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Footprints on the Sea-Shore

From "Twice Told Tales"

It must be a spirit much unlike my own, which can keep itself in
health and vigor without sometimes stealing from the sultry sunshine
of the world, to plunge into the cool bath of solitude. At intervals,
and not infrequent ones, the forest and the ocean summon me--one with
the roar of its waves, the other with the murmur of its boughs--forth
from the haunts of men. But I must wander many a mile, ere I could
stand beneath the shadow of even one primeval tree, much less be lost
among the multitude of hoary trunks, and hidden from earth and sky by
the mystery of darksome foliage. Nothing is within my daily reach
more like a forest than the acre or two of woodland near some suburban
farm-house. When, therefore, the yearning for seclusion becomes a
necessity within me, I am drawn to the sea-shore, which extends its
line of rude rocks and seldom-trodden sands, for leagues around our
bay. Setting forth at my last ramble, on a September morning, I
bound myself with a hermit's vow, to interchange no thoughts with man
or woman, to share no social pleasure, but to derive all that day's
enjoyment from shore, and sea, and sky,--from my soul's communion with
these, and from fantasies, and recollections, or anticipated
realities. Surely here is enough to feed a human spirit for a single
day. Farewell, then, busy world! Till your evening lights shall
shine along the street,--till they gleam upon my sea-flushed face, as
I tread homeward,--free me from your ties, and let me be a peaceful

Highways and cross-paths are hastily traversed, and, clambering down a
crag, I find myself at the extremity of a long beach. How gladly does
the spirit leap forth, and suddenly enlarge its sense of being to the
full extent of the broad, blue, sunny deep! A greeting and a homage
to the Sea! I descend over its margin, and dip my hand into the wave
that meets me, and bathe my brow. That far-resounding roar is Ocean's
voice of welcome. His salt breath brings a blessing along with it.
Now let us pace together--the reader's fancy arm in arm with mine--
this noble beach, which extends a mile or more from that craggy
promontory to yonder rampart of broken rocks. In front, the sea; in
the rear, a precipitous bank, the grassy verge of which is breaking
away, year after year, and flings down its tufts of verdure upon the
barrenness below. The beach itself is a broad space of sand, brown
and sparkling, with hardly any pebbles intermixed. Near the water's
edge there is a wet margin, which glistens brightly in the sunshine,
and reflects objects like a mirror; and as we tread along the
glistening border, a dry spot flashes around each footstep, but grows
moist again, as we lift our feet. In some spots, the sand receives a
complete impression of the sole, square toe and all; elsewhere it is
of such marble firmness, that we must stamp heavily to leave a print
even of the iron-shod heel. Along the whole of this extensive beach
gambols the surf wave: now it makes a feint of dashing onward in a
fury, yet dies away with a meek murmur, and does but kiss the strand;
now, after many such abortive efforts, it rears itself up in an
unbroken line, heightening as it advances, without a speck of foam on
its green crest. With how fierce a roar it flings itself forward, and
rushes far up the beach!

As I threw my eyes along the edge of the surf, I remember that I was
startled, as Robinson Crusoe might have been, by the sense that human
life was within the magic circle of my solitude. Afar off in the
remote distance of the beach, appearing like sea-nymphs, or some
airier things, such as might tread upon the feathery spray, was a
group of girls. Hardly had I beheld them, when they passed into the
shadow of the rocks and vanished. To comfort myself--for truly I
would fain have gazed a while longer--I made acquaintance with a flock
of beach birds. These little citizens of the sea and air preceded me
by about a stone's-throw along the strand, seeking, I suppose, for
food upon its margin. Yet, with a philosophy which mankind would do
well to imitate, they drew a continual pleasure from their toil for a
subsistence. The sea was each little bird's great playmate. They
chased it downward as it swept back, and again ran up swiftly before
the impending wave, which sometimes overtook them and bore them off
their feet. But they floated as lightly as one of their own feathers
on the breaking crest. In their airy flutterings, they seemed to rest
on the evanescent spray. Their images--longlegged little figures,
with gray backs and snowy bosoms--were seen as distinctly as the
realities in the mirror of the glistening strand. As I advanced, they
flew a score or two of yards, and, again alighting, recommenced their
dalliance with the surf wave; and thus they bore me company along the
beach, the types of pleasant fantasies, till, at its extremity, they
took wing over the ocean, and were gone. After forming a friendship
with these small surf-spirits, it is really worth a sigh, to find no
memorial of them, save their multitudinous little tracks in the sand.

