The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze, Part 2
Introductory Note: “The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze” was published by Harriet Martineau in Charles Dickens’s Household Words in 1851. The story follows a young girl growing up in a small fishing village during the Napoleonic Wars. It is both a coming-of-age story and social commentary, as Martineau explores the economic effects of war on a seashore settlement.
In keeping with her expertise in exploring the concepts of political economy through fiction, Martineau presents an education in the variables of the market economy as a sure path to economic, environmental, and familial prosperity.
This entry was published as the second of two parts:
IN TWO CHAPTERS—CHAPTER THE SECOND
When I went out to my shrimping, the next morning, I saw the last of the extreme quietness of our beach. Up to this time, it was no unusual thing for Jos and me to have the long range of shore entirely to ourselves; so lazy were the few people who lived there, and so rare was it for any stranger to come near us. After this morning, I never knew it so again. I slipped out of the house before anybody else was awake, carrying my net and basket. It must have been very early; for it was mackarel season then, when the days are long; and, when I looked back from the first headland, my shadow reached almost as far as the houses. I thought I would go over the headland, instead of stepping into the sea to go round it. It was rather further; but I liked the feel of the warm sand where the sea vetch and the slender crop of grass grew, up the steep. It was pleasant treading for bare feet. Two or three little lambs browsed there at this season; and shining green beetles now and then ran about in the sun: and perhaps a rabbit might cock up its white tail. I was soon at the top; and there I found one of the Preventive Service men. His back was towards the sea, and his eye and glass fixed up on the barracks, as I suppose they had been the day before when we were busy about our trading.
He would not answer me for some time, when I asked him what he saw; but at last he put down his glass, and told me that there were to be great doings immediately, which would make a vast alteration in the neighbourhood. He did not know what to think of it; but he supposed we had only to obey, as soldiers and sailors should. It was a new thing, as far as he knew, for soldiers to do building work, and the like; and we should see how they would manage it. A messmate who had strolled up to us here put in his word, saying that it was a regular part of a soldier’s business, to build up walls, and dig ditches, and do any work that was necessary for defence; and this was a time and place when such service was much wanted from soldiers who were sent to defend the coast. I asked what they were going to build; and I was told “a sea-wall:” and I was as wise as ever.
As I went on my way the shrimps were very kind, and came into my net in swarms. I soon filled my basket. It was so very heavy that I soon bethought me of throwing out all the very little shrimps, and returning them to the water. When I had done this, the pools looked so tempting that I could not help going in again; and I got plenty more good-sized shrimps. When my shadow had shortened considerably, so that I thought it was time to be turning my face towards the barracks, I made haste back, round the point of the headland. I had heard a dull sound of knocking before; and now, when I turned the point, I saw several soldiers in their gaiters and small-clothes, but without their red coats, very busy within sight. Some had pickaxes, and were hewing away at the rocks; a few had barrows, and were gathering stones from the beach. The lazy cottagers had turned out sooner than usual to see the sight; and some of the boys were helping to pick up stones.
My mother was looking out for me impatiently. She had obtained a quantity of mackarel from a boat just come in, and was going with me to the barracks, without having said a word of it to the neighbours. What a load she could carry on her back, in our largest creel! In addition, she and Jos took between them another heavy basket. I had enough to do to carry my shrimps. We left poor little Peter, with a great piece of bread in his hand, to take his chance on the beach. My mother locked her door, and carried away the key, and set Peter down on the sand, with a heap of gay pebbles about him, and a bit of rope to play with, and trusted he would come to no harm. She gave one look back as she left the beach and said she thought that, with so many people about, he would be safe; and she would make all the haste she could back again.
