Block Island in Long Island Sound, called by the Indians Manisees,
the isle of the little god, was the scene of a tragic incident a
hundred years or more ago, when The Palatine, an emigrant ship
bound for Philadelphia, driven off its course, came upon the coast
at this point. A mutiny on board, followed by an inhuman desertion
on the part of the crew, had brought the unhappy passengers to the
verge of starvation and madness. Tradition says that wreckers on
shore, after rescuing all but one of the survivors, set fire to the
vessel, which was driven out to sea before a gale which had sprung
up. Every twelvemonth, according to the same tradition, the
spectacle of a ship on fire is visible to the inhabitants of the
Leagues north, as fly the gull and auk,
Point Judith watches with eye of hawk;
Leagues south, thy beacon flames, Montauk!
Lonely and wind-shorn, wood-forsaken,
With never a tree for Spring to waken,
For tryst of lovers or farewells taken,
Circled by waters that never freeze,
Beaten by billow and swept by breeze,
Lieth the island of Manisees,
Set at the mouth of the Sound to hold
The coast lights up on its turret old,
Yellow with moss and sea-fog mould.
Dreary the land when gust and sleet
At its doors and windows howl and beat,
And Winter laughs at its fires of peat!
But in summer time, when pool and pond,
Held in the laps of valleys fond,
Are blue as the glimpses of sea beyond;
When the hills are sweet with the brier-rose,
And, hid in the warm, soft dells, unclose
Flowers the mainland rarely knows;
When boats to their morning fishing go,
And, held to the wind and slanting low,
Whitening and darkening the small sails show,--
Then is that lonely island fair;
And the pale health-seeker findeth there
The wine of life in its pleasant air.
No greener valleys the sun invite,
On smoother beaches no sea-birds light,
No blue waves shatter to foam more white!
There, circling ever their narrow range,
Quaint tradition and legend strange
Live on unchallenged, and know no change.
Old wives spinning their webs of tow,
Or rocking weirdly to and fro
In and out of the peat's dull glow,
And old men mending their nets of twine,
Talk together of dream and sign,
Talk of the lost ship Palatine,--
The ship that, a hundred years before,
Freighted deep with its goodly store,
In the gales of the equinox went ashore.
The eager islanders one by one
Counted the shots of her signal gun,
And heard the crash when she drove right on!
Into the teeth of death she sped
(May God forgive the hands that fed
The false lights over the rocky Head!)
O men and brothers! what sights were there!
White upturned faces, hands stretched in prayer!
Where waves had pity, could ye not spare?
Down swooped the wreckers, like birds of prey
Tearing the heart of the ship away,
And the dead had never a word to say.
And then, with ghastly shimmer and shine
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
They burned the wreck of the Palatine.
In their cruel hearts, as they homeward sped,
"The sea and the rocks are dumb," they said
"There 'll be no reckoning with the dead."
But the year went round, and when once more
Along their foam-white curves of shore
They heard the line-storm rave and roar,
Behold! again, with shimmer and shine,
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
The flaming wreck of the Palatine!
So, haply in fitter words than these,
Mending their nets on their patient knees
They tell the legend of Manisees.
Nor looks nor tones a doubt betray;
"It is known to us all," they quietly say;
"We too have seen it in our day."
Is there, then, no death for a word once spoken?
Was never a deed but left its token
Written on tables never broken?
Do the elements subtle reflections give?
Do pictures of all the ages live
On Nature's infinite negative,
Which, half in sport, in malice half,
She shows at times, with shudder or laugh,
Phantom and shadow in photograph?
For still, on many a moonless night,
From Kingston Head and from Montauk light
The spectre kindles and burns in sight.
Now low and dim, now clear and higher,
Leaps up the terrible Ghost of Fire,
Then, slowly sinking, the flames expire.
And the wise Sound skippers, though skies be fine,
Reef their sails when they see the sign
Of the blazing wreck of the Palatine!
. . . . .
"A fitter tale to scream than sing,"
The Book-man said. "Well, fancy, then,"
The Reader answered, "on the wing
The sea-birds shriek it, not for men,
But in the ear of wave and breeze!"
The Traveller mused: "Your Manisees
Is fairy-land: off Narragansett shore
Who ever saw the isle or heard its name before?
"'T is some strange land of Flyaway,
Whose dreamy shore the ship beguiles,
St. Brandan's in its sea-mist gray,
Or sunset loom of Fortunate Isles!"
"No ghost, but solid turf and rock
Is the good island known as Block,"
The Reader said. "For beauty and for ease
I chose its Indian name, soft-flowing Manisees!
"But let it pass; here is a bit
Of unrhymed story, with a hint
Of the old preaching mood in it,
The sort of sidelong moral squint
Our friend objects to, which has grown,
I fear, a habit of my own.
'Twas written when the Asian plague drew near,
And the land held its breath and paled with sudden fear."