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Hawthorne on the Isles of Shoals

September 1852
Edited and published by Sophia Hawthorne (1868)

September 11th.--The wind shifted and veered about, towards the close of yesterday, and later it was almost calm, after blowing gently from the northwest,--notwithstanding which it rained. There being a mistiness in the air, we could see the gleam of the light-house upon the mist above it, although the light-house itself was hidden by the highest point of this island, or by our being in a valley. As we sat under the piazza in the evening, we saw the light from on board some vessel move slowly through the distant obscurity,--so slowly that we were only sensible of its progress by forgetting it and looking again. The plash and murmur of the waves around the island were soothingly audible. It was not unpleasantly cold, and Mr. Laighton, Mr. Thaxter, and myself sat under the piazza till long after dark; the former at a little distance, occasionally smoking his pipe, and Mr. Thaxter and I talking about poets and the stage. The latter is an odd subject to be discussed in this stern and wild scene, which has precisely the same characteristics now as two hundred years ago. The mosquitoes were very abundant last night, and they are certainly hardier race than their inland brethren.

This morning there is a sullen sky, with scarcely any breeze. The clouds throw shadows of varied darkness upon the sea. I know not which way the wind is; but the aspect of things seems to portend a calm drizzle as much as anything else.

About eleven o'clock, Mr. Thaxter took me over to Smutty Nose in his dory. A sloop from the eastward, laden with laths, bark, and other lumber, and a few barrels of mackerel, filled yesterday, and was left by her skipper and crew. All the morning we have seen boats picking up her deck-load, which was scattered over the sea, and along the shores of the islands. The skipper and his three men got into Smutty Nose in the boat; and the sloop was afterwards boarded by the Smutty Noses and brought into that island. We saw her lying at the pier,--a black, ugly, rotten old thing, with the water half-way over her decks. The wonder was, how she swam so long. The skipper, a man of about thirty-five or forty, in a blue pilot-cloth overcoat, and a rusty, high-crowned hat jammed down over his brow, looked very forlorn; while the islanders were grouped about, indolently enjoying the matter.

I walked with Mr. Thaxter over the island, and saw first the graves of the Spaniards. They were wrecked on this island a hundred years ago, and lie buried in a range about thirty feet in length, to the number of sixteen, with rough, moss-grown pieces of granite on each side of this common grave. Near this spot, yet somewhat removed, so as not to be confounded with it, are other individual graves, chiefly of the Haley family, who were once possessors of the island. These have slate gravestones. There is also, within a small enclosure of rough pine boards, a white marble gravestone, in memory of a young man named Bekker, son of the person who now keeps the hotel on Smutty Nose. He was buried, Mr. Thaxter says, notwithstanding his marble monument, in a rude pine box, which he himself helped to make.

We walked to the farthest point of the island, and I have never seen a more dismal place than it was on this sunless and east-windy day, being the farthest point out into the melancholy sea which was in no very agreeable mood, and roared sullenly against the wilderness of rocks. One mass of rock, more than twelve feet square, was thrown up out of the sea in a storm, not many years since, and now lies athwart-wise, never to be moved unless another omnipotent wave shall give it another toss. On shore, such a rock would be a landmark for centuries. It is inconceivable how a sufficient mass of water could be brought to bear on this ponderous mass; but, not improbably, all the fragments piled upon one another round these islands have thus been flung to and fro at one time or another.

There is considerable land that would serve tolerably for pasture on Smutty Nose, and here and there a little enclosure of richer grass, built round with a strong stone-wall. The same kind of enclosure is prevalent on Star Island,--each small proprietor fencing off his little bit of tillage or grass. Wild-flowers are abundant and various on these islands; the bayberry-bush is plentiful on Smutty Nose, and makes the hand that crushes it fragrant.

The hotel is kept by a Prussian, an old soldier, who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. We saw him in the barn,--a gray, heavy, round-skulled old fellow, troubled with deafness. The skipper of the wrecked sloop had, apparently, just been taking a drop of comfort, but still seemed downcast. He took passage in a fishing-vessel, the Wave, of Kittery, for Portsmouth; and I know not why, but there was something that made me smile in his grim and gloomy look, his rusty, jammed hat, his rough and grisly beard, and in his mode of chewing tobacco, with much action of the jaws, getting out the juice as largely as possible, as men always do when disturbed in mind. I looked at him earnestly, and was conscious of something that marked him out from among the careless islanders around him. Being as much discomposed as it was possible for him to be, his feelings individualized the man and magnetized the observer. When he got aboard the fishing-vessel, he seemed not entirely at his ease, being accustomed to command and work amongst his own little crew, and now having nothing to do. Nevertheless, unconsciously perhaps, he lent a hand to whatever was going on, and yet had a kind of strangeness about him. As the Wave set sail, we were just starting in our dory, and a young fellow, an acquaintance of Mr. Thaxter, proposed to take us in tow; so we were dragged along at her stern very rapidly, and with a whitening wake, until we came off Hog Island. Then the dory was cast loose, and Mr. Thaxter rowed ashore against a head sea.

The day is still overcast, and the wind is from the eastward; but it does not increase, and the sun appears occasionally on the point of shining out. A boat--the Fanny, I suppose, from Portsmouth--has just come to her moorings in front of the hotel. A sail-boat has put off from her, with a passenger in the stern. Pray God she bring me a letter with good news from home; for I begin to feel as if I had been long enough away.

There is a bowling-alley on Smutty Nose, at which some of the Star-Islanders were playing, when we were there. I saw only two dwelling-houses besides the hotel. Connected with Smutty Nose, by a stone-wall there is another little bit of island, called Malaga. Both are the property of Mr. Laighton.

Mr. Laighton says that the Spanish wreck occurred forty-seven years ago, instead of a hundred. Some of the dead bodies were found on Malaga, others on various parts of the next island. One or two had crept to a stone-wall that traverses Smutty Nose, but were unable to get over it. One was found among the bushes the next summer. Mr. Haley had been buried at his own expense.

The skipper of the wrecked sloop, yesterday, was unwilling to go to Portsmouth until he was shaved, --his beard being of several days' growth. It seems to be the impulse of people under misfortune to put on their best clothes, and attend to the decencies of life.

The Fanny brought a passenger,--a thin, stiff, black-haired young man, who enters his name as Mr. Tufts, from Charlestown. He, and a country trader, his wife, sister, and two children (all of whom have been here several days), are now the only guests besides myself.


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