We walked so fast that we were sadly hot and out of breath when we came upon the moor. My mother stopped to take a sup out of her bottle, and to give us a mouthful with our bread, which we ate as we walked. When we came near the barracks, there were no more the French prisoners, with their eager faces looking out through the rails, and their curious jabber. What we saw through the rails was a line of soldiers on parade; and what we heard was the loud voice of the officer in command, and the jingle of the muskets, as the men changed arms. He soon found that our market was greatly improved. We sold half of our mackarel, as soon as the parade was over, and nearly all my shrimps. Another piece of luck befel us. The baker’s cart was there, delivering bread; and the baker was willing, for the consideration of a couple of mackarel, to carry Jos and me and the rest of our fish to Dunridge, where we had no doubt of selling off everything. We heaped up the basket in the cart, and saw my mother set off homewards at a brisk trot, with her empty creel on her back, to see as soon as possible whether little Peter was safe. She had not forgotten to leave with Jos the fishy canvas bag into which we were to put our money. The baker told us we must take good care of it, for he had never known such a place as Dunridge was for beggars and thieves. He was obliged, he said, to buy off some of them with a daily allowance of crusts and old bread, to prevent his door being infested by them; and they were growing so saucy now as to say that they did not like stale bread, and should soon make him give them new. His wife was afraid to sit alone in the shop, while he was away, even with the half door bolted—the poor creatures were so abusive. He said the butcher over the way was under the same difficulty. It was unknown what he gave away every week in odd pieces of meat and bone: and yet the poor sickly wretches looked never the better for it.
Jos asked why the rich people did not take care of the poor, as they ought to do? and the baker answered that he believed the gentry did all they could. They had to pay dearer for their meat and bread, to repay the tradesman for what was extorted from them; and they could not go ten yards from their own doors, without being beset by abusive beggars, and mobbed if they did not give. Ladies had almost left off taking walks; and even when they went to church, they were not free. The church bells brought out the pale-faced, ragged, desperate-looking beggars from their cellars and close courts and alleys, to tread on the heels of the gentry as they went through the churchyard, and wait for them when they came out. Last Sunday, indeed, he had seen something which almost made him doubt his eyesight. Some young ladies were in a pew by themselves, and a ghastly-looking man leaned over the door, putting out his hand, and even touching the nearest lady on the shoulder, as she bent her head over her prayer book. The baker said that he had lost no time, after observing this, in finding the beadle; but before he could get to the pew, the ladies had given silver to the beggar, to get rid of him. The constables were afraid to do much, they were overmatched, and the magistracy were perplexed and timid. Nobody saw how the matter was to end; for Dunridge was a wretchedly poor town now. His own opinion was that the unhealthiness of the place was more to blame than the war. People had no strength or spirit to work, when they were having the fever and ague so often; and there was less and less of work and wages, every year, from the decay of the place. It hurt the baker so much to think of this, that he vented his vexation in giving a sharp cut to his horse which made it spring forward, knocking Jos and me against the back of the cart and spilling some of our slippery fish.
I was quite ready to cry before, so frightful was the prospect of going among the beggars and thieves; and now I roared, and said I would get out. I believe Jos was nearly as much frightened. The baker must have greatly needed to ease his mind, to pour out all this to two children. Perhaps it had done him good, for he began to console us, said he had no doubt we should sell our fish well; and that we had only to get into the houses, when we could, so as not to show our money-bag in the streets; and he finished off with the consolatory declaration that we looked so like thieves or beggars ourselves, that he did not think any of that sort of people would hurt us.
When we alighted at the entrance of the town, it would have been a satisfaction to me to stand in the middle of the pavement, and roar, as my family well knew that I could; but I was too desperately alarmed to try. I only whimpered; and I believe this and our bare feet, and tattered clothes were powerful in obtaining for us the patronage of the cellars and small courts. The food we had to sell, really was cheap and excellent, and such as the poor of Dunridge would have been glad of an opportunity of obtaining often; but I think the novelty had something to do with the favour we met in the very first street. Haggard faces, and half naked forms popped up from under the pavement, as it seemed, when Jos strengthened his heart to cry “fresh mackarel.” One woman carried away two on half a plate; and another hoisted a boiler from below for two more. A child who could scarcely walk held out a farthing in one hand and stretched out the other for a fish. Two or three cook-maids appeared with dishes at back doors; and Jos then got behind the door to bag his half-pence unperceived. One gentleman whom we met, told us to follow him; and when we got to his house, we found he was a school-master; and he bought so many that he paid us in silver. When we had sold the last, the baker saw us from his door, and asked us if we did not want some bread, as it was such a long way to go home. He had no idea that we should attempt the short cut by the marsh, the townspeople had such a horror of that place. He said he should never see us again alive, if we went into that poisonous hole. This was not the sort of threat to frighten us.
