The Bay of Seven Islands
The volume in which "The Bay of Seven Islands" was published was dedicated to the late Edwin Percy Whipple, to whom more than to any other person I was indebted for public recognition as one worthy of a place in American literature, at a time when it required a great degree of courage to urge such a claim for a pro-scribed abolitionist. Although younger than I, he had gained the reputation of a brilliant essayist, and was regarded as the highest American authority in criticism. His wit and wisdom enlivened a small literary circle of young men including Thomas Starr King, the eloquent preacher, and Daniel N. Haskell of the Daily Transcript, who gathered about our common friend dames T. Fields at the Old Corner Bookstore. The poem which gave title to the volume I inscribed to my friend and neighbor Harriet Prescott Spofford, whose poems have lent a new interest to our beautiful river-valley.
From the green Amesbury hill which bears the name
Of that half mythic ancestor of mine
Who trod its slopes two hundred years ago,
Down the long valley of the Merrimac,
Midway between me and the river's mouth,
I see thy home, set like an eagle's nest
Among Deer Island's immemorial pines,
Crowning the crag on which the sunset breaks
Its last red arrow. Many a tale and song,
Which thou bast told or sung, I call to mind,
Softening with silvery mist the woods and hills,
The out-thrust headlands and inreaching bays
Of our northeastern coast-line, trending where
The Gulf, midsummer, feels the chill blockade
Of icebergs stranded at its northern gate.
To thee the echoes of the Island Sound
Answer not vainly, nor in vain the moan
Of the South Breaker prophesying storm.
And thou hast listened, like myself, to men
Sea-periled oft where Anticosti lies
Like a fell spider in its web of fog,
Or where the Grand Bank shallows with the wrecks
Of sunken fishers, and to whom strange isles
And frost-rimmed bays and trading stations seem
Familiar as Great Neck and Kettle Cove,
Nubble and Boon, the common names of home.
So let me offer thee this lay of mine,
Simple and homely, lacking much thy play
Of color and of fancy. If its theme
And treatment seem to thee befitting youth
Rather than age, let this be my excuse
It has beguiled some heavy hours and called
Some pleasant memories up; and, better still,
Occasion lent me for a kindly word
To one who is my neighbor and my friend.
. . . . . . . . . .
The skipper sailed out of the harbor mouth,
Leaving the apple-bloom of the South
For the ice of the Eastern seas,
In his fishing schooner Breeze.
Handsome and brave and young was he,
And the maids of Newbury sighed to see
His lessening white sail fall
Under the sea's blue wall.
Through the Northern Gulf and the misty screen
Of the isles of Mingan and Madeleine,
St. Paul's and Blanc Sablon,
The little Breeze sailed on,
Backward and forward, along the shore
Of lorn and desolate Labrador,
And found at last her way
To the Seven Islands Bay.
The little hamlet, nestling below
Great hills white with lingering snow,
With its tin-roofed chapel stood
Half hid in the dwarf spruce wood;
Green-turfed, flower-sown, the last outpost
Of summer upon the dreary coast,
With its gardens small and spare,
Sad in the frosty air.
Hard by where the skipper's schooner lay,
A fisherman's cottage looked away
Over isle and bay, and. behind
On mountains dim-defined.
And there twin sisters, fair and young,
Laughed with their stranger guest, and sung
In their native tongue the lays
Of the old Provencal days.
Alike were they, save the faint outline
Of a scar on Suzette's forehead fine;
And both, it so befell,
Loved the heretic stranger well.
Both were pleasant to look upon,
But the heart of the skipper clave to one;
Though less by his eye than heart
He knew the twain apart.
Despite of alien race and creed,
Well did his wooing of Marguerite speed;
And the mother's wrath was vain
As the sister's jealous pain.
The shrill-tongued mistress her house forbade,
And solemn warning was sternly said
By the black-robed priest, whose word
As law the hamlet heard.
But half by voice and half by signs
The skipper said, "A warm sun shines
On the green-banked Merrimac;
Wait, watch, till I come back.
"And when you see, from my mast head,
The signal fly of a kerchief red,
My boat on the shore shall wait;
Come, when the night is late."
Ah! weighed with childhood's haunts and friends,
And all that the home sky overbends,
Did ever young love fail
To turn the trembling scale?
Under the night, on the wet sea sands,
Slowly unclasped their plighted hands
One to the cottage hearth,
And one to his sailor's berth.
What was it the parting lovers heard?
Nor leaf, nor ripple, nor wing of bird,
But a listener's stealthy tread
On the rock-moss, crisp and dead.
He weighed his anchor, and fished once more
By the black coast-line of Labrador;
And by love and the north wind driven,
Sailed back to the Islands Seven.
In the sunset's glow the sisters twain
Saw the Breeze come sailing in again;
Said Suzette, "Mother dear,
The heretic's sail is here."
"Go, Marguerite, to your room, and hide;
Your door shall be bolted!" the mother cried:
While Suzette, ill at ease,
Watched the red sign of the Breeze.
At midnight, down to the waiting skiff
She stole in the shadow of the cliff;
And out of the Bay's mouth ran
The schooner with maid and man.
And all night long, on a restless bed,
Her prayers to the Virgin Marguerite said
And thought of her lover's pain
Waiting for her in vain.
Did he pace the sands? Did he pause to hear
The sound of her light step drawing near?
And, as the slow hours passed,
Would he doubt her faith at last?
But when she saw through the misty pane,
The morning break on a sea of rain,
Could even her love avail
To follow his vanished sail?
Meantime the Breeze, with favoring wind,
Left the rugged Moisic hills behind,
And heard from an unseen shore
The falls of Manitou roar.
On the morrow's morn, in the thick, gray weather
They sat on the reeling deck together,
Lover and counterfeit,
Of hapless Marguerite.
With a lover's hand, from her forehead fair
He smoothed away her jet-black hair.
What was it his fond eyes met?
The scar of the false Suzette!
Fiercely he shouted: "Bear away
East by north for Seven Isles Bay!"
The maiden wept and prayed,
But the ship her helm obeyed.
Once more the Bay of the Isles they found
They heard the bell of the chapel sound,
And the chant of the dying sung
In the harsh, wild Indian tongue.
A feeling of mystery, change, and awe
Was in all they heard and all they saw
Spell-bound the hamlet lay
In the hush of its lonely bay.
And when they came to the cottage door,
The mother rose up from her weeping sore,
And with angry gestures met
The scared look of Suzette.
"Here is your daughter," the skipper said;
"Give me the one I love instead."
But the woman sternly spake;
"Go, see if the dead will wake!"
He looked. Her sweet face still and white
And strange in the noonday taper light,
She lay on her little bed,
With the cross at her feet and head.
In a passion of grief the strong man bent
Down to her face, and, kissing it, went
Back to the waiting Breeze,
Back to the mournful seas.
Never again to the Merrimac
And Newbury's homes that bark came back.
Whether her fate she met
On the shores of Carraquette,
Miscou, or Tracadie, who can say?
But even yet at Seven Isles Bay
Is told the ghostly tale
Of a weird, unspoken sail,
In the pale, sad light of the Northern day
Seen by the blanketed Montagnais,
Or squaw, in her small kyack,
Crossing the spectre's track.
On the deck a maiden wrings her hands;
Her likeness kneels on the gray coast sands;
One in her wild despair,
And one in the trance of prayer.
She flits before no earthly blast,
The red sign fluttering from her mast,
Over the solemn seas,
The ghost of the schooner Breeze!