When we have paced the length of the beach, it is pleasant, and not
unprofitable, to retrace our steps, and recall the whole mood and
occupation of the mind during the former passage. Our tracks, being
all discernible, will guide us with an observing consciousness through
every unconscious wandering of thought and fancy. Here we followed
the surf in its reflux, to pick up a shell which the sea seemed loath
to relinquish. Here we found a sea-weed, with an immense brown leaf,
and trailed it behind us by its long snake-like stalk. Here we seized
a live horseshoe by the tail, and counted the many claws of the queer
monster. Here we dug into the sand for pebbles, and skipped them upon
the surface of the water. Here we wet our feet while examining a
jelly-fish, which the waves, having just tossed it up, now sought to
snatch away again. Here we trod along the brink of a fresh-water
brooklet, which flows across the beach, becoming shallower and more
shallow, till at last it sinks into the sand, and perishes in the
effort to bear its little tribute to the main. Here some vagary
appears to have bewildered us; for our tracks go round and round, and
are confusedly intermingled, as if we had found a labyrinth upon the
level beach. And here, amid our idle pastime, we sat down upon almost
the only stone that breaks the surface of the sand, and were lost in
an unlooked-for and overpowering conception of the majesty and
awfulness of the great deep. Thus, by tracking our footprints in the
sand, we track our own nature in its wayward course, and steal a
glance upon it, when it never dreams of being so observed. Such
glances always make us wiser.

This extensive beach affords room for another pleasant pastime. With
your staff you may write verses--love-verses, if they please you best
--and consecrate them with a woman's name. Here, too, may be inscribed
thoughts, feelings, desires, warm out-gushings from the heart's secret
places, which you would not pour upon the sand without the certainty
that, almost ere the sky has looked upon them, the sea will wash them
out. Stir not hence till the record be effaced. Now--for there is
room enough on your canvas--draw huge faces,--huge as that of the
Sphinx on Egyptian sands,--and fit them with bodies of corresponding
immensity, and legs which might stride half-way to yonder island.
Child's play becomes magnificent on so grand a scale. But, after all,
the most fascinating employment is simply to write your name in the
sand. Draw the letters gigantic, so that two strides may barely
measure them, and three for the long strokes! Cut deep, that the
record may be permanent! Statesmen, and warriors, and poets have
spent their strength in no better cause than this. Is it
accomplished? Return, then, in an hour or two, and seek for this
mighty record of a name. The sea will have swept over it, even as
time rolls its effacing waves over the names of statesmen, and
warriors, and poets. Hark, the surf wave laughs at you!