What a pity it was that this marsh was in the way between us and the Dunridge people, who had shown themselves so eager to buy our fish! Jos’s bag was so heavy with half-pence, that it tore his old jacket; and then we agreed that, if we came again, we would ask our friend, the baker, to give us silver for our copper: as for us coming again, we agreed that it should be very soon. Excited by our gains, we fancied we could bring a load of fish this way, by swinging a creel between us; wading where we knew the depth, and resting where a bit of rock afforded room. Yet it did not seem easy to me now to cross it without anything to carry but an empty basket. I lost my footing several times, and fell into the slime, so that Jos scolded me; but I could not help it. At first, he refused to lend me a hand, but when he found that I could not get upon the rock where he stood, and when I said I was giddy, he became suddenly very kind, and helped me all he could. I think he remembered what the baker said, and thought I might have come once too often. I was beginning to feel very sick, when a whiff of air passed me, which I think of now as one of the pleasantest things that has ever happened to me. The warm, sharp, penetrating, smell of burning tar came on the breeze, and it cured my sickness for the moment. I plunged and staggered on, revived now and then by another whiff, and then turning sick, and feeling strangely again. The last thing I remember is, that I heard some knocking near, and saw some people moving; that Jos pulled me by the arm with all his force to make me get up, while I seemed to be sinking in chilly water, and that I heard gruff voices over me, and Jos saying that it was Molly, and that she would not get up. It seems to me that there was some flickering of flame, but whether it was from my own intense head-ache, or real fire before my eyes, I cannot say. Some of the soldiers were beginning the sea-wall that day, driving piles, and sounding the quicksand, and making preparations for laying the broad foundation of stones, from which the embankments were to arise. They were burning tar, not only for their piles, but to lessen the danger of the bad air of the marsh. The working party saw Jos and me from a distance, and came to the rescue. One of them covered me with his coat, after wringing the water out of my old frock (which finished tearing it to pieces), and carried me home.
My mother’s conclusion from the adventure, was that there was bad luck in dealing with the Dunridge people, and that she would never send fish there any more. Considering the weight of Jos’s money-bag, and her pleased surprise in laying hold of it, this ought to be considered a remarkable proof of her affection. I knew nothing about that, however, nor about anything else for so long a time, that that summer has always remained a perplexing one to me. All I know is, that I lay in a miserable state, which seemed to me to be stretching on forever and ever. I was almost too feeble to move under the rug; I could not lie still; I was too weak to cry aloud and yet I was always crying. The fish that my mother kept under the bed smelled so, that it seemed to suffocate me; and when any body opened the door, my mother scolded if it was not shut again directly. I believe this much was all real, and so was little Peter’s crying, which went through and through my head. But there were worse things that were not real. For hours together, I thought I was going down and down in the sea, and could never get to the bottom; and then it seemed as if somebody pulled me by the hair, and tugged, and pulled, and could not get me up again. I saw terrible monsters, and they, too, seemed to pull at my head. One day I was so scared that I tried to run away, and got to the door, and stood there a minute before I fell. My mother was coming when she saw me, and she and another woman took me for a ghost, as I stood on the door-step, and set up such a shriek that some of the officers, who were within hearing, turned to see what was the matter. One of them happened to be the surgeon from the barracks—a kind gentleman, as I had afterwards good reason to know. He came at a moment when my mother was so frightened that she let him do whatever he pleased, and frightened indeed she must have been to let him do such things as he did.
She must bring out a clean sheet. She had not such a thing as a sheet in the world; nor was there one among all the cottages. Presently a sheet was borrowed from the nearest Preventive Station. While the messenger was gone about this, the doctor had all the fish taken from under the bed, and the whole floor swept. My mother did this herself at the first word, lest her smuggled goods should be found out. When the fish was all cleared out of the house, there was still the thatch. The doctor shook his head as he looked up at it, and said he could not answer for anybody’s life under such a roof as that. All they could do was to stretch a sail above the bed, as near the roof as they could fasten it. This prevented insects and bits of mouldy thatch from falling upon me as I lay; but it could not cure the smell. To my mother’s great surprise (considering the season of the year) the doctor said, I should have a better chance with no roof over me at all, than with such a thatch.
