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The Herring Fleet
by [?]

The last spectacle of which Christian men are likely to grow tired is a harbour. Centuries hence there may be jumping-off places for the stars, and our children’s children’s and so forth children may regard a ship as a creeping thing scarcely more adventurous than a worm. Meanwhile, every harbour gives us a sense of being in touch, if not with the ends of the universe, with the ends of the earth. This, more than the entrance to a wood or the source of a river or the top of a bald hill, is the beginning of infinity. Even the dirtiest coal-boat that lies beached in the harbour, a mere hulk of utilities that are taken away by dirty men in dirty carts, will in a day or two lift itself from the mud on a full tide and float away like a spirit into the sunset or curtsy to the image of the North Star. Mystery lies over the sea. Every ship is bound for Thule. That, perhaps, is why men are content day after day to stand on the pier-head and to gaze at the water and the ships and sailors running up and down the decks and pulling the ropes of sails.

We may have no reason for pretending to ourselves that the fishing-boats are ships of dreams setting out on infinite voyages. But, none the less, even in a fishing village there is always a congregation of watching men and women on the pier. Every day the crowd collects to see the harbour awake into life with the bustle of men about to set out among the nations of the fishes. By day the boats lie side by side in the harbour–stand side by side, rather, like horses in a stable. There are two rows of them, making a camp of masts on the shallow water. In other parts of the harbour white gigs are bottomed on the sand in companies of two and three. As the tide slowly rises, the masts which have been lying over on one side in a sleepy stillness begin to stir, then to sway, until with each new impulse of the sea all the boats are dancing, and soon the whole harbour is awake and merry as if every mast were a steeple with a peal of bells. It is not long till the fishermen arrive. One meets them in every cobbled lane. How magnificent the noise made by a man in sea-boots on the stones! Surely, he strikes sparks from the road. He thumps the ground as with a hammer. The earth rings. One has seen those boots in the morning hanging outside the door of his house while he slept. They have been oiled, and left there to dry. They have kept the shape of his limb and the crook of his knee in an uncanny way. They look as though he had taken off his legs before going into the house and hung them on the wall. But the fisherman is a hero not only in his boots. His sea-coat is no less magnificent. This may be of oil-skin yellow or of maroon or of stained white or of blue, with a blue jersey showing under it, and, perhaps, a red woollen muffler or a scarf with green spots on a red ground round his throat. He has not learned to be timid of colour. Even out of the mouths of his boots you may see the ends of red knitted leggings protruding. His yellow or black sou’-wester roofing the back of his neck, he comes down to harbour, as splendid as a figure at a fair. And always, when he arrives, he is smoking a pipe. As one watches him, one wonders if anybody except a fisherman, as he looks out over the harbour, knows how to smoke. He has made tobacco part of himself, like breathing.