Passing from the beach, I begin to clamber over the crags, making my
difficult way among the ruins of a rampart, shattered and broken by
the assaults of a fierce enemy. The rocks rise in every variety of
attitude; some of them have their feet in the foam, and are shagged
half-way upward with sea-weed; some have been hollowed almost into
caverns by the unwearied toil of the sea, which can afford to spend
centuries in wearing away a rock, or even polishing a pebble. One
huge rock ascends in monumental shape, with a face like a giant's
tombstone, on which the veins resemble inscriptions, but in an unknown
tongue. We will fancy them the forgotten characters of an
antediluvian race; or else that Nature's own hand has here recorded a
mystery, which, could I read her language, would make mankind the
wiser and the happier. How many a thing has troubled me with that
same idea! Pass on, and leave it unexplained. Here is a narrow
avenue, which might seem to have been hewn through the very heart of
an enormous crag, affording passage for the rising sea to thunder back
and forth, filling it with tumultuous foam, and then leaving its floor
of black pebbles bare and glistening. In this chasm there was once an
intersecting vein of softer stone, which the waves have gnawed away
piecemeal, while the granite walls remain entire on either side. How
sharply, and with what harsh clamor, does the sea rake hack the
pebbles, as it momentarily withdraws into its own depths! At
intervals, the floor of the chasm is left nearly dry; but anon, at the
outlet, two or three great waves are seen struggling to get in at
once; two hit the walls athwart, while one rushes straight through,
and all three thunder, as if with rage and triumph. They heap the
chasm with a snow-drift of foam and spray. While watching this scene,
I can never rid myself of the idea that a monster, endowed with life
and fierce energy, is striving to burst his way through the narrow
pass. And what a contrast, to look through the stormy chasm, and
catch a glimpse of the calm bright sea beyond!

Many interesting discoveries may be made among these broken cliffs.
Once, for example, I found a dead seal, which a recent tempest had
tossed into the nook of the rocks, where his shaggy carcass lay rolled
in a heap of eel-grass, as if the sea-monster sought to hide himself
from my eye. Another time, a shark seemed on the point of leaping
from the surf to swallow me; nor did I wholly without dread approach
near enough to ascertain that the man-eater had already met his own
death from some fisherman in the bay. In the same ramble, I
encountered a bird,--a large gray bird,--but whether a loon, or a wild
goose, or the identical albatross of the Ancient Mariner, was beyond
my ornithology to decide. It reposed so naturally on a bed of dry
sea-weed, with its head beside its wing, that I almost fancied it
alive, and trod softly lest it should suddenly spread its wings
skyward. But the sea-bird would soar among the clouds no more, nor
ride upon its native waves; so I drew near, and pulled out one of its
mottled tail-feathers for a remembrance. Another day, I discovered an
immense bone, wedged into a chasm of the rocks; it was at least ten
feet long, curved like a cimeter, bejewelled with barnacles and small
shell-fish, and partly covered with a growth of sea-weed. Some
leviathan of former ages had used this ponderous mass as a jawbone.
Curiosities of a minuter order may be observed in a deep reservoir,
which is replenished with water at every tide, but becomes a lake
among the crags, save when the sea is at its height. At the bottom of
this rocky basin grow marine plants, some of which tower high beneath
the water, and cast a shadow in the sunshine. Small fishes dart to
and fro, and hide themselves among the sea-weed; there is also a
solitary crab, who appears to lead the life of a hermit, communing
with none of the other denizens of the place; and likewise several
five-fingers,--for I know no other name than that which children give
them. If your imagination be at all accustomed to such freaks, you
may look down into the depths of this pool, and fancy it the
mysterious depth of ocean. But where are the hulks and scattered
timbers of sunken ships? where the treasures that old Ocean hoards?--
where the corroded cannon?--where the corpses and skeletons of seamen,
who went down in storm and battle?

On the day of my last ramble (it was a September day, yet as warm as
summer), what should I behold as I approached the above-described
basin but three girls sitting on its margin, and--yes, it is veritably
so--laving their snowy feet in the sunny water! These, these are the
warm realities of those three visionary shapes that flitted from me on
the beach. Hark! their merry voices, as they toss up the water with
their feet! They have not seen me. I must shrink behind this rock,
and steal away again.