I really think she believed that the doctor meant outright murder when he put me into a tub and poured cold water over me. Still I got better; and one day, after a long sleep, when I woke, I knew quite clearly who they all were, and what they were saying; and I did not fancy that the sea was in the house, or that I was in the sea; or that there were any monsters about the bed. I heard my mother say that I had been bewitched, and that the doctor had washed out the spell: and then the neighbours said, that, after he had once done it himself, anybody else could do it; and that she must not let the evil imp get a hold again; but, as soon as I began to toss and look wild, she must wash out the spell again. She must also let the door stand wide, that, if the imp got in again, there might be plenty of room for him to flee, when the water began to dash. For their part, they promised to leave a free passage, by staying away from the door.
The days grew shorter and shorter, and still I could not walk at all. My mother used to set me down, like a baby, on the door-steps, in the sunny autumn mornings; but the evenings were long and rather dreary, with the firelight flickering on the rafters, and I with nothing to do but to lie on the bed and watch it; and doze, and wake again, till my mother came to bed. One evening when I was in a pretty deep doze, I heard such a shriek as I shall never forget. It made me shriek before I knew what I was about. Then came a terrible clamor;—men’s voices shouting, and children screaming, and the women crying aloud for the Lord to have mercy upon them. Then there was a blaze of light all abroad, which shown in at the window; and this convinced me that “Bony” was come at last. I fixed my eyes on the door, to see him come in. But I could not bear this long. Even if I met him by the way, I must go where every body else was. So I slipped off the bed, all trembling as I was, and held fast by the barrel and the chest that stood against the wall, and got to the door. What a sight it was! The great fire on the rock above our houses was kindled; and it blazed away so that every pebble and sprig of sea-weed on the beach could be seen as in broad day. The boys kept throwing on wood—and a good deal that had been tarred; and up shot the flame, each time, as if it was in spirits at being fed. Then a light appeared on a headland to the east, a great way off: and presently another, so far off that it looked like a flickering yellow star. And the same to the west. The whole coast was lighted up, to receive Bony, at last. I looked round for him; but I saw only faces that I knew. Well, as I knew them, they looked very terrible. My mother was quite wild. When the night breeze brought the clanging of the church-bells from the town, where every bell was ringing the alarm, she put her hands to her ears. She sat down and hid her face in her apron, and kept shaking her head in her own lap, so that I was afraid to speak to her; but, at last, I put my arms around her neck, and said “Mother, where’s Bony?”
She looked up with a dreadful face—all drawn with terror.
“Let’s run away,” she whispered in a hoarse voice, which I heard in my heart, through all the roar of the flame.
“I can’t run,” I whimpered, sinking on the sand.
She caught me up in her arms, gave Jos a box on the ear to attract his attention from the beacon-fire, ordered him to carry Peter and follow her, and made for the little dell, which led up to the country. Before we had fled half through it, another dismal yell from behind, and our own name shouted, made us look round. Some brands from the beacon had been blown upon the roof of our cottage, and the thatch had caught. That rotten thatch was doomed, and the whole dwelling with it! My mother put me down and wrung her hands. Between the fear of Bony, and that of losing the smuggled goods, she was well nigh distracted. But the smuggled goods were not wholly, nor chiefly her own, while her life was: so she took me up again, and continued her flight. Jos, however, was of a different mind. He made little Peter take hold of my mother’s apron and ran back to save what he could of our goods. By the help of the neighbours, everything was dragged out before the rafters fell in, and nothing was lost but the tobacco, which was poked in under the boards. When our neighbors and partners, Glassford and Oulton, perceived that Bony was not yet actually on the beach, they ventured to secure the goods in their own houses, and hide them cleverly before the officers should come down.
