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The Harbour In The North Post by :bulkmailer007 Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :2561

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The Harbour In The North

Upon that shore of Europe which looks out towards no further shore, I came once by accident upon a certain man.

The day had been warm and almost calm, but a little breeze from the south-east had all day long given life to the sea. The seas had run very small and brilliant, yet without violence, before the wind, and had broken upon the granite cliffs to leeward, not in spouts of foam, but in a white even line that was thin, and from which one heard no sound of surge. Moreover, as I was running dead north along the coast, the noise about the bows was very slight and pleasant. The regular and gentle wind came upon the quarter without change, and the heel of the boat was steady. No calm came with the late sunset; the breeze still held, and so till nearly midnight I could hold a course and hardly feel the pulling of the helm. Meanwhile the arch of the sunset endured, for I was far to the northward, and all those colours which belong to June above the Arctic Sea shone and changed in the slow progress of that arch as it advanced before me and mingled at last with the dawn. Throughout the hours of that journey I could see clearly the seams of the deck forward, the texture of the canvas and the natural hues of the woodwork and the rigging, the glint of the brasswork, and even the letters painted round the little capstain-head, so continually did the light endure. The silence which properly belongs to darkness, and which accompanies the sleep of birds upon the sea, appeared to be the more intense because of such a continuance of the light, and what with a long vigil and new water, it was as though I had passed the edge of all known maps and had crossed the boundary of new land.

In such a mood I saw before me the dark band of a stone jetty running some miles off from the shore into the sea, and at the end of it a fixed beacon whose gleam showed against the translucent sky (and its broken reflection in the pale sea) as a candle shows when one pulls the curtains of one's room and lets in the beginnings of the day.

For this point I ran, and as I turned it I discovered a little harbour quite silent under the growing light; there was not a man upon its wharves, and there was no smoke rising from its slate roofs. It was absolutely still. The boat swung easily round in the calm water, the pier-head slipped by, the screen of the pier-head beacon suddenly cut off its glare, and she went slowly with no air in her canvas towards the patch of darkness under the quay. There, as I did not know the place, I would not pick up moorings which another man might own and need, but as my boat still crept along with what was left of her way I let go the little anchor, for it was within an hour of low tide, and I was sure of water.

When I had done this she soon tugged at the chain and I slackened all the halyards. I put the cover on the mainsail, and as I did so, looking aft, I noted the high mountain-side behind the town standing clear in the dawn. I turned eastward to receive it. The light still lifted, and though I had not slept I could not but stay up and watch the glory growing over heaven. It was just then, when I had stowed everything away, that I heard to the right of me the crooning of a man.

A few moments before I should not have seen him under the darkness of the sea-wall, but the light was so largely advanced (it was nearly two o'clock) that I now clearly made out both his craft and him.

She was sturdy and high, and I should think of slight draught. She was of great beam. She carried but one sail, and that was brown. He had it loose, with the peak dipped ready for hoisting, and he himself was busy at some work upon the floor, stowing and fitting his bundles, and as he worked he crooned gently to himself. It was then that I hailed him, but in a low voice, so much did the silence of that place impress itself upon all living beings who were strange to it. He looked up and told me that he had not seen me come in nor heard the rattling of the chain. I asked him what he would do so early, whether he was off fishing at that hour or whether he was taking parcels down the coast for hire or goods to sell at some other port. He answered me that he was doing none of those things.

"What cruise, then, are you about to take?" I said.

"I am off," he answered in a low and happy voice, "to find what is beyond the sea."

"And to what shore," said I, "do you mean to sail?"

He answered: "I am out upon this sea northward to where they say there is no further shore."

As he spoke he looked towards that horizon which now stood quite clean and clear between the pier-heads: his eyes were full of the broad daylight, and he breathed the rising wind as though it were a promise of new life and of unexpected things. I asked him then what his security was and had he formed a plan, and why he was setting out from this small place, unless, perhaps, it was his home, of which he might be tired.

"No," he answered, and smiled; "this is not my home; and I have come to it as you may have come to it, for the first time; and, like you, I came in after the whole place slept; but as I neared I noticed certain shore marks and signs which had been given me, and then I knew that I had come to the starting-place of a long voyage."

"Of what voyage?" I asked.

He answered:

"This is that harbour in the North of which a Breton priest once told me that I should reach it, and when I had moored in it and laid my stores on board in order, I should set sail before morning and reach at last a complete repose." Then he went on with eagerness, though still talking low: "The voyage which I was born to make in the end, and to which my desire has driven me, is towards a place in which everything we have known is forgotten, except those things which, as we knew them, reminded us of an original joy. In that place I shall discover again such full moments of content as I have known, and I shall preserve them without failing. It is in some country beyond this sea, and it has a harbour like this harbour, only set towards the South, as this is towards the North; but like this harbour it looks out over an unknown sea, and like this harbour it enjoys a perpetual light. Of what the happy people in this country are, or of how they speak, no one has told me, but they will receive me well, for I am of one kind with themselves. But as to how I shall know this harbour, I can tell you: there is a range of hills, broken by a valley through which one sees a further and a higher range, and steering for this hollow in the hills one sees a tower out to sea upon a rock, and high up inland a white quarry on a hill-top; and these two in line are the leading marks by which one gets clear into the mouth of the river, and so to the wharves of the town. And there," he ended, "I shall come off the sea for ever, and every one will call me by my name."

The sun was now near the horizon, but not yet risen, and for a little time he said nothing to me nor I to him, for he was at work sweating up the halyard and setting the peak. He let go the mooring knot also, but he held the end of the rope in his hand and paid it out, standing and looking upward, as the sail slowly filled and his craft drifted towards me. He pressed the tiller with his knee to keep her full.

I now knew by his eyes and voice that he was from the West, and I could not see him leave me without asking him from what place he came that he should set out for such another place. So I asked him: "Are you from Ireland, or from Brittany, or from the Islands?" He answered me: "I am from none of these, but from Cornwall." And as he answered me thus shortly he still watched the sail and still pressed the tiller with his knee, and still paid out the mooring rope without turning round.

"You cannot make the harbour," I said to him. "It is not of this world."

Just at that moment the breeze caught the peak of his jolly brown sail; he dropped the tail of the rope: it slipped and splashed into the harbour slime. His large boat heeled, shot up, just missed my cable; and then he let her go free, and she ran clear away. As she ran he looked over his shoulder and laughed most cheerily; he greeted me with his eyes, and he waved his hand to me in the morning light.

He held her well. A clean wake ran behind her. He put her straight for the harbour-mouth and passed the pier-heads and took the sea outside.

Whether in honest truth he was a fisherman out for fishes who chose to fence with me, or whether in that cruise of his he landed up in a Norwegian bay, or thought better of it in Orkney, or went through the sea and through death to the place he desired, I have never known.

I watched him holding on, and certainly he kept a course. The sun rose, the town awoke, but I would not cease from watching him. His sail still showed a smaller and a smaller point upon the sea; he did not waver. For an hour I caught it and lost it, and caught it again, as it dwindled; for half another hour I could not swear to it in the blaze. Before I had wearied it was gone.

* * * * *

Oh! my companions, both you to whom I dedicate this book and you who have accompanied me over other hills and across other waters or before the guns in Burgundy, or you others who were with me when I seemed alone--that ulterior shore was the place we were seeking in every cruise and march and the place we thought at last to see. We, too, had in mind that Town of which this man spoke to me in the Scottish harbour before he sailed out northward to find what he could find. But I did not follow him, for even if I had followed him I should not have found the Town.

(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: The Harbour In The North

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