In honest truth, vowed to solitude as I am, there is something in this
encounter that makes the heart flutter with a strangely pleasant
sensation. I know these girls to be realities of flesh and blood,
yet, glancing at them so briefly, they mingle like kindred creatures
with the ideal beings of my mind. It is pleasant, likewise, to gaze
down from some high crag, and watch a group of children, gathering
pebbles and pearly shells, and playing with the surf, as with old
Ocean's hoary beard. Nor does it infringe upon my seclusion, to see
yonder boat at anchor off the shore, swinging dreamily to and fro, and
rising and sinking with the alternate swell; while the crew--four
gentlemen, in round-about jackets--are busy with their fishing-lines.
But, with an inward antipathy and a headlong flight, do I eschew the
presence of any meditative stroller like myself, known by his pilgrim
staff, his sauntering step, his shy demeanor, his observant yet
abstracted eye. From such a man, as if another self had scared me, I
scramble hastily over the rocks, and take refuge in a nook which many
a secret hour has given me a right to call my own. I would do battle
for it even with the churl that should produce the title-deeds. Have
not my musings melted into its rocky walls and sandy floor, and made
them a portion of myself?

It is a recess in the line of cliffs, walled round by a rough, high
precipice, which almost encircles and shuts in a little space of sand.
In front, the sea appears as between the pillars of a portal. In the
rear, the precipice is broken and intermixed with earth, which gives
nourishment not only to-clinging and twining shrubs, but to trees,
that gripe the rock with their naked roots, and seem to struggle hard
for footing and for soil enough to live upon. These are fir-trees;
but oaks hang their heavy branches from above, and throw down acorns
on the beach, and shed their withering foliage upon the waves. At
this autumnal season, the precipice is decked with variegated
splendor; trailing wreaths of scarlet flaunt from the summit downward;
tufts of yellow-flowering shrubs, and rose-bushes, with their reddened
leaves and glossy seed-berries, sprout from each crevice; at every
glance, I detect some new light or shade of beauty, all contrasting
with the stern, gray rock. A rill of water trickles down the cliff
and fills a little cistern near the base. I drain it at a draught,
and find it fresh and pure. This recess shall be my dining-hall.
And what the feast? A few biscuits, made savory by soaking them in
seawater, a tuft of samphire gathered from the beach, and an apple for
the dessert. By this time, the little rill has filled its reservoir
again; and, as I quaff it, I thank God morn heartily than for a civic
banquet, that he gives me the healthful appetite to make a feast of
bread and water.

Dinner being over, I throw myself at length upon the sand, and,
basking in the sunshine, let my mind disport itself at will. The
walls of this my hermitage have no tongue to tell my follies, though I
sometimes fancy that they have ears to hear them, and a soul to
sympathize. There is a magic in this spot. Dreams haunt its
precincts, and flit around me in broad sunlight, nor require that
sleep shall blindfold me to real objects, ere these be visible. Here
can I frame a story of two lovers, and make their shadows live before
me, and be mirrored in the tranquil water, as they tread along the
sand, leaving no footprints. Here, should I will it, I can summon up
a single shade, and be myself her lover. Yes, dreamer,--but your
lonely heart will be the colder for such fancies. Sometimes, too, the
Past comes back, and finds me here, and in her train come faces which
were gladsome, when I knew them, yet seem not gladsome now. Would
that my hiding-place were lonelier, so that the past might not find
me! Get ye all gone, old friends, and let me listen to the murmur of
the sea,--a melancholy voice, but less sad than yours. Of what
mysteries is it telling? Of sunken ships, and whereabouts they lie?
Of islands afar and undiscovered, whose tawny children are unconscious
of other islands and of continents, and deem the stars of heaven their
nearest neighbors? Nothing of all this. What then? Has it talked for
so many ages, and meant nothing all the while--No; for those ages find
utterance in the sea's unchanging voice, and warn the listener to
withdraw his interest from mortal vicissitudes, and let the infinite
idea of eternity pervade his soul. This is wisdom; and, therefore,
will I spend the next half-hour in shaping little boats of drift-wood,
and launching them on voyages across the cove, with the feather of a
sea-gull for a sail. If the voice of ages tell me true, this is as
wise an occupation as to build ships of five hundred tons, and launch
them forth upon the main, bound to "far Cathay." Yet, how would the
merchant sneer at me!