The officers were not long in coming. Amidst the other sounds of that awful night, were the gun fired at intervals from the Preventive Station, and the military music approaching from the barracks; and again (what seemed to me as terrific as anything), the jingling and crashing of the heavy wagons, that came down the lanes from the inland farmsteads, to carry away the women and children, and most valuable goods. My mother hailed two or three of these; but the drivers only inquired whereabouts the French had really landed, and whether we had seen them; and then told us that we must wait, and they would pick us up as they returned.
“Don’t, mother don’t!” I said at last, when her loud crying became more than I could bear. “Don’t cry so loud. Bony is not here.”
She told me that I did not know that; and the words froze my very heart. I hid my face on her shoulder; and the rest of the night I remember nothing.
The next was a brilliant autumn morning, and I saw the wide stretch of coast, and broad expanse of sea, for the first time for some months. We were brought down to our own beach again. When the heaving sea, with its glittering tract to the eastward, was seen without ship or boat upon it (for the boats were drawn along the whole coast where the beacon fires had been visible), it was supposed that the French fleet of gun-boats had passed on to the westward: but by degrees it came out that the whole was a prodigious mistake. The soldiers, and the country people whom they had got to help them with the sea-wall, had been in the habit, all the summer, of burning charred wood, as a safeguard against the stench of the marsh; and on concluding their work, some of the lads had fed the little fire into one so far visible from a distance as to be taken by the townspeople for the kindling of a beacon. Out rang their bells; forth went the news, gathering force and fullness at every step; and the consequence was the firing of the beacons all along the coast. It was a consolation dear to the hearts of many, to their dying day, that the Prime Minister was waked out of his sleep the next night, to hear about our town, and our beacon, and our headland; and that our doings were heard of by King George the Third himself, who was, in fact, almost as much interested in Bony’s landing as we were. We were a prouder set of people from that day.
Except that a heap of charred wood lay where our cottage had stood, the scene looked to everybody else just the same as usual. But to me, it was wonderfully changed. Since I had seen it last, the sea-wall had been built, and the whole marsh had quite changed in appearance. No more water had flowed in, and a vast deal had drained out. There were no glittering pools and little streams, and the land was almost as dark as the moor. Along its seaward edge was a broad, firm walk, on which sentries were now placed, and by which we could reach the hard sands to the west in a few minutes, without wetting the soles of our feet. I was told that the townspeople, and the boys of the whole neighbourhood, were so eager about the new work and pay, and so sorry when the sea-wall was finished, that it was thought that another work would answer; and a causeway to the town across the narrowest part of the marsh was planned. It was likely to pay well in time by a very small toll, and the fishermen along the coast would traffic in the town every day of the week. The shops would have their custom; and the townspeople would be glad of a constant supply of fish. The doctors said the wall and causeway would be paid for presently, if toll was taken from the average number of persons that would have had the fever if the marsh had remained as it was. The mere money-saving from abolishing so much illness, though it was the least part of the good, was such as to justify a free expenditure on such improvements.
What the doctors said was confirmed by experience. From that time, the fever lessened, year by year, as the marsh dried up, till at last (and that was before I was in my teens) it became a matter of public information and serious inquiry when a case of fever occurred in the town. Before that time the marsh had changed its aspect again and again. It was very ugly while it was black, with brown water trickling through its drains, and rusting the sands at low water. Then it was covered by degrees with a woolly bluish grass; and in July we saw it dotted over with rushy ricks of meadow hay, such as cattle would not take if they could get anything better. Then we saw more and more beasts grazing there, and patches of it were manured upon trial. When once a turnip-crop was taken off one corner of it, the improvement went on rapidly. The rent that it yields is rather low still; but I have seen more loads of potatoes and turnips carried from it, than of manure carried to it: and in a few years there were thin crops of oats waving in the breeze. As the fish-carts pass to the town, along the clean sandy causeway, with hedges and green fields on either hand, it is difficult to believe how, with the remembrance of many residents of Dunridge, the sea eagle hovered over the fishy morass, the only creature that gathered any other harvest there, than that of disease and death.
But I have got on a long way from the morning after the invasion, as the people used to call that panic.
