rough old sailor, promoted from “the mast,” is walking the quarter-deck, stopping his whistle now and then with a gruff 17“How do you head?” or “keep her up, you lubber,” to the man at the helm; the “silver-shell” of a waning moon, is just visible through the dead lights over my shoulder (it has been up two hours, to me, and by the difference of our present merideans, is just rising now over a certain hill, and peeping softly in at an eastern window that I have watched many a time when its panes have been silvered by the same chaste alchymy), and so after a walk on the deck for an hour to look at the stars and watch the phosphorus in the wake, I think of ——, I’ll get to mine own uneven pillow, and sleep too.


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