And, after all, can such philosophy be true? Methinks I could find a
thousand arguments against it. Well, then, let yonder shaggy rock,
mid-deep in the surf,--see! he is somewhat wrathful,--he rages and
roars and foams,--let that tall rock be my antagonist, and let me
exercise my oratory like him of Athens, who bandied words with an
angry sea and got the victory. My maiden speech is a triumphant one;
for the gentleman in sea-weed has nothing to offer in reply, save an
immitigable roaring. His voice, indeed, will be heard a long while
after mine is hushed. Once more I shout, and the cliffs reverberate
the sound. O, what joy for a shy man to feel himself so solitary,
that he may lift his voice to its highest pitch without hazard of a
listener! But, hush!--be silent, my good friend!--whence comes that
stifled laughter? It was musical,--but how should there be such music
in my solitude? Looking upwards, I catch a glimpse of three faces,
peeping from the summit of the cliff, like angels between me and their
native sky. Ah, fair girls, you may make yourselves merry at my
eloquence,--but it was my turn to smile when I saw your white feet in
the pool! Let us keep each other's secrets.

The sunshine has now passed from my hermitage, except a gleam upon the
sand just where it meets the sea. A crowd of gloomy fantasies will
come and haunt me, if I tarry longer here, in the darkening twilight
of these gray rocks. This is a dismal place in some moods of the
mind. Climb we, therefore, the precipice, and pause a moment on the
brink, gazing down into that hollow chamber by the deep where we have
been, what few can be, sufficient to our own pastime,-yes, say the
word outright!--self-sufficient to our own happiness. How lonesome
looks the recess now, and dreary, too,--like all other spots where
happiness has been! There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine
with its head upon the sea. I will pelt it with pebbles. A hit! a
hit! I clap my hands in triumph, and see! my shadow clapping its
unreal hands, and claiming the triumph for itself. What a simpleton
must I have been all day,--since my own shadow makes a mock of my

Homeward! homeward! It is time to hasten home. It is time; it is
time; for as the sun sinks over the western wave, the sea grows
melancholy, and the surf has a saddened tone. The distant sails
appear astray, and not of earth, in their remoteness amid the desolate
waste. My spirit wanders forth afar, but finds no resting-place, and
comes shivering back. It is time that I were hence. But grudge me
not the day that has been spent in seclusion, which yet was not
solitude, since the great sea has been my companion, and the little
sea-birds my friends, and the wind has told me his secrets, and airy
shapes have flitted around me in my hermitage. Such companionship
works an effect upon a man's character, as if he had been admitted to
the society of creatures that are not mortal. And when, at noontide,
I tread the crowded streets, the influence of this day will still be
felt; so that I shall walk among men kindly and as a brother, with
affection and sympathy, but yet shall not melt into the
indistinguishable mass of humankind. I shall think my own thoughts,
and feel my own emotions, and possess my individuality unviolated.

But it is good, at the eve of such a day, to feel and know that there
are men and women in the world. That feeling and that knowledge are
mine, at this moment; for, on the shore, far below me, the fishing-
party have landed from their skiff, and are cooking their scaly prey
by a fire of drift-wood, kindled in the angle of two rude rocks. The
three visionary girls are likewise there. In the deepening twilight,
while the surf is dashed near their hearth, the ruddy gleam of the
fire throws a strange air of comfort over the wild cove, bestrewn as
it is with pebbles and sea-weed, and exposed to the "melancholy main."
Moreover, as the smoke climbs up the precipice, it brings with it a
savory smell from a pan of fried fish, and a black kettle of chowder,
and reminds me that my dinner was nothing but bread and water, and a
tuft of samphire, and an apple. Methinks the party night find room
for another guest, at that flat rock which serves them for a table;
and if spoons be scarce, I could pick up a clamshell on the beach.
They see me now; and--the blessing of a hungry man upon him!--one of
them sends up a hospitable shout,--halloo, Sir Solitary! come down and
sup with us! The ladies wave their handkerchiefs. Can I decline?
No; and be it owned, after all my solitary joys, that this is the
sweetest moment of a Day by the Sea-shore.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Short Stories