How we who were burnt out were to be housed, was the first question. On a hint from the doctor, I was kindly received in the nearest Preventive Stationhouse. My mother and her other children found corners in the neighbours’ houses for a time. In a week’s time, I was quite able to take care of myself; and in another week, I was at play on the sands again, and even earning money, in a curious sort of way, on the sea wall. The station-house was as clean as a quaker’s meeting; and in a fine air, of course. By day, I lay on the dry grass in the sun; and by night, I slept—and oh! so soundly—on a little mattress, in the corner of a white-washed room, where the floor was cleaner than our plates at home ever were, and where the window was open all day, and left a little open at the top, all night. The first time I walked down to the beach, I met the doctor and another of the officers; and I heard him say that he could never have brought me round entirely, if I had staid among fish garbage, and under rotten thatch; and that it was a good thing for me that we had been burnt out.
“This is the child that has such a sharp sight, you may remember,” he said to the other officer.
“What! this little wretch?” asked the lieutenant. “I should not have believed that she was the same child.”
“And yet she is plump, compared with what she was ten days since. And I dare say her eyes are as good as ever, by this time.”
The gentlemen tried me, and found that at any rate my sea-sight was better than theirs, and that I could see more without the glass, than they could with it. After a few words of consultation, they bade me follow them to the sea-wall; and then the lieutenant promised me a farthing for every sail I could make the sentinel see; and a halfpenny for every sail that he could not see, but that I could bring two witnesses to avouch. This seemed to me strange at the time; a waste of money, though I was to get it; and to some it might seem strange now, after the many years of peace, during which we have been released from looking out for an enemy from the sea. But in those times a strange sail was the daily and nightly thought of all people on the coast, and especially of those who were charged with the defence of our beloved native shores. A good sea-sight was a qualification worth paying for in those times.
The soldiers had managed to make gardens of the bog that surrounded the barracks, and I longed that my mother would do as the soldiers and the other fishwives did, that we might now and then taste fresh vegetables with our dry bread and salt fish. But she did not like the trouble. She sat down anywhere on the sands to clean her fish, and left the stuff all strewed about where she had sat.
We did not see why we should not have a garden of our own, where our sea-weed, ashes, and garbage might grow vegetables for us, without being carried so far as the barracks. I told Jos that if he could get anybody to go into partnership with him about a garden, I would try and get a place in Dunridge, where I might learn to make good soup, and to cook and manage so that we might have something better to eat than dry bread and salt fish.
Perhaps few children of our age would have thought of this, in other circumstances; but, to speak the truth, we were growing very unhappy about my mother’s bottle; and we had lately been gathering up notions of comfort which were all the more striking, because they were new.
The notion was so cheering, that I ran over to Dunridge as fast as my feet would carry me; and at the same moment Jos was running as fast in the contrary direction, in an equal hurry about the other half of our scheme. He soon found a man in the Preventive Service who offered to go into partnership with him in his scheme of a garden.
The dell was the proper place; and there Jos and his friend soon fixed on a promising bit of ground, with a south-east aspect; and Butter, his partner, desired Jos to be collecting materials for a fence which would keep out the rabbits, while he obtained the owner’s consent to begin to dig. He knew the gentleman well, from having had many a conversation with him about the smugglers and the defence of the coast; and he was sure there would be no difficulty. There was no difficulty. It was a new idea to the proprietor that any thing could be done with that corner of his land; and he was pleased that the experiment should be tried. The rent of the first quarter acre was the merest trifle; but not so since the neighbours have asked for gardens there too. From end to end of that well-tilled dell, now covered with heavy crops of garden produce, and smelling sweet with the beanflower and fragrant pot-herbs in their season, every yard of ground pays rent to the owner, whose father was wont, to the day of his death, to point out Jos to his visitors, when they came down to the coast, as the lad who made the first move towards turning a sink of corruption into a wholesome and fruitful garden.
I have said how eagerly I ran towards the town, with my head full of my new plan. My only idea was to apply to the baker. I had no success the first day; for, besides that the baker’s wife did not want a little maid who needed to be taught everything, no one would think of taking me while my feet were bare, and my clothes in rags, and my hair all tangled and rusted with the weather. My mother was not really poor, I knew; and I coaxed her into a bargain with the butcher’s wife, by which a certain quantity of fish was to be delivered in consideration of a suit of clothes for me. My own history has nothing to do, from this time, with that of our hamlet, as I never lived there again. It is enough to say that I have found that “where there’s a will there’s a way;” that I learned not only to cook, but to read and write, and a good deal besides; and that, having been first a scholar, and then a teacher in the Sunday School of Dunridge, when Sunday schools were first heard of there, I married the best of the teachers, who became master of the Orphan Asylum.
I had not been married long when I had occasion to go to the hamlet, one fine August evening. It was a pleasant walk now by the causeway. There was a low blossomy hedge on either hand, over which one looked upon clover and turnip fields, with the sea beyond, now all golden and glittering with the sunset. On the other side, the reapers were busy, cutting wheat—about the first, I should think, that had been grown where the marsh had been. Where the grain had been carried, the children were driving flocks of geese from the moor into the stubbles, and dressing themselves up with poppies and blue corn-flowers. If they had ventured hither ten years before, the would have been smeared with slime, and sick with stench, and would have gathered nothing better than rushes. The change was striking enough to me, though I had watched its progress: much more so was it to another, who came suddenly upon it.
I was sitting with my mother on the shingle, just as the pale moon came up over the headland, and Peter, now a stout lad, was helping Jos to draw up the boat, after a successful trip, when, chancing to turn my head, I saw a sailor, with a bundle over his shoulder, looking down into the dell from the further end. He came along, staring about him like one bewildered; and he stood still and listened when he heard the creak and jingle of the harvest waggon.
It was my father; and I think we knew him before he was sure that he knew us. He was much aged, but not nearly so much as my mother, who was, indeed, taken by strangers for our grandmother. I saw that my father was shocked. With his children he was strangely shy at first. He could not order us about, and knock us about as he used to do; and I think he was awkward as to how to speak to us.
I left him sitting beside my mother, and looking about him in great amazement, and asking many questions of the lads, while I cooked his supper. He liked his supper well, and when he heard that I was going to Dunridge on foot that night, he was more puzzled than ever. We told him there was a short and pleasant way now; he would go part of the way with me to see it. He was in the midst of telling me that, during all his wanderings and adventures, he had never once set eyes on Bony, when we came in sight of the harvest fields; as he looked over the hedge, I gathered him a wild rose, and he put it in his hat, saying, it was the last thing he had ever thought of to have a posy from that place. After we had said good night and parted, as the town appeared before us in the moonlight, I heard his whistle so long, that I am sure he must have gone home much more slowly than I did. I saw him twice again before he had to go afloat. He told me that he had not brought home much money, but that he had left what he had with Jos (as Jos was clearly a steady young man), desiring that it might go to make my mother comfortable, for he had a strong belief that he should never see her again. He never did see her again, for she died the next year. He returned to us after a few years. He had wounds, and was too far broken to be a fisherman again, though he went out with his sons, now and then, in warm weather. His chief pleasure was to sit in an arbour in Jos’s garden, smoking his pipe and looking at the sea. He knew that Jos’s tidy wife did not like that any one should drink spirits in the house, so he sat chiefly in the arbour, except in very cold weather. He said he should like no better than to die among the honeysuckles there; but he died in his bed, as kindly waited upon by Jos’s wife, as if she had not disliked some of his ways.
As for our town, whether it is that the schools have made a great difference in the course of a generation, or that the peace did us more good than we knew of at the time, or whether it really is that the improvement in the general health has renewed the place, I cannot say with certainty; but it certainly is not like the same town that it was when I was a child. It is a quiet place still, with no great wealth, or stir of any kind: but nobody now lives in cellars; and it is a rare thing to see a beggar. My husband and I think it is a comfortable and pleasant place to live in—between the fruitfulness of the land, and the beauty of the sea. And this is exactly what Jos says of our old hamlet, and of his own home in the midst of it.
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Harriet Martineau. “The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze, Part 2.” Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 3, no. 56, 1851, pp. 88-94. Edited by Quinn Taylor. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 21 February 2024, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-marsh-fog-and-the-sea-breeze-2/.
6 April 2020
